“I live here all my life but I’ve never seen one, you don’t see them but you hear them, at least in the past you could“ We went by the road sign saying Zemlya Leoparda, the entrance to the Land of the Leopard National Park. “I used to work in road construction right over there” Our driver gestured at the dirt road to our right. “The other workers were Uzbeks. I was driving with them to the workplace and all of a sudden we could hear a loud roar from the forest. They stopped the truck, got out and ran away in panic! They thought it was the devil himself!” When we were saying goodbye to the driver he still was giggling at his little story.
It was the regular moment in our journey – we have to realize that now our destination is a less popular place, thus the only thing to do is to remain patient. It’s not a problem because standing on the empty roads make beautiful memories. And after all, another kind driver always appears sooner than expected!
Here we were, moving towards yet another completely magical place which the unique aura enriched us forever and we can feel it just when we close our eyes. Bukhta Vityaz’ (Vityaz Bay) in Khasansky District is located pretty close to Vladivostok, but two times closer to North Korea. Eager to have some relaxation time before leaving the beautiful Russia we found this place on the map and then searched online for any summer houses/ cheap stays there. We came across an offer and considering our Russian skills we were very lucky to get it! A lovely older couple has a small summer camp there and were happy to receive guests outside of the tourist season.
Our host came to pick us up with his jeep, saving us a few last kilometers of the dirt road. Once in Finland, we were doing research on what to see in Russian Far East and the photo that brought our attention to Bukhta Vityaz’ was the one showing a stunning wooden shipwreck. We smiled and looked at each other when the very same shipwreck appeared behind the curve of the road. It was not until there that we learned that this, and few other wrecks visible from the coast, were built in the 50s in our home city – Turku in Finland. More about it a little bit later.
At the camp we met the wife of the owner and their two dogs. They moved here just a few years ago from Khabarovsk. She works as an English teacher in a village nearby and he keeps busy building and fixing summer houses in their camp. After settling down in a cosy wooden room, the host brought to us the map of the peninsula. We spread it on the table and soon we knew that our planned relaxing time has to turn into an active one – so many points to explore!
There’s a lot to say about the history of the bay, but here we’ll try to make it short. Until 1972 it used to be a submarine base. The sea bottom was deepened for the fleet and on the shore the base was built and the infrastructure established. In the 70’s most of the bay and the coastal zone were transferred to the jurisdiction of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Military buildings (some of them remain until today there) were taken over by the scientists and young enthusiasts. The Vityaz naval base could become the world’s leading center for the study of the fauna and flora of the Pacific Ocean (Sea of Japan), in its heyday the number of employees there reached 520 people. Laboratories and the aquarium were erected, Finnish-built hunting schooners were purchased and then they were converted into additional floating laboratories. Many fruitful scientific expeditions took place, “Vityaz” was visited not only by the leading scientists of our country, but also by famous cultural figures. Unfortunately, starting from about 1986 the base start to decline. Residential and work premises began to decrease. Even though it is hard to say why exactly it happened, many people who used to work there connect it to some kind of evil fate. Inexorable fires began to haunt the bay. First the schooners, the shipwrecks which we could admire from the shore every day. One after another burned in the fire, some almost fully, some left half burnt down. After that, the main working premise and the aquarium building burnt also – a particularly heavy and irreparable loss for the entire base. Fires always started at night, which led some to believe that they were not that mysterious at all. The scientists didn’t only come to conduct the research, but also to have fun – forgetting to turn off the heater or even dropping a cigarette butt in the schooners full of dry tarred wood could easily end up tragically. Whatever the cause, the fires and soon later collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of the naval base.
How is it there nowadays? We went out in the evening excited to check the village. Clearly the tourist season was long gone, but it’s doubtful that it gets packed in the summer. On the dilapidated concrete piers we stood and observed seagulls gliding over the shipwrecks. In the background the dark green mountain, with its peak hidden in the mist. We could face the sea on this silent bay for the whole night, this area conveys some weird magic for sure! Accompanied with the dogs, we continued to the abandoned summer house, we passed in the jeep back on the road. This building resembling a small castle is the summer residence of the Jankowski family. Michał Jankowski – less known pioneer from Poland who was exiled to Siberia and then built and achieved a lot in the Far East. In our last days in Russia we had a chance to visit also the peninsula named after him, where till this day his statue stands.
Next days we spent exploring the whole peninsula. Crossing its neck in the aim to get to the beach on another side, we stumbled upon an old, ruined cemetery. By removing the plants we could take a closer look of the photos of the faces who once lived here. The beach was just as empty as the village. White sand and azure water seemed weirdly out of place, gusts of wind brought the salty breeze to our faces. We had some fun with the dogs which we realised would later on follow us through the whole walks. Continuing through the eastern shores, we discovered the most beautiful little coves and bays. Whether they were vast silver grasslands dancing in the wind or dense, dark forests, we walked in awe and silence. From time to time we had to figure out how to ascend from tens of metres high cliffs, luckily sometimes there was a rope attached to some pine roots. Slowly going down, we could hear the dogs up on the cliff crying and barking. Too scared to go down with us they were waiting for hours until we came back up.
Down below the cliffs we hopped from rock to rock and observed urchins, starfish and various jellyfish under the crystal clean sea water. The waves washed ashore lots of rubbish, but here, even that was fascinating. Buoys, metal pieces, lines, some food supplies and medicine, many of them with labels in Korean. In the whole Primorye region of Russia many North Korean fishing boats from time to time go ashore due to typhoons on the sea, some with bodies on board some without. Enjoying the humid air in the remote bay we opened Harbin beers and celebrated Tiia’s birthday, what a place to get older! Definitely we’re lucky not to celebrate by swimming in the cool water. As we found out later metres from the place where we were sitting, the first serious shark attack in Primorye in 2011 took place. The 25 year old guy miraculously survived but lost both of his arms. Nature throughout the whole of our roads in Siberia never ceased to amaze and scare!
Not all of the shipwrecks are located in the Vityaz Bay. To our shock we found another one in a small rocky cove. Half of the front part and the bridge deck were standing in silence. Coastline became more eerie once we tattered sailor clothes nearby. The very same day our destination was Gamov Lighthouse located on the southernmost cliffs. On the trail we passed through some buildings in complete disrepair and the coastal tower battery (built during WWII). Each spot uncovered another beautiful view on the peninsula, we’ve never felt more “end of the world” feeling than right there. The lighthouse and facilities around it glimmered in the sunset. Thinking about the road back to home, we could feel our legs, at the same time we were pointing to each other places which we should check the next day.
Out of many interesting buildings on the peninsula, one that definitely brings the attention is the abandoned military dolphinarium – yes you heard that right. A round white building made us think that it’s some kind of military locator but luckily our host explained to us the history of that place. It’s worth mentioning that even in the year 2000 the coast was part of the border zone and the visitor had to own a pass which was regularly checked on the numerous checkpoints. The controversial idea of using marine mammals as a military force first appeared in Russian Naval Forces more than a hundred years ago. It is in Bukhta Vitya’z though, where this idea was probably the closest to become reality. The dolphinarium started its operation in 1983. Animals were supposed to have exercises in raising underwater mines, search for sunken torpedoes and more (the training program is classified up to this day). First, they brought the bottlenose dolphins from the Black Sea. It was a complete failure since the very salty water of the Sea of Japan hurt their eyes and it ended up in one of them dying and the second becoming seriously ill. Then both the military and scientists paid attention to the local fauna – young belugas were caught in the north and brought here. The anti-sabotage training was going well, there was also a circus program, for showing to the chiefs and distinguished guests. Interestingly enough the unit was disbanded only in 1998 due to financial reasons, mentioned before fires and collapse of the Soviet Union surrely played a big role in it. What remained of the military dolphinarium – is one building, so called the winter pool. Though in the private hands we were able to silently sneak inside it, also taking a closer look at another half-burnt schooner “Salamandra”. Inside, except for the round pool where they used to keep animals, there was not much to see. Nevertheless it was something else to encounter a structure whose purpose is one of the weirdest ever.
Next days we spent on Shultz Cape. Once again thanks to the discussions with our hosts we’ve learned a lot. We will just mention that it was named after Karl Shultz, photographer from Finland. The book about him was even shown to us. Finally, on the cape we encountered briefly some locals (except for the shop owner), drunk guys in hunting clothes who were very friendly and showed us how to get to another cove.
Our hosts were kind enough to take us from the peninsula to the bigger road, from which hitchhiking back to Vladivostok was easy. We talked about the remoteness of this place and the man mentioned that even in their summer camp some of the visitors are, as he mentioned it, “people of different orientation”. Then he continued by explaining that there nobody bothers them and they can have a nice holiday time. It was interesting and we were happy to hear it. We will be also very happy to recommend to anyone their little summer houses, great conditions and owners with the hearts of gold! We have spent over 5 days in Bukhta Vityaz’, memories from that place will be in us forever. It’s truly a location where one will be the happiest to just sit and do nothing, but then again, all the coves, bays, and capes are too intriguing to stay in one spot!