Jun. 14, 2016: Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia


The rain let up sometime during the night, and I woke up to a quiet, pitter-patter-less tent, albeit one covered in hundreds of mosquitoes.

The prospect of dealing with the mosquitoes made me hesitant to get up, so I lay there for a while, only to hear the telltale sound of water hitting nylon: it was raining again.

I fell back asleep.

And woke up several hours later -- closer to noon -- to a once-again rainless sky. Determined not to let the opportunity slip away again, I set to packing up my goods, doing my best to ignore the whine of the mosquitoes buzzing around the outside of the tent.

Exiting the tent, the sky was cloudy and grey, but otherwise dry. The road was very muddy, but at least no longer submerged, beyond a number of large puddles that could at least be skirted. There were fish flopping around in the drying, exposed mud, including a few only a couple of feet from the tent. They were of a decent size: at least 6-8 inches long, and an inch or so in diameter.

I walked the bike back to the highway and set out again on the road to Birobidzhan.

There were signs for roadworks most of the day, but most had a starting date of mid-June or July, and very little construction work was yet in evidence. Instead it consisted mostly of successive 5-10km stretches of new, very good road alternating with older to-be-upgraded road that was of middling quality, as with yesterday.

But still very flat, and still very marshy.

The highway ran immediately parallel to the Trans-Siberian railroad pretty much all day long. Said railway is... nothing like what I expected it to be before I came. I was imagining a single-track job through the forest with a couple trains a day, much like the CN or CP rail lines that cross Canada.

No.

No, not at all.

The line is fully electrified, at least double-tracked all the way, and 4-tracked along much of the length, allowing for a local-vs-express service dichotomy. It carries a staggering amount of traffic. Staggering.

I have been counting, on average, a train about every 15 minutes, all day long.

Most of these are freight (about ⅓ to ½ the length of the average freight train in western Canada? 50 to 75 or so cars) with a shorter passenger train every couple of hours.

The passenger trains generally have 2 engines, the freight trains either 3 or 4. It takes about 7 days to get across the country. This means that there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 engines actually on the tracks, in service, at any given time. Just on just this one line.

Russian Railways is... a non-trivial enterprise.

About 50km on I reached the turnoff to Birobidzhan and the first retail outlet of any kind since Belgorodskoye, where I spent the night. There's a gas station, cafe and motel. 50km... I probably would have made it in less time than it took me to find and set up a camping spot. But in the rain, at night, with no tail light? It was a painful decision not to press on, but probably the right one.

(Also, I didn't know there would be a motel here.)

Outside the cafe is a giant menorah... made out of empty energy drink cans. I had no idea how to react to this, other than take a picture.

Was contemplating getting lunch at the cafe, but it was only another 15 km into Birobidzhan, and I wasn't starving, so chose to continue. Also, the clouds had given way to mostly sunny skies, drying out my clothes, an opportunity I didn't want to squander, as I didn't know how long the sun would last.

Birobidzhan has by some measure the most well-developed tourism infrastructure I've yet seen in Russia. Most towns, if they have hotels at all, may have a single billboard somewhere at the edge of town with a phone number, or may have a government-issue " 500m" roadside sign, but that's it. Mostly, I'm relying on the Internet to tell me what's available.

Entering Birobidzhan, I encountered signboard after signboard advertising the various hotels. One with a list of hotels, including a map. The main drag through town, Улица Шолом-Алейхема (Sholom Aleichem St., named after one of the founders of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast), and it along with the various parks, squares, and public spaces, is full of tourist information displays, with placards and QR-codes that can be scanned to get more information and maps -- the whole works. Much as one would expect to find in European (or otherwise) cities.

Indeed the town centre is quite attractive, if not particularly large. The relative prosperity of the JAO is definitely more in evidence here.

There is Hebrew (or perhaps Yiddish? I read somewhere that Yiddish is actually one of the official languages of the place, but I don't know how much that is reflected on a practical basis) on signs everywhere. The city is quite clearly promoting its Jewish heritage - whether for the tourist trade or otherwise.

The JAO is also an economic free zone (think Hong Kong, or -- for UAE peeps -- obviously Jebel Ali). That may have a lot to do with things as well. I am unsure how much business-related foreign visitation the city gets.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

At the edge of town, the first hotel I pass is... a pirate ship. I passed it, did a double-take, then had to return to confirm I saw what I saw. Yep! Jolly Roger and everything!

I was tempted, but no. Quite aside from drying out my wet belongings, I had a more important reason for wanting to stay in Birobidzhan tonight, even though it's not quite 70km from last night.

It's one of the last good opportunities to check in with the government for a while.

So, I have to check in periodically with the Russian government. At least once every 7 days, and in theory no more than 3 days after entering a new Region (those county-level things). Although this latter is somewhat moot, since I'm basically never in one for more than 3 days anyway.

There are a couple of ways of checking in. I can do so at a police station (or so I understand), at a post office, or at a hotel.

The latter is by far the easiest way of doing it. The other methods involve standing in a line to get forms to stand in another line to pay to stand in another line to submit forms to...

Or I can just stay at a hotel, get them to fill in a standard sheet of paper, photocopy my passport & visa, give me a stamped form, and I'm done. Takes about 3 minutes at registration, and 60% of it is something they have to do anyway.

But the catch is that not every hotel is set up to actually do this. The smaller roadside motels and guesthouses I've been staying at have often not been.

But the bigger tourist hotels in the cities? Definitely.

And after Birobidzhan... there are no more cities for quite a while. A small handful of "big towns" scattered between Birobidzhan and Chita, but not much else. I don't know how easy it will be to find a hotel there that can check me in with the government.

So I really needed to get this done in Birobidzhan to give me that full 7 days' flexibility. And the Pirate Ship Hotel... did not really look like the kind of place that would offer this service.

So I pegged the Hotel Vostoc in the centre of town. Big, central, touristy, reasonably-priced.

I got to the Vostoc and check in. No problems with anything there. Headed up to the room and started drying out my things. Pulled my belongings out of my saddlebags to let them dry a bit. Luckily the Ziploc bags mostly kept the clothes and computer and so forth dry.

Mostly.

Partway through this procedure I took a break and sat on the bed for a minute to check something on my iPhone when I noticed a sudden acrid, burning-plasticky smell. Snapping my head up, I saw a curl of thick white smoke rising from the open saddlebag.

!!!!!!!!!

The smell and smoke getting worse by the second, I yanked on my gloves, and plunged my hand into the bag, retrieving the culprit, a melting Ziploc bag containing a very charred and smouldering backup Lithium battery for my computer.

I quickly threw open the window, ran outside in my bare feet, removed the battery from the bag and laid the thing down in the middle of the concrete plaza, where there was nothing that could catch fire.

I stood sentinel over it for several minutes until I was convinced it was inert, then reluctantly wandered over to a concrete garbage can and tossed it in.

I returned to a hotel room heavy with the smell of burning plastic and electrical bits, and sat for a few minutes, shaking my head at what so easily could have been -- what almost WAS -- had I not been right there and looking almost right at the thing when it combusted.

My guess is that there must have been a small hole in the Ziploc bag somewhere. Just enough for the smallest amount of water or condensation to form, and once that reached the battery, it was game over.

But I lucked out. (All things considered.)

The emergency was over. Mostly at this point, I'm annoyed. I paid several hundred dollars, and only ever got to use the battery once! Not only that, but this next section from here to Chita, with towns few and far between, is precisely the section for which I'd originally bought it!

Ah well, what's done is done. I might be able to find a replacement in Irkutsk or something, but likely not in Birobidzan. Though I suppose it doesn't hurt to look tomorrow.

In the meantime, I went down to the lobby to shamefaced-ly mention what had happened and explain the smell (they saw me rushing out with the remains of the battery, so caught on pretty quick). One guy just regarded me with an annoyed expression, but didn't say anything. The other just shrugged her shoulders: well, these things happen.

I went out and bought a can of air freshener, came back to the room and did my best to wave the smell out of the window. By later in the evening it was no longer terribly noticeable, so I don't think there's any lasting issue.

It was (as always seems to be the case) fairly late by the time I dealt with all of this, so I just had time to wander around, take a few photos of interesting-looking things, and grab dinner from a kiosk. The ever-present пирожки are of course here too. But Birobidzhan has its own twist on the fried-bread stuffed with things: they have bagels stuffed with things!

Pretty much exactly what you'd expect: a bagel -- slightly larger than a New York-style -- which when you bite into it, is stuffed with meat, chicken, onions, mashed potatoes, you name it.

An appropriate enough dinner.



Today’s weather: Cloudy in the day giving way to mostly sunny afternoon and evening. Reasonably warm: upper teens.
Today’s lodging: Hotel Vostoc, Birobidzhan. Nice hotel, especially given the price. Am embarrassed about the trouble I caused with the battery. Restaurant closed for renovations.
Today’s meal: Bagels stuffed with chicken and other goodies. Yum!
Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58) - Ул. Советская. 72.0 km, 3h46. Good-and-okay alternating sections until the turnoff to Birobidzhan at Ikura. Birobidzhan access road really good for a side road, but not as good as most highways. Very flat, still marshy terrain.

Comments:
Posted on: Wednesday Jun. 22, 2016 @ 22:45 MST
Re: Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia
Hey, Tucker! Thanks for the comment!

I was actually thinking about you and Grace a bunch yesterday! Last night I stayed in Сковородино (actually Невер), where the road to Якутск splits off from the "main" Amur Хабаровск-Чита highway. And on my way here I was remembering what you said about being on the side of the road as I went by.

(Not that I was actually expecting it of course! It's a long way to Якутск, and you'd already mentioned the your own delays in getting back to Russia. But it just came to mind.)

Agreed, we will have to meet up. My plans are to be back in Canada sometime in November, but nothing is nailed down yet...
Posted on: Tuesday Jun. 21, 2016 @ 22:51 MST
Re: Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia
Hi Sean,
We're following along with you.  Way to go!
Good job on documenting the journey.
We got delayed ourselves and wont be making it to Yakutsk until July 20.
We'll get home Sept. 21.
The MRU gang should get together for a party and hear of all the adventures.
All the best to you.
Tucker
Posted on: Monday Jun. 20, 2016 @ 09:32 MST
Re: Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia
Hello, Alexander!

Thank you for the clarification. You are of course right that Sholom Aleichem has never been to Birobidzhan. When I wrote that he was a founder, I was referring more to the fact that he was one of the people who had the idea for -- and advocated for -- the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Which at least is something that I have read.

However his artistic achievements (as an author, etc.) rightly overshadow that fact, and I should absolutely have referred to him in that context.
Posted on: Monday Jun. 20, 2016 @ 03:01 MST
Re: Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Russia
Sholom Aleichem is a great judish writer: born in Perejaslav (now Ukrain) 2.03.1859 — dead 13.05.1916 in New-York. He newer has been in Birobidjan :)

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