Having said farewell to Evgeniy & Nastya, my hosts in St Petersburg, the ride west to the border with Estonia was unremarkable, taking a largish road that cut through more forest and the entertainment was listening to my new podcasts. I spent the evening in my tent, put in a wooded area near a statue to the Great Patriotic War, at the suggestion of some firemen that I spoke to. Their station was in the middle of a large number of soviet-era apartment buildings (not saying much considering how prevalent they are) so camping there wouldn’t have been feasible.
Before leaving Russia, I bought some provisions to make the most of the weak rouble knowing that the prices in Estonia would be higher. There used to be a requirement to register in Russia, a holdover from Soviet days, and show some proof of where you had stayed when you left the country. I’d been a bit concerned with this, having no plan to officially stay anywhere and so not have anyway of proving where I’d been when I left the country. A couple of Warmshowers members had put my mind at ease and provided me a link to a page on a government website saying that you only needed to register if you stayed in an area for 7 days. Having not done so, there would be no issue.
I handed my passport over to the lady at the border and all seemed well, until she got to the page where the US officials had stapled my I-94, a card that you need to hand in when you leave the country. They staple it in to make sure you don’t lose it, but when I’d crossed the border into Mexico the official at the border ripped it out, removing not only the staple but also a square-centimetre piece of one page of my passport. The Russian lady seemed more bothered about this imperfection than the fact that my passport has got damp a few times causing a bit of warping and the ink from a couple of the stamps to run. She made a phone call to someone, and then spoke to another official, and then made another phone call, all without asking me why my passport had a tear in it, before finally letting me leave.
The main difference from arriving in Estonia was the number of signs everywhere explaining the smallest detail of everything. The head of the Estonian Tourism Board must really love signs, and so you can get the story of everywhere, even if there wasn’t really anything to say about the place. There were also some lovely bicycle paths, including the Eurovelo Baltic Cycle route, which had theoretically existed in Russia too, but I’d not seen any signposts.
There was also an increase in the amount of farming. That’s not to say that there were no forests, but instead of feeling like they were overbearing, you had a healthy mix of forests and farms where the harvest was being done and I wondered about my plan. My original idea when I flew home from Budapest, was to start this leg in Scandinavia, but I decided it was too late to do it properly and so I’d ride from Moscow to Bucharest instead. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, my plans never are, but probably involved having had a couple of weeks of nice weather, I decided that September and October was definitely the best time to go to Scandinavia and so instead of Tallinn and south, it was Tallinn and over the water to Helsinki and then west to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Considering the highlight of Norway, the fjords, has predictably unpredictable weather in the summer, I’m sure it’s going to be delightfully cold and wet in October – not quite ideal with only one brake. Especially as the long days that I have now are losing 5 minutes of daylight a day, so come mid-October will be about 10 hours long instead of the 13+ that I have now.
Estonia seemed quite sparsely populated, and on my first day in the country I only interacted with three people. The first one who changed my remaining roubles into euros, the second when I found myself at Estonia’s tallest waterfall and found that there had been no water for the previous month, and the other being a guy who was busy painting his house that I asked for water from. He didn’t speak much, but happily got me water from the well on his property. I’d been hoping to find someone to ask if I could stay with them, but few houses appeared and no-one was near them so it was that I found myself camping in a forest again, a very easy thing to do and in fact I think completely accepted in Estonia.
My next day saw me spending a few hours in a library while trying to dry my tent outside, enjoying the Wi-Fi to get a few things sorted out – including working out the logistics behind my new route idea. It was helped a lot by a friend from Luxembourg who had lived in Stockholm and so gave me a good option for a route across the country. People often say how Sweden is ‘nice’ but hopefully this route will take it that step beyond that, assuming I can avoid the worst of the weather. Fingers crossed.
My route took me through a national park near the coast. The Baltic was about as inviting as the North Sea as far as swimming goes, but there were some pretty parts when I saw it. It was also interesting to see a different war being important. Estonian history is long and dark, as I’d learn in Tallinn, and although they won the War of Independence in 1920, it only lasted until 1939 when they got taken over by the Soviet Union. The 24 years that they have been independent now is the longest period in their history.
My time in Tallinn can be summarised best by the walking tour that I went on and and heard plenty of stories. Here are the notes from it!
1227 – Crusaders
1710 – 1918 – Tsar. Until 1800s extreme serfdom
1920-1939 – Independence
Soviet Union approached Baltic nations with ultimatum – ‘protection v war’
1940-1942 + 1944 – 1991 – Soviet Union
Nazi/Soviet liberation but never leave
20th August 1991 – Independence
WW2 – Soviet bombing. 300 planes 9th March 1944. 1/3 of Tallinn city destroyed. 1/10th of Old Town destroyed. Pure civilian bombing but no roads, military etc. cos the Soviets were planning on using them for themselves. It Should have been worse. After bombing Helsinki and then Tallinn the Soviets were going to get more bombs. Finnish air force flew along with Soviets and then bombed Soviet air base so only 56 of 300 planes went back to bomb Tallinn.
Danse Macabre – Crown jewel painting, visited by a ‘crazy Estonian lady’ who thought death was talking to her so went with a big knife to destroy the painting. Church was empty other than one Norwegian tourist who wrestled her to the floor saving the painting.
Peek in the kitchen tower – Named because during non-war times it was like medieval reality TV and the guards would look out the windows on the town below. They could see into merchant houses and some merchants would pay bribes to be allowed to go in to lip-read people’s secrets and see who they were having meetings with.
During Soviet times there was one hotel only for tourists – 23rd floor not accessible, used by KGB. Official reason that people couldn’t go there was that ‘the view on the hotel is so spectacular that you would go crazy’
Officially never lost a war, surrender frequently, one reason why Tallinn’s historical centre is so well preserved
Estonian technology – Invented Skype (Swedish/Danish company but coded in Tallinn), ID card allowing things like voting online, banking, checking out library books, storing medical records.
Religion – 14% follow an organised religion, Lutheran biggest religion. Partly down to history – soviet views on religion banning bibles, constantly being conquered by other people who impose their own religion Catholic/Lutheran/Orthodox/nothing. For example, in 1920 after War of Independence, churches were seen as German so Estonians refused to enter.
Swedes made slavery legal, sent Estonian food to Stockholm, 20% of Estonian population died, called ‘Golden Times’ showing how bad other times were. Also brought Lutheranism which had such a push on literacy (to read bible and sign name) that saved the language and improved education.
Estonian have phrase ‘Spit over left shoulder’ in replacement of knock on wood.
Tallinn, 1248. No St Petersburg, cargo ships going to Russia had to stop there so received lots of taxes, especially on salt which got taxed triple. Tallinn sometimes called ‘the city built on salt’