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.