At first look, Vladivostok is something like ‘Russia’s San Francisco’ – a real stunner, with pointed mountains springing up above a network of bays, most strikingly the crooked dock-lined Golden Horn Bay (named for its likeness to Istanbul’s). Closer up, it can be a little grey, with Soviet housing blocks squeezed between new condos and century-old mansions.
The Far East’s most pleasant surprise – and a welcome break after days of relentless taiga on the train – Khabarovsk boasts a dreamy riverside setting, vibrant nightlife and broad boulevards lined with pretty tsarist-era buildings. Unlike so many places, the city has developed its riverside in the public interest.
Looming like a giant inverted iceberg north of the BAM line, the sprawl of remote Sakha Republic (the country’s largest) takes time and effort (or an air ticket) to reach. Life is noticeably different here. The buildings of Yakutsk – a friendly place where Russians are the minority – stand on stilts.
Talk about bizarre: the world’s coldest city stands on stilts (the shifting permafrost collapses buildings otherwise) and is pretty much cut off from the already remote Far East; a dodgy road to the BAM line takes a ferry ride and 24 hours, and airfares cost over R13,000 just to reach Vladivostok! Yet, unlike so many remote Russian cities out here, Yakutsk roars with optimism.
El Dorado for oil-struck businessfolk, and ‘hell’ to Anton Chekhov in 1890 (not to mention the thousands and thousands of prisoners shipped here from the late 19th century), Sakhalin Island (Остров Сахалин) these days is decaying in chunks and booming in others (such as its hub, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk).
After days of taiga and grey Soviet towns, Komsomolsk-na-Amure hits the BAM adventurer like a mini St Petersburg. Komsomolsk was built virtually from scratch by Stalin in the 1930s as a vital cog in the Soviet Union’s military industrial complex. Set along a few grand boulevards, the city is worth a night or more if you are getting on or off the BAM.
The totally independent travellers’ best destination in Kamchatka, Esso is set snug in a valley of green mountains, with a network of well-mapped hiking trails extending into surrounding Bystrinsky Nature Park, plus hot-spring pools in town and rafting and horse-riding options nearby.
It’s sometimes easy to forget where you are out here – in deepest Asia – until you find a place like this modest border town, 110km south of the Trans-Siberian and across the Amur River from China. The mix of scattered tsarist-era buildings and Chinese tourists walking past Lenin statues is fascinating.
The king of the BAM, Tynda is a nondescript BAM HQ flanked by low-lying pine-covered hills. Many stop here, as it’s a hub for trains between Severobaikalsk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure and, on the Little BAM, Blagoveshchensk to the south, or, on the in-progress AYaM (Amuro-Yakutskaya Magistral, or Amur-Yakutsk Mainline), Neryungri and Tommot to the north. Don’t expect quaint.