When the Iron Curtain came down the world changed as did the course of history. It was a momentous event that I witnessed on television as a teenager along with millions around the world. Like many of my generation and the previous one, the threat of nuclear war had always hung over us and for me it had been a reality since I was born. Even in far flung New Zealand I had frequent nightmares about seeing a mushroom cloud from our farm and the ensuing panic as I realised we would all slowly die from radiation poisoning. So one of the things I remember most vividly when the Cold War ended was slowly coming to understand that the Americans and the Russians were now unlikely to blow each other up and destroy the rest of us in the process. It was an immense relief and had a profound effect on me. Unfortunately my nuclear holocaust nightmares didn’t stop until I was in my twenties when they were suddenly replaced by ones about plane crashes. It doesn’t take a genuis to figure out what those ones stemmed from.
The other thing I remember from that time is finding out that Czechoslovakia would now be known as the Czech Republic. This was disappointing for purely selfish and non-political reasons. In my opinion Czechoslovakia was the single most pleasurable word that could ever be spoken. The syllables were a joy to run together and I’d often say it over and over to myself without really knowing anything about the country. My only consolation was that the second best name to utter was not going anywhere. Vladivostok, the mysterious Pacific city that was sealed off to all foreigners throughout the Soviet era would remain Vladivostok. Roughly 25 years later I approached the Russian coast from Korea on a flight bound for that very place and I wondered if the city would live up to its perfectly composed name.
My journey to Russia and the second continent I planned to cross on this trip began two days earlier when I took a Singapore Airlines flight from San Francisco to Seoul Incheon Airport in Korea. The flight was uneventful but sleep evaded me thanks to the bloke across the aisle. He had the loudest and most disgusting snore I’ve ever heard. In fact ‘snore’ might be too kinder word to describe the sounds emanating from the general direction of his face. On a 12-hour flight I normally manage at least 3 or 4 hours of broken sleep but thanks to this guy I didn’t even get 5-minutes. In some ways I have to thank him because I did manage to catch up on a few movies I’d missed and get over half way through the first of two books I’d bought about Russia, specifically Siberia.
I’d been to Russia twice previously, once each to St Petersburg and Moscow, and although business trips I had loved both visits. The Moscow trip entailed a Virgin Galactic press conference where we launched our local travel agency to the Russian Market. It was June and the agent (who is also a good friend) took time show us around the city too. One of my fondest memories is standing by the river at midnight frantically turning my head from left to right as I simultaneously watched the last rays of the sun setting to the west and the first rays of the sunrise to the east. It was my first experience of the midnight sun, something that would come to plague my sleep toward the end of this trip.
The visit to St Petersburg had been a travel industry forum hosted by Virtuoso, the renowned American network of luxury travel agents and suppliers of which my employer was one. There were about 300 of us visiting in the middle of winter and to say Russia put out the red carpet to welcome us is a ridiculous understatement. It was a magical and lavish trip composed of ballet, champagne, cavier, vodka, art and fireworks over Catherine Palace. Obviously my current trip would be a lot more low key and for the first time I’d have to navigate Russia alone, traversing this massive country from one side to the other without speaking any of the language. So as we approached the coast over the Sea of Japan I was feeling a little anxious.
We’d been in clouds since we took off from Incheon but a few minutes after commencing our descent into Vladivostok they disappeared to reveal an absolutely beautiful coastline. I’m not sure what kind of scenery I was expecting but it wasn’t this. Everything was shades blue or green; the sky, the sea, the mountains and the valleys, only broken up by a thin strip of coastline. Wide rivers meandered into estuaries, eventually making their way into the Pacific (or the Sea of Japan to be specific).
We continued north up the coast and I made out Vladivostok below us, a large city yet smaller than I expected and tucked around a bay. We circled back and as the descent continued all I could see for miles inland toward Siberia was dense green forest covering low hills with mountains in the distance. This was not the grey drab Soviet scenery that had been portrayed to us during the Cold War. This was stunningly beautiful. I’d read many articles comparing Vladivostok to San Francisco in terms of the harbour and the hills. I love San Francisco but as far as the geographical setting goes I think Vladivostok might be even more beautiful.
I’d obtained my visa in New Zealand back in April which was a difficult long-winded process so I was surprised at how quick and easy immigration was. I didn’t have to complete an immigration card as I had on previously trips because it was all done electronically. Myself and a few Koreans made up the small handful of foreigners coming off the flight but we all got through as quickly as the Russians did.
As I entered the arrivals area I was immediately accosted by potential taxi drivers and despite resolving to only take marked taxicabs during this trip I somehow found myself in one of the many unmarked ones that can be found in Russia. I knew from previous visits and a bit of reading that this was very normal. In Russia it is quite common to just stick your hand out on the side of the road and have a local pick you up who wants to make a bit of cash during whatever commute they are making. You negotiate a price and off you go. This method isn’t great if you don’t speak Russian and probably not recommended if you don’t know the city and/or your route well, as a solo foreign traveller it should definitely be used as an absolute last resort. But what it does mean is that it is very normal in Russia to find unmarked and unmetered taxis outside airports and railway stations and as long as you are able to agree a price before you get in the vehicle it is nothing to get too concerned about.
Whether a taxi is marked or unmarked, the best way to agree a price when you don’t speak the local language is to have a pen and paper handy. Make the international symbol for money (rubbing your fingertips against your thumb on the same upturned hand) then indicate that they must write the price down by stabbing the paper with your pen in a manner that makes you sleem slightly crazy and therefore someone not to be messed with. Whilst Russia uses a different alphabet the numbers are the same so this works well as a means of establishing prices. A quick Google search before you arrive to check the usual price on the route you are taking will help to figure out if you are being overcharged or not.
As a foreigner you should still expect to get a bit ripped off unless you have a good command of the language and are willing to negotiate. On the flip side things are so cheap in most of Russia that we are talking about getting short changed by maybe $5 or $10 and I don’t think that is worth stressing about when you need to be somewhere and have no other options. And at the end of the day if I didn’t bother to learn the language before I got there then it is kind of my own fault. However if they are asking for a lot more than you expected, such as US$40 for a journey that should be US$20 then it might be time to walk away and start again with another driver. Hopefully the original one will chase you down and cut the price anyway.
The drive into Vladivostok was interesting and gave me a good feel for this city by the sea. The whole town underwent a major improvement program in preparation for hosting APEC in 2012. That meant beautification of many buildings, improvement of roads and the addition of two impressive bridges that span the Eastern Bosphorus Strait (nowhere near the actual Bosphorus of course) and Golden Horn Bay. As I prepared for the trip I’d read various guidebooks, blogs and non-fiction works that made snide comments about these ‘cosmetic improvements’ that were made to impress the international community attending APEC, often making references to the tired Soviet-era buildings that still characterise many of the suburbs.
All of these were written by Americans and as I looked at this characterful city I quietly wondered to myself if these Americans had ever driven through the Brooklyn Projects, the rougher areas of Atlanta or the poorer suburbs of Los Angeles because these Soviet apartments looked no better or worse to me than many suburbs of any international city. And by the time I’d finished all of my reading and got to the end of the trip I was sick and tired of these thinly veiled insults directed at Soviet-era buildings. I think enough time has passed that Soviet architecture is now coming into its own beauty, much like how the Victorian terrace houses in London’s East End or the industrial warehouses in New York’s Meat Packing District used to be considered ugly and lacking in culture yet now sell for millions to all manner of hipsters and arty types.
The other recurring theme in all of the online and printed literature I’d read was that Russia was expensive. In any forum I visited I found people bemoaning the cost of taxis, hotels and eating out throughout the country, not just in Moscow. I don’t know about you but I think US$20 for a 40-minute taxi ride is extremely reasonable. My Vladivostok hotel room was modern with a private bathroom, spotlessly clean, had a mini-bar, free high-speed Wi-Fi and included a great buffet breakfast. All for $45 a night. As I researched my next few destinations in Siberia these criticisms continued yet I thought my Russian trip offered the best value for money of any other I’d taken.
Whilst I acknowledge that Moscow can be exorbitant (just like London, Tokyo, Stockholm and New York) I can only assume that these online travel warriors were either kids fresh out of university who were discovering the true cost of life for the first time, or were just plain ignorant in their assumption that Russia was a developing nation like Vietnam or Thailand where you can survive on $5 a day. I’m not quite sure how they could possibly get all the way to Russia and travel through it without realising that it is a well-developed world super power, and has been considered such before, during and after communism.
In any case I resolved to use online travel blogs and guidebooks as a back-up and a way to find the distances between places along with what prices to expect. Other than that I pretty much ignored everything that was said and winged it on my own. And in the end my entire subsistence cost for my whole 14-day trip was US$570. That included all my hotels, taxis, incidentals and food, including four 3-course meals in fancy restaurants with good wine. The only thing that doesn’t include is the train and the flight there. So take it from me (and putting Moscow aside), Russia is very cheap indeed and the quality of food and accommodation is a good as any ‘western’ country. But no, you can’t travel there for $5 a day.
Despite having 2 nights in Vladivostok I’m sad to say that I didn’t see much of it apart from the area around my hotel and the bits I saw on my taxi ride from the airport. For one I was pretty jet lagged and suffering from lack of sleep thanks to the snore-monster on my flight. I also had a number of things I had to attend to on the one free day that I had and the first of those was to find the train station and exchange my electronic tickets for printed tickets.
Getting by in a country where you don’t speak the language is relatively easy, especially when it comes to airports, train stations and restaurants. Generally you can use logic figure things out by the way words are composed, the context in which they are being used and so forth. But when different symbols are used in text it adds a whole other layer of confusion because there are simply no clues at all. Finding the train station was easy but figuring out which desk I had to go to in order to obtain my tickets was not. There were several ticket desks in different places so in the end I just held my electronic ticket in my hand (which was written in Russian) then went up to official looking people and kind of waved it in their face. They would roll their eyes and point in a general direction that I would head in, only to repeat the process again. After about 10-minutes of visiting every corner of the train station and having many pairs of eyes rolled at me I found the right desk.
I had to get four tickets, one for each leg of my journey. Three were handed over to me with no problems before the women behind the desk said a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand. Eventually I figured out that she was gesturing at the ticket printer and deduced that it was broken. She then put up a closed sign and disappeared. I went to the next window and handed over my last remaining confirmation to a sullen young women. She furiously typed things into a computer and looked confused before speaking a whole lot of Russian I didn’t understand whilst pointing at my left wrist. The only thing I could make out was the Russian word for Moscow which was perplexing because I wasn’t going anywhere near there on this trip and the ticket in question was from St Petersburg to Helsinki.
After a lot of gesturing to each other I finally just put my wrist through the slot in the window as it appeared she wanted to see it. That worked and she was able to point out on my watch that I was to come back at 3.30am Moscow time which was 20-minutes away despite the fact that it was around 10.10am in Vladivostok. Everything on the Russian Railway system is done on Moscow time to reduce confusion from the fact that trans-Siberian trains cover a whopping 7 time zones. So in any train station and on board the trains the time is always Moscow time. In preparation for this I’d already set my wristwatch to Moscow time, letting my phone tell me the local time. Many more confusing things happened over the next hour but I eventually left the station with all of my tickets and was at least grateful for the opportunity to case out the station so I knew exactly how to find my train in the morning.
Next it was time to experience my first Russian supermarket. Whilst there are dining cars on the trains I wasn’t sure what the quality of the food would be like and wanted to save some money so I needed to buy instant noodles and soups. Every carriage has hot water available to passengers in order to prepare food, make tea and so forth. I also needed to buy instant coffee, bottled water, snacks and basic utensils like a coffee mug, a fork, spoon etc.
That all sounds very straight forward except that I’d forgotten to learn what the word ‘supermarket’ looks like in Russian. Another trick for getting by in a country where you can’t read the language is to copy down common words somewhere handy so that you can either show them to people or use them to make out signage. You can do the same thing with an app like Google Translate but unless you’ve downloaded the language for use offline you probably won’t want to pay for data roaming to use it as you walk around a city away from any free Wi-Fi. I’d been told by the hotel that there was a supermarket opposite the station but as I scanned the multitude of shops I couldn’t figure out which one it was. So I came up with the high-tech idea of looking for shops that people were exiting carrying bags of groceries.
I had a few false starts because most Russians carry their own shopping bags rather than using the plastic grocery ones, but eventually this worked and I was soon inside the tiniest supermarket I’ve ever seen surrounded by wonderful Russian cheeses, meats and breads, none of which I could buy as it was all perishable. I stocked up on an embarrassing amount of instant noodles and found everything else I needed without too much bother before lugging it all up a steep hill to my hotel then collapsing in a jet-lagged stupor for the rest of the day.
Whilst I didn’t get to see as much of Vladivostok as I wanted I still feel like a got a good sense of this city and I think it is worth a visit. When most of us think of visiting Russia we tend to only consider the western destinations of Moscow and St Petersburg, yet Vladivostok is a cosmopolitan city full of good restaurants, shopping and plenty of sightseeing. It is very easy to visit from most other nations that border the Pacific. As long as you are willing to connect through Korea, Japan or China it is not much further than visiting anywhere else in Asia yet offers a little slice of Europe on the Asian continent whilst still feeling like an exotic, unusual and relatively undiscovered destination. And if those reasons aren’t good enough for you then consider that it is ridiculously cheap. I went out for dinner on my first night and ate the best food I’d come across in several months yet the total cost for 2 courses plus a few glasses of wonderful sauvignon blanc was $15. And of course you’ll have a legitimate reason for uttering that fabulous place name over and over again.
Best accommodation find: Zhemchuzhina, Vladivostok – cheap, clean, modern and centrally located. It is only about 5-minutes walk from the train station too.
Best restaurant find: Brothers Bar & Grill, Vladivostok – great casual indoor/outdoor venue, excellent selection of wine and beer, the menu features both traditional Russian and international dishes. The service was great and they spoke English.
Be aware that whilst not as intense as parts of San Francisco, Vladivostok is a hilly city that is best explored on foot so have comfortable shoes and be prepared for a bit of calf burn if you aren’t used to hill-walking. I personally didn’t find it too much of a problem even when lugging my groceries around in the heat.
I’m afraid I was too busy either sleeping, obtaining train tickets or buying noodles to take many photos in Vladivostok. A shame as it really was a lovely city so you’ll just have to take my word for it.