25-26 March 2010
We awake to the sight of a frozen Amursky Gulf as we approach Vladivostok. Our expectations are high as Paris said it is much more beautiful than Khabarovsk. Our host stay is a little out from downtown but we walk, stopping at an orthodox church, the Golden Horn harbor area and home to icebreakers, the Russian Pacific fleet, a Russian sub, war memorial, and memorial to the soldiers of Civil War.
We pilgrimaged to the train station for memorial photos with an engine that was given to Russia in 1942 as part of the Lend-Lease program and with the 9288km marker of the TransSiberian Railroad. That’s 5805 miles of Russian railroad, birch trees, snow, and clickity-clack. It was well worth the trip.
The rest of the day occurred as a result of meeting a charming local gentleman in the military store (looking for flags I was). His name is Vladimir and for the rest of the day and evening, he hosted us to a private tour of his town and its sights, from the birthplace of Yul Brynner to GUM, theaters, cafes hidden from sight, and telling us of the good old days. We later visited the Regional History Museum and walked out to the Gulf where I could pretend to see Sarah winking in the distance. Actually, I was facing the wrong direction but at least I knew it was all pretend.
We met Vladimir for dinner and set off on our quest for a beer. We ended up at a German Hofbräuhaus eating sausages and herring, salmon and potatoes. I think the beer might have been Russian. But it is times like this that one realizes Russians are enjoying the ability to eat other types of food, which is reflected in the number of ethnic restaurants that have opened in the past 5 years or so. Wonderful meal and time talking with Vladimir about Vladivostok and Russia. As a merchant seaman he has traveled all over and also lived here during the time the town was off limits to others.
Another thing I realize is that Russians are acquiring cars like fleas on a dog but unfortunately are several years behind the U.S. Remember the time when the stupid car alarms went off constantly for no reason? Well that is where they are here. I figure one reason Paris likes it here is there is a plethora of movies, clubs, and everywhere there is music in the streets. Unfortunately the streets are dirty, have holes in them and the general condition is lacking. It seems, if I had to describe it: Irkutsk is the garage sale – Vladivostok is KMart – Khabarovsk is Macys.
Our second day, we visited a gallery of Russian painters, the Catholic Church – closed; Armenian Church very small and simple; and Lutheran church – closed. As a man at the Armenian Church explained, it is just since 1992 they were able to return. The Communist destroyed the churches and only now is the rebuilding progressing. There is also a funicular in Vladivostok but we never found it; how hard should that have been? Vladivostok is the closest I have come to my preconceived idea of a communist bloc sort of town: poor streets and sidewalks, illegal building, lack of planning, holes everywhere in the streets and sidewalks. Dirty not just from the stuff they spread on icy streets but crumbling concrete. They need to rid themselves of the music blasting in the streets, the traffic going nowhere (actually I think they just sit in their cars and watch people go by), and make an effort to fix the streets. The cars swerve around the potholes without breaking speed and downtown traffic is gridlock.
Our departure from Vladivostok did not change my opinion of the city. It is in desperate need of planning and cleaning. It is much larger than I thought and the high apt buildings range from the dirty concrete bloc that hasn’t seen maintenance in decades to the new expensive ones being built for those who will be able to afford them. There is a lot of building, including an awful monster of a bridge right in the middle of town across the Golden Horn. Everywhere you look there is building – just no one building. I hate to even get started on the car situation.