Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

29 May 2007

Poland with BJ

Wawel Castle, Poland
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
After our lucky escape from the mud in the Polish ‘Lake District’, we gave up looking for the completely inaccessible lakes and proceeded south down to the capital. Our initial plan was to camp outside the city in the National Park to the west. After half an hour or so of looking, we manoeuvred the van (via a 67 point turn) into a suitable hidden (if a little mosquito ridden) gap in the forest. We had just finished congratulating ourselves on finding such a good location when the National Park warden turned up and politely but very definitely moved us on. So for the second night in a row our wild camping was thwarted – it was so much easier outside Poland. Our trip to the National Park was not wasted, though. Had we not visited we would never have seen the prostitutes lining the side of the road. We couldn’t believe it – there were so many of them. They were not shy about standing right by the side of a busy main road flashing vast amounts of exposed (fake tan encrusted) skin, exposing their bras to the world to display the goods on offer and trying to flag down every car, no matter who it contained (including us).

As we headed into Warsaw, things changed very quickly. After several weeks of seeing almost no tourists and only visiting comparatively small cities / towns in the Baltics, we were suddenly heading back into a built up area and firmly back onto the tourist trail. One bonus of this was that on the way into Warsaw we found a 24 hour Tesco, which we didn’t know existed in Poland, where we thought that we may be able to replace all our emergency food tins (designed for eating in Central Asia when the going gets tough – actually eaten in Norway when the budget got tough). Unfortunately, Polish Tesco might look like Tesco but is actually an imposter and sells exactly the same things as every other Polish supermarket (including fish tanks so that shoppers can pick their own live fish out of the tank with a net – none of that in Watford and slightly off putting watching them all flap around in shopper’s boxes), so it wasn’t as exciting as we had thought.

After some hair-raising navigation on the Warsaw inner ring, we found “Camping 123” just on the outskirts of town. Next day, we were up with the larks (the late ones perhaps) to hop on the tram into the city. Neither of us really knew what to expect of Warsaw given that it was flattened during the war. Our guidebook kicked off with a few gloomy paragraphs about the enormous Soviet Museum of Culture and Art which dominates the west of the city centre. It seems that is it hated by everyone in Warsaw, but we rather liked it – a kind of brooding, Gotham city affair that is only slightly spoiled by a large array of shopping centres and supermarkets below. The rest of central Warsaw was very pleasant – we ambled up the main throughfare (which I insisted on referring to as Nevsky Prospekt as per the main street in St Petersburg, as I do for every main street now – it sounds so much better than “the high street”). We stopped briefly in one of the many Catholic churches to admire the spot where Frederick Chopin’s heart (which was removed from his body and transported back to his native Poland) has been set into a stone pillar. Lovely Then, off to the impressively reconstructed old town which is littered with photos of Warsaw then and now – Roosevelt wandering around war-torn remains contrasting with British stag parties wandering around beer-strewn outside terraces. They have done an amazing job of rebuilding the whole thing and you would never know that almost nothing was left after the war. The day’s activities included, in no particular order, a strange belching water fountain; a compulsory trip on the metro; accidentally walking into a city drugs deal on the outskirts of town; and some horrible pancakes filled with unidentifiable sweet white gunk. We finished our day with a visit to the gorgeous royal parks and lazed around by the ‘Palace on the Water’ whilst the preening peacocks did their best to entertain the admiring crowds.

Our choice form Warsaw was either to visit a series of provincial Polish towns (each complete with the staple Polish ingredients of Old Town, castle and Nazi death camp) or to head to the mountains. So, feeling rather jaded by repeated tales of Soviet occupation in the Baltics and not being quite ready to face the Polish death camps yet, we opted for some fresh air and exercise in the southern resort town of Zacopane in the Tatra mountains. Along the way we beat our previous record for number of prostitutes spotted at the side of the road in an hour. We also saw a decent number of nuns (not at the side of the road with their bras on show, of course) - quite an odd contrast. Once we reached the Tatras, we managed to scale the local mascot mountain of Giewont which was, at 1909m, the highest point of our trip so far. The feeling of success in reaching the top having climbed for a few hours in the heat was slightly diminished by the remarkable number of nuns who also successfully made their way up to the enormous iron cross on the summit – the fact that elderly nuns wearing full habits could make it to the top somehow made it seem like a little jaunt. We also made the rather silly mistake of forgetting to eat anything all day, save a Mars bar and a bag of crisps, which landed us both with a strange exhaustion that lasted most of the way back to Krakow the next day.

Krakow is our final stop in Poland and we have spent most of the last week here – I am writing this on the laptop sat in our campsite before we take BJ back to the airport. We picked the mother-in-law up on Tuesday lunch time, presenting her with a 5 zloty posy of flowers in time honoured East European style. It was lovely to see her and after the standard embraces, hugs, tears and rude comments about Michael’s hair (I’m sure David Beckham never got all this hassle), we headed into town to her hotel. Her hotel room was big enough for a football team and had free internet access, plus a very good shower, so at that point we realised that her trip was doomed because having been in the van for a good while now it is very difficult to turn down the prospect of lounging around on a sofa, drinking coffee / beer, surfing the net and enjoying having a proper shower. After a spot of R&R, we set about exploring the Old Town of Krakow. The city is about to celebrate 750 years, so there was lots going on in addition to the usual sights of Old Town, Castle, Cathedral, lots of nuns and churches, and endless tributes to the local hero, Pope John Paul II, who is featured everywhere.

The highlight of Krakow is the impressive, if rather eclectic, Wawal Castle and Cathedral. We traipsed round some rather dark staterooms ‘admiring’ some rather tired tapestries before heading to the more interesting Cathedral. Here we maintained the tradition of forcing our mothers undertake physical tests by making BJ climb a cramped bell tower for a view over the city (and a view of some enormous bells which everyone seemed to want to touch to bring them good luck). This was all done with the company of an incredible number of school groups – May is clearly the time when the Polish syllabus dictates that twelve year old children must visit Krakow in large groups, wearing identically coloured caps and get in everyone’s way.

Barbara became the third member of RTW2007 for the day when we drove in the van out to Oswiecim (or Auschwitz in German) to look around the Nazi concentration camps. This was a sombre affair, but very interesting and in beautiful weather. We went to both the main Auschwitz camp and also to the Birkenau camp, which is subtitled Auschwitz II, and which is even more striking. Birkenau is less of a museum than Auschwitz and has more of the original camp, barracks, watch towers and railway than Auschwitz itself. Eerily, most of the barracks were destroyed deliberately by fire, started by the retreating Nazi’s when they tried to hide their tracks as the Soviets (this time they were being the goodies) approached - all that now remains are rows and rows of brick chimneys that stand alone, marking the spaces where the blocks housing hundreds of prisoners used to stand.

We spent our final day with Barbara wandering more of the Old Town and taking a very amusing ride in a horse drawn stately carriage around town – waving regally to the proletariat. The proletariat included a large number of English stag dos; some girls advertising Linx who were parading around town in tiny police uniforms (much to the delight of the stags); and huge numbers of police (presumably also stag related). We joined in by going for a few pints and a curry, so now I’m here in the sunshine with a hangover, planning the next few days.

The weather had taken a real turn and most of the week we have been sweltering in 32 degree heat. It was strange too be able to sit around the campsite with Barbara in the sunshine on the camping chairs that we nearly didn’t bring, contemplating being back in Estonia only a short while ago when even to open the van door was a punishable offence due to the cold.

We have some busy travelling days ahead now. We start a jaunt into Western Europe, which is only a quick speed through designed solely to get to Munich so that we can pick up our Carnet de Passages and get the van serviced. I would like to say I booked a van service over the phone with Munich in my impeccable Year 10 German but it’s just not true, they all spoke perfect English. Then it back through Austria to Budapest where we need to try and organise our Chinese visas. In a week’s time we will be heading onwards to Romania and the Ukraine.

Hello to BJ once you read this back at home – it was really lovely having you with us for a few days…. roll on India! Also hello to our readers in Silkstone – we were impressed to hear how many people have been reading this from Silkstone, including the ladies at Silkstone Post Office!!

23 May 2007

Hello, BJ here

Here I am in Krakow meeting up with the intrepid travellers at last.

It was lovely to see my daughter at the airport but I was none too convinced about the stranger accompanying her - some odd bloke who she has picked up along the way. He has very dodgy hair. However, it has now turned out that he is a bearded wonder who was pretending to be my son in law. So far I have managed to presuade him to shave, which is a start, but not to visit the barber. I have bought him a very fetching hair ribbon instead.

Today, we went to Wawel Castle, where the fire-spewing dragon scared us in the cave. See the attached photo of Helen and I looking a little worried as the dragon approached. Or was that because of the hair again??!!

Anyway, must get back to drinking Polish beer with the intrepids now. Toodle pip.


18 May 2007

Polish Postscript: Mud and Mosquitoes

Stuck in the mud in Poland
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
On arrival in Poland, we made the decision to stop early as we were both tired and in need of some R&R. So, we headed to the Polish Lake District and arrived in our destination of Mikolajki by late afternoon. We then set about finding a wild camp. Given the enormous swathes of forest and several lakes, this didn’t seem like too challenging a prospect, particularly as we have in recent days had no problem at all in quickly location a suitably overnight spot.

However, every forest track we took was too busy to stop on – the worst road surfaces yet, but bizarrely as busy as the A1. Each track also ended without a view of the lake – it seems that they just do not want you anywhere near the lakes around here (we think that this is perhaps because they are protecting the swans). In one case, when we thought that we had found a suitable track to park on, we were greeted by two farmers with guns. So we opted to leave.

After two hours of driving up and down and / or reversing out of forest tracks, we were close to giving up. This had all been so much easier in other countries. We decided to give it one last try and follow a track to the clearly signposted bird watching point. Unfortunately, this was to prove one track too far. The track quickly became boggy and it proved difficult to prevent a two ton camper van from sliding unassailably into the mud. Realising the issue, Michael tried to reverse out, but by this time it was too late. We were, for the second time in this van, stuck in the mud. Sadly, this time no burly Yorkshire farmer in rubber trousers appeared to bail us out.

So, instead, we were forced to (a) brave the inordinate number of huge mosquitoes which infest the Polish forest and (b) construct a fantastic Ray Mears inspired technique of laying twigs and branches in a ladder / railway track formation across the bog to allow us to eventually reverse out of trouble. Only immediately to get back into trouble at the next patch of mud. And so it went on. We have now practiced our “rock and push, rock and push” technique with the van to (almost) perfection. For the final part of our adventure, we were ably assisted by two Polish bird watchers on bikes (or possibly Brokeback Mountain boys, we weren’t quite sure as they emerged from the forest). They helped to push the van and, as their reward, got some warm beer from us (lucky them) and apparently a great deal of amusement.

Photo of van stuck in mud and cunning “Twig Train Track Survival Technique”™ attached.

Bye Bye to the Baltics

Post the Baltics, we are both now dedicated fans of Double Coffee and Rimi Hypermarkets, which have both featured very heavily on our Baltic itinerary. All is still going well; we are both really enjoying the trip; and we have managed not to kill each other yet, which is always a bonus. It already feels like we have been away for ages.

The van is working like a dream and we are saving money by wild camping as often as possible. So far I have stayed at “campsites” which were actually car parks / town squares with repeated visits from the police and / or wheel spinning chavs; a remote peninsula with a large missile by the side of our van (hopefully already exploded, but we were not sure) and thousands of dead bodies floating around just off the coast; and on a bit of Latvian beach inhabited by wild dogs / rabid wolves. So I am only just about getting used to the wild camping part. Though at least I was spared the option of staying in one of the publicised options in Leipaja, Latvia – Karosta Prison, where tourists can pay good money to sleep in a Latvian prison cell; be subjected to regular bed checks during the night; use the prison latrines; and enjoy a bit of verbal abuse from the guards in period garb for good measure.

On the driving front, the “I’m on a death wish” overtaking has continued into the Baltic States. It is clearly a “post-Soviet” / “ex-Soviet” / “formerly occupied by the USSR” (we have been fed a great deal of PC lingo on that issue) hangover. The main asset required for overtaking in Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is not a gap in the traffic; a clear view of the oncoming lane; or a powerful enough vehicle to ensure swift, decisive overtaking. No, it seems that all you need are balls of steel. And an unfailing belief in your fellow countrymen (and passing British campervans) to break hard enough to let the overtaker back into his lane should he realise that his decision to overtake whilst on a blind bend and driving a clapped out Lada was not a sensible one. So far, amazingly, we have only seen one head on collision.

Now that we are in Poland, however, we have encountered another driving issue – level crossings with no barriers or lights. In the Baltics they had no barriers, but at least had flashing lights to tell you when a train was approaching. Here, nothing. Sometimes not even a sign. We came to our first crossing just after the border, on a blind corner, and a train came pootling straight across our path, which was a little scary. The condition of the roads is getting dodgy in places, too. In Latvia, we encountered huge, deep ruts in the road which we concluded could only have been made by purposely driving a large lorry up and down the newly laid tarmac. These went on for miles and meant that steering was of no consequence as the van just followed the ruts down the motorway. But at least we made it out of Latvia with our van, which is a achievement given that Latvia is described by the Lonely Planet as a country in which car theft is “a central element of the economy”. We even managed our whole trip through the Baltics without getting stopped by the police, which the Lonely Planet again describes as an impossibility, saying that we would be stopped by the traffic police (who are apparently “fearsome beings”, no less) at least twice between Riga and Latvia. Hopefully avoiding the police will continue for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, we have already concluded that the Lonely Planet is to be ignored as often as it is to be read.

The photos of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now on the website. By popular demand, this time we have added more photos of us (which admittedly was only by popular demand from my family, sorry to everyone else who has to stare at our ugly mugs); more photos of Michael’s hair (it is getting scarily mullet-like now and curls are appearing); more photos of the Little Yellow Man on his trip around the world; and (hopefully) fewer “arty” photos (as requested by Mr Richard Taylor, who needs to realise that it is not our fault that we are naturally artistic….. erm, well, maybe). There will hopefully soon be some videos for the really keen amongst you.

Needless to say, we have both been very excited about the awesome debuts of Rich and Chris in the Essex Marathon (impressive times of 2.52 and 3.01 respectively), lining them up for podium places in London next year. Very good, chaps, well done. We are also pleased to find that our blog is now being used for inter-family discussions by the Pitt family. Hope that we are not keeping you away from Corrie for too long – keep it up, we are really enjoying seeing your comments.

The Via Baltica

Lady selling flowers, Riga
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We left Estonia and entered Latvia on the coastal road, which is described by our guide book as the “infamous Via Baltica” (in practice just the E67). The differences between Estonia and Latvia were immediately clear – the whole place is far more run down and it feels far more Russian, with many of the signs being dual language (and apparently Russian / Latvian tensions to match).

First stop was the Gauja Valley National Park to the north-east of the capital, Riga. The Gauja Valley is standard Baltic fare, with forests and castles aplenty – the kind of place that were it in the UK or Western Europe would be overrun with tourists at this time of year, but given that we are in the Baltics it was deserted. It made a pleasant place to spend a couple of days, particularly because we managed to locate a beautifully situated wild campsite by the side of the river. We tested our fire lighting skills to their limits, as we had plenty of firewood but it was all soaking wet. I decided that I must have learnt something from all those hours of Michael making me watch Ray Mears on TV (eg the scene in which Ray explains that Mr Brown couldn’t make Queen Victoria’s tea because the wood was in Scotland was wet, Mr Brown not having had the benefit of a week on the Mears Survival Course). So, I set about making tinder strips with my pen knife á la Mears. Let’s just say that Ray is indeed a legend – it is not as easy as he makes it look, and despite the tinder strips and Michael’s persistence, it took a good thirteen attempts to get the fire going. It was worth it though, and we sat around drinking beer by the fire for the rest of the night with self satisfied grins on our faces.

From the National Park we headed off to Riga, which is a much bigger proposition that Tallinn. In fact, it declares pompously that it is the “only city in the Baltics”. Unfortunately, it is also known as the car crime capital of the Baltics, so we feared for our van’s safety. We opted to leave the van out of town at a campsite in the Jurmala resort area, which is like the Costa Del Sol of Latvia – very odd to see slick restaurants, smartly dressed residents, posh houses and combed beaches, given that the rest of the country is such a contrast. Our campsite, though, was a real hang over from the Soviet era. It was supposed to be attached to a water park and the enterprising owners had attempted to spruce the whole place up by painting everything in gaudy blue and yellow, but it was fundamentally let down by the complete lack of water - no cold water in the pools or slides; no hot water in the showers; and no drinking water on the campsite. Not quite what we are used to from a water park. But it did provide Michael with the opportunity to meet someone he described as “the French, middle aged version of Scasey”, who spent ages rewiring the electrics on his campervan for no reason at all (other than to show that he could, presumably) and confusingly kept banging on to Michael (half in English, half in French) about McGiver.

Riga Old Town is much bigger and rather less fairytale-like than Tallinn, but the upside of that it that the whole place feels much more lively. We visited the obligatory Occupation Museum to learn more about how nasty the Soviets / Russians were / are before retiring to a few coffee shops to mull it all over. We stopped at the enormous Freedom Monument, a large obelisk guarded by a couple of very keen looking soldiers who every half hour have to do an extremely slow Basil Fawlty style walk / march thing under the watchful eye of a scary looking sergeant major. We also explored the bustling market, which is reputedly one of the largest in the world, with an enormous selection of pretty much anything you could want – including live fish and very good freshly made doughnuts (thankfully not necessarily together). We then made Michael’s day by taking the train back to Jurmala.

We headed into Lithuania and again saw a big change, back to a much more prosperous country. We headed off to the Curonian Spit just off the west coast. The Spit is an amazing place – basically a 100 km stretch of sand, almost entirely covered in forest and sand dunes. The Spit is divided between Lithuania and Russia (the southern part being in the Kallingrad enclave) and we spent most of our time very close to the Russian border at Nida. The dunes are huge (though they are apparently being eroded away at a fairly dramatic rate – 20 metres in 40 years) and from the top there is a pretty impressive view across into Russia along miles and miles of untouched sand. Michael enjoyed the view whilst being “forced” by some rowdy locals to drink grim Lithuanian alcohol and eat dried fish. We hired bikes and pootled around the forest tracks and over the dunes in glorious sunshine. All very civilised.

We left the Curonian Spit via some very odd bits of wooden sculpture at “Witches’ Hill” - they really do like their sculptures around here, they are all over the place. From there we went on to the Hill of Crosses, which is a smallish hill but which is covered in an enormous number of crosses. It was quite spooky but also weirdly impressive. There are just a phenomenal number of crosses left here by locals, pilgrims and tourists. Thousands of them. It seems that the Soviets removed them all but hundreds more appeared overnight. Oh, and there is a big Jesus donated by the last Pope when he visited. Not much more to say than that really. A very odd place indeed – a mixture of serene and surreal. Watch Michael’s video for a bit of the atmos. From there we headed off to Vilnius via the alleged geographical Centre of Europe (as decided by the French, conveniently ignoring Malta, as that would put the Centre of Europe in Belarus, and I imagine that no-one wants that).

Vilnius was a bit of a surprise. I knew little about it other than what the boys had told me post Michael’s Stag do. But it turns out, to my surprise, that there is more to Vilnius than a grimy town in which they drink petrol and men pole dance in strip clubs in dresses. We visited said strip bar and Michael reminisced. But then it emerged that he didn’t remember anything else about Vilnius at all - the bar, strip club, restaurant and town square all being within about 200 metres of one another and that being all that he saw on his last trip here. In fact, Vilnius isn’t grimy at all. It is quite a green and picturesque place; more of a city that Tallinn but prettier than Riga. We wandered around in glorious sunshine on the first really hot day of our trip, which meant that all of the pavement cafes were open and teaming with a mix of very well heeled locals and very unsteady on their feet Stag dos. We visited the Orthodox Cathedral and saw the preserved bodies of three fourteenth century martyrs in a glass case – they are in pretty good nick considering that they are seven hundred years old (people really were tiny back then). Michael went to the Museum of Genocide Victims, including more reconstructed KGB cells; a padded cell with straight jacket; and a solitary confinement cell in which the KGB made people balance on a dinner plate standing in a bath of ice cold water. I decided that I couldn’t take another museum of death (the tally in the Baltics has been high – there being a museum of Genocide / Illegal Occupation / the KGB in every town - and the Polish death camps are still to come). So instead I went for a wander around the city. Vilnius is having a lot of money spent on it and there are some amazing buildings – I suspect that in 10 years time it will be a popular destination (and for more than just the Stags).

Post Vilnius we had more wild camping in the forest (wolves were heard but thankfully did not eat us) and then we went on to one of the strangest places we have ever been – the Soviet Sculpture Park, aka “Stalin World” (www.grutaparkas.lt). It is like a theme park in the forest comprising a huge number of statues of Stalin, Lenin, Marx and their chums. They were all removed from town squares post-independence; had no home because the Lithuanians hate them; and so were loaned to a mad man who usually sells mushrooms for a living but decided that running a theme park based around the evil men of Soviet history might be more fun. There is a fantastic selection of statues, which we viewed whilst listening to Soviet military tunes being piped through tinny speakers attached to death camp style watch towers. There is also a great range of USSR kitsch for sale (shot glass in the shape of a Russian army boot bearing the faces of Stalin, Lenin and Marx, anyone?). From there we dived deeper into the forest on the way to Poland.

09 May 2007

Camping with a missile

Helen and Michael in Tallinn
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Where did we leave you? In the sleepy town of Mustvee… from there, on the shores of Lake Peipsi, we headed south to the University town of Tartu. We slipped seamlessly back into our standard town/city behaviour of mixing wandering around the streets with a commitment to checking out all the recommended local coffee shops (of which there are many in Tartu, all with very good, very cheap coffee and pastries). The “highlight” of the trip was a visit to the rather eerie ‘KGB Cells Museum’, a brief history of which is as follows: a rather drab grey building just south of the town centre was built by a businessman just prior to the second World War; then the Soviets turned up and liked the look of the building; so they shipped him off to a Siberian camp and converted his building into the KGB (secret service) headquarters. They converted the basement into a set of interrogation chambers, but thoughtfully bricked up the basement walls so as to mask the sound of said interrogations from the passing public – nice. Post war, and post “Soviet occupation” (as they like to refer to the time of Soviet rule round here) it now houses an informative, shocking and rather melancholy museum detailing the rule of the Soviets, the extent of the Gulag labour camp system and the work of the “heroic” Estonian freedom fighters, the Forest Brothers.

After lunch at the University café, it was back on the road to the north coast and the National Park that lies about 60km east of Tallinn. Lahemaa National Park is a mixture of forest tracks and open countryside, dotted with manor houses, riding stables and country residences. It reminded us of the New Forest in England. We spend the night at one of the free RMK (Forestry Commission) campsites right at the end of the Juminda peninsula. This was a fantastic, remote spot but it was made rather more “atmospheric” (for which read scary) by the presence of a large missile lying where it had originally fallen in the hedge (right next to our van); some menacing sea mines in a chain by the water’s edge; and a detailed historical plaque detailing just how many people had died at the hands of sea mine defences in the ill-fated Juminda evacuation (and how most of the thousands of bodies had not been recovered and are still sitting out at sea just of the coast of our campsite). Lovely. As if this weren’t enough, there was also a spooky (most likely haunted) lighthouse beaming an eerie light over the van throughout the night.

Before heading in to Tallinn to pick up Dr. EAB we explored the forest, putting the van through its paces, Michael doing the rally section on unmade gravel roads (which was a lot of fun) and then Helen doing some off-roading on a single track forest stretch (even more fun). Our van isn’t really designed for this but it coped admirably, the only ill effect being a thick coating of reddy-brown mud. See the video of the little yellow man on said track in the blog entry below.

From there we headed into Tallinn to find that there was no where to wild camp (except a very dodgy car park at the centre of the area of town hit by the riots, the only benefit of which was its proximity to a strip joint) and of the four possible campsites two are shut at this time of year, one has been closed down for ‘sanitary reasons’ and the other is on a dual carriageway and run by a mad woman who slammed the door in our face for no obvious reason. So, reluctantly, we checked into a city centre hotel, scuppered our budget (which had been doing well so far in Estonia) and headed for a quick sauna before Mum arrived.

We picked Mum up at about midnight, but as Tallinn is so compact we were back in the bar by 12.15 to enjoy a couple of A. Le Coq’s before bed. It was lovely to see her and catch up on all the news from home. After a late night we woke reasonably late and headed into the lovely, much-celebrated, old town of Tallinn. It reminded us all of the kind of fairy castles that you see in Shrek, lots of turrets and towers. The individual canon towers have entertaining names such as Fat Margaret, Tall Herman and ‘Kick-in-the-Cock’. Tallinn is an ideal place for wandering, and Mum had brought the good weather with her, so we did just that – ambling along cobbled streets and popping in and out of little shops. We all made the climb up the 258 steps of St. Olaf’s Cathedral to a rather shaky platform on the roof, which offers an excellent view over town. We also saw the photography museum and drank a lot of coffee. I can also recommend the excellent local ‘Kalev’ chocolate. Kalev appears to be the big dog in these parts, a mythological man who is the hero of all Estonia. His wife, Linda, is now immortalised in a statue by the castle mourning for Kalev (and all the Estonian victims at the hands of the Soviets, but I think that that was added later). All in all, we had an excellent time in Tallinn, it’s a quaint place that is just right for a weekend with nice restaurants – slightly grumpy locals – and a very photogenic skyline. We didn’t see any of the troubles of the week before, although the police presence was very high and some shops were still boarded up / burnt out.

After dropping Mum of at the airport we headed south to Pärnu, from where I am writing this. Pärnu is the Estonian “summer capital” which means that even now, in May, it is still pretty empty. There is, however, a long sandy beach which we wandered along, bravely paddling for a couple of seconds (Michael) or minutes (Helen) in the icy cold Baltic and dancing down the beach (Helen). From here we are going south to Latvia, Lithuania and then to Poland where we are meeting BJ. Then it will be a quick dash to Munich to get the van serviced and pick up the “Carnet de Passages” so that we can head across Asia.

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the blog or sent emails – it is lovely to hear from you all whilst we are away. Hi to Grandma and Granny who I believe are reading the blog “offline” – I hope that nothing too rude ends up on here. Also, hello again to the continuing support from Watford Girls - your messages are making us both laugh.

07 May 2007

The Little Yellow Man

Little Yellow Man
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.

By popular demand via webog comments:

A photo and video (see the link below) showing the 'Little Yellow Man' (as provided to Mr B by Form 12B) taking a rough ride as we headed through the Estonian forest on rather rough tracks.

Video of Little Yellow Man in Estonia

You will no doubt be relieved to hear that he survived the ordeal unscathed and is still sitting happily on the windscreen of the van.

04 May 2007

Musings at Mustvee / A Poem at Peipsi

My name is Helen.
I am a girl.
A tired girl – it is late.
Usually I live in England,
But at the moment I live in a van.
In a car park.
In Estonia.
People stare at me as they walk past.
I don’t think that they are used to seeing people like me.

This is a poem (Ed.: literary masterpiece, I think you’ll find) written by Helen (who has completely lost the plot now) whilst she was sitting in the van in Mustvee, a small town on the shore of Lake Peipsi in North East Estonia. Even the guide book acknowledges that very few people ever make it this far out and even the Estonians are wary of this “Russian” corner of their country. Mustvee is a small town in the middle of what is referred to “Old Believer” territory, one of several villages founded by a bunch of Russians who ran away to establish extreme Christian sects on the banks of the lake in the 17th century. And then nothing much happened until 2007 when a British camper van turned up and parked in the main square for the night… much to the amusement of the local children and alcoholics. Note it is much easier to be an alcoholic in Estonia; you can buy a litre and a half of Turbo Diesel (8%) for about 80 pence.

Anyhow, I digress – how was St. Petersburg? Excellent in fact, although the weather was a little up and down. We were lucky enough to get a couple of excellent sunny days during which we ran round most of the major sights. We spent a good three hours in the Hermitage exploring at least some of the immodesty and opulence of successive Russian Tsars. The Hermitage appears to have about 300 rooms full of stuff that has been stolen from other countries around the world and is now presented as Russian heritage. The main thing that hit me about St. Petersburg was the quality of all the buildings, there are so many palaces, churches etc that in the end they just merge into the background when if they were anywhere else then they would each be the stand out tourist attractions. We enjoyed photographing the slightly ridiculous Church on Spilled Blood and the Singer building as well as braving the Metro System – deeper and busier than London and a journey only costs 28p.

Helen deserves a medal for allowing me to drag her all the way to the end of the main street, Nevsky Prospekt (2.5km), just to look round the main Moscow Station – she even put up with me raving about the quality of the rail network map on the wall which was fantastic. Unfortunately all this excitement eventually pushed over the edge (actually her cold just wouldn’t shift and she didn’t fancy the blizzard which had set in overnight) such that I was forced to spend the final day by myself. I headed to Kunstkamera for the much vaunted display of pickled mutants and malformed humans but unfortunately it was shut on Mondays so I had to make do with another wander down Nevsky, but this time into a driving headwind with snow and sleet flurries.

The next day we negotiated the roads out of the city and avoided the ever present stares of the Traffic Police to emerge on the road the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Palace about 30km down the coast. Peter may well have been Great but he certainly wasn’t modest or shy of building himself nice big palaces to hang out in. Careful reading of the history books (well, the ‘History and Background’ section of the Lonely Planet) reveals that he also wasn’t shy of torturing his own son to death – something not mentioned too often on the tourist information boards around town. Anyway, Peterhof was another fantastic place to look round. Although we didn’t brave the enormous queue for the main palace, we spent an hour or two just sauntering round the beautiful gardens in fantastic sunshine and admiring the statues that are littered liberally around for all to enjoy. There is a very stark and unavoidable contrast between the enormous apartment blocks that dominated the outskirts of every Russian town that we visited and then the incredible palaces with gardens that go on for miles that lie just a bit further out.

After this little detour, it was back on the road, following the atlas towards the border with Estonia. This was now much easier to follow as we had got the hang of some of the Cyrillic alphabet; although we’re not quite up to full speed yet. We got on the M11 and sped towards Kingisepp where our overnight accommodation had been ‘booked’ by the ever so helpful staff at the hotel in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately Kingisepp appeared to be a lot of a backwater with no hotel that we could find, so after doing a couple of lengths of Karl Marx Prospekt we decided to cut our losses and head for the border. Leaving Russia was fortunately much easier than entering and the border guards were very friendly – we ended up with time to grab food and have a wander around Narva, the Estonian border town, before bed. The location at the border is fantastic; Russia and Estonia meet at a narrow river with a single bridge crossing. Then on the cliffs at either side of the bridge are two opposing forts – facing each other about an arrow’s fire apart. It reminded me of fairytales of opposing kingdoms…. and less romantically playing Crossbows and Catapults with Potto when younger.

So, we woke in Estonia and drove through more atrocious, snowy weather to here; yet another place that could fairly be described as the middle of nowhere!! So far this evening we have had three visits from the Politsei at our overnight camp here (in fact a police van and a police car have for some reason joined us as the only other occupants in our square, hopefully not for reasons associated with us). We will now explore central Estonia for a few days before heading back north to Tallinn to meet Mum who is coming over to stay. Hopefully the weather won’t be too good so that we have a good excuse to explore the many coffee shops in Tallinn Old Town.

Tensions are fairly high in Estonia at the moment after a Soviet war memorial was removed from the city centre of Tallinn. This caused outrage in Russia and amongst the large Russian population in Estonia and led to rioting last week. So far, the only evidence we have seen of this trouble (aside from Russian news coverage) is a small (peaceful) student protest; lots of roses placed at the Soviet memorial in Narva; and the fact that none of the shops in Narva were selling any alcohol, so as to avoid fuelling the fire. None of that here – you can buy as much Turbo Diesel as you like in these backwaters.

Points of interest to date – diesel in Russia is only 30p/litre; St. Petersburg is the 4th largest city in Europe; miles covered so far – 2050; most popular album on iPod – Artic Monkeys; in Finland you can pay for bus tickets by text message and you get a discount on the price of a sauna if you are a conscientious objector; and in Estonia they sell baked beans in glass jars.