Day 116: Arrested Development

Day 116: Arrested Development

April 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Estonia, Finland, Russia, The Odyssey Expedition

26.04.09:

The boat over to Tallinn was quick and easy and got me in to the capital of Estonia in fine fettle just around noon. I grabbed a cab across town (and what a marvellously delightful town it is!) and jumped a bus to Narva, on the Russian border.

Here’s the plan… I don’t have a Russian visa, so I can’t actually go into Russia proper, but what I can do is go up to the border and talk to the border guards, and then I’m technically in that country, yeah?

Er… no.

The border post, and there was only one, was on the European side of the river. Fences, CCTV and border guards standing all around. This was not going to be the cakewalk I expected. IDIOT!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Russia! Putin! Gulags! The KGB!

So I had a gander at a map on the wall near the border and discovered that further down the river it splits in two and runs either side of an old industrial complex. There was a chance that I could sneak onto this island and sneak back without arousing suspicion.

Or so I thought.

IDIOT!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Russia! Putin! Gulags! The KGB!

I walked along the riverbank until I saw what I was after – a concrete strip, probably dating from the war, half submerged in the shallow water which created an artificial ford. I could just amble across – as long as I didn’t attempt to scale the CLIFF on the far side of the river, I figured I’d be fine.

So I started picking my way across the river. I had got half way and was fairly satisfied I had stepped foot in Russia when the flares went off. Where they for me?

IDIOT!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Russia! Putin! Gulags! The KGB!

I trotted back towards the European Union as nonchalantly as I could. Just keep walking, Graham, you’ll be fine, you’re just a tourist who’s a bit lost. With a HD camcorder! And a GPS device!

IDIOT!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Russia! Putin! Gulags! The KGB!

Oh god… I could hear the sirens… two border guards came running at me, hands on their holsters…

Before I knew it, I was being whisked away to a tumble-down industrial complex on the outskirts of Narva. It was all a bit surreal to be honest. I just acted dumb (not too hard!) and explained that I read the map wrong and was trying to get into the island in the middle of the river which was still Estonia. The island that was a half-mile upstream from where I was trying to cross.

The good thing was that these guys were Estonians, not the Russians. They told me that if I’d been caught by the Russians, I would have been held for three days because they would assume I was a British spy WITH A SILLY HAT ON.

Thanks to my schooling, and especially my time spent in Mr. Row’s office, I’m not a bad liar, and I tend not to stress out in situations like this. So I remained calm, they gave me cake (cake or death!) and orange juice until a lawyer got there. The border guys were really nice, they didn’t shout and scream and one even drove across town to pick my bag up from the museum where I had left it earlier.

When the lawyer arrived we had a chat, I think they were just concerned that I was exiting Russia illegally, but my pockets where stuffed full of evidence that I had arrived in Estonia that day. They photocopied all my stuff and then made damn sure I was on the next bus back to Tallinn. Given that Estonia is now a frontier of the European Union, I guess they aren’t too impressed with stupid ginger types who go wandering off into no-mans-land like borders aren’t a matter of life and death.

The sad thing is, although us merry band of brothers in Europe can wander about our 40-odd countries willy-nilly without so much as a passport, there are still borders out there that people are still in danger of being shot dead if they try to cross.

On the bus back to Tallinn I got online (thank you Vodafone!) and checked my GPS log – oh YES! I did step foot in Russia – I made it far enough across the river, only a few meters, but far enough to claim my entry.

Okay, so I feel it’s cheating a little to say I’ve visited the biggest country on Earth (all 11 time zones of it) but my task is to step foot in these places, and it’s not like I’m going to go any further than a couple of meters into Somalia is it?!

I took the overnight coach to Lithuania. It passed through Latvia on the way. I was so thirsty, I nearly cried. Are there no vending machines in this part of the world?



Day 117: Kettles Of Fish

Day 117: Kettles Of Fish

27.04.09:

I emerged from the coach in the wee small hours to find myself in the rather attractive town of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I was busy trying to suss out how I was going to get into Belarus (avoiding all the tomfoolery of yesterday) when I ran into none other than Lynn Robinson, my ex-girlfriend Michelle’s mum! She was in the coach station getting a bus to the airport. What are the chances of that?

Well, statistically speaking, pretty damn high. In fact, considering the number of people I know, times the fact I am travelling for a full year, I think the chances of me running into somebody I know are probably one in one. But that doesn’t stop it being really cool!

Anyways, we unfortunately didn’t have time for coffee as her bus was due, so I headed off to the Belarusian embassy to try and blag myself a transit visa. Only, the embassy was closed. And it would be closed until Wednesday.

Problem.

What do I do? Sit on my hands in Vilnius for two days and then have to wait another 24 hours for the visa to come through?

Nah, not my style. So I booked myself on the next coach to the border and helped myself to a quick tour of the town, meeting a couple of lovely Lithuanian girls along the way. They took me to see the Gates of Dawn and the old city walls. Vilnius is BEAUTIFUL. And awesomely cheap! Why are you still reading this? Get onto Ryanair or Easyjet and book yourself a £20 flight over there NOW!

Go on.

Right, if you live in Europe, I’ll assume you’ve done that. Good. But (unlike you in two month’s time) I wasn’t here to sightsee, I was here to get movin’ baby yeah! So before too long I was on a local bus heading for the border with Belarus. Well, as it turned out, three kilometres from the border – I had to walk the last bit WITH MY LEGS!

Not wanting what happened yesterday to happen again, this time I took the official route in. The Lithuanian’s didn’t even check my passport. The Belarusians, well, they’re a different kettle of fish. In fact, they probably actually put fish in their kettles – they’re that mad. The last outpost of full-on fascist communism in Europe, the KGB is still alive and well and living in Belarus. They want to be Russian even more than Russia does. With a potty-mad dictator in charge since 1992 and political dissidents locked away without trial, the Belarusians like to party like 1989 never happened – and they don’t take kindly to amateur adventurer-types thinking it’s a lark to waddle about into their territory.

But that’s pretty much what I did.

I thought I could see how far I could push it, but I should have turned back on the border line. They looked at my passport and rather than just saying no, go away you don’t have a visa (or certificate of medical insurance) they took me into a small room and began scanning my passport over and over again, making numerous phone calls and asking me a lot of questions.

Oh dear.

At one point I swear the KGB/border guard guy wrote ‘Narva’ on a piece of paper whilst having an animated discussion on the phone. Had they heard about yesterday’s shenanigans? Was I to be locked away as a habitual border pest? My toes curled. No – it doesn’t say Narva – it’s not even English, it’s weird Russian letters, plus you’re reading it upside down you moron.

I just want to leave now, thanks. I’ve stepped foot in your crazy country and if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to hotfoot it back to the good ol’ EU where I know they can’t give me the old electric shock shower fandango. They kept me for half an hour. Then, without any kind of ceremony, they let me go.

Phew.

I trotted back over to Lithuania and slogged the three kilometres back to the bus stop. Arriving back in Vilnius in good time, I went for some good old-fashioned Eastern European nosh in the old town before jumping on the old overnighter to Warsaw.

It was a long day.