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.

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