Monday July 2, 2012 – To Vladivostok

I’ve switched to Flickr for photohosting. Photobucket forced me to resize my photos to fit on the screen; Flickr lets you click on them to see larger versions. So, if you’d like to see the following photos in more detail, just click through.

As mentioned previously, the train to Vladivostok was a cheaper one and, unlike our berth to Birodbizhan decorated with new, airplane-quality upholstery and LEDs, this was vintage 70s. Rather than complaining about the furnishings, I used the opportunity to take some photos – in fact, I quite liked the wood-and-beige plastic aesthetic, and there wasn’t much to see outside the train anyway:

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Cyrillic readers can correct me, but I’m pretty sure this is the Young Communist tabloid (Komsomol something-or-other), sold everywhere:

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We got into central Vladivostok by mid-morning, to be greeted by a crush of taxis and buses, and Lenin gesturing towards the sea. He’s quite impressive close up, and his plinth is well-maintained and surrounded by marble, but he’s lost among the buildings rising up the city’s hills:

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We paid 300 roubles for a taxi to get up one of those hills to our hotel – a 5 minute walk up, as it turned out, but we had our luggage with us. The Hotel Vladivostok was a relic of the Soviet era, long and concrete, now almost entirely under construction hoarding. We stored our bags and checked in. The concierge, a young woman with long, flaxen hair and small eyes, was diplomatic to begin with. However, as soon as she discovered we hadn’t registered our visas, she became officious. “Where are your visas?” she sighed. We don’t have them; we don’t need them for this trip, M. explained. “What makes you think you don’t need visas?” she said, her tone suggesting we had placed ourselves above the rules to get one over on her personally.

“The rules have changed,” I tried, in my most patient and conciliatory tone. “You only need to register if you’ve spent more than 7 business days in one place. We have train tickets to prove it.”

“Show me the tickets,” she said, and I got my travel bag out of the checked luggage room. I showed her the tickets – but I’d put the first ticket in my suitcase for safe-keeping. I told her I’d have to go get it. “Why didn’t you bring it with you the first time?” she said.

“I didn’t think I needed it,” I lied, not wanting to admit it was because I was on less than six hours’ sleep, sweaty, and hadn’t eaten more than a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal that day, which made it hard to concentrate. Once I got it, she photocopied everything and became diplomatic again. I understood her anger: if travellers aren’t registered and the police find out, it’s the hotel that gets in trouble. She was only doing her job. But it was the way she did it that was frightening: if you broke the rules, she was within her rights to berate you. On the way to the elevator, we passed a souvenir stand in the lobby; among the figurines of rabbits, whales and dolphins was a bust of Uncle Joe Stalin. That explained a lot, I thought. The next morning it had disappeared, which was even more Stalinist than it being there in the first place.

After this experience we went for expensive ($35) sushi – we figured we’d earned it:

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I bought Old Bobby for the evening. Russian beer consists mainly of light lagers – thanks globalization – but this was a passably good imitation of British beer:

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A British cafe we went to – Five O’Clock. It had tea towels from the home counties, ginger cake and a jaundiced queen:

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The problem with writing trip journals three weeks after the fact is you start to forget what happened when. My camera says the following pictures were taken Monday (though it’s sometimes wrong), so I’m going to say that after lunch, we went for a walk to see Vladivostok’s monuments.

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Monument to the Soviet Fighters of the Far East:

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Upon the Soviet Union’s formation, it was immediately invaded by 14 capitalist countries, determined to stop the spread of a good example. Rather than constructing a socialist society, the Soviets instead had to mobilize for war. They won, albeit at tremendous cost. This statue was significant not just for its commemoration of Soviet history, but for remembering the revolutionary period. The vast majority I saw were dedicated to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ from 1941-45 – another great sacrifice, certainly, but nothing to do with defending revolutionary socialism.

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You’ll notice in these photos that the city is torn up. The airport and centre are being prepared for the September APEC summit and have been for years. It’s worth speculating whether the city would see any investment at all, if the central government didn’t want to impress its neighbours. The GUM department store:

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A nearby monument to that more familiar war:

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A piece of the new suspension bridge hovering nearby:

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The gaudy, gilted chapel in the background was a monument to Tsar Nicholas II’s visit to Vladivostok to launch the Far Eastern fleet (or at least, a new boat in it.) The Soviets tore it down; the Orthodox Church, always keen to overshadow its 70s year absence from power in Russia, built it again:

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A little further on. This kind of infrastructure decay is common in every Russian city I visited. What makes this significant is it’s in the midst of a massive redevelopment. Someone redid the monument; to the left, someone redid the waterfront; to the right, a new hotel. But no one’s responsible for the roads and sidewalks:

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We headed back up to the main street. I saw rasta colours on an old staircase, leading up from the street:

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It led to a muddy, confusing alley between old houses:

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Nearby there was a corner of a building painted in the same red, black and green, but the windows were painted black and the black door was closed. Still, Jamaica in Vladivostok.

Further up more stairs and muddy paths, a Thai massage house – the ads looked professional, as opposed to professional relief, but who knows:

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The path ended here:

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These looked like ancient metal tiling, but on the sides – I’ve never seen that before:

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Looking to the next hill. Our hotel was behind the building shell:

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Back down the stairs and into the GUM, which was filled with individual merchants. It had seen better days – it dated to pre-Soviet times – but had some lovely detailing:

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I never had the courage to take a photo of a Russian in a shiny suit, but here’s a mannequin:

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Badminton birdies with what look like real feathers:

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From fake-Yiddish to fake-Chinese:

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