Saturday, 20 November 2010

And in the beginning... Estonia, 14-19 November 2010

Hi all,

This is my first update since beginning my journey around the world.  I left a rather rainy England and headed for Estonia.  As soon as I stepped out of the car at Stansted Airport, I was complaining about the weight of my backpack, although I spent the previous two weeks unpacking and discarding non-essentials and repacking the bag again, it was still too heavy!  Once we had checked in for the only flight I will be taking until Singapore (hopefully further, but we'll see...), we were asked to check our baggage into the outsize desk because of the straps.   The official took an interest in my bag and asked me to leave all my belongings on me outside with Matt whilst I accompanied them in their office whilst they search me and my bag.  Matt was watching the proceedings from outside and he had to laugh when the gentleman  pulled out a tin containing an All Day Breakfast which my friend Mike Hearn gave me for my trip.  Perhaps that accounted for some of the weight in my bag, also the Smarties and mint imperials...

Tallinn, Estonia - 14 - 18 November 2010

Our flight went without delay or hitch and we landed in Tallinn within good time, got straight in a taxi and arrived at our hostel, The Flying Kiwi, from the outside it looks like a dark, dingy and run down building .  Both Matt and I did not share our first impressions and waited to see the inside before making any judgments.  We were greeted by Amanda, a Kiwi, who promptly checked us in and took us to the closest bar for our first Estonian beer along with a couple of awesome Aussie girls from Perth.  we shared a great many laughs and they even went through my bag to see if I could shed anymore items.  I got rid of a few things which took a little strain off my back and onto Matt's as he had to take it home with him.

Tallinn itself is a wonderful place, the hostel was situated within the old town close to all the treasures it has to hold.  I thought it was going to be deathly cold in Tallinn but it was actually not too bad at all.  Maybe it's down to the superb Berghaus coat I've got!  We spent a few days just wondering the town and going through any open door we could find.  This also meant we walked into and open casket funeral which felt extremely wrong, especially as they were still selling postcards during the ceremony!  It amazed me that there were still people selling goods to tourists despite the distinct lack of them around.  Nevertheless, we got some rather warm nuts from a beautiful Estonian lady and Matt minted his very own Estonian good luck coin.  But before I could finished asking the trader about missing tourists, a large group of camera wielding Japanese tourists came around the corner.  Oh how we laughed.  However, it wasn't just the tourists that were missing, there were no Estonians either! 

The next day we took a day trip to Helsinki, Finland.  The journey across the Baltic took us only a 1.5 hours.  The departure point was a strange place, we climbed several hundred steps over a huge piece of Soviet architecture that houses the Tallinna Linnahall, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics to stage the sailing events, once we reached the top I had a sense of achievement much like climbing Snowdon! The crossing was a chance to catch up on some sleep which I had been needing.

The first thing that struck me about Helsinki was the cleanliness of the city.  There was absolutely no litter on the floor.  We walked round for the whole day walking in and out of buildings, sneaking past security guards to get into museums for free and visited the most amazing church.  We were actually purposely looking for this temple as we heard good things.  So we set off armed with a rather small map picked up at the port and searching the skyline for spires, we soon reached the spot on the map where it should have been but there were no spires or church like buildings anywhere just a pile of rocks.  It soon became apparent that the temple was actually below us!  The Temppeliaukio Church was built into the rock during the late 20th century and was decorated with a lots of copper.  The roof apparently contains over 20km of coiled copper.  We were also lucky enough to hear a singer and his accompanist practice so we could hear the superb acoustics the building offers.

The day was spent with two Italian girls whom we met in our hostel back in Tallinn.  They went to Helsinki for couple of days and were embarking on their first Couch Surfing experience, something which I have never done but would like to try out sometime on my trip.  Couch surfing offers free or incredibly cheap accommodation at a participants house or just the chance to meet a local.  I have heard from them and they have reported good things!

As Helsinki, alike to other Scandinavian countries, is extremely expensive we made sure we spent as little as possible and only eat one cheap burger whilst we were there and headed back to Tallinn where birthday celebrations for the hostel owner, Jenn, were underway.

That night, Jenn, Amanda and Jonny took us to a basement bar called Shimo which was really fun.  The best thing about it was that we didn't have to make any decisions on what drink to have as we just asked Matt the barman to give us a surprise, which he did every time.  I have absolutely no idea what we drank that night but they were all very good! 

Estonian Occupation Museum

Today, Estonia has population of just under 1.4m people which compared to Russia's 145m and Germany's 81m is incredibly small.  The same difference was felt in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact was signed in which Stalin agreed Russia would not enter into war against Nazi Germany should they invade Poland.  There was also a secret pact which divided up Poland and gave all of the Baltic states (Lithuana, Latvia, Estonia) to the Soviet Union.  Estonia had such a small population at the time that they new they had no chance fighting off the Soviets or Germans so it decided to declare a bloodless handover to the Soviet Union.  This agreement was supposed to last 10 years, but cracked in under 2 when Germany invaded the Soviet union on 22 June 1941 in a surprise attack.  This was when the Soviet Union entered World War II.

(C) Matthew Duncan 2010, Thank you!
During our time in Tallinn, we visited the Occupation Museum which documented the unfortunate situation Estonia was put in and the life of the population under each regime.  During 'The Red Year', Estonia was under Soviet rule as per the non-aggression pact and the handover of power from Tallinn to Moscow.  It soon became apparent that the Soviets were arresting, deporting and torturing any person that went against the government or done anything contrary to the laws.  This problem became so severe that when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the surprise attack in 1941, the inhabitants of Estonia were happy to see them and felt as if they had been freed from a state of terror.  Unfortunately it was inevitable that the Nazi's dream of a perfect race would release a whole new style of terror to the peace hungry Estonians.

During the battles of 1944, The Soviet union returned with vengeance once again gained control of Estonia.  Estonia felt as if they had been finally freed and raised their national flag in celebration of independence.  However, this did not last long as the Soviet's Red Army arrived in Tallinn, took down the flag and replaced it with the red flag and declared Estonia was to be run by them from Moscow.  The next 50 years saw a continual fight for independence from USSR until finally the last of the red army withdrew during August 1994.

I found it horrific to think how powerless the Estonians must have felt during the changes in rulers.  To not be able to defend your own land and just give it to whoever wanted it must have been incredibly hard and if they refused they would have just been deported to Siberia or even tortured and killed.  Unfortunately we couldn't watch all of the documentaries showing in the museum as there were 6 of them and each lasting 30 minutes.

The First Snow

The first snow fell as Matt and I were sitting in a Taco Express restaurant at around 1am and continued to fall all night.  When we woke up, we were greeted by a fantastic snowy scene and it was still falling!  That was the day we were leaving Tallinn, Matt was going back to blighty and I was heading to Russia, so we didn't wanted it to fall too much.  They are extremely efficient clearing the  roads though so it wouldn't have made a difference anyway.

At 6pm Matt left the hostel in a taxi bound for the airport and that was when I was  officially left alone for my journey across the world.  My bus wasn't leaving Tallinn until midnight so I had arranged to go to the bar with Jenn, Amanda and Jonny from the hostel for one last drink before I left.  Unfortunately they had to wait for a couple of guest who were delayed 24 hours at Stansted due to their flight being cancelled.  They finally arrived around 10.30pm and we got to the bar around 11pm, just enough time for one quick bottle of Alexandra and get a taxi to the bus station.

I always get a little concerned when the taxi driver doesn't speak English and there are more than 1 bus station in the city as you never know if you will be dropped off at the right one.  Luckily he did understand me persistently repeating "international bus station" and "Saint Peterburi" and I arrived with plenty of time to spare.

Boarding the bus it quickly became apparent that I was the only English speaker on there and no one else could understand or speak it.  I had a piece of paper thrust into my face by the Russian driver, which turned out to be the migration card you need to fill in before you enter Russia.  I filled it in, sat back and relaxed whilst the bus cut its way through the North East of Estonia heading to the Russian border, getting woken up by the stench of a cigarette being smoked on the coach.  Some things you just don't like and the smell of cigarette smoke is one... but I'm with Russians, they do as they please!

We arrived at the border around 3am and a Russian border official boarded the bus and took our passports from us and promptly returned to her small booth.  I could see her through the window as she took around 30 minutes to inspect each passport carefully and check the visa.  I spotted mine as it stuck out like a sore thumb between the other Russian ones.  I got a little concerned as she seemed to take a particular interest in mine.  But she soon arrived back on the bus with our passports.  I searched eagerly through mine hoping to get a glimpse of my first stamp, however, there wasn't one and i began to worry that I hadn't got an entrance stamp which would cause severe issues later down the road with visa registration and exiting the country.  The gates opened and we drove on another 200 metres before we stopped again.

I felt helpless as nobody on the bus spoke English and the driver barked orders at us in Russian over the tannoy.  Suddenly everyone on the bus got up, left the bus, collected their baggage and walked into a dark, dingy building.  All I could do was follow them blindly and hop for the best.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered this was passport control and the first lady was a preemptive check.  I got  my stamp and walked casually over the border with my bag in one hand and my passport in the other.  I still didn't understand anything but I knew one thing for sure...  I was in the Russian Federation!

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating Andy .... and a bit scary too. I look forward to hearing about the Russian adventures! Keep warm, Mo