By Lily Ong
My arrival at Vladivostok International Airport was a little past midnight. Accustomed to storing everything on my smart phone, and given that my hand was in a plaster cast, I thought my journey would be made easier with all of my paperwork stored digitally, including my visa. The immigration officer, taking respectable pride in her work and insisting on the protocol paper-based documentation, didn’t quite see it that way. After a few calls with the lead officer in their exotic language, though, I was finally given the green light to proceed onto their terrain.
My airport greeters were a lovely young couple. Arina, with hair dyed in patriotic red, and Andrey, who was a head and a half taller than his colleague, greeted me with joyful expressions that immediately dispelled the myth that Russians don’t smile.
Once we got in the waiting van, I asked the couple if they were full-time guides. I learned that both conduct tours on the side in a bid to practice their English. Arina shared
that she’s still attending university and Andrey responded with “I’m a cyber sportsman.” First astounded at the entertainingly named profession, then smiling, I looked at him and said, “You know, in the Unites States, they simply call you a hacker.” We all chuckled heartily.
I was driven to Lotte Vladivostok, the largest South Korean hotel chain. With South Korean visitors doubling in number each year since Russia’s 2015 launch of the visa-free regime with South Korea, I soon found that plenty in this town is catered to this group of visitors, from ease of locating Kim Chee to finding Korean speaking guides.
Travelling solo with a fractured hand is no mean feat, and doing your hair is no less so. The next morning, my limited mobility prompted me to seek the help of a hair salon to manage the morass of my coiffure. It pleasantly surprised me when the salon refused to charge me because they couldn’t style my hair the way I wanted. To be fair, it was well within their expertise, except I insisted against the use of hair-spray. Such servitude, as I learned, is typical of Russians – unless results are delivered as per the customer’s requirements, they will graciously dismiss any charges.
With what hair I could clumsily pile on top of my head, I ventured out to the City Centre. The buzz of the city greeted my senses quickly and I pondered, for a second, the bragging rights of the efficacy of sanctions – this is clearly not a city “in ruins”, as oftentimes reported in the media, but one thriving with resilience in a stalwart territory backed by over a thousand years of history.
Something I enjoy when traveling in new places is the ability to get myself lost with little effort. Though Vladivostok is frequently touted as a gray seaport with little to offer, nothing could be further from the truth. My eyes were no sooner drawn to the sensuous lingerie shop along Svetlanskaya Street, showcasing a variety of stockings beyond my dreams, than they were lured to Central Square overlooking Zolotoy Rog Bay, where a multi-storied Costa Serena cruise ship, operated by International Cruise Services Vladivostok, was seen on its voyage.
I chanced upon a farm market selling everything from caviar to beautifully handwoven baskets, colorful trays of organic berries to notable Russian pastries, enough to sate anyone’s sweet tooth. The affable stall owners were quick to offer me a taste of cowberries, rums balls with vanilla biscuit covered with cocoa power, and just about anything my eyes were caught feasting upon. The vegetables did not lose out to their honeyed counterparts and appealed just as successfully with their freshness and intact roots.
My itinerary continued a little off the beaten path as I made my way into Zvevda Shipbuilding Complex. A site of high security, this is a place of strategic importance in the Far East that employs only Russian nationals among its manpower. Unfolded before me was a patent exchange of best practices as I saw German equipment being deployed amid adoption of Singapore’s crane technology. As I walked through the magnificent stages of shipbuilding, the same site where Soviet submarines were decommissioned post-Cold War, I found Vladivostok to be a contradiction of its austere reputation; this city is a living artery of Russia that pulsates with a vibrant spirit as enduring as its surrounding seas.
No visit to Vladivostok is complete without a visit to Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), whose amazing new campus on Russky Island was specially erected for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit; it is here my doubts about Russia’s commitment towards a greater role in Asia Pacific eased. The aesthetics and functionality of the unique campus of FEFU evoke the envy of any college. Laced along its side is a stretch of private beach that serves as a muse to those majoring in literature, as it does to those looking for a break from the course of academic study.
As a matter of fact, residents of FEFU could easily live, work and play within its premise, because it conveniently houses grocery stores, banks, post offices and other municipal services. During international forums at FEFU, President Vladimir Putin is known to reserve the Presidential Suites located within its five-star hotel complex for foreign heads of states and other top dignitaries.
For two of my mornings in Vladivostok, I had to skip breakfast for having indulged too richly in the largess of my local hosts the nights before. The only thing that exceeded the superiority and abundance of the food they served is their traditional Russian hospitality – one of glorious warmth and lavish generosity.
One of my lunches comprised of a seafood menu that served up splendid dishes, like the Kamchatka Crab; for how gigantic this creature is, it is no wonder it has earned itself the nickname of the Red King Crab. Eating as the locals do, I savored my scallops raw, baked and grilled. Even my salad came with a seafood theme – succulent pieces of calamari cradled within sea cabbage, onion and carrot. The only thing I found to be challenging was my bowl of cucumaria, a variety of sea cucumber, but only because it proved to be resistant to any kind of chewing!
The delicacies of my final dinner in Vladivostok were as unforgettable as the restaurant I dined in itself. However, to call Lesnaya Zaimka a restaurant is an understatement. This is a significant cultural and historical monument that has not only witnessed a patronage of noteworthy dignitaries, including President Putin, DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un, and Singapore’s own Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, but hosted the reception of US President, Gerald Ford, and Chief of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev, after their signing of the agreement on the limitations of nuclear weapons in 1974. If walls could talk, what stories these would have to tell of more than four decades of momentous diplomatic conversations!
The structure of the restaurant itself is made of solid wood and meticulously ornate carvings can be seen sprawling across its walls to its pillars, the same way beautiful parquet is seen to cover its entire floors. Even the chandeliers that bask its diners in a soft, romantic glow are said to be comparable to the ones in the Kremlin Palace.
Among the restaurant’s notable dishes are its wild game specialties. I had venison in a stew, roe deer on a cast iron plate, bear (yes, bear!) salad, boiled beef tongue, and salmon caviar – all of which paired perfectly with the bitter-sweet notes of the accompanying premium Russian vodka.
Eventually, it was time to head home. This trip, being a prelude to my attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum in September, proved to be far too short. For sure, more time will be allocated in future to check out more of what Vladivostok has to offer, from its Marinsky Theatre to its Primorsky Aquarium, its Auto History Museum to its Naval Embankment.
Nonetheless, I managed to find comfort in what pieces of Vladivostok I could take home with me, more specifically, pitchye moloko, which is essentially soft meringue encased in fine quality dark chocolate. Whoever says we can’t have our cake and eat it too should definitely consider a call at the port of Vladivostok.
Daily flights from Singapore Changi to Vladivostok International Airport depart daily, with layovers in multiple airports in Soeul, Hong Kong, Beijing and across Japan.