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a journey to the end of the earth

Displeased with our progress so far

If Russia’s border with Estonia was the end of the earth, I was there on Friday. A few weeks earlier Elliott, an American friend of mine studying Russian here, asked me to join him on an adventure to Estonia. As I mentioned in my last blog, we planned to get there using the cheapest possible form of transport – hitchhiking.

We set off on Friday afternoon towards the Saint Petersburg suburbs in search of a position to begin our voyage. After catching the subway to the very last stop, then a mini-bus to the last stop, we arrived in what we thought looked like a good position to hail down a ride to Estonia.

Our planned destination was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia  some 600 kilometres away. The mini bus dropped us off essentially on a freeway. After walking through snow trying to find a suitable place for cars to pull over, we began ‘hitching’.

Normally within the city limits people hitchhike all over the place to avoid paying for more expensive, certified taxis. Unlike back at home, the idea of getting in a car with a complete stranger isn’t thought of as a bad idea in Russia. With that in mind, we assumed people would be more than happy to pick up a couple of young, approachable looking guys so we could join them on their trip.

It didn’t really take very long for a few people to pull over. Although several people were happy to pick us up, most were only driving a few kilometres into town, or wanted us to pay them to take us which kind of defeated the purpose. One person suggested trying a petrol station on the other side of town, so we caught a bus to that location. Unfortunately, the bus only dropped us off within a few kilometres of the petrol station we needed so we were forced to walk.

Elliott’s video diary

Another guy by the name of Alexander pulled over as we walking to the petrol station and offered to take us to the petrol station. On the way he fired up his two-way radio transmitter and stuck a large aerial to the top of his car. He then attempted to contact truck drivers who were going to Tallinn with the hope they could take us at least part of the way. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get a decent signal to maintain a conversation longer than only a few words. He dropped us off at the petrol station anyway and wished as a successful journey.

Walking along the freeway

By this point we were already three hours into the trip and hadn’t gone any further than 20kms out of Saint Petersburg. We gave ourselves twenty minutes before we called it a day and caught the bus back to where we started. Disgusted at potentially having to do that, we starting pestering basically every person that walked in and out of the petrol station providing they ‘looked’ like they were going to Estonia.

Annoyingly, almost everyone flatly refused to take us as most were only going a few kilometres down the road or already had a full car. Finally, just when we’d pretty much had enough of standing out in the cold asking strangers for a lift, one guy by the name of Dima responded to us optimistically.

After thinking for a few minutes, potentially weighing up the possibility we were going to murder him during the journey, he said he could use the company on his long drive back to his town that, conveniently for us, was located relatively close to the Estonian border. I sat in the front while Elliott slept in the back. We successfully ran the gauntlet that is Russian highways in Dima’s work’s small truck and eventually arrived in the Russian border-town of Kingsepp.

After our lift with Dima: more pleased

From there, we caught a bus to the near-by town of Ivangorod where we hoped we could walk across the border into Estonia. At that point I was pretty thirsty so when we got to Ivangorod we looked for a place where we could buy a bottle of water. We found a small shop but for some strange reason they would not sell me water, only beer, gin or vodka. As I attempted to explain to the lady that I didn’t feel like an alcoholic beverage at that point, she grunted and unwillingly opened the non-alcoholic beverage fridge.

We headed for the border on foot but came across a small building with an ‘information’ sign on the top of it. Elliott insisted we go in so we could ‘interview’ someone on everything Ivangorod had on offer. The people inside were very happy to see us and interested to hear what on earth we were doing in that part of the world. About thirty minutes later, just before sundown, we walked out of the building with pamphlets, CDs, calendars and pens in hand and Elliott’s interview he taped on his camera.

Shortly before crossing the border I was approached by an elderly Russian man who asked if I could take a bottle of wine from Russia into Estonia on his behalf as he already met the maximum amount for bringing alcohol into Europe. I agreed and had a bit of chat to him. Like many people over here, his knowledge of Australia was limited to what he’d heard or seen on TV. Almost everyone over the age of 35 I meet always mentions the movie Crocodile Dundee, often raving about it as a cinematic masterpiece.

We crossed the border and headed for the outskirts of town to hopefully flag down our next victim. Unfortunately, as Elliott had spent so long interviewing the bloke at the tourist information centre, it was already getting quite dark, making hitchhiking difficult. After standing in the cold for another hour or so, we decided we’d split up while Elliott tried the side of the road and I targeted a near-by petrol station. While everyone in Estonia seemed more interested in taking us than those in Russia, most people again weren’t going in the direction of Tallinn. After about two hours of trying to get a car and failing, Elliott and I rendezvoused and made an executive decision. The lady at the petrol station assisted us to call a taxi so we could take the remainder of the journey on the bus.

At about 11pm, some 12 hours after we left Saint Petersburg, we arrived in Tallinn on a comfortable bus that only ended up costing us nine euros… Some would ask why we didn’t just take the bus to begin with, but we just told ourselves it was the experience that was the most valuable thing.

Tallinn

Although we had arranged a CouchSurfer for the night we arrived, as we got in so late we figured it wouldn’t have been fair to call on them. We checked ourselves in to a hostel before heading out to explore Tallinn by night.

The following morning we woke up with killer headaches with only a few minutes to spare before we had to check-out with the intention of going to the CouchSufer’s place that night. After a refreshing cuppa, we opted to stay another night at the hostel as it was extremely cheap, convenient, the people were good quality, and it meant we didn’t have to fulfil certain obligations that are expected when staying with CouchSurfers.

That night we again hit town, this time keen to explore some of the more local hangouts.

On Sunday we walked around the medieval town centre looking in several small shops, coffee shops, antique dealers, churches and other places before I had to catch the bus back to Saint Petersburg and Elliott headed to Riga.

The bus was extremely comfortable, had WIFI and a coffee machine passengers could use whenever they wanted. It took about six hours to drive back, not including the hour or so we were stopped at the border. Almost every time I go through the border into Russia, the Russian border officer asks me 20 questions – what I’m doing in Russia etc, despite my visa clearly identifying I’m a student. Perhaps an Australian coming in to Russia via Estonia is a bit of a novelty. 

Tallinn was sensational. Small, ancient, picturesque and surprisingly highly developed. Due to the composition of Estonia’s population – nearly 50% Estonian and 50% Russian – nearly everyone is tri or bilingual. Although we were only there for a few days, there was a general sense of tension between those who spoke Russian and those who spoke Estonian, probably for good reason given Estonia was formerly a part of the USSR and that as as result, everyone was forced to learn and speak Russian.

Back in Saint Petersburg, the big thaw has begun. We’re now almost two weeks in to spring and already it’s +4 degrees. Although the warmer weather makes heading outside more pleasant, the streets have basically turned into slush due to the melting snow and ice.

As I said last time, I’m working on a more substantial, edited video of my time here so I’ll hopefully have that finished and up relatively soon. As those of you who have edited video before know, cutting and compiling video can often take a very long time, especially when all I have to use is my slow Eee PC. If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog on the right, it doesn’t take a sec.

Matt

Thanks to Elliott for the pics
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  1. Clayton
    March 15, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Tell Elliot to buy a coat.

    I just wrote a research paper on Estonia, coincidentally

  2. Sam
    March 15, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Sounds like the saga to Estonia was worth the effort! I look forward to seeing some video which hopefully unlike my 2008 Europe trip the footage does not remain unedited for the next three years (and counting). Photos however are another story, check out my latest additions to flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33498301@N02/

  3. Wayne G Walker
    March 15, 2011 at 6:28 am

    Quite an adventure and pleased you weren’t females. I’m surprised there were no bicylcle riders doing the same trip. Talin looks quaint.

  4. Christine
    March 15, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Not quite how we got to Tallin, but did enjoy our trip there. Sounds like a lot of fun.

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