In my last blog, I said I would be going across Russia and then leaving from Vladivostok to travel by ferry to Korea Japan and China. On reflection, I have decided to eliminate the Korean and Japanese legs of my journey. This is mainly because of the time it would take to see both of these countries adequately and also because ferry travel is so expensive, as also is accommodation. I find both of these two countries very interesting and would like to spend a lot more time visiting them. They deserve more than an “oh, it’s Thursday, this must be Tokyo, where’s the nearest McDonalds and a shopping mall“ approach.
Therefore, I have decided to spend a bit more time in Russia instead. I will go back to Japan and Korea, assuming it hasn’t been Trumped, sometime in the future, I hope. I’m aiming to go on a big trip every 2 years, assuming that The Morrigan hasn’t reaped me first..
I initially intended to scoot (?) through Russia, stopping off at a few places but but my main focus was Mongolia, Tibet and Central Asia. However, reading up on Russia, I became captivated by that extraordinary country. Siberia really appealed to me.
Unfortunately, I could only get a 30 visa for Russia, not the 90 day one I was planning for so I had to clip my wings a bit and spend less time in Russia. Now, I’ll be there for the whole 30 days. I was hoping to spend time in Murmansk and Archangelsk as well as other arctic circle towns but that must wait until the next trip.
Reading up on Russia, mainly through Lonely Planet, I came across the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) that is one of Russia‘s two great railways. The other, the Trans-Siberian Railway, is much more famous and well-travelled. I will travel the whole length of the Trans-Sib but not from start to finish. I will take it to Lake Baikal and then change to the BAM to Vladivostok and take the Trans-Sib back to Irkutsk and then back to Ulan Ude to depart for Ulaan Bataar in Mongolia.
The BAM, however, running parallel but about 500km to the north, goes through much more spectacular scenery, much less spoilt parts of Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and deepest lake) and through some towns that, people say, feel as though the Soviet Union never ended. People also say that it seems a world away; its towns and villages remain seemingly untouched by the rapid changes transforming the rest of the country, its passengers are predominantly locals, and foreign travellers are practically unknown. This is what appeals to me.
The BAM was built so that a link would remain between Moscow and the Pacific Coast if the Trans-Siberian Railway should fall into Chinese hands. Between the 1930s and 1950s, 150,000 concentration camp victims died during its construction. After Stalin’s death it was abandoned unfinished for twenty years until, in the 1970s, Brezhev recommenced work on it, hailing it as “the construction project of the century” and drawing workers from all over the USSR. People came and lived in tents in the virgin wilderness the railway was crawling its way across until cabins were brought and eventually small towns built around the railroad to accommodate its workers.
In 1991 the railway was completed just as the Soviet Union collapsed. Funding for the area’s mines, towns and the railway itself became scarce. Many of the former BAM workers left the area, leaving many of the towns that had been built specifically for them completely deserted, as they remain today. It has only a single set of rails, so only one train can run on it at a time. Due to how little the BAM is used today, the 150,000 people who died building it, the large number of ghost towns along its length and the €12 billion expended on its construction, it is generally regarded as one of the biggest wastes of time, money and lives ever. I’m going to travel most of it’s route and will be staying at the major towns or settlements.
After Russia comes Mongolia and from there to Beijing, all by train. Then the ancient silk Road all the way across northern China, the ‘stans (or CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States; former USSR nations now independent), the Caucasus, Iran & turkey and back to Dublin via Southern Europe.
But more about that later………….