In autumn 2012, a heavy rainstorm caused the Amgu River in northern Primorye to burst its banks and wash out a small section of road leading into the village of Amgu. This settlement, barely offset from the Sea of Japan by a narrow, sandy beach, was poised to be cleaved in two by the massing waters. Luckily, the escalating pressure caused a second river mouth to burst through the beach and into the bay. The water levels receded and the village was saved.
The residents of Amgu, shaken by this near-catastrophe, raised a tall, earthen dyke between the river and the adjacent road in response. This would prevent such a disaster from threatening again, they reasoned.
Two years came and went. Water levels rose and receded. Villagers, lulled into a sense of safety behind this castle wall of mud and rock, remained unaware that the Amgu River was not yet done with them. In fact, like a dragon resting on the valley’s chain, the river was waiting patiently for the right moment to arch its back, spread its wings, and breathe some serious fire.
Unless milling about and smoking is part of their job description, some Russian laborers have perfected the art of taking breaks. I passed one such troupe recently; a half-dozen road workers honing their resting skills with pensive draws on inexpensive cigarettes while squatting in the shade and staring indifferently at the occasional car or truck that passed.
This was the Ternei County roads crew, and they were out fixing potholes. I was one of four people in a pickup truck headed north to the village of Ternei, with tiger biologist Dale Miquelle behind the wheel, and this section of road was a patchwork of unpredictably-located and sometimes unavoidable pits. These ruts were waiting to be filled with shovelfuls of hot asphalt and pressed flat by a steamroller, but in the interim they were being filled instead by inattentive drivers who plowed their vehicles into the depths of these yawning chasms.
The Russian province of Primorye is unexpectedly rich in public art, particularly the capital city of Vladivostok. This port town is awash with stunning renderings of cityscapes, landscapes, and surrealism that blanket a diversity of otherwise grey spaces peppered throughout the city. Decaying building walls, rusty metal fences, and other urban canvases pop with color and creativity to reward any individuals who take the time to notice their surroundings. A bus stop near downtown is shaded by a relief cut into the concrete; a tree with branches interweaving to spell the word “Vladivostok.” A life-sized and colorful trolley-car adorns the brick retaining wall in another part of town along an unused railway track. And by the bay, a massive whale crowds the side of a two-story building; painted in a way that the windows of the second floor become houses in a city tenuously supported on the back of the enormous cetacean.