We bade farewell to Mike at Ulak, turning in well past midnight, and sleep was fitful at best. But there’s only a few hours remaining till Tynda is reached, so we decide to soak it all in. Our drawn curtains reveal the incredibly lush catchment area of the Lena River, and another glorious morning in the making…
Marevaya is our first halt after daybreak, with four more to follow in quick succession. Shortly after, mountains appear to our distant north, sporting a thick green cover, with the River Gilyuy meandering along for a while, sprouting several little streams in its wake.
An on time arrival at Tynda is preceded by a massive marshaling yard to our south, and unsightly housing towers to our north, with the larger than life control tower – something of an icon in these parts – announcing our eventual arrival into the station.
But before we can even photograph from up close that 70s-era apparition, which many have likened to a Sci-fi film set, we’re stopped in our tracks by a couple of police officers. Documents are summoned and hurriedly skimmed through. India?! They’re suitably pleased. After being satisfied that we’re not carrying any ganja or spices, they extend us a “Welcome to Russia” and have us go our way.
Only a hundred or so westerners travel through this route in a typical year, so the sight of two brown guys casually strolling through is reason enough for the cops to be curious. With the in-progress AYaM or Amuro-Yakutskaya Magistrale heading north from here, and the Little BAM heading south, connecting it to the Trans-Siberian at Skovorodino, Tynda is, and always has been, of strategic importance to the BAM Railway. Not only is it the BAMs main junction but also its center of administration and maintenance. Its not for nothing then that Tynda is often referred to as the capital of the Baikal Amur Magistrale.
Befitting its junction status, the station is well kitted out too, and we find the “resting rooms” with considerable ease. Check-in is a breeze, and ours is one of the cleanest and most well kept state-run rooms I’ve ever seen. It comes at a steal too.
After a much needed shower, and some amount of wandering about the station, which is almost deserted by now, we recruit the services of a local cabbie. First stop, the BAM Museum, which, being a Sunday, is closed. We knew that, of course, before setting out, but decided to stop anyway and pay our respects. Onto the next one.
The BAM workers monument, despite its rather obscure location, is thankfully accessible to the public all year round. Our taxi driver sets us down next to a row of apartment blocks and then takes off, confident that we’ll find our way. We eventually do. The all-steel, sledgehammer wielding sculpture of the unsung BAM worker is hard to miss. Its imposing and inspiring all at once, and is, in many ways, the pièce de résistance of town.
Tynda, then Tyndinsky, started out as a modest settlement in the early 20th-century, first as a rest stop on the route to northerly gold fields, and later to facilitate highway construction to Yakutsk, also in the north. Plans for the BAM Railway were announced shortly after and the towns population swelled with the influx of construction workers, reaching a peak of ~62,000 by the time the railway was finally inaugurated.
That boom didn’t last long. The Soviet Union was dissolved, and the railway didn’t quite live up to its potential. Tynda‘s population dropped 30% in the decades that followed. As we walk along the towns near-empty main drag, ul. Krasnaya Presnya, that fact is still pretty evident.
Its a longish walk back to the station from the monument, right when the sun is at its strongest, but we make a couple of stops along the way to vary it up a bit. Uzbek cherries are all the rage during Russia’s short lived summer, and we’ve been buying them by the bagfuls, whenever we’ve gotten the chance. The man selling us fruit today is curious enough to ask where we’re from and seems more pleased with our answer than even the cops were. Turns out, he knows a thing or two about Bollywood, and asks that we pass on his best to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, should we ever run into him!
Back at the station with over an hour to spare, we grab a bite to eat at one of the station cafes. The lamb Somsa – the Uzbek cousin to the Indian Samosa – turns out to be really good, as does the beer the lady serves us, Zhigulevskoe Firmennoe, a pale lager. In fact, chilled beer hasn’t tasted this good, so we order another round to take back to the room while we pack. For who knows when the next one would be?
And just as well. Our hot run, it turns out, is going to continue on Train 75. Our carriage is sans aircon, and we have a full day and 23 hours ahead of us! This time around, we just walk in and accept our fate…
Young Maxim is our cabin mate on this leg, and he’s is in it for the long haul – up to Perm i.e., some 6000-km or 3700-miles west. He’s shy, as many Russians of his age are wont to be, and doesn’t speak a word of English. But we’ll see about all of that when the Vodka comes out later this evening.
We pull out right on time – no surprise there – making a sweeping turn north out of the station, to cross the Tynda River, then continuing into pristine Taiga country. Its flat for a brief bit, with the mountains eventually appearing to our north, and after a while, to our south. A rolling green carpet as far as the eye can see.
At Khorogochi, our second stop after leaving Tynda, we halt briefly for a crossing with our opposite number. Despite having no platform to alight on, the smokers on board get their way anyhow, stepping off and on to the tracks for a few drags. SK and I follow suit.
Within minutes, a distant whistle is heard, and the Provodnitsa orders us on board immediately. Train 76, which began its journey almost 5-days ago in Moscow, is running on the dot. It has only a couple of hundred miles left till Neryungri, journey’s end, and its Provodnitsas are already wearing a look of glee. They exchange waves with ours, as we pull out of the station almost simultaneously. Another perfectly timed crossing, executed the Russian way.
Back inside, it’s so hot that practically everyone has stripped down to their shorts and boxers. The crew, taking cognizance, has decided to adopt a more proactive approach and remove the holds on the louvers, such that they drop down completely, allowing more air in. Our corridor, meanwhile, has taken on its own life and form. There’s a little dog prancing around; sweaty pot-bellied men presiding over each open louver, and a few, more enterprising ones, running their own electric connections through the length of the carriage…
West of Chilchi, track doubling is in progress, with a fair bit of construction activity around, causing us to slow down every once in a while. That also gives us the chance to observe the work that goes in to preparing a solid foundation in permafrost-ridden Siberia.
Shy of Unkur, we’re joined on our south side by the Nyukzha River, a tributary of the mighty Lena, who’s path we will follow for much of the day. It comes into view from time to time, paralleling us for a while, then disappearing entirely. The lowering of the louvers, meanwhile, couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only has it increased circulation within the carriage, but also opened up a whole new window of opportunity, as far as photography goes…
Arrival at Yuktali, our last long halt for the day, is 3-minutes late, believe it or not! Up front, we swap locomotives. At the rear, in the shadow of the colorful station building and its giant clock, the atmosphere is convivial. Kids running freely on the large plaza-like platform; toddlers receiving an open air bath, couples canoodling, and the rest of us simply enjoying the cooler evening air.
West of Yuktali, we will begin tracking the Olyokma River, so we decide to head over to the restaurant car for dinner, some views, and the off chance of air-conditioning. Turns out, not only is the dining car air-conditioned, but so are a few other carriages – a second class sleeper similar to ours, and not one but two Platskart‘s! Who would’ve thought?!
It really is the luck of the draw which one you get. Despite having paid the same fare, those in the non aircon carriages seem to have accepted their fate pretty much, and adapted rather quickly. It’s hard to believe, really. A situation similar to this would be very differently received in most other parts of the world. Think about it – someone in Platskart, or third-class sleeper, who’s paying significantly less than yourself, is enjoying aircon travel. You’re not! Over a couple of Baltikas, we try and make sense of it all.
The Olyokma River valley turns out to be even more lush and stunning than the Nyukzha. It’s one of the main tributaries of the Lena, which in turn has one of the largest drainage basins in the world. Not surprisingly, there are water bodies practically everywhere. A little inlet to our north, a rivulet running off to the south. An impenetrable cover of green drapes the surrounding mountains. The fact that it’s still light outside – we’re closing in on 11 pm by now – makes the scene all the more special.
Many Baltikas and a Slavyanka later, we decide to call it a night. There’s only one other guest left behind in the dining car at this point, and he’s safely ensconced in the warm embrace of our waitress, the two of them swaying wildly, as the music system continues to belt out Russian Rock. Maxim is still up when we return to our carriage, and is quick to offer us a nightcap. Then it’s Dobroi Nochi‘s all around.
Next on the Magistrale Diaries: The Sacred Sea and then some.
A full set of pics from Day 4 of our trip can be seen here.