Monday, October 27, 2008

Days 63-65: Vladivostok, Russia

Well, two things in Vladivostok were better than I was warned about on board: the people were a bit nicer that I expected, especially at customs, where I was whisked through, and the temperature, at least during the day, was a bit warmer.

The rest...?? Well, to put it lightly, it was either exactly what I expected or far worse. I understand that, by human nature, I would be comparing Vladivostok with the last place I had visited, Japan, which is like comparing apples and oranges.

In any case and by any standards, the city was dirty. It didn't feel rich, although by Russian standards it was. Prices were exorbitant for all things: hotels, Internet ($4/hour), food (half a liter of kefir for $1, a decent lunch: $5). Taxis didn't have meters--i.e. some did, but many of the drivers refused to turn them on and gave a set rate of 300 rubles ($11) for a distance that took 5 minutes to reach by foot. Random security checks, bureacracy far worse than almost anywhere else, etc.

The good thing is that I rarely see drunk people here during the day and night. Poor people, yes, but not many drunk people. Perhaps this is because I am rarely out late, because it feels a bit dangerous (okay, maybe more than a bit). Three quintessentially Russian experiences hit me here already, which I will share:

1.) My stay at Hotel Venice. Now, such a name hints at elegance and comfort, but this was probably more akin to a -5 star hotel. In fact, many locals had never heard of the hotel. It was probably closer to a Love Hotel, minus the anomity and the choice to stay one hour or longer. This place was dirt cheap, located in a few barracks a few minutes' walk down from the railway station. The cheapest rooms went for 600 roubles ($23). There was a foldable bed with sheets and a blanket and that's about it. Well, and some electricity. For 700 roubles, which I opted for, there is a drawer, a free telephone that rarely works, and a bigger room. I was warned that I would hear everything my neighbors were doing, and, surely, that warning didn't disappoint. The bathroom facilities were shared, but I dared not use any of them. The hotel actually was taken off the Internet hotel registry and does not allow foreigners to stay there, which beckons the question: "how in the world did they let me, a foreigner, stay?" Well, in short, I met a young man my age at the train station, who was waiting for a train that leaves in 5 hours. He had a Russian passport and turned out to be a great guy, so he volunteered to register him in the room, but in reality I would be sleeping there. And that's what we did.

2.) Unfortunately, since the hotel doesn't allow foreigners, they obviously don't do the government-mandatory foreigner registration. And I couldn't go to a local government migration office and tell them that I had stayed there. So I went to the Migration Department Office about 15 minutes by foot from Hotel Venice only to find out that it opens at 10 a.m., and not 9 as I had expected. Then I waited in line for about 2 hours until someone would talk to me. I made up an excuse how I had a hotel reserved (Hotel Amurskiy Zaliv), but because it was so expensive, I ended up canceling it (true) and spent the whole night at a discoteque (half-true, as the second half of the night I spent trying to fall asleep in Hotel Venice). She asked me what the address of the discoteque was, and before I had a chance to answer, she added that it was ludicrous that I had done something like that and how if I spend my nights at a nightclub it would be impossible for me to obtain registration. She probably thought I was being sardonic and was very rude, but all I could do was smile, knowing that what I was telling her is the truth. This would mean I am breaking a Russian law that mandates all foreigners to register within 72 hours of their first entry into Russia (minus weekends). I didn't know what to do and thought of calling Svetlana, a nice Armenian girl I had met at a nightclub the night before, to ask her if we could write her address as my temporary place of stay in Vladivostok. Then I realized that it's fruitless, since I had a tourist, and not a guest, visa. After all of this wasted time, I went to a real hotel and asked them they would register me, although I would not stay there (obviously, I would pay for the registration). They refused, and told me that I had to stay there in order to obtain my registration. Heartbroken, I came back to Venice and had thoughts of ditching Russia for the next ferry back to Japan ASAP, only to realize then that this basically means I am cutting my trip halfway and returning back to America--without a ticket back to America as is (via Japan). So I asked them at the reception desk what to do and the people at Venice, who were rude at first but lightened up after they realized what a cool guy I was, recommended a Hotel called Moryak (Sailor). Apparently, Hotel Moryak had rooms for only 1,200 roubles ($44), and they took care of the registration work. Well, surely, this worked. But $45 was too expensive for a Soviet-style economy class-type room. Nonetheless, I had no choice--and Vladivostok has a huge shortage of budget accommodation. This was the cheapest normal place in town (obviously, excluding Venice, which is not normal by any standards, although this was quite an experience), and they did registration for only 20 roubles ($0.80). Unfortnately, luggage storage the day of check-out is not free and is about $2 per bag. God, I still can't believe how, out of despairity, I am paying such high prices for a total lack of modern facilities and almost a total lack of service. Well, at least the location is good.

3.) I was queing at the train station office to find out the price of a ticket to Mongolia from Irkutsk when two Russian security officials and one female accompanying them approached me and asked me to show me their passport. I obliged, sensing that they were real workers and not scam artists. Then they told me to continue inquiring about the ticket and then follow them, which I did. They checked everything I had in my bag, inspected me, asked me some questions, and then let me go some 15 minutes after the whole ordeal started. All without a general explanation of why and what, even when I asked. They just told me afterwards: "Beware, this city has a lot of freaks, so keep your valuables with you at all times... and now at least you'll have something about Russia to tell everyone back home about." ............ "That's for sure," I replied. ................


Vitaly said...

yep same old shit, high prices and rude people, awaiting for more stories

Anonymous said...

Blin, ya ved' v avgyste dymal v Irkytsk poehat' ot tydova...
I'm reconsidering.
Ne popadaisya tam, 4yffag!