Vladivostok: The Lord of the East


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The last three days on the train have left us with an overdose of the mobile village.  It has been a rollercoaster of bright nights and seedy days and now we are happy to be free of the endless passageway and scamming provodnikas.  We arrive in Vladivostok at six in the morning, which is bad enough, but it’s also Sunday morning; which makes it outright terrible.  Our host, Natie, (Nataliya) has amazingly volunteered to come and meet us, so I send her a message as the train rolls through the dozing city in the early morning light.  Vladivostok is nestled in amongst the valleys of a low mountain range.  Apartment buildings spring up on the sides of hills like strange mechanical mushrooms clustered in little groups; huddled together against the cold and the wind from the Pacific Ocean.

The city was founded by the Russian government as a naval base and port in 1859, following the seizure of the area from the Chinese in a treaty signed the year before.  Its name translates more literally as “Rule the East”, but I like the translation “Lord of the East’.  It’s had a history dominated by this naval presence, but was also the home of a number of political dissidents sent here by the last Tsars.  At one point around the turn of the twentieth century it was, perhaps optimistically, described as ‘the Paris of the East’.  It had a history in the performing arts that perhaps lent itself to this title.  During Soviet times it served as the primary base for the Russian Pacific Fleet and at the same time was the primary commercial shipping port in the Russian Far East with the highest freight turnover; although today Nakhodka has surpassed it.  For over sixty years the city was off-limits to foreigners because of its military significance – even Russian citizens needed special permission to visit the region.  In the early nineties it was reopened and I’m now filled with anticipation over what we would find here, discovering what kind of people live in the far eastern reaches of the Russian nation.

Vladivostok station comes almost as an afterthought and we climb the stairs to the bridge that crosses all the tracks and connects the train station directly to the ferry terminal.  Natie messages me to say she has just woken up and is on her way to meet us.  We move to the small group of pavement shops that share space with the taxi rank and buy some water.  The champagne earlier this morning is now taking its toll.  We watch groups of people make their way to the Vladivostok kilometre marker on the Trans-Siberian line.  There is a statue on the platform dedicated to this place and it is a tradition to get your picture with it once you’ve completed (or are starting) your journey.  We are too tired right now to fight with the crowds to have the statue to ourselves.  We agree we’ll return in a few days to claim this trophy of our journey.

Natie asked me to be near the main entrance.  We look around and discover three possibilities of what might constitute the correct spot and dutifully select the wrong one.  After some time she still hasn’t found us, so some sudden phone calls lead to a svelte woman with jet black hair and a Russian-Mediterranean face giving me a hug to welcome me to her city.
“This is the first time I’ve lost someone in the train station!”
“I’m just so happy to see you….and this early in the morning too!”, I exclaim, relieved.
We stroll over to join Don and Lari and, introductory hugs shared; we jump on the marshrutka to take us to her apartment.
“You must call me Natie! …..and you know that you’re not in Siberia anymore?”
“Yes, I read that before”, I begin.
“So where are we now?”  Don demands.
“This is the Russian Far East.”
“Hmmm…sounds even more exotic”, Lari comments.
Don and Lari will stay in a room that Natie’s aunt owns.  I will stay with Natie herself in the apartment she shares with her mother and younger brother.

The walk up three different layers of the hill at the other end of the marshrutka ride convinces me that I will order a taxi the next time I have to move my suitcase.  The slopes would be fine by myself, but carrying twenty-five kilos of luggage as well leaves me red-faced and panting like a dog.  Our arrival at her aunt’s room does come as a surprise.  We enter a fairly normal main apartment door and take our shoes off in the entry area.  Then we walk in past the bathroom to discover Don and Lari are staying in a single empty room that has another thick door with a deadlock and a spyhole to check the corridor for visitors.  There’s another door in the corridor that looks the same.
“There’s two girls renting that room”, Natie tells us happily.
“Just tell them you know me if you see them; they know you’re coming.”
I walk into the room and notice that the single window has a lovely view of the concrete stairway leading up the hill to the next apartment block.
“Will we continue on to your place now?”, I ask Natie meekly.
“Well, we can sleep a little now, or leave your stuff here and continue on to see some of the city this morning”, she replies.
Three tired, hungover and scattered Australians immediately start unrolling sleeping bags and get ready to return to some quiet slumber.  Natie watches me unfold my small portable air mattress with great interest, the idea is new to her. I dive into my sleeping bag and relax immediately into its friendly embrace.  My last memory is seeing Natie’s face droop into sleep as her even breathing matches my own.

We all wake up about five hours later and decide it’s time to get moving to see the city.  Natie calls her mother to give us a lift to her apartment so I can drop off my suitcase.  I silently praise her name to the gods of travellers as we drive around the hills of Vladivostok.  Natie has her own room in the three room apartment with standard small Russian kitchen and bathroom.  I notice she has to unlock her own door and I assume it’s all about having a younger brother.  I will sleep at the foot of her bed for the next four days.  She has a small foam mattress that seems to be a Russian standard, the same type I slept on in Moscow, which augments my air mattress perfectly.  We thank her mother profusely and move quickly to the marshrutka to begin the half hour trip into the city.  Slowly the waves and waves of apartment filled hillsides give way to more commercial buildings.  It’s about one on Sunday afternoon when we cross the river and enter the nightmare traffic of the city centre.  We breast the last hill and get our first real glimpse of the golden horn bay.  It is indeed named in honour of the golden horn in Istanbul and provides a highly protected harbour for the military and merchant varieties of the Russian navy.

Natie takes us to a chinese dumpling café and we have a great selection of dumplings with noodle soups on the side.  We cover the bill despite her energetic protestation.
“You’re already doing so much to help us, this is the very least we can do to try and repay your kindness; to make your life a little easier”, I try to explain.
Our next stop is for some coffee after she shows us through the city’s central commercial buildings and the massive square at the opening of the golden horn.  Unlike the overwhelming majority of Russian cities, this square does not contain a single statue of Lenin.  The square is called “The Square of the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East” and contains statues with the same theme.  The most striking one is a trumpeter holding a banner, apparently because the revolutionary army that took the city was led by such a trumpeter.  The taking of the city on the 25th October, 1922 marked the end of the Russian civil war, so perhaps the trumpeter also celebrates the arrival of the new Soviet nation.  Alternatively the residents might have thought a musician was way cooler than another statute of the bald, bearded symbol of Russia’s communist history.  The obligatory statue of Lenin is in a much smaller square across the road from the train station.  I’m sure this provided visiting dignitaries from Moscow the correct first impression.

Natie leads us along the waterfront, pointing out the Navy headquarters buildings and the Vladivostok ГУМ (pronounced ‘Goom’).
“You know this one is unique in Russia because it was already a ГУМ style store before the revolution.  They just changed the name during soviet times and it stuck”, Natie explains.
Inside it is an immense and apparently random collection of small, independently run shops like Gostinny Dvor in St Petersburg.  We come to the war memorial, along with the Russian submarine mounted on the pavement in front of it that serves as a museum for the Russian submarine fleet.  She takes us to the section of the memorial where her ancestor has his name listed among the casualties of war.  We are incidentally quite amused that the eternal flame has been shut down for repairs.  There is a van parked in front of it and a man is doing his best to look busy wrangling the innards of the gas pipeworks.  Boris and Yuri hard at work again.

The very poorly named "Eternal Flame"

“What do you mean, ‘eternal flame not work’?”
“It off, did you connect it to the big gas bottle last time?”
“Da. Da da da da da….oh…the big one or the very big one?”
“The very big one.”
“Of course not, I think it make very big flame, burn navy man, we get in trouble and I don’t see Olya that night.”
“Da.  Well, now we fix, quickly, Lena and her friend wait for us now.”
“Just connect to this little bottle and we fix later.”
“When? We in trouble now already.”

The smallest dunny in Russia


We pay our fee to enter the submarine and wander past the displays of the past glories and tragedies of the pacific fleet.  There are awards and banners, shrapnel and shattered remains, hats and uniforms laid out in remembrance of days and lives that are now long condemned to the eternal sleep.  We cross through the halfway mark of the submarine and enter the control room.  A cacophony of pipes and tubing lines the wall, coming to an abrupt climax at the control point for these systems.  This consists of an array of valve readouts, dials and handles gathered together for the responsible man to monitor and control the submarine.  I can almost see him absorbed in the instruments and working with the driver to meet the captain’s orders.

Look! Boys!

gah...boys...but no men...dammit

There is a booth for the sonar operator to be listening to the outside world in the endless search for obstacles and targets.  About half the size of this booth is the toilet, or ‘head’, which probably sets some kind of record for miniaturisation.  I wonder if Japanese submarines actually have a smaller one and if the Guinness book has the relevant entry.  Natie remembers the periscope is operational and immediately starts following men walking by the waterside.  I turn it to the city side, but find a lovely closeup of the war memorial instead.  I move through the giant porthole that leads to the next section; the galley.  I find Lari sitting at the main table making school ma’am eyes over the top of her glasses.
“Am I in trouble again! Perhaps another spanking is in order, Miss”, I quip.
She laughs and replies,
“Now where have I left my ruler, young man?”

We move through to the sleeping area that features beds hanging from the ceiling on chains.  Hammocks on steroids, providing a level sleeping surface while the submarine navigates the ocean.  At the front are torpedo launching tubes along with the racks necessary to hold the ordnance.  There is also a young man in uniform watching us come through with a bemused smile on his face.  Immediately outside the front end of the submarine is a covered passageway with two men sitting next to low tables covered with naval merchandise.  We look at the badges, banners, hats and postcards with interest, but Natie tells us we can get everything cheaper at the fleet shop later.

Dive! Dive!

You've been a very naughty boy...

Bags me the top bunk!

That is the shop where everyone in the armed forces goes to acquire their uniforms, hats, insignia and general kit.  Travellers can pickup the same equipment at normal, Russian prices.  Don decides to get an old navy hat anyway; it has the name of the boat the owner served on running around the flat rim.  He puts it on outside and I cannot help but notice he looks a little bit gay.  He responds by singing the alternative lyrics to “In the Navy” whilst folding the bottom of the front of his shirt through the collar as women do on hot days.  Lari immediately dives in for the photo opportunity being the sweet navy girl while Natie and I laugh and take pictures.

"Does this make me look gay?"

Don attempting to look straight

Strike a psoe...

And then I shall take over the world...

We wander up the hill now, past a small church that we step into briefly to check out its icons.  There is a triumphal arch created in 1891 to honour the then Tsarevich Nicholas, who would later become the last Tsar of Russia.  Near it are two large fountains with a nautical theme, but distinctly lacking any form of actual water.  Neptune is looking terribly thirsty with his head dominating an empty pond.  The second is in the shape of two clamshells that you would expect to see a naked Venus standing in.  I point this out to Lari and Natie and ask if they’d care to fill in this obvious omission.  They laugh and decide some pictures inside it would be fun.  Natie surprises us all by taking off her trousers for the posing.  She looks me straight in the eyes and says,

“Oh I’ll do it.”

I wonder how far she will take this as she and Lari pose coquettishly in the fountain together as Don and I take plenty of photographs.  Natie’s long, slender legs seem endless as they disappear into her shirt.  Lari decides that she is finished, but Don and I say we need more with Natie.  I almost ask her to take off the shirt as well, but some sudden veneer of culture and politeness descends over me and I take the safe path.  Considering I only met her this morning, it would be very cheeky to ask such a thing this afternoon.  Especially considering it’s clear she isn’t wearing a bra.  Having captured the day’s soft porn, we walk to the next stop and on the way Natie describes her job.  She is a lead writer for a local men’s magazine.  Not quite a playboy, but more your FHM style publication – pictures of women in bikinis posing suggestively interspersed with various articles that everyone pretends to be interested in.  I instantly regret not trying for that t-shirt.

Beery Goodness!

The next stop is a military museum with a collection of heavy artillery and tanks that we can wander around in for free.  I think Lari manages to wait a few minutes before mounting a cannon and throwing her arms in the air singing ‘If I could turn back time’. We applaud and demand autographs at length.  All that hard work demands some energy refuelling, so we cross the road to ‘The Republic’, a fine local pivnaya or beer cafe.  The beers they make here are a lager, dark ale and red ale.  So I acquire one of each for us and a spare lager for Natie.  Once again I refuse to let her pay for anything and return to the table where we all taste the beers.  That dark ale stands out as one of my top two beers in Russia, the next would be the Novosibirsk microbrewed beer that Vanya found for us.  They all go down very well and we decide to head onwards to the funicular to carry us up to a panoramic view of the city and the golden horn bay.

If she could turn back time...

Must be cold weather...

The wait for the mountain tram isn’t very long and we study it for a few minutes before it’s ready to leave.  All of these are made individually and this particular one relies on two balanced carriages moving against each other. The woman sitting in the tram car is running a close second to the women who sit at the bottom of escalators in the Metro stations for most boring job in the world.  At least this lady gets to actually talk to people occasionally and take money whilst maintaining the same distant, absent look of a soul crushed beyond

Hot Funicular Action!

reasonable limits.

At the top of the hill, we find the statutes of the monks Cyril and Methodius holding a book and a cross.  The book lists the opening letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is probably appropriate since this pair are credited with its invention around 850AD.  To this day, this is the alphabet in which the Slavic languages (including Russian) are written.  It did seem strange that we had to come all the way to the end of the Russian empire to find these statues staring out across the Pacific Ocean.  This pair must have finished their days of conquest with the creation of a written language.  We, however, could see the whole golden horn bay, replete with naval, scientific and merchant boats of all shapes and sizes.  Drydocks dot the length of the shoreline along with an apparently endless array of docks and jetties.  Out to the western side of the city we spot a three masted tall ship anchored in a separate harbour near a large cruise liner.

Tall ship with Cruise Ship

“What’s the tall ship used for?”,  I ask.
“It’s used as a training boat for young sailors.  Anyone can get a tour on it though and it sails all around the area doing long voyages in summer.”
“Oh cool, we have about four of those in Australia too, all based in different cities.  I know a few people who’ve sailed on them and they all loved the experience.  Have you been on it?”
“No, but I’d like to”, Natie replies wistfully.

Cyril and Methodius: Creators of the Cyrillic alphabet.

This tree was planted by the Australians to mark our connection to Russia

Standing here near the end of the peninsula, we can see across the bay to the west, out to the islands to the south of Vladivostok and over the Pacific Ocean to the east; the view is glorious.  There’s nothing to do now, but go home, get changed and head back into the city later to see what Vladivostok’s nightlife holds in store for us.

The Golden Horn of Vladivostok

The Golden Horn


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