Gulags & Abandoned Cities & Diving
July 7, 2012
Vladivostok and North to Magadan
Ah, the first official day of our tour, the beginning of a step back in time to a history of gulags and Papa Joe, travel to faraway places that many people have never heard of or wouldn’t ever care to visit. But we do! The alarm sounds and we groggily tear off eye shades. Oh look, 7 a.m. in the morning and it’s been light outside for hours! We are experiencing the White Nights – that summertime in far north countries where it is daylight for a good 19-22 hours a day. Yes, this is why we brought our eye shades. We won’t sleep a night without them on this part of our journey.
Stagger into the shower and get dressed and we are awake enough to go have breakfast. I am perusing the other hotel guests and trying to guess which people might well be on our tour. I haven’t seen a list of names yet but it’s pretty easy to tell who isn’t on our trip. Simon, our Koryo Tours man, isn’t in the breakfast room yet. It will be good to see him again. I have taken 4 trips with him to various odd places in the world, including DPRK, Turkmenistan, and Vladivostok once before. This will be the first time my husband has been able to come with me and I am happy that he is with me and will finally meet Simon.
Finish our breakfast without seeing Simon so we return to our room and get our bags and prepare ourselves for the day and lugging our bags back downstairs. We have retrieved our passports from the front desk and we are ready for more flight time and travel (not really but not a choice). Today the plan is to fly from Vladivostok, as a group, and arrive in Madagan which will be our jumping off point for the rest of the tour. So downstairs we go and we turn in our two scuba bags to the front desk where they go to the luggage room. Took my hubby a bit of questioning and explaining but he finally got receipts for them as well which is good. So we sit in the lobby and wait for the group. Men start assembling and several come up to us and introduce themselves as we obviously look like part of Simon’s group. Simon shows up and I introduce him to my hubby and he happily acknowledges “You are real!” which was our ongoing joke that my husband was a real person just never could manage any of the other tours with me prior to this one.
Julia arrives (pronounced Hulia, not sure how to spell it so I use Julia) and I recognized her immediately as our guide from the last time I was in Vladivostok with Simon and Koryo Tours. She didn’t recognize me until later and after staring at me for a while. The group is assembled and ready to go. We are meeting one person at the airport (he flew in last night on the same flight we did but wisely stayed at the airport hotel which was just a short walk across the parking lot!) and then we are picking up two people at Khabarovsk airport which is a stop on our way. (have also seen this spelled as Habarovsk and usually is pronounced with a silent K). One lady has missed her flight connections and thus will not be able to join the tour at all. That sucks for her! Would really piss me off to miss it all. So that means Julia and I are the only women on the tour.
Our luggage gets loaded into a big van and we all climb onto a bus to head to the airport via a short city tour of Vladivostok. We learned that APEC, Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, is being held in Vladivostok this fall. Hence, Moscow has put a lot of money into upgrading Vladivostok in the last 3-4 years. That explained the new road from the airport and all the construction at the hotel. Also explains all the construction going on in the city everywhere. Also really doesn’t look like they will get finished in time for the conference and the domestic side of the airport is still much nicer than the international side but they are definitely working hard to make it a success. So as we are driving around the city on a roundabout way out of town to the airport, I’m trying without much success to get photos. Luckily I’ll have another chance for photos when we return.
At the airport, we all get through security and start our check in but there are problems. It is a group ticket and the first guy in the group to attempt the check-in does not appear to be listed in the group ticket. It takes them a long time to figure out the group ticket and they ask Julia and Simon for a lot of paperwork, most of which has been given to them before and most of which is on Simon’s computer but Simon is of the “let’s do this easily and logically” persuasion which doesn’t always work in the countries where he travels. I think he likes to whack the hornet’s nest because he usually knows it’s not going to work with them, he just likes to see if he can change so many years of collective thinking. It is a joy to watch him try.
Finally we get started with our check-in although there was a problem with that one fellow for the entire process and I think they had to do something like buy him a separate ticket or something. But we all got our boarding passes and they even were able to sit my hubby and me next to each other. We troop through security and into the departure lounge where we wait for our flight to Magadan, via Khabarovsk. And finally then we are boarding our bus for the short ride to our plane. There are many “make work” personnel in the airport. There are the checks through security of several people who look at your boarding pass and passport. Then there are several people who look again at the same before you are allowed to go out the door to board the bus. And upon exiting the bus, you must at least show your boarding pass to climb the stairs and board the plane and finally one last show of the boarding pass to the flight attendants. Seems like a lot but then there was the young man in London after we returned from our trip that boarded a plane and got halfway to Rome before they realized he had no passport and no ticket and no boarding pass. Maybe London needs to more people looking at boarding passes as well.
OK. Russia has crazy time zones, 9 throughout the country from Moscow to the way Far East so we have another time change from Vladivostok to Magadan. There used to be 11 time zones but last year they dropped one in the Far East and one close to Moscow so now there are 9 which meant we only had to change time once more when we hit Magadan rather than twice, probably. Still, that’s a lot of time zones in 2 ½ days that we have managed. Luckily I don’t get jet lag!
We flew into Khabarovsk and everyone is asked to deplane and take everything with them. My hubby and I are almost in the last row of the plane but as we get off, Julia is waiting to show us which bus to take to the terminal and we all get a “re-boarding” card as we enter the terminal and show our boarding pass. We don’t know how long we will be here but long enough to grab something to drink and start getting to know our fellow travelers as well. We are a varied bunch but then Simon’s groups always are. He runs the kind of tours that your average person is not interested in taking. All of us have been adventurers for a good long time and have done the typical tourist trips way in our pasts OR we are expats and therefore have the time and money to do these bizarre or out of the ordinary trips. Simon finds the other two travelers who were meeting us in Khabarovsk so we are complete now except for the poor lady in Seoul who missed the tour.
Doesn’t seem too long before our flight is called and we board the bus again, those of us who were already on the plane before, ride back to the plane, everyone checks our boarding passes again, and we climb back up the stairs and into the plane and back to the back of the plane to our seats. Our two newest tour members have to wait for the joining passengers before they are allowed to board but Julia is a good tour guide and she watches out to make sure all her chicks are on board. Off we go over some rivers around Khabarovsk and some agricultural areas and dachas and on to Magadan.
Into Magadan. Again on the bus into the terminal but here the doorway is jammed with people greeting their relatives and friends who are on the plane and this includes Julia who is enthusiastically greeted and hugged and mobbed by a couple of ladies, Olga and Vika (I think) who run the travel agency Simon uses. Again, we wait for the doors to open to the baggage claim. I had warned one of the tour members in Vladivostok of the “one bag” rule so he had managed to get his four bags plastic wrapped into one. There is a lot of this going on here. Everyone’s bags arrive and we are out of the airport and into a small van that is a typical Magadan taxi. All the luggage is in the back of the van so we are a bit crowded.
It is about an hour to Magadan. Again, think the airport was placed where there was level ground and it is plenty light outside still so we can see plenty of beautiful and lush countryside as we travel into the city but there isn’t much else out there. Occasionally we pass a small village or a few houses but mostly it appears to be empty. The road has some bumps including one we hit so hard that the two men sitting in front of us were catapulted into the people sitting backwards and facing them. Luckily no one landed badly and that was the worst of it.
We stop outside Magadan for a photo of the city’s name monument – a tall square pole with Magadan on it, in Russian, and the date of founding. Also there were two statues there of deer. This was an area of rich hunting at some point. We are also on the outskirts of town where some people have their dachas. This is what Wikipedia says about dachas: “”””Dacha (Russian: да́ча; IPA: [ˈdatɕə] ( listen)) is a Russian word for seasonal or year-round second homes often located in the exurbs of Soviet and post-Soviet cities. Cottages or shacks serving as a family’s main or only home (or districts of such buildings) are not considered dachas, although many purpose-built dachas are recently being converted for year-round residence. In some cases, dachas are occupied for part of the year by their owners and rented out to urban residents as summer retreats.
Dachas are very common in Russia, and are also widespread in most parts of the former Soviet Union. It is estimated that about 50% of Russian families living in large cities have dachas.
As the size and type of dacha buildings was severely restricted during the Soviet time, some permitted features, such as attics and glazed verandas, became extremely widespread and often oversized. During the 1963–1985 period, these limitations were especially strict: only single-story summer houses without permanent heating and with living areas less than 25 m² were allowed as second housing (though older dachas that didn’t meet these requirements continued to exist). Since 1990, all such limitations have been eliminated.
Anyone who permanently dwells in a dacha is colloquially called a dachnik (дачник); the term usually refers to a whole distinctive lifestyle..””””
My husband and I had first heard of dachas when we visited Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2000. We had the impression then from our guide that most dachas were quite nice and while not necessarily expensive, they were nice dwellings and a break from city life. What we see here in Magadan is that dachas are everything from a rough tar paper shack to a nice cottage to a stately home although we didn’t see too many stately home type dachas here. What’s amazing is that most dachas are only a few miles from where the family/owner lives all the time and it is used as a weekend getaway or as a place to have a bit of a garden. Can’t imagine going out to it on the weekend in the middle of winter though.
We reach our hotel and turn in our passports again and wait while they copy them. We get our room key and struggle over to the lift to go to the third floor. At least there is a lift but we learned not to linger entering or leaving the lift as it would slam into you and reluctantly open again. A bit scary. Our room is ok and at the back of the hotel which turned out to be good because the front of the hotel was on the main street and there were “boy racers” who liked to squeal up and down the street in their muscle cars late at night.
The group was meeting at 8 for dinner together. As we head out for dinner, we go towards the brand new cathedral in Magadan. It is lovely but still under construction in some parts. It is being used now at least. Dinner is in a local restaurant and it was quite tasty with salads and soups and bread and chicken, I think the first night. We also found out that everyone walks faster than me. I am going to be poking along behind the group whenever we go. That’s ok except whenever the group stops to wait for me, they get a rest and then the minute I arrive, everyone starts walking again so I never get a rest! Been there done that. Frustrating being old and slow!
After dinner, many of the group went to the hotel bar where we all had a free drink coupon. As I am not a great one for bars, I don’t hang out long and as my hubby is a wonderful traveling companion, he finishes his beer and goes with me to our room where we crash for the night – again with eye shades as it hasn’t gotten dark yet.