Overland Journeys has earned a reputation for having developed some diverse and interesting self-drive tour routes across the Russian continent and from time to time venture into the wilderness in this interesting part of the world in search of new and exciting experiences for their clients.
Greg Paul has just returned from one such trip into a little-known region of Eastern Russia which not only provided our team with the ultimate road trip but revealed a region with lots of interesting culture and history specific to the area.
This expedition, was a trip into the unknown is called the “BAM”.
BAM is the Baikal Amur Mainline and refers to a little known but very lengthy 4000km rail line built during and after the Soviet era that involved a lot of human hardship and is an amazing story of cultural and religious integration, in a not so long ago era.
However, the big bonus was that when the BAM railroad was built they also had to have road access. The road may have once been good but has faced the challenges of the adverse climate, permafrost, snow and devastating floods that have all but destroyed the road bridges that have never been repaired or replaced.
Major settlements are isolated by road connection and rely totally on the rail system for communication with the outside world.
However, the harsh winter climate provides and links a lot of Russia with ice roads that provide and interesting and viable option for overland travel. The BAM is one of the lesser known but is a critically important winter road linking the town of Tayshet in the west to Tynda in the east. Our story begins on the 22nd of February in Tayshet where a major oil and gas pumping plant is located, pumping this vital commodity to the east and as far as China.
Our journey however started 1200km prior to Tayshet in the Siberian Capital, Novosibirsk where our two “Overland Journeys” Russian registered 100 series Land Cruisers are based under the watchful eye of local agents, Altair Tours and Olga Antonova. Olga has done all the organisation for the trip and also helps with the kitting out of extreme clothing for myself and second Land Cruiser Driver Simon Arms, from Australia. The concept of working in temperatures of -30C and below have not yet sunk in for Simon and I as yet.
As for the vehicles they are the 4.7 litre petrol versions and running 100% glycol in the cooling system with -40C washer fluid and Continental studded tyres all of which is totally necessary for the climatical conditions.
The warming up procedure normally takes 30 to 45 minutes most morning until the cabin, the seats and the engine warm up and the fluids are fluid enough to operate the power steering etc.
In Tayshet we pull out of the hotel car park at 07.30am and its still dark and has snowed overnight. While the engines warm up Simon and I brush fresh snow, lots of it off the cars. The snow is dry and fluffy unlike snow here in NZ. The studded tyres are amazing and squeak as they claw their way through 25mm of new snow to the cleaned and groomed main road. We learn a valuable lesson just a few kilometres up the road as the deep snow on a connecting road sucks the vehicle into a snow drift on the right side of the road then spits it out chucking us across to the opposite snow back which called on the 4×4 capabilities to get us back on the hard. Conclusion is that maximum driver attention is required at all times! The remainder of the 400km drive to the city of Bratsk on ice and snow covered roads concludes that these studded tyres are not only totally necessary but are also incredibly good. Why are they illegal in NZ?
In the city of Bratsk we met our clients after they flew in from NZ via Moscow. Bratsk is a fairly new city and built as a result of a major hydro dam construction. Interestingly enough saw an advert in a restaurant for a particular brand of NZ wine. The world is a small place!
From Bratsk the distances between towns are not that great but the travel times increase as the road gets interesting with just ice tracks and lots of broken bridges that require either careful negotiation or bypassing using ice covered rivers.
The days are getting cooler and at 7am the temperature in Bratsk is -28C and we are starting to learn all sorts of interesting facts about operating vehicles in the cold and about generally living and surviving in these extreme temperatures. The bottles of water we left last night are frozen solid and the fruit has expired. Why doesn’t the digital read out on the Tyre Dog pressure indicator work and how come my iphone has shut down. The cold has a lot to answer for. Also Toyota needs to tune their dash outside temp indicators because as we now realise they don’t work below -30C !! My heavy jacket that I left in the car last night is crispy. Fortunately, it’s a dry cold so it’s possible to open the doors and the light coating of fresh snow is dry and fluffy and easily brushes off the car.
Washing the windows with water is however definitely not an option for the next two weeks.
After a compulsory 45 minute warm up regime that engine is ticking over nicely but the engine bay heat never gets warm enough to melt the snow off the bonnet for at least the first half of the day. The wheel arches are full of snow and ice adding at least 100kg of extra weight to the tare of the vehicle. It takes a while for the power steering fluid to loose its viscosity so that the steering turns easily. All part of the fun of operating in cold climates. Buts it’s not unpleasant as after a few days anything warmer than -20C seems quite comfortable.
As we roll out of relative civilisation at Bratsk the icy snow-covered road takes us toward our next night stop and a small town to the east called Ust Kut. There are lots of towns throughout Russia that start with the name “Ust” which means head and refers to the location at the head waters of a river. Ust Kut is a major river port on of the longest rivers in Russia, the Lena. The Lena is frozen at this time of the year and the river traffic is at a standstill for about 6 months.
As we are about to realise, these rivers throughout the region provide another form of passage for road transport while the boats are parked up. In some case its only in winter when the rivers are frozen and the ice roads are working are many towns and cities accessible.
It’s today that we also start to understand the importance of having the good studded tyres as temperatures drop the snow depth increases and bridge bypasses and river crossings are more frequent. The town of Severobaikalsk on the northern shores of Lake Baikal is our next destination and an integral link in the BAM railroad as it arrives on the shores of the world’s largest fresh water lake. It’s a great place to remember the enormity of the project with a couple of excellent BAM museums and one museum that portraits the culture and lifestyle of the local “Evenki” native peoples.
Our host in a neighbouring village, Nizhneangarsk, is a lady we called “Mama” who is a local identity whose parents were BAM engineers. She housed and fed us during our two-night stay like celebrities and insisted on making sure that we saw all the sights, visited all the museums and nominated to be our private tour guide. What a lady!
Best of all she suggested that we drive 46 km across Lake Baikal to indulge in a local hot spring experience. The springs at -30C sounded interesting but the drive across the lake was really the attraction if the truth be known. Scary, for sure knowing that below the 2-metre ice pack was more than one kilometre of very cold water. Just follow the tracks was the instruction, which at time was difficult with white out conditions and sometimes a deep snow cover on the surface which tested the 4×4 capabilities. This was a first-time life experience and as far as ice driving was concerned it certainly broke the ice.
Mama was hard to escape from and after a shopping trip, a refuel and a very emotional farewell we headed out into the unknown heading a relatively short distance to the next civilisation called Novy Uoyan. When the BAM was built engineers and their families were recruited from all corners of the USSR to build their portion of the railway. Novy Uoyan was the new home of people from Lithuiana and the architecture of the buildings and the local railway station reflect the origin of those immigrants. The distances between villages are not that great but the roads now are basic and rugged with lots of detours around broken bridges and take time to cover the distance. But the mountainous scenery is just spectacular and its hard to concentrate on the road as we travel north east.
The next exciting leg of the Journey takes us to Taksimo. Its an interesting name, a major town and the strange name derives from the settlers that came here from Estonia.
The first 120km of road was not bad and the reason is that it leads to the entrance of the longest rail tunnel every built in Russia at 15 kilometres. The “Severomuysky” tunnel was built over a period of 25 years and was officially opened in 2003. Security of this strategic construction is tight but we were able to get excellent close up views of both portals.
After the eastern tunnel entrance the road is no longer important and the remaining part of the journey was rough and slow and at times exciting and challenging. At the eastern end of Taksimo is an old aircraft on a pedestal. Air transport has always been important to remote regions in Russia and in this case the relic was restored after crashing into a nearby riverbed.
Lots of references and adventure videos to the BAM road can be seen but almost all refer to the summer road which is almost impassable. The “Vitim” bridge is the most famous refernce and probably the most feared because there is no alternative to crossing this famed construction. The Vitim was also our next challenge on the short drive to the village of Kuanda. We arrived at the Vitim bridge ready to take on this famous land mark. From the Western approach the bridge looked to be in amazingly good repair. We walked the 300m bridge which was covered in light snow. The eastern end of the bridge however was not in such a good condition and any attempt to cross was abandoned as being too dangerous. We were lucky because there was an alternative as in the winter the river is iced over and while it was an interesting exercise after an hour the crossing of the ice covered river Vitim was successfully made.
Our hosts at our homestay in Kuanda, Victor and Natalia made our stay a memorable one with way too much food and a comfortable warm bed.
Novaya Chara is our next exciting stop on the BAM. Novaya means new and this village sprung up as a result of the rail construction but there was always a Chara (now old Chara just 14 km away.
As per every day the drive between towns was not only challenging but spectacular and with several serious ice river crossings needed and broken and missing bridges in evidence it certainly confirmed that the BAM road was indeed a winter road only.
The Chara region has an unusual claim to fame. It has a desert region which is not only unusual but spectacular and is a don’t miss attraction if you happen to be here in the summer. So, what about the winter. It’s a snow-clad desert and even more unusual. In the summer it’s a trek on foot and a boat ride across the big river. In the winter big rivers are not a problem and we can drive and play on the dunes. It was very unusual and a lot of fun. Our day however extended to some serious 4×4 driving through the nearby snowy forest tracks to a remote lake, covered in ice of course. By this time, we had discovered that driving on icy lakes was safe and fun. The temptation to perform a few pirouettes on the ice could not be resisted although a fully laden Land Cruiser definitely does not handle like a rally car. A few sheiks of delight (maybe) came from our passengers including the local guide. New Chara has a huge coal mine locally and is a busy place and our hotel and close by restaurant were of an international standard with made our 3 nights stay a pleasant affair.
We were in for an interesting surprise the next day as we started our day at -34C and a visit to a very good local museum. It of course featured lots of BAM artefacts, more about our Evenki local people and displays of a unique stone, bright purple in colour and only found here in this region.
Following the museum visit we headed in southerly direction to investigate a local Vanadium mine. It has its own road and rail line both of which were in a below average condition. The rail in some places was suspended in mid-air but was a masterful construction as it wound its way up a mountain side to a high elevation to the mine. The road was temporary affair utilising the river valleys and steep mountain passes with somewhat deep snow.
What a drive with no idea with what was at the end of the road.
The mine, it appeared was temporarily closed but on arrival were fortunate to catch Alexi the winter security man about to leave on his snow mobile, with gun and skis over his shoulder.
Clearly, he does not have too many visitors and welcomed us to his warm but small hut for tea and to enable us to warm up our tasty lunch from the Chara bakery. Parked up outside the hut was three interesting tracked vehicles of which two were parts donors but very useful machines in this area. A GAZ 66 and two well used Lada Nivas completed the collection. Further into the camp however were other interesting Russian 6×4 heavy duty trucks and a huge Komatsu V12 bulldozer all parked next to a beautiful little Arthodox church amongst the converted container accommodation.
It was one of those days that you could not have organised if you had tried. It was a long day but by the time we had retraced our steps on the snow road it was late but it was a great day and everyone was buzzing with the experience.
After 7 days on the BAM road the terminus of stage 2 of the construction is in sight. The town of Tynda is a major railway junction with BAM branches heading from here in all directions of the compass.
However, it is still 800km away and although a sense of getting close to civilisation prevails based on our experiences of the last week, anything could happen.
For most of the morning we follow the mighty frozen Chara river eastwards and its tempting to take on the challenge of driving down the length of the frozen mass, but common sense prevails. The road however takes a lot of detours high into the hills by necessity which makes the days drive both interesting and challenging in the deep snow and icy conditions until we arrive into the town of Yuktali.
Yuktali is our night stop and a small but important railway town that does not see a lot of visitors, especially from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
Our accommodation on this night is interesting as the town has no hotels as we know them. We are staying in a school with student boarding facilities which are available as the pupils are on holiday. It’s an elegant Soviet style school building with a tidy entrance and reception area that is exceptionally clean and well presented. However, that’s where the elegance stops and while the rooms and bathrooms are adequate and warm not much in the way improvements have been made for many years. Seems everybody slept well though and were ready for an early start on our last day on the BAM road to Tynda. Eating was another issue we had to address in this interesting village. It’s a major crew change point for train drivers so after some investigation we found our way to the railway administration building where drivers are accommodated rested and fed between shifts. As we were fed for both dinner the previous night and breakfast on the day of departure train drivers in standard issue red chequered pyjamas paraded through the café without noticing the foreign guests.
Patience is a virtue in the extreme weather and this morning as we left the café to start the day’s drive a power steering hose popped on the #2 Landcruiser. At -34C the steering fluid is not as fluid as it needs to be and the hoses brittle until things warm up. So maybe we should had waited a little longer before moving off. After an attempted temporary repair, we were offered a warm garage to work in just a few hundred metres down the road. At that temperature the offer was gladly accepted! The helpful local sourced a replacement hose for us and additional steering fluid of the correct viscosity. It made us mobile again and heading in the right direction.
Even the last day on the snow-covered roads were interesting with lots of detours to avoid broken bridges and tricky icy driving conditions until our arrival at our familiar and comfortable hotel in the civilised town of Tynda. There was celebratory dinner that night to congratulate ourselves on conquering the BAM and reliving the BAM experience that was truly a life changing experience. However, we still have 3 more days to travel but the trip south to Blagoveshchensk won’t be quite as arduous or exciting as the last 10 days.
We are back in familiar territory now and the temptation to turn left out of the hotel and head north on the Kolyma highway to Magadan has a strong attraction. But we are heading south just 190km on the M60 to Skovorodino where we will join up with the main Trans-Siberian highway toward the east. From now on we come across a varied cross section of immigrants from China, Azerbaijan and Georgia who run the hotels, restaurants and other allied industries along the road side. This means different food of eastern and middle eastern variety. Nice for a change. One interesting Georgian café owner was so pleased to see us that he insisted that we share a bottle of his best Georgian Cognac for lunch. Something of course we could not refuse to help him with.
Blagoveshchensk is our final destination and a big city close to the Chinese border. It’s one of many visits Overland Journeys have made this multicultural city which is more Chinese than Russian. Blagoveshchensk is just a stone throw away from China and separated by the Amur river. At this time of the year its covered in ice and at several points security posts stop either nationalities crossing the border illegally. While a new bridge between Russia and China is being built 20km upstream from this vibrant city at this time of the year authorised road traffic is permitted to cross the rivers ice road with temporary border posts at either end.
We say farewell to our NZ clients here in Blagoveshchensk at the end of a 15 day adventure which amazed us all with the scenery, the cultural experiences, the characters that we met and the weather extremes all of which make up the BAM ice road winter adventure. Thanks to Olga of Altair Tours who organised the expedition, Simon who used all of his driving skills to keep one of the Cruisers on the road and to Mark and Robin were the fearless passengers who cooperated with anything exciting that we decided to do along the way. It was truly an experience that Overland Journeys would like to offer again next year to anyone willing to take on the adventure of their life.