Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The last 3000km: Pacific Ocean or bust!

After an extended, two-week stay in Chita, on Friday, October 17th, the time finally came for me to leave the Transbaikal region behind, hop on a Russian train once more, and head for the coast to try and catch up with the mini (which, incidentally, was arriving in Vladivostok that very same Friday). Well, it was almost time to leave anyway, not before making a quick detour by Chia's WWII Memorial:

My train was set to leave shortly after 6 in the morning, so instead of, say, sleeping that night, we spent a few quality hours at a banya (Russian sauna) in Chita:

The train ride on the Trans-Siberian line East of Lake Baikal is certainly a chance to be fully immersed in the rather desolate Russian taiga. There's not a whole lot to see out the window, and while heading West from Baikal, you can just about count on running into a few other foreigners making the Trans-Siberian trip between Moscow and Beijing, hardly any of them choose to continue through Russia to Vladivostok instead of detouring into Mongolia towards China. In a word, I didn't have a whole lot to do. I chatted a bit with the other two guys in my cabin, tried a Russian sudoku book, and learned as much as Lonely Planet could possibly teach me about the history and culture of Japan and Belarus. I learned, for instance, that Belarus has expressed interest in re-merging with Russia - Lonely Planet is way ahead of the curve here by having already combined the two countries in a single book... I suppose, the Lonely Planet Belarus wasn't a hot selling commodity. And after a little over 30 hours of this, we rolled into Blagoveshensk, the skies having turned ominously dark and now pelting the train with droplets of rain. I'd decided ahead of time that I didn't want to sit on the train for 72 straigh hours to Vladivostok, but would instead make stops all along the way. Blagoveshensk was the first stop.

Blagoveshensk isn't what I would call a particularly attractive town. It's primarily color is the ubiquitous Soviet gray (accented by the rain the first evening, but still there the following [semi-sunny] day). The city hugs the Amur river, which also serves as a border with China, so out the windows of my river-side hotel, I could see China. In the lobby of my river-side hotel, I could see plenty of Chinese tourists, who, as far as I could tell, had come across the border simply to gamble. Blagoveshensk isn't Las Vegas, mind you, but it does have its fair share of slot machines and other assorted gambling enterprises. Wondering briefly through the little casino in my hotel turned up noone but the Chinese tourists there; the Russianas clearly prefer to simply sink their money into vodka - seemingly quite willing to drink themselves into oblivion without proper motivation, such as having lost all your money gambling... Blagoveshensk is probably sounding rather unimpessive right about now, but all in all, it was a pleasant enough break from the train ride, so absolutely no regrets having stopped there. And there's even a few sights from the city seemingly worthy of a photograph:

An Arc de Triomphe...

Things I found strange and/or ironic about this monument:
- It doesn't really look like most arches of this sort scattered around the world. Certainly nothing like the ones in Paris and Moscow that I can picture relatively easily. Instead, it looks a lot like the one in Vientiante, Laos...
- it's commemorating the treaty that gave control of the Amur region to Russia. Yet the caption on it states that the Amur region "is, has always been, and will forever remain Russian." Can't argue with the present of the future, but if we're building an Arc celebrating Russia's acquisition of the region, wouldn't that suggest that it hasn't always been Russian?
- Finally, I simply enjoyed that this symbol clearly celebrating Russia is lit up at night... by a pair of flood lights made by a Chinese company... both lights still proudly declaring their company of origin...

Speaking of China, this monument celebrates friendship between Russia and China... Sure, why not, I hear Russia just handed over some useless islands in the Amur back to China. The locals by the way, aren't paritcularly pleased by this sudden generosity...

This, I think, is Blagoveshensk's drama theater... or a welcome facility for aliens from outer space, it's a little hard to tell, really... It's not like I was actually inclined to try and see a play while here.

Clearly a day was enough for the Blagoveshensk metropolis, so the next evening, I was right back on a train, heading for the next stop East: Birobidzhan. The ride this time was just one night and this time it was punctuated by some excellent, and very Russian characters I met on the train. First there was this guy:

A retired colonel, Russian airborne infantry, tracing a few military generations back to Cossacks that had first established the towns that I was now riding through in the Russian Far East. He, being properly Russian, naturally, came on board the train equipped with salo (sort of a Russian delicacy - you'll have to look it up... at which point, you'll probably find it disgusting, but you'll be wrong), salami, home made mustard, some boiled eggs, and, of course, vodka (re-packaged in inconspicous plastic water bottles), so a feast was had! Another guy in my cabin was an arts (ceramics primarily) teacher from Khabarovsk - we debated philosophy and meta-physics for a while (see, you don't just drink vodka on Russian trains!). discussing whether or not it would ever be possible for us to create a computer or a robot that posessed a human-like consciousness and was thus effectively self-aware... We didn't really reach a conclusion - after all what would philosophy be with conclusions!? The other two guys I met just spent a lot of time being drunk (but were, of course, quite fascinated by how they could make it to America). One made off with the other's brand new, 3500 Ruble shoes when getting off at his stop in the middle of the night. Nobody knows if it was just a drunken mistake or theft. Considering that he'd left us his name, phone number, and address the prior evening and was rather drunk when I last saw him, it could easily be a mistake... then again they were brand new 3500 Ruble (~$140) shoes...

And then, we arrived in Birobidzhan:

Birobidzhan is the capital of the Jewish autonomous area, established by the Soviet Union back in the 1930's, well before Israel came into existence. Considering that Russia and the Soviet Union have traditionally been rather anti-semitic, I found this little region with signs in both Russian and Yiddish and a large menorah sitting outside the train station to be not only surprising, but almost paradoxical:

At its peak, the region had apparently boasted a Jewish population of over 40,000. Now that figure is down to less than 5,000 (I'm quoting the Lonely Planet here, so assume a large margin of error...), and thus the brand new synagogue and Jewish Cultural Center:

is paired with an even larger, brand new Russian Orthodox church just down the street:

After Birobidzhan, it was off to Khabarovsk, a downright metropolitan city with a population of over 600,000 and a healthy flow of tourists from China and Japan (driving up hotel prices as far as I can tell). In fact, my first surprising observation of the city was the site of tourists, taking pictures. The last time I'd seen tourists was in Ulaan Baatar almost a month ago! Chita, Ulan Ude, and Chernyshevsk may have some attractions (who can forget Chita's giant green pipe or the equally giant floating Lenin head of Ulan Ude... Chernyshevsk is pretty forgettable), but they don't seem to attract any tourists. Whether the Chinese gamblers had actually bothered to even bring cameras across the river to Blagoveshensk or not, I'm going to choose to not count them as real tourists.

Khabarovsk is fascinating in the way that it manages to juxtapose imposing Soviet relics with clear signs of the new age of a freer, more Capitalist Russia. Here, you'll find beautiful tree-lined boulevards, a scenic river front, a couple of shiny, newly rebuilt churches, a bunch of museums, and some excellent (albeit very expensive) sushi (which the Russians choose to call susi for some reason):

A tree lined boulevard and a small lake in the heart of Khabarovsk

The Amur waterfront

A newly rebuilt church stands proudly against the brilliant blue skies

The Church of Transfiguration, hiding behind the monolithic Khabarovsk WWII Memorial

And finally, I'm now at the last stop: Vladivostok, where I arrived early this morning. Sadly, it's been gloomy and gray all day here and I've spent most of my day talking to shipping agencies about getting my car to Japan, so no pictures just yet, but not to fear - more on Vladivostok to come! Looks like I'll be here at least 4-5 days...

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