Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 6
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 3 of 6
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 5
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 4
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 6
- Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: The Final Chapter
At km 8184 we entered MT + 7 and as we discussed one of the stops I mentioned that they should move their watches forward 1 hour as I had. They all insisted we were still MT + 6, and though I knew my book was right I just said well it must be wrong. My little old lady discretely left the compartment and came back 10 minutes later, whispered in my ear, “your book is right, I checked, it’s MT +7”. She was so proud of me, and wanted to show me she believed me and that apart she and I they were all wrong.
I got off at BIROBIDZAN, at km 8351, MT + 7. I had planned my whole trip in order to arrive on a Friday night and go to the synagogue on the Saturday morning and see what a service could be like in such a place. Well reader, I travelled 8000 kilometres and the synagogue was closed.
I’ll never know why, and assuredly I’ll never go back there again, so this piece of Siberian mystery will remain. Nor did I manage to find a single post card in the city. Post cards and open synagogues are apparently unknown to Birobidzhan. So, a note on this rather out-of-the way region. Known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of which Birobidzhan is the capital, it was selected in 1928 as the homeland for Soviet Jews who were encouraged to move here and were promised financial compensations.
Yiddish was the official language and the streets and monuments bear Yiddish names. However this was no Promised Land and conditions were so harsh that little by little all the Jews fled and by 1936, 60% of the Jewish population had left. Today they still publish Russia’s only Yiddish-language newspaper here, the Birobidzhaner Stern, but now only about 6% (2.5 % I read somewhere else) of the city’s population of 77 000 has Jewish descent.
I read that the Rabbi who was sent from Israel is working hard to get his community to give up sausage, and that most say “it’s Ok as long as we don’t eat it with milk”. They seem very interested though in their new business of producing the only kosher vodka on the market, but I was not able to find a bottle of it though I did search.
Again here I went to visit the regional museum, but there were more documents and photos and fewer stuffed animals, and since labels are solely in Russian it was difficult to understand what it was all about. In any event I can boast that I saw the only train station, post office and city hall in all Russia to have a sign in Yiddish next to that in Russian and surely the only street in the country named Sholom Aleykhema.
There was a lovely market here, and I don’t know where of NY or Birobidzhan it started out first, but smack in the middle of the market there was an old woman selling NY hotdogs in rolls with mustard and ketchup… I couldn’t resist. I had one.
I boarded my last train, the # 2, named the Rassia, meaning, of course, the Russia.
This, friends, was a big moment for me, indeed the “normal” tourist, he who goes to a tourist agency in Paris or London or NY, always takes the Rassia. It’s THE tourist train, the comfortable, fast, most famous of all. In short most people travel on this one which is maybe why I saw no tourists on any of the other ones (except 3 guys in kupe, backpackers like myself, from the UK I think, but who were heading to Peking). Apart from them, up to now during my entire trip from Moscow, I met not one non-Russia. Well on the Rassia I met none either.
My last night I therefore spent in a comfortable compartment, even the Prodvinista was a doll, she took care of me and even prepared my bed. My travel companions were a pretty, young Russian girl with a dog and a teenage boy the age of Pierre. Both were pleasant, quiet, and very polite with me. She spent most of the time texting on her cell phone and he spent the night watching TV, as on the Rassia there is even a TV screen above the door of each compartment. The Russians seem to love silly humour, everything they watch looks like a cheap version of Mr. Bean. They also watch the news of course, and as this was just after the winter Olympics, I saw numerous newscasts of important looking men in official offices looking disappointed at the number of medals the Russian took home. None of the athletes were being interviewed, just the officials.
At km 8512 we crossed the 2.6 km long bridge across the Amur river, which in wintertime looks like a vast plain, with bushes growing here and there over the ice. At km 8521 I stepped down at Khabarovsk to see the main square outside the station, and yet another statue of Lenin.
Tags: financial compensations, friday night, jewish autonomous oblast, jewish descent, jewish population, kilometres, little old lady, monuments, mystery, post cards, rabbi, russia, saturday morning, sausage, soviet jews, stern, synagogues, watches, yiddish language