Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian's First Leg
Trip Start Jun 21, 2011
9Trip End Aug 06, 2011
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After a rather difficult time of trying to get from the airport into Vladivostok (two 'gentlemen' were trying to charge me about $80 for a taxi ride when I ended up taking the bus for about $2!)things went rather smoothly. In a rare move for me, I actually booked a room in advance at the Hotel Primorye in the city, very near to the train station. It was a small but modern room and cost me about $115 for the night. Budget hotels are a real rarity in Russia and that’s one of the reasons I’ll be spending most of my nights sleeping on a train
And Vladivostok was such a delight to walk around in. I was tired my first night from the flight and time change, but I still roamed the streets a bit and soaked up some of the great architecture in this city by the sea. There are so many beautiful classic buildings housing things like theaters, museums and department stores near the center that must be at least 100 years old. Of course, it was only about 20 years ago that Vladivostok was essentially just a military base for the Soviet navy. The bay, which is just past the train station, still has many haze gray Russian navy vessels anchored in it. (Back in my Navy days, this was the enemy!) There is also a ‘Golden Gate’ type bridge being constructed over the bay as well. Some are referring to Vladivostok as Russia’s San Francisco. It does have its charm, but San Francisco is far more beautiful overall. That first night I finished up my walk marveling at how the sky hadn’t changed one bit even though it was 10:30 in the evening. It was the same iron grey I remembered upon arrival in the afternoon.
The next morning I went on a walking tour that was laid out in my guidebook
From the train station I walked some of the same streets I had the previous night, passing classic building after classic building. Eventually I made my way to a small park near the bay and stopped to take some photos. A man approached me and said something in Russian. I can tell that this is going to be an ongoing issue for me here. Everyone thinks I’m Russian. And why not? I’m just another white face in a sea of white faces. Of course, as soon as I open my mouth they realize I’m a foreigner and usually just politely walk away. In the case of the gentlemen in the park he waved his camera at me and wanted me to take his picture. I happily obliged.
Just past the park I came to one of the highlights of Vladivostok: the S-56 Submarine on full display. It is not in the water any longer and has been converted into a mini-museum. I believe the submarine was active during the 1960’s though I’m not really sure as all the information inside was in Russian
With the sub done, I made my way to the Funicular which was the last stop on the walking tour. It’s basically a little tram that transports you up a rather steep hill called Eagle’s Nest for a nominal fee. Once at the top you ascend a few more sets of steps and are afforded one of the greatest views of Vladivostok’s bay. Unfortunately for me, it was starting to rain at this point. The heavily overcast sky was finally spitting out some rain. Not surprisingly, I was the only one up there on such a dreary day, but I still enjoyed the views and snapped quite a few photos before hurrying back towards my hotel.
Russia is colder than I expected it to be in late June. Or perhaps I’m just a big wimp after living in super hot Dubai for so many years. When you find yourself getting used to 120 degree heat, I suppose cold becomes extremely relative. At any rate, wearing a sweater is a good idea and I, unbelievably, forgot to pack my favorite pull over that I have brought on every trip I can remember and scarcely ever used. I’ll have to do some shopping!
A brief rest and wash up was in order in my room that afternoon. Then it was off to the train station with my pre-booked ticket in hand. This made the process of obtaining the actual boarding pass much easier. I simply showed my ticket reservation from the internet (in Russian) and my passport and I was all set. I don’t have any bookings from here on out, so things will probably be a bit harder down the road.
Boarding the train was easy, as each carriage was numbered and I had all the info I needed on my translated pre- booked documents. Carriage number eight was waiting for me and my bunk was number 23. My compartment had 4 bunks in it; I was in the lower right one. I immediately stored my big pack in the space under my bunk and then stretched out on top of it with a huge smile on my face, only some 9,000 kilometers to go.
The train got underway exactly on time with a strong lurch and then began a gentle sway that would become my familiar ever present companion. Perhaps 30 minutes into the journey we came to a stop and my first compartment companion came onboard, an older Russian woman, maybe in her mid to late 60’s. A man, who must have been her husband, was standing outside on the platform and she found him through the window and gave him a last wave before the train lurched into motion again
My first night on the train was fairly uneventful. The ever scrolling scenery out the windows consisted of beautiful green fields and forests. It makes it hard to imagine Siberia as a winter wasteland, though I know it surely must be. I made my way to the dining car and found a few Russians drinking beer at the various tables. I pulled out my laptop (feeling rather pretentious) and started writing this blog entry. After a couple of beers and a fair chunk of writing I made my way back to carriage 8 where I was greeted by the stern face of my provindista. Apparently, every carriage on a Russian train has a provindista who is responsible for everything and everyone on that carriage. My particular provindista looked a bit like a female prison warden who happens to be a lesbian. She took me by the arm and led me to my compartment where she then promptly set to work on the bedding that was neatly folded on my bunk. Within a few moments she had made up my bed and was pretty much shoving me into the damn thing. I didn’t resist.
The next morning I woke up very late. God only knows what my body clock is going through
At some point in the early evening the train came to a stop. The train stops quite regularly, but it’s usually very brief, maybe 5 minutes or less. This time was different however with a woman’s voice coming over a loudspeaker and announcing some information in a bored tone. I could hear compartment doors opening and people getting off the train. While exiting the carriage I saw my provindista standing on the station platform and I showed her my watch trying to ask her how much time we had here. She pointed to the quarter past area of my watch which gave me about 35 minutes.
Looking around the station area, I could see several small window shops with people lining up to purchase various things. There was also a bright silver statue of Lenin on display. As much as I would have loved to explore further, I was bound and determined to not leave the platform
My provindista figured otherwise. She spoke very sternly to me when I stepped onto the platform and finished up with ‘Nyet, nyet, nyet.’ She then grabbed my arm and directed me back into the carriage. I wasn’t about to argue with this woman, so I just smiled and went back to my compartment knowing that my provindista was looking out for me.
The experience of train travel is not something I would trade for any other form of transportation. I love trains, I really do, but there is only so much you can do on a train. That said, after two straight days on the rails, I’m getting kind of bored. I can’t talk to anyone other than pantomiming (I'm the only foreigner as far as I can tell) and the scenery, beautiful as it is, does kind of look the same after a while, green fields, green forests and occasionally green hills with green fields and green forests
So with little else left to do I found myself shamelessly flirting with the young waitresses in the dining car. There were two of them, a skinny one, Natalia, and a fat one, Karin. Both cute in their own way, but of course, I was hopelessly handicapped by my inability to speak Russian. Natalia and I flirted primarily through eye contact and I would pointedly say the word ‘beautiful’ to her when she was nearby. She understood. Karin on the other hand, was my Russian teacher. I would break out my phrase book and butcher various Russian phrases much to her delight and/or aggravation. She would impatiently correct my comical pronunciation, and I would occasionally coax her into saying something in English. She sounded just like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. It made me laugh every time!
Eventually a young fellow named Gregor joined me at my table in the dining car as there were no other tables free. He and I struggled through an introduction in which he told me he was in the military and I told him I was from America. With the conversation drying up I suddenly remembered a phrase one of the teachers I work with at the college in Dubai had written down for me. He is Polish and understands quite a bit of Russian, giving me the following phrase with the promise that I would use it: ‘Byez Vodky Nye Razbyeryosh!’ The funny thing is, I can’t really remember what it means
Gregor and I eventually finished off that bottle of vodka (and the juice) and then Gregor made his way back to the other end of the train. I embarrassed myself by continuing to drunkenly flirt with Natalia and Karin until they finally ushered me out of the dining car, which was closing. Making my way through the four carriages that separated the dining car from carriage 8 was a bit of an adventure for someone who’s had a few beers and half a bottle of vodka. I made it though, and my provindista was nowhere to be found. Rather than pass out in my compartment (as I should have done) I decided to stand in the narrow passageway and look out the window into darkness for awhile. I really have to wonder about the validity of karma sometimes.
I was swaying in that passageway for only a few minutes when a rather short, rotund and red faced Russian man approached me from the opposite end of the carriage that I had come from. He was clearly drunk and the simple fact that I was also drunk and yet able to see how drunk he was tells you something.
My general disposition in life is that of a nice person. I’m polite. I treat people with respect. My manner has served me well in my travels. There are certain occasions where this has gotten me into trouble however. Some people view kindness and politeness as weakness, or even stupidity.
While I was staring out the window this drunken Russian man put his arms around my waist as if to pass by in the narrow passageway. That on its own is not unusual. The passageway on a standard passenger train with compartments is very, very narrow. Coupled with the fact that the train is often swaying, it makes for very awkward moments sometimes when you are trying to get by someone. In this case, though, the drunken sot seemed to change his mind and instead of passing me, came around in front of me and started chatting as drunks do. I listened politely and smiled, but had no idea what he was saying
There are times when being nice just doesn’t get you anywhere.
I felt a sudden rage at this pathetic little man and punched his blocking arm out of my way. He yelped, and I resisted the urge to punch his red face. The last thing I need is to be thrown in a Siberian jail for assault. The provindista appeared in the passageway a moment later and I hurried up to her and tried to explain that this man is crazy using some of the standard pantomimes. She didn't understand, or maybe didn't care. It was all for not, as the gay drunk had made his way out the other end of the carriage.
A few minutes later I entered my compartment and, for the first time, locked the door. Sitting on my bunk, breathing rather hard I listened to the gentle snoring of my elderly compartment mate. Maybe marriage isn't so bad after all.
The next day I woke up to an empty compartment. My compartment mate had left at some point while I slept. I was feeling pretty groggy, not to mention grungy. Two and a half days on a train will do that to you. The toilet is always there, but there is no shower. With an aching head I made my way to the dining car and said my apologies to both Natalia and Karin for whatever drunken nonsense I had put them through. They both just laughed as I repeatedly said ‘I’m sorry’ in terrible Russian. The rest of my day was spent looking out the window as more and more civilization came into view. Log cabins are everywhere, as is lumber. Siberia must be one of the earth’s greatest resources for lumber.
My first leg of the Trans-Siberian was drawing to a close. Three days on a train is quite an experience any way you slice it. Sometime in the afternoon my provindista appeared in my compartment and told me that Ulan Ude was the next stop. I was excited as this would be my jumping off point to Mongolia.
Mongolia is next...