Tuesday March 26: two weeks after leaving the US, in the third country of this leg of my trip.
I admit that I was a little nervous about the part of my trip to Russia outside of the big cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. And in truth, I did feel safer looking lost on the streets of Tokyo or Seoul than lost on the streets of Vladivostok. Luckily, I found a private, affordable tour in Vladivostok on tourbylocals.com. Maria spoke decent English and spent the morning showing me around the city sites, kindly pointing out a cafe with good coffee for my afternoon after the tour and a place to get a good, affordable Russian lunch. I was very glad to have booked the tour, as it was great simply to be able to communicate well again.
We started off at the train station, where I was very happy Maria was able to act as interpreter as I swapped my e-reservations for tickets and needed to write my passport number, issuer, dates, and signature for each one. It would have been hard to know what the person was asking me to fill out. The train station itself is a pretty building, with the main waiting room decorated with a painting on the ceiling of Moscow and Vladivostok. And of course the mile marker for the end of the Trans-Siberian is here, so I obviously needed a picture!
Interestingly, everything in Russian railways is set to Moscow time – the train schedules on the board, my downloaded e-reservations (which freaked me out at first!), and the clocks in the station. This is a bit of a challenge when trying to then figure out what the actual local time is, as this trip goes through 7 time zones and my cell phone won’t update till I connect to wifi at the hostel in Ulan Ude. (I am writing this while on the Trans-Sib between Vladivostock and Ulan Ude, and will email it to myself so I can post it when I get somewhere with a computer. Email works better than blogging on my tiny phone-sized screen.)
Tickets achieved, we walked down a couple of the main streets of the historic center (in better repair than the pretty ugly streets near my hotel, riddled with potholes the size of craters) and Maria pointed out how many of the pastel-painted 19th century facades were reminiscent of the architecture in St Petersburg.
We popped into several museums: the Arsenev (with some exhibits on flora and fauna and another on some lovely flapper fashion, along with a room dedicated to a woman from Maine, Mrs Pray, who moved to Vladivostok to help her family’s business in the late 19th century and wrote so many letters home, the collection is now the best social history of the city of the period), the WWII submarine, and the 19th century house of a regional administrator who supported the tsar and whose son died supporting the Bolsheviks.
I even got to see an actual submarine come into harbor, tiny dots of people on top. I was encouraged to take a picture – when I asked if that were really ok, I was told “this isn’t North Korea!”
Once Maria headed out, I got my bearings and headed for lunch at a place she had recommended, the cafe attached to the department store GUM. I ordered meat rissoles wrapped in a cabbage leaf, which was pretty tasty, along with the inevitable tea. Russians seem to drink a lot of plain black tea with lemon, often Liptons Yellow Label. It’s interesting the difference in tea among the countries I’ve visited so far, as all of them drink a lot of it. In Japan it’s usually one of a variety of green teas, in Korea it’s a sweet fruit tea, and in Russia it’s black tea.
Over lunch, I wrote some postcards, then headed to the post office. Yet another adventure! I noticed that people were waiting for their number to be called, but I couldn’t figure out where they were getting the little pieces of paper with their number. So I waited till someone else came in and I followed her to the machine. I was confronted with 8 options. It dawned on me that several of these options were probably for banking and other similar matters of business, but I wasn’t sure whether posting things was one of the options. However, there was a counter nearby that did not have a line and it looked like people were buying envelopes there, so I hovered with my postcards out and the lady behind the counter helped me out. (She even decided to help me put the stamps on the postcards, and tut-tutted when I covered the postcard description. She then noticed that the Russian descriptions remained uncovered so promptly continued covering over the English!)
After that, I decided to kill some time at the Oceanarium, so I headed back the way I had come, in hopes of a warm place to sit. After almost falling asleep in a warm dark corner staring a fish swimming in circles, I decided to go get some coffee and cake at the cafe Maria had recommended. The cake was 3-4 times as expensive as other places in town (though the total was still reasonable by US standards) but the coffee was good and the atmosphere was charming. I settled in to read a book on my kindle and kill some time, as my train didn’t leave till 10:30PM.
I attempted to get dinner at the same place I had gotten lunch, asking for borscht, and was told I couldn’t have it either because they were no longer serving lunch items or because they were only serving items on their blackboard. Ah the language barrier! I’d seen a fast food place called Magic Burger and thought that fast food might have less of a language barrier. They even had an English menu posted at the entrance! Of course, I’d forgotten that minimum wage high schoolers tend to be the staff in such establishments, and I got a blank stare at my first attempt at ordering. So I gave that up, pointed blindly at a random burger, and ate my overcooked patty feeling really isolated and lonely. At this point, I’d been communicating really only very basic needs other than for a few days out of the past two weeks, and I missed having a conversation with someone. I’d known to expect loneliness but that often strikes later. It’s not so much the traveling alone as the not speaking the language AND traveling alone that got to me that evening. I’m sure having a cold didn’t help, either!
I returned to the hotel to pick up my bag and waited at the train station for the remaining three hours before the Rossiya was scheduled to leave.An hour before departure time, the track for my train was posted and people started moving closer to the track. I figured that the train had perhaps arrived early, so I asked the young man at the x-ray machine if the train I saw out the window was for Moscow. He hemmed and hawed so the soldiers nearby chimed in. Seeing my blank face at the spate of Russian, one of them indicated on his watch that I had to wait another hour. I thanked him and returned to the waiting room, where he and a fellow soldier followed me to look at my ticket to confirm they had told me the right thing and to make sure I understood what the Moscow time on the ticket meant. It was very nice of them, but it’s never the most comfortable feeling to have a couple of armed soldiers follow you, especially in Russia!
Nonetheless, I got safely on my train ( after a tough time finding the carriage) and tried chatting a little with my Russian matron compartment mate, thanks mostly to her use of a Russian equivalent of Google Translate on her laptop. (She must have had a mobile hotspot as well, because I definitely can’t connect.) Finally, as we pulled away from Vladivostok, we heard rousing orchestral music playing in the station.