A couple of long and eventful days, capped off by the longest and most eventful of all (at least so far).
I left Canada and spent a few altogether too-short days with a friend in Hong Kong en route to Vladivostok. Ate our way around Macau and HK (some food decidedly better than others), did a spot of hiking on Lamma island (seriously cool!) while I did my best not to get too stressed out (probably failing more than succeeding but oh well).
I have a couple of contacts in V’stok that I met at WarmShowers.org, a hosting community for people traveling by bike. Evgeniy has actually gone across Russia before, so I am hoping to get a chance to chat with him; and Egor runs a “cycling workshop” in Vladivostok called Habitat.
Because of some of the uncertainty surrounding getting my visa, I wasn’t able to confirm my date of arrival or anything with them until rather last-minute, which meant some nervous waiting in HK for one or the other to get back to me before I was due to leave.
No worries, Egor did (followed by Evgeniy only an hour or two later) so it was all arranged: he’d pick me up at the airport and bring me to his place, then we could set about finding a bike and supplies.
Well, almost settled. He was all set to do this before I had a chance to tell him my flight was landing at a little past 3 in the morning...
I said I’d be happy to wait at the airport until a more convenient time, or to make my own way into town, etc. but nope. Sit tight, he said; he’d arrive as early as he could.
“As early as he could” ended up being a little after 4:30 which is way earlier than I expected. I landed a bit ahead of schedule, and the immigration / customs procedure was about as anticlimactic as it could have possibly been, especially given my fretting. The lady looked at me, looked at the visa, typed a few words into the computer, stamped & gave me my immigration paper, said “Проходите” (“move along”) and that was it. My entire interaction with any official at the airport was a single word. HA.
(Also: dammit! I totally could have brought my bike from Canada after all!)
Oh well. So that was smooth. Egor picked me up and first thing we did a driving tour of the city, right at dawn. Zero traffic on the roads, some very pretty skies.
Then we got to his place and after a quick breakfast, Egor started trawling the internet for a bike that we could take to his workshop and get fixed up, simultaneously drawing up plans of action for getting all the supplies I’d need, when and where to go, etc.
Egor, I have discovered, is a man of many plans.
By 7-something AM, we had found a potentially suitable bike for ½ the price I’d pay in Canada for the same thing, and armed with Excel lists were about to leave the house when it suddenly occurred to Egor what time it was, and we realized that not much would be open, so I had a quick chance to catch up with things on the internet before leaving properly.
We got bike from a friendly guy named Konstantin way out in the suburbs who was more than a little amused by my plans for “his” bike and wanted all kinds of pictures, went to the workshop, stripped the bike down to its tiny constituent parts and started giving the entire thing a complete overhaul, making shopping lists for parts we’d need. I can do some basic repair, replacement and tweaking myself, but this was an education. For good reason (“your next good opportunity to take it in somewhere may be over 9,000km away”) he wanted me involved in the entire process. “It is my sacred duty to do this,” he quipped.
Having stripped it and decided what parts would need replacing, it was time for a trip into town to buy said parts. As well as camping gear and other supplies while we were there. (Again, something that at the end of the day I discovered I could totally have brought from Canada. Ah well.) Complemented by me pretty much instantly hitting my cash withdrawal limits on my cards, and having to phone the bank in Canada to see if they could be temporarily raised. (I’d initially figured this process would take place over a couple of days, and so it wouldn’t be as much of an issue.)
Finding good bike parts in Vladivostok is not a trivial thing. The city is ~600,000 people so there is a market. But it’s also in the Russian far east so there is a small market. Most shops are just full of Chinese BSOs. Either way we found everything but with no small amount of phoning around and driving back and forth in Vladivostok traffic, further and further into the afternoon rush hour.
(Side note: the standard of driving here Freaks. Me. Out. I may not survive this.)
Vladivostok in the early morning with nobody on the roads was quick and fast and easy to get around and not too big. In rush hour, the 10km from the workshop to downtown went from 7 minutes to well over an hour and a half. Like many poorly designed cities, everything is along one main highway and it’s a nightmare.
Other than that, Vladivostok is surprisingly scenic - it’s built along (and over) hills reaching down to the ocean so there is varied topography. A lot of the neighbourhoods are up side valleys with fjords intersecting them. At night it’s lit up in a very attractive way - I haven’t yet had an opportunity to take a photo, but I hope to do so.
So anyway. At one point while we’re working on plans and whatnot, Egor turns to me, and says that he’s just had a great idea! He is looking for ways to promote his shop, and thinks that using my trip as a feature story on his webpage can help him. We can detail the entire process of getting all the parts and fixing up the bike and so forth. Sure, it’s the least I can do for his help.
“...and we can get you sponsored by the various shops and you can maybe wear a logo, and take pictures for the companies!” He sets off on an hour-long odyssey of phoning local journalists to see if they’re interested in running a story.
So far this has come to naught, but I suppose we will see.
Somewhere around 9:00, following a very full day of bike tuning-up, and driving around for supplies and phoning around for lord knows what, my bike is 80-something percent finished, and it is time to close up shop. Egor has a few things to drop off for clients, and then we will go “home.”
He announces that he wants to stop at the supermarket to get some beer. Ok, sure, I figure, and get out of the car. Do I want beer too? Well, I dunno, but there might be something at the supermarket I want.
I discover that the supermarket has one primary raison d’être. It is mostly taken up by a giant wall of beer taps. I don’t even understand what this is I’m looking at until the customers in line start asking for the beer and the shopkeeper fastens a bottle to the tap of choice and starts pouring. I quickly decide that this is a much better plan than the commercial bottle I’d already instinctively grabbed from the fridge, and replace the latter.
After I mention how cool it is (seriously: Canada could stand to import this idea!) Egor says that this sort of place is common and functions as a neigbourhood hangout/gathering place, where customers can spend time bantering with each other and with the shopkeeper while waiting for the bottles to be filled. I also later notice a smaller, self-serve version of the same wall in one of the big shopping mall hypermarkets.
I find it interesting that many of the labels make it look like the beer is fancy and foreign and imported, but searching online afterward I discover that they’re almost all local Russian brands. My “Dunkelberg” being a case in point. Sounds German. All the text on the label is in German (“Das dunkel bier”). But... yeahno.
By the time it’s bedtime, It’s after 11PM, I’ve been going full speed since 3:30, after only a few hours sleep on the plane and a full previous day in Hong Kong. And I crash hard. Hadn’t had food since breakfast (not that that bothers me much) and never so much as cracked the beer. Ah well. Tomorrow!
An incredibly productive, and surprisingly smooth, day. Only significant hitch: the Spot GPS tracker doesn’t seem to want to work here. But it explicitly is within the coverage area, is a brand that they sell locally, and there are many reports of others using them locally, so I’m sure this is an issue that can be resolved.
High on the list for tomorrow: getting a scanned copy of my immigration slip to my host sponsor, who needs to check me in with the gov’t, pronto. Also: getting a local SIM card. I’ve been running on roaming with my Canadian account so far. Pumped a couple hundred $ into it before I left, but I still imagine I’m burning through that like crazy.
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