Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Latvia & Estonia - David and Goliath
Once Upon a Saga:
I survived the storm in Poland which did not turn out to be that bad where I was. But I heard news from back home that it was something special. The wonderful Maria got me on my bus from Suwalki in Poland to Vilnius in Lithuania. Not a long drive but not much to look at through the bus windows. The landscape had turned snowy and the weather was grey.
I would like to dedicate this blog to Ann-Christina Salquist. A woman who is a hard working part of the project and the first spark of inspiration to the realization of this adventure. Thank you.
For many years I have been wanting to go to the Balkans and now I was finally there. Now I want to go to the Balkans in the summertime :)
From the bus terminal I made my way to a cheap hostel which was a party hostel and it was Friday. That is no good when you want to sit and relax. But I did get to meet a lot of nice fellow travelers and the staff were sweethearts. Outside the weather was kind of miserable and that sort of concluded my day after a short walk in the marvelous city of Vilnius and a local meal of Cepelikai. Don't worry...it tasted good.
The entry to the independent republic in Vilnius and a Christmas tree :)
The next day offered a free guided tour of the city and it is a very lovely medieval city. I was surprised to learn that inside Vilnius there is a kind of independent society that called themself a country. Now, I cannot go around and visit every yahoo hippie who decides that his land is a sovereign nation...but it was a part of the tour and though I did not spend 24 hours I can claim to have been there. And then I was gone.
My Belarus transit visa was limited to 2 days and I was already set up with a host in Minsk. 2 days was all I needed.
What kind of country is Belarus? It is a quite large country with a relatively small population who calls Belarus: "potato country". Unfortunately Belarus is not rich on natural resources and relies heavily on the very large neighbor Russia. But it is a very interesting country and at least the capital had very nice architecture and many friendly faces. Especially my host who lives with her parents. The beautiful independent Inga came to get me at the central railway station and she guided and entertained me from the moment we met. Her parents were interested in learning who I was and what I was doing. And the dog kept barking at me and was clearly afraid.
They had prepared a delicious dinner for us all and I was served a fantastic wine which was a mix from Belorussia and Georgia...I think? I don't know a lot about wine but I know what I like! When it got late the living room transformed into my bedroom and the dog had long ago become my best friend and slept with me in the living room.
The next day Inga and I had a good look at Minsk and I was on and off reminded of soviet scenes as seen in old James Bond movies. Sometimes it would look extremely communistic and other times Minsk would look like a city constructed in the most stylish way possible. That leaves me wondering what the rest of the country looks like and if it would be good for motor biking? Who are we kidding...what wouldn't be good for motor biking...I would motorbike the moon if I could.
In Belarus the local tongue is Russian though they have their own language which is winning with the youth. But for me it would be hard work if I wasn't escorted by Inga. She got me back to the train station and I boarded the train for Russia knowing that I had a new friend.
Perhaps I should say Moscow and not Russia. Because people kept telling me that Moscow is not Russia. Moscow is Moscow.
From Minsk I boarded the train where the less helpful staff pointed at the train and let me figure the rest out on my own. Why is that a problem? I'll tell you. Because the ticket and every sign is in Russian and the ticket might as well have been done by aliens. The odds of finding anyone who spoke English was quite low - but I tried my luck when I boarded the first wagon and had my first look at what an ex-soviet train is like. It is very social. The compartments are open and since train food (anywhere in the world it seems) is expensive people bring their own. A kind female passenger understood what I wanted and helped me to my seat. I looked at the people around me and said with a smile: "hi, do any of you speak English?". Njiet, njiet, njiet everywhere. Ruski. Njiet Ruski. Okay...this could be a long 12 hours to Moscow. But then a man my age sitting across from me asked in German: "sprichst du deutsch?" And I DO speak German. Alex, which was his name, was baffled. He was absolutely sure that he would be the only Russian...or person for that sake...on that train who spoke German. What are the odds that we would sit across from each other? So I got to practice my German with a Russian on a ex-soviet train going from Belarus to Moscow.
The first question Alex had for me was how far I was going? And I kind of felt that I was going ALL THE WAY to Moscow. But the reply was: oh, only Moscow. That is because Russia is HUGE and Alex had to travel about 36 hours in the train...that makes 12 hours a short ride.
Alex is such a trooper!! When I got off the train in Moscow he got off to for a few minutes and introduced me to a man who Alex met on the train while I was sleeping. Alex felt that I should have some help in Moscow and the man agreed to help me. It was about 3am when we left the train and walked into the city. My new "guide" was hungry so we stopped at a restaurant (in the middle of the night because that's the kind of city it is) and he offered me some tea...and then a midnight snack. And then he paid for everything and wouldn't let me pay a thing - because as he said; it was his city.
The madly stylish metro stations in a Moscow are often decorated with dedications to Stalin
After that I was escorted 30 minutes through Moscow until we arrived at the hostel. He then went up with me to see that everything was okay...and then he left saying: "contact me if you need anything".
Now, I do not know what kind of bad experiences people have in Moscow. But everyone I met was nice, kind and helpful! I did not do much in Moscow other than walk around and visit the Red Cross...I managed to buy a train ticket to Riga in Latvia. I guess that doesn't sound impressive...but I promise you that it is!! But that is a story for another time :)
Sergei from Moscow Red Cross next to the massive map. I only ventured a little bit inside Russia.
Moscow is big. There are references to Stalin everywhere and he is considered a hero still today. And if you visit Moscow in December like I did...then you should not be surprised that it is cold too. Perhaps the most curious thing was that in this modern age we live in you can now sit in McDonalds, eat a burger and look out the window at the Kremlin.
Near Kremlin at the Red Square in Moscow
The long train ride from Moscow was even longer as I had nobody to speak to this time and border guards, patrol officers, customs officers and dog patrols kept me up almost all night. But I got to Latvia and as the train rolled into Riga I was in for a surprise!
I'm not the only one fed up with nightly passport checks
On the arrival platform TV5 stood ready to interview me and would follow me around town for the rest of the day. I was also interviewed by Delfi there and then. This was all because of Janis who when I met him was a friend of Once Upon a Saga's wonderful Ann-Christina Salquist but today also is a friend of mine! The rest of the day I was treated like a VIP and I was taken to see all the sights, I got great food, gave an interview at the prestigious news paper Latvijas Avize and had a VIP tour of the very interesting Occupation Museum where TV3 arrived to document the event. The museum is set in the former American Embassy and it will take your breath away.
At Red Cross TV5 was again present and I think this confused the Riga Red Cross staff somehow. Well it aught to. My head was spinning too. I've never been treated like that before.
Latvian media madness! But good on them for realizing the importance of this project at this early stage.
The Baltic countries are quite special. And perhaps more than anything they suffer from the overcasting shadows of their powerful neighbor to the east. Russia and the former USSR certainly have not made life easier for the surrounding countries and countries like Latvia were systematically cleansed as the Soviet took over and executed the elite while sending others to camps in among other places Siberia, where you would work until you died. Around the Baltic...or in general anywhere I've been outside Russia...Stalin is no hero.
However while the future is always left for speculation I can deliver my testimony on the present. For what I saw in Latvia was a beautiful and modern society full of optimistic and friendly people who are doing it right!
In Father Christmas' chair in Riga.
The ignorant 'me' once told a customer that his cargo was delayed because: "you know how the roads are over there". I never knew how wrong I was and I truly hope that the smooth roads of Latvia will lead the nation into a prosperous and smooth future.
A short bus ride from Riga brought me to Tallinn - the capital of Estonia and as the legend goes the place where my home country received our nation's flag from the sky and won a great victory.
The Dannebrog falls from the sky.
Tallinn is again one of those cities. I mainly spent my time in the old town of Tallinn and it is jaw-dropping! I booked myself into a hostel where I was the only guest and the kind but mostly inconsiderate staff and I had a brief discussion about what traveling is. Because am I really traveling here? Well yes! I certainly am...but at this speed I do not get to sink into any of the locations I quickly run through. So I suppose that the form of traveling I am currently doing is more like a game. Every country...let's go!! And a short calculation showed us that if I was to spend a mere month in each country then the entire journey would last about 16 years. I'm in trouble...because I mostly want to revisit...everywhere! :)
Insane atmospheric Christmas market in Tallinn old town.
The short version: Tallinn is wonderful. It is expensive too but it is definitely worth a visit. I was back to being average Joe as I had absolutely no media attention in Estonia in sharp contrast to the surreal media attention in Latvia.
Don't forget - Red Cross Red Crescent: 150 years, 189 countries (picture from Minsk, Belarus)
The Baltic countries are 3 separate nations with related cultures but very individual fingerprints. They stand together and move as family whenever politically possible and back in 1989 they did something amazing. 2,000,000 people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania stood as a human chain from Tallinn in the north through Riga to Vilnius in the south as a statement to solidarity and peace. That is 2 million people in an unbroken chain!! Amazing. And the outcome of this struggle for freedom is evident today.
Great tales from Finland, Sweden and Norway are soon to follow ;)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen - Once a Upon a Saga...it's your story too you know ;)