Keenly aware of Lara’s long-held reservations about ending the Russian leg of our trip at the Trans-Siberian railway’s Pacific terminus , I quickly scotched his claims. “What rot”, I scoffed once he was out of earshot, “He’s just trying to scare a couple of gullible foreigners”.
This was ‘Russia’s San Francisco’, complete with hilly streets, trams and beautiful bays shimmering in the hot sun. Besides, perhaps this was the usual welcome for foreigners. After all Vladivostok has not been accustomed to them - or at least Westerners - or that long.
Only itself 150 years old, the city has spent a large part of its time shrouded in secrecy and ringed with steel. A deepwater port which, vitally, was ice-free significantly more days of the year than those farther north, the Russians have jealously guarded its secrets. And as home to the Pacific fleet, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners, and indeed most Russians, until as recently as 1990.
Even now, as you wander among the docks or gaze down from the ‘Eagle’s nest’ on top of the hills above the ‘Golden Horn’, admiring the rows of battle-grey warships lining the bays, you feel a slight Cold War frisson.
However, the young man’s claims were not without some basis. As a raffish naval port Vladivostok does certainly have an certain ‘edge‘, particularly if you seem to be the only Westerners around, struggling up the city’s steep hills with several brightly-coloured backpacks strapped to your person.
And a few hours later, having encountered a few over-assertive drunks, I couldn’t fault where he was coming from.
I saw them approaching, sweating their way up the steps besides the funicular, loud and boisterous. Before I knew it a rather rough-hewn chap, all muscles and testosterone, his piggy eyes stained red with booze, strode up to me and snatched my water bottle.
‘American?’ he drunkenly snarled at me, more an accusation than a question.
‘No’ I stammered, not for the first time glad that I hailed from the other side of the pond, ‘Angliski’.
Muscles drained my bottle, defiantly tipping the remainder over his sweaty head.
He glowered at me, and it was immediately apparent he wasn’t interested in discussing the weather or perhaps debating the relative merits of Gower and Gooch. It looked like it was going to get ugly. I gulped and was about to enquire as to what finishing school he attended when his wiry, though equally drunk, companion stepped in and pulled him back.
A third drunk, a little weasel of a man took advantage of my distracted terror to try locate any potential plunder. I removed his enquiring hand from my right pocket and resisted the urge to clip the bounder round the ear.
Muscles pulled my sunglasses from my shirt pocket and perched them astride his wonky nose. I glanced anxiously over my shoulder at Lara, taking a photo across the road, willing her to keep her distance. Just not too far away.
Thankfully my natural charm worked, their interest in me waned and I didn’t have to employ my ninja skills. The wiry drunk hauled his mates off in search of other high jinks.
However it got me thinking. Had I just encountered today’s Russia, personified?
Raw and ugly, bullying and belligerent? Or was our little encounter just one of those things, which could occur in any country?
Certainly we have seen more than a country’s fair share of drunks. In fact I am typing this entry in my cabin aboard a ferry plying the Sea of Japan, taking refuge from the latest irritating, incomprehensible wreck of a native who tried to make my acquaintance.
Going by what we saw during our month-long visit Russians love getting hopelessly, paralytically drunk. Perhaps it is cathartic, like it can be for many in the West, a loosening of the tight inhibitions, here drilled into them by centuries of despotic rule of one form or another.
Whatever the reasons, how public drunkenness manifests itself strikes me as rather disturbing, and how it seems to be universally accepted is beyond my comprehension. Often, with this comes an exaggerated aggression; time and time again we have encountered men pumped up on machismo and drowning in alcohol.
Perhaps this was because so many of the people we met were members of the armed forces on leave. It seemed that every other person we met was a soldier and we lost count of the number of tanks and bombers, warships and uniforms we saw.
It all left us wondering: is this still the same land that gave the world Puskin and Doestevsky, Tchaichovsky and Chekhov? Have Russians really abandoned this heritage, favouring brawn over brains?
We found some answers back in Vladivostok, at the intriguing Fortress museum. Within the concrete casements, surrounded by guns and bombs, mines and missiles, we learnt of Russia’s recent historic struggles to maintain a foothold in the far east: two wars with the Japanese, a near-miss with the Chinese.
Mother Russia seems to have endured conflict like no other country, from Napoleon’s assault on Moscow to the Nazis' blitzkreig of 1941. Millions killed, untold misery endured. Indeed her history seems to be one of endless struggles, fighting to hold off the enemy, both without and within.
And though the cold war has ended Russia still seems to view itself as under assault: loss of its Soviet satellites; trouble in rebellious and independent-minded provinces; NATO seeking to expand into her former sphere of influence on her western borders.
Does this help to explain the mentality of people here? Her people, some of the friendliest, most fun people we have ever met on the road, still seem to accept this - to suffer, to endure.
They want a strong nation, a strong leader, and a country that commands respect worldwide. Civil liberties come a distant second. The natural environment? Well it just doesn’t figure at all.
Broke in the nineties, new-found wealth in oil and gas have allowed Russia to rattle its cage, bullying neighbours such as the Ukraine and Estonia to bend to its will. Like a spoilt child Russia is not used to them refusing its demands.
Only this week two more longstanding, smoldering disagreements with Russia’s neighbours sparked into conflict: Georgia has seen blood split over its position on South Ossetia, whilst Poland has been threatened with a similar fate for choosing to allow US missiles onto its territory.
Back at the ferry terminal, the waiting room hushed when pictures of more bloodshed on Russia’s borders filled the screen. A fellow passenger sadly shook her head. Just what was the West playing at, she asked me? Why were the Americans backing Georgia?
Once again, the call to arms. The conflict endures.