Sunday, August 29, 2010

Vladivostok (August 19-30)

Mid afternoon on August 19th, Stani and I arrive at the final destination of our Big Trip, the city of Vladivostok. We are filled with mixed emotions as we roll into town. Excitement, thankfulness and amazement that we made it, but at the same time sadness that our trip is now really coming to a close. This was always the ending point of our trip, and now we are actually entering the city.

Stani in front of the Vladivostok city limit sign

Vladivostok was founded in 1860 and quickly became an important naval base. Due to its seaside location and close proximity to neighboring Korea, Japan and China, this city also became an important merchant city in the early 1900’s. Foreign presence declined however under Stalin – he deported or killed most of the foreigners - and during the Cold War from 1958-1992, Vladivostok was a closed city to the outside world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was reopened, but a new problem emerged – the mafia. Things have begun to calm down (although several locals we spoke with complained about corruption), and this city is in full swing getting ready to host the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in 2012.

Our most important task to take care of in Vladivostok is arranging the shipping of our car back to the U.S. Stani spent a lot of time researching and arranging this before we left the U.S., but now all these arrangements need to followed up on and secured. While we’re in Vladivostok, Stani spends a lot of time communicating back and forth with all the parties involved. I’m grateful that he has such patience and good sense when dealing with this complicated process. We have a customs agent, Yuri Melnikov at LINKS, who helps us with filing all the necessary documents to clear customs. Ro-Ro (roll-on-roll-off) shipping from Vladivostok to Yokohama, Japan is arranged with the shipping company, FESCO and after a lot of back and forth, we’re told that our car will ship on Sept 9th. From Japan the car will be shipped Ro-Ro to Longbeach, California by Orient Maritime, our Japanese shipper. If all goes according to plan, the 4Runner should be back in the U.S. the end of September. From there it’ll need to clear customs and be put on a semi-truck and transported back to Ann Arbor.

Since we are going to be in Vladivostok for such a long time, we decide to leave the city on August 20th for the weekend to explore something different. Our customs agent, Yuri, suggests we do what the locals do and take a ferry to nearby Russky Island. This island was completely militarized until earlier this decade when it was opened to the public. We line up for the ferry around 5pm and are told that the ferry can only take 4 vehicles at a time, so we should expect to wait in line 4-5 hours. Since this appears to be a popular attraction, we decide to stick it out and wait. Around 9:15pm, we finally are loading our car onto the ferry. The ramp is steep so many cars scrape their undersides as they get on and off the ferry. While waiting in line, Stani meets a local, Ivan, who works for FESCO. Ivan invites us to join him and his group at a camping site on the island. Ivan is nice and so is his girlfriend, so we agree. Once we’re all off the ferry, we follow them to a beach on the other side on the island. There are many other vehicles and tents set up, clearly a popular spot, but eventually we find an ok place to put our tent. Well this turns out to be the party beach. Music blares from one car equipped with a gigantic speaker in its trunk until 4:30 a.m. The music resumes at 6:30 a.m. I am very annoyed by the music, but worse than that is a horrible itchy rash that has spread over my entire body. I must have brushed up against some kind of plant, and I’m reacting strongly to it. I get very worried when my lip and tongue start to swell. The next day I take some Zyrtec which I get from Ivan’s friends and in about an hour, the rash is completely gone. Ivan’s friends say they think I brushed up against the plant ambrosia. We thank Ivan and his friends for their hospitality, but decide to leave the party beach in search of a quieter place to camp.

On the other side of the island, we find a camp with many tents set up on platforms. I walk in and find out it is an Evangelical Christian camp. I ask if they have space for our tent, and they are happy to let us stay. What a difference this place is compared to the party beach campsite! It’s so peaceful here and everyone is really nice. After setting up our tent, we drive and explore the island. We find a navy museum where you can see big guns built into the hilltops and other navy equipment used to defend this part of Russia. On Monday morning we pack up and head back to the city. We feel like we’ve had a vacation from our vacation.

Ferry to Russky Island

Once we’re back in Vladivostok, we check into Hotel Azimut, our home for the rest of our time in here. Our room is definitely old fashioned Soviet style with a musty smell (Stani calls it musty sweet home), but the view of the bay from our porch is great, the room is clean, breakfast is included and there’s free wi-fi in the lobby.

Hotel Azimut

Our room as we prepare to pack

Even after a long weekend away, we have plenty of time to explore Vladivostok. We follow a walking tour listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We start at the train station and see the marker indicating the final stop for the famous Trans-Siberian Railway – it’s a 9,288 km train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok. We walk past the home where Yul Brynner, the famous actor from “The King and I”, was born and visit an interesting regional history museum. Included in this tour is the beautiful Triumphal Arch and an S-56 submarine. Our final stop on the tour takes us to a great look-out of the entire city. Other days are spent exploring the city, seeing a Fort Museum, Car Museum, reading and preparing to leave for home. We also have lunch one day with an American from Minnesota, Jeff, who lives in Vladivostok with his wife Renetta, a local, and their son Sebastian. We met Renetta at a gas station when we came back from Russky Island.

Trans-Siberia terminus

Triumphal Arch

S-56 submarine

On August 27th, we meet up with Yuri, give him the keys to the 4Runner and he drives it into the port. Since we are foreigners, we are not allowed in the port. We are sad to be separating from our vehicle that has been with us for so many km. It’ll be parked in a parking lot next to the port until it is loaded on the ship to Japan.

One day after we drop off the car, on his way to the car museum, Stani sees a chopped up car that frighteningly looks like ours! He studies it from a distance for about 20 minutes before finally concluding that it really isn’t ours because it has gray fabric seats. This chopped up car business we later learn is done as a way to avoid paying the 100% vehicle tax that the government charges on imports. Since the pieces arrive as parts and not as a complete vehicle, no tax is charged. Once the pieces arrive, they are then welded back together and then sold. It’s crazy to think that people would rather buy a Japanese car that has been welded back together than a Russian built vehicle!

We are also told that the Russian government will be implementing a ban on importing Japanese cars starting in October in an effort to try to get people to buy Russian made vehicles. As a result, people are importing Japanese cars like mad before the new law goes into effect.

On August 30th, we get up early and pack all our belongings from our nearly 4 month adventure. Because we’re shipping the car ro-ro, nothing could be left in it. Amazingly we are able to fit everything into our allotted four pieces of luggage and two carry-ons. The taxi picks us up from the hotel and takes us to the airport. It’s hard to believe that we are really going home. What an adventure we have had - it's truly been the experience of a lifetime!

Big Trip 2010 traveling companions – Stani, Kirstin & the 4Runner


  1. That's great trip story, thanks!

    I lived in Vladivostok for 30 years, i was born there and love that city. And i can imagine that trip you've made, because i moved to US, Florida this January, with my family. So, it took 35 (THIRTY FIVE!!!) hour of flights to just get to the United States from Vladivostok!

    Nice pictures! Toyota 4Runner has different name in domestic Japanese market, and therefore, the car that you saw 'just like ours'-it's Toyota Hilux Surf. :)

  2. Hello Stani and Kristine, I've just visited your new blog. How fantastically you guys made it! I thought that Stani and I had an email communication a bit about Vladivostok during your BIG trip. I read through a story of your journey and I want to give you a big applaude for your whole accomplishment of a big project. See you.

  3. i just found your blog,congratulations for your trip.
    please be so kind to inform me how much you have paid for your car to be transported from vladivostok to yohohama by ro-ro ???
    my wife and myself we do long trips by motorhome and one of the next will be linking lisbon to tokyo with our camping-car. our email
    tks a lot