Part V: Final Day in Vladivostok

The next morning while eating breakfast at a local cafeteria I had a bit of a startling revelation!! Staring me right in the face taking up an entire wall was a larger than life map of the ex-USSR. I realized that I would soon be crossing this giant landmass called Russia. Of course I knew Russia was large, but when I saw the giant map it really put things into perspective and pointed out to me that I had a loooong journey in front of me to reach Moscow.

However, crossing Russia was a thought for another day! In the meantime I had to hurry up so I could meet up with Inna for our morning excursion to Russkiy Island, home of the brand new state of the art Far East Federal University campus! Russkiy Island in a matter of only several years has transformed itself from a nearly deserted island with a population of only about 5,000 people to a hub of business, education and leisure. All of this due to the fact Russia chose this remote spot as the venue to host the 2012 APEC Summit.

Connecting Russkiy Island with the mainland though was no simple task! To accomplish this goal the government sunk billions of dollars into building two very large and long cable suspension bridges, one of which is the largest in the world. What used to take around an hour to reach the island now only takes about 30 minutes in good traffic.

Crossing over the bridge was breathtaking!!! Since stopping on the bridge was prohibited, Inna made sure to go slow so I could get a good glimpse at this incredible feat of Russian engineering!! Once there, we explored the university campus. I’ve seen many different university campuses in my life and even attended a large university, but this place trumped them all!  Covering an area of 8,000 square meters the university campus with its modern glass buildings that sparkle in the sun, a beautiful large embankment on Ajax Bay overlooking the bridge, a five star hotel, start of the art facilities on par or surpassing anything seen in the west, FEFU is an absolute miracle! I could never have even come close to visiting here if it had not been for my incredible friend and wonderful guide, Inna! To top it all off I even got a VIP tour around the new state of the art athletic facility thanks to Inna’s brother, Sasha who worked there. The university will likely continue to grow as an important player on the world stage!!   

After a quick lunch, we headed back to the mainland and visited the Eagle's Nest Mount perched atop Vladivostok. The views from there were breathtaking, you could see both bodies of water that border Vladivostok, Amur Bay to the west and Golden Horn bay to the east. Just below the Eagle’s Nest Mount is a small souvenir shop with all types of wonderful Russian gifts to buy. No matter what type of gift you are after, this is your place for souvenirs and trinkets in Vladivostok! And, there is no way you can miss it since just a few steps away stands a HUGE blow up matryoshka doll! Even if you don’t feel like buying anything at the gift shop be sure to get a photo of yourself overlooking Vladivostok with this lovely lady!!! The Eagle’s Mount can easily be reached by car or if you’d prefer, you can take the Funicular up to the top and walk a short distance up to the outlook. 

Other highlights of Vladivostok that I recommend is shopping on Okeanskiy Prospect and Svetlana Blvd, the Monument to famous modern Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky, the Submarine Museum on Tseravich Embankment, the City Embankment and if you have the time and transportation get out and explore the beautiful nature of The Far East!! An especially popular destination for residents of Vladivostok is the beach destination, Shamora.

As my evening drew to a close in Vladivostok I felt a touch of sadness that I was leaving the next morning to Ulan-Ude on The Trans-Siberian railway. My time had been packed full of such excitement and good times, I couldn’t imagine how anywhere else could beat this??? But, as I was soon to find out, this was just the beginning of an absolutely epic trip! Stay tuned for my next article about my stop on The Trans-Siberian Railway the capital of The Republic of Buryatia, Ulan-Ude!

Part IV: sightseeing with an English Language All-Star

After finishing my lesson with the students I returned to Inna’s office to meet my guide for the afternoon, one of her “all-star students”, Victoria. Victoria would take me around Vladivostok to show me all the highlights, help me exchange some left over Korean money I still had and assist me in buying a SIM card for my mobile phone.

Victoria had been studying English for only three years, however one would never know this as she spoke crystal clear with hardly any mistakes and great confidence! I complimented her on this amazing accomplishment but she was very humble always saying that she knew “so very little” English!

Walking around with Victoria and practicing English reminded of the “good ole” days back in the wild and crazy 90s, I say that as as Russia was undergoing a severe crisis then. Back then every summer I’d visit a host family in the suburb of Zelenograd, a suburb of Moscow. My host mother was an English as Foreign Language teacher at the university and similar to my experience in Vladivostok would have her students take me into Moscow for a tour. However, this time was a bit different since then I was the one who was 16 or 17 and they were the ones who were a lot older! Oh well……… time flies!!!! But, I still have the spirit of a 16 year old :) !!!!

One of my main goals that day was to exchange my left over Korean Wons into Rubles. Seemed like a simple task since the biggest hotel in town, The Hyundai Hotel was Korean. What could go wrong? It’s Korean so obviously they have Korean clients who need to exchange money and it’s a giant five star hotel, therefore it should’ve been a slam-dunk! Except as I quickly learned, never ever take anything for granted when in a foreign country, especially Russia and especially out in The Far East of Russia! We arrived at the hotel and asked where I could exchange money.  They looked at me as if I was crazy and said they didn’t exchange money!! So much for that one! Asked if they knew where I could they blankly stared at me and indicated they could’ve cared less….. Eventually after wandering around for nearly an hour trying to find a bank, I finally found a place that accepted Korean Won!!! Moral of the story……never assume (or as we say in America, you’ll make an ass out of you and me) and always exchange foreign money before you leave a nation!

Once we got the money exchange out of the way and a new SIM card for my phone, we were off to explore Vladivostok’s version of The Golden Gate Bridge, which has a similar name, The Golden Horn Bay Bridge. Built for the 2012 APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Conference) Summit this mammoth sized suspension bridge, is an INCREDIBLE marvel and tribute to Russian engineering. Just a few kilometers down the road sits another suspension bridge “The Russkiy Island Suspension Bridge” which is even bigger and even more stunning. But for today, I’d just have to settle for the smaller of the two, “The Golden Horn Bay Bridge”. Victoria and I walked about a kilometer out on the bridge and were treated to a stunning view of “Russia’s San Francisco”!

Besides the bridge, the fog, and the bay, Vladivostok had one other feature in common with San Francisco……….the hills!!! And walking up and down them all day gave you a workout that made your Stairmaster workout look petty! To put the hills in perspective one day of walking around Vladivostok was the equivalent of walking to the top floor of a modestly high skyscraper!! Much like the cultures of The Andes Mountains who’ve adapted to the extremely high altitudes by having larger lung volumes, I wonder if the people of Vladivostok’s knees and legs have adapted to the tall grueling hills?? Certainly they must be a lot stronger than say someone in St. Petersburg where it’s flat and swampy! Who knows, all I know is that by the end of the day I felt as if I’d completed the Stairmaster workout from hell!

Some of the other cool sights we saw were The Vladivostok Funicular, a cable car on a railway that goes up steep hills! You couldn’t beat the price, a five-minute ride to the top for only a few rubles, which is not even the equivalent to one dollar or Euro!! After viewing Vladivostok from high above, we descended down to the recently revitalized waterfront and enjoyed the cool but beautiful sunny day breathing in the smell of the Pacific Ocean! On our way down we passed through the "Triumphal Arch” built in the 1890s to commemorate the Tsarist family and the visit of Crown Prince Nicholas to Vladivostok. However, the original arch was destroyed during Soviet times and not restored to its former glory until 2003. Victoria told me that when we went underneath the arch to hold my breath and make a wish! And, she emphasized to me that this really worked telling me a story of how her mother passed beneath this arch some years ago while on a visit to Vladivostok from a local town and made the wish to live in Vladivostok with her and her sister. And sure enough, what do you know they now all live happily today in this beautiful city!!

Eventually it was time to return to my hotel! On our way back Victoria showed me some other sights along the way in the center, including The White House (Vladivostok’s administrative building that is painted the color………white), the city’s two main streets Svetlana Street and Okeanskiy Prospect (Ocean Prospect) and the city square.

I’m unsure who had more fun, Victoria speaking English for the very first time to a native speaker without a teacher being around or me being able to see the wonderful sights of Vladivostok? We’ll call it a draw! Huge thanks goes out to Inna and her all-star student, Victoria for making my time in Vladivostok special and epic! I’ll be back with even more impressions about Vladivostok later! Thank you for reading!!!!! 
The All-Star, Victoria, who recently graduated from school!

Part III: Back to School

Day 2 in Vladivostok was ever bit as awesome as day 1, mainly due to my friend Inna and her meticulous planning! She made sure that my every minute in Vladivostok was perfectly synchronized and fit in with any future plans, assuring that no stone was left unturned!!!

After some late morning sightseeing, we returned to the city since she had to be back for her afternoon English language class. She explained to me that she was the director of a college within FEFU (Far Eastern Federal University). When she explained to me about college, I instantly thought this meant she worked with students at the university level. I was a bit surprised when we arrived and all the students were teenagers. I knew kids go to university early in Russia, usually about 17, but these kids definitely looked younger than 17. After a few moments I asked her the age and grade of the students. She told me they were all high school level. In Russia, “college” refers to a high level of secondary education, whereas in the US we use the term liberally to mean any type of higher education!

Since my specialty is English as a Foreign Language Inna felt this would be a great opportunity for me to discuss with her students the US s vs. the Russian system. I had written up a few notes the night before and was a bit nervous to get in front of an entire class of 10th graders, aka sophomores! After all it’d been nearly 3 years since I’d been in an actual classroom since my teaching has mainly been over Skype.

When we walked into the classroom students instantly stood up as if a judge or some honorable person had just entered the room! Having taught in American schools where kids can be rather indifferent to whether the teacher is in, out or entering the room, I was pleasantly surprised! Inna later told me this was the norm and that she made sure her kids ALWAYS showed respect by standing.  

After everyone sat down she introduced me and explained I would discuss with them America and how our education system compares to Russia’s. This instantly peaked the students’ interest. I introduced myself explaining I was from the city of Seattle in the state of Washington. I asked if anyone had heard of my city, but for the most part students were clueless. So to try to break the ice I threw out a few hometown company names to see if that may spark some reaction. The first company name I mentioned was Boeing, which was met by mostly crickets! I should’ve mentioned Microsoft but instead mentioned probably the most well known coffee brand in the world……………Starbucks. So, I casually said, “Who here knows of Starbucks”? The class instantly lit up in excitement!!! They were definitely very familiar with the brand name. Starbucks’ executives would’ve smiled knowing that no matter where you are in the world, everyone seems to know Starbucks!!

I then commented about how very impressed I was that they stood when their teacher entered the room and how in the US this doesn’t happen! A sweet girl raised her hand and quietly asked, “How then in American schools do students show the teacher they’re ready to learn?” I laughed and said generally they don’t care; they’re usually too busy chatting with their friends or playing on their mobile phones.

For most of the lesson I discussed the American education system and some of our high school traditions, such as, prom, homecoming, Tolo Dance, etc… But, the one part of the lesson that I can safely say the students enjoyed the most was when I explained how Americans perceive Russian babushkas (meaning grandma in Russian). Usually a “babushka” to an American is a word that means a type of old unattractive Russian woman who is hunched over with a colorful Russian scarf. They also never can pronounce the word right, emphasizing the “u” in babushka, whereas there is no real accent in the word.

After our discussion about American vs. Russian schools, students had a chance to ask questions or comment about anything I said. Despite my offer nobody took me up on it………..except one boy, the only boy in the entire class, which was a bit of a reflection of Russian society where women vastly outnumber men. He raised his hand and asked me, “What do people in the United States think about the beers”. I thought to myself “what the hell is this kid talking about, why is he talking about beers, he’s no older than 15!!??????”  Since I don’t drink beer or any alcohol for the most part, I had no idea how to approach this question. I knew that Russians liked alcohol, but why was a school kid asking me about beer???? Of course I’d heard such discussions back home in public schools, but I still was stumped trying to think of an answer!! Just as I was about to try and avoid an answer, students jumped in and said he meant, “BEARS”. His question was related to whether Americans think bears roam the streets of Russia! I said that generally Americans have really zero idea about Russia and the day-to-day happenings in this vast nation!

After class the students were still buzzing about my “babUshka” explanation, repeating it endlessly to their friends in the hall and giggling about it. It was such a unique experience to be able to step in for an hour and interact with Russian school kids!!! It’s an experience I will never forget and cherish for the rest of my life. I really have Inna to thank for trusting me to take her class for one lesson!!!  Thanks for reading and I’ll be back with more impressions about Vladivostok in my next entry!!

My class for the day and me!