The “Ruler of the East”: Vladivostok
Text and photos by Piers Gladstone
After 9 hours, seven time zones, two airline meals and no sleep I found myself still in the same country standing on the tarmac of Vladivostok airport. The last three hours of the flight from Moscow consisted of nothing but the unending taiga forests of Siberia slowly moving beneath the plane in the morning sun, occasionally interspersed by snaking rivers of orange and gold. The vastness and scale of the landscape below was almost beyond comprehension.
While still being part of the same country, Moscow and Vladivostok are literally worlds apart. Gone are the concrete tower blocks, the Mercedes and six lanes of traffic, replaced with lush green hills and a plethora of imported right-hand drive Japanese and Korean cars. The old battered Russian Volga that drives me into town is an anomaly here; even the police cars are imported from Japan. “Before perestroika Vladivostok was a closed city,” explains my driver through drags on his cigarette. “After, it was opened and lots of criminals came for business, especially drugs. The people of Vladivostok also started to trade, mostly importing Japanese and Korean cars. Every sailor has about 6 cars because whenever they are in Japan they buy one and ship it here. A $500 dollar car there is worth $5,000 here, and $15,000 in Moscow.” This has since changed with the new laws on imported vehicles designed to protect the ailing Russian car industry, which will have a devastating effect on the local economy – a significant proportion of the local population is directly or indirectly involved in the imported car and car parts industry, and the new importation laws will make foreign cars up to 50% more expensive.
The Russian Far East first lured explorers and traders with the promise of natural riches such as sable furs that were traditionally hunted by the local indigenous people, such as the Nanai people. The Far East soon became a region to send criminals and political ‘undesirables’, with Sakhalin Island becoming a penal colony in the 19th century. Many of these people stayed after serving their terms, beguiled by the beauty of this far-off region. Today, the Far East boasts a huge array of natural riches, from coal to crabs, and diamonds to oil. However, the region has also suffered from environmental disasters, illegal logging and the dying out of many of the indigenous cultures in the last century.
Founded in 1860, Vladivostok meaning “Ruler of the East” was, and still is, strategically and economically important for Russia due to its close proximity with Japan, China and Korea. Its harbor became a naval base in 1872 and home to the Russian Pacific Fleet, and with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway line’s terminus here in 1903, Vladivostok’s trading importance grew significantly. Before the Russian Revolution, Vladivostok was a cosmopolitan home to merchants and traders of all nationalities. And trading in one form or another it seems is what virtually every citizen is involved in. From 1958 to 1992, Vladivostok was a ‘closed’ city, but it is now once again open for business, giving the city the feel of a frontier town, looking much more towards its neighbors than to Moscow.
After a shower at my hotel, I head out to see the port area of Vladivostok. In front of Vladivostok’s beautiful and recently restored Russian Moderne railway station, Ulitsa Aleutskaya swarms with activity. Buses swing up in front of the station, trucks laden with goods toil away from the port, and cars and people jostle for space. There is a bustle and a vitality in the air, a tangible sense of purpose and enterprise juxtaposed against the methodical mechanical clanking of cranes unloading Japanese cars from a boat in port on the docks of the Goldern Horn Bay that stretches out magnificently behind the railway station. Four navy destroyers sit passively and impressively, dwarfing the other ships in port. The hillsides are lined with rows of buildings, those closest to the port the oldest, while those higher up or further away much younger. And like all Russian cities with industry and commerce, Vladivostok has recently witnessed a construction boom.
I go to the train station to double-check the time of my train tomorrow, passing sailors in striped uniforms and funny caps. It is one of the most beautiful train stations I have ever seen, replete with large engraved copper doors and swirling decorative motifs. The journey and the jet lag are catching up with me though, so I stop in at the grand restaurant for a bowl of solyanka and a coffee. Above me chandeliers hang from the high ceilings that are decorated with murals of fairytale-like rural Russian scenes and laced with intricate cornicing.
After a longer than anticipated siesta, I head out into the evening. I take a taxi up to the city viewing platform and look out across Vladivostok. The air is mild and damp and the city looks very different at night. The lit windows in the city’s tower blocks make them look like electronic circuit boards. The twinkling lights around the lower reaches of the city’s hills are like necklaces draped around dark necks.
The next morning I walk the streets close to the harbor. Here, less than a century ago, people of all nations lived, worked and traded. Indeed, it seems that Vladivostok then, and perhaps still now, has more similarities with a city such as Hong Kong than Moscow. At one point in its history, the majority of inhabitants were of Chinese and Korean origin, mainly due to the fact that these nationalities were responsible for the construction of the city. While these nationalities were removed during the Soviet era, it is clear that they have returned since perestroika.
I walk down ulitsa Aleutskaya that runs alongside the port and come to House 15, where Yuliy Borisovich Brynner was born, later to become the bald-headed actor Yul Brynner, famed for his roles as the King of Siam in The King & I and in classic movies such The Magnificent Seven. His father was a Swiss trader, his mother Russian. Yul made it to Hollywood via Harbin in China and Paris. The building next to Yul’s house is also connected to Vladivostok’s past; it housed the offices of The East India Trading Company. Indeed, after the revolution started, many countries landed troops in Vladivostok to protect their citizens and interests, and the city only fell to the Red Army on October 25, 1922, signalling the end to the Civil War.
As I walk along Ulitsa Aleutskaya, I realize that there is a distinct lack of advertising billboards here in Vladivostok. Perhaps these port dwelling traders are more savvy than Moscow’s inhabitants, or perhaps they just have less money. As I look at the boats in the port, I notice something even stranger – the flags that are flying on the four navy destroyers in dock look remarkably similar to the American Confederate Flag of the southern states, the “Stars & Bars” or “Rebel Flag”.
In the afternoon I take a cab to Sportivnaya Harbor to visit a fish market I have been told one can buy a huge array of freshly caught and cooked shellfish. On arrival it is obvious that this is a favorite place for locals to come to at the weekend too. Groups of teenagers and young families promenade along the waterfront while dodgy looking young men in low-rider style Toyota Crowns with over-sized wheels sit listening to music that blares from their open windows. Others sit and drink beer in the late afternoon sun. I stop at one of the many stalls with a set of scales and piles of shellfish and buy a selection of Kamchatka crab, king prawns and some small crayfish, all at a fraction of their cost in Moscow, before finding a space among the other diners sitting on the wood benches provided. The seafood is literally out of this world, and I decide to buy two more crabs to take with me for my train journey north to Khabarovsk.
As I make my way to the train station I realize I am not ready to leave this unique Russian city. I have been here for less than 36 hours – time enough to get a feel for the city, but not long enough to feel ready to leave. It is a city like no other I have been to in Russia – full of vitality, diversity and people with a pioneering spirit. Since its founding, Vladivostok has played an important role in the history of Russia, and I strongly suspect it will continue to do so.
Aeroflot flies daily to Vladivostok. If you book well in advance, flights are in the region of 13,500 rubles return. Alternatively, if you have time on your hands you could take the slower, more scenic route on the Trans Siberian train.