Once you're out of Moscow, the scenery doesn't change much for the next few thousand kilometers. It goes from birch and pine forests to the Urals, to steppe, and finally to the taiga, which is pine again and some birch. Every day was gray and short; the only natural colors from Moscow to Tynda were white, black and dark green. The colors on the train were the vomit tinge of all Soviet hues. Mostly it was just black outside, except when the train would passed through dimly illuminated villages: leaning wooden houses collapsing in on themselves.
The Russians are right about the Urals -- they are hardly the continent-dividing mountains American schools make them out to be. We passed through them on the second night. I was foolish enough to try to get to sleep without an Imovane that night. I was awake till three a.m., watching for the fabled Urals. I didn't see anything bigger than a hill. Finally I took a half a pill and got a sound four hours' sleep.
When I woke, we were already in the steppe.
There's nothing romantic about the steppe. There hasn't been anything romantic about it since the Mongols went home. On a gray day, which seemed to be every day, it is almost possible to lose the horizon. It's nothing like the sea; it's got none of the mystery or potential energy.
The taiga, while monotonous, is at least romantic -- the largest forest in the world, remote and unprofitable enough to fend off intruding humans -- so far, at least. Unlike the steppe, the taiga curtains its emptiness. And, unlike the steppe, it does vary somewhat; rivers wind through it and acres-wide swaths of trees burnt in recent forest fires stand like toothpicks on end.
When the BAM begins -- three and a half days out of Moscow -- some decent-sized mountains appear. At about the same point, the trees lose all color and stand out thin and black against the white snow and sky. It's like the whole landscape has been swept by a forest fire.
Baikal and the craggy mountains around it are the last new landscape on the road to Tynda. But we hit Baikal on a gray day, and there was no color or scale in the landscape. The seven km tunnel just before the lake was more interesting.
The towns were just as repetitive as the landscape. Villages were always brown and muddy, with one or two people poking around. Cities were preceded by abandoned dachas, then clusters of the untreated wooden shanties.
The cities themselves varied only in length and height -- Novosibirsk stretched longer and higher than the others, but it had the same apartment blocks with tiles peeling off, scrap yards, abandoned vehicles, ice-defying sludge pools, burnt out factories and belching chimneys.
Along the BAM, every town seemed to be drawn with the same plan: a central cluster of low rise apartment buildings, a lumberyard, chastnyi sektor houses and huge sheds piled with scrap-metal near the station.
The food situation on the train was brutal. The first mistake I made, only a few hours into the trip, was complaining that the dining car wouldn't sell anything but ramen after 8pm. The problem with complaining is that somebody will try to help. When Sveta heard me complaining about the train cuisine, she handed me a hardboiled egg and a slab of gray mystery meat and bread that, by my calculations, could not have been refrigerated for at least 24 hours. I gulped it down and I learned to suffer in silence.
The next day I tried the dining car with Sergei. There was a choice of one entree: breaded fried pork. It was bad enough to keep me from coming back for the rest of my journey. It wasn't really so much the soggy pork gristle that put me off as much as the server's filthy hands.
From then on I resigned myself to food for sale at the stations; I suppose I could have stuck to a diet of prepackaged foods, but in provincial Russia anything beyond a candy bar can be tough to score. Coke was not in stock at most stations. And so, at all the long stops, I would scour the platforms looking for something palatable. Most other passengers, having brought enough boiled potatoes, bread, sausage and meats to last until the trip, but I hadn't brought anything except sleeping pills. So I had to check out what was on sale at the stations.