Archive for the ‘Latvia’ Category

The Train to Moscow

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Waiting in the station was an intense game to play. While Matt went hunting for postcard stamps and some form of money, I watched the piles of luggage. We had stocked up on some supplies earlier in the day, not knowing what would be available on the train, so we had 6 bags with us. My backpack was ¼ full of clothes, ½ full of food, and ¼ full of medical supplies and toiletries and hanging from it was our pot, my shoes, two Nalgenes, and my sleeping bag. My bookbag was full of bowls, books, my laptop, camera, phone, and all the associated cordage. We had a hearty plastic bag with several loaves of bread, some jam, peanut butter, a bit of cheese, some meat, silverware and cups and random odds and ends. Matt’s big bag had his clothes, his tripod, some food, the tent, his sleeping bag, and sundry other items, hanging from it were two water bottles. Matt also had his small camera bag which had his camera and its associated items.

It was this motley group of items that I carefully guarded as Matt hunted. The time came, however, to load up like pack mules and make our way to the train. Matt, however, was nowhere to be seen… I began to become nervous at the end of an already slightly stressful day to have the stress of being unable to board our train was a bit much. Matt showed up about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and we rushed down almost the entire length of the train, got into our car and began to make our very disjointed way down the packed aisle.

The car we boarded bears some description. It was a dingy yellow on the outside with the roof a dingy grey. Inside, wooden sides betrayed the age of the wagon and the thin foam pads on the seats were covered with some sort of vinly, cracking under the abuse of years and passengers. The train car itself was separated into 6 or 7 unenclosed compartments. Along the left-hand side were facing bench seats with a table between them and a “bed” or sleeping-board above each. Above the beds were another flat surface intended for luggage. On the right-hand side as we jostled our way up the crowded car to our seats, were single benches flat against the outside wall made of three sections: two seats and a fold up seat/table between them. Again, above this a bed and above that luggage storage.

We had plenty of luggage and were at a loss as to where to put it. Every seat was filled with three people to a bench in the left-hand compartment and a lady sitting on the bench on the right-hand side, where our tickets indicated our seats were to be. With many apologies in unintelligible English, we eventually got our luggage situated and settled down for what would almost certainly be an uncomfortable night. What did we expect, though, when we bought the cheapest seats on the train?

A few hours later we cleared the luggage we had put on the bed area and the old lady climbed up to sleep there. Matt and I were left trying to find ways we could fit at least 75% of our bodies onto the bench without sticking either our elbows or unclean feet in each others faces/necks/backs/stomachs. I drifted off after a while to an uncomfortable and frequently interrupted sleep. We woke once to be briefly interrogated by first the Latvian/EU and then the Russian border guards. The event went smoothly and in the morning I woke, after a few fitful hours, to find ourselves not much over two hours from Moscow.


Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The morning of the 23rd, I (Matt) drove us across the Latvian border and into Riga. I felt relief that we had been able to contact the Millers regarding our financial plight and the ol’ Volkswagen had withstood the strenuous drive north without a mechanical breakdown. Little did I know, the capital of Latvia would ultimately add to my relief.

A little before noon, I found a parking space along a busy street near the train station and a block from our previous parking spot during our visit several months before. This time I had the same intention, finding a free Wi-Fi connection. We hung there for several hours, sharing the computer. When I fell asleep, Dan left to inquire at the station for two train tickets to Moscow for the next day. He returned with a couple price figures and the two times trains would leave each day. We agreed to leave the next night at 6 pm on the lowest class train for only 22 Lats or about $44 each. So far so good. Instead of following through and purchasing the tickets, we were distracted by the wonderful World Wide Web. I returned to the station with the group debit card to make the purchase but, after visiting two information desks and three ticket counters, I discovered the tickets had seemingly jumped in price to about 56 Lt each. Alarmed, I returned to the car, and we began discussing alternatives like air and bus fare. We had to make it to Moscow by the 27th to catch our expensive Trans Siberian Railway train. We weren’t, however, willing to pay roughly $230 to train there. Stress.

After each of us had made several more intensely stressful trips to and from the station, we understood that Dan, when he originally found the ideal tickets, hadn’t been informed of the seats’ availability, only of their existence. The one friendly clerk told Dan that only six similar tickets were next available for the 26th. That inspired more stress as we tried to determine whether a train departing that evening would allow us to make the TSR’s departure the next day. Dan searched his e-mail account but couldn’t locate the crucial time of departure from Moscow. Sweating, I returned to the ticket counter to find the clerk had taken a fifteen minute break. I was ready at the counter when she returned to confirm that the tickets were refundable and sell them. Smiling, she informed me I had purchased two of only four remaining tickets. Back at the car, I sat there, overwhelmed and holding a pair of tickets to Moscow at noon on the 27th. Then Dan found the TSR itinerary in a previously undiscovered e-mail, the moment of reckoning… We would make the TSR’s departure. Utterly relieved, we high-fived from our seats in the car. We had two of the very last four affordable tickets to make our connecting train. A few minutes later and we would have had to spend nearly three times as much. Instead, we would travel for the lower price, arrive in time to pick up our tickets, and possibly see Red Square. Relief.

We celebrated with two McDonald’s apple pies. We finished on the Internet, I fell asleep, and Dan drove us a little out of the city and parked in a pull-off. We woke the next morning early, determined to sell our car. We emptied the car, packing our main bags and collecting a significant trash pile until noon. We followed a Google map Dan had loaded to two junkyards and a couple car repair ships. No one bought used cars and I began feeling a little stress. We didn’t want much for the car; we merely needed to dispose of it somewhere before training across Asia. The next shop bought such cars, including Volkswagens. Dan received an offer from two rough-looking Latvian men eying the Passat, of €600 and successfully asked for €700. A little shocked, we grabbed our stuff from the car. We walked away with Euro bills in our pocket and our current possessions on our backs and in our hands, before they could change their minds and refuse the deal. I am in awe of the Lord’s provision on this trip. This includes my disbelief in the fact that our station-wagon, purchased in England for about $2 thousand, returned $1 thousand off the Baltic Sea, three months and 20,000 miles later. Relief.

Suddenly without wheels of our own, we caught a bus back to Riga’s train station and walked to a youth hostel in Riga’s old town. Our day’s goal completed, we settled into a comfortable dormitory room for a two-nights stay before our train journey began the 26th. Dan and I spent some time on the Internet and I walked around the old town, seeing the touristy shops and restaurants, buying some provisions at a grocery store, and touring the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The Museum outlined the plight of Latvia under the German and Russian regimes from 1940 to 1991. The country, centrally located between the East and the West, has seen its fair share of occupation and oppression. We shared the 12-bed hostel room with a man who was studying the result of Russia’s practice of deporting thousands of citizens in the Baltic States to scatter them across Russia and replace them with Russians. As a part of his Master’s thesis, he had researched for three weeks in Riga before soon moving to Estonia for two more.

Still rebuilding from its Soviet past, Riga is a pleasant city. The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, allowed us to explore its back roads. Saturday night I left the hostel and its frustratingly sketch Internet connection and intentionally got lost in the confusing network of roadways. I enjoy getting intentionally lost and I believed I could easily find my way back to the hostel by following the three impressive church steeples in the old town. Not so when, an hour and a half later, I ended up in a residential part of the city with only apartment buildings and only business buildings on the horizon. I tried to ask a few people but no one could direct me in the direction of the old town or the train station. Several people gave me the numbers of the buses I would have to take. I had gotten lost on purpose; I wouldn’t concede defeat by busing back. Finally, I had a young woman point the general direction and two hours and 45 minutes after I had left, I walked, into our hostel room. Relief.

Dan and I walked another hour, tentatively looking for a cheap restaurant before returning to pub near the train station. We enjoyed mushroom pizzas and soups while discussing acceptance and correction according to the Bible and their role in the intended Body of Christ. Fascinating. After attending two churches the next morning (merely because I slept in), we ran into each other, Dan walking with four people from his earlier English-speaking service. We joined them for a delicious meal of Latvian potato pancakes, delicious courses with sour cream or jellies. Keith Trampe, with his wife Andrea, were Nebraskans, nearly done with their year-long post as minister at the Riga Lutheran church. We shared a wonderful conversation about Latvian, Nebraskan, and Indonesian culture and our European travels with them and another couple, an Indonesian woman and a German man, the German police liaison to the entire Baltic region. I thought visiting 40 countries was impressive; the German had spent time in over 90. Fascinating.

We finished, exchanged contact information, headed for the hostel, late, and checked out. Lugging out bags behind us, we found a bench in the park by the train station. Dan read while I walked an hour to a cheap grocery store before we cooked a meal of ham, tomatoes, and macaroni stew. Soon, we left for the station, two hours early. On the way, I gave our large pot, with the stew we were unable to finish and a plastic fork, to a homeless man on the other side of the park. Dan reminds me that he may not have been homeless. Perhaps he was just a normal guy who enjoyed digging through trash cans. He accepted the pot gladly and it felt good to share out humble dinner. I explored the station and wrote a postcard to my family. Unfortunately, I only had 20 Lat cents, 30 short of those necessary to mail a postcard to America. Wolfers, if you’re reading this, know that I still have your Roman Colosseum postcard and I’ll send it asap. I returned to a nervous Ziegler, 10 minutes before the train’s departure. We walked nearly the entire length of the long train and struggled to work our way into the full car to our seats with our stuffed bags. The car portion of the trip had satisfactorily completed and the train portion had successfully begun. Relief.


On Our Way North

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Leaving Turkey we had quite a push ahead of us. We had to get to Riga, Latvia by Thursday so we would have enough time to sell our car, buy train tickets to Moscow (we had checked online while in Istanbul and found tickets for the equivalent of about $30 and were pleased with that price), and get everything repacked into our much smaller space for hoboing our way across Russia. Because of this we had only 4 days to make the 3000 kilometer drive from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. It was going to be our longest straight drive ever and we were doing it with only two drivers. So, we began.

We crossed into Bulgaria early Sunday (19/07) evening with no difficulties and headed North-West. It was a rather un-exciting evening and we passed it driving over relatively nice roads, listening to some NPR programs we had downloaded in Istanbul, and snacking every once in a while on some bread with Nutella or jam. We slept in the early morning south of the Romanian border in a rather muddy spot just off the road. The next morning, bright and early, we were off heading North. We entered Romania that morning, paid for a Vignette and drove off. We soon realised, however, that the cost of the vignette for Romania had not been worth it. In fact, the roads were terrible. Just a little after we passed the border we got on a road which was alright, but we did have to dodge a few potholes. Then… Matt, who was driving, didn’t manage to dodge one. It hit hard and as we citröened away from it, something was wrong. The car started wobbling a bit and jerking to the right as a loud thumping came from the right-hand rear wheel-well.

Matt held it together well and pulled us off to a good spot along the road. Our right-hand rear tyre had been going a bit bald because it was cambered in pretty badly, so we were rather expecting it to go at some point. When we got out to examine the situation, however, we discovered that the pothole had bent our rim at least an inch out of place at one point, which explained how quickly the air had gone out of the tyre.

We replaced the tyre with the spare (which had a slightly wobbly rim, but not bad), topped up on air at a nearby filling station and made our way up to Bucharest, drove through Bucharest rather quickly, and made the turn North-West and headed for the Carpathians. Driving through the Carpathian mountain range was beautiful. Winding mountain roads didn’t make for quick driving, but they made for many interesting sights. We drove through Transylvania, thankfully avoiding Vlad’s hot-spots especially that evening when we spent the night just outside his territory and departed the next morning, glad to not have been impaled.

Hungary was next on the list. We passed through yet another border, praised the Shengen agreement that allowed us to pass so easily between so many EU nations, bought a vignette and set off to explore Budapest. The twin cities of Buda and Pest and full of beautiful sights, not the least of which is Danube River spanned in several points by scenic bridges. Our first stop was the top of a mountain at the center of the city where a castle and Victory Monument stood guard over the city. We then made our way into the center of the city to a cathedral where the mummified hand of St. Stephen, first king of Hunagry who lived around the turn of the first century, was preserved in a gold and glass reliquary.

After exploring the rest of the city a bit, including the Hungarian parliament building, modeled after the British parliament building in London, we made our way back to the car and left. North again, toward Warsaw where we arrived the next morning, passing through Slovakia in the night (paying for yet another vignette). After just a few hours in Warsaw using the internets. We also had to try to get in touch with David so that he could transfer the rest of our money out of the group’s savings account to our checking account so that we could actually access it. We were unable to make contact with David, but succeeded, eventually, in getting in touch with David’s dad. Relieved, we made our way north yet again, drove through Lithuania, and arrived in Riga after long hours of uneventful travel on Thursday the 23rd, right on schedule.

A Quick Update

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Hello everyone,
Just to let you know, we’ll be posting soon! We’re in Istanbul, Turkey at the moment getting ready for a push North to Riga, Latvia. It’s been a busy few weeks. Check back soon!

Driving and Bread in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

We left Latvia and crossed into Lithuania early in the morning of June 1, and drove to southern Lithuania. I (david) was unable to observe much about Lithuanian culture or scenery due to the fact that I was sleeping the entire time (plus the wee hours of the morning are do not give good representations of either, even if I had been awake). Dan pulled into a rest stop at 3:30 and we stayed stationary until a little after 9:00, at which point I drove as the others continued to sleep. The new “major” roads in both Latvia and Lithuania (the “major” road in northern Latvia that I talked about in my last post was not new) are still only two-lane highways, but they are treated as three-lane highways. These new roads are built with extremely wide shoulders, and slow cars will pull over to the side of the shoulder—almost completely to the right of the outside line—but continue driving at the same speed. The faster car then moves slightly to the left—just hanging over the center line—and moves around the car. If there are any on-coming cars, then they move over the outside line on their side as well, just to give plenty of room. The system really worked quite well, and I think that the road was wide enough for four cars to travel on it abreast, but I never saw it attempted.

We crossed into Poland and the new, wide roads were replaced with curvy, semi-truck laden, town strewn roads. It took me almost five hours to progress 200 miles in Poland. This was the antithesis of traveling on Poland’s next door neighbor Germany’s roads: the autobahn allows you to cut through Germany quickly and cleanly, like a knife. Using this comparison, driving in Poland felt like we were bludgeoning our way through the country. Having a left-hand drive in right-hand drive Europe is most inconvenient when trying to pass another vehicle; you are unable to see if there is an oncoming car until you are well into the other lane. Therefore, the person sitting in the passenger seat needs to pay attention and tell you when it is ok to pass. Matt would give me a thumbs-up signal to let me know when it was safe to pass a semi.

We found a cheap supermarket (Tesco) on the outskirts of Warsaw, so we stopped to replenish our food supply. Upon entering the store, we quickly realized that food would be extremely cheap, and the best deals were to be had on bread. We picked up bunches of really cheap breads—three types of smaller “bun sized” items that we used for making sandwiches, a big piece of braided sweet bread that was absolutely fantastic, and two giant loaves of regular bread. We also loaded up on pasta and other useful, healthy foods before continuing on our way.

Although Warsaw is Poland’s capital, it apparently does not have any interstate (called motorways in Europe because they are not connecting states like back home) running either around or through the city, so we were forced to crawl through the entire length of the city. Finally south of Warsaw we got on a four lane highway and were able to make better time down to Oswiecim—the city that houses the Auschwitz death camps. Altogether it took almost 10½ hours of driving time to get from where we spent the night in southern Lithuania to Auschwitz in southern Poland.

We parked outside of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and walked to the gate through which the train passed—and was made famous by appearing in Schindler’s List. As we stood by the gate, a group of young Orthodox Jews passed out of the complex singing a melancholy song. I had to wonder what they thought and felt as they were inside knowing that over one million of their fellow people were slain at this site only sixty-five years ago.

We decided to sleep in the car in the parking lot directly across from the Birkenau camp and made supper which consisted of sticky noodles which were almost impossible to clean off of the pot, so we filled the pot with water and let it sit out overnight. We put it on the lid of a metal trash can so we would not forget it when we woke up the next morning…except the next morning the pot was gone. We had been warned that there were a lot of thieves in Poland, but a cooking pot? That seemed unlikely. We then noticed that there was a new trash bag in the can and suddenly we knew what happened. The person who cleans up the parking lot must have thought that we wanted to throw the pot away, but it wouldn’t fit into the trash can so we simply left it on top (she must have ignored the fact that it was filled with water). I had already looked in the dumpster that was in the parking lot and did not see it, but we then decided that the clean-up lady would have put it in the trash bag before throwing it away. Dan went to check the trash bags in the dumpster and about five minutes later came back triumphantly holding the pot like he had just won it as a prize. We were all so relieved. The pot expands our culinary options exponentially and I already can hardly imagine making meals without it. (Don’t worry we did give the pot a vigorous cleaning before we used it again).

david miller


Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

We entered Latvia and got on the one “major” road in norther Latvia. It turns out that the biggest road in northern Latvia is still a very poor quality road: It only has two lanes, is very rough, and has stretches that seem to be pot-hole conservation areas. Matt was driving and stayed in the middle of the road as much as possible to avoid the potholes, but there were still the humps in the road. We were driving along and I (david) was journaling and every little bit Matt would yell, “Hump” at which point we would go jarringly over a large hump. After the bouncing of the car had subsided, I would check to make sure my spine hadn’t pushed its way up into my brain.

We got off of this road near Riga and headed north along the Baltic coast. We stopped at a little town called Lilaste and found the beach. I was expecting a harsh ocean with a rocky beach and lots of wind due to the northern latitude, but instead the beach was very beautiful, quite placid, and had very fine, white sand. We walked along the beach before going back to the car for supper and decided to sleep out on the beach overnight. We gathered our things and made it back to the water as the sun was halfway disappeared on the horizon. We put our sleeping bags in a knoll along the beach where any beach patrol would not be able to see us and went down to the water’s edge. As the sun completely dropped out of sight I just stood at the edge of the beach and enjoyed the beautiful scene, especially the water with its different patches of blue ranging from a silvery blue to some royal blue and even some navy blue, depending on the depth of the water and the angle at which I viewed it, all tinged with an orange glint from the remaining sunset. I sat on a log and journaled on the beach as the sunset disappeared completely and the water turned first to a deep metallic blue before finally taking on an inky black color.

We got up Sunday morning, May 31, and tried to get all of the sand out of our sleeping bags, headed back to the car, and drove into Riga to try to find a church. We found one that was beginning its service just as we were checking to see what time the service began so we went in. The service seemed to be Russian Orthodox in many ways, but they crossed themselves like Roman Catholics, so we never determined what kind of service we actually attended. The service was right at two hours long; a very long time when you are not able to understand a single word that is spoken. It really made me anticipate being in a church service that I can actually understand again. There were a decent number of people at church, but as I looked around the building I saw only five to ten young adults. In Europe, the people our age just don’t go to church…or at least they don’t attend the types of services we have attended so far.

After church we found a parking spot where we were able to access the internet and two of us would explore the city as the third was online. Riga is a very nice city and culturally seems very laid back (this may be because it was Sunday afternoon). There is a green area, almost park-like, on both banks of the river that runs through the middle of the city. There were several bands playing at different spots along the river as Latvians of all ages sat on park benches eating ice cream and listening to the music. Matt and I found a festival where a Latvian rapper was entertaining a larger group of people. This festival happened to be right by where the old men congregate to play chess. I had to wonder what they thought of the rap music blaring behind them, although they didn’t seem to notice it as they studied the chess board.

We finally left Riga just after midnight and drove through the Lithuanian border before spending the night at a rest stop.

david miller