24 July 2009

Komsomolsk-na-Amure


We are in Komsomolsk, in very eastern Siberia. It's a so-called "BAM-town". The BAM is the "Baikal-Amur-Mainline", a railway line that goes further north than the transsiberian, built during soviet times, mostly by Gulag workers doing very hard work. Before this, there was not much here, so all the towns along the line have been founded in the 1930s, and most of them are correspondingly ugly and uninteresting. Komsomolsk was founded by the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organisation (you can see that Russia is still clinging to its Soviet past - not only Lenin statues, but also town names have not changed since). It's a surprisingly nice town, with wide streets, a not-so-ugly city center and a riverside with a few terraces where we've been sitting and eating shashlik and drinking beer. There's a tram going from our hotel to the river, although waiting for the tram at the stops is putting our lives in danger, as one has to wait in the middle of the road between the cars (see photo).

We also visited its municipal museum, which tells the history of the town from its previous inhabitants (the original people here are asian, Evenki and Nanai and many more... but nowhere in the museum do they tell what actually happened to them....) to the modern town. Well, as already said, nothing seems to have changed much since the fall of the Soviet Republic. We still pay 3 times more than Russians for our ticket. The workers who built the BAM and the town are glorified, but it's never mentioned that many of them were forced labourers from Gulag camps. When talking about war, the language goes pretty much like "the horrible Japanese tried to invade us but we went there and defeated them" and so on (by the way, this reminds me of a young Russian woman we met some time ago who told us that at school they still learn that Russia was "THE winner" of the Second World War and that the USA were the losers).

Well, the museum still showed some interesting photographs but not much explanation even in russian. At the end, there was a room with stuffed animals from this region, including a beautiful Amur Tiger (I think they are close to being extinct now).

Close to the museum we found our favourite cafe (which was unfortunately closed the day after, for "technical reasons") where they served a big and cheap lunch meal, the waitress actually smiled to us and said words like "please" and "thank you". After 2 months in Russia, we are happy with very simple things! :-)

Last night the food situation was more difficult, some cafes were closed which gave us the choice of a fast food (where we had already been the day before and eaten cold hamburgers), an expensive Japanese cafe with sushi (which we will hopefully eat next week in Japan so no need to go there) and the cafe of our hotel. We decided for the latter one but when we arrived there it was quite full and only one person taking orders and serving. I started to queue at the counter (that's usually how you order here) while Miguel kept a table, but there were other people in front of me and things were incredibly slow. After 20 minutes or so of waiting, we decided to leave and went to the supermarket instead to buy fish and vegetable dumplings, salads and drinks, which was just as good as the cafe.

Tonight we will take the night train (our last train in Russia!) to Vanino where we will (hopefully) be met by a travel agent called Nataly, who (hopefully) will have tickets for us for the ferry leaving (hopefully) sometime during the day for the island of Sakhalin. Whereas taking a train in Russia is usually straightforward (the train network is the biggest in the world, and it's about the only thing in this country that seems to work most of the time... we never had a major delay), taking a russian ferry seems to be another kind of adventure, with long queues, delays, cancellations, blond manicured ladies sitting behind counters and refusing to sell tickets and nobody knowing what's going on. So we decided to so this via a travel agency, which was not cheap at all but we hope that we will be spared the stress and hassle. So, if everything goes right, we should be in Sakhalin on Sunday, and go to Japan from there.

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