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All aboard for the Trans-Siberian Express


Our train pulled into Vladivostok at 9:00 a.m., the morning of June 24th.  Vladivostok, located on the Pacific Coast a mere two hours by train from North Korea, was not a place you’d probably ever want to go.  Tour books suggested that even the locals do not venture out of doors after 6:00 p.m.  As a result, we were anxious to spend as little time as possible in this Russian naval port.  I did want, however, to snap a photo to prove we’d made it.  While taking the picture, suddenly two strange girls came running from out of nowhere and tried to join Robert and Mamo for the shot.  After the camera flashed, they disappeared as suddenly as they had come.  We checked our wallets, found them secure, and then hightailed it to a taxi.  Naturally, it cost 40 USD.

The cab driver sped to the airport, giving us a brief overview of his city along the way as I plied him with questions.  Apparently, Vladivostok was intended by the Russian government to become “the second San Francisco.”  The name itself means “Lord of the East”, but these days it has obviously deteriorated.  Unlike the California city it had hoped to emulate, Robert later observed, “This city is a dump!”  We also learned that there were scads of North Korean refugees who had fled across the border and were working there illegally.  It was rather sobering to realize we were so incredibly close to one of the world’s most oppressive governments.
We soon discovered that the Vladivostok Airport matched the city nicely.  The international terminal had a staggering three flights per day, alternating between Japan, China, and North and South Korea.  Besides that, there were almost no seats in which to wait, the inside of the terminal was composed largely of folding walls, and was filthy as could be.  I had Mamo, much to his chagrin, take my picture in front of the North Korean Airline business office (Koryo), but unfortunately, it was much too dark to develop properly.  To top it all, I noticed that in the airport the only place to make an international call had no telephone at all!

Our flight out of Russia was pleasant as we rode Korean Airlines down to Seoul, enjoying a delicious in-flight meal of pulkolgi, kimchi, and rice.  As we flew, however, I wondered what would happen in this new and yet unknown country.  Would my friend Jashil be able to find us at the airport?  And how would it be meeting her again?  It had been almost two years after all.  Would we find Robert’s family without mishap?  What about the cable car up to Namsan Tower; would it hold?  And speaking of safety, was it safe being so close to the DMZ between North and South Korea?  And what about our hostel?  Would they have a place to stay?  As it turned out, South Korea was full of its own surprises and quite likable indeed.  But that, is another story for another time.

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