When a University of Maryland delegation reached Vladivostok airport recently, it was met by a band of Gypsies.
The delegation's Aeroflot flight had arrived early and the Soviet hosts had not yet turned up. In their place were perhaps 75 Gypsies who had been waiting on the airport's second-floor mezzanine, apparently for several days. They had strung makeshift tents from old sheets and blankets, and some sat on the floor in front of these temporary homes drinking tea and smoking. The Soviet hosts hustled their American colleagues out of the airport in a hurry, explaining later in the taxis that they feared something might be stolen.
Vladivostok, one soon learns, is a place devoid of any softening of the current Soviet reality for visitors. That should not really be .. surprising. The city has been closed to outsiders, both Soviet and foreign, for generations. Only with the coming of perestroika has it begun to open up to foreign trade, culture and in recent months, tourism.
Citizens trace the opening of the city to a 1986 speech given there by Mikhail Gorbachev in which he asked Vladivostok to join the dynamic forces shaping the Pacific Rim. It took Gorbachev's full authority to begin to change the mind of this navy town, home of the Soviet Far East Fleet, and it took Boris Yeltsin's charisma to open the cityfully following his August 1990 visit. For generations the Soviet Navy had called the shots in the city known as "Fortress Vladivostok" in Stalin's day, and the navy looked askance at visitors.
Recently, Soviet tourists have flocked to Vladivostok, and there are plans to receive foreign visitors who are expected to arrive in ever-larger numbers in this year and beyond.
The University of Maryland University College sent 40 U.S. students and faculty from its military-based programs on a first-ever study tour to Vladivostok in July 1990. In early September two U.S. Navy ships visited the city in an equally unprecedented port call. And as of Jan. 1, 1991, visas were routinely granted for foreign tourists to visit Vladivostok.
The city is working hard to prepare for the expected crush of foreign guests, but as yet few projects are completed. Its airport is being renovated; its old ferry port is being rebuilt by an Italian crew. The city's two barely adequate hotels are undergoing renovation and a new Intourist hotel is going up with Indian engineering help. Guides are frantically learning English, but now they usually give their spiels in Russian and call on Far Eastern State University students to translate these into English or Japanese.
Typical of the early stages of tourism, the guides are not entirely sure what foreigners might want to see or hear. When American visitors in March showed an interest in fishermen drilling through harbor ice and other locals hacking through the same ice to swim in the frigid sea, the guides were nonplused.
The confusion became even more pronounced when the American group insisted on stopping the conventional tour to visit Vladivostok's blue-green Victorian birthday cake of a railway station. To outsiders, this unusual building, with its Orthodox Church interior, now-passe socialist realism murals and gingerbread-house decorations, represents much of the romance of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
To the guides, however, it seemed an embarrassment because, as one said, "That station is old and ugly." Another small embarrassment for them, though more of an oddity for the visitors, came from the lips of a counterspy, carefully disguised as a silent babushka selling sausages. That is, until she caught sight of the visitors photographing the elaborately decorated entrance to the restrooms -- at which moment she began to point and shout, "Spion!" at the top of her voice. The foreign spies were encouraged to leave the station, with many apologies from the guides.
The late 19th century core of the city, undamaged by war, will be a considerable attraction to most visitors, but older buildings received only perfunctory attention from guides. Their focus was more on post-1917 monuments and structures.
The raw newness of tourism in Vladivostok is reflected in three tourist experiences. First, recent visitors found no postcards for sale at the usual places, such as hotels, restaurants and museums. After much searching, one bookstore turned up that carried postcards of Lenin in various heroic poses.
Second, these visitors never saw a single word in a foreign language during the five days of their stay.Third, they did not find restaurants serving food even to the most modest international standards. At least two places tried hard, though. A show-piece North Korean restaurant, the Moranban, had no rice, kimchi and beer, but the food was well-prepared. Someone had arranged for a vast oversupply of cucumbers, and recent visitors had them each day at all three meals wherever they ate.
Probably the best restaurant experience available is at the Lesnaya Zaimka, or Hunter's Lodge, found in the woods about 15 miles from town. Lesnaya Zaimka specializes in traditional Russian food and uses the abundant local game of the taiga to good advantage. Like the North Korean restaurant, it is termed a cooperative, a euphemistic expression indicating to Soviets a profit-making establishment with generally higher prices than state-run restaurants but having better food and service. A full meal at either place will cost less than 10 rubles, currently under $2 at the official rate.
These observations are not related to daunt you but to let you know what you face. Is it worthwhile to visit Vladivostok? The answer is a resounding yes.
Consider that this city enjoys one of the most striking natural settings in the world, one that rivals San Francisco; Hong Kong; Sydney, Australia; or Nagasaki, Japan. It is built on a hilly peninsula that sticks out like a chubby finger into Peter the Great Bay. At the end of the peninsula, separated by a narrow, deep-water channel, is the dark bulk of Russian Island, which protects shipping in Vladivostok's port.
Vladivostok's geography was a key to its founding in 1860, when control of the surrounding area passed from China to Russia. Russia needed a deep-water and ice-free port on the Pacific to anchor its new maritime possessions. Vladivostok was the perfect location for such a port.
At first it was populated largely by adventurers and frontier types. Because of the great distance from Moscow, the young city enjoyed a rare degree of autonomy. That overland distance was almost unimaginable in the late 19th century; it was faster to reach Vladivostok from St. Petersburg by train to Hamburg, steamer to New York, train again to San Francisco, and another steamer across the Pacific! The alternative was the Great Siberian Track, 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles) from Moscow, much of it on the roughest roads and trails through a forbidding wilderness.
With the arrival of the Russian Navy, Vladivostok began to assume its present shape and importance. Late 19th and early 20th century buildings replaced the wooden structures around the port. Fortunately, most of these graceful buildings survive, from various old hotels and commercial houses to the amazing railroad station completed in 1916, when rail service entirely through Russian territory to Moscow began. These buildings give Vladivostok's center the distinct feel of northern Europe, almost a miniature Leningrad from some perspectives, though not as grand.
More than vistas and buildings, Vladivostok is interesting because of its people. How unexpected to find a city of blond-haired Slavs one air hour west of Japan and just a few miles north of China. It's as if 750,000 Caucasians had been conjured out of thin air, so incongruous do they seem in the heart of Northeast Asia.
And what a pleasant surprise to find these enforced Soviet hermits to be jolly, welcoming and eager for contact. It will immediately strike a visitor who has been to European Russia that people here smile a lot. They are friendly and show it in the streets. The well-known dourness and reserve of Moscow and Leningrad belong to another world, eight time zones away.
People in Vladivostok compare to European Russians as American Westerners do to those who live on the Eastern Seaboard. The parallel is not perfect, but it comes close at several points. In both cases, 19th century pioneers and freebooters moved into trackless land held by tribal peoples. They battled great distances and unforgiving climate, crossing continents to isolated destinations at the ends of their respective worlds.
Both cultures celebrate their adventurers. Vladivostok's founder, Count Muravev, is the prototype military officer operating on his own too far from his home base to be easily controlled. The Russian East experienced the same shortage of women on its frontier as did the American West. As late as 1937, the Soviets were still trying to attract women to the Far East to fill the gender void. Adroit publicity that year brought out 70,000 female volunteers, called the "Hetagurovky" after the name of the first volunteer.
As train No. 1, the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, pulls into Vladivostok after its long journey east to the Pacific, conductors still call out to passengers scrambling to get off: "Take your time ladies and gentlemen, you have reached the end of the world." That is an apt summary of the current situation for visitors. They will find hardly a mention of the city in any guidebook, and the tourist infrastructure is not yet in place. The city stands on travel frontier. That means uncertain plumbing, mediocre meals and empty shops, but also excitement, unusual experiences -- and, above all, human contact with people eager to meet the world after nearly a century of enforced isolation.