Friday July 6, 2012 – Dosvedanya

Before I go to bed, I ask the concierge about transport to the airport. She tells me she can arrange a taxi for 1500 roubles – about $60. I ask if there are no buses. There are no buses, she tells me. Having read that there are, in fact, buses, I look it up. Aeroflot’s website says there’s a bus but doesn’t say where to pick it up. A discussion forum says you can get the 107 from the train station for about 80 roubles – $3. I decide to chance it. After a buffet breakfast that allows me to avoid fried and oily food – why can’t there be boiled buckwheat everywhere? – I drag my suitcase up and up and then down to the train station.

There are plenty of buses, and even some signs on some platforms – but nothing indicating 107. I ask someone and she suggests the other side of the street (I’m guessing, she only speaks Russian.) I decide to wait till 11:15am, the time scheduled on the forum (not a government site, just some travellers talking), and then if no bus appears, to suck it up and take a taxi. I try a different vantage point to wait for the mythical bus. Then, magically, across the street that’s constantly streaming with traffic, the 107 appears. I hustle over and the driver gestures back across the street. I go to the nearest platform; it dawns on me that this is the right platform, because there are people with suitcases waiting. No sign anywhere – you just have to know. Many buses use the same platform, so when the 107 pulls up it’s not clear who’s going where. But I push through, store my bag underneath and pay 10 roubles to the kindly bus driver, and 70 roubles to the train lady. There – finally. I have divined local knowledge, thanks to foreigners.

I must remember that this is not all of Russia. In Irkutsk, the major downtown streets were labelled. In Moscow I had to look for the street signs but they were there. Still, it strikes me as the height of irrationality to have a bus to the airport and not label it. If foreigners, who don’t know the city, are going to be on any bus, it’ll be the 107. Is it because when APEC comes in a few months, they’ll all be in limos? And it’s not like Vladivostok is a new city – it’s a few hundred years old. The kindly foreigners on the net were writing four years ago. Time enough to put up a sign saying 107 – and, if they were being completely audacious, Airport. After consideration, I think I get the perverse logic behind this: if you don’t tell foreigners what bus to catch or where it is, they’ll have to take $60 taxis and pump more money into the local economy. Because all foreigners are rich – or at least, rich enough to travel.

Nevertheless, I feel a strange sense of urgency this morning. Maybe it’s the two cups of “boiled French coffee” served over brunch in the cavernous dining room, but today, my most stressful of all travelling days, is not filling me with dread. Sure, I have to convince Russian Customs that I was travelling legally thanks to the new visa rules; I have to convince Korean Customs that I’m not going to work as a tourist; and I take my first trip on the Seoul metro. But I can’t delay these things any longer, so I want to get them over with. If I was into sport I’d say Bring It On. But I’m not, so I won’t.

Later, at Vladivostok International Airport

Just because I’m ready to bring it, doesn’t mean the Russians are. I got to the terminal 4 hours before my flight – recommended practice for an international flight in North America. The terminal is tiny – just a short, wide corridor with a single coffee shop, a single souvenir/snack store, and a single woman behind a window who told me I needed to check in at the Customs desk, through a door. I looked through the door – no one was there. After an hour a line-up formed, I got my luggage scanned again, waited half an hour in another queue… and was told by the employees that this is only a line for a Korean Air flight. I can’t check into mine until two hours beforehand. I gave up and got some carrot cake.

By the way, my image of North Korea as the hermit kingdom must be revised. The corridor is full of North Korean men, identifiable by their cheap clothing and red lacquered pin of Kim Jong Il worn over the left breast. Some even have Kim Il Sung next to him. Vladivostok imports North Korean labourers, so these must be construction workers finishing a contract and going home. Presumably they just put their pins on for Customs.

There’s a machine here to wrap bags in plastic. All the Russians and Koreans get things wrapped. The Koreans I understand, as their luggage is in boxes. The backpacks I sort of understand, because the straps could get caught. But the Russians wrap regular, two-wheeled suitcases too. Perhaps there are horror stories of what happens to your luggage here?

Back in line, more prep to smile apologetically at the Customs officers and hope they don’t fine me.

Even later

No problems at all. I got to the ticket desk, behind which the imperturbable woman had just finished lecturing a child, presumably on visa regulations. I pushed my train tickets, along with a printout of the new visa regulation rules towards her, but she didn’t even look at them and just wanted to see my visa. She stamped it and I got through. In the line-up I met An, a Korean guy who’s lived in Toronto. We ended up chatting in the departure lounge along with his friend – Korean hospitality was beginning before I was even off Russian soil. An ultra-modern bus took us the 30 meters to the plane, and off on the tarmac we could see Koryo (Korea), the North Korean airline, loading up with red-suited air stewards, set far back from the rest of the planes.

On the plane I had a brief chat with my two Russian seatmates, one big, one lanky, both with workers’ complexions i.e. ruddy. They were very friendly, as most Russians were, and if they didn’t smile so much, perhaps it’s because the lanky one was going to Seoul to get on a fishing trawler for 6 months. I told them Russia was beautiful, said my dosvedanyas and moved over to have a long chat with An. When we landed, Korean customs was equally unhindered; I was prepared to show an outbound ticket and explain how I’d support myself there, but the young woman behind the desk only asked me to give my fingerprints. No attitude, just efficient courtesy – perhaps not the hallmark of immigration, but certainly of Koreans themselves.

As I’m writing this, it’s been 3 weeks to the day since I arrived in Korea, sufficient time to gather my thoughts on Russia. I can’t claim expertise based on a five week trip, but I know what I saw. I thought St. Petersburg was probably the most livable city, as a beautiful cultural hub that was small enough to get around in. Moscow was amazing and huge, and if I could live across the street from Lentiseev’s grocery and subsist on salad, chocolate and armagnac I would, but that’s not likely, is it. Yekaterinburg was pleasant and relaxing, perhaps a reflection of our pleasant and relaxing Russian host Roman, who had the quiet confidence and easy-going manner of someone accustomed to comfort and security. If you wanted to live somewhere far away from anywhere, but still in a city of over a million people with a few skyscrapers, where the two surviving members of The Doors occasionally tour, you could do worse than Yekaterinburg.

Irkutsk felt more European, probably because it had an old city centre with tightly laid-out three storey buildings, built (I believe) by the French. Of course, Russians like Irkutsk because it’s close to Lake Baikal, and the less said about the majesty of nature the better – if you like wilderness and water, you’ll love Lake Baikal. Birodbizhan was a surprisingly pleasant find and I’d recommend it for a visit; Vladivostok had great spots but its infrastructure was so lacking, despite all its improvements, that I’d find it too frustrating to spend much time in.

And of course, the trans-Siberian is cool, but really, once you’ve proved you can navigate actually getting onto the train, it’s a lot of sitting around and eating picnic food. It’s fun getting drunk in a train berth, but then it’s fun getting drunk anywhere. There’s not much to see in Siberia because it’s mainly open ground, with occasionally shockingly-poor villages hoving into view and slipping by. So, if you like the view, the train is a good option. But it’s not a spiritual experience, and you won’t meet Ben Kingsley trying to pack drugs into your luggage. If you’re lucky, like we were, you’ll meet a few Russians who want to start a conversation.

Russia made me sad in a few ways. The infrastructure that the Soviets built has largely gone. The new regime appears to be spending its money on prestige projects, like the tallest building in Europe in central Moscow, or fancy cars and plastic surgery. The real legacy of Stalinism, the inefficiency and apathy – and occasional anger – gets hidden behind the kitsch. If the choice is between authoritarian bureaucratic inflexibility and rapacious capitalist anarchy… well, I get why the Russians drink so much.

Their food is subpar. I’m sorry, I speak as a vegetarian so perhaps it’s better for meat-eaters. Although all the Koreans I’ve met think it’s bad too. My first bibimbap in Incheon Airport was the most wonderful food I’d had in weeks. For a week after I arrived, I was in constant intenstinal pain from all the pepper paste, yet still supremely happy that I was eating food with flavour.

But that’s not a basis to judge a country on. I’m happy I visited Russia, I’d work in the west of it if I had the opportunity. I was also happy to leave. As of Friday July 6, my Russia trip was over: my Korean trip has begun.

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