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I am drafting this post sitting in the largest cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania.  I have to say that even for an atheist, there is nothing to stir the emotions like sitting in a church with soaring pillars and flying buttresses (just for F.) listening to the stirring sounds of a choir singing the exquisite choral strains of Dvořák. From here I leave for Poland and its capital Warsaw. *Warning*, slightly longer post but I think worth reading.

Ack! So being the trusting being that I am I lent my camera to a guy in the hostel in Riga who had his camera (indeed his entire bag) stolen earlier in the month. Coming back from my days jaunting (ever tried it?) I came across a sorry-looking guy in the hostel bar, explaining the camera had been ripped out of his hand in the middle of Riga’s busiest shopping street!

After two hours in the Italian restaurant next door to the station to await the inspector (three wine carafes down), we entered Riga’s KGB/Soviet-chic central police station opposite an attractive translator and a leathery police inspector with bizarrely festive nail extensions – all very surreal (maybe the wine). I dislike the atmosphere of police stations in general. It’s as if the ill luck of legions of suspects and crime victims have seeped into the linoleum floors and industrial wallpaper.

Some obscure Latvian drama is playing in the background – ignored by all protagonists except for quick glances by the inspector from time to time. Translator wearing a police blue coloured jacket. Signing a completely unintelligible document in Latvian. T. waiting outside in the corridor sipping awful coffee. Fluorescent lights. Slam. Fin.

Riga. Riga is the capital of Latvia and has a population of 700,000  out of a total population of 2.2 million. It’s the largest city in the three Baltic countries. Riga’s prime attraction for many is its vibrant nightlife (and by extension the beauty of its women and British stag parties). In addition to the bars though is a beautiful old town mostly car-free with ancient Hanseatic guild buildings.

There are museums, art galleries, churches and cobblestone streets. Unfortunately much of the old town was destroyed in various wars especially WW II which explains the elevator in the highest bell tower of the cathedral. Great view from the top though. Outside the old town they have the world’s largest collection of German Art Nouveau buildings.

Like both Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia had horrific experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule and therefore Latvians are also intensely proud of their independence. There are concentration camps you can visit but I didn’t feel quite up to it. In the event, virtually the entire Latvian Jewish population of over 60,000 perished in the Holocaust.

Vilnius. Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and the European Capital of Culture in 2009 and have really come to the party with a massive program of events as well as restored public monuments. It’s a very beautiful city (known as one of the greenest in Europe) and has a long and glorious history. There are a plethora of museums here to visit and many buildings of historical interests including a veritable cornucopia of churches; Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran. Interestingly, Lithuania was the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity from paganism, having a bad habit of martyring monks.

The defining event in recent history, as in all the three Baltic states, is unequivocably their independence from the USSR. The trigger event was the Baltic Way protests involved a human chain reaching almost 600 km from Vilnius to Tallinn. The days before independence (1990) had the potential of being far bloodier than they eventually were given the statement by the USSR Central Committee, “Should they achieve their goals, the possible consequences could be catastrophic to these nations. A question could arise as to their very existence.” As it happened, more people died in Lithuania fighting Soviet forces in the January Events than in the other two Baltic nations.

My host U. took me to Trakai, a very nice town west of Vilnius with a restored castle in the middle of a lake, amber souvenirs and home to a pleasingly obscure ethnic minority of Karaims. We returned to the bus stop and just as we arrived a fight had broken out between three shaven-headed louts and a middle-aged blocky man who had apparently refused to share his cigarettes with them. Kicked and hit, he held his own despite 3 to 1 odds and not one of the thirty odd onlookers (mostly older women to be sure) coming to his aid including YT. Never have I felt the lack of any martial art training so keenly. What was more bizarre is that after someone called out that they had rung the police, the thugs stopped attacking and even shook the victims hand and with shoulder clasp! Police arrived and I think they caught the villains. I must stress though, it was no worse than happens every weekend in Auckland’s CBD.

It reminded me of a event in Beijing when I was there, 200m from our hostel, where a man went insane and stabbed 14 killing 2. This is two weeks before the most sensitive event of the year in China (60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution) with legions of police. Day after, armed police in every hostel/hotel lobby and SWAT police on every street corner. Talk about bolting the stable door. Point being we are cossetted in our cotton wool suburban lives unaware of the sharp edges of our society all around.

Russia and the Baltics. I felt somewhat abashed when it was pointed out to me the pain that my Communist Party t-shirt potentially gives to people. Similarly the resurgence of old Soviet propaganda posters and other kitsch that glorifies a regime which murdered more people than the Nazis. In fact the questions arises, why should we be more offended by Nazi symbology?

The catalyst of this thought was brought home to me by my host who asked me to watch a gripping documentary called The Soviet Story. It encapsulates the whole reason why, by and large, the Finns, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians not of recent Russian descent (immigrants after WW II), do not like Russia. If the NZ government can apologise to the Samoans, Chinese and Maori, can’t the Russian government apologise on behalf of the Soviet terror machine? In fact, what is worse is the way Russia is playing with historical revisionism, today. Scary. The rise of a new fascism in Russia? Not unthinkable. 

In one winter alone in the Ukraine in 1932/1933 around 7 million Ukrainians died from a man-made and augmented famine. War crimes were committed by Soviet soldiers and hundreds of war criminals are still living in Russia today hailed as honourable veterans. The documentary notes, ‘no-one wants to believe that their ancestors were simple criminals’. Further, the fall of Communism inflicted a national humiliation on Russia – belief in the heroic deeds of the past have allowed modern-day politicians to fashion a new strong post-Soviet Russian identity to replace Communism. But. The majority of Soviet dead before, during and after WW II were inflicted by the State, not on the Eastern Front. You might say the Nazis got the idea of the Holocaust, the practicalities you understand, from Stalin.

The Germans have come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis, Russia has elected to collectively minimise the facts and move on (archives opened during Yeltsin years have now been closed).  The scars on the psyche relating to their Soviet histories are very deep in the former SSRs. Russia has not confronted its dark corners of its history. When I travelled through Russia, the way the mass media, politicians and the education system whitewash the past is disturbing. I hope that the fantastic Russians I have met on my trip are able to objectively assess my opinion. I truly enjoyed Russia but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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Dear all, six months since I departed from Auckland Airport. I have been to 11 countries, traversed 15 international borders and am still unmarried without dependants. After departing St Pete’s I took the bus to Estonia and am now sitting in a hostel in Riga, Latvia.

Estonia. Estonia is a former SSR and like many, still striving to create a stable identity acceptable to all its citizens. It’s on the Baltic sea and has a population of only 1.3 million. It has been called the Baltic tiger for its very high growth rates post-independence and has established a framework legal, economic and political in nature to enable it to position itself as an open economy keen for FDI. One feature of a world recession is that they tend to hit small, export-oriented economies hard and Estonia has been suffering, with an official unemployment rate hovering just under 12%. I stayed in Tallinn, the capital, with the high flying Oksana who is busy conquering the world on behalf of Skype (their largest office is based here).

There is a nicely restored old town complete with hokey medievally dressed actors beckoning alcohol-laden Finn’s to come into their restaurants. Effectively the Estonian tourism industry is funded by alcoholic Finns. The old town was cobblestoned, dotted about with restored Hanseatic buildings and phlegmatic Estonians. I also attended the 1st Tallinn Autumn Sauna and Lounge Party put on by the local CS community. It was great! Lots of heat, occasional nudity, lubricated by wine and beer as well as a hookah. Just quietly, I think sauna parties are the next bit thing…

Estonia is still scarred in ways and dealing with the legacy of being effectively a small rubber ball being hit between various countries over the last thousand years including Sweden, Germany and Russia. During World War II they were unfortunate enough to be first occupied by the Red Army, then the Germans, then the Red Army again. Many died and many were sent to the gulags. There is an interesting museum of occupation in Tallinn which documents it all, up to their independence in 1991. Of course the only thing that people hear about Estonia is the soldier and the attempts by Russian politicians to use it to their advantage in the great geopolitical game being played between NATO and Russia, when in reality its more complex. Ethnic Russian Estonians make up a significant minority, mostly having been relocated to Estonia after WW II to Russify the region and repopulate the area after the war. Many younger Russian Estonians are still grappling with this identity business. Good luck! I also visited the Kumu contemporary art museum which was fantastic. I can honestly say I now know more about Estonian art 😛

Round-up. Well-met unknown personage. I am a traveller, not a tourist and its a role I am revelling in six months on. Indeed I left Auckland amid teary scenes at the airport from Tristan’s family (my own had wisely decided to depart earlier). What a journey, and one which has only whetted my appetite for more. Many people  have invited me to visit them and who am I to decline? My journey has taken me to Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, back to Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, SW China, Tibet, Nepal, NE China, Russia, Estonia and now Latvia. I have suffered dollars, baht, ringgit, kip, dong, riel, patacas, dollars again, yuan, rupees, rubles, kroons and lats.  Highlight, lowlights and plain inscrutable events the significance of which wholly escape me have occurred. Like any great odyssey, awards are important to recognise these achievements of all stripes.

And the winners are!

*offbeat and bouncing drumroll*

Pentax shot of the day award for most beautiful place – tie between Koh Phi Phi at sunset and Olkhon Island, Siberia.

Biggest ‘Small World’ moment – Walking into a restaurant in Lao Tingri, Tibet and seeing Nan from work sitting there enjoying some tea!

Most debauched traveller(s) – tie between Belgian lad in Khao San Rd (a veteran now of AIDS tests every time a condom breaks for him…) and Mark in Nha Trang with his saucy session in the surf in front of about 150 onlookers…

The Dorothy ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ red shoes for sleaziest moment – sitting on beach in Cambodia next to a pasty, overweight Aucklander on a sex trip surrounded by women ‘young enough to be my daughter’.

Best and cheapest beer – Beer Lao, Laos.

Lonely Planet Gold Star award for dirtiest accommodation – The Green Hut in Kuala Lumper. I can’t get the image of bedbugs crawling down the wall towards me out of my head. Thanks LP!

Most luxurious accommodation – Oksana in Tallinn, hooray chocolate banana cake!

Closest to death – 2 hours of hell on a bus in Vietnam.

Plunger of the day for worst toilet – some hick Tibetan town public toilet which doubles as the place they dump dead dogs.

Best overall food – Thailand

Best meal – Close tie between grilled Mekong fish and pork Laap both in Vientienne, Laos.

Farang Shuffle toilet roll of honour for worst food – Tibet

The ‘wrong approach cockroach’ medallion for worst drink – cocktail at Brownie’s in Hue. Free but have some professional pride!

The subjective choice award for most beautiful women – Russia.

The ‘WTF’ electric shock endowment for most surreal moment – 3am rentboy wakeup call in Hanoi.

Best non-verbal communication moment – toasting with Rosa the Russian lubricated by a bottle of vodka in Zaibaikalsk.

Intrepid Travel voucher for commoditised mass tourism and despoilation – tie between Dali and Lijang, Yunnan, China.

Best museum – Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Non sequitur secateur of the day for oddest moment – finding a cake office on the fourth floor of an office building and being invited to eat the best damn chocolate cake I think I’ve had in years.

‘Good on ya mate’ badge for adventurism – Phil biking around China on his own.

The ‘Warren Buffet One Ton Biography’ Book Club stamp for best bookshop – Bookworm in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Nicest guest house staff – Giant Guest House, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Rattle Your Dags Medallion for mangling phrases in another language – Ilona 😛

The Green Leaf of Happiness for bar with the best ‘view’ – High Bar, Koh Tao.

Self-Awards

‘Chump Tick’ for eating a meal in a restaurant in Bangkok and then realising I had lost my wallet and couldn’t pay. They are still waiting for the money I think…

The Kashmiri Golden Fleece(d) for buying a carpet even when I told myself I was only going to look, in Kathmandu.

The ‘One More Beer’ Tankard for sleeping in and missing my train to Russia.

The ‘Red Bull Bucket’ for dodgiest experience – Koh Tao outside the 7/11 grappling with Thai thief.

If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original.

Sir Ken Robinson. TED