Arrival in The Motherland: Vladivostok – ruler of the east

I arrived in Vladivostok Monday afternoon. Although on a map, Vladivostok doesn’t seem that much farther east than Tokyo or Seoul, it’s two time zones later. Guess I should check it out on a globe when I’m home, to see whether it’s a geographically or politically based zoning.

I hadn’t had much luck in getting a map printed out in Seoul, but I figured that there would be something posted at the train station or at a tourist info booth when I arrived. And how wrong I was! I got to the Vladivostok airport info desk and they helped me on how to catch the airport express train. However, they didn’t have as city map. I hopped on the train, delighted to find it even had wifi, and sent a quick “safe arrival” email. I tried using Google Maps walking directions but they were sparse. Once arrived at the station, I tried to find information or a map without luck. There were a number of men hanging around the station, probably taxi drivers, but enough so that I didn’t want to hang around walking in circles and looking lost any longer. So I picked a likely looking street ( not knowing my compass points in the city but with the vaguest of vague ideas that the hotel was to the west of the station) and started walking. 100 yards in, I saw a sign that said tourism, so I figured I’d keep going. I got two blocks up this steep hill and there was no tourist office, just possibly a travel agent or travel tv channel or something not too helpful. I approached two women taking a smoking break and showed them the address I was looking for. They didn’t speak a word of English, but what with pointing and drawing a pedestrian crossing in my little notebook, they managed to give me great directions. Turns out that intersection was where I needed to take a left and go to the crosswalk. Lo and behold, there was the hotel – or what I assumed was the hotel as I painfully tried to sound out the Cyrillic letters above the door.

It was indeed the Zemchuzina Hotel, so I checked in, then headed out to the supermarket around the corner to load up on supplies for the train trip (like juice boxes and ramen cups). I noticed each time I entered the lobby any men there would stare at me. I wondered if it were my schlubby American clothes (travel pants and a fleece, when all the young Russian women I’ve seen are carefully made up and coiffed, wearing either short skirts, skinny jeans, or leggings). I’ve since read in my Trans-Siberian guidebook that women staying alone at hotels are often thought to be prostitutes, so maybe they were wondering how I was going to get clients when I was more bundled up than the “proper” young Russian ladies!

I was only two blocks from a cafe recommended in my guidebook as marvelous, so with no other deciding factor, I decided to try it out. Then came another mortifying cultural exchange. (This trip is certainly good for my humility!) I walked into the cafe through its accompanying art gallery. The lady in the gallery watched me, even moving closer to the door between the gallery and cafe to see what the foreigner was going to do. The folks in the cafe said hi and then promptly ignored me. I made my way to the front, where there was a Russian/English menu, but it wasn’t clear to me if I ordered up there or sat at a table and was waited on or what. I also wasn’t sure how to pronounce the full phrase “do you speak English?” in Russian so I just said “English? (Angliski?)” in a questioning tone of voice. The woman behind the counter looked at me as though I were an idiot, pointed to the menu I had just been looking at, and told me it was in English and Russian. What I would have given to be able to reply!

Anyway, again, no dying of embarrassment, though I didn’t feel very welcome. It’s not that I expect people to speak English, it’s just that a smile and goodwill go a long way…but I ended up with a tasty and cheap plate of Russian meat dumplings with sour cream, and the lady at the cafe thawed a bit towards the end (possibly because it was clear I found two little boys who seemed to be her grand kids very cute – children are a universal).

I went to bed feeling very happy to have hired an English speaking guide for Tuesday morning, as I had anticipated some difficulties in Russia.

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