As I stepped off the train in Vladivistok on a bright Saturday morning, I’d dearly like to tell you that my first thought was not one of immense relief. That was, however, the overriding feeling as I escaped the confines of the train and made my way through the station, stopping to snap an old locomotive engine which doubled up as a monument to the, well, monumental task of building a railway line that stretched the immense length of Russia.
Once I’d settled in the not-as-grand-as-it-sounds Hotel Vladivostok – I duly present Exhibit A – and showered, changed into fresh clothes and eaten a distinctly non-noodle-based meal in a traditionally-styled Russian restaurant, other feelings did come though; primarily a sense of pride that I had successfully tackled Russia solo, dodging its pitfalls to come out the other side still in one piece.
I had long held Vladivostok in awe. Once a thriving East Asian port boasting a cosmopolitan mix of peoples with which one could draw parallels with Singapore, the Soviets changed all that by driving out the non-Russians or shipping them off to labour camps, promptly closing the city to the public and turning Vladivostok into a naval base and home to the Russian Pacific Fleet. It reopened only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
My mind’s eye still pictured Vladivostok as an exotic outpost on the frontiers of the world, and so I was always going to be disappointed by the reality: an average Russian city built up on an attractive curl of land overlooking the Pacific. It was to a lookout point I headed to get my first proper look at the ocean; the train journey had only offered up fleeting glimpses of distant water.
Somewhere over the horizon was my next destination, the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan. I had hoped to continue my overland theme by reaching it by ship, which was due to sail tomorrow. I headed down to the shipping office to book my ticket only to find it firmly shut. I would have to try my luck with the office tomorrow.
Up bright and early the next day to run the gauntlet with the shipping office, I found it open and staffed by a number of women. Although they weren’t behind ticket windows, they may as well have been. I approached one with my fingers crossed.
“I’d like to buy a ticket on the boat today to Japan, please.”
“What, the boat is full?”
“No. The boat is not full. No tickets.”
“If there are spaces, why can’t I buy a ticket?”
“Need your name on a list of foreigners.”
“Then can I put my name on the list, please?”
“No. List already sent.”
(Becoming increasingly testy) “Can you contact someone to add my name to the list, please? The boat doesn’t sail for another 12 hours.”
“Will you try for me? I can pay extra for you to try.”
And so my hopes of continuing my journey overland to my next destination were scotched, there and then, by a mardy Russian official who would not lift the slightest finger to help my predicament. Death by Russian bureaucracy: an appropriately bittersweet end to my Russian adventure, I thought as I wandered down to the dock and watched the ship I had intended to be on being loaded with its cargo. The ticket window ladies had had the last laugh.
I didn’t wallow in pity for long, though. Back at the hotel I booked myself on a flight from Vladivostok to Niigata for the following day, and I started to get excited about returning to Japan, the place that had made such an impression on me when it had been the first stop on my Round the World Trip back in 2005.
And as my clapped-out Aeroflot plane accelerated noisily down the runway at the airport to the north of Vladivostok and lifted off over the ocean, my four-month overland trek from my front door in the UK through fifteen different countries on foot and by bicycle, bus and train right the way to the Pacific Ocean came to an end. Any feelings of disappointment about my method arrival in Japan had faded to be replaced by a sense of achievement about what had passed – and excitement about what was to come.
Time for the next adventure.