Many Trans-Siberian Railway travelers cross Russia from Moscow, passing Lake Baikal, then cut south through Mongolia to Beijing. The fools. Not continuing on, to its very Russian end at Vladivostok (about 100 miles from North Korea) is like reading War & Peace‘s 1400 pages and skipping Tolstoy’s didactic, unbearable 40-page essay on war at the end. Wait. Bad example. I skipped that too.
But, really, Vladivostok’s interesting, gorgeous and weird. It has beaches, good pizza, trams, lots of used cars from Japan, almost as many new construction projects, baroque discos with $100 covers and disco bands on clear stages, real-live North Koreans, billions of dollars pouring in as it readies itself to host the 2012 Asian-Pacific Economic Summit, and a feisty rep for being a bit wild.
I recently spoke about it on Portland, Oregon’s KPAM (link below) and it reminded me of the 22 biggest reasons why it’s my favorite city that starts with “Vl-” of all time.
1. There’s a funicular. And any town with a funicular — from Santiago to Dubuque — deserves a valentine from “Travel World” every February 14. Vladivostok’s climbs just 100m every few minutes, on the dot, for five rubles. From the top you can walk to the nearby Far Eastern State Technical University lookout — just follow the empty beer bottles — and get a huge view of the city.
2. Friendly Oleg. Vladivostok being Russia, it’s very hard booking your ticket from the train station — not impossible, but not easy — but Oleg behind you in line will offer to help, then give his cellphone number in case you get in trouble, then a couple days later as you walk down Aleutskaya St, will lean out of a passing bus window, hold up his phone and yell “Roe-brt, Roe-brt – you call me.” And so you do.
3. Forting. When’s the last time you were in a town with 130 forts? There are 130 surrounding Vladivostok, dating from the Tsar days, all built protect a city named “to rule the east” from its less obedient neighbors. Travel agents can arrange tours. No 7 is the most popular — hard to find on your own — where they make you wear a helmet, hold a bazooka and give the peace sign (and you will comply), and introduce you to a cat in the subterranean tunnels, there “to keep rats out.”
4. It’s the Russian San Francisco, or Istanbul, or, whatever. Who knew Vladivostok was so beautiful? During Soviet times, this home of the Russian Navy was closed to all outsiders, even Russians. Now that it’s open, the scene of roly poly hills, a crooked bay dotted with ships resembling Istanbul’s Golden Horn (thus called Golden Horn too) and mountainous offshore island are open for view. It’s a Russian San Francisco, but with far worse burritos.
5. “Moscow is far.” That’s the local mantra, of a city that feels a little disdain for its long-time bosses seven time zones east. When Yeltsin suggested banning imports of used vehicles from Japan, locals threatened to secede.
6. Wild East. After the Soviet Union collapsed, early business deals were punctuated with shoot outs on the streets (like the popular Hotel Vladivostok parking lot) and a couple recent mayors have been imprisoned for corruption. It’s safe for visitors, just don’t run for office.
7. Yul & His Barber. Yul was born here into his Swiss family in 1920. I don’t know when Yul Brynner first shaved his head, but he could have done so at the lone shop below his family’s mansion home at 15 Aleutskaya St, a block north of the train station. It’s a barber shop. By the way, the plaque outside his home shows Yul smoking — not the best decision considering it’s what killed him.
8. “Arbat” dacha. The wee ped lane of Fokhina St in the center is a scrappy “Arbat” (Moscow’s famous pedestrian shopping street). Not long ago, the city put flowers in its concrete flower beds and some locals pulled them out and planted their own vegetables. Whenever I get a little down, I think of this.
9. Deviant Pyschologists. I met two — a husband and wife team — who invited me to coffee, who matter-of-factly noted, “we study deviant behavior and torture.” I paid the bill.
10. The Russian “Staten Island Ferry.” Booking a bay cruise with travel agents is ridiculous — you need to have a group to organize one, or pay something like 3500 rubles to sit in an empty boat for a few hours. There’s another option: the ferry to Russki Island. The 30-minute ride there is 50 rubles roundtrip — with open decks and a good look at the harbor.
11. North Korean food. Pyongyang (at ul Verkhneportovaya 68B — south of the train station on bus 60) segregates its diners into two rooms: one for North Koreans, one for everyone else. (I managed a shot of the NK one, and the tops of the heads of out-of-sight North Korean diners; above.) My waitress had come from North Korea only a month before, spoke some shy Russian and was hesitant to answer any questions (eg “what’s good to eat here?”). Very good food, very interesting experience.
12. Disenchanted teen hangout. The enigmatic Hotel Amursky Zaliv is the rare hotel where you enter from its gravel rooftop — the falling-apart Soviet relic hotel is out of view below, leading to a dated amusement park and pebbly beach. Every day after 3pm or so it fills with teens in black jeans, smoking cigarettes, flirting and looking over the sea.
13. Death metal tips. The flop-haired clerk at the tiny CD store at the west end of ul Svetlanskaya in the center will not like it when you ask about local bands to check out, but he will dutifully pull out a few CDs he likes, including “Masters of Defecation.” My biggest regret of all time is not buying it.
14. Gray-haired ladies guarding the Arsenev Regional Museum. You see them all across Russia — the retiree-aged ladies snoozing in a squeaky-floored art museum hall, making sure precious rip-off paintings or yellowed dicta from the Stalin days aren’t seized by foreign vandals. No where are they as nice as here, where you get chatted up, handed photo books that include something you casually mentioned are retrieved, and you’re led to cushioned seats to breeze through their photos of dreamy Jules-Verne versions of Vlad’s past (see bottom of post). When I paused a sec at my favorite taxidermic exhibit — of a Siberian tiger and bear interlocked in a violent dance — one noted my interest and said, “Go ahead” — glancing behind mischievously — “take photo.” And I did.
15. Secret Lookout with Chatty Azerbaijanis. If you take bus 60 south of the train station four stops (to its penultimate stop) there’s a bluff-top park with lovely bay views. There you’ll meet two Azerbaijani couples who will be quite interested in your existence. One will ask to photograph them with you, another will shyly wonder, “In America, do they speak French or English?”
16. Antique Automobile Museum. You have to take two cute trams way east of the center to where the smokestack factories spew their blackened glory into the sunny sky to reach this bizarre collection of Soviet vehicles and beat-Detroit propaganda. I liked the M&M-green 1948 GAZ-20 “Pobeda” (Victory) the second-most — top honors goes to the poster of an acrobat standing atop a moving (Soviet) motorcycle holding a Stalin flag.
18. Russki Island Doctors. A doctor family said “enough” to bureacracy a few years ago and moved out of Vladivostok to an abandoned Tsar-era ammunition store room in a patch of tick-infested woods on this island that was off limits to foreigners even five years ago. I happened by, toured their gardens and incredibly damp quarters (the stove was made from an old safe on its side), ate apple cake. Ever miss the city, I asked? “Are you kidding?” Outside a dog on a leash wanted to eat my throat. The guy who took me brought along a canned gin-and-tonic.
19. Winner Towel Selections. Some travelers complain about old Soviet-era hotels. Nonsense. They’re a time-travel trip, for a night (some more comfy than others), into an era of clashing colors, drastic floral designs and very large telephones. Then there’s the towels.
21. Speedos without Fear. Vladivostok has a lot of beaches — the ones in town are dirty, ones near nearby Nakhodka are far nicer, or even the ones on Russki Island just offshore. Sometimes you see this–>
22. Nakhodka sidetrip & grape lessons. Vlad actually isn’t as far as you can go by train from Moscow. Press on, if you’re a completist, four hours to this port town, which used to be the tail end of the Trans-Siberian during the days that Vladivostok was closed. It’s actually a gorgeous setting, with a super information center with English-speaking staff (!) and Filipino sailors dropping by with Russian prostitutes for some karaoke (not quite as slimy as it sounds, perhaps the warm grandmotherly hosts make you feel at ease there).
Elsewhere in town a very drunk guy showed me how to eat grapes.