Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Brief Visit to Vladivostok

It's surprisingly far from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, to Vladivostok, even though it's just a matter of crossing the Sea of Japan. It took us about 36 hours to cover the 570 miles, but oh, what a berth they found for our ship, right next to the iconic sign on the maritime terminal saying "VLADIVOSTOK" in Cyrilic, with the railroad terminal right next door where the legendary Trans-Siberian train ends each trip from Moscow. Later in the day, in fact, we watched the Trans-Siberian head off on its voyage to Moscow, 9,289 km and 6 travel days away -- it's the middle one of the three trains at the station.

A little early morning fog added drama and mystery to a portion of Russia's Far Eastern Fleet that was berthed next to us, and to the two ends of a suspension bridge that will soon span the harbor. So long as we stayed in town, we were not required to have a visa, so as soon as the ship was cleared by the authorities to disembark, we were in that first wave off the boat. Before we had gone two blocks, we also saw that we were not in the Russia of Joe Stalin or even of Nikita Krushchev, as we were implored to buy a "hot dogi" and Coke for 70 rubles, about $2.25. Nearby another sign offered "piroshki, burgeri, hot dogi" and two other dishes we didn't recognize, the first of dozens of identical signs offering these standard items at fast food carts all around town.

 In that first photo, you can see a high-rise under construction at the top of a nearby hill. We often head for a hill in a new town to get a feel for the layout, and as a way of having a definable destination. In this case we never got the views we hoped for, then got a second surprise -- the building was abandoned, no sign of construction in perhaps a year or more. We had no way of finding out why, or whether it will any time soon get completed.

As we headed to yet another prominent hill we passed two Orthodox churches, one a little jewel-box of a church with a glorious though tiny interior, the other a larger church undergoing serious beautification. Inside we were admiring some of the icons, holy pictures, when an elderly woman walked up to each one and kissed it. Our first reaction was revulsion at the public health implications, then wonder at the intensity of her religious feelings. It was what some professors call "a teaching moment."

As we continued up the hill we found another lesson, that in Vladivostok it is the poor people, not the rich, who live at or close to the tops of hills. Perhaps it has something to do with steep hills covered with snow for a few months of winter, we don't know, but the apartments we saw were fairly sad-looking. We felt bad about even taking this one photo of a typical apartment flat, and skipped documenting the abysmal condition of the roads and staircases we took to climb the hill. Near the top we were stopped by a menacing dog, so never made it all the way but we did salvage one photo from on high of hilly Vladivostok and of our ship, then descended into town for an even more dramatic view of the Diamond Princess down Okeanskii Avenue, past one of the bronze Heroes of the Soviet Far East there on Svetlanskaya Street.

We were determined to have borsht while we were in Russia, and succeeded splendidly when we located a deli with a steam table and a few cauldrons of soup. With a lot of finger pointing we got our borsht and a few other delicacies: a dark stew of eggplant and beef, a quiche-like patty, and a whole bunch of potatoes that appeared to have been rolled around in butter. Maybe not the healthiest meal, but authentic! In the pursuit of more info on the Russian diet -- well, actually in pursuit of some good Russian chocolate -- we perused a supermarket and found this collection of exotic Russian condiments, including curry sauce, "barbekyu" sauce, "italyanskii" sauce, and Heinz 57 "steik" sauce. Oh, and that chocolate was scrumptious.

It was our first foray of this trip into a country where neither of us knew the language. Jeff knows no Russian but at least knew how to read the Cyrillic text, and occasionally could puzzle out what a sign said if the words were similar to English, Geman or French. "Oh, that sign we just passed in a restaurant said it served 'authentic Japanese food'," or "look, that dive is a lawyer's office!" We passed a kitchen store with nice German-made products, and went in and purchased a few of the cleverer ones. Then Louise decided she needed a sink plug in case we found ourselves in a hotel with no plug for the sink, a serious problem when you have only two sets of undies and one of them has to be washed each night. Think this through -- how do you ask a clerk for a sink plug using charades? Within 20 seconds, Louise had done it and the clerk had plucked one from the collection of gadgets!

We finished the visit with a quick trot past some beautiful buildings from the late 19th or early 20th century, including the GUM department store, at the corner in the first photo below.  We walked in and out 5 minutes later, looked like a Sears store but with a fur department. An old revolutionary faced our boat and seemed to be waving goodbye to us. His machine gunner sidekick wasn't nearly so friendly, perhaps because he hasn't turned around in a few years since a Cinnabon store opened on the street right behind him.

At 6 pm it really was goodbye, and quite a crowd lined the maritime terminal building to see us sail off. Twenty minutes later we sailed by yet another massive bridge nearing completion, one we're not sure our boat will fit under when it's done. It's about to link growing Vladivostok to a large island that, for the moment, has only a small army base and about a million spruce and birch trees.

As the sun lay just below the horizon, we said farewell to Russia's so-called Window on the Pacific and set our sights for Pusan, another 36-hour sail away.

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