Day 14: Crossing into China, Part I

We’re heading back to Customs in just a few minutes, but I have access to wireless and time for a quick post to let everyone know we made it across the border into China yesterday. I plan to write a more detailed account later this evening about yesterday’s rather eventful crossing. I will say now that if our guide, Sventlana, hadn’t intervened for us, we’d probably still be sitting in Russia. To give you an idea of how the day went, here’s the first attempt at loading John’s Roadster onto one of the Russian trucks for transport — despite the much appreciated effort on the part of four different truck drivers, this didn’t work out very well … By the time we abandoned this method, it was already almost 3pm.

First loading attempt in Russia

First loading attempt in Russia (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The four of us and the cars all made it across the border and into Suifhenhe late yesterday (Luke and me on the bus about 6pm and Leo and John with the trucks/cars about 9pm Vladivostok time), but as of noon today (Friday), the cars are still awaiting customs release. We are going to stay another night in Suifhenhe and will drive directly to Harbin tomorrow instead of stopping in Mudanijiang.

This morning, we completed the paperwork we need for driving in China, include Chinese driver’s licenses; now all we need is the cars! So far, everything on the Chinese side has gone smoothly and everyone is very friendly and helpful.

Now if I could just figure out the time zone change here. Somehow in the 200 km drive to the border from Vladivostok, we managed to gain three hours — we’re now on Beijing time.

Day 13: The Cars Clear Customs in Russia

The cars cleared customs today and are now snuggled in parking spots at our hotel.

We met Svetlana in the hotel lobby this morning at 9, and she drove us in her Daihatsu Boon to the main customs building in Vladivostok, which is located about five miles from the ferry terminal and our hotel. We zipped through city side streets in the Boon, a used Japanese car with the steering wheel on the right side, which I’m sure would baffle me, but when we encountered a car whose driver refused to give an inch on a one-way lane, Svetlana screeched to a stop, slammed the Boon in reverse and backed out to the road entrance as if she does it every day, which she probably does, given the traffic in Vladivostok.

We waited in the customs building until about 10:20 while our customs inspector finished our paperwork, and then Svetlana took us back to the ferry terminal, where the cars had been taken off the ferry the day before. After about another 20 minutes, we were cleared to get the cars, but the Roadster wouldn’t start. This must be a common problem, because within about 30 seconds, the customs folks had dragged a cart with a battery the size of an ice-chest over to the Roadster. A few minutes later, we were on our way, making our first drive on Russian soil back to the hotel:

Driving back to the hotel in Vladivostok

Driving back to the hotel in Vladivostok (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

At the hotel, the Roadster attracted quite a bit of the usual attention:

Roadster distraction at the hotel

Roadster distraction at the hotel (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Leo had brought a battery charger with him, so after recharging the Roadster’s battery for about an hour, we headed to lunch and then rode a trolley car, the “Funicular,” to the top of a hill. Cost: 9 rubles, or about a quarter. Here’s the view from the top of the hill and a picture of the Funicular building that I took on our walk back down the hill:

View of the Golden Horn Bridge from the Funicular

View of the Golden Horn Bridge from the Funicular (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Funicular Building

Funicular Building (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Tomorrow morning, we depart the hotel at 8:30 and head to the Chinese border at Suifene. Here’s a Google Earth picture of the border crossing:

Google Earth view of Sifuenhe border crossing -- China is on the left

Google Earth view of Sifuenhe border crossing — China is on the left

The border at Suifene can only be used by commercial traffic, so the folks at Mir came up with a workaround. At the border, the cars will be loaded onto commercial trucks. John and Leo will ride across the border with the truck drivers, and Luke and I will cross on a bus. Once we’re across, our Chinese guide will try to herd us all back together and to our hotel rooms.

I don’t know if I will have wifi tomorrow evening, so it may be at least Friday before I’m able to post again. If we have connectivity problems in China, we’ll be crossing back into Russia on Friday, May 30 and will be at a hotel on May 31 with wifi, so worst case, you’ll hear from us then!



Day 12: Vladivostok

The Thomas Flyer, the U.S. entry in the 1908 Great Race, arrived in Vladivostok on Monday, May 18, 1908 after a two day trip from Tsuruga, Japan on the steamship Mongolia. George Schuster, his team, and the Flyer departed on a Saturday afternoon just as we did, so I guess travel by ship/ferry hasn’t changed much time-wise in the past century!

The original U.S. team also went through Hachiman as we did, although the original team was nearly delayed when participants in a religious ceremony began attacking the Thomas Flyer! Fortunately, a Japanese priest intervened and the Flyer escaped. Click here to read more about this incident in the May 17, 1908 New York Times article.

Since we didn’t expect to hear from Svetlana about the progress of our cars through customs until this afternoon, we took a walking tour of Vladivostok this morning. According to the May 19, 1908 New York Times article, George Schuster and the Flyer team also had a delay at customs:

“It will scarcely be possible for the Thomas car to start on the road across Siberia before Wednesday [after arriving Monday], as there are various matters to arrange before the car can begin its trip. Customs delays will fill the better part of two days, and the autoists desire to obtain permits to carry firearms and to use the rails of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to cross bridges or when the road is impassable.”

We’re not planning to carry any firearms or use the railroad tracks, so I hope that makes things a little easier! Click here for the May 19, 1908 New York Times article.

For our walking tour, courtesy of the Lonely Planet Russia guidebook, we first made our way towards the train station, which is the terminus for the Trans-Siberian Railway. We were able to descend directly from the street to the main rail platform to view a monument and plaque that commemorate the 9,288 km railway from Moscow:

Terminus point for the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Vladivostok

Terminus point for the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Vladivostok (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After viewing the monument, we walked along the platform to the train station. I opened the door to enter and saw that we had to pass through a security check point. I started to close the door, but a friendly security guard waved us in. We were through security in about a minute, and the guard then gave us directions to the top floor of the station and told us it was very nice. The station was spotless and had beautiful architecture and pastel colors. Here is one picture of the inside:

Inside of the Vladivostok Train Station

Inside of the Vladivostok Train Station (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

They had a very nice café that I could have stayed at all day, but we weren’t hungry and we still had lots of sights to see, so we moved on, strolling up Aleutskaya Street. I’ve been learning the Cyrillic alphabet, and once I figured out how to read the street signs, I managed to navigate to our next stop, the house where actor Yul Brenner was born. It’s now a barber shop:


The house where Yul Brenner was born

The house where Yul Brenner was born (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Next we crossed a main street using a tunnel; these tunnel crossings are all over the place and we love them — in addition to being safe and efficient, they house small shops, similar to the underground concourse in Crystal City, Virginia, for those of you who have been there (I used to live there).  We then entered an old department store, the GUM, that was filled with shops selling souvenirs, shoes, jewelry, telescopes, microscopes, toys, and just about anything else you can think of. I bought some refrigerator magnets and we wandered over to what we thought was the park that would take us to our next destination, an old Soviet submarine.

However, we had turned one park too soon, so after making our way down to the water past some construction, we walked directly along the waterfront until we bumped into the submarine. In addition to the submarine, there is also a wall inscribed with the names of Vladivostok residents who lost their lives in World War II; it reminded me of a smaller version of the U.S. Vietnam Memorial:


S-56 Submarine and Memorial Wall for Vladivostok residents lost in WWII

S-56 Submarine and Memorial Wall for Vladivostok residents lost in WWII (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We paid 100 rubles (about $3) to tour the submarine. Of course, we were all most fascinated by the torpedo launcher:


Torpedo launchers on the S-56 Submarine

Torpedo launchers on the S-56 Submarine (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After the submarine, we checked out the arch depicted below, which is a reconstruction of a monument to Tsar Nicholas II. The original monument was destroyed by the Soviets after the Russian Revolution in 1917.


Reconstructed Arch for Tsar Nicholas II

Reconstructed Arch for Tsar Nicholas II (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

About 3 o’clock, Svetlana called to say that she thought she would still get the paperwork for our cars today. However, the customs people are all very busy today, so we’re planning to meet Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock to start the process. If all goes well, we’ll bring the cars back to the hotel  tomorrow morning and then head to China on Thursday.