Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vladivostok Day 1

Thus far, Russia is not winning me over. My hopes had been building during the cab ride into Vladivostok from the airport. The place seemed a run down. A little past it's prime. Houses on the outskirts were patched together and the roads had potholes. All in all, it seemed crappy enough to have some character. It seemed like a town I would like.

I got dropped off in front of the train station by a parking lot full of grocery vendors. While the cab had been more expensive than I'd hoped, I figured it was worth it to not have to try and figure out the buses I'd have needed to catch to get the 60km in to town. Oh, and by cab, I really mean some dude w/ a car who offered to drive me and I then haggled down from $100 to the still more than I'd hoped for ~$60.

On to the train station. There is nothing in english. There are few symbols or pictures. I copy down the request for a ticket to Irkutsk as shown in my Trans-Siberian Handbook and approach the window. The lady reads it and tells me to go to the ground floor. Ok, there are many doors on the ground floor. I get lucky and the first one I enter has a map showing the route from Vladivostok to Moscow. I assume this is the place. Around the map are listings of different train numbers and from what I can tell their destinations and such. If the schedule of these trains is also somehow encrypted in the table, it is beyond my ability to decipher. Seeing no other signs of information, I take my note and wait in a line. I try to ask the guy next to me if this is the correct window by pointing at my note's request for a ticket and the window. He stares at me.

I get to the window and hand the lady my note. She asks for my passport, and then writes down a departure time and an arrival on May 8th. I say this is fine. She emphatically points at the time and repeats something a couple times. I nod as though I understand. I think she was pointing out that this time was in Vladivostok time, not Moscow time. I hope so anyway.

The ticket sets me back around $250. This sucks. My guide said that a ticket all the way to Moscow for the class I got ranges from $75-$350. When I'd checked online, I'd seen a quote for ~$130 for the leg from Vladivostok to Irkutsk. The guide also indicated that bying tickets at the counter was the cheaper method, though it did warn about fluxuations. Maybe if I had asked about other days, I could've gotten a better deal. Maybe if they posted schedules and prices at the train station I would know. But I couldn't ask and they didn't tell, so I just handed over the cash.

This experience makes me more appreciative of technologies and the automated ticket machines in Japan and Korea. Trains are pretty easy to figure out. Even if you don't know the language, you look up a place on a map, get times and prices and it's pretty clear. Doing this on a computer is easy. You through a person in the mix and suddenly you have to be able to talk.

I then began my hotel search. The closest cheap hotel looked like a craphole and told me they didn't have any rooms, I think. The next cheap one didn't appear to exist (there was a demolished building near where I the map indicated. As I approached the last of the cheaper hotels in the area it started to rain. It turns out the cheap rooms the guide mentioned don't exist, only the more expensive ones w/ the ocean view. I decided that it was worth paying $40 more than I'd hoped to keep my only pair of pants from getting any wetter. So, while I'd been hoping that ~$500 would last me until I got to Moscow, I ended up burning through ~$400 in my first 3 hours in Russia. So much for this being the cheap part of my trip.

The rain lets up and I go looking for food. The first random thing I purchase from a street vendor is delicious and the beer is reasonably priced so Russia gets a couple points there. I wander and nothing looks particularly appealing, though I might've been walking past restaurants unknowingly.

In addition to Vladivostok have a kind of crappy/skank town appeal, the people here remind of some bizzare late 80's/early 90's parallel universe. Guys are rocking mullets and demin jackets, girls wear too much makeup and pants that are too tight. This theme is further supported when I end up in a pretty boring Italian place that's playing old Madonna music videos on the TV.

I kill some more time and take a shower. Around 8 or so I decide to go get a drink. I head off in a new direction from the hotel towards the train station. I see a place with many christmas lights and blinking neons. It's gaudiness reminds me of a pachinko parlor and I assume it's one of the casinos I'd read about. Nope, it's a grocery store.

There was a place that specifically said 'Pub' in English, so I head towards it. Next door at the pizza place, though, there's a live band playing. I go in and catch the last 2 songs (The finale being Bon Jovi's 'It's My Life' which is pretty entertaining w/ a Russian accent). I'd ordered some appetizers with my beer. When the waitress brought the appetizer she said 'enjoy your meal' in the most hateful tone ever. I think she meant to be nice. I'm not sure if it's that she was speaking English or that I was raised only hearing Russian accents from villains or what, but it was really weird.

This made me realize one of the issues thus far with Russia. It seems like business exchanges are very rigid or something. When I'd bought some water at the grocery store the lady had asked me a question as I paid. I shrugged and shook my head saying I didn't understand. Instead of a nod or understanding smile, she turns away and basically ignores me. The waitresses do a similar thing. When my beer was about half gone one appeared and poured the rest of the bottle in, but they seem to avoid interaction and even eye contact. The first lady at the train station who told me to go to the ground floor had also managed convey general contempt in the one sentence she said to me. I guess it'd possible that they all really do hate me, but I think I just don't understand how they operate here.

After this I wander down by the waterfront. There are a lot of people there. There are a lot of beer vendors as well. I get a beer and walk along the boardwalk. A pair of police officers tell me that I can’t have beer here. This seems strange since it’s for sale everywhere and I’ve seen other people drinking it, however, I’m not going to try and argue w/ Russian police. In fact, I’m mildly terrified of the encounter. I have to say, though, these police were far more laid back than any I’ve ever encountered in America. They didn’t ask my name or to see my passport. After I threw the bottle away, one asked if I was alone and if I spoke any Russian. Yes and No. These seemed to strike him as the wrong answers. It seemed like he wanted to say more, but couldn’t find the words. He just shook his head and waved me on.

Needless to say, this put a damper on my exploration ambitions. I walked a little further down the boardwalk then headed back to the hotel. I don’t really know how dangerous Vladivostok is, but it didn’t strike me as particularly bad place to be. Granted it was 11.30 (I thought it was 9.30) but it was an open area w/ lots of people about. When I talk to Russians they seem to be of the opinion that being alone and unable to speak Russian is akin to a death sentence. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I haven’t encountered anything that seemed too sketchy.

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