Baltic adventures – (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania)

I left Russia and headed onto Tallinn which is the capital of Estonia to start my journey to England by Christmas. My journey through the countries is via LUX Bus and l highly recommend them for a cheap, efficient and luxury travel however a little disappointing l can’t get another bus travel story for a while.

Tallinn, Estonia: As l mentioned, l started off in Tallinn for the first 3 days. I arrived around 2pm and by the time l got to my hostel it was 3:30pm. This is due to no one’s fault but my own because old ‘genius’ me thought that l knew the correct direction of tram l must get on until l checked my maps once the train was doing a 180 turn and heading back the same direction… like l said, l am a ‘genius’.

I headed out to look around town once l was checked in due to an opinion of mine believing that buildings and monuments look better lit up at night in the colder countries. I wasn’t wrong and l was lucky to catch my first Christmas markets of the season where there were stalls and food along with hot mulled wine which l tried for the first time, however l was told for my first night of food to head to a restaurant underneath the town hall called 3 Dragons in English. It is a traditional medieval place where they will treat you as such if you don’t even greet them with a simple hello, because this happened to me when l obviously don’t speak Estonian and couldn’t understand what she was saying to me. They don’t have a menu, but will happily tell you what is on offer. I recommend this to anyone passing by to try, because not only is the food delicious, once you step through the door, it feels like a whole different world.

The second day, l headed onto the free walking tour of the city. It went for about 2 hours with some funny but great information of Tallinn and a little bit of Estonia and how they were finally a free country after many years of oppression. That night followed by visiting some of Tallinn’s drinking establishments to taste to local liquor and into a very sore head the next day which involved a trip over to the occupations museum to gain an insight of what the country went through.

Tips:

  • Tallinn tram system is very efficient. To buy a ticket, you can buy directly from the driver and you are not meant to do what l did and ride the tram for free without one as it could be a 40 euro fine if caught however l was told the inspectors are very minimum.
  • Across the road from Tallinn Backpackers, is a small underground bar marked with a red light, l know what you are thinking but that wasn’t the reason l went in, so head down into it. It’s a cool little bar and the bartenders know their beer.

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Tartu, Estonia: I spent a few days in Estonia’s second largest city and to give you some idea of the size, it is about as large as a what most would consider a small town in Australia. It was mainly snowing the whole time I was there so made it a bit hard to get out a lot to see the sights however l still visited the KGB cells museum which is also known as the Grey house but it was very interesting to understand what happened.

Tartu is also filled with many weird and wonderful statues but as it is a university town, one of the main statues in the town square are dedicated to the students of the city. Other places to visit is freedom bridge which as you walk across, has information on history of Tartu and the gunpowder armoury which has been changed a little over time but now is a pub/bar which hosts local bands and a local hotspot with the locals.

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Riga, Latvia: The capital of Latvia and the largest old town of the Baltic states where it also hosts the cheapest airport to fly in and out of in Europe which makes it perfect for the British to get away for the weekend. I spent a few days with my mate Nick who flew over from London as he was in need of a get away and it was a pleasure to catch up but l destroyed my body this weekend as one pint turned into five very quickly and the return times back to the hostel were at the earliest times of 4am.

We did manage to see a few sights of the city by joining the free walking tour and learn more about the history of Latvia but of course it wasn’t without confusion. The first day we tried to join the tour and we were told the meet point wasn’t far away and when we arrived no one was there even after we has walked around the whole church. We headed through the Christmas markets instead, drank some cold mulled wine because it looked hot and went into Riga’s museum if occupations however the current one is being renovated and we had walked in the wrong direction again. When we worked out where it was, we stopped by the hostel and l kindly explained to them that their posters were wrong about the free walking tour which they thought was weird and here comes the confusion, we later worked out after more sightseeing we went to the wrong church to meet the guide and hands down, l highly believe both churches look similar. I apologised to the receptionist the next day back at the hostel and explained that l was an idiot.

A few more nights were spent out where this time include watching the mighty Chelsea football club defeat Manchester City who only had one supporter in the bar in form of a gypsy who seemed like he just wanted to fight everyone and later a lot of drunken karaoke (l can’t sing at the best of times and sorry for anyone’s ears that night).

Tips:

  • If you want a cheap decent meal, you can head into the central markets where you can spend around 3 euros to get a couple of pastries and a coffee
  • For a good night out, Rock Café is brilliant with a floor dedicated to a live band playing a lot of the current hits.
  • If you visit the occupations museum, take the guided tour to visit the cells, otherwise you will only have to pay a donation to see the exhibit.

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Vilnius, Lithuania: The last capital for me to visit of the 3 Baltic states was Vilnius which also contains an unofficial country republic called Uzupio which is also a UNSECO World Heritage Site. Once again, l didn’t know too much of what to do in the city except l did have plans to catch up with Audrius who is a friend l met in Myanmar. On arrival into my hostel, I needed to get food as it was starting to get late and tried my taste buds at one of the Surelis restaurants in the city (there are only 2 or 3 of them) as they serve traditional Lithuanian food and l was introduced to fried garlic bread sticks with cheese sauce and while they sound very unhealthy…. They are, but they are the local beer snack that all the locals take when they are drinking and are absolutely delicious.

The second day, l walked around the outskirts of the old town of Vilnius with a hostel mate by the name of Jamie. We visited the KGB museum of the city, which also marks off visiting the 3 KGB/occupation museums of the Baltics which l recommend doing each one because they each they the individual story each country had to go through during their history. We also walked by the river and saw the Green bridge which dubbed by the locals as the unluckiest bridge in Vilnius as he had been destroyed the most in various ways over time and headed to a military vehicle museum for a look.

The next day, l met up with Audrius, where he joined myself and different hostel friends (Phil, Steph and Pete) on the walking tour of the town and into the republic part of town where we learned that all you need to do the whole time is smile to be accepted (there are 3 other rules being, don’t drive over 20km/hr, have to be creative to live there and the fourth being if you don’t abide by these rules, the residents have the right to push your car into the river). After the tour, Audrius showed the 4 of us around to the following:

  • Senoji Trobele – a traditional rural Lithuanian restaurant
  • Bambalyne – a underground bar with lots of different local beers to choose from
  • Surelis – One of the best beer places to visit in Uzupio

We also that night visited the government house of Uzupio which is actually a pub and the bar man gave us a good laugh when we walked in but l am happy to tell you that story in person.

My final day, l met up with Jamie again and we headed out to Trakai, which is the ancient capital of Lithuania and has a castle on an island. We spent all day out there which l found very interesting learning more of the history. It cost 6 euros to get into the castle but it is worth the money, so don’t hesitate.

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Tips:

  • For a good meal at a cheap price, find a kebab place called Jammys. They serve large kebabs for a very cheap price. It is located near the KGB Museum and is a local hotspot.
  • Buses to Trakai leave all day and it only costs 1.80 euros each way. Buy your ticket from the driver. When in Trakai, you must try the pastry pies which are a local tradition and very tasty.

I have now headed into Germany for a week before England over the festive period. I will write my new blog in the new year so until then, Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to everyone and hope you all have a nice time seeing in the new year.

Hostels on my way through: (I only reviewed Tartu for an extensive look at what l thought on this place)

A small train ride from Mongolia to St Petersburg

Yes, the heading is a joke because it isn’t a small train ride but if you haven’t worked it out yet, l was on the trans-mongolian train. It is the same as the trans-siberian and the only difference it the direction the train changes at Irkutsk.

Train Leg 1:

I had a late train out on Mongolia at 8:50pm on the 4th November to head to Irkutsk in Russia. I had a 2nd class cabin booked for this leg, which l found out later you can only take 2nd class (middle option) as there is no 3rd class option (the lowest) out of Mongolia. I shared my cabin with 2 ladies from Norway who had just been working in China for the last 3 months and were excited to be going home to their own beds which l had to laugh about and then sadly think about the comfort of my own bed after being away for so long. The train ride was straight forward but was going to take 1 and a half days to get to Irkutsk mainly with a lot of the hours being spent at the border crossing. Our border crossing took combined about 10 hours.

We arrived at the Mongolian border side at about 4am and had to wait until 9am for customs, so when l got off the train was quite unusual to see our carriage sitting alone with no engine or other carriages hooked up. The reason was simply they only needed one carriage to take across the border and a Russian engine must come pick up the carriage. We were cleared by customs at about 10:30am and we were off again for the next 30 minutes where we stopped again and this time for the Russian border control to inspect everything and they are stricter than the Mongolians, this time having dogs and photography equipment on the train to see who is who. We then left and headed for Irkutsk.

Irkutsk: A small town situated on the east side of Russia in Siberia. It is located next to the biggest lake in Russia called Lake Bikal which everyone mainly visits the city for the lake… except me. I booked only 1 night in the town and didn’t have much time to get out and see the lake so l decided to spend my time in town and experience Russia for the first time. The city alone is beautiful and it offers some nice churches and a tourist route they call the green line. The green line is a painted line on the footpath that takes you around to all the main sights of the town. I spent some time in an art museum of a famous Russian artist however l can’t remember his name. I struggled to find any places that serve traditional Russian food in town and there is no night life however l wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone due to the fact in Siberia, not many people speak English.

Tips:

  • I was told the time to visit Lake Bikal (if you don’t go in summer) is in March when it is completely frozen over and you can ice-skate and conduct other activities on it.
  • I bought a sim card in Irkutsk for the whole country for 300rub ($6aud) which was unlimited data

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one of the mainchurches in Irkutsk

Train Leg 2: My first 3rd class experience. The carriage is open beds and each carriage holds 52 people but you only get 2 power sockets per carriage, but 2 toilets and a hot water urn for your beloved minute noodles that will become your diet for any leg of the trains. Here l was offered vodka by a local for the first time and this was more than once while he tried to explain to the young Russian lady next to him that l am Australian. That was about as exciting as this leg became except for when l went to sleep l had every bed around me full, however when l woke, l had 1 lady left. It seems everyone just disappeared overnight, don’t worry, they didn’t, they just departed at a stop earlier in the morning. This trip again was approximately another 36 hour ride.

Novosibirsk: My next stop along the route was here in bigger than Irkutsk yet still a smaller city than most Novosibirsk. Everything that you would most likely want to see in the city is situated along the main road or if not, then most likely a maximum 10-minute walk off it. The town has a famous arts centre with a square in front of it named after Lenin, a central park of its own where the fountains would most likely be turned on in the summer however most days that l was there, the temperature was an average -15 degrees Celsius. The city also has a main church like all the other cities of Russia, apologies as l cannot remember the name but l couldn’t visit it anyway due to it being completely locked up while l was there. One place l do recommend for a drink and a good night is Truba jazz bar. Cheap beers and good music to relax to out of the cold, they also serve food which l was told by the other hostel people l went with that it was tasty. I met some of the most genuine people throughout Siberia, for example when l ordered a taxi from the hostel to the train station, it turned up 5 minutes late and the reception guy paid for my taxi, given the cost wasn’t much but the thought and offer was a pleasure.

Tips:

  • Be careful in Novosibirsk, because l accounted one place at dinner where the place had no English translation and the man charged me extra because he knew l couldn’t put the right price to things on the board. How did l work it out? Russian keyboard on my phone + matching letters + google translate = answers

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Lenin Square in Novosibirsk

Train leg 3: This time the train ride was shorter at only approximately 15 hours, it was a nice change. I had booked 3rd class again which was empty until about 1am when we stopped at Perm and what seemed like a million-people piled onto the train but the worst thing about it was the noise from people getting on but when you book 3rd class, you really can’t be picky. There wasn’t much else about this train ride except the start. I arrived at Novosibirsk with what l thought was enough time to get onto the train, but without making it to obvious, the train terminal you arrive at it different to the one you get the long-distance trains from. The other terminal is only about 200m away but they don’t make it an obvious thing.

Yekaterinburg: One of the largest cities in Russia outside of the obvious Moscow and St Petersburg and situated close to the border of Asia and Europe. This city was one of my favourite stops and l personally would have liked to stay an extra day. I arrived around midday and decided to get some washing done which wasn’t dry by the time l went out and when you’re in -15 Siberia, it isn’t that much fun having damp pants. My first night l went to a Kontinental hockey game (KHL) as it was a recommend one thing l must do while in Russia.

The journey there was easy and while google maps was helping the conductor lady on the tram was persistent and wasn’t going to let me walk to the arena by myself, so for the next 20-minute journey, she walked up and down the train trying to find someone to walk with me so l didn’t get lost. She found one lady who could speak a little bit of English and she was lovely too as she was going to wait with me at the ticket line to help with translation but l didn’t want to hold her up from her husband and told her l could manage. I don’t know the rules however their l am, sitting in the cheapest seats for 250rub ($5.50aud) googling the rules, l gradually picked up on what was happening. Getting home, l decided to get an Uber as the temperatures were dropping fast and my phone only had 40% battery which l thought would be enough but it was that cold that my phone was using more battery to keep warm and l was losing about 5% every 5 or so minutes.

Day 2 I went for a walk around town and started with the Boris Yeltsin museum in the Boris Yeltsin centre (Yekaterinburg is the home town of Boris), which l highly recommend to anyone to go see as it’s in both English and Russian and it was a great insight to the country’s history. I proceeded into town, visited downtown, Dr Scotch pub (which is a Scottish pub but was recommended on lonely planet for some unknown reason as it is just a pub), the Beatles monument (they never visited the city but it has 3 whole walls dedicated to them), the largest tower in Yekaterinburg that you can go to the top for 360 degree views and the famous cathedral called Church on the Blood where it known that a Tsar royal family was executed.

As l said, l had run out of time, but there are a few more things you can see in the area like a monument about 12kms out of the city marking the border of Asia and Europe.

Tips:

  • The tower cost 300rub to go up and while it does get you entry into a museum in the tower as well, it’s all in Russian so there wasn’t much point
  • There is a red walking line in the city that you can follow and to get more information, stop by the information centre where the lady piled me up with more maps and books l could possibly carry.

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Church on the blood – Yekaterinburg

Train Leg 4: The best train leg of my journey without any challenge. I hopped onto the train at 6:30am and this time l had booked 2nd class for the 24-hour journey to Vladimir. I accidentally woke the one of man up in my 4-person cabin but he wasn’t worried and went to the bathroom, so while he was gone, l unpacked and put my cup on the table, he came back, saw my cup and proceeded to reach behind his pillow, pull out vodka and pour it into my cup. He didn’t speak much English so for the next 8 hours we had a very broken conversation, but l found out he was a hunter and he had me try some salty pork he had killed and cured himself, oh and about another 10 shots of vodka. I thought he had run out about 5 shots in between us but he had a new bottle sitting in his bag. Another man joined our cabin later in the day who could speak English and he translated between us where they asked me questions about if l liked Russia and the unusual one for me if l preferred Trump or Clinton.

We bought some beer at our next major stop and snacks to share and by the time l went to sleep, l was in a very happy place (thank you vodka!). I departed the train early the next morning and was a little sad not to continue along to Moscow.

Vladimir: A very small town situated about 4 hours outside Moscow. You can complete seeing this town in half a day and l only stopped here to see another town and break up the train ride. They town does consist of a main gate that is the centre attraction of the city and a nice church but you must go in the morning otherwise it will be closed.

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Vladimir

Train Leg 5: 4 hours outside of Moscow and was still offered sheets and my own bed space but didn’t need them as l was going to stay awake and take in the final leg of my train ride.

Moscow: I was excited to be here, while the train ride was a great adventure, l could place my bags down for more than 2 days in a row and have a rest. The first night l visited Red Square where the Kremlin is located along with St Basils Cathedral (even though l thought it was in St Petersburg). A walk around the Kremlin walls is possible and you will find the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded all year round no matter what temperatures hit Moscow.

Over the next few days’ l visited the Kremlin and the cathedrals inside the grounds plus the armoury which l highly recommend as it is Russia’s biggest collection of gold, silver and items gifted to them over the centuries. It cost 700rub ($14.5aud) but it also comes with a free audio guide so you know what is going on inside but doesn’t include entry to the cathedrals but you walk into them and sometimes the ladies employed to check tickets don’t care so l got to visit a couple of them. I also went to another KHL hockey game, this time to watch CSKA Moscow with 2 kiwis and as they had no idea what was happening, l was more the expert now so l could tell them what was going on and tried to find a bar to have a drink which l found some trendy places that charged 300rub for a simple corona however l did manage to find a bar that served 500ml local craft beers for 190rub ($4aud). Mostly everything in Moscow is located around Red Square and 4 days’ l found where probably too long but everything is my own opinion.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 50rub ($1aud) per ticket to get you anywhere in the city)
  • Moscow is a little like Sydney where it is confusing roads in every direction and navigating can be difficult so if you don’t have a sim card, l recommend leaving Red Square the way you came in otherwise you could think you are walking in the right direction but 30-minutes later be further away than what you started.

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Tsar cannon inside the Kremiln grounds

St Petersburg: My last stop in Russia and the one city l was most excited for. I flew this time from Moscow as l managed to get a ticket for 30euros ($42.50aud). I stayed here for 5 nights which seemed about the correct amount of time. The first night, l went and watched a Zenit St Petersburg Russian Premier league game and bought the ticket for 400rub of a man out front selling his friends membership card for the game and l just handed it back to him once l was in the stadium. Day 2, I visited the Hermitage museum which is ranked in the top 5 largest museums of the world and the price to enter is 600rub but once again a local man approached me and sole me a ticket for 400rub because locals get local price. The Hermitage is nice but l felt that l had seen a lot of it in the Louvre and probably didn’t get a much enjoyment out of it as everyone else.

Over the next few days’ l went on the free walking tour offered in the city which l highly recommend, went to a soviet donut café as their recipe is different to what l was expecting and they are delicious, visited a soviet arcade game museum where most of the machines still work and you can play them.

Tips:

  • The metro is Moscow is brilliant and it costs 35rub ($0.72aud) per token to get you anywhere in the city)
  • It didn’t happen to me, but about 1am in the morning, the bridges over all the islands in StP open so make sure you are on the correct side of them.

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St Issacs in St Petersburg

I stayed in hostels all the way through-out Russia and have reviewed all of them through the website below.

Irkustk – Ushanka Hostel

Novosibirsk – FunKey Hostel

Yekaterinburg – Hostel R.E.D.

Vladimir – Dostoyevsky Hostel

Moscow – Fasol Hostel

St Petersburg – Soul Kitchen

For more photos, please head to instagram and follow theworldaccordingtoaginger