Novy Urgal: Boredom in a BAM Town

Novy Urgal, the lead town from the eastern stretches of the BAM railway, is clearly not a place most, or any, travellers will come to. The train station has no guesthouse, and a tragic toilet for those needing it. The hotel is under renovation — if you can find it — and a scattered group of tile-peeling buildings are lined along dusty streets in a town of 6000 (and diminishing) people. It only began in 1974, when 320 Ukrainians came to work the railroad. Now the lone cafe in town, Aisberg (Iceberg) — a blue and white place with three bored women watching Russian comedy on a big-screen TV — doesn’t serve borscht, but ‘Ukrainian borscht’ and ‘Ukraine’ is written along with ‘Urgal’ above the train station. I came because Lonely Planet thought it would be added to the Russian book. I knew it wouldn’t be much, and it was clear about five minutes off the train, but I now have a day to kill before my night train to Birobidzhan. Here’s how it’s going:

* Got in line for train info at the station, but saw a break was coming in 15 minutes; with three people before me, chances were zero, so I left for town. TEN HOURS TO KILL

* Up the long steps into town, I saw a great ‘BAM’ marker, with a hero worker and kilometer distances to Moscow and Fevralsk. Nearby was a hospital shaped Dom Kulturi, I stepped into. I asked if I could look to the admin woman in a mini office up front. ‘We have a store, a club, a library. Sure, you can look.’ Above was towering ceilings, with elevated walkways I didn’t know how to reach and a painting of a mountain scene. NINE-AND-A-HALF HOURS.

* Across a scruffy plaza stand a big gray buildng that seemed official, so I headed toward it — and walked right in, finding the former admin bldg of some sort converted into a mall, a common occurence out here. walked past shops for haircuts, fresh bread, bad clothes and found — sacre bleu! — this Internet spot, where I checked college football details and answered a few emails. EIGHT-AND-A-HALF HOURS.

* There’s a lone attraction in town, a BAM MUSEUM, and I tried to find it, walking lazily down cracked sidewalks of streets namd 60 Years of USSR and Kiev (Ukraine). I asked at a store, where a auburn-haired woman, locked up and walked me 15 feet away to point to the next door. ‘Second or third floor.’ Up the stairs, I surprised a 60- or 70-something attendant who gave a painstakingly detailed run-down of each and every item (1970s samovars, paintings that say ‘Long Live Stalin,’ a mini BAM map, stuffed animals I’ve never seen before), using her pointer to show the first, second and third buildings made in town from a glassed-in town model, and I finally had to excuse myself from a very Soviet experience. SEVEN HOURS.

* I dropped by the closed hotel under reconstruction and got some prices to be, and ate at a meal at Iceberg, watching Russian MTV (don’t Russians ever listen to US pop?). I pushed the onions off my slice of pork and mixed them with a few potatoes I didn’t eat to disguise my dislike for them. I didn’t touch the peas. The borscht was excellent. FIVE-AND-A-HALF HOURS.

* I stopped or more Internet, and slowly returned to the train station where I found two people in line in an empty station. After 40 minutes of waiting, with no progress, I sat down and watched seven people take my place, and the two before me finish up. I left to a cafe near the Dom Kulturi, where shirtless guys in shorts and buzz haircuts worked on setting up a stage backed with navy-blue flames that look like Arabic writing. I had a beer and read. TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS.

Now, with just 95 MINUTES TO GO, I’ll try a ticket again. If not, I’ll set in the shade and worry about my next ticket in Birobidzhan. Someone needs to clock waiting-in-vain on a trip here.

About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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