Vladivostok - Impressions of the City
The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Vladivostok was that there seemed to be no traffic laws. Cars veered across multiple lanes, fear-stricken pedestrians sprinted across streets, and many major intersections had no stoplights. Right-of-way was awarded to whoever nosed his vehicle most aggressively into the oncoming traffic. If America once had its "Wild West," this felt like Russia's "Wild East."
We also noticed that the majority of vehicles had steering wheels on the right-hand side. Our driver, Misha, told us that they're second-hand cars from Japan, more reliable and cheaper than Russian-made cars. He gestured to a Honda in front of us. "You can buy that car used for $1,500 here."
He went on to say that Vladivostok is now flooded with Asian goods, from food products to clothes to restaurants. "Everything from China is cheap," he told us. "Russian manufacturers can't compete with them."
This was a refrain we'd hear constantly from Russians we met in Vladivostok: Chinese goods and merchants were taking over the city. Nearly every Russian we met had been at least once to China, and most had been multiple times, often bringing back goods to sell themselves. With the Chinese border just a couple hours' drive away, it was an easy trip.
We were told that Russian citizens can travel to China without a visa for up to three days, so people either hopped in their cars and went, or took tours. Even the price of the tours was cheap -- for $100 you could get transportation there and back, plus all hotel and food costs, for three days.
Vladivostok is a beautiful city, all gentle hills, curving shorelines and shimmering water. The city center overlooks Golden Horn Bay, a finger of water that reaches up from the Straits of Eastern Bosphorus below. As we strolled around downtown, signs were everywhere that the city had grown richer since 1995. Many older buildings had been restored, young women walked around in Dolce & Gabbana jeans, people chatted on tiny cell phones. There was a real bustle to the city, even on the weekend.
Our hosts in Vladivostok, Marina Savchenko and her daughter Masha Pechorina, echoed what others had told us. Marina, 48, is a journalist for the Trud newspaper. She also founded with her husband the Who's Who in the Primorsky Region book (modeled after the similar "Who's Who" books in the United States). Masha, 20, is studying Korean philology at Far Eastern National University. Here's what they told us about how things have changed in the last 10 years, in their own words:
New stores have appeared everywhere. Before, there were shortages. You couldn't find the things you needed -- dresses, clothes, or whatever. Food. Now we have food products from all over the world, from Italy, Spain, Korea. And China. There are a lot of Chinese now in Vladivostok. We get our meat products, and so much of our food, from China. If it wasn't for China we'd die of hunger.
A lot fewer things are being made in Russia now. Even our eggs, people don't want because they're of lower quality. Some fruits and dairy products are ours -- either from here or from Siberia. But meat and dry goods, those are from China.
One thing that's different is, people have started paying more attention to how they spend their free time. Now they go to bars and clubs, and to museums.
Masha! They had those before.
Yes, but the quality is a lot better now.
No, no! There were restaurants like that before, too. But now there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants. Before, there were only Russian -- now there's a big choice. The cheapest ones are Chinese.
... There are a lot of private businesses now -- things like cafes, hairdressers. In '95 I couldn't even buy pelmeny [Russian meat ravioli]. I had to make them myself. I had to find the meat somewhere, make the dough, and put it all together. But now you can just go out and buy them. You can even buy a salad ready-made -- a Greek salad, with olives, lettuce and all. Why make your own dressing, when you can get it all done for you?
Ready-made Greek salad -- a symbol of better economic times? I've heard wackier economic theories. At any rate, it seems clear that at least in Vladivostok, the Russian middle class seems to be growing. What remains to be seen is whether that pattern holds true in the other cities we're traveling to.
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