Bratsk - Although describing the industrial city of Bratsk as a highlight might be stretching it a bit, Bratsk is worth a stop if you like this sort of thing, especially if you want to see its massive hydroelectric dam.
On a less niche note, Bratsk also has an open-air wooden architecture museum that preserves a collection of wooden buildings moved here from neighbouring land that subsequently found itself underwater following the construction of the Bratsk Reservoir. The museum also details the way of life of the local Evenk people and has examples of their homes set up in the taiga forest surrounding the museum.
Severobaikalsk - A stop in Severobaikalsk is an absolute must for all those travelling on BAM as here you will see Lake Baikal; afterall the B in BAM does stand for Baikal. Severobaikalsk did not exist before the construction of BAM, in its location there was just forest. The whole city was built from scratch by workers from Leningrad and it is the only city on BAM to have been founded especially.
Naturally the city’s highlight is of course the majestic Lake Baikal. And what is so great here is that unlike South Baikal in Listvyanka near Irkutsk or on the island of Olkhon, in Severobaikalsk there are practically no tourists thanks to the remoteness of the city and the underdeveloped tourist infrastructure. Most of the locals are happy with this situation and want to keep this part of Baikal completely unspoiled by preventing mass tourism from taking root here. However the sheer primordial beauty of North Baikal is such a major attraction that more and more tourists will undoubtedly come, but hopefully this influx will be well managed from the start and a balance will be found to protect the magic of Baikal.
It is worth spending a few days in Severobaikalsk so you can travel to some of the surrounding areas around Baikal:
Baikalskoe - Bratsk may have a lovely open-air architectural museum but the village of Baikalskoe on the shores of Lake Baikal 40km from Severobaikalsk goes one step further. It is an inhabited fishing village with a population of just over 600 people but could easily be mistaken for such a museum.
Practically all of the buildings in the village are wooden and the whole appearance hasn’t changed much in 100 years, apart from the addition of cars and satellite dishes. And on top of all this, the tourist path running along Lake Baikal here sends the village’s picturesque levels through the roof!
Lake Frolikha - From Severobaikalsk it is definitely worth visiting Lake Frolikha. The lake is located within the Frolikha State Nature Reserve and to reach it you firstly need to get a boat across Baikal to Ayaya Bay. This bay’s name translates from the Evenk language as “very beautiful” and it is not hard to see why they called it that. From here it is a 7km trek along a path and wooden platforms through swamps and forests that are home to mosquitos, ticks and even bears. But upon seeing Frolikha you will realise that the journey was worth it as you are awarded with a stunningly beautiful lake that was formed in the Ice Age and hasn’t changed much since.
Apart from a small wooden hut for the local ranger, there is absolutely no sign of human activity, just calm water, picturesque beaches, gentle mountains and endless forests. Further down the coast of Baikal is the resort of Khakusy, which is famous for its natural hot springs.
Chara Sands - Just outside the settlement of Novaya Chara (which means New Chara) is the older settlement of Chara, and a tour here is a must for all those travelling along BAM in order to visit the unique natural sight of a desert with massive dunes in the middle of the taiga forest. It is believed the sands were deposited here, just south of the Kodar Mountains, tens of thousands of years ago by glaciers, which then melted creating a giant lake. The lake then dissipated exposing the sandy bed and the taiga forest grew around it. The wind continues to form the dunes here, which shift position and make new shapes. All in all it is an unusual and magical place!
Tynda - Before BAM came into existence Tynda was a tiny settlement established following the discovery in the early 20th century of gold deposits nearby. With the restart of the BAM project, it was hoped that Tynda would become essentially the capital of BAM and a group from Moscow came to Tynda to work on the project. The choice of workers from the Soviet capital for the Capital of BAM was of course symbolic. Today the dreams of becoming a major city on the BAM have not come true but it still makes an interesting stop as a piece of living history showcasing the ambitious railway project. Tynda also has the biggest museum dedicated to the BAM project and one of the most futuristic-looking railway stations, rising high above the surrounding taiga. In any case if you are planning a trip along the whole of BAM, you will need to change trains at Tynda.
Komsomolsk-on-Amur - In 1932, Stalin ordered a new city be founded on the River Amur in the Russian Far East by making use of members of the Komsomol communist youth movement; hence its name Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The city was needed as an inland port to help defend the Far East in case of an attack on the Trans-Siberian Railway cutting off Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. However the extremely harsh conditions meant that not enough Komsomol members came and the numbers had to be made up with Gulag prisoners. The new city was built on a grand scale with wide thoroughfares and oversized buildings and it was hoped that it would eventually become a major city, a "Leningrad of the East". This dream was never realised, and today the city is like a time capsule of 1930s Stalinist Empire architecture. It is located at eastern end of the Baikal-Amur Mainline and also connected via a railway to Khabarovsk and therefore the Trans-Siberian.
The Journey Itself - the main point of travelling along BAM is really the journey and the experience in itself! Unlike the Trans-Sib, BAM does not past any major or historical city, but it is the untouched nature that you can see from the train window which is the real highlight. So sit back and relax and enjoy the views. It also provides you with the perfect opportunity to completely switch off, as you won’t have internet access for large sections, and at times you will even lose mobile coverage!