Location: Meldal, Norway
Meldal, Norway, just south of Trondheim, the land of Milk and Honey. No seriously, Ola's sister and brother in-law run a dairy farm and I got to drink unpasteurized milk right from the teet! Well, not the teet, but right after it was filtered and chilled. Delicious!
Almost every Norwegian family has their main home as well as a cottage to vacate to at all times of the year. But, there are no roads that lead to these cottages, nor are there any power lines. So, we drove into the mountains and met a snow mobile to take us up to the cottage. The snowmobile only had room for me and the driver which meant Ola had to be towed by a rope on cross country skis to the cottage. The only real way in is to hike or ski. Not everyone is allowed to own a snowmobile so you have to hire one like a taxi if you dont want to hike or ski. It was about 6km to the cottage which was absolutely silent. You could hear your heart beat while watching the sun set as you sit on the deck. Not even a bird or a slight breeze interrupted the tranquil mountainsides.
The next day we got up early and cross country skiied to a pond about 2km away for some ice fishing. Cross country skiing is infinitely more difficult than downhill skiing. I didn't so much ski as I did just fall over a lot. It was very hot on the ice with all the reflection from the sun and absolutely no breeze. Beautiful, but some how sitting in the snow with no shirt on was still too hot. We caught nothing. Not even so much as a bite, so we left the rods in the water overnight, skiied home and sledded down some 80 degree hills.
The next morning, even with the rods left in the pond overnight, we still caught nothing. It was time to head back down the 6km to the road at the base of the mountain. No snowmobile for they way home so we were skiing the whole way - well, Ola was skiing. I was busy falling continuously and leaving some blood on the ice. Basically, I had to point my skis and aim for a part of the mountain that started to slope back up, otherwise the only way I could stop was to fall over. Six kilometers never felt so long.
I feel like I got a true Norwegian experience eating four times a day (including eating some moose), tearing down trees with an axe, snowmobiling, 'skiing', and skeet shooting. I'm sure Ola and I were an interesting sight with his shotgun strapped to his back as the two of us tore up the side of a mountain to go shoot some clay pigeons. By the way, the only ones I hit were the ones that landed on the ground.
That is pretty much the end of it. I have a layover in Amsterdam and then I will be back in Atlanta. I will miss brown cheese and waffles.
Location: Riga, Latvia
Old Town Riga is spectacular to walk through. It's clean and narrow cobblestone streets make you feel like you are back in time..well, except for the clean part. With the Black Plague and all it was pretty filthy back then. I was staying at Riga Old Town Hostel & Pub. A pub in the hostel, what a brilliant idea. They served up drinks of Absinth and Latvian Balsams. I don't really know what Balsams is, so I brought back a bottle of it to make sure I really know how it works.
Lativa has a lot of history in the last 60 years, as do the rest of the Baltic countries. Right before WWII Hitler and Stalin secretely signed a non-agression pact between their two countries. However, the Non-agression pact had nothing to do with Germany and the USSR invading other countries, just each others. So the Soviets decided to slowly take over the Latvian government and assimilate them into the USSR. So, of course, in the typical Soviet style the communist purgings began as did the goulags and the deportations to Siberia. This was a big deal to a country of only 1.5 million people and when the Nazis came to kick out the Soviets, they were actually seen as liberators. That is until the Latvians realized they weren't getting their country back. As the Soviets retreated they forced the Latvians to fight the Nazis. Those who did fight against the Nazis were killed after Hitler took control of Latvia. Then again, at the end of the war the Soviets pushed back through Latvia using Latvian soldiers to fight the Nazis, while the Nazis used Latvian soldiers to fight the Soviets. There is an interesting museum called the Museum of Occupation describing the atrocities of the Latvians forced to fight against each other. Brother vs. Brother and Father Vs. Son. Sadly, over a third of the population or 500,000 Latvians were killed in WWII. Not until Regan said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" did the Latvians finally escape 40 years of occupation. Riga has blossomed in the last 15 years into a beautiful tourist attraction filled with very proud and patriotic Latvians. Economically the Latvian Lat is worth just about as much as the pound! The further west you go the more expensive it gets.
Its too bad I didn't have more time for the rest of Latvia, but I have to get to Norway - the land of "Melk & Honey" according to Ola.
Location: Train to Riga, Latvia
The train to Riga was the most interesting one yet. I think more happened on this train then all the others combined. This train had an actual bar set up on the train that looked like any other bar you could walk into from the street. As soon as the train got going I went to the bar to escape the small family in my room and immediately I met Donotas, a Lithuanian who used to live in Tahoe. Donotas served as my translator for all the Russian speakers who wanted to meet the foreigner. Most were very friendly and offered me drinks, a couple of others were pretty hostile.
Donotas met his wife in America and got married in Vegas and liked America so much that he named his daughter 'Erica' so that when she introduces herself she says "I'm Erica" which sounds exactly like a Lithuanian saying "America." I thought that was pretty clever. Having a conversation with an America-loving individual was very heart warming. I wouldn't say that conversations like that are rare - I'd say they were non-existent until now. Most of my time is usually spent answering the question "Do you like Bush?" or "Why didn't America sign the Kyoto treaty?" I usually bob and weave around the questions like I am playing dodge ball just to avoid any confrontation. However, a couple of young Russian soldiers found out I was American and didn't really want to ask me any questions, just yell at me and if they had their way probably throw me off the train. They started out by shouting loudly across the bar to let everyone in it know I was American and that they weren't fond of my country. I didn't need a translator to figure out what was happening. They were basically trying to see if they could find anyone else in the bar to join them in bashing America - and maybe even the American. It was all in Russian but you don't need to translate "America in Iraq, America in Afghanistan, America in Serbia" and so on (Apparently these guys aren't taught Russian history before 1990). But, thankfully, no one joined in with them and they shut up for at least a little while.
During the intermission of anti-American rants from the soldiers our small group was serenaded by an older gentleman reciting poetry from the soviet days. It was an interesting group that included two Latvian fisherman who shared their cognac with me and told me how much they loved Miami. A German guy played guitar for his two Russian girlfriends and together we sang an alcohol induced rendition of Johnny Cash's "Burning Ring of Fire." At least half of the words could have been right.
On a bathroom break in the hallway I ran into the 'friendly' Russian soldiers who politely told me to "Die American" on their way past. I felt so loved. When I got back to the bar they had a few more choice Russian words for me and illustrated with hand gestures how they wanted to land a plane in America and shoot everyone. And then, bizarrely, the one soldier handed me a shot of vodka so that I could drink to his health. Obviously, I'm not feeling like their friends but Russians have an interesting way of getting to know people. Basically, if you drink with them you are okay in their book no matter how much they think they should hate you. So I took the shot. The shot of vodka was a test for me. Had I made a sour face or not drank the entire shot at once they would have liked me even less. Instead they respected me, but still disliked me because I was American. Certainly an odd sequence of events.
After the soldiers went to go pass out a couple of new guys came in to the bar and Donotas gave them a summary of what was happening between the soldiers and myself. They were embarrassed by their military countrymen and did not want me to leave Russia with a bad impression. They invited me to stay at a small border town to experience 'real' Russia completely on their dime. They did not want me to leave their country with the bad impression of the soldiers that I had just experienced. Sadly, I could not join them because all of my flights to Norway were already booked. Needless to say there was no way I was going to leave with a bad impression of Russia.
We drank and talked until 4am when we were forced to return to our cabins for the boarder crossing. I handed my documents over to the immigration officer and she gave me a weird look and asked me something in Russian that I obviously did not understand and could not answer. Playing stupid at border crossings or with the police in general is always a great tactic, but in this case I'm sure it seemed like a great performance because I wasn't pretending. I eventually got my passport back and went to bed. The next morning I saw Donotas again on the platform exiting the train and he told me the two immigration officers were discussing me in his room the night before at the border. Apparently they had never seen immigration documents like mine before. I guess not too many people enter Russia via Mongolia and leave via Latvia. It's not uncommon to get pulled off the train and fined $5,000 if you paper work is not in order. In the end the one officer asked the other if I spoke Russian and when she replied "No" she was told just to let me go. Ignorance is truly bliss.
I am out of Russia now and I will miss St. Pete's and Moscow. I wish had more time and money to see some smaller western Russian towns.
Location: Moscow & St. Pete, Russia
St. Patty's day in Moscow! Aside from the obvious - drinking beer- I watched the Ireland - Pakistan cricket game with some new friends that Ireland miraculously won in an incredible upset. It was a fantastic St. Patrick's day present for the Irish, but sadly it was marred by the murder of the Pakistan cricket coach the next day (most likely for losing such a winnable match to the Irish).
On a brighter note, the Moscow subway has some beautifully ornate subway stations with sculptures, marble columns and stained glass making just riding the trains a bit of a tourist attraction. Moscow is a big city and taking the subway helps, but I still walked about 15km a day. After complete inactivity on the train from Irkutsk walking around Moscow for hours at a time was painful, but the sites made it all worth it, especially at Victory Park - a WWII memorial - and all to see at Red Square. I must look a little Russian because I was never stopped by any of the police in Red Square (where I was almost every day). People walking in front of me or right next to me would be stopped but the police would let me slide by. It probably helped that I avoided them as much as possible too.
I also met my friend Boris to get the insiders tour of Moscow as well as some free internet time at the EY Moscow office, and most importantly the best meal I have had yet. I don't have the luxury of knowing what Moscow was like in 1990, but you can tell the city has come a long way and appears very rich. You can find anything you want in Moscow, which seems to pride itself on European fashion designers.
After a few days in Moscow I took an overnight train to St. Petersburg in third class, which might as well be a refugee camp on wheels. There are no cabins just a bunch of very short beds. I was lucky enough to have the top bunk but my feet hung over into the isle which people had to duck on their way to the toilet. Hey, it was cheap.
St. Petersburg is very different from all other Russian cities. Peter the Great started the city during a period of ideological unrest in Russia between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Basically, Europe was going through an enlightenment while Russia was staying the dark ages and the Slavophiles wanted to stay isolated from Europe, while Peter the Great (and all the other Westernizers) wanted to open up trade and explore Europe. So Peter, in all his greatness, created the city of St. Petersburg for a safe harbor of western thought free from Moscow persecution as well as an actual harbor for trade ships to Europe. So, after a bunch of wars with Sweden the Russians got control of the bay and the port and arguably the economic power that put them on the map. So in that sense Peter really was great. He also tried to bring Europe's enlightenment to St. Petersburg by opening up Russia's first museum, which contained 'monsters' like conjoined twins and deformed fetuses that he got from his buddy in the Netherlands. It sounds incredibly morbid to walk around a museum looking at jarred deformed human fetuses (which can be seen even today), but if you understand that Peter's goal was to show his people that they weren't bewitched or possessed by the devil, but that sometimes in life these things just happened you can see it's really for educational purposes.
One of the best, and less morbid museums was the Hermitage art museum complete with works from Rembrant, Van Gogh, Picasso and even a couple of da Vincis. Because Peter went to the Netherlands so frequently to get educated in just about every profession from shipbuilding to medical surgery he brought back many paintings from Europe. Walking through the Hermitage there was a copious amount of Flemish art which was big on still life views of the food markets from the 17th and 18th centuries. They have an uncanny resemblance to pictures of the food markets I have taken in the last 2 months while traveling through China and Tibet. I guess if you think about it the closest thing we have to time travel is exploring developing countries, because its probably the closest thing we have to looking back in time at our own developed countries. And, by the same point, I guess developing nations get to look into the future.
There is a lot of culture in both cities that, sadly, I didn't have enough time, or money, to experience like ballets, operas and orchestra concerts. St. Petersburg, despite its smog, is a very enlightened city with very beautiful European architecture. I would like to get back there some day.
I had planned to go to Estonia, but it's easier to catch a train to Riga, Latvia so I am going there instead. Fourteen hours overnight from St. Pete.
Location: Toilet Timeout, Russia
Do you think you can judge a country's development by the advancement of their bathroom fixtures? In my travels I have experienced a transition of toilets from China and Tibet to Mongolia and now Russia. In China and Tibet you may recall from a previous post a description of the squatter and its inherent challenges. Which, honestly was a giant leap forward from using the sidewalks and city streets. Mongolia, with all of its western influence (I assume because it's not communist) has many more western (sitting) toilets than China. They have begun to make the transition from squatters to sitters. BUT the sitters have footprints on the seats! So, the fixture is western but the style is still eastern. A lavatorial fusion of east meets west, if you will. Who would've thought seeing footprints on the toilet seat would actually make me think society is progressing forward? In Russia there are three types of toilets to accommodate the various developmental stages of human evacuation. They have the squatters, the sitters and a hybrid toilet that is a sitter, but has been modified to have footsteps on the sides of the bowl. I guess you have to climb up on it like a perch. But honestly, what's worse than the squatter is the fourth type of Russian toilets, which are basically western toilets with no seats or footpads. So you have to hover, which is more of a musculoskeletal challenge than just squatting. So the 'hover' is definitely the most uncomfortable position. But, at least I have not seen any "stalac-shites" in Russia, which is also much more toilet paper friendly then the east. Soon enough I imagine I will be able to actually put the toilet paper IN the toilet!