. Last Updated: 10/01/2014

Chita: China's Back Door to Russia

As a key urban center in the Far East, the city could benefit from federal plans to promote investment in the region, but for the present Chita depends on its close links to China for survival.
Howard Amos / MT

As a key urban center in the Far East, the city could benefit from federal plans to promote investment in the region, but for the present Chita depends on its close links to China for survival.

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Chita
Population: 325,000
Main industries: Power, transportation
Mayor: Anatoly Mikhalyov
Founded in 1653
Interesting fact: The city was originally a boat-making center known as Plotbishche. Many of its boats would later travel down the Amur River to the Pacific Ocean.
Sister cities: Manzhouli, China; Khailar, China; Chita, Japan; Abilene, Texas, United States.
Helpful contacts: Mayor Anatoly Mikhailyov (+7 302-235-2407, www.admin.chita.ru) and Sergei Malyshev, president of the Zabaikalsk region Chamber of Commerce (+7 302-241-0692, tppchita@mail.ru, www.tppchita.ru).

Major Businesses

Zabaikalsk Railways (34 Ulitsa Leningradskaya, +7 302-222-4316, www.zabzd.rzd.ru). A subsidiary of Russian Railways, this is one of the biggest employers in the region.
TGK-14 (1 Prospekt Energostroitelei, +7 302-238-7359, www.tgk-14.com). Created in 2005 after the reconfiguration of the power generation industry, TGK-14 is the biggest electrical energy company in the Zabaikalsky region and neighboring Buryatia republic.

chita.ru
Anatoly Mikhalyov,
Mayor of Chita since 2005; a member of the ruling United Russia party.
Q: Why should investors look at Chita?
A: Chita has an advantageous geographical location secured by its position on the most direct transport links between Russia's western regions, the countries of Western and Eastern Europe, and China and the states of southeast Asia. This means it is possible to include the regional capital, and the region as a whole, within not just the Russian economy, but also the world economy.
Investors can receive a municipal guarantee, discounts on rent of buildings or land plots that belong to the town, competitive subsidies and also local tax breaks and investment tax credit. The local government helps facilitate the implementation of investment projects.

Q: What changes have taken place in the city in recent years and how has this influenced its development?
A: The stable growth of investment has been characteristic of Chita's economy over the last ten years — with the exception of the two crisis years of 2008 and 2009. In 2012, the total investment in the city was more than 13 billion rubles — more than 64 percent higher than in 2009. In general, with the exception of a few difficult years, Chita's development has not been interrupted. And now there is an excellent economic base for a serious economic breakthrough.

Q: What is your favorite place in the city?
A: I have several favorite places, depending on the season. In winter, I love to be on our central square where we erect an ice town. I like looking at the happy, satisfied faces of children. In summer, my favorite place is a dacha not far from Chita with a river and nature nearby. Our town is the best!
— Howard Amos

CHITA, Zabaikalsky region — If you bend down and look closely at the paving tiles on Chita's main square, you will notice that they have Mandarin lettering inscribed on them.

In this southern Siberian city you are never far away from a reminder of China, and the most important crossing on the Chinese-Russian border is less than 500 kilometers away.

Chita is the point at which the Trans-Manchurian railway, which travels across northern China and finishes in Beijing, diverges from the main Trans-Siberian line. Trains going to China pass through the border town of Zabaikalsky, the only rail link between Russia and China, and the channel for about 70 percent of the trade between the two countries.

In the city itself, which is 6,200 kilometers east of Moscow, all the consumer goods for sale are likely to be of Chinese manufacture; Chinese is taught in schools; Chinese food is common; And locals who can afford it are more likely to take a vacation by the Yellow Sea than the Black Sea.

While there is no obvious flood of Chinese migrants, the economic footprint of the East is felt almost everywhere in Chita: from the manual laborers employed in the construction industry to the right-hand drive vehicles imported from Japan.

Even lucrative contracts to build the elaborate ice palaces, where local children play during the winter months, are awarded by the local government to Chinese companies.

Some even claim that Chita and the Zabaikalsky region of which it is the capital, are little more than a commercial hinterland feeding China's booming manufacturing industry and growing population.

In just one example, high levels of logging in the surrounding region — at great environmental cost — are sustained almost solely by Chinese demand.

Under the Soviet Union, Chita was a closed city because of its proximity to the highly militarized border zone. But since a series of treaties between the two countries in the late 1990s and 2000s, the area's strategic significance has been downgraded.

In a blow to Chita's military pride, then-President Dmitry Medvedev dissolved the Siberian Military District, of which Chita was the capital, in 2010. Chita and the surrounding area are now part of the Eastern Military District that has its headquarters in Khabarovsk.

Locals whisper that the huge, pale-yellow building on Chita's main square that used to house the headquarters of the Siberian Military District is now half-abandoned, even haunted.

Alongside the fading military traditions of a border city, Chita is also closely associated with famous prisoners and prisons, of which there are a large number in its vicinity.

The city clings to its historical link with the Decembrists — the revolutionary aristocrats who were banished to Siberia by Nicholas I after their failed 1825 insurrection. And jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky did a stint in a prison colony near the uranium-mining town of Krasnokamensk to the south of Chita.

What to do if you have two hours

Take the inevitable stroll around Chita's central square (Ploshchad Lenina) to view the old headquarters of the Siberian Military District, the local Russian Railways offices and the regional administration under the watchful gaze of Lenin. Those feeling more adventurous could do the 30-minute walk to the Decembrist museum (3B Ulitsa Dekabristov, +7 302-223-2438, www.museums75.ru/chitadekabr), housed in Chita's oldest building.

For MT
Viktor Kolosov,
head of the Zabaikalsky Region Local History Museum, which runs the town's main museum on the Decembrists.
Q: What legacy did the Decembrists leave to Chita?
A: The Decembrists played, and continue to play, an extremely important role in the town.
Our Decembrists Museum, housed in the Old-Chita Mikhailo-Arkhangelskoi Church, the oldest wooden building in the Zabaikalsky region, is one of the town's hallmarks. It was built in 1776.
The Decembrists were important not just because their fate was tied to the Zabaikalsky region after their failed insurrection, but because during their prison term they played a role in creating entrepreneurs, scientists and an intelligentsia. Their direct descendants remain.

Q: Will the museum's building be returned to the Orthodox Church?
A: Nobody has raised this question over the last two years. But if this sensitive issue arises, there is a place near the church by the archaeological remains of a Decembrist building, where a museum complex will be built.

Q: What other reminders of the Decembrists remain in the region?
A: In Petrovsk-Zabaikalsk there is a museum and a bas-relief in the train station which greets all passengers on the Trans-Siberian. Two years ago in Chita, a square called Love and Fidelity was opened in memory of the wives of the Decembrists and is popular among young couples. We have a Decembrist Square and there is an Ulitsa Dekabristov in Chita and Petrovsk-Zabaikalsk.
— Howard Amos

If you would prefer to indulge a military fetish, you could visit the small Odora Park, filled with old army and Air Force hardware, including a MiG fighter (entry at 88 Ulitsa Lenina). Those seeking a tangible Chinese presence in the city might be curious to visit the Sya Yan market (153 Ulitsa Babushkina), also known as the city's Chinese Market. Next door is another market where you can buy local produce and goods from Russian and Kyrgyz traders.

What to do if you have two days

Those with more than a few hours in Chita would be advised to 

head out of town to see some of the region's landscape. The north of the Zabaikalsky region is heavily forested, but this gives way to steppe as you get closer to the border with Mongolia and China.

Those with a particular interest in the Decembrists could do the four to six hour drive to Petrovsk-Zabaikalsk, the last major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway west of Chita. Transferred to Petrovsk-Zabaikalsk in 1830, the Decembrists lived in a specially constructed prison. Today there is a museum, and in the cemetery, the grave of the only Decembrist, Ivan Gorbachevsky, who chose to remain in Petrovsk-Zabaikalsk after the Tsar permitted the exiles to settle elsewhere in Siberia.

Other possible trips from Chita include the Charskiye Sands, a small desert in the far north of the region. Or the haunting and extensive Kheetei caves to the south, where the remains of long-extinct animals, including a saber-toothed tiger, have been discovered.

You can also explore the Buddhist heritage of the formerly independent Aginsky Buryatsky Autonomous District, which merged with the Chita region to become the Zabaikalsky region in 2008. Details of tour companies that can arrange trips outside the city can be found at www.visitchita.ru.

Where to stay

Most of Chita's biggest hotels are clustered around the main square. There is nothing Alpine about the Mont Blanc Hotel (5 Ulitsa Kostushko-Grigorovicha, +7 302-235-7272, www.montblanc.eldonet.ru), but the cheapest single rooms cost about 4,000 rubles ($135) per night and there is a restaurant, bar and sauna.

For MT
Semyon Shifrin,
founder of the For a New Zabaikal movement, a recently established grass-roots civic organization. He is also the head of Chita's 4x4 club.
Q: How dynamic is political life in the Zabaikaly region?
A: Nothing has changed in the region since Communism: The present governor, Ravil Geniatullin, was a (Communist) Party secretary and has now been in power for 18 years. And over 18 years, of course, everybody who has worked with him has got to know each other very well — and been able to set-up their relatives with cushy jobs.
It's very hard to start something here. Politics is a kind of swamp. People are leaving the region — not in the hundreds, but in the thousands. Those who have remained do not know how to work or do not want to. Drunkenness is increasing.

Q: What are the main local drivers of economic growth?
A: Money is leaving the region. In neighboring regions everything develops much more quickly. There are no big commercial projects. Big mining companies wanting to work in the area are above all concerned with measuring the size of their resources. They have been talking about how mining and production operations will be beginning soon for 15 years.
Many Chinese companies — that look like Russian companies — are hired. And there are those who are engaged in logging and uncontrolled (illegal) timber exports to China.
It's clear this is acceptable to some and that there are agreements in place. And nobody is interested, not the prosecutors office, nor the police.
— Howard Amos

Other more basic options include the Arkadia Hotel (120 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 302-235-2636, www.arkadia.chita.ru) where rooms start from 1,800 rubles a night and the conveniently located Hotel Chita (31 Butina Ulitsa, +7 302-234-3340, www.zabaikalie.ru) owned by the Defense Ministry and frequented by a lot of soldiers.

Where to eat

The possibility of finding good Chinese cuisine makes dining in Chita different from most provincial Russian towns. But a superlative taste of the East is surprisingly hard to find and your best bet is to speak to locals for the latest tips. Some places worth trying include Eastern Pearl (25A Ulitsa Evgeniya Gausana, +7 302-220-2874), where the average check will come to about 1,000 rubles with alcohol, or for Russian-Chinese fusion, drop by Noodles and Pelmeni (Malaya Ulitsa 3, +7 302-232-3400).

For a quick and filling snack, almost every restaurant and cafe in the city will serve pozi, the Buryat-Mongolian variation of Russian pelmeni. Locals suck the hot juice out of the boiled meat parcels wrapped in pastry before they eat them.

How to get there

There are several daily flights from Moscow's Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo airports to Chita's Kadala airport. There are also flights from Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk, Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, destinations in China, and since 2012, direct flights to and from Thailand.

A one-way ticket from Moscow to Chita with Aeroflot, which takes about six hours, will set you back approximately 9,000 rubles.

By train, Chita is almost a four-day journey from Moscow, and passengers traveling on to Beijing or Vladivostok will need at least another two days.

A one-way second-class train ticket from Moscow to Chita costs from 5,000 rubles.

Contact the author at h.amos@imedia.ru







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Chita: China's Back Door to Russia

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