If they made shirts that said “I <3 Chita,” I would buy one and wear it all the time.
‘NICE’ & ‘TRAIN’. Two words that up to now I hadn’t considered being utterable in the same sentence. Nevertheless. The train was nice (that is, from Ulan-Ude to Chita). Relatively speaking, of course.
Yes, the Russian men still smelled, and the beds were still 6 inches too short for my legs, which, hanging out into the aisle, no matter, people walked through as if they weren’t there at all. But, the windows were able to be opened, and the wagon was clearly not of Soviet production (a personal first). We took off from our UU hotel at 4 a.m. (in an 80 ruble taxi!), slept ’til midday, ate, and began to see the outskirts of Chita a few hours later, around 5 p.m. local time.
Coming in from the west on the south side of the Chita River, you see the city stretches along the north bank, as if back into time: the more recent industrial smokestacks from the middle of last century–the last suggestion of economic development in most Siberian, Soviet-expanded cities–stand like bookends of the city-timeline at its westernmost limits. The colorful paints and woodwork of the dark-stained izby (traditional Russian houses) dot the horizon of concrete 5- to 10-story apartment high-rises, which lead eastward to the smorgasbord of a city center, a mix of centuries-old onion domes and a handful of gaudy, glass-gilded hotel resorts.
SETTLED IN, AT LAST. The train station was euphorically bustling with the arrival of the Moscow train and the impending departure of another. Perhaps it was just the pleasantly positive (+3 deg. C.) temperature (at last!).
In comparison with the hotel-search fiasco of Ulan-Ude, our walking three blocks up, three blocks over, and into the Forestry School Dorms (which housed the appropriately named Hotel [read: hostel] “Taiga”) to receive a two-bed private room for $40 for a day and a half was beautifully simple. The refrigerator, water boiler, teacups, TV, and comfy beds and pillows were just the icing on the cake.
After a mostly unsuccessful attempt to track down a few of the guidebook-recommended (to cite my source: Lonely Planet, Russia. ed. Simon Richmond. 5th ed. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2009: Footscray, Australia) cafés, we noted the joint Subway and Baskin Robbins, complete with budget-priced menu and free WiFi.
Yes, a total sell-out as far as culture experience goes, but we were hungry. But, I’d argue that our coming across the, as labeled in the guidebook, “Huge Green Tube” (bottom of post) might have redeemed us.
WHAT TIME IS IT? When we “fell back” in the fall, I told you about how babushkas, a decade later, are still upset about the government-imposed daylight savings time on account of its disrupting their biological rhythms. Since the rest of the country “sprang ahead” without telling Ryan nor I on Sunday, I’m kind of on their side now.
We got up at what we thought was 9 a.m. to go track down the Catholic church that the Internet had slightly hinted was located at address x about 100 years ago. Worth a shot, right?
Approaching the given address and only seeing an Orthodox church with its own Palm Sunday service letting out, we asked a babushka for help. She directed us to the other side of town. Not really sure how much further we had to go until we’d see the so-called “Old Bridge” (not shown in the guidebook), I asked another nice-looking lady preparing to cross the street.
AWWW!! She was amazing. She practically grabbed us, totally forgetting about where she was going, to take us to the trolley stop a few blocks away and to wait with us there. Then she remembered that it was a different stop, and walked us there too. On the way, she told us about her work directing a university athletics program. She recommended the Decembrists Museum. She said it was “the Petersburgers’ fault” that the streets were straight and made sense (but “in the good meaning of ‘fault’”).
Passing one of the administrative buildings of Chitinskii Province, she pointed out, “This one, the Japanese POWs built for us. Good fellows (molodsty). Not like any of that Chinese construction!” A convivial laugh together ensued.
She set us on the right trolley bus, and Ryan and I found the church with no further problems. We walked in, around what we thought was 10 a.m., and two guys sitting there told us that mass started at noon.
Thinking we had two hours to kill, we walked around that side of town, hit the market (so close to China!), wandered through a few clothes shops just opening up, and made our way back 15 minutes before (when we thought) mass started.
If my foreshadowing hasn’t been explicit enough, we were late by an hour, but since the church’s lenten devotion, which they said after mass, kept us there for more than an hour extra, I felt like Jesus was probably okay with my ignorance to the Russian government’s messing with time (and not telling me about it).
The sights from the rest of the day:
- A synagogue, mosque, and the Orthodox church the Decembrists built for themselves. Some residents use this as reasoning to call Chita the “Jerusalem of Siberia,” apparently. We had a conversation with a few of friendly worshippers at the mosque, who said we could come in and take pictures, but then disappeared for ten minutes; given the fact we were an hour behind, we left.
- Decembrist’s museum (housed in their old church). It was obviously a Soviet put-together museum: one icon in the entire place (despite the fact that, again, it was in an old church) and there were lots of anti-tsar poems and comics and generally romanticizing, pro-revolutionary propaganda. Though, despite the obvious Marxist influence, I was actually taken by the manuscripts, artifacts, deathbed love letters, execution and hard-labor orders signed by the Nicholas I, chants mocking the tsar that the revolutionaries wrote for their kids, and secret society rules and member charters, written in the hand of the Decembrists themselves.
- The parliament building of the short-lived (less than a year) Far East Republic, which Chitan socialists founded shortly after the 1905 October Manifesto. Nothing but a building, but a testament to the multi-faceted history of the region: Chingis Khan was born here; Buryats, Mongols, and Chinese inhabited the region; the Russians came and took over along with their Cossacks; the Decembrist women came and “civilized” the place; and the White Army held out here against the Bolsheviks almost longer than anywhere else.
- Chitinskii Province History Museum. Another really well-put together (by Marxist historians) museum, with great natural history exhibits of Siberia’s rocks and animals (nothing too new), ethnographic exhibits (complete with mini Buddhist datsan), and an outrageously outdated, one-sided, and chauvinistic display on the two world wars. There was a veteran that kind of browsed past the bulk of the museum to get to that display to show his grandson: cute, but again, one-sided.
Passing by the gold-topped, baby-blue Assumption Cathedral (noted for its general beauty, plus the perfectly symmetrical floorplan, uncharacteristic of Orthodox churches) next to the train station was our last stop before grabbing dinner. We chose a Ukrainian restaurant, which turned out great: good baklazhani (an eggplant-veggie mix), a pork-bacon-and-cheese heart-attack-on-a-plate dish, and assorted vareniki (ravioli-type dumplings filled with meat, cabbage, potatoes, cheese, berries, poppy-seeds–in different ones).
After a last ice cream at Baskin Robbins and a nap, Ryan and I headed out the door at 3 to catch our two-day train to Khabarovsk.
The verdict on Chita: sooo good. Clean, wide streets; beautiful buildings at every turn representing the region’s super-rich, like, oligarch-rich history; nice people (for the most part …it could have just been the good weather, too); good museums; good hostel. Not too much to complain about. I’m impressed, despite the Lonely Planet diagnosis:
…the city might be considered one of Siberia’s more appealing. Sadly, each attractive area is a little too diffuse to make the overall impact particularly memorable.