Jun. 13, 2016: Belgorodskoye, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia


When checking into the hotel in Khabarovsk, I asked about the restaurant. It was already well after 11PM and I still had a much-needed shower to take, etc; so how late was it open?

2:00, came the answer, which seemed good to me. So I went upstairs, got cleaned up, came back down and headed to the restaurant to find a karaoke party in full swing and a "closed for private function" sign on the door. Couldn't you have mentioned that to me earlier...?

Went back to the reception and asked, was told that well, I could still get room service until 2.

Yeah... no. Not in a country with so many 24h options. So I wandered out into the midnight evening to see what there was.

The Kabarovsk city center encompasses two main parallel streets, Ул. Ленина (Lenin St.) and Ул. Карла Маркса (Karl Marx St.), separated by a big park and river valley, both running away from the water up to the railway line, about 3km away. My hotel was at the top end of the former, right beside a couple of big shopping malls. I had seen a bit of the top end of Ул. Ленина when biking in, so knew there were a bunch of restaurants and streetside kiosks and the like.

I came across a cluster of kiosks pretty much immediately. One in particular had a cluster of people buying stuff, so I figured that was as good a sign as any that it was probably decent, and went up to get something. Like my lunch stop, this one had shawarmas (which is what many of the people seemed to be getting) and also... cheezurmas? Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Sure, why not. I grabbed one of them. Decent enough, but they're pretty big, and after the shawarma I already had at lunch, I realized my daily tolerance for them was probably somewhere around one. Also: need to figure out how to ask them to hold the ketchup. If that's what it is.

Maybe partly the relief at making it to Khabarovsk, some nervous energy, but I didn't feel quite ready to return to the hotel. Also, I wanted to scope out what there was in terms of shopping options. So instead I set off on a late night mini-sightseeing tour, heading down Ул. Ленина towards the water.

In the end I made it all the way to the end of the street, crossed over to Ул. Карла Маркса and came all the way back up. The rain started again about ⅓ the way through this adventure, so by the time I made it back, it was quite late and I was once again soaked. Added to the shopping list: an... umbrella? For evenings when I'm not on the bike.

However I didn't see much in the way of general shopping that looked particularly more useful than the malls near the hotel. I would have to make a list of bike shops while referencing the internet. And in the meantime, it was already well past 3AM, so no time for blogging (despite my original intention); instead I just went straight to bed. I could figure all this out the following day.

Yesterday, Sunday, turned out (once I got online) to also be Wikipedia Russia Day.

Um, right. This... was not a thing I had counted on. What would that mean for store hours?

I made a short list of bike shops in Khabarovsk that seemed to at least be open on Sunday (notwithstanding any Russia Day shenanigans), that were a reasonable distance away, and that had at least one or two decent reviews online.

Two were fairly close to downtown, one was a little bit farther away, and the last two were some distance (10km), but right across the street from one another, and also right on a tram line, which I decided I could probably figure out how to use if it came to it.

But first: to the shopping mall across the street to get more general-purpose supplies: a towel, an umbrella, some sunscreen, some scissors, maybe a monkey wrench...

The shopping mall held a Самбери, which I'd seen a few times already, and turned out to be a Superstore-like hypermarket. Perfect, in other words, for what I was looking for. Back to the hotel to drop stuff off, then wielding the umbrella, back out into the continuing rain to find a bike shop.

The first stop on my short list was disappointing. It was open enough (both Sunday and Russia Day turned out to be complete non-issues; such a change from Argentina where everything is closed on the weekend!) but not really what I was looking for. It was more a general sports store, and despite a large-ish bike section, their selection was definitely more geared to the casual rider, not the high-end stuff. I could get tubes and the like, but I didn't trust the look of their no-name (or at least: unrecognizable-to-me branded) parts.

A little ways away was a place marked on my map as Google Bike Police - when I arrived it instead had a sign Фабрика Спорта. But definitely this was the place! Bikes and bike parts everywhere. And just inside the door, a display with a couple of road bikes that made me swoon. Much nicer than what was available in Vladivostok.

Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are very similar in size - almost exactly the same, in fact. About 700,000 people, slightly smaller than Winnipeg. But they have very different characters. The latter definitely feels way "bigger" - more urban, seems to have a wider availability of goods. (Vladivostok is still the prettier city, though. )

This I suspect to have a lot to do with Vladivostok's status as a Closed City during Soviet times, and until not all that long ago. For many years, foreigners were not allowed into Vladivostok, and so the "business" and investment capital of the far east was Khabarovsk. For foreign tourists wanting to take the Trans-Siberian railroad, this was the end of the line. So this is where all the hotels and amenities sprang up.

Vladivostok is growing as a destination, but that's been a much more recent phenomenon, and in the meantime, Khabarovsk has a longer tradition of goods availability.

So anyway, Фабрика Спорта looked better-stocked than most of what I saw in Vladivostok. I wandered in and was perusing the shelves, looking at the various parts they had for sale, when I was approached by one of the guys working there. I briefly explained my situation, and he asked if I wanted to bring my bike in for them to take a look at.

Sure! But I mentioned my 90-day visa, and the fact that I was on a tight schedule so wanted to leave town the following morning - I only really had that afternoon.

No problem, just bring it in.

Wow. That was pretty awesome. (Turnaround times in Calgary, at this time of year, can be upwards of a week...)

Went back to the hotel, retrieved my bike, brought it back to the store, and they looked it over. They confirmed with me that there seemed to be nothing wrong with the pedal crank (it has been just fine since Bikin) but they gave everything a good cleaning, cranked it down better than I was able to, looked the chain and everything else over just to be sure. I bought a bunch of spare parts and tools, including a spare saddle (the one that came with the bike it starting to show the slightest bit of wear in the supports - I give it about a 50% chance of making it to Irkutsk) and was back out the door in a couple of hours.

The owner(?) and two employees that were there were all excited about my trip, took a couple of photos, exchanged Instagram accounts and the like, and that was that.

Excellent service: as I said, this was the place!

I went back to the hotel, dropped my bike off, then went out for dinner. Had been half-intending to go to a restaurant, but ended up buying some pizza from yet another roadside kiosk. It was... very doughy. Not great pizza. (Admittedly, I am pretty intolerant of mediocre pizza: great pizza is great. Less-than-great pizza is bleh.) I may try Russian pizza again, but next time it will be at a proper restaurant, not from a kiosk.

By now it was surprisingly late. Night fell quickly for being so far from the tropics - perhaps it was just the cloudy and rainy sky.

On my way back to the hotel, a random slightly-belligerent drunk got in my face, demanding: "Are you from Finland?"

What was I going to say? "Yes."

Satisfied, he wandered off again without a word.

*shrug*

This morning, much as I didn't want to leave in the continuing rain, it was time.

Time to head west! And on to Europe!

Exiting Khabarovsk was relatively quick and easy. A few miles to the highway, and then onto the bridge over the Amur river.

This Wikipedia 4km-long bridge was built in 1999, replacing an older bridge built in 1916. It is featured on the ₽5000 note and is one of only a small handful of crossings of the Amur, one of Asia's major rivers, and the 10th longest in the world.

It's a pretty impressive bridge (although not "spectacular" in the way that cable-stayed or suspension bridges can be). I wanted on several occasions to take a photo, but the heavy military presence dissuaded me.

Bridges are a Big Deal (TM) here. Pretty much any bridge of a length much over 100m has a guard post, usually one at each end. And a police station in the vicinity. And CCtv cameras, the whole works. I haven't actually ever noticed a "no photography" sign, but my experience is that in parts of the world where there are restrictions on what one can photograph (Russia definitely falls into this category), major infrastructure installations are one of the first things to be banned.

So anyway. The Khabarovsk bridge has not only guard posts at either end, but also all along the bridge, every 500m or so. I passed several patrols out on tour. I was never far from somebody's watchful eye. I decided not to press my luck, and refrained from photographing: Google A Google image search can sate your curiosity.

Leaving the bridge at the far end, I was immediately out of the Khabarovsk metro area as I entered my third Federal Subject (i.e.: Province) of Russia: the Jewish Autonomous Oblast!

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, as was mentioned in a Twitter tweet from the UPenn Slavic Department, is "a curious region, indeed."

I have neither the time nor space to delve into an Wikipedia exhaustive history lesson, but briefly (and simplified):

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, or JAO, is the only (remaining) Autonomous Oblast in Russia. It was originally established in the mid-1930s by the Stalin government as a "homeland" for the Soviet Union's Jewish population. At the time it was a remote and undeveloped (but at least accessible via the Trans-Siberian Railway) territory with no real settlements or infrastructure other than the aforementioned railway. During the aftermath of WWII it was even proposed as an alternate site to Palestine as an international Jewish homeland.

Needless to say, this idea didn't fly particularly far. Nevertheless many Jews (mostly from the USSR, but a handful of foreigners as well) did migrate here, encouraged in part by the government's promise of free land to all settlers. There is no doubt that this influx did kick-start the oblast's development.

At the same time, Stalinist purges limited the number of Jews that settled in the area, and even during its height in the late 1940s postwar period, the Jewish population of the JAO was always a strict minority, albeit a sizable one.

Since that time, the Jewish population has declined to the point of almost negligibility today. However the cultural and economic heritage that this history bestowed on the JAO is considerable. So far as I can tell, the JAO holds on very tightly to its identity (far more so than I was expecting before I arrived). And artifacts of Jewish culture have permeated much of the local life, even if 99% of the population has no genetic Jewish heritage.

(More on this tomorrow, when I get to the capital, Birobidzhan.)

For now, I will note that (for various reasons) the oblast is more economically prosperous than its neighbours.

For most of today, however, I didn't notice much of that last. The road away from Khabarovsk was middling, by Russian standards. After exiting the bridge, it skirted by the town of Priamurskaya, and then plunged directly into the countryside, paralleling the railway.

The country was flat and marshy all day. A few small villages here and there, but nothing of any significance.

Indeed, as I intimated yesterday, "the training wheels are off." By Eastern Russian standards, the stretch between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk is quite densely populated, with a higher-than-average frequency of towns and settlements. I had the (fully premeditated) opportunity to use last week as a training period to help me get the lay of the land and figure out how to get by.

But now I'm past the prologue, and into the Russian Wilderness proper. The only settlement worthy of the name "city" is the aforementioned Birobidzhan (75,000), about 180km from Khabarovsk. And after that, only a few towns, large-ish at first but quickly decreasing in size, and spaced far apart. After Birobidzhan, the next city is Chita (325,000), 2150km away. The next large city is Irkutsk, 3200km away. (Hence yesterday's shopping in Khabarovsk.)

And between Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan, so far as I could figure, there would be only one actual town, Smidovich, at about the halfway point.

Leaving Khabarovsk, I checked my iPhone. It said nothing about any hotels in Smidovich. Nor did it say anything about hotels anywhere else along the route.

Having said that, even with the relatively painless exit from Khabarovsk, I didn't think Birobidzhan was quite in the cards. Close, maybe, but not quite. Also, I had already encountered several hotels along the way that the internet didn't seem to know anything about. For example, the Eldorado in Bikin. Or the Magnolia in Spassk. Or a few others. It seemed to have a bead on about 75% of them.

So I crossed my fingers and hoped that Smidovich would prove to have an "unlisted" hotel. At any rate, halfway to Birobidzhan, it seemed to be a reasonable distance. I made it my goal.

As I said, flat and marshy all day. I have clearly been following a river valley; at first I thought it was the Amur, but double checking the map, no. Some random tributary whose name isn't indicated. Either way, very wet ground. Numerous farms, but they all seemed rather waterlogged, almost as one might expect rice paddies to be.

Mosquitoes have been about as thick as one would expect given the conditions.

However, it has been mostly dry above ground level. The rain cleared up as I started across the bridge, and with the exception of a few brief squalls it was dry and partly cloudy for most of the afternoon.

I went over a very low ridge of hills about 40km from Khabarovsk. Nothing of any consequence, and I was afterward back in the marshes.

As the early evening set in, and I was about 20km from Smidovich, I noticed it had suddenly gotten rather cold. And dark. I mused that the onset of nightfall brought with it a surprisingly swift drop in temperatures. Almost like being in the mountains. Or at upper latitudes? But that wouldn't explain the sudden darkness...?

Which is when I noticed that the sky behind me was still rather bright. The dark and the cold were brought about by a massive, massive black raincloud covering pretty much the entire sky ahead.

I poured on the energy and pumped the pedals as fast as I could: maybe I could reach Smidovich before that ugly raincloud brought forth its payload!

18km left... I raced the cloud.

17km...

15...

11...

...

At 9km to go I lost the battle, and the first pitter-patter started to arrive. At least so far, it was just a light rain.

Finally, finally, I made it to smidovich, and there was nothing on the highway. Absolutely nothing. Just a side road of questionable quality leading to the town a few km to the side.

My experience so far has been that the most worthy hotels are to be found along the highway; unless you are in a bigger town or city, it is not worth going off the highway to explore said town. There is rarely anything there (see: Bikin).

And in this case, there wasn't a single sign or indication that there was a hotel in town. As I said, the internet knew nothing about a hotel here. I was out of luck. The racing, for naught.

Well, I have a tent for a reason. There had never been the slightest chance that I could get across Russia without ever having to camp (not that I would have wanted to anyway). Gonna have to put it to use some time!

Except: the terrain seemed awfully swampy. And trying to find a place to camp in the marshy ground, after dark, in the rain, hardly seemed like the best way to kick its tyres. I had really hoped to be up in higher ground the first time I pulled out the tent.

I checked the iPhone again. Belgorodskoye. A village about 8km away. My map at least listed a gas station there (the first one in 70km, and the last one until Birobidzhan). Maybe there would be a hotel there? Or at least the gas station would have an awning where I could be out of the rain while I pondered my options.

I set out to Belgorodskoye. About 2km later, I felt a tell-tale squishiness. No... no... no!

Yes. Flat tyre number 4. In the middle of absolutely nowhere, with no shelter in sight, and under what had become an extremely heavy downpour.

Now the thing about saddlebags is: to fix a flat tyre, I have to take off the wheel. And to take off the wheel, I have to turn the bike upside down. And to do that, I have to remove the saddlebags. Rendering the rain cover, and any water protection it might offer, useless.

(Have I mentioned I don't like saddlebags yet?)

Half an hour later, my tyre was fixed (thank you, newly-purchased pump!). But it was dark. Thoroughly and completely dark. And bucketing down. And everything I own, strewn across the shoulder, was soaked through-and-through. Most of my goods are at least safely stashed in Ziploc bags (of which I brought a whole bunch from Canada, then supplemented with purchases in both Vladivostok and at the Самбери in Khabarovsk).

But *I* was certainly drenched.

I reassembled everything, put on the rain cover (for what good it would do now) and turned on the lights. My tail light refused to work. I... what?

Then I remembered that I had it on all through my ride into Khabarovsk, and I completely forgot to recharge it afterward.

So... no tail light. In the dark and the rain. At least there was basically zero traffic, and my rain cover is a bright fluorescent yellow, with reflective strips. It would have to do. But it also meant that Belgorodskoye was to be my last stand. It would be lunacy to try to go any farther.

Into Belgorodskoye, and as I reached the gas station, I saw ahead what looked to be a suspiciously well-appointed building (by Russian standards)... much as I would expect a roadside Гостиница to look. Could it possibly be...?

Well, no. Pressing on, I saw that it was "just" a house. A particularly nice-looking house, surrounded by several other rather nice-looking houses making up the village. Curious... until I saw one of the omnipresent 24h roadside cafes. The cafe had a Star of David in the window, and the menu was duplicated in Hebrew. Belgorodskoye must be a Jewish counterpart community to the town of Smidovich!

I pulled up to the cafe, and tentatively asked the proprietor if there was a hotel anywhere around?

The answer was as disappointing as it was expected.

So.

It's camping time.

I consulted the map one more time. It showed me surrounded by lakes, sloughs, and swamps. This pretty much matched what I'd been seeing all afternoon. The highway itself, the railroad, and the few side roads are on raised berms that rise above the surrounding fields, which are more or less all submerged, a few trees here and there sticking up out of the water. Much as I would expect a Louisiana Bayou to be (never having actually, uh, been there...).

It's basically a swamp. I couldn't possibly camp anywhere but on one of the berms, or I would be literally underwater. The few "islands" of any size are sized on for building houses or villages, like Belgorodskoye.

One of those side roads led away from Belgorodskoye. My only hope was to travel along it a bit to see if it might get wide enough to let me camp along the edge somewhere and not obstruct the roadway.

The road was dirt, turned completely into mud by the rain. After my experience in Dalnerechensk, I wasn't riding through that mud, so I got off and pushed the bike along. I couldn't see a thing and was constantly stepping into potholes and getting into water and mud above my ankles.

Vainly peering around with the aid of the bicycle headlight, I realized it didn't make much difference. The entire roadway was mostly covered in water anyway.

I trudged on, after a couple hundred agonizing metres finally arriving at a junction in the road. There was maybe maybe a bit of space in the "Y" made by the junction, with a clump of bushes at one side. I would be an inch or two underwater, but mostly above it. For what it was worth, with the rain continuing to bucket. And mostly out of the way of whatever traffic there might be.

I didn't care. I set up the tent as close to the edge as I possibly could without falling off and into the swamp itself. Feeling like I'd just swum the English Channel, if the English Channel were mad of a solution of 50% water and 50% mosquitos, I crawled into the wet tent, pulled the sleeping bag out of its protective Ziploc, peeled off my clothes, got into the sleeping bag, and lay there, shivering, in the rainy swampy night.



Today’s weather: Rain in morning, dry through the day with occasional squalls, heavy rain in evening.
Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58). 120.6 km, 6h39. Middling quality: some better than average, some worse. Low ridge of hills 60km from Khabarovsk, otherwise flat, through swamplands.

Comments:
Posted on: Friday Jul. 1, 2016 @ 23:01 MST
Re: Belgorodskoye, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia
I wish you could have had a Ziploc bag for you and your bike!

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