Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Along the Amber Road

Friday, June 6th, The Hague, Netherlands
It's 11 am on a sunny Friday morning. Together with three good friends from my hometown, Jurjen, Stephan and Davey, I am staying in a que. We already waited for an hour or two, outside of a small building in the center of The Hague. The time we were waiting already, we spent checking our passport and invitation forms several times. Half an hour or so later, we were in front of the line and the security guard finally let us in the building of the Russian embassy. Inside of the embassy, we completed our visa application forms and queued up for 20 minutes more.
12 am, we're first in line and I submitted our passports, application forms and invitations to the nice-looking girl behind the desk.
'Do you have a receipt of your pre-paid accommodation in Russia?', she asked.
'Why do you need a receipt, we already got the invitation and accommodation vouchers, don't we?', I told her.
'Without a receipt, no visa'.
The security guard escorted us to the exit door. This was our first experience with Russian bureaucracy.
Although the denial of our visa application felt as a defeat, after all our effort to get the invitation stuff, we still managed to obtain a Russian visa after all. We went to a specialized agency the next week.
And with a colorful Russian visa in our passport and a bus ticket to Lithuania, we were ready for the journey through the Baltic States, Russia and Belarus.
The planning for my journey is simple. At first I would travel with Davey, Jurjen and Stephan through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia towards St.Petersburg. From there my friends would fly home and I'm off alone for Russia and Belarus (for a map of my planned route, see the previous post).
For me it is the first time I travel in a group of four, but it's the second time I'm visiting the Baltic States. Actually, the very first time I traveled solo, back in autumn 2004, was a journey through the Baltics and Poland. It was two weeks before my seventeenth birthday and I pretty well remember that I really enjoyed the historic Baltic capitals, with Vilnius being my favorite.

Saturday, June 21th, Utrecht, Netherlands

In the early morning we stand at Jaarbeursplein in our beloved city Utrecht, waiting for our bus straight to Kaunas, Lithuania. Soon after, our ramshackle bus arrived and we took seat in a bus full of Russian holidaymakers. Sitting right in front of the television, I was blessed to watch bad Russian soaps during the 26 hour journey. Although the journey was long and I rather saw the television being switched off than watching more soaps, I enjoyed the bus ride. In the bus we met one other Dutchman, Joop, who married a Lithuanian woman and told us a lot of 'cowboy-stories' varying from Soviet corruption and South African politics to all the celebrities he had met in his life. There was one major downside of our bus journey though. During the night our bus stopped at a gas station somewhere in Poland and we went inside to buy some drinks. Inside the gasstation was a television which showed the European football championship. We saw Holland lose against the Russians...

Next morning, we arrived in Kaunas. The city used to be the old capital of Lithuania and now is a pleasant provincial city. We stayed in a church transformed into a hostel and I played some chess with Stephan, who became addicted to the game. After we walked a bit around and settled down for a couple of beers. With some more walking and drinking next morning, we left Kaunas around noon to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Vilnius really is a beautiful city. Back in 2004 I was amazed by the quantity of churches, baroque-buildings and the cozy center of town. And on that journey, I remember that I enjoyed Vilnius most of the three Baltic capitals. This time, I also enjoyed Vilnius a lot. The city has the largest baroque town center in Europe, while the atmosphere is pretty laid back. We stayed in a good hostel, close to both the city center and the railway station, where we cooked a nice spaghetti-meal on the first day. Except for the four of us, there was an other guest from Holland in Vilnius, namely our Queen Beatrix. We haven't seen the Queen ourselves, but there was lots of security all over the city and we could see Dutch flags waving next to the Lithuanian ones.

The three days that we stayed in Vilnius, we spent walking around the town center, climbing some hills for a city view and visiting churches. In the evening we went to a club called 'Broadway', where we met some nice local people.

Quite amazing on the second day was the weather. While at first the day started nice and sunny, there was extremely heavy rainfall in the afternoon. It rained so hard that the streets were under water. Also see the small video.

From Vilnius we took a train straight to the other side of the country, to the harbourcity Klaipeda. The train ride was pretty comfortable and relaxing, with nice views of the Lithuanian countryside. Klaipeda itself is not really pretty, although the center has some nice buildings and picturesque streets. But the main reason we went to Klaipeda was to visit the Curonian spit, a nature park stretching from the Russian exclave Kaliningrad to Klaipeda. Together with Jurjen, we hired bicycles and cycled to the ferry across Curonian Lagoon to a village named Smiltyne. From there we cycled all over the Curonian spit for about 50km. The area is full of forests, sand dunes, picturesque villages and it has nice views over the Baltic Sea. The only negative part of our cycling tour was the presence of a large group of senior nudists who ruined the nice views over the Baltic Sea.
Heading back for Klaipeda, Jurjen's bicycle got a flat tire so we had to share one bike and hold the other one for the last 10km. To make it worse, the weather suddenly changed and there was a huge dark cloud above us. With heavy rain and thunder heading towards us, I drove like a maniac to the ferry port back to Klaipeda. Luckily, we just made it to the ferry before the rain started. In Klaipeda I relaxed a bit in the hostel, talking to a funny American guy and an older Norwegian man, who traveled together with his three kids. We left Lithunia by bus north, along the Amber road (amber is one of the most important export products of the region), to Liepaja, a harbor city in Latvia. In Liepaja, we found a guesthouse to stay in, owned by a friendly woman who only speaks Latvian and Russian. So for me it was an opportunity to practice my Russian a bit.
The town Liepaja actually is not a really nice place. It is a city with lots of abandoned buildings and the city center felt quite depressing. The city serves as one of Latvia's most important ports (together with Ventspils further north), which dominates the atmosphere in the city. In Liepaja, there was visibly a high rate of unemployment combined with alcoholism and the problems which both cause.
The actual reason we visited Liepaja, was to see Karosta, a district north of the city. Karosta used to be an important base of the Soviet military fleet and used to be a restricted area until the late 1990's. Now it is open to visitors and the highlight being a former military prison in the middle of the district. We visited the prison by taking a tour with a funny guide (see its picture), who told us about the history of the prison and the way of living inside.

Besides Karosta's prison, we walked a bit around the district, which now mostly is abandoned. By coincidence later during my journey, I met Lyuda, a girl from Vologda (in Russia) who actually grew up in Karosta, as her father served in the Soviet army. She was quite surprised that I could show her some pictures of the district and she told me some more about the living conditions there in the 1980's.