Beijing and Completing the Circle


My final destination in China is Beijing. From there, I will fly home, completing my journey around the world.

I fly from Harbin to Beijing and my airport pick-ups and flight are smooth and painless. The rode to the airport in Harbin leaves me even less impressed with the area, however –  miles and miles of hideous apartment buildings on a flat plain. I suppose I will have to come back to see the fabled beauty of Manchuria.

Beijing is a city of 22 million people. Twenty-two million. This is the largest city I have ever seen and I see only a tiny portion of it during my three-day stay. As we drive to my hotel (it takes about an hour) the sheer immensity of some of the skyscrapers is overwhelming. Modern architecture doesn’t generally impress me to the point of awe but I have to say that the buildings in Beijing really push the envelope. There are huge glass and steel structures, interesting shapes, aerial walkways, and looming towers. The people walking by them appear tiny in comparison. Is that the point? We are all just ants in the never-ending drive to build more, build bigger, build, build, build… It is already dark at 5 p.m. but many of the buildings are lit, not only from within but with multi-colored lights outside – on archways, hanging over the roads, and along the walkways.

My hotel is near the Forbidden City, which I have longed to see since I first heard the name as a child. How can one not want to see a forbidden city? I realize that I will  see very little given the limited amount of time that I have and one of my must-dos is to go to the Great Wall. If one takes into account my ancient Mongol ancestors, this wall too figures into the family history as the Mongols invaded China in the 13th century.


The next day, I head for the Forbidden City. My first impression of Beijing is that everything is very clean. This area is also right near Tiananmen Square which has become a tourist draw on its own (whether the authorities like that or not). As in Harbin, there are police everywhere. I turn into a side street and am approached by a young man. As in Harbin, I don’t “blend” and am a target for salesmen although this guy tries a more subtle initial approach. He chats me up, says he is an art student who will soon be going to Berkeley, and is selling his work to finance his trip. Would I like to see it? As the gallery where his work is showing is a few steps away, I agree. I know nothing about Chinese art but the painted silk scrolls he shows me really are beautiful. Included in the viewing is a short lecture about Confucius. In fact, I actually think about buying one of the paintings and offer to come back after I have viewed the Forbidden City. The young man morphs into a used car salesman and insists that if I don’t buy now,  it will be too late. The gallery is open only until noon, etc., etc., etc. I dislike this approach and leave. (When I walk down this street again later the same day, another young man, using the exact same approach, tries to get me to buy his paintings. Out of curiosity, I accompany him to his gallery, right across the street, where exactly the same paintings hang. I also dislike the blatant “let’s fool the stupid foreigner” approach and again leave without buying anything).

As I finally find what looks like the entrance to the Forbidden City, a woman approaches me and asks if I need a tour guide. She quotes a price which doesn’t seem unreasonable and I agree. Though it later turns out that her job is to bring me to a special shop deep within the Forbidden City where antiques are sold to wealthy foreigners, it turns out to be worth it because she is able to avoid standing in the very long ticket line to get in to the City and guides me around the bag screening line.


The Forbidden City was renovated in time for the Olympics, and, indeed, everything looks pristine. I do learn things that I hadn’t known before from my guide – like the fact that the sculptures of two lions that are placed in front o f buildings are always of one male (symbolizing power) and one female (symbolizing fertility). The male is always on the left, when looking from the south, and the female, on the right, has her paw on a lion cub. The enormous crowds make it difficult to contemplate the history of the place. This is nothing unusual of course. I was highly disappointed when I visited Stonehenge in England – the entire area is roped off and visitors have  to circle around it. It is at times like these that I do wish I had been born just a tad earlier – visiting these monuments from the past would have been much more interesting when crowd control and metal detectors were unknown.

Afterwards, I am taken by my guide to see the garden of the “playboy” emperor (one who had numerous concubines apparently). This is a separate fee. As we stroll through the lovely gardens, we chance upon the antique shop and, wonder of wonders, I also have the opportunity to watch the cousin or nephew of the “The Last Emperor” Pu Yi (of Manchukuo) demonstrating calligraphy for an audience. For a mere 1200 yuan, he will paint a character especially for me. Luckily there is a group ahead of me who can’t wait to part with their money so I am able to wiggle out of this with a minimum of hassle though I realize I am a great disappointment to my guide.

My next stop is the Temple of Heaven. Again, how can you not want to see a place with a name like that? Walking in Beijing is easier than Harbin. People actually obey traffic laws. Like Harbin, however, there are construction projects everywhere. it turns out that my map is not to scale, and I start to wonder if I will ever reach the blessed Temple. As I stop on a corner to get my bearings, an elderly fellow driving a bicycle rickshaw sees me and beckons me to get on. There are many of these fellows around and they were parked outside the hotel when I left, clamoring for customers. For a number of reasons, I have no desire to ride around in one of these conveyances but the fellow seems desperate and when I show him where I want to go, he nods vigorously, motioning me to get on. What can I do? As it turns out, I am only a few blocks short of my destination and this is a good thing. I have a couple of heart-stopping moments, as we are weaving in and out of traffic – there are no special bicycle rickshaw lanes. Once we arrive, I give him double what he asked for to make up for all the work and hope he is gone by the time I come out because I have no intention of getting into one of these again.

The Temple of Heaven is located in a beautiful park-like area. According to tourist literature, it is considered the “supreme achievement” of Chinese architecture. For many years, all of these ancient buildings were neglected in China. Now, there is a new effort to honor China’s (pre-Communist) past. Similar to Russia, the younger generation was cut off from the true history of the nation and are now coming to look at the relics of a time with which they have no connection. In Russia, at least, there is now an openness about the pre-Revolutionary period that lets people judge for themselves to a certain extent (mostly due to the Internet). Here, the government still controls everything and the main point seems to be to make money off of everything. They are no doubt sinking a lot of money into these historical sites because it all looks beautiful but the non-stop hawking of souvenirs starts to get to me. Of course, since I am one of the very few non-Chinese people, I get a lot of attention from sales people but this is not the kind of attention I desire.

Temple of Heaven complex


The Great Wall

The next day, I take a tour of the Great Wall. The first stop is the Ming Tombs. I congratulate myself once more for coming in the fall since in summertime it is probably impossible to see anything. At one point, our bus is stuck in a traffic jam – we don’t move at all for about 20 minutes.  There are 13 emperors buried in the Ming Tombs. The entire complex is huge and is situated at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, about 30 miles outside of Beijing. One could spend an entire day here but we have only an  hour or two. I don’t understand why we have so little time since the Great Wall (the part that we will visit) is not that far away but I have not taken into account either the tour of the Jade Factory which includes an immense retail store selling every type of jade object imaginable to man, or the stop at a Traditional Chinese Medicine complex where we are invited to have a doctor examine us (in front of the rest of the group), diagnose our problem, and prescribe a cure. I decline the latter but do break down and by two jade bracelets. I have been stalwart up to this point about not buying anything but the beautiful jade does me in.

Ming Tombs complex

Ming Tombs complex
Jundu Mountains

The drive to the Great Wall is interesting in itself as the topography here is very beautiful. And the Great Wall is, in fact, pretty great. To get to it, one has to ride in an aerial tramway. I notice that the Panda craze, which I vaguely recall when one or another Panda was being born in the zoo in the U.S., has not ended here. Grown women wear Panda hats. These are available for sale here along with any other kitschy item one might desire.

Great Wall

Panda hat anyone?

I walk along the wall as far as I can. I find I am always drawn to structures built of stone, especially if they are very old.  I like the feel of the stone.  Construction on the Great Wall started in the 5th Century BC and, although I am sure this section is much newer, it is still exciting to me that it has been standing here for hundreds and hundreds of years. I try to climb up a section of the wall that stretches up one side of the mountain but I find it so crowded that I get uncomfortable. This section is so steep that it reminds me of nightmares I had as a child in which I would try to climb a steep hill and not be able to keep my footing. I give up about halfway up.

Camel by the wall

And Back Again

I fly directly to San Francisco and my homecoming is not auspicious. I remember a time when U.S. immigration officers would say things like “welcome home” when they saw that you have been traveling for a while. Not anymore. The immigration official who views my passport is outraged that I am holding a Blackberry and orders me to “put it away” as if he is speaking to a recalcitrant child. I don’t bother trying to explain that I was checking the airporter schedule while standing in line (for quite some time), and was summoned to his desk unexpectedly. It is obvious that he revels in his authority and if he hadn’t spotted the Blackberry, he would have found another way to exhibit his power. He enjoys the incident too much. He then proceeds to ask me a lot of questions about my trip. I find this intrusive and abusive since I don’t know if he is just idly curious or if there is an official reason for any of this. The questions appear irrelevant in terms of security – he asks what I write about and whether I write a blog (he doesn’t use the world “blog” but asks if I write about my experiences online). Since I consider him an officious moron, I don’t particularly want to chat with him but I don’t want to end up on the do-not-fly list either. In view of my lengthy stay in suspect countries, he marks my customs form in red (meaning I will be searched) and hands it to me with an unpleasant leer. He and his colleagues in China have a lot in common.

The fun doesn’t stop there. As I wait to go through customs with a growing crowd of arriving passengers, the customs officer at the exit point has some kind of a nervous breakdown and begins yelling at the confused group to “Back up!” His hysteria is unwarranted since no one is doing anything out of the ordinary – we all just want to get out of there. At the customs checkpoint, an extremely youthful looking officer summons  me over in the same tone one would call a not-very-beloved dog (“come here!”). I come to the conclusion that training of customers officers doesn’t include topics like manners and how to properly address people who are 1) paying your salary, and 2) old enough to be your mother. My bags are thoroughly searched and a box of Chinese moon cakes therein inspected with a microscope to make sure that no hazardous materials are included. Another young fellow who is looking at my customs form (in which I declared the  moon cakes) says to his colleague, “I’ve seen Russia and China written down before, but not this Ukraine” in a tone that indicates his doubt that it is, in fact, an actual country. Welcome to the United States.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Around the World in 50 days – Harbin, Part III

My luck with the weather runs out during my last full day in Harbin. It is very cold and drizzly with the kind of damp chill that requires both a multitude of  layers and waterproofing. Promptly at 10 a.m., I get a call from “Lyonya.” This is the young man who has agreed to show me around and he is downstairs in the lobby. “Lyonya” is his “Russian” name. He speaks Russian very well and tells me that he teaches it here in Harbin though he admits he has had no formal education in the language and learned it on his own when he lived in Russia for a year.

I explain that I missed an important landmark in my wanderings around Harbin – the Churin Department Store. This store was founded by Ivan Churin and his partners in the early 20th century. The building where the store is located was completed in 1918. The store has remained at the same location through all the changes of city administration, political leadership, and changes in ownership. Whoever the current owner is (the Chinese government or a private owner), they have kept the name (though the Russian sign is long gone of course) and there are even apparently other “Churin” stores in China. I want to buy some Churin bread which, as I understand it, is renowned for its tastiness.

KFC delivery bikes

KFC and street sculpture

Lyonya is not familiar with the store (he is from Shanghai himself and is not very familiar with Harbin yet) but we take a taxi (now that I have an interpreter, I can relax and don’t have to whip out my Mandarin phrasebook). The taxi driver knows exactly what we’re talking about and drives us to the area near Hongbo Square. I did walk right past the store at some point the day before. Over the years, two stories have been added but the building still retains the same general facade from 1918.

Churin Department Store


Churin and Co. Store in Old Harbin

Inside, it is an obviously upscale department store and it does have everything – clothing, food, jewelry. I see a large bust of a person as we enter and wonder if this is Churin himself. We head for the bread and there it is, lying in piles on a large table. The loaf itself is round and huge (it is also heavy). The bread is “Russian-style” and is supposedly made from the same recipe from 100 years ago, baked in special brick ovens. Tourism guides recommend buying some “Russian-style” sausage as an accompaniment but I am not in the mood to fight the massive crowds at the meat counter and we depart with my bread in tow in a special burlap sack.

Churin Store interior

The Bread

Churin outlet

Lyonya’s colleague had suggested that I visit “Sunny Isle” across the Sungari River. This is an entertainment and recreational center of some kind. One way to get across is to take an aerial tram. The stop is right near my hotel so I drop off the bread (which Lyonya insists on carrying) and then we head for the tram. Lyonya was the one to suggest the tram but seems to lose enthusiasm when he sees it. He notes that since it is foggy today, it is not worthwhile and perhaps it would be better to take a ferryboat. I agree although I kind of want to add this to my list of modes of transportation. Luckily, I get the opportunity to ride an aerial tram later in Beijing.

The ferry-boat system is fairly efficient but tedious especially because the tiny plastic seats are hugely uncomfortable and we have to wait for some time as only one boat is operating. We are directed to sit down in the boat but when the actual operating boat returns, and everyone on it had disembarked, we have to leave the boat we are on, which turns out to be a “holding center” of sorts, and file on to this second boat. The whole process of waiting and boarding takes 30 minutes or so and I begin to feel for Lyonya in his light jacket but he assures me that he is fine. I am wearing a sweater, a second heavier wool sweater, a heavy waterproof jacket and a woolen scarf and I still feel the chill. The crossing itself takes only 10 minutes or so.

Ferry boat to Sunny Isle

Sunny Isle is anything but today. Though the boat is full, this is obviously the off-season as there appear to be very few visitors on the “island” today. The gloomy weather probably contributes to this. Lyonya thinks it is most popular in summer and in winter, when it is snowing because the whole theme of Sunny Isle is “Russia.” This is apparently the place to go if one wants to experience Russian culture in Harbin now. The powers-that-be have made an attempt to remove all mention of Russia or Russian culture in Harbin proper, and have deemed this to be the center of Russian culture in Harbin. The problem is that this is all fake Russian culture whereas what is in Harbin is the real thing.

Here, there is a theater where Russian groups come to perform, buildings that appear to be restaurants and bars (now closed), and a “Russian Village.” This village, surrounded by a fence, requires an entry fee, and Lyonya seems to think that it won’t be worth it. Nevertheless, I want to see it.

Russian “Golden” Theater

We wander around a bit first but it seems pointless. It would be pleasant to walk here in warm weather as it is green and park-like but there is nothing going on here now. When I note this to Lyonya, he agrees it is probably packed in summer and adds that there are few places like this in China (meaning, large parks near by or in cities). I ask Lyonya about the popularity of Russian song and dance? He seems very lukewarm about it and suggests that tourists from elsewhere are the ones who frequent this place but I am not sure if he means Chinese tourists from elsewhere or foreign tourists. I tend to doubt there are many foreign tourists coming to Harbin. I find out later though that Chinese tourists make up 70% of all tourists visiting Beijing so the internal travel business is certainly booming in China, like everything else.

Sunny Isle grounds

As we approach the Russian “village,” I notice two obviously Russian men sitting at a small table dressed in camouflage. The older one is wearing a military-style beret and sunglasses despite the rain and looks rather fierce. They are the “guards” and, in order to enter, we have to have our “passports” stamped (obtained when I buy the tickets). I say hello in Russian and the younger of the two, who is hunched over reading a book (it must be very unpleasant to sit outside all day in this kind of weather), looks up, astonished. He has a wonderful face – beautiful blue eyes and a smile that lights up his face when he sees me. Unlike his “stern” counterpart, he makes no effort to be guard-like. I thank them and we go in. There is no one in the village either and, truthfully, I don’t see what there is to do here. There are kiosks selling souvenirs or food items but  there is nothing else to do except stroll around and look at the figurines and statues representing “Russians.” There is a small stage for performances.

Entrance to Russian Village

Passport to Russian Village


In Russia, of course, I visited several outdoor museums that purported to show how Russians lived in pre-revolutionary Russia but all of these, without exception, were very educational and representative of the village culture. This “village” is a caricature. Now I know how people feel when their cultural heritage has been hijacked and put on display by someone in order that they make money off of it. To top it off, there are enclosures with (live) cats and dogs, shivering in the drizzle. They have some shelter but it is still out in the open air and I don’t see the point of having them there at all. The dogs look like lap-dogs so they aren’t meant to represent village dogs. They just look pathetic, sad, and lonely. The cats look annoyed and uncomfortable. There are some geese wandering around so at least that is authentic.

Giant Matryoshka Dolls


Imprisoned dogs in “Russian Village”

As we leave, I ask the “guards” who comes here? The older one says mostly Chinese tourists visit. They ask me where I am from and I explain. We chat a bit but soon other patrons show up and I move off. I wonder if the younger fellow is a student trying to earn some money. I can’t imagine that they get paid enough to live on at this job.

By the time we return to Harbin, the wind has risen and it is really very cold. Lyonya is now obviously uncomfortable and very obviously wants to go home. I thank him for showing me around and tell him I am ready to call it a day. I give him my card in case he ever makes his way to San Francisco.

Back at the hotel, I drink tea and munch on Churin bread (truly delicious!) while watching a cool film about a “fox demon” who has taken female form and is trying to steal another woman’s husband. Quite surprisingly, it has English subtitles so I am able to understand what is going on.

The bread after I’ve been snacking on it for a couple of days

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Around the World in 50 days – Harbin, Part II

Even with maps in three different languages, Harbin is not easy to navigate. From the time the city was built until the Communist revolution in China, street names were Russian. After that, they were Chinese of course, but they are now spelled a variety of different ways on the maps. I set out first for Zhongyang Street. This used to be Kitayaskaya Street (“Kitayskaya” means “Chinese” in Russian). The buildings on this street have survived all the destruction and re-construction of the last half century and this street is now considered a historical and architectural landmark. It is actually rather close to my hotel and the buildings do indeed date from the beginning of the 20th century. It is also closed off to traffic and this is a great relief.

Once again, I am struck by the youthfulness of the population here. Everyone walking along this pedestrian mall (which is a shopping and restaurant center), seems to be a student. It is very vibrant and bustling and spotlessly clean on this main street, but the side streets frequently have piles of garbage on them. Harbin is, indeed, a city of contrasts. There are streets of beautiful restored buildings like this, streets with ultra-modern high-rises with glass facades sparking in the sun, and streets with ramshackle dilapidated buildings that have that pungent reek of uncollected trash and rotting food. As I walk, I am approached by a young man, speaking fluent Russian, who politely asks where I am from and why I am visiting Harbin. Then he asks if I would like to buy a fur coat? Or any other clothing? I decline his offer but thank him for asking.

Entrance to Zhongyang Street

Historic buildings on Zhongyang Street

From here, I head two streets over to St. Sophia Cathedral. It is a spectacular example of Russian architecture and is now a museum. The fact that it is a museum disturbs me more than I expected it would. Of course, better a museum than being torn down completely but here I feel my first twinge of real resentment. Russian culture is being put on display in an inappropriate manner – disrespectfully. At the entrance, there is a museum shop. Despite this unease, I find the museum fascinating as it is an exhibit of photographs of old Harbin dating back to its very beginnings. There are quite a few photographs of the Russian community, even ones that appear to be from private collections but I have no way of asking where they come from. The stress, as always, is on how the Chinese people were oppressed in Harbin and there are references to “Western European” culture and architecture which are, of course, completely incorrect (last time I checked, Russia was in Eastern Europe).

St. Sophia’s Cathedral

Despite the fact that the interior of the church is completely gutted, the unmistakable feeling of being in an Orthodox church remains since the church has a huge cupola and one’s gaze is drawn upward to the huge chandelier that hangs there.  I spend quite some time here and leave with a sense of heaviness.

Interior of St. Sophia’s – ceiling


Scale model of part of old Harbin

Old Harbin – museum photo

Old Harbin

Old Harbin

Harbin then

And the same building today

Reflection of Cathedral

I walk back down to the riverfront to reflect. Though it is much quieter and pleasant to walk here, I seem to attract more attention. There is lots of hawking and spitting as I go by. I read once that this is a way to show displeasure when seeing “barbarians” (non-Chinese). It happens often enough that I begin to get a complex. On the other hand, several people greet/acknowledge me; some in English: “Hello!” and some in Russian: “Khorosho” (“good” or “fine” depending on context) and “Dosvedaniye” (goodbye) as I walk on. Although this is more pleasant than hearing spitting as I walk by, I again feel like a zoo exhibit. Then I pass a young man playing a  saxophone at the river’s edge. He is wearing white gloves. As I pass, he begins playing Podmoskovnyye vechera (Moscow Nights). This lightens my mood.

That evening, all the lights go out in the hotel. This is more eerie than it would be normally because I have the heavy curtains drawn as there are workers on the scaffolds outside all the time. There seems to be immediate panic outside and I hear the sound of people running by my room speaking loudly. I wonder if there is an emergency. Three minutes later, the lights come back on. Then they go off again. I decide to just go to sleep but the TV goes on automatically when the electricity comes back on five minutes later. I flip through the channels and there is not one foreign language station, not even Russian. Everything is in Chinese. I find this odd only because in Russia there are usually English language channels like CNN. In the larger cities, there is even more to choose from.

The next day, construction starts at 6:45 a.m. on the dot so it is a good thing I am an early riser.  I read some of the “translations” of instructions in the room:

“Have the drink and foodstuff in mini-bar…settle account in lump in the total platform while checking out.”

“Please store the valuables of yourself in the safety box at the Front Desk.”

The room service menu includes an Exquisite Cold Dish called “self-control belly.” I don’t order room service while here (the breakfast buffet is huge and I find a wonderful bakery where I buy buns and rolls to snack on) but if I had, I definitely would have ordered this to see what it was.

Today, I head first for the area that used to be called Modiagau. The area across the Modiagau River was a Russian neighborhood in the 1920’s, but, as the homes where the Ukhtomskiy family lived in Harbin have long ago all been razed, I am left to seek out the remaining churches where they worshipped. The neighborhood church was St. Alexis. The funeral service for my great-aunt Maria, who died of typhoid fever in 1921, was held there. At the time, the Ukhtomskiys lived only a block or so away. They later moved to Noviy Gorod (New City), another section of Harbin. St. Alexis was reconstructed in the early 1930’s and that church still stands today. As always I walk, to get a feel for the city. It is a long way, and perilous. At certain places, it seem impossible to cross major roadways. There are no crosswalks nor underpasses. I eventually end up back at the railway station and there is an underpass there to get across the impossibly wide thoroughfare. It really looks like a bomb shelter – very dark and creepy but I follow the crowd and end up where I need to be – on the other side.

I reach Hongbo Square – a sort of central location with, yes, a huge shopping complex, and then head up “Guogel” Street (on my English language map) and Fendou Lu (on my Russian language map). Whatever the name, it leads me to St. Alexis Church. The Modiagau River itself is dry. I must be constantly vigilant crossing the streets. If a driver is making a right turn, he feels no need to stop for the red light – after all, he is turning off the street, why should he pay attention to a red light on it? I almost get run over this way.

Entrance to Hongbo Square

There are piles of cabbage and leeks lying randomly on the streets. They are uncovered and appear to be lying directly on the concrete sidewalk. I think of the vegetables I had for breakfast. They included cabbage. Although I have no problem with seeing vegetables piled in carts in the countryside, seeing them lying directly on a city sidewalk with the constant traffic and dirty exhaust right there, dogs running by, feces everywhere and people (men and children) regularly peeing on the street, makes me a tad queasy.

I round a corner and see the church. It is of red brick and is in the middle of a large square. There is a stage nearby as if there is going to be some kind of a performance. It is now a Catholic church. It is a beautiful building but the interior no longer resembles that of an Orthodox Church. Inside, there are steps up from the door leading up to the main floor where there are pews. A young couple is there talking to a church official. They appear to be discussing plans for their wedding.

St. Alexis Church in Modiagau

St. Alexis Church

St. Alexis Church

This neighborhood, of course, like all the old neighborhoods, is completely new, with highrise buildings and apartment houses. There is nothing left of the old city here except the church.

I head back down to the main street (Bolshoy Prospekt in old Harbin). It is now Dong Dazhijie and is insanely busy with traffic, constructions sites, and crowds of people selling items on the sidewalk. Sometimes the sidewalk is missing for long periods of time and I put my life in my hands walking along construction fencing. I am now headed for Pokrovsky Church. The old Russian cemetery used to surround it but now the church is in the middle of huge construction site. This is the church where funeral services were held for my great grandparents. I know all this because I have clippings from the newspaper of the time with their obituaries. Pokrovsky Church is also the only functioning Russian Orthodox Church in Harbin. I am amazed and pleased that it has been preserved. Apartments houses hem it in on one side and the construction site on the other. The only way to get to it is to walk down a narrow alley way.  It is locked unfortunately. I touch the brick exterior and stand on the steps. Despite the strange and inappropriate environment that surrounds it now, its walls seem to exude history. This was one of the centers of Russian life in Harbin, where my grandmother and mother were both born and where the Ukhtomskiy family lived for many years in exile. My grandfather would have walked up these steps.

Pokrovsky Church

Pokrovsky Church

Entrance of church

My last major stop of the day is the place which used to be the New (Russian) Cemetery. I am aware that cemetery was desecrated, the graves obliterated, the crosses and markers removed, and the entire area made into an amusement park. Both my great grandparents and my great-aunt were buried here but their graves are gone now as is any indication that they ever lived and died here. Supposedly, some graves were relocated to a cemetery outside of town at the behest of the remaining families. But there was no one left in Harbin to see about the Ukhtomskiys so I am denied the right to visit the graves of my ancestors.

Building of a complex that includes a Buddhist temple

I walk and walk down the street and finally reach the end of it. There is a large pedestrian area with what appears to be a rather new and beautiful Buddhist Temple. There are disabled people here begging for money – something I have not seen up to this point in China. As I approach the amusement park, I see a huge ferris wheel. The entrance to the amusement park is actually the bell tower of the church that once stood there. The cemetery Church is just inside, still standing, but forlorn. It is a pretty place, lined with trees but it is difficult for me to stomach. The church building itself is now part of the amusement park. There is a woman standing outside of it beckoning to people to come and buy tickets. For some reason, “haunted house” music is playing. This is really odd. When I was in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 2002, the haunted house exhibit had a facade made to look like Mount Rushmore. I was pretty insulted about that as an American. Here, I am more devastated than insulted. The woman capers around and puts on 3D glasses to entice me to come in. I can’t stand it and leave.

Entrance to amusement park – the bell tower

Church at  cemetery – now an attraction

The bell tower from inside the park

Long view of the church

There is little wind today and by the 3 p.m. the air is hazy and smoggy. Back at the hotel, I encounter my first major bug. It is very large and like nothing I have ever seen. I imagine it crawling over my face at night and kill it with extreme prejudice. Later, I get a call from a young woman I was supposed to meet with. She has moved to Beijing but insists that her colleague will show me around. She is concerned because I don’t speak Chinese (she and I speak Russian). I tell her I don’t want to trouble him since I am getting along okay but she is adamant. True to form, he calls me almost immediately and we arrange to meet the following morning.

Post of Russian-built bridge connecting old neighborhoods of “Pristan” (Wharf) and Noviy Gorod (New City)

Harbin scene

I decide to go out to dinner and head for a Russian restaurant (to complete my Russian Harbin experience). It is called Tatos and supposedly has been in business since 1901. The interior is very nice, “old world” with heavy furniture, upholstered in dark green material. The menu is huge. My waitress speaks to me in Russian. She is very pleasant and helpful but the food turns out to be pretty awful. I decide to have a beer (I have abstained from alcohol for most of the trip) and regret it as it is served warm. I order spinach soup and shashlik (barbecued skewered meat) as these seem easy enough to make but the soup is vile – made with scalded milk for some reason – and the meat is underdone.

Tatos Restaurant

It is almost dark outside when I leave and the hazy smoggy air, flashing billboards and masses of people make me think of Blade Runner (the movie). All that is missing are vehicles zipping through the air. Given China’s leaps ahead, this may not be too far off in the future. There is a great and undeniable energy here. I don’t think I have ever felt anything quite like it in all my travels.

It is very cold but there is a photography session going on in the middle of Zhongyang Steet. The young model is dressed in an evening dress that bares her arms and neck.  I feel chilled just looking at her. She is smiling and posing for the camera against the backdrop of Russian-built buildings on what was formerly Kitayaskaya Street in the new Harbin.

Old Harbin

Old Harbin

Old Harbin

Old Harbin

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Around the World in 50 days – Harbin, Part I

Arrival in Harbin

My arrival in Harbin is confusing. I don’t take in much as the train approaches – just an average-looking city with lots of traffic. Even going over the Sungari River somehow doesn’t make an impression. (The Sungari is now called the Songhua but I grew up hearing and reading Sungari).

Bridge over the river Sungari (Songhua)

When we arrive, as I descend from the train to the platform, I see the Dutchmen standing in a group. For a moment, we appear to be the only ones on the platform but then we are overwhelmed by a moving mass of humanity streaming across the platform to the stairs. I am nonplussed and disoriented. Suddenly, a porter approaches me. The Dutchmen wave the porters off but I need all the help I can get and let him take my bag. He sets off and I follow him. When we get to the stairs, he puts the bag on this head. He is not a large man but he does this easily. I feel like a bobbing cork in a sea. He is my lifeboat since I have no clue as to where I am heading. Outside the station, it is no less confusing. In fact, even more so. There are now masses of people, cars, bicycles, honking horns. There are so many people and they are all moving so quickly that I cannot even begin to think to stop and get my bearings. It is disappointing. I pictured arriving in Harbin and savoring the moment of seeing my mother’s birthplace for the first time.

Very quickly, we are stopped by a man who appears to be a taxi driver. For some reason, he and the porter both assume that I want to go to the airport. I have the name of my hotel handy (in Chinese) and this is a good thing since the taxi driver does not read English. Using my phrasebook and sign language (I fold my hands and lay my head on them to mime sleeping), I clarify the situation. He punches 80 into his calculator (Chinese currency is referred to as RMB – Renminbi). This is about $12, excessive I am sure, but I am not in the frame of mind to argue. But I have to pay my porter. He mimes how hard he has worked. I agree – in fact, he has gone way above the call of duty with finding me a taxi driver and helping with communication. I only have a couple of 100 RMB bills so I give him one and hope for the best. He takes the bill and counts out change – 90. I am too flustered to think about it at the moment but later I am stunned by his honesty. He could have given me any amount of change and I wouldn’t have argued.

We cross the street to the driver’s car – there is no cross walk and the cars don’t stop. Luckily they are not going fast here because the driver just walks in front of them assuming they will stop. I follow his lead and pray for the best. The drive to the hotel is equally gasp-producing on my part. For one thing, the taxi driver decides he wants to get to know me better and attempts to communicate, all while navigating through streets jam-packed with vehicles. He even drives the wrong way down a street (deliberately – to avoid another traffic-packed street), all the while chatting and gesticulating. At one point he appears to ask how old I am and shows me 46 on his calculator, pointing to himself.

Then he points to the paper with my hotel name (Friendship Palace) and makes a face and negative gesture. Great, I think. It is a bad hotel. But what can I do? I shrug. When we arrive, I see what he means. The entire hotel is blanketed with construction material and is being renovated. The area near the entrance is filled with construction vehicles and workers. I wonder if the hotel is closed. My taxi driver makes a call to the number listed for the hotel on my paper and has a lengthy conversation. He then motions for us to go inside. The lobby is deserted. The taxi driver has a heated conversation with a young  man standing at what used to be the reception desk. The young man seems bored and uninterested but makes a call. Suddenly, a bellhop shows up. The hotel is apparently open. I have no idea what to make of any of this but need to get my bags out of the car. We go back out and the driver gets them out of the trunk. I hand him 100.  I don’t expect change at this point but he makes a gesture. I wonder if he wants exact change and take out a bunch of bills. The driver takes a fifty, pauses, then snatches another 100 out of my hand , gets in the car and drives away. I feel like I am on candid camera. My hand is still outstretched as he is driving off – it all happens so quickly. I realize this is all my own fault. First rule of travel in new places is not to wave your money around. But disarmed as I was by the honesty or the porter, I let the driver under my radar.  Ah, the fickleness of men – from considering marriage (I assume that was why he was interested in my age and he  apparently decided I was too old) to ripping me off. Welcome to Harbin.

Friendship Palace under construction

I look at the bellhop to see what his take on this is. He is politely disinterested and waiting patiently for me. I follow him back in through the deserted lobby and down a hallway lined with shops to the “temporary” lobby. It is actually very nice inside but all the windows are covered on the outside and the lack of natural light ruins the effect. Then follows a long and annoying period of trying to get a clerk at the reception “table” to acknowledge me and check me in. No one speaks English or Russian and so I can’t ask about this re-modeling situation. It is very early in the morning and I have paid for an extra day due to the early check-in but the pretty and otherwise pleasant young woman at the desk refuses to give me a breakfast ticket for this morning. I am not hungry but it is the principle of the thing.  The I have to give them 400 RMB as a deposit for the room but, since the taxi driver took all my money, I can’t do that. I offer a credit card but they want cash. We settle on a $100 bill.

The exchange “desk” (at the same table) clerk refuses to take rubles – only dollars. I guess they don’t consider Russian money good enough for them. AND, they are “closed.” I have to wait till 9 a.m. Since all she has to do is reach into a drawer and hand me some RMB, I don’t see the point of being closed. “The customer is always right” is not a maxim that has taken hold in Harbin since most of the staff is fairly rude and dismissive of my foreignness and failure to speak Mandarin. I admit I am guilty on this count. Maybe on my next trip. Later, I come back down to inquire about a city tour and this turns out to be impossible also. I am told to check back the next day but I’ve had it at that point and wash my hands of the hotel staff.

But throughout the check-in process, the bellhop has waited patiently for me. I give him my last RMB note when we get to my room. The windows here are also covered up but I can see the silhouette of a man working outside, standing on the construction platform (I am on the 2nd floor). This is very creepy and although the room itself is quite nice, I consider finding another hotel. I call my local “emergency” travel contact and complain thoroughly about the situation. In the end, I decide not to move because the hotel is in a good location, right on the river, and I don’t want to waste any time. I only have three days here and there is much to do. Whether it is because they refused me breakfast or perhaps just to welcome me to Harbin, management sends me fruit plates for the next two days. I am still annoyed but I have to say that the grapes on this plate are the best grapes I have ever eaten in my life. Huge, purple, sweet and bursting with juice. The tangerines and apples aren’t bad either. I am slightly mollified.

A bit of history

In the main lobby of this hotel (the one that is not in use), a huge painting of St. Nicholas Cathedral hangs. St. Nicholas Cathedral was one of the Orthodox churches of Harbin torn down by the PRC government. I wonder about this and see a recurring pattern during my stay. Despite the fact that any history of the city that I read, whether in the museums or in tourist literature, completely ignores the Russian contribution to Harbin’s infrastructure and architecture, the powers-that-be are not shy about promoting Harbin as a tourist destination based on its “unique” architecture. I find it bizarre that they would hang a painting of a church that they themselves destroyed. But it doesn’t stop there. In some literature, the “European” or “cosmopolitan” history of the city are acknowledged but almost nowhere do I see “Russian” despite the fact that the Russian Orthodox churches that are still standing, one of which (St. Sophia’s), is a museum, are celebrated as an important part of Harbin history.

Painting of St. Nicholas Cathedral

Postcard showing St. Nicholas in the 1920's

Going even further, the current line is to condemn the exploitation of the Chinese people by the Russians when the city was built. Of course, nowhere is it mentioned that the Chinese people who live here now are all immigrants from the south. There was no one living here in the early 1900’s, when railroad construction began and the city was first laid out. This was Manchuria and the indigenous people were Manchus. The few people who actually lived in the general area all lived in tiny fishing villages along the river and those that came here from the south to work did so quite eagerly. This history of Harbin is one of business – the railroad, construction, trade, and commerce – and both Russians and Chinese made money here in the early 20th century (at least until the Japanese invasion in 1932). The Manchus are now an official minority in China. This re-writing of history, combined with the exploitation of Russian culture, with no credit given, really colors my view of China during my visit.

I think that the Harbin authorities have done an admirable job in preserving the early 20th century architecture that wasn’t destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I do hope that they continue this preservation as the construction boom here, as elsewhere in China, is intense.  But it is a disservice to all people to skew the facts of history. This city would not be here if it weren’t for the Russians.

Harbin street

Square near Stalin Park

Big Brother

China’s success and growth in the last twenty years conveniently obscures an important little factoid – it is a police state with a totalitarian government. I have never seen more police anywhere in any city than in Harbin (and later, Beijing). They are around en masse everywhere where people gather. I feel extremely “safe” as petty or violent crime seems non-existent (except when stupid tourists wave their money around) but the police are not your friendly neighborhood community policing types. I get stared at a lot in general, which surprise me as I was told there are many Russian students living in Harbin (I see very few Russians or other Europeans). And the staring is not of the friendly variety, especially by the police. When they spot me strolling by, they literally glare as if they dare me to jaywalk or take a photo of something I shouldn’t. Nor do they drop their gaze when I meet theirs. It is disconcerting and unpleasant.

That being said, I have a number of very pleasant encounters: An elderly man intercepts me on a crowded street and sells me a Russian-language map of Harbin (I already bought an English-language one at the hotel). He naturally assumes that I am Russian and we chat for a while.

An interesting juxtaposition

I am supposed to meet up with an acquaintance of a Russian colleague of mine – a Chinese student whose speciality and interest is Russian language and culture.  It is suggested that she might show me around but it turns out she has moved to Beijing to study.  Nevertheless, when I call her, she , in turn, contacts one of her Harbin colleagues (who also speaks Russian) and he shows up at my hotel one day to show me around – just like that.

When I go down to breakfast (referred to as “Western” breakfast but mostly Chinese-style food), the hostess greets me every morning with a smile and hands me a knife and fork to forestall any foolish Western attempt to eat with chopsticks. Given that I was born and raised in San Francisco, and have been eating Chinese food pretty much since birth (my grandmother (also a Russian born in Harbin) would make her “real” version of dishes like sweet and sour pork, which was nothing like the goopy restaurant version), I am moderately capable with chopsticks, but the hostess is so gracious that I decide to play the role of clueless Westerner here.

The hotel is right on the Sungari River and this turns out to be a blessing when I need to take a break from dodging traffic and the overwhelming urban noise (honking, roaring truck engines, construction equipment). The promenade along the river is very attractive with lots of trees and, again, structures from the early 20th century. But this area is named “Stalin Park.” The name grates on me for reasons too obvious and numerous to go into here. I see people fishing on the river – I wonder about eating the fish here. Not long ago, there was a story about a terrible chemical spill into the river which killed fish and contaminated the water.

Boats on the river

The police presence in this particular area is overwhelming. There are a lot of people strolling, gathering, and socializing. It is all very peaceful and serene but there is a large police van parked with flashing lights. When I see it, I imagine something is going on – a demonstration or a rally perhaps? But no, the van is just parked there with the policemen standing around observing the masses. In the evening, I walk past a group gathered to dance ballroom-style in one of the small mini-parks on the promenade. It is quite charming. And yes, there is a policeman standing by in case anyone steps out of line.

When I stop at one of the cottage-like structures lining the promenade and read the sign, I am excited to read that the building was a station house along the wharf built by the  Chinese Eastern Railway in the “Russian architectural style.” Finally, an acknowledgement! As I am busy jotting this down, two policemen that had been sitting on the stairs of the building, get up and walk over to me. They peer at the sign, apparently curious as to what I am writing down so enthusiastically. The younger one stares and smiles at me but it is an aggressive, not a friendly, smile (it doesn’t help that he is missing half of his teeth). I finish taking notes and stroll off but I am irritated. It is as if everything I do is being observed under a microscope. Can I not enjoy the city without police interference? Apparently not. I am a stranger in a strange land and strangers are suspect here.

Old station house on promenade

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Around the World in 50 days – Khabarovsk and to China


Though I am very unhappy about interrupting the flow of my journey with an airline flight, the trip from Krasnoyarsk to Khabarovsk by plane goes smoothly with no dreaded airport delays. Khabarovsk is in the Far East of Russia and is located on the Amur River, which is actually the border between Russia and China in this area. As far as I know, the Ukhtomskiys did not travel to Khabarovsk but it was certainly a center of action and activity during the Civil War. In fact, most of the Russians who ended up emigrating to Harbin or other parts of China were from the Far East and Siberia. The Ukhtomskiys and families from the “European” part of Russia, who retreated with the White Guard troops to Siberia to avoid being arrested or murdered by the Bolsheviks, were in the minority in emigration in China. The Far East and the Maritime Province  (Primoriye) were the last to finally fall to Bolshevik authority and the fighting here was as bitter and terrible as anywhere else in Russia.

I have only a few hours in Khabarovsk as my train for Harbin leaves the evening of the day I arrive. My tour guides meet me at the airport and give me a whirlwind tour of the city before dropping me off at the train station. I like the city enough that I wish I could spend more time here. The city center is a mixture of new construction and restored older buildings. As everywhere else, new churches dominate the skylines. And, as everywhere else, the Civil War monuments glorify the Red victors. As I try to take a photograph of one of these monuments, a street artist approaches Valentina (my tour guide) and myself and asks to draw her. She is not enthusiastic. He then asks if I am her mother and asks to draw me. I am not enthusiastic either. I take his card to be polite and we walk off to the broad staircase leading down to the Amur River.


Civil War Monument

Staircase to the Amur

Valentina tells me that the entire area bordering the river here has been renovated in recent years. It is beautiful and park-like and I can imagine that it is a popular place in warmer weather. The vast river stretches in either direction. It may be the largest river that I have ever seen. Valentina then tells me that it is so polluted that swimming has been banned for the last 10 years and fish caught here are not safe to eat. Perhaps further north, nearer its origins, the water may be cleaner but the combined industrial pollution from Russia and China (a double whammy) has so contaminated the water that the very nice beach we walk on is really good for nothing. Except as a place where one can stare out at the water in regret. Is this the inevitable future of the world, I wonder? I don’t know the success rate of cleaning up rivers that have been contaminated to this degree but the fact is that is no one is even making the attempt to clean it up anyway. The pollution is continuing at full speed. It is hard for me take this in as we walk along it. It is so immense and it would seem, looking at it, that it could feed the entire Far East with the quantity of fish that swim in it. Valentina tells me that there were many species that were unique to the Amur. But it is a poisoned river and that means this poison extends up the food chain. Any animals that consume the fish (if there are any left) are also poisoned. Or maybe entire food chains have died out…




The Amur

Soldiers founded post of Khabarovsk in 1858


War monument with Cathedral in background

It is ironic also because the air seems cleaner here than in the other cities I have visited. We visit another park where there are normally ponds and sculptures of various fantastic figures but the ponds have been drained in preparation for winter. Neptune pokes out of a dry pond-bed. I am shocked to learn that new apartments here are almost as expensive as in Moscow (according to Valentina). Not because this isn’t a nice place to live but I can’t imagine that salaries and wages here are as high as they are in Moscow. 



We do one last loop around the city and drive across the Khabarovsk Bridge that spans the Amur. The surrounding areas and topography are flat and everything is yellow and brown in the cold dry autumn air.


Slow Train to China

My train departs at 9 p.m. I find the platform and walk on and on to find my car. It is, of course, the very last car of the train. This is because most of the rest of the train is going to Vladivostok. In Ussuriisk, my car will be uncoupled and attached to another train going west into China while the rest of it moves off east and south to Vladivostok.

As I wait to board, an Asian man approaches me in curiosity. He, like many people I have spoken with, is astonished that I am taking the train to Harbin. Why? Why not fly, he wonders? I tell him I am doing research but I can tell he doesn’t get it. He is also concerned that I am alone. It is dangerous, he cautions me. I could get robbed, or worse. I must be very careful. This is not a conversation I enjoy having as I stand alone on a dark railway platform but the die is cast, so to speak. I can only go forward. What awaits, awaits.

Then I am approached by a Russian man who asks me to carry a passport to someone waiting in Ussuriisk. I think not.

When I board, it appears to me that I am the only non-Chinese passenger. The attendants are Russian though. I chat with one of my compartment-mates, a young Chinese man who speaks Russian. He was approached by the Russian man outside to take the passport and agreed. He wonders out loud if perhaps he shouldn’t have. Most of the people on this train car are headed to Ussuriisk, he tells me. We will arrive there at 5 a.m. or so and stop over for three hours  (this is why it takes so long to get to Harbin – without all the constant stops, we could get there in 12 hours or so but I am not slated to arrive until about 7 a.m., the day after tomorrow). He looks at my English-Mandarin phrase book with interest and then asks about pronunciation of the English word “red.” When Russians say it, it sounds like “ret” which sounds very different to him. We are then joined by a Korean young man who is very unfriendly and then a young Chinese woman. I am definitely the odd man out here, so to speak, since neither of them speak Russian. But it is all moot as everyone lies down and goes to sleep as soon as we depart.

I am awakened in the very early morning hours  by a commotion outside the compartment. The door is opened and closed several times. I realize that I will probably not be getting any more sleep. I then hear the umistakeable sound of a drunken Russian voice. A man is yelling at someone – “This is Russia! This is Russia! Don’t give me any of your bah bah!”(this is followed by this person’s imitation of what he thinks Chinese sounds like). I find out  later that the Korean guy somehow ran afoul of this idiot but, at the moment, I am confused as  he (the Korean) re-enters the compartment, takes his bag and leaves. The Chinese fellow is also up and sitting on the young woman’s bunk and looking very nervous. She is either asleep or pretending to be. Suddenly, the door is slammed open and the xenophobic drunken Russian enters, rudely sits down on my bunk and demands to know where our friend is (the Korean guy). The young man stammers that he doesn’t know and that he is not his friend.

I have had enough at this point and sit up and ask the Russian why he is sitting on my bunk? I add that he is disturbing me. He looks at me blearily (he is in his twenties and would be nice-looking but booze and cigarettes are already blurring and distorting his features). He asks if I am the interpreter? I say that I am not an interpreter, that I am simply traveling and trying to get some sleep and repeat that he is disturbing me. My Chinese friend chimes in and says that he doesn’t know the Korean fellow and doesn’t know where he went. The drunken Russian mulls this over, then reaches over and pats him on the cheek (I wince when he does this because for all I know he is reaching out to hit him – the situation is so bizarre that I expect anything to happen). The Russian’s mood has mellowed, he now wants to be friends, even apologizes to the young man (but not to me, which actually really annoys me), gets up, and stumbles out. We are all relieved. The young man comments that the fellow is drunk. I say, drunk or not, he is a pig. I lock the door but we are now approaching Ussuriisk. Thankfully, it seems like almost everyone gets off the train. Later, I see only one other person in the car apart from myself and the young Chinese woman.

I am not really able to sleep anymore, however, and to top it off, as always in Russia, the bathrooms are locked while the train is at a station. We are not allowed to get off the train as we have moved away from the platform. I go to the attendant and persuade her to unlock one – I complain about the earlier ruckus and how I didn’t want to leave my compartment and she is sympathetic.

The young woman wakes up about 8:30 a.m. or so (we are still at the station) and asks why we are not moving. She seems to think that I am an authority and we communicate in sign language and her very few words of Russian and my phrasebook. We finally move off but stop very frequently (which means that the bathrooms are almost always locked). I am tired and not hungry but my compartment-mate insists that I share her fruit with her.

We finally arrive at Grodekovo. Here, the train has to be placed on narrower gauge tracks. Russia’s tracks are wider than China’s. This process takes about four to five hours. Plus, we have to go through Russian customs so we have to remove all of our baggage from the train. Then, after we finish here, we will board, travel for a half hour or so, take all our baggage and get off again to go through Chinese customs.

I stow my luggage at the station in Grodekovo and cross over the train tracks to Pogranichnaya. I am familiar with the name of this town as one of men who were put on trial with my grandfather, a fellow named Boris Shepunov, worked as a police investigator for the Japanese police here in the 1930’s.  Back then, there were apparently no such elaborate requirements to cross the border here from China into Russia and back. The official history is that the Reds were victorious here as elsewhere and that by the 1930’s they were collectivizing land so I am unclear as to how the Japanese were able to operate here with impunity. They had occupied Manchuria in 1932 but, as far as I knew, any attempts to violate the border were met with resistance by the Soviet military. I get no answer to this question. (If anyone reading this can shed light on this, please feel free to comment).

Pogranichnaya war monument

War memorials

This area was also one where Cossacks historically settled and there is a monument here to Gavriil Shevchenko, a Cossack who fought for the Reds. (The ones who fought for the Whites are charaterized as the “rich” Cossacks).

Memorial to G.M. Shevchenko

There is an outdoor market right near the train station but there is nothing of interest for me – cheap looking clothes, linens and other items. Eveything is made in China. I wander around and find the town war monuments but am tired and out of sorts and eventually go back to the station and read in the waiting room.


Two of the train cars from our train are being attached to a Chinese train here. The other car is a “luxury” class and there are four Dutchmen on it. We chat while waiting to go through customs. They were also traveling across Russia and are loaded down with cameras. I haven’t spoken English in a while and it seems odd to do so now. We are in agreement that Grodekovo/Pogranichnaya is not our idea of a happenin’ town. One of the Russian officials hears us speaking English and asks if I am the Dutchmen’s interpreter. I guess the only reason for a lone woman to be traveling in this area is if she is an interpreter.

As we wait, a train arrives from China. Russians who cross the border to buy Chinese goods are returning and have to go through customs. They have immense duffel bags filled to bursting with stuff. This goes on for a while. I see this stuff when I get to China – clothes, plastic goods, toys – piles of it lying on the sidewalks for sale, all poorly made and cheap looking. I envision it all discarded and cluttering our garbage dumps, floating in the ocean, miles and miles of brightly colored synthetic crap, drowning us all.

Finally, we are directed to customs. Once again, it is one of the easiest customs check I have ever had. A smiling official looks at my passport with interest, happily chats with me, and stamps my form without even glancing at my bags. The immigration booth is manned by a young man in training. I expect to have to show all of my hotel registration forms (I managed to get them in most places but forgot a couple so am wondering if I will have a problem). But the young man and his training officer don’t even mention these and simply stamp my passport.  They are also both very  pleasant, even waving goodbye to me as I walk out the door. I have no time to reflect on this momentous moment – I am now leaving Russia. The train is waiting and my Chinese friend waves at me from her car but as I get on I realize that this is not where I should be. She is going to Suifenhe, just across the border, and I am going on to Harbin. She is happy and cheerful now, feeling at home and wants me to join her. But I am directed back to my old car. This train car is filled with wooden benches and is manned by Chinese attendants. I have to make my way back to the “Russian” car.

When I get there, I see I am now the only passenger. (The Dutchmen also have their car to themselves). I realize when talking to the attendant that they probably  never have passengers on this leg of the journey. She explains to me that once we pass through Chinese customs, we will stop for several hours at Suifenhe. I can either get off the train and see the town or stay on board. If I get off, I will not be able to re-board till they return as they are also all leaving. If I stay on, I will be locked in. She implies that there is not much for me to do in Suifenhe but it is up to me. I decide to stay on board since I am exhausted from no sleep. Once this is settled, she asks me curiously about my travels. We chat a bit. She says that Russian train personnel now get training in the Chinese language and schools are starting to teach Chinese and Japanese rather than French and German, especially in the Far East. After all, what good are those latter languages now? The future is Asia, she says.

Once we cross the border into China, the time is set back three hours. These constant time changes (there was a time difference between Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk as well) are wreaking havoc with my internal clock. As we travel, I peer at the landscape. Unfortunately the windows are very dirty so there is not much point in trying to take photographs. The area is hilly, brown and yellow. There are very few trees and all of them are bare or with dead leaves. We go through several tunnels bored into the hills. I see few settlements of any kind. At some point, we cross over into China and an armed Chinese soldier, dressed in camouflage, boards the train. I had just been taking photos through the window right before he boarded and I hide my camera. I remind myself that China is a police state whatever PR they like to spout and I should be more cautious. This point is driven home to me at customs.

My first view of China

When we arrive at the customs point,  a uniformed military officer is standing at the door of the train and the expression on his face can only be described as a sneer. Welcome to China. I follow the attendant, up and down stairs lugging my bags. The Dutchmen and I are the only foreigners so the process is fast but very unpleasant. The immigration official assumes I am Russian and almost falls over backward when I hand him my passport. Perhaps this is a first for him because he discusses it excitedly with his colleague. A debate ensues as to where to place the stamp.

At customs, I have three, count ’em, three officials closely examining me and my passport. I am directed to open my backpack and purse and to remove everything. The customs official in charge is a tall, arrogant-looking man. He grabs my Kindle and motions for me to switch it on. He then press buttons randomly. I show him how it works and wonder if he is going to take it away but he sets it aside. He also closely examines my Blackberry. I have to unwrap everything but once I do they lose interest  (I have my breakable souvenirs wrapped in paper). They giggle inanely at my underwear. Apparently, they are hoping for contraband but I disappoint them. Once finished, they simply turn away and direct their attention to the Dutchmen. The arrogance is insufferable.

I suppose there is nothing unusual in this (in fact, upon my return to the US of A, I get similar rude and unpleasant treatment at customs) but everything about it (the vaguely threatening attitude, the suspicious looks, and highhanded manner) reminds me of my visit to the Soviet Union in 1982 and also reminds me that I am entering a country where human rights are not really on anyone’s agenda. I know Russia’s track record on this is less than stellar but, for some reason, maybe because of the suspicious looks and almost universal sneers  here (which were completely absent in Russia) I really don’t feel welcome in China at all.

As promised, the attendants leave me in the train car in Suifenhe and tell me not to worry when it is moved as it is going to be pushed onto some siding. I feel relieved to be alone finally and look foward to getting some uninterrupted sleep. It is all a bit surreal – I am completely alone in a railway car parked on some siding in a remote town in China. The oddness of it doesn’t stop me from going to sleep though.



 I wake early as I want to see the approach to Harbin. In all the accounts I have read, Manchuria is described as a beautiful place with mountains, rivers, beautiful flora and dramatic landscapes but I am very disappointed in what I see. Perhaps all of that beauty is located on the other side of Harbin (to the west) because here, approaching from the east, is some of the most desolate and barren landscape that I have ever seen. As it is fall, it is possible that it is just the time of year that makes it look this barren. At any rate, it is a far cry from what I was expecting.

Approaching Harbin

I wonder what awaits me in Harbin, my mother’s birthplace.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Around the World in 50 days – Krasnoyarsk

The train trip from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk is 18 hours long. My compartment-mate this time is a young woman. She almost misses the train because of the heavy traffic on the way to the train station. She is not very talkative and I mostly stare out the window at the Siberian plain stretching north. It has not snowed significantly yet and the landscape seems bare at times, with its occasional stands of birch trees, at least compared to the far north. My great grandparents would have been looking at this same expanse as they traveled east. It is now mid-October and they would have arrived in Krasnoyarsk at approximately this same time. I have a photo dated October 27 of them already in Krasnoyarsk . Despite everything, they were still optimistic at this point, convinced that the White Guard would be victorious in the Civil War and that they would be going home soon. Krasnoyarsk was a city where the families of the military men fighting on the front  lived in 1919. My great-grandfather worked for the Red Cross and oversaw distribution of food for the huge numbers of arriving refugees.

Krasnoyarsk is a combination of two words “Krasniy” (red) and “yar” (steep cliff). The area is known for this topography and is popular with rock-climbing enthusiasts. Approaching Krasnoyarsk, the scenery is beautiful and close to the city, there are newly built large homes.

As we near our destination, Yuliya, my fellow traveler, who is returning home to Krasnoyarsk, chats with me a bit. After I tell her a little about myself, she gives me an Omsk key-chain as a souvenir. I only have postcards of San Francisco, having given out the few items that I brought as gifts, but she seems pleased with them. I ask her about taxi rates from the train station to the center of town but she has no idea since she never taken a taxi.

When we arrive in Krasnoyarsk, we get off the train together. Her parents are picking her up and I start to say goodbye as I head off for a new transportation adventure but she stops me and says that they will give me a ride. I am surprised. After all, we spoke very little. I feel that I am imposing, but her father, a man who looks like he has worked very hard all his life, takes my bag and marches up the stairs. I chase after them, pleased at this karmic turnaround. In one place, because I am a stranger, I get ripped off. In another, again because I am stranger, I am treated as an honored guest. I offer money for gas but it is refused. In the end, I give her my card and tell her that if she ever has occasion to come to California, to give me a call.

Once again, I am staying in the center of town, at the Krasnoyarsk Hotel, not far from my points of interest. This is a good thing as the cold is becoming more biting and my California bones are beginning to feel it. I am not enamored of Krasnoyarsk upon arrival. The air is thick, polluted, gritty and almost visible. I smell smoke and exhaust. It is late afternoon and the fading light gives everything a smoggy gray cast. Once again, traffic is insane on the main thoroughfares – fast, loud and dangerous with buses belching thick black smoke.

The Yenisei River from the hotel

After I get my bearings and take care of various administrative matters, I search out a building that is now a school complex. My great aunts, Natalia and Maria, were both teachers and perhaps they taught here at some point. I then return to the hotel and realize I am starving.  I decide to live it up, and, for the first time in Russia, I order room service. I order the local fish (Omun) and pelemeni. Pelemeni are generally referred to as Siberian meat dumplings as they are a dish that originated here. I grew up eating them and feel that I should at least try the “real” version. They are the best pelemeni I have ever eaten – served in a steaming light broth with sour cream. After the bracing cold outside, I can think of nothing better to eat.

School complex

On television this evening, there is a discussion about the safety of drinking water. One expert opines, when asked if the water is safe, that  although the human body is able to adjust to almost anything,  if Russians continue drinking water with such high levels of chemicals, in 30 to 50 years, there won’t be anybody left to drink the water anyway. I go to sleep with this unpleasant thought in my head.

The  next morning, my opinion of Krasnoyarsk changes for the better. The air is clearer and there are patchy clouds in the blue sky. My hotel overlooks the great Yenisei River and today it sparkles in the sunlight. I order a car for the next morning to take me to the airport. Due to the problems with train tickets, I must deviate from the path taken by my great grandparents. In 1920, they left Krasnoyarsk by train for Harbin. That was my original plan but since I couldn’t get a ticket, I have to fly to Khabarovsk and take the train south from there to Harbin, arriving from the opposite direction.


My primary goal in Krasnoyarsk is to find the Seminary where my great-aunt Maria was married. I have a 1919 postcard of the building and found the address on the Internet. I even have the invitation to her wedding (in January of 1919), which took place at the Church of Michael the Archangel, within the Seminary. It was a simple ceremony and people were invited to tea afterwards at the Artillery Depot Headquarters office of the Special Heavy Artillery (Тяжелая артиллерия особого назначения) group. This was wartime after all.

Maria and George Koltunovsky 1919

Wedding invitation

Krasnoyarsk is a mixture of the old and new. Some of the older buildings seem to be in pretty good shape here and, like everywhere in Russia, there is a substantial amount of new construction. Other older buildings, made of wood, look very frail. Perhaps the Ukhtomskiy family lived in one of those homes.

Old and new

On my way to the Seminary, I come across the Bishopric Building and Church. It dates from the turn of the 20th century, about the same time the Seminary was built, and was built by the same architect. Later, I see an old photo of it in the museum and I must say that it has been preserved very well.

Bishopric Building and Church

Old photo of Bishopric Building

I approach the Seminary with some excitement. This is a place where I know the Ukhtomskiys actually spent time. It is a huge building, constructed of red brick. Unlike the Bishop’s House, it seems to be in some disrepair. Next to it is a huge parking lot, empty but for one vehicle, and what looks like a guard shack. The parking lot is behind a tall iron gate but the gate is open and a couple of people are loading up their car with something from an outbuilding. I follow the maxim that is always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and walk through the gate to get a better photo of the building. They look at me with some apprehension but don’t say anything and attend to their business. This works for me. After taking some photos,  I see a small sign on the building. It reads “Military command headquarters.” Uh-oh. My vague intention of gaining access to the building fades away. But perhaps this is an old sign? I see no soldiers and the building almost looks abandoned. I exit the parking lot (the people continue ignoring me) and debate as to whether I should keep taking photos. I can’t stop myself and walk around to the other side (it is situated along the Yenisei River and it is quite scenic). As I continue to take photos , it dawns on me that there is barbed wire on top of the wall surrounding the “Seminary.” As I return the way I came, I see a young very hostile-looking soldier standing by the wall and smoking. The parking lot is now empty and the gate is locked again. I imagine that the soldier is eyeing me suspiciously and  I stroll away casually, wondering if someone is going to chase after me for taking photos of a military installation. Why turn a historic building like this into military center? One would think there would be plenty of other options available.

The Seminary

Barbed wire

View of the Yenisei

Post-party trash

Along one side, the Seminary-now-military-command-center is bordered by Gorky Central Park.  I decide to head there and pass two more young soldiers, dressed in camouflage,  headed towards the building and carrying a large metal food container (perhaps they were sent out for lunch). The park turns out to be a sort of amusement park and I decide against it. Too much to do and too little time.

Outside stage on the river

Cathedral of the Holy Annunciation

In Krasnoyarsk, like in Omsk, there are loudspeakers on the main street and one can enjoy classical music or be annoyed by an announcer’s voice, depending on the time of day, I suppose. I wonder if these were set up in Soviet times to propagandize the populace. Or is this something new? Any public address system like this is suspect in my book. It either reeks of an Orwellian controlled society or another attempt to brainwash people into buying something (depending on content).

Historic building


This street has had five different names

The Jolly Roger


I stop off at the Krasnoyarsk Regional Museum (the building is constructed to resemble and Egyptian temple for some reason) to check out their Civil War exhibit. As usual, the Civil War is hardly mentioned. There is an interesting exhibit that has photos of turn of the century Krasnoyarsk, including the schools, and there is a display of postcards where I recognize one that is in my collection, purchased here in 1919 by my great-aunt. I finally find one small display, actually hidden behind a sliding panel, that has some photos of  Admiral Alexander Kolchak. It is tiny and one of the four photos shows a White Guard officer standing by the body of a revolutionary that has just been hanged. The exhibit includes a map showing Kolchak’s Polar Expedition (early in his career) and a revolver that supposedly belonged to one of his officers.


Previous inhabitant of the area

Samovars galore

Ship of old

Cathedral in pre-revolutionary times

Cathedral destroyed 1936

Krasnoyarsk postcard

Before leaving Krasnoyarsk, I must visit the statue of Nikolay Rezanov. Rezanov traveled to California to the place that is now San Francisco in 1806 and fell in love (as the legend goes) with he Spanish Presidio Commandant’s daughter, Conchita. This romance is famous in Russia and poems and operas have been written about it. In 2010, A co-author and I published a photographic history of the Russian community in San Francisco  (Russian San Francisco, an Images of America series book published by Arcadia), and we began our story with this famous romance.


The sad ending to the tale is that Rezanov left Conchita with a promise to return but fell ill (and/or fell from his horse) during his journey home to St. Petersburg to ask permission to marry her (since they were of different faiths). He died and was buried here in Krasnoyarsk and, later, a statue was raised to him. The other side of the story is that Rezanov was in his forties and Conchita was only 15 years old and his efforts to woo her had something to do with getting a trade agreement for Russia. So the more cynical version is that it was all about economics and politics and very little about romance.  Whatever the case, it was apparently the real thing for Conchita since she never married and took the veil after learning of his death.

Rezanov’s statue is on Mir (Peace) Square. The place is packed with vehicles and I almost get run down several times by people looking for parking both in the parking lot itself and on the sidewalk. I come very close to belting a woman who literally misses me by a hairbreadth while parking her car on the sidewalk.

Statue of Rezanov

The newly built Vinogradovsky Bridge links the city to Tamyshev Island. It is so new that it is not even on my map. It is a lovely pedestrian bridge and I follow the crowd that is taking the afternoon air across to the other side. Beautiful as it is, I walk briskly as the wind-chill factor here is significant. This is Siberian cold for me. Everyone else looks quite comfortable. The island appears to be undeveloped and a place where people go fishing or to enjoy nature. It is probably wonderful in warmer weather. I would like to spend more time in this city but I have to stick to my schedule if I am to see everything I want to see on this journey. The Far East awaits.

Vinogradsky Bridge


Tamyshev Island


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Around the World in 50 days – Omsk

On the Train from Samara to Omsk

My journey across Siberia begins in Samara. The cab driver who takes me to the train station in Samara is a rap music aficionado with a shaved head. He delivers me to the newly built and modern station post-haste so I have a while to wait for my train, which arrives at 11 p.m.

When I board the train, I find a young military officer, Roman, in my compartment. He is headed to Novosibirsk to meet up with his wife. Like most Russian men, he is very helpful with my bags, stowing the large one for me up top.  Since it is late at night, I boarded wearing my “train clothes” (sweat pants and T-shirt) so all that is left to do is wait for my bed linens and go to sleep. This leg of my journey, from Samara to Omsk, will take about a day and a half.

At 5 a.m., another passenger joins us. He makes remarkably little noise as he climbs into a top bunk but I am a light sleeper. Roman, however, not only doesn’t wake but doesn’t even realize we have a third person in the compartment until later in the morning when the guy wakes up and says “good morning.”

As it turns out, our new compartment-mate (Sergey) is also a military man. He is young, built like a wrestler, and originally from Bashkortostan. He is also very polite but has the arrogance of youth that I’ve come to notice more and more as I get older, combined with a vaguely contrived world-weary cynicism. Sergey is moving to Krasnoyarsk and spent his last night saying goodbye to all his friends. He has an extremely interesting face as his features are Asian but he has fair (closely cropped) hair and light eyes. When he grins, he shows all his teeth. It is a bit ferocious, yet endearing at the same time.

This route is the one taken by my great grandparents as they departed Simbirsk. Their journey began in September but, in view of the wartime conditions and inevitable delays, it probably took them much longer to get to Krasnoyarsk than it will take me. I have timed my trip to see what they would have seen and, during the long hours spent on the train, I stare out the window at the passing landscape.

Our first major stop is Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. The city is built on hills and there is a prominent monument on one of those hills to a national hero of the Bashkirs, Salavat Yulayev, who, in 1773, at the age of 19, joined Emelian Pugachev in his insurrection against Catherine the Great. The monument is a sculpture of Yulayev mounted on a pawing horse (

He fought with the peasant army for two years, was captured and both he and his father were condemned to a life of imprisonment and hard labor. Yulayev lived on for another 25 years and died without seeing freedom again.  He is also revered as a great poet.

Fall is here and, in the landscapes that we pass, the trees are almost bare. Later, as we get to the foothills of the Urals, the leafless trees cling haphazardly to the hillsides along the railway track. Sergey makes a comment at one point about the rather poor condition of the trees and the ecology. “It’s a big country. If we destroy a place, we can just move on to another,” he says.  The houses along the railway are dilapidated. I remember reading that in Czarist times, there were watchmen living along the railway and their houses were located no more than a verst (1.6 kilometers) away from each other. There job was to provide security for the railway and the trains were virtually never out of sight. As we head for the foothills of the Urals, the landscape is varying shades of brown, yellow and gray. There is little green this time of year. The sky, though, captures my attention more than the landscape itself as it vast and also gray, yellow, even white in places, with small patches of blue.

The Urals are ancient mountains and contain huge mineral deposits. With all the mining and industry located here, a lot of environmental damage has been done. Near the cities we will pass later today, Miass and Chelyabinsk, there have been nuclear accidents and environmental pollution. This is another sad chapter in Soviet history. Chelyabinsk is also important historically because it is in that city where the Czechs first clashed with Red Army forces during the Civil War in 1918, overcame them, and began capturing cities along the Trans-Siberian railway.

As I explain to Roman why I am traveling this route, Sergey chimes in and asks if I would like to watch a movie that explores a theory of what happened to the Czar’s gold reserve, captured in Kazan in August of 1918 by the White Guard. Admiral Alexander Kolchak later tried to ship it out across Siberia when he and the armies were retreating. The Bolsheviks managed to recover most of it when Kolchak was handed over to them by the Czechs and the French in January of 1920 but a good quantity had been spent, some stolen, and some was unaccounted for. This gave rise to a myriad of theories of what had actually happened to the gold.

I enthusiastically agree to watch the movie and Sergey pulls out his laptop and plays it for me. It is called Kolchak’s Gold Reserve and the theory it espouses is that the Reds mined a cliff side at Lake Baikal to block the tracks so that the Czech train with the gold (purportedly taken by the Czechs who had handed over only a small part of the gold to the Bolsheviks and filled the rest of the boxcars they left with metal and junk) would be forced to stop but the Reds set off the explosion too late and the train itself, carrying 200 tons of gold, went off the tracks into Lake Baikal. The film shows attempts to find the gold in the depths using a submarine. All these attempts have been fruitless and the place itself is said to be cursed. I have read and heard many stories about this gold. A person who claimed to have known my grandfather (who fought in Kolchak’s armies), in the Siberian labor camp where my grandfather died, is quoted in a newspaper article as saying that my grandfather was one of the people who brought the gold reserve to Harbin. I find this highly unlikely since most historians agree that the Bolsheviks did actually get most of the reserve back and I have never read that the gold train reached Harbin. There is a lot written about my grandfather that appears to be completely fabricated.

As out train continues east,  I periodically smell something burning. It is sharp and unpleasant, like rubber. Roman says it is trash burning. Both he and Sergey cough a great deal (not specifically because of the air quality). I have had people coughing near and around me since St. Petersburg and when I say “coughing,” I mean  the hacking painful-sounding kind. One of the people I met with in Ulyanovsk told me that he coughs like that from September to May. When I cough that way, I consider myself to be gravely ill and even at death’s door but  here it is not considered anything unusual.

Our train car has its usual complement of idiots. This time it is two  guys, wearing shorts (I don’t see that a lot in Russia) who are apparently spending the entire trip drinking vodka. The attendant gets fed up with them and threatens to call the police. In Chelyabinsk, where we arrive at 8:30 p.m. or so, they get off the train (it is not cold, strangely, so they are quite comfortable in their shorts), and buy another bottle. The attendant scolds them again but they are too drunk to even pay attention, though one of them tries to buy her off with a small gift or treat. She stares at him coldly and doesn’t take it. She threatens to throw them off the train. They don’t seem too worried and get back on.

We pass Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan at 5:30 a.m. so I miss my short sojourn into this country completely. Peeking outside a bit later I see bright blue sky and yellow fields stretching to the horizon. This segment of Kazakhstan juts north and the Trans-Siberian railroad crosses it so we must pass through a customs stop. No one wakes us, however, and we arrive in Omsk later that morning.


I read a warning about Omsk taxi drivers on the Internet prior to the trip and both Roman and Sergey warn me that I will get ripped off because I am a foreigner. So I am well-prepared. But I still get ripped off. I agree on a price of 400 rubles with a guy. I know this is way too much but bargaining wearies me and I am in a hurry. I have little time in Omsk and much to do. He takes me to the cab (he finds the customers at the station exit and brings them to the cab) and we depart. I don’t like the driver right away. He is chatty and intrusive. When we get to the hotel, he informs me that the price is actually 500 rubles since the poor fellow who carted my luggage should at least get 100 rubles. I am annoyed at his attitude and protest. I also point out that he has an icon on his dashboard and it doesn’t bode well for him if he rips off passengers. He insists he is not ripping me off. It is only fair, he says, that the poor hard-working fellow who carted my luggage gets some money. I briefly consider making a scene just on principle but it is too much trouble and hand him 500. The problem is that I don’t have change anyway so the question is a bit moot. He gets my bag out of the trunk and hands it to me with a slimy smile.

“God will punish you” (Бог накажет), I mutter as I turn away. This threat is from my childhood. I was on the receiving end when my mother would suspect me of doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.  I do get satisfaction from saying it. Although 100 rubles is only a little over $3, the cab driver’s demeanor is irritating and insulting and I enjoy the image in my head of a godly hand of justice reaching down, grabbing him by the nape of the neck, and shaking him.

Apart from this little unpleasant moment, my stay in Omsk is quite wonderful with Omsk’s other residents making up for the poor character of this particular fellow. I am staying at the Hotel Mayak, located right where the Om and Irtysh Rivers meet. The hotel is fairly new and very clean. The room, as usual, is very warm, has nice IKEA-like furnishings, and large floor to ceiling windows looking out over the river.

The Om River

River embankment by hotel

The Irtysh

I have no time to waste and depart immediately to find my points of interest.  The city has its fair share of older and restored buildings. The one that immediately interests me is the building that housed Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s headquarters  while he was Supreme Ruler of the White Government in Omsk in 1918-1919. It is now a part of the Vrubel Museum, the main building of which is located in another part of town.

Historic building – now a hotel

Kolchak’s headquarters – now Vrubel Museum building

When I visit the museum, the power is out but the woman at the front desk allows me to come in anyway. I am not as much interested in the exhibits as I am in the building itself. There are old photographs of Omsk on the stairway leading up to the main exhibit hall. They show what the rooms looked like when Kolchak had his administration here – parquet floors, marble columns, elegant furnishings. They don’t look like that anymore. As I enter the first exhibit hall, I am greeted by the room monitor. When she finds out I am from out of town, and the U.S. to boot, she gives me an impromptu tour. I tell her I am interested in the fact that this was Kolchak’s headquarters. Her reaction is interesting. She points out that the rooms of the building were stripped of their “trappings of wealth” and everything was destroyed. The works of art that are on display now are kind of random, sent from a museum in St. Petersburg or taken from the main Vrubel Museum in town.

The woman tells me that now people are referring to the revolution as a coup (переворот) but, at the same time, there is resistance to putting up a monument of Kolchak. Kolchak is, however, on everyone’s mind here. On the way to the hotel from the train station, there were numerous signs advertising Kolchak’s Restaurant.

I am told that the man who worked in the museum for many years after the revolution dedicated his life to establish it but was removed from his post in the Stalin era. He had, after all, fought with Kolchak during the Civil War but had chosen to remain here (rather than fleeing). She thinks he was shot in 1937. At one point, in a whisper, she says that “now everyone knows that there is a hereafter so those who suffer here are rewarded there (pointing to the heavens), and those who do bad things here, well, who knows what awaits them there…”

I walk through all the rooms. Kolchak’s administration and staff were in rooms 4 and 5 and room 5 is currently not even used as an exhibit hall. Empty display cases stand in it. They would be much better off re-creating the rooms as they were and making this into a real Civil War Museum.

View 1 of Room 5 prior to “remodeling”

View 2 of Room 5 prior to “remodeling”

Room 5 today

Kolchak walked here

My room monitor friend understands my interest. When she sees me taking a photo of the stairway, she nods and smiles, “Yes, he (Kolchak) walked on those stairs.”

Right outside this building is an area dedicated to the Civil War. As in Samara, those who are honored are the Bolsheviks who died either fighting or who were shot by Kolchak’s White Guard.

Monument to revolutionaries

I. V. Koloskov and K. M. Shamov – shot by Kolchak forces 14 November 1919

Right down the street, I find Kolchak’s Restaurant. His image, along with that of other White generals, Lenin, and Czar Nicholas II, graces the facade. I don’t know what to make of this odd mishmash of historical figures. What would Admiral Kolchak think if he saw this? And what would Lenin himself think?

Kolchak Restaurant

Ad for “Old Omsk” restaurant where it is always a holiday

As I continue back towards my hotel, I take a detour across the large parking lot beside it to examine a historical-looking building. Granted, the signs outside are advertising a bridal shop and a gun store (an interesting combination), among other things, but, as I get closer, I see a plaque and it reads in part, “Alexander Vasiliyevich Kolchak, Supreme Ruler of Russia, scholar, researcher, and admiral, lived in this house in 1919.” This house is not noted anywhere in my tourist map (which is quite thorough in listing all historic landmarks). If I hadn’t decided to wander over this way, I would have missed it completely. This really makes my day. I picture him strolling here with Anna Timireva, his great love, along the banks of the Irtysh. This is fantasy of course. I don’t even know that they saw each other while he was in Omsk as he was busy trying to win the war.

Kolchak lived here

I fall asleep late that night as there is a disco somewhere in one of the adjoining buildings and I can hear the music and loud laughing and yelling.  When I wake and look at the clock it says 8 o’clock but it is pitch dark outside. I panic, thinking I have slept for 18 hours. Leaping out of bed I pull the curtain further open and see a tiny sliver of light on the horizon. The sun is just coming up.

After a hearty breakfast (cold and hot dishes, salads, breads, fruit, pastries), I head for the city’s largest landmark, the Dormition Cathedral, which has the largest cupola that I have ever seen. It is a beautiful day, the sky bright blue, and the Cathedral positively sparkles in the sunlight. It was demolished by the Soviets and re-built a few years ago. On a wall opposite the cathedral, a large painted sign urges the revival of spiritual tradition. Across the street, there is a monument to those repressed under Stalin. Monuments to revolutionaries, monuments to Stalin’s victims, messages urging the people to return to old traditions…Russians have a lot to think about today, if they choose to do so.

Dormition Cathedral

Monument to the repressed


I find the oldest building in Omsk, now a government office of some kind. As I am taking a photo, an elderly man appears out of nowhere, startling me into almost dropping my camera. He shouts out that in the old days, I would have been arrested as a CIA spy for taking pictures of government buildings! I protest that this is a historical landmark but he is not listening. He is harmless but creepy as he goes on and on about security and American espionage. I seem to have made his day. When he was growing up and during most of his life, the lines were clearly drawn. The enemy was the United States and constant vigilance was necessary. But who is the enemy now? I get the idea he would be happy to see me hauled away in irons for questioning.

Oldest building in Omsk

Have YOU visited the new military exhibit?

In the busier sections of town, there are constant recorded admonishments (like at the airport) not to pick up abandoned items, combined with advertising blurbs. Open-air public address systems like this remind me very much of “1984” although the messages are a bit different. On the positive side, Omsk does not seem to have a lot of billboards and posters covering their historical buildings and I hope it remains that way.

Drama Theater

Main Vrubel Museum building

Cossack St. Nicholas Cathedral

Fire tower

I head off to find the Church of the Sorrow (Скорбященская) on the other side of town, built in 1906. The new churches are spectacular but I am always drawn to those built in pre-Revolutionary times, that, for one reason or another, survived Communism. This one is behind some apartment buildings and surrounded by a locked iron gate. It is restored and brightly painted.

Church of Sorrow

I then head off to the All-Saints Church on Cossack square. There used to be a Cossack cemetery there. Getting there becomes tricky as there are no crosswalks anywhere in sight on one of the main thoroughfares. I run across the street when there is a break in traffic and come upon a street lifted right out of the 19th century (except for the cars and occasional port-o-potties on the corners). The street itself is unpaved and the wooden houses appear to have been preserved in their original state. On some lots, new (and large) brick homes are being built but, in the main, the houses are of wood. A postcard I buy that pictures this area (very picturesquely) describes it as a “one of the last poetic corners of a former Cossack settlement in Omsk’s historical center.”

Edge of “poetic corner”

Typical wooden house

Street in old Cossack section

People do live here in these homes and though they are esthetically much more pleasing than the high-rise monstrosities built in the 20th century to house people, I wonder about running water and sewers? We are in the very center of the modern city of Omsk but it seems doubtful that the municipal government is going to have the money to bring these ancient homes up to modern standards. Is this why there are port-o-potties? Or are they for construction workers building the newer homes?

I move on and find the new All-Saints Church, built of wood and standing by itself in a large square. There is still a cemetery here – those who are buried here now are soldiers who died of their wounds in the Omsk hospital in 1949. There are people sitting on benches by the church, some standing at the graves. It seems apart and removed from the noisy, traffic filled street just several hundred feet away.

All-Saints Church

Church and cemetery on Cossack Square

That evening, I watch the news. There are fires in the Omsk region and around Chelyabinsk. There are also many stories on the news about neglected and abandoned children. There is no hesitation in Russian society now about bringing these things to light, to show parents that are unfit, and children who live in horrendous conditions. But we do the same at home – highlight terrible stories about children, neglected or even murdered – and, just as at home, one wonders if anyone is really listening.

Before leaving for the train station on my last day in Omsk, I take a last stroll along the Irtysh. The river is green today, reflecting the gray sky. As I head back to collect my things, I see a man, walking down to the river, carrying a cat. He stops and chats with the fishermen on the bank and then continues along the river’s edge, with the placid cat in his arms. I follow his progress with a bit of alarm. What is he doing? But he just continues strolling along and I conclude after a while that he has no nefarious purpose. He is just taking his cat for a walk.

I stay past check-out time and agree to pay for half a day extra but they only charge me for a couple of hours. As I prepare to leave, the very pleasant security man in the lobby helps me with my bag. I find this unusual. Most security men consider it their job to stare at you sternly as you enter and exit, not help you with your bags – they are not, after all, bellmen. Against my instincts, I offer a tip and he waves me away with some irritation. I remind myself for the hundredth time: listen to your instincts. Why do we always forget the simplest things?

A good time had by all? (The message continues: “Andryush, I love you.”)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment