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Saturday January 2, 2010

Vlad the magnificent

Vladivostok, Russia’s charming city by the bay, is said to resemble San Francisco by those who have never visited San Francisco, and Sydney by those who have never been to Sydney.

The harbour city of Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, occupies a superbly scenic position on the hills around Golden Horn Bay. Those who have never visited San Francisco says it’s like San Francisco. Those who’ve never been to Sydney say it is like Sydney.

The ornate ceiling of Vladivostok Rail Station recalls imperial Russia.-GRAHAM SIMMONS

In fact, Vladivostok is unique.

On the outskirts of Vladivostok, new bistros, advertising hoardings and “fast food” stalls dot the sublime birch forests that make up Russia’s heart and lungs. Orthodox churches, long fallen into neglect, are now being re-built. The roads are chock-a-block with new Japanese and Korean cars — even more so on weekends, when it seems that the entire population of the city is escaping to their country dacha.

Everything seems so normal . . . so utterly un-totalitarian, that any fears of landing in a re-emergent, quasi-Communist state are soon allayed. People here, it seems, want to enjoy the good life.

Vladivostok borders on the surreal. In Market Square, down by the harbour, a giant TV screen features Madonna and jazz artists, against a backdrop of a tall stark retro-Communist building, its hammer-and-sickle logo surely the last such emblem in the whole of Russia.

A panoramic view over Vladivostok Harbour.-GRAHAM SIMMONS

In the fast-changing streets, fashionable boutiques and cafés line the main shopping street, Svetlanskaya.

Start with the panoramic view over Golden Horn (or Peter the Great Bay), from the hill known as Eagle’s Nest. Originally, the plan was to build a Lenin statue here but, fortunately, perestroika intervened, and the mooted statue was replaced with the current Soul and Earth Park. As a result, a real, non-political view of this spectacular harbour can easily be had.

A brand-new monument is soon to rise in nearby Petrovskiiy Park, dedicated to the Russian Orthodox saints Pyotr and Fevroniya Muromskiye, who married each other after Fevroniya cured Pyotr of leprosy. Late in life, they retired to separate monasteries. They are said to have died within an hour of one another, and although buried in separate graves, they were later found together in the same grave.

Ladies browse the extensive range of fabrics on sale in Market Square. — GRAHAM SIMMONS

On Naberezhnaya Street down by the harbour, a World War II submarine is the centrepoint of a waterfront park. Visitors can enter the sub and experience first-hand the cramped living space of the crew. The submarine and an adjacent memorial commemorate Vladivostok’s loss of 30,000 of her citizens in the war — a tiny fraction of the national total of around 20 million.

Nearby is a statue of the city’s founder, KM Arsenyev, whose name graces one of the city’s top museums, (the Arsenyev Regional Museum). Some fascinating cultural tours are offered by the Arsenyev Museum Centre (6, Petra Velikogo Street, tel +7 4232) 22 50 77).

These include Monuments of Religious Architecture, visiting a synagogue, Japanese Buddhist temple and other places of worship; Chekhov in Vladivostok, following the footsteps of the famous writer; and The Theatres of Vladivostok, visiting the Korean and Chinese theatres, the Pushkin Playhouse and other theatres of pre-revolutionary Vladivostok.

Food & drink

For the time being, forget the vodka. Beer is the new pre-occupation of most Russians.

An arresting stained glass window in the foyer of the War Museum.-GRAHAM SIMMONS

At one of the numerous beer shops outside the Vladivostok rail station (check out the colourful ceiling frescoes), just off the tree-lined main street, a half-litre can costs 20-30 roubles (RM2.30-RM3.40) for a brew with as much as 11% alcohol, as strong as table wine.

For top Russian cuisine, try the Nostalgiya Restaurant (6/25, Pervaya Morskaya Street, tel 41 05 13), where the plush satin-lined dining room features statuettes and busts of the late Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and a triptych of dolls belonging to the Tsarina. Just 20 years ago, the mere existence of such a restaurant would have been enough to have its owners whisked off to a forced labour camp.

Another good choice if you don’t like Subway (the first Subway store opened in Vladivostok in June 2009) is Bar-Club La Trattoria (52, Svetlanskaya Street, tel 20 53 07), located in the house of the former governor-general of the Russian Far East, and featuring traditional Italian and old Russian cuisine.

Weddings are outdoor affairs during Vladivostok’s balmy summer.— GRAHAM SIMMONS

From Saturnaya rail station in suburban Vladivostok, a short walk leads to the Captain Cook Restaurant, attached to the Vlad Motor Inn.

“Sorry, kangaroo is off the menu,” says Irina, one of the gracious young attendants at the restaurant. “But you can have crocodile, if you like, and all of our wines are from Australia, too”!

It seems a little bizarre to find an Aussie restaurant in Vladivostok, but in this frontier city, the unexpected soon becomes the norm.

Shopping

There is a good, albeit expensive, gift shop next to the Nostalgiya Restaurant, but for bargains, by far the best bet is the market stalls in Market Square, by the railway station. For clothing, one of the chic-est boutiques in town is La Dolce Vita (29, Semenovskaya, open 10am-6pm daily)

Music-wise, for everything from heavy metal to heavier metal, check out Design-studio “Dela” (Aleutsakaya Street, next to Hotel Zolotoy Rog, tel +7 4232 30 03 77). The range, from home-grown to the latest US CD and DVD releases, is astonishing.

One of the newest and maybe the weirdest shop in town is Stalin, selling vodka and chocolates bearing portraits of the late dictator.

Nightlife

Later at night, the Ellada Karaoke Bar (38, Verhneportovaya Street, tel 51 78 50) beckons — or if you’re well-heeled or thin-souled, try the Eldorado Casino (29/31, Okeansky Prospekt, open 24 hours) or Casino Versailles (10, Svetlanskaya Street, tel: 26 96 96, open 6pm-5am).

Vladivostok also has a good nightclub scene. The long-running “Crazy” Nightclub (1, Okeansky Prospekt, in the Marine Passenger Terminal, open 9pm-6:30pm) has room for over 1,000 guests. Another popular hangout is the Zeleny Krokodil (“Green Crocodile”) Club at 12 Svetlanskaya Street.

If you don’t want to spend too much money, just grab a bottle of cheap Moldavian red wine and walk up the hill near Hotel Vladivostok. The views at night are spectacular.

And now the good news . . .

As of July 2009, the passenger ferry Eastern Dream, equipped with cabins, bars, restaurants and even a nightclub, sails weekly from Donghee (South Korea) to Sakaminoto in Japan and thence on to Vladivostok. In a first for Russia, ferry passengers disembarking in Vladivostok may stay for up to 72 hours in the country without a visa.

Ferry fares are significantly lower than airfare.

Getting there

If you don’t want to take the new ferry, Korean Airlines flies regularly from Kuala Lumpur to Vladivostok via Seoul. Vladivostok Airport is a long way (50km) from the city centre, and a taxi will cost RM60-RM70 or more. Alternatively, a bus runs between the central bus station and the airport every hour.

OUT OF TOWN At Vladivostok rail station, take the comfortable Okean train for the overnight trip north to Khabarovsk. The train follows the picturesque shoreline of Amursky Bay. The city of Khabarovsk, on the junction of the giant Ussuri and Amur Rivers, seems like an elegant transplant from Western Europe, its art nouveau architecture being unique in Russia.

ACCOMMODATION

Budget: Amursky Zaliv Hotel (9, Naberezhnaya Street, tel +7 4232 22 55 20, 22 5528).

Mid-range: Hotel Vladivostok (10, Naberezhnaya Street, tel +7 4232 412 808) is centrally located with great views over Amursky Bay. However, at weekends, it seems that the whole population of China and Korea has arrived for a quick break.

Upmarket: Best Eastern Versailles Hotel: (10, Svetlanskaya, tel +7 4232 26 42 01) is centrally located and near the railway station. Or, the four-star Vlad Motor Inn (11, Vosmaya, tel +7 4232 3 13 51), Canadian-owned, some distance from town, near Saturnaya rail station.

Luxury: Hotel Hyundai: (29, Semenovskaya Street, tel +7 4232 40 22 33, e-mail: marketing.vbc@gin.ru)

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