It took three hours and 20 minutes to travel the 60 miles between Krasny Yar and Luchegorsk, the nearest significant town. That was fast time considering the terrible condition of the dirt road. We traveled in a four-wheel-drive van driven by Svetlana’s nephew, Andrea, a policeman in Luchegorsk. He stopped the van four or five times because his passengers were so carsick.
I remembered Luchegork as an ugly little Soviet city dominated by the looming smokestack of a coal-fired power station and a cluster of decaying concrete apartment buildings. This mining town has not changed, although it perhaps looks more ragged than before. A domineering statue of Lenin sill stands in the main square, and the road to the railroad station remains unpaved.
From Luchegorsk, we took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok. The train was the same as before, except dirtier. It was crowed with people, some sleeping. It reminded me of the ability of Russians to co-exist with strangers in cramped and uncomfortable places.
The train traveled overnight, and we arrived in Vladivostok 12 hours later.
Vladivostok was filled with surprises.
The last time I was here in this port city, which had been a closed city during Soviet times, desperate people lined the downtown sides to sell whatever they could to get food on the table. Today, Vladivostok is one of the most prosperous cites in Russia, behind perhaps only Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The city has one of the world’s best natural harbors and is situated on the Pacific Rim in a great neighborhood––in close proximity to Japan, South Korean, and China.
Several big construction projects have are underway or have recently been completed— a new opera house, two new bridges, a new airport terminal, and two new highways.
Its downtown is jammed with cars, many of them castaway Japanese models with right-sided steering wheels.
Due the increased traffic and lower demand, the city has shut down all but one of its streetcar lines, repeating the experience of American cities half a century ago. Meanwhile, the new highways on the city’s outskirts are free of traffic, awaiting the anticipated emergence of bedroom suburbs.
There are billboards everywhere. While driving on an arterial road, we passed a billboard every five seconds.
The city’s waterfront park is cleaner and better maintained than many urban parks in the United States.
Even the city’s problems seem similar to those of cities in the West. It has imported guest workers from former Soviet states, such as Azerbaijan, to do much of its construction work. Now many of those workers have overstayed their visas and live in the city as illegal immigrants. City officials are trying to figure out what to do about them.
Provincial towns like Luchegorsk seems stuck in Soviet times, while Vladivostok is embracing its capitalist future, whatever that may be.