After disembarking from the Eastern Dream, we noticed a few people looking down at us from high on a balcony, their breath rising through the chilly air. One of these onlookers was a woman in her 40s. She wore a knee-length white furry coat, had wild blonde hair, and was clutching the leash of a black and grey schnauzer. We recognized the dog, and the woman recognized the orange pom-pom on my beanie. This was Anna: our AirBnb host.
Anna didn’t appear to be moving fast, but her large, relaxed strides meant we had to rush to keep up with her. It was snowing lightly in the port city of Vladivostok. Piles of brown snow were heaped up at the side of the congested road, while cars and buses honked for space. Old Russian woman strode past in ushankas and long, dark fur coats. The below-freezing temperature meant bare skin was seldom seen, save for rosy faces, a few ungloved hands, and the occasional bare legs of somebody with more style than sense.
Anna suddenly lurched onto the road and darted into the rear opening of a red bus. It was old, dusty, and full of people. In the rush, we hadn’t had the chance to change our Korean Won to Russian Rubles yet. I mentioned this to Anna, but she shook her head and said, “OK,” while holding up a handful of coins. The bus slowly moved south along the peninsula. The buildings we passed were mostly bleak, Soviet rectangles, but the coating of snow made everything seem vibrant and cinematic. A bridge over the train yard revealed cylindrical coal-black carriages with a white dusting of ice, with silver tracks gleaming up from the buried sleepers.
At our stop, Anna paid the driver 60 rubles and dashed out to the street. We hurried – slipping over ice – past wooden stands of dried fruit and fish being kept frozen in the open air. Rows of old shacks and new houses lined a street which was separated from the harbour by a hill. We stopped at one of the gates and Anna fumbled with the lock. Once inside, the schnauzer, who had previously been rather quiet, was allowed off his leash. He immediately ran to the fence and began furiously barking. Only he will ever know why.
The house was over a century old, and was warmed by a cast iron wood burner. The toilet was practically a plastic bucket with a lid, and it sat outside the house (read: frosty bum). All the water was pumped from a nearby well, put in a huge pot on the wood burner to heat, and then distributed to be used as dish water or toilet water. The inner walls were covered in Anna’s artwork. She was a talented, prolific artist, and the jumbled disarray of the house added to her eccentricity. The place was a slow fixer-upper, she told us. Watch out for that huge tangle of electirc wires, she added.
Four extremely friendly cats roamed the interior, leaping around and deciding that I would be a good place upon which to stand. We were presently informed that Anna’s son Alex would be leading us on an expedition up the hill behind the house while dinner was being prepared. But not before he destroyed both of us at online checkers.
The next day, Anna led us on a walking tour through Vladivostok. We trekked along the stony shore of the Amursky gulf, and watched the half-frozen slushy waves hit the beach. The seawater that couldn’t quite make it back into the gulf was frozen into a slippery wall. The wind was fierce near the water, chilling our faces. I’ve been in snowy places a handful of times in my life, and Caroline has seen the white stuff even less. This was certainly the coldest place either of us had ever been, and it was only around -8 degrees. The weather promised to get much, much colder as we headed further north.
One of the places we visited was a shop that owed Anna money from artwork sales. The worker spoke English, and we got chatting. Suddenly, she asked; “What do you think of our bridges?”
In 2012, Vladivostok had two enormous suspension bridges built. Looking at it now, I suppose they add definition to the city (whatever that means), but we didn’t know how to answer. Did the locals approve of these new bridges or not? Was this girl hoping we would declare them needless monstrosities, or beacons of man’s achievement? We had cycled over so many huge and impressive bridges in Japan, that these ones didn’t draw a particularly strong opinion from either of us.
“They’re really big,” I said lamely.
On our third day, the weather dropped to -15 degrees. The sun was up and the sky was clear blue, but we took a day to be lazy in Anna’s house. The four cats would take turns jumping on us, and the dog would growl any time anybody moved. It wasn’t a growl of anger; it was a growl of desperation. The mutt was almost in tears from the desire to be petted. Giving him rubs would just make him even needier, to the point where he decided my leg was on heat.
Anna was yet another person on our travels who fussed over my skinny physique. She regularly patted my stomach while shaking her head, and would then cook up some delicious stew or cake to fill me with. She spoke hardly any English, and (as usual) I knew practically no Russian while Caroline was hard at work, practicing every night and picking up plenty of pieces. We communicated using the voice recognition feature on Google Translate. Caroline and Anna clicked really well, and spent hours chatting with Google’s often incoherent help.
On our last day in Vladivostok, we took a walk to the southern end of the city. Guarding the entrance to Golden Horn Bay was a lighthouse. The bay takes its name from the famous Golden Horn River in Istanbul, due to its similar shape. When we arrived, this curved bay was the only part of the sea that was still flowing. In stark contrast, the huge Amursky gulf was coated in so much snow and ice that it looked solid. Container ships still managed to plough through.
After our excursion we returned to the house. Anna was concerned that we hadn’t showered in four days (there was no shower at her house), and so she ran us down to the local gym to use the showers there. After our shower we raced back to her house, ate a meal as fast as we could while practically standing up, then raced into town. We had a train to catch.
It was a sad goodbye. Caroline and Anna especially had grown close over the few days we spent in Vladivostok. Anna, a tough, Russian mother raising a kid on her own, came as close to tears as she would allow, then dashed off the train without saying a word. She waited on the snowy platform, occasionally waving at us through the window and wiping her eyes. At 5.35 p.m. we felt a shudder as the number 351 to Khabarovsk began to slowly roll north. It wasn’t the first time in Russia that I felt like I’d woken up in somebody’s movie.