Vladivostok 2008 II

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I have been told that this city is nicknamed the “San Francisco of the East” – It appears that eastern nations have a fascination with comparing their cities and areas with those of their western counterparts. For example, I often here Hainan Island in China referred to as the “Hawaii of the East” or the “Hawaii of China”, and there are numerous references to the Alps, both in Japan and China. Russia, it would seem is no different.

As one who has never been to San Francisco I can only comment on what I know of that city and what I see/know of Vladivostok. Aside from the rolling-hill like setting of the landscape I don’t see many similarities…although there is a large sailor population…..

I wouldn’t classify Vladivostok as a traveler-friendly environment. On the surface, it probably shouldn’t have anything to do with traveling and for a long time it didn’t – being the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet it was closed to Westerners for much of the 20th century. It still retains that honor and has also seemed to have transformed into a rather busy regional port shuttling cargo between Korea, Japan and possibly China. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of industry and I would assume that most income is derived from government (military) and assorted port services.

But Vladivostok is the terminus for one of the most famous rail lines in the world – The Trans-Siberian. Vladivostok represents the end (or beginning) of an epic seven (or nine) day rail journey encompassing over 10000km and passing through more time zones that you have fingers. Given this position in the rail travel hierarchy, one would assume that the city would be better equipped to handle travelers wishing to embark or end their journey here. A quick Google search for Trans-Siberian will list dozens of companies and agencies specializing in arranging trips and adventures for just such travelers. The route is popular – but apparently Vladivostok hasn’t been informed.

It could be that most travelers opt for the Tran-Mongolian which ends (or begins) in Beijing. This route flows into two additional countries with unique cultures and landscapes and Beijing is far and away an easier starting/ending location than Vladivostok. Vlad is tough and expensive to get into and out of. Flights are in the four digit range and the ferry options to Japan and Korea are quite slow – especially for those on a schedule.

However starting/ending here though means that you will not have to deal with a fickle Chinese government who amuses itself by randomly closing borders (I was stuck in Mongolia in 2006 for an extra 3 days because they shut the border) and the Tran-Mongolian route is closed the Beijing Olympics in the name of paranoia. It is also the only eastern entry point to Russia or Mongolia for those who wish to bike (read: motorcycle) these countries and the Chinese also do not permit foreigners the privilege or responsibility of navigating their rather open highway network independently. Of the ten or so Western travelers on the ferry I took from Japan seven were shipping motorbikes to Vladivostok and spending the summer riding across Russia.

Aesthetically, Vladivostok is a very beautiful city. Clear air. Trash-free. Traffic-free. Rolling hill landscapes and a skyline undamaged by high-rise developments. Architecturally very Russian but the downtown region (I didn’t have an opportunity to explore the suburbs) retains a more pre-Soviet imperial style instead of the standard block housing units characteristic of communist cities. A lot of it is run-down but many of the buildings appear to be undergoing some serious restoration work and it is clear that the city wishes to retain its heritage rather than develop via demolition and construction. One thing I noticed which I thought was a very creative transformation and restoration approach was the gutting of the first floor of many apartment block and replacement with a row of small shops in an effort to create a mixed use environment. The train-station and ferry port are located downtown and both offer nice views of the harbor. Drainage is poor as well – as indicated by today’s rainstorm with lakes forming in the numerous pot-holes and street wide rivers cascading down the hills. The street and sidewalk system is in disrepair. A patchwork of asphalt and concrete and some dirt sections. Private automobile ownership (especially SUV’s) appears to be widespread and is growing. Russia seems to have skipped the moped/motorcycle phase of development (with the exception of fashionable crotch-rockets) and gone directly to four wheels. I suppose winter is a major influence on this phenomenon. There is an ancient Soviet tram system which is still operating but should probably be removed as the trolley wires seriously interfere with the visual landscape and people seem to opt for the bus system anyway. I get the feeling that the people here are proud of their city and the direction it is going – especially in the reflection of Vladivostok as the symbol of the Russian Far East.

Culturally it seems to be predominately Caucasian Russian, although I noticed a spattering of Asian as well which make for an interesting mosaic. Observed a Korean tour group as well as a Japanese tour group and there were quite a few Chinese construction workers – as evident by the PLA surplus attire and Mandarin curse words. There is a heavy military presence and you will most likely run into groups of sailors and soldiers wandering around the city.

With interesting landscapes, people, architecture and location one would think that there would be more travel services. Alas…there isn’t. In fact, Vladivostok is probably the poster-child for a city one would think would have such facilities and services – but doesn’t.

Russia isn’t materializing as a cheap destination and I’m currently spending just as much, if not more than I did in Japan. The difference though is everyplace I stayed in while in Japan was helpful and had useful information. The places I ate at were excellent and just as helpful and I never felt once like I wasn’t getting my moneys worth. I’m mixed so far on Russia. I feel like I’m paying quite a bit, but not getting too much. The trials of traveling I suppose.

Vlad is a great looking city and I bet that there is a lot to see and do here…if they just made it more accessible to travelers.

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