RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #1

Vladivostok 14-June-2004


After a few years of too much work and not enough holidays we were due for another holiday. Having only three months, we were somewhat limited as to where we could go. Initially we had considered doing the Trans-Siberian Railway. As we read more on this part of the world, we were more inspired about the thought of overlanding across  and Mongolia. We spoke to a number of people who have travelled through this part of the world and they all had positive things to say about the trip. David and Hazel Barker who have travelled overland through Russia and Mongolia and has written a guide book entitled  "Russia by Road" were also an excellent source of information.

Unfortunately our daughter Su-lin, who is now 14 ½ years old, was unable to come with us due to school commitments. Travelling with us is Tom Bierma, a good friend from Alice Springs. We have travelled together on a number of holidays through the Australian Deserts and through Asia on motorbikes. We had initially thought of doing this trip on a motorbike but in the end decided that once again taking our Toyota Landcruiser Troopcarrier was the best option. Tom is bringing his BMW F650 motorbike. In early May we drove to Melbourne and packed Troopy and bike into a container and onto a ship bound for Russia.

So here we are in Vladivostok ready to begin our next adventure driving across Siberia, Mongolia, and Western Russia to Europe. After 24 hours of flying time we arrived at Vladivostok International airport where we stepped off the plane and onto a bus. The bus did a 180 degree turn and travelled no more than 25 meters before dropping us off at the arrival hall much to everybody’s amusement. With our six month business visa we wondered if there would be a lot of questions about what we were doing in Russia.  It was a relief that immigration and customs formalities were straight forward. Within half an hour we were on our way to our hotel in the centre of Vladivostok.

We were surprised at how green and tropical everything is. The airport is 30 km from the city centre. The freeway linking the airport to the city was very busy and we were surprised to see mostly Right Hand Drive Japanese and Korean vehicles in a country that is Left Hand Drive. In fact we have seen very few Russian made vehicles. Most vehicles are late model Toyota or Nissan sedans or 4WD’s – many are the expensive and luxury models.

The city of Vladivostok, which means "Ruler of the East", faces the Sea of Japan and our Hotel, Equator has a commanding view of the Amursky Gulf. A few minutes walk to the east provides a panoramic view of the Golden Horn Bay which is the city’s main port and also home to the Russian Pacific Naval Fleet.  Vladivostok is the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway which links the Russian Far East to Moscow, some 9300km to the west. It is located less than 100km from China and just across the Sea of Japan from the main Japanese Island of Honshu. Despite its distance from Europe the city has a distinctive European feel about it. It is very hilly and Kienny is slowly adjusting to the steep gradients and the hundreds of steps. Our hotel is very central. Within a few minutes walk ‘downhill’ we are in the city centre. Not far from the hotel is the esplanade consisting of lots of little stalls selling beer, cigarettes, seafood, shashlik and doner kebabs. The beach area has a carnival atmosphere with an assortment of music (Western and Russian) played through loud speakers hanging from overhead powerlines. The Russian’s are all making the most of the gorgeous summer weather.  The beach is crowded with swimmers and sun bathers soaking up the sun.  Since we have been in Vladivostok the weather has been superb. The days have been in the mid to high 20 degrees centigrade. The sun rises around 6am and sets around 10pm.  To date the only rainfall has been a couple of light showers overnight. So weather wise we have been thoroughly spoilt. In fact, by Russian standards, Vladivostok has relatively mild winters and lovely warm summers.

Contrary to the guide book, we are amazed at how well dressed everyone is. The Russian women are all VERY good looking and all wear very trendy clothes. Most Russians are western looking and seem out of place in this remote corner of Asia.  Many women have vibrant hair colours ranging from blond, dark brown, blueberry, purple, orange to flame red. Every second person is either carrying a mobile phone around their neck or talking on a mobile phone. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful. Many of the shop keepers appear very stern at first but put on a big smile when Kienny speaks to them in Russian (not sure if it is Kienny’s good looks or poor Russian?).

Most of the tourists coming to Vladivostok are from China with the remainder from Korea or Japan, many of whom come for the casinos and dancing girls. We have seen very few western tourists. The few that we have met are American couples who are here to adopt Russian babies.

As with everything else we have experienced in Vladivostok, we have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. We have eaten meals on the streets and in Cafes and Restaurants and all have been very tasty. The prices are a little cheaper than in Australia so everything seems good value. We have been able to buy groceries and pay for some meals on VISA card. Obtaining money has been a breeze.  ATM machines (Banc-o-mats) are everywhere and most accept all major cards. Some even dispense US dollars.

We have attended two concerts in the recently restored Philharmonic Concert Hall. The first was a performance by four classical soloists who sang songs about the life and poetry of the famous Russian poet, Pushkin. The second was a group of three singers on drums, bass and lead guitar, flute and electric keyboard. They sang many Russian hits of the 60’s era. The only western number we clearly recognized was a Russian version of Rock Around the Clock. Whilst we could not fully understand the words, the expression on the musicians’ faces and the feedback from the audience made both concerts very enjoyable.

The city buildings are a mixture of drab Soviet Union era high rise apartment blocks and beautiful grand buildings, many of which are being restored. The city is in the midst of a building boom with lots of modern European/western style apartments being built. At first it was difficult for us to tell where the shops, supermarkets and restaurants were. Many shops are hidden away behind two sets of closed doors. We later realised that this is to keep the cold weather out during the harsh Siberian winter. Another contributing factor is that the signage is all in Russian Cyrillic. As our Russian improves and we become more familiar with the Russian way of life, finding our way around is becoming easier. Little English is spoken however some adults and many teenagers speak some degree of English. A few speak very good English.

Saturday the 12th of June was Independence Day in Russia (when the Russian republic inside the USSR proclaimed its sovereignty in June-1991).  Up until this time Vladivostok was a closed city and only those who had a permit were allowed to enter. This all changed shortly after Independence and now Vladivostok is open to the world. Businesses are now flourishing and overseas investment is welcomed. We were very fortunate to be walking through the town square just as the Independence Day celebrations kicked off. After a couple of short speeches the colourful parade began which culminated in a superb four hour concert consisting of singing, dance and instrumental ensembles. It was an extremely well presented and choreographed event with non-stop items of traditional Russian folk dancing, Cossack dancers and singers, contemporary Russian music and singing. For the last half hour we were entertained by a jazz band playing Dixieland music. We were enthralled by the talent and professionalism of all performances. The Russians sure know how to put on a good show. We were fortunate to witness this event.  

Whilst waiting for Troopy we visited the Vladivostok Fortress, a museum show-casing anti-aircraft guns and cruise missiles lovingly restored and maintained by dedicated volunteers. We were very fortunate to meet up with the matriarch of the fortress, a very formidable and funny babushka with a bee-hive hairdo. She must have taken a liking to us despite the broken Russian and English, for we were shown some very special exhibits in locked dungeons reserved for visiting dignitaries. We tried on armoured breastplates, helmets, wielded battle axes (no not Kienny) and swords dating back to the Middle Ages. The Grande Dame's husband is also a very talented craftsman. We admired his ornately decorated bunker lined with wood panelling, banquet  table, chairs and hand-crafted wood paintings.

Another day we took a ferry to nearby Russky Island which gave us great views of the Golden Horn Bay and Vladivostok Harbour. Russky Island was used as an artillery store with now large empty warehouses behind tall fences. The Island is now past its hey day. Its rocky beachfront is used by many Russians having a picnic, sun bathing and fishing along the cement pier, patiently waiting for the big catch. The locals were surprised when we told them that we had visited Russky Island as they were still under the impression that this Island was off limits, especially to foreigners.  

Whilst phone calls are expensive, internet cafes are everywhere and are relatively cheap at 1 rouble a minute (A$0.05 cents). Many are privately run however it appears that most post offices also provide an internet service. We were at an Internet Cafe yesterday that also provided an internet IP based phone service to Australia for 4 roubles a minute (A$0.20 cents) which we plan to try out later today.

You might ask why we are still in Vladivostok. Our vehicle left Australia on the 9-May and should have arrived here on the 1-June, four days before we arrived in Vladivostok. Unfortunately the container was late arriving in Korea and therefore missed the weekly service to Vladivostok. Then the ship that left Korea the following week had an important delivery for the Port of Sakhalin and so our container did not arrive until Thursday 10th June. Now we have been delayed due to the Russian Independence Day long weekend. We now hope to have our vehicle and Tom’s bike on Wednesday.  Fortunately Vladivostok has been a great place to get accustomed to the Russian way of life. We have found lots to do and see but we now look forward to our journey across Russia and Mongolia.

You can see pictures for this part of our journey by clicking here. Our WEB site containing our travels in Africa and Russia is http://overland.dreamers1.com.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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