Into the Russian Far East

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May 8th 2010
Published: June 22nd 2010
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The train chugged its way east through the most spectacular scenery I have seen anywhere in Russia. Endless taiga forests, gargantuan snow-streaked mountains, valleys whose rivers had only just begun to melt, their banks strewn with vast chunks of ice, some as big as houses. We were moving through a land of stark, raw nature, a wilderness of gigantic proportions that had only had a few small vestiges of civilisation brought to it in the 1970s and 80s with the construction of the BAM railway on which I now traveled. These vestiges presented themselves every hour or so in the form of small villages and towns. The villages were usually made up of wooden shacks and the towns - if they could really be called that, for I doubted any of them had populations of more than 5000 - distinguished themselves by containing the odd spot of concrete.

I drifted in and out of consciousness, my head spinning from a hangover, the result of a day on the vodka with the fish police in a little village on the northern shores of Lake Baikal. After several hours the train stopped at a collection of small wooden houses, with a single, miniature, faded red concrete apartment block in the middle, five stories high and two apartments wide. It was set in one of the most stunning locations I have ever seen for any settlement, right at the foot of a towering pyramid of a mountain, its dark, jagged surface becoming streaked with snow around halfway up until the peak was completely white. I wanted so badly to get out of bed, breath the fresh Siberian air and photograph this remarkably beautiful place but I had fallen on the ice of Baikal's frozen surface and torn the skin from the backs of my legs just below the buttocks. They rubbed painfully on my trousers when I tried to walk and this, combined with my hangover, kept me bed-bound for the first eight or nine hours of the train ride. I managed a brief venture outside to watch the sunset at a small town called Taksimo, crab-walking embarrassedly down the aisle of the train's common carriage to get out, but that used up all my energy and afterwards I fell asleep.

The next morning I found, to my horror, that the pus from my wounds had dried overnight and glued my tracksuit bottoms firmly to my legs. This necessitated an excruciating half hour in the toilet slowly tearing my trousers off, together with a lot of skin. Drenched in sweat, I went back to my bed and lay trouserless under my sheets for six or seven hours in the hope that the wounds would dry again.

A couple of hours before the train arrived at Tynda, its destination, I decided I should ask the carriage attendants if they had any medecine or bandages. I staggered ashamedly down the aisle, trying not to look too much like a disabled person while at the same time not cause myself too much pain, and knocked on their door.

"Oh, it's you!" one of them said in a pleased voice. "How are you?"

"I'm OK," I replied, "but I need to ask you for some help. I've got some really bad burns and I was wondering if you have anything you could use to treat them?"

"All we've got is zelyonka," she answered.

"What's that?" I asked, "a disinfectant?"

"Yes. Here, roll up your trousers and I'll put it on for you."

I did as told and she grimaced. "Ugh, that looks nasty."

She took a tiny vial of a dark green liquid and a strip of gauze from a small first aid box. She poured a little of the green liquid, zelyonka, onto the gauze and used it to dab my burns. It hardened very quickly, forming a thin protective layer. When the little vial ran out she bustled off to get another one from a carriage attendant somewhere else on the train.

"Thank you very much," I said to her after she had finished. "Is there a doctor or medical point at the station in Tynda by the way?"

"Yes, turn left when you enter and you'll see it."

We arrived at Tynda, twenty six hours and 1300km after I had borded the train. This scrappy, bleak, grey concrete town was the BAM headquarters, with a population of 40,000 by far the largest settlement for thousands of kilometers in either direction. Trains traveled both east and west from here but the settlements to the east no longer had any direct rail connection with Moscow, or flight connection for that matter. To the north a dirt road led 1500km to Yakutsk, capital of Russia's largest republic, Sakha. From there, in summer, passenger boats traveled all the way up the Lena River to the Arctic Ocean. But that was for my next trip to Siberia, and for now I got awkwardly off the train and waddled into the station. I found the medical point easily and went in. It was just one room with a severe, clearly humourless babushka who had quite possibly never smiled sitting behind a desk in a white coat.

"What do you want?" she asked in an aggressive voice as I came in.

"I've got some very bad burns on my legs and I was wondering if you could bandage them?" I asked unhopefully.

"What do you think this is?" she screamed at me. "We've got nothing here. Go to the pharmacy and buy the bandages yourself, then maybe we'll do it."

"Please," I pleaded, "it's horribly painful."

"We've got nothing here," she shouted again, "go to the pharmacy."

"Where is it?"

"You have to take a bus," she yelled angrily, "go out to the front of the station and wait."

I had no time for this. My train to Novy Urgal, 1000km to the east and with a population of 5,000 the biggest town between here and Komsomolsk-na-Amure, was leaving in under an hour and in my current condition even crossing the bridge to the next platform was going to take some time. I left and resigned myself to another bandageless night.

On the train, feeling that my burns were becoming a bit moist again and not wanting a repeat of what had happened the previous night, I went and asked the carriage attendant for zelyonka.

"We haven't got any!" she screamed at me.

"Please, I really need it," I begged.

She huffed, puffed and tutted but eventually found a bottle for me in her first aid kit. She also gave me some gauze and instructed me to wrap it round my leg over the burn and tie a knot in it after I had applied the zelyonka. I was almost ecstatically optmistic that the gauze would stop my trousers from sticking to my skin.

I lay back down under my sheets and listened to the carriage around me. It was unusually full of loud, drunken, swearing men and for the first time since I had begun my journey I found the atmosphere unpleasant and oppressive. There was an element in their slurred, drawling voices that was unlike my previous Siberian vodka buddies, that hinted at something nasty, degenerate and to be avoided. I had no desire to get out of bed, talk to these people or have them notice me.

Across the aisle from me was sat a harmless forty-something man, not one of the nasty types, who was quietly drinking a large bottle of vodka by himself. Opposite and across a small table from him was a pretty, blonde, twenty-something girl who he was occasionally trying to make conversation with and had had an offer of a glass of vodka turned down by. Being fairly good-looking and the only young, unchaperoned female in the carriage, it was only a matter of time before she attracted the attention of the nasty types.

The most boisterous of their group, a shaven-headed powerhouse of a man who I would have bet had spent time in prison, stopped next to her as he swaggered down the aisle and invited her to come and drink with him and his friends.

"I don't drink at all," she answered.

"Hey, stop it, that's my wife," the harmless vodka drinker lied, trying to protect her from the powerhouse and at the same time wishing what he said was true.

"Like f**k is she," the powerhouse answered cruelly, "you're old enough to be her f**king grandad."

The harmless vodka drinker sank back into his seat muttering something. That was the last time the powerhouse showed his true colours in front of the girl and from then on he edited his language and character in front of her, spinning one lie after another in an effort to win her over that was not altogether unsuccessful.

At one point I had an opportunity to eavesdrop on their conversation in the smoking area between carriages. "I own my own logging business," he was saying in a cheery, polite and remarkably sobre voice. He had somehow managed to drop the drunken slur and was doing such a good job of hiding his real personality that had I not seen him earlier he could right now have almost come across as a cheeky but likeable rogue, a bit of a rough diamond. But I could still just detect the sly, dishonest undertones in his speech.

"I don't believe you," she said, clearly not entirely unaware of the sort of man she was dealing with. It only took a few more lies spun on his part, however, to have her at least partially convinced.

Back in the carriage he spoke to me with a cheeky grin as I was getting back into my bed. I didn't understand and just grinned back, hoping that he would not recognise me as a foreigner. He stared at me for a second too long, puzzled by my reaction to his joke.

"What a scary, nasty guy," the harmless vodka drinker said to the girl after the powerhouse had left for the toilet.

"He's alright, I tell you," she defended him. Soon they had exchanged telephone numbers.

She got out at a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere some time during the night. He the next day seemed viciously hungover. The gauze I had wrapped round my legs had been stuck to them like super glue by the pus from my wounds. As I waddled down the corridor at a ridiculously slow rate, attracting strange looks, to my horror I saw him coming the other way. I stood to the side to let him pass and he stopped and stared aggressively into my face for a second before continuing.

I spent another gut-wrenchingly painful half hour in the toilet pulling gauze and skin off my legs, applied more zelyonka, went back to my bed and lay there all with my knees up in an effort to let the zelyonka and my wounds dry without touching my trousers.

We arrived at Novy Urgal late in the afternoon. I waddled into the train station and up a flight of stairs to where a sign said "resting rooms." I knocked on the door and an elderly lady, bordering on the babushka but still with (dyed?) blonde hair answered.

"Do you have any spare rooms?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking at me strangely. "Come on in."

I sat down in the tiny reception room opposite her as she copied down details from my passport. "So you're from England?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"I came here from Estonia," she told me, "thirty five years ago." She had been one of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens who had come to the wilderness all those years ago to build this now useless railroad and had stayed on afterwards to populate the purpose-built towns that dotted its length. There was not a hint of regret in her voice, however, when she told me that she had once been from Europe.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I live in Moscow," I replied, "but I have twelve days holiday so I decided to travel the BAM."

She shook her head. "But why? There's nothing to see or do here."

"I don't know," I told her, "it's just interesting for me. It's an extremely different side of Russia from Moscow. By the way, do you have any zelyonka?"

"What do you need that for?"

I showed her my burns.

"They look bad," she said. "You should go to our clinic. I'll phone you a taxi if you want."

Less than five minutes later I was sitting, surrounded by faded paint and peeling wallpaper, on the only plastic chair in the reception area of a small clinic. After they had seen to an enormous man in camouflage gear who had sprained his ankle in a hunting accident, a burly babushka and a burlier thirty-something giant turned on me.

"What do you want?" the babushka asked.

I explained how I got my burns.

"Where are you from?" the giant man demanded.


"What are you doing here?" the babushka asked.

I explained. They shook their heads.

"Come on then," the man said, "drop your trousers and show us." I did as told.

"Mmmm, ok, put them up and follow me," he said. I did as told.

We moved into a room with what looked like an operating table in the middle.

"Lie on that," he said, pointing at it. He had a habit of speaking in a strangely dramatic way, his tones rising and falling almost as if in poetry or song.

I lay on the table face down. There was a plastic circle attached to the lower end of the table which could be slid up and down it and he rammed it between my legs and into my groin with just less force than would have been painful.

"Ouch," I said. I was beginning to get scared of what was going to be done to me here in this godforsaken Soviet clinic in the middle of nowhere.

"Keep your legs apart," he shouted.

He moved round the room doing something outside my sphere of vision. Then he came back into it carrying a flask of clear liquid. I am always a bit of a girl's blouse when it comes to doctors or dentists and here my mind began to race. What was in the bottle? Clearly something he was going to pour on my wounds. Pure alcohol? Hydrochloric acid? Good God...

"This is going to be horribly painful, isn't it?" I asked, the fear clearly audible in my voice.

"On the contrary," he sang, "it's going to be nice!"

Nice? Nice!!?? Oh God help me!

He walked behind me. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and screwed up my face, my heart pounding like a hardcore techno beat.

I felt the liquid splash onto my wounds, yelled and spasmed. I then apologised to the man, embarrassedly realising that it had been completely pain-free. He sang nothing, just using a tissue to wipe and clean my burns. He then went and rummaged around under a metal shelf to find something.

"What else are you going to use?" I asked, my heart rate beginning to rise again.

"Zelyonka," he bellowed, sounding like a louder, deeper-voiced version of the meerkat as it sings 'Hakuna Matata' in Walt Disney's Lion King. "The greatest medecine ever, found only in Russia of course! A disinfectant and a sealant all in one - what more could you want!"

He applied the zelyonka then put some bandages on top, instructing me to go straight back to the station, lie down and take them off there. The babushka then made me drop my trousers in reception and gave me a shot in the bum and a prescription for a disinfectant, some antibiotics and of course zelyonka.

"I guess I shouldn't drink alcohol with these antibiotics?" I asked.

"Not at all," sang the giant, "it's better with alcohol!"

They ordered me a taxi and shooed me out of the building without asking for a penny for their services.

"Where are you from?" the driver asked me.

"England," I told him.

"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked.

I explained. He laughed.

We stopped at a chemist where I was able to get everything other than the disinfectant. Back at the station I fell asleep feeling warm and positive inside, sure that thanks to the help from the clinic I was now truly on the mend.

The next day I awoke elated by the fact that nothing had stuck to my legs overnight and I did not have to pull any skin off, although walking was still painful. I decided to try to buy some food and a new pair of trousers, my old ones now having pus stains on the legs and there being no time to wash and dry them before my onward train.

"Hsssssssssssss!" the taxi driver hissed at me as I writhed uncomfortably into his vehicle and shut the door. His hand quivered, his head flinched, his mouth twitched and his voice tremored. "Don't shut the door so hard, f**k!" he almost shouted.

The town was made up entirely of apartment blocks, a small maze of grey, crumbling, concrete cuboids. The buildings differed from one another only in the extent of their dilapidation. Some had sizeable holes in their brickwork, whole chunks of wall that were simply missing. This, combined with the fact that the whole town had been constructed in the last thirty five years, said something for the low quality of the builders' workmanship.

We passed a block of concrete on which were written the distances to a couple of towns that were nearby by BAM standards and to Moscow, 7696km away in the West. We stopped outside a run-down building that people called 'the Shopping Centre' but which consisted mainly of a few rooms with cheap clothes laid out on small, collapsable tables. I returned to the train station with bread, processed meat, mayonnaise and a pair of uncomfortably itchy tracksuit bottoms.

I lay in bed, sad that my antics on Lake Baikal had cost me the opportunity to explore this little town and its surroundings. In the afternoon I managed a quick stagger round the area closest to the station before clambering onto the fourteen-hour train to Komsomolsk-na-Amure, a city on the same longitude as Japan and my last stop on the BAM.

Click this link for advice on independent travel along the BAM


22nd June 2010

This stuff sounds amazing... I'm finding this journey quite addictive. Thank you for writing...

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