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Pete Martin ¦ Transformational Journeys

Vladivostok: Bears, balalaikas and vodka

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Friday, 21 September 2018 | Views [179]

2014 02 18 Vladivostok (8)

2014 02 18 Vladivostok (8)

After the long journey on the Trans Siberian Railway, I sleep well, enjoying the space of a double bed to stretch out into. Refreshed from a shower before bed and one again this morning, finally relaxing in the luxury of a hotel room before venturing out into the very cold Vladivostok day.

The railway station is a grand building; a shame I didn’t see it yesterday evening as the train arrived and I was whisked quickly away to my hotel. It’s a fitting end to the Trans-Siberian Railway, both inside and out. It’s supposed to mirror Yaroslavky Station, at the other end of the line in Moscow, but I didn't get to see that station either, having been dumped across the junction by my driver. I photograph the monument which marks the 9,288 kilometres of the journey. (Strangely, my guidebook says the total is 9,289 kilometres and the train timetable gave the total distance as 9,259 kilometres). The ferry port, from where I depart tomorrow, is directly behind the train station and it’s not the best location to allow people to see the town; too easy for passengers to get off the train and straight on to the ferry.

Natalya is my local guide for the city and with her help, I am soon enthralled by Vladivostok. Natalya tells me that Khrushchev compared the city to San Francisco, and, like San Francisco, it has bridges, a bay and it’s built on hills, but otherwise there is nothing else in common. It’s not a pretty town but it’s a functional town. However, I like the town a lot. Maybe it’s the bright sunshine but then the wind from the sea makes the minus thirteen degrees feel as cold as Lake Baikal did. Maybe it’s the sea and the waterfront, even though the waterfront is heavily dominated by military vessels. Maybe it’s because it feels provincial and, whilst Russian, it’s not Russian. Maybe it’s just the sense I have of being at the edge of the world.

Natalya tells me the story of President Putin arriving for the APEC conference in 2012 and being shocked at the amount of Japanese and Korean cars on the streets. Back in Moscow, he subsequently arranged for a train load of Russian and European cars to be sent to the city. Only a handful of these cars were bought and the rest were sent back, as it was easier and cheaper to buy from Asia. As Natalya tells me this story, a police car passes; a Hyundai. Many cars are also right hand drive, imported as-is from Japan.

Vladivostok has a strange history and quite the reverse to most cities, particularly to my hometown of Liverpool. It’s a young city, the first ship landed here in 1860 and a town was established quickly after establishing trade links with Japan. With the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the city flourished. In typical Russian fashion, just as things were going well, the effects of the revolution in Moscow and Saint Petersburg culminated in the city becoming a military post and the city was closed, even to Russians. Foreigners were sent home and even Russians had to apply to visit the city. The city was fortified and the remnants of this, such as concrete battlements, remain across the city today.

Only in 1992 was the city opened again and the effects of this, such as the cars that I have already mentioned, are manifold. Buildings and monuments have been rebuilt. It has a more open feel than Moscow does. This is obviously helped by the sea, but also, whilst the city has Soviet architecture, this is not as domineering or as dark as those in other ex-Communist cities. There is an Asian influence too in terms of the people, its restaurants and shops. Standing in Asia, I ask Natalya whether she feels European or Asian. Without hesitation, she responds that she feels European.

The city is often described as a bit of Europe in Asia and this is not a bad description. The two main streets intersect and along these streets the pre-Soviet buildings, such as the Kunst & Albers department store, mix with the newer communist mansions and administration buildings. One of the mansions is where the family of Yul Bryner, the actor, lived. The main square was reconstructed for the APEC conference and there was debate whether to destroy the old Soviet war statues but they have been left to dominate the square, remaining as a symbol of the city.

Further along, towards the waterfront in a small park, stands the rebuilt triumphal gate for Tsar Nicholas II’s arrival from his journey around the world and which commemorates his declaration to build the Trans-Siberian Railway. Further down the slope of this park are a church and a war memorial with its eternal flame. Alongside this, incongruously in the open street, stands the S-56 submarine, a symbol of Vladivostok’s naval heritage. During World War II, the submarine made eight military campaigns and carried out twelve torpedo attacks that resulted in the sinking ten rival ships and damaging four more. Over three thousand bombs were dropped on it, but the S-56 remained unsinkable.

Natalya and I wander back to the centre of the town and to Vladivostok’s equivalent to Moscow’s Armat Street. It’s a long pedestrian street leading to Peter the Great Bay. This is where the first settlers built the original town. Terraced, low rise stone buildings still remain on either side of the street, joined together with archways and passages between them. These buildings were the opium dens, bars, brothels and chop shops and it is said that a visitor to the town did not need to leave this street as everything he needed was here. It’s now neatly remodelled with restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques.

At the end of the street is the vast, frozen water of Peter the Great Bay. It’s noticeable how much colder and windier it is here, standing on the waterfront. There are battlements on the hillside and nearby an open-air sports stadium, a winter sports arena and an aquarium. Incredibly, in this weather, there’s a guy with two donkeys waiting to take kids along the promenade. More incredible still, out on the ice of the bay, there are over a hundred fishermen. I saw such fishermen before on Lake Baikal and on the other rivers I passed over on the Trans-Siberian Railway but not this many. Some are chatting together, some sit alone. Natalya tells me that on the weekends there are twice as many and the fishermen will sit out on the ice fishing for a good six to eight hours. They all sit facing one direction, as if praying to an apparition or watching a giant movie, but I realise they all face the sun for warmth. We try to get closer but the ice is extremely slippery and out in the open it’s extremely cold. My admiration for the fishermen increases. Apparently, the Vladivostok wives have been known to check up on their fisherman husbands to ensure they are fishing and not keeping warm drinking vodka in one of the local bars. We talk to two of the nearest fishermen. They haven't caught anything yet after two hours of trying and so will move to a new spot where there are less people.

It’s so cold that we decide to go for coffee. Natalya is keen to know my impressions of Russia and of her town. She’s a proud Russian and even more so with regard to her hometown. Then she asks the dreaded question of what I think of the people of Russia. I hesitate but say it’s hard because everyone looks so miserable all the time. She laughs immediately and pulls a stern face and says this is how people walk around. She then pulls a sterner face and tells me this is how they greet each other in the street. I laugh. She then says that if you see people at home or in bars or cafés they start to smile and interact. She says Russians, in fact, have a good sense of humour.

I look around the coffee shop people are interacting with each other and joking. I think about Lena and Iakov (my respective guides in Moscow and Irkutsk) who I did enjoy being with. Even Dmitry (who I shared a compartment with on the Trans Siberian Railway), once I had shared my wine, got me the football score, updated me on the Winter Olympics and was excited about the drop in temperatures outside. Natalya says Moscow people are more defensive, due to its history. I tell her about Aberdonians, that once you crack through the ice, you meet the hard granite of their personalities. But, eventually, once you got to know them and once they have a few drinks, they are fun. We decide it has a lot to do with cold winters. All in all, she is pleased I’ve enjoyed her country and its true, I have. As we depart she says she hopes Russia is more than bears, balalaikas and vodka.

She also gives me instructions to take a bus ride across the bay on the newly built bridges to visit Russky Island. For 18 roubles (about thirty pence) each way, this is what I do. The first section through the suburbs is awful and I think I’ve made a mistake. The impressions on the train yesterday are back; derelict houses, Soviet apartment blocks, scrapyards and graffiti. However, up on the first bridge, the view of the city across the bay is spectacular. The second bridge is even better. The bridge is much longer and looks out toward the Sea of Japan. In a closed city, Russky Island was restricted even further and only naval and military personnel were ever allowed on the island. The island was only opened up for the APEC conference two years ago and now, with the bridges built, it’s opening up even further. The city’s universities have amalgamated and a new huge university complex has been built on the island and there will be a new marine life centre opened here too. The whole trip, there and back, takes nearly two hours. It’s probably the cheapest tourist trip I have ever taken.

I then wander slowly back to have a vodka in the hotel bar. I enjoyed the tour of the city immensely.  The vodka is a great way to say goodbye to Vladivostok and to Russia.

Tags: city tours, rusky island, russia, vladivostok

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