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?
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?
Mon 29.01.13 – Thu 01.02.13:
Monday morning saw Casey and I silently creep out of Lindsey’s place around 7am. I was in an epic rush to get to the coach station for 8am so I said my farewells to my better half on the Bakerloo Line before changing at Oxford Circus for the line to Victoria.
I had to run like a bag-wielding maniac down the road from the Underground to the bus terminal, arriving BANG ON 8am, sweaty and dishevelled. The bus to Gdansk, Poland was just about to pull out of the station… I waved and shouted and clambered on board.
Had I missed the bus I would have been snookered. My Russian visa is waiting for me on the border. It has to be picked up at a certain time on a certain day. That day is tomorrow and that time is 12 noon.
Well then, this is it, I’m back on the road. My hat is on, my WaterAid toilet seat is strapped to my backpack, my GPS logger is blinking away and I’m staring out the window missing my girlfriend like a crazy man misses his giant invisible rabbit friend. One last mini-adventure before I can blow this thing and come home.
I half-slumbered down to Dover, where we headed over to the ferry terminal to pick up some more passengers before hilariously turning our backs on the whole ferry shebangalang and proceeding FULL TILT! towards the Channel Tunnel, or the Chunnel, if you want to make it sound like somebody’s been sick in a perfume bottle.
If you’ve never been through the Channel Tunnel, it is quite a crazy little setup they have. Instead of driving through the tunnel (France, cars and tunnels bring back bad memories for us Brits) you have to plonk your vehicle on a train. Every twenty minutes one of these trains filled with a single lane of traffic zooms through the tunnel. It’s quite simply one of the least efficient set-ups known to man – but if it was a road tunnel, you’d have fumes to get rid of, breakdowns to sort out and, well, the general anarchy that is driving anywhere in the world – that being that everyone driving slower than you is a jerk and anyone driving faster ins a maniac.
But when we get electric Google cars that can drive themselves, it may be time to tarmac over the tracks. You never know: it might help cut down that £3,000,000,000 mountain of debt that Eurotunnel still has to climb before any real profit can be made…
Personally, I would have designed the two main tunnels to have a road deck above and a rail deck below. If you’re going to bother building a bloody big tunnel, you may as well do it properly.
Before long we were disembarking on the froggie side of the street, switching to the right hand side of the road and thundering on up to Belgium and thereafter Germany in a kind of reverse Blitzkrieg. I read the Independent cover to cover, my laptop ran out of batteries and crikey hell I was bored. And hungry. Really, really hungry. For some reason, the bus didn’t stop for food. Like, literally DID. NOT. STOP.
The bus hit Berlin just after midnight. Time to swap buses. I was starvin’ Marvin. I had just 10 minutes to jump off the bus, find an ATM, get out some Euros, find a change machine (top tip: always check the toilets) and buy myself a Twix and a can of Coke from the vending machine.
30 seconds later and I was on bus number 2 heading to the Polish border, much in the manner of the German army in September 1939. The next few hours were spent drifting in and out of sleep and wondering why on Earth I had chosen to leave my beautiful girlfriend back in Blighty and sit on this damn coach for 26 hours. Happily, there was one English-speaker onboard (not the driver, mind) – a guy called Mike who came from the Polish town of Elblag.
In the morning, Mike and I travelled to Elblag together as it’s about halfway to the Russian border from Gdansk. That’s when I got a call from Timur, the Russian Visa Guy, asking me where the hell I was. I looked at my watch. It was 10.30am – plenty of time to get to the border before 12noon.
Ah, yeah… that would be the case, had it been 10.30am in Kaliningrad. Unfortunately for me, Kaliningrad runs on Moscow time aka GMT+3… two hours ahead of Poland. It was 12.30pm. I should have picked up my visa half an hour ago.
I may have a Pond of my own, but I obviously still haven’t got to grips with this time-travel malarkey.
From Elblag I hopped a local bus to the bordertown of Braniewo and from there took a taxi the short distance to the border. I got out of Poland without too much trouble – they seemed slightly unconvinced that I would be picking up my Russian visa on the border, but they let me cross nonetheless (no doubt expecting to see me again in 20 minutes time).
I reached the Russian side and stood in the bitter snowy cold while they took my passport off me and disappeared with it for a good quarter of an hour. And then – a minor miracle – my passport returned with the visa stuck into the last page and I was stamped in!
I should point out that if I had applied for a full Russian visa I would have had to buy a new passport – I only had one blank page left in both of my current passports and you need at least two blank pages free. Notso on the border with Kaliningrad though! Happy days.
I ended up cadging a lift to the city of Kaliningrad, as I would be returning to the border the same way I entered it didn’t make much of a muchness. It was there I discovered that the hotel I booked in order to get the visa was not actually in the city of Kaliningrad, but in the sea-side town of Pionerski, 45 minutes drive away. So on I plodded to this sleepy snowy hamlet on the Baltic Sea, convinced that I had already paid for the room using booking.com. But no, I hadn’t.
The town was all but deserted, freezing cold, lonely, and NOBODY spoke English. I wandered around looking for something that looked Russian enough to convince the world I was here. All I found was an Anna Karenina poster written in Cyrillic. That’d do, yeah?
Urgh… I possibly should have stayed in Kaliningrad city.
But the hostel I stayed in (The Cruise Hostel, Pionersky) had free internet so I got to chat with Casey which made me feel a bit less lonely. I was pretty much the only guest. This is not high season.
After finding out that everything – including the local eateries – closed at 5pm, I got an early night and dreamt of food.
The next morning I was up at 6am – again – to get the first train back to Kaliningrad city. It arrived around 7.30 and I – stupidly – got off at the wrong station, the one without the adjacent coach station. A crosstown taxi ride later and I was ready to hop a bus the 3 hours back to Gdansk. I had be be back at 3pm that day. Only one slight hitch: there are only two buses to Gdansk a day. One at 6am (missed that!) and one at (get this!) 3pm. Seriously?
Ygads! Well, it was a bit early, and since Kaliningrad is time-shifted in a crazy direction I thought I would potter around the city until the sun came up – something that would happen around 10am (the ‘Moscow Time’ policy only really works in, you know, Moscow).
Kaliningrad used to be a part of Germany, well, Prussia actually. It was known for hundreds of years as Königsberg, the place where numerous Germanic kings had a shiny metal hat plonked on their heads like it was their Super Sweet Sixteen. Not much left of the old town now – much of the city was destroyed by the British bomb raids in World War II, the rest was mopped up by those cheerful chaps from Russia who moved in, forcibly pushing the tens of thousands of Germans who lived here the hell out. In classic Soviet style, they lovingly restored the glorious old buildings that had been destroyed in the war back to their original glorious old status HA FUCK NO they just put up a load of bulky, brutal, ugly, totalitarian concrete shite instead… since that’s all humanity deserves (according to every architecture graduate since 1958).
I ambled down to the (frozen) river and took a few pics of myself outside the old cathedral – one of the few buildings to survive the aesthetical carnage that was the twentieth century. It was lonely, I was miserable, all I wanted to do was come the hell home. I’m sick of this shit.
I got back to the bus station around 10am, and bought myself a ticket to Mamonovo – the nearest town to the Polish border. It took about 40 minutes to get there on the bus and when I arrived it was sleeting. The nice stern Russian bus conductor woman ordered me off the bus in the warm friendly manner we’ve all come to expect from our Eastern European counterparts. I obliged and headed for the safety of the nearby supermarket for shelter. There I met another nice lady who was wearing a padded camo jacket and pants and a lovely Russian hat with a rather splendid Russian Army badge affixed to the front. She wanted to see my ‘papers’. I haven’t heard somebody call my passport that since Central Africa.
This isn’t going to end well is it?
Presumably unhappy with my passport picture (or the colour of my hair) Russian Army Lady told (ordered?) me to follow her. We walked for a mile through the snow and slush and sleet and cold and FUCKING MISERY before arriving cold, wet and shivering at an army base. I was taken into a nice big gloomy office that had maps on the wall which were hidden behind curtains. There I was told in broken English by two army dudes (presumably press ganged into talking to me as they had a smattering of English between them) that the entire town of Mamonovo is a frikkin gigantic army base (one without signs, a fence or a bus that informs its passengers that we’re entering a restricted zone) and so my presence there was about as welcome as a drunken David Irving gatecrashing a Holocaust Remembrance Service.
Well thanks for letting me know guys! I’ll just be leaving… the country… and never coming back!
Ah no, the army guys wanted to take me to the airport – you know, if you’re going to deport somebody for stumbling off a public bus into a supermarket, you might as well do it PROPERLY eh?
I explained that I had a bus ticket back home from Gdansk and if they wouldn’t mind I would just like to go to the border, you know, that thing that was like 2km away – and leave. They discussed this strange proposal for a bit before bundling me into a car and driving me to the frontier. A friendly ‘GET OUT’ on the Russian side of passport control and I found myself at the side of the road desperately trying to get a lift to the boom gates (you’re not allowed to walk across) while the weather conspired to crush any remaining joy or love left in the black cold stone that used to be my heart.
I’m done with this shit. I just want to go home.
Stamped out of Russia, I re-entered the EU and got as far as the first town on the Polish side of matters. From there I hopped a bus to Elblag, and then another to Gdansk, arriving just in time to be told I couldn’t get on the F—ING BUS TO LONDON because I didn’t have a printed ticket. The pdf on my laptop didn’t mean squat. I didn’t have a printed ticket because the cockmonkeys on the bus when I was coming to Gdansk on Monday took my original printout off me. After much gesticulating I managed to get a second copy printed from the coach agent’s office and made the 3pm bus with (as per usual) seconds to spare.
The return journey was every bit as tedious, horrible and exhausting as the outward journey. Again, we stopped for food less often than a 9/11 Truther stops and uses their goddamn brain. Well, we stopped all the time, but nowhere that food was readily available. With the big rush to get on the bus I didn’t have a chance to stock up on supplies (or even change my Russian Roubles into something useful) so I just sat there, going crazy with boredom and hunger, trying to go to sleep so time would go quicker. As we left the slate-grey skies of Gdansk I was told off for putting my feet up on the back seat. All the announcements (like where we were, how long we were stopping for etc.) were in Polish. This whole episode felt like I was, at the age of 33, having already been to every country in the world, being forced to re-sit my A-Levels. GodDAMN it.
I slept fitfully throughout the night. The temperature on board swung from toasty warm when we were moving to bollock-shatteringly cold whenever we stopped and the driver left the doors open so we could be obnoxiously whipped by the frigid winds blowing down from the Arctic Circle.
The next day I arrived in London Victoria Coach station around 5.30pm. The rubber-stamped end of my four year journey. Nobody was there to greet me this time. Might as well have been on a business trip. At least it wasn’t raining this time. I took the train to Islington to meet Casey from work. We reunited on Upper Street. We then headed over to Casey’s parent’s house in Hounslow to pick up some stuff before driving the length of the North Circular over to Gants Hill – our new residence. A room between us in a big house of 10 people. It’s not much, but at least we get to be together. I’m fed up of all this gallivanting. I need a break.
The Odyssey Expedition is over, over, over. Now I need to get a proper job. I just hope to hell that one of the various Travel/Video/Film/Book projects I’m trying to get off the ground comes to fruition. And does so soon. For the first time in over 4 years, I have rent to pay.