We got off the train in Birobidzhan just after noon. The heat was suffocating – a surprise after the comparatively cool air on the train where we had spent the last 54 hours. The small station only warranted a stop of a minute or five, so we didn’t have time for the long goodbyes possible at the big stations where getting on and off could be done during a 20-30-minute window. With a quick wave, photo and hug, we said bye to Asja, Arman, Peter and the others. It had been a good trip, but a long one, and we were happy to breathe some fresh air, even if it was well above 30 degrees and stuffy.
We stopped in Birobidzhan, just three hours short of our actual goal Khabarovsk, to take a quick look at the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Established in the late ’20s and early ’30s, “Stalin’s Zion” was supposed to become a utopia for Jews shifting from retail to the more “appropriate” agriculture. The town and area first grew rapidly, but the experiment failed and Stalin’s purges later in the ’30s prompted many to leave again.
Everyone on the train had wondered why Birobidzhan. After six hours in the town, we understood their reactions. We thought the history of the place sounded interesting – and it is – but buildings, bilingual signs and statues won’t mean much if you don’t get to speak to anyone about the context. A friend or guide would have been useful.
If Birobidzhan felt empty and quiet, Khabarovsk was lively and large, but then the city has about half a million inhabitants, versus some 75,000 in its smaller neighbour. It’s like comparing Helsinki and Joensuu. Christophe says it’s like comparing Antwerp to… Wait, there’s no comparing Antwerp to anything.
Khabarovsk feels a bit continental with its colourful buildings and broad, tree-lined boulevards, but also very Russian, where it sits along the broad Amur river, trees and factory chimneys visible in the distance.
We stayed there five days, a lot longer than we had planned as we had cut our Mongolian holiday short. Great, actually, since we needed to get lots and lots of details sorted for Japan (which is very complicated to travel in if you want to stay for a long time without using all your savings). And as our time in Russia was coming to an end, we were lucky to scratch a few more stereotypes off our list.
We did a bit of sightseeing, but Khabarovsk won’t top our list of must-visits in Russia.
What we did notice, however, was how important the military is in Khabarovsk. The town has a military commanders training academy and the soldiers were very visible.
Finally, a little reminder of home. Look at that, Nykarleby’s hockey hero has his name on the bus!