We walk across the tarmac in Harbin and into the aircraft, a Tupolev Tu-154M, at night, in the snow. The wind is whistling and the drifts are coming in. I know that ice on the wings is not good for flying. The icing level must be less than zero feet above sea level today. The passengers are noisy, perhaps they’re nervous like me. The plane roars, it lurches, it escapes the ground.
On the trip it rocks from side to side, and falls many feet in severe turbulence, only to gather height again. Through the aircraft window there is nothing, a hint of white snow, a flicker of its own strobes, and darkness. Despite this ride the former air force pilot puts us down smoothly, and in the right place, in Vladivostok.
We take a copy of the small white entry paper while jostling with people in the immigration hall. We are surrounded almost totally by Russian locals, a few Chinese. Just two of us, Australians. Writing small and trying to be distinct, it’s not easy balancing the entry paper on your passport while creeping forward in the queue, kicking your luggage along.
Finally, into the immigration booth. A stern-looking Russian woman, flanked by an ever sterner male officer looking over our papers. No smiles, no questions. She enters the passport and visa details into her computer one letter at a time, checking each, and reviewing. She looks intently at me, then back to her paperwork. After several minutes he smiles (she dare not) “Welcome to Russia”.We’d searched high and low for roubles in Harbin, with no luck. We’d expected an ATM at Vladivostok airport, no luck. The local taxi drivers looked daunting. In such circumstances one strikes up conversations with anyone who’ll listen. We approach a Chinese woman to try to swap some money and unbelievably she offers to take us into town. I remember somehow squeezing our suitcases into the boot of her car, in the dark, and then squeezing ourselves in beside her friend. She and her husband were in the front. Towards the city, blurring lights, icy roads. We drive for about 1 hour.
We arrive at the hotel, the Hyundai, a place that looks like any other hotel. We know better now. I recall the snow covered ramparts but that’s about all, and the night was unremarkable. In the morning we looked out of the window onto the city. Vladivostok in the morning.
A first glimpse of Vladivostok. Photo by Errol Chopping
Later that morning we meet Valeriya, as arranged, in the foyer. We don’t know what to expect. What we don’t expect is a very beautiful woman, but we meet the most beautiful scientist in all of Russia. Dressed in a long fur coat, blonde, slim, elegant. I can’t recall what I said at the time but it was probably pretty stupid. I recall though going out through the snow again and into a waiting vehicle. I remember talking to Nicolay, one of Valeriya’s PhD students who was along for the ride and spoke English very well. We talked about Australia and the weather and compared it to the -18 degrees of that morning in Vladivostok.
The meeting with the team at the Far East Russian Academy of Sciences went well, and we made some good friends there. That’s worth another story sometime. Remind me. It’s was what happened later that I recall best.
Back in the hotel we drank the last of our Harbin beer. Post mortem. Our work here is done, we thought. It was about 1pm.
“Let’s go out and meet the folks at the Far East National University?”
“What?’ Are you crazy?”
“What is there to lose?”
“They don’t know we are coming!”
Out into the street, -20 degrees now. Down the steep hill from the hotel we plough, on foot, sliding on the footpath and slipping on building foyers covered with snow. Getting through town is a challenge and I duck into whatever shop is open at every opportunity, just to thaw a little before pushing on. In the main street we catch glimpses of the statues, C57 and the fleet, then press onwards, towards the far hill. Our goal, FENU.
Vladivostok main Street. Photo by Errol Chopping
Statues. Photo by Errol Chopping
C57. Photo by Errol Chopping
The Fleet. Photo by Errol Chopping
Up the hill. Pressed on by some purpose I can’t describe, we walk and walk. Three steps forwards, one back, slipping and sliding, and getting colder by the minute.
Svetlankskaya Street. Photo by Errol Chopping
Finally FENU, and into the only entrance we can find.
Inside the building there are two "бабушка" (granny, read as "babuska"), and they seem to be guarding museums left and right. They have zero English and, at that stage, we had virtually zero Russian. We try to talk to them. Their body language tells me that they might really be saying “What the hell are you here for?” What can I say? Nothing I say makes any sense to them and vice versa. We talk anyway and perhaps the fact that there’s some intersection of English and Russian words helps us make microscopic progress…
интернациональный, академический, профессор, офис… (international, academic, professor, office)
These ladies stay severe with us for a long time and we start to give up. Perhaps the fact that we are on foot, its cold, we look cold and we are hopeless and harmless eventually allows one of them, the large one, to soften. She takes me up one flight of stairs to a kind of landing with a large bay window overlooking the university grounds, and there she talks. Thankfully she also gesticulates a lot and somehow I catch onto two concepts: ‘under’ and ‘four’.
With lots of doubts we are out in the snow again, armed this time with the two notions, ‘under’ and ‘four’. We walk aimlessly and stomp to keep warm in the cold. There is a kind of underpass at the end of the quadrangle and at a stretch one might be able to see it from the bay window above the museums.
Under. Photo by Errol Chopping
We take our chances that this ticks the box for ‘under’ and pass through. On the other side we are confronted with the ground falling away from us. We look down a snowy hill to a landscape covered with many buildings. I take in the scene, sadly and in pain, and count the floors on the buildings. Each has two or three floors, perhaps they’re dorms or lecture rooms or offices. There’s one building with six floors. It has a fourth floor. It will have to do as the check for notion ‘four’.
Four. Photo by Errol Chopping
We approach the square marble landing covered in snow outside the building and it’s as slippery as oiled glass. There are quite a few people here too, standing and walking on the two strips of carpet laid along the two outer sides of the marble square. We walk tentatively along this carpet, a 90 degree detour to get to the entrance doors. I can see why it’s there too, this carpet, to save me from falling on my back and breaking my head!
Camped tight at the corner of the square is a blind woman. Camped. Not walking, not negotiating, not feeling her way, just camped there. We step off the carpet to get around her and her dog. As soon as we’re off the carpet we’re onto the icy marble. My feet start to skate, I wind my arms like a helicopter, whoa! I feel my weight head backwards and then come again over my feet. Somehow I manage to get onto the carpet again, past the blind woman. My heart is thumping but I’ve made it into the building.
The ground floor is concrete and covered in skid marks from muddy and snowy boots. We head up the stairs for floor four. Floor four is empty, except for a couple of builders working on the plaster walls. Floor five. We walk along the corridor past closed and inscrutable rooms. Finally:интернациональный офиc (international office).
Bless your soul Maria. Black razored hair, a round face, short, efficient, smart, friendly, capable. She looks over the slim remnants of the email message we have on paper. She explains. Here academics don’t send email messages, administrators do. So what you have here, at the end of this email message, is not the name of an academic staff member but the name of his administrator here in the international office. However, she makes a telephone call. No answer. He’s on holidays perhaps? She’s calling his mobile telephone. We are starting to get embarrassed. This visit is unsolicited remember and, maybe, he is going to be annoyed. Maria returns.
“Alexander’ is on his way in” “Can you wait here?”
We are given marketing material from the office and I have to smile. I remember other marketing material I’ve seen, full of platitudes and gloss and only the good half of the truth. I am expecting the same here. This brochure tells me how many staff there are, how many faculties and institutes and courses. Then comes the history section. FENU was once an institute for Oriental Languages, but in 1939 many of the academic workforce were asked to assemble in the quadrangle. There they were shot dead.
After I recover we have a meeting, with Alexey, the head of Korean Studies, with Alexander, head of Computer Science, with Maria, smart, dark, from the international office.
I am used to mobile telephones ringing half way through meetings and when this happens the owner usually quickly retrieves the phone and silences it. In the most brazen of circumstances the owner sometimes rushes out of the room with body language saying “I’ve got to take this”. In this meeting Alexander took out his mobile phone and actually placed a call, while we are talking! He contacts Evgeni, he puts the phone on speaker.
“Nurminski, you’ve got to hear this.”
There’s some static and some missed words in Russian. Finally Alexander speaks to us, and with great economy announces:
“Nurminsky is coming in, you come back, 1 hour”.
Maria organises a young woman from the international office, Anastasia, who speaks English pretty well, and she escorts us out, down the stairs, back out of the building, across the icy marble past the blind woman, up the snowy slope, back under the archway, across the quadrangle, into the museum building. Wonders never cease, the same two Babushkas!
This time they are pleased to see us, and more than a little incredulous: “How do these two morons, from Australia, who don’t speak Russian, and who we sent into the wilderness two hours ago, happen to come back here with a beautiful young bilingual Russian girl?” Despite their amazement, they unlock the doors for us and we look over the museum of natural science, full of bones and pots. We look over the historical museum, full of photographs of executed academic staff and pre-war office equipment. It takes 1 hour.
True to Alexander’s word, he and Evgeni turn up. We’re out into the snow again, this time across the street to a café. We discuss cities, what makes Russia tick, what’s happening now for them and for us, our areas of interest. We click. We become close friends. Nothing cements good relationships, understanding and rapport like good coffee, and cake, in a café in downtown Vladivostok.
There’s so much to tell. Night clubs, conferences, summer, hotels, restaurants, winter, research, women, the press and Russkiy Island. Later.
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