Two hours out of Vladivostok, the sea is as still as a mill pond. We are outside on the top deck, wondering if we can see land yet. The fog is thick, a lone seagull is following us: land cannot be far, yet I see nothing. We have slowed down. It is beautifully eerie. The stillness belies the excitement I am starting to feel. We are told docking will be delayed due to Russian war ships ahead. Then we stop and I can now just barely discern the grey outline of islands. The excitement is suddenly palpable: a young girl skips towards her mother as soon as she too spots one island, a young man re-enacts the famous Titanic pose while his friend takes a photo of him, Russians returning home start moving their bags to the exit.
Half an hour from docking, we see the culprit of our delay going the other way – maybe he was docked in our spot.
Vladivostok port is huge, so many freight carriers, cranes, tugs, the activity is on either side of the port is fantastic – to think that we are at the southern tip of Russia, so far from the capital! The famous bridge is barely visible, then we see the famous Vladivostok sign above the ferry terminal. What can I say? My excitement cannot be contained. Everybody is taking photos, selfies, photos for each other.
One of the ferry staff had told us, the group of 12 motorcyclists from Korea plus the 3 Japanese motorcyclists who joined the ship in Japan, to wait in a particular area. Pretty impressive how he tracked us all down! It turns out that all motorcyclists and car drivers, ie all the passengers who just brought hand luggage on board, are to disembark first.
Immigration and customs security is painless and as we enter a ‘holding hall’, we are greeted by a cheerful and welcoming Svletlanya, our agent Yuri’s partner. There are 5 of us on her list as all the Koreans are being handled by another agent, 3 Japanese and us. One is missing and we wait over an hour for him. It turns out that he is travelling with a car and a motorcycle (?!) and wanted to leave a minimum in his vehicle… At least we had time to sign the dozen pages of customs forms each which Svletlanya had prepared for us by the time he arrives with the largest suitcase I have ever seen and boxes on a makeshift trolley!!
Yuri, from Links Ltd, picks the 5 of us up in his van and takes to our respective hotels. It is an interesting introduction to Vladivostok, driving past an unfinished Hyatt hotel, unoccupied for the past 5 years for some reason, up steep narrow muddy paths to a hostel to drop one of our Japanese (he changed hotels the next morning!) and manoeuvering in rush hour traffic remind us of the Russian road ‘rules’. Then once we have all checked in, Yuri takes us to a bank to get Rubles, and a telecom company for Sim cards. We bump into our Korean friends there!! It feels like we have met up with long lost friends. It is amazing how the travelling community bonds so quickly! Yuri recommends a place nearby for dinner, Republic, a chain of restaurants in Vladivostok, and the 6 of us trundle off there and we invite 3 Koreans to join us. No more Kimchi!!! I will not miss it… I don’t think…
The next morning was an incredibly efficient customs process: Yuri and Svetlanya had everything in hand between them, like a well oiled machine. She was already at the customs office when Yuri brought us over just after 9am, having started the process for us before we arrived and Yuri then drove and took us here and there, to various offices, getting more forms signed. By noon, we were all done and ready to leave the port on our bikes. As always we will write up the border process on our blog, but for now, I would like to say that we highly recommend Yuri. All my communication with Yuri over the past few months and once we arrived has been fantastic. Anyone needing to ship to or from Vladivostok should contact Yuri Melnikov, Links, Ltd, email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, web site: http://www.links-ltd.com. And he goes out of his way to help in any way. When we left him, he was going to take one guy to a hardware store, another to buy a motorcycle jacket and the other somewhere else.
Some days back, I had asked Yuri if he could recommend someone to take us on a tour of some of Vladivostok’s tunnels. Well, there again, he went ahead and organised it for us and our 3 Japanese motorcyclists joined us. I am glad we had time to bed down our new Heidenaus in Korea as the fog is so thick today, it is like rain. The convoy of Yuri, the Korean in his van and the 4 motorcycles wend our way through Vladivostok traffic up to Fort 7, not before turning off the road up a windy muddy track. Our first bit of off road on the Heidenaus – it feels so familiar so quickly.
Russia acquired the area that contains Vladivostok in the 19th century: China and the Mongol empire had controlled the area first, but China, afer a war with Britain felt it no longer had the resources to control the area and overestimated Russia’s military power of the time so agreed to hand the area over through the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 rather than risk another conflict. Vladivostok was initially created as a military outpost. Considering how far it was from Russia’s political political centre, and due its proximity to Japan, Korea and China who all eyed Russian territories, Russia had to fortify the peninsular. The first fortifications were built in the 1870-1890s. A series of 16 forts and several hundreds of smaller structures were built on the Peninsular and Russian Island and comprise 140kms of tunnels. We visited Fort 7, which is now a ‘museum’, open for tours. It was built in 1910, has a network of 1.5kms of tunnels, of 5m thick walls. Interestingly, while Fort housed 400 military personnel, had stores and ammunitation that could keep them underground for 2 years, the forts and tunnels were never required to be used to defend Vladivostok. A sometimes creepy feel, especially as you walk along uneven terrain, down steep long passageways, in total darkness apart from your personal tiny torch, it was nonetheless fascinating to visit.
2 hours later, it is time to bid Yuri farewell and godspeed to our fellow travellers as we head out of Vladivostok and they return to town. A brief but memorable stay in Vladivostok for us.
Communication from now on will be intermittent but we’ll do what we can. Better get some sleep now before our first long day.