Saturday, March 29, 2008

Boarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad

Dear friends,

I am on my way to catch the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, Victoria's sister city in Russia. Here is another logbook update. Apologies in advance for any typos -- I am in a bit of a rush as I do not want to miss the train!

All the best,


0806 hrs (Vladivostok GMT+11), Thursday, March 27, 2008
Vladivostok, Russia

Yesterday combined adventure and fun. With Sergey's assistance, we caught a cab to the approaches of the Churkin Russian Naval Cemetary, walking the final stretch due to massive potholes in the dirt road. Dropped into the cemetary maintenance building where Sergey elicited perfect directions to the Canadian plot – a shared plot about 75 metres long, 15 metres wide, with 14 Canadians, 14 British, a plaque for soldiers buried elsewhere in Russia or at sea, several dozen Czecho-slovaks, a few French, one officer of the American YMCA, and a monument for Japanese war dead.

A sombre experience is a beautiful setting, the snow-clad forested slopes of a huge green space stretching south to the bottom of the peninsula and the Sea of Japan. I took photos of every Canadian and British tombstone, along with the various monuments. Took a video and also placed a simple pine bow on the headstone of Lieut. Arthur Thring, who took his own life on the road betweeen Vladivostok and Gornastai on the night of 18 March 1919.

From the Churkin cemetary, we returned to our taxi (commandered for the day for about $35 Canadian) to Gornastai, an area 15 kilometres east of Vladivostok that is the butt of local jokes because it is the site of the region's garbage dump. However, in 1919, Gornastai was the site of the main Canadian barracks in Russia. Sergey and I rambled around a little village called (source), directly on Gornastai Bay in the vicinity of several high-powered Russian coastal-defence military installations. We ventured inland on the village's only road (dirt), armed only with a rough map drawn by a Canadian soldiers in 1919 and copied from an original in the Library and Archives of Canada.

We came across an old women, tending to some greese in his yard, who insisted there were no barracks there, only the remnants of a large Soviet-era pig farm that had long been abandoned. She warned that we would be wise not to proceed further up the road, to the military base on the ridge overlooking the valley and bay. Not to be deterred, I suggested to Sergey that we persist, which we did, rambling around expansive ruins of brick and concrete, in the picturesque valley inland from Gornestai Bay. I took many pictures, believing we had found the Canadian base, but as it turned out, the women was correct. We had spent an hour exploring and photographing the ruins of a pig farm!

We had not yet come to this realization, and returned to the waiting taxi unsure we would had found, or would find, the Canadian barracks. Sergey learned from a few locals that old barracks existed in the next village over the hill, back toward Vladivostok. As our taxi rounded a curve in the hilly, snowy road, I looked down into the next valley and was certain that the locals had a better knowledge of the local geography than I. Sergey instructed the taxi driver to pull over, which he did, and we scrambled down a steep muddy slope to the ruins of old brick buildings.

We had discovered the Canadian barracks – with many of the Czarist era stone buildings still in tact, including a straight row of six large structures that matched the rough map on my laptop. Some of the buildings had been sold by the army after the fall of communism to the city of Vladivostok, are now provided housing to villagers, while another served as the local post office. Further up the valley, the barracks were gated off in an active military base. This included stables used for the horses of the RNWMP.

Cresting a hill, we saw an expansive view of Gornestai Bay – home to the Canadians for 4 months in 1919. Quite the trip!

We returned to Vladivostok around 2pm and parted ways at the top of the furnicular railway. I walked over the hill to downtown Vladivostok, through a high-end condo construction site (the most expensive in Vladivostok Sergey later told me), along a dirt path, and down to the bustling public food market. Bought cashews, kimchi, herring and some pickled greens, then tried in vain to find wifi internet. Walked back toward the hotel, stopping for a beer and shwarma at the Sportivyana waterfront – like a Russian Coney Island with many beer tents frequented by local youth.

Returned to the hotel around 5pm, napped until 6:30pm, then met Andrey to act as the guest lecturer at his language school, affiliated with Far Eastern State University. It was a fun hour, discussing my research on the Siberian Expedition, my trip, and Canada. The teacher was friendly and fluent, and the students had many questions, including the cost of higher learning in Canada. After the class, I went with Andrey and his girlfriend Ira to a bar called Republik, where we drank beer brewed on site and snacked on cheese balls and smoked salmon.

We discussed Russian politics and their work as intelligence officers for the Russian military. They had both volunteered for United Russia, Putin's party, in the recent presidential elections. While Andrey lamented that the price of a train ticket from Vladivostok to Moscow had risen from 100 rubles to 4000 rubles in his memory, "Russia can now stand on her feet," he insisted. Apparently a sizeable layer of Russian youth have been attracted to the populism and energetic electioneering of United Russia.

Left at closing time, 11pm, and shared a cab with Andrey and Ira to Hotel Vladivostok, falling asleep soon after.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From Vladivostok

Greetings from the Russian Far East! Here is an entry from my trip journal. The historians among you may be particularly interested in the details of my meeting with Russian scholars yesterday. I will send some more photos soon! Ben

0806 hrs (Vladivostok GMT+11), March 26, 2008
Vladivostok, Russia

Yesterday morning I dined on a tradition Russian feast -- a huge breakfast buffet as a blizzard blew outside the Hotel Vladivostok: a plate of pickled beats, lots of broccoli, salami, cheese, rice, eggs, and potatoes, topped with sour cream; two pieces of white toast with salami and cheese; a bowl of muesli and yogurt; a cup of fruit salad; and a plate of pastries and thick rye toast. A few cups of coffee, orange juice, and water. I was full!

Then I walked down to the central train station, where I tried in vain to determine train schedules "up country." Walked through Revolution Square to the waterfront, past the Russian naval installation to visit a beached WWII-era submarine. The short tour was interesting and worth the 50 rubles.Made my way east. Dropped into the Pushkinskay Theatre, headquarters of the Canadians in 1918-1919, and got an impromptu tour from the theatre manager and her son, a candidate in history (equivalent to our entry level PhDs). Checked out the four floors of the ornate building, including a reception room, hall, Pushkin library and museum, atrium, and musical theatre. Very friendly people who provided a real insiders' perspective on the building, which has been recently restored. Interestingly, the operators seemed unaware of the buildings' Canadian occupants 90 years ago. I will sent some records to them. The Pushkinskay is located on Pushkinskay avenue, next to Vladivostok's furnicular railroad (a vertical lift up the hilly city).

From there, I continued east along Pushkinskay, picking up a haircomb and dropping into a grocer for a cheeseburger, water and chewing gum off Svetlanska, Vladivostok's main drag. I arrived at 89 Pushkinskay (the Institute of History) a little before 2 pm for my meeting with Doktor Boris I. Muchanov, author of many books on the history of the Russian Far East in the years of Allied intervention. A 23-year-old interpreter named Sergey Ivonov provided translation, which was very satisfactory (Sergey insists he is more proficient in Chinese than English!). The deputy director of the Institute of History, Sergey Vradis, had arranged the meeting, which included three other historians with expertise in Vladivostok's history in this period.

The meeting lasted three hours and was marked by a stimulating exchange of ideas and information between Dr. Mukachev, the other scholars, and me. A semi-retired professor from the Soviet era, over the age of 70, Dr Mukachev was highly knowledgeable of the organization of partisan and White forces from March 1917 until the Red Army's entry into Vladivostok on 25 October 1922. He brought along many photographs of partisan leaders and mass demonstrations that accompanied the downfall of the Czar. He also gave me several of his books on this topic, while Dr. Vradis gave me a book on the Aboriginal peoples of the Russian Far East. It was a highly professional and productive meeting, where I had the opportunity to share aspects of Vladivostok's history unknown to these Russian scholars, including the Canadian headquarters at Pushkinskay and first-person historical accounts from Canadians of conditions in Vladivostok in 1918-1919. The Russians were very interested in the Victoria mutiny that preceded the Canadians' departure from Victoria. It was an outstanding experience, a definite highlight of my career as a historian to this point.

Segey Ivanov scanned Dr. Mukachev's photographs and then accompanied me past the former Red Staff Buldings, headquarters of the Vladivostok Soviet. We then visited the regional train station to determine connections to the village of Shkotova. We made plans to visit the Churkin Russian Naval Cemetary (where 14 Canadians are buried) and the Canadian barracks at Gornastai Bay.

I dined at Izbushka, a traditional Russian place on Vladivostok's main drag, the Arbat (named after the Moscow street). The food was excellent – a platter of Russian appetizers and stew covered in baked bread called shchi – washed down with a few healthy shots of vodka. I returned to the Hotel Vladivostok for an early sleep, preparing for the next stage of this adventure.

Monday, March 24, 2008

From Victoria to Vladivostok

I'm writing to let you know that I have arrived safely in Vladivostok.

Yesterday was one full day -- a pre-dawn flight from Victoria to Seattle, touring Pike Street market and other haunts in that city, an 11-hour flight to Seoul, and then a fun-filled evening dining on Korean BBQ and exploring Seoul's streets with a Uzbekh doctor named Fuat.

I flew into Vladivostok this morning and met a student, Andrey, on the public bus into the city. He is studying to be an English interpreter, so was very helpful providing local tips and helping acquaint me with this hilly, bustling port city of 800,000 nestled around Golden Horn Bay in the Sea of Japan. I have found a cheap hotel with free breakfast, wireless internet and expansive views of the water from my room. Hotel Vladivostok is a former state-run hotel from Soviet times.

Tomorrow I meet with a group of historians at the Institut Iistoria (Institute of History) to discuss the Canadian and Allied occupation of Vladivostok in 1918-1919. But now, it's time for vodka and some hearty Russian grub.

So my own Siberian Expedition begins -- 90 years after 4200 Canadians sailed from Victoria to this place. It remains Russia's gateway to the Pacific, with all the vice and action of a cosmopolitan port. But it also dislays a surprising charm and beauty. I will keep you posted!

Vladivostok, Russia

Friday, March 21, 2008


I hope you find this website useful in gaining understanding of Canada's Siberian Expedition and other aspects of the country's forgotten past.