Thursday, July 5, 2007

Taking the Train and Blagoveschensk (June 9 – 11, 2007)

I decided to take the train from Vladivostok to the capital of the Amur Region, Blagoveschensk. Blagoveschensk was the farthest western point in my journey, and from there I slowly made my way east, back towards Vladivostok.

It takes 34 hours to get to Blagoveschensk on the train. The whole ride you have a feeling that it could take much less time, but this is a very slow train! After Khabarovsk it does go much faster. After Khabarovsk the scenery begins to change, too -- in general it gets flatter. The geography in Amur and Jewish Autonomous Regions is a bit different than the places I have been so far in southern Primorye, where Vladivostok is: there are still plenty of steep hills with forests of birch and oak, but there are also more meadows and wetlands (good habitat for lots of birds), and places that are just flat.

So back to the train. I rode “platskart,” which is the cheap way to ride in Russia. A one-way platskart ticket for the 34-hour ride from Vladivostok to Blagoveschensk costs a little less than $40. This is the real Russian way to ride the train, which is a truly Russian experience anyway. A platskart wagon has 54 sleeping bunks in it, 27 lower bunks and 27 upper bunks. It is a completely open wagon with no dividers or doors to close off the bunks from your neighbors. There are some walls though, and the bunks are arranged in groups of 6 – a lower bunk and upper bunk right along the walls of the train, separated by an aisle from a group of 4 bunks (2 upper and 2 lower) perpendicular to the wall of the train. You do not want the former type of bunk, because then people walking down the aisle will run into you all the time when you are trying to sleep. Although this was the type of bunk I got on the way to Blagoveschensk – all the good spots were taken! Fortunately I was on the bottom and so I at least didn’t have to climb up all the time. And, fortunately I had good neighbors and no one in our wagon was loud and/or drunk all night. So it was a good experience! As was the train ride home in early July.

There are more comfortable ways to do Russian train travel – you can take coupe, which has 36 bunks in a wagon, arranged in groups of 4 (2 upper, 2 lower) with a door closing each group off from the aisle. This is about 2 ½ times more expensive than platskart. And then there is luxury or S/V – only 2 bunks, both lower – swanky! I have no idea how much this costs, but flying is probably cheaper.

I left Vladivostok at 11 pm on June 9 and arrived to Blagoveschensk at 9 am on June 11. One of the staff from Muraviovka Park, my first destination, met me at the train station in Blago. I checked my luggage and spent the day wandering around Blagoveschensk waiting for the bus to Muraviovka at 5 pm. Blago is right on the Amur River, and you can look across the Amur and see China. It is a city of 250,000 people, and I immediately felt how much calmer it is than Vladivostok. First of all, it is flat – which rather helps. No walking up crazy hills all the time. The streets are wider, the architecture allows for actual spaces between the buildings, and there are actually signal lights in the pedestrian crosswalks, and moreover, cars actually stop at them. And there aren’t even that many cars – sometimes you can cross a street without waiting for a signal! Amazing stuff. After wandering into a few stores in Blago I also started to understand why everyone says that everything costs twice as much in Vladivostok. If the cheapest loaf of bread costs 16 rubles in Vlad (about 60 cents), then is costs only 9 rubles in Blago.

The Amur Region is known for being hot and humid in the summer, and I could already feel it in Blagoveschensk – when I arrived at 9 am it was already 80 degrees out. But overall I was very lucky with the weather, and it only got really hot during the last week of my travels – the first week of July.

Pictures: 1. A typical Russian train station (this is the station in Khabarovsk); 2. and 3. A wagon in platskart; 4. arch in Blagoveschensk, constructed in the late 1800s for tsar-to-be Nikolai II’s travel through Blago on his way back to St Petersburg from Japan in 1891 (Japan-Vlad-and on west, you get it). 5. Amur River and China on the other side; 6. World War II memorial in Blago. ; 7. “Our politics is the politics of the world!” Soviet mural in Blagoveschensk. Blagoveschensk felt very Soviet in some ways – lots of Soviet monuments and propaganda left over

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