Khabarovsk: a Baltic dream in Russia's Far East

Imagine a full autumn moon over the majestic Amur River, reflecting on the golden domes of a nearby cathedral. Khabarovsk mingles romance, history and fabulous forests, making it a magnet for tourists.

Sparkling new cathedrals blending in with fine 19th-century architecture, a thriving cultural scene, and the proximity of the taiga make the city of Khabarovsk, on the banks of the great Amur River, one of the most beautiful in Russia. There is no hint of Asia, however, in this city of 620,000, the last major stop on the Siberian railroad before Vladivostok. Although only 30 kilometers separate Khabarovsk from China, the city shares more in common with the Baltic coast, some 8,000 kilometers away.

Founded in 1858, everything from its broad tree-lined avenues, pre-Soviet-era buildings, trams, quaint cafes, squares with fountains and a buzzing riverside, is reminiscent of Europe. Khabarovsk has a laid-back Mediterranean feel in the summer, with sun-bathers thronging to the riverside beaches to work on their tans. While summers are even hotter and more humid than those in Mumbai, temperatures plunge sharply in the winters and average around minus 30 degrees Celsius. In those days, it is possible to take long walks on the frozen Amur. 

The city’s Lenin Square, famous for its ornate fountains, attracts hordes of skaters, local artists and families in the evenings. In the winters, the square hosts ice sculpture festivals and one of the largest New Year trees in the region.

Khabarovsk is a perfect city to explore on foot, but it also fun to take the trams that connect the city center to many outlying areas.

Along Muravyova-Amurskovo Street, visitors can see fine brick buildings from the 19th century as well as pre-revolutionary architecture that has been carefully preserved by the proud administration of the city. The street is also home to five museums. The regional history museum is probably the best in the Russian Far East and showcases the culture of the indigenous people of the region, in addition to an excellent section dedicated to the Russian Civil War. The brick building was built in 1894 and lived to tell the tale of the brutal war between the Reds and the Whites.

Lenin Square in Khabarovsk.   Source: Itar Tass


While the city is proud of its Soviet past and features several monuments dedicated to the Soviet Union and its armies, there has also been a religious renaissance in Khabarovsk. Former governor Viktor Ishaev played an important role in the reconstruction of the Russian Orthodox Churches destroyed during Stalin’s purges. The imposing Uspenya Bozhey Matery (Divine Mother of God) Cathedral is one such replica, just above the riverfront.  The city is home to the largest Orthodox church in the Russian Far East: the golden-domed Church of the Transfiguration, which is easily seen by visitors approaching the city by air.

World War II memorial.   Source: Itar Tass

A stone’s throw away from the Transfiguration Church is the majestic World War II memorial. It stands as a testament to the patriotism of the citizens of the Russian Far East, who lost their lives in the war against Nazi Germany, thousands of kilometres away from their hometown.

Most of the city’s attractions are close to the river, including a central park that stretches for about 1.5 kilometres to a hilltop that features the best views of the city. The city owes its existence to Count Nikolai Muravyov-Amurskiy, and there is a large statue of the founder, who was also the governor-general of Eastern Siberia. The area around the statue is a favorite spot for couples, and when it comes to romantic settings, very few places in the country can match the sight of a full moon over the Amur River, reflecting on the golden domes of a nearby cathedral.

The riverbank is buzzing with activity, and has several cafes and restaurants with live rock bands that often perform late into the night.  There are also several hydrofoil services for those that want to cruise the Amur. A 90-minute cruise is a wonderful way to observe the illuminated riverside architecture at night, but there are longer cruises north to the cities of Komsomolsk-na-Amure and Nikolayevsk-na-Amure. These cruises are a great way to explore some of the most stunning and sparsely populated areas in all of Russia.

The park of Khabarovsk.   Source: Lori Legion Media

The Great Outdoors

No trip to Khabarovsk is complete without a picnic in the forests near the city. Many residents of the city have summer cottages in an area called Voronezh-1, an ideal place for a barbeque, beer and folk music. There are several forest trails in the area, which is strikingly beautiful in the autumn.

However, those seeking adventure head straight for Peak Heksir, which is only about 970 metres above sea level but is a difficult trek through thick forests. The great Ussuriskaya Taiga begins in this forest, which is home to the Amur Tigers, the largest tigers in the world. The tigers have the advantage of camouflage in the fall, but can be spotted in the winter, when blankets of snow envelop the mountain range. The forests are also inhabited by the Amur leopards, who are incredibly difficult to spot.

The path to Heksir offers splendid views of Khabarovsk and the domes of the city’s cathedrals are visible from the peak. But the makin reason for a hike to Heksir is the view of the Russia-China border.  This last stretch of Russian territory is at the intersection of the Amur and the Ussuri rivers. Although all that is visible of China is a stretch of forest, special permission must be arranged to climb the peak, as it is located in a politically sensitive area.

Shantar Archipelago.   Source: RIA Novosti

Khabarovsk is also close to the isolated Shantar Archipelago, a string of islands that are only accessible in the non-winter months. This group of 15 islands in the Sea of Okhotsk are famous for their rocky cliffs and spruce forests. The archipelago is a wildlife lover’s paradise in the summer. You can spot bearded seals, bowhead whales and endangered western grey whales. Bears are aplenty in the islands, but unfortunately, each summer, there are reports of campers getting killed by bears. Wildlife experts attribute many of these cases to reckless behavior on the part of tourists from cities. The islands are accessible by helicopter from Khabarovsk as well as via fishing trawlers that make the most of the four months a year they have before the ice flows merge the archipelago with the mainland.

    

Ajay Kamalakaran was the editor of The Sakhalin Times from 2003 to 2007.



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