It's only a tale of 24hours, but a long one. So get yourself a drink, and make yourself comfortable.
FOR a few days i had had a kind of premonition that there may not be any remaining tickets for my prefered option, the Monday evening boat to Japan. Luckily, these fears proved unfounded. There are few things that you actually need in order to catch a ferry to Japan, but undoubtedly one neccessity is a boat. This, ideally, would be the same boat that leaves every Monday at 18:00, which boarding notices I had seen on Saturday at the ticket office telling foreigners to meet at 14:00 on the 24th for customns checks, and which i had seen in harbour next to the office on the Sunday following it's scheduled arrival. And the same boat which had mysteriously left the same Sunday evening.
It is vaguely disconcerting to hear several hours before the departure of said ferry from Vladivostok to Fushiki that your options now seem to boil down to flights to Moscow (a 10,000km backtrack), Seattle (at least in the correct direction, if a little too far, and plus visa considerations as laughably, i need a visa to enter the US) and Pyongyang. And to realise that a first class flight to North Korea is actually your best option, despite the numerous inherent issues and problems is both funny and daunting. And that's before you even consider the fact that i don't fly.
I must admit that alarm bells had started ringing on the Sunday evening. On my return to the hotel, i passed the terminal building (also a shopping centre and favoured lookout post) and had seen an unfeasibly large number of people hanging around. They all looked like they were going somewhere, and it was a strange place to wait for trains from the adjacent station, and my ferry was the only one at the dock. They included several groups of identically clad children, and not a single Oriental person. I checked the ticket office (sign still on door, office still locked). I tried asking people, but found not a single person speaking a langauage i did or even happy to attempt a game of pointing and scharades. I waited a good hour or so for something to happen (it didn't), took another look at the boat (not sign of movement or even lights) and with no way to get hold of a ticket even if it was my boat, thought s*d it and around 11.30 wandered back to the hotel.
The sinking feeling turned to vague amusement and questions of "why me?!" on the monday when i went to the office at opening to try and buy a ticket and saw no boat. An English guy who was in front of me in the queue - Reevesie - who had just got off the train from Moscow that very morning had the news confirmed that the boat had indeed sailed the previous night (i later discovered that even the randomly bnrought forward sailing had been delayed by 6 hours) and we weren't on it. Oddly, despite the problem we now had, we both thought it funny rather than anything else, and typically Russian. I wasn't even surprised, 2.5months in the country, plus my continuing foreboding about not getting ferry tickets mean't it wasn't even unexpected. Although whilst being bad for me, visa issues mean't it was a near calamity for Reevesie.
Not only did he have a reservation on the boat and an email confirming it's departure on the Monday, but he'd come across Russia on a 10day visa which ended today, and in addition had to be in Tokyp within 5 days. So he at least, had to leave. The question was how.
With the next boat not leaving until the 29th (i.e. next monday at 18:00 as normal...) we pondered our options. The office of the Korean ferry downstairs had no ferry from Vladivostok until Saturday, although one leaving from a place 40km south today. Which gave us a glimmer of hope, until we discovered there was no space left, and that the options to get there mean't we wouldn't make it anyway. Land options were rapidly dissapearing for me, even though i had another 4 days to play with on my visa. The Russians sure as heck weren't going to make it easy for me to leave.
And so to the airline office. A surprisingly friendly (and English speaking) lady informed us that todays departures were limited to Niigata (which had left 30mins ago) and Seoul that afternoon (business class only). For Reevesie, It was that. Or swim. We went to the Korean embassy, intending to just confirm the visa regs for Brits - getting there and being turned around for having no visa really wouldn't have helped - but true to form, it had closed 10minutes earlier. We then attempted to find a UVIR for visa extension, but failed. With no other options, we returned top the airline office, failed to get a tciket, and then Reevsie dashed off in a taxi for the 50km trek to teh airport, with only 2hrs 30 remianing before departure, and not even having a ticket. Amazingly, he actually made it and is now sitting in a hostel in Seoul preparing to continue to Japan.
I booked myself an extra night at the hotel (the problems i had had finding space to begin with mean't i was sure i would end up on the streets the way things were going, although i loathed paying so much) and then went down to the harbour to start nagging freighter captains and the harbour master for passage to Japan. Or somewhere. Because of the sheer number of Japanese cars which are privately imported, there are a fair number of boats ploughing back and fore, and i hoped to get on one of them by bribery or payment. But that failed. Attempts to get on a Russian frigate failed as well, although an officer of a Nuclear Su that i talked to actually seemed quite amused by the idea of steaming into Yokohama unnanounced and when questioned by the port authorities, saying he was just dropping off a British hitch-hiker. And very nearly went for it. But realistically, it was never going to happen. And besides, i didn't have Erik, my inflatible camel, with me...
I then looked into train availability back to Kharbarovsk, with the intention of attempting my original 3rd choice fallback. Get a Chinese visa in a hurry at the consulate there and then get the daily boat down the Amur river into China. But there were no train tickets for 2 days, and then only 1st class on the 3rd day. So i returned to the airline office, which is where i was given the Moscow-Seoul-Pyongyang options. Whilst there are several weekly planes to Korea and Japan, they are extremely popular with tourists and car traders, and all were full until the following week, past my visa deadline. The only vague option was back to Kharbarovsk on the 1st class train in 3 days time, and mad dash to the airport for a flight to Sapporo. It seemed my only option.
It was at that point that i vaguely recalled that the Korean ferry guy had said that whilst there wasn't a boat from Vladivostok until Saturday, there was one on Wednesday from this random other port, and after reserving a flight to Pyongyang just in case (no kidding), i hot footed it back to the ferry desk. He confirmed that indeed, there was such a ferry. But his office had all sold out. He said i should try a travel agent in one of the hotels (high on the hill) who may still have one. But they closed in 30mins.
So i legged it up the hill through the streets of Vladivostok to the hotel, and got my first lucky break of the day. There was one ticket left, and it was even in the cheapest category, so i booked it then and there. WooHoo. Just as well. The person who came behind me wanted the same thing and was told there was no room left. By inches, i had a plan. Wandering back to my hotel, exausted, it then happened. With temperatures still high 20's and a perfectly blue sky, it started to piss it down with rain. I couldn't stop laughing.
After a bit of a relax and watching a strange concert of Korean-Russian mix on the beach, i decided to take the advice of the woman who had sold me the ferry ticket. She had said that buses were infrequent, and only the first of the day was guarenteed to get there before the start of customs control, and that the Russians often refused exit to those not there at the start. And that on days of ferry running, the bus was often full, and advance reservations were highly recomended. So i got a suburban train North 10km and 3 stops to the "central" bus station, where, with astonishing ease and with my luck obviously changed for the day, i got both a bus ticket and baggage ticket for the correct bus.
I then got on the train back, where after a few minutes i made the interesting discobvery that whilst i could get any local train north for 3 stops, the same wasn't true southbound. The train bore off to the left and i watched the line i should be on drift away to the right along the coast. Using my normal rules of the unknown, i got off a good 15mins later at a stop where virtually everybody else did, after a trip through a long tunnel which i prayed was not an under harbour tunnel.
My gut reaction on surfacing was to walk downhill to where i was sure the harbour was, and then follow it and i'd get back. But i saw a tram with "Station (in Russian of course)" on the side and jumped on that instead. Shortly after leaving the station, the tram bore gently to the right and started heading uphill instead of sharp right as i was expecting and kind of needed. About 10mins later we got to the end of the line and some random housing estate. Sure enough, Tram 5 does go to the station, but unfortunately in the other direction. And the tram signs hadn't been changed. And i'd just got off the last tram of the night.
So in a dodgy estate high on the hill of a strange foreign city, getting quite late at night and wearing only t-shirt and shorts, I again pondered my situation and it was at around this point that it dawned on me why i really love travelling alone so much. Many people i know, and some i have travelled with in the past, would have long ago lost the plot worrying, be constantly blaming me for everything, in a big huff and swearing constantly at me. It just wouldn't be enjoyable for either of us. Admittedly, some of it would have been justified but that's besides the point. Others i know would have just gone quiet and hidden behind me, praying for a good outcome. Some would have just shot me or kicked me hard in the nuts and stalked off. Very, very few i think would have seen the constant humour of the situation, and the 'that's life' of it all, and remained in un-acusing high spirits the entire time.
As many of you know, i'm quite happy to get get lost, and quite happy to walk. I often do just randomly walk off in odd directions in a city and just see what happens. And whilst many people will out it down to pigheadness, stupidity, pride, just being male, or whatever, i tend to think of it as being easy natured and not worrying - but if i'm not in any great hurry, i will rarely bother to ask somebody if i'm going the right way or not, and will never take a taxi, prefering instead to continue the, urm, adventure and try and solve the problem and find where i'm going myself. Sure it might take a long time, and periodically get me into lots of trouble, but i'm happy with it, and i get to see allot of places very few others ever do.
So I bought a beer and started walking back alongside the tram tracks in the way i had just come in the pitch black. And as anybody that has ever been to Russia knows, walking is perilous enough in daytime, as you never know what your going to step in next, or whether there will even be pavement there and not a gaping hole where the ground has collapsed.
A fairly typical piece of tarmac in Russia. You never know how big the next hole is going to be...
Amazingly, i didn't fall down a hole. I got back to the place i had got on the tram, and then did what i should have done to begin with and followed my gut in walking. It was a fair old trek but after about a 90min walk (and much longer return trip), i finally made it back to my hotel around midnight, went up to my room and lay down in the middle of the floor laughing, and just waiting for the fire alarms to go off.
Ten minutes later, it did. And that was two minutes after the sprinklers had started to go off...
So as it stands, for Wednesday 24th, i have a ticket for a 5.20am bus from a place 10km north which will require a taxi to get to, followed by a 5hour bus ride to somewhere i have no idea where it is or have ever heard of, somewhere near the North Korean border. That will be followed by the delights of long winded Russian customs and emmigration, which i'm told will take 5 hours and i'm now utterly dreading, followed by a ferry journey of unspecified legnth (nobody could tell me how long it lasts, even approximately) to a place i've never heard of in Korea, near the North Korean border. And as the ferry companies map shows Korea to be one country, i'm not even certain yet if it's North or South of the parallel....
And that's assuming the ferry hasn't actually left today.
And actually existed in the first place.