SIBERIA WIN­TER TRA­VERSE

While his fel­low Ki­wis were en­joy­ing one of the hottest sum­mer months on record this past Fe­bru­ary, Auck­land­based 4x4 tour op­er­a­tor Greg Paul was in Siberia com­plet­ing a win­ter tra­verse of the lit­tle-known BAM (Baikal Amur Main­line) route.

NZ4WD - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Greg Paul.

Over­land Jour­neys has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing de­vel­oped some di­verse and in­ter­est­ing self-drive tour routes across the Rus­sian con­ti­nent and as time and cir­cum­stance al­lows we ven­ture into the wilder­ness in this in­ter­est­ing part of the world in search of new and ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for their clients.

In fact the lit tle-known re­gion of East­ern Rus­sia has 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.

We named our lat­est ex­pe­di­tion the ‘BAM’ af­ter the 4000km rail­way line through the area built dur­ing and af­ter the Soviet era.

As I’m sure you can imag­ine build­ing the line in­volved a lot of hu­man hard­ship and is an amaz­ing story of cul­tural and re­li­gious in­te­gra­tion, in a not so long ago era.

The big bonus for us 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 many road bridges that have never been re­paired or re­placed. There­fore, even ma­jor set­tle­ments along the way are iso­lated by road con­nec­tion and rely to­tally on the rail sys­tem for com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world.

That said, the harsh win­ter cli­mate pro­vides and links a lot of Rus­sia with ice roads that of­fer an 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 Thurs­day Fe­bru­ary 22 in Tayshet where a ma­jor oil and gas pump­ing plant is lo­cated, pump­ing this vi­tal com­mod­ity to the east and as far as China.

Starter’s or­ders

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 our 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 ex­treme cli­matic con­di­tions.

For in­stance, the warm­ing up pro­ce­dure nor­mally takes 30 to 45 min­utes most morn­ings un­til the cabin, the seats and the en­gine warm up and the flu­ids are fluid enough to op­er­ate the power steer­ing etc.

Fresh snow

In Tayshet we pull out of the ho­tel car

park at 7.30am. It is 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 too. They 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, too, 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 4x4 ca­pa­bil­i­ties to get us back onto the hard stuff.

Con­clu­sion?

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 t yres are not only to­tally nec­es­sary but are also in­cred­i­bly good. So why are they il­le­gal in NZ?

First stop

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 when we were there we 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 were get­ting cooler, too, and at 7.00am the morn­ing we left Bratsk the tem­per­a­ture was -28°C and we are start­ing to learn all sorts of in­ter­est­ing facts about op­er­at­ing ve­hi­cles and 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?

Sim­ple an­swer?

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 -30°C !! I know, be­cause 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.

All part of the fun

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 also takes a while for the power steer­ing fluid to lose its vis­cos­ity so that the steer­ing turns eas­ily. All part of the fun of op­er­at­ing in cold cli­mates. But it’s not un­pleas­ant as af­ter a few days any­thing warmer than -20°C seems quite com­fort­able.

As we roll out of the rel­a­tive civil­i­sa­tion of 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 ac­tu­ally lots of towns through­out Rus­sia that start with the name Ust which means head and refers to the lo­ca­tion at the head­wa­ters 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 six 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 it’s only in win­ter when the rivers are frozen and the ice roads are work­ing that many towns and cities are ac­ces­si­ble.

This is also the day that we start to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hav­ing the good stud­ded tyres be­cause, as tem­per­a­tures drop, the snow depth in­creases and bridge by­passes and river cross­ings are more fre­quent.

Lake Baikal

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 and 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!

Break­ing the ice!

Best of all she sug­gested that we drive 46 km across Lake Baikal to in­dulge in a lo­cal hot spring ex­pe­ri­ence. The springs at - 30°C sounded in­ter­est­ing but the drive across the lake was re­ally the at­trac­tion if the truth be known. Scary, for sure, know­ing that be­low the two-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 4x4 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, al­beit 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 Lithua­nia 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. The moun­tain­ous scenery is just as spec­tac­u­lar, how­ever, and it ’s hard to con­cen­trate on the road as we travel north east.

Long­est tun­nel

The next ex­cit­ing leg of the Jour­ney takes us to Tak­simo. It ’s 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.

A bridge too far

Lots of ref­er­ences and ad­ven­ture videos made about 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 ref­er­ence 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. From the West­ern ap­proach the bridge looked to be in amaz­ingly good re­pair. We walked all 300m of it with the sur­face 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 an hour we were on the other side.

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 was our next 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.

The drive be­tween towns was again not only chal­leng­ing but also 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.

Un­usual claim to fame

The Chara re­gion has an un­usual claim to fame. It has a desert re­gion which 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 4x4 driv­ing through the nearby snowy for­est tracks to a re­mote lake, cov­ered in ice of course. By this time, of course, we had dis­cov­ered that driv­ing on icy lakes was safe and fun, and the temp­ta­tion to per­form a few pirou­ettes on the ice could not be re­sisted.

That be­ing said a fully laden Land Cruiser def­i­nitely does not han­dle like a rally car so there were def­i­nitely a few shrieks of de­light ( maybe) com­ing 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 which made our three-night stay a pleas­ant af­fair.

We were in for an in­ter­est­ing sur­prise the next day as we started our day at - 34°C and a visit to a very good lo­cal museum. It of course fea­tured lots of BAM arte­facts, more about the lo­cal Evenki peo­ple plus dis­plays of a unique stone, bright pur­ple in colour and only found here in this re­gion.

Fol­low­ing the museum visit we headed in a southerly di­rec­tion to in­ves­ti­gate a lo­cal Vana­dium mine. The mine has its

own road and rail line both of which were in a be­low av­er­age con­di­tion. The rail­way line 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 a tem­po­rary af­fair util­is­ing the river val­leys and steep moun­tain passes with some­what deep snow.

The mine, it ap­peared was tem­po­rar­ily closed but on ar­rival we were for­tu­nate to catch Alexi the win­ter se­cu­rity man about to leave on his snow mo­bile, com­plete with gun and skis over his shoul­der.

Clearly he did not get too many vis­i­tors and wel­comed us into 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 were 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 6x4 heavy duty trucks and a huge Ko­matsu V12 bull­dozer, all parked next to a beau­ti­ful lit tle Or­tho­dox church amongst the con­verted con­tainer ac­com­mo­da­tion.

It was one of those days that you could not have or­gan­ised if you had tried and by the time we had re­traced our steps on the snow road i t was late but i t was a great day and ev­ery­one was buzzing with the ex­pe­ri­ence.

A date with Tynda!

Af­ter seven days on the BAM road the ter­mi­nus of Stage 2 of the con­struc­tion was in sight. The town of Tynda is a ma­jor rail­way junc­tion with BAM branches head­ing from here in all di­rec­tions of the com­pass.

How­ever, i t was still 800km away and although a sense of get­ting close to civil­i­sa­tion pre­vails based on our ex­pe­ri­ences of the week be­fore, any­thing could hap­pen... and prob­a­bly would!

For most of the morn­ing we fol­lowed the mighty frozen Chara river east­wards and i t was tempt­ing to take on the chal­lenge of driv­ing down the length of the frozen mass, but com­mon sense pre­vailed.

The road how­ever takes a lot of de­tours

high into the hills by ne­ces­sity which made the day’s drive both in­ter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing in the deep snow and icy con­di­tions un­til we ar­rived at the town of Yuk­tali.

Yuk­tali was 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.

School’s out

Our ac­com­mo­da­tion on this night was in­ter­est­ing as the town has no ho­tels as we know them. In­stead we stay­ing in a school with stu­dent board­ing fa­cil­i­ties which were avail­able be­cause the pupils were on hol­i­day.

It was an ele­gant Soviet-style school build­ing with a tidy en­trance and re­cep­tion area that was ex­cep­tion­ally clean and well pre­sented. How­ever, that’s where the el­e­gance stopped and while the rooms and bath­rooms were ad­e­quate and warm not much in the way of im­prove­ments had been made for many years.

Every­body slept well though and were ready for an early start on our last day on the BAM road to Tynda. But what about break­fast? Good ques­tion be­cause eat­ing was an­other is­sue we had to ad­dress in this in­ter­est­ing vil­lage.

As it turned out Tynda is 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!

Cold com­fort

Pa­tience is a virtue in the ex­treme weather and the morn­ing we left the café to start the day’s drive a power steer­ing hose popped on the # 2 Land­cruiser. At - 34° C the steer­ing fluid is not as fluid as it needs to be and the hoses are brit­tle un­til things warm up. So maybe we should had waited a lit tle 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 where we en­joyed a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner that night to con­grat­u­late our­selves on con­quer­ing the BAM and re­liv­ing the BAM ex­pe­ri­ence that was truly a lifechang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

While we still had three more days to travel to go, the trip south to Blagoveshchensk wasn’t go­ing to be quite as ar­du­ous or ex­cit­ing as the last 10 days.

Fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory

We were back in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory now and the temp­ta­tion to turn left out of the ho­tel and head north on the Kolyma high­way to Ma­gadan had a strong at­trac­tion. In­stead we headed south

just 190km on the M60 to Skovorodino where we joined up with the main Trans-Siberian high­way to­ward the east. From this point on we came across a var­ied cross section of im­mi­grants from China, Azer­bai­jan and Ge­or­gia run­ning the ho­tels, restau­rants and other al­lied in­dus­tries along the road­side. This meant some very dif­fer­ent food of­fer­ings with a dis­tinct East­ern and Mid­dle East­ern va­ri­ety. Which was 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.

Fi­nal des­ti­na­tion

Blagoveshchensk was our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion and a big city close to the Chi­nese bor­der. This was just the lat­est of many vis­its now that Over­land Jour­neys has made to this mul­ti­cul­tural city which is just a stone’s throw away from China and sep­a­rated by the Amur river and as such is more Chi­nese than Rus­sian. At this time of the year the Amur is cov­ered in ice and at sev­eral points se­cu­rity posts stop ei­ther na­tion­al­i­ties cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally. A new bridge be­tween Rus­sia and China is be­ing built 20km up­stream from this vi­brant city but in win­ter authorised road traf­fic is per­mit­ted to cross the river’s ice road with tem­po­rary bor­der posts at ei­ther end. It as Blagoveshchensk that we said farewell to our NZ clients 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 which com­bined to make the win­ter tra­verse of the BAM road such an ad­ven­ture.

Ac­knowl­edge­ments

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 our fear­less pas­sen­gers who co­op­er­ated with any­thing ex­cit­ing that we de­cided to do along the way. It was truly an ex­pe­ri­ence to re­mem­ber and one that Over­land Jour­neys would like to of­fer again next year to any­one will­ing to take on the ad­ven­ture of their life.

Win­ter sun on Lake Baikal.

Ex­treme care needed on de­cay­ing ‘sum­mer’ bridges.

Lo­cal ‘roads’ re­quired stud­ded snow tyres.

Iced over rivers turn into roads in the harsh Siberian win­ters.

Lo­cally-owned 100-Se­ries V8-petrol Land Cruis­ers.

‘Just fol­low the tracks..’ across the frozen sur­face of Lake Baikal.

Alexi, the Vana­dium mine’s win­ter se­cu­rity guard, fish­ing for his din­ner. 28 JULY 2018 WWW. NZ4WD. CO. NZ

The mine com­mu­nity’s beau­ti­ful Or­tho­dox church.

Driv­ing through icy mush is just part of the chal­lenge.

Mon­u­ment to the ‘Golden Link (the Trans-Siberian Rail­way line) at Kuanda.

The road to and from the mine.

Alexi’s hut.

Rea­son for the road... the rail­way line, here near Yuk­tali.

Near­ing jour­ney’s end and still stay­ing close to the rail­way line.

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