Baltic Russia

Trip Start Jun 06, 2010
1
16
24
Trip End Oct 05, 2010


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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kaliningrad-Kurshskaya Kosa (Curonian Spit)
July 28-31

One of the more challenging spontaneous travel adventures I would have, Kaliningrad and Russian Curonian Spit offered a completely different spice to this trip, bridging my transition from West to East.

Rainy Days and…
Kaliningrad, former Prussian territory, squeezed between Poland and Lithuania, in many ways feels worlds away from Mother Russia. Although Stalin tried to rid the area of as many Europeans, Germans as possible, the former liberal, cultural city somewhat maintains that feel, and many people still speak German! Because the Russian Baltic fleet was headquartered here, this region was effectively closed to all outsiders (including Russians) for many years.  Oil was more recently discovered off the coast, so talk of its becoming an independent state is probably just talk!  Unfortunately between British air raids and destruction at the hands of the Red Army, little remains of the medieval city.  The Cathedral has been rebuilt and there are plans to rebuild other significant sights, including the Castle.

So this was a rather random route!   I've wanted to get to the Curonian Spit for a while, and here I go.  After a nice night's sleep on the train, I almost missed my connecting train from Melbork because most of the cars were going to Gdynia. I finally spotted КАЛІНІНГРАД on one car and hopped on just in time.  I had a completely pleasant ride, reading a terrific, yet twisted, $0.50 book (title?) by an American writer (name??) from 1969.  Mine was the only US passport in the whole stack, and the Russian border control agents were absolutely friendly (one even smiled).  I especially liked the woman in the maroon skirt-suit with perfectly matching hair but I was terrified to take a photo.  After they tore apart our compartments, the toilets, etc, looking for smuggled goods (although didn't check my bags), we were off.  Welcome to Russia!

I will confess that I did not have high hopes for Russia after my brief visit to St. Petersburg 12 years ago.  It was a gorgeous city (but then mostly run-down and crumbling except on Nevsky Prospekt), but overall, folks weren’t friendly or welcoming (rather everyone generally stared me down).  It was a rough time for them, their economy on the brink, thanks in part to new capitalism.  I had a great time there but did not expect a warm welcome in Russia again.  So my smooth entry was a welcome surprise.  I landed in the impressive Kaliningrad train station to find absolutely nobody who spoke English.  Refusing to pay $25 for a taxi, after about 30 minutes trying to figure out the buses, I gave up and walked my one mile or so to Big Communist Hotel (the only place I could successfully book online).  I found the only sunbreak for 2 days and it started to pour rain again right after I arrived- perfect timing!  I had only a few hours to figure out my 2-day trip to the Spit tomorrow, so I happily stayed at the wonderful Hotel Kaliningrad for the rest of the night.  There was no wifi in the rooms, so I would have to have latte and croissant in the great coffee shop, decent sushi in hotel, and wifi in the bar.  There is virtually no English here, but luckily one of the women at the front desk spoke English and was especially helpful and friendly.  I talked her into calling multiple phone numbers for me to figure out bus schedules to the Spit.  (I vow that I am going to learn some German for my next trip.)  I finally secured a place to stay in a tiny town called Rybachy by using a travel agent in the LP.  I wasn’t impressed when they asked me, "Why don’t you go to the Lithuianian side instead?"  Because I can’t—I have only a single-entry visa to Russia!  At any rate, I had a general plan, and was happy to be warm and dry and have a real bed for the night.

Kaliningrad is a pleasant city, and has few "sights" of interest, but I wanted to see the cathedral before going to the Spit.  I made my way there with my bright pink umbrella, walked through the park on one side of the river.  People were sitting outside, not entering, but since I couldn’t ask why, I proceeded in, to be received by a woman who just yelled something at me in Russian and slammed the door.  Oh well, again, I’ve seen plenty of churches, so I circled it and made my way back in plenty of time.  I grabbed my bag and went to catch the city bus to the bus station.  The girl at the desk told me "all the buses go to the bus station."  That seemed unlikely, but since it was at the other end of the main street that I was on, Leninsky, it was possible.  So I chose a bus that had more room in it and hopped on.  The babushka on the bus yelled something to me in Russian. It probably went something like, “sit down and get that big bag out of the aisle, for God’s sake.”  So I paid her and sat.  When the bus turned the wrong way (west instead of continuing south), I still had plenty of time so waited a few minutes and it turned and went back east.  But when it continued east instead of heading toward the bus station, I asked the babushka, showing her my map, if it would go to the station.  She told me, “Da,” so I reluctantly stayed on.  When we got to a different bus station, she gestured that I should get off here.  Yikes, she didn’t really look at my map at all.  By this time, I was cutting it very close.  She started to run around the bus with my map and discuss with all the other ladies what I should do.  I dug out my LP pages and told them near Yuzhny Vokzal, the south train station.  So she wrote down the bus number that I needed, gestured where I should get off, and another lady on the bus walked me there to make sure I understood.  It was pouring rain, and I had my bags, my umbrella, and my loose LP pages that went flying onto the wet pavement.  A very nice man picked them up, handed them to me, and asked if I needed help.   He spoke almost no English but tried to help. He happened to be getting on the same bus, so off we went.  Now we were going back into the city and there was suddenly so much traffic.  When we finally made it back to where we should go south, we went north.  So I again asked some people, and a nice man who spoke very good English came over, saw the map in my hand and showed me the route we would take to get there.  At this point, it would take a miracle to make it.  The real adventure was the lady across from me.  I had taken a seat that I really shouldn’t have with my big bag and it was in the way and I was trapped.  I have no idea what she was saying but she yelled at me in Russian for about 20 minutes.  When a nice lady who spoke a little English sat down beside me, I tried to get her to tell her that I had no idea what she was saying and asked her if I should move.  She told me I was fine but the lady kept yelling at me-- excellent!  The nice lady was clearly embarrassed.  I just considered it a Russian experience that everyone should have.  There is definitely a generational difference in attitudes here; I can tell already.  Everyone else has been very friendly.   At any rate, I got to the bus station just a few minutes late for my bus, but did get a nice $0.60 tour of Kaliningrad!   By now, it was raining even harder and I just wanted to get the hell out of town since I’d come this far.  I knew the next direct bus was in 4 hours, so I somehow managed to get on a bus in just a few minutes to a town (Zelanograst) from where I thought I could get a connecting bus, so off I went.  At least I was out of the rain and not carrying my big bag for a while.  I read my little Tolstoy book (fitting I thought) and dozed a bit on the short hour-ride.  At this point, the rain had not let up but I figured, worse case, I’ll sit in the station for a while.  Surprise, there is no station in Zelanograst!  There is a parking lot for buses and some signs with the schedules.  When I asked where to buy a billet, someone pointed at the signs and said “driver.”  Luckily I knew to take a bus to Morskoe, because my town, Rybachy, was not listed anywhere.  Ah, only 2 hours to kill.  I lugged my bags up the street, still in pouring rain.  I have no idea why I wore my little leather ballet slippers, but they were soaking wet, coming apart, and I realized, had faded all over my feet and stained my feet permanently black-- very attractive!  I found no real restaurants close by, so landed in a cute little coffee shop (shocking, I know) playing French café music.  A latte, tiny quiche, and tiny cherry pie later, I was set.  I even succeeded in getting money from an ATM.  Maybe evil eye pendant is looking after me after all?  So I waited for an hour under a shelter with others, reading my little Tolstoy and people-watching.   The bus came; it was comfortable and I was warm, except for my feet!

I finally arrived at 6pm in Rybachy, a tiny town of less than 1000 people. Luckily the TI was still open, very rare, no English.  I bounced (sloshed) in and bought a little map of the area and verified where I was supposed to go. It was at the other end of the tiny town.  I arrived at my place and they spoke absolutely no English, not a word.  They knocked on the door of another guest from Moscow who helped interpret and disappeared for the rest of my visit (after taking my money).  The place was nice enough, but I realized I was getting gouged at 51 euros/night!  I suspect that they were giving a big portion of it to the tour agency in Kaliningrad.

I will confess, I was frustrated with myself for trying to force something that was not working out. This did not fit with my self-image of perfect-trip planner.  I was expecting to be on or near the beach, but I walked toward the beach to find scruff.  I walked up to the fancy hotel to find absolutely gorgeous grounds, restaurant, pool, but still not much of a beach.  I considered moving up there for $130/night (WAY over budget!!) the next night assuming there would be some more English and they might be able to help me a bit, but the front desk really spoke no English.  A gal in the restaurant spoke a bit and was extremely helpful, but they did excursions only in Russian and German.  I went the other direction and headed down the path toward a “beach.”  It led off through the grasses into nowhere, past little houses where people just stared at me curiously. Everyone’s reaction, even the young Muscovite couple was, “you are alone?”  I remembered my promise to Hubby that I would not do stupid things, so I turned around. On top of everything, there was only one place in town with internet, the Post Office (TIP: this is often the case!), now closed, and my Romanian phone was not working, so I couldn’t let anyone know I was safe.

Silver Linings
Okay, well, I “needed” to eat, so I found a little place, sat down with the little Russian menu and compared it to the puny menu reader in my Eastern Europe phrasebook (seriously, buy a real Russian phrasebook!).  I triumphantly figured out a fish soup that sounded perfect given the rain.  I ordered that and Diet Coke and asked for vegetables in Russian.  They came back and said fish soup- nyet, so I tried to ask which of the other soups was vegetarian using my phrasebook. We agreed on one, and out came my salad and Diet Coke.  Then came my cold yogurt soup.  It was actually yummy with diced cucumbers, potatoes, and HAM- I’m sure it was vegetarian ham.   The girls were so incredibly patient and kind.  What an upbeat moment after a LONG day, before returning to the overpriced room.

The next morning, I had no idea what I would do, but vowed to make the best of the day.  And it wasn’t raining!  I turned up at the Post Office in the morning and nyet, the internet was down.  So I went to the TI trying to find some sort of tour, or someone who spoke English to ask if it is safe to rent a bicycle and just go.   The very nice ladies at the TI spoke no English, but I finally found an English word that they knew:  “excursion.”  They called someone up, asked me to wait, and in a few minutes, a lady walked in and introduced herself in perfect proper British English.  She told me that I would be going on a tour with them to here and here and here and here…..”if you agree” for about $30.  The tour would be in Russian, but she would tell me a few things in English.  You bet I agree, absolutely!  So I ran to get a little cinnamon bread and water for breakfast, and off we went in a few minutes.  The guide was surprised that I was eating so little for breakfast.  Quote of the day:  “But I thought all Americans eat so much.  You’re all so fat!”  Sigh.

The tour was fun. We went to a little archeological museum telling the history of the area, the geology, the settlers, then went for a walk through the forest on a large sand dune, then to the Dancing Forest and finally another large dune with views out over the Spit. We heard about the secret Nazi glider school here, used to train pilots before the war, the huge amber industry making this land so valuable, and the formation of the Spit. I didn’t realize for a few hours that the others (from Moscow) spoke a bit of English until finally a college boy, a journalism student, spoke to me.  The boy and I talked about university and jobs in Russia, the recent economy, current films and music.  He told me about his travels across Europe a few years ago, his fascination with Turkish history.  Unfortunately, the English speakers were staying in a different town.

When we returned to town, I asked the tour guide for her contact information. She asked me to go the (tiny, rugged) café that she had recommended for lunch and she would meet me there.  A few minutes later, up she rode on a bicycle, in her beret, to join me for lunch.  We patiently waited for a tour group as they all got the café’s specialty, smoked fish.  She talked them into making “something hot” for us.  The chef ended up bringing us whole fried fish, some delicious salads, and especially for me, coffee!   Talking to her would be one of my highlights of Russia.  She primarily works at the little museum and also gives tours.  She was just a fascinating lady, an ex-school teacher, raised in the middle of Russia and trained to teach English and German to children.  She relocated to the Spit in 1973 to raise her son.  We talked forever about her family, the differences between the Spit and Mother Russia, our mutual concerns and desires in life. She told me I was the only American tourist she had ever seen here!  I was so happy for the delightful company and to have a little glimpse into the unique life here.  Although Faina is of my mother’s generation, raised in a far different time and place, a different world really, I was reminded of how our similarities can often far outweigh our differences. (For English or German tours, a rare thing in Rybachy:  contact this charming, intelligent guide: Faina Jurchenko, faina.jurtsch@mail.ru; 007 4015041307)

While we dined, the downpour resumed, so my plans to bike to the beach (I was told it is perfectly safe) were thwarted.  Anyway, it was almost time for Hubby to wake up and I was sure he was worried about me at the ends of the Earth, so back to the Post Office I went. I got to fire off a few messages to Hubby and family and check some logistics.  I spent the afternoon in my room, taking advantage of the temporary quiet to finish my Tolstoy stories and try to catch up on the blog (ha!). Not being able to read menus, I recognized “desserts” and ended up with ice cream and tea for dinner, perfect! 

The next day it was still raining, so I caught the early bus back.  I had a nice day in Kaliningrad, wandering as many streets and nice parks as possible to get a feel for the modern and seemingly progressive Euro- city.  It was lively with an “up-and-coming” feel, the people positive.  It doesn’t feel so much like “Russia” to me (as far as I know so far).   When I left for my early flight on Archangelsk Air at 4:30am the next morning, there were still so many people out.  What were they doing?  For one, they were in the many casinos on my route to the airport!  This city definitely has some life.

I would not consider this part of the trip spectacular or Earth-shattering.  It was certainly not the beach that I was looking for, or even the natural beauty, based on the little piece I saw.  But I’m glad that I came to see a slice of life so incredibly different than anything I’ve seen so far, a tiny corner of the earth where people simply go about their lives. The highlight was the friendly people in general. This part of the journey was one of the more difficult things I’ve tried to do, especially last minute, quickly, on a budget, and without a word of Russian (or even German).  I would recommend it as part of a Baltic-Russia trip, to see a very different slice of Russia (and the Lithuanian side of the Curonian Spit).  Given the $130 visa fee (for US passport-holders), it isn’t practical to visit only this part of Russia but a multiple-entry visa would allow going from here through the Baltics to St. Petersburg.

Next stop, a city I have always wanted to visit:  Moscow!!
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Comments

Amy on

Nice post! My fiance is from Kaliningrad, and if not for having him there to guide
me, I'd have had a very hard time getting along there, since almost no one
speaks much English there! :) Beautiful and interesting area, though, and the
Curonian Spit of course is gorgeous and me and my fiance had some amazing
experiences there together! :)

Amy on

P.S. There is a little smoked fish shop in Rybachy, and my fiance and I ate some
incredible smoked trout there! Did you get to try any smoked fish? :)

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