It happened again. You’d think that after almost 15 years on the road and having visited 30+ countries, we’d know better. However, once again, a new destination had us blown away. Vladivostok this time. We may think we know a lot about a country. After all, we read newspapers, watch documentaries, have gone to school…
The reality is that each time we reach a new far-away destination, we draw only one conclusion, “We have no clue about this country.” Which is okay, after all, we can’t know everything about everywhere but each time this realization hits us, it’s humbling.
- Did we know Vladivostok was founded only in the 19th century? Nope.
- Did we know Vladivostok had been closed to foreigners for decades? Nope.
- Did we know that Vladivostok is a free port and is currently thriving? Nope.
What did we know about this city?
That’s it’s the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
What exactly had we expected of Vladivostok?
Not much, and thus we figured a five-day trip would be more than enough. Our image of Vladivostok was one of a drab, dilapidated, dirty Soviet-era city. We most certainly didn’t have an image in mind of a city you’d put on any tourist brochure with the invitation to come and ‘experience it all’.
We were merely two days in Vladivostok and three in the surrounding areas, so by no means will I pretend to know or understand the city. But I do know I look forward to returning here next spring. Vladivostok is inviting, open, kind, exciting, and I can imagine people enjoy living here.
Was everything beautiful and awesome? No, of course not. A place hardly ever is solely one thing. It often brings out a mixture of emotions, of experiences, of ugliness and beauty, and in Vladivostok this was no different.
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Arrival at Vladivostok Airport
Our first surprise was at a super modern-looking airport. It had been given a massive overhaul for the APEC Russia 2012 summit (which has given a boost to more infrastructure in and around the city). Nonetheless, the passport checks were lengthy. I have no idea what they were doing but each check took ages.
This gave us no time to even grab a cup of coffee or buy some water. We ran through the halls, up (or down, I don’t remember) the escalators and down another hallway, into the train station, bought a ticket, and jumped on the last train going into the city for that day. The doors closed and the train departed. Phew. (The airport lies about 40 kilometers outside the city).
The train is wide enough to give ample space to six seats, and the first class even offers the service of drinking water. I took the liberty of taking a cup of water even though we only passed through on our way to second class. For the latter which we paid the equivalent of three euros – my, what a (pleasant) difference with South Korea (or the Netherlands)!
Fancy airport, fast train, and then we arrived in Vladivostok. Outside, chaos ruled with every driver trying to push its vehicle in front of the other and thus blocking all traffic. It sums up the default driving system here: push and block. This could be India but for the lack of goats and rickshaws.
Our Couchsurfing host Monika picked us up. She had obtained her driver’s license only two months earlier but she maneuvered through the maddening traffic in the pouring rain with alacrity. She told us you can only become a taxi driver in Moscow if you have driving experience either in Moscow or Vladivostok! How’s that for a job criterion?…
Home in a Gostinka Building
It was night so we didn’t see much of the city and arrived in a suburb that does remind of a Soviet-era town with rows of gloomy looking apartment buildings. In Russia you have the so-called khrushchevka buildings, ascetic five-story buildings built in the 1950s-1980s as an economic solution to a housing problem.
The simpler version is called gostinka, which have even smaller rooms and no balcony, which are part of Vladivostok’s urban landscape. Peeling walls, dirty hallways and stairs, postboxes about to fall apart, an open electricity housing unit, its door broken. While no luxuries, e.g. no escalator, they are cheap and that’s what many people needed then and need today.
Monika and Yasa live on the fifth floor of a gostinka, and have rented the second bedroom to a third woman, Alina. We slept on a mattress that can niftily be folded into a kind of lazy chair (no idea what you’d call it, see photo), two of which they had bought for their Couchsurfers.
Both are avid board game players so Coen had landed in heaven. (Get your new games here.) Unfortunately, there was only one night to play a game because they work long hours and are home late while for three days we were in the mountains for Coen’s trail run.
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It was late October but they had no running hot water – the local government kept delaying to turn on the centrally organized system. The toilet didn’t flush because a tap had broken off and for it to be repaired the water system in whole building needed to be shut down, so that got delayed as well – we flushed with buckets of water.
By no means were we complaining; after all, we live in a car – we know how to improvise. It’s our life. Not only that, the central heating did work and it was pleasantly warm inside (this we noticed particularly because we had spent the winter in Japanese homes, most of which are not heated but for a gas heater in the living room).
We loved being here and immediately regretted having booked a trip for only five days. Monika and Yasa are energetic, beautiful women, full of plans for the future and it was a great pleasure listening to them elaborating on all their ideas. We hope to see them again when we return in March/April.
To feel so welcome is the best start to a new journey you can get. Whether that welcome is by staying with local people or by meeting them in the street, feeling welcome is inspiring and invigorating. This time we searched for a place to stay as our Land Cruiser was still in South Korea, however, in some countries we receive invitations from website readers (e.g. here in Japan).
Edited to add in June 2018, during our next stay in Vladivostok, website readers and Instagram followers invited us in Russia as well.
I wasn’t entirely correct when I said we had only one night of playing board games. Yes, with Yasa, Monica and Alina. But after Coen’s run in the Falaza Mountains we spotted a couple carrying a homemade board game of Ludo (also called Parcheesi or Pachisi; get it here) at the train station. “Let’s play on the train,” they said. And so we did, for two hours.
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Why Were we in Vladivostok?
Which leaves the question of why we were here in the first place.
We plan to Russia in spring 2018 and want to apply for a long-term business visa. This will enable us to stay 180 days within one calendar year. One of the requirements is to have been to Russia before, which is why we were here now. Our Russia visa is going to be our most expensive visa ever, but that’s okay. The country is huge and after this short visit we’re all the more convinced we want to spend as long as we can to see as much as possible.
During our short stay we had only one day of sightseeing in the old part of town, around the harbor. Which is where the surprising side of Vladivostok kicked in but more on that in the next blog post. Stay tuned.
Read More: Sightseeing in Vladivostok