Saturday, June 25, 2016

Daejeon and the Yuseong Hot Springs

I arrived in Daejeon on the express bus. Thus was the first time I had taken the express bus; prior to this I had taken the inter-city buses which are somewhat cheaper and stop more places. Still, the price wasn't bad; it was about twelve dollars for a ride that was at least two and a half hours. And I really couldn't see any real difference in quality. There was a TV at the front of the bus blaring some mindless daytime infotainment show in Korean, but I didn't understand what they were saying, and even if I had, it looked completely pointless.

When I first got on the bus, I was the only passenger. But at a later station, another person got on. So there were only two people on the bus for the entire rest of the ride to Daejeon. It was a very pleasant ride. The scenery was nice, as it usually is between cities in Korea, and the seats were fairly comfortable. I think they might have reclined a little more than the inter-city bus seats. Really, the only reason I took the express bus was that the express terminal was easier for me to find than the inter-city bus terminal. And with the language barrier, I went with what I could find. Actually, there are several bus terminals in Daegu. But the express bus terminals are all within a few blocks of each other, while the inter-city terminals are all over the city, and I had no idea which buses left from which terminals. And I had taken a train into Daegu...the first time I took a train in between Korean cities, so I didn't end up at a bus terminal. That was my bus end up at a terminal, so I would know where it was.  But that only really works in the smaller cities, where there is only one bus terminal. No telling if the terminal I land at would be the same one I take off from in these multi-terminal cities.

At least my method for taking the bus (or train) is solid. I just pull up the city I am going to on Google Maps, and show it to the person behind the counter. It has the name of the city in English and Korean. So far that has worked. But I might mention that Google Maps doesn't really work fully in Korea. It won't map out your route, though it will show you the streets. But sometimes it takes some time before it is not blurry...maybe after an hour or so, the streets will show up with definition. But what is DOES do is show you what bus or subway you can take to your destination, and where to catch it, which is awesome. It took me a while to figure out that I could do that, and it took me a while to figure out that I could map "manually", that is, just follow the streets on the map, even if it won't plot the course. At least Google Maps has some functionality in Korea; in Mongolia it didn't work at all. Then there is, which works great, but didn't cover one city that I was in at all (Jecheon) didn't even look like there was a city there; it showed no streets. Also it has less landmarks, though I think there is the capability to add some, but you have to go to the Open Maps Project to do it. Anyway, I haven't taken the time to figure it out. But between the two of them, I've mostly been able to make my way around.

Until now, that is. When I arrived in Daejeon, I tried to look for my hotel on, and it wasn't there. Then I tried Google Maps, and it gave me a location, and a bus to take. Great! So I took the bus across town, and searched for the hotel all around. The problem was, it wasn't there. It wasn't even anywhere near where Google Maps told me it was. So here I was, stuck somewhere across town with my full pack on, walking around looking for a phantom. Luckily, some kind teenagers working at a mobile phone store saw me wandering around aimlessly, looking for a dot on the map that was right where their store was, and helped me find the actual location of my hotel with a great Korean maps app (which I have downloaded since it is supposed to be the best one, but I can't use it because it is all in Korean), and set me off on the right bus to the correct place.

So I settled into my hotel room after a couple of hours of chaos, and in the late afternoon, explored the town and walked along a couple of rivers. But the main reason I came to Daejeon was for the hot springs. They are under the town, and come out in several different places. The easiest place to find (for me, anyway, with the language barrier), was at the Yuseong Spa located at the Yuseong Hotel. They charge a little over six dollars to use their spa. They have a public bath with several hot spring pools of varying temperatures, from lukewarm to barely tolerable, and also some cold baths. There is also a medicinal herb pool, which smelled quite aromatic, and the water was brownish. It was also pumped up and roiling like a jacuzzi. I have no idea what was in it, but I spent a lot of time in there.  The medicinal pool was 38 degrees C. The hottest pool wirh a temperature gauge was 44 C, and the main pool was 41 C.  There were two saunas; one was 77 C and the aromatic one, which I used, was 92 C. The rest of the pools didn't have temperature readings.

There were some waterfall pools, and I let the waterfalls fall on my back and shoulders so the force of the water would massage me. And there was also an outdoor hot spring and cold waterfall pool. There are even places to take naps in between the different baths. There was a also a massage table, but I couldn't figure out what the fee schedule was or where you pay, so I didn't bother with that.  The baths are segregated by gender and everybody is naked. So what I'm describing is in the male area; I have no idea what the female area was like.

You have to take off your shoes before you enter, and there are two different lockers, one for shoes, and another for the rest of your personal effects. Then they give you a little electronic submersible bracelet that unlocks both your lockers. There are also saunas in there as well. Everybody has to shower before entering any of the pools. The hot springs were superb; I spent all morning there. Then I alternated between the hottest, barely tolerable pool and the cold pool to relax before leaving. I've found in the past that alternating between hot and cold water a couple of times (actually, in the gym, I used to do a steambath then a cold shower twice) relaxes me better than Valium...Try it some time, it works for me every time.

I headed back to the hotel, and took a short nap, now I'm going out to check out the city some more.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In the JSA and the DMZ

I decided to visit the Joint Security Area and the Demilitarized Zone while I was in Seoul. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the Orwellian name for the demarcation line between North and South Korea, and the several-kilometers-wide buffer zone that was established to keep both sides from easily invading each other. It is an ironic misnomer, because it is actually one of the most militarized zones on earth, with massive numbers of troops on each side, but ostensibly acting as UN peacemakers.

To get to this area, you have to go with a tour that has been approved by the UN. And there are some additional requirements for visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is a region jointly administered by both sides for any meetings or negotiations between the two sides. You have to apply 72 hours in advance, so they can do a security clearance on you. You also have to adhere to the dress code required in the JSA, which requires men to wear a button-down shirt, long pants, and close-toe shoes. Luckily, I brought one button-down shirt with me; it is insulated and also serves as my light jacket, so it will be a little warm, but I was able to take it off and wear my t-shirt underneath after the visit to the JSA. In the entire DMZ, you have to follow all commands that you are given, and if you fail to do so, you could be expelled, fined, or imprisoned, and your tour guide could be blacklisted. It is a serious place. They also let you know that this is an actively hostile area, an if any hostilities broke out between North and South Korea, they might not be able to protect you. Hostilities have definitely broken out, but not too often, luckily. But they get ugly fast if they do. Camp Bonifas, the first major stop, is named after a South Korean dude who was axe-murdered by a party of rampaging North Koreans who decided to come over the demarcation line and stir up some shit. But the Americans and South Koreans showed them, by gum. In response, they launched “Operation Paul Bunyan” in which they forcefully and aggressively cut down a tree that obscured their view. Take that, DPRK.

And you might think that North Korea would be the ones who would be starting all the shit in the area. But you would be wrong. Former Texas Governor Bill Clements, when he was Deputy Secretary of Defense, reported to Henry Kissinger in the 1970s that hundreds of secret sabotage raids of the North by the South had taken place. And who knows what hasn't been declassified yet. But I digress.

Our tour by bus left Seoul in the early morning and headed straight for the JSA, though we stopped briefly at Camp Bonifas near the border of the DMZ first. Shortly before crossing the Unification Bridge, which was the entry point to the DMZ, pictures were strictly forbidden most of the time, though they told us they would allow some photo opportunities later. And they were not kidding around. When we entered the DMZ, a soldier boarded the bus to make sure nobody took any pictures, and at one point, he confiscated someone's camera when he suspected them of taking pictures. I don't know if they actually took pictures or not, but they ended up getting their camera back.

After the brief stop at Camp Bonifas, we arrived at the JSA Headquarters, after passing through Daeseong-dong, a tiny village that is the only civilian community wholly contained within the DMZ. The JSA is in both North and South Korea, and the demarcation line runs right down the middle of the light blue buildings where any negotiations between the two countries takes place. When we got off the bus, pictures were still prohibited. We had to line up getting off the bus, and stay in the line while they told us which way to go. Then when we were facing the actual demarcation line, they allowed a photo op for just a couple of minutes. We had to line up in double file, and were not allowed to cross a line on the ground. We were also not allowed to take any pictures to the side and had to face forward. There was a gray building in the background behind the light blue buildings, which was the North Korean post. There are soldiers constantly facing each other down on each side of the blue buildings between the North and the South sides of Korea.

Then they allowed us to enter one of the blue buildings that straddled the demarcation line. Half of these buildings are in the South, and half are in the North. There are entrances to the buildings on each side of the building from both countries. They brought us in, gave us a brief talk about the rules, and then also allowed two minutes of pictures and an opportunity to cross the demarcation line into North Korea, but only within the building. So I actually got the chance at this point to cross into North Korean territory, briefly, and get my grinning mug photographed by another tourist while I was standing next to a dour security policeman.

Once we returned from the demarcation line, we passed by the Bridge of No Return, which is a bridge directly between the two countries. It has barriers in the middle so no vehicles can cross, and technically, pedestrians could cross but for the fact that they would probably be immediately shot at, as one defector guy found out once (though he did make it across without getting shot). They stopped the bus briefly near there so we could take pictures of the bridge; it was one of the few areas where we could take pictures. Then we headed to the visitor center of the JSA, they were looser about letting us take pictures there, and let us wander around within bounds and take photos fairly freely. But you definitely don't want to wander out of bounds anyway, because if you do, the area is pretty heavily peppered with land mines. I bought a couple of bottles of North Korean wine at the visitor center. It was bloody awful...I ended up abandoning it at the hostel when I left Seoul with a sign on it indicating it was free to any taker.

We then headed out of the JSA and DMZ for a lunch break in the village of Imjingak, safely back in South Korea. There is a little park there, and a cluster of restaurants, and our lunch was provided along with the tour, and was magnificent, consisting of a huge variety of Korean dishes, mostly vegetables but there was also some meat dishes. We all shared from among the bounty of food, and there was plenty to eat. There was an opportunity to walk around the little park and the group of monuments there, and when it was time to go, we changed buses. Some of us went on one bus, and some on another, because apparently all of the people going to the JSA were on two different tours, so the tour group split into two groups to go their separate ways.

Then we headed back into the DMZ again, but not near the JSA, so I was able to take off my button-down shirt and strip down to my t-shirt. We headed through a different checkpoint, and once again, pictures were prohibited for most of the journey. This time we entered a North Korean infiltration tunnel. The North Koreans bored several infiltration tunnels into the South so that soldiers could secretly invade the South. The tunnels were painted black so the North Koreans could cling to the facade that they were coal mines. As of now, four of these tunnels have been discovered, and the one we entered was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, also known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Apparently this one was discovered when there was some sort of explosion while they were making it. No pictures were allowed in the tunnel, although people were taking pictures at the visitor center for the entry to the tunnel. There was a steep descent to get down to the tunnel, and then the tunnel far below the surface was so short that I had to stoop to walk through it. Luckily, they issued us hard hats, because I banged my head repeatedly on the ceiling due to the fact that it was so low. Also, there were huge numbers of gas masks lining the walls just in case. You never know what those wild and crazy North Koreans will send through the tunnel...soldiers, gas, flames...many possibilities. After making our way through as much of the tunnel as they would let us into on the tour, we made the steep climb back to the surface.

Then we headed to Dora Observatory, which is on top of a mountain in South Korea, directly overlooking North Korea. You could hear North Korea playing propaganda music through huge speakers down below. They had binoculars up there that had stunning views of the North Korean towns below, but I tried taking pictures through the binoculars, and couldn't get it to work. You could take pictures and videos, but not of a full panorama because South Korean soldiers were standing over everyone's shoulders, making sure nobody took pictures of a fortress compound on the left, because they would have confiscated the camera and blacklisted the guide who brought us up there.

We next visited Dorasan Station, which is the northernmost railroad station in South Korea, and the railroad used to keep going north of there before the Korean War, but stopped running into North Korea once the hostilities happened. This was the last stop on the tour, and after that, we headed back to Seoul. The bus that I was on apparently had some shopping thing going on as the last stop, at some mall in Seoul, but I really didn't want to shop, so I abandoned the tour at this point and just took a subway back to the hostel.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

What Do You Do?

What do you do?

What do you do when you are sitting with a group of people at the hostel in Seoul, Korea, just having a good time talking in the common area where everybody is hanging out, and they all want to go clubbing, but you had been, up to that moment, thinking about turning in early.  But they all insist and plead. But you don't even have any nice clothes, just travel bum gear. They all keep cajoling until you and everybody else who is a little reticent finally want to go. Even Claire is going. Besides, it's Jack's birthday. So everybody is going out at eleven to celebrate, and everybody takes off to shower and change.

What do you do?

And then, everybody gets together in front of the hostel to go out. Is everybody there? Not yet. So everybody trickles out, and finally everybody is there.  You all wind down the streets. Some are screaming and howling on the street. Most have alcoholic beverages in their grip, downing them as the horde spins it's way down the street. You take the subway to some place where somebody knows there are some cool clubs, following their lead, but not really paying attention to where you are going. Some are still drinking on the subway. A conversation gets started on the train about black cock; Jenny tells them to shush because people are listening on the subway and many understand English. You get off the train and wind your way through some really shiny and busy alleyways, filled with flashing distractions and packed with people, and you take a while bunch of pictures.  The first couple of clubs don't pan out. The first club offers to let all the women in for free, and give them all free drinks, but screw the men. The second place has too long a line; it snaked around the block, and you can't even tell where exactly the place is.  But then you find a place, and you make your way in through the throbbing, pulsing masses of humanity. You hang out there until the wee hours of the morning, almost 4 am, dancing with everybody who is dancing with you because it is such a novelty to have an old dude there who is really vigorously dancing, and a bunch of people are taking your picture with them, and high-fiving you, and hugging you, and slapping you on the back, introducing themselves, having the kinds of conversations with you that people have that are yelled into each other's ears over the throbbing din, etc.

What do you do?

And then, what happens is what you knew was going to happen. Many of the twentysomethings who were wanting to go clubbing end up hooking up with someone because they are young and similar to everyone else there, while you end up, of course, alone, because you aren't really similar enough to anyone in there, despite the fact that you had great social interactions with everybody in there all night. But it's just not really your thing. It's not your natural habitat and you are an alien looking in, an anthropological observer turned participant in a ritual of passing that you have passed.

What do you do?

Then, the night churns on, and it is very late. You start thinking about leaving,  but you can't find anyone you came with, except for a few who have hooked up with someone in the bar, and they are now busy making out with their paramours, and everybody else is nowhere to be found. So you decide to leave, at around four in the morning. You wind your way out of the crowded bar to the elevator that serves as the entrance, and head to the street level, back out to the neighborhood with the flashing lights everywhere.

What do you do?

You go out into this shiny, flashing, confusing neighborhood that is still packed with people even at four in the morning.  And you realize that you have no idea how to get out of these winding, narrow, flashing streets. So you wander around, mostly aimlessly, until you think you recognize some stuff and you might know the way back to the subway station. But it's not a big deal. You don't have to be anywhere,  and it's not a requirement that you know particularly where you are. So you wander.

What do you do?

And as you are wandering around, one of the most beautiful women you have ever seen in your life calls out to you on the sidewalk, in halting English, "Hello, you are very handsome. "

What do you do?

You know this is not going to be what you might want it to be, but you stare at her for about a minute, and then you say, "You are very beautiful." She looks at you, not breaking her gaze, and says again, "You are very handsome." Maybe she doesn't know how to say much more than this in English. And you say again,  "And you are very beautiful." You look at each other for what seems like an eternity, but is only a few moments.

What do you do?

Experience tells you to move along, though part of you really doesn't want to. Experience. Its a bitch. You walk away, slowly, still looking at her and with her still looking at you. Then you finally avert your eyes and move on. But you know you will think about this moment later. Even if it was not what it seemed.

What do you do?

You finally find your way to the subway station, and go down the stairs to take the subway back to the hostel, but find the corridor to the train platform is shuttered and it is closed, because it doesn't run that late.

What do you do?

You start trying to figure out how to get back to the hostel. Google Maps doesn't work in South Korea, and you downloaded two other alternatives yesterday that do supposedly work in South Korea, but after you downloaded them, you found that they are solely in Korean, and so they are useless to you because you not only can't read Korean, but you can't even remotely figure out how to type Korean words, or even what order the characters are in. Then you turn to the offline maps app you have, which works like a charm, and maps out the path of several kilometers for you to walk back to the hostel. And you take a while bunch of pictures on the way. Then you finally stumble back into the hostel around six in the morning and crawl into bed. And you wake up the next day about four hours later, ready for the challenges and wonders of another day on the road.

I don't know if any of that is what you would do, but that's what I did.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Visiting Vladivostok in the Russian Far East

I arrived in Vladivostok on the evening of May 22, 2016, right around sunset.  It was a gorgeous sunset over Amur Bay coming into the city.  The Trans-Siberian journey had been amazing, and I had gotten to experience many different classes of the train in my journey from Ulan-Ude, stopping at Chita, Birobidzhan, Khabarovsk, and, finally, Vladivostok. So this would be the end of this leg of the Trans-Siberian.  When I had arrived in Ulan-Ude, my original intention had been to turn west toward Moscow and St. Petersburg, and end up in Europe shortly thereafter.  But, when I got on the Russian Railways website to buy my tickets for the Russian trains, I suddenly and impulsively decided to go east instead, towards Vladivostok.  I had no idea how this would work out in the long run, and am still figuring out as I go.  But, fuck, here I am in Asia, and there is this vast amount of stuff to see in this continent.

When I had originally started my journey, I had thought that I would spend a couple months in Australia, then head up through Southeast Asia, anchoring in Thailand, and visiting Laos and Cambodia, maybe even stopping in Malaysia and Indonesia on the way.  But the visa requirements for Russia and China soon threw cold water on that plan.  The deal is that for both Russia and China, you can only apply 90 days before you are going to go, and no earlier.  Plus, you have to map out your itinerary for those countries to apply for the visas, and you are supposed to have an exit strategy that you can show them.  But if you enter again at a later time, you don't really have to show all that stuff.  I was lucky in that I got multiple entry visas to both countries; for China, I got a ten-year visa, and for Russia, I got a three-year visa.  But I still had to plan it out and show where I was going to both countries to get the visas in the first place.  Since I could only apply 90 days prior to entry, I had to truncate my trip to Australia (two months came down to three weeks), and I had to completely blow off Southeast Asia, at least before China.  But it was worth it, because the linch pins of my trip were the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Siberian Railways; those were the main things that I was planning for.

So I guess the one of the reasons I changed my mind and went east in Russia instead of west, was that if I was going to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad, I was going to check out deep Siberia.  And I could always redouble at some point and go the other way, though I'm still not sure how that is going to play out.  But it will, it'll just be several months later than I originally thought it would.  And my journey, which I originally thought would take a year, is now maybe expanding to two years.  Or maybe even longer.  Hell, I don't know...I'm just going with the next thing that happens. And nothing is set in stone.

When I got to Vladivostok, I set off walking from the train station to the hostel where I was staying.  I stayed at Optimum Hostel, on Aleutskaya Street just a few blocks away from the train station, so it was fairly easy to get to.  The building where the hostel is is called “Grey Horse” by the locals, and is apparently an important landmark in the middle of the city.  One of the distinguishing features of the hostel is that there is a huge statue right in front of it.  Actually, the statue is directly in front of the building right next door, but both buildings are on a hill raised up from the street and are together in the same plot up the stairs from the street.  After a day or so, I went up to look at the statue to see what dignitary was depicted in full metallic splendor, and, to my surprise, it was Yul Brynner.  Apparently, he was born in Vladivostok, so city decided to honor homeboy.  I would often wonder as I passed the statue every day if people ever came up to Yul to ask him questions about their destiny, as he sat there, on his pedestal, gazing off to one side with his arms authoritatively resting on his hips. Yul, dude, should I move into a yurt in the fringes of Mongolia?  Should I bet it all on red? Are the voices in my head telling me the truth? OK, now I'm just having too much fun.

The hostel was a nice place to stay but crowded, and it didn't seem all that social to me, but maybe that was because I didn't speak Russian and almost everybody staying there was Russian. Very few Russians speak English, especially in is not like Europe, where almost everybody you encounter will speak English pretty well.  The common area was also small, and it would fill up fast if five or six people were in there, so if it was packed to capacity, it was hard to hang out there.  But at least it had a nice kitchen to cook in, once again, if it wasn't being used.  It didn't really seem like much of a hangout place, but more of a place to park and sleep at night.  Which was fine with me, because I mostly spent the greater part of my time there checking out the sights.

So, of course, the next morning after I arrived, I set out to explore Vladivostok.  One of the first places I find is the walk along Sportivnaya Harbor on Amur Bay, which I make a ritual of heading down to almost every evening that I am in Vladivostok.  The views of the bay from the shoreline boardwalk are beautiful (especially right around sunset), there are fountains with multi-colored lights that dance to music played in the streets, the cliffs along the edge of the bay are stark and imposing, and there is a whole social scene there centered around restaurants, bars and little snack booths along the bay.  But it is a powerfully peaceful and joyful place to spend your evenings while in Vladivostok.  You can also view it from several levels; there are streets above the cliffs that run along the bay, and even higher up on the hills, you can see the bay from imposing heights.

One of the next places that I found in Vladivostok was the top of Eagle's Nest Hill, the highest point in the center of Vladivostok. There is this freaky labyrinth of steep rickety stairs and goat paths that lead up the cliffs to the top. It is sort of an alternative transportation system, one that requires some discovery and innovation. Of course, I could have just taken the road, but that's no fun. I first discovered the bizarre staircases when I was making my way along the road and I noticed that a whole bunch of people were ducking behind this building and disappearing.  I watched several people do this, and almost just kept moving up the road, but curiosity got the best of me, and I had to see what was going on behind the building.  What was there was a rickety old partially corroded metal staircase that wound its way up the hill.  Once I had gone up that staircase, there were more staircases, and narrow, steep paths up the hill.  I wasn't sure where all this was going to end up, but as long as it kept going up, I figured it was going in the direction I was going in.  And logic would dictate that somebody must have put that stuff there to get to a destination. Actually, since then, I've found these little staircases tucked away in discreet places are all over Vladivostok, hidden between buildings, creeping up behind monuments, winding up hillsides.  Also, there is an expectation that spaces that are often considered proprietary in other countries are used for pedestrian traffic.  But, anyway, I got to the top of Eagle's Nest Hill, and the view of Vladivostok was majestic.  I could see all over the city, both bays that run around Vladivostok (Amur Bay and Golden Horn Bay), and all the way down the Vladivostok Peninsula that juts out into the water.

And that got me thinking about my next quest in Vladivostok.  To walk to the end of the peninsula and see what is there.  But on the way down from Eagle's Nest Hill, I walked through Pokrovskiy Park, a nice little space in town bordering a cathedral, and there were a whole bunch of tye-died hippies and punky looking kids holding an event called the “Freemarket.”  There were a whole bunch of clothes, books, and other stuff, and there were people there making music while the crowd sang along in Russian.  I was wishing that I could get through the language barrier to talk to people about the event, but nobody seemed to speak English, and I know pathetically little Russian.  I had walked through the park on the way up, also, but there was no gathering there earlier in the day.  On the way down, though, I discovered some more alternative staircases and pathways tucked away, including a running path by the park that was sort of part of several apartment parking lots...more examples of how more private spaces were accepted as public walking space.

So the next day I set off from my hostel on my quest to see what was at the end of the Vladivostok Peninsula.  It was quite a walk...I ended up walking about 35 kilometers in total getting there and back, and exploring around the vicinity.  This time I walked more along Golden Horn Bay, which is the other bay abutting the Vladivostok Peninsula.  I had been on Amur Bay a lot on the other side, and this was the first time I had seen this bay.  But a lot of it ran along commercial docks and secure harbors (lots of areas with security guards that I didn't really investigate because I didn't want to deal with security hassle), and was also on the other side of the railroad tracks from where I was walking, so it was quite a while before I was able to meet up with the bay.  Some of the roads on the outskirts of the city were not terribly pedestrian-friendly, but I trudged down the street anyway.  And what I found at the end of the peninsula was a little harbor park that connected to a path that went way out into the bay to the lighthouse at the end.  The path was the only thing sticking out of the water, and the lighthouse was closed and locked up, but still a worthy destination, jutting way out into the water from the land. On the way back, there was a large hill that I wanted to get to the top of, because I figured there would be some nice views there.  But it was mostly covered with private estates that barred entry to outsiders.  I kept going up different roads, trying to find a road that would break through to the top, but always found some gate or guardpost that would not let me pass.  I found one that was just a bar across the road, and I was able to walk around it, but then I got sent back by a guard who told me that I shouldn't be there after walking a short bit. So I was never able to make it up that hill, much less to the top.  But it was a worthy bit of exploration to see what was going on around there.

The walk took up much of the day, and I had built up an appetite, so in the evening I went to a столовая, or "stolovaya", to eat dinner. If you are ever in Russia and want a cheap, solid meal made up of good Russian cuisine, be sure and visit one of these places. These are cafeteria-style, amazingly cheap restaurants left over from the days of the Soviet Union, where you can easily get a lot of food for between two and four bucks. I just had a huge, tasty meal there for really cheap.

The morning fog at times is really spectacular.  The fog and the steep slopes in Vladivostok are part of why the city is called “Russia's San Francisco.”  I just sat in front of the hostel one morning and watched the fog roll through the city.  It envelops the hills, and creates a smoky background to an already beautiful city.

There are statues of Siberian Tigers all over the place.  I think there are a couple of likenesses that are famous, and then there are a whole bunch that are just there but don't have as much renown. The Siberian Tiger is the biggest fucking cat creature in the world.  Their habitat mostly covers Khabarovsk Krai and Primorsky Krai (which is the Krai that Vladivostok is in). People around here seem damn proud of their Siberian Tigers...also called Amur Tigers because their habitat runs along the Amur River and Amur Bay.  They used to cover a lot more territory, but hunting, poachers, and the encroachment of civilization has driven them into either a small habitat in Siberia or zoos. But, damn, it looks like there are less than 600 of these fuckers left  in the wild in Siberia.  I'm just happy that I haven't had to stare one down in the field (yet). Because you know who would win that confrontation.

Vladivostok is not too far from North Korea.  I thought about trying to make a road trip (or a boat trip, that would probably get me there faster), but then found out that it is damn near impossible for Americans to enter DPRK from Russia.  Oh, well.

Then the next day I ended up meeting with my new friend Denis.  He is an American who has relocated to Vladivostok and lived there for several years, and is a friend of a friend.  We had a great lunch together, and I got to hear his interesting stories about Vladivostok and his experiences in Russia.  It was good to meet up with somebody who could speak the same language as me, though I had been trying to pick up as much Russian as I could while I was in Russia.  But it was hard for me to converse with the people at the hostel, because most of the people there did not speak English (or any of the other languages I speak).
My next destination in Vladivostok was the S-56 submarine.  It was not too far from the hostel, along Golden Horn Bay. This was a submarine that was under active duty during WWII and is now beached as a museum.  It was interesting to crouch my way through the different chambers of the submarine, see the torpedo chambers (and there are even some torpedoes contained therein), and read the histories of the people who inhabited the submarine.  There is a square nearby (Admiralskiy Skver) with memorials to war dead...the Soviet Union had a staggering toll of people who perished, probably more than any other nation involved in the war.  There is a giant, Neptune-like figure in the square holding a huge trident.

There was an open market in the big square down the street from the hostel over the weekend. I bought some veggies and fresh dill there, and also some little Russian pastries, and made some lunch back at the hostel with buckwheat groats. There was some music playing there, and it was a pleasant place to hang out and see all the goods for sale.  Mostly it was was pretty much a farmers' market.  But there were some other goodies as well.

Denis invited me to go with him and his wife Lena to Russkiy Island.  Russkiy Island is a beautiful, mostly wild place with a lot of spectacular views of the sea.  It has a catacomb of tunnels built all through it that were used for the Russian Military for many years, but are now a museum on the island.  I didn't enter the tunnels, but Denis told me that they went all over the place, and it was easy to get lost there.  Also, near the bridge that enters the island, there is a major university; I think is is called Far Eastern University.  We drove on some of the dirt trails on the island and found some great vista points. I wanted to go back and explore the island some more, but never had the chance to do so before I left Vladivostok. But Russkiy Island is a great place to spend the day hiking and there is so much to see there.

And then my next destination was the Vladivostok Funicular.  The Funicular is sort of a cross between a tramway and a streetcar, and goes up a very steep slope, almost like a ski lift.  It has two cars that are cantilevered against each other; one is red and one is blue. When one car is going up, the other is going down, and vice versa; since they are counterweighted it saves some energy in motion. They run on the same track, but in the middle it diverges into two tracks long enough for the two cars to pass each other.  There is also a stairway that goes alongside it if you choose not to take the Funicular.  It is not terribly long, but it is an interesting ride, and it is fairly cheap. After I took the Funicular, I ended up walking down the staircase to the same place I had started. It was really about the experience rather than the transportation.

All in all, Vladivostok was a really cool place to hang out.  I spent 11 days there in total, and up until this time, it was the city I had stayed in the longest.  But it was worth it.  I took a bus to the airport, and prepared to fly to Korea.