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Published: August 6th 2007
Our arrival in Riga is met by frozen winds and a warm memory, tinged with regret, of the coats which we abandoned in London. D'oh. We clamber onto a jam-packed bus which whizzes us into Riga old town, nearly to the frontdoor of Franks Friendly Backpackers where a free can of fine Lativian beer greets us as we come in the door - proper welcome😊 Slight confusion when English barman becomes convinced that le Frenchman Nico is Welsh. Tell Nico that must wear his beret and onion-string from now on to save mix-ups. Claim our bunkbeds, abandon the rucksacks (sore shoulders! totally out of training on the rucksack front) and head out on the town for some traditional Latvian stew thing for Nico and traditional latvian spuds for me. Yum. It's quite like Polish food, plenty of dill and grease, in a good way. The waitresses in latvian peasant gear look very bored with the whole thing. Reminds me of the time in Perth, Oz, when, freckles and all, I worked for 1 day in an Indian restaurant dressed in a bright orange salwaar kameez. A v good look for me.
We wander round the old town, past the workers
monument in fine social realist style. Apart from the occasional communist-era statue there is no feel that this is a former soviet city, or at least how I imagine that to be. The old town is all cobbled streets and dinky bars and cafes, people are smiling and fairly glam. Could be any nice northern european tourist centre. I wonder what it is like outside the old town. Sadly this time we don't have time to find out so we hop on the lift to 26th floor of the Hotel Latvia for fabulous view over Riga by night washed down with Latvian mojitos (same, but with Riga Black Balsalm - basically cough medicine - added), surprisingly yum.
I wake up early and head straight out for quick run - first since marathon and it feels great. Happily the weather is now fabulous - clear blue sky and sun splitting the stones. Coat shmoat. Back in the hostel we have a long chat with Brian from Scotland who is sharing our dorm room. He captains yachts around the world and is just back from South America on his way to Scotland where he is having a bit of a wrangle
with the authorities re the complicated mixture of a church, a path, a wayward grave and a water pipe. Nasty. He is a very nice man - very funny - and I would like more time for more stories but Riga is waiting so we say our goodbyes then set off into city.
After a strange and unsettling encounter with an omelette covered in honey sauce for breakfast we take the lift to the top of Sv Peterus cathedral in the old town centre. From the spire view point there is a fabulous view over city's coloured roofs and quirky buildings and the musical ringing of many hammers lifting and resetting the stones of the old town pavement cobbled streets drifts up to us from all directions. Down on the church ground floor we stop to look at the original statue of Roland (the one in the main square is a copy and to me a pale imitation). The original has a such a warm expression on his face. It stood in Town Hall Square from 1896 until it sustained damage during World War 2 and was moved inside the church. The tip of Roland's sword once marked the
Riga by night
From cocktail bar on 26th floor of the Hotel Latvia, drinking Latvian mojitos.
geometrical centre of Riga, from which distances to all other cities, towns and villages was measured. The friendly lady at the church door smiling answers my questions and doesn't even flinch at my torturous stumbling through Latvian phrases. All in all a really enjoyable visit.
Next stop is the sprawling and colourful outdoor market where we load up with provisions for the 18 hour train journey to Moscow. Biscuits, cheese, bread, water and radishes. All the essentials! We arrive in the station with plenty of time before the train's departure time - however hadn't counted on the place also being a shopping centre with no signs or information where we are completely unable to locate the platforms. Much panicking, running around in circles and a small fight later we are finally on the train with enough time for quick photoshoot before leaving. En route for Moscow!!
The train is spotlessly clean and the bunks are surprisingly comfortable. We are sharing our 4 bed cabin with Daniel, a food-trader from Lithuania in his late 40s. Although he speaks no English and our Lithuanian is fairly basic, he has fluent German. Unfortunately, neither of us speak any German (no Nico,
you don't speak German!), but I try my bit of remaining Dutch (kip=chicken) and god knows how but that get us through 5 or 6 hours of conversation. The combined powers of sign language, drawings and general jumping around help too. Daniel shows us photos of his father and his son, both at age 18. One was displaced to Siberia (along with about one third of the Lithuanian population), the other loves to play football. The luck of a generation.
Russian border guards have a lot of fun reading our visas and our surnames. Daniel explains that we are on our way to Beijing, cueing much hilarity, tutting and shaking of heads. Next thing we know we are in Russia, visas stamped and ready to go. I hang my head out the train window and stare upwards at the starstrewn sky, same stars under which I dreamt my childhood dreams of Russia and the transsiberian express, winding black through the deep snowed silence of a far-away Siberia...
Nico has a swanky caviar sandwich for tea in the very glamourous buffet wagon. I have some cheese slices, slightly less swanky, but still good.
Sleep really well on upper
bunk and awaken to the sight of concrete suburbs announcing our imminent arrival into Moscow, capital city of the largest country on Earth.
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