Sunday, 11 July 2004

Road Trip Russia

The epigraph to my first book, The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around the World , is San Francisco poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Recipe for happiness in Khabarovsk or anyplace” (“One grand boulevard with trees / with one grand café in sun …”). Khabarovsk isn’t the equal of Vladivostok in tourist interest, but it can be pleasant, at least in mid-summer, and I found it worth a couple of days’ visit.

Although Khabarovsk is the hub of the Russian Far East, and from 1991 to 2001 had weekly direct trans-Pacific flights via Anchorage to and from San Francsico (which is how I got there, on one of the most elegant commercial of jetliners, the Ilyushin 62), news from Khaborovsk in mainstream USA sources is rare.

Russia is the largest country in Asia, and most of Russia is in Asia. But most American news organizations assign Russian Asia — the Russian Far East, Siberia (which is west of the RFE), and the “autonomous” republics like Buryatia and Tuva (very interesting places indeed to visit) — to the “Russia beat” of correspondents based thousands of miles away on another continent in European Russia, who visit only rarely.

So the New York times is to be commended for having moved the Russian Far East a few years ago into the “Northeast Asia” beat of their correspondent based in Tokyo, more than 5,000 miles closer to the subject of their reporting.

The Times won’t knowingly print travel stories contributed by writers whose trips have been subsidized by tourism companies or promoters, and not even the Times pays freelancers enough for a single travel article to cover the cost of the trip to research it. So more and more of the articles in the Times travel section are contributed by their regular overseas news corrspondents (something few other newspapers have any more).

Today, James Brooke of the Times , passing through Khabarovsk (the regional transport hub, as I just said) to cover the growing role of Chinese migrants and sharecroppers and ethnic Korean returnees in Russian Asian agriculture, also reports for the travel section on the trans-continental road across Russia (or the lack thereof).

Brooke isn’t primarily a travel writer, but he does know bad roads from his previous postings to Brazil and West Africa:

Mr. Putin inaugurated the road when it was nicely concealed beneath packed snow.

“In some sections there is no road, just a roadbed graded by bulldozers, with trees knocked down everywhere,” Gennadi Kulaev, a 42-year-old businessman, said by telephone. “You can hardly get through.” In mid-March, he said, he wrestled a Toyota Land Cruiser from Vladivostok to his home in Ulan-Ude, east of Lake Baikal in Siberia….

“At some places, it was blocked by rocks from the mountains detonated by dynamite. So drivers had to hire bulldozers working nearby, or just crawl atop those rock piles as I did….

“There are paved sections, sometimes near settlements, sometimes just a piece of asphalt in the middle of nowhere,” Mr. Kulaev said.

Residents of the Russian Far East sense that soon they will feel the call of the open highway . “You can’t just put a label on it, and call it a road,” said Sergei Rudenko, a Khabarovsk taxi driver. “But they promise to pave it by 2008.”

In the meantime, take the train.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 11 July 2004, 12:26 (12:26 PM)
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