Kilometres pass, changing time zones, days and nights chasing one another, and after so much wandering eastwards, I have finally reached the point where the tracks die and the Trans-Siberian journey comes to an end. Besides, you cannot go any further, there is the ocean beyond and, in front of me, somewhere, there is Japan. In short, I arrived at Vladivostok, the Russian outpost on the Pacific Ocean. At the train station, a plaque on platform number one keeps a record of the kilometres. From Moscow there are 9288 km, but mine are a bit more because my Russian journey begins in St. Petersburg. About ten thousand kms of railways separate the Baltic Sea from the Pacific Ocean.
The satisfaction of having made it, however, is soon dampened when I go to buy the ticket to assure myself a return journey to the “Far West”. After half an hour of a cluttered queue, the ticket cashier, a surly woman quite annoyed by the fact that I only know a dozen words in Russian, disoriented me. No seats available from now to six days, she impatiently informs me. Then I can get on a train to Yekaterinburg, the capital city of the Urals. Take or leave; I have no choice: I take it. So I’m stuck in this strip of land at the borders of the Russian Federation.
Vladivostok is a strange place. The city, founded in 1860, is located on a remote peninsula on the brink of Russia and it extends towards the two Koreas looking into the face of Japan. In just ten years after its creation, it became a bustling busy naval base full of foreign merchants as well as the consecration of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which has its last stop here, made it prosper further. Today, it is a metropolis in the making, where the cranes rise skyscrapers, new construction sites work to redevelop the old piers and cast polished historians tsarist-era palaces.
Wherever you look, the sea is there. Before being a proper city, Vladivostok is a port devoted to heavy trading, a feature that makes it hard and of metal in spite of the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds it. Long merchant ships through the bay, called the “Golden Horn” because of its similarity to Istanbul’s one, and gigantic colourful containers lie on concrete piers waiting to be picked up by the massive mechanical arms working even at night. Vladivostok is also, and perhaps above all, a military base, which enjoys a strategic position. There are so many Navy ships moored and many sailors who enliven the city.
This military vocation does not surprise me at all: it is a well known fact that Russia is today one of the countries which invests hugely in defence. Between 1992 and 1996, the funding reduction program, wanted by Yeltsin, caused to halve the quotas and reduce the force of impact in the Russian military. However, further to the interventions by the North Atlantic alliance in the Balkans in the late 1990s, Russia has been questioning its armaments policy. The expected U-turn led successive governments to resume investments in defence, which are nonetheless lower than those of the USA. In 2013, according to the Military Balance, the USA spent US$ 600 billion in military potential against 81.4 by the Russian Federation.
Vladivostok is not only the main industrial and military port of the country, but also the city of the fog, as I would know soon. In the days of my enforced stay, of the two futuristic pure lines bridges which cross the bay, I can only see a few stay rods that seem to be suspended in the nothingness, excerpts of the bridge disappearing swallowed by the white mist. Despite the uninviting weather, on my last day in the city Katia and Yelya, friends of one of my friends from St. Peters burg, propose to go to the beach. I look up at the sky: I still can see only low clouds, but I accept the invitation because I understand that for Russians in Vladivostok, fog or not, if it’s summer they must go to the sea. So we take our picnic lunch bought at the supermarket and by car we head in half an hour from the city, wearing the bathing suit under the padded jackets. Russian ritual requires that once arrived at the beach you dive into the water shouting for joy.
I’m not convinced at all, but Katia and Yelya insist enthusiastic trying to persuade me to jump into the water. “No, I’m not going to have a bath” I resolutely say watching the black menacing clouds roaming over the sea, while I shiver wearing the bathing suit. They keep on insisting and eventually I give up. I see them running happily down to the water, along with other equally happy Russians and, much to my dismay, they jump into the cold sea. The icy water feeling is terrible and makes me think all day of a probable pneumonia, but my friends are at their own ease swimming in the ocean. We end the day eating pirojki, kolbasa and sticky caramelized chocolate sitting down on a red carpet embroiled of stylized floral patterns and mooses.
After the day to the beach I have to leave again. Hoping to escape the pneumonia I go to the Vladivostok train station under the stern gaze of the Lenin statue that with his arm seems to point the rail road. It’s dark, my train for the West leaves at midnight, and I sit sleepily in the bright reception room. When I look up to stare at the ceiling, I notice that it is decorated with paintings which present the starting point and destination of the Trans-Siberian. On one side Moscow with the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square and the Church of Christ the Saviour, on the other Vladivostok with its elegant train and a ship in full sail.
It’s time to go back and I’m going to travel for six days in platzkart expect.
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