Svetlana’s nephew, Grisha, took us on a boat ride on the Bikin River,which has been called “Russia’s Amazon” because it flows though such a wild and lush forest. The river was at near flood stage, allowing us to to travel up shallow streams and over wetlands not normally under water. Svetlana’s sister, Vala, and her dog, Malish, also joined us. It was a beautiful day and the highlight of our trip.
VLADIVOSTOK — We arrived here yesterday after taking a 12-hour train-ride, the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. We’re staying with my wife’s 23-year-old niece, Dasha, and for the first time in two weeks we have access to the Internet.
We had been living in Krasny Yar, a native village in a mountain valley in the northwest corner of Primorksi Krai. Its 680 inhabitants belong primarily to the Udegeh tribe, although several members are Nanai, the tribe of my wife.
The village is situated on high ground on the east bank of the Bikin River. “Yar” is an old Russian word for “river bank.” “Krasny” means “red.” There is nothing red here, though. The name is due to the color favored by the Soviet government, which established the village in 1957 as a settlement for native people who were scattered in the region.
The river basin upstream from Krasny Yar forms the largest tract of virgin temperate forest in the Northern Hemisphere. The Udgeh tribe, which controls the timber rights, has fought for decades to protect the forest from loggers. Nearly 50 men in the village work in the forest as professional hunters and trappers.
As one might suspect, there is no Internet service in the homes. While the school principal has dial-up Internet service, she has installed a hyper-vigilant filter that blocks access to most foreign Web sites, including my e-mail sites and my blog.
There is also no cell phone service. So in Krasny Yar, my iPhone served mainly as a flashlight for my trips to the outhouse.
To be truthful, though, life without Internet access has been pleasant.
But now I sit here on Dasha’s one-bedroom apartment in Vladivostok, with the Ethernet cable securely attached, and I can tell you about our trip so far.
Let me begin were I left off, in Khabarovsk, a regional capital situated on a bend on the Amur River, which for much of its length serves a border between Russia and China. I lived in Khabarovsk in late 1992 and 1993, working as a freelance journalist following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I see some obvious differences between then and today. The communist propaganda murals are gone, replaced many times over with billboards. Some of the newer commercial buildings are covered with advertising, and companies even use graffiti to hawk their products and services.
Supermarkets have arrived in Khabarovsk, and several large, new apartment buildings have been built or are under construction.
For the most part, though, Khabarovsk’s outward appearances have changed little. Most of the city’s 600,000 residents live in grim, Soviet-era apartment buildings in various stages of decay.
The buildings don’t have furnaces. Rather, power stations supply hot water that flows though the city via a network of huge above-ground pipes.
We have been staying with my wife’s cousin, Ira. Her husband, Vasili, was killed three years ago when a helicopter he was piloting crashed and burned in the upper portion of the Bikin River. The helicopter’s radar system had been tampered by somebody, apparently by an enemy of a businessman who had rented it and was flying as passenger.
Ira and her daughter Anya, have been a wonderful hostesses and have kept us well-fed with wonderful home-cooked meals. While staying with them, I walked around the neighborhood and took some photographs. I’ll post some of them now.