Baltic Trip Part 4 – Riga

I booked the bus between Tallinn and Riga by searching online and finding Lux Express.  For the princely sum of 27 Euros I got myself a luxury seat which included free wi-fi, free hot drinks, a bottle of water and snack bar, a power socket, and a TV screen showing videos (the normal seats were 21 Euros, the main difference being that they were in pairs) for the journey which took about 4 hours.  Boarding was exceptionally easy: show your ticket to the conductor, either on a phone or printed out, along with a passport or ID card and on you get.

The bus was about three quarters full, mainly with students.  The seat was pretty comfortable but the first hour of the journey was marred by a group of three girls and a boy crowded around the seat in front looking at pictures on a laptop from a recent trip and screeching hysterically at every photo.  And there were about 200 bloody photos.  They were babbling away in a language I couldn’t catch, but I suspect they were Latvian.  I wished they’d sit down and shut up, and eventually they did.

There wasn’t much to see driving south through Estonia from Tallinn, with the countryside being made up of flat snowfields and patches of forest.  The only vague moment of excitement came when we crossed the border into Latvia (there was no stopping, we just whizzed past the signs), before the snowfields and forest patches resumed.  I passed the time by snoozing and watching stuff on my iPad, and the journey was comfortable enough.

I noticed as we drove through the suburbs of Riga a lot of bicycle shops.  I asked somebody about this later and was told that cycling is something Latvians have taken up with some enthusiasm only recently, but obviously few people try it in winter (although I did see a few riding through the snow).  We were dropped off at Riga’s central bus station where I hoiked my bag on my back and trudged off in the direction of my hotel, which was situated a short distance away in the old town.  Before I got to the old town I had to walk through a pretty dodgy looking area and through an underpass, which turned out to be the edge of the Russian, or Moscow, district so named because of the ethnic Russians who live and hang out there.  It probably looked worse than it was, and in any case I wasn’t hassled, and soon found myself trudging through narrow streets covered in snow looking for my hotel, passing several backpacker hostels on the way.  After consulting the iPhone’s GPS a few times I found it, and was checked in within minutes.  But I did notice that my phone’s international roaming didn’t work in Latvia, whereas it worked everywhere else.  I have no idea why.

The Hotel Centra was located smack in the middle of the old town, and this is why I chose it ahead of the Radisson Blu.  They only had suites left when I booked, but at 75 Euro per night it was within my meagre, oil-funded budget.  The hotel was a refurbished old building, and as such the rooms – or at least my rooms – had very high ceilings.  The suite consisted of a corridor, small bathroom, a gigantic living room complete with chandelier, and a reasonably sized bedroom.  I was really quite surprised by the size of the living room.

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And yes, those are white fluffy bath robes you can see on the bed.  Quite what I was supposed to do on my own in a living room that size I don’t know.  You could have used it to hold a cattle auction.  It had a four piece leather suite and large flat screen TV whose picture froze one evening and stayed like that until I checked out.  Otherwise, I lounged on the chaise longue reading my book.  The bedroom was nice but a bit cold due to the large windows, but they had provided a portable heater which I plugged in, turned up to full blast, and left that way.  The wi-fi was free and fast, but didn’t work at all in the bedroom, worked fairly well in the living room, and was perfect in the bathroom.  And whereas this was not a problem for me it being winter and street traffic very light, in summer you would get a lot of street noise coming through as the large windows offered almost no soundproofing.  Given it is located directly opposite two bars, this is worth noting for anyone looking to stay here during summer.  But otherwise, the hotel was great.

I didn’t know anyone in Riga, and nor did I have any Latvian friends putting me in touch with helpful family members, so it was down to me to explore on my own.  The snow was coming down quite heavily when I arrived, which at least brought the temperature up a bit, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for wandering around outside for hours.  I tramped around a few churches and what I took to be the town square, taking a few photos as I went, before walking past a small restaurant which advertised traditional Latvian dishes consisting of ham, potatoes, melted cheese, and other stuff all thrown together and baked or grilled or something.  And that sounded just right for me.

It turned out this was a Russian place, or at least the staff and other customers were Russian speakers.  There was an older couple in one corner in the company of a rather good looking younger woman, and in the other corner was a half-Asian chap who looked like the type of gangster you see in Sakhalin billiard clubs with another, equally good looking younger woman.  I spent a few minutes trying to decide which girl was the better looking before I caught myself, realised that nobody is as good looking as my wife, and gave up the whole exercise.  I ordered some fish soup followed by the ham, cheese, and potato mess which they talked about outside, washed down with a local beer, and it was all  very good.  I would tell you how much it was, but I honestly don’t know.  Latvians have their own currency – which is actually a “strong” one, with 1 Lat being worth 1.4 Euros – and so it was a bit like spending Monopoly money.  I am confident it was pretty cheap, though.

This was a Sunday evening and hence the old town was dead, but just walking about you could see the potential.  There were bars everywhere, punctuated with backpacker hostels every few streets, and clearly this is a destination on the backpacker circuit with the bars catering for a younger, travelling student crowd.  I had left by the weekend, but I suspect it got quite lively and in the summer months very much so.  This concentrated nightlife aimed at backpackers and foreign students was a feature of Riga which I did not see replicated in Tallinn or Vilnius.  The old town was nice, but not as quaint or picturesque as Tallinn, and there were no attempts to play on a medieval theme, but it was obvious that visitors would find more going on here.

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The next day I stood beneath one of the nearby churches in a freezing wind waiting for the walking tour of Riga, a similar affair to that which I did in Tallinn and enjoyed so much.  This time there was only one other person in the group, a Canadian student who was doing a short tour of the Baltics before going to meet a friend in Stockholm.  Our guide was a young Latvian girl, I suspect a student, who was pretty enthusiastic and helpful but lacked the charisma and wit of the Tallinn guide.  Although to be fair, the Estonian was a very difficult act to follow.  She led us out of the old town, explaining that this part can be explored in a short time without a guide, and into the Russian district from where I had walked the evening before.  The first thing we encountered were a set of enormous hangars, originally built by ze Germans for building zeppelins some time around WWI, but were now used to house an enormous Russian market.

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We were taken through the market, which was impressive in size, but to a veteran of Russia like me looked no different in form or style than the standard rinok which can be found in any Russian town: lots of small stalls selling exactly the same stuff at exactly the same price manned by fierce Russian women who could all be sisters, with babushkas running about in between wearing massive coats and barging you out of the way.  It was nice for a bit of nostalgia, but I think the Canadian found it more intriguing.

We then walked through the Russian district, past stalls selling Chinese-made Christmas tat, and into a “black market” run by Russians which sold absolutely anything from the guts of TVs to antique wooden skis, and show shovels to army surplus clothing, almost all of which was likely stolen from somewhere.  Taking photographs was discouraged.  From there we went to the Jewish memorial, built on the site of an old synagogue into which the Nazis herded a load of Riga’s Jews before setting the building on fire.  According to my guide, Riga still has a sizeable Jewish population.

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Next on the route was one of Stalin’s gothic skyscrapers of the type you see in Moscow, which was originally built to accommodate, of all things, farmers’ conferences.  However, once completed the authorities thought, probably with good reason, that farmers don’t need to talk about crop failures, unmeetable production targets, and grain confiscations in skyscrapers (an old warehouse would probably suffice) and so used the new building to house the Academy of Sciences, where it remains to this day.  Our guide told us there was a public viewing platform up near the top, but when I went back the next day I was told it was closed in winter.

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Riga is built on a river, but from what I saw doesn’t seem to make good use of it.  One side is industrial, and on the other side a main road separates the buildings from the water, meaning the streets don’t hug the river in the way say Paris or St. Petersburg does.  Perhaps there is something going on along the river in summer, but when I thought a walk down by the river would be nice in any case, I found that it wasn’t.  As a tourist, you’d barely know the river was there.  The walking tour took us around the area outside the old town, which consisted of streets much longer, wider, and straighter and buildings larger and grander than I saw in Tallinn.  That’s not to say the city is particularly impressive, but it was clear that Riga was considerable larger and enjoyed more commercial and industrial prominence than Tallinn.  I’d say it looked a bit like a small, old German city.  Not that I have been to many of them, but I drove through a few in June, and you could see that the Germans had been in Riga (prior to the Nazis) and also the Russians (prior to the Soviets).

Like Tallinn, the town did not look particularly wealthy, but nor was it run down, although some old buildings looked derelict and unkempt.  One of these was the former KGB headquarters which for obvious reasons touches a nerve with many Latvians.  Riga’s police took the building over following independence, but understandably abandoned it later on when they realised that working from a building notorious for being one in which many Latvians were tortured, deported, or killed was probably not good for public relations.  There are plans mooted to turn it into a museum, but the city’s large ethnic Russian group are opposing it (I think on grounds of cost and utility, rather than ideological).  From what I could gather, Latvia’s Russian population is larger and more integrated than in Estonia and there doesn’t seem to be the same animosity between the two groups.

Like Tallinn, there is a lot of investment from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in Riga, but more so, and you could see plenty of businesses and logos to reflect that.  Swedish banks seem to have moved into Latvia in a big way, for example, and the shopping centres were Finnish or Swedish.  Wealthy Russians have also invested heavily in property, no doubt as a vehicle to getting their money out of Russia.  Latvia is also a recipient of EU development funds which, coupled with the inward investment from their wealthier neighbours, was probably the reason why it had an air of quiet confidence about it.  A tourist visiting Riga would find it a clean, organised, and competently run city.

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That evening I headed out into a blizzard in search of something to eat and some entertainment.  Finding nothing that looked better than where I ate the evening before, I went back to the traditional Latvian place and ordered the same ham, cheese, and potato concoction I’d previously eaten.  I have no idea whether it is traditionally Latvian or whether the chef is a student chucking leftovers together, but it was tasty and stodgy enough to ward off the effects of wandering around in a blizzard.

Afterwards I roamed the streets looking for a decent bar and stumbled into one called Leningrad, located down a narrow back street.  I plonked myself at the bar, cursing Latvians as I had done Estonians and Finns previously for their inability to provide somewhere to at least hang a damned coat, and ordered a Latvian beer.  The bar was some retro, student type place which looked as though it needed a clean, and was staffed by a bearded chap in a hat and glasses who I am pretty sure was Jewish (a theory supported by the Jewish knick-knacks on the shelves behind him).  He shoved a beer under my nose and went back to his conversation with his mate.  The bar wasn’t busy, just three or four groups, some speaking Russian and some Latvian.  Latvian was another language that was completely new to me.  It is nothing like Estonian, and similar only to Lithuanian, and therefore I was as completely lost as I was in the other countries.  But, like those places, the locals all speak English well enough that no tourist would have any difficulties.  I found that in all the Baltic states, English is by far the first foreign language of choice for the younger generation, with Russian following some way behind.  In general, if somebody is under 50, they only speak Russian if they have a Russian parent, otherwise they know only a smattering of words.

So I was sat at the end of the bar, not exactly minding my own business and open to a conversation or two, when a young guy who had been sitting at the other end in the drunken company of a very young looking hippy-ish girl passed by to go to the toilet.  When he came out, he stopped and spoke to me, asking where I was from, and the conversation started.  Early on, he asked if I spoke Russian, and I said I did, so the conversation switched briefly to Russian.  Immediately he said my accent was complete shit, which it probably is, and said that he had lived in England for a few years which is why he could speak English so well.  Which he could I suppose, but his vocabulary and accent was no better than that of any random Russian who you meet in an office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  He then blurted out a series of seemingly random statements and questions, which led me to tell him that I was married.  This had an effect on him, as he immediately bawled that I was a “loser” before embarking on a story, the central theme of which was that he was somewhat of a playboy and could do what he liked but, for one reason or another, he is currently shagging his step-sister.  I rarely ask people for advice on women these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.

During the conversation, a tough looking Russian had come in wearing a big coat, bald head, and beard who was drinking tumblers of neat whisky quickly.  Somebody else had ordered the Latvian drink black balsam, a herbal liqueur which involves blackcurrant which everybody drinks but I didn’t try (I don’t know why, I just didn’t).  The Russian turned to me and started a conversation which went as follows:

Him: I don’t like them (nodding at the drinks).

Me: What?

Him: Blacks.

Me: The drink?

Him: Yes.  Blacks.

Me: Why not?

Him: A nigger cut my hand (drawing a line with his finger across his palm).

Me:  Huh?  Where, here?

Him: No, in London.

And then he went back to his whisky.  I rarely ask people for advice on race relations these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.

By this time the seat next to me had been occupied by a red-headed girl who, it turned out, spoke pretty much only Latvian and a bit of English but told me there was a decent bar around the corner where she sometimes worked.  And with that, she tootled off.  I finished my beer, uninterrupted by further instances of incestuous or racist locals, and wandered off in search of this other bar.  It was located off a small square at the back end of the old town, and didn’t look very welcoming, but I went in anyway.  The place was almost empty, save for five or six people sat at the bar, which was manned by a chap with a beard and woolly hat who looked like he belonged on a Barents Sea trawler.  It didn’t surprise me that he had Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the background, but that suited me fine.

I took a seat at the end of the bar beside a chap who looked like a bear and needed a bath, and ordered a vodka and coke.  Everyone knew one another, and were clearly regulars.  I stood out like a sore thumb, and eventually The Bear spoke to me.  He was a nice enough chap and gave me the lowdown on the bar, Riga, and Latvia in pretty good English.  He told me that the barman was Russian, and the three of us switched to Russian at which point, I have no idea why, I talked about the difficulties of running a business in Russia.  The barman agreed with me, anyway.  There were two fellows in their late 20s stood behind me, one of whom was hopelessly drunk and was doing his level best to stand up.  And there was a couple at the other end of the bar, and in between The Bear telling me about the beautiful sand dunes along Latvia’s coast I managed to ascertain that the man had worked in Africa in telecoms, and the girl knew almost no English and even less Russian.  Before I could get to talking to the bloke about where exactly in Africa he worked, I got cornered by another chap who was actually quite nice, but was quite pissed and gave me a twenty minute sales pitch on Latvia of the sort you’d read in a brochure pumped out by the Ministry of Tourism.  All the while The Bear was giving his own competing guide to Latvia.  I lasted about two or three (or was it four?) more vodkas before escaping while everyone was outside having a cigarette (indoor smoking is banned across the Baltics), but not before I had noticed that the drunk bloke behind me had collapsed across a sofa and his mate was attempting to carry him out.

I was intending to go home at this point, thinking that a Monday night in Riga is not likely to offer much else by way of entertainment, and it was about 1o or 11pm anyway.  But as I came up to my hotel I noticed the bar opposite was pretty lively and so poked my head in, decided I’d have one in here, and plonked myself at the bar (jacket in a heap on the stool beside me).  Having found Russian works in the other bars I’d been in I ordered another vodka (or was it whisky?) in Russian, but when I asked the barmaid how much, she replied “dvadsat shestdesyat”, which means twenty-sixty.  This made no sense whatsoever, but I shovelled across a 20 note and realised that she mean 2.60.  She was young.  Looking around, the entire bar was young.  I was the oldest person in there by at least 10 years, and probably nobody in there spoke Russian at all (I later found out this was indeed the case).  After that, I pretty much gave up trying to speak Russian in Riga.

The bar was busy, the reason being that there was a karaoke night on and it was packed with students (some of whom I met in the bus station in Tallinn, where I found out they were from various parts of Europe studying in the Erasmus programme in Oslo), off-duty barmaids, and other young folk.  The singing was bloody awful, and for the large part sounded as though somebody was ironing a sack full of cats.  I grabbed the song list, had a careful look through (there were songs in Latvian, Russian, and English) but decided there was nothing in there that I’d attempt and resumed my position at the bar.  Before too long, everyone was completely pissed.  I wasn’t too bad, I can generally drink whisky (or was it vodka?) by the litre if I mix it up with coke and have a stomach full of ham, cheese, and potato something or other.  It was quite a nice atmosphere, I had a quick chat with a couple of blonde girls sat next to me who turned out to be barmaids in the same place only enjoying a night off, and chatted briefly with the barmaids who were actually on the clock.  There were no barmen, I think the owner – an Australian, I later found out – employs young pretty girls to get the male backpacker crowd in.  I was more interested in the availability of cheap Stolichnaya and the proximity to my hotel.

At some point, some chap in his 20s who was completely pissed came and stood beside me.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him, and then he proudly announced that he had spent a year working in the UK.  Oh, I said.  London?  No, Northampton.  Oh, I said.  He then told me he was working there in a Marks & Spencer factory making sandwiches.  Oh, I said.  He then asked if I had ever eaten a Marks & Spencer sandwich.  Yes, I said.  He then asked when it was, because perhaps he was the bloke who’d made it.  A long time ago, I said.  He then asked what type it was.  All sorts, I said.  He then started to list all the Marks & Spencer sandwiches he had made in his factory in Northampton.  Fucking hell, I said.   I rarely ask people for advice on making Marks & Spencer sandwiches these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll seek it in Latvian bars.

I liked Riga, but the bar conversation was proving to be hard going.

And it didn’t get any better.  Shortly after the sandwich guy had reached cheese and rocket salad on his list, a plumpish girl, who might have been Latvian but looked more Italian or Greek, stumbled into me completely hammered and asked where I was from.  Wales, I said.  She replied thusly:

“Oh wow!!!  My future husband is from Wales!!!”

Imagine.  Anyway, I asked where abouts he was from (he wasn’t in the bar).  Newport, apparently.  Possibly the biggest shithole in south Wales (and boy, there are some worthy contenders for the title), but there you go.  She then shouted stuff at me, which was her way of making conversation, doing well just to keep herself vertical, and spent the next quarter of an hour running between various groups and me telling everyone I was from Wales, stopping only to squawk out some song on the karaoke machine with a sound like a circular saw catching a nail left in a piece of timber.  But I noticed as the night wore on, her future husband got relegated to mere boyfriend and finished up as “a bloke I know”.

Meanwhile, Sandwich Man had jumped back into the conversation and after a bit of yelling at one another, he and she got into an argument about who knew the UK best, which manifested itself into them shouting random place names at each other, with me sat between them on my barstool getting sympathetic looks from the barmaid.  I quickly reversed out of my position and took up another in the far corner and tried my best to look like a potted plant or something.  I don’t know what time it was by the time the karaoke wound up, the pissheads fell into the road, and I found myself one of the last to leave (still fairly sober), but it was late.  Fortunately, my hotel was only a few yards away.  Unfortunately, some dickhead had spilled a glass of something sticky over my jacket.

I didn’t do much the next day.  In fact, I can’t remember what I did, but I’m guessing I slept in late, read my book, and wandered around the old town some more.  It was still cold and snowing.  I decided that two nights of ham, cheese, and potato thrown together in an iron skillet was enough traditional Latvian food for one trip, so found myself a pizza parlour and was served by a student who I think had had a tree fall on his head.  Afterwards I intended to go home as I had a four hour snooze on the bus the next day to prepare for, but I shoved my head in at the bar I’d been in the night before and stopped for a quick one.  There was no karaoke that night, nobody telling me about his sandwich preparation career, and nobody bellowing “Cardiff” in my ear.  In fact, I was pretty much on my own in there, but it was too early to go home.

Before I’d finished my first drink, a girl sat down a few seats along who I recognised as being one of the barmaids from the night before.  We got talking, and it turns out she is a jazz singer (confession: I didn’t know jazz featured singing) who also works part time in the bar, and had just finished a performance.  Her English was excellent by virtue of her having lived in London for a period (I didn’t ask if she made sandwiches), and despite her being 20 years old she was capable of more interesting and intelligent conversation than any of her compatriots I had met thus far.  In fact, she didn’t seem 20, she came across as few years older, and I got one hell of a shock when she told me her mother was 37.  That’s two years older than me.  I hoped I didn’t look as old as I felt.  Nevertheless, Elita – for that was her name – stuck around and it was well past midnight by the time I paid the bill and crossed the road to my hotel.  She was good company, and I was glad of it.

So, in summary.  Riga was nice, but like Tallinn it would be better visiting it in summer when I am sure it would be very lively.  But it would likely be full of backpackers and students, which might not be the scene you’d be looking for.  Latvia does have a long and supposedly interesting coastline which I think would be well worth checking out, so once again, head for the countryside after a few days in the capital.

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Baltic Trip Part 3 – Tallinn

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.

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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.

Tallinn 07Tallinn 08Tallinn 05Tallinn 09
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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 04

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.

Tallinn 13 Tallinn 12 Tallinn 11 Tallinn 10 Tallinn 02One 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.

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Baltic Trip Part 2 – Helsinki

Two years ago, the Allegro high-speed train started running between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, cutting the travelling time between the two cities down to under 4 hours.  Having bought my ticket already, boarding the train was remarkably easy – once I had located the correct entrance to the Finlandskii station, which was not the main entrance, nor even an obvious side entrance, and there being no signs on display which I could see.  I found it by wandering into every doorway and interpretting the grunts and gestures which greeted me.

The train was extremely comfortable, very modern, with individual power sockets, a smooth ride, and plenty of leg room.  The train also featured free wi-fi throughout, although – perhaps unsurprisingly – this only started working once we’d crossed the border into Finland.  Russian border guards examined passports very shortly after leaving the station, using hand-held scanners and a stamp kept in a little pouch on their belts.  A few routine questions and the clonk of a stamp later, and I was out of Russia without even leaving my seat.  It was all very efficient.

Disappointingly, there wasn’t much to see from the windows.  Russia countryside in winter consists of snow, trees with snow on them, frozen rivers and lakes and not much else.  And being this far north, it wasn’t too long before it was dark outside anyway.  We passed through a few towns which (as I was to learn later on) had been Finnish until the early 1940s, but there wasn’t much of interest.  When we got to the Finnish border, two officals entered the carriage, one of whom was a lady about 6′ tall and looked like Roxette.  They asked me a lot of questions: Where was I going? Why? Where was from? Had I been to Finland before? How long would I be staying? Did I have any alcohol with me?  Was I carrying medicines?  I wasn’t sure they believed any of my answers.  I probably looked all the world like somebody who brings cheaper Russian alcohol into the more expensive Finland (God knows, there’s a market for it) rather than a British tourist living in Nigeria implausibly on holiday in the Baltics in December.  It probably didn’t help that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat when I was answering.

They then proceeded to search my luggage very thoroughly.  Every zip and compartment was opened, including in my wash bag, camera case, everything.  He even rummaged about in my dirty laundry bag which I would have advised against had he not been armed.  When people have guns, its best to let them do as they please, even if this means them rummaging around in your dirty grundies.  They were both wisely wearing rubber gloves.  Finding nothing of interest in my bags, they gave me big grins and wished me on my way.  Thorough, polite, and highly professional, these Finnish border guards.

It was on this train that I first heard a noise like smashing crockery, which turned out to be the Finnish language.  Finnish is a member of the Uralic language family, loosely related to Hungarian, somewhat similar to Estonian, and otherwise completely and utterly different from any other language you would have heard of.  It was a very strange experience to be in a European country where you recognise absolutely none of the words being spoken or displayed.  Almost everywhere else I have been has either Slavic or Latin roots, so you get the gist of simple signage.  Not so in Finland.

I arrived in Helsinki’s main railway station in the early evening, but it had already been dark for hours.  And it was cold outside, with a strong wind blowing.  Strange, for the Baltic coast in winter.  I had booked a hotel nearby but my sense of direction – appalling at the best of times – deserted me completely and I walked around in circles for quite some time before I got my bearings (hooray for iPhones!) and covered the 500m or so to my hotel.  One of the first things I noticed was that the streets of Helsinki are covered with a coarse grit which makes walking across the snow and ice so much easier.  I didn’t see much of this in St. Petersburg.

Checking into my hotel – the Hotel Arthur – was easy enough, but I was very disappointed with the room.  I’d found it on Tripadvisor and picked it for its location, price, and high rating.  But on reflection, I think most people rated it highly because it represented very good value for money being reasonably priced and bang in the centre of town, and for anyone on a budget it would have been excellent.  But for me, I’d rather have paid more for a better room.  The twin beds were very narrow and pretty crap, the room was old and shabby, and the bathroom was turned into a wet room by virtue of the shower curtain being half the length it should be.  This was compensated for by provision of a squeegee which allowed you to clear up the two inches of water left on the floor after you’d had a shower (actually, it worked pretty well).  So I wasn’t too impressed, but I’ll concede that if you’re on a budget and location is important, then it undoubtedly represents good value.

The breakfast was included, and was good, offering a decent selection of anything you’d want.  The problem was that it was very busy (the hotel is a popular one), and you normally have to share a table if you’re by yourself and queue up for stuff.  The other guests were either Russians or people who I couldn’t identify, but I suspect were either Swedes or perhaps Finns.  One chap intrigued me.  He was in his late 60s, had a grey scraggly beard the type of which a biology professor would wear, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches which added to the academic look.  But he was wearing a pair of shiny leather trousers, all baggy around the arse, the type of which I never saw on a professor during my four years in Manchester University’s engineering school.  It was a most odd combination.  My best guess is that he was German.  If you see anybody wearing inappropriate or odd leather apparel, chances are he is German.  Although I didn’t see him drinking beer for breakfast, so perhaps he wasn’t?

The other problem I had with the hotel was the noise from the street.  The snow had been falling quite heavily when I arrived, and at 3am somebody was tearing about in the street below my window with a Bobcat clearing the stuff away, slamming the bucket down every few seconds, revving the engine, and emitting a loud beeping noise every time he went into reverse.  This went on for at least an hour.  Then a delivery lorry with a very noisy refrigerator parked itself outside the hotel for half an hour, all of which pissed me off considerably.

But that aside, I liked Helsinki. Like a smaller, smarter, but less impressive version of St. Petersburg, the streets were very well kept, as were the buildings, public areas, and everything else.  Nothing looked decrepit or in need of maintenance.  The streets felt safer than I have walked anywhere, I was quite happily wandering around at night (i.e. after 4pm) flashing my expensive camera about, even by the deserted docksides, without any feeling that somebody dodgy might be lurking around a corner, waiting to jump an unsuspecting tourist. Finland has a small, well-educated population, and I’d imagine street crime is probably amongst the lowest in the world in Helsinki.  Besides, who wants to be standing around in the snow all night waiting to mug somebody?  The city was very civilised (by any standards, not just in contrast with Lagos) and two or three times I walked past a coffee shop which was holding some kind of book reading.  And free wi-fi was the norm in most bars and cafes.

Walking around Helsinki taking photos is very pleasant.  I especially like the stone chaps guarding the main railway station: they look exactly like my Norwegian friend Martin!

Helsinki 10 Helsinki 09 Helsinki 08 Helsinki 04 Helsinki 01 Helsinki 02 Helsinki 18 Helsinki 16 Helsinki 15 Helsinki 14 Helsinki 13The main square was particularly impressive, with the cathedral sitting on a small hill at one side of it and a Christmas market set up on the other.Helsinki 05

Helsinki 07 Helsinki 06  Helsinki 11 Helsinki 12The strange blue light you see in the third picture above is a laser which shines from the city observatory in commemoration of the 200 years of Helsinki being the capital.  I first assumed it had been a permanent feature of the city, but it turned out it was only switched on the day I arrived.

Helsinki 03There was a bridge down by the waterfront where (presumably) young Finns “lock” their love together by fixing a padlock, engraved with their names, to the railings.

Helsinki 17I saw similar lock-filled railings in Holland, only I think they were merely places where people liked to chain their bikes up.  I’m not sure the Dutch could dream up anything quite as romantic as a Bridge of Love.  Too practical for that sort of nonsense, I think.  You’d have people asking “But what’s it for?” and confused looks all ’round.  Then they’d chain their bikes to it anyway.

One of the things which struck me was something I also thought about Korea and Japan: Helsinki is very homogenous.  Almost everybody is Finnish, and you see very few non-Finns about.  I suspect the unusual language is one reason why people don’t emigrate to Finland, and they seem to have avoided doing what the Swedes and Norwegians have done and invite in folk from half the world’s trouble spots in some misguided gesture of humanitarianism.  And it wasn’t just the people.  Again as I found in Japan, almost all the businesses, services, products were Finnish and aimed at Finns and therefore there was barely a single logo which I recognised.  It is very unusual to go to a European (or indeed any) capital city and not be bombarded with the logos of global corporations, but in Finland all the logos on shops, buildings, and advertising boards – and there were a lot of them – were Finnish and completely new to me.  And again as in Japan, finding an ATM was not straightforward.  For whatever reason, Helsinki doesn’t have a bank on every corner like most modern cities, and the ATM I eventually found had no Visa, Mastercard, or Maestro symbol on it, and I couldn’t readily figure out which bank it belonged to.  Fortunately, my Credit Suisse card – known for working in any ATM on the planet without some dickhead blocking the transaction – worked fine.  I did a spot of clothes shopping in the Stockmann shopping centre (this Finnish company has shopping centres all over the Baltic region) and found all the usual brands there, but also a lot of Finnish branded clothes as well.  However, all of this was offset by the fact that everybody spoke impeccable English, which is of enormous help to a visitor.

The Finns themselves gave the impression they are an odd bunch, and this is generally the concensus amongst their Scandinavian neighbours.  Sitting somewhere between Swedes and Russians, the Finns look and act as such.  They are a sombre folk, possessing none of the happy-go-lucky attitude of the Swedes, but retaining the ability to cooperate and organise stuff.  Their womenfolk are often very attractive, either blonde and Scandinavian looking, or tall, slim with pale skin, high cheekbones, and very dark hair.  The men vary, but a common look is short, stocky, with a viking beard.

One thing they share with the Russians was their drinking habits.  I had been told Finns like to drink, and that the national pastime is to sit indoors and drink heavily, and the stereotype has not been formed without reason.  There were bars everywhere, and from the time the offices close – regardless of the day of the week – the bars fill up with people of all ages who settle themselves at a table in groups of 5 or more, and proceed to drink lots.  Beer is a clear favourite, and I found at least one German-style beer house (which served Krombacher, the beer of the Gods, which I had consumed in industrial quantities during my trip to Germany in June).  Some of these bars were very large, but finding a seat could still be a challenge.  I had installed myself in one when an enormous group of Finns came in, both men and women varying in age from 25 to 65, several of whom were carrying cello cases on their backs.  Cellos are not the most practical item to bring to a packed bar, especially as the Finns haven’t done what the Russians excel at: providing a cloakroom for your bulky winter coats, bags, and any large string instruments you happen to be carting about with you.  In fact, few of the bars in the Baltic states provided cloakrooms to dump your jacket, which became a major gripe of mine.  It is pretty difficult to get a drink in a crowded bar or fit a group into a small space if everybody is either wearing a bulky down jacket or has it rolled up under his arm like a tramp with a bedroll.  Half the seating space gets taken up by jackets.  As I said, the Russians have this nailed down, you couldn’t open a bar there without providing a cloakroom.  All I saw in Finland and the other Baltic states were inadequate hat stands or a few pegs on the wall.

Anyway, the atmosphere in the bars was pretty friendly, although I had been told that Finnish men, when they get tanked up on vodka, like to fight.  But there wasn’t anybody drinking vodka where I was, these were after work beer drinking holes, and I expect the vodka consumption takes place at the weekend in different places, in clubs perhaps.  One other thing though.  The service was, in general, pretty crap.  The bars in Helsinki seem to be staffed mainly by students, and they took a bit of cajoling into noticing you, i.e. you had to not only stand like a lemon in front of them, but actually ask them to serve you.  If you walked into a place and just sat at a table, you’d be there all day without getting served.  Like an English pub, I suppose.

But whatever can be said about Finnish bars – and they were pretty good – the same can’t be said about the food.  The food in Helsinki was bloody awful.  I don’t know what Finnish food is, but the restaurants in Helsinki serve foreign food cooked incredibly badly.  They even managed to make a mess of the German dishes, which are a mess even when done properly.  Even a burger seemed beyond their abilities.  It really was terrible.  But I did have one decent meal in Helsinki.  I was walking past a very small Italian restaurant when I saw inside a swarthy chap who needed a shave and was waving his arms around in an agitated fashion.  He was definitely not Finnish.  I got a superb spaghetti carbonara in there at a very reasonable price, probably because no Finn was allowed anywhere near the kitchen.

On my last day I happened to walk past the Winter War museum, dedicated to the short but nasty war between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939-40 in which Finland dished out a seriously bloody nose to the Soviets, winning several engagements and inflicting heavy losses, but ultimately leading to an enforced treaty in which the USSR helped itself to 10% of Finnish territory.  Before I visited the museum, I was not aware that half of Lake Lagoda and the Karelia region belonged to Finland, but now remains firmly Russian.  The museum was worth visiting, and kept me occupied for at least two hours.

On my last evening in Helsinki, I crossed the street from my hotel and went into an Aussie bar for no other reason than it was close by.  When I got there a karaoke competition was in full swing, with the contestants being a mix of middle aged Finns, student types including what looked like two Thais, and some Americans.  The standard of singing varied from good to bloody awful.  I was sensible enough to keep my arse on my seat and my trap shut, getting up only to buy more beer from the Aussie bar staff.  But there were some good efforts.  Throughout the contest, there was a young New Yorker sat nearby me who, in a loud conversation with the person next to her, revealed that she was 20 years old, was very much “into music”, and made a big deal of it with no small amount of pretentiousness.  She was pretty, but already losing what would otherwise have been a good figure, I’m guessing by drinking too much beer and loafing about all day talking rubbish about music.  Judging by what she was rabbitting on about, she didn’t seem to be doing much with her life, which I suppose is fair enough if you’re 20.  She reminded me a lot of an American girl I very briefly dated who was also “into music” in a manner which consisted of listening to essentially mainstream stuff and speaking about it as though it was really edgy.  Just as I was getting up to leave, this girl took the stage and belted out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and did an exceptionally good job of it.  Whatever else you could say about this girl, she could sing.  I didn’t stick around to find out, but my guess is she carried off first prize.

I liked Helsinki.  I saw only a tiny fraction of it, not even venturing out of the main streets of the city centre except for an afternoon’s walk down by the waterfront, and there is clearly a lot more to see.  But – and this will become a common theme in subsequent posts – it would be much better to do the next visit in summer.  Helsinki is definitely worth coming back to.

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A Trip to Germany

Several months ago I was in a club in Lagos and met a young German who works at the consulate here.  He was from Dusseldorf, and I told him that next week I will be going to an area near there: Sauerland.  He replied with eyebrows raised:

“Why would you go to Sauerland?”

I told him I was going to the wedding of somebody from there.

“Oh, that explains it.”

Sauerland, it appears, is a rural area in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany which has much in common with mid-Wales: it rains heavily at short notice, there are plenty of hills and forests but not much else, the locals drink beer by the keg, optimists label it a tourist area and attempt to sell the hills as mountains, and not much English is spoken.  The only thing missing was sheep, much to the disappointment of this Welshman.

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Dubai and Lebanon

Okay, my jaw is better now and I can resume normal service.  Sorry for keeping you waiting.

Anyway, firstly to the UAE…

That was a nice little trip, my first to the place since I left a-Sakhalin bound in September 2006.  Many things had changed, but many things had also stayed the same.  We arrived into a new terminal, under construction when I left.  Huge, white pillars and white marble floors gave the impression you’d entered some Greek temple rather than an airport terminal.  But such misconceptions were soon righted once you saw the impressive bank of twenty or thirty immigration counters of which only four were open, manned by slovenly youths in national dress more interested in talking to each other than processing passports, with large queues of Indians clutching fistfuls of paperwork leaving little doubt you were trying to enter Dubai.  Like I said, many things had stayed the same.

As had the drive from the airport as far as the creek.  Not much has changed there at all, and most of the development has taken place in the south of the city, leaving Deira and Bur Dubai pretty much how it was.  The first major change I saw was that the Garhoud Bridge – for years operating largely as a car park – had been upgraded to one with four lanes running in each direction and we whizzed across it in seconds.  As we went further towards Sheikh Zayed Road I could start to see the results of the enormous construction projects that were underway during my time there: a forest of new buildings along the road itself, an enormous shopping mall and residential development, and of course, the Deathspire, the tallest building in the world, more commonly known as the Burj Khalifa (named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi’s wallet).  But that wasn’t what made my jaw drop; contrary to what I was expecting, I did not see an enormous difference between the buildings of Dubai then and now, probably because most of it was well under construction even then which rendered the difference merely one of finishing and colour.  What did amaze me was the lack of traffic.  I went from the airport to the residences under the Deathspire in less than 20 minutes, and the roads just didn’t seem to have any cars on them.  Back in 2006 I’d have endured an hour of bumper-to-bumper misery.  I asked my taxi driver, who had been in Dubai for 32 years, what had caused the improvements.  The answer was several things: much better roads, a lot of people leaving, toll charging on certain routes, a new metro system, and speed cameras preventing people doing the idiotic, breakneck speeds which inhibited the formation of consistent, flowing traffic.  Indeed, the roads had improved a lot.  I’m glad I wasn’t there during the chaos of their construction, but a few of the worst roundabouts I remember had been replaced with mini, and sometimes not so mini, spaghetti junctions.  Sadly, it was obvious that most of the transport routes had been thrown into the plan as an afterthought, rather than the buildings positioned to suit.  The metro – which I didn’t ride but it looked pretty neat – threaded it’s way around, under, and over various flyovers and other structures like a snake trying to work its way through an obstacle course, testament to its inclusion coming late in the planning stage of the new Dubai, assuming there ever was a planning stage. Continue reading

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Camping in Sakhalin

The weather in Sakhalin is warming up nicely, the evenings are still getting longer, the bears are hungry and out in force…which means only one thing: camping season.

Camping in Sakhalin is worthwhile for several reasons.  Firstly, there is the scenery…

…which, if you choose the right spot, can include the sight of early salmon leaping a waterfall.  I never saw this when I camped as an army cadet in the Brecon Beacons.

Secondly, camping in Sakhalin involves driving 4WDs laden down with copius amounts of “kit” which is to be shown off shamelessly to your male companions.  Americans are welcome as they have a habit of bringing along eye-boggling amounts of kit purchased from the USA for a fraction of what it would cost you in Sakhalin, assuming you could even buy it here.  Hi-tec electronic gadgetry from Japan is also popular, at least with the blokes.  Upon arrival at the campsite, all kit is dragged from the cars, unpacked, and assembled willy-nilly around a huge fire which consumes a small forest worth of logs throughout the night.

Thirdly, camping in Sakhalin is forbidden unless all involved (Egyptians excluded) get totally hammered on beer, vodka, coffee mixed with Baileys and Glava, all three in succession, or anything else you fancy.  The drinking is interrupted for half an hour or so whilst everyone gathers around the barbecue and throws on pile after pile of meat, most of which goes uneaten because the Russian Army never showed up to eat its portion.  With everyone fed, the drinking continues and the singing begins.  Usually somebody talentless and tuneless gets out a guitar and does a fine job of keeping the bears at bay.  Once a suitable late hour has been reached, fetching firewood involves going more than a hundred metres into dark forest, and everyone is plastered, those brave souls with tents crawl (or in the case of the Americans, stroll and head for the east wing) into their nylon pods and fall into a drunken coma.  Those who lack a tent or are too chicken to use it cheat their way through the camping experience by sleeping in the back of their Toyotas.  Next time I’m gonna be leaving tin openers with pots of honey around the campsite.

Finally, camping in Sakhalin, like most seemingly mundane activities in Russia, often presents bizarre spectacles which would go sadly unseen were we to sit in dingy bars, crumbling apartments, or remain in the UK.  On our last camping trip a car inexplicably burst into flames on the opposite side of the valley, producing a column of thick smoke.  The bewildered occupants would normally have been rueing the loss of their car and contemplating how to get home again…   

…had their blazing chariot not set fire to the entire hillside, causing the driver and his passenger to attempt to stamp out the flames with their sneaker-clad feet.  As the picture below shows, they were not successful.  This made for a fine afternoon’s entertainment for those, i.e. us, watching from a comfortable distance.

But the fun wasn’t yet over!  Just as we were packing up to leave, for no apparent reason a minibus owned and operated by a Korean seaweed harvester opted to drive across a river rather than simply take the road, and unsurprisingly got stuck.  For our entertainment he rammed the opposite bank a few times without success, before his mate turned up in a jeep to winch him out.

All in all, a fine weekend camping in Sakhalin.  May those to come be as entertaining and bear-free.

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