From the mountains to the sea: A road trip through the Far East's Primorsky Krai

Shutterstock/Legion-Media
At the turn of the century, driving across Russia was impossible. Today, a newly completed system of roads, known as the Trans-Siberian Highway, makes it possible to embark on the ultimate Russian road trip.

The series 'Russian Road Trip' chronicles a cross-country driving tour through Russia, the earth's largest country, on the newly-completed Trans-Siberian Highway. Writer Levi Bridges once rode a bicycle 9,000 kilometers across Russia and has been in love with the country every since. 

The Trans-Siberian Highway is one of earth’s longest roads. Stretching from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland to the city of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, the Trans-Siberian Highway goes across the entirety of Russia. Each year adventurers of all nationalities cross this road by car.

Most thrill seekers who cross Asia overland do so in four-wheel drive Land Rovers or something similar. But having a large vehicle is not required. If a driver is looking for the ultimate adventure, and most importantly has the time and patience, they should be able to cross the Trans-Siberian Highway in any vehicle.

Every summer, teams of motorists embark from Europe and travel across Eurasia as part of the Mongol Rally, a journey that once ended in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, but now finishes in the Eastern Siberian city of Ulan-Ude. Participants in the Mongol Rally are required to make the long journey in a small car with an engine no larger than 1.2 liters.

Most travelers heading west across Russia begin their journey in the port city of Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Drivers making the overland route from here to St. Petersburg have usually come east from Europe and entered Russia through nearby China.

Ferry service connects Vladivostok with Japan and South Korea. It is possible to ship a vehicle to Russia for $400-1,000.

Explore the city of bridges, hills and fog

Photo credit: Yury Smityuk/TASS
If Vladivostok is the beginning of your road trip, plan on spending a few days in this coastal city often called “Russia’s San Francisco” for its rolling hills, bridges, Pacific fog and street cars.

The Arsenyev Regional History Museum has great exhibits on the region’s history and nature. Head to the Vladivostok Fortress Museum to learn about the city’s military past and take in views of the sea before walking along Admirala Fokina street, the city’s pedestrian street, where many bars and restaurants are located.

During summer, it’s worth driving to the nearby city of Nakhodka (three hours, 180 kilometers) where some of the best beaches in Far Eastern Russia can be found.

The Hotel Equator is one of the city’s most affordable hotels and includes free parking in its price. Sportivnaya Harbor below the hotel features Vladivostok’s main beach. Cross-country travelers won’t see the ocean again until they reach St. Petersburg, 11,000 kilometers west on the Trans-Siberian Highway.

 

And we’re off!

Photo credit: Yury Smityuk/TASS
From Sportivnaya Harbor, drive east on Svetlanskaya St. past the city’s Central Square. The recently-completed Russky Island Bridge, the world’s longest cable-stayed overpass that was built in time for Vladivostok’s hosting of the 2012 APEC Summit, will appear ahead.

Before going under the bridge, turn left on Lazo St. and take the second right on Sukhanova street. Go straight and enter highway M-60, the first section of the Trans-Siberian Highway.

Outside Vladivostok, the M-60 rides up and down the mountainous Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, providing great views of Amur Bay, a wide body of water covered by layers of ice much of the year.

North of the peninsula, drivers enter the heart of Primorye, a temperate region of conifer forests and rugged mountains where the last of the Siberian tigers and the Amur leopard—the world’s rarest cat—can be found.

From Vladivostok, it’s an 800-kilometer drive (approximately 10 hours) to Khabarovsk, the nearest major city.

 

Mix with the locals

Photo credit: Yury Smityuk/TASS
Primorye is one of the most unique regions in Russia’s Far East. The cities here are a mix of aging Soviet apartment buildings and wooden cabins that don’t receive many travelers. If travelers are looking to get lost in a rarely explored part of Russia and mingle with the locals, Primorye is exactly where they want to be.

There are a number of small cities on the M-60 that usually have Soviet-era hotels in the town center. The cities of Ussuriysk, Spassk-Dalny, Dalnerechensk and Luchegorsk are all located on the M-60 just a several hour drive from one another.

The Sikhote-Alin Mountains rise east of the M-60. With a good map and an intrepid automobile, one could spend weeks camping and exploring back roads in the mountains. Contact Ecotourism Club Sikhote-Alin for recommendations on where to go in the mountains or to organize a tour.

North of Vladivostok, consider stopping at Lake Khanka by the city of Spassk-Dalny (225 kilometers from Vladivostok). Khanka is a large freshwater lake that crosses the border into China, although most of the lake is in Russia. Surrounded by wetlands, the lake is an important stopover point for many species of migratory birds.

The Russian and Chinese sides of Lake Khanka are part of a nature reserve declared a biosphere by UNESCO. Contact Lucky Tour in Vladivostok to arrange a bird watching tour here from spring to fall to see hundreds of bird species.

Most towns on the M-60 have large signs with a local coat of arms featuring Amur tigers. Drivers on the M-60 have several opportunities to see these endangered felines, although it’s easiest to arrange a tour from Vladivostok.

The travel agency TransSib offers tours to a wildlife rehabilitation clinic featuring tigers near Vladivostok. The Vladivostok Travel and Excursion Bureau can arrange a 5-6 day tour with a guide deep into the Sikhote-Alin Mountains where visitors track tigers and sleep in tents. 

 

The first leg is over, but the journey has just begun!
The first leg of the Trans-Siberian Highway ends on a tall mountain with a large three-dimensional sign announcing your arrival to Khabarovsk. Pull over to take a photo before heading down the mountain into the city.

It’s been a long drive from Vladivostok. But your road trip across Russia has just begun.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Legion-Media

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