Booking the ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn is remarkably easy, and can be done online. All you need bring with you to the check-in desk down by the harbour is your booking reference and a form of ID, and within 10 seconds you’re issued with a boarding pass. However, the crossing is a popular one – costing 38 Euro (one way) for a foot passenger and taking only 2-3 hours – and as such there was a bit of a queue to check in and a bit of a crush to board the ship.
From what I could tell, the trip to Tallinn is popular with Finns who I can only imagine are going there to consume or buy cheap alcohol (or probably both). Nice as though Estonia turned out to be, I find it hard to believe that approximately 2,000 Finns were all travelling to Tallinn on a Thursday morning in winter for tourism. For a start, none of them had any luggage. This ferry looked all the world like a booze cruise, alcohol being a fraction of the price in Estonia as it is in Finland. The ship was mobbed.
I haven’t done a lot of sea travel, and I still harboured (‘scuse the pun) romantic visions of sitting in a deck-chair watching the dolphins leap in front of the prow, whilst sailors sung jolly sea shanties as they manned the rigging. Or at least, I thought it would be interesting and there would be stuff to see. As it turned out, the ferry was a floating bar/restaurant/duty free shop. There was no seating area as such, all seats were located in one of the bars or restaurants which made up an entire deck. There was even an English pub on a lower deck. Everyone else boarded, found a seat, and sat down to eat and drink with all the excitement they would muster if boarding a city bus. I chucked my bag in the luggage room (surprisingly small until you realise that only you and five other passengers have any luggage) and rushed about looking for a window seat. All of them were taken, so I parked myself at a table in the middle of the bar, disappointed. I was at least hoping to look out of the window.
As things turned out, I wasn’t missing much. When I did squeeze between two tables and pressed my nose against a window, I saw nothing but cold, grey sea and falling snow. I followed the signs to an outdoor bar on the upper deck, and was quite surprised to find the door open. I stepped out onto metal deckplate covered in an inch of ice, and thought whoever made the decision to install high railings around this area was a smart fellow. Beyond was a sheer drop to the sea, and it was pretty frightening to look over the edge. I shuffled along to where the bar was, thinking of how nice it would be in the summer when it was not minus something, snowing, and blowing a gale. It really was cold. Arriving at the seating area, I found the bar (unsurprisingly) closed and a small group of Russians sat around drinking beer and smoking. They were probably Siberians and found sitting indoors too stifling. I didn’t hang around long. Satisfied that there really isn’t much to see on a ferry crossing between Helsinki and Tallinn, I went back to my table in the bar (shared with an elderly Finnish couple who spoke no English whatsoever) and made use of the free wi-fi until a lot of shuffling on the part of the other passengers told me we were getting close to docking.
The disembarkation was crowded but otherwise straightforward, and stepping into the snow outside the arrivals terminal I opted to take a taxi to my hotel rather than use the free bus, which looked as if it had adopted the same passenger management system used by Lagos public transport. I wasn’t sure what language they spoke in Estonia – turned out it was Estonian, would you believe? – and so grunted to the taxi driver in a mixture of Russian and English. He replied in English, which was good enough for me, and a very short while later we were pulling up outside the very nice Nordic Hotel Forum which, like all the hotels I stayed at from hereon, was far cheaper than you’d find in western Europe at 90 Euros per night. In Paris, 90 Euros would get you a small space beside a tramp under a railway bridge, and a smelly sleeping bag would be extra. The hotel was modern, situated right in the centre, and had a spa with sauna and swimming pool and a bar which guests could use (I did).
I was not alone in Tallinn. My friend Julia is an Estonian citizen, ethnic Russian living in London, whose sister Alla still lives in Tallinn, and so she put us in touch in order that I had somebody to show me around. That evening, we met in the hotel lobby and, after a brief discussion in which I said I would like to go somewhere normal and Estonian, she led me on a tour which ran into the old town, through the old town, out the other side of the old town, across some railway lines, through some industrial area, and eventually winding up at an old fish warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Runners of the Tallinn marathon would have recognised several waypoints that we passed. An old fish warehouse in what looks like a deserted part of town is an unlikely location for a bar, but what it lacked in location it made up for in warmth (I was freezing outside), beer, price, and atmosphere.
It was busy enough that we got the last free table, and I wasted no time in ordering a local beer and some food. The waitresses spoke English and Estonian, and I noticed the menu carried the same two languages, with Russian being excluded. Alla, who speaks Estonian, took care of the ordering, leaving me to conclude that Estonian, like Finnish, sounds like utter gibberish to this untrained ear. It must be a nightmare to learn.
There was some sort of corporate function or party going on an adjoining room, which consisted of traditional music, some less traditional music, gallons of alcohol, and lots of people dressed formally dancing in a big group or with people who were not their spouse. In fact, it looked a lot like a Russian party and I was a little disappointed that I could not join in. The food arrived, some sort of soup and half a pie. It was a lot better than the food in Helsinki, but that might be because I had been taken to the right place by a local. The beer was also good, and I drunk plenty of it whilst Alla, who inexplicably doesn’t drink, cemented the stereotype of British tourists in the Baltics more firmly in her mind. Declining to recreate Robert Falcon Scott’s final moments by walking back to the hotel, I insisted on a cab, which cost about 5 Euros in any case.
The next day we went to the Tallinn zoo. I am still not too sure why we went to the zoo in the middle of winter, but it had something to do with Alla’s course (she is a student) having a module on mink breeding, or something, so she had to go and see how it was done. And her being a good hostess she invited me along, and me being up for doing anything slightly silly in a foreign place, I accepted. So we took the bus to the zoo, situated a little way outside the centre in one of the suburbs, and got off at a large and modern shopping centre which stood opposite. On the way I was able to look at Tallinn in a bit more detail than the night before, it being light for a few hours. Firstly, Tallinn is very small. We were able to cross a good portion of it in 10-15 minutes by bus. Even though this was a Friday morning, there was very little traffic, I am guessing due to the small population rather than a lack of cars (and drunken Finns don’t use cars). The cars were modern, the streets were well maintained, signposted, and lit, and it looked like a small, smart, but not fabulously wealthy city. There were few tall buildings (the tallest being a medieval church and a Soviet-era hotel), but clearly there had been a lot of investment from Finland and Sweden: most of the shopping centres, including the one we stopped at, were either Finnish or Scandinavian, as were banks, hotels, and other major businesses. When I enquired, I found that Finland and Sweden are the largest foreign investors in Estonia (now part of the EU), which makes sense. Also, Estonia has been on the receiving end of EU development funds, which appear to have been put to good use in making Tallinn look like a decent city.
Having taken a coffee in the shopping centre, we crossed the road (pedestrian crossings painted, little green men working and traffic lights obeyed) and met at the entrance to the zoo a gaggle of students – all female – and a male lecturer who were all dressed up for a few hours wandering around outdoors. Fortunately I was similarly dressed, but sadly not physically prepared like these hardened Balts were. The lecturer gathered everybody around and spoke for a while in Estonian, which no doubt included the query “Who the hell is he?”, but I couldn’t understand a word and everyone was too polite to come up, prod me, and ask me in person. I don’t know, but I’m guessing oil and gas engineers don’t normally turn up at Tallinn zoo in winter to crash in on university classes studying mink breeding programmes. Anyway, nobody seemed to mind me being there, and off we went.
We went past a few cages with birds in, some of which I recognised. The Steller’s sea eagle I knew from Sakhalin, where the projects had to take great care not to disturb the peace and happiness of this bird, which was supposedly vulnerable to disruptions but was quite happy to sit on top of cranes. There were one or two other creatures I recognised from Sakhalin, but sadly no greater drunken Scotsmen, fighting Russian welders, lesser thigh-booted vixens, or diminutive Uzbek taxi-drivers. The birds were pretty impressive, especially the eagles and evil-looking vultures. We then went onto the small furry animals bit, and then onto a pen with camels in, one of which had two humps and was covered in shaggy fur and from Central Asia which looked quite content, and another, larger camel with one hump which was stood in two feet of snow and looked as though it was thinking that the Sahara desert was a long way away indeed.
After a bit of walking and me getting very cold while not understanding any of what the lecturer was saying (to be fair, Alla did try to translate some of it for me), we went through a tiny door into a set of pens which I could not stand up in. These Estonians are obviously small folk, probably due to the cold and the fact that when they order a pie, they only get half of it. The lecturer fiddled about with some trap doors connected to each pen and came out with a mink in a small cage who was snapping and snarling as if he had just been woken up for no good reason. I could see his point. I wasn’t so much interested (I have a brother who kept ferrets and polecats and have seen these creatures before), but the rest of the class were and the lecturer spoke enthusiastically about how they were kept and selected for breeding. Or I assume he was. For all I know, he might have been advising the girls on how many they would need to make a nice coat.
Just as my body was going into a state of cryogenic suspension, we were led into a separate building which was much warmer, mainly thanks to a couple of African elephants which lived inside it and, specifically, an enormous pile of elephant dung which lay steaming in the corner. I got myself as close to it as I could, rubbing my hands together, and trying to not to breath in too often. In this building we also saw snakes, pygmy hippos, and an armadillo which the zookeeper took from his cage and somehow managed to drop. It’s a good job these things come in Kevlar. We were also shown cockroaches which were merely larger versions of those which run about my apartment in Lagos (and which I spray mercilessly with insecticide, although I kept this to myself). All in all it was quite a nice zoo, although most of the exhibits were not in their cages, presumably tucked away somewhere for the winter (or lying frozen under three feet of snow). Towards the end, the lecturer came to speak to me (his English was excellent) and I mentioned that, on certain measures, I live in Thailand. This aroused his attention and he said he was going there on a working holiday soon, and asked if I could recommend any nature reserve worth visiting. I looked at him blankly. I know almost nothing about Thailand, let alone the country’s nature reserves. Now if he’d told me he was going to get pissed in Phuket and wanted to know where to watch the NRL on a Saturday afternoon, or where to find a good pool table where you’re not hassled by hookers, or where you can find a naked tattooed Thai woman to whack you with a length of rubber hose, I could have told him (Suzy Wong’s at the end of Soi Sea Dragon, for those interested in that last one). But nature reserves? I was stumped. I felt like a complete Neanderthal, although I redeemed myself somewhat by managing to talk fairly intelligently about Africa and Guns, Germs, and Steel. I liked this guy. I often admire somebody who is passionate and well informed about a subject, even if I don’t take much interest in it myself. And apparently he rides about on a Harley Davidson in the summer time. Shortly after leaving the elephant house, I abandoned the zoo in favour of going back to the hotel and jumping in the spa, where I finally got warm again.
The next day I arrived outside the main tourist information centre just before noon to partake in the Tallinn walking tour, which is a free tour of the city conducted by a local volunteer (the same concept can be found in cities everywhere apparently, but this was the first one I had taken part in). Needless to say it was absolutely freezing, but nevertheless 25 people had turned up for it. Our guide was an Estonian girl who was very charismatic, highly entertaining, and I think a little mad. In her bright, sing-song voice she gave us some insight into Tallinn, Estonia, and the life therein, often in the form of very informal anecdotes and snippets of information. She used a wonderful, self-disparaging humour, which focused a lot on the number of attempts Estonia has had at being (and remaining) independent and the trivial issues which arise in matters of local politics and the dealings with their neighbours. Apparently, the other Balts consider the Estonians to be “slow” (which, incidentally, is how the residents of St. Petersburg see the Finns), and so she asked a Lithuanian in the group to tell an Estonian joke, who in turn piped up: “Who is that standing there? An Estonian running!” She told us the story of the public toilet which had been installed at a cost of several million kronas (Estonia now uses the Euro) to the city treasury (the toilet is here), and pointed to the tower that traditionally flies the flag of whomever is running the country that particular week. She told us that the Christmas tree in the Tallinn town square is the oldest (in terms of tradition) in the world, but that Riga made the same claim about theirs. The matter was resolved when Tallinn took credit for having the first town square Christmas tree, whilst it was conceded that Riga can claim they have the first decorated town square Christmas tree. Such weighty matters concern the citizens of the Baltic states!
The city of Tallinn is nice, with its principal attraction being the “old town”, the medieval centre with its old buildings and town square featuring the aforementioned Christmas tree and, like Helsinki, a Christmas market selling, among other things, knitted woollen garments of every description.
The town was orginally German, having been set up and run by German knights, or something like that. I did read the history but got mixed up in the history of the other Baltic states, and various invasions from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and anyone else who fancied taking a pop. But the Germans were definitely there, and this can be seen in the architecture which has a distinctly Germanic feel to it. There was also a beer hall right in the middle of the old town.
Tallinn plays on the old medieval theme quite a bit, more so than Riga for example. There were people dressed in medieval rig, town criers, peasant women selling stuff from a barrow, and even a bloke running an archery range near the city walls. As I said before, the city is not large and the old town is very small. The walking tour took under 2 hours, although we did hurry it along a bit to prevent anyone from freezing to death. And despite the numbing cold, I did take a few photos on the way. Tallinn is very picturesque, more so than the other Baltic capitals.
One of the things our guide mentioned was the prevalence of free wi-fi in Estonia. Almost every bar or restaurant had free wi-fi, and the same was true for a lot of public spaces and the bus station. Free wi-fi is a fundamental human right in Estonia, and this was pretty much the case in Riga and Vilnius as well. And the Estonians have gone some way to making their country paperless, with tax returns and university applications, for example, being done entirely online. Our guide told us that she was most surprised when she went to study in France and found that pieces of paper, complete with stamps and signatures, were required to do anything. I found that I could book my bus ticket to Riga online and not even bother to print out a ticket: just show the confirmation email on your phone to the driver. There are things the rest of Europe could learn from the Baltic states, and this was one of them.
It was inevitable that I would notice that the Estonians’ attitude towards the ethnic Russians – and the Russian Federation – was hostile. There were very, very few signs, notices, menus, or anything else in Russian, and Cyrillic lettering was conspicuous by its absence. The teaching of Russian in schools is being phased out, if it hasn’t been already, and the Estonians seem bent on eradicating every aspect of Russia and its culture from its society. Which is obviously a problem when a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians.
This is an issue on which I am completely torn, probably more so than on any other subject. Firstly, I can see the Estonian’s point of view. By some accounts, the Soviets – who I equate with the Russians and reject the notion that Russians are absolved of responsibility of the actions of the USSR – killed or deported a third of the Estonian population from 1940 onwards. The Estonians were effectively colonised by a foreign superpower, which ironically was at the time running about the world denouncing colonialism and imperialism, cheered on by supposed “anti-imperialists” in the west. Estonians were stripped of their status as an independent nation, forced to adopt Russian as their primary language, drafted into the Soviet Army, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were transplanted onto Estonian soil, all on the orders of a government in Moscow. Given that this happened within living memory, a mere 70 years ago, it is hardly a surprise that the Estonians, now that they have regained control of their country, want the Russians out and their imposed culture with it. Russians no more belong in Estonia than the British belonged in Rhodesia.
But. And this is an important “but”. What happened, happened. Regardless of anything, Estonia now has a Russian population for whom Estonia is home and cannot be expected to “go back” to Russia, a country which is not theirs either. Those individual Russians who now find themselves living in Estonia are – mostly – in no way to blame for what happened. Of course, those who formed part of the ruling elite, lording it over the Estonians and enthusiastically carrying out Moscow’s wishes to the detriment of the Estonian population should be hounded out, if any have been silly enough to stick around. But the ordinary Russians, the factory workers, teachers, engineers, doctors, etc. and their families are human beings who cannot and should not be punished for what their countrymen did, regardless of how bad it was or how recently it occurred. Their human rights should be respected, and isolating them in a country where the only language they know is being eradicated as a matter of government policy is wrong. Now I am quite happy for the Estonian government to tell the Russian government where to get off at every opportunity, and indeed I think they should be demanding reparations (I’ll return to this topic when I write about Lithuania). But the ethnic Russians in Estonia should be treated as full citizens, even to the extent of ensuring their cultural heritage – however repugnant it may seem to Estonians – is preserved. It is not their fault, any more than it is the fault of black Americans that their ancestors were sent over in slave ships. However, if the ethnic Russians form a political party and agitate for closer cooperation with Russia, possibly to the detriment of Estonians? Well, I don’t know. It’s a difficult one.
And really, I am split on this. The Estonians have a strong point, but the ethnic Russians are being clobbered unfairly. The Russians are in a similar situation to the French who found themselves in the newly independent Algeria, foreigners in the only land they’d ever known which, until a few years before, was considered by almost everybody to be as part of France as Brittany. The moral of the story is clear: do not ship your population off to colonies where they will be despised in the event of independence, unless you can be sure you can hang onto the place. And there’s the issue. Who would have thought in 1983 that 25 years later Estonians would be hounding the Russians out? I wonder how many of Beijing’s leadership believe it credible that Tibetans will one day be hounding out the transplanted Chinese from their territory? Very few I’d imagine, but history shows that the boot can shift to the other foot very quickly indeed. And for the folly of the politicians it is the individuals, often ordinary folk, who bear the consequences. I really hope the Estonians and ethnic Russians can find a way to get along somehow, and the more extreme elements on each side are marginalised.
On my last night I went for a wander through the old town looking for a decent bar. It was quiet for a Saturday night, but Tallinn isn’t really a party town. I stumbled across a joint opposite the main tourist office which had a couple of guys setting up guitars in a bay window, so I went in and sat down. It turned out to be a Russian bar – everyone in there was speaking Russian, pretty much – and two student types were giving a very amateur performance to what looked to be a group of their mates, which eventually degenerated into a jam session. Nevertheless, it was pretty entertaining, and my only disappointment was that they didn’t play any Russian songs. By the time they finished, one or two of their fans were absolutely hammered, including a young chap who was having serious difficulty standing up. He embarked on a loud and abusive argument with his more sober girlfriend, who utterly failed to get him to behave, giving up and walking off, and then he decided it would be a good idea to join a table occupied by two middle-aged Finnish couples and engage them in drunken babble. The Finns were not impressed, but Russian men take some discouraging when they have decided it is you who will be target of their drunken outpourings. One of the Finnish men stood up and looked as though he was going to plant the Russian right in the face, but the Russian was fortunate enough to have a mate along with him who dragged him outside and threw him in the snow. Such a scene in a Russian bar was as familiar to me as an old pair of gloves.
I liked Tallinn, and I would like to thank Alla for showing me around, answering questions, and listening to my opinions on the somewhat uncomfortable topic of ethnic Russians in Estonia without whacking me over the head with a bottle (although she did suggest I should perhaps be left in the ape enclosure of Tallinn zoo, albeit for different reasons). I don’t believe it is a city where you’d want to spend a lot of time on holiday, a few days is sufficient, after which it would probably be worth going to explore the coastal regions. But for a weekend break it is great, and I’m sure I’ll come back before too long. But in summer. For the love of God, only go in summer. Tallinn is freezing in winter.