Modern globetrotters have a bucket list of things they’d like to experience. Taking the Trans-Siberian is often one of them. I can get behind that; it’s super romantic, isn’t it? Riding a train from Moscow to Vladivostok alongside your significant other or a group of friends. The journey is over nine thousand kilometres long from west to east. Imagine the things you get to see through a train window. Endless steppes, all the obscure Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese landscapes: it’s a real adventure. My uncle painted a different picture when he told me about his first-hand experience. He used to be a chef on TSS Stefan Batory in the 70s. The Batory was an ocean liner between Gdynia and New York, a bit like a budget Titanic. I’m not sure how uncle ended up on the Trans-Siberian, since it’s nowhere near the Atlantic. Either way… he used to tell me how the train took two weeks to arrive in Vladivostok back then. That’s if you were lucky and it didn’t halt in the middle of nowhere. There was no drinkable water a few days into the journey, but there was never a shortage of vodka. You could even buy “mystery dairy” products from Mongolians peeking into train windows. It was hard-core, I can only imagine how happy people were when they arrived in Vladivostok.
Russians have a unique talent for building cities in the middle of nowhere. That’s what comes to mind when you arrive and step foot on the platform. That, and of course Radio Vladivostok FM that features in GTA4 and plays Russian and Ukrainian music of all genres. It’s almost a colony. Vladivostok came to be as a military outpost, like most Russian cities this far east. It rapidly grew into one of the most important ports in the region. I mean it when I say “rapidly”. Vladivostok was founded in 1860, so it is a relatively young city. The rapid development can be attributed to its remarkable location. “The Gateway to Asia” is the way that locals refer to Vladivostok. It really is the place where Russia mixes with China and Japan. The word Vladivostok even translates into “Claim/Rule the East”, which is a little ominous. If I were to describe it, I’d say it looks like a Soviet version of San Francisco. They even have two bridges inspired by the famous Golden Gate Bridge in California. Both were opened in 2012 in preparation for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. The Golden Bridge (Zolotoy Bridge) is the smaller one, though with a central span of 737 metres still pretty impressive. The other one is Russian Bridge (Russky Bridge). With a central span of 1,104 metres (3,622 feet) it’s the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world.
Those are the things that immediately stand out as soon as you arrive in Vladivostok. But even among all that there is one landmark that catches everyone’s eye. Savior Transfiguration Cathedral shines as the centrepiece of Vladivostok. It literally shines. Rays of the sun reflected by those golden spires can burn your eyes out. The cathedral looks like it remembers the Tsars, but it’s been finished very recently. People couldn’t decide on the architectural style, so it was stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years. The same thing happened with the embankments. Originally built with industry in mind, but then they took a turn in different directions. The Korabelnaya Embankment in downtown Vladivostok is all about that glorious Russian fleet. You can see and even come on board on some of the still-operational vessels. Even the Submarine S-56 was turned into a museum. Seeing how the marines work in these tiny, claustrophobic spaces is mind-blowing.
The remaining embankments are of a more leisurely sort. Sports Harbour used to be a popular area with public baths, beaches, and wellness services. Now it’s more of a boardwalk with cafés and popcorn stands. Then there’s the University Embankment, which serves as an urban beach. I’m not going to lie: it’s not the prettiest urban beach in the world. It’s better than nothing, though. I think there’s untapped potential here and room for improvement. Swimming in these waters isn’t allowed, but locals don’t seem to care. The Crown Prince Embankment is the newest addition to Vladivostok’s embankment family. It’s more of a cultural centre with skate parks street art. Some of the best sights this region has to offer are just outside of the city. There are several islands, big and small on the east coast of Primorye. It has become almost a ritual for people to venture out “to the islands” during summer. Petrov Island is the most interesting one with its rich past and shamanic heritage. There’s a yew grove supposedly as old as the Petrov’s last Chinese inhabitants and their creepy places of unknown worship.