This visit gets off to a bad start. It’s my own fault. Having basked for an hour or so after dinner in the afterglow of my success at finding a hotel that looks like a hotel, I walk into our ensuite bathroom to do my teeth and my guard is down. Never relax. Big mistake.
What was once a bijou bathroom is now a labyrinth of leaking laundry. Just about every article of clothing that V and S have brought with them on this journey is suspended from a network of nylon string that lies just above head level looped around every available fixture and fitting. Hand-washed but with a minimal attempt to remove any excess water from the clothes, the floor is already awash and in the few seconds I try to persevere with cleaning my teeth, so am I.
What the, what is the point of booking a half decent hotel room if you’re going to turn it into the back room of a second rate but heavily oversubscribed Chinese laundry? I’m fuming. I’m probably fuming so much I could power an industrial-sized tumble drier myself. Still fuming, I give each and every article of clothing a manly hand-wringing and having vicariously wrung the neck of all the clothing, I am eventually chilled out enough to go to bed and fall asleep.
So, from six trains in a day, through two overnight sleepers, to one train for seven days, we finally arrived at Vladivostok. It seems a bit harsh though that we aren’t really very excitied about getting to Vladivostok. The real goal – just stopped myself punning the rail goal – was to get to Japan overland to see my daughter, not just to reach the Russian Federation’s window on the Asian market. But having got here, I feel we should at the very least try to do the city some justice in the 36 hours we are here.
Some people will tell you that Vladivostok is the San Francisco of the East. Some other people will give a cynical little sneer when they hear that comparison, but it’s not actually a comparison that’s a million miles away from the truth. I say that though as someone not ever having been to San Francisco. Anyway, given that Vladivostok is a city built on a number of sometimes very steep hills, and given that it now has its own brand new suspension bridge spanning the Golden Horn bay, and another one linking it to Russky Island just for luck, I’m happy to go along with the analogy.
Vladivostok used to be a closed city, a military city, that was home to the Far East fleet of the Soviet Union, sitting tucked away on the remoteness of Russky Island with a man-made channel allowing its submarine fleet to slip in and out of port at a moment’s notice. The Russian Federation has since been moving the city’s focus from combat to commerce. There has been significant recent investment in the city’s infrastructure, but it is clearly not yet a city that is fully geared up to receiving and hosting visitors.
We’ve reverted back to our exploration strategy based on the belief that you can’t really know a city until you have felt every single kerbstone beneath your feet. We walk down from our hotel to the train station/marine port after an interesting but rather under-heated breakfast. V leads the cultural assault blitzing through a number of souvenir shops and ends up with a large cat tea-cosy type object which turns out to be a cushion, as it lacks a space in its middle for a teapot. We purchase postcards too, and are then directed by a statue of Lenin towards the post office to send them.
We then head off down Aleutskaya to the Arseniev museum where we spend a couple of hours admiring stuffed animals, the lost tribes of the Primorsky Krai region, children’s clothes and toys throughout the ages, and a centenary look at the First World War and its hospitals that could have been lifted straight from the National Trust exhibition at Dunham Massey. Piece de resistance is the toilet block which is decorated by books housed on shelves at every conceivable angle except horizontal.
Our cultural appetites sated, we set off down Svetlanskaya in search of the local version of GUM and a café. What we find is a pitiful version of the Red Square department store, and a café whose antiseptic smell masks any inviting aromas of the food they are serving. We track down another café in a neighbouring cinema that has wifi, club sandwiches and a thirst-quenching selection of drinks, once the waiter and I stop thoroughly confusing each other with our lack of language skills.
On the pretext of finding V a proper department store to look at, and a different range of souvenirs to review, I lead us back across town to the Sportivnaya embankment, and almost onto the Dinamo Vladivostok pitch itself. Beside the stadium we find a small beach, a boardwalk, a fountain and an amusement park with a big wheel just big enough to give us a panoramic view of this part of the city.
Weary to our bones and with still the evening hours to kill, I call into a local travel firm’s office and arrange a two hour guided car drive around the city after dinner. Our guide turns up on the dot of eight in a very smart right hand drive Japanese car, with a very impressive crack across the whole of the windscreen. Seat belts are optional.
I’m becoming quite a connoisseur of these ‘show me your city in less than two hours’ trips. H is our guide and she does a good job. First we go south to Tokarev, a small lighthouse joined to the mainland by a short, shallow spit of land, and across the strait from Russky Island, in sight of the new Russky Island bridge. This is a beautiful spot but clearly lagging behind in how it could have been developed.
Then we’re off driving back up to the nearby viewing point with panoramic views of the bridge, island and submarine channel, and overseen by the stern statue of Anna Shchetinina, the first ever female captain of an ocean-going vessel. Off then in the growing darkness to the eagles’ nest, a spot overlooking the new Golden Horn bay bridge, before driving across the bridge itself, and back again to see the Unknown Soldier and a real life submarine deposited beside the memorial. And alongside this, interrogation and commentary to understand better the massive changes this area and people have experienced.
So we’ve had the tour, walked the tarmac, seen the sights, stocked up on souvenirs and boat trip supplies, and hand-washed and wrung dry many clothes. But something is missing. Before we can trundle our cases down to the ferry we have one more person to see: Vladivostok’s favourite son, maybe.
Yul Brynner. For most of his life, Mr Brynner neglected to tell us that he had been born here into the family of a wealthy local merchant. His son eventually outed him and H pointed out his statue last night as we drove out of town away from Aleutskaya. He seems to be more elusive this morning.
V spots him eventually, striking his trademark King and I pose outside the family home, while I’m busy crossing roads and looking down blind alleys. The King and I pose for several selfies and then we rush back to the hotel to check out as our boat prepares to sail with the tide. Goodbye San Francisco of the East!