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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reason for the road... the railway line, here near Yuktali.
Nearing journey’s end and still staying close to the railway line.