early sunday morning, a group from the consulate gathered for a trip to the tiger station at gayvoron, about 279 miles from vladivostok. it was going to be the longest trip i’d taken since arriving in russia and i was eager to see more of the country side. eight of us took off around 830am in a small tour bus as the sun was still a distant orange ball on the horizon. i took a small seat facing backwards and reached for the seat belt. but after finding nothing, i settled in for what i hoped would be a safe and quiet ride. the weather was below freezing and frost was forming quickly on all the passenger windows. as we rode on, we gave up trying to scrapped the ice from the windows and instead watched the landscape slowly morph into diffused shapes. i had packed my camera, russian language book, some breakfast bars and my ipod. everyone chatted for a bit but eventually found their own way to pass the time. it was still too dark to read so i listened to “this american life”. the episode was about the island of nauru and the history behind it. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1177646
after a couple hours of driving, the driver stopped in the city of ussuriysk to let us have a rest stop. i stretched my legs and walked over to a nearby church to take a couple pictures. even though it was mid morning, the weather was still freezing cold. for a sunday morning, the streets were busy with people walking to a nearby train station. i tried to see what else was farther down the highway but all i could see were more businesses and a hill where the highway disappeared. i hoped the weather would warm a bit more. my choice of clothes kept me warm, but i grabbed the wrong pair of shoes and could already feel the ground sucking away the warmth from my wool socks.
after the short stop, we were on our way again. it was decided we’d skip lunch until after the tiger station. by lunch time we rolled into gayvoron. as we rode by the main street, i noticed what looked like water pipes wrapped in thermal covering running continually down each block. as the pipes reached the street’s intersection, they turned 90 degrees straight up for 10-12 ft and then turned back another right angle to go over the intersection. it was as if the cold hard ground was not suitable for the pipes and they were installed above ground to make it easier to manage. the pipes continued like this for several blocks. with pipes splitting off from one another to run off to separate buildings.
we reached the tiger station and saw the reserve fence that encompassed all the buildings and woodlands. we left the driver to tend to the bus and entered the station, and immediately saw the siberian tigers resting about 100 yds away. we actually saw the tigers before we even met victor and lena yudin, the couple that have been maintaining the station for years. victor was wearing a russian fur hat, camouflage pants and coat, and heavy leather boots. his wife lena was also there to introduce herself. victor quickly took us around for a closer look at the mother, nyurka, and one of the cubs. they were fenced off from the father, koucher, who we were told grew jealous of his own male offspring. we all approached quietly and were amazed at the close proximity of the mother and cub. the latter was resting against the tall fence. if you were foolish enough, you could poke through the fence and touch him. we talked to victor about the tigers and noticed nyurka was keeping a watchful eye on us. occasionally, she would clean her fur with disinterest until something caught her eye again. the size of her, makes it easy to see how an animal like that can overtake prey in a hunt for food. the tigers color were the most striking though. i’d seen several tigers in zoos, but these seemed to have the brightest contrast by far. our visit only lasted a short time unfortunately, as we were told we had to move on due to possibly agitating the tigers. but victor also had other animals he was tending and took us to another part of the reserve.
as we entered another section, i could see several large metal cages with fenced walls and raised floors. the first animals looked like raccoons, but victor called them coon dogs. they didn’t look like north american raccoons with striped tails, instead they were larger with furs ranging from brown to pure white. other animals were black bears, a fox, a sable, lynx, and some very large dogs. i believe the dogs were there more for guard duty then for show, since their demeanor was directed more to barking at us then anything else. all the animals looked well fed and cared for, which surprised me. the demand for meat and other food for the animals is the most costly item, and it didn’t appear that victor and lena were profiting from the reserve. they politely except donations and offer pictures for sale as another way to help them continue their work. they have a website where you can read more about the tiger station and also donate via paypal online. www.siberiantigers.org
after visiting with the other inhabitants in the reserve, we stopped to purchase photos of the animals. victor doesn’t permit photos to be taken, but the photos they had for sale were done with professional quality and captured shots that you would be lucky to get yourself. i bought a few and made a note to donate more via paypal when i got back home.
we had spent over an hour at the station, and i was starting to feel the cold creeping through my shoes up to my ankles. even my hands were starting to grow numb. so with some regret we headed back to the bus to begin our journey back. the driver, yuri, promptly hustled us back into the shuttle while gesturing to me that my nose was cold and i should warm up inside. it was after we all got back in the car, that someone told me the tempature was minus 22 degrees f. i actually felt better knowing that, since i thought it was warmer and i was just getting old and feeling the cold more.
we stopped for lunch at a nice little hotel called Fort-Tsement. the service was quick and the prices were very reasonable. i warmed myself up with some goulash and a beef vegetable soup. a little black cat was wandering around the café and introducing itself to patrons. we finished up and headed out for the final long leg of the journey home.
on the way back, it seemed our driver was racing faster to beat the sunset. as we took more and more curves, i could feel the bus start to lean precariously as if it was unable to keep all tires on the road. a couple of times, we had to ask the driver to keep the speed down. i think he was surprised that we were worried. other drivers were keeping up with him and it was starting to look like we were in some mad race. about 10 min after the final request to reduce our speed, we came over a hill and saw where an accident had just occurred. a sedan had run off the road after someone cleaved into it’s rear end with what resembled a plow. or maybe they just lost control and slid into a power pole. anyway, our speed was reduced after seeing the accident and no further comments were made. we made it back to vladivostok with no other worries, aside from stopping at one petrol station and finding out they were sold out. total time for the trip was 11 hours. a great way to see the northern country, just make sure you bring warm shoes.