Vladivostok Days

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Vladivostok train station..so that's how you spell the word in Russian

The next morning Lari sends me a message telling me that Don has fallen sick, some kind of flu that makes him feel like lying down for a day or two.  I do still wonder if this is just his natural reaction to a Monday.  I also discover that I will be enjoying the genuine Russian experience of not having any hot water in the apartment.  When I mention it with a smile to Natie as I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, she tells me this is a very normal part of life in Vladivostok.
“You know there’s a famous rhyme about the city?”
She goes on to tell it to me in Russian, before translating.
“It translates as something like ‘If there’s no power from your power points and no water in your pipes, then you’re not far from Vladivostok’.”
I smile then frown at the idea.
“So shortages are that common?”

Vladivostok Shopping Action

“Oh yes, we have very bad ones.  One time we didn’t have enough water or power for years because of arguments between politicians and businesses.  They fight and we suffer.  So every local finds ways to use less water and we have to go without heating sometimes in the middle of winter.  I can easily wash my whole body with just one kettle of water and some clever tricks”, she boasts with a wicked grin.
I’m still absorbing the idea of being caught in the Russian winter without heating.
“Really, no heating at all? What do you do?”
“Wear more clothes.  A lot more, everything you can find.”
She stands with her arms and legs splayed and moves awkwardly like a giant sumo wrestler.
“But sometimes it’s hard to sleep, it’s just too cold.  So you drink hot tea and that helps a bit.”
I think it’s something I’m never going to understand without experiencing, but now I’m not nearly as sure about returning in the winter.  It does, however, fill me with more appreciation of how tough the Russians are.  With a climate and government like this, you just have to be.

I leave with Natie and head into the city to find somewhere for some internet access time.  I’ve decided my last days in Russia should be a celebration in decadence to try and snatch some better memories of Moscow before I leave.  With that I open one of the online cheap hotel booking websites and spend far too much money on a room in a very new and luxurious hotel on the south side of central Moscow.  This leads me to an inevitable conclusion; it’s lunchtime.  Lari is on her way in to meet me now, so I walk across the road to an Italian restaurant with a cool sign that’s written on a wine barrel.

Leonardo's Machines...now with Roman armour!

Nobody speaks English in there and they don’t have an English menu.  This makes ordering difficult, since it appears to be an unusually upmarket restaurant with a diverse gourmet menu that defeats my attempts at translation.  How they manage to fit the life sized model of Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine into the roof space also amazes me.  Strapping that to the ceiling certainly balances off the suits of armour and wagon wheels arranged between the wooden slatted tables covered with red and white check pattern tablecloths.  The waitresses are wearing a wonderfully revealing Italian country style short dress with stockings.  Which means I take even longer to decipher the menu far enough to decide that duck lasagne sounds sufficiently intriguing to order.  Lari arrives and randomly picks one of the ten salads on offer.  We decide the place seems classy (and expensive) enough to ensure anything should be good and order some red Italian wine as well.  I can’t say I’ve ever had a duck lasagne cooked in a cream sauce before.  It is everything it could possibly be, but I suddenly crave a simple beef lasagne to fill my raging insides.  The salad certainly helps an awful lot, since it’s excessive, very fresh and damn good.

Mad shop action

We wander out of the restaurant and head towards the fleet supply shop that Natie told us about.  It really is the supply shop for the military here, and certainly not just the navy either.  You can get all kinds of hats, insignias (both sewn and badges), banners, flags, backpacks, wet and cold weather clothing, boots…..well….everything a military kit needs.  I move between the three rooms examining everything and deciding what I need to acquire.  I know my nephew will need some badge insignias and I definitely need the blue and white horizontally striped classic Russian navy shirt and the fur hat that goes with it.  Lari, meanwhile, asks about a bag on display and a guy who is clearly visiting the shop for demonstration purposes shows her how to tie the two long straps together to make it work as a backpack.  It looked so much better on the shelf as the display version, this looks like a lot of work every time you want to open or close it.  I manage to attract the attention of one of the shop assistants and in a cludge of my terrible Russian manage to order a nice little swag of bits and pieces.  I decide I don’t need a normal navy hat with a customised banner around the rim.  I could get it to say “HMS Flying Robot Monkey”, but I figure that would ultimately cause trouble with some humourless officials.

Larius Photographius

Lari and I then wander aimlessly down the streets for a while deciding if we’re going to do something touristy or just have a beer somewhere.  Natie sends me a message telling me a few people are meeting up in the city after work, so we end up revisiting places from yesterday’s whirlwind tour on the way. Don manages to resurrect himself and finds us a little early at the meetup spot to have something to eat.  He’s still not looking too bright.  The meetup is on the top floor of a shopping centre and has a great view over the harbour, which offsets the very standard western food court style layout inside.  It does have an open bar in the foodcourt with more local beers on tap, so I’m forced to sample a couple of them.  A Belgian guy, Stefan, who will stay in Natie’s aunt’s spare room for the next few nights arrives and settles in quickly.  Then Ivan, who will host Don and Lari tonight, arrives with a girl, Nastya, who is a Russian Couchsurfer.   Ivan has dark, intelligent eyes in a gentle face framed by short dark hair.  He has a genuine and easygoing manner that makes everyone feel relaxed very quickly.  We quickly discover Nastya doesn’t speak much English and is leaving the next day to return to her home town near Khabarovsk.  Ivan works as a lawyer for an American company, I’m still not sure what he does for them exactly, but he enjoys the work and it allows him to travel extensively.  He spends some time telling us about his impending trip to North Korea.
“You can travel there just as a tourist?”,  I ask, more than a little amazed.
“Well, I can, but it’s a strictly guided tour for a couple of weeks”, he explains.
“Oh, so pretty much how foreigners used to visit Russia during soviet times?”, I query.
“Yes, but you would never have been able to visit Vladivostok, not with the pacific navy based here.”
“Oh yeah, I read that somewhere.  I’m glad they’ve opened it up now, though, it’s a beautiful city with some great locals.  To Vladivostok!”,  I toast loudly.

Vladigraffiti

We break up and Natie and I head back to her apartment.  Natie shows me this crazy electric fly swat she found in Vietnam.  It’s in the shape of a squash racket and when you hit an unlucky insect it gets zapped.  I wonder how I can import them to Australia, it would have to become a national sport; finally something to match Russian queuing.  We have an early night and talk more about the plan that was hatched over dinner to go for a swim in the water of Vladivostok.  I tell her about touching the water in the Bay of Finland way back in St Petersburg and swimming in Lake Baikal, so now need to complete the ritual by swimming in the water here.  Natie promises to take us to a local swimming spot tomorrow after work to enjoy it properly.  I drift off pondering that the swim will be one of the two symbolic ends to my journey; the other being photos at the statue at the end of the Trans-Siberian train line.  I think the real reason I didn’t want to take them the morning we arrived was it would mean accepting that this journey is about to finish.  I realise even more strongly that I don’t want to go home at all.  The country and the people have cut out my heart and kept it somewhere.  Maybe that’s what was taken from me at Lake Baikal.

The endless queue for not enough buses...

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