If St. Petersburg is magnificent and Ulan-Ude is charming and soulful, then Vladivostok can only be described as cool. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but something about the nice houses and the unique naval presence and the impressive bridges and skateboarders and gorgeous weather and the seaside gave me the impression of a very “cool” city. I even saw joggers (there’s a first for everything in Russia!). What struck me the most, though, was that, while I was almost as far east as east goes—right on the border with North Korea, a quick skip away from Japan, quite close to China—Vladivostok felt a lot less “Eastern” than Ulan-Ude. It was like I went from the center of Asia back into Russia.
This may be the result of a few too many viewings of The Little Mermaid, but I have a special connection with large bodies of water. Pretty rivers, the Great Lakes, Baikal, the Pacific Ocean—my soul just comes alive in the presence of all this water. Vladivostok is a beautiful city with so much to see and do, and I could never tire of exploring or just staring out at the sea.
We visited a number of harbors and bays—including Russia’s Pacific Fleet, commercial and trade ships, and Sportivnaya harbor full of paddleboats and vacationers. We saw countless monuments to the military and navy, to World War II and to the Civil War. We went on a submarine. We visited the Vladivostok Fortress Museum, where we got to climb around on the fortress walls and tanks and artillery. We climbed up a big hill and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. We visited the “Oceanarium,” where I fell in love with an octopus. Sunday was Orthodox Easter, and we attended an Easter Parade and a public mass on the main square. We ate a delicious Easter cake. I tried sushi for the very first time. We had ice cream on the pier, and I got my first sunburn of the season. We went out to Russian Island and wandered around for hours without finding whatever it is we were supposed to visit but completely enthralled in the nature, and we hitchhiked our way back to the bus stop. We visited a lighthouse at sunset. We met some wonderful and interesting people and enjoyed some excellent conversation. And it was all so, so, so marine, so beautiful, so inspiring, so perfect.
After three days, though, it was time to move on. We boarded a train to Khabarovsk—a mere 12 hours overnight. On the train Nici, Anja, and I met a 65-year-old old man who was very excited to see foreigners for the first time in his life. He even called his wife to brag about us, saying she’d never believe he met an American, an Austrian, and a Swiss girl on the train. He was on his way to visit his father’s grave one last time before he died, he said. He was very interesting to talk to, though he seemed to have some extreme mood swings that were hard to keep up with. One moment he’s fuming that Americans get all the credit for putting the first man on the moon or blaming the US for the destruction that was the fall of the Soviet Union, and the next he was buying us chocolate and calling us his relatives and thanking the US for saving Russia from Japan in World War II.
Khabarovsk was a little underwhelming after Vladivostok, but still a very nice city. We had only one day to explore, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of tourist attractions. Big hills, pretty churches, a beautiful river, very interesting and extensive museum, lots of pretty parks, and a “Monument to Nature” (aka tree garden) where I could hug trees to my heart’s content. In the evening, we made our way to the airport to catch our flight to Irkutsk.
We arrived in Irkutsk just in time for May 9th—Victory Day, one of Russia’s most beloved holidays, and certainly its most poignantly emotional one. World War II may have been a world war, but Russia suffered the greatest losses and remembers it the most: every city has at least one memorial to the Great Patriotic War, always decked out in flowers. And every city celebrates with a big parade.
It was a beautiful morning in Irkutsk, temperatures quickly climbing to 21 degrees Celsius, orange and yellow flags flapping in the breeze. Cute little old men wandered about decked out in their old uniforms, medals glittering proudly on their chests. The crowds gathered around Kirov Square sporting orange and black ribbons. We’d been informed that the parade would start at 9, but we stood there for two hours just waiting as the crowds closed in tightly around us. Other than the little kids and babushkas, I was the smallest one in the crowd, with an eyeful of backs and shoulders, though I was only three rows back. I couldn’t move my arms, and the crowds were squeezing the breath out of me. There was a baby’s butt in my face, sitting on his father’s shoulders. But just as the parade was beginning, I managed to find a foothold on a curb—to hoist myself up and let the densely packed crowd support me against gravity. From there, I could see through the curves of people’s necks. Marchers marching, drummers drumming, speakers speaking, snipers sniping, shooters shooting. It was an impressive display of military might—complete with a car-chase and a tank battle and even some hand-to-hand combat. At the end, all the children dashed to collect shells like the spoils of a militant piñata.
Later that afternoon and the next day, we followed a walking excursion of Irkutsk’s historical sites. This was my third visit to Irkutsk, but the first time in pleasant weather, and it is a pretty city. Our desire to see a nerpa brought us to a seal show at the “Nerpanarium,” which was downright depressing and made me want to cry. But that was to be expected, I guess…no good can come from a nerpa in a giant bathtub.
By the time evening came, I was more than ready to head home. A fleeting eight-hour train ride put us right back in Ulan-Ude. And so ended this trans-Siberian adventure.