Siberia Part I – Lake Baikal to the BAM road and the Vitim Bridge
How we took on the infamous BAM railroad, swam in the world’s deepest lake and experienced true Siberian hospitality… over and over again.
Getting out of Mongolia wasn’t really an issue but our third entry into Russia had me on tenterhooks for the first time since leaving the UK. The border official had questioned the fact that the vehicle and trailer had the same number plate/registration. I tried to explain that this is standard for UK vehicles but she was suspicious, and rightfully so. Although I was telling the truth about UK laws, I was presenting less than honest evidence…
As many of you know, unlike the rest of the world, we do not get issued separate paperwork for trailers in the UK. Therefore it can be a real lottery as to whether foreign countries will let you in as they expect SOMETHING at the border. Customs will not know the rules of your country so can and will flatly refuse to allow your trailer to enter.
Something I haven’t mentioned in our previous blogs is that I had supplied ‘paperwork’ for our trailer with the help of my friend Adobe for this very reason. This ‘paperwork’ had worked flawlessly for the previous 15 international border crossings with no questions asked, but this, our final land border? Would we have to drive all the way back? I had my heart in my mouth as the official made several phone calls over an agonizing 15 minutes… Either there was no evidence to the contrary or the other officials couldn’t be bothered as eventually we got waved through with no further questions.
We made our way north to the Trans-Siberian Highway before heading west, following the iconic train line toward Irkutsk. Along the way we stopped off on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal to take in our first glimpse and paddle in the world’s deepest lake. It was here we met Mischa, who was quite literally massive. He looked a lot like Mr. Incredible in the Disney Pixar movie ‘The Incredibles’. He asked us if we liked fish. “Da” we said, so he folded himself into the passenger side of the Land Rover with Lisa on the cubby box and we all headed to his house. Inviting us in he showed us his kitchen sink full of omul, which are a white fish endemic to Lake Baikal, related to the salmon and considered a delicacy. He wanted us to take as many as we could, so we squeezed three into the fridge, said “Spasiba bolshoy!” and continued on our way.
Irkutsk is a beautiful city with old colonial style buildings in the centre and a good vibe to it, but we barely had time to take it in. After arriving late we stayed the night in a great little hostel and spent all our time on the internet getting things in order. We had to sort out some of our ongoing carnet paperwork as we had been constantly messed around by the RAC over the previous eight weeks. They wanted even more paperwork printed, signed and scanned, which was easier said than done, even if we were in a city! So it was an early start to try and find a copy shop in town, and just as we were beginning to lose all hope we stumbled across a computer repair shop. Luckily the very friendly staff printed and re-scanned our newly signed documents while we stuffed our faces at Subway, then wouldn’t let us pay for their service! Another example of legendary Russian generosity. Thanks guys! Then for the next couple of hours I was under the Rover and trailer sorting brake pads out while Lisa cleaned up the sugar explosion which had now turned into a syrupy concrete in the back of the trailer after getting wet. We left late that afternoon heading for the western shore of Lake Baikal, and more importantly the iconic Olkhon Island. We decided to wildcamp on a rough patch of land about 60km from the ferry terminal that night. It was to be the first night we would experience the fierce Siberian SUPER-MOSQUITO. Head nets donned, sleeves rolled down and spritzed with eau de DEET, out came our Ikea garden bug-net. Strung from the awning arm it made a great little area secluded from the midges and super-mosquitos for us to eat our omul and chips.
Next morning the ferry to Olkhon Island loomed as we crested another rolling gravel hill but before we could get anywhere near it we hit traffic. It turned out to be the queue for the ferry and backed up at least 500m. We waited for a full cycle of two ferries, which took over an hour and we had moved 20 metres. Time for Plan B. A quick squiz at the map brought our attention to an area on the mainland coastline to the northwest of the island, and there we found a nice secluded spot on a small headland jutting into the Maloe More (Little Sea). The wind was blowing pretty hard that afternoon so after a brief attempt at fishing we retired to the roof tent early and watched the full second series of ‘Flight of the Concords’! The following morning it had warmed up a little and we braved the waters of the lake, as a wise German man had told us that it would give us “eternal youth”. It was pretty cold and after a five minute swim we were back out and drying off. We weren’t sure if we felt younger, but we were definitely cleaner and more invigorated!
From the lake we headed towards Zhigalovo, a small town to the north that marks the end of the road on most maps. The route is very scenic following the River Lena, which is in its infancy at this point in Siberia. We had it on good authority that there was a well trodden forest track which continued after the river that would take us over 150km north to link up with the BAM road. The road was indeed well trodden but it was also severely eroded in places making travel slow and frustrating, and the surrounding forest was impenetrable, extending for as far as we could see. The only place to camp was in an old quarry. Often we would be sitting at 20kph for a couple of hours. We covered good ground but should probably have taken it a little easier than we did on occasion. The final 50km or so were well-graded gravel roads and we let loose at 100kph while we could!
Once we hit the BAM road we headed east back towards Baikal and the lakeside town of Severobaikalsk. For a while the route is asphalt but it quickly degrades to the bone-jarring surface that would in fact soon epitomize the roads of Siberia. We arrived in Severobaikalsk pretty worn out and in need of refreshing. We stayed for two nights in a ‘resort’ (aka some little wooden cabins) to stock up on supplies, rest and plot out our potential route across what is known as the ‘Western BAM’. We felt pretty isolated at this point in our trip, we knew many people who were heading into this area this season but we were reasonably late and heavy rains and flooding had cancelled most people’s plans.
The 3400km BAM, or Baikal-Amur Mainline, branches off the Trans-Siberian Railway from Taishet in the west, runs north of Lake Baikal at Severobaikalsk, crossing east over the Amur River to reach the Pacific coast at Sovetskaya Gavan. The railway was opened in it’s entirety in 1990, more than 50 years after the first tracks were laid, it’s purpose being both military (wanting to reduce the vulnerability of the Trans-Siberian) and economic (at Tynda the railway/highway links with Yakutsk and the Russian North East with it’s resources of diamonds, gold, coal and timber). Workers were sent into remote areas of wilderness to build the railway, and so over 100 workers’ settlements were built along the route. Some of them were later abandoned or were inhabited only by a skeleton staff, but many became thriving towns. ‘Temporary’ roads alongside the railway line linked these settlements, both for initial building purposes and for maintenance of the railway, but these roads are only minimally maintained themselves. Every year a brave few adventure motor-bikers and the odd 4×4 attempt to drive the length of the BAM along these maintenance roads, with challenging conditions, ropey bridges and remote isolated villages. The weather can change the road from month to month, year to year, with heavy rainfall making the roads extremely muddy and rivers flowing too deep and fast to cross in the event of a collapsed bridge. Meanwhile traffic can be just a few locals in their Lada Neva’s (little impact on the road but also little help) or a convoy of petrol tankers or Kamaz trucks (who can churn up the road but equally can tow or carry you across raging rivers). All of these things can make or break the route, and with it being the only way in or out, it’s a long way back if you get stuck.
The BAM route has become infamous among the adventure motorbike crowds in recent years, pioneered (in the most part) by Walter of Sibirsky Extreme (http://www.sibirskyextreme.com). It features a huge distance of unsupported riding/driving on some truly awful ‘roads’. Rotten bridges, river crossings, swamps, mud holes, and railway bridges complete with live freight trains are all part of the fun. Before leaving I always said we would take a look and see how far we could get. It was however a huge unknown as we would not be able to ford all the rivers and would need the help of a Kamaz in places. But probably the biggest unknown was the one or two rail bridges that the moto guys ride across. Would we have to drive these? Would it be possible? On the map the rivers seemed un-drivable and sporadic emails with Adam suggested it would be highly unlikely. In its recent history I could only find the account of a Polish group of three 4×4’s who completed the western section and they did indeed drive the rail bridges. We were all alone, one 4×4, me and Lisa.
We left Severobaikalsk to drive the route towards Tynda, which was over 1300km away. We had heard reports from locals that the road was closed after Taksimo, about halfway, due to recent floods and high rivers. We encountered several rickety wooden bridges, which all added to the excitement, and decided to call it a night when we reached a long, collapsed but still superficially intact bridge. We had seen the huge Kamaz trucks drive through the river below rather than use the bridge but, as the water was halfway up the Kamaz trucks, we faced the dilemma of risking the unknown collapsed bridge or getting washed downriver if we drove through. Definitely a decision for the following morning.
While camped up by the side of the road, an elderly couple stopped by and said they would be driving across the bridge, and that we could follow them. Had we not been so tired, or had a couple of Cuba Libres, we might have joined them for support. But it did mean the bridge was possible.
The next morning we had another look at the trucks driving through the river which hadn’t receded at all. Large trucks were towing other large trucks through, and Griff thought maybe we could go with them. But the drivers were adamant we shouldn’t. We would get stuck on the huge boulders underwater and things would end badly – we must use the bridge. So after a few deep breaths, and a walk across the bridge, we went for it. Griff drove while I walked in front directing him around the loose sleepers. Meanwhile the truckers gathered at the top of the bridge to watch and got out their mobile phones to record the event. Luckily, all went without a hitch and we were on our way. We didn’t fancy being the next stars of You Tube!
Soon after, we reached Taksimo, a chirpy town with a railway station. After all the reports of closed roads, we wondered about the possibility of putting the rig on a cargo train to Tynda. If we couldn’t drive the BAM maybe we could come back to Taksimo and take the train. Previous forum discussions had suggested this was “expensive” but just how expensive would that be? We wanted to find out. A friendly local in a Gaz 4×4 called around to check on the status of the roads further along (still bad news) and he gave us the number of his friend at the river crossing after the Vitim who had a Kamaz capable of taking our rig. We told him our plan to take the train. He didn’t know if it was possible but wished us luck and we made our way to the train station. Of course the ticket desk closed for lunch as soon as we walked in, but after half an hour of waiting around, who should appear but Gaz man! He took us around the back to where the freight offices were, and soon a crowd of friendly, helpful staff had gathered. They told us it would be extortionate (about £2000) to send the car by train, and that was just the loading fees! They were also extremely concerned about our wellbeing and wondered how we’d survived with all those bears out there (we hadn’t seen any). We thanked them all for their help and sullenly headed back to the car. I was a little disappointed, as I’d always wanted to do the Trans-Siberian rail journey and this would have been the next best thing, and Griff was getting nervous about our schedule and wanted to reach Tynda soon. C’est la vie! So it was either turn back now and try our luck on a barge up the Lena River, or stick to our original plan of going as far as possible, and risk doubling back on ourselves if we got stuck. This doubling back would add days to our journey but Griff was keen to cross the Vitim Bridge, and as no one was entirely sure of the state of the rivers up ahead we had to try.
The road deteriorated soon after leaving Taksimo, with massive puddles and completely unsound bridges. I had to guide Griff across a couple of bridges with wobbly sleepers and huge gaps, a bit nerve-racking when you are 10 metres above the river. And then there, stretching away ahead of us was the Vitim Bridge. It was very long, very narrow and very daunting. Missing sleepers and fixings, barely the width of a large car, people crossed this bridge?! I was unconvinced. At over 500m in length with sleepers overhanging 2.0m wide supports this old rail bridge hangs 20-30m above the raging icy cold Vitim River below.
Griff decided to walk the length to see how it fared further on, and I started to follow. But within 100 metres I lost my nerve and couldn’t venture further. I wouldn’t say I’m scared of heights, but it was definitely a factor that we were maybe 30 metres above the mighty River Vitim below. On our right was the new railway bridge that had replaced this one. I knew how badly Griff wanted to do this. I was on the verge of tears at the predicament of taking away Griff’s dream versus crossing the bridge. If we had known what the road ahead held in store I might have been able to force myself to get across the bridge once for him to continue. But with uncertainty further on we would have to retrace our steps over the expanse of rickety wood currently before me. Nyet, nope, no way. It was over.
I felt awful but there was nothing I could do. To his credit, Griff was really understanding which was a huge relief, but it was still with a heavy heart that we turned the car around and made the long journey back to Severobaikalsk. It had taken us three very long days to reach this point, mostly in low ratio gears for 10 or 12 hours per day and we had all this to look forward to again. There was always the Old Summer Road along the road of Bones on route to Magadan. We had to move on.