A Nothingness Journey
Three friends on an absurd journey through the Siberian taiga aboard the Baikal–Amur Mainline
As a small boy with a curiosity for the world, Jelle Brandt Corstius spent countless hours daydreaming over his illustrated atlas. The map of Siberia, with its empty expanses and magical sounding villages, enchanted him. Did the people in Novy Urgal feel lonely, so far from the rest of the world? At the time, the Soviets were building an ambitious railway through the Siberian wilderness: the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). Thirty years later, Jelle realises his childhood dream, in a very different Russia.
At over 4,000 km long and running 700 km to the north of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the BAM was a Soviet-era project built on top of the frozen bones of gulag prisoners. After the USSR collapsed, the settlements along the line turned into ghost cities and towns as their residents streamed to warmer destinations. Today there is not a single train that connects Moscow to Amur.
Thirty years after promising himself to ride the BAM to the end of the line, one day, Jelle finally finds two friends willing to join him: castle-residing artist and charmer Aldo, and graphic designer and stoic Fabian. Together they form a comic team, united by their love of the Russian poetry of Boris Ryzji. They vaguely intend to make an ambitious art project from the trip and surprisingly even receive sponsoring from Fjällräven.
The thermometer reads -50°C. The train thunders through the endless taiga and crosses one time zone after the next. One dislocated shoulder, a stinking doghair suit, and many, many potato sandwiches later, they will reach the frozen Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the three travellers step out in desolate mining villages, meet militant taxi drivers, corrupt officials, Putin-lovers and -haters, and talk politics in a country straining under international sanctions. Where neither country trusts the others’ new sources, Jelle offers us a look into the real daily lives of young and old people living in Siberia.
Jotting everything down with a dry humour and a catchy style, Jelle carries us on a nostalgic journey that is as entertaining as it is bizarre. Jelle takes it all in stride — in Russia, he has no choice: ‘I’ve learned to just accept this kind of illogic, otherwise you’re bound to suffer a heart attack sooner or later. The only thing you can be sure of is that nothing will come of your expectations. But something else will replace them, and that can be beautiful. There are no givens, but everything is possible.’