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Published: September 12th 2010
my luggage for a month
took my favourite day pack
I am starting to get organized to finish planning my trip to Poland.One of the first things I had to do was return to Manitoba and get my motorcycle and camper trailer back to Salt Spring. I left West Hawk Lake on August 19th and arrived back on Salt Spring on Monday August 23d. This was a costly journey as I had to replace the alternator on the bike as it failed just out of Winnipeg on the first day.That will be it for the HD-I am planning to get a BMW next year.
I have a detailled itinerary but will be winging it a bit in Russia and the Baltics.
In any case I am down to the last 2 days before leaving for Europe. lots of last minute stuff and I plan to climb Mt Erskine one last time today. Then I will do some more packing and house cleaning. (Sunday Aug 29,2010)
I left SSI by floatplane on the 31st-very wet day with low ceiling-we flew low through Active Pass and across the strait-I arrived at the Airport at 11.00 AM to catch the 1.30 flight to Toronto.Not a bad flight then on to Lot
leaving Salt Spring
Typical West Coast fall day
Air at 10.30 PM -slept a bit on plane as usual-seemed like a short flight compared to Africa.
Sept 2,2010 I am now in Warsaw in a very nice apartment a few blocks from the Centrum -61 Mokotowoscka $80 for 1 night (vs $150 for avg hotel) The apartment was clean , quiet and comfortable-several restaurants nearby.I am apparently downscaling in Minsk to an apartment/ room which costs $65 for 2 nights.Stay tuned....
Today it is sunny and I will spend the day in the Old Town which is a Unesco site. I am going to leave my luggage in a locker at the Train Station -My train to Minsk leaves at 9,00 PM. Apparently English is about as common as Martian in Minsk so I have hired an interpreter who will meet me at the train station in Minsk.
Saturday Sept 4,2010
I am now in Minsk in a rather low scale apartment, presumably one that was built during the salad days of the USSR. I arrived this morning on the overnight train from Warsaw after an interesting trip complete with grim Russian car attendants, end of
minor street demonstration
car samovars, middle of the night passport checks etc. This was my first trip on a Russian train. Very nice cars although I was in Class 1.The train trip started out in Warsaw at 9.00 PM then headed for Brest crossing on its way to Minsk and then Moscow.
After arriving at the border we get the Poland exit check by a pleasant Polish candidate for Europe’s top model contest. Then off down the tracks to Big Military Hat Country where squads of immigration people come on to make sure we have THE VISA. A lady tries (I think) to sell me health insurance but abandons the task when she realizes I don’t speak any known language.
After a brief wait the train car lady brings back the passport and entry document and shuts off my lights and indicates I should go to sleep. I salute and do so.The train lurches down the tracks to the Brest rail conversion centre which would be a product of Joe from Gori and his team deciding not to standardize rail width with the West. It makes for an interesting and noisy 2 hours as they lift the cars off the
carriage trucks and put them on the narrow ones for the trip inside Belarus and Russia. People who could sleep through that would have dosed off during a nuclear test. After leaving I did get some sleep until the car lady once again snapped on the lights and tried to give me tea.
We arrived in Minsk right on time at 8.04 AM In the Minsk station I was met by my hired interpreter who would easily win the above mentioned contest. After checking in to the apartment (major pigpen to be avoided all for $35 USF per night) Other key feature is that it was so far from the town centre that the taxi driver was able to retire after the trip.
After getting the hovel under control we went to the town centre and started a major walking tour. Alena did the entire 7 hour day in high heels . About 5 of the 7 hours were spent walking so I think she was going to spend the night with her feet in a tub of salt water. All the usual hotspots were covered today including Victory Square, Island of Tears (monument
My guide in Minsk
Alena (very nice and helpful guide/interpreter)
to Afgan war) various markets, churches etc. Not quite as exciting as canoeing the Zambezi but interesting.
Tomorrow will be Great Patriotic War Museum and maybe the botanical gardens. I catch the return train to Warsaw/Krakow at 8.40 PM.
Saturday Sept 4,2010
Major sleep program plus did laundry at hovel-a unique all in one washer dryer-chilly night in apartment-according to Alena, they don’t turn on the central heating until October 15th. In any case Alena showed up at 10.00 (in sport shoes) Change of plans as we are going to meet her friend and go in his car outside the city to a traditional village/theme park. First we went to the train station and put my bag in a locker-somewhat complex but with Alena in full charge-no problem.
Off we go in Alex’s (Alena's boyfriend) Mazda to just outside the city. Very interesting village re-construction. They have taken old buildings from various peasant farm sites around Belarus and rebuilt them on the park site-houses, church, mill, school etc. We spent a few hours there and then headed off to the country’s new National Library-Architectural excess at its finest. It is a huge 20 story
Russian Orthodox Church
In heart of Old Minsk-a lot of Minsk was destroyed in WW2
glass diamond shaped building with security worthy of entering Israel. There was an Art show on with some of the weirdest material I have ever seen. Apparently the countries meglomaniac president (complete nutbar and president for life) decided one day that the time had come for this monstrosity to be built - the Architect apparently fainted from shock.....
We then went downtown to the war memorial and Gorki Park-apparently most major soviet cities had/have a Gorki Park-he was a favored writer in the thirties-must have been a favorite of Lenin/Stalin etc. Nice park with good athletic facilities-cleanest public space I have ever seen-there is no litter of any kind. Maybe shooting litterers and graffiti artists isnt so bad....
Alena is determined to see that I get on my train without any problems-very nice person who basically treated me like a relative. They waited with me at the train station until they were sure I could find my train all right -For those who go to Minsk and want assistance/advice I could provide contact information - Very helpful and highly recommended. I also spent some effort trying to get Alex to make the big step and make
Isle of tears
Memorial to soldiers from Belarus who died in Afganistan
the marriage proposal. Stay tuned.
In any case I managed to blunder my way on to the train -the big challenge even for a quasi train expert like myself is that the sign boards are all in Russian-no English and very few people to ask. However if you know the time and the train number ( from your ticket) it would take a moron to get on the wrong train. The train times are precise so you can’t be slow. The only issue is finding the right platform.
We pulled out on time and were off for another night of pass port checking and train lifting. I fell asleep watching Corner Gas on the Ipod, then had various interruptions until 2.00 AM etc. The whole exercise gets a little tedious the second time around.We arrived in Warsaw at 5.45 and then had a brief wait until the 7.50 train to Krakow. I am in Class 1 again and it is quite comfortable- We rolled through the country side very rapidly - I would guess 130 kph etc. The train system in Poland is excellent proving once again that VIA and Amtrak need
Gorki Park Statue
Every major USSR city seems to have a Gorki Park
On another note I have some very important advice for Rogers Wireless- time to shut down your Canadian operations and focus on the area where you have complete and dependable coverage which would be all of Europe including Poland and Belarus.
I arrived in Krakow at 10.00 and went to HFH hotel (Mit Stwocz) where I met some of my group plus the previous group (including JS from Jordan trip)'I walked around town centre and had lunch with CB from my group.
At about 2.00 we went to the Airport and picked up the rest of the group, and then were off to Gliwice for BF dinner and hotel check in.
We then did 3 good days on the build site which is a 12 unit 2 story apt block in a larger Habitat development in Gliwice
Our Thursday R and R day was a trip to Auschwiz and Berkenbau-very disturbing but important to see. We then went to a palace in Pszczyna and did a brief tour before returning to Gliwice-I nabbed a free poster from a bike store.
Friday we were back to the job site for a day
Alena and Alex
We are at peasant farm museum outside of Minsk
of cement pouring, landscaping as well as some tile work. We have a hardworking team and the people from HFH Poland are extremely helpful -Thanks to Adam, Michal and Joanna. Friday night we had a Polish meal-things are not expensive here as a good meal for 12 people is about 400-450 Zt ($150 cdn)
Saturday we worked a half day then had a barbecue on site and heard some stories about HFH in Gliwice. The development we are working on started 16 years ago and 75% of the labour has been done by volunteers.
After the barbecue, we rushed back to the hotel, showered and headed back to Pszczyna for a Chopin concert at the palace. Somewhat underwhelming but you can't visit Poland without Chopin-plus I scooped the poster. There was an attempt to get a carriage ride to the concert but it didn't quite work out. A full day as we ate after the concert and didn't get back to the hotel Sezam until 11.30 PM.
Sunday we went to a Catholic Mass in the main cathedral-interesting to see Polish version after seeing the service in Pisa, Italy
At night the group split up and went
Gliwice Build site
This is our work site
to various homes of families for dinner-a very good evening....
Monday Sept 13,2010
Up for usual day of work at the site-we are in full work mode and doing lots of things to move the project along including tile setting,plastering,concrete etc. Today we quit at 4.00 and went back to Sezam-usual beer hour then off to dinner.
Tuesday September 14,2010
Today is dedication day and we spent much of the day getting the site ready including erecting the stage, We also did tree pruning and sign painting and generally spruced up the grounds. At 3.15 the event started with speeches by the mayor and the US consulate among others. I was last on the podium and it was a unique experience to speak to 150-200 people using an interpreter. ( There is always the fear that the interpreter may be telling the audience that you don’t like their country or their haircuts etc) I actually spoke about volunteerism in Canada and the Habitat experience. We then had our Canadian team play a brief game of hockey against a girls field hockey team from the project-it was a slaughter and we are hoping the news doesn’t get
back to Canada.
Wednesday September 15,2010
After Tuesday’s celebration we returned to the site for the last full day of work. We did lots of site cleanup and more tiling plus a major scaffold erection job for the soffit crew which will come in after we leave. After work we went to the Gliwice radio tour which is the largest wooden radio tower in Europe-We got a very good history lesson on Poland and the role of the tower in WW2 as used by the Germans. After the tour we headed out to what has become our favourite restaurant (the Capri)( where 12 can dine like royalty for 400 zt (about $130 cdn)
Thursday September 16,2010
We are on the last half day of work and had a bit of a slack morning except for some new site digging and tiling.Everyone received Habitat Gliwice T-shirts and certificates and the thanks of the Gliwice HFH staff and a homeowner rep-very gratifying. We then went to Mcdonalds for lunch-despite some troop unrest in advance of the lunch stop, I think everyone enjoyed the change. After lunch we returned to the hotel to complete the online evaluations, shower
and checkout. Huge thanks to Adam and Mihou who made it all work smoothly...Our HFH group was a great team of people and we had a lot of fun.
Then it was on to Krakow by minibus for the R and R conclusion to our trip.
Krakow was excellent- I would rate it far ahead of Warsaw because of the big town square. Also it seems the A Hilter Urban Renewal Team didn’t do as much damage here.
We ended up staying in a hostel/guest house (24 Hour Guesthouse) There were some muted and unmuted grumbling about quality but it was quite a typical European Pensione and the moaning gradually died down-my theory is why pay a fortune for a room you will only sleep in -but old habits die hard among North Americans.
Another minor rant of mine is about wheeled luggage-very popular and not the greatest invention in the history of travel-People tend to load up these wheeled monstrousities with small cars, curling rocks,500 pairs of shoes and then need a forklift to deal with stairs which come up a lot when you travel in Europe. If you cant carry it,probably a good idea to
A GV volunteer hard at work
everyone got to do dirt detail
not take it. Nothing personal here as everyone I know does it ....I am thinking about starting a Facebook group for people who hate wheeled suitcases. (Go with the backpack)
We went to the town centre and had beer-then on to the Jazz Café for an excellent dinner (Polish restaurants are the best) Things are a bit more expensive in Krakow than Gliwice-but still under $20 per person for a high quality meal. They almost pay you to drink - about $1.50 for a regular beer. Many of us then went back to the hotel for an early night.
Friday Sept 17,2010
Full day of R and R - We split up in the morning and those who weren’t claustrophobic went to the Salt Mines. (300 metres underground by stairs in a narrow shaft and then up in a small elevator cage) The rest of us did various tours and shopping-Two of us did a communist tour - Crazy Guys version-We went in an old East German produced Trevant and toured Nuevo Huto.(a fully planned workers paradise) Very interesting. Stalin and the rest of the communist leaders did some strange things………
A lot of people did their
GV team at work
painting the railings
souvenir shopping after the various tours. From what I could tell Amber and Schmenge hats were popular items. (Remember Yosh and Stan, the Schmenge brothers on SCTV) There was an antique market on the square and I bought a brass wild boar which will become a soap dish at the new WHL outdoor shower building.
We had our farewell dinner with Asia from Poland HFH (one of the worlds nicest and most helpful people) The whole trip seemed like a series of banquets interrupted by some work and sightseeing etc. One of the HFH participants said his travel agent told him to expect nothing but boiled potatoes and sausages in Poland along with huge vats of cabbage accompanied by loud polka music.( Fam tour needed) I would class the food quality, service and pricing in Poland as the best in Europe.
Sad to be parting company with the team-very nice people who made leading easy-hope to keep in touch with everyone.
Saturday September 18,2010
Everyone will now go their separate ways with some leaving for Canada today and some staying on for a few days. I along with two others took the train to Gdansk-downside was that
More GV work
Organizing the lumber pile
the train left at 6.00 AM so was up at 5.00 AM-train station was very close. Long but relaxing trip to Gdansk - we got in about 4.00 - My two travelling companions headed off to their long awaited luxury digs and I walked to the no longer in existence Baltic Hostel. Boris Karloff’s twin brother peered at me through the small dirty glass window in the main door and told me (I think) to shove off complete with the universal finger gesture . I then wandered the town and was able to find another Hostel- It was near the water front between the train station and the old town area. Very nice, cheap and practically deserted. Gdansk is well worth seeing and I explored the town for a while-Amber is to Gdansk what carved animals are to Africa. I resisted the urge as I suspect that prices may be cheaper in Kaliningrad.
Sunday September 19,2010
A great sleep…. I was up and gone by 6.45 to catch a Mcdonalds breakfast and use their always free WIFI. I then caught the 8.20 train to Kaliningrad. When travelling you have to always be alert for the little nuances that can
turn your plans into exciting mini-disasters- In this case it was the train strategy. I got on the train when it arrived but had sort of noticed it seemed like they had Polish destinations on some cars. When we got to the next major stop they took off some cars and changed engines, Fortunately I was in one of the cars that was still left. Just in case there was a further train sort later, I decided to find the conductor and discovered there is a Russian car on the train that goes to Kaliningrad. I quickly relocated and got the last compartment.
Good thing I moved because they split the train at the last Polish station and left only the Russian cars. We had a one hour wait including the Polish Immigration exit stamp process. We then were handed the Russian entry document which we filled out on the next leg of the trip. At the border we started the security process-lots of Big Hats and various coloured uniforms. Away goes the passport and the immigration form and on comes the army to search the cars. After various activities back comes the passport (stay tuned for small potential
disaster update) and I am officially in Russia. We then head off again and it seems we aren’t doing the wheel thing.
Russia from the train seems less prosperous than Poland but it could be the terrain-sort of a coniferous swamp. I am seeing lots of mushroom pickers by the track plus my first new bird of the trip-a Eurasian Coot..
We arrived in Kaliningrad about 4.00 and efficient Olga had a cab driver waiting on the platform with a sign-about $7.00 for a fairly long ride to the hotel which turned out to be the best of the trip -luxury for hostel prices... I am sitting in the bar/restaurant having a glass of wine and waiting for my dinner surprise (no English spoken here so I am not entirely sure what I ordered) Turned out to be fish-excellent
Monday September 20,2010
Slept very well until 4.00 AM at which time I got a wrong number phone call (or maybe it was the KGB) hard to get back to sleep....
Elena the guide picked me up at 10.00 (in a Mitsubushi convertable) and off we went to the Curonion Spit-A Unesco site on the Baltic Sea and
a National Park. The first stop and perhaps the highlight of my entire trip was a visit to the Fringilla Ornithological Field Station where they capture and band birds.
The Director has been here for 35 years and just loves his job- you can tell by the way he handles the birds-very gently. After applying the band he opens the window and lets them go (sort of like Burt Lancaster in the Birdman of Alcatraz) A must see if you come to Kaliningrad...
It is amazing -huge trap nets to capture birds for banding which they do in spring and fall. Some birds come from as far away as Africa including Hoopoes. Since 1957 they have banded 2.6 million birds. During the tour we did 4 more (Willow Warbler,Siskins and Chaffinch)
After this major highlight we went and climbed various dunes - maybe 5-6 km - We also went to a twisted forest area and a Prewar German Glider training area ( where the future pilots of the Luftwaffe trained from 1922 until 1945)
For lunch we went to a very nice Russian forest resort-huge dining area, very luxurious but with squatter toilets?? Food was excellent.Fish buns with caviar.
Main Market street
saw squads of mushroom pickers and Elena tells me it is a very important part of Russian culture. I noticed some of the pickers are arriving at the site of the free mushrooms in huge new Mercedes cars...
The guided tour including transportation was about 70 Euro and I would strongly recommend it-Contact me for Olga/Elena details if you are going to Kaliningrad.
Back at the hotel about 5.00 for another meal adventure-New staff in DR with some English so less adventure-had an absolutely unbelievable beef and mushroom goulash.
At this point I must say that Russia is a great place to visit-very different and a bit exotic, It appears to be a bit more expensive than Poland but is almost free relative to Western Europe. Another key point you learn when you talk to real people like Elena is that people here live in accommadation that would cause suicide rates to soar in the North American population-we are totally spoiled-Families here and in Poland and various other East European counties live in very small spaces -try one room with a total area of 300 sf or less for 2 or more people)
Tomorrow I am going to
go to the Amber Museum as well as a WW2 bunker. Will leave for Vilnius via Riga on Air Baltic at 3.30.
Tuesday Sept 21, 2010
We are off at 10.00 to go to what is apparently the most popular Kaliningrad attraction which is a former German HQ bunker. It is all underground and tells the story of the capture of Kaliningrad by the heroic Soviet forces. Britain is vilified for bombing the Germans while they were occupying the place because it destroyed the castle among other things. The German commander (FM Lach) apparently was captured and lived to write his memoirs.
We then hit the Amber museum where I filled in (Christmas shopping now done) After that, we did one more church and then were off to the Airport. Check in was uneventful although I had to pay for my one piece of luggage. Elena then headed off and I went up through security to see what the Big Hats would do about my missing passport stamp. (the train guys didn’t stamp my passport coming in-just the immigration slip) I handed it over with my train to ticket to show when I arrived-major brow
furrowing and one phone call-then more frowns and visible perplexity. I kept silent and finally there was a shrug and out came the stamp-bang on the immigration slip and bang on my visa in the passport. I was then on my way to the last two (of four in total) X-ray machines. I finally got into the holding area to wait for the bus to plane program. Flight was uneventful after then and we did the final leg to Vilnius on a Bombardier.
The hotel people had a taxi arranged so getting to the Florens Boutique Hotel was easy-another typical Pension type place-cheap and cheerful etc. -Also only 5 minute walk to Old Town-
Wednesday Sept 22,2010
My cold is really getting settled in now-I am on the hunt for cold pharmaceuticals.
In order to minimize flailing I took a city tour-kind of church heavy but gave a few facts about life under the Russian Bandidos and their idiot henchmen. It comes to mind that the Soviets and the Germans were able to lower the average IQs of Europeans by quite a few points by wiping out the Intelligentsia as well as almost an entire population of educated
Bridge to last Church site in Russia
Wedding locks as symbol of lasting love etc
Jews. Apparently in the Soviet system, people with any evidence of intelligence were sent to the Gulags in Siberia or just shot on the spot. J Stalin and his crew apparently killed 20 million people...
I then walked across town to the KGB museum AKA holocaust Centre. This was on a par with Auschwitz for being upsetting. The torture chambers and the solitary confinement rooms are chilling. This place was used until 1991 and the people who ran it are presumably still alive and living in Russia free of any consequences. (and maybe even running the Russian government)
My last move of the day was to walk back across town to the bus station to get my ticket to Riga. Trains in Lithuania seem only to be internal-to leave you have to fly or take the bus. Bus travel is cheap (about $22 to Riga which is 300 km) and efficient-The ticket process was very organized with permanent gate loading numbers so I can get here 10 minutes before 10.00 in the morning and be on the bus.
Thursday Sept 23,2010
Up early -cold has stabilized a bit and could be worse. I walked to the bus at 9.00
A gothic church
or so and found a mini-pharmacy in the bus depot so got some anti-histamines and some cough drops- I then got on the Bus-very nice modern vehicle-reserved seating-I got 2 seats to myself-fairly full. We will be in Riga by 2.30 or so. It is a 300 km trip.
Roads are excellent and countryside view shows farms not unlike Canada but the buildings and machinery are a bit older etc.
I arrived in Riga at bout 3.30 and managed to navigate the tram system to the outskirts of the city to the Homestay Guesthouse run by Diga Daga and her kiwi husband. A long way out but absolutely the best accommodation of the trip-Beautiful wood house full of art, cats and a new puppy. Diga was a competitive tennis player and had to quit due to shoulder problems-hello Jan.
I went back downtown and wandered a bit -interesting place with a great old part.
Friday September 24,2010
Bit of a bad day due to the increasing intensity of my cold but I went back downtown on the tram and explored the Old City including the Occupation Museum as well as various markets. I lasted until 4.00 then caught the
My home stay in Riga
Quite a change from the Minsk apartment
Tram home and had a nap. After my nap, I got into a big discussion on hockey with Diga's son-I got major credits for knowing Duvie Westcott's mother. (family from Winnipeg-Duvie played hockey in Riga and in Minsk)
Saturday September 25,2010
My bus left at 12.30 so had some relaxing time at the Guest House-I started the day by doing a walk with Diga and the dog. We went through the neighbourhood to a nearby lake and some Oligarch houses (6000 to 8000 sf) proving that not everyone lives in 40 sm apartments (especially not opportunistic ex communist officials)
After breakfast it was off to the bus station to catch my luxury bus to Tallinn-I was in the first class section(a room at the back with leather recliners, free Internet, etc) Nice relaxing trip of about 300 km in 4 hours. Countryside is becoming more and more prosperous as we get into Estonia. After arrival I changed some money and taxied to the hotel which was a pleasant surprise (L'Ermitage) on the edge of the Old Town. I did some exploring and had dinner near the main square.
Sunday September 26,2010
The Old Town area is quite large
Oligarch mansion in Riga
Usually churches are major tourist sites-this could be the new tourist attraction
and very close to the hotel. I spent my time here doing some more Christmas shopping.I also thought about not going to the Occupation Museum but ended up there about an hour before it closed- Bad decision to have waited as it was the best museum of the three I visited for history in detail. Antique shopping turned out to be the quest for the day and I ended up with an old Soviet Anti-Vodka poster-lots of different kinds of this genre. Apparently the government drove people to drink, collected lots of liquor tax , then went on a campaign to get people to stop-sound familiar??
Sunday September 27,2010
My flight to Warsaw was scheduled for 2.30 so I spent a relaxing morning packing and doing emails.I then went to the Airport -without a doubt the nicest of the trip. Uneventful flight and got bus to Warsaw Centrum-I (on the last bus ride) finally figured out the Warsaw bus system in terms of ticket handling-One machine for purchase and then a franking machine for registering the purchased ticket. My Hostel this time is Nathan's Villa which is pretty close to the Centrum -private room for about $50.00. Lots
socialist art at Occupation museum in Tallinn
Every one gets a statue-some minor functionary-statue was 20 feet tall.
of students from all over in town to start University. I talked to 4 in the lobby while trying to get on the Internet- (Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and ???) I ended up having dinner with 2 HFH people from Poland office (mexican food in a restaurant owned by a Canadian)
Monday September 28,2010
Up early to pack and check out - I left my luggage and headed out to walk to the Old Town area as I am on a quest to buy a Lenin sculpture or a bronze plaque. I am thinking about it being an aiming point for the outdoor toilet.....Today was the day I had to break down and buy an umbrella as it was pouring rain. After the walk and Lenin purchase I headed back to Nathan's , got my luggage and started the long trek home. Uneventful except for theft of duty free Jamiesons by CATSA.
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