The alarm clock went off early. Too early. Early enough for us to get to Heathrow Airport for a 10:20am flight, with time to drop the hire car off, and then stuff our excited little faces with breakfast (varying degrees of healthiness depending on whose selection you looked at). In usual style, we still had plenty of time to kill; Niall has by now accepted that it is far more pleasant for him to just accept that I need to be at airports early, rather than us arriving in a bit of a rush, and me getting very stressed and grumpy. The flight to Moscow was uneventful, but long; they also had a little nose-mounted camera on the front of the plane that they insisted on having switched on during take-off, final approach and landing – that you couldn’t turn off, even if you wanted to… Not a fan. After a bit of faffing around with customs in Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, trying to work out whether we needed to declare the car then as we flew in with all the documentation, or whether we had to do something extra at the port…… We settled for at the airport before our connecting flight – turns out this was the correct thing to do, and saved us a lot of potential faff and trouble further down the line. Tried some weird hybrid of a bread / pastry combo filled with potato and some strange herby cheese as a last resort of hunger in the airport…… not to be repeated. Then onwards to Vladivostok (another rather long flight!). Vladivostok airport is about an hour by train from the city itself; a large, comfy transfer train chugging its way through green fields, past a mixture of wooden and corrugated steel shacks, log cabins and the occasional more western-style house. I had enough trouble trying to keep my eyes open, let alone remembering to take photos, so no photo documentation of this part of the journey I’m afraid!
We had 4 days booked at a little hostel in Vladivostok, but joy of all joys they had no record of our booking when we arrived, despite Niall having email confirmation of the booking. Genius. So they sent us across town to another hostel that said they had room for us. First impressions of Vladivostok were therefore not great. Through the wonders of modern technology we already knew that we were going to make it to Vladivostok before Henry J Ruffington arrived on his cargo ship, but we only had to wait two days until his ship rolled in; the undefined variable was how long it would take customs and port officials to a) unload the container, and b) clear it for us to collect. Thanks to some less-than-optimum service (what a surprise) from GAC in Oman, the car was already over a week delayed; their promise of 30 to 35 days for the journey had somehow magically morphed into 41 days without anyone bothering to tell us. As I say, the wonders of modern technology fortunately allowed us to double check everything and only arrive in Vlad a few days (rather than a few weeks) before Henry J was due in. First port of call after we’d checked in to the hostel was to visit Yuri and Svetlana at Links Ltd who were acting as our clearing agents to make sure that we’d got everything signed that we needed to in order to speed things up when the car finally did arrive. They were super helpful (and had been over email correspondence prior to us arriving in Russia too – thoroughly recommended should you ever want to ship a car or a bike into Vlad!) Then we went off to explore the city to see what we could find. It turns out that Vladivostok is a slightly strange city for westerners; during the Soviet era it was closed to foreigners, being the home port to the Russian naval Pacific Fleet (and the largest Russian port on the Pacific coast). Through the eyes of a visiting westerner, it’s a rather severe city; grey, noisy, polluted and seemingly unwelcoming. I don’t think it helped that we knew we were only there for one reason; to collect the car, and every hour and every day we spent there waiting for the car was just another unwanted delay to the start of our (hopefully awesome) journey west.
On our first day of pottering we somehow managed to walk about 15 kilometres (in flip flops) around the city, visiting various things as we went past; an old soviet submarine, the war memorials by the new suspension bridge, old military weapons collection, and statues; lots of statues. The submarine was pretty cool, although quite randomly just plonked by the side of the pavement with a couple of wooden ramps up to the entrance and exit. There *might* have been a sign saying you had to pay extra if you wanted to take photos, but in fairness it was written in Russian, so it could have said anything.
The next day we went walkabout too. And the next day. Our days pretty much consisted of trying to sleep off our 11 hour jetlag, catching up on Wimbledon and the TdF and venturing out for little wobbles just for something to do (and escape the windowless cell of our hostel room). There are a lot of very cool and important-looking churches; the Russian orthodox churches have a lot of gold and shininess on them; it adds nice splash of colour against the grey sky!
The city was home to the 24th APEC summit, and there’s at least one hotel on the waterfront (Hyatt Regency) that has been partially built (apparently to open in time for the 2012 APEC summit!) but now lies apparently abandoned. Only serves to add to the sad façade of the area. The waterfront promenade is very touristy and weird; small ponies and horses dressed up with feathers and tacky frills taking children for walks along the front, music blaring incessantly from permanent speakers on the boardwalk, and a man with a really large snake wandering around.
The best bit of that whole area is the Armoury high up on the hill; it used to be one of the strategic hill-top military posts keeping an eye out over the Amur Bay. Niall sat on a missile; inner child satisfied for the rest of the day. Jokes aside it was actually very interesting, although you definitely got the impression that they just had SO much weaponry just left over that they didn’t really know what to do with it all; loads of missiles and launchers just sitting around on trailers…….. casual.
On day five the charm of Vladivostok had vanished. Due to GAC cocking up with the shipping, the car didn’t get cleared before the weekend, so we were marooned for another couple of days with nothing to do…. We flip-flopped our way out to the lighthouse (Токаревский маяк) at the end of the spit, looking out towards Russky Island, on a very grey, misty day. The clouds cleared long enough for us to catch a glimpse of Russky Island, and back towards the suspension bridge in town. Then we flop-flipped our way back home again; another 12km done (and another dose of mild sunburn). Then a storm rolled in and we were told that no containers were being released for unloading due to high winds….. Great. Aside from one very rainy day when we ventured out for a sandwich and then hastily returned to the hostel cave, we didn’t see too much sign of the storm in the end.
Then….. eight days after arriving in Vladivostok, we got the news that we had been waiting for! Henry J had been cleared by the port officials and had been released to the haulage company working for the shipping line for unloading! Much excitement from us, and a bit of curiosity from Svetlana to actually see this car we were so excited about finally getting back into. I’m glad we’d spent some time living in the Middle East with its lack of health and safety compared to the UK; watching a Russian dude standing on top of the container guiding the crane hook down, whilst wearing what appeared to a pair of winkle-picker shoes (and no hard-hat) was quite an experience! Aside from some absolutely shocking securing of Henry J by GAC in Oman that had left some very deep scours in the sidewalls of the tyres, the car was remarkably in one piece, and although one of the batteries was a little on the low side, started first time with his trademark diesel fart. Just as it started to rain. This was genuinely the first test for the newly re-attached windscreen wipers (there’s not much need for them in Oman!), and they held their own as we trundled out of Vladivostok under heavy grey skies and drizzle. We were off!