Connecting Moscow and Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian railroad is 9,288 km long. We arrived in Vladivostok 80 days after leaving Helsinki. Including detours, we had travelled more than 13,000 km by the time we reached the cross-country train terminus. It was a summer on the move, a good one.
We mainly used platzkart, the Russian third class, where the wagons accommodate 54 passengers and you sleep in bunk beds, six organized together so that they create a common space. However, for the last leg between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok – a 13-hour night train – we went for two bunks in kupe, second class, sharing a compartment with a young, female army officer and an older woman who spent most of her awake time with friends in another compartment.
We loved Vladivostok. Just as much as we loved St Petersburg (in my case – Christophe will still put SPB a notch higher than Vlad). It’s rather perfect that the two cities are located on opposite ends of the country for anyone wanting to cross it. You start off somewhere wonderful and you end somewhere beautiful, no matter if you go east or west. Both are located by the sea – something we missed during the months in the middle of the continent. Another detail they have in common is smelt, a small fish which we ate in St Petersburg in May, as it was in season then. The (French speaking!) waitress told us the only other major city in Russia that would serve fresh smelt would be Vladivostok.
We passed a lot of nice towns in Russia, several which we felt we could have spent more time in, but Vladivostok is the kind of place where we could live. Get an apartment, a job, friends and habits. Walk through the fog on the way to work, watch the sunset at one of the western embankments, catch a gig at the Mumyi Troll bar and spend a summer weekend on one of the islands or a nearby beach.
Primorskiye nature is not far away and in the city we really liked the small alleys and courtyards where you could find all kinds of interesting shops and cafés.
A peculiar little detail we noticed: Vladivostok is close to Asia. It’s obvious for anyone with a map, of course, but elsewhere in the Asian part of Russia you only clearly see Asian tourists in Irkutsk and to some extent in Khabarovsk. I’m not counting people travelling for work or to see family. But Vladivostok had a lot of Chinese tourists – I suppose they take the direct trains and busses from Harbin – and you could regularly spot signs in Chinese around shops and restaurants.
We visited Russky island twice, a place with a strong military history (note cannons and forts) and the brand new Far Eastern Federal University. Just in front of campus is a beach with a view of Vladivostok and the big bridge built for the 2012 APEC conference. Christophe was ready to sing the enrolment papers as soon as he realized he could get away with “studying” by the beach.
We heard you could rent bikes to see more of the island, so we did just that. “Bike around the campus” sounded a bit basic so we headed toward one of the bays further away. First there was the motorway to tackle, but we’ve spent enough time walking on Russian motorways (or equivalent) not to find that strange anymore, but we were sure to find a nice, quiet country road after that. Sure enough, the motorway ended in the middle of nowhere and you could choose between either going back or taking one of two dirt tracks. We turned down the track heading right, together with what seemed to be the rest of the day-trippers. It wasn’t pleasant. Come to think of it, it almost never is when we go biking in Russia. It was muddy, bumpy, long, hot and humid. All of which was fine. But then there was the traffic. It’s like you would have squeezed normal city traffic onto one small countryside road, which probably helps to explain the mud and the bumps. Our lungs turned another shade darker while we were cursing the four-wheeled feckers* showing absolute disregard to the rest of the world when bouncing forward to get to the coast first. One of the few poor sods in a normal-sized car – clearly losing the race – seemed to get stuck near one of the lake-sized puddles. My heart bleeds.
Bon, we arrived at a pretty pebble beach overflowing with Russian campers and it was all worth it. Some middle-aged Russian women in bikinis laughed in disbelief when we dragged our bikes between tents to a free spot by the water, asking just how long it would take us to get back. The cloudy sky had turned into full sun, the water felt like the Baltic Sea and between soaks we watched the people on standup paddleboards pass by and the fog come in. It’s so cool how that happens. You can really see this big, grey blanket roll in here, like a slow wave submerging the landscape bit by bit. The way back to campus was just as tough, but this time we lacked both energy and illusions. It might not sound good, but it was a great day. The satisfaction of managing, handing in the muddy bikes to the disbelieving guy who wondered what we had done when “bike around the campus” seemed to be the non-sludge activity of choice, and silently inhaling two ice creams each next to the corner shop while catching the last direct rays of sunlight. That was good.
We were walking down the Sportivnaya Nabarezhnaya embankment when we noted a lot of warships on the Amur Bay. Really, it was more than average, even by Khabarovsk standards. Then there were some loud bangs, which we realized were shots. Either the North Koreans had arrived or this was one of Russia’s military show-offs. The latter turned out to be right. How fitting that we arrived in Russia to see the Victory Day celebration in St Petersburg three months earlier and we caught the dress rehearsal for the Navy Day in Vladivostok just before leaving.
Our marvellous hosts Tatiana and Alex invited us to their hometown Ussuriysk, almost 100 km north of Vladivostok, to experience some real Russian banya at the dacha of Tatyana’s dad’s. We had tried banya at Uch-Enmek in the Altai Republic, but while that can only be described as a torture chamber of heat, the Ussuri version was pretty good. Warmer than the Finnish saunas I’m used to, but very manageable. We got the full treatment with two different veniks (bath brooms made of branches), homemade wine, delicious vegetables grown in the dacha garden and, of course, shashlik (grilled meat on a skewer).
On our last evening in Vladivostok Christophe and I went to the Tokarevsky lighthouse to watch the sun go down over the same sea we would cross the next day.
No matter how much you want to stay, every visa has a limit, or however that old saying goes. Thank you Russia for a great summer and thank you Tatiana, Alex and Vladivostok for a wonderful week. Hope to see you again.
*Kudos to HR Pauline. It’s the only appropriate word to use.