[Originally a Facebook album, here are photos and stories of my journey from Seoul to Berlin by boat and train, September 2012.]
About to embark on a trip of a lifetime- the ‘Транссибирская магистраль’ (Transsibirskaya Magistral), better known outside of Russia as the Trans-Siberian Railway.
I’d had this trip on my travel “to-do” list for a while, but I didn’t think I’d get around to doing it until later in life. But then my father convinced me to run the Berlin Marathon with him, two of my cousins, and a whole gang of other runners from Guatemala. I’d be living in Seoul at the time, and I realized that spanning at least three fourths of the distance from Korea to Germany, and crossing the entire width of Russia, were two wonderful parallel lines of steel, vanishing into the distance and joining somewhere beyond the horizon, with promises of new sights and experiences.
In my mind, the trip was beginning to form.
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The Trans-Siberian Railway, spanning 9,289 kilometers from Vladivostok to Moscow, would only be Part 2 of 3 in this journey. Part 1, Korea to Vladivostok, was only possible by air or sea (North Korea essentially being a giant roadblock for ground transport). Boats rank higher than airplanes in my transport hierarchy, so I did some research and soon purchased a ticket with DBS Cruise, departing Donghae and arriving in Vladivostok twenty-four hours later. That’s how the second piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place, and turned this journey into an overland journey. If I’d be traveling from Seoul to Donghae to Vladivostok to Moscow by land and sea only, it wouldn’t make sense to then fly to Berlin. A second train ride became Part 3 of 3, and the overland journey from Seoul to Berlin, without ever losing a grounding connection to the surface of our planet, was complete.
Off we go! We leave Donghae in our wake and begin the roughly 500 kilometer voyage, heading north-northeast and being careful not to get too close to the North Korean shore.
Later on I was making small talk with a man from Colorado, one of the few non-Russian and non-Koreans on board. We were watching the faraway coast of South Korea drift by and I said, “I hope we stay close enough to see North Korea.” He gave me a worried look and replied, “Well Javier, I don’t know if I can agree with you on that!”
But my wish comes true! And with what a perfect timing! The first sunset of the trip, over the distant coastline of North Korea. This enigmatic country draws me with a force I cannot explain, and establishing visual connection was magic.
The following morning – first view of Russian soil! Rocky islands dotted the ocean as we approached Vladivostok.
And the first view of Vladivostok – the giant suspension bridge (longest in the world, I think), connecting Russky Island to the mainland peninsula. This bridge, and another similar one, were recently constructed in anticipation for the APEC summit which occurred in mid-September. There was some controversy regarding other construction projects (eg. a new theater) that were not completed in time for the summit. It was funny to see a construction site, maybe halfway done and teeming with workers, draped in giant banner saying something like ‘APEC, September 6-10’, when it was already September 12th.
Here we entered Золотой Рог (Zolotog Roy), or ‘Golden Horn’ Bay, named after the original Golden Horn Bay in the Bosphorus Straits of Turkey, where Instanbul is located today. This bay provided the perfect location for a deep sea water port, and therefore was (or still is) of strategic importance to the Soviet Union/Russia. (Vladivostok was an improvement over the previous port city on Russia’s Pacific Coast, because by virtue of being farther south, its waters are frozen less days of the year. I can’t remember what the original port on the Pacific was, but the switch must have happened sometime in the second half of the 19th century).
Vladivostok, straight ahead! - The city was founded in 1860, when Qing China, weakened by the Opium Wars with the British, was forced to relinquish huge chunks of its northeastern territory to Russia in the Treaty of Beijing.
Raising the flag of Russia - There are lots of different interpretations as to where the three colors originally came from, and what their meanings are. The one I liked best was that white at the top represents a bright future, blue in the middle represents a clouded present, and red at the bottom represents a bloody past.
So we arrived in Vladivostok at 2pm, but by the time the port authorities let us disembark, and we cleared customs and immigration, it was already about 5:30pm.
I walked out of the cruise terminal and realized I had no idea what to do. I’d be staying for three nights with a local couchsurfer (basically, CouchSurfing is an organization that connects travelers around the world to hosts who let you crash on their couch for free), and I had a little piece of paper with rudimentary directions to his apartment. But the lingering hangover and unexpected shock of being in Russia put me off my game, and I kind of just started wandering in a random direction. The day had gotten hot and my bags were heavy with provisions for the upcoming one-week train ride, and I was not happy to be walking around lost. In cases like this, when I have some kind of problem and I’m not sure what to do, I usually just sit down and do nothing about it. The immediacy of the problem makes thinking about anything else irrelevant, and doing nothing about the problem means you’re not thinking, period. I find a blank, empty, and quiet mind like this hard to come by, so I cherish these moments. I must have sat on a random sidewalk for an hour just watching people pass by, eating my last ‘Dr. You’ granola bar from Korea.
Lenin pointing for me in the wrong direction.
Eventually I got back on my feet, found the place where I had to catch the bus, took it to the wrong station (didn’t discover until after an hour of searching for the street, and also some more sitting around and doing nothing), took a bus to another wrong station, but figured out where the apartment building was, hiked up a steep hill and avoided a car that almost ran me over, and finally got there. When I arrived my host didn’t seem too happy to see me. I had failed to call ahead (there weren’t any public telephones, and I was too dazed to attempt the whole borrow a cellphone from a random Russian thing) and he had already given my spot to some other travelers. Still, he was nice enough to accept me and that night I almost enjoyed sleeping on his hardwood floor.
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I’ve traveled to beautiful places, and I’ve traveled to alright places, but I rarely find myself somewhere where I say, “Damn, this place is ugly!” So beyond there being an absence of beauty, there is also a marked presence of ugliness. A volitionally created ugliness, if you will. (Not that I only travel looking for beauty, either. A place like this can be just as interesting, or more, than a postcard kind of scene). Downtown Vladivostok, with its pre-Soviet buildings, was more picturesque, but spoke of a different era.
Day 1 in Vladivostok. The Russian guy I was staying with was an architect and graphic designer and gave me this really cool map of the city he had worked on, asking me to use it as I explored the city and tell him about any problems I had with it or offer general feedback. He traced out a walking route I should follow, starting at the train station downtown, but that plan was thrown out the window as soon as the bus crashed with another car, and all passengers were forced to alight on the side of the road. Luckily enough, it was next to the Pokrovsky Cathedral, so I started my walking tour there.
Some nicer architecture on the way to the Arsenyev State Museum. The museum is named after Vladimir Arsenyev, one of the main explorers of the Russian Far East. He wrote a lot about the area’s flora and fauna, and local indigenous tribes (Russia used to have numerous tribes of indigenous people in Siberia and the Far East, most of whom were wiped out in a story similar to that of the Europeans arriving in America). His book, ‘Dersu Uzala’ has been turned into film several times, including one adaptation by Akira Kurosawa (one of his few color films, I believe).
Ahhh I wish I had my Trans-Siberian book to remember exactly what I read, but it was something like – when Lenin died a committee or institute was created and given some ridiculous name like “Institute of the Study of Lenin’s Remains”. They measured and weighed all his organs, maybe trying to find the secret to his greatness. The day after he died the newspaper reported that his brain weighed a whopping X.X lbs (can’t remember), which was XX% heavier than the average human brain (naturally). And if someone was curious how much his liver or gallbladder weighed, the committee reported that too.
Yuri Gagarin! "I could have gone on flying through space forever.”
Day 2 in Vladivostok.
I met up with a half-German half-Thai couchsurfer also visiting Russia, and we took a short ferry ride to Russky Island, just south of the city. I had heard there were some abandoned fortresses on the island, some beaches, some trails in the forest. But we showed up with no map, no information, and literally no plan of what to do. So we just got off the ferry and took a right.
The scenery quickly turned to this. Old, decrepit buildings, and no one in sight. Immediate thoughts/feelings: this island is spooky, this is the perfect place to film a horror movie, this is where mutated humans would live (à la The Hills Have Eyes)
We eventually find a large hill and decide to climb it. It was really nice with the wind blowing through tall grasses.
An overcast and cloudy day provided the perfect atmosphere for visiting this spooky island. It would have been a totally different vibe on a clear, sunny day (or maybe these clouds are permanently stuck on top of the island? Entirely possible).
The view from the top, looking back towards where we came from.
On the left side of the picture you can see some blue dots lining either side of the dirt road…. this is a cemetery. What I found interesting about the cemetery was that (1) almost all the gravestones had a picture of the deceased person (kind of creepy, when you’re walking past their grave and they’re looking at you), (2) lots of people had died young (before they turned 50), and not only in Soviet times but recently as well, and (3) every gravestone is closed in by a small fence, and within this enclosure there was always a picnic table. This confused us at first, but later we passed a family visiting the grave of a deceased relative (I assume), and they were all seated at this picnic table, next to the gravestone, enjoying some snacks and drinks (and I guess keeping the deceased company?). I thought that was nice.
Another view from the top, looking away from where we came from.
Down below you can see a car wreck, and then towards the tip of the island you can kind of see a little spot of a different color. Well I zoomed in with my camera to take a closer look, and it turned out to be one of the abandoned fortresses. So we calculated what direction to take and started heading there.
I was leading the way, and must have walked into at least fifty spider webs as we entered and left the forest. Sometimes the spider would end up on my pants or shirt but they were usually small so I’d just flick them off with a ‘meh, whatever’ and keep on. But at one point (and I’m not kidding about this), I look down at my pants and what do I see crawling around but THREE spiders the size of a cookie (can’t think of another comparison), and as if the size weren’t enough, two of them were bright orange and the third one was blue. These weren’t your ordinary run of the mill spiders but some kind of straight from the imaginarium of Legends of Zelda, boosted on Russian radiation creatures that arachnophobic nightmares are made of.
Anyway, we found it! An abandoned fortress on Russky Island. No idea when it was built, but I’m guessing early 20th century when Russia was fighting with Japan? Perfect lookout spot for any subs or boats trying to sneak up on Vladivostok. It was completely overgrown with plants and looked like no one had walked around there in months.
On the way back....
My favorite photo from the trip, and the side of Russia I want to experience more of when I go back (stick to the Far East, stick to small towns and the countryside).
They couldn’t care less about living on a backwater island, or the shitty weather that day, or the ugly beach covered in trash. Instead, they were thoroughly enjoying a Russian picnic (vodka+snacks), while sportng bathing suits and hearty smiles.
Their dog, however, was not too happy.
And finally, a spectacular sunset and candy colored skies as I bid adieu to Vladivostok and go catch a certain train.