It’s The End Of The World As We Know It…

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 2, 2010

Tallinn, Estonia

IT would be unfair to suggest that the inhabitants of the bus don’t pay full attention to Phil when he issues his latest state of the nation address at the front of the bus.

Admittedly we are taking his estimates on how far we have to carry our bags from the coach to the hostel each day with a huge handful of salt (200 metres is obviously a lot longer in New Zealand than it is over here), but on the whole we listen intently as he passes on the information we need about our latest destination. Well, most of the time.

But at no point has he held our attention as completely when he warned us about tomorrow’s trip from Tallinn to St Petersburg.

Four hours to the border and another four hours the other side got us interested, focusing minds to a day bedded down on the bus as Martins clocked up the miles.

But then he came up with his coup de grace – the information that border crossings on this route take between two and 12 hours. TWELVE HOURS!

We are well aware that’s a worst case scenario, but even two hours on the border will add up to a very long day on the road.

Tallinn - Town Hall
Sun shines on Tallinn – next stop Russia

And it has reinforced the growing spectre looming over us as the week has drawn on – the crossing into Russia and bidding farewell to the world as we know it.

Yes, we have faced up to a string of different languages, currencies, food, drink and cultures (and a fair few local brews), but throughout the first 13 days of this trip, speaking English has been all we have needed to get by.

Those that don’t speak it are used to having English tourists around and are geared up to dealing with our inability to cope with even our own language, let alone anybody else’s. We haven’t even had to produce our passports, except on one of the many trips to change money.

But that all stops tomorrow when we – hopefully – cross the border into Russia.

St Petersburg awaits, with a full day’s guided tour around the city, Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace in store for us, followed by a whistle-stop trip to Moscow and then the next distinct phase of the journey – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Stage One of our railway trip, which rolls out of Moscow before dropping us off for a trip to Lake Baikal, means four nights on the train.

That prospect, coupled with the fears over the border crossing, has seen us running around for the last couple of days stocking up on kit and sustenance for the trip, mixed in with seeing the high spots of Riga and Tallinn.

Tallinn - Old Town Gates
Old Town Gates, Tallinn – Hostel more than 200m on right

Preparations have involved attempts to confirm an agreed set of rules for poker, which style is best and what currency we are betting in ahead of the proposed card school on the train, making sure all gadgets are fully charged, catching up with laundry and constant querying of exactly what food, drink and facilities are available on the train – constant hot water, vodka and what we can buy on stations basically.

There are even unconfirmed reports Freddie has repacked his massive bag, neatly folded and compartmentalised, in case the Russian border guards decide to rummage through it. Not sure whether that’s paranoia or the effects of spending too much time with Marlo drinking cocktails in the Skyline bar.

For Mike, Nick and me it has prompted a few dashes around the supermarkets and markets of Riga and Tallinn to squirrel away as much food that can be prepared with just hot water as possible – plenty of soup, noodles, mashed potatoes and tea bags – and items to cook and store them in. The bus is rattling with dried food and cooking implements until Moscow.

We think we are ready and have even managed to stock up with enough food and drink to see us through an entire day on the bus if necessary, to the extent that the three of us (or, to be more accurate, Nick) are cooking tonight’s pasta meal and saving half of it for the journey.

Whether Phil has any of his newly-created soup with him is debatable.

The Great Soup Experiment, Riga
Braving the great soup experiment, Riga

This culinary delight was invented on our final night in Riga when a group of us opted to stay in for an evening of cheese, ham, wine and other goodies. Discussion switched to how long it would take to brew a decent soup in a thermos flask.

In went carrots, stock cubes, whatever herbs and spices we had to hand, some blue cheese, venison sausage and, for some reason which made sense at the time, a biscuit.

Let’s just say more work is needed, but by the time we get off the train, we should have it perfected. The broth is good, the carrots just aren’t right.

That’s not to say we have spent all of our time in Riga and Tallinn preparing for Russia.

As much as anything, that would be a disservice to two charming cities which are well worth a visit by anyone and provide those willing to get out on foot and see what’s on offer plenty to experience.

Riga’s Museum of Latvian Occupancy is an interesting way to spend an hour.

The inability of several members of the group to spend a quiet night that doesn’t end nearer dawn than midnight also ensured we have seen plenty of both cities after dark.

Tallinn - Back streets
Back streets of Tallinn

With an early departure to Tallinn the next morning, we were determined to keep things quiet in our final night in Riga – right up until the point we were clearing up after our impromptu wine and cheese gathering.

It took just one suggestion of a quick trip out for one drink to use up our Lats and, before you could say “two large beers, a bottle of white and a malibu and coke, please”, Phoebe, Fran, Phil, Mike and I were safely installed in the same Russian bar which had been the scene of the previous night’s shenanigans.

And that’s where it all went a bit strange as our table attracted some unexpected attention from the locals – one who just came over to us, shouted at us in Russian and walked away laughing; another who insisted Phoebe dance with him to the thrash metal played in the bar and, more worryingly, the one who informed our resident Aussie weirdo magnet he had just had a fight down the road, was looking for another and had selected us for the pleasure.

You will be glad to know – but not as glad as we were – he never got his wish before sneaking off into the night.

Having sampled the delights of Riga’s nightlife, it would have been rude not to do the same in Tallinn.

We did see plenty of it in the day – it’s small enough to walk around much of the old town fairly quickly – and we even managed to end the two-week long hunt for a charger for Phoebe’s camera and fit in a sauna at the sister hostel down the road.

Not sure the sauna, tucked in the en-suite of one of the dorm rooms, was built for four, but we managed to squeeze in and – courtesy of a complicated system of knocks and sequenced door openings – managed to enjoy mixed showers without anyone losing their modesty.

The back of the bus reverted to type in the evening with a few beers and a meal in the Hell Hunt bar, followed by a few more beers, and a few more, in the aptly-named Drink bar.

As well as the requisite Aussies from the town’s hostels, we also met John and Sean, two Americans taking a lengthy spell out on the road and, in the case of John, sporting a quite spectacular beard.

It says something about the early stages of this trip that sloping off to bed early having downed another JD and coke at 3am put me among the early leavers.

But when you’ve got the luxury of a single room with a window on this trip, you don’t want to let it go to waste…

And that’s it, for the first time since London, fully up to date.

Tune in next time to find out just how long the wait at the Russian border was and whether we all got across…

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I Shot The Sheriff – And Missed

Original posted on London to New York blog, March 31, 2010

Riga, Latvia

AMONG the many questions asked before and since this trip started is: “What are you going to do when you get back?”

The answers have ranged from the non-committal (“Haven’t really thought about it”) to the definite (thought the guy at the American Embassy might appreciate “Get a job” rather more than “Dunno”) with some rambling musings about possible career changes filling large chunks of the middle ground.

One thing that has become clear is that sniper or hit man is unlikely to provide that career change.

Riga - Nick at the shooting range
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Machins – Nick gets dangerous in Riga

This blow to my employment prospects follows our trip to a shooting range in Riga, our stop-off for two nights in Latvia.

We fulfilled the first part of our mission which was simply to find the place. Our guide Alex took us down a snowy path, across some wasteland and onto a rooftop, down a muddy path and finally into a very unpromising looking bunker.

Walking down the road 100 yards and down some steps would have had a similar outcome.

Once inside, any ambitions to become a hired gun were ended.

Our stern teacher showed us what we were supposed to be doing. Most of the group which had made the trek across the river looked back at him with a mixture of confusion, wide eyes and itchy trigger fingers.

First up was the pistol – five shots apiece at our own personal target. My performance was not the worst, but two out of five was far from the best. Worse was to follow…

In my defence, all three shots from the AK-47 assault rifle found the target. Only not mine. My target contained no more blemishes than before, but Freddie’s – two to the left – suddenly had six new holes. Not bad considering he only fired three shots at it.

Riga - Freedom Statue
The Freedom Statue in Riga – Renowned for being used by drunk British tourists on way back from bars

The instructor found this highly amusing – a moral victory as he had shown no previous signs of a sense of humour.

But redemption was at hand. Pistols and assault rifles may not be my weapon, but put a Winchester pump-action shotgun in my hands and look out… two out of three into the heart of the target and some pride restored.

While the shooting range is hidden away underground, most of Riga’s treasures are very much on public view in a pleasant, if rundown, city centre.

And after an overcast couple of days in Vilnius, the overall impression has been greatly helped by a rapid improvement in the weather.

The big freeze which has hit the city and left much of the river and streams frozen, cleared up almost overnight to present us with blue skies and sunshine – the winter hats being replaced by sunglasses as we headed out on a walking tour with the slightly mellow Alex (once we’d reminded him what day it actually was).

We yomped around some of the sights off the beaten track, taking in the fish section of the Central Market (the largest covered market in Europe), Little Moscow, the Thieves’ Market (no photos allowed and pretty much anything – bar Phoebe’s much-sought after camera charger – for sale), a hot chocolate stop which served basically thick, melted chocolate in a cup and the 26th floor bar of a hotel which offers great views over the city.

Throw in the picturesque Old Town and it all adds up to a very enjoyable city.

Riga - Hot Chocolate
Really, really thick chocolate, water needed to wash it down. Biscuit optional.

And there is plenty more to enjoy after dark, as we discovered via a meal in the crypt of an old monastery served by staff in medieval costume. Nowhere near as naff as it sounds and far removed from the theme park experience it threatened to be.

The plan, not for the first time, was to have quite a quiet night, this time watching football in an Irish pub.

But somehow, again not for the first time, it ran away from us. A couple of quick beers were followed by a couple more, tempted into it as we were by the lovely smile of the girl behind the bar.

By the time we stumbled out of there, any remaining plans for an early night were shot to pieces as we bumped into Martins the driver and his good lady and they insisted we join them in a bar in a local side street.

What went on from there is a little cloudy and we are still piecing together exactly what happened – both there and in a splinter group who spent the night sipping cocktails on the 26th floor bar.

Riga - Town Crests
Latvian town crests in Riga, including town of Ogre – popular crest when it included image of Stalin

Suffice to say there were some drunken locals, a Scottish hen party, cocktails involving local firewater/poison balsum, cross dressing and the lovely Inge sat at the end of the bar…

All a far cry from Vilnius, our previous stop off in Lithuania.

Well, maybe not that far for the member of the trip who ended up in a late-night bar being fed cocktails by “an extremely ugly Icelandic bloke”.

His identity must remain protected, except to say Mike spent the next evening drinking water.

Vilnius - Cathedral
Photo stop outside the cathedral in the old town, Vilnius

As well as being far less pleasant weather than Riga, Vilnius has far less to see once you have wandered around the old town, which does not take that long.

It also provided a few firsts: the first dodgy restaurant, a steakhouse with service so bad that one person was not served at all and two walked out fed up waiting to give their order, was followed by our first self-cooked meal – Freddie producing a much-appreciated meal on our first lazy day spent recovering from a few excesses of the days before.

A much-needed slow down before hitting the road to Riga…

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