When the train pulled into Vladivostok in the early hours, crowds spilled onto the platform. Gaggles of teenagers on a school trip, families with acres of luggage, older couples carefully passing down suitcases, and men with thin coats and small holdalls.
But within minutes they were all gone. We were alone on the icy platform, and the train pulled away passengerless, off to a siding somewhere. We retreated inside the station building, and sat on plastic chairs in the small over-bright waiting room. Our plan was to wait it out here until morning, but the harsh light and uncomfortable chairs, and my stomach-aching tiredness, motivated me to go and investigate the station resting rooms.
I’m not sure if they’re uniquely Russian, but I’d not heard of station resting rooms before, and I was intrigued. From the descriptions I’d read I was imagining a large dormitory hidden in the station, where people would rest for a few hours or a night while waiting for their train.
I was keen to try them out, for curiosity as well as tiredness, so we checked in for the remainder of the night.
In fact, the Vladivostok rooms are a moderately swish hotel, though they are right in the station, which was very exciting. You enter directly from the station lobby, and from our room you could see the platforms. It wasn’t all that cheap — close to double the cost of two hostel beds for six hours in the cheapest twin room. This ‘basic’ room was huge though, and came with towels, a telly, and a fridge. There are shared showers and toilets down the hall.
Happily rested, we checked out at 10 am, and went to collect our tickets for our ferry the next day to Japan. The port is right next to the railway station, and our boat was already there waiting for us.
Our stay in Vladivostok was brief, but filled with good food and good company. We couchsurfed with Anna and Ivan for one night, and they were spectacularly good hosts. Anna picked us up at the train station and we went for lunch, then she showed us some sights while doing a bit of work (she works as a courier).
I really liked Vladivostok. It has an energetic feel about it. There’s street art everywhere, and steep, café filled streets rolling down to the bay. Distinctly cosmopolitan. It was a huge change from Siberia. Apart from anything else it was about 15° warmer.
There are hints of Asia too, in the cuisine, and the mostly Korean cars, some of which are small, which seems to be a complete no-no for modern cars in the rest of Russia.
Vladivostok is less than 100 miles from the borders of China and North Korea, and is home to a North Korean theme restaurant called ‘Pyongyang’ where North Korean women work for a limited period of time as waitresses, under the eye of North Korean bosses.
This part of Russia belonged to China until 1860. In the 1920s something like a quarter of the population was Chinese, but in 1937 Stalin expelled the Chinese from the city, along with other non-Russians, and the city was closed to foreigners until 1991. I imagine the 25 years since have changed it unrecognisably. Now it’s every bit the global city, or at least appears so on the surface. Our Russian hosts cooked us a delicious spicy Korean soup for dinner, and insisted that most people in Vladivostok keep chopsticks at home because they eat Asian food so often. But I didn’t see any Chinese restaurants. I later read that the authorities target the Chinese, extorting bribes and shutting down businesses, and that beatings are common to the point that Chinese people fear to go out at night.
The Russians are certainly keen on Asian consumer goods though. Enthusiasm for plastic phone accessories definitely seemed to have increased with our proximity to Asia. On our way to lunch we spotted a phone shop with a very Russian approach to trademark law.
After lunch Anna took us to a scenic lookout over the city and the bay, where we spotted our boat again.
Amongst the obligatory padlocks on the railings was one that surpassed all the ridiculously oversized statements of locking up love we’d seen before.
I think this is part of a car.
After the lookout we visited a WW2 submarine. In the mess a framed picture of Stalin hung proudly on the wall. Next door was a bank of containers where stacks of missiles were once safely stowed.
Anna took us for pancakes and tea after the submarine (thoroughly Russian), and then drove us back to their home in the suburbs, through snarls of traffic (also thoroughly Russian). But their home, and their conversation, was much less thoroughly Russian than we’d experienced elsewhere. We were well supplied with Russian hospitality though (in the form of constantly flowing tea and sweets). Perhaps it was just that they’re well travelled — they’d been all over Asia, and spent the previous summer volunteering in Israel. But I think port cities everywhere do have a certain connected feeling about them that Vladivostok shares. The people who live there tend to be more open to the world than their land-locked compatriots.
Or perhaps my head was just in Asia already. As we neared their place the sun set on our last day in Russia. Next, Japan.