Vladivostok, farewells and Russian bar culturePosted: February 15, 2015
Panorama of the Golden Horn Bay bay, click for bigger version
Founded in 1860 as a naval outpost during a period when the Russian Empire was consolidating it power in Siberia and the Far East against China, the name of the city translates to ‘Ruler of the East’. Today it’s a city with about half a million people and it’s the final stop on the 9200km long Trans-Siberian railway, a big international port and home of the Russian pacific fleet.
We arrived late on a Monday evening after spending four nights on a train, and already during the short walk to our hostel I felt I would like the city. Here in Tomsk almost all older buildings are typically made of wood in traditional Siberian style, but Vladivostok had a lot of 19th/early 20th century stone buildings. (If you visit any city in Siberia built before the Soviet period you will see that only the most important buildings like the university, train station or governmental buildings were built in stone since it was very hard to get building material to Siberia). I’ve lived almost six months in Siberia now, so I was surprised that it felt a bit like being in Europe again even when I was on the other side of the world. The city is also built on several hills at the shore of the pacific (I didn’t realize how much I missed the sea) with a big landmark bridge so it also looked a lot like San Francisco.
They even had street signs in English!
We didn’t have much knowledge of the city before the trip so we trusted the Lonely Planet: Russia guidebook and TripAdvisor for finding sights, restaurants and cafés, which proved to be a successful strategy. We spent first day walking around downtown, hiking up to the hills overlooking the Golden Horn Bay and visiting an old WW2 submarine that was converted to a museum. The second day we took the buss out to one of the islands where the old coastal battery was situated and in the evening we walked out on the ice to watch the sunset on the frozen pacific.
Chinese tourists liked the tall Czech guys
The coastal battery museum
While searching for a place to eat we went to a random shopping mall and I was quite surprised when we stumbled onto a Hesburger, which is a Finnish fast-food chain. Not something I would expect this far away!
Beforehand it felt a bit stupid to spend in total eight nights on a train just to be in Vladivostok for three nights, but afterwards it totally felt worth it. The weather was really good with sunshine and only a few minus degrees and almost no snow, which was a nice change from the cold and snowy darkness of Siberia.
Sunset on the frozen pacific
Farewells and new beginnings
For the last two months or so I’ve had to experience the worst part of the exchange year: saying goodbye to all the amazing people from around the world who I’ve befriended here in Tomsk and who were now going back home. First ones started to leave in the beginning of December, and one by one we (the foreign students) got fewer until finally a week ago the last two of the single-semester students left. Of all the international students only about 10 of us are here for the whole year (most of these are in an English Master’s program, I think only three of us are here for a one-year exchange).
One of those two who left had been living in a private apartment which we named “the French Flat”, after the three French guys who lived there. Since the last resident in the flat was moving out it was time to say goodbye to the place in the form of a final farewell party (been a lot of those the last month). At the party I was talking with my friend about how having the final goodbyes here at this flat was a fitting end to the amazing chapter that was the Fall Semester 2014 at TPU. The three guys living there were more than happy to offer their home as a venue for countless dinners, vodka tastings, random get-to-getters and even our Christmas and New Year’s parties. The flat was a real life-safer for us, since having these type of events in the dormitory unfortunately proved to be quite difficult because of the visitor’s curfews (non-residents have to leave at 23.00), not a lot of space for bigger groups and the administration’s dislike to student drinking.
Another dinner party at the French flat
Still, it wasn’t just nostalgia that evening, which also was the beginning of new adventures. This week saw the start of a new semester and some of the new foreign students had found their way to the party. We ‘Russian veterans’ from the previous semester immediately welcomed them to Siberia, so while the evening was the end of one era it was also the opportunity to turn to a new page. When I think about all the cool things we did last semester I’m quite excited of all the things that still lie ahead of us.
For this semester I’m taking slightly less courses since I don’t need that many credits anymore and I would like to focus more on my language studies. This semester I actually signed up for some courses in my own field of study (electronics) to see if I could maybe learn something useful besides Russian, but after the first week of teaching I’m not impressed by the academic level (to be honest I wasn’t expecting much either, so no surprises here). The teachers seem nice but it just feels like they haven’t planned the courses that well and don’t really know what to do with us. Since local students only study in Russian all the English speaking courses are custom made for exchange students, so they are quite hit-or-miss when it comes to how well they planned and how good the teachers are. Luckily the coursework is not that important for me since I’m here mostly for the language studies (which are excellent!), but I feel a bit sorry for the guys who are in the English degree programs and should actually learn something while they are here.
TPU once again raised my blood pressure when it comes to scheduling, since one course I wanted to take was missing from my schedule and was replaced with a completely unrelated one I had never signed up for. Also, for some reason the “easy” three credit electronics course has five (5x90min) lessons per week instead of the one I thought it would, so once again my schedule is a bit unnecessary full. I’m expecting to travel more this semester (at least Lake Baikal area and maybe Mongolia and/or Altai Mountains) so I don’t want to take too many classes I would miss anyway. The one thing that pissess me off the most is that I have some days completely free of shcool, while othe days I have lessons 8 hours straight without any longer breaks! They even gave me lectures on saturday morning, but I’m gonna do everything in my power to change the schedule for that. If it’s not possible I’ll just have to skip the course or the lecture, I really don’t see myself going to class at 8.30 on the weekend….
Besides traveling to Vladivostok these one and a half months have not been that eventful. One weekend a group of us visited a small town called Parabel, situated at the shore of the Ob river about 400km north of Tomsk. The town itself is not really anything special, but we were there to visit a “spa resort” with natural hot springs. The “resort” wasn’t really anything else than a few huts quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and we had the opportunity to enjoy real Siberian weather with the temperature dropping to -40 degrees (fun random fact: did you know that the Celsius and the Fahrenheit scale are both the same at that temperature) while living in a tiny cabin with just a small wooden stove to keep us warm. Besides the warm springs we also did an excursion to a museum that had exhibitions about the history of the region. The museum was actually in a house Josef Stalin himself had hidden in during his revolutionary years.
Grilling some shashlik in -40 degrees was interesting
The resort was at the riverbed of some small side branch of the Ob
The water was pumped straight from the ground and there was a strong methane smell. You could actually light the waterhose on fire because of all the gas. Even if the air was about -35 when we were bathing the water was almost burning hot.
Visit to the regional museum:
Rest of the time has involved an easy living of sports (skating and beer), food and beer. We’ve been going out a lot to “kill some time”, and I think we managed to go through most of the Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor bar and restaurant recommendations for Tomsk and found several cool cafés and restaurants (you can definitely see that Tomsk is a student city). It’s been a lot of fun but I am still missing European style bars or pubs. For some reason Russians like to combine a little bit of everything when it comes to night life, and many places are a mix of night club, bar and restaurant. This means you usually have to reserve a table beforehand to get in, and once you get in they play music really loudly and you have to wait for ages for the table service to bring your beer (if you thought Finnish customer service was bad you should see the Russian version). Still, what you lose in the quality they make up for with the cheap prices and the fall of the ruble has made a cheap country even cheaper, so life here is pretty okay even if the restaurant culture is really strange.