Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vladivostok: A Sort Of Homecoming

(Revolution Square)
My article below on Vladivostok, Russia has just been published as "The Bright Side" in the South China Morning Post.

"A Russian is never happy unless he's sad," holds an old expression, and it was true in my home. An optimistic pessimist by nature, my Russian father never failed to bring the rain to a parade. But it's not until I arrive in the motherland that I truly understand his affinity for discovering the gloom in the rosiest of circumstances.

So it's not surprising that the forecast predicts rain when we land at Vladivostok International Airport. As my father said, when things are bad they can only get better and, as if on cue, a security guard steps forward to help us with our bags.

We're in the far-eastern metropolis of Vladivostok for a few days, before embarking on a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. From here, it takes six days to reach Moscow - 9,288 kilometres and seven time zones away. Vladivostok is farther from its national capital than any other city in the world is from its own.

(Russky Bridge)
When we reach the city, the peculiar scent of fresh dill and petrol fills the air. Across the street from the train station, a fresh fruit and vegetable market has been set up in a parking lot, in the shadow of a heroic Lenin statue dating from the 1930s.

Vladivostok is home to roughly 600,000 people and it's undergoing a transformation ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit (which took place last weekend). The skyline is stuffed with cranes and a new bridge has been built to connect Russky Island, the site of the conference, to the city. The activity seems to have electrified this once isolated outpost.

Vladivostok is easily traversed on foot. Its wide boulevards take you past relics of the Soviet Union and the childhood home of The King and I star Yul Brynner. Revolution Square, the heart of the city, may not be quite as large as Moscow's Red or Beijing's Tiananmen, but it's still gargantuan. Dominated by huge, ponderous statuary, it overlooks the bay and the Russian Pacific fleet. Here, children fly kites and drive electric toy cars while Chinese tourists mug for photographs.

We duck into one of the city's most famous landmarks, the GUM department store, for a bowl of borscht and a plate of pierogi. GUM has seen better days. Opened in 1885 by two German businessmen, the establishment once sold everything from sewing needles to live tigers.

According to legend, Vladivostok used to be teeming with Siberian tigers and every September, the city hosts the Tiger Day celebration. During Soviet times, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners and all Russian citizens not holding special permits. The city was officially "opened" in January 1992.

Svetlanskaya Street, Vladivostok's main shopping thoroughfare, runs through the core of the city. A newly reconstructed Triumphal Arch glitters triumphantly in a park across the street from GUM. Built in 1891 for Tsar Nicholas II, who visited Vladivostok to commemorate the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was destroyed after the 1917 revolution.

Russia is rehabilitating the imperial legacy of the once scorned Romanov dynasty and identifying it with the heroism of past military exploits. The arch resembles an oversized footstool with a pointy bit on top, checkered with the blue and white colours of the Russian flag and crowned with a gold-plated double-headed eagle. Vladivostok's coat of arms appears on each side, along with the icon of St Nicholas, the patron saint of the last tsar.

(Triumphal Arch)
The arch sits next to a memorial park commemorating those who died during the second world war, or the Great Patriotic War, as it's known throughout Russia. Nearby sits the S-56. Now a museum displaying dusty charts and sailors' berths, the Srednyaya-class submarine once patrolled the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, all the way to the North Sea in Europe.

The park also contains the ornate, golden-domed St Andrew's Chapel, a popular place for newlyweds to gather. Its muted pastel colouring resembles a frosted layer cake, much like the ones several of the young couples who pay a visit will no doubt soon be sharing.

Vladivostok has been compared to San Francisco for its loping hills and proximity to the ocean - and that new bridge has a hint of the Golden Gate about it - but that's where the similarities end. The Eagle's Nest - a lookout 180 metres above the city that is reached by funicular railway - has neither eagles nor nests. It does, however, have a small stall selling souvenirs, a monument to Slavic saints Cyril and Methodius and a terrace with seats from which to take in stunning panoramic views. Across Golden Horn Bay, Russky Island is clearly visible, as is its bridge.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opened the 3.2-kilometre (including approaches) suspension bridge, with the Kremlin striving to prove Russia is an Asian powerhouse as well as a European one. Conveniently, Vladivostok loosely translates as "ruler of the East". The signs are not good, however - the region's manufacturing and maritime industries are in decline and the population is plummeting.

Nonetheless, Moscow invested US$1 billion to build what some critics are calling a "bridge to nowhere". On the far side, the finishing touches are being applied to a new university, which will move into the buildings vacated by the Apec delegates; but beyond that, there isn't much to justify the connection.

The bridge isn't open when we visit, so we catch a ferry to Russky Island - a 45-minute journey - along with a handful of vehicles and about 50 people. On approach, the island looks deserted, except for a small village near the dock. The island appears pristine - a wilderness overgrown with forests and, if you look hard enough, dotted with a few simple houses. Home to just 5,200 inhabitants, it's not hard to imagine how the new bridge could transform the island. Locals fear this tranquil getaway for picnics and fishing excursions will be overrun by day-trippers and tourist groups.

Back in Vladivostok proper, we take in Fukina Street, a pedestrian walkway that connects the recreational area of Sportivnaya Harbour to the rest of the city. Here, young couples and families stroll from cafe to boutique. Beside the harbour is a beach, off which a few revellers are splashing in the water and rolling on the tide, sealed inside huge plastic balls known as zorbs.

Farther along the shoreline is an amusement park. Having ridden the Ferris wheel, we buy some cotton candy and head back to the beach. Cotton candy on the beach in Russia? According to my father's logic, things can only get worse. The following day, clutching a newly purchased bottle of Staraya Moskva vodka, I brace myself for six days on a train and bid do svidaniya to Vladivostok's charms.

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