Saturday, February 21, 2009


Every time I come through Chita (this is at least my fourth time) I try to give it another chance. I hoped that this time would be different, that the wealth from the last six years would result in changes to the city and to people’s attitudes. Unfortunately, the city has remained locked in time. I still don’t like it.

A nice American acquaintance (who has lived here an unbelievable 13 years) met me at the airport and after getting me settled at a nice and reasonably priced hotel, dropped me off at the central market. This used to be my favorite place, where Central Asian traders smiled over stacks of bright fruit and vegetables. The market had changed, with booths for clothing and goods replacing much of the vast open market space. The Central Asians were still there, although in smaller numbers, and they were still the most friendly.

Only at the central market in Chita can someone ask me, “Are you from the Ukraine? Mongolia?” and expect an affirmative reply.

I hoped to walk through town, back towards my hotel, while picking up some groceries, getting something to eat, and seeing how the city has changed.

Instead, what I found is that, with the exception of a few new buildings – a hotel, a couple of apartment blocks, a couple of shopping centers - the city has remained frozen in time. The exact same restaurants and shops stood in the exact same places and in the exact same condition, plus six years of wear. There was very little in the way of renovation, improvement, the flourishing of new businesses. The highlight of the town is the ice palace and slide, located in front of the giant Lenin statue (still standing) and built annually by the Chinese.

Shortly after leaving the market, I realized I’d forgotten my mittens. I wrapped my hands in my scarf and continued on. I was quickly reminded of the power of the Siberian cold. First, the nose hairs stand to attention as they begin to freeze. The hands become uncomfortable cold, and with time, become stiff and lose dexterity. The nose begins to drip and that, plus the frozen nose hairs makes for a cold mess. Then the face begins to stiffen from the cold, making it difficult to speak. The cold seems in through the jeans into the legs and through the collar into the upper chest. The cold air enters the esophagus and the lungs like a thick, chilled drink. I looked for the buses I was told go to the hotel, but couldn’t find nay of them. Nor did I find an easy taxi. So I kept walking.

I moved from the main street, Babushkina, down Chkalova, through the center of town, and up Lenin Street, the main throughway. I hoped that I’d find the buses there, and if nothing else, I could find a café where I could stop to warm up and have something warm to eat. No luck on any counts. I saw one café, Vesta, that I recognized from before. When I went in, I found the tables in disarray, soggy pirozhki in the front case, and no service staff. A few blocks later, I passed Tsyplata Tabaka, a café I remembered that serves nothing but chicken, but the chicken is really good. With some excitement, I approached the front door. But it was locked and there were no hours posted.

I was so cold at this point I could barely move. I went into a shop to warm up and asked the saleswomen where I could find something to eat. This was the main street in the center of town. They named the two places I’d just tried and couldn’t come up with any others.

Finally, near my hotel, I found a little stand selling grilled chicken and shaurma (made with tiny chunks of chicken and lots of mayonnaise and cabbage in a flour wrap). That was enough exploring for the day. I happily entered my warm hotel, made two cups of hot tea and luxuriated in a steaming shower.

In the evening, I visited Lukas and his family. When I told him and his wife Natalia about my difficulties finding anything to eat and my surprise at the lack of cafes or restaurants, Natalia, a Chitan said, “We have a Subway. And a Baskin Robbins!” They mentioned two other cafes, but they are hidden away. Lukas said that one positive change has been that many of the roads have been repaved, saving drivers the cost of replacing their shock absorbers each year. However, even he is considering sending his son to study overseas in order to expose him to a greater variety of people and professions. He said here, the youth want only to study business and law. They don’t see a way to make a living in any other profession.

I’m enjoying the hot water, since I don’t know whether or not I’ll have any in Aginsk. But I’m not at all disappointed to be leaving Chita tomorrow.

No comments: