I get to the synagogue early. I bring biscuits. I am out of my depth. I’m not raised religious in any way and I’ve only attended a few religious services throughout my life. Though my grandmother was Jewish I’ve only visited synagogues out of a sense of touristic curiosity. Turns out there was not much to worry about. All of the symbolic stuff went over my head, but I spent a very pleasant evening breaking bread, listening to ancient Hebrew texts and eating cake. I was told the cake was because of someone’s birthday and is not part of the regular service, but the whole thing felt more like a pleasant social get together than the dour, passive protestant christian services I had been to.
I have nothing to compare it too, but the affability of the evening might flow out the composition of the congregation. There is no Rabbi though one of the more knowledgeable members leads the group in prayer. I guess most of the older members only got back in touch with the religion of their ancestors later on in life and though Birobidzhan is officially Jewish the idea of going the a Shabbat service is not the average citizen of the city’s idea of a good Friday night. The traditional Jewish rituals feel very out of place in the Russian far east giving the get together in the tiny wooden building a cozy, coherent feeling.
The next destination is Birobidzhan. Siberia’s Israel. Sort off… it’s a long story. Few Jews remain, but officially it’s still a Jewish province in the Russian Federation, paying lip service to its political past, with street names written in Yiddish and Russian. It seems like an interesting place to visit.
I first visit the central synagogue. A new white building. As I enter I encounter an elderly man and ask him a ton of questions, how many Jews are left, how busy is the synagogue etc. etc. He initially indulges my curiosity until he grows bored of me or perhaps has enough of my crummy grasp of Russian. He uses my question whether there are other synagogues in town to shift me to another person. He phones up an English speaking acquaintance, she seems like a nice lady, we make an appointment to meet up later. Outside I run into the rabbi, a relatively young fellow, who returned to his town of birth after having lived in Israel and attending yeshiva in Brooklyn and Moscow. Brooklyn isn’t a coincidence. The place is run by the Chabad Lubavitcher organisation which actively prothelatises amongst god’s chosen people and has good relations with the Kremlin.
The next day I visit the lady on the telephone. Turns out she is involved in the city’s other synagogue. This one is entirely run by locals without outside help. Calling it the traditional synagogue would be innacurate as Birobidzhan was a secular Soviet project created for Jews who saw no use for Judaism. Still traces of an underground past linger, I get shown a Torah with the dust jacket of a physics book. Religious study disguised as science.
My new friend is very keen on showing me around, we go to a former Sovkhoz with a Jiddish name and a tiny museum and we visit the local cemetery where here husband, a one time gangster and born again Jew is intered. By sheer luck it’s Thursday and I’m invited for the Shabbat service.
The family I have been couchsurfing with drop me off a couple of dozen kilometers away from Vladivostok. Only the husband spoke English, so I had to resort to my semi-coherent grasp of Russian. Good practice seeing how meeting English speakers is rare on the road. As I struggle to speak the familiarity I felt in the past few days seems to ebb away into the barren surroundings of the Russian far east. I struggle to make myself understood explaining the Dutch view of the MH17 downing, but even less contentious topics prove tough. The road continues endlessly without any human habitation. Luckily the two men are good company. When we take a break in a small town it ‘s a strange foray into civilization and I can’t figure out why anybody would build a town in the wilderness.
After well over 700 kilometers in one day I get dropped off at a restaurant in Khabarovsk where my couchsurfing host is having dinner with friends. It’s an American themed burger joint with a breathalyzer machine in the hallway. An American restaurant, in the Russian Far East on the border with China. Somehow it makes sense. There’s money in the wilderness. My host lives on the city’s center square with a view of the city’s requisite Lenin statue. His job in the lumber business pays well.
It doesn’t take long to explore the city’s streets, laid out in a grid. The place is younger than San Fransisco. The Russian Wild East. I spent a good few minutes watching people amble along the river bank. Bundled up well. Despite it being nearly the end of April the river is still partially frozen. The city’s history museum is one of more elaborate ones I’ve visited in Russia. A good deal of effort and money has obviously gone into the place, though it focuses more on the great achievement in it’s past than on the obvious tragedy a place like Khabarovsk has known, a town with such a location can’t have been build by cheerful laborers alone.
The first thing I do when I get off the bus is buy a sim card. This being Russia it requires a bit of paperwork and a copy of my passport. The girl behind the counter looks over my answer and giggles to her collegue ‘the Netherlands, where is that?’ I may be in a country bordering on the EU I am still a long way from home. But with all the western looking people around me it’s clear that I have left China behind. I don’t think I’ve ever crossed a border that demarcated such an abrupt change. Whereas yesterday I got a sense that I was the only natural blond in town, now I don’t really stand out except for my big back pack.
I am undeniably in Russia. One of the first rides is an Spetsnatz Afghan war vet. Something that doesn’t take long to figure out, his car is decorated with military paraphernalia and the songs coming out his stereo tell tales of camaraderie and death in the Afghan mountains. He’s a friendly guy, though my positive opinion of him is doubtlessly influenced by the fact that I am finally getting a ride from someone I can talk to and whose culture I have some familiarity with.
I never really knew what there is to see in Vladivostok. Growing up on the other side of the Eurasian continent the place seemed like the end of the world to me, to experience it as a familiar place was a pleasant surprise and it made me wonder what else to expect now that I will turn around and start traveling west.
Almost every ride after Harbin is in a truck. The landscape gets bleaker, occasionally a patch of snow appears. I’m surprised to still see many farms along the highway, but cities are now few and far between. When a truck driver drops me off at the edge of a town I decide to head to the train station in search of a hotel instead of sleeping outside. As I wander through the city in the dark it looks pretty indistinguishable from any other mid sized Chinese town I’ve been in and I start to wonder how different things will look in Russia.
I’m hoping to cross the border the next day, but as I approach the border on foot I’m stopped by a young Chinese soldier. Luckily he speaks some English. I’m not allowed to walk across. Slightly dismayed but still optimistic I walk back a kilometer or two hoping to get a ride in a truck but none stop. Instead a Russian speaking Chinese guy in a van explains that there won’t be a lot more trucks today, and it’s doubtful whether they’ll let me cross in one anyway. He gives me a ride into town and I buy a bus ticket to the first city after the border the next morning.
When I cross the border the next day the Chinese guards take me to a separate room for a few questions. There’s a desk and some riot gear. I have to wait a little while before some high ranking officer enters. He wants to see my ticket. The Lonely Planet forum tells of an earlier hitchhiker who got on a bus without paying. They remember me from yesterday and are probably skeptical. Still I can’t see what business it is of theirs to know whether or not I have paid for the bus ride.
I though about hitchhiking the ferry, but honestly it just seems like to much of a hassle. I wouldn’t even know where or how to begin searching for a ship across the bay. So instead I buy a ticket and make myself popular with my fellow passengers by charging their phones. This boat once must have plowed the waves on the other side of the world, it only has European electricity sockets.
A few hours later we dock in Dalian. I notice a few buildings with in an undeniable imperial European style and a vague memory enters my mind. This used to be Port Arthur, once a reason for a few very significant incidents. I have no real reason to stick around though and I walk to a train station to get a ride to the highway. A few rides in and I notice a change. South of the ferry about half of the people giving me a ride spoke at least a bit of English. But up here almost no one does. Though I meet the occasional tech-savy person with a translating app. That’s how I manage to ask to get dropped off at a petrol station as I make my way toward Harbin.
This time it’s a quiet one, with some benches in an otherwise disused corner where I unroll my sleeping bag. It’s getting too cold to sleep outside. When I make it to Harbin the next day I see ice on the river’s edge. Barely a week ago I was making my way past palm trees in the north of Vietnam on sandals now I have to go in search of a pair of shoes to replace my worn out sneakers.
Harbin’s city government is more willing to exploit it’s colonial legacy than Qingdao. Whereas the once German city seems content to let the building speak for themselves the formerly Russian buildings are decorated with plaques detailing their age, architect and usage. The city must have seen a lot of changes. I wander the streets for two days before starting on the final stretch towards the Russian border.
Beer brought me to Qingdao. Not that I was in desperate need of alcohol. But I learned about the city through it’s most famous beer brand. The brewery was set up by an entrepreneurial German after the city became a German protectorate. The center still houses a few churches, both catholic and protestant. the governor’s mansion and a few random villas dating to the turn of the century. A few kilometers away from the center, by the beach, there’s an upscale neighborhood built in various styles which where fashionable in the 1930’s, now a popular place for weekend photo shoots. It’s undeniably still a Chinese city with new dull skyscrapers, rebuilt Confucian temples and lots of street food. I try out a few delicacies, starfish and squid and some more mysterious fare, though the outside beer taps provide a German touch.
As I head out of the city a young woman offers me a lift. She seems worried about me and feels sorry that she is only going a short distance. She offers to help me find the next ride. I try to decline but she insists, parks the car in the emergency lane and starts trying to wave down cars with the license plate of the city towards which I’m heading. As she does she plunges forward and I realize why it’s technically illegal to hitchhike on the side of the highway. I usually stand pressed to the rail. Luckily it doesn’t take long for a car to stop.
A few rides I’m dropped off at a flyover. My driver is heading straight ahead. I have to walk to the other highway. As the car stops I realize that the strong wind has blown my hitchhiking letter away. I run back in search of it, leaving behind a slightly bewildered driver. Luckily he speaks a bit of English and I have little trouble explaining to him what I’m doing. He even helps me buy a ticket for the ferry to take me across the Bohai Strait.
The cold wakes me up several times. The weather gets colder as I move north and after three nights of sleeping outside I’m pretty beat. I get stuck at a quiet gas station where nobody seems to notice me except for the police. There’s no mutually understood language but it’s clear they want me to stay put. Time passes slowly. The cops don’t seem to be doing anything. I get up and stand behind the sitting guy who seems to be in charge. I stare at the grease spot at the center of his white police hat. I have to get out of here I think to myself. But as soon as I move a few meters I get called back.
They do fix me up with a ride eventually and in the late afternoon I am sitting on top of a pile of planks stacked on the drivers seat of a small van. The driver is an old friendly man, though he seems a bit puzzled by what I’m doing. To tell the truth, I’m not sure either. I haven’t had internet access in a while, so google maps is no use. All I have is a road atlas in book form. So when the driver leaves the main road and drops me off I have no idea where I am. He points to a sentence on my hitchhiking letter ‘please do not drop me off at a bus station’. I have no clue what he’s getting at. I walk back in the direction of the highway but the next few rides stick to the small road until eventually we get to a toll port by a town. It starts to rain, a couple who speak a bit of English pick me up. They want to be helpful but just bring me to another toll port. I am lost, wet and tired. When a cop comes along and instructs a cab to take me somewhere I hardly even argue.He bring me to the train station. I think the police officer instructed him to help me buy a ticket, but I resolutly walk the other way and find a cheap hotel.
I walk out of the city the next day, construction seems to be happening everywhere and last night’s rain has turned the unpaved sidewalk into muddy pathways. But I’m rested, fed and have downloaded a map to my phone so everything seems pretty easy again. I spend the next night in a petrol station, trying to get some sleep while busloads of Chinese people stare at me.
The day after it only takes two rides to get dropped off at the edge of Qingdao. After having hitchhiked over 2500 kilometers in five days I have finally reached my destination. I walk past the toll gate and get in a random bus hoping that it goes to the city center.
Progress doesn’t come so easy the next day. I get dropped off at the toll port of some Chinese town I never heard of before and probably will never hear of again. The police is a bit surprised to see me, and insist on fixing me up with a driver. Within a quarter hour or so I am sitting in a car next to three Chinese men, in front of hundreds if not thousands of chicks cooped up in crates that are stacked on top of each other. We drive to several different places to drop of a few crates. Each time we do so three or four dead chicks are taken out of the boxes and their tiny bodies chucked off to the side.
I get out at another toll station where this time one of the workers takes it upon herself to help me. I hang out in her booth until she finds a bus for me to get into. As I make my way to the back I get chatting to a fellow passenger. Her English is flawless and I’m stunned when she tells me I’m the first foreigner she’s ever spoken to. She invites me to stay with her, but, just like the offer of the night before I feel compelled to turn it down because I don’t want to waste time getting out of the city next morning. Instead I roll my mat on the asphalt behind a police barricade.
The next day another ride is fixed for me by he police. That’s three straight days in a row some authority figure has helped me. It’s something I have no explanation for, it’s not something that happened to me in other parts of China so often, maybe it’s just a coincidence. But it’s something I feel ambivalent about. I don’t want the people giving me ride to just be obeying orders instead of offering on their own free will. But navigating through Eastern China’s dense networks of highways is tough and I’m glad to be making a bit of headway.
And as far as involuntary rides go, this one is pretty good. A bed in a sleeper bus. The TV’s are showing some Kevin Spacey movie, but I fall asleep before I figure out which one it is. Later I somehow manage to communicate to the driver that I want to be dropped off at a petrol station. It’s getting late and these are usually places with a big hall with a shop, toilets some benches and maybe even tables, excellent places to spend the night.
But this one is different. Just some pumps, not even shop. The terrain is pretty huge though and I walk towards a quiet place to sleep. People give me strange looks, I get a sense that I’m being followed. I turn up my music and keep walking but after a few dozen meters I turn around… Around half a dozen people are behind me, trying to figure out what I’m doing. I show them my hitchhiking letter and grab a pictorial dictionary to show a tent. A guy calls his sister who speaks English and as I can finally convince them that I’m just some weird tourist that doesn’t them need their help. As I find a quiet place to sleep a flashlight heads my way. I guess one of the young workers wanted to see where wound up. Usually I don’t want people knowing where I’m sleeping but for some reason China has felt super safe. Even when a truck pulls up I try to fall asleep under the din of a couple’s roaring argument I still don’t feel anything dangerous can happen.
Escaping Hanoi is surprisingly easy. Public transportation is easy to figure out and the first ride of the day doesn’t take long to show up. A couple in a small truck who also treat me to lunch. When we depart they try to give me some money, and it takes a minute or two before my refusal is accepted. I wish I spoke Vietnamese to explain them what I’m up to I must confuse a lot of people into thinking I am flat out broke. Next a van stops, it looks like public transport and I try to make it clear that I’m not going to pay but the guy grabs my bag and insists I get in. We drive a couple of kilometers before I make another attempt at explaining myself. This time he seems to understand. Still he seems a bit confused, so I offer to get out, and do so without waiting for a reply.
The border promises a respite from the confusion. It’s clear what I have to do, wait in line, show my passport, smile, get stamp and repeat the procedure at the next building with a different flag. After crossing the border communication isn’t so much of a problem anymore. I still have my hitchhiking letter explaining what I’m doing in Chinese. But for whatever reason things seem to go much smoother anyway. I don’t even have to stick out my thumb before I’m offered the first ride. Those guys don’t speak any English but the second guy does, or at least I initially think he does. His accent is impeccable but he tells me that his way of learning focused on pronunciation rather than vocabulary. We still managed to talk and mime our way through a conversation. In the end he invites me to his family’s home for the night, but I want to make my way up north as quickly as possible. He leaves me with two bags of spicy beef jerky and I take off in search for a place to sleep close to the highway’s off ramp.