This is the seventh part of my 1994 travels through Eastern Europe: Poland - Belarus - Russia - Estonia - Latvia - Lithuania - Poland.
If you are just coming on board, here are links to earlier parts in this series on Eastern Europe 1994:
Part 1: Poland | Part 2: Poland | Part 3: Poland | Part 4: Belarus | Part 5: Russia | Part 6: Russia
If you'd like to switch to a different series of travel writings:
The Levant | 1996 | May 05 to May 08 | Part 1 – Egypt
If you have been following along from the beginning, welcome back 🔆
Thanks for reading
Sunday, 18 September 1994 | 12.45 | Tallinn (Estonia)
This is beautiful - Tallinn is a wonderful city! A medieval town and almost unspoilt, as far as is possible nowadays! I was standing at the entrance to the city with the walls running away in front and trees off to the right. In between the two was a gap of around 100 metres where the ground had been turned over with picks and shovels - these had been left behind in the soft earth. Nearby, there were 5 Estonians sitting, one an old-timer. There was nothing to indicate which century we were in, just the old walls, the workers in their rough dress sitting and smoking, the ploughed earth and the trees. Then a flashy red car pulled up and broke the spell!
Despite my trepidation, nothing untoward happened at the border and my passport was returned with a stamp and a neutral “Dosvedanya!” The Estonian guards chuckled over my passport for some reason, but stamped it and gave it back. We were in Tallinn by 5.30am.
Gabriel1 and I found the youth hostel - $5 USD each for a room with twin beds. Slept for a couple of hours until 11 and we then left to walk around town, which, being a good 3 km away, we took the bus. At first I wasn't so sure about how I'd get on with Gabriel, the 21 year old Argentinian (6 months younger than me), but after a pizza and a coffee we found a lot to talk about and I began to appreciate and enjoy his company. We walked around the town, him trying to take it all in and me leaving that for a time when I could be alone. He studied cinematography and had worked as an editor for 2 years before getting fed up and quittng his job to go travelling for a year around Europe. He has managed to see a lot and has the funds to do so. I discovered in him a sound knowledge of European and South American history, and this evening I was listening to him for a good few hours as he told me of the Falklands, Chile, Argentina, WWI and WWII - whilst looking at a map of Europe. I also learned that he was Jewish, and he spoke with definite authority on the Middle East. He has a very broad vision that I know I do not possess. He told me of some documentaries he made of Jews who had been in the Nazi concentration camps. I had voiced an opinion that I didn't think Schindler's List to be a great film. He didn't tear my argument apart but made me see that it wasn't just the plight of the Jews, but that of all opressed peoples which needed to be portrayed, and done so repeatedly in order that such atrocities are not forgotten or repeated. Very true, but I personally believe that as long as people are unable to, or prevented from thinking for themselves and are thus mere tools for the real criminal rulers of society, human nature being what it is, the little incidents that build up into vast unstoppable misunderstandings cannot be prevented.
We parted at 11.30am to go on our separate voyages of discovery, and we're to meet up again at 6pm. I walked along the old walls and towers, peering into the little lanes with cobbled streets to see old couryards spreading inwards. I was wishing I could feel more a part of it all. Then I noticed a door to a tower which was open, with crumbling steps leading up to where it was hanging on its old hinges. This was in one of the more remote lanes that ran the length of the city walls on the inside, and I hauled myself up onto the ledge and began to climb. I reached the chamber on the first level and climbed the broken stone staircase to the second level, where I am at present. This would be impossible in Western Europe - “too dangerous!” Here, even if anyone saw me, I doubt if they'd care.
In spite of the litter, it is peaceful and beautiful here. I'm alone. The traffic is running outside the walls and 100 feet below me. The town with its spires and atmosphere of age and calm, is to my right. The harbour and sea a kilometre or so straight ahead. It might even be Finland that I can see across the bay. I'll bring Gabriel here, he'll love it!
1. Gabriel, the Argentinian who was at the hostel in St. Petersburg and was also on the train to Tallinn. I had given him my details to forward on in case I got into any serious trouble for overstaying my visa.
Monday, 19 September 1994 | 13.20 | Train Tallinn – Tartu (Estonia)
Wrong on two counts yesterday! It wasn't Finland that I could see, just the cape that formed one side of Tallinn bay. I went to the harbour and boarded a bus for that cape. The bus hugged the coast for a while, ran inland and then terminated, so I just got it back. Walked around Tallinn aimlessly, such a lovely city!
Then met Gabriel in the pub that I had some difficulty finding. I was wrong about him wanting to go to see the tower. Perhaps he would've been more enthusiastic had he chanced upon it like I had. We ate 2 large pizzas each and sat around talking for a bit. He told me of the Spanish Inquisition and later showed me a 60-million year old fossil he had picked up on the island of Svalbart, 900 km North of Norway, where he had spent 4 days. The fossil was half of a leaf, but perfectly preserved with the veins still clearly detailed. Apparently, the island had once been South of the Equator and abounded in all kinds of plant and animal fossils – in the thousands, and there for the taking!
Had brunch in a cafe this morning and a chat about 'arty' films – he suggested a few titles. Then we parted. I might see him in Tartu, and he said he'd come to visit in St. Andrews, where I told him he'd be welcome.
It's funny, I've been sitting in the train with an empty seat across from me for the past 30 minutes. The carriage is over 80% full yet only now does someone - an elderly woman, sit down; as if a foreigner was to be avoided! We haven't moved yet either. 5 minutes till departure.
Tuesday, 20 September 1994 | 14.00 | Tartu (Estonia)
The train took forever and stopped at all the little hamlets on the way, at times apparently in the middle of nowhere. Once it even stopped on a bridge with perhaps half a metre between the tracks and the beams, yet the doors opened and people got off.
I walked to the address of the 'cheap' hotel that I had, but they had 'new' prices. The girl was unselfish enough to tell me of another cheap place and I contemplated getting the 2.22 am train to Riga if too expensive. I walked on through to the old town with peaceful old buildings, and up through one of the many parks that are characteristic of Tartu. I happened upon various old and interesting buildings when rounding a corner, or walking up a gentle hill.
I asked someone for directions to the hostel and recognised a Scottish accent. Gordon, 45-ish and a professor of English at the University, who has been here for a year. He invited me for a drink and we sat down. He told me that he had spent 4 years in Finland and that after the Soviet Union collapsed and his company went bust, he hadn't wanted to return to the UK.
He gave me directions once again but it was dark by now and I had had 3 beers. I couldn't find the hostel. The area I was in was quiet and leafy, nobody about. I spotted a car emerge from a lane and hailed it. Turned out to be a flashy police van and they told me to hop in. We spent 10 minutes zipping up and down until we located the hostel. They were friendly although we didn't really speak much.
At the hostel there was a 19-year old Finn called Hennrick, who was also looking for a place to sleep and had followed the same trail of expensive hotel first. We got a double suite for 80 Kroon (10 DM) each, which had two rooms and one bathroom, so we had a room each. Went into town and had quite a few drinks. Got on well enough and returned by 1.30am in the rain. We conversed in English which he spoke very well, although he constantly said 'yes' in a way that made him sound rather aristocratic - in the manner that some Scandinavians are wont to speak English!
Didn't get up and about until after noon. Said bye to Hennrick, the Yes man, and left my luggage in the tourist info, where a pretty girl was very helpful. In Russia, when I met people in trains and public places, they found it hard to accept that I just wanted to travel through Russia, and usually assumed I was there on business. It is not so over here!
I bought some food from a supermarket as well as a small frying pan. Sat in a park and ate to the accompaniment of Crime and Punishment. Great chapter, when Raskolnikov realises that Detective Porfiry knows, and they have a very interesting dissussion about crime. This is probably the reason I'm not in such a diary-writing mood! I might try hitching to Riga as I have another 11 hours to wait for the train!
Wednesday, 21 September 1994 | 02.30 | Train Tartu (Estonia) – Riga (Latvia)
Decided not to hitch after all. Tartu is such a pleasant town and it was relaxing just to sit on the grass reading until daylight failed. I also walked around for a bit.
Bought my ticket for 58.10 Kroon (just over 7 DM) and decided to wait out the remaining 6 hours in the cafe where I had been drinking with Mr. Yes. I wrote a couple of letters and then got into German conversation with Peter, who I had bummed a cigarette off. He was a 28-year old Estonian who had studied 'Chemical Restoration' in Germany for two years, and whose German was excellent. He works at the historical museum here restoring old photos and negatives. Drank coffee until 11.30pm and, upon his invitation, went back to his apartment to spent the time before my train to Latvia.
He is an easy-going fellow and we talked about various things. I came to the conclusion that he is gay, although he never made any direct advances and this did not detract any from the interaction. He lives in a bedsit and we listened to some really nice instrumental music1 that I would like to get a copy of.
Exchanged addresses and I made the train with 10 minutes to spare. I'm tired and it's hard to write for the carriage is rocking about. It's almost empty, only half-a-dozen others besides myself. I'll get into Riga for 7.50am, let's see what happens next. It's getting anti-climatic already, on the home stretch!
1. The music is Songs from the Victorious City (Youtube link) by Anne Dudley & Jaz Coleman. I did get myself a copy of it.
Thursday, 22 September 1994 | 04.30 | on Train, Estonian – Latvian border
The border guards sure take their time and they seem to enjoy stamping the passports too! Just now in the carriage I'm having to put up with some obscene eating noises that I can barely stand. I've been out for a smoke twice! Unlike the Russians, the guards don't seem to mind me moving around. Three conductresses have gathered in our carriage and they all giggle and crack up every time they see me – I think it's because I had asked about the toilet which is kept locked at the border! I observed some of the guards climb into the engine and they even checked underneath, uncoupling and re-coupling it to the rest of the train and making it move on a bit. Others just walked up and down aimlessly, one flashing his torch as he waddled along. Those eating sounds! She's right at the other end and probably not even eating, just opening her mouth every 10 seconds to best irritate.
We're off to Latvia at last!