The Simple Life at the End of a Rail Line in Russia


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Photos by: Maxim Zmeyev

The Line Literally Stops Here

For many Russians living in remote communities, life couldn’t exist without the railroad. In the small village of Kalach in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, only a dozen or so residents call the forested town home, and their numbers are dwindling. Kalach is the terminus of the local narrow-gauge railway — the line literally stops there. The town used to house several hundred citizens, mostly in the forestry trade, at its peak during the height of the Soviet Union’s power. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, with it tumbled the country’s economy. Now, life there is slow and uneventful as the village has become self-sustaining — trains only come a few times a week for supplies. Reuters photographer Maxim Zmeyev, who captured how life continues in this minute village nestled in the thick forests of the Urals.

Kalach is at the end of a roughly 180-mile-long railway extension built-in 1898 to transport lumber from the region’s dense forests. The train line — an extension added onto Russia’s larger rail network — begins in Alapayevsk, the nearest large city. Here, the engine driver’s assistant walks past Soviet-era engines at the depot.This is the office of the railroad depot. Nina Vysotina has worked for the railroad for 42 years. The train is the only means of regular transportation for the several villages along the line, carrying supplies and passengers to and from several times per week.A major stop for the people of Kalach is the town of Sankin, home to about 600 people. Their mail is delivered here, as well as their monthly state pensions. Sankin is tiny, but compared to the size of Kalach, it’s practically a metropolis.

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No Central Water Supply, Just Buckets

In the small village of Sankin, water is drawn from wells — no central supply, just buckets. Sankin’s House of Culture, the local meeting place for residents, is heated by a ramshackle boiler next door. Inside, villagers Elena, Olga, Galina, and Tatiana drink and eat in warmth. Many of the villagers cannot afford cars, so the trains are their only way to get around. Tickets cost between $0.10 and $0.50. While the engines are fitted with plows, snow is often a problem on the tracks. A few rely on rail push cars. A man nicknamed “Barcelona,” Alexey Bolotov, and Alexey Jakushin often drink vodka as they travel to Kalach by motorized push car.

Russian railroads through out Russia employ nearly a million workers. Conductor – Alexander Kuznetsov often drives this route. Working on the railroad is a family tradition for Kuznetsov. His father and grandfather were also railwaymen. The train cars are heated by wood-fired stoves, often stoked by the passengers. Most of the villages along the railway line do not have schools, so students must travel by train to attend nearby facilities. Most students’ rides take around 40 minutes — enough time to study for a test ….. or skip studying and sleep.

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A Simple and Happy Existence in the Urals

The village of Kalach sits in a scrubby clearing in the middle of the dense forest. In winter, the scene is desolate and harsh. Because train travel is infrequent — only a few times a week — and road travel nearly impossible, the village has learned to become self-sustaining. A villager named Alexander can be seen fertilizing his soil with ash in his greenhouse. Most vegetables can be grown here, and the village has a scattering of sheep. A handful of goats call Kalach home as well. Many of the houses in Kalach are abandoned, empty since the village’s heyday in the 1980s. One of the villagers,Vassa is 86 and suffers from hearing difficulties. Her home, like all in Kalach, only receives electricity for a few hours each night. Her son Sergei, 62, often plays accordion for Vassa to pass the time. There are no telephones here either, and no mobile-phone signal at all. Another villager, Alexander poses with his gun in his small Kalach home. He is one of 12 residents left in this tiny outpost at the end of the rail line. But for all the isolation and harshness of winter, life continues in these villages — a simple and happy existence in the Urals.

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