The first step for us upon entering the arrivals hall was looking for money. I had tried exchanging currency back in Calgary at Calforex, but both locations, downtown and Chinook center, were pretty much out. I was able to get a meager $15 CAD worth of Russian rubles, so I brought emergency cash of USD and Euros (Euros would be useful later in my trip) to exchange in case my bank card didn’t work at the ATM.
I ended up using the Posbank ATM, which said that it didn’t charge any fees from their end! Which is quite nice – the ATMs in Panama and Peru charged a decent $7 CAD fee per withdrawal, while Colombia and Russia no fees.
We took the minibus numbered 107 connecting Vladivostok airport with downtown. The airport is actually quite far from the center of the city, and it was over an hour drive. There was also an Airport Express train connecting the airport with downtown, but I thought it would be a nice way to see a little more of the surrounding area from sitting in the bus. I think total fares were fairly similar for each, around $5 one way.
The bus dropped us off right across the street from the station, and I was left with positive first impressions of most Russian train stations. The building was quite elaborate on the exterior.
We decided to head in, and below is a picture of the inner waiting area.
From my guidebook, the Trans-Siberian Handbook (more on the book later), we had read that most larger stations had “rest rooms”. We made it our first mission to search for these and showers! The area operates similar to a hostel, where you can rent a dorm or private room to sleep in for 3/6/9/12 hours at fairly reasonable prices. I think it’s $30 CAD for the 12 hour option. You can also pay for just a shower, which is what we each did, about $4 CAD. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean the lobby and shower rooms were, pictured below.
We also stored our bags there for about $3 for the day, and went searching for our internet access for the trip. Unfortunately, neither of us could get SIM cards (a very cheap option – $17 for 16 GB of data with unlimited Whatsapp/Facebook/Instagram – ridiculous!) because Mayesha’s phone is locked and my phone has a broken SIM tray which can’t be removed… oops… After checking their 3 major providers, MTC, Megafon, and Beeline, only one had a wireless router with nation-wide internet coverage and that was Beeline. It worked out to $80 for 20 GB of internet, expiring at the end of 2 weeks, split between us. Coverage is great in the cities, but along the rail line in the middle of Siberia, not so much. I wonder why.
I sent my parents my mandatory “I’m okay” message, and we headed out to find lunch. We were walking north from the station, in the direction of the main commercial area, and Mayesha stopped at a bank to exchange some USD. It was a very easy and quick process, so another option for getting the local currency.
So many other positive first impressions of Russia and of Vladivostok! First of all, my mom tried warning me that there would be no fresh fruit or vegetables. I took this picture outside the train station just for her. By the way, fresh produce IS available in most supermarkets as well as each city’s “local market” (picture it similar to a farmer’s market except open everyday).
Many people warned me that Russia would be a very backwards country, with few nice things to see, and a grim appearance, but I think the general pictures I took of the city prove otherwise.
For lunch, we decided to try an option in the guidebook, because we expected the city to be not as much geared towards tourists. Therefore, most restaurants wouldn’t have any signage or menus in English, nor someone who could help us translate. I think our assumption on that side was correct. The other thing I was aiming for was food on a budget 🙂 as I had also heard that many restaurants in Russia can be expensive, providing a fancier dining experience. We settled on a typical Russian “cafeteria” where you pay by the serving of food that you choose. It’s all laid out in large buffet dishes, so you just point to what you want as the staff serves you and you place the dishes on your tray. I believe it’s called Stolovaya No 1.
The selection was great: pastas, grains, salads (20 kinds), soups, meat (stewed, fried, battered, in a meatball, covered in cheese). I opted for a cabbage and chicken stew as well as a bowl of borsch, which came out to $2.50 total for fairly small portion sizes. This was my first discovery that one of the cheapest and most abundant foods in Russia is potatoes. There were plenty potatoes in both of the dishes, which in my opinion were serious fillers. I literally got one bite of chicken, and maybe two bites of cabbage, but that was okay because I was saving room for dessert, at $1.50 a piece. On the left is bread crumbs coated with a sweet tangy cream, and on the right is a “Napoleon” layer cake, also with more tangy cream.
After the cake, we were ready to walk. Very close to the restaurant is a beautiful oceanfront boardwalk, and it seemed to be a hot spot with locals on the Saturday afternoon.
As a typical ocean/beach destination, vendors were selling trinkets made with seashells, but most of people wandering around seemed to be locals.
Mayesha and I really enjoyed simply people-watching throughout our day, at lunch and while walking. One immediate observation? Most Russians dress much more formally than we do in North America. In the restaurant, for example, we were the only women wearing leggings or any attire that looked sporty. Despite it being a “cheap” restaurant, locals were wearing jeans at the very least. And again, the locals going for a Saturday afternoon walk, similar to us going to the park, were dressed better than you see some Canadians at the mall.
The ocean views weren’t amazing, but for a landlocked Canadian like me, summer waterfront is a novelty, and I enjoyed being by the sea.
We saw a skate park, and it was fun to watch local boys (no girls yet) using scooters and bikes on a small skate park on the waterfront.
Among the shops selling snacks (especially ice cream and steamed corn), virtual reality experiences were being sold to kids. I would describe it as almost one of those “5D” rides where you sit in a moving chair, while watching a screen. Except in this case, customers wore VR glasses while the ride operator manually moved the chair. I can only imagine what a good workout it is for those guys by the end of the day. I found it too hilarious and made a video.
After leaving the waterfront, we saw a random church and took a detour in our walk to grab a picture. I’ve found so far that all of the religious buildings (mostly Orthodox churches) are beautifully designed, often with gold painted domes.
I’m also a sucker for nice graffiti.
Next, we walked up to a nice viewpoint of the bridge and harbour. Vladivostok is famous for being fairly hilly and a fairly new suspension bridge crossing part of the harbour. With all these features, I had read that people compare the city to San Francisco.
The bridge behind us is quite unique because of the curved design. It seemed to be one of the most popular attractions in the city, because just as we were arriving, a large Chinese tour group was leaving, and as we were leaving, a large Korean tour group was arriving.
There were tons of locks left (by couples) on the railings surrounding the viewpoint. Pretty heavy duty locks in my opinion.
The views of the harbour portion were really nice as well. This was very unexpected for us in the Russian Far East.
As we were walking down, I found a nice idea for a DIY home gardening project! Who would have known that painted tires make nice planters?
For dinner, we walked back to our lunch spot to try a couple new items and fill up on some solid food before our night train ride. As you can see I was hungry…
We walked the 10 min back to the railway station, picked up our bags, and headed onto the platform a solid 45 minutes before the 9 pm departure. We were quite early, but wanted to be safe for the first ride. It wasn’t too hard to find the right spot, since there are only 6 platforms in Vladivostok. Even with 6 platforms, the whole area felt quite large to me, with one platform stretching long enough for at least 20 carriages. I was entertained taking pictures on the platform. The train below was just decoration.
Below is the outside of all Russian Rail passenger carriages.
When we got on, we were quite tired from the travel, jet lag, and lack of sleep. After observing how small our 2nd class compartment (4 bunks) was, there was time for one picture (I know a little dark) before being lulled into a deep sleep by the rocking of the train. Later on, I didn’t feel like the compartments were too small to be comfortable – it was just a first impression after not having been on a long-distance train for a while. Another nice thing about the train was how clean it was, even the bathrooms (although that could have been because Vladivostok was the train’s departure terminal).
Overall, we felt like the one day in Vladivostok was just right. It was a long, but rewarding day of exploring without very many “spots to hit”.