Thursday July 5, 2012 – Winding down in Vladivostok

I leave tomorrow, Friday. M. leaves today, Thursday. She booked a room for two until Thursday, and a room for one on Friday. I go down to the front desk to ask if I can just stay in the room we have, since I’m there for one more night anyway. No luck – even though the nights were booked online seconds apart, I’m not only in a different room, I’m in a different building. “Turn left, then right, cross the road, down,” the friendly counter guy tells me. I ask a few times to make sure I’ve got it.

The problem, we discover once we’re out of the hotel with our bags, is that there’s a big green hoarding opposite the entrance. Does left mean left by the hoarding, along the rudimentary driveway, or left once we’ve exited the driveway? Do we cross the street the hotel backs onto, or the one by its side? For the latter, ‘down’ could mean down a set of stairs on the other side of a crosswalk, or further down the road. But further down the road, it splits in two. There are no street signs… except for one, on a building set back from the road. And as we’ve discovered in Russia, that could mean it’s on our street or an entirely different one. Such are the questions that bedevil the traveller but are nearly impossible to anticipate or explain.

I go back to the hotel to ask for clarification. At the desk is the angry young blonde woman, who doesn’t smile when I approach. I’m learning that the best tactic in these situations is to be unassuming and smiley, and I inquire if I can ask her a question. She nods imperceptibly. Once I explain that I’m having trouble finding the other building, she says, “You really can’t find the other building?” But she’s smiling, and I smile wider and reply, “No, I’m getting lost.” The key here is to realize she thinks I’m a complete idiot, and through acting as sweetly patient and good-natured as I can, tacitly acknowledge that she’s right – signal to her, “Yeah, I’m a foreigner who doesn’t know anything, and I need you, the wise local, to show me the way.” It’s pretty accurate anyway. She points out the window and explains that we need to cross the street and go down the stairs by the school, a squat 4 storey white building opposite the green hoarding. I smile widely and say Spasiba, and she smiles back. That’s how you deal with Stalinists. It reminds me of The Master and Margarita, which I’m reading now, where a man caught concealing foreign currency is told that things will go well for him only if he confesses everything immediately.

We turn left along the driveway, right to the crosswalk, cross the street, and there are stairs. M. goes down them, but I see a driveway further along, and I don’t wish to drag my heavy bag down the stairs. I roll my bag to the driveway, lifting over a big puddle where the ‘sidewalk’ depresses (it’s more a path of dirt/rubble next to the road for cars to park on.) I get to the driveway and see it’s hidden behind a gate, which is tied with a small plastic tie. Back to the stairs, lug my bag down, get to the school… and we discover we’re completely fenced in. Beside the driveway, beside the fence, there’s another set of stairs, and Russians are using those. No one told us about those, and they’re not very visible. Drag my bag up, out to the sidewalk, back to these steps, and I lug my bag down these.

There’s a policeman in his car parked beside the fence the whole time, and I know he can see me on my regular trips back and forth, but he doesn’t move.

Once we get to the hotel – which M. figures out is across a rotting concrete piazza that turns out to be the roof – we have no trouble checking in. I give the woman my train tickets, she makes a call, photocopies everything, and I have my key. From the balcony, I see a very strange construction site. The building has at least 15 people working on it, in teams. There are cabins for them to stay in. There’s modern equipment. M. figures this must be where APEC is meeting in a few months, and I figure that explains the non-Russian construction, where lots of people are working together in teams.

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It also explains why the building looks nearly finished, instead of a concrete shell or poorly-laid brick walls with broken windows. They’re cleaning windows, and nothing gets cleaned here. Opposite is the old hotel grounds, now strewn with rubble; a fence and more hilly rubble; a beach and condos further on, but inaccessible for all the blocked-off yards.

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If it seems like I’m souring a little on Russia, it’s true. It’s difficult to determine what’s just different and what’s genuinely irrational, since I’m experiencing it first-hand. However, Alexander’s exclamation of “Russia!”, on seeing my photo of the grand piano parked in an Irkutsk corridor, suggests that it’s rational to see how crazy things are here, and it’s irrational to get upset about it. No sewers or sidewalks, rain run-off settling into pools on cracked muddy paths, giant SUVs parked next to buildings forcing pedestrians out into the roads, streets without numbers or names – and the state doing its bit by making people register internally: I can’t be the only person to whom this appears crazy. But if you’re Russian, you’ve probably accepted it as the way things are, and maybe you even understand a perverse logic behind it. I don’t, which is why despite my anxiety over the coming transition, I’m happy to be leaving Russia.

Our last day in Vladivostok was fairly laid back. We sat in the sun along the pedestrian avenue and admired the stilettos clacking by;

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These people were actually washing a railing. I’ve never seen that in Russia:

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We took the funicular, or vertical trolley, 100 meters up to a lookout. Naturally the lookout itself is another 50 meters up – and down, and underneath a traffic circle, then up again, to the site of a crumbling concrete university. I don’t know what people in wheelchairs do in this city – presumably they don’t visit the lookout or go to university.

The GUM en route to the funicular:

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Wait, maybe he’s “The Groping Major”?

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A discreet shot of all-Adidas, the uniform for Russian men. It doesn’t have to match.

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Up the hill:

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It appears to have grown from the top of that building:

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The lookout. I like the silhouettes in this shot:

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This is a Russian building site from the lookout. Two men working in the hot sun.

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And it’s not on a tiny DIY project; they’re preparing the road to the bridge:

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Rusting Pacific Fleet destroyers:

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Vladivostok comes to a point:

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Some equipment by the path up the hill:

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Art in the underpass:

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Dinner is in a cavernous dining room in the hotel, a loose approximation of a grand hall, except there are no murals on the wall, the columns have no decoration, and the ‘art’ is 6 giant still lifes that all look very similar. I break the final vegetarian frontier and have a caesar salad with real bacon. It’s good, but no different than the faux-bacon you can get at Sadie’s back in Toronto.The waitress says something to us which I presume to mean our food will be late, so I say “OK”; M.’s arrives, mine doesn’t. But she didn’t bring another menu, so I wait over an hour for non-existent perogies.

I say goodbye to M. at the train platform – she’s off to Mongolia on another leg of her journey. Goodbyes are never easy after five weeks spent travelling with someone, but we both put a brave face on it. On my way back to the hotel, on the mysterious steps that so flummoxed me earlier (and which are shrouded in darkness), there’s a Russian woman on a cell phone who’s walking slowly ahead of me. She bursts into tears and moves to the side to sit down and cry. At the same moment, a cat comes up to me and miaows. I’m a little overwhelmed and keep walking. The cat isn’t Siberian and looks as dirty as the streets. The imported beer that night, British sitcoms and emails to friends, are much-needed.

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