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Far East is still far away

Alexei Minin
26 June 2009

"So - when's the summit, then?  21-22 May?  Hm-m, more traffic jams!"  I was on the mobile, listening to the slightly sarcastic tones of my younger brother, communications engineer by training but working as a systems administrator.  You'd think that a job like that would mean he didn't have to get about town all the time, as I do, but he's always having to hunt down the computer parts he needs for his work.  He mainly goes by bus - and they, of course, go along their routes without taking de

"So - when's the summit, then?  21-22 May?  Hm-m, more traffic jams!"  I was on the mobile, listening to the slightly sarcastic tones of my younger brother, communications engineer by training but working as a systems administrator.  You'd think that a job like that would mean he didn't have to get about town all the time, as I do, but he's always having to hunt down the computer parts he needs for his work.  He mainly goes by bus - and they, of course, go along their routes without taking detours to avoid traffic jams.  It's only the shuttle buses that can do that - and even they don't always take the trouble.

He was right.  There were traffic jams.  But you didn't need to be a prophet to foretell that.  It's probably the same in other Russian cities too - as soon as there's a big political or economic event, it's ordinary people that suffer.  I suppose we can count ourselves lucky they don't completely close off the city centre - apparently they do that in other countries.  But it's still better not to go into town on these days.  Not that you can't, it's just better not to.

The traffic jams actually started before the summit, though.  The city fathers decided not to fall flat on their faces in the dirt, in a manner of speaking, and started clearing up the said dirt in the streets.  Or at least where the important guests would be driven.  But only there.  Move away from the ‘red line' just a bit and the asphalt's cracked and any steps are cracked or broken.  There was no sign of any fuss at all on the outskirts of Khabarovsk - almost as though it's another town altogether.  People were saying "What's the point of this summit?  They'll talk for a bit and then go away, but what do we get out of it?"  The only good thing to come out of it is that the whole world has started talking about Khabarovsk in a more positive way - unlike November 2005 when the oil slick came here from China.

Amur Sunset

Red summer sunset on the Amur river radiates tropical heat.

By the way, you've probably heard that we can't bathe in the Amur River during the summer.   But don't think it's anything to do with the slick.  That was in 2005, as I said, but there's been a ban on summer swimming for 7 years.  Our great Far Eastern river is being polluted by Russian and Chinese factories.  True, our neigbours in the Heavenly Kingdom have apparently been making efforts and they've embarked on a programme to clean up the Sungari river, a tributary of the Amur.  Unfortunately things haven't improved much.  According to recent statistics, the water has got a bit cleaner, but you still can't bathe in it.  What do Khabarovsk people do?  Well, they swim - in spite of the risk of picking up some kind of infection or being fined for flouting the ban.  Not many are that brave - some people swim in ponds in the city, but that's forbidden too and you can be fined, if you're caught.  The authorities have a very simple explanation for the ban - the ponds were not made for swimming.  But in Khabarovsk summer temperatures go over 30 degrees and not everyone can go to one of the Amur tributaries where the water is cleaner.  It's too far from the centre of town.

Some people still think we have masses of Chinese here.  During the summit I heard this quite often from foreign colleagues.  Some of them were even quite disappointed, or at least surprised, as they were expecting to see more of them.  But we really don't have that many.  They are to be seen mostly at the markets, selling Chinese consumer goods.  At the beginning of the 90s, when they had only just started coming here, they hardly spoke any Russian, but now most of them are pretty fluent.  Some are even starting families here.  One of my relatives married a Chinese man not long ago and now they are both working as traders.

The Chinese don't only sell clothes here.  They come with more serious intentions too.  Even the famous crisis has not stopped them from getting involved in various projects.  The other day a delegation from the Heavenly Kingdom turned up at the mayor's office.  Among other things they want to build a hotel with a bath house and swimming pool facilities in Khabarovsk.  What a good idea - why not?  There's been too few swimming pools here for ages.

Apparently one of the Czechs at the summit - one of the journalists, I think - was surprised that the beer stalls close so early.  It's almost like the Czech Republic here now - there's beer at every turn of the road.  At least the so-called summer pavilions on the banks of the Amur work practically round the clock.  Not much variety there, it's true, beer, cola, crisps and, sometimes, hamburgers.  Well, what else do you need?  You might well ask.  My wife and I were in Vladivostok and our eyes were popping out of our heads!  On the embankment there were pancakes, meat samosas, all kinds of kebabs, and cafes offering seafood.  Why can't our Khabarovsk entrepreneurs do something like that, or at least try and offer a similar range.  It's all quite simple - they're risk- and investment- averse. You have to install additional equipment, get a licence etc. to make pancakes, whereas anything pre-cooked - you just bring it on and sell it.  Even hamburgers are cooked somewhere else, not on the spot.

These summer pavilions are quite a paradox really.  There's supposed to be a crisis, people are buying less food and everything else, but these pavilions are just as full as they always were.  Official statistics show that there's been no fall-off in the number of people wanting to sell food here in the summer months.  You only have to walk through the centre of Khabarovsk to see that people are just as keen on chilling out in this way. 

You have to hand it to the owners of these stalls - every single one has a rubbish bin, possibly even two and there's much less rubbish in the centre.  Unfortunately that doesn't go for the suburbs.  Sometimes there's lots in the centre too, but that's only on big holidays, after City Day for instance, though the organisers of the festivities usually do all sorts of things to keep the city clean.  One of the brewing companies, for example, hands out bags and gloves for picking up rubbish.  They also have a 'Beer Patrol' which checks that beer is not being sold to anyone under 18 during the festivities.  It works, apparently.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Japanese call us 'Europe only 2 hours away'.  But I stress - you can't judge things only by the centre.  The suburbs have a long way to go to achieve such orderliness.  The authorities do make efforts, of course, but everything costs such a lot.  And then there's the summit....

We've mentioned food, so we should say something about prices too.  A loaf of bread costs us 18-21 roubles ($0.58-67), a litre of milk is usually about 35 roubles ($1.12), 10 eggs cost 45 roubles ($1.44), a kilo of (Chinese) cucumbers 70 roubles ($2.25) and a kilo of (Chinese again) tomatoes costs 70-80 roubles ($2,25-2.57).  About a third of my salary goes on food.  I'm lucky in that I work from home, or I'd have to spend money getting to the office and back.  Of course I do have to go places in connection with work - I live in the centre - but not every day.  The flat rate for public transport is now 12 roubles ($0.38) per trip and 14-16 ($0.45-51) in the shuttle buses).  The transport people asked permission to raise the price from 12 to 15 ($0.48), but they were turned down - no grounds for a price hike at the moment.  You can understand where they're coming from - everything is getting more expensive, but the flat rate price for one trip has remained unchanged since March 2008.  Which means their wages haven't changed either.  But many people's wages have not only not increased, they've decreased!  Not long ago one of my wife's friends, who is a conductor, got her sick pay and it was 12,000 roubles ($385.24).   I earn much less than that!  The transport people are even preparing to go to court to get their way.

Many people are actually quite surprised that one can work from home.  They haven't got used to the idea of freelance.  When you explain how it works, that everything happens at a distance via the internet, some people get quite envious - I want to do that too.  It's possible that the freelance idea hasn't yet taken root in Khabarovsk because home internet is not cheap.  Unlimited access costs about 1500 roubles ($48.16), to get a decent speed.  That's decent for the Far East, of course.  If you have a limited tariff, one megabyte of data costs about 1.50 roubles ($0.05) minimum and the service is not brilliant.  There have been several discussions about internet and intercity telephone call prices at various meetings, committees, forums - so far with no evidence of any progress.  The same with the cost of air tickets to fly to the west of Russia.  Apparently there's some programme of cheap tickets to Moscow and St Petersburg.  But why only those two cities?  What happens if I want to go to, say, Kazan (Russia's 3rd capital)?  Actually I should be so lucky anyway - I'm way over 23 and pretty far off 60, so I don't qualify.

For the moment our Far East, alas, is still Far Away and Khabarovsk is no exception.  They say that the summit went on for about the same time as it took people to get here by plane.  Many people who come from the west of Russia say the air is cleaner here - and there's lots to see.  That's why the Japanese have been longing to get to the centre of the region for some time, to the really out of the way places.  The ecotourism project is slowly but surely getting going.  The main thing is that there should be no damage to nature.  I've long wanted to travel round the Far East. Perhaps I'll get to do it at some point.

Khabarovsk street scene

Many young people believe that in the future the Far East will be Far only in name.

Three years ago I went to a seminar for regional journalists in Moscow.  When I got back one of my friends asked me whether there hadn't been attempts to lure me there, to which I replied that while people still live here and stuff still happens here, someone has to tell the people in western Russia all about it.  We may be far away from Moscow, but the day actually starts here.  Of course people who can get away, often do and that includes my fellow journalists.  They leave to get a better a life, but if they all go, who will inherit the land?  I wouldn't want to leave.  Many people, and that includes me, believe that in the future the Far East will be Far only in name.

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Photos: Alexei Minin and Zygmunt Dzieciolowski (all rights reserved)

Editor's note:

Khabarovsk is the second largest city of the Russian Far East. It is located on the Amur river in the vicinity of the Chinese border. It has population of 600 000. Khabarovsk lies more than 8000 kilometres east of Moscow. Unlike Vladivostok it has never been off limits to foreigners. After the collapse of USSR it has experienced growing influence from Chinese neighbours.

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