By Anna Barbashova, with Irina Barbashova, Sergei Barbashov, Nadia Barbashova, and Olga Barbashova. Photos by Irina Barbashova
Just a 20-minute-drive away from the center of Vladivostok, Russia, there is a gorgeous bay surrounded by large cliffs. Not long ago, the beach here was used as a dumping ground of unwanted glass by a local porcelain factory, or so the story goes. Years later, the seaside here has taken on a breathtaking appearance. Millions of broken bits of glass, smoothed and polished by the crashing ocean waves, cover every bit of the beach. When we visited, they sparkled like candies from Candy Land.
Our family of five has always loved traveling, and we have always loved exploring new places from the beginning. In fact, when my mom and dad first got married, they traveled the world because different countries would invite my dad for his scientific contributions.
However, a recent and new obsession that has been added to our love for travel is our love for sea glass. We first fell in love with sea glass when we were visiting Fort Bragg, California. We stumbled into the International Sea Glass Museum and became obsessed. Ever since, we have been including sea glass hunting in all our travels. For example, last April, we searched for sea glass in Hong Kong and Bali.
By far the most special place that we have gone “treasure-hunting” was Glass Beach in Vladivostok, Russia, which is special for several reasons: the thick layer of mature sea glass, the unique gorgeous colors, and the surrounding area and culture. The most special part, though, was re-visiting our family’s roots.
Glass Beach is in the city of Vladivostok. The city was closed to foreigners when Russia was part of the Soviet Union, and in reality, it was closed even to Soviet citizens for visiting. When my mom was an adventurous student studying Economics and Mathematics in the Soviet Union, naturally the forbidden destination was added to her bucket list. Why was it closed? She wanted to see for herself!
My mom had to find an insider to submit a formal invitation so that she could get a permit to visit Vladivostok. She bought a train ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok leaving October 1, 1985, and it took seven days to reach Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East.
What an amazing experience, crossing all the time zones and different climates, mountains, and endless fields, cities, and countrysides of all sorts. My mom will never forget that moment when the train pulled into the Vladivostok train station. The train station and sea port are adjacent, and all the ships, water, and city lights created an image she had never seen before. In that moment, she realized why the Soviet Union nicknamed Vladivostok the “Soviet San Francisco.” Back then, my mom never dreamed of seeing the real San Francisco someday. She would have laughed if you told her then that her eldest daughter (me, hello!) would live in San Francisco, California.
Fast forward 30 years, and my mom is back, this time with my dad and her three daughters. The symbolism and memories of her adventures (and our roots) were already beyond special and nothing could have prepared us for the splendor and magic we would find on Vladivostok’s Glass Beach.
We discovered the beach through a photo on Instagram. I sent it to my mom, and when she saw the photo, she was shocked that she missed such a unique place during her first trip and wanted to fix that mistake. Glass Beach was immediately added to the itinerary of a previously planned trip to visit my sister Nadia in China. All we had to do was add another stop, practically around the corner.
My mom’s friend showed her many sights in the city during her 1985 visit, including the islands and forests, but Glass Beach was never part of the itinerary. She went to many beaches with sea stars and seashells, but nothing similar to the beach we visited on our trip.
The locals were still confused by why we were interested in Glass Beach. Several people mentioned that they would never have thought to bring us there. For us, it was the main attraction!
After driving down winding roads and parking at the beach, we reached an entrance to the beach. The entrance was blocked off with a thin rope and there was a man standing there collecting entrance fees. He asked for 150 rubles (equivalent to about two American dollars). Needless to say, there was no receipt. There were only a couple of people on the beach, and it felt like a rarely visited beach.
We immediately knew something was extraordinary when we stepped out of our car and saw the first pieces of sea glass in the parking lot. And this was just the beginning!
I think we all started feeling a bit dizzy from excitement and awe as we started walking closer to the water. What we saw: mountains and mountains of sparkling sea glass. The beach is composed of natural volcanic black sand, but you would truly have to dig through the glass to see it.
My entire family immediately scattered, and each person enthusiastically started picking pieces of sea glass. Each one of us has different goals: someone looks for the most unusual shapes, someone seeks light teal glass, etc. We each became absorbed in our own hunt. My mom and I were so overwhelmed that we kept running from one area to the next, and couldn’t bring ourselves to gather anything at first. We were simply so overwhelmed by all the heaps of glistening sea glass. We still joke that our photos might look blurry because my mom’s hands were shaking from excitement as she took the photographs.
Although we always hear complaints of dads and husbands being “sea glass scrooges,” my dad has always shared our love for sea glass and has been a huge supporter. All I could see was his butt in the air and his glasses close to the ground, as he inspected the sea glass.
There were all sorts of different colors and pieces. My family is used to finding mostly green pieces on California’s beaches, but here we found all sorts of blues and pinks and reds. There were some unique shapes and bottle stoppers, pottery, old Soviet coins, and more.
We visited in early April, so the temperatures were freezing and my hands became numb. I continued picking up pieces of sea glass treasures, wondering if we had found heaven on earth. The next day began with shopping for winter jackets so that we could come back and continue sea glass hunting in comfort.
When my family searches for sea glass in California, my mom always checks the tide schedules. My mom checked the tide schedule for Glass Beach in Russia on our first day, and we went during low tide. On the next day, we didn’t even think about the tide time tables. Low or high: it doesn’t matter at all for this magical bay! Every time we visited, we would see endless glass from the edge of the water all the way to the parking lot. It was just a question of whether there was more dry glass or wet glass, but the glass was always there. Every single day, we left with the strong desire to return on the next day. We are already dreaming about our trip back.
Glass Beach took our breath away but the surrounding area was also a unique and memorable area to explore. When my mom first visited Vladivostok in 1985, she was completely amazed by the beauty of the nature, ocean views, and islands. There was also amazing foliage when she visited her first time; colors that she would see again only in New England. There are about 50 islands that have a Vladivostok address. There are also countless scenic spots in the local area. We went on a few breathtaking hikes and even ran into some friendly foxes. We also were lucky to have one of the locals show us a local gem: a beautiful labyrinth accessible from a hiking trail.
If you plan to visit, don’t miss Lesnaya Zaimka restaurant. This beautiful timber restaurant has a hunting theme with breathtaking, grand décor. We couldn’t
resist coming here twice. Both the food and the atmosphere were unparalleled!
This isolated corner of Russia had a magic effect on my mom back in 1985. At that time, Soviet citizens weren’t permitted to leave the USSR to travel. She stood on the beach and was sure it was the best view of the Japanese Islands she would ever have. Surprise! Several years later, her first daughter was born just outside Tokyo, and later, two more girls arrived in the world in Boston, Massachusetts.
Decades later, this breathtaking area had a magical effect on our family. The sea glass, the memories, and the beauty: I still see it when I close my eyes.
The Barbashova family has been living in California for over 10 years and has developed a strong love for sea glass. They have traveled and gathered sea glass from Hong Kong, Bali, China, San Diego, Laguna Beach, Russia, and will soon have a new location to add to the collection—Barcelona! The family loves making new memories together and collecting pieces of magical sea glass to grow their collection. A little background about who they are: They come from a very international background, with the parents from Russia and the daughters born in Japan and Boston. Sergei (dad) is a scientist (PhD, MD) who devotes himself to finding a cure for cancer. Irina (mom) is an Economist/Mathematician. Anna (oldest daughter) lives in San Francisco and works in business. Nadia (middle daughter) is a world-traveling teacher who has been a teacher in Shanghai and Thailand (currently teaching in Germany). Olga (youngest daughter) is a high school student and aspiring doctor, and Lucy is their sweet (and sassy) fluffy bunny. They love exploring and making memories together, and are genuinely honored to share some of their special memories in this edition of Beachcombing!
To tag along on the Barbashova family’s travels and see some of their beautiful beachcombing finds, follow @ochummingbird on Instagram.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.