The last stop on a journey through Russia
At the railway station in Ulan Ude, before every announcement, they play the first eight notes of “We wish you a merry Christmas.” Quite peculiar, especially since this is late May! The city itself is definitely worth a stop, if for nothing else than to see the absolutely surreal world’s biggest Lenin’s head.
Once again, there are scores of the wooden houses with blue trim and a downtown which is being restored slowly, but surely. We feel quite comfortable here and are preparing ourselves for the next train ride, which is the longest of the trip: a whopping 52 hours, with two nights on the train. This time there are the four of us; chess, reading, eating, drinking and sleeping make the time go relatively fast and we arrive in the city of Khabarovsk in the early evening.
This is an elegant city, no other word for it, with nice wide boulevards, parks and beautiful churches located right on the Amur River. When speaking with some of the local population we are proudly informed that their city has been voted the greenest and cleanest in Russia and it shows. It really is quite delightful. The interesting thing is that the only reason we stop here is because we think that 53 hours on the train is enough and it is another 12 hours to Vladivostok. We need to get out. The weather is absolutely great and we see scores of people strolling along the boulevards, eating ice cream and having refreshments at sidewalk cafes. There are some magnificent new churches and the whole city gives the impression of a quiet affluence. We relax and sightsee and sit in sidewalk cafes ourselves and talk with people and have a great time.
And now for our last stop in Russia, our goal … the Pacific Ocean and Vladivostok. Unfortunately it’s raining when we arrive, but we are determined to see some of the sights. During the Soviet era, this city was closed off to all foreigners – and even to most Soviets – because it was the home of the Soviet Pacific fleet. We stroll around town in the rain, visit a couple of art galleries and museums and wait for the weather to clear. The next day, in the sunshine, we charter a fishing boat (we are way out of season) and go around Vladivostok Harbor and the Pacific for a couple of hours. We also visit a war museum, which is a private enterprise run by a couple of women who cleaned the place up (it is a couple of old bunkers) and installed all the Worl War II equipment. Peter has been traveling with his father’s dog tag (soldier’s identification plate which hangs around the neck), which dates from that era and he decides to donate it to the museum. Now a delightful pantomime develops because the owner of the museum does not speak English and Peter doesn’t speak Russian. In the end it is all understood. The lady points at Peter and says “you pappi (then at herself) and my pappi … boom boom. You and me (pointing at Peter)… hug.” And she hugs Peter. This was quite a moving moment, I must admit. We now prepare to go into China to a place called SuiFenHe, the border. We go there by bus and then that late that evening we take the overnight to Harbin, a city of around nine million people. See you next week.