I had notes for the next few countries but not only misplaced my notebook in Turkey, but also seem to have lost a bunch of recordings I made. Bugger.
I flew from Iceland to Helsinki, to visit Eastern Europe. I’d been to Estonia previously, but little else in the area. It was vastly cheaper to fly to Helsinki and take the ferry than to fly to Tallinn, hence why visiting Helsinki consisted of little more than going from the airport to the ferry terminal. I decided to live life and take the faster boat over, but even though the weather wasn’t that bad it was cancelled at the last minute and meant taking the slower boat for more than I’d have paid originally and arriving 4 hours later. Estonia is quite wonderful for camping, with a good number of free designated camp spots. I’d found a few possible options when I was sat around waiting for my ferry and so headed out of Tallinn happy to ride, especially given the mild weather. Once I was on the smaller road heading to the campsite, it was fascinating playing the game of ‘spot the fisherman’ as it seemed like most Estonian men were out fishing that evening.
My strongest memories of Latvia involve my Warmshowers host Davis who as well as having a small apartment in the town had a house in the nearby countryside which is where he hosted me. He apologised about the simple living, but it was quite lovely with the evenings involving sitting in a sauna, cooling down in the pond and then drinking some beer watching the stars.
On the day that I thought was going to be a rest day, possibly going into the nearby town to see whatever there was to see, Davis came up with a better plan. In the morning we went mushroom hunting, well I say we but it was really I accompanied him. There were so many leaves on the floor that as far as I was concerned the mushrooms were invisible, but with his experience, Davis could see each and every one. I think I picked 4 small ones while he picked the rest of the basket. After lunch, we returned to the forest on a quad bike with a chainsaw. He wanted to build a hunting tower and so we got to be lumberjacks and fell some pretty tall trees. At the end of the day he apologised for it, but I found it to be a far more interesting day than one looking at old buildings, especially as I was on my way to Riga, which had its fair share of buildings to look at.
In both Estonia and Latvia, one of the things I heard frequently were complaints and fears about Russia. The topic would come up, especially when I would be repeatedly asked about Brexit and why the UK doesn’t like the EU. For the people in the Baltics that I spoke to the EU is fantastic, mainly for one reason – safety. While Estonia and Latvia are both part of NATO, they see being a member of the EU as also being critical as a protection from Russian influence.
Riga – Met Mark Thomsen, fellow cycle-tourist, also on a Thorn. Most famous thing is a statue of the musicians of Bremen but my tour guide seemed to think it was stupid.
Lithuania was my next new country, and I was at first happy to hear that people don’t have a problem with Russians. That was at least until they started complaining about the Polish instead. I do wonder if every country has some rival that they dislike for some historical grudge that no longer has any reflection on modern day, considering the Polish and Lithuanian things seemed to mainly hark back to the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which ended in the 18th century.
Although I was in what I would think of as Eastern Europe, I ended up visiting a place called the ‘Geographical Centre of Europe’, lending credence to the arguments that I would repeatedly hear in Hungary and Slovakia that they were in Central Europe, not Eastern Europe.
The most interesting thing about the capital Vilnius is Užupis, a small area by the river which claims to be an independent republic. It was formed as an April Fools’ joke and somehow still exists in all it’s Bohemian glory. I recommend reading the consitituion, and a Guardian article from back in 2000 to learn a bit more about it.
The main thing I got to do in Vilnius was to apply for my Belarussian visa. To apply for it, you either need a reservation for each night in a government approved tourist hotel (££££) or to be invited by someone. Thankfully due to the wonders of Warmshowers, I got myself an invitation. It was less of a hassle than the Algerian invitation in that it didn’t need my host to post me anything, he just needed to send me a couple of scans from his passport. On top of that, I needed to have medical insurance, which found online. While I had a host, I decided to pay double (€120 v €60) for next day processing as I really didn’t want to hang around for a week. While there were places nearby that I would have visited, it was early September and I was concerned about the weather turning so pushing south as quickly as I could.
As far as the visa application process itself, it ended up being pretty effortless. I got to queue up outside the embassy for about an hour, and when I requested the visa I’d originally asked for 28 days. The lady took the paperwork through to another office and was back within 2 minutes saying ‘Director say no. Maximum 10 day’. It was shorter than I’d have liked, especially as I was paying €120 for the thing, but I wasn’t in a position to argue. It’s apparently the way that Belarussians get treated when they apply for EU visas, and if I were to decide to go back to Belarus I might get given a longer visa next time having proven that I’m a good person and not able to leave without overstaying my visa. As it was, I applied on the Monday, got my 10-day visa the Tuesday and it started on the Wednesday.