To Vladivostok and Beyond!

2010 August 28
by Ryan

The flight from Moscow to Vladivostok is roughly the same duration as the flight from Washington DC to Moscow. Russia is big. I was booked on an overnight flight with my favorite airline (sarcasm) – Aeroflot. The flight was on a Boeing 767 so I avoided the Ilyushin-96 which Aeroflot has a few of. I arrived at my gate at Shremyetevo airport about 90 minutes before boarding. The line to board started an hour before the flight was to leave (even though no one was at the gate). Apparently everyone was VERY anxious to get to Vladivostok. Little did they know that their attempt to get to Vladivostok that much sooner was going to fail miserably. When we finally boarded we were greeted by the smell of warm piss – which, during the course of the flight changed to the smell of cold piss. Also, the flight was packed and somehow I managed to get stuck in a middle seat. Great – a middle seat for a 9 hour flight. For the first 3 hours of the flight I'm pretty sure the pilot was deliberately flying through clouds to ensure maximum turbulence. The poor woman sitting in front of me nearly puked then almost passed out. It also made pissing in the toilet very difficult (probably the reason for the persistent smell). Luckily just because the seat belt sign was on didn't mean you couldn't hit the bathroom – because 3 hours is a while to hold it in.

The plane had a (very old) entertainment system in the form of a couple TV's mounted in each section. Airline movies almost always suck and this flight was no exception. One movie was 100% Russian. It had something to do with a magician in medieval times.The only reason I watched any of it was that occasionally a group of court jesters would break into crazy dances out in a field. As far as I could tell the jesters and dancing had nothing to do with the actual plot of the movie. It was like a weird twist on something out of Bollywood. Every time they broke into dance I couldn't help but look up and watch.The second movie was half Russian/half American. It involved a Russian speaking man and his English speaking daughter(?). It was filmed in the US. I knew this from the large number of Ford pick-up trucks in the background of many scenes. It was also probably 10 years old. This I knew because they would occasionally drive past gas stations and the price of gas was $1.32. They showed the same movies going and coming which is the only reason I was able to provide the above analysis of second movie. The third movie was one of Eddie Murphy's recent flops. I completely ignored that one on both flights.

After about 9 hours we were coming into Vladivostok airspace. The movies has ended so the GPS was showing on the TV screens. The time-to-destination dropped to 25 minutes, then 20 minutes, then back up to 25 minutes then 30 minutes, then back to 25 minutes. What the heck? Apparently there was fog in Vladivostok so the plane was circling waiting for it to lift. We circled for 2 hours. Eventually they gave up and diverted the plane to Khabarovsk. When the plane hit the runway in Khabarovsk we almost went into a power slide. If you've seen the movie Air Force One where the 747 is careening around Rammstein AFB – that's not far from what our flight felt like. One they finally got the plane going straight everyone started clapping. There was no clapping from me. Call me conceited, but I only clap when the plane lands at the destination on my ticket.

So now I'm in Khabarovsk. Never heard of Khabarovsk? There's a reason for that. Khabarovsk is another hour (and 700km) north of Vladivostok. It's close enough to the Chinese border that my mobile phone kept switching between Russian and Chinese service providers. You'd think that being a few kilometers from the Chinese border you'd see some Chinese people. Nope – all Russians. Even the Chinese don't want to go to Khabarovsk. There was mass confusion in Khabarovsk. No one, including the airport authorities or Aeroflot knew what to do with a planeload of people who are 700km from there they want to be. There were about 4 "ringleaders" who were particularly upset (they were probably at the front of the boarding line in Moscow). They convinced the woman at the information booth at the airport to come out of her office then promptly pushed their way into the office and started loudly berating her. Gotta love Russians. My Russian language skills aren't very good so I had no idea what was going on. In this instance it wasn't really hurting me. I just watched the crowd and made sure they didn't go anywhere without me. After a couple hours of confusion Aeroflot was able to get a plan put together. They were going to bus everyone into Khabarovsk to a hotel for the afternoon, then bus us back to the airport that night to finish the flight to Vladivostok. It was about 1pm when they got the plan sorted out and the bus back to the airport was set for 7:30pm for a 10pm flight. I figured this out because there was a Russian professor on the flight who spoke English and gave me the low-down.

So, they herded everyone out to 3 buses which looked like they belonged in Pakistan or India. I half expected to see chicken or a goat when I got on the bus. By this time I was pretty exhausted and was ready to sleep so the condition of the bus didn't really bother me. They put us all up at a "5 Star Hotel" (according to their literature). By my estimation this must have been on a scale of 100. They gave us a meal voucher for lunch and dinner at the "7 Star Restaurant" (also on a scale of 100). The room had an old-school rotary phone, a small bathroom where the whole room was the shower, toilet and sink and two twin beds. Luckily one of the twin beds had tiger sheets so I could sleep comfortably. I laid down and took a nice 3 hour nap (sleeping though lunch). I woke up and headed to the restaurant to use my dinner voucher. The restaurant had pre-made meals for all the Aeroflot guests. The main course was, for all practical purposes, a fish pancake. I took one bite and no more. I ate some of the rice on the side and headed down the street to see if there was anything better. About 2 blocks away was a mall that looked like a spaceship. On the top floor was a Baskin Robbins so I completed my dinner with a waffle cone and 2 scoops of ice cream (which was had for 50% cheaper than the Baskin Robbins in Moscow). I wasn't able to stay long as I needed to get back to the hotel to catch the bus back to the airport.

Since they bussed us back to the airport at 7:30pm and the flight didn't leave until 10pm, everyone had some time to kill. I wandered into a small souvenir shop to check out the postcards. I was curious to see if there were any cultural attractions in Khabarovsk that maybe I was unaware of. On the cover of a pack of Khabarovsk postcards was a large communist style concrete building that looks like most any concrete building anywhere in Russia. Nope – I didn't miss anything. We finally got back on the plane and flew to Vladivostok (thankfully uneventfully). I finally arrived at my hotel at 12:30am, 29 hours after starting my journey in Moscow.

Vladivostok is situated on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. It's the headquarters for the Russian Pacific Fleet and, until 1992 was a closed city – only accessible to Russians. Interestingly my great-grandfather (who was in the US Navy) was in Vladivostok in 1917(?) for a winter after the fleet was frozen in. Luckily, I didn't see anyone running around that looked like my great-grandfather as that would have been awkward. My hotel in Vladivostok was the Hotel Hyundai. As is obvious from the title, it's a Korean hotel (Vladivostok is only a 2 hour flight from Seoul). It is also one of the few Western-style (i.e. nice) hotels in the city.
One of the first things to strike me about Vladivostok were the vehicles. I would challenge you to find another city outside Japan with a higher percentage of Toyota's. I would say at least 90% of the cars were Toyota's. The other 10% were Honda, Suzuki and Subaru. I don't recall seeing any Ladas or other Russian vehicles. The Toyota's were a mix of every Toyota in the catalog – most of them I had never seen or even heard of. Almost all the cars were right-hand-drive. They still drove on the right, but since the cars were imported from Japan the steering wheel was on the wrong side for the direction of traffic. Most of the cars were 4-wheel drive. In fact, many of the "cars" were Toyota Land Cruisers. The cars were 4-wheel drive because Vladivostok is all hills – many of them pretty steep. Of course that didn't stop the women from wearing 4" heels everywhere.

The whole trip had great weather – sunny and 80 degrees. The first night I was there I walked down to the boardwalk and had a good pizza at an Italian restaurant. It would have been perfect except for an annoying group of Hare Krishna's singing the same crappy song over and over again for 2 straight hours. No wonder no one wants to join your dirty hippie group. Near the restaurant was a beach with a very prominently displayed "No Swimming" sign. It probably said that because Vladivostok doesn't have any sewage treatment – everything just dumps into the ocean. It obviously wasn't very meaningful because the water was packed with swimmers. In fact there was a whole industry of inflatable tube rentals, etc. that were operating in spite of the "No Swimming" restriction. One of the small businesses was quite interesting. They would put someone (usually a child) in a plastic ball, inflate it and then seal the ball with duct tape so water wouldn't get in. The person would then run around like a hamster. As far as I could tell, the child would then continue until they got tired or passed out from lack of oxygen. At this point the ball is pulled back in (it's on a long string) and opened up to prevent too much brain damage to the occupant. Once revived the occupant can then decide if he/she wants to pay for another go.

The Vladivostok boardwalk is also the only place in Russia where it is illegal to drink beer. Everywhere else in Russia you can drink beer wherever you want – the street, a park, work (although not mine). The Vladivostok boardwalk is alcohol-free and, unlike the rules at the beach, seemed to be followed. I was pondering the non-drinking situation when a small car drives along the boardwalk (yes, occasionally a car would drive along it – I don't know if this was legal or not, but it happened nonetheless) with a monkey in the backseat. At first I thought it was a dog, then I saw it had a face … and was looking at me. I can't have a beer but that guy can have a monkey! Anyway, after hanging out on the boardwalk for a while I walked around town – but not too long as the hills are intense. I was sweating my arse off after about 5 blocks. The Hotel Hyundai had a Skybar on the 12th (top) floor where I could drink overpriced Japanese beer with the view of the city and not have to huff up and down hills. The final night I was there I went to a (surprisingly) good Indian restaurant. It was the first Indian I had since moving to Russia and it was delicious. It was run by real Indians (who also spoke English). That restaurant will be high on my list the next time I'm in Vladivostok (assuming it stays in business).

The next morning I got a ride to the airport for my 10:20am flight back to Moscow. For a city of only 500,000 they decided to put the airport far away from the city. It took us nearly an hour to get out there – although the roads were in pretty bad shape. The hills around downtown probably have something to do with it, but there was definitely some flat space closer to the city. The airport is small – about half the size of the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport (for my SC readers). The main airline there is Vladivostok Air (which you can fly to Khabarovsk if you want!). Aeroflot has two flights a day from Moscow to Vladivostok. We found out (too late) that the earlier flight is an old 767. The later flight is a brand new Airbus A330 with video screens on the back of every seat. We chose poorly in both directions and took the same crappy 767 back to Moscow. Luckily the piss smell was gone. The same 3 crappy movies were showing on the trip back which didn't matter since I slept through half the flight anyway. Luckily there were no fiascoes getting back to Moscow. However, as a final farewell,Aeroflot decided to park next to an aerial walkway but not actually use it. Despite being 15 feet from the walkway, we had to take the stairs  out of the plane and huff it through the rain to a bus which drove us to another terminal.  Unfortunately I left 80 degrees and sun in Vladivostok for 55 degrees and rain in Moscow. Oh well, it's still better than 100 degrees and smoke.


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