A full stop at the end of Russia
Simon Calder goes along the line to Vladivostok. Once a Class A Fortress, it's now the San Francisco of the East
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Saturday 06 May 1995
Vladivostok means "Lord of the East", and you can dine nobly in the city: Japanese sushi, Korean kimchi (pickled cabbage), American fast food, or standard Russian pickled everything. This city of 1 million people is miles from anywhere but on the way to almost everywhere. A short kangaroo's hop from the restaurant takes you to the shore where the world's greatest continent meets the biggest ocean.
On a clear day you swear you can see China, while just along the coast sits North Korea in far-from-magnificent isolation. Ships sail to Yokohama, aircraft touch down from Washington State, and every other morning at a quarter to 10, Train No 2 arrives from Moscow to discharge its weary passengers.
If you are among them, you are astonishingly lucky to be here. Five years ago, only Russian citizens were allowed in to Vladivostok, home of the Pacific Fleet, and then only grudgingly. Russia's main warm-water port was so critical to the defence of the USSR that it was categorised as a Class A Fortress. Residents had to get special permission for relations from out of town to visit.
The rule was easy to enforce because of geography: Vladivostok is on the tip of a peninsula, a tongue of land poking down into the Sea of Japan. Warships still crowd into the Golden Horn, the crooked gash which offers protection from ocean storms, but Vladivostok is battling to turn itself from forbidden territory into a centre for business - and tourism.
Russia's San Francisco, they call it. The Golden Horn Bay matches the Golden Gate Bay, but Vladivostok is decidedly short of designer shops and chic cafs. Vladivostok has no cable cars, no bridge, no tourists. It does share with the Californian city the Pacific Ocean, hills and crooks - and probably outnumbers San Francisco only with the latter.
Yet while San Francisco is hopelessly overcrowded with tourists, Vladivostok is undiscovered. The odd trade delegation bowls in from South Korea, and some passengers pass a day or two while waiting for the boat to Japan, but everyone else is missing a treat. Soviet planners did their best to obscure the attractions of the dramatic terrain, but being Soviet planners they were not very good at the job. The contours of this natural amphitheatre are untarnished, with straggles of spare hillside drifting off into the ocean.
Next month Vladivostok celbrates its 135th birthday. A place so relatively young is inevitably short of historical interest, but the city does its best. The museum houses an eclectic collection: stuffed animals from the Russian Far East, plus imported oddities such as an antique Japanese motorcycle and a crown coin commemorating a visit to New Zealand by the British Royal Family. Along with luridly coloured postcards in the souvenir shop, you can still buy for £7 a real Soviet flag bearing the hammer and sickle.
The red flag is no longer flying over the city, yet not everyone is marching headlong into capitalism. Lenin Street has become Svetlana Street, but the old signs have stayed up to console the old guard and confuse the tourist. The October Revolution is still commemorated in the main throughfare, 25 October Street, where free enterprise has brought some additions to enliven the drab retailing prospects. At number 26, a gun shop sells weapons beneath a neon sign proclaiming its name: Sniper.
The murder rate in Vladivostok is high - about two killings a day. The vast majority of these, however, are underworld operations, and the visitor need not be too fretful while ambling around the confusion of styles that comprises the city centre. The architecture alternates from the absurdly pretty to the excruciatingly ugly, often in the course of a single block.
In its brief existence, the far end of Russia has amassed a bewildering array of sights. The harbour front trembles beneath a heroic statue symbolising the defence of the Motherland. With your back to the brutish hulls of the sheltering ships, the only way is uphill. In front is the head office of the Far Eastern Shipping Company, which seems to own and operate much of the city and its trade. One of the world's largest merchant fleets is controlled in a frenzied crackle of radio messages.
Vying for visual domination is the ugly bulk of the White House, office of the regional governor. Diminished by this monstrosity is the station at the end of the line. At kilometre number 9,297, the Trans-Siberian railway - the great iron umbilical which stretches 6,000-odd miles from Moscow - reaches its climax. Or rather, while the train stops here, the line continues for a couple of miles down the peninsula.
Vladivostok station hardly befits the full stop at the end of Russia. It is a humdrum compilation of platforms and points and ticket offices and whistles, no more remarkable than Crewe. But the clock set to Moscow time (seven hours behind Vladivostok) reminds you this is one end of the world's longest train ride: 156 hours of high adventure or rank tedium.
The railway conquered the far east of Russia, but the car is rapidly taking over. A huge number of left-hand drive cars (as used in, and possibly stolen from, Japan) coalesce in the worst traffic jams this side of San Francisco. Everyone is trying to get rich quick, and the result is that most are getting poor fast. The losers are confined to the wretched experience of public transport. A tram rattles unsteadily past, looking as if it has been clumsily adapted from a garden shed, while an ancient bus gasps uphill and spews another layer of foul fumes over the city.
The harder life becomes for the average Russian, the easier it is for Western visitors. The exquisitely ugly Hotel Vladivostok, based on an original (and bad) idea in Smolensk, is losing custom to the Hotel Versailles, a real palace by Russian standards. Wherever you stay, you have to pay a visa registration fee of one-tenth of the national minimum monthly wage. Currently, that means a fee of 5,000 roubles. The good news is that 5,000 roubles is only 60p.
For decades, the concept of nightlife was as alien to Russia as capitalism. So organised entertainment is in its infancy and consists almost entirely of karaoke, the great Japanese leveller. Korean businessmen plumb the depths of misery and tunelessness as they weep through "Careless Whisper" and massacre "My Way". Some Russians endure this spectacle, keeping their ulterior motives concealed. Vladivostok has as many ulterior motives as it does ugly suburbs. Beyond these, though, you reach tall pine forests perched on the ragged troupe of hills. Primeval rock was stirred up in a piece of cosmic cookery, then absent-mindedly left to set. Later this month, the first hardy bathers will dip a toe in the sea water, and by August the tiny city beach will be full of searing skin - Vladivostok is as far south as Florence.
Back at Captain Cook's, I ordered crocodile. The wine waiter offered a glass of shiraz cabernet from the Clare Valley or a second bottle of Castlemaine lager. As they slurp their Australian beer, the Vladivostok mafiosi look as if they could not give a Castlemaine XXXX for their erstwhile comrades.
Getting there by air: travelling east, Aeroflot (0171-355 2233) has a fare of £781 return including tax. This service requires a change of airport in Moscow, and takes a total of 17 hours each way. If you prefer to fly on Western aircraft, then CIS Travel Services (0171-828 7613) has a fare of £641 on Transaero; travel is via Riga and Moscow (though with no change of airport), and requires an overnight stay in Moscow.
Travelling west, a change of airline is required in Seattle. The fare through agents such as Major Travel (0171-485 7017) is £1,150 on a combination of British Airways to Seattle, then Alaskan Airlines to Vladivostok.
Getting there by rail: specialist agencies such as Intourist (0171-538 8600), One Europe Travel (0181-566 9424) and Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) sell tickets for the Trans-Siberian Railway. A one-way rail ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok through Intourist costs £382 in "soft" class (two-berth compartment) or £215 "hard" class (four berths). Flights from London to Moscow, and from Vladivostok back to London, cost an additional £500.
Accommodation: Hotel Versailles, £115 single/£150 double. Hotel Vladivostok, £30 single/£32 double.
Further information: Russian Tourist Information Service, 0891 516951 (a premium-rate service).
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