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Feature Story November 13, 2002
 
Way East of Tynda: 116 Hours in A Small Room
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 9
 
Tynda was largely ignored till '74, when Brezhnev announced that the reviving the BAM was vital to the USSR. His PR people labeled the scheme the "Construction Project of the Century." In typically triumphant Soviet style, the BAM was to be the biggest, longest, mostest railroad around. Over 3500 km of tracks were laid, and hundreds of bridges constructed through the taiga. It was the last truly ambitious, logic-defying project undertaken before Gorbachev seized power and burst the bubble.

From '74 to '84, workers hacked cities out of the frigid forest in winter temperatures that dipped below -50c. By the 80s, progress reports on the BAM project were regular front-page stories for all Soviet newspapers. They bragged about how over 100 ethnic groups worked on the BAM in harmony. Each station was built by a different republic in a clunky Brezhnev-version of their particular ethnic style.

The last spike was ceremonially driven in on November 7, 1984. No Western reporters were invited. The reason, it turned out, was that only one-third of the track was actually ready. BAM wasn't actually finished until 1991.

In the Brezhnev era, Tynda had over 50,000 inhabitants. But when the Soviet Union fell, so did Tynda. The high wages evaporated, resources there were looted. BAM was absorbed into local railroad networks in '96. Tynda's population is 46,000 and falling.

A street of Tynda

Choosing a home in Tynda is a matter of taste and style

Tynda, for me, represented the pinnacle of the great Soviet boisterousness, their last great caprice. If free will only exists when people are able to act against their own self-interest, the Soviets were free. I wanted to find that legacy.

But there was another reason: my life in Moscow was bound to end in disaster. The excesses had become the norm, non-stop and not that much fun. Some accident, overdose or addiction had to be lurking around the corner.

I hoped Tynda could save me.

The koupe is a familiar beast to anyone who has ever ridden a Russian train: a cramped second-class room with two bunk beds perpendicular to the rails, a table, a window and a door that slides shut. There is a bathroom on either end of the car. Those too cheap or poor to spring for the 2811.20 ruble ticket ride platskart, which manages to pack in another two beds per quad, these parallel to the track, by removing the door and shortening the beds so that even relatively short guys can't fit on a bunk.

There is no first-class to Tynda, as it would cost about as much as flying.

Even on short rides you get to know your koupe-mates fairly intimately -- but during long hauls sustaining a decent working relationship is a must. Get too drunk and say something indiscreet and you'll have to deal with the consequences for the rest of the trip. If you're stuck with an alcoholic, you'll face unsolicited homoerotic touching, heartfelt drunken ramblings about Russia's soul, unrelenting pressure to drink and the smell of stale alcohol regurgitated through his pores for five days.

The first hour or two of the ride consists of everybody putting out their feelers to get a sense of their neighbors, find out where they've come from and where they're heading. I naively thought I got lucky that they'd all be getting out before me. In fact, if your neighbors are decent, it's best if they go the distance with you. Over the course of my ride, ten people stayed in my koupe for varying lengths of time.

When we left Moscow, I had three koupe-mates. Sveta and Andrei were in their 30s and ridiculous-looking: Andrei was maybe 5'4" and Charlie-Brown round, while Sveta was several inches shorter and just as spherical. Andrei had the almost Gogol-esque blunt features and beady blue eyes of a Russian peasant, as well as intense, Hollywood-villain scarring across his forehead and right cheek. Sveta reminded me of the title character in The Good Soldier Schweik, only with Brill-o hair that gave her another couple of inches and, judging by the long black roots, had been bleached over a month ago. They were on their way to celebrate her aunt's 70th birthday.


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