I have been in Russia for ten days now, and I have spent the majority of my time somewhere along the spectrum from mild to severe confusion. I spend so much time furrowing my brow and gritting my teeth that I have a persistent headache and nightmares about my teeth falling out. From restaurants, to art galleries, to office buildings, to banks, to train stations, I am bewildered. If you plan on visiting Russia my main piece of advice to you is to accept this state of confusion, or you’re not going to have a good time. Once you resign yourself to it, it’s strangely freeing to have no idea what’s going on, and just go with it anyway. It’s like being a child again, staring at the adults and trying to understand their mysterious ways.
In part the confusion is down to be a foreigner in a new country, but it is also down to the generally confusing ways things run here. From my first few hours in Vladivostok, which I spent still sitting on the ferry as people disappeared in unexplained small batches. The reason became very clear when my batch finally left the boat and entered straight into the teeny immigration room, where we crammed into disorderly lines to await the mute processing of one of the border guards. Additional officers would drift between the handful of service windows, taking almost every other person away to a separate room, presumably for extra questioning. When my turn came I handed over my documents with a smile and my best ‘привет’ (‘hello’ in Russian), and in return I got 10 minutes of awkward stony-faced silence while the guard did something with my passport and immigration card, and I stood and attempted to not look suspicious enough to be taken to the mystery room.
If you’ve been following my posts, you will know that this first experience was soon followed by bafflement in bank branches, but that experience pales in comparison with the train saga.
My original plan for Russia had been to take the famous Trans-Siberian rail line from Vladivostok to Moscow, visiting Lake Baikal and Tomsk on the way. But my 7-day train journey had to be put on hold in favour of a 9-hour flight so that I could reach Moscow in time to attend the Open Innovations conference at Moscow’s Skolkovo Innovation City. This left me with the supposedly much simpler task of getting a train from Vladivostok station to Vladivostok Airport. I’d checked the website (thankfully in English), got the train times, and knew my way to the train station – simple, right? No.
I felt quite cheery as I rumbled my bag down the street to the station in the bright sunshine. I felt less cheerful when I got through the station entrance and was immediately faced with a bag scanning machine and no visible sign of a ticket office. After some gesturing and one-word communication with the guards (who didn’t speak English), I ran my heavy bag and backpack through the machine and then followed one of the guards down a huge staircase and round a maze of corridors to reach the ticket desk (hauling the bags all the way). After 10 minutes waiting for the server to very slowly finish with the person in front of me, I got to the window and said ‘airport’ (thank god that airport sounds the same in almost every language!). My cheerfulness disappeared entirely when she shook her head and gestured back the way I’d come. The airport express had its own ticket office, back through the maze, back up the huge staircase, back past the x-ray machines… I’ll spare you the language I was using at this point, but I was saying it repeatedly under my breath as I legged it to the correct building, with only 10 minutes to spare for the only train that would get me to the airport on time. I was pretty much hyperventilating by the time I shoved my bags through the next x-ray machine and ran to the ticket desk.
The calm between the storms
I really wish that story ended there. I wish that the next thing that happened was a nice smooth arrival at the airport. But no, the worst confusion came an hour after I successfully boarded the train. My watch read 12:30 – the scheduled arrival time; we were pulling into a station while the announcer said “next station Vladivostok Airport” (in English); and every single person in my carriage of the Airport Express was getting up to leave. The station didn’t look like your usual airport station, but all the other evidence seemed to outweigh this concern so I got off and the train pulled away behind me as I headed out to… nothing. Not an airport anyway, just a lane that led to a big road with a bus stop.
‘Don’t panic’ I told myself, with the big knot of panic welling up in my stomach, as I was slowly forced to acknowledge that I had, in fact, gotten off the train at the wrong stop, and was, in fact, now stranded with my bags on a middle-of-nowhere stretch of road in Far-East Russia with my flight scheduled to start boarding in 20 minutes. With tears prickling my eyes I grabbed passers-by: ‘Taxi? Airport?’; confusion, head shakes… until a girl pointed out a taxi cab parked in front of a mechanic’s garage. Rescue wasn’t quite that straightforward though, as the car had just been fixed and the taxi driver hadn’t returned yet, but after 10 minutes (that felt like an eternity) standing forlornly by the yellow cab, my saviour appeared, cigarette between his lips, and I was on my way. (In a final twist the flight was delayed. Of course.)
Confusion can lead you to chaos, but it can also spark an adventure. Take the snowy Sunday in Moscow, where I set out to visit the Tretyakov Gallery and found a line that stretched half-way round the building. Unable to figure out if this was general admissions or a special exhibit, I gave up and followed the river, where I discovered ‘The Ship Brusov’, an old ferry converted into a showcase for local designers, along with quirky cafes, art spaces and a startup workspace.
Confusing streets were part of the charm of Vladivostok, where pavements might abruptly end and you have to pick your way over chains and up and down staircases to rediscover the trail. It’s quite delightful when you’re exploring a new city to be forced down strange pathways to encounter odd buildings and crumbling steps. And Vladivostok is a truly beautiful city to explore. It has that eclectic charm of a city recovering a past grandeur. A mix of grand old architecture in varying states of repair (crisply painted on the main thoroughfare; crumbling on the back streets), iconic new structures (I could gaze at Vladivostok’s magnificent Golden Bridge for days), and stark black memorial statues.
The streets of Vladivostok are strangely devoid of local stores selling basic groceries and knick-knacks. Restaurants cluster together and then you can walk for long stretches without seeing any, though once you find one, they are warm and welcoming, with simple, filling meals like pancakes or dumplings, and an abundance of sugary cakes in bright colours. Freshly made fruit teas are a delicious speciality, packed with real chunks of fruits, herbs and roots, along with the ever-present kakao – Russia’s rich and creamy cocoa. Time in Vladivostok can be very happily spent curled up inside a cute café watching people hurry through the cold air outside.
On the surface, Russia is a cold place, not just with winter temperatures, but with human interaction. I don’t have many conversations in Vladivostok, where men in dark clothes sit silently in cars, almost invisible behind clouds of cigarette smoke, and faces are stony by default. I had been told before about the Russian smile, only used in sincerity and not flashed at strangers for false friendliness. It’s a trait which has an admirable honesty to it, but sometimes it feels like it saps the warmth from the streets in a much harsher way than the frozen air.
And yet, there is something very different beneath the surface. Behind the unsmiling face is often a person who will offer help in a simple matter-of-fact way, with no expectations. Behind the confusion is a population of the most pragmatic, no-nonsense people I’ve ever met (and this confuses me most of all). You may find your heavy bag taken from your hands and carried to the top of the steps for you with barely word, or a mechanic’s apprentice trying to call you a cab while you stand crying on the forecourt. Similarly, in my research, I have been taken aback by the easy acceptance of my requests for interviews, and the amazing people I have been able to meet through chains of introductions from people who barely know me.
So if you can embrace the confusion and just follow where it leads you, you may find that just like the contrasts of brisk streets and cosy cafes, Russia is a country with a cold face and a warm heart.
More Photos from Vladivostok