Far East: Sailing the Amur River

The Amur River: nearly 3,000 kilometers long and once the meeting ground for Asia’s great empires and peoples, such as the Mongols, the Evenki and the Daurians.

A RUSSIAN war memorial at Khabarovsk, along the Amur.  (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
A RUSSIAN war memorial at Khabarovsk, along the Amur.
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
News that a new rail bridge connecting Russia and China over the Amur River in the Russian Far East will open later this year brought back memories of my moving down the 10th longest river in the world. 
Now, I’ve sailed a number of rivers in my travels, but at that moment, I realized I was on a special tributary. The Amur River: nearly 3,000 kilometers long and once the meeting ground for Asia’s great empires and peoples, such as the Mongols, the Evenki and the Daurians.
The new bridge will link Heihe in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province, with the Russian Far East city Blagoveshchensk across the Amur River. 
Seven hundred kilometers southeast of Blagoveshchensk stands Khabarovsk, where the Amur River, having been the border between Russia and China for about a 1,500 km. turns left, or northeastward and crosses Russian territory for the rest of its course to the ocean. Meanwhile, another famous river in this part of the country, the Ussuri River, joins the Amur from the south, and takes over the Russian-Chinese border.
I’m motoring at the part around the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, which sits on three hills and is spread out in a succession of ridges above the Amur. The city seems endlessly large. I can see why this upbeat municipality makes good use of the river. In the summer, residents flock to board river cruises and party boats. 
I join the city folk in flocking to the river bank where sandy beaches are welcoming. Some take a dip in the mighty Amur, which derives from the Russian name Amure. For the Chinese, it is called Heilongjiang, or “Black Dragon River,” after which China’s northeastern province is named. It’s easy to see why Khabarovsk occupies one of the great river junctions in the Russian Far East. 
Like the main rivers of Siberia – the Ob, Yenisei and Lena – the wide Amur flows west to east. As an American, I think of the mighty Mississippi, but realize that these Russian rivers make it look small. 
HE AUTHOR moving down the Amur River at Khabarovsk. An old bridge in the background crossing the Amur is the border between Russia and China. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)HE AUTHOR moving down the Amur River at Khabarovsk. An old bridge in the background crossing the Amur is the border between Russia and China. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
Traversing the Amur valley, one cannot but recall the name of Count Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, who conquered much of this area from China by fiat with a small force of gunboats and soldiers. The grab gave Russia access to the Pacific and a vast valley of temperate and arable land. By the way, Muravyov had another great idea: Build a railway line from the Urals to Vladivostok, namely the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Actually, Khabarovsk is named after the Cossack explorer Yerofey Khabarov (1603-1671), who opened the Amur area, though the territory was not granted to Russia until the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, which established an official border between Russia and China.
Muravyov founded Khabarovsk and the main street is named in his honor. He is also known as the “father” of Khabarovsk, and served as governor from 1847 to 1861. He was given the honorific name of “Amurskaya” after the Amur River. A monument to this famous Russian statesman can be found in the city’s Central Park. This statue also is imprinted on the 5,000 ruble banknote. 
The Russian Far East town, Muravevo-Amurskaya, which is also named after him, was formerly known as Lazo in honor of the Bolshevik revolutionary S.G Lazo (1894-1920), who was captured by the Japanese and executed at the town’s railway station, allegedly by being thrown alive into a steam-engine firebox. Two other revolutionaries, Alexey Lutsky and Vsevolod Sibirtsev, met a similar fate. A monument to all three stands at the station.
When I reached Khabarovsk, I could not but be impressed with the city and its wide boulevards lined with gorgeous Imperial-era buildings on hilly streets. I observed that modern buildings and shopping centers coexist alongside old gray and red stone houses. 
A striking architecturally designed synagogue is located at 45 Frunze, Khabarovsk, 60000. The modern three-floor structure contains a community center, youth group rooms and a kosher dining hall. In this neighborhood, buildings are close to each other, so persevere until you find it. Phone and fax, 7-4212-30-21-73, www.fjc.ru/khabarovsk. Email of the Jewish community is at adelkhv@gmail.com
BOASTING A picturesque location, Khabarovsk, also a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, contains some of the area’s best museums. Make sure you take a look at the city’s Regional Museum and the Far Eastern Arts Museum. Interestingly, we learn about the Amur leopard or Far Eastern leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis). This leopard is only found in the Russian Far East and northeastern China, though only about 100 Amur leopards exist now. 
Writing about the Amur River I must note that the new bridge will bring increased commerce to Birobidzhan, the historical Jewish Autonomous Oblast. A major use of the bridge, it was reported, will be to transport iron ore from the Kimkan open-pit mine in the oblast.
Birobidzhan is named after two left tributaries of the Amur, the Biro and the Bidzhan, and is located also about 320 km. west of Khabarovsk. In my book, The Scattered Tribe, I called it “one of the most exotic and mystical Jewish sites in the world.”
Stalin had the bright idea of moving Jews to this bleak, lonely swampy near his vulnerable border with China. Supposedly, it stood as a new “Soviet Zion,” where a proletariat Jewish culture could be developed. Yiddish would be the national language, and a new socialist literature and arts would replace religion as the primary expression of culture. It was Stalin’s answer to Zionism. 
But it was a sham. The government never put any money into the region. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, many Jews fled Birobidzhan – anything to escape the misery of the region, as well as hide from Stalin’s mad purges. 
Today, there are several thousand Jews in Birobidzhan where the street signs are still in Russian and Yiddish, and the city has two synagogues, a community center and an active Chabad group. 
Traveling around this area, I realized that it’s true: The Russian Far East acts like an independent country. Did not the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov declare: “The last exile on the Amur breathes more easily than the first general in Russia.” 

The writer is a travel writer, travel-lecturer and the author of the just-published A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 4th edition, A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, (both Pelican Publishing), Klara’s Journey: A Novel, (Marion Street Press), and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press). Follow him at twitter:@bengfrank