Our last experience on a Russian train was probably the best! It felt good to complete the last leg of the Russian part of our trip on the Trans-Siberian train number 6 from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, and this time it was a train that was clean and airy and we had a 4 berth cabin to ourselves. There is something so civilised about the way the Russians do train travel: freshly laundered & starched cotton sheets, tea and coffee in those beautiful glasses with the ornate metal holders, and the view from the window: gentle birch forests by the mile, lush green countryside dotted with rural settlements, and abundant looking kitchen gardens. In the cabin there’s a place for everything: under seat spaces to stow your luggage, hangers for your clothes (Russians tend to change into athletic wear and flip-flops as soon as they board a train), cubby-holes for specs, book and bottle of water, and a little reading light. The train left at 9pm and arrived at 8.15am, and was as good as a hotel room.
We were met at Vladivostok station by our Airbnb host, who kindly drove us to the apartment. Good thing to, because we would’ve found it hard to get to; it wasn’t far out of town, but Vladivostok is one of those hectic places where there’s several ways to get anywhere and there is a serious amount of cars and traffic jams. The city seems to spend a lot of time shrouded in a thick, misty fog making it impossible to see the end of your nose, or find tell your apartment block from any other apartment block; perhaps it’s caused by the combination of sea and steep hills that surround the bay in which the city nestles. On the second day of our stay, we allowed ourselves to buy rather a lot of stuff at a supermarket in the city centre. Laden with heavy bags we trudged around determined to get a taxi, but for some reason it wasn’t as simple as all that. Soon a kind gentleman noticed our beleaguered expressions and our ‘out-of-towner’ appearance. (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but it spooks me how everyone in Russia seems to notice that we are foreigners even if we aren’t loaded down with baggage. What is it about us that seems to cry ‘TOURIST’?) He offered to help us find a taxi and got out his smart phone to hail Taxi Maxim (the Russian equivalent of Uber) Before he managed to find one, a friend of his approached and they warmly greeted each other; this involved him putting a 5,000 rouble note into his friend’s pocket. They chatted away for a minute or two and then he told us that the second guy would take us to where we needed to go. Had he sold us? Would we turn up at the peasants market in a day or two with vegetables in a crusty peroshki pie? The older gentleman, who turned out to be called Evgeny, indicated that we should follow him. Up the road we went, round the corner and into a small car park where he unlocked a messy people carrier and hastily cleared a space for us on the lumpy back seats. He drove off through the traffic and, worrying that he might be planning to murder us, I tried to make friendly conversation. My reasoning being that maybe if he liked us he might not murder us. It turned out that his daughters lived in a block not far from where we were staying and he was just a kind and generous audio-engineer who took us to our block and wouldn’t accept any money for the inconvenience.
We had a few things to do in Vladivostok. One of of which was to collect our ferry tickets to Japan via South Korea and the other was to do a little present shopping as it was our last chance to buy Matrioshka dolls! We’d got to the point we dreaded - an over capacity of luggage (esp with the presents) – and therefore had no choice but to take our excess baggage to the post office to send back to England. We had been warned off posting anything by Vladimir, our first Airbnb host in Smolensk, and there was no advice online or in the guidebooks about this. So when we arrived, sweaty and laden with stuff, at the Vladivostok Central Post Office, we we’re feeling all that optimistic. Inside the first room we walked into, the walls were dotted with posters both warning and informing potential customers of the glories and pitfalls of the Russian postal system. At one counter was a grumpy looking woman who was stitching large cardboard boxes into calico jackets; at another, an oldish lady was helping a man send a jiffy bag. Mike wandered off to get some advice and I stayed in the middle of the room, hedging my bets and hoping to dive at any counter that became free. The older lady eventually saw off the man with the jiffy bag and I chipped in and quickly asked the woman if we could buy one of the various sized postage boxes I had spied behind her. Yes, we could. Then I asked if we could fill it with stuff and post it to the UK. Yes, we could. It couldn’t have been easier. Fifteen minutes later we were out with an afternoon to spare. I only need to hear that the parcel has arrived at Mum’s house to be thoroughly satisfied with the Russian postal system.
Our tasks done, the end of the line reached and we were about to leave Russia. It felt strange to be spending our last night in that enormous country. It’s been a long and interesting journey, and so satisfying for me to be using the Russian language again. Mike’s learned a lot of it himself and has just about cracked the Cyrillic alphabet. Not a bad result for a couple of fogeys. For the next part of our journey it wouldn't be possible to have chats with people, share opinions and argue the toss. We did do four hours of Japanese lessons, spread over four weeks, before we left England, but the best we could hope for out of that would be to ask for directions to the toilet, buy a train ticket, and maybe try to score some vegetarian meals. We learned a lot of greetings, excuse me’s and thank you’s; very important in Japan, but any more than that just isn’t realistic. The brief time we spent in Korea was really hard because not a single word was known.
The closest we really got to Korea was the two days we spent on the Korean-run DBS Ferries Cruise Ship. Before we boarded we’d got ourselves quite excited at the prospect of the luxurious facilities and plush accommodation that we saw in a brochure at the Vladivostok branch of DBS. We’d booked a first class cabin for the voyage from Vladivostok to Donghae and a two berth, second class cabin for the Donghae to Sakaiminato leg. When we boarded the ferry we were given our key and went to find our cabin. “Hmmm”, is this really first class? What we found was a four berth cabin with four sets of thin, foam mattresses on a carpeted platform. Granted, there was a private shower and loo. We didn’t think it was first class though and were expecting beds, so we went to speak to the reception desk. They assured us that we were in the right cabin and that anyway they were fully booked and there were no others that we could try. We grumpily returned to our cabin to find another couple had also been given the same billet! We’d paid over $100 more than them though, and looking at the floor plan of the ferry confirmed our suspicions that it wasn’t first class. The Russian couple sharing our cabin were lovely, but also surprised to be sharing. Mike took our complaint a little further up the chain of command and we were eventually allocated a cabin just to ourselves, one having been miraculously discovered.
The ferry was mainly catering for Korean travellers and there were a couple of large groups. They were a joyful and ebullient lot, hell bent on partying all the way with no expense spared. Good thing too, considering the prices of food and drinks in the bar and restaurant: $3.50 for a cup of tea, $10 for a plate of chips, and the restaurant only ran at set times, with a buffet table for $9 a head. Foreigners (us) could use our meal tickets at only the earliest sittings for both supper (6 to 6.30) and breakfast (7 to 7.30). There were two other sittings, but only for Koreans. We bought a meal ticket each for the first night, but the food was really horrible with no redeeming features and only a couple of components for a vegetarian.
The first night’s entertainment was a band followed by a disco. Both were brilliant. The Korean passengers were drinking heavily and having a whale of a time. The disco floor throbbed with wailing K-Pop and it wasn’t long before Mike and I were joining the throng on the dance floor. We were warmly accommodated and far from the oldest swingers on board.
The following morning we docked in Donghae around 11.30 and joined the group of foreigners who were in the slot of those last to leave the boat. Most of this group were Russians: Families heading to Korea for their summer hols. Then there was a small group of Dutch bikers and a large group of German Hells Angels. The last two parties, like us, were travelling on to Japan. There was a 6 hour stopover in Korea first and we all had the opportunity to jump ship and spend some of that time in down town Donghae. Immigration was rather a long, drawn out process and we probably would’ve given up if we weren’t downright hungry and keen to have an extra stamp in our passports.
After a thoroughly hot, short adventure in Donghae, we got back to the ferry terminal and had a chance to complain about the lack of first class cabin on the journey to there. This resulted in an upgrade!! To Junior Suite class!! With real beds!! Actually the beds were no more comfortable than the foam mattresses, but we did have a window and a scrummy supper in our cabin. All’s well that ends well.
And so, after a second night at sea, we disembark in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, Japan, the home town of Shigeru Mizuki and a shrine to his GeGeGe no Kitarō manga characters. It’s just after 9am and already getting pretty hot and humid; quite a difference from Vladivostok. There’s a considerably strict system of quarantine here for importing things such as plants, grains, and even apples (we thus loose our two apples that we bought at great expense in Donghae), so we spend quite a while getting through immigration and customs, but eventually emerge and catch the free shuttle bus to the train station, which is fairly near to the Airbnb we’ve booked. We have the address for the Airbnb and a photo of what it looks like, and proceed to try out our Japanese on an unsuspecting taxi driver.
It works to start off with; he seems to understand where we wish to go, but then it goes downhill rather rapidly. We drive not very far from the station – about ten minutes walk away – into a suburban area; a kind of housing estate. The driver stops at a group of houses in a block called “Hydranger” and starts talking to us in Japanese; he seems to be telling us we’re here, but we don’t understand him, and the place we’re at looks nothing like the photo we have. There appears to be no house numbers or street names as far as we can tell, but then again we’re completely clueless. However it soon emerges that so is the taxi driver!
We drive around a bit more, up that street, down another, a u-turn, back up that street, and we stop at another group of houses looking nothing like the photo and again without any numbers. The driver starts speaking to us in rapid Japanese, again apparently indicating that we’re here! At this point Mike calls the guy who’s our Airbnb host, who is at work, and hands the phone to the taxi driver. They talk and then we head off again. We imagine we’ll be there shortly, but no; we continue to drive round in circles again looking for this place; still no discernible numbers on any of the houses; taxi driver speaking to us more and more, and us simply having no other recourse than to say “no” and to show him the address we have written down again. Mike tries our host again; he’s engaged now. We drive around some more. At this juncture, the taxi driver makes us pay a 1,000 yen bill that we’ve accrued thus far. We do that and we’re starting to think about getting out of the taxi and abandoning ship.
Next we try to persuade the driver to take us back to the station, but this doesn’t seem to work. A last attempt at calling the host and this time he answers. Mike gets him to speak to the driver again. The end result of which is that we get dropped off outside a Chinese restaurant with the promise that our host will be along on a bicycle in 20 minutes to save us. We wait. It’s hot and very humid. Someone from the restaurant comes out and offers us some cigarettes. We wait. Mike decides to go inside to ask if any of the food is vegetarian perchance. This fails completely. Mike comes back out and we wait. We text our host. His response comes back. He’s going to leave now on his bicycle and he’ll be twenty minutes. At this point I started to loose my rag. I ask Mike for my passport with the idea of going off to find a hotel; he can carry on waiting for the host because he seems to really want to stay with him. Mike feels this is bad idea and agrees to go with me. We therefore decide at this point to give up on Aibnb for the time being and to walk back to the station. It takes us ten minutes to get back and book into the hotel next door. It turns out to be the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in….