It had taken a lot of work to get to this point, not because it’s especially difficult, but due to bad luck, timing and poor planning. But, after a minor complication during check in (we needed to show a ticket out of the Russia – yes, we should have learnt after last time) and a very short flight, we were on Russian soil. Immigration was exactly how I expected it to be – no complications, but slow and joyless.
The usual taxi sharks were lurking, following us around. We’d planned to catch the newly built train service in to town, however we’d arrived (7PM, which was actually ahead of Tokyo time, even though we were further west) after the last service, so we had to catch the bus. I have no idea what happened, or what is meant to happen. We told the driver we wanted to go to Vladivostok station, he nodded, we put our bags underneath the bus and then paid him 50r ($1.25). A lady came up to us with a phone with a Google translation (something about century), and we paid another 200r ($5) for two tickets. Google translate also told us that we’d have to get off the bus, and gave us some bus numbers for the transfer. The bus was classic inside, and apart from it being incredibly slow, it was comfortable.
About an 45-minutes into the journey (of the 50km journey), our bus pulled over and the same lady pointed us towards the smaller bus we were to catch. It was an ex-Korean bus, complete with some of the old Korean advertising inside. We took a seat and tried not to take up too much space with all our luggage. The bus frequently stopped, hoping to pick up a few more passengers along the way. If the previous bus was slow, this was glacial. One benefit, this bus stopped closer to our hotel than the train would have, so we didn’t have as far to walk with our luggage.
The budget hotel, Antilopa Hotel, was exactly what I was expecting it to be. Budget, but clean. Our room was colourful, but bizarrely decorated. There are no external windows, and to make it not feel like a cell, they’ve installed a giant picture frame with a view of Shanghai that is illuminated from the rear. It’s not quite like having a window, but better than nothing.
Dinner wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it would be, but we lucked our way into one of the top rated places in Lonely Planet. It was a simple (and cheap) cafeteria, and the smiles were non-existent. At least we went to bed full.
The problem of living the 2AM Tokyo lifestyle for the last few days, combined with a room with no windows was us sleeping in until 10AM, which was fine as it was raining and miserable outside anyway.
We tried going to the Vladivostok train station to try and purchase the remainder of our tickets for the journey, but without being able to speak Russian, the process was so difficult, and we were so uncertain about what we were buying, that we gave up and decided that the commission that tutu.ru charge wasn’t so bad.
It felt colder than Sapporo, especially combined with the drizzle and the wind. The town had a oppressive run down feeling to it. The streets were reasonably clean, but the signs of wear and neglect were not hard to see.
Lunch was actually a sushi restaurant, notable because Risa doesn’t particularly like sushi. But, assuming that the seafood would be fresh (since lots of seafood consumed in Japan originates from this part of Russia), she ordered, even though two small nigiris cost the equivalent of ¥600. Sad to say, the price didn’t match the quality, and Risa left a little disappointed.
Not really having a lot that we wanted to see in Vladivostok, we went for a walk to a lookout, via a ride on a funicular railway. I’m not sure what it says about Vladivostok that this 100m railway is the #4 attraction on Trip Advisor. The middle-aged attendant offered no joy in seeing us, and before I had the chance to put my change away (I paid for a 20r journey with a 1000r note, which didn’t help with her sour mood), we were at the top of the railway.
A quick walk under several underpasses, up some stairs, over some bridges, we were at the scenic lookout. Not the most scenic weather, but it was dry. We had a reasonable view of Vladivostok’s #2 attraction (yes, that bridge), and a slight understanding of why the call Vladivostok the San Francisco of the East – not that I’ve ever been to San Francisco.
It pained me to see the sun burst through the clouds as we caught the funicular train back down the hill (we could have walked, and it would have been quicker, but it was only $0.50 and were feeling lazy).
I didn’t realise it at first, but the town took on a completely different feeling when the sun came out and the skies cleared. The pastel shades of the Tsarist era buildings shone, the bright green leaves on the trees were radiant, the gold gilding on the churches glowed and the damage, decay and oppression faded away.
After another cheap no-frills dinner, we were treated to a beautiful sunset. And, like sucker looking for a pretty sight to photograph, we walked towards it and the coastline. It was a fantastic surprise, as not only was it a beautiful sunset, it led us to a nice waterfront boulevard area, which seemed to be the place to stroll with your partner.
Waking up on Thursday morning and wanting to have a shower, but being unable to because the water wasn’t running (it was out intermittently yesterday, too) made me appreciative of the cold dribble of a shower that I had yesterday. The hostel staff had filled large buckets of water to use to flush the toilets, but desperate to wash our hair, we used that (clean) water and slowly ladled it over ourselves. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was refreshing – especially with the frigid water.
Had I planned wiser, I would have only spent a single night in Vladivostok, as we were ready to leave yesterday afternoon. So, instead of walking around again this morning, we finished up hotel and train bookings (in between the internet dropping out). We’re sorted as far as Kazan now.
We walked around a little more, trying to find a supermarket to stock up on a few things before the trip (cup noodles are a godsend, as there is an urn with free hot water). Walking through the underpass, we could smell this delicious bread/cake smell. Following our noses, we came to a little hole in a wall selling bags of small cream/custard filled cakes that tasted exactly like taiyaki (Japanese fish-shaped cakes). It was after noon, and it was the first thing we’d eaten – I’d finished my half before we’d made it back to street level.
By chance, we’d ended up back at the same waterfront boulevard that we’d visited last night during that beautiful sunset. I’m glad we’d visited it then, and not during the day, as it had almost none of the charm in the cold light of an overcast day.
Throughout town there were memorials and signage for the 70 year anniversary of the end of World War 2. Cars, buildings and people had an orange and brown/black striped ribbons, symbolising the event. It would have been a good time to have been in town (May 9th), but we’d just missed out.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around a small shopping centre (complete with a top level observation deck/restaurant/bar). It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the large supermarket downstairs was magnitudes better than the small neighbourhood ones we’d visited previously.
Rather than having an average dinner (or worse, an emergency cup noodle one), we stuffed ourselves at a Georgian restaurant (Dva Gruzina), on a street packed with other restaurants. I’m not familiar with Georgian cuisine, but Lonely Planet praised it’s cuisine as being the Italy of the former Soviet Union. Sadly, our original choice for mains weren’t available. Worse, my choice of ‘green vegetables’ was available, and it turned out to be little more than a plate of herbs (coriander, dill, chives, spring onion etc). I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, so after a quick and regrettable nibble, it sat there. I ended up with a fantastic chicken/mushroom/rice/tomato soup (with more dill and coriander), and an even better chicken dish, that was like a Chico-Roll, except instead of dodgy pastry, it was wrapped in delicious charred chicken! Oh, and the fries! So much better than the sustenance meal we’d eaten last night.
Stuffed, we returned to the Antilopa Hostel, picked up our bags, made our way to the train station (passing through the series of metal detectors), paying the attendant 19r to use the bathroom, and jumping onto our first train of this journey – next stop, Khabarovsk (at the unfortunate time of 7:15AM).
Vladivostok was a good place for us to start, and we certainly took it easy. There were many other interesting sounding things to do a short distance away, however we weren’t motivated enough to make the most of it.