Farewell Vladivostok

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The end of the line: Vladivostok station

Three crazy Australians find themselves in the late morning taking turns with the photo opportunity at the mile marker statue on the Vladivostok train platform. We have the place to ourselves and take the time to get a few different photos each. The ritual is complete; the journey is at its formal end. With every passing hour, I feel less and less ready to let it end. I want to find a way to keep going. There is a party tonight with fellow Couchsurfers and then in the morning Lari and I will board a plane for Moscow. As we’re walking across the road from the train station to another pivnaya of the Republic Bar franchise, I notice that the statue of Lenin is particularly heavily covered in pigeon poo. I wonder if it’s ever been cleaned, or left to decay as the monument to an idea that time has passed by.

 

Vladivostok is for lovers...

After a few beers we decide to visit the southwest peninsula of the city and soon find ourselves on a marshrutka climbing a hill. We are on our way to the lighthouse on the tip of the mainland that guides boats into the golden horn bay. When we’re halfway there a light drizzling rain begins to gently soak the city. We never actually find the lighthouse we’re looking for, but we do find a small piece of parkland atop a high hill overlooking another bay. There’s a middle aged couple sitting on the park bench with the best view sharing their lunchtime in what seems a tender moment under an umbrella. While Don is taking photos of a small dog sheltering in the rain shadow of a small statue, I receive a message from someone called Andrei. Apparently he’s a friend of Natie’s who’s just arrived from Moscow and is looking to meet some fellow travellers. We agree to meet to find some lunch once we get around to catching a bus back down to the city. We search a little more for the lighthouse and then decide we’re hungry enough to jump on the marshrutka.

Woops! I didn't see that building there!

As we’re waiting for it to arrive I notice there’s something strange about a part of the apartment block across the road from us. It looks like the small metal building they attach to the ground floor to house the hydronic heating plant. However, it’s been painted and sculptured to look like a full size prime mover emerging from the side of the building at speed. I smile in happy amazement at this fantastic piece of urban art and I wonder how they had permission to do it. Thirty minutes later we’re greeting a young Russian guy beneath the huge trumpeter statue in the main square of Vladivostok.

We explain to him that we’re heading for a Georgian restaurant mentioned in one of our guidebooks to try and have Bozbashi soup one last time. After asking in a couple of hotels on the way where it is exactly, we finally climb the stairs to the third floor and find a middle aged woman sitting in an empty restaurant. She assures us they are open and brings us menus. My last dive into bozbashi soup gloriousness is divine. Accompanied by fresh lavash bread, I savour every mouthful of this grand culinary discovery of my Russian adventure. I want to get some of the Georgian wine, however wisdom prevails and we decide we had better leave very soon to have time to find Natie and get to the meeting.

Lenin's Pigeon

Andrei heads back to his hostel to change and we meet Natie later at the chinese dumpling café we had visited on our first day. With her is a polish couple, an English guy, Tim, and her best friend Svetlana. The first three have just arrived today and are joining us for tonight’s meetup. Svetlana works with Natie at the men’s magazine, where the two of them are the main writers. As we work through the menu and order an array of different dumplings again, the polish guy places a portable sound recorder in the middle of the table and lets it run for a while to catch the conversations. He is a sound engineer, and certainly looks it since he’s dressed in the uniform black t-shirt, black denim jeans and black long, unkempt hair. He likes to record soundscapes to mix together later as a part of a musical sideproject he’s doing. Capturing the group speaking different languages with the background hum of conversation in a busy café is perfection. I wonder what he will mix together from this madness, but keep being distracted by Svetlana. Another Russian beauty, with brown hair tinged red, cheeky green eyes and cheekbones you just want to touch to feel their line. I manage to resist the urge and the group works their way through the bamboo steamer trays filled with delicious dumplings. They taste so good, they just have to be bad for you – but the tiger beer washes it down neatly.

Urban decay

We emerge onto the main square again and head towards the meetup location. On the way Natie takes us for a distracting walk through some alleys joining two main streets. She wants us to see another side of the city, urban decay set behind the façade of a modern city. One building is three stories high and the bare concrete walls have largely lost the whitewash that once covered them. Some patches remain interspersed with green mould, lending texture to the overall image of a building that nobody cares for anymore. The balconies seem to be slabs of brickwork laid on their side and an array of weeds grow from their edges. They grow nestled into the gaps in the mortar; nature is already reclaiming this ground. A single window has a planter box growing flowers, it seems like some small attempt to reclaim the decay and impose some human order again. It is completely overwhelmed by the random graffiti tags added to most of the concrete surfaces. Someone has taken time to paint a man and woman on each of a pair of doors on the lowest level. They are dressed formally and gaze into each other’s eyes with his arms wrapped around her waist lovingly. The pair are set admist a blue sky background complete with a white cloud above them. I wonder who added this wonderful touch and I marvel at the hopes and dreams that thrive in barren landscapes.

The pathway leads away from this building towards the remnants of on older victim of such neglect. Only the walls of the ground level brickwork remain, along with some higher sections that suggest there used to be at least another floor above it. Weeds flourish within the enclosed section, providing a vibrant green counter to the red bricks. There are two buildings next to it that share the same architecture and I wonder if they were was demolished or collapsed at some point. I decide based on the surrounding area that nobody would have paid to knock it down; they have just let the disintegration happen and it has all returned to the wild. There is actually a half full skip tilted on an angle by the other refuse gathered underneath it. Even the bin has been thrown on the pile of detritus. Ideas of environmental care seem another generation away, but at least the environment is already reclaiming this corner of the city.

Vladivostok in Decay

Alien snot for dinner...

I am reminded of a conversation I had with my brother’s father in law about this, he asked me how long I thought it would take for a city to be completely reclaimed by nature. Then he proposed that someone should build one and then desert it to measure how long it takes for the natural world to recover dominance. I think of the myriad of ruined cities already around the world that have been buried in sand, torn apart by tree roots and swallowed by forest. Most of them have been deserted for many hundreds of years or longer, but I think left untended it would happen quite quickly. He thought about fifty years would be the limit without human intervention. I have to agree with his logic; plants always grow wherever they can. Moulds, lichens and then small shrubs break up the concrete first to allow larger ones to thrive. With the plants come animals that dig, burrow and permanently chip away the veneer of engineered construction; turning it into an artificial rockface. They say civilisation is only three square meals away from anarchy; even the largest city is only a generation away from becoming an ancient overgrown temple to money.

Polish sound engineer at work..

As we walk into the Evolution bar I see Lukasz’s smiling face sitting at the end of a long table and Don and I make straight for him.
“Hey Dhugal! What is this? Everywhere I go in Russia you keep turning up?!?”
“Yes, I’m following you…your government pays me well.”
“Do they give you plenty of vodka?”
“Of course, we will find more here I think!”
“Good! …they have good Ukrainian vodka on the menu.”

Natie being unfeasibly cute

We settle down and check it out, the place turns out to be another pivnaya, so we order some more of their own beers to wash down the vodka. Don orders something that I think is spinach in a cream sauce, but when it arrives it is an oval shaped green lump in the middle of the plate. Stefan has invited a bunch of people who were on a tour with him that morning, including the tour guide – a middle aged Ukrainian woman. I end up explaining to her all about Couchsurfing and she says she will join in the morning she loves the idea so much. Natie sees me getting a few pictures of people along the table and looks at me with her big brown eyes and mews,
“I can be cute too you know…hold the camera here and take the picture.”
The resultant photo still makes me lose some part of my heart to this lovely lady. Don, Lukasz and I are now picking a random fourth person from the table to join each round of vodka shots. There are now about twenty people along its length and we try to move around a bit, to at least say hello to everyone and share a laugh. Dasha is another local host who turns out to be another awesome troublemaker in all the good ways. She has just been camping for the last few days outside Vladivostok with some other Couchsurfers.
“So is there really only one Russian language across the whole country?” I suddenly remember to ask.
“Well, there’s one language yes. Some of the native people have different ones, but even that’s been discouraged by the government over time.”
“And only one accent?”
“No…no…not at all. People from western Russian accent words differently. They have more of an ‘Oh’ sound in words and we have more of an ‘Ah’.”
I nod slowly, enjoying Dasha’s sagelike status more by the minute. We are busy taking silly photos of the pair of us when Svetlana comes down to join us. She stands under some hanging lights that gives her a strange halo. We decide it must be time to leave the bar and head for tonight’s Russian outdoor café.

Natie and Sveta starting their modelling career

Natie, Andrei, Tim (the English guy) and I head for the closest shop for some supplies while Dasha and everyone else stroll to a grassy hill that overlooks the entrance to the golden horn. Natie finally manages to pay for something by distracting me at the right moment.
“You sneaky Russian!” I tell her, laughing.
She agrees and her smile grows even wider. We wander to find the others and discover them sitting along a concrete garden edge enjoying the view. Lukasz has picked a bunch of flowers and put them in his hair for some reason, I’m sure vodka makes everything seem reasonable.

Dhugal and Dasha in their natural habitat

“So what do you think about New Zealand?” I ask Dasha.
“Oh it must be a lovely place! So warm and comfortable”, she says, confirming my worst fears.
“Why do all of you think that? It’s not warm and the weather is severe, you’re describing Australia. Why would you think New Zealand is warm? It’s further south!” I implore.
“But……but everything is warmer when it’s further south!”, she explains, then pauses, thinking about it.
“But it is closer to the South Pole, which is very cold I think”, she continues thinking out loud, “I think we’re just so used to south meaning warm that we think New Zealand must be incredibly warm.”
I stop and blink several times. It makes so much sense. I can’t believe she’s just given me the answer. I give her a hug in my sudden happiness at finding it.
“It’s in textbooks here as well”, I add, remembering Vortex Yulia’s example from Novosibirsk.
“Oh yes…. at school it’s always New Zealand”, Dasha agrees.
“I wonder how many Russians have moved there and discovered the truth”, I ponder aloud before concluding, “Actually, after the Russian winter and government, New Zealand would be a kind of utopia.”

The conversation drifts from being in Russian to English as your attention moves around the group. I am warm and happy sitting on this hill in Vladivostok and the Travelling Wilbury’s tune ‘End of the Line’ is running through my head. We acquire some plastic cups to have some more vodka here and we share many shots with our Russian friends in a farewell gesture. Slowly we lose the locals who have to work in the morning as each one staggers off into the night. Natie pushes us to break up and catch the Russian people’s taxis home. When the four of us arrive back at Natie’s place we are all tired and more than a little pissed. I set up my portable speakers in the kitchen where we’re sitting and put on ‘End of the Line’. We all build our beds one last time and sink into a vodka soaked oblivion.

Lukash gets closer to nature...

Morning comes suddenly and without warning. Natie is getting ready for work as I’m furiously finishing the packing I was going to do the day before. I pick out all her presents; an aussie stubbie cooler or two with full colour pictures on them, a pair of shot glasses, little clip on Koalas and a stuffed kangaroo. Lari adds a few cakes of the handmade soap and I also give her the inflatable pillow she liked. We have a brief argument on who is actually cuter; she certainly is, but seems to be suffering some doubt on the topic. I thank her for such a great time in Vladivostok and a great end to my journey across the country. I want to pack her in my case to bring her home; she’s just too good to leave behind like this. She calls for a taxi and then has to leave for work, so I give her one last big hug and tell her she has to come find me soon in Australia to enjoy a real summer. Lari and I shift everything downstairs. I give Don a huge hug and thank him for being a part of the Russian adventure. We will have this to talk about for the rest of our days and both of us vow to return to this addictive country soon. The taxi arrives and we make our way to the airport.

Check-in is quick and painless and I try to find a notebook and a pen in a newsagent I can see. We have a nine hour flight back to Moscow and I want to spend it writing. I find a lovely little notebook with a picture of teddy bear holding a love heart on its cover. I take a moment to write “Россия” inside the heart with a permanent marker before we board the Aeroflot 747 that will carry us back across the country.

I had actually made a point of getting this flight back on Aeroflot to test out the vicious rumours about the quality of aircraft and service they provide. The aircraft is quite new and the service when we first board is much the same as any international airline. It’s not until later in the flight that we return to genuine Russian service. Once lunch is over, it’s impossible to bring anyone with the alert buttons. Lari settles in to try and sleep a little and I spend a few hours writing feverishly, trying to catch this feeling. A few hours pass until I notice that a bunch of people around me are drinking from real glass half bottles of scotch. I decide to see what else they have on board and venture to the back of the plane. I find myself acquiring a half bottle of Glenfiddich 12 year old scotch. Much to the disdain of scotch lovers around the world, I mix it with Pepsi. Well, I would prefer dry ginger ale, but they don’t have any.

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