Vladivostok: The Master of the East

✍️: Jan 📸: Erin & Jan

Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, sits about 100 miles from the northeastern corner of North Korea. It is seven time zones from both Moscow and Los Angeles. The general response from most people — Russians included — when we told them we were planning on spending a couple of days here was a mixture of blank stares, the question “Why?” or simply “That’s far …”

Our primary reason was to board the Trans-Siberian Railway at it’s far eastern terminal and roll west. But as we researched our trip, we found more and more reasons to spend some time in the city called “Master of the East.”

Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia from exile via Vladivostok

We gave ourselves two full days to explore Vladivostok, and we could have easily spent a few more. Highlights were seeing a ballet at the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, taking in some jazz at Contrabanda Club, and the funicular — a mountainside trolley — to the “Eagle’s Nest” city overlook. Honorable mentions go to the strolling and shopping district on Svetlanskaya Street, Pie Family Cafe, and the sprawling Sportivnaya Market.

Ballet at the Primorksy Stage

We won’t make our way to Moscow or St. Petersburg on this trip, but we felt that with as much time as we’re spending in Russia we ought to see some Russian ballet. Surprisingly, Vladivostok is the perfect place for it.

The Mariinsky Theatre opened in St. Petersburg in 1860 and was (and perhaps still is) Russia’s preeminent music theatre, premiering work by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, and Rudolf Nureyev danced on its stage. In 2012, the Mariinsky Theatre opened the Primorsky Stage in Vladivostok, extending its cultural reach to far eastern Russia.

We picked up a couple of tickets online, each costing only 600 rubles (about $9). Tickets ranged in price from 100 to 3000 rubles.

We saw Adolph Adam’s “Giselle.” (I’d never heard of it, neither had Erin, but apparently it’s quite famous).

  • Giselle at the Primorsky Stage in Vladivostok
  • Erin hits the big time in Vladivostok
  • Backpackers dressed up for the ballet.

The Plot

It’s a charming, hackneyed little story about a peasant girl who falls in love with a prince. The prince, despite the fact that he is betrothed to another, leads the poor girl on until a jealous woodsman who pines for the beautiful girl blows the prince’s cover. The sweet, young girl is beside herself when she finds out, and dies of grief, or of dancing too hard. (In the original performace, she commits suicide — but that was not in the version we saw).

The second act finds both the prince and the woodsman grieving at the sweet girl’s grave, where a troupe of Willis — ghosts of maidens betrayed by their lovers — appear at night to torment the men who betrayed them. First, they must initiate newly ghosted Giselle into their ranks. Once that’s done, they can take their revenge.

The Willis force the jealous woodsman to dance to exhaustion and then throw him into the river where he drowns. Next they turn their attention to the lying prince and begin to give him the same treatment. But young Giselle forgives her beau, and her love overcomes the power of the Willis. The sun rises, and the forgiven prince gets one last kiss from his beloved Giselle — who, because she is no longer betrayed, is allowed to Rest In Peace.

Plot v. Performance

And that’s how I learned one does not attend The Ballet for the power of the plot. I have a niece in kindergarten who tells better stories. But (and I can claim no expertise on the subject) the dancers we amazing. The prince and the woodsman displayed an impressive blend of power and grace and they leapt high and far, and spun their female counterparts around effortlessly.

And the ballerinas. Well … that thing where they get up on the very tips of their toes? You know that thing, right? There was a lot of that, particularly in the second half when the Willis were ghosting about. But rather than traditional tutus, they wore long gowns, so when they did that tippy toe thing, and took tiny, almost imperceptible steps, it looked like they were floating along the stage. At times, what seemed like the entire stage. I couldn’t help but marvel at the strength and stamina of those graceful and beautiful women. At one point, I leaned over to tell Erin that I thought I may have fallen in love with entire lot of them.

Jazz in Vladivostok

The night before the ballet, we made our way to Vladivostok’s best little jazz club (as far as I know). Contrabanda Club is hidden away in what seemed to be the alley of an alley in the center of town. Almost all the staff spoke English and were helpful and friendly. We stepped out onto the back patio during a set break, and the owner walked up to us and introduced himself in English. For the next hour or so we sat and chatted.

He seemed very eager to practice his English, and frequently apologized for his language skills, which were actually very good. It was a really fun conversation and he made us feel welcome and was excited to share his little corner of Russia with us. It was suddenly quite late, so we called a taxi to take us back to our hostel, and he walked us out to the taxi, which was extremely helpful, because — a place in the alley of an alley can be hard to find, the driver was a block or two away.

Jazz at Contrabanda Club in Vladivostok

A Couple of Siberian Surprises

Leaving the hustle and bustle of the market and the fancy shops, a short walk west along the bayfront, led us to what appeared to be the headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Lots of uniformed men came in and out of various gated and guarded barbed-wire fenced buildings, and four or five Russian battleships floated peacefully in the bay. It was jarring. But nobody seemed to give any of it, or us, a second glance. We decided not to dawdle.

After ambling a quarter mile past Navy HQ, we came across the statue of a bearded man in civilian clothes, holding a book striding purposefully away from the bay toward the city. I looked down at the pedestal and began to decipher the fellow’s name.


I’d been working on my Cyrillic alphabet, and it took me well over a minute to decipher the name. A is A, that’s easy. The backward pi-looking symbol is L. A couple more easy ones: E is E, K is K. But C? Well, C is S. And H is N. The funky looking “Д” is D. And of course P is R. His first name was “ALEKSANDR”.

I started in on the last name … and when I got to the “Ж” (Z) it hit me. The guy striding out of the bay where the Russian Navy docks its Pacific Fleet is none other than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel Literature Prize winning Soviet dissident, a picture of whom has hung in almost every place I’ve lived! (My father framed a 1974 Solzhenitsyn Time Magazine cover, and hung it in his office. I always like it, and for my 21st birthday, he gave to me as a gift. I’ve hung it everywhere I’ve lived ever since.)

Solzhenitsyn in Vladivostok?

Apparently, Vladivostok was the first Russian city the Solzhenitsyn entered after the Soviet Union collapsed and his exile was lifted. From Vladivostok, he boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway and made his way to Moscow.

Russia is a country of monuments. There are statues and commemorations everywhere. Even the smallest villages have a statue of Lenin and a WWII monument, and usually something memorializing the town’s founder or some important local historical event or person. But this was one statue that actually meant something to me. It was a nice moment.

  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn strides out of the bay
  • The ubiquitous Mr. Lenin

Across the street from Solzhenitsyn, a WWII era lime green Soviet submarine was parked ceremoniously in front of a huge WWII monument the included twenty some panels of inscribed names of tens of thousands of fallen soldiers. The submarine was a museum, so we handed over a couple of hundred rubles each ($5 or $6) and made our way through the simple museum.

Everything was in Russian, so we couldn’t read all the captions like we usually do. But it was interesting to see how similar an old Russian sub was to the American version we saw weeks earlier in Pearl Harbor.

  • Not the Red October...
  • That screw was big, and incredibly sharp
  • That time I almost fired a torpedo from a WWII Russian Sub

DIY Downtown Walking Tour

On our last day in Vladivostok, we made our way to the train station to ensure we had everything in order for our trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We dropped off our backpacks at the storage shed on the platform, and then walked over to the funicular about a mile away. What’s a funicular? Erin kept asking me that question. And frankly, I wasn’t really sure. All I knew was that is was some kind of trolley that went up a steep hill.

The walk to the lower station takes you along the main shopping district. Eventually, a left turn on Pushkinskaya Street leads to a steep hill and past what appears to be a high-rent district. After walking a couple of blocks along a leafy street — where old stone staircases wind between big brick buildings — we came across what appeared to be a university and the Pushkin Theatre. A bronze Pushkin permanently stands pensively pressing a book between his hands.

Pensive Pushkin

For 14 rubles per person, you can take the funicular. It’s similar to a cable car, except it requires a steep hill and two trolleys — one at the top, one at the bottom — connected to the same cable to counterbalance each other. As gravity pulls the top car down, the amount of energy needed to push the bottom car up is reduced, making the whole system more efficient.

It’s a short ride, maybe 5 minutes. (If the funicular is out of order, there is a staircase running along side.) But it’s a steep hill, and for 14 rubles and the chance to ride on something as fun to say as “funicular” (not to mention the interesting mechanical engineering involved), we were happy to take the easy way to the “Eagle’s Nest” observatory.

Vladivostok from the Eagle’s Nest

Once you’re deposited at the upper funicular station, you’ll see a large lookout even higher above you. There’s a busy road between it and you, so move toward your right, and there’s a series of walkways that go beneath the road that lead to stairs that take you the rest of the way up to the observatory. Once there, you’ll have an expansive vista of the city and the bay below you. The docks spread out for miles.

It’s clear this city is a working port city. Vladivostok opened up to non-Russians on January 1, 1992. Standing up on this lookout, you can see international commerce. You’ll also see a remarkable bridge, the Zolotoy. The day we were there was foggy, and the vertical support beams seemed to disappear in the clouds.

  • Opposing funicular cars passing each other
  • Staring down the funicular tracks
  • Vladivostok from the “Eagle’s Nest”
  • Cyril & Methodius, with their alphabet tablets

After taking in the view of the city, turn around and you’ll see a statue of Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the Glagolitic alphabet, from which the Russian Cyrillic alphabet descends. The men were monks and missionaries of the Old Church Slavonic in the 8th century and have since been sainted by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Shopping with Tourists

Downtown Vladivostok was surprising to both of us. From Addidas and Reebok to Levi’s and Guess to Zara and Max Mara, walking around the Svetlanskaya Street shopping district in Vladivostok felt no different than walking around New York’s Fifth Ave. or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Except for the ubiquitous nesting Babushka dolls, Russian flag T-shirts, Putin magnets, and a random bookshelf stacked with Russian literature standing in the middle of a park.

We enjoyed a break from all the hubbub at the Pie Family Cafe. They make fine cherry and blueberry pies. And the coffee was quite good, too! We didn’t find a ton of memorable food options in Vladivostok, so Pie Family definitely stood out for us. Did I mention they have pie? And coffee?

  • The best pie in Vladivostok!
  • A “Little Free Library” in Vladivostok

Directly across from Svetlanskaya Street is the Central Square that sits right on Zolotoy Rog, or Golden Horn Bay, where you’ll find a couple of huge monument statues and a Russian Orthodox Cathedral (it was gutted for renovations when we were there). On the weekends, this square bustles with vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, fresh fish, caviar, and baked goods. It was a great spot to load up on supplies for three days on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Sportivnaya Market

Because of Vladivostok’s proximity to China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, you’ll find a ton of Asian tourists here, as well as restaurants and shops catering to them. You’ll also find a number of Asian immigrants selling their goods on sidewalk markets that seem to pop up all over the city.

One of the larger and more well known markets in town is the Sportivnaya Market, also known as the Chinese Market. A stroll through stalls makes it clear as to why: Three of every four vendors — selling anything and everything from electronics to underwear to fish to cosmetics — are Chinese. They speak Russian and Chinese, but no English. Haggling is impossible unless you’ve done your homework and can remember Russian numbers. My counting skills stop at six.

But it’s worth the trip, if just to soak in the sights and smells and sounds. And if you, like me, enjoy some variety in your public transportation, there’s the option to take a little trolley that drops you off right in front of the Sportivnaya Market.

Red Trolley

It’s Route 6, it’ll cost you 16 rubles that you’ll pay to an attendant walking around with a little handheld device that prints a receipt. (The device also takes payment if you’ve got an RFID chipped MasterCard in your wallet).

The trolley is … well … like I bet you’d imagine. It has seen better days. It clanked and clattered, and when the sliding door closed, you could see through an inchwide gap to the ground below. (I bet those trolleys are COLD in the winter). The benches were old and uncomfortable. But I found it a fun little excursion and a nice change of pace from the bus service in town.

Getting around Vladivostok

I recommend the buses and minibuses. Each is a flat fee of 23 rubles per person in Vladivostok. And they can get you just about anywhere. There are a ton of them criss-crossing the city. You’ll drop your coins onto a tray next to the bus driver when you get off. If you don’t have exact change, he’ll make it for you. But try to keep it to small bills — I’m not sure what would happen if you dropped a 1,000 ruble note (about $15) on his tray, and personally, I wouldn’t be eager to find out.

If you’re going to use buses, do yourself a favor and download Yandex Maps onto your phone. It’s a bit more reliable that Google Maps, and it’ll tell you which buses to take and where to transfer. It also suggests other options if available.

Also download Yandex Taxi, just in case you decide the bus route takes too long, has too many transfers, or you just don’t feel like dealing with the hassle of a bus. Yandex Maps integrates with Yandex Taxi, and works like Uber or Lyft. You’ll need to enter credit card information or you can use Apple Pay to make your payments.

Buses, though reliable and frequent, aren’t the most comfortable. But hey, it’s a bus, not a limo. And 23 rubles works out for us Americans to about 35 cents, a deal we won’t find back home.

Post Script

Blow the dust off the clock.

Throw open your cherished heavy curtains.

You do not even suspect that the day has already dawned.

Man has distinguished himself from the animal world by thought and speech.

If they are put in chains, we will return to the state of animals.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (as quoted on the inside cover flap) – Time Magazine, Feb 25, 1974

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