Getting our car through customs in Vladivostok after our 2-day cruise from Japan took us a few days, just enough to enjoy our first foray into the Russian far-east.
Cranes and cargo ships appear and disappear as we drifted through the fog into a cold wet Vladivostok. Our merry band of adventurers disembarked the Eastern Dream and set foot for the first time in the world’s biggest country.
We were greeted in the port building by the lovely Svetlana, an employee of the Eastern Dream who was helping us get Betty – our land-cruiser – through customs. She is beautiful and has these shocking blue-green eyes, an easy nature and excellent English and she made everything very easy for us. The port is right in the middle of Vladivostok next to the main train station (that is the terminal of the famed Trans-Siberia railway!) so the streets were busy as we walked out into the rain. The faces we passed were cold and unsmiling but Svetlana’s loveliness stopped me from feeling too nervous about having all my cash and valuable on me and sticking out like a rich tourist sore thumb.
We were hoping to stay with a couch surfer named Serge for the duration of our stay in town but after a few cryptic and uncertain emails we decided to play it safe and booked into a hostel. It was only 10 minutes walk from the port in a massive and impressive structure that towers about 10 stories over the main street with crazy statues on the roof. They love a statue in Russia.
Optimum hostel, like many building in Russia, has imposing grey steel doors…I guess they are to keep the cold out during the long brutal winters, but they don’t exactly look welcoming. However, inside was cozy and clean and friendly. An apt metaphor for Russian people perhaps. They’re can look a bit stern faced on the outside but when you get past that they are warm and welcoming and hospitable.
We had arranged to meet Jen and Antoine – our friends from Tokyo who’d come to see us on our way – a bit later near their hotel to go out for dinner so we hung out in the hostel for an hour or so. In which time the guy in the next bunk started talking to me. He was an incredibly posh young English boy who was studying Russian for a bit after a trip around Asia on his “Garp Yar”. His advice was to eat pizza (because he hates Russian food) and go to the nightclub across the street (because the girls are hot). The second idea appealed to me, obviously, but I wasn’t sure how Jen and Sammi would feel about it so we stuck to our original plan, which was to walk around and find a place to eat. Although wet, the streets of Vladivostok were nicer than I had imagined and seems like a lovely place. We don’t have much luck finding a restaurant in our price range : Vladivostok is nearly as expensive as Tokyo. As the rain gets heavier, we end up going to Gutov, a micro-brew pub/restaurant that Svetlana had recommended. She had obviously recommended it to everyone because half the foreigners off the boat were there. The food was expensive but pretty good and the waitresses were all very beautiful. 😉
Shots in Russia are a different game
After dinner we inevitably ended up in a bar/nightclub on Pogranichnaya Street for our first encounter with that great Russian institution: Vodka. Mumiy Troll Music Bar‘s staff were very friendly and one of them spoke decent English so we quickly had shots lined up on the bar. We’ve all had shots of vodka before, but shots in Russia are a different game. The 25ml we’re used to in England would be laughed at here… 40ml or 50ml are the minimum. It was with slight trepidation that we lifted our glasses and with a “za Vladivostok” we knocked them back. And actually, it was pretty good! Straight vodka was one of my biggest misgivings about a month in Russia but it was surprisingly painless… even quite enjoyable. This can only spell trouble.
Day 2 in Russia dawned as wet and grey as day 1 but we braved it and ventured outside to find somewhere to eat. Just by our hostel on Aleutskaya Street we found an excellent little restaurant that advertised itself as Russian National Food in English. We asked for an English menu but the surly waiter told us there wasn’t one…this was not going to be easy. Sammi cracked out the phrase book and we struggled to decipher the headings on each page so we could at least make a reasonable guess as to what we would get. After about 10 minutes and very little progress the waiter comes over carrying an English menu and smiling for the first time. He had just wanted to watch us struggle for a bit.
There is a bit too much dill for Chuck and a bit too much cheese for Sammi, but I have to say…Russian food is brilliant. I had a huge slab of salmon that had been baked and covered in butter and sour cream and then buried in cheese and mushrooms and served with some heavy dark bread. It was delicious. We followed breakfast with a vodka and then set out to see the sights. As luck would have it, it was the 153 birthday of Vladivostok so the whole town was gearing up for celebrations. A big outdoor stage had been set up in the park and as we walked past the theatre there was a military brass band playing outside, a Russian strong man holding up a bridge inside and the ubiquitous beautiful ladies running around in little white uniforms organizing things for some kind of special performance upstairs for the well-heeled and well-dressed of Vladivostok. One of the afore mentioned hotties identified us as tourists and asked us to write a birthday message for the city on a big board and we were filmed by the local media! We were on TV!
In the evening we walked around in the rain for ages getting soaked and failing once again to find a suitable restaurant so (much to my delight) we ended back at the place we’d eaten lunch. After another delicious meal and some more reasonably-priced vodkas we finally got a call from our elusive couch surfer, Serge. When he finally appeared he seemed really nice (if a little shy and not great at English). He’d just had some Internet problems and assured us we were welcome to stay with him. We ‘d already paid for the night in the hostel so we decided to stay with him the next day and just go out for a drink that night. The bar next door to the restaurant turned out to be absolutely extortionate and by now the rain had turned into a veritable storm but with Serge leading the charge we literally ran through the streets to arrive soaked and breathless at Serge’s favourite bar. We all knew immediately that it was worth the squelchy shoes. The bar was big and dark and awesome. The DJ (a friend of Serge’s) was spinning some heavy drum and bass and electro, the crowd were young and noisy and the beer was good and cheap. My drunken enthusiasm for the music persuaded random locals to get up and dance (though there wasn’t actually a dance floor) and a good time was had by all.
Day 3 started much too early and brutally hungover. Jen and Antoine had to catch an early train to the airport so we walked them down to see them off. Typically, now that they were leaving and we were all suffering with headaches… it was a bright sunny day! It was not easy saying good bye to Jen and Antoine: they had become part of the adventure crew and were our last link to our old lives in Tokyo. When they left it hit home that we were really on the road.
After a much-needed nap we were about business. We bought road maps and gas for the camping stove and had just sat down for lunch when Svetlana called to say I was needed at the customs building for some Betty-related business. Chuck and Sammi made the most of the sunshine and went sightseeing and I jumped in a car with a two-fingered Englishman and three lovely Japanese guys we had befriended on the boat and drove down to customs. The Japanese guys, Akiyama san, Yoneta san and their quiet friend, are also on a driving mission. They are driving from Tokyo to Khabarovsk as a test run for a bigger trip to London next year. They are all in their 50s and 60s but they are jovial and up for it. I’m only slightly concerned by their choice of vehicle. They have a Japanese K van…(the K stands for small and shit), we’ve heard horror stories about the roads and my vacuum cleaner has higher clearance with that thing. I’m sure they’ll be fine. On the way the English fella told me he had just driven from Moscow to Vladivostok and he gave me some good advice about the roads and the police and other such things before going on and on about his opinions of Russia and Russians. He was annoying and arrogant but some of his advice would prove useful later.
Customs was a boring formality but it was nice to see the Japanese guys again and the staff in customs all thought I looked Russian. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing but it’s nice to know I can probably blend in and avoid unwanted attention if necessary. And once again, the girls were smoking hot. I can’t believe that mini skirts and 6-inch heels constitute a uniform in a government building but I can’t say that I minded either.
So, a few hours later we were joyously reunited with Betty. She seemed non the worse for wear after her two days at sea and four days in customs. After bidding a fond farewell to Svetlana we set off to find Serge’s house. The Russian drivers were interesting at times but not too bad and we eventually found Serge in the ‘hood outside of town. He lived on the top floor of a dark and dilapidated high rise but the apartment itself was nice and his roommate Arythom and friend Katia were lovely. We hung out and had some food and some vodka and some wine and chatted and listened to music.
Around midnight we were feeling a little tired but the boys wanted to takes us for a walk to their favourite view point so we bought some more beers and set off into the night. Much to my surprise, 10 minutes walk from their house we were in the countryside! Arythom had cleverly brought a torch to help us scramble us some grassy hills in the pitch black…but the climb and the tiredness were worth it when we got to the top. The hill overlooked the whole city! We were directly above the docks and stood in the bracing wind watching the cargo being endlessly loaded and unloaded and drank beer and looked up at the stars and out over the lights of the city. As we walked home I chatted to Katia about her plans for the future and to Arythom about his experiences in the army and when we got back to the house Katia put on the music she wanted and danced and sang to herself until the boys cussed her out for being a hipster;) It was getting late and we had planned an early start the next day and I said it was time for bed but by this point we had all had a few drinks and decided that we all liked each other and that we were having fun in Vladivostok so we should stay another night. I agreed and we carried on drinking until the early hours.
The next day after laundry and repacking Betty we had a lovely Chinese lunch with Arythom and headed out to the lighthouse that is on all the post cards of Vladivostok. It was nice walk in the sunshine and we had wine and sandwiches for a picnic. It was a cool place because loads of guys were windsurfing and boating and two glamour models doing a bikini photoshoot on rocks. We hung out on the beach talking for a bit and decided we would stay in that night and the boys would cook borch . It took a long time but was worth the wait. After a few more vodkas than we intended we said some emotional goodbyes and went to bed with the feeling that Vladivostok is a great city, our new Russian friends were all lovely people and that couchsurfing is definitely the way to travel.