The flight, via Vladivostok, has been comfortable and punctual, and as a weak early morning sun hovers over icy fields, we begin our descent into Khabarovsk. The city, in Russia’s far east, was founded in 1858 as a military outpost and, according to Lonely Planet, is the “world’s coldest city of over half a million people”. The Amur River here forms the border with China and, this being the depths of winter, is frozen, huge blocks of ice floating downstream making strange groaning sounds as they do so. Hardy Russians have cut holes in the ice and are sitting on blocks of the cold stuff as they fish. I walk gingerly towards an old fellow wrapped in furs who pulls out small fish from the frigid water. I want to watch for longer, to see if my new friend manages to pull out a giant sturgeon, but it is too impossibly cold to hang around, and the cracking noises coming from beneath my feet seem to be building towards a crescendo. The Dormition cathedral stands high above the river, a skinny vertical structure covered in blue tiles that replaced the one destroyed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. More impressive is the massive Transfiguration cathedral, the third tallest church in Russia, which was opened in 2004. Its four Ukrainian-style gilded domes were located on a hill chosen by Alexy II, then Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia (the bishop of Moscow), from a helicopter. The climb through Heroes Square, which commemorates the dead of the Great Patriotic war (the second world war as fought by the Soviets from 1941), and up the stairs of the cathedral might have warmed me if the temperature hadn’t dropped to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit). It is a long and snowy walk back to the station to catch an afternoon train to Birobidzhan, the administrative centre of the Jewish autonomous oblast, the only officially Jewish territory outside Israel. The journey of three hours is insignificant by Siberian standards. I sit in a third-class carriage with two men from Uzbekistan who eat smoked fish and offer me, with a conspiratorial wink, vodka that has been secreted in a lemonade bottle. The snow in Birobidzhan is fresh and I kick my way happily through powder to my hotel, past the white-dusted memorial tank and Lenin statue with outstretched arm. The town, established in 1934, has a scarcely credible history – a place where the Jewish population of the Soviet Union was encouraged to settle as an escape from anti-Semitism and to enjoy freedom and special status. As such, Birobidzhan is something of a Hebrew Disneyland. The streets are lined by statues of grinning, gurning men with black hats and payot curls playing the accordion or dancing like Tevye the dairyman, from Fiddler on the Roof . The hotel lobby is filled with caricatures of Jewish matryoshka nesting dolls. There is life and character in this small, remote town, where old-fashioned chunky buses stop politely at road crossings and the waitress in a Jewish restaurant gives me a handwritten postcard of thanks when I stop for coffee or to eat matzoh ball soup, or beautifully braided challah bread with dill pickle. The market is thriving, too, even though bitterly cold flumes of snow are being blown in under the roof and across the trestles behind which stallholders wrapped in layers of clothing cheerfully implore me to buy. Huge fish frozen like rigid wooden exclamation marks point vertically from crates. I buy honey from a woman who tells me the runny golden stuff is from the lowlands and the pale thick stuff from the mountains, although in this cold both are frozen solid. An overnight train takes me to Vladivostok. At the end of the Trans-Siberian line, the “Master of the East” stands where the Pacific crashes against Russia’s eastern shore. The train feels cosy, with its hissing and gurgling samovar – each carriage has one, near the toilets and the provodnitsa ’s (attendant’s) room – and sheets so clean and starched they give off green sparks as I unfold them. As the carriages clank into position behind the rolling locomotive, my fellow passengers strip to as few clothes as possible and ready themselves for bed. There is a decorum to the process that needs no language and I soon realise I am to vacate the four-berth cabin and close the door behind me to allow my female companions to preserve their modesty. Vladivostok is an important naval base and was closed to foreigners between 1958 and 1992, but it feels cosmopolitan now, in a way that Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan most certainly are not. A signpost on the platform tells arriving passengers that it’s 9,288km to Moscow. The early-20th-century station building is a beauty, built to complement the Yaroslavsky station, in the national capital, at the other end of the Trans-Siberian line. The walls are decorated with sculptures of horsemen and birds, berries and fruit, a bronze bust of Tsar Nicholas II and the two-headed imperial eagle. The ceiling is painted with images of communities along the Trans-Siberian route and of churches, steam trains and boats – a celebration of the Russification of this place so far from Moscow. I take a taxi to Russky Island, which was once even more of a secret than Vladivostok town. The Voroshilov Battery – with its huge green 51-tonne artillery cannon, each more than 15 metres long and with a 34km range – is sunk into the hill above seascapes dotted with islands and flecks of whitecap waves dappled with late autumn sunshine. My driver points to the southern horizon and says, “Japan, Korea” and then, chuckling, “Australia”. We drive past painted wooden dachas and an old man dressed in Lycra racing along the road on skis with wheels. We pass the new Mariinsky Theatre, a stunning edifice of steel and glass on the harbourfront built to house the touring Bolshoi Ballet and travelling opera productions, and further evidence of Vladivostok’s growing sophistication. A keening wind blows off the ocean, turning the guard railings along the harbour into ice sculptures; shivering ponies dressed as unicorns give rides to excited Koreans who seem oblivious to the weather. Away from the coast, over Vladivostok’s rolling hills, is the five-domed Cathedral of the Intercession, where women in headscarves pray, bow and kiss icons while the menfolk skulk at the back, warming their hands over candles. South of the cathedral, the huge cables of the Zolotoy Bridge span the “golden horn” (a dog-legged inlet) and link downtown Vladivostok with the industrial suburb of Churkin. In the shadow of the northern end of the bridge lies the S-56, preserved as the most successful submarine of the second world war, with 14 kills to its name (well, number). I pay my 100 roubles (US$1.55) and am surprised by the cramped conditions; the horrors its sailors must have endured as this iron coffin hunted in the cold depths! The craft is all pipes and wheel-like door locks and mysterious gauges and dials, but the officer’s quarters have a semblance of comfort, with a wooden table and a painting of Stalin, and the torpedoes at the end of the boat are long and smooth, painted green and red like deadly Christmas presents. American photographer Eleanor Pray lived in Vladivostok from 1894 to 1930, witnessing three wars, two revolutions and both Tsarist and Soviet rule. Her husband died and her daughter left, but Pray stayed because “I cannot imagine living where I cannot see the two bays”. Only when her house was seized did she finally leave. The 2,500 letters Pray wrote from the city have become an invaluable record of Vladivostok in the early 20th century and a statue has been erected outside her old house, off Svetlanskaya Street, which depicts Eleanor hurrying to the post office, letter clutched to her breast. “Beyond Paris, Vladivostok is the most fascinating city on Earth,” she once wrote, and it’s not hard, contemplating my visit to this dynamic city, to see what she meant. Getting there Direct flights serve Vladivostok from Tokyo, South Korea, Beijing, Shanghai and several Russian cities. Travellers from Hong Kong fly via Shanghai, with direct return flights.