and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #1
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
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.
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill