I arrived at Vladivostok airport early in the morning, still tired but happy in the knowledge that at 2pm I had a hostel I could book into where there would be a bed I could lie down on.  I was welcomed by pictures of tigers (or possibly many pictures of one very busy tiger) in the gate tunnel, and coming out of the Arrivals gate the first thing I saw was a stall called Lucky Pizza.  In fact this was part of a complex of various Lucky foods (Lucky Sushi, Lucky Wok), but sadly at this time of the morning, they had no pizza.  But there were other shops and I eventually settled for a packet of crisps and a cold drink.  I couldn’t find any nice breakfast pastries, which would have been my preferred option.

This was reinforcing my expectations of Vladivostok as a city at the end of the world, not very modern, not very Western, not very well supplied, continual interruptions to power and water supplies and certainly nothing as sophisticated as wifi.  Actually the airport had wifi but only for short bursts (unless of course you paid a small registration fee).  It was annoying but better than nothing.

Wanting time to pass quickly so I could get to my scheduled 2pm hibernation, I wasn’t in any hurry to leave the airport, but it was surprisingly short on seating areas, and the wifi thing was annoying me.  So I started hunting for a route into the city.  I had information you could get a bus for only 125 roubles so I went to find the bus stop.  The service number I was looking for was there, but it was a marshrutka, not a large bus.  It was filling quickly and the driver was smoking outside.  I checked he was taking passengers (some only have pre-booked passengers), asked how much it was – he pointed at a sign saying 150 roubles, a little more than I thought but ok, I climbed in.

A pretty young Asian airline employee got in and sat next to me in the last empty seat.  She counted out 75 roubles and handed it to the driver.  He said something in Russian and pointed at the passenger seat at the front.  She climbed out and took her privileged position.  The driver looked at me with his hand open, I put my 150 roubles in there.  He shook his head, pointed at my bag (sitting on my lap) and pointed again at the sign.  Underneath the price it said +75 for baggage (1 space).

Now if I had brought a large suitcase that took up the space a passenger would take, I would understand.  But I was very deliberately travelling light to specifically avoid costs like this.  I shook my head and pointed very deliberately at the part that meant “1 space” and pointed at the bag on my lap, not taking up anyone’s space.  The driver shook his head again and pointed at the empty chair next to me, then at a camera at the back of the bus – I interpreted this as “they’re filming me to make sure I stick to the rules.”  I decided that because of the extra charge, and the driver’s general attitude, and the fact this was going to be a long, bumpy journey in a cramped marshrutka, I would be better off paying a little extra and taking the express train.  So I told him that.  In English – he had no idea what I was saying – but it made me feel better.  And I left.

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Shiny train terminal

I made my way to the express train terminal.  It was surprisingly devoid of people.  It was very new and spacious and pretty and shiny, already an improvement on Smokey Joe’s Squeeze Taxi.  I walked around until I saw the one ticket cashier, and approached the desk.  Despite the fact there was no-one else within eyeshot, and she clearly wasn’t busy, it felt like I was inconveniencing her.

I used my ham-fisted Russian to ask for a ticket, she asked economy or business class, it took me a while to work that out; and it turned out to be only 5 roubles more than Smokey Joe was asking for.  She gave me my ticket (I thought it was just the receipt but no, it was the actual ticket), then went back to her very important thing she was doing before I interrupted her.  No directing me to the platform, no indication of when the train was due to leave.  I wandered to the platform myself – my ticket had a barcode which when scanned, opened the barriers.  There was a train in the station and drivers, perhaps engineers were in the process of exiting.  There was a sign which said the next train was due to leave at 8:32.  So I sat on one of the chairs on the platform and waited to see what would happen.

The drivers/engineers were talking to each other and ignoring me.  Eventually another person came onto the platform and just got onto the train.  I figured that meant it was ok, so I got on too.  Again, the train was quite new, very spacious, the seating wasn’t too bad.  As 8:32 approached more people appeared and a couple got on my carriage.  I calculated the position of the sun and which seats would be in the shade, and changed positions.  Eventually the driver headed to the front of the train, and right on time, we set off.

Our first stop was a town north of Volgograd called Artem (pronounced Ar-tyom).  Hordes of people were waiting on the platform (which again looked very new and white and shiny).  They all crowded onto the train.  My seating bay was taken up with three teenage girls who chatted excitedly with each other.  The train set off again.

There were a few more stops and the landscape outside looked interesting, but the motion of the train and my lack of sleep meant that once again, I found myself dozing off, waking intermittently to check I wasn’t snoring or drooling.  Eventually the train pulled into the magnificent Vladivostok Station.  This is the final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which takes 6 days to traverse if you set off from Moscow.  The station was duly built with an air of grandeur and celebration – in fact it was based on the Yaroslavsky station in Moscow so a Trans-Siberian passenger who had not been paying attention might have thought he had ended up back where he began!

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Lenin, facing the train station

I didn’t really explore the station at this point – I noticed there was a large black engine sitting on one of the platforms but didn’t look closely, I made my way out of the station and into the city.  At first glance it seemed just like any other city – there were roads, shops, offices, different shaped buildings.  It was not the ramshackle shanty town of my imagination, reinforced by my experience of Irkutsk.  I climbed some steps – this is a city of hills, many hills, and found a little park area.  It had a big statue of Lenin, some other nice sculptures, some marble benches to sit on.  I rested and drank a cold drink I had just purchased.

It was still early in the day, maybe 10am, so I walked a little more.  I found the sea!  In the distance I could see a line of warships.  Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, so it is no surprise to see warships here.  I walked past hotels and statues and promenades, still high on a hill, looking down towards the seafront.  And then I spotted a beach!  It was a hot, sunny day, there were people on sun loungers, on towels, even in the sea.  I wanted to be down there with them.  A sun lounger would be a great place to spend 3 hours while I waited for my hostel to be available.  But it looked like a private beach, possibly attached to the hotel behind.  Nevertheless, when I found some steps heading downwards, down I went.

I emerged just to the north of the beach I had seen, but further north I could see another beach, along with a big square, a large fountain, and a promenade with a row of stalls.  I decided to head in that direction rather than to the first (exclusive) beach.  This is an area I later learned was called the Sports Harbour.  The fountain danced to musical accompaniment (not very good music sadly) on loudspeakers.  It was nice to stand by the fountain and feel the mist and occasional droplets of water from it on my skin.  I walked along the promenade, there were stalls selling souvenirs, food and drink, ice-cream, games and contests.  One stall had a tank full of terrapins!

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View from the amphitheatre

I carried on round the corner, there were more stalls, across the road there was an aquarium.  I found a little shop that sold milkshake and bought one.  I headed back again, and started climbing some stairs behind the dancing fountain.  These lead up to a kind of amphitheatre, rows of benches facing the sea with a small stage in front of them.  Some people, maybe 2 or 3 were sitting on the benches but there was lots of free space, some of it shaded by trees.  I thought this was the best place I had seen to rest for a while, and I found a shaded area of bench where I could lie down and look at the sky, or the sea, or just close my eyes and listen to the ambient sounds.

I woke up about 3 hours later, with no feeling in one of my legs.  I had not picked a great position to lie in.  I tried standing up – nope – so I tried sitting up and shaking and rubbing my leg till it worked again.  For a moment I thought I had crippled myself, my holiday was over before it had begun.  But then gradually I found the feeling coming back, and I was able to gingerly stand up.

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Fountain Street

I carried on up the hill and found a beautiful street full of fountains.  Six identical fountains in a row, with various food stalls (mainly shawarma) lining the sides.  Behind the food stalls, in the actual buildings, were some trendy clothes shops and cafes.  Checking my map I realised at the end of this street, turning right would take me onto Svetlanskaya Street, the street I needed for my hostel.  It was still not even 1pm but I figured it would take a while to get to the hostel and once there I could wait half an hour until I could check in officially.

Svetlanskaya Street is long and interesting, it is the main east-west thoroughfare that skirts the top of the Golden Horn Bay.  It is named after a ship called Svetlana, not a woman (though presumably the ship was named after a woman…).  At the western end it houses the main regional administration building and lots of tourist shops and restaurants.  It also adjoins the main huge market square.  The Golden Bridge stretches above Svetlanskaya Street, connecting the northern edge of the bay to the southern edge.

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Naval Cadets

As I was approaching the bridge I saw a crowd of white-uniformed cadets from the Naval Academy standing outside their building across the road from me.  It reminded me that Vladivostok is very much a military, specifically naval city.  I got another reminder a few minutes later as a massive bone-shaking boom made me almost jump out of my skin.  Had a building exploded?  Was it a terrorist attack?  No, I remembered that there is a tradition in Vladivostok that they fire a big cannon every day at noon.  It must have been very close to where I was walking!

I walked and walked and walked looking for the name of my hostel on one of the buildings.  If I had checked my online map, I would have realised it isn’t actually on Svetlanskaya Street but two or three streets up (and by up, I literally mean up a hill).  Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me to check the map until I had already walked considerably further than I needed to!

In the end I arrived at the hostel later than I needed to.  The receptionist couldn’t speak English but was adept in the use of translate apps on her mobile, and my name was in the book as an expected booking.  A slight problem arose in that they couldn’t accept payment by card, and I did not have enough cash with me.  I asked about the nearest cash machine and she told me it was downtown.  She seemed quite relaxed about it and said it was ok as long as I paid by the evening.

She showed me the bedroom – it was a 6-bunk room opening onto another 6 bunk room, but for now I had it to myself.  She gave me the bedding I needed, I quickly put it all together, plugged my tablet into a charger and lay down on a real bed with real sheets and a real pillow – it wasn’t exactly soft, but I was so tired that I could have fallen asleep on a spike.

I woke up a few hours later and had my first shower since Monday morning, and finally felt fresh and refreshed and ready to start my holiday.  But first I needed to go downtown and find cash.  I hopped on a bus downtown (all rides 21 roubles!), and headed to where my tablet said my bank was.  I found the building but no bank there, certainly no cash machines.  My tablet said the next nearest one was in a more central part of town, but in this case more central means up more hills.  Rather than wandering around all over town and tiring myself out, I decided to just take my money from another bank’s machine and if I got some extra charges because of it, so be it.

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Suddenly a Hare Krishna procession was coming towards me!

I returned to the hostel, paid my dues and started planning the following day’s activities.  It turned out there was another person in my allocated room, a twenty-something woman in the bed adjacent to mine.  I greeted her with an English “hello” and she pointedly replied to me “Sdrastvitzye” – clearly not an English speaker.  I would later find out I was wrong about that.

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