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AA/BA/BT/OS: act-dfw-lhr-led/kgd-rix-msq-vie-fra-dfw-act: Pickpocketed in St. Pete!

AA/BA/BT/OS: act-dfw-lhr-led/kgd-rix-msq-vie-fra-dfw-act: Pickpocketed in St. Pete!

Old Jun 20, 09, 2:58 am
  #1  
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AA/BA/BT/OS: act-dfw-lhr-led/kgd-rix-msq-vie-fra-dfw-act: Pickpocketed in St. Pete!

I recently took advantage of the airfare wars to Russia; both United Airlines and American Airlines recently started service to Moscow; at one point the airfares were under $400 even from Austin. The fares were the same to St. Petersburg as well. I had been to Moscow before, but not St. Pete. I decided to make a 10-day trip of it, also visiting Helsinki, Tallinn, Kaliningrad and then flying home from Minsk in Belarus. I had to arrange my Russia and Belarus visas ahead of time. I am dual citizen US/UK; for Russia I planned to use my US passport since getting a visa would be easier from home. For Belarus it is possible to get a visa on arrival; it is $180 for US citizens but only $60 for UK passports, that was a no-brainer which passport to use.

You still have to get the Belarus visa invitation beforehand, however. I used http://www.select-a-room.com/hotels/...arch-tab=hotel to pre-book my hotel in Minsk; they also offered the visa support for $16. For the Russia visa I used www.russia-visa.com. I had used them before when I went to Moscow a few years ago and was satisfied with their service.

Pictures are at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hautebo...7617824032146/

Apr 30, 2009
Flight: Waco (ACT) to Dallas (DFW), American Airlines, economy
Flight: Dallas (DFW) to London (LHR), American Airlines, economy

My flight today departed from Waco airport, about 2 hrs north of Austin. I have flown out of Killeen and San Antonio before, but this was the first time flying out of Waco. I left about 3 hrs before the flight; driving up I35 past Round Rock and through Temple. The Waco airport was actually some distance out of town. I pulled into the free long term parking area. The small terminal was just a short walk away. I arrived at the checkin desk to find out the flight to Dallas was delayed by 25 minutes.. my connection in Dallas had originally only been an hour or so.

By the time we arrived 50 minutes late in the B-terminal in DFW I only had 35 minutes before my flight left to London! I took off running down the concourse, then caught the Skytrain to arrive at the D-gates with the flight already boarding. Unfortunately that left me all sweaty just before getting on Already the overhead space was limited and had to search back a few rows before I found room for my bag. I had a cute seatmate and we started talking; turns out she was from Austin as well and was heading onto Amsterdam. She had a long wait in London before her flight and so I offered to guest her into the British Airways lounge when we arrived. Some friends of hers were also on the flight.

May 1, 2009
Flight: London (LHR) to St. Petersburg (LED), British Airways, economy
Hotel: SkyHotel, 67$

We arrived into London nearly 40 minutes early but that time was lost as we had to wait for a gate. Arriving at T3 in LHR it was a looooong walk down to flight connections, where we missed the bus to T5 by seconds. The next bus arrived a few minutes later, then took the drive over to T5. I hadn't been to the new terminal yet, which was very light, open and clean compared with the other terminals. Everything had gone quickly and smooth.. until we reached flight connections where there was a huge mob waiting to go through the security screening. Apparently there are several lines but it was very chaotic.

By the time I got through I had lost sight of Jen and decided to go straight to the gate, which ended up being right under the lounge. I still had 20 minutes before the flight boarded so went back to the lounge and found her waiting there. Luckily the lounge dragons still let us in, I realized that my Qantas Gold card had expired on April 30th! The lounge looked very nice but I barely had time to grab a couple sandwiches and a drink and exchange emails before heading down to the gate to board the flight to St. Petersburg. The A321 flight was just over 3hr; I was surprised when they served a full English breakfast onboard, even in economy! Grilled Sausage, bacon, egg, tomato and mushroom with a fruit cup and yogurt. We arrived at Pulkovo airport on time at 4PM in gorgeous clear weather, I got out some money from the ATM here while waiting on my bags. I had $300 US in my wallet, I took the time to put this in my moneybelt, which turned out to be a good thing. Immigration was very quick, no problems with my visa.


BA Economy Breakfast, LHR-LED

Taxis from the airport into town want 35EUR or more to the city, but there is the option of public transportation into the city. There is a bus that runs to the nearest metro station at Moskovskaya for 24R; from there you can catch the metro (20R) anywhere else in town. I can read Cyrillic well enough to navigate the metro stations. The hotel I booked was just a few blocks off Nevsky Prospekt and the metro. The metro station was pretty deserted, very deep underground like the metro in Moscow. There isn't an open platform here, just a hallway with doors that open when the cars arrive. As I stepped onto the car a short guy in front of me stopped and felt pushing from behind; I immediately knew I was being pickpocketed as the guy in front of me turned around and ran out the door just as it closed. I turned around but there was another guy there behind me blocking the door and the car starts moving. My wallet was gone, with my DL, credit cards, and the $150 in Rubles I had just gotten out from the ATM! Usually all this goes in my money belt but I was just on my way in from the airport after traveling for 24 hrs and hadn't gotten my system setup yet. They were good though, I carry my wallet in my front pocket, my shirt was untucked and I'd had my big backpack on my back at the time. Now that I think of it the guy blocking the door was probably part of the team. That left me with only the $300 US and about 30 Rubles in change in my pocket and just starting out on my 9-day trip. Luckily all my hotels had been prepaid so I didnt have to worry about a place to stay.

I got off at the next station then got back on the next car heading back to Moskovskaya and went to the police. They didn't speak English, but I had my dictionary, managed to explain my wallet was gone and they called someone who spoke English to get my statement. The officers flipped though my passport wondering at all my stamps for Paraguay, East Timor, Azerbaijan, etc. It was late Friday afternoon, the police station would be closed the next day and I was planning on leaving on Sunday.. they finally told me to go to the end of the metro line where I could get a police report. The officers let me back on the metro for free, then rode to the last stop. I had to wait awhile for the officer to show up, meanwhile I started calling my credit card companies on my cell (at $5 minute!); I'd had 4 cards (2 ATM, 2 CCards) so it took quite awhile! I was taken to a small dark room with a cell in it where the officer was waiting to take my report. More calls back and forth with the English speaking person while the officer smoked the whole time. Finally got the police report filed and headed back into town to the hotel, it was now about 7PM but still quite light out.

The Nevsky Sky Hotel turned out to be in a great location between the Winter Palace and the Cathedral of the Savior on the Blood; right in the center of town just a couple blocks off Nevsky Prospekt. The budget hotel is located on the 6th floor of a building; one website had said the elevator was currently out due to repairs! Luckily though they had already fixed it. The reception was tiny, just a small desk. The rooms are small as well, but very clean and quiet; hostel style two single beds w/ TV and shared bathroom. Free wifi access and breakfast were also included in the rate.

There were still a few hrs of light left and jetlag hadn't yet set in; I still had energy so I set off walking around town. I first headed to the Cathedral of the Savior on the Blood; a very elaborate church with colorful onion domes similar to St. Basils in Moscow. The cathedral is on one of the many canals that criss-cross the city, giving it the title Venice of the North. I next headed down Nevsky Prospekt which was packed with people, shops and restaurants. I noticed everyone here walks very fast! I found a place to change some money so at least I could get something to eat. I ended up walking all the way down to Moskovsky Vokzal! From there I caught the metro to Finlandsky Vokzal to inquire about buying train tickets to Helsinki for Sunday. They said to come back the next day, so then headed back to the hotel. I had noticed an Uzbek restaurant down the street and decided to try that for dinner. It was delicious! I had some meat-filled dumplings and a tomato/eggplant dish but can't remember the name. Also had a tiny shot of vodka of course! By now it was nearly 11PM and only just getting dark. I went back to the hotel and watched TV awhile before passing out.. it had been an eventful day! One of the shows looked very familiar and I realized it was a Russian copy of Married with Children.. the sets and characters were the same but with lookalike Russian actors.


Cathedral of the Savior on the Blood


Nevsky SkyHotel room

May 2, 2009
Hotel: SkyHotel, 67$

Today the plan was to visit the Hermitage museum. I had also been in contact with a local girl via the Hospitality Club who had offered to show me around town, I planned to meet up with her later in the afternoon. One tip for the Hermitage museum; it's possible to buy tickets online ($18) and skip the long wait for tickets. I was in St. Pete for such a short period, that and it being a holiday weekend meant I wanted to waste as little time as possible.

I woke up very early, 7 AM or so and went across the street to the Nevsky Grand Hotel, which is where the breakfast buffet was located. It was another great day, clear blue skies and crisp. From there I walked the streets for several hours, passing via the Hermitage, St. Isaacs Cathedral, the Faberge store (still closed), Mars Field and the Catherine the Great Statue (A LOT of walking). I manage to always bring the wrong power adapter; the one I had brought didn't have long enough prongs/form factor for the Euro-style round plugs used here, after searching around was able to finally find an adapter.

From there I headed back to the hotel then over to the Hermitage. The line by now was insanely long, but since I had already bought mine online I was able to walk straight up to the window and get my ticket! The Hermitage (Winter Palace) is now a huge museum, containing some of the largest collections of art in the world. Over 1000 rooms filled with priceless artifacts; the amazing thing is that is only about 5% of the actual collection. Imagine Versailles meets the Louvre meets the Vatican, you get some idea. Elaborately painted walls, mosaic tile floors, even a full scale reproduction of one of the rooms in the Vatican is here. The walls are covered with paintings of the great masters of Russia and Europe. You can spend hours or even days just wandering around the rooms.


Hermitage Museum mosaic floor

After leaving the museum, headed back to the hotel where I called Sofia; we planned to meet at 5PM nearby. Jetlag finally kicked in and I collapsed for a nap for a few hrs. I then went to meet Sofia, who was quite cute. The train booking office was nearby and she helped me book tickets for tomorrow's trip to Helsinki. After there we grabbed coffee and some local meat-stuffed bread and then walked for several hours all over town, past the Cathedral of Savior on the Blood, the Summer Gardens, then back down Nevsky, talking about travel all the while. She had been to several places, Tunisia and Turkey with her daughter. We met her sister and sister's bf for dinner. They offered to come pick me up later that night and show me the raising of the bridges at 1AM; St. Petersburg is built on several islands in the Neva river delta, connected by several drawbridges. These bridges open at night for several hours to let shipping through; since the metro stops running by that time you have to make sure you don't get stuck on the wrong side!


They dropped me off at the hotel where I slept again for a few hrs before they came back to pick me up. When we arrived at the bridges I was surprised to see several thousand people already there waiting to see the bridges rise.. apparently this is a common tourist attraction! It was bitterly cold though. We drove across one of the bridges but were too late to see them actually raise. We did end up getting stuck on the island and so went to a 24hr coffee place for awhile before the bridges opened again!


Neva River drawbridge

cont...

Last edited by hauteboy; Jun 20, 09 at 3:29 pm
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Old Jun 20, 09, 10:40 am
  #2  
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May 3, 2009
Train: St. Petersburg to Helsinki
Hotel: Holiday Inn City West, Helsinki, Finland, Points Stay

I still had the full day to spend in St. Petersburg, my train to Helsinki didn't leave until nearly 4PM. I got a bit of a later start today; I had walked so much yesterday my legs were still sore. I finished breakfast about 8:45 and headed to the metro. I was heading to the Peter/Paul fortress this morning. There is supposedly a metro stop nearby, but either it is closed or for whatever reason the metro didn't stop there, so ended up having to walk an extra mile or so from the next stop. I hadn't been to this part of St. Petersburg yet (Petrograd). It was less grand than the central part of the city. I reached the fortress after about a 15-minute walk. Old bands seem to be popular to tour here, I had seen posters everywhere for tours by Foreigner, Alice Cooper, etc.

When we were driving around last night we had passed by the fortress and I noticed alot of old Russian military hardware along the road. I walked down to where I remembered seeing it and it was all part of the military hardware museum. They had APCs, missle transports, tanks, howitzers, etc. Pretty cool stuff. The fortress itself was built by Peter the Great to defend against the Swedes, but never put to use for that purpose. Inside the fortress is the huge cathedral where most of the former czars are buried. The grounds open early for people to walk around but the buildings don't open until 10 AM. I wandered around the grounds for awhile, then outside the thick stone walls which face the Hermitage across the Neva. This is a popular spot for sunbathers, and there was already a large group of people gathered, all ages, all sizes, all stripped down to their skivvies and standing up against the wall absorbing the sun, this despite it being 45 degrees! This is where in the winter they chop holes in the ice and go for a swim.


Sunbathers, Peter&Paul Fortress

I started walking back to the center of town.. just before crossing the bridge back over to the Mars Field; I noticed an Uzbek-style mosque nearby and went to check it out. Lots of very elaborate blue/turquoise tilework on the dome and alcoves. My next stop was the Russian museum which Sofia had recommended yesterday. If you have a student ID you can get some great discounts at museums here. I had lost my student ID when I was pickpocketed so unfortunately had to pay the full rate (350R). The museum here wasn't as elaborate as the Hermitage but still had some great paintings. I didn't spend too much time here though.

It was already nearly 1PM and my train was leaving at 4.. I just decided to head over now to the Finlandsky train station and wait for a few hrs. The station had a waiting room and a cafe where I bought a couple of empanada-like pastries for lunch and sat down to wait. Soon time to board the Sibelius train to Finland. There are two trains a day from St. Petersburg to Helsinki; the Russian train runs in the morning and the Finland one runs in the afternoon. I had paid 2800R at the office yesterday for 2nd class seating. The train was nice and clean, 2x2 seating in blue cloth seats. My seat was backward facing the whole trip; not that I noticed... jetlag and exhaustion had set in by now and I slept almost all the 6hr trip, only waking up for border formalities. These are done on the train as the officials come up the aisles and collect/stamp passports. I exited/entered Finland on my US passport and did get a stamp here.


Sibelius Train, St. Petersburg - Helsinki

Arrived in Helsinki at 10PM, it was only just now getting dark. I had booked two nights at the Holiday Inn City West on a Point Break award stay, only 5000pts per night. The hotel was located a short walk from the metro two stops from the train station. I luckily had just enough Euro to buy a one-way metro ticket to the hotel. I had a friend in Helsinki I had met on the North Korea tour a few years previously. I was originally supposed to meet her at the train station but hadn't been able to get in touch with her. I headed to the hotel.. starving as I hadn't eaten in almost 7 hrs. Helsinki seems to close down after 10PM though, the hotel is located in a business area and there weren't any restaurants around. Not that I had any Euro or credit cards to pay for a meal anyway. I checked into the hotel and received an upgrade to the Executive floor! But even the hotel restaurant was now closed and they had stopped room service. I had to settle for eating the free chocolates/cookies they had put out with the coffee & teabags and raiding a can of Pringles from the minibar.


Holiday Inn City West, Helsinki

May 4, 2009
Hotel: Holiday Inn City West, Helsinki, Finland Points Stay

I was finally able to get in touch with my friend today and we arranged to meet for dinner this evening. I also was able to arrange with American Express to get $500 emergency travel cash wired to me; I could pick this up at the forex bureau in the train station. This plus what was left of the $300 was all I would have to last me for the next 6 days. I had a big breakfast at the buffet; this had been my SOP for the past few days since I had been low on $$.. eat a huge breakfast and have that last for most of the rest of the day, just snacking for other meals. The buffet at the HI wasn't included though so had to pay extra for that.

I didn't have too much planned for today, visiting the rock church at Temppeliaukio and then the fortress of Suomenlinna. I bought a 24-hr transit pass at one of the machines in the metro station; it is good on all bus/tram/metro routes and even some ferries. Today was the first meh weather day I'd had, starting off cloudy. It also felt a lot colder than St. Petersburg. Helsinki is a small city and you can walk almost everywhere; the core of the city is on a peninsula only 2 miles wide. The rock church was built out of a hollowed rocky outcrop and has become a tourist attraction. From there I wandered through some parks over to the Töölönlahti bay and the opera house. Most signs here are in both Swedish/Finnish, both are official languages here. Finland itself has only been independent since the early 1900s.. before then it was either part of Sweden or Russia. I had visited the Aland Islands the previous year, an autonomous Swedish-speaking province of Finland, but this is the first time I had been to the Finland mainland.

From the bay, I caught a tram down the to the Helsinki Cathedral, a huge white building fronting a large square. The skies had cleared up by now to a gorgeous blue and it started warming up. I wandered down to the ferry dock and caught the 20 minute ferry over to Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg (Swedish Fort). This UNESCO World Heritage site was built by the Swedes in the late 1700s to protect against the Russians; however it was the British and French that caused the most damage when shelling the (then-Russian) fort during the Crimean war. The fortress is spread over several islands just outside the Helsinki harbor and is a mix of Russian and Swedish buildings. Not too many people here today, and many of the restaurants and shops still weren't open for the summer season yet. Spent several hours wandering around, finding an old Finnish U-boat (DAS BOOT) and old Russian gun emplacements facing out to sea.

I headed back into town and into the old fish market, which now is full of delis and restaurants selling fish, reindeer, donor kebab, etc. I had a reindeer baguette, cheesecake and a soda for a few Euro. Reindeer meat is supposedly pretty good for you; it's a bright red color. From there it was back to the hotel then soon it was time to meet my friend for dinner. We spent a good while talking about travel over a beer, she was heading to Central America in a few weeks for an overland trip from Cancun to Panama. I had just done a portion of that trip this past December so had some good tips to share.

cont..

Last edited by hauteboy; Jun 20, 09 at 11:13 am
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Old Jun 20, 09, 1:05 pm
  #3  
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Tallinn, Estonia

May 5, 2009
Ferry: Viking Line, Helsinki - Tallinn
Hotel: Old House Hostel, Tallinn, Estonia, $5.44

Today I was planning on heading over to Tallinn in Estonia via ferry. After breakfast I caught the metro and tram (with 2 minutes remaining on my 24-hr transit pass) to the Viking terminal. Several ferries make the short crossing over to Estonia every day; they are very popular for the locals as the ships have duty free alchohol sales. The deck class fare was 32EUR one-way but they make up for it in booze sales! Everyone was there with lots of empty carryon bags/rollaboards; most don't even get off in Tallinn and just come back on the return ferry. Some of the passengers came already pretty well lubricated and it was only 10:30AM. The ferries are floating hotels with restaurants, free wireless internet, a Wii room for kids, a casino, and of course the duty free store. Some ships also offer cabins, but I didn't see the need to pay extra for one for the 2.5 hr trip. On my trip last year to Scandinavia, my friend and I had taken Viking from Stockholm to Mariehamn (Aland Islands) and liked their ships.


Pub on Viking ferry

I had already booked a hostel online in Tallinn. The great thing was it had shown up on Expedia and I was able to use a coupon on it.. which meant I only ended up paying $10.88 for two nights in a hostel dorm bed.. the cheapest rate I've ever paid for a nights lodging! The hostel was at the edge of Old Tallinn just a short walk up from the ferry terminal. The hostel was in an old building, but the room was clean and had 5 beds. There was a British guy there in the room, talked with him for a few minutes before heading out to explore the town. Unfortunately it started pouring rain just a few minutes later as I huddled under an archway until it stopped. I already liked the look of Tallinn though, the old compact town had cobbled streets and quaint old buildings. Most of them had already been restored and converted into shops, hotels or museums. I have been to the other Baltic capitals in Riga and Vilnius so there was some similarity there as Tallinn had also been a Hanseatic League town. Most of the old city wall here was still intact, including the towers and bastions.


Tallinn city gate

The sun finally comes out and I continue walking through the old square, up past the Olde Hansa Restaurant where people were dressed in medieval costume and selling roasted nuts from a cart. Great smells! I was able to change some Euro to Kroon; though the rate of exchange at the places in town is atrocious. I found a Tex-Mex place; they even had chicken fried steak, but I was afraid to try it. Can't get real CFS anywhere but in Texas of course. I wandered up to the upper town, the Nevsky cathedral is here which is Russian style with onion domes. The Klek-en-kok (look in the kitchen) tower unfortunately was closed for repairs so wasn't able to have a look. I found a travel agents where I was able to book my bus tickets to Kaliningrad; I knew there was a bus that left in the evening connecting in Riga. They weren't able to see that itinerary at first, but then they called Eurolines and were luckily able to get me the last seat on the bus to Kaliningrad. I should have booked the tickets online earlier! I headed back to the hostel where I passed out at 7:30PM & slept for almost 12 hrs!


Ye Olde McDonalds

May 6, 2009
Hotel: Old House Hostel, Tallinn, Estonia, $5.44

I had already been traveling for a week and really needed to get laundry done. I found one nearby in the basement of the bus station. The city bus station is just east of Vanu Viru gate in the basement of a shopping center; it was on the way to Kadriorg park to the east of town. I dropped off my stinky clothes and grabbed breakfast of a banana and some chocolate croissants from the grocery store in the shopping center. The center just opened a few years ago and could have been any shopping mall anywhere in the US or Europe.. they even had a Dell store here! I kept walking down the main street to the east, taking the walking tour described in the Lonely Planet. There were some lovely old wooden houses lining the back streets. The In Your Pocket guides are also good for city information, I had downloaded the PDFs for all the cities I had planned to visit.

I imagine Kadriorg park must be very lovely in the spring, but it was still winter here despite it being the 2nd week in May.. the flowers were just coming out and the trees were still leafless. I stopped at a cafe at the edge of the park to use the restroom and have a cuppa tea and a danish. I wandered through the park where Peter the Great's summer palace was located.. pretty small by palace standards. Behind the palace was a geometric garden, but again everything here was still dormant and grey. The presidential mansion is also located in the park just a short distance away.


Peter the Great's summer palace, Kadriorg

I walked the 40 minutes back into the old town, then headed to the Must Lammas (Black Sheep) Georgian restaurant for lunch. They had some of the best khachapuri and delicious Azerbaijan kebabs. Khachapuri is a rich cheese pie usually made with lots of butter and egg, delicious if not heart-attack inducing! I picked up my laundry and back to the hostel. There were more people in my room now, including an Aussie who had just spent 4 months snowboarding in Austria, and a girl from Korea.


Azerbaijani kebabs, Must Lammas restaurant

I headed out one last time for the afternoon; the sun had come out again and I wanted to climb the steeple at St. Olaf's church, once the highest church spire in the world. It had also been used at one point by the KGB to send radio signals to Moscow. The KGB building is nearby, the basement windows bricked up to drown out the screams... The church tower had over 200 steps to the top which gave a great view out over the city.

Came back for a nap, then woke up already after 10PM! I debated going out for food or dancing, decided to stay in but then then Joe said he was hungry too so we headed out after midnight to find a place to eat. Tallinn has good nightlife, lots of bars in the Old Town but I rarely drink so don't usually go out at night.. I do like dancing though when I get the chance. We found a bar that was still serving food and were able to get a couple of burgers. Afterwards we wandered around abit and came across Club Hollywood. Apparently it was Ladies night and lots of eye candy was lined up outside the door. Admission was 90kr and a 5kr coat check. Kinda a young crowd (or I'm getting old) and the usual light show and techno music. I still danced my crazy ... off for awhile. There were gogo dancers standing on platforms; at one point a guy jumped up on the platform and was dancing around with the girl. She kept telling him to get down, finally he did when the bouncers showed up.. then he started dancing crazily around the dance floor.. finally the bouncers were able to get him in a nelson hold and escorted him out!

cont..
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Old Jun 20, 09, 3:22 pm
  #4  
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Posts: 5,449
May 7, 2009
Bus: Eurolines, Tallinn, Estonia - Riga, Latvia

This was my last morning in Tallinn. Today I checked the online blog I've been following, this guy (http://www.leeabbamonte.com) is trying to be the youngest person to visit all 300+ Traveler's Century Club 'countries'. I noticed that his last post was from Riga, where I was headed! I sent him a note, then headed off to the bus station. The long-distance bus station is a few miles southeast of the old town... spent awhile walking down there. The Eurolines bus shows up, very nice with leather seats, and onboard wifi-internet and electrical outlets. I checked my mail again only to find Lee was already in Tallinn! But by then the bus was on the move so I just missed meeting him.

The bus ride to Riga was uneventful, about 4.5 hrs, arriving there at 5PM. Once there I had a 5 hr wait before my next bus to Kaliningrad. I had been to Riga several years previously but most of the film pictures I had taken had come out ruined. The weather was really nice out too compared with my last visit. Spent a few hours wandering around the old city without a map, just remembering landmarks from our previous trip. Saw the Freedom Memorial, Cathedral, Swiss Gate, Three Brothers medieval buildings, etc. Riga seemed more lively this time, maybe because it was a nice day out and good weather. I had heard of protests and problems lately with the economic troubles but I didn't witness anything in the short time that I was there. At one point I did hear alot of yelling and whistling.. came around the corner to find it was an outdoor cafe full of people watching a NHL hockey match! I guess one of the players must be Latvian as everyone was very excited. I changed a little money, just enough to get a coffee and sit awhile in a cafe uploading my photos to flickr and kill a few more hours before heading back to the bus station for the overnight bus to Kaliningrad.


Church steeple, Riga


Three Brothers, Riga

May 8, 2009
Bus: Eurolines, Riga, Latvia - Kaliningrad, Russia

The bus to Kaliningrad left Riga last night at 10PM.. arriving at 7AM in Kaliningrad city. The bus only stopped twice, once about 00:45 at Šiauliai in Lithuania, then again at 3:15 at the Russian/Lithuanian border at Sovetsk. First we were stamped out of Lithuania (stayed on the bus), then drove across the bridge to the Russian side where everyone had to get off and go through immigration. There was a long line of cars waiting here at the border even at 3:30AM! The buses get preferential treatment however and it only took about 30 minutes to get everyone stamped and back onto the bus. I had gotten a dual-entry Russian visa, once for St. Petersburg, the other entry was for Kaliningrad. We were soon on our way again through the night, I did manage to sleep for most of the trip.

Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia.. it was part of the Soviet Union and was separated from the rest of Russia when the Baltic states became independent. Originally it was known as Konigsberg and was part of Prussia; it was damaged heavily during WWII by British bombing raids, then the Soviets took it over and began a program of de-Germanification. Koningsberg was once a famous city, home of Immanuel Kant and an the seven bridges of Koningsberg mathematical problem (http://supernet.som.umass.edu/facts/kbridge.html), though only two of the original bridges remain standing (Honey and Wood bridges). The Russian Baltic fleet is anchored nearby; during Soviet times Kaliningrad was pretty much off limits to foreigners. Coming into town I could still see alot of old damaged buildings, these were more German style than Russian.

The bus arrived at the station around 7AM.. though it wasn't where I was expecting it to be; next to the southern train station. I wasn't even sure where we were on the map, so ended up paying a taxi too much to take me to the train station. I'd hoped there was a left luggage department there where I could leave my backpack while I wandered around town all day. I was only in Kaliningrad for the day; that afternoon I planned to fly to Minsk in Belarus. That link had become a bit of a problem. Originally I had purchased a one-way ticket on Belavia from Kaliningrad to Minsk. However the day before I left on my trip I got an email saying that that flight had been cancelled; Belavia had put me on the flight a day earlier (May 7th) instead. My visa was only valid from May 8th though so that wouldn't work. I had to buy an extra ticket on airBaltic via Riga.. luckily there was a connecting flight late that afternoon that still gave me most of the day to explore Kaliningrad.

The train station was pretty much deserted, and since it wasn't even 7:30 no ticket windows were open. I decided to walk into town and see if I could leave my bags at a hotel instead. Along the way into town I crossed over to the island where the impressive Koningsburg cathedral is located. Immanuel Kant's tomb is located here. The island used to be heavily populated, but after damage during WWII was turned into a park and now only the restored church remains here. I crossed over the Honey Bridge; one of the original 7. It is covered by locks put here by newlyweds with their names engraved.. tradition says they will stay married as long as the locks remain closed.


Konigsberg cathedral


Lovers Locks, Honey Bridge

Just across the river from the cathedral was the ugly H-shaped Dom Soviet, originally supposed to be the head government office.. but vacant for years. The Soviets had dynamited the German castle that once stood here, putting up their own building before discovering that the ground underneath was riddled with caves and tunnels, making the building unstable. It has stood vacant and unused ever since. There has been talk about rebuilding the castle but nothing yet has taken place.

I found a nearby hotel where I was able to have some breakfast and leave my bag while I walked around the rest of town. Kaliningrad doesn't have a lot of sites, mainly the cathedral and bunker where the Germans surrendered. There is also the Amber museum; Kaliningrad remains the worlds major producer of amber. Several cosmonauts hailed from this area (also Putin's wife is from Kaliningrad). There is a monument to the cosmonauts, I decided to walk up that way to check it out. It was quite a distance away.. much further than the LP map made it seem. But it was a nice walk, some of the leafy suburbs and museums are located in that area. The monument wasn't anything special, but it was Soviet style. I then walked back towards the east towards the northern railway station and new Christ the Savior cathedral. The plaza here was strung with a huge banner announcing May 9th as Victory Day (over the Germans), for many Russians the end of the Great Patriotic War is still a major celebration. I had seen some signs about it in St. Petersburg but here the banners were everywhere. I would be in Minsk, Belarus for Victory Day and I expected there would be parades, etc.


Cosmonaut monument


Insect trapped in amber; Amber Museum

I continued on towards the Amber museum, passing through the huge central market. There were different rooms full of cheese, meat, spices, etc.. pretty well organized. I finally came to the Amber museum which is located in one of the old city wall bastions. There are hundreds of exhibits of the history of amber, explaining the old trade routes to Greece, products made from amber, also many samples of ancient insects trapped inside.

I'd been walking now for about 5 hours.. getting tired and was getting close to time to head to the airport anyway. I walked back to the center of town and the hotel where I had left my backpack via some crumbling Soviet apartment blocks. I found an internet place where I could checkin for my flight and printed out the boarding passes. I caught a cab (900R) to the airport about 40 minutes away, only to find that the airBaltic flights actually left from a different building.. had to pay another ripoff 300R just to go the short distance over to the other terminal. This wasn't a terminal so much as a couple of rooms for waiting and passport control.

I boarded the airBaltic Fokker 50 flight to Riga, the flight was about an hour and otherwise uneventful. By the time the flight arrived in Riga, I was starving and hoped I could find a restaurant. However the next flight to Minsk left from the gate right next to where we arrived.. it was a sterile area but no restaurants, just a vending machine that luckily took a 2E coin for a candybar.

cont...

Last edited by hauteboy; Jun 20, 09 at 3:28 pm
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Old Jun 20, 09, 5:13 pm
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Thanks for the detailed report. ^

I was surprised that you tempted fate with a short hop from Waco to Dallas with a short layover for your connection to London. That kind of connection would have given me sleepless nights before my trip.
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Old Jun 20, 09, 9:23 pm
  #6  
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wow the price for the metro went way up, last time I was there it was 8rub. Nice report thought I got to say you were tempting fate going to the police. Russian police are not the most tourist friendly.
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Old Jun 21, 09, 12:45 am
  #7  
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Originally my connection in Dallas was 85 minutes.. but my flight from Waco was delayed almost an hour (don't know the reason, it was clear weather, etc) that made for a bit of a tight connection!

..
The police were actually Ok.. friendly enough but none spoke English so there was the language barrier. They seemed pretty disinterested in doing anything though.
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Old Jun 21, 09, 2:08 am
  #8  
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May 8, 2009
Flight: Kaliningrad (KGD) to Riga (RIX), Air Baltic, F50, economy
Flight: Riga (RIX) to Minsk (MSQ), Air Baltic, F50, economy
Hotel: Hotel Yubileiny, Minsk, $67

I boarded the airBaltic Fokker 50 flight to Riga, the flight was about an hour and otherwise uneventful. By the time the flight arrived in Riga, I was starving and hoped I could find a restaurant. However the next flight to Minsk left from the gate right next to where we arrived.. it was a sterile area but no restaurants, just a vending machine that luckily took a 2E coin for a candybar. I had a 2hr wait before the flight to Minsk.. with nothing else to do there but sit I was able to recharge my phone and laptop.

Soon it was time to board the flight to Minsk. This flight was also on a Fokker 50. Boarding was via bus, then boarding the plane via its stairs. I was seated next to an older woman and we started talking. She was coming back from visiting her daughter in Denmark. Also chatted with a Russian Orthodox priest sitting next to me.. his English was excellent. They seemed surprised I would be coming to Belarus as a tourist. I said I was there to see the Victory Day celebrations. Belarus is definitely off the usual tourist trail... although it became independent country when the Soviet Union dissolved, it is still very much in that communist mindset. On the surface everything is clean and neat and organized, but it is still very much a paranoid police state with half of the population reporting on the other half. There were student protests that were put down several years ago that didn't get much mention in the Western news. That being said I did enjoy my visit to Belarus, and it was a highlight of my trip.

The flight arrived on time at the space-age looking Minsk-2 airport. The visa-on-arrival desk was upstairs just before the immigration desks. There were a few people in front of me so it still took about a half hour to process; by the time I came down to the immigration counter I was the last one through. The foreign exchange counters had conveniently closed 5 minutes after our flight had arrived; all I had was Euros and Russian rubles. There was a bus waiting to leave into town but he wouldn't take either currency. I ended up having to take a taxi (30E) into town.. the airport is built way out in the middle of nowhere nearly 40 minutes from the city.

It was just getting dark, but from what I could see it was a very clean, green country, rolling hills and fields along the brand new multi-lane expressway. The 8-lane wide praspekt Nezalezhnatsi leads from outside of town right to the center, past the oddly angular-shaped National Library. Along this road were lots of new looking apartments and shops, looks very prosperous. Minsk was heavily damaged during WWII as well, most of the city has been rebuilt since then. Stalin wanted it to be a showplace city. Very little traffic but it was 9:30PM on a Friday evening. Coming further into town, there were colored lights strung out across the road, I guessed they had been put up for the Victory day celebrations. We passed by the Oktyabraskaya plaza, there were lots of young people sitting here and walking around. There were huge banners covered in stars proclaiming victory 1945-2009. The taxi continued a little further to the Yubileiny hotel where I was staying. This hotel was on the riverbank near the sports complex. The taxi driver wanted paid in local currency so went inside the hotel where there was an exchange bureau right next to the casino (all hotels in Minsk have a casino apparently). The hotel was nice and clean, older Soviet style hotel. The room while small was comfortable and I had a good view out from the 11th floor.

It was about 10PM now but still had energy and decided to head out and explore a bit. Along the river banks were hundreds of young people, just sitting around chatting with friends and drinking lots of booze. It was quite a nice walk along the river, the sidewalks on both sides and people everywhere! The nearby sports complex had an ice rink setup. The air was cool and I liked the atmosphere of the place. I walked all the way along the river back to the main square. Coming back to the hotel I stopped in the grocery store nearby to buy some cookies and a soda.. it was 11PM and filled with people, most of them buying liter bottles of beer. Two young guys snuck past me in the checkout line.. I saw them shoplifting a couple bottles!


Oktyabraskaya plaza, Minsk


Lit up streets

May 9, 2009
Hotel: Hotel Yubileiny, Minsk, $67

Today was Victory Day, celebrated in Russia and some former Soviet countries commemorating the end of WWII. Minsk and Belarus had suffered greatly so they have more reason to celebrate it seems. I had an early breakfast at the hotel and headed out. The weather was cool and sunny today, perfect for walking around. There were more colored banners and May 9 posters everywhere, hung from buildings, around monuments, etc. I will say Belarus is big into monuments. I went by one in Hero City, then across the river to the Island of Tears chapel, dedicated to the widows and orphans of the Russian Afghanistan war. Several people were here laying wreaths and flowers.

The Lonely Planet mentioned that Lee Harvey Oswald had once lived in Minsk when he had defected to the USSR in the early 60s.. his apartment was labeled on the map. I started walking towards it when I noticed lots of people headed in that same direction. A cadre of policemen went by in full uniform, another group of soldiers, and a group of kids holding red and green balloons. I saw a bunch of street sweepers lined up here and I guessed that they were headed towards the parade route. I headed that way then until I ran into a wall of security people who said I couldn't go any further. There were several busloads of people already waiting here, old men with rows of medals, policemen, and security people everywhere. I walked up to the next block where they had a metal detector setup and they let me pass through after a thorough search of my bag.

I crossed over the Victory Square where there was a grandstand setup, I assumed all the VIPs would be sitting here. I tried to get a good spot and had to walk down the road a bit and got on the bridge. There were security people EVERYWHERE, literally every 2-3 feet along the parade route; not letting anyone cross the street or get too close. I've never seen so many people wearing shiny suits, sunglasses and earpieces anywhere. The sun was at the wrong angle here, and still had another hour and half before the parade started, but the streets were filling up and I wanted to get a good view. I had to go back to the square, go down into the metro station then back out the other side, then walk back down the other side of the street where I was able to find a good vantage point on the bridge. There were a bunch of schoolkids here, so I was able to see over their heads. [] Everyone was carrying banners or blue ribbons or balloons it seemed; such a splash of color everywhere.

Finally the parade started at noon. What followed was something straight out of the old Soviet Union, marching band, soldiers carrying the national flag, old men in Soviet jeeps, with CCCP still written on the side. I half expected to see tanks rolling by with missiles! But its not that kind of parade. I saw an older guy with a moustache coming down the street; I assumed it must be El Presidente, Lukashenko and that was confirmed when the security guys made everyone put down their cameras until he had passed! So one day in Belarus and I get to see the president. After he passed by came more war veterans, then girls in different traditional costumes. The parade lasted just over an hour.. then I headed back to the hotel for a nap.






Victory day Parade

I awoke later only to find it raining.. I still headed out into town, there were stages setup nearby where people were dancing and singing. I wandered around town some more now, down the main street to Lenin Plaza.


Dancers


Banners everywhere!

That evening I heard that there were fireworks scheduled all over the city. Turns out one of the places they were being set off was right in Hero City just down from the hotel. I walked down from the hotel over to the riverbank, again which was lined with hundreds of young people. I ended up with the best location at a bend in a river, I was able to get some great fireworks pictures reflected in the water. The fireworks show lasted 10-20 minutes with lots of red/green/white starbursts. Amazing show! I came back to the hotel, then waited a bit too long; by the time I went out to get a bite to eat all the shops and restaurants were already closed. I went down to the bar and was sitting there eating Pringles and water when one of the 'working' women approached me.. of course I knew what the deal was and declined! I'd also gotten a call offering 'massage' earlier that evening, heh.


Fireworks show

My flight back home left the next morning at 5:30.. so was able to pack and at least get a few hrs sleep in before catching a cab to the airport at 3:30AM!

May 10, 2009
Flight: Minsk (MSQ) to Vienna (VIE), Austrian, Canadair, economy
Flight: Vienna (VIE) to Frankfurt (FRA), Austrian, A319, economy
Flight: Frankfurt (FRA) to Dallas (DFW), 777, economy
Flight: Dallas (DFW) to Waco (ACT), Canadair, economy

The taxi arrived on time.. I think it wasn't a real taxi though just some guy working for the hotel. I'd kept 100k local currency for the fare ($35) but the driver wanted $40.. at 3AM I didn't have much other choice than to pay the extra $5, hrm. I got to keep some local currency as a souvenir though. The ride to the airport was quick; already there were several people there waiting for the checkin desks to open. I had arrived just in time as the desks were opening though and checking in and immigration were actually quite quick. There are a couple duty free shops and only a few gates. There was a Turkish airlines flight leaving shortly after my Austrian flight.. I wandered over to the gate but couldn't stand the smoky smell and retreated back to my gate area. It was just getting light now and I could see several Belavia planes on the tarmac. I was supposed to fly Belavia from Kaliningrad until they cancelled my flight.. either due to low booking numbers or I'll bet they needed the plane to fly in some VIPs for the Victory Day celebrations.


Belavia planes

The CR7 flight to Vienna was quick and we landed 15 minutes early.. a relief as my scheduled connection time had only been 35 minutes! My next connecting flight was to Frankfurt; I had to go through the Schengen immigration in Vienna and used my UK passport here. Rushed to the gate then boarded the next flight to Frankfurt. I slept most of that flight, we arrived at FRA and proceeded to taxi forever.. on disembarking we boarded a bus then drove what seemed like miles. I've heard that connecting in FRA can be a pain; I've only flown in and out of here, never connecting. Turns out we came out in the terminal right next to the AA desks; though I made the mistake of going out through the arrivals doors then had to come back in the terminal when I couldn't get back upstairs again!

Checkin for AA went fine.. I even had a few minutes left to visit the Admirals club. The gate was quite a distance though from checkin desks. The plane wasn't full either, which was nice. I had booked a seat in the front economy cabin on the 777.. sat down only to find out that my AVOD wasn't working. The FA at first brought me one of the video players from biz class, but I wasn't able to use it as my seatmate was using the only power outlet under our seats. I then moved to the middle row which had 3 seats open, where I accidentally dropped the video player and it stopped working! Well at least in the center seat the AVOD did work...
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Old Jun 21, 09, 5:29 am
  #9  
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Originally Posted by hauteboy View Post
The police were actually Ok.. friendly enough but none spoke English so there was the language barrier. They seemed pretty disinterested in doing anything though.
Heh, that's because the criminals pay them to look the other way. The guy blocking the metro door, was probably the pickpockets partner. When I was a student there the last place we went for help was the police. The police were more likely to charge us a pestering fee, then actually help.
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Old Jun 21, 09, 9:03 am
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great report! Also, enjoyed the photos on the website link you posted. The fireworks pics were superb!
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Old Jun 21, 09, 12:04 pm
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very nice and interesting TR^
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Old Jun 22, 09, 9:53 am
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A very enjoyable read, thank you for posting it!

As a Finn reports about Finland as seen by foreigners are always interesting. I've been thinking about visiting Belarus as well, but the visa hassle has so far put me off.
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Old Jun 22, 09, 1:39 pm
  #13  
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Thanks!

Actually the visa on arrival was very easy to obtain.. easier than the Russian visa since I didn't need to send out my passport! The tour company where I booked the hotel offered visa support letters for $16 (either on arrival or via a consulate). If I'd gone overland from Lithuania/Latvia I would have needed a visa beforehand.
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Old Jul 11, 09, 5:40 pm
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Originally Posted by hauteboy View Post
[b]Belarus is definitely off the usual tourist trail... although it became independent country when the Soviet Union dissolved, it is still very much in that communist mindset. On the surface everything is clean and neat and organized, but it is still very much a paranoid police state with half of the population reporting on the other half. There were student protests that were put down several years ago that didn't get much mention in the Western news. That being said I did enjoy my visit to Belarus, and it was a highlight of my trip
Excellent report and pictures! ^ Thank you for posting.

I was in Belarus last year about the same time as you - 4th of July (which is also Belarussian Independence Day) and it was also a highlight of my trip. It was so clean, neat, affordable and relaxing. In addition to Minsk, I also ventured out to Vitebsk (Chagal's birthplace), Brest (border town) and Belovezhskaya Puscha (Forest - kind of the other side of the forest from the Defiance movie set). Wish I had more time in Belarus to see castles in Mir and other cities. It was very nostalgic...
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Old Jul 14, 09, 12:36 pm
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very cool

im sure we had to have gone to the same texan restaurant/bar in tallinn as there cant be more than one

my trip i saw the bartender dress in a texas shirt. full-blown long-sleeved buttoned shirt like this



friend and i were traveling from houston at the time so we had to take a photo
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