Khabarovsk is a large city – second only to Vladivostok east of the Urals, that sits on the Amur river. I didn’t really know a lot about it, I didn’t know what historical monuments it had, or tourist attractions. I just knew it had an airport, and that was where I needed to get to.
But, opportunist that I am, I built in a little time to have a look around, and booked a hostel so I could get a flight back to Vladivostok in the morning (just to Vladivostok airport, just in time for my flight back to Moscow).
I arrived at the station around 11am, and yet again had a few hours to kill before I could check into my hostel. I stood outside the station with no idea where to go or what to do, and decided the best plan was to make for the river. There was a narrow park that looked as though it was sloping downhill, so I assumed that if I followed it I would eventually end up at the river (rivers are generally at the bottom of hills). My instincts were spot on but I underestimated the distance I would have to travel or the time it would take me – it might have been better to get a bus or a tram!
Still, using up time was one of my motivations here, so I wandered through the city noticing all the usual features of urban Russia – tram lines cutting across streets and parks, terminating in big metal circular loops. People sat by the side of the pathway selling fruit and vegetables, small berries in plastic cups, grapes on racks, perfectly stacked tomatoes and nectarines. Stalls selling Kvass (a popular bread-based drink). Ornate flower beds, avenues of trees. Kiosks that look temporary but have probably been there for years, selling magazines, bread, confectionary, beer sometimes.
I came across a series of unusual sculptures made of strips of metal arranged in what didn’t look like an entirely random formation. It took me a few minutes to realise these were symbols of the Zodiac – there were 12 of them, and there positioning, presumably, was something to do with the night sky and their constellations.
I continued walking, past pizza and Shawarma stalls and an enormous statue of a balalaika (or some similar musical instrument), and eventually came to a grandiose columned entrance to some kind of leisure park. There were more sculptures here (giant shoes?), and on the other side an avenue with sculpture and flowerbeds in the centre, and stalls and benches on the sides. Beyond I could see a giant wheel.
I went up to the wheel. There was a sign saying 50 roubles, I tried to get on and was directed to a ticket office where you had to buy your tickets. The tickets actually cost 250 roubles, the 50 roubles was for binocular hire. But it still wasn’t a lot and the chance to take a look at Khabarovsk from on high was irresistable.
At first I could see the leisure park a bit more clearly – there was a football training ground ahead of me, beyond that an actual football stadium. Behind me I could see a tall statue at the top of a hill facing away from me. To my right was the city – a mass of buildings jostling together on a series of hills, and to my left the river Amur, wide and beautiful.
This became clearer the higher I went, to the north (in front of me) another river joined the Amur, and to the south it flowed on towards it’s ultimate fate, as the border marker between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.
I came down from the wheel and tried to get my bearings online – frustratingly my tablet went into one of its unresponsive moods and I couldn’t get it to switch on. I could still take pictures with my real camera, fortunately. While I was in the leisure park area I took a picture of what appeared to be an ice rink, and a statue of Lenin genially chatting with a soldier.
It was raining a little – it was a hot day so again the rain was welcome and didn’t seem to be putting anyone off walking. In fact, down by the football stadium there was a walk-through fountain full of children playing and screaming. I got a drink and sat down for a while, to everyone’s disappointment the fountains eventually stopped. Parents walked towards the centre of the fountain to collect any children reluctant to leave on their own volition – and just as some of them got to the middle the water came back on again, they scurried back to the edges, some of them not quite quickly enough! These fountains seem to be a feature of hot summertime Russian cities, there is one next to one of my offices in Volgograd!
I decided to walk along the river promenade towards that intriguing statue on the hill. Disappointingly, the promenade was being renovated – there were builders laying paving stones and metalworkers creating elaborate shaped pieces of metal for the railings. I picked my way through the half-finished path and piles of building materials (technically they were fenced off, but not with any real intent). I made my way up the hill and found my statue.
He stood next to a look-out point, an intriguing white building sticking out the side of the hill. I went to take a look up and down the river, and saw beneath me (to my surprise) a beach. There were people sunbathing, even swimming in the river. Dasha had told me it was a dirty river but no-one seemed to mind. The beach wasn’t exactly crowded but more people were arriving. By now – still around midday – it was getting very hot indeed.
A Chinese tour group arrived at the lookout, they started taking pictures of the beach, the river, and each other. Three women decided they each wanted to take a picture of me, with one of them standing next to me! I was happy to oblige. I don’t know if I looked like a Russian or a tourist or just an interesting person to photograph, but I’m probably on some Chinese blog somewhere, grinning and sweating.
I rested a while then continued on my way. More sculptures. A contemporary art museum. A park. A staircase leading up to a blue-domed cathedral. A promenade along the beach. Still the sun burned me. I should probably have brought a hat. I found shade and bought some lemonade. It wasn’t as nice as the one I had in Vladivostok (in fact I saw them using 7-Up to make it) but it had ice in it. I decided it was time to make my way to the hostel. Although I had printed a paper map as back-up, it would have been really useful to have my sat-nav app on my tablet and while I was drinking my lemonade I managed to get it working again. All I had to do to find my hostel was head away from the river, along a narrow park-like boulevard (like the one I had walked down from the station) and at a certain point, turn left. Easy.
Again the distance on my sat-nav seemed a lot shorter than the distance I actually walked, but I found the location without difficulty. I couldn’t see anything resembling the entrance to a hostel, but being familiar now with Russia’s strange ways I thought I knew where I would find it. I found an entrance through the block of buildings into the central courtyard, and sure enough on the other side was a doorway to the hostel. Still pretty anonymous – it was just like any residential building, but when I found the inner doorway there was at least a reception area. A television was on showing the Patriarch (I’m not sure which one) giving a sermon. An Asian-looking girl was staring at the screen. I have to admit it was rather hypnotic.
This was more like my Vladivostok hostel, but there were not many guests, and most of them were Chinese or Korean. I was shown to a room where there was only 1 other guest (later in the day another arrived). I just needed to lie down for a while, charge my devices then go and find something to eat. I would be setting off early in the morning for the airport – although it is only a 20 minute journey the buses at that time are not reliable and the staff suggested I should use a taxi, and booked one for me.
I went out again to explore a bit more and found Lenin Square, probably the heart of the city. Of course, there was a statue of Lenin but he was in front of the administrative buildings, not in the centre of the square. The square was dominated by one big fountain, with several smaller ones dotted around it. It was full of pigeons and small children on scooters, both equally annoying.
I decided I wanted chicken. There are no MacDonalds in Khabarovsk, no KFCs or Burger Kings, but they have a Golden Chicken. I went to find it. In the end I walked past the building twice, I was looking for a shop front but in fact the entrance was more like a free-standing cylindrical building, and the restaurant was underneath, down a spiralling staircase.
There was no livery on the door into the restaurant but inside there were tables and chairs and people eating and drinking. There was a second room with a label “Beerfest” but several people in this room were also drinking beer – it was brought to their tables in large tapped containers.
A hostess greeted me, she didn’t understand or speak any English but when I just shrugged and said “Yest” (to eat) she showed me to a table and gave me some menus. I couldn’t see any chicken. It was becoming apparent that I wasn’t in a chicken restaurant at all, I was in a Beerfest restaurant. But they had pizza on one of the menus. I decided I wanted pizza anyway. I ordered pizza. I ate pizza. It was nice pizza!
After I paid for my pizza, I went back out to the spiral staircase and went down the next level. Blow me sideways, there was the chicken restaurant!
I emerged again and did a limited bit more exploring, and bought a three-scoop ice-cream (Banana, Chocolate and Caramel, the only three-scoop combination that makes sense). It started to rain, quite heavily, and now that it was cooler in the evening, less welcomely. I scurried back to the hostel and bedded in for the night.
In the morning I toyed with the idea of making my own way to the airport but the receptionist woke up as I was trying to make my escape and reassured me the taxi would be here, it was a blue Renault. As it turned out I might have missed my check-in if I had got the bus so it was a good thing I went with the flow here. I needed change to pay for the cab so I found a little shop before I set off for the airport and grabbed some water, and the driver was pulling into the courtyard as I came back.
It was quite a quick journey, it is refreshing to have the airport so close to the city centre. My flight was already checking in so I joined a queue. There seemed to be some sort of problem with my ticket that required a supervisor to come and look at it, but no-one explained to me (at least not in English) what the issue was, and they gave me a boarding pass in the end.
When I got on the plane it turned out there was another woman with a ticket for the same seat as me! There was a bit of confusion – at first we just moved everyone along into an empty seat, but then that seat’s owner showed up… I’m not sure what happened or why it happened but the flight crew took the lady away to business class (and kept my ticket too), but no-one else objected to my sitting where I was sitting.
I flew back to Vladivostok and then straight away checked in for my flight back to Moscow on a huge, spacious jumbo jet, 9 seats per row. I was in the middle row. This time there were no stopovers, just a 9-hour flight from Vladivostok to Moscow. My flight departed at 12pm and arrived at 2pm because of the time difference. This meant my day would last 31 hours instead of the usual 24! I was very tired that evening…