The BAM Road - Siberia
Jenny O'Grady | firstname.lastname@example.org | @jonpogrady
The BAM is possibly one of the most exciting adventure roads left in the world, where only a handful of 4x4s and motorcyclists tackle the road each year. It’s an old railway service route which runs roughly alongside the train line known as the Baikal-Amur-Mainline (BAM). The road contains many obstacles I would consider challenging, like:
Rickety, decaying bridges with huge holes
Deep, fast moving rivers
Train bridges you must ride over, with no idea when the next train is coming!
The BAM rail line travels from Tayshet which is to the west of Lake Baikal, all the way to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Ocean. Its 4.300 km (2,700 miles) of mostly dirt and gravel track which was used in the early 1970’s to construct the BAM railway but has seen little if any maintenance since then. The track has now completely fallen into disrepair, which we explored on our traverse of the Western half from SeveroBaykalsk to Tynda. Among the half washed away, collapsed road bridges and wide rivers we found the most terrifying aspect, the Vitim Bridge!
Why the BAM?
The BAM has been one of our ‘bucket list rides’ for years now, we wanted to tackle it for the personal challenge and sense of achievement. We knew that this would be one of the most challenging times for us, but something to always remember!
We joined the Western end of the BAM around the village of Okunayskiy after riding 700km of heavily potholed logging roads from Olkhon island, which resides in Lake Baikal. From there the 1479km to Tynda took us around 6 days to complete. Due to a number of complications with our trip we were quite behind our timetable and arrived at Olkhon Island around 26th August, which meant we began the BAM in early September. Chunks of time were lost due to various events, bikes breaking down, waiting for parts and so on. We knew we had a pretty small window to do this road before the weather really turned on us. Winter in Siberia doesn’t quite compare to the UK, stand still long enough and our eyelashes freeze! We wanted to be out of there before the frost kicked in, but never the less it would be a cold couple of weeks.
We camped 90% of the time, sometimes not through choice but more because we hadn’t reached the next town as planned. Making up miles on this terrain is extremely hard, you can be battling away all day and only do 20 miles due to the obstacles. Camping is our favourite accommodation usually we definitely prefer it to hotels; however we were completely soaked through from the river crossings and the temperature was dropping every day. We’d try to sleep putting every piece of dry clothing we had on. Then the worst bit, putting our cold wet gear back on the next morning! Although once we got it all on, we were good to go again and giddy with nervous excitement for what the day would bring!
A few days into the BAM we entered a town late one night and were praying for a hotel. We asked a local who said there wasn’t one, however said to follow him in his car. He drove us to the local hospital! We were a little confused, but some nurses came out and explained they were happy to rent us a room for the night, amazing news! They took us in and gave us some hot soup, the old Soviet hospital was extremely old fashioned and to be honest was a little creepy but that place saved us. We’ll never forget the kindness those nurses showed us that night, when we needed it most.
The Vitim Bridge
We reach the Vitim Bridge on the third day, even though we knew it was coming nothing prepared us for turning that corner and seeing the bridge for the first time, ahh!
Originally built to be part of the Baikal–Amur Mainline railway, the bridge is clad with rotting wooden planks, random broken metal plates and nails. It’s around 570 meters long and about 16 metres above the water. Only being about 2.4 metres wide and with no guard rails, riding that thing was terrifying and I still get heart palpitations thinking about it!
I took my time going over the bridge, deciding to sit on the bike and ride it over but slowly. People get over the bridge in different ways, for me pushing the bike while walking next to it was more unstable. I feel more in control of the bike when actually on it, so I just took it easy. My heart was racing, there was only a narrow space for my wheel and if I went either way there were no barriers so it would be straight off and into the river, but we made it across. The sense of achievement was massive! The bridge has huge gaps in the rotting wood, slippy metal plates and random nails sticking upwards. To add insult to injury someone has also now stapled a large black plastic pipe down the entire centreline of the bridge meaning you must ride close to the edge. Now I think of it, the whole thing was pretty ridiculous but incredible at the same time.
After 6 days riding the BAM we reached Tynda and went to the first hotel. The receptionist looked at us like we were aliens, covered in thick mud and soaked through. We apologised for how dirty we were and had to mostly undress at the door, but she let us in.
Once getting to Tydna we were back on a main road, we couldn’t quite work out how we were feeling. So relieved that we didn’t have to drag the bikes through rivers that day, but also depressed the BAM adventure was over. We’ll definitely be seeing the BAM again one day very soon though and completing the other half when we have more time and money. If everyone is thinking about tackling it let me know, I’ll give all the information I can!