Across Russia on the Trans-Siberian – Vladivostok (Part 1)
Part 1 – The Beginning : Vladivostok
The longest rail journey in the world – the Trans-Siberian railway. It crosses 8 timezones and covers almost the entire breadth of the biggest country in the world, Russia. The classic route from Moscow to Vladivostok or vice versa have been a thing of many travellers’ imagination from all over the world. The vast land with varying landscapes of steppes, taigas and the odd small town found every now and then along the way is one that draws people in, but more importantly, the experience of being in the midst of ordinary Russians, watching them go about their daily life as the train passes by is more of the adventure that travellers are after.
Most travellers would start their trip from Moscow and either finish in Vladivostok, or divert and take the Trans-Mongolian down to Ulan Bator and onwards to Beijing in China. I took the other way, starting from Vladivostok and finishing my trip in Moscow (with an extra trip to St. Petersburg and Tallinn in Estonia). Vladivostok was much closer to Sydney, Australia (where I live) and also, with the multitude of people telling me that St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in Russia, I thought I would save the best for last!
And I’m glad I did, as I totally learned to appreciate all the cities and towns I saw along the way and not having to compare them with any other city. Each place is unique, and the ones I visited all have their charms (maybe save for a couple) but to those just about to plan on embarking this journey, I totally recommend doing it in this direction.
Now on to my first destination: Vladivostok!
Vladivostok : Russia’s San Francisco
This may be a bold statement, but several sites have started referring to Vladivostok as “Russia’s San Francisco”. Why the comparison? Well, for one, Vladivostok is set on a beautiful harbour with nice big iconic bridges linking one side to the other, and also linking a former military fortress island, Russky Island (Russian Island) to the mainland. The weather is also milder than the rest of Russia (mild is relative, but it is significantly warmer in the summer in Vladivostok compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg).
Vladivostok may still has elements of its grey past, being a military city during the Soviet era and closed to the outside world for decades. However, you will also find the old royal tsarist-era glory in some of the buildings in the city, and you can feel the sense that the city is definitely sprucing up its image. It recently hosted the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) Summit and with that, new infrastructure has been built all across the city. They have a new airport, a new airport train, 2 new bridges, and lots of new development in Russky Island to turn it into a resort and recreation island.
How I got there:
I started my trip from Sydney, Australia where I live, and the closest and easiest access for me to Vladivostok is via Hong Kong where Vladivostok Air and S7 both have direct flights the entire week (but it depends which day of the week that you will either get Vladivostok Air or S7). With my schedule, I managed to fly on the day that Vladivostok Air operates on (Saturday). My First impressions – über crap airline!! Air-con was not working inside the aircraft, there was a long delay with no notice to passengers on what was happening, aircraft seems really old, aircraft upholstery is already in tatters. No inflight entertainment, not even some music to listen to. Legroom is absolutely tight, I really wonder how the naturally big Russians could fit into these seats!
Flight attendants are your stereotypical Russians – not very warm. And this is not a cheap flight either! The funny thing is that the flight attendants probably overslept during the flight and forgot to serve refreshments before landing. As the plane was descending, they then hurriedly served drinks to passengers, which is unheard of with other airlines with stricter and more stringent safety regulations. The only consolation is that the flight attendants speak reasonably decent English.
In short, I would not recommend taking Vladivostok Air if you can help it. Note that Vladivostok Air code-shares their flight with Aeroflot, the national airline of Russia, so you may have an Aeroflot flight number but your flight could be operated by Vladivostok Air. I heard S7 Airlines is a much better option, so see if you can take that instead. Another option is to go via Seoul where Korean Air and Asiana both offer direct flights to Vladivostok.
Upon Arrival at Vladivostok International airport
The flight arrived 30mins late but it didnt matter as I had to wait for the Aeroexpress train from Vladivostok airport to downtown Vladivostok, which only starts operating from 8am (my flight arrived at 5:45am). The Aeroexpress train is a new service that started only a few months ago, in time for the APEC Summit in 2012, which Vladivostok hosted. The train costs 200 Rubles for a standard class seat, which is enough for most travellers anyway considering that the journey only takes 45mins.
Where I stayed
I stayed at the Azimut Hotel Vladivostok. I had low expectations of this hotel, as the reviews were not that great and I just wanted to get a reasonable hotel near the train station.. Well, I was right! The hotel claims to be 3-star, but I’d say it’s just 2 -star. The reception staff were great, they spoke good English and were very accommodating! The room they gave me had views of the Amur Bay, which was awesome, but the carpet was really old and ugly, and the room smells of cigarette (possibly from the Chinese guests next door who smoked). Breakfast was average, it has reasonable selection of hot and cold meals.
My 3 days in Vladivostok
Here’s a diary of my 3 days in Vladivostok:
DAY 1 – Highlights of the day :
1. Seeing the end or terminal point of the Trans-Siberian railway line
2. Taking the private tour with Ekaterina and Elina to Russky Island and experiencing the island fortress built by the last Tsar of Russia and developed by the Soviets to defend Russia from further invasion by the Japanese. Ekaterina is the one who speaks really good English and Elina was the driver and a local of Russky Island, so pretty much, Elina was the one who told the stories and Ekaterina translated them (though she knew about Vladivostok so she would tell me details about it).
During the tour, we crossed the 2 massive bridges built especially for the APEC summit in 2012. It took only 3 years to build the bridges and the Russky bridge currently holds the record for the tallest bridge in the world, with its pylon measuring 326meters. It also lays claim for the longest unsupported span between 2 pylons at 1.1kms. Quite impressive I must say! 🙂
On the way to Russky Island, Elina told us that the current Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the island for an official visit. There were loads of security on the island, and no one is allowed near the Russian President unless you’re part of the official party. He’s not really a people’s president, I suppose..
We then went to check out this fortress under the Russky bridge. It had a great view of the harbour, and the cannons (canei in Russian) looked quite imposing. Just below the fortress is one quite curious spot that Elina pointed out to us, which apparently was found on the island and thought to be built by the early settlers on the island centuries ago, before the Russians arrived. It’s called a labyrinth, but it was pretty much a path the is made of stones and looks like a maze. Legend has it that if you go around the maze and make a wish, and feel the energy, your wish will be granted. And so Elina and Ekaterina showed me how to do it.. 🙂
Then our guide Elina took us to Voroshilov battery, which has the largest of all the cannons on Russky Island. I must say this really blew my mind, as it really had massive cannons like I’ve never seen before, and the entire fortress that they built just to fire these cannons was three storeys deep and has several lifts to take the missiles up the different levels of preparation before it is fired! The military staff working on the facility would work long days and have to even sleep in the bunkers next to the missiles and the lifts!
Next stop was the monastery of Saint Serafin, the oldest Russian Orthodox Church and monastery on the island, built 150 years ago. It was an interesting insight into the practices and beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Ekaterina managed to explain to me how they make offerings and wishes. She also told me stories on how the Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet Communist era.
The final stop was lunch at Rynda Bay, at the Rynda restaurant where they actually catch their own seafood from the bay itself and cook them in the restaurant! You can’t get any fresher! The highlight was the fried scallops (they were big!) and the seafood pasta in cream sauce! The thing to note is to get there early in the restaurant as we had to wait for a bit to get our orders. I was so fortunate to have such amazing weather that day coz it was sunny and warm (apparently it has been raining in the last few weeks in Vladivostok).
The tour finished and I was dropped off at Admiral Fokina Street, a pedestrianised street near my hotel. They call this the “Arbat” of Vladivostok (as it is very similar to Arbat St in Moscow – so they say).
— END OF DAY 1 —
Day 2 : Vladivostok city
Highlights of the day:
1.) Funicular to the Eagle’s Nest viewpoint
2.) S-56 submarine
3.) Ploshad Revolutskii and Svetlanskaya Street (main street of Vladivostok with beautiful 19th century architecture)
4.) getting lost and finding a beautiful Orthodox Church on the hill (Podrovitsky church )
Before I left the hotel that day, I asked for directions to go to the Funicular and the receptionist gave me the wrong directions! I ended up walking along Aleutskaya St., all the way up the hill (which was what the hotel receptionist told me!) The good thing is that I managed to find a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church which I didn’t initially plan to visit.
Eventually I decided to follow what Lonely Planet had on its map, which was different from what the hotel receptionist told me (talk about trusting the locals more!) I did reach the funicular in the end but along the way, I managed to go under the Golden Horn Bay Bridge to find a Russian war memorial, which was interesting.. I then bumped into this young sailor who was lost and wanted to know where the shops are. He was part of the sailing team of the Passadi, Russia’s fastest sailboat. He’s an apprentice sailor, only 19 years old and was keen to practice English with me.
The funicular took passengers to a certain point which leads to a pedestrian over bridge to the lookout point, which offers a fantastic view of the Golden Horn Bridge and the Golden Horn Bay itself. The lookout point looks worse for wear and really needs to be spruced up, though it is functioning ok. At the very top of the lookout point is a monument which they call Eagle’s Nest. On the rails of the Eagle’s Nest are several “lovers locks”, similar to those I found in Paris.. Just one level below the lookout point is a souvenir shop which stocks a wide variety of souvenirs.
After seeing the lookout point, I then went to see the S-56 submarine, which is on display along the waterfront. It’s an old Soviet submarine which has been taken out of service and put on a stand in front of a war memorial. The first half of the submarine was mainly photos and mementos of navy crew who were part of the submarine. The second half was the actual submarine part with periscope, rockets and sleeping quarter in there. This part is the most interesting bit of the S-56.
I then went walking along the short promenade, which was nice but their promenade finished abruptly and I had to walk on the side of the train tracks.. I ended up visiting Ploshad Revolutski (Revolution Plaza) which had a big Soviet communist statue on one end. It’s a popular spot for people to hang around and have public events like outdoor concerts, plays, etc. and kids also have a mini go-kart open circuit there.
It was around 7:30pm and there was still light during that time. I walked along Aleutskaya Street towards the train station (Vokzal in Russian), and near the station, there is a Russian restaurant that the tour guide Ekaterina recommended to me, called Nostalgiya (Nostalgia). It has a small arts and crafts shop at the front and a cafe to the left, but behind the cafe is a small restaurant that is beautifully decorated in tsarist-era theme. The food was not as expensive, though not cheap either. I had a yummy salmon caviar and this so-called Nostalgiya Roll which is pretty much a fried chicken roulade stuffed with veggies (like embutido). Plus, a special Nostalgiya dessert to cap the night (ice cream with whipped cream and fruits)
— END OF DAY 2 —
Day 3 ( Vladivostok):
Highlights of the day:
1.) taking the bus from train station to Muzei Automobiliskii and to Mayak
2.) negotiating my way in the train station to exchange my train tickets to vouchers so they can be valid for boarding
3.) Automobile Antiques museum
4.) lookout point in Mayak
5.) having Cinnabon
Check-out day – I tried asking for a late checkout but it seems that the hotel was quite busy and needed the room. So I packed my things and quickly went to the train station to get my boarding passes before checking out. At the train station, no one spoke English. They can utter some very basic words but not much. Luckily there was this young guy behind me in the queue who could speak english and was kind enough to help me translate with the lady at the information. I was then asked to go to Counter 1 (but ended up in Counter 2) and managed to change my tickets from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Khabarovsk to Chita, Chita to Ulan Ude and Ulan Ude to Irkutsk. The rest of the tickets I may have to get when I reach Irkutsk and Tyumen.
As my train to Khabarovsk departs that night at 9:25pm, I pretty much had the entire day to spend in Vladivostok. I asked the receptionist for directions to the Automobile Antique museum and to this lighthouse that marks the “end of Russia” and this time she got it right! I had to take the bus No. 31 to Sakhalinskaya and the Automobile Museum is just around the corner.
It was a bit of an experience taking the bus as I don’t speak the language so I just had to show this piece of paper with Cyrillic writing for “Muzei Automobiliski” that the hotel receptionist gave me. The bus driver understood and took me on board.. When it was almost time to get off, I kept asking the driver if this was the stop, and there were a couple of really helpful passengers who told me where to get off and how many stops to go! 🙂
The Automobile Museum was quite interesting. It took me almost 45mins to get to this place, which is in the real suburbs of Vladivostok. It’s actually a warehouse-type museum of old Soviet vehicles, both military and civilian. I was the only visitor to the museum and the women looking after the place had to switch on the lights of the place for me. Goes to show that not many people go and visit this place (thanks to Lonely Planet I learned about it). I love looking at the old soviet cars and also they managed to have a Ford Model T on display (one of the first mass-produced cars in the world!). They also sell a few souvenirs, fridge magnet being one of them and booklets containing photo of the vehicles on display.
I then headed back to the train station on the same bus 31 and negotiated my way to bus No 60 to Mayak. I initially boarded the bus no. 60 but it was for the wrong direction so the driver dropped me off just in front of where the bus to Mayak is and took me there. I got to Mayak but I don’t exactly know which direction the lighthouse is. I asked the driver and he didn’t understand me. There was a lookout point though of the bay and the Russky Island bridge, plus Russky Island itself so I went to check this one out. Then I found some Russian Uni students and tried asking them if they know where the lighthouse was. They have heard about it but they don’t know where it is.. I decided I’ll slowly take my chance and walk one direction but what I saw was a slum area, and I didn’t fancy risking myself going there and getting mugged or mauled by guard dogs (there were signs of barking dogs on the front of the properties there).
So I went back to town and just had Cinnabon and coffee. It was the only western food franchise I saw in my 3 days in Vladivostok, and not that I really have to eat at a western food franchise, I was actually just craving for good coffee and their cinnamon rolls! Also, there isn’t a Cinnabon outlet in Sydney, and have only tried it in Manila.
After my Cinnabon fix, I walked a bit along Svetlanskaya street and found the GUM ( the only department store they had during the soviet era that somehow still exists today). It was a mishmash of small stalls inside and wasn’t particularly appealing, though the interior was quite interesting.
Then I had some dinner along Admiral Fokina st, one of the places there has something like a fast food style place with Russian food, which was quite ok. For my final stop in Vladivostok, I went for a short stroll along the Stadium Dinamo, down to the other end of the promenade to watch a bit of the sunset and say goodbye to what was a pleasant surprise of a city that was Vladivostok.
— END OF DAY 3 —
Watch out for more tips on Vladivostok and the rest of my Trans-Siberian railway journey on my future posts and an upcoming guidebook which will surely enable anyone to do the Trans-Siberian railway journey independently!