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Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Eastern Europe in the Far East

Vladivostok: beauty and history


Special to The Japan Times

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia For generations of expatri ates in the days before jet travel, the first stop on the journey back to Europe from Japan was Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost city and the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

News photo
Vladivostok and Primorye offer a rewarding combination of architectural and natural beauty. Vladivostok Station (above) is the city's most imposing landmark, reminiscent of a 17th-century palace. In the countryside, rustic buildings such as this dacha blend unobtrusively with the forest.
News photo

Here, ferries from Niigata docked, and travelers boarded trains for the weeklong journey to Moscow. As a hub of transport and trade, Vladivostok prospered. One hundred years ago, it was home to an international community of traders and businessmen drawn by its status as the only deep-water port in the Russian Far East. Much of the city's rich and cosmopolitan architectural heritage dates from that era, when the city, founded only 40 odd years earlier, grew as rapidly as its booming maritime economy.

That prosperity was brought to an abrupt end by the Russian Revolution. Under Communism, the main importance of Vladivostok -- "Lord of the East" in Russian -- was strategic. As the base of the Pacific Fleet, it was closed to all foreigners from 1958. For more than 30 years, Trans-Siberian travelers began or ended their journey at Nakhodha, a characterless town 200 kilometers further east along the Sea of Japan coast.

Only in 1992 did Vladivostok reopen to non-Russians. More than a decade on, and despite the careful preservation of its picturesque historic center, it's still barely on the tourist map, except for Chinese and Koreans hoping for luck in its casinos. But with regular flights now connecting it to Niigata, Toyama and Kansai, residents of Japan are well placed to explore this incongruous slice of Eastern Europe in East Asia, less than two hours from home.

The distance on a map is short, but even before landing the traveler knows that he is a long way from Japan. The plane comes down over wooded, unpopulated hills; much of the time one can scarcely see a house, or even a road. For most of the 50-kilometer journey from the airport to the city, the highway passes through virgin forest. Even the driving feels foreign, and its speed and recklessness is a little alarming to a traveler new to Russia.

There's something inappropriate about approaching Vladivostok by road. Most of its visitors, from the Russian pioneers who established a village by the sea in the 1860s, to the Korean sailors who now take shore leave in the city, saw it first from the water. Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who visited in 1913, compared the sight to that of Naples, rising up on its terraces. "The view of the city from the sea is very beautiful," he remarked. "Vladivostok is hardly to be second to any city in this respect." Though a little marred today by the drab concrete accretions of the later 20th century, the spectacle of the city spanning the hills above the harbor is still imposing. For the traveler arriving by car from the airport, by contrast, first impressions of Vladivostok itself may be disappointing. Its suburbs are sprawling and ugly. But even there, the area's unique geography gives a certain charm to the drive along the winding roads, which carry you around steep hills into the peninsula that forms the heart of the city.

Vladivostok is a city of surprises. Beauty and ugliness, the old and the new, jostle so closely that each corner turned reveals a new and sharply changed perspective. The turbulent history of Russia in the last century has left its traces in an intriguing mishmash of architectural styles. In the outskirts, the legacy of Soviet urban planning is visible, though the monolithic apartment blocks of that era are already crumbling. The Communist era did not pass without some iconoclastic vandalism of the city's pre-Revolutionary heritage. Many churches, including Vladivostok's cathedral, were torn down in the 1920s and '30s; others were converted for use as cinemas and government offices, and have only recently been restored to their original function. But around the harbor, well-preserved neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings from czarist times still line the streets and testify to the city's former prosperity. In the alleyways, one can even find timber houses evocative of pioneer days.

Though Vladivostok is an expansive city, the historic center is compact, hemmed in by the Gulf of Amursky on one side and the harbor, known as the Golden Horn for its similarity to Istanbul's, on the other. A stroll around the sloping avenues will occupy the best part of a day. It's best to start at the city's main square, where Lenin on his pedestal still points seaward; on the other side is the station, a lovely white wedding cake of a building in mock 17th-century style. For some visitors, this will be the point of departure for the journey west on the world's longest railway. Even if one is not planning to board a train, it's worth glancing in at the beautifully tiled interior, and strolling onto the platform where an old steam locomotive rests beside a plaque proclaiming the 9,288 kilometers to Moscow.

From here one can wander down to the marine terminal, or up Aleutskaya Street with its handsome old buildings, including the birthplace of actor Yul Brynner. At the end of this street stands another square, with one more striking relic of Soviet times: the monument to "Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East." Capitalism conducts its business irreverently in front of this symbol of Communist might: A weekly market convenes here on Fridays, selling everything from berries in syrup to foreign DVDs. The main harbor is not far from here. The most picturesque route, however, continues along Vladivostok's oldest street, Svetlanskaya, and then up tree-lined Pushkin Street to the foot of the Eagle's Nest Hill, which is Vladivostok's highest.

The funicular railway was broken at the time of my visit, but the view from the summit certainly repays the effort of the climb. One looks out over the rooftops, across the broad harbor still busy with naval and trading ships, to the swath of hills beyond and the sea. It is one of the world's great settings for a city, and alone is worth the trip to Russia.

After exploring the city streets, it's worth making time for one or two of Vladivostok's museums. The Primorsky State Picture Gallery on Aleutskaya Street is currently closed for refurbishment, though the best pieces are on display in a smaller branch office, which also houses the Children's Gallery. Its collection spans Russian art from icons through 19th-century landscapes and portraits to the works of local painters; there are also a number of Western European paintings. Other museums worth visiting include two devoted mainly to the history of the city and the region. The Fortress Museum, occupying a World War II fort overlooking the bay, concentrates on military history. The Arsenyev Museum is named after the explorer who first charted the surrounding Primorye region, and whose accounts of those expeditions were filmed by Akira Kurosawa in "Dersu Uzala." The focus here is wider: The imaginative displays take in everything from the natural history of Primorye, through Vladivostok's golden age as a trading metropolis, to the city's current Friendship and Exchange Program with Japan's Toyama Prefecture.

The museum's historical displays also offer a reminder that Primorye had a history before it became part of Russia. Archaeological displays bear witness to the flourishing medieval civilization of the Jurchen people: ethnically Asian, influenced by the Chinese, and finally destroyed by Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. Until much more recently, the nomadic descendants of the survivors still maintained a traditional lifestyle in the wilderness. Their colorful costumes and artifacts bear a striking resemblance to those of the Ainu people of Japan: not surprising, considering the proximity of Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

It's possible to get a feel for Vladivostok in a day, and to sample most of its sights in two. It's worth lingering, though, to make time for an excursion or two into the Primorye countryside. Various local tour companies offer guided day trips, overnight excursions, or longer expeditions. Possible destinations for a day's outing include a number of scenic islands accessible by boat from Vladivostok, or the beaches at Slavyanka toward the North Korean border. For a longer trip, one might head for the shallow Lake Khanka, center of a nature reserve some 200 kilometers north of the city. The lake blooms with lotus flowers in summer, and the surrounding wetlands provide a resting place for migrating cranes and a home for Siberian tigers.

I hired a guide to take me out into the taiga, or boreal forest. The woods here have barely been touched by human activity and boast among the world's richest variety of plant and animal life. A legend of the indigenous people tells that God wandered the earth, planting it with seeds that he scattered from a bag. By the time that he reached Primorye he was tired, so he turned the bag upside down and poured out all the remaining seeds. This variety appears scarcely diminished since the time of legends. Unlike the forests further north into Siberia, these woods are mainly deciduous, and there has as yet been little logging for timber. The mixed shades of maple, birch, apple and oak offer one of the world's loveliest displays of autumn colors.

We emerged from the forest to take a stroll beside the river and to explore a tiny farming village: 10 houses beneath the hills. In the afternoon, we headed north to Ussurisk. Much of this country town, some 2 1/2 hours' journey from Vladivostok, still consists of traditional wooden cottages. There is also a boldly painted, bright green church, dazzling when seen beneath a clear sky. Foreigners are very few and far between here, and at first I was mistaken for a Russian. Correcting the misapprehension usually resulted in responses both curious and friendly. A woman on the train offered me a bunch of flowers, which I accepted. A man passing on a bicycle invited us to smoke with him; this, as a nonsmoker, I declined. Even so, he insisted on entertaining us with conversation for half an hour, while my guide, Andrei, served as translator.

Such generosity is surprising given what I had already learned from Andrei about living standards in this remote corner of Russia. The prettiness of the towns and villages is deceptive; things are not easy. In a region where midwinter temperatures can average 15 degrees below zero, most houses have no running hot water, let alone any means of central heating. And yet, some of these primitive country cottages are actually second homes: dacha, or summer houses, for well-to-do city dwellers. I asked Andrei if things had improved for the Russian people since the fall of Communism. He answered, sensibly, "It depends who you are."

T ourist revenue may help Vladivostok and Primorye to recapture something of their former prosperity. Already, multistory hotels have sprung up in the city, older buildings are being restored and newly established travel companies are promoting ecological tours in one of the world's last wildernesses. At the same time, foreign businesses are moving in, attracted now, as they were 100 years ago, by the city's location, commanding access to the North Pacific. It is to be hoped that this new boom will bring the people wealth without destroying the provincial charm of the place. Vladivostok is changing. When I was there, a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor had just opened on the site identified in my guide book as a traditional Russian-style cafe. There is, as yet, no McDonald's and no Starbucks, but doubtless these things will come. Vladivostok's original cosmopolitanism may find its debased echo in the corporate uniformity of modern globalization.

But, taking the train to and from Ussurisk, along the last stretch of the Trans-Siberian line, it was difficult to believe that so vast and beautiful a region could ever be spoiled. The journey passes through long stretches of such exquisite and undeveloped countryside as you will, sadly, now see nowhere in Japan. There are wide, uncultivated meadows, naturally meandering rivers with not a concrete bank in sight, and closer to the city, the bleakly beautiful shoreline along the gulf. With the railway itself often the only sign of human presence, I felt a thousand miles, or a hundred years, from the modern, industrialized country across the sea, to which, the next day, I would have to return.



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