Yesterday we got up early and caught the metro from Seoul Station to the Express Bus Terminal. That took about 45 minutes with no problems.
We got to the bus station early enough to grab some breakfast for the ride. Our bus left right on time at 8:00. The seats were extremely roomy and comfortable. If you’re thinking about riding the bus in South Korea, book it – you won’t be disappointed.
We stopped for 15 minutes at a rest stop along the way, not far from Pyeongchang (Olympics). We got to Donghae a little early but we were about 3 miles from the ferry terminal so we took a taxi (about $6). Though we generally try to use public transportation and walk as much as possible, taxi was a good call because we were lugging all our stuff.
The ferry terminal was an interesting place, a bit shabby. Once we figured out the protocol we queued up. We appeared to be the only folks who weren’t either Asian or Russian boarding the ferry. And we had the least amount of luggage. There were Russians who pr0bably should have boarded through the cargo ramp along with the tractors and vehicles being loaded on. They were hauling tires, ladders, appliances, busting-at-the-seams industrial strength shopping bags, etc. It was an amazing feat considering they were chasing kids around the whole time. But I’m sure it was worthwhile.
We had vouchers for dormitory style bunk sleeping (well it sounded like a good idea when we booked the trip because we wanted the full experience). We were issued our bunks when we checked in. I had no idea what I was given but glad to get an actual ticket instead of just a voucher. We boarded through a not-so-thorough security check and hauled our luggage up the ramp where we were shown our bunks – in different rooms. Not a good start. The rooms were about 140 degrees and stuffy with people jockeying to get to their bunks and bags flying around but at least the bunks had privacy curtains.
We dropped our bags in our respective bunks and headed off to explore the ship. That took about 5 minutes since it wasn’t very big and there wasn’t really much to see anyway. At the desk we mentioned that we’d like to be nearer to each other and they told us to come back at 2:00 after they completed loading and they’d see what they could do. We promptly reported back to the desk and they had 3 other bunks available but not any nearer each other. However they offered us a choice of 3 upgrades – all individual cabins. Without much hesitation we chose the top of the line ‘junior suite’ with 2 twin beds and a bathroom (with shower and towels). I’m prone to motion sickness so we figured we’d be more comfortable in the suite. So we chickened out and gave up our steerage berths. The dorm bunks themselves are probably comfortable enough but the activity would have made any meaningful sleep impossible (reminiscent of our capsule hotel experience in Tokyo). Dinner that night was instant ramen and wasabi crabs (the boat provides unlimited hot and cold drinking water so everyone makes instant noodles, conveniently for sale in the ship store).
Since everyone eats ramen on the boat, everyone also dumps their leftover ramen liquid and bits over the side before throwing away the container. So if you’re on a deck below the one they’re throwing from you could be in trouble. You definitely want to stay away from the rail on the lower decks or you could be wearing ramen (reminds me of some good old hippy music – ‘if you’re going to vladivostok, be sure to wear some ramen in your hair’ or something like that). Also if you’re staying in one of the downwind cabins (like we were) you’re subject to attack by flying ramen at any time.
We slept pretty well that night though the beds’ mattress/spring combination was way more spring than mattress. It was a bit rough when we got far enough out to sea but we didn’t have any problems (ie, I didn’t get sick). Breakfast was a choice of ramen or the hard-boiled eggs we brought along from Seoul. We chose the latter. Kathy picked up some rolls from the restaurant. All that and our instant coffee and we were fine.
We spent the rest of the morning getting ready to disembark (rearranging our bags) and sporadically walking around the deck (it was cold, foggy, and misting). We weren’t scheduled to disembark in Vladivostok until around 2:30 pm so we watched My Cousin Vinny (we had watched The Big Lebowski the night before). Having our own cabin was definitely worthwhile as we were able to get organized and just spend the time as we wanted.
Disembarking wasn’t bad. There weren’t really many passengers so it didn’t take long. Straight through customs and passport check and we were on our own. We got some rubles from the ATM at the station, got oriented with Google maps and headed to our hotel. It was about a 15 minute walk, pretty much uphill the whole way but easy to find despite the cold, nasty weather (at least it wasn’t raining).
We checked into the Azimut not knowing what to expect. Some of the online reviews were absolutely horrible but we found a modern, clean, attractive hotel with a friendly and helpful staff (speaking good English). We figured the reviews were from a previous or different hotel, certainly not the one we’re at now. This Azimut is first rate and we’d definitely recommend it, especially if you need access to the ferry port or the trans Sib rail station (right next to the ferry terminal). We ate at the hotel that evening.
After lunch/dinner we headed to the train station to recon and confirm our trip the next day. We had a bit of a scare when the hotel clerk said the train leaves at 5:10 am (we were scheduled to depart at 12:10 pm Moscow time and there’s a 7 hour time difference). We planned to use the day of the train departure to have a leisurely buffet breakfast at the hotel and get ready for the trip (grocery shopping, packing, etc). So we were very relieved when the train station attendant confirmed that the train departed Vladivostok at 7:10 pm (btw no one at the station seems to speak any English). The hotel clerk later caught up to me to tell me the actual departure time after she realized her mistake. She was very apologetic and sweet.
We got our train tickets and headed to the grocery store across the street. The store was small, dark, and cramped. We felt we were being watched the whole time we were browsing the shelves. We were just scouting out what we’d need for the trip with plans to pick everything up the next day. The store was pretty well stocked. We just bought some crackers and Russian beer to try later. We won’t get much for the train since food will be available along the way so we haven’t finalized our food strategy. Tomorrow we’ll have a little time to do some sightseeing but our main focus is getting on the train with the right supplies and settling in for our 6 days’ ride. I’m pretty sure we won’t have any internet connectivity along the way so this will probably be the last post for a week or so. Good bye from Vladivostok!