I don’t have any trouble finding rides in Russia. My way west feels like I’m just effortlessly bobbing along a current. I was prepared for a bit of xenophobia to come my way, seeing as I’m from a degenerate Western European country, but nobody gives me grief because of my passport. And when one of the Azerbaijani guys sitting in front of me in a sedan asks if I have ever gotten into any trouble with the police it serves as another reminder of how easy things have been. I answer that, no, I can pass for Russian so they leave me alone. What about his own experiences, I ask, and he begins to detail all the ways in which the police have made life difficult for him.
Omsk is not exactly Russia’s hottest tourist destination, but by the grim standards of Siberia it’s a fairly pretty city. I spend two days walking around town and see a few interesting things: a memorial to Stalin’s victims outside of what is still the secret police headquarters, a pretty decent regional museum, a couple of nice buildings and an underground station for a metro which was started in the early 90s but of which the opening date keeps getting pushed back.
Luckily my couchsurfing hosts are good people: the guy is from the Netherlands and I contacted him a year ago to get some advice about hitchhiking in Kazakhstan. It was a nice surprise to come across his profile when I was searching for hosts in Omsk. Together with some friends we kill a few hours eating shashlik, drinking beers and hanging out by the riverside. It’s a good reminder that the most interesting thing about cities tends to be the people living in them.
My next destination is over fifteen hundred kilometers away, yet somehow that doesn’t seem like such a long way. I have gotten used to sleeping in truck cabs and spending hours watching the Siberian landscape roll past. The monotony interspersed with the occasional bursts of conversation, but those seem only like brief interjections as we drive down the seemingly endless stretch of asphalt.
I’m on my way to a a young family who, though city born and well educated, have left urban life behind them and bought a house in a small village about one hundred kilometers south of Novosibirsk. The stay is a bit of a surreal experience especially because the husband is almost constantly stoned, but I manage to help out a bit around the house and take a closer look at the type of place I usually roll through in a few minutes.
We spend an evening hanging out with the only other family around who have swapped city life for clean air and snowed-in winters. As the farmers walk past with their cows I wonder if I’m any more of an outsider than my hosts are. I leave the next morning, I have close to 800 kilometers to cover.
Russia is huge and my time is limited, but I decide to take a little detour of just under two thousand kilometers to Tuva. Coming from Irkutsk in slow-moving trucks it takes me a day to reach Krasnoyarsk. It’s not exactly the place I would expect an Egypt-inspired museum building or an Indian restaurant. I briefly escape into an exotic other world before making my way to the road leading south.
Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, has a very distinct character. A railroad connection to the rest of Russia has been promised for years, but at the moment the only way to reach town is by airport or by the long road over the mountains and through hours of nothing but fields. I don’t see many ethnic Russians (most of them left after race riots in the early nineties) so it almost feels like I might be in another country.
The people are obviously proud of their singular history: many buildings in town serve to show off Tuva’s culture and it’s supposed geographic location at the center of Asia. Historically, many of it’s residents were nomadic and animists which means I ought to head out into the countryside, but time won’t allow it. I have to head on.
The guy giving me a ride to Irkutsk acts more like a tour guide than just somebody who happens to be going the same way a hitchhiker. That’s fantastic because we are passing one of Russia’s most beautiful spots: Lake Baikal. We stop at several points so I can take some pictures and eat the famed Omul fish, unique to the lake. Perhaps he’s feeling a bit like a tourist too, since he’s here visiting some friends. He actually lives close to the Arctic Circle, so I guess the edges of ice around the lake this early May are just a joke to him. To me however they give a sense of Siberia’s intimidatingly wild beauty.
I arrive In Irkutsk in time to attend the ninth of May commemoration, Victory Day, Russia’s most extravagant holiday, which means I really should have gotten to the main square earlier. In spite of my best squeezing and gentle prodding efforts, all can see is a mass of people in front of me as the military hardware rolls by. I get a better glimpse of the civilian parade which follows the military one, which it seems people are less keen on sticking around for. Still it’s busy and it seems that today that the entire city revolves around the commemoration of the end of the Second World War. No matter where I go in the center I see people dressed up for the occasion.
Irkutsk feels different to the other cities I’ve recently visited. Maybe it’s true what people have said to me that because of it’s function in czarist times as a conveniently far away location to exile troublesome opponents to the city has a more intellectual feel to it. Or maybe things just feels more pleasant because the weather is getting better.
As spring is starting I make my way west through Siberia. Things are getting greener as the landscape changes from rocky slopes and barren birch trees to undulating steppes and green valleys, which gives me an extra hopeful feeling. Many times during the ride I feel compelled to express my sheer amazement at the beauty of the landscape to the person giving me a ride.
There isn’t a whole lot to see in Ulan Ude, except for maybe Lenin’s giant head, which when I pass by is serving as the backdrop for a practice run of the ninth of May Victory Day parade. I meet a few interesting people though, including an opera singer who takes me on a tour through the Opera House and points out the depiction of Stalin nobody ever bothered removing. And in the hostel I meet a well-educated Buryat couple, who regretfully tell me they don’t speak the language of their ancestors. Maybe it’s a class thing, because the construction worker who gave me a ride into town does speak Buryat with his family, as does the guy who gives me a ride out of town in his beat-up car.
Outside the city stands a giant Buddhist temple complex. The few kilometers I need to walk through windswept farm fields to get there after getting off the bus gives it an extra feeling of ascetic isolation. It’s part tourist attraction, part center of worship and scholarship. And it’s entirely not what I was expecting to find here.
Cities are few and far between in this part of the world. It takes a long time to get to the next one. It takes even longer when your ride breaks down. It’s evening when I get a ride in a Toyota Corolla. After half an hour or so we get a flat tire. That’s easily fixed, but not long after there’s engine trouble. We are in the middle of nowhere – the last gas station we passed must have been something like 100 kilometers ago. So we have to spend the night in the car before we can go on. In the morning the driver leaves on foot and tells me to wait. He doesn’t get back until nightfall. Luckily I am still working my way through a long novel.
I spend one more night in the car and start hitching again the next morning. The landscape is rocky and it briefly starts snowing when a truck stops for me. We are on the edge of what the Russians call the Far East and by the next ride I am in Siberia. I get a ride from a teenager in an old Lada. I am just about the compliment him on the speed of the old car when he asks me if I want to see his scars. He got them last month after a motorcycle accident. I am glad to road is quiet and straight.
I arrive in Chita on the first of May, Labour Day. It used to be a big deal in the Soviet Union and is still celebrated by many in Russia, but I could not see signs of a celebration when I enter the city as the sun begins to set. I couldn’t find a couchsurfing host, so I stay in a hostel without any other guests. It’s a pretty city with a good museum on the Decembrists, the exiled officers who plotted to replace the czar and introduce a constitutional form of government to Russia.
The road continues through a bleak landscape. Spring has not started yet and the countryside is grey and brown. The dilapidated villages on the roadside don’t add much color. We stop for lunch at the house of the mother of a guy who gives me a ride. As we drive several hundred meters to get back to the main road the guy lists all the facilities that have disappeared in his village after the fall of the Soviet Union: there used to be a park over here, this used to be a hospital, they closed down the school…
The truck drivers who bring me to Blagoveshchensk have a strange sense of humor: they insist that I pose for a picture with a dead duck and the rifle they shot the bird with yesterday. They’re nice guys though. When we get to the factory gate one of them switches the truck for his Zhiguli and drops me off at my couchsurfing host’s apartment building.
The family I stay with prove to be somewhat of an anomaly in the image of the Russian Far East that is being formed in my mind. After dinner we sit together to watch the movie Clue and The IT Crowd. We go for a bike ride around town. At the river’s edge we look across to the Chinese city of Heihe. The mother of the family tells me later that when she was young the place was just a village. But now bright lights illuminate tall buildings at night while Blagoveshchensk has barely changed.
I leave town late, so I don’t get very far. By the evening I’ve managed to cover around 130 kilometers. I stick out my thumb as the sun sets. I am being watched. A guy in his early twenties comes over and talks to me and invites me to come to the truckers’ camp 100 meters up the road. I drop in, get offered some tea and a place to spent the night, but the prospect of sleeping amongst half a dozen or so men doesn’t sound very appealing, and when the guy who invited me offers to share his bed I know it’s time to leave. I thank them, but say I’d rather sleep alone. I walk a few hundred meters and find a place to sleep without turning on my flashlight.
I get to the synagogue early. I bring biscuits. I am out of my depth. I wasn’t raised religiously in any way and I’ve only attended a few religious services throughout my life. Though my grandmother was Jewish I’ve only ever really 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 before.
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 to 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 gathering in the tiny wooden building a cozy, coherent feeling.
My 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 of 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 the synagogue is 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 as to 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 place of birth after having lived in Israel and attended yeshiva in Brooklyn and Moscow. Brooklyn isn’t a coincidence. The synagogue is run by the Chabad Lubavitch organisation which actively proselytizes amongst god’s chosen people and has good relations with the Kremlin.
The next day I visit the lady on the telephone. It turns out she is involved with the city’s other synagogue. This one is entirely run by locals without outside help. Calling it the traditional synagogue would be inaccurate as Birobidzhan was a secular Soviet project created for Jews who saw no use for Judaism. Still traces of an underground past linger: I am shown a Torah with the dust jacket of a physics book, religious study disguised as science.
My new friend is very keen to show me around: we go to a former Sovkhoz with a Jiddish name and a tiny museum, and we visit the local cemetery where her husband, a one-time gangster and born again Jew, is interred. 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 outside Vladivostok. Only the husband speaks English, so I have to resort to my semi-coherent grasp of Russian. It’s good practice seeing how meeting English speakers is rare on the road. As I struggle to speak, the familiarity I felt to this region the previous day 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 covering 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 central square with a view of the requisite Lenin statue. His job in the lumber business pays well.
It doesn’t take long to explore the city’s streets, which are laid out in a grid. The place is younger than San Francisco – the Russian Wild East. I spend a good few minutes watching people amble along the riverbank, 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 city’s great achievements than on the obvious tragedies a place like Khabarovsk must have known: a town with such a location can’t have been built by cheerful laborers alone.