Vladivostok is the other side of the world

Vladivostok airport
Sunrise over lake Baikal

Getting off the bus again, walking back to waiting room, one of the girls and the soldier where walking behind me. I asked why I couldn’t just wait with the other people traveling to Vladivostok. (I first believed I was the only one traveling there, but the same soldier told me earlier I wasn’t.) “It is Russian tradition, our way of saying goodbye to foreigners”, the soldier said, seemingly dead serious. I expected this guy to grab a club or knife at any moment and smash my face in or rip my throat open. Surprisingly, this didn’t happen…

Some time later, I finally got on the plane (the same one that had brought me to Irkutsk), and I was actually put on the plane before all other (Russian) passengers. From the convenient window seat I had chosen, I could see all of them running towards the plane when their gate (on the tarmac) had been opened, trying to be the first on the plane.

We took off just before sunrise. When the sun came up, we where just over Baikal, which gave an unparalleled view of one of the worlds largest lakes. I had no problem anymore with us leaving much later than planned.

Before disembarking from the plane, all passengers’ passports where thoroughly checked by a group of soldiers. *My* soldier had to go through my papers four times before he finally let me move on.

It was already past 9 o’clock and the sun was shining happily over the parking lot of Vladivostok’s ugly airport. I had learned that the airport was some 40km away from the city center and that busses only irregularly made the journey. Halfway. As in Irkutsk, immediately many people asked if I needed a cab. I finally agreed with the owner of a small bus that I would pay some $4 for the ride to town (instead of the $18 he asked), unless a city bus would come to pick me up within half an hour.

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The driver managed to find two other customers and, after no bus had shown up (and probably only minutes before it would have), we left for downtown.

On the parking lot of the airport, I concluded that here, people had to be driving on the other side of the road, since all steering wheels where on the wrong side of each car. It took me some time before I
realized that that was because about 95% of the cars where imported from Japan. Now, they still drive on the right side, but they just happen to have the steering wheel on the right side as well.

Vladivostok is a very lively city and it immediately reminded me of a Mediterranean city, with the warm weather, the hills next to the sea and the many brick buildings everywhere. The major difference being the lack of Spaniards, Italians or Greeks and the surplus of Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese.

I had a hard time finding a hotel. Almost all where full and only the third one, the hotel Vladivostok, had a fairly cheap room for me, after I declined the expensive rooms in the hotel several times. The hostess first told me no cheap rooms where available anymore, but when I made it clear that I was not going to pay much more than $12 and was about to go to a cheap hostel on the outskirts of town, she accidentally “discovered” that there was still a cheap room available. Later, I learned that the cheap hostel I was about to go to didn’t exist anymore, so I was saved by the bell!

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The hotel was a strange combination of old and new; the entrance looked like any other modern Best Western, Ibis or Novotel, even advertising sauna, a hairdresser and having a small art shop in the foyer. The floor I was staying on had your standard Russian floor lady with drab, 70s style carpeting, wallpaper and everything. Then, the TV in my room was able to decode PAL, NTSC and SECAM, had several sports channels, a music channel and numerous Chinese broadcasts… I was happy though, to have a view over the bay of Vladivostok from my hotel window.

Different but similar

For a busy and apparently international city as Vladivostok, it is remarkable that no international fast food places exist. There is a magic burger that is so popular with the locals, that you have to wait in line for several minutes before you can actually order anything from the drab menu of food-items they serve. Don’t get me wrong, the waiting isn’t Russian style, its like a McDonalds on its busiest hours.

But why these people where actually standing in line was a complete mystery to me when I sampled the food itself. I had some Hawaiian burger (buns, meat, pineapple), stale fries and a Pepsi. The Pepsi was okay, the rest was plain terrible. I was baffled to see so many people eat all they had with joy on their faces! And to think that this place had been there for numerous years already (the Planet already recommended not going there). How could this “thing” survive?

I had to cool off with some good ice-cream in a good ice parlor. Although Russians like cakes and ice-cream a lot, it’s not as if very good ice-cream is served in Russia. One exception is this one place in Vladivostok. Many choices, very good cakes and pastries and, what’s equally important, with an outside temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius, they manage to get the temperature inside as low as some 22 degrees.

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One very nice girl, sitting opposite me at another table, had the nerve to flirt with me for more than an hour. I would have made a move if she wasn’t accompanied by another (equally gorgeous) girl and a big baboon.

In the evening, when lounging on the beach, a couple asked me for the time. I replied (in English) and minutes later a boy/young man came up to me with a beer. We started talking and Kostia told me he wanted to leave Russia and work abroad. If it was possible for me to give him some good advice. His English wasn’t all that good and when he told me he was working in some copy shop, I figured he was lost. Some time later, however, he mentioned he was going to start at a business school somewhere, so the future doesn’t have to be all that bad for him after all!

We where joined by some friends of his, a young couple of which the girl (21 years) already had a son of 5 and an older man with two German shepherds who couldn’t stop talking about Krishna. According to Ira (the girl), I was a ‘good man’.