Once upon a time there was a lion called Amur. He lived in a safari park in Russia. One day the keepers put a live goat in his enclosure for the tiger to eat. To everyone’s surprise, the tiger made no attempt to eat the goat, and for the next few months they shared the enclosure, playing together, sometimes sleeping next to each other. The goat was given the name Timur and the story was widely reported on international news outlets and the internet. Many people followed the story, if only to find out when the tiger would eat the goat…
But back to my story. My roommate finally asked me if I was English and revealed that not only did she speak a little English but she was studying for an exam in English (amongst other exams) which formed part of her entrance exam to the local university. Her name was Dasha, she was from Khabarovsk and here to complete her examinations. She was studying every day in the hostel. I excitedly told her I was an English teacher and that I would be going to Khabarovsk soon. It was good to make a friend out East.
I told her I was going to try and go to the safari park today. The story of Amur and Timur played out at Primorskiy Safari Park which was so close to Vladivostok that I felt an obligation to visit. Unfortunately it was quite difficult to get to. It was around the corner from the peninsula, a few miles up the highway from a small village called Shkotovo. There were buses that went to Shkotovo but they departed from the bus station which was quite a lengthy bus ride north of downtown. Getting from Shkotovo to the safari park would be even more difficult, internet travel sites suggested you can get the bus driver to drop you off at the junction but how do you communicate that to the driver and how do you know where the junction is?
So it was with good reason that Dasha wished me good luck. I set off quite early, 7 or 8am, and got a couple of buses to the bus station, following the instructions on the sat-nav on my tablet. It took me the best part of an hour just to get to the bus station. Next I had to get a ticket for a bus to Shkotovo. So far as I could tell there weren’t any until after midday, so I went to the mall next door and had a milkshake. To my surprise I found a shop selling candy that had imported Japanese Aero and Dairy Crunch bars! This was the first time I had seen these in Russia so despite their being horribly overpriced, and the certainty that they would melt during my travels, I bought a packet of each.
I returned to the bus station and approached the cashier. Again, no English, but I managed to explain what I needed. I asked for a return ticket to the Shkotovo or the safari park. She said I couldn’t have a return ticket, only one way, and I could only get a ticket to Shkotovo not to the safari park. I think it was about 220 roubles, quite reasonable. It was also for a much earlier bus than I was anticipating – there were several other services going through Shkotovo and I could have set off much earlier instead of sitting around in the mall!
I found my bus pretty quickly and my ticket had an allocated seat. The bus was surprisingly full – just a couple of empty places. It was air conditioned, there were decorative curtains around the windows to keep the sun out, and the driver seemed a bit of a character, he was having conversations with some of the passengers that I could tell were entertaining without knowing what he was talking about.
We set off and almost straight away picked up some more passengers, until the bus was full. The girl in the seat next to me had tried taking another seat next to her family, so for a short while I had a window seat, but when the bus got full she had to come back, so I couldn’t really get any kind of view out of the curtains. However most of the route seemed to be through built-up areas all the way to Artem, the town at the north end of the peninsula near the airport. A few people got off there, a few others got on.
After Artem, the buildings started thinning out and it was mostly country highway, with lots of twists and winding and hills. There were lots of little villages, and I was relying on my tablet to tell me when I was in Shkotovo, following the little blue dot as we moved. Eventually we got there and I tried asking the driver as I got off about the safari park, he gave me very short shrift, said I would have to get a taxi.
So I got out of the bus and looked around. I was in a car park with a few odd shops. There were a few buildings stretching back down the road and a few stretching up ahead but that was about it, it really was quite a small place. I couldn’t see any taxis, or any buildings that advertised a taxi service. A marshrutka pulled in and the driver got out to have a smoke. I had one final recce and then I went up to the smoking man. Or at least, a smoking man…
Clearly it wasn’t the marshrutka driver, as he brought me to another car and then offered to take me to the safari park for 500 roubles. I laughed in disbelief, I had travelled some 30 miles for 220 roubles and he wanted me to pay more than twice that for the last couple of miles? No deal, Mister. I’d sooner walk!
I had my sat-nav, I could see where I was and where the safari park was and it said it was about an hour’s walk. I knew that I’m a fast walker so I could knock 20 minutes of that, it’s based on a normal person’s normal speed. On the other hand, it’s the middle of the day, there’s practically no shade on the road, there’s no pathway and there are high speed vehicles whizzing by just a metre away from me. Not ideal. But I seemed to be out of options, and standing around wasn’t getting me anywhere. So I started walking.
About 10 minutes in, the bus drove past me. I gave the driver a sarcastic wave, he acknowledged me at least. I found a shop and went in to buy some cold water. The shop smelt of dog and I couldn’t see any water in the fridges. I left without buying any – I still had the (now warm) water I had brought with me.
I continued walking. The buildings thinned out, I passed a railway crossing. The next stretch of road was populated with regularly spaced produce-sellers, each with a little table and chair, and a sunshade. Some of them looked at me curiously. Eventually the produce-sellers thinned out and it was just me and the road. My feet reminded me continually of the tortures I had put them through yesterday, the sun continued nonchalantly roasting my skin hoping I wouldn’t notice. I hadn’t brought a hat, but I decided it would be wise to cover my head so I used a spare t-shirt I had brought with me.
It seemed like I was walking for ages, but I guess 40 minutes was probably about right. After a few false starts (junctions that looked like they might be for the safari park but weren’t), I eventually sighted a sign with a tiger on it and my mouth felt a little less dry and my feet a little less sore.
So here I was, the home of Amur the tiger! My first order of business was a cold drink (I bought three, one for now and two in my bag for later), and then I went to get my ticket. The part was actually two separate parks – one for tigers and ungulates (deer, basically), the other for foxes and birds. None of the attendants spoke any English, but eventually I realised they were asking me to choose, and I didn’t need any time to answer, I just said immediately “Tigers!” (the Russian word is very similar, tee-gir, so they understood!).
They got me a ticket and put me in a little enclosure (for a moment I wondered if this was how Timur felt) and the one who had a very little bit of English managed to explain that the tour would start when a few more people bought tickets. Fortunately there were plenty of customers around (all of them, very wisely, arriving by car), mostly families and a couple of older couples, all of them Russian. Unfortunately I had already been told the tour guide didn’t speak any English so I wasn’t going to get much in the way of commentary.
He introduced us to a goat and a couple of pigs first of all, and threw them some food. The goat was Timur-esque but wasn’t Timur, I knew from the news that Timur lives in Moscow now after he and Amur had a little bit of an argument, which, unsurprisingly, the tiger won. I thought the pigs were going to follow us for the whole tour but we went through a gate and they were left behind.
The next little chappie we met was a small black squirrel. He was in a cylindrical cage around a tree to start with but the handler let him come onto his hand and fed him. Then we were led up a walkway overlooking the tiger territory. One tiger sat proudly on a hilly promontory staring up at us. He shared his enclosure with a dog. Apparently giving the tigers friends has become a thing now. Another tiger was lying down in his enclosure hiding from the sun. And then we came to Amur’s enclosure. He was initially hard to spot as he was lying down under some vegetation, but as we walked round we saw him more clearly. The guide tried to entice him out by calling his name “Amuuur” but the tiger was happy languishing where he was.
That was all the tigers, we then went through some woodland paths past many different types of beautiful deer, later on there was a bear and an Amur Leopard. And that was it! Now I had the not inconsiderable problem of getting home.
I decided I was done with walking. I would stand outside the safari park and wait for a bus, or hope one of my fellow tourists would take pity on me and give me a ride into Artem. Fat chance of that. Plenty of cars pulled past but most of them were full up and didn’t pay me any notice. Meanwhile I spotted 4 buses heading in the wrong direction, and none heading for Vladivostok.
Eventually a car did pull up, not to enter the safari park but to see if I needed a ride. Of course nothing is for free, the driver said he would take me to Shkotovo for 50 roubles. This was much more reasonable than the 500 roubles the other guy had offered to make the opposite journey, so I agreed and got in the car.
The driver’s name was Roman, he probably spoke less English than I spoke Russian but between us we managed a conversation. He said I was the first British person he had met here, but he had given a lift to Americans and Australians before. He offered to take me to Artem for 600 roubles and said a taxi would cost more, and I was unlikely to get a bus even from Shkotovo because all the buses going to Vladivostok at this time of day will be full. He made a convincing case and I didn’t fancy the idea of standing around in Shkotovo waiting for a bus with a spare seat, and might end up paying more anyway and getting home even later. So I agreed to his terms. We drove through Shkotovo.
Eventually the conversation ran dry as we both ran out of things to say within our limited vocabularies. As we neared Artem, Roman asked me where I would like to be dropped off. I wanted to be dropped off at the express train station but this was surprisingly difficult to explain because there are three stations in Artem and I wasn’t even sure which one was the one on the airport line. If I had had my wits about me I would have got my tablet out and checked but I settled for something along the lines of “fast train to Vladivostok.”
I suspect the station I wanted was a little further than Roman wanted to go, he was already out of his way (albeit he was getting well paid for it). Eventually he pulled up at a little stop next to some railway lines, and said this was the railway station. There were a couple of buildings and some stationary freight trains, but there wasn’t really any kind of town-centre or mall closeby, and from what I remembered of the platform as I passed through Artem on my first day in Vladivostok, it was very white and new and shiny, whereas this place looked a bit like a dump in the middle of nowhere.
However I was also starting to question the wisdom of allowing a stranger who barely spoke the same language to take me to a place of his choosing. I was certainly closer to civilisation here than I had been outside the safari park or in Shkotovo, even if it wasn’t the express line service the railway had to go somewhere, and there was also a bus stop on the side of the road opposite. In fact a bus came by while we were talking.
I didn’t believe this was the right place, and I didn’t believe he thought it was the right place, and I didn’t hide my scepticism when I very hesitantly said “well…. ok” and handed over the money. But I had decided it was time to cut my losses. He sped off very quickly before I could change my mind.
A very quick survey of the “station” confirmed my suspicions. It wasn’t a passenger station at all, it was some kind of freight terminal. All the time I was there I didn’t see one moving train. I only saw one person going down there, and she came back up very quickly as if she had taken a wrong turning. So, I decided to wait for the bus. I figured seeing a bus there as we arrived suggested they must be quite frequent so I wouldn’t have to wait long. I guess we just picked the right time to arrive because it was about half an hour before the next bus arrived, destination marked as Artem. I jumped aboard, spotted a sign saying the journey would be 11 roubles and started counting out my money.
I became aware of two women talking behind me and for the first time looked up. On the seat across from mine, was a young lady, smiling and chatting happily to her friend who was on the seat behind me. A toddler was sitting in her lap, but the surprising thing to me was that one side of her blouse was totally open and the child was feeding at her breast. One hand was supporting the child, the other was guiding the breast like a bottle. She glanced at me for the very briefest of nanoseconds then went back to her conversation, her smile never broke and she didn’t make the slightest adjustment to her clothing or her position. It was such an unusual yet pleasant and refreshing thing to see! I pulled my eyes away and sternly warned myself not to stare.
The bus continued to a terminus in Artem that I thought was a good chance of being the express station – it was pretty central and my tablet had marked it on my map as my intended destination. I was disappointed to find when we got there, that there were no railway lines anywhere nearby. None of the buses at the terminal were going to downtown Volgograd, or (so far as I could tell) the express station. I would have to use the internet to find my route home, but there was no wi-fi signal here, even when I went into the mall next to the bus station. I would have to put some credit on my sim card, but for some reason the payment system wouldn’t load. Fortunately there was an MTS shop (my provider, one of Russia’s telecoms companies) at the bus station, so I made the payment there. Eventually I got my internet access, and to my surprise the best routes back home all seemed to involve at least 3 buses, and a bit of walking first to another location.
I followed the directions, found the bus stop, waited until the bus was due to arrive. No bus came. I checked the directions again, my tablet told me to walk to another location about 10 minutes away and wait for a different bus. This time the marshrutka did come, but it was only going to a place called Trudovoye. I was next to the highway going towards Vladivostok but at a bus stop on a little turn-off where most of the buses seemed to be going back to Artem.
I checked my directions again and got told to go to another stop just a few metres away. I walked around a little while, then went up the motorway a short while and saw a bus stop with lots of people waiting at it! Bingo! Of course all these people were waiting to get to Vladivostok. I periodically checked the directions again – to my alarm it started telling me to walk to another stop and get a different bus! I decided to stick where I was, I was on a highway going to Vladivostok, at a bus stop on the right side of the road, surely I could just take whatever bus came along.
Finally a bus came and all the other passengers stood up. At last, I thought! I saw the word “station” on it and was all set to get on when my spidey-senses started tingling. I looked again and the bus was actually going to Artem station, not Vladivostok station! It pulled into the same turn-off my previous marshrutka had and presumably went off in another direction. A narrow escape for sure.
I started doubting whether any buses would come. My tablet was again now telling me that the first bus it had advised me to get was now the right bus to get. I waited for the appointed time, and sure enough, a bus approached – but with a completely different number. But it did say “Vladivostok station” on the front. I decided it was time to trust my instincts rather than the internet, and I got on board. There was a little chart showing prices from different places to different destinations, and I correctly worked out the cost to the station, and handed it over to the conductor.
Of course the bus didn’t go to the station. It went to pretty much the outskirts of Vladivostok proper, then the conductor said it was the end of the line, everybody off. But I was still on the main road into downtown Vladivostok, and now I was surrounded by shops and malls (unfortunately most of which were now closed) and people and bus stops. The next bus would take me downtown, and I didn’t have to wait long.
Despite having been finished at the safari park by about 4pm, it was now too late to get to the curry house (again). I would once more have to go to the fast food place, but I also needed some supplies for breakfast. When I spotted an open supermarket I decided to hop off the bus, stock up, then walk to the fast food place for much needed refreshments. From there I knew it was just one very last bus back to the hostel. I had been in 6 different vehicles from the safari park – Roman’s car, bus to Artem, bus to Trudvoye, bus to Vladivostok outskirts, bus to downtown, bus to hostel. It had taken the best part of 5 hours and over 700 roubles to get home.
But I saw my tiger!