Introducing Western Bam

The 3100km-long Baikal-Amur Mainline (Baikalo-Amurskaya Magistral, BAM) is an astonishing victory of belief over adversity. This 'other' trans-Siberian line runs from Tayshet (417km east of Krasnoyarsk around the top of Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast. Begun in the 1930s to access the timber and minerals of the Lena Basin, work stopped during WWII. Indeed the tracks were stripped altogether and reused to lay a relief line to the besieged city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd. Work effectively started all over again in 1974 when the existing Trans-Siberian Railway was felt to be vulnerable to attack by potentially hostile China. Much of the route was cut through virgin taiga and pesky mountain ranges. To encourage patriotic volunteer labourers the BAM was labelled 'Hero Project of the Century'. Even so, building on permafrost pushed the cost of the project to US$25 billion, some 50 times more than the original Trans-Siberian Railway.

New 'BAM towns' grew with the railway, often populated by builders who decided to stay on. However, the line's opening (1991) coincided with the collapse of the centrally planned USSR and the region's bright Soviet future has not really materi- alised. While Bratsk and Severobaikalsk have thrived, many other smaller, lonely settlements have become ghost towns.

The BAM route crosses virtually virgin territory that is more impressively mountainous than anything along the trans- Siberian mainline. For most travellers the most popular BAM stop is Severobaikalsk, as a hub for visiting north Baikal.

The official start of the BAM is Tayshet, but through services from Krasnoyarsk and Moscow and elsewhere mean there's little reason to stop there. Bratsk is famous for its giant dam. Ust-Kut-Lena has irregular hydrofoil services along the Lena River to Lensk for Yakutsk. Between the two is the claustrophobic 1960s iron-ore processing town of Zheleznogorsk-Ilimsky (train station Korshunikha Angarskaya), whose sole, modest attraction is the Yangel Museum (9am-4pm Mon-Fri), celebrating a local astro-scientist friend of Yuri Gagarin.

There are particularly fine mountain views between Kunerma and minispa Goudzhekit, with the line performing a full 180-degree switchback before tunnelling through to Daban.

The line between Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk offers flashes of dazzling Lake Baikal views. It then continues to Tynda via Dzelinda, another tiny spa, and the 15km-long Severomuysk Tunnel.