Train racing

A little plane that flies away
Is singing to my heart:
"Come, watch the endless taiga pass
Below like a sea."
Popular song of the 1970-s

In May 1990, I returned to Moscow after a long journey all around the Caucasus. It was like falling into a stagnant swamp in the middle of an aerial dogfight. Life was so exciting in the South! Nights of gunfights when we helped protect a tiny mountain village against aggressors from a neighboring republic, pro-independence demonstrations in cities, wonderful mountains, ancient temples, pristine forests... Now I was back to a place where people cared more about queuing for vodka and toilet paper than about fighting for their freedom and overthrowing the communist regime.

And the summer was going be spoiled. As a university student I was supposed to undergo one month of military training in July. It was to take place at an air force base in Lithuania. Being part of occupation forces was kind of troubling for someone who had just drunk gallons of wine "to yours and ours freedom" at Sakharov Square in Yerevan. Having two months stolen from my precious vacation time (we had exams in June) was even worse. And the way things were going, I could expect to have to take the exams for the second time in August.

I decided to try to save at least June and August by getting a permission to take the exams in May. It would've greately improved my chances of passing them, too. Normally only the best students were granted such a permission, and passing an oral exam was way more easy if the professor thought you were one of the best students. I had ten days to get the permission, submit two term papers, pass ten tests and four exams. And there was no way I could do it by studying.

I was a student of Technical University. I hated electronics, and was only interested in biology and geography. But both my parents were of Jewish origin, so I had "nationality: Jewish" written in my passport. Back in the 1980-s Jews had no chance of getting into Lomonosov University, the only place in Moscow to study biology a normal way. So I had to endure the Technical one just to get my diploma and avoid the draft. After four years of study I could hardly tell a diode from a triode. There were probably very few zoologists in Russia more knowledgeable than I was, but it had nothing to do with my University program. I had to pass most tests and exams by cheating. Well, at least I had a lot of time for travel.

I got a letter from my scientific club to the chief of my department, asking him to allow me to take the exams in May. It said I was needed in an expedition of a "special importance for the country."

"What grades do you have, young man?" he asked.

"One B", I answered. It was true. All others were Cs. But he never asked, and gave me the permission.

I borrowed a term paper from a friend of mine. It was an old paper used by generations of students. But the professor was 80 years old. The problem was, I had the original for only a few hours, and I had very bad handwriting.

"I will not accept this project!" the professor said. "I can't read it! And I haven't seen you at my lectures!"

"Last summer I got infected with tick-born encephalitis," I said. "I had to miss most lectures, and my right hand is partially paralyzed."

This method worked, and I used it with some other professors, too. Only one professor was a smart and goodhearted person. He already knew what my real situation was, and always let me pass all tests without questions. Most others enjoyed their position of power (male students who couldn't pass a test or an exam three times got drafted for two years of army service). They tried to make our life as hard as possible. In return, we all lied and cheated as much as we could. A few years later it all changed dramatically. Nowadays, all you have to do is bribe the professor. If he is a relict from the "old guard" and doesn't take bribes, you can always bribe his supervisor - its usually costs about 50% more.

Finally I broke free. Five hours after the last exam I found myself in an airliner high above the endless forest swamps of Western Siberia. My plan was to travel from Amur River to Altai Mountains, then through Kazakhstan to Tien Shan. I only had 35 days for the trip: being late for army training would be a big trouble. I was absolutely exhausted, but I knew that a day in the taiga would bring me back to life.

The main mode of transportation in the southern half of Siberia is by railroad. I wanted to avoid the boring Transsiberian, using less-known roads instead. By "less-known" I mean less-known outside the Soviet Union, because no railroad is more famous inside the country than BAM.

BAM stands for Baikal-Amur Railway. It branches off the Transsiberian in Kansk, passes along the northern shore of Lake Baikal, and goes east across mountain ranges and rift valleys to Komsomolsk on Amur River. It is connected with the Transsiberian in two more places: at its eastern end, and in the middle. Its construction was started during Stalin's era and was conducted by 400,000 prisoners, but was suspended after his death.

In 1974 the relations between USSR and China became heated, and the Communist Party decided that having only one road between the Far East and the rest of the country was too risky (the Transsiberian is very close to the Chinese border in many places). Suddenly all newspapers were full of articles about the beauty of remote places, the romantics of frontier life, of building new cities in wild taiga. Campfire songs, traditionally critical of the regime, became an official genre. Young people were encouraged to give up boring life in civilized places, and to test themselves at the Construction Project of the Century.

Most people didn't buy it, but thousands did. Others were lured by good pay, and by the promise of a free car for ten years of work at BAM (they never got this free car, even when cars became generally more affordable). Together with thousands of convicts and stroibat (construction troops), they worked in harsh climate, battling permafrost, floods, mosquitoes, and earthquakes. The "golden spike" was in place in 1987, although one tunnel wasn't finished until 2002.

Actually, the entire road should be called golden. It is only half as long as the Transsiberian, but because of its remoteness and rough terrain it took twice as long to build, and was at least five times more expensive. Just as the project was about to go into the second phase (development of the territory adjacent to the road, and mining its vast mineral riches), the Perestroika began. The entire railway was all but abandoned, and settlements built along it mostly became ghost towns.

BAM is divided into three parts. The western part was built by paid workers, so it is a normal railroad. The eastern part was built by convicts and stroibat soldiers, so the tracks are in bad condition, and trains move slowly and carefully. The third part is called Small BAM. It connects the Transsiberian with Tynda, a town in the middle of BAM and its unofficial capital. Currently, its continuation to the North is under construction. It is supposed to reach Yakutsk by 2005. In 1990 there was only one passenger train a day in each direction in the eastern part of BAM, and two-three in the western part. There were some freight trains, too. Hitchhiking on them was illegal but easy, so I could travel very fast.

If you ride the railroad from Komsomolsk westward, the first place of interest is Lake Evoron. It is very shallow and good for snorkeling. Swan geese and other rare waterbirds nest along its swampy shores. I met some local fishermen there, and they invited me for a night of spearfishing.

At sunset a huge thundercloud moved in from the East. The lake sounded like a living thing: it was splashing, whispering, and making strange noises. As soon as we waded half a mile into the lake, we we surrounded by millions of spawning fish, mostly crucians and breams. It was only knee-deep, so we could see huge pikes and catfishes at the bottom. We caught a few wild carps, then noticed that the thundercloud was almost overhead, and decided to get back to shore. Lightning was getting close, and thunder accompanied the duet of fish-owls calling from lakeside forest.

We were already close to shore when pale lights appeared on our spears made of ski poles. I felt my hair moving, said "get down!", and put my spear underwater. Next moment a pillar of white light fell on the fisherman who was a bit behind the others. We all felt an electric shock and a deafening strike of the sound wave. We ran back to the poor guy, and found him floating face down. His right hand was burned down to wrist bones.

We carried him back to shore, put him in a sidecar of a motorcycle, and his friends rushed him to the village. It took him only one day in a hospital to recover from shock, but they had to amputate what was left of his hand. He apparently didn't suffer from electricity at all: the lightning passed through his spear, evaporating it and burning his hand in process.

Left alone, I spent the rest of the night under an overturned boat, and then hiked back to the railroad. The sky cleared by dawn, but a thin layer of fog covered the grass.

The most widespread forest type in the lowlands of Southeastern Siberia is called mar'. It is an open peat bog with tussocks of Labrador tea, rhododendrons, and other plants of heather family. Small larches stick out of it here and there. The typical inhabitants of mar' are mosquitoes and encephalitis-carrying ticks. This time, however, I saw something much more interesting. I was crossing a large area of burnt forest, and spotted a pair of hooded cranes dancing a few hundred meters ahead.

I instantly forgot about mosquitoes and ticks, fell on my stomach, and watched them for a while. Very few people have seen this rare crane on its breeding grounds. The birds kept dancing, while the moss carpet I was lying on was slowly sinking. Suddenly I found myself in icy-cold water. I jumped to my feet, and the cranes flew away.

I got on a passing train, asked the cooks in the restaurant to let me use their oven to fry the carp I'd caught last night, and had breakfast. I chose some small station in Amgun' Basin where the forest wasn't burned or logged, got off the train, and walked along the tracks to a bridge over a large river. The river was cold, gray, and lined with silver-leafed willows. From its high bank I could see an endless ocean of larch forest with scattered islands of slender Ayan spruce. The air was filled with the aroma of young larch needles. Far to the west were purple mountains wearing bras of pink snow on their tops.

In one place a tiny creek was entering the river. In its mouth I saw some long dark logs underwater, and realized they were taimen, the world's largest salmonid fish. These superpredators of Siberian rivers prefer cold water, so in summer they are mostly found near cold springs or in the mouths of creeks flowing from snowbanks and glaciers. I needed to catch some fish for food, so I decided to get one big taimen and solve the problem for a few days.

I had a folding titanium tube which could be used as a tent pole, walking stick, skewer, backpack frame, camera stand, staff for jumping across glacier fissures, and spear for all puroses. Now was the time to use it as a fishing rod. I dropped my spoon-bait into the creek, let it float towards the taimens, and pulled it up slightly. One of them immediately swallowed it. I had no reel, so I had to spin around as fast as I could to get the fish out. It was a small taimen. The largest one in the pack was longer than me, but I didn't need a fish that big.

The most abundant fish in these rivers is Siberian grayling. Local Evenk nomads enjoy flyfishing for graylings, using Gypsy moths for bait. They say the best way to cook graylings is to fry them in birch sap.

Islands of spruce forest were once the favorite habitat of Siberian grouse. These cute birds were so tame that locals caught them with nooses attached to fishing rods. Such a creature had no chance of surviving in BAM zone, where almost every adult male was a poacher. It still can be found in the most remote parts of Southeastern Siberia, but is already extinct in China and most of Amur Basin. In all my trips to the area I saw it only twice.

Next day I got on a train, gave the cooks one third of the fish, and they allowed me to fry the rest, and to keep it in their refrigerator. We crossed into Bureya Basin, where I decided to switch to freight trains to save money. The largest town in this area was Urgal. It had been built on a permafrost bog, which was slowly melting, so the streets were dotted with cracks, pits, and craters. The once-luxurious station building was about to collapse into a huge sinkhole.

The next station, Chegdomyn, was the center of all military activity in BAM zone, so forests there were crisscrossed with tank tracks and littered with huge piles of rusty barbed wire. It was the only place on BAM where I was asked to show my passport. I hated showing my passport. In 1989 in Azerbaijan I almost got killed because the photo in my passport was underexposed and looked Armenian.

Freight train crews were not allowed to take passengers, but talking them into it was never too difficult. The only problem was that the crews changed every eight to fourteen hours, so I had to do all the talking over and over again. From Chegdomyn, I got a ride to Tynda hundreds of kilometers to the west. We were sitting in the cabin, watching larch taiga and exchanging stories.

"We say you don't fish for taimen," said our mechanic Pavel, "You hunt for it. You fish for grayling, char, and lenok."

Lenok is a small trout-like fish of clean Siberian rivers. It is fast, delicious, and very colorful. In some places lenoks look like glowing stripes of red-hot steel.

"Last spring," said Pavel, "we decided to go to the taiga, to fish for lenok. We took our motorcycles, crossed the @#$% river, got some &$%# lenoks, but when we ran out of @&*+% vodka, we couldn't get back! The %$#@ water was too high! We left the motorcycles and the fish, crossed the river by foot, walked all the #&%@ way to the town, got a tractor, came back, crossed the &)+&% river, and then it started raining, and the water rose even more! $#%#@!!! We got stuck for three %$&%& days!!! Our bikses (Siberian slur for girls - V.D.) were waiting at home, guarding their piggy banks (Siberian slur for %&$# %&^% - V.D.) We had to eat all &#$@^ lenoks! @%$#@&%^*(&%$^)&^%$^+@%$%#&@*^&%^#!!!!!"

The train was slowly moving across Amur-Zeya Plain - seven hours of totally burnt taiga. At sunset we got to Zeya Reservoir, a giant shallow puddle of muddy water dotted with rotten stumps. It was now the driver's turn to tell a story.

"Once in April," he said, "my friend Roma and I had to fly from Tynda to Moscow via Irkutsk. Roma had a pet squirrel. It wasn't very tame - he'd only caught it two days earlier. He put it in a glove, and the glove was in the inside pocket of his fur coat. When we got to Irkutsk, it was warm there, so he left the coat in the airplane. We were having some coffee at the airport, and suddenly they made a radio announcement, asking the jerks who had a squirrel to get back to the plane.

We ran back, and found the squirrel running like crazy all around the airplane. It got into the cockpit, and then to the bottom level of the plane, the one under the floor of the passenger cabin. The pilots let us down there through a trapdoor, and said they won't take off until we catch the squirrel. They also said we'd have to pay two thousand rubles for every hour of delay. We crawled down there. It was a low and narrow place, full of some electronic devices, all humming and ticking. The squirrel was nowhere to be seen. We tried to move around and call it by name (Roma had named it Lucy), until we both went hysterical and laughed so much that we couldn't move.

Finally the pilots agreed to take off anyway. It was the scariest flight of my life. I was sure the squirrel would chew on some cable and we'd crash. But nothing happened. And the squirrel was never found."

The moon rose, and we could see the snow-covered peaks of Stanovoi (Backbone) Range far to the north. Now it was my turn. I told a story of a pregnant pit wiper I was once transporting from Vladivostok to Moscow. There was a tiny breathing hole in its box. These vipers are viviparous. A few hours into the flight, I suddenly saw a dozen tiny snakes crawling around the airplane. Fortunately, they were so small that other passengers thought I'd dropped a can of earthworms.

But nobody believed my story.

Soviet newspapers used to call Tynda "the city of seven winds". It was built on a hill, and looked surprisingly neat for such a rundown place. From there on it was Western BAM, and the trains were going very fast. But the weather was changing. By the time we got from Olyokma Valley to Khani Canyon, it was raining and very cold.

I got off the train in Khani and walked along the river, throwing my spoon-bait in the water every few minutes. I caught a small lenok and some graylings and cooked them. The snow started to fall, and the water between railway sleepers began to freeze over. The temperature had dropped 30 degrees centigrade in four hours. I returned to the station, and was glad to see that the chairs in the waiting room had no elbow-rests. Stupid steel elbow-rests make sleeping at many Soviet railway stations very uncomfortable.

One hour before dawn another freight train arrived. There was a flatcar with two Toyotas in it. There is no automobile road from the Far East to the rest of Russia, except for some dirt roads not suitable for passenger cars. Many people go to Vladivostok, buy used Japanese cars, and have them transported to Kansk by railroad. They have to stay inside the cars all the time to prevent them from being stolen or damaged, and to bribe dispatchers at almost every major station to avoid their flatcar being sent for many days to some dead-end track. I asked the owners of the cars to let me travel with them for a while, and they let me in.

The morning was cold and cloudy. The train climbed out of the canyon onto a high snow-covered plateau. After a few hours of crossing frozen lakes and rocky tundra, we descended back into the forests. They looked different there: trees were tall, and there were some pines, not only larches. Soon we were in a deep valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It was Chara Valley, the easternmost part of a long chain of deep rifts cutting across Southern Siberia. The westernmost part of this rift system is Lake Baikal. Chara area is the most scenic part of BAM.

The cold front had passed, the sun came out, and the snow melted within an hour. I got off the train and hiked to the famous Chara Sands, an island of moving dunes in the center of the valley. Larches were still naked there, but the buds were opening, and young tender needles were growing fast: by noon, the forest seemed wrapped in transparent green fog. Almost every treetop was decorated with a singing bird: a bunting, a finch, or a thrush. Red and yellow rhododendron flowers were opening everywhere. A tiny blue butterfly kept me company for at least half an hour, following me along the road. Gnats were also glad to see me, and showed up in thousands to celebrate my arrival. The road eventually disappeared in a bog. After an hour of jumping from one tussock to another, I got to a broad river. Its shores were hidden under huge deposits of ice, formed during the winter. The river was only waist-deep, so I crossed it and soon got to the Sands. I climbed the tallest dune and enjoyed the view of sharp-peaked Kodar Range to the north. The white wall of the range was cut by two deep gorges. The dunes owed their existence to these gorges: sand-carrying winds rushed out of there, met in the middle of the valley, and dropped their load.

As soon as the sun got behind the mountains, the temperature dropped again. When I got back to the railroad, I saw an approaching train in the distance. I waved my hand, the driver noticed me and slowed down at a turn so I could jump on a ladder leading onto an empty flatcar. After half an hour in freezing wing I got too cold to continue, and jumped off as soon as the train slowed down again. It was a tiny station at the eastern entrance to a tunnel underneath Kodar Range. There was only one building there. It was abandoned, and the inner one of its two doors was locked. I spent the night between the doors.

Next morning everything was covered with snow again. It was June already, the latitude was that of Denmark, and the place was only 800 m above sea level. But the temperature was way below freezing, and the timberline was just above the station. Rock ptarmigans tried to dig holes in the snow, but it was too shallow. Nearby was a large lake called Leprindo. I caught a strange fish in it - a large black char, endemic to the valley. The snow stopped finally, and I could see Kalar Alps ridge across the lake. As soon as a train arrived, I sneaked in (it was an expensive Tynda-Moscow train), and soon was in the next rift valley on the other side of the tunnel.

I was the only passenger in the car, except for an Evenk family traveling to Lake Baikal. Evenk nomads are one of the most interesting ethnic groups of Siberia. They are believed to be the direct descendants of Neolithic hunters. A few centuries ago they occupied a larger territory than any other nation in the world. Places with Evenk names exist as far west as Moscow, and as far east as Kamchatka. But now there are only twenty thousand left, and most have settled down and speak only Russian and sometimes Yakut. You have to get to the most remote parts of Siberia, such as Lower Tunguska basin or Northeastern Yakutia, to see Evenks still traveling around the taiga with small herds of domestic reindeer.

We crossed Vitim, a slow river with black water. I'd traveled in its basin a lot back in 1983. Once my boat got crashed in rapids, and I had to walk for 24 days without food to get to a village. Later I found out that there was another village just ten days away, but it was just outside the area I'd had map for. It wasn't as bad an adventure as it sounds: it was my first trip to Siberia, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Severomuysk was the most beautiful of BAM towns. It was the last one to be built, and all trees were left standing, so the town was in the middle of a nice pine forest.

The next rift valley was already part of Central, not Eastern, Siberia, and the nature looked very different. There was a lot of spruce and fir around, and almost no larch. Mountain slopes were steep, covered with kurums - long rivers of broken rock. Above timberline there were meadows, not tundra. These parts get a lot of snow in winter. I climbed one of the ridges called Dolon-Uran, and had a great opportunity to observe a family of wolves playing in a meadow. There were two adults and four tiny cubs. I spent almost three hours watching them from dense stone pine bushes.

I got to Lake Baikal at sunset. It was warm on the shore. Pink rhododendrons were in full bloom. If you ever have a chance to visit just one place in Siberia, go to Lake Baikal, better to its more pristine northeastern part. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and the best freshwater diving site in Russia. The water is so clean you can see fish swimming hundred meters away, and there are vertical walls going down to a depth of about a mile. It has more endemic species than any other lake except Tanganyika.

The next train I got on was two days behind schedule. The driver tried to make it up, so we were going very fast. In two nights and one day we got to Krasnoyarsk, a large city located in the place where the Transsiberian crosses Yenissei River. Just south of the city is a small Nature reserve called Stolby (Pillars) with splendid rock formations, mostly resembling towering cumulus clouds. Here the summer was in full swing. Forest meadows were covered with golden-orange globeflowers. They looked absolutely great in dark forests of spruce, fir and Siberian pine.

This is one of the best rock climbing sites in the world. I borrowed a pair of rubber shoes from local climbers, and had a whole day of fun. Many climbing routes there are very easy, but lead to the tops of "pillars" with splendid vistas.

Then I got on yet another train westward, took the upper bunk, opened the window, and went to sleep. During the night, an electric locomotive was replaced by a diesel. In the morning, I was dragged off my bunk by two policemen, looking at me as if I was an escaped convict. I couldn't understand what was wrong until someone gave me a mirror. All my face was covered with soot.

One more day of travel through birch woodlands, and I got to the foothills of Altai Mountains, with two weeks to explore them. Hitchhiking there was great. I even got two rides with whitewater expeditions (one was rafting, the other kayaking). This is the most diverse part of Siberia: you can find Mongolian, Boreal, Alpine, even Tibetan landscapes there. Local attractions include small lakes of pure mercury (covered with a thin film of water which tends to break if the wind is strong enough), the best whitewater rivers in Russia, stunningly beautiful Teletskoe Lake that looks like Subarctic version of tepui landscape, and the lushest coniferous forests in all of Siberia. Some forest clearings are blooming with three species of large lady's slipper orchids.

Then I turned south and entered Kazakhstan. It is a country roughly the size of India, practically unknown to foreign and even Soviet tourists (except for a small area around Almaty which actually looks more like a part of Kyrgyzstan). I tried to make stops in all interesting places while crossing the eastern part of it. First I visited Kulunda Lakes, one of the best birdwatching sites in Asian grasslands. Then I spent two days in the Small Hills Country - a huge area of multicolored rocky hills, inhabited by saiga antelopes and houbara bustards. South from the Small Hills is Betpak Dala, the world's largest gypsum desert. It is a very scenic area where many rare creatures such as desert dormice and pigmy jerboas can be seen. My last stop was in Chu Valley, famous all over the Soviet Union for its vast expanses of cannabis steppe. Thousands of people travel there every summer to harvest it. But fauna is very boring there: mostly locusts and karakurt, Asian version of black widow spiders.

I got to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in the middle of Uzbek-Kyrgys clashes, but managed to get out of the city by taking a bus to Lake Issyk Kul. I had one week left for exploring the interior parts of Tien Shan, and tried to make the best of it. Then I got stuck there just two days before my return flight to Moscow because bus service was suddenly canceled. I had to hike more than a hundred kilometers nonstop to get from Issyk Kul to Kegen in Charyn Canyon Country, from where it was still possible to get to Almaty. I returned to Moscow three hours before my train to Lithuania. After a month of train racing I managed to get in the Army just in time. And it was the one place I'd always wanted to avoid!

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