Archive for October, 2009


Week 31: Finland

   Posted by: Rhona    in Estonia, Finland

For someone who doesn’t usually do country hopping I’ve certainly been racking them up in the last little bit, and it won’t stop for another couple of weeks. I’m still in Finland but now in Turku, from where I will take the boat to Stockholm. Country number 5 in as many weeks and unfortunately currency number 5 as well. I did have to choose European countries that haven’t adopted the Euro didn’t I? Apart from Finland of course.

Last I wrote I was in Estonia, hanging out in Tallinn. I spent a few hours at the Tallinn City Theatre with a couchsurfer and got a great tour of the backstage areas and building. The building is actually 3 different adjacent houses that have been renovated to make one impressive complex. There are 5 stages in different parts of the building and we walked up stairs, along corridors, down stairs, around corners, up stairs, past pool tables and into dressing rooms and basements as we visited them all. It was amazing; I could spend my life exploring all the nooks and crannies. I’d order delivery pizza to a different corner every day and play hide and seek with the delivery man. One of the stages is in the basement and apparently quite difficult to work with, though it looks fantastic. A few weeks ago when it rained the water came in through the power points, which can never be a good thing. Unfortunately I didn’t see a play as those showing while I was there were in Estonian and a little esoteric. As the woman showing me around explained, they can be difficult to understand for a native Estonian speaker.

The ferry ride to Helsinki was short (and had wifi!) and once on land I met up with a guy who was a passenger on one of the tours I led in Japan. We’ve stayed in touch and caught up in Sydney when he was in town late last year (and by random coincidence I was home). He took me to a smoke sauna which is a particularly Finnish style of sauna. The wood is burned in a large stove and the smoke is kept inside due to a lack of chimney. When the sauna is hot enough the smoke is let out and the sauna is ready to be used. My first image of the sauna was two steaming people standing outside the door in the semi-darkness of a northern winter evening. We stripped down to swimmers and headed in, Anders explaining the protocol to this bumbling tourist. We poured a few ladles of water over our head, sat on wooden boards to protect our behinds from being blackened with the residual soot and sat down to sweat. And sweat we did, huge drips of it. There was a lake outside and after a bit of working up to it I went for a quick swim. The water was 3 degrees, and as Anders cheerfully pointed out it doesn’t get much colder than that, even in the depths of winter, before it turns to ice.

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Week 30: Capital hopping

   Posted by: Rhona    in Estonia, Latvia

I finally left Riga for the “Switzerland of Latvia”, Sigulda. As nice a place as it was I would say that the label is a little generous. The autumn leaves were pretty though, and I had a great guide who I’d met at a couchsurfing meeting in Riga and who happened to be heading up to spend the weekend with her parents. She drove me around to some of the medieval castles in the area and to the Baltic States’ deepest cave (obviously there aren’t many caves around) which has a tragic love story associated with it. Details vary a little but a beautiful young woman, the Rose of Turaida, and a handsome young man were in love and planned to marry. Another evil (probably ugly) man wanted her and planned to rape her in Gutmanis Cave. She decided that death was better than the other option and convinced him that she had a scarf that would protect him from death. To prove its magical properties she put it on and told him to try to kill her. Of course the scarf had no magical properties and she was killed.

People have been visiting the cave for centuries and leaving their mark on the reddish sandstone. A sign outside said that the oldest visible graffiti is from 1667 but the oldest I could identify was 1822. At least back then people took some time with their vandalism, or paid others to take the time. Maybe it’s just the mists of time but the historical carvings seem a whole lot more beautiful than “Frank waz ‘ere, 2008” scratched furtively with a butter knife.

The castles were cool and I realised just how little I know about the history of this part of the world. It’s a convoluted sequence of influences, conquests and occupations by Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians with overtones of religion which only serve to make it more confusing to someone who doesn’t really understand why these Christians fought against those Christians when the basis of their beliefs seem so similar. Though the Baltic States didn’t seem to be the focus of most of the struggles they had the misfortune of being on the way as larger powers fought for trade rights and souls to convert. I’ve never associated the crusades with this part of the world but apparently a northern crusade came up this way in the 12th century to convert the stubborn pagans.

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Week 29: Riga

   Posted by: Rhona    in Latvia

A week later I’m still in Riga. The main thing keeping me busy here apart from the beautiful architecture has been a very active Couchsurfing community. I’ve only just started getting in to Couchsurfing lately and initially I thought of it mostly as a way to save money on accommodation. It’s so much more than that: you can meet some really cool people. The community here meets once a week but I’ve spent many nights hanging out with people I’ve met: locals, expats or just other people passing through who’ve made contact through the Couchsurfing website. I’m sure there must be bad apples in the Couchsurfing community just the same way there is anywhere but the people I’ve met so far have been quality.

I’ve also come to appreciate the local beverage, Riga Black Balzams. Made from a mysterious concoction of herbs it’s quite a strong liqueur (45%) if you drink it straight (and apparently pretty nasty tasting) but I’ve only had it mixed with something else, usually hot. In coffee it was good and I always feel like I’m truly on holidays when I have alcoholic coffee because, as someone sensitive to caffeine, it usually means I’m drinking in the morning or early afternoon. Ooo! I’m so naughty! Balzam is also good with warm blackcurrant juice and this has become a favourite first drink after I walk in off the cold, windy street and slowly defrost in a warm bar.

The weather here hasn’t been fantastic but there have been short bursts of sunlight, mostly in the mornings, when I grab my camera and head out and try vainly to somehow “capture” this beautiful city. There are some amazing Art Nouveau buildings around and even without knowing much about the style it’s hard not to be impressed by the flourishes and decorativeness of their facades. Art Nouveau was popular from about 1890 to 1905 and used a lot of curved lines, sun motifs and plant designs. The buildings here also use a lot of masks or faces and for someone who knows a little more about the style you can apparently see the transition between early and late Art Nouveau as it transitions into more of an Art Deco style. In 1997 the old town of Riga was UNESCO listed for the “quality and quantity” of Art Nouveau architecture, though one of the best streets I’ve seen is actually not in the old town.

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Week 28: Off to Latvia

   Posted by: Rhona    in Latvia, Tajikistan

There are plenty of people killing time in Dushanbe and it’s a nice place to do nothing, if only because there’s not much to do. But not wanting to spend the week until I flew in Dushanbe I decided to head northwest to Penjikent. My main (only) reason for heading to Penjikent was to do a daytrip to the Marguzor Lakes, a chain of seven lakes in the Fan Mountains. I hoped that there would be other guests at the homestay that I could share costs with and I had a few nights to lie in wait for them.

The owner of the homestay took good care of me, suggesting that I eat dinner with him and his family rather than go out alone at night. I’d been a little apprehensive about travelling alone but everything seemed to be going OK. Still, as his concern proved: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you. I’d already come to the same conclusion and stocked up on dinner supplies. There are still plenty of places where being a lone woman is a hassle.

Unfortunately nobody else turned up so I had to pay for the whole car but it was a nice day trip. The lakes were formed by landslides from the steep sided valley. We drove up over the landslides and got to the seventh lake where we got out and walked around the shore. For my safety the homestay owner suggested the driver go with me but this time it wasn’t sleazy men he was concerned about, it was bears. Right. On our way back down to the car we walked for a while with a family who were bringing down wood from the mountains. Everywhere in the villages you can see people preparing for the winter, stockpiling feed for the animals and wood for heating. I’d heard that there were often power supply problems in winter and one of the reasons for this is the fact that much of the power comes from hydropower. A clean and renewable energy source until the lakes freeze.

Back in Penjikent I met a really cool girl from Khojand (further north in Tajikistan). She was fascinating to talk to because she perfectly embodied the clash between traditions and modernity. She’s 24, well educated, independent and unmarried. As she told me, in Tajikistan most women are married by her age and the gossip mongers are talking about her and speculating that she has some “problems”. One of the problems she mentioned they might be talking about is that she can’t have children though I’m not sure how someone who is saving themselves for marriage would know that. Most promiscuous Westerners probably have no idea until they actually try to conceive. Proposals have come her way but she’s reluctant because she doesn’t want to lose her freedom. I got the impression that in Tajikistan women are much more subject to the desires of their husbands; if her husband allowed it she could still work but if he was more traditional she’d be popping out babies every 9.5 months. Well not quite but there was much more a feeling that things change for women after marriage. At the same time she does want to get married, in the abstract sense of it. Her parents are very liberal but value family and have told her that having children is the natural thing for women to do in order to continue the family line. Apart from the fact that she’s almost beyond marriageable age is the fact that her younger sister is 20 and ready to get married. The older sister has to get married first otherwise the gossip mongers would go completely crazy.

In the share taxi on the way back to Dushanbe the woman next to me threw up constantly for 8 hours. Once again I was very happy to arrive though at least this trip didn’t take 55 hours like the last one. A few more lazy days in the capital before I flew to Riga, Latvia. First impressions were fantastic (see my last post) and I’ve decided that I’m going to spend most of the time until Brett gets off the boat hanging out here.

Unfortunately the sun that bathed everything in that warm beautiful light is now nowhere to be seen and my couchsurfing host keeps laughing at me when I say I’m waiting for it to come back. As it turns out I was very lucky to see it and autumn in Europe is grey. Who knew? The last few days have been the kind of weather that makes people jam their hands in their pockets, shorten their necks into their scarves and walk briskly to the next heated area. Anyway, my project for the 6 weeks is to learn how to build a website so grey days aren’t so bad, less temptation to run around taking photos.

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Week 28: Riga rocks!

   Posted by: Rhona    in Latvia

I’m in love. We’re moving to Latvia. I arrived in Riga this morning and am blown away by how awesome it is. This is a bit of an irregular update and totally out of order because I haven’t written about my last week in Tajikistan but I need to write about this. Even from the air it looked cool, very European type buildings surrounded by pine trees.

I arrived to a few drops of rain and rainbows arching over the city. There’s something about the time just after a rainstorm, when the sunlight has been washed clean and everything is so grateful for its warmth. Especially on those cool crisp days when you need a big jacket but don’t quite need to zip it up. After dropping my bag in a locker at the train station I wandered out of the building with the aim of getting lost and following whatever street looked good. The plan was to go to Old Town but I don’t think I made it. Instead I stumbled upon an absolutely fantabulously beautiful church, where rays of sunlight filtered through the dusty air to light up the oodles of gold on the icons. Outside they were doing some restoration work on the wooden walls and when a guy saw me admiring the original wood he pointed me around the corner to where the 1mm thick layers of paint and plaster had all been stripped away in preparation for new layers.

The central market was heavenly, full of fresh produce, spicy aromas and the cheeses and sausages that i just can’t get enough of. Even just the variety and quality of things was mind boggling after central Asia. And everyone speaks English. Even the ones that say they only speak “a little”. At a small bistro owned by a soccer obsessed guy I was fed fried pancakes filled with cheese that came with a side of sour cream. Absolutely delicious but wow i’m glad my cholesterol isn’t a problem. Maybe it will be by the time I leave Latvia? I’m definitely going back there for more of those pancakes so I’ll keep you posted.

Tonight I meet up with my couchsurfing host and we’ll probably head to a gathering of other couchsurfers. Hopefully at some stage I’ll get some sleep, the taxi this morning came at 3:30am. Eurgh.

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