I think I am at a fairly confused juncture in this trip. But there will be more on that at the end. First to catch up on the backpacking. I flew into Helsinki and immediately headed to Aalto University to catch up with a person who was very important to my finishing of a PhD. The labs were amazing, just as the last time I visited in August. This time though there were a few more of the professors and scientists and students around to show me what was going on. I learned incredible things and felt a strong tug back to the world of metallurgy, or at least science in general. The work they are doing with amorphous metals, carbon fiber rope and friction stir welding/coating is engrossing. Anyway, it was a great few hours to speak with intellectual friends. I spent that night at a hostel and took a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia the next day.

One of things I have done differently on this backpacking trip is to bring some running shoes with me. So after a nice ferry ride and then searching and finding a hostel in the quaint old town, I decided to go for a run. This time I took my camera with me though, so that was sort of refreshing to run somewhere and take a picture and then run on. Although, as one can imagine, some of the tour groups gave very confused looks. This, of course, was not the only way I saw the town though, that would be insulting. The hilly little capital is post card perfect and quiet. I think the best thing about the city though was the traditional elk soup served in the town square. This is probably just for tourists (I am sure actually) but that didn’t make it taste anything but delicious. I did find Tallinn sort of boring though, or sleepy is more the right word, so I left for Riga.

Riga is the capital of Latvia and is just down the road from Tallinn. The first thing about Riga, or Latvia for that matter, that comes to a traveler’s attention is the value of their currency. The Lat is worth more than the dollar, euro or even the pound. So you change $50 and get 27 Lat back, this is shocking. The purchasing power parity though is still OK. I think the value of their currency is because they are changing over to the Euro in January. The hostel I checked into in Riga was maybe one of the best I have ever been in. It was new and clean and had an old VW Bus for a bar on the ground floor (its called Old Town Hostel and Aussy Bar, for anyone who might visit Riga).Perhaps the thing that really made it though was when I came in at 9 in the morning, the guy at the bar welcomed me to the hostel and gave me a breakfast beer, free. Then that night when I finished the check in, the girl asked if I got my check in beer yet. I told her I had one that morning and she replied “Oh no, that was your free breakfast beer. Here, this is your free check in beer.” Ah, you’ve won me over. They also have ginger beer in Riga, but it is actually alcoholic, so I taught the bar how to make Dark and Stormies. Wow, they are really good with real ginger beer!

I also took a walking tour of Riga. They are free and you just have to find the guy with the yellow suitcase. The tour guides are students or so and they do a pretty good job at providing an alternative sort of tour. Riga had one of the most amazing indoor wet markets I think I have ever seen. They also have the oldest or largest or most voluminous (or some permutation of those) wooden Church in the Baltics. Unfortunately they have accidentally burned it down three times but keep rebuilding it on the same spot. The old town is also mixed a bit as many of the old buildings where destroyed in WWII so the commie Soviets took the liberty of replacing them with giant blocky-cubist concrete structures. This provided for a very interesting contrast of architecture. Riga was fun for sure. The city though seemed to have a seedy underside to it that you really noticed shortly after dark.

The next and last city on the Baltics Capital Tour was Vilnius, Lithuania. As soon as you arrive in Vilnius and make your way to the old town from the bus or train station it becomes immediately obvious that there is more money here, or at least spent here, than the other two capitals. Every thing is cleaner and bigger. Vilnius seems more upscale and even a bit pretentious by comparison. I made another long run around town, but later I took another free walking tour. This was far slower but much more informative. The town has the usual assortment of churches, as every European city. One of the brick churches downtown was one of the most interesting I have seen I think. But the really interesting thing is that there is a breakaway province right in the middle of town. The area is called Uzupio, and it is more bohemian than revolutionary. The food in Vilnius was very good too. I think I only ate the national dish though which is called Cepelinai, and it is nothing short of amazing. Essentially the dish is a strange sort of potato dumpling filled with meat. That is not so amazing until you cover it in bacon chunks and their drizzle and serve it with sour cream. I can’t understand why everyone in Lithuania doesn’t die a young death of heart disease. But they are yummy.

The other reason I stayed in Lithuania was to get a visa for Belarus. This was not difficulty, but it took a few days. The really annoying part though was that it cost me 250 Euro. The Japanese guy next to me got it for free. Go America! The visa was only a transit visa though and allowed me only 48 hours in the country. Then when I went to buy the tickets, after I got the visa, thanks to scheduling I would end up with a whole 12 hours in Minsk.

I wanted to come to Belarus because they have had the same commie dictator since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That I could go and see a living museum of communism seemed fascinating to me, and the price of entry was only the 250 Euro visa and a 5 AM train. Crossing the border was easy enough, no problems. Once I arrived in Minsk the first thing I wanted to do was change some money. There were long lines at all of the exchange booths. I would stand in one for awhile and then the counter would close, a big gate slamming down or a steel framed window slamming shut. The break times of the money changers are frequent and well regulated. So then the line rushes over to the next changer a few meters away, only to have the window close again. It took awhile to get to changing the money. It can’t be easy, this is communism after all. I also misunderstood the exchange rate. I thought it was 9.9 Rubles to $1. I don’t speak or read Russian, so I was pretty sure that was what the signs said. I gave the lady a $10 bill, she handed me a large hand full of cash. I was confused why it was so much and I tried to count it but she shooed me away from her window. When I got a chance I went through the drug-dealer sized roll of cash and found I had 97,000 Rubles. Uh, oh, I guess it was 9,900 to the dollar. Hmm, and all in 1000 notes, thanks communism.

I set out to see the town and the living museum I was assured it was. I had high expectations of seeing old Russian cars and black buildings and depressed people waiting in line to go into the grocery store that only had three products to sell anyway. Well, it wasn’t quite like this, although it was depressing. There are some old cars, more than average in Eastern Europe but there are new ones too. I wouldn’t say the stores were well stocked but they are sufficient. There are soviet slogans all over town though, and many hammers, sickles and red stars all over everything. Pictures of happy good workers and Lenin mosaics and fisting Stalin statues are all over the city. Sloganism is alive and well here too, I wish I could have read some of them. I felt the price of admission was a bit high for the country since it was not nearly as bad as I expected. Where I was impressed though was with the architecture. There are commie block buildings that are still kept up and they are overwhelming in size. They are even tastefully done and look good compared to much of the commie architecture I have seen in the past. But these cubist buildings have one message when you stand in front of them – they make you feel like nothing in front of the massive communist machine. Of course now it is not so massive and it is just this little propped up dictator. So it sort of lost its intimidation. I left on a night train for Kiev, I still had about 30,000 Rubles, even after eating a huge pizza, drinking some terrible Belorussian beer and breakfast and dinner.

Kiev was an easy visit after Minsk. Many young people spoke English and so did all of the tourist signs. Finding the way around was aided by the extensive bomb-shelter and subway system. Once I checked into the hostel, which was a block-flat downtown full of Russians, I was able to leave my bag and go for some exploring. I ran into the Japanese guy from the Belorussian Embassy in Lithuania and we set out to see the town. The first stop was to try and get a tour booked for Chernobyl. I have an obvious interest, and come to think of it, so did he. Unfortunately the tour was very expensive and took 10 days of advanced booking. We tried a few other agencies too, same thing. So Chernobyl will have to wait for me to visit, but I am pretty sure it isn’t going anywhere. The next stop was the armory south of old town. This complex sits on the bastion of a hill where many battles have been fought, its really a giant wars memorial. There is quite a bit of Soviet military hardware on display and lots of the usual victory monuments from granite and concrete. The reason I came down here though was for one reason only, and that was to see the big lady. She is the Mother of the Motherland and her sword is 30 feet higher from the ground than the Lady Liberty’s torch. The statue is simply massive and fun to try to make perspective shots with. Anyway, naturally, my camera died while I was there. Oh, and coincidentally, the subway station near the big lady is also the deepest in the world. It has two escalators though, so Admiralty in St. Petersburg still has the longest escalator.

I also went on two walking tours while in Kiev. Again they where free but there was no yellow suit case. On the first one there was an Alum from 1956 from my university. That was interesting to meet someone from so long ago and on the second one was a guy from Wisconsin who had seen at least one of my videos. I guess it is a small world. The walking tours focused on the churches and communist buildings. The architecture of Kiev is worth seeing as it covers hundred of years and is prolific in this huge city. I also tried chicken Kiev while I was there. I thought it must surely be the best in the world and I looked up a nice place and paid a little over my budget for dinner to try it. Guess what? It tasted like every other chicken Kiev I have ever had.

Since there was no way I was going to wait for the tour of the melted, I thought I better get down to Odessa. This is a city I have always wanted to visit and now finally have. It is a massive vacation town in the summer and used to be almost exclusively the playground of the party member commies. It is a nice little city sitting on the Black sea and more importantly, it was warm, or at least warmer than far inland. So I didn’t even need two sweaters. Walking around the town the first thing I noticed was that there were brides everywhere getting their pictures taken. I found this a bit ironic as the town is really focused sex tourism for western men. There are tons of strip clubs and brothels and hookers about. It is not quite unlike the town is almost entirely a red light district, except it isn’t. What it is though is an entire town designed to slowly take your money, from the sex trade and the casinos to the scams that range at all levels. Too bad, this could be such a great place. Unless you are into that sort of thing, then it is. I also went for a run here, along a calm Black Sea and then up on to a hill top park that sits above the port. Since it is fall you can see through the trees and all of the port activities, which is interesting.

I needed to keep heading south though. Not only was Odessa trying to figure out ways to siphon off my money, if I didn’t hurry I might accidentally meet snow along the way. So I left Ukraine and headed for Chisinau, Moldova. I chose a bus route that specifically went around the breakaway province of Transdinistria. That border can cause problems, but more on that situation later. The roads coming into Chisinau are horrible. I am surprised the bus can keep making the same trip. I found a hostel and it turned out to be full of good humored intellectuals. This was refreshing since there was really nothing to do in Chisinau other than walk around a bit or play chess on huge sized chess boards in the park. That is if it isn’t too cold. It is also not fun to spend money there as all the cash machines have messages and devices all over them about skimming devices. You can see on many of them where they have had skimming equipment attached and it has been removed. Very sketchy. Plus the food there is terrible so no need to spend too much anyway.

Pretty much the entire reason I came to Moldova though was to go and see the geo-political oddity that is Transdinistria. There was a small war after the fall of the Soviet Union and Moldova has never had Transdinistria under its control. The territory is only recognized as a country by South Ossetia, Abhazia and Nagorno-Kabakh. All of which are also break away provinces and not recognized by anyone else either. Transdinistria is a decaying resonance of the Russification policies of the Soviet Union. When the union fell apart, Moldova voted for independence but Transdinistria voted to stay aligned with Russia, since they are mostly Russians there, thanks to Russification of Eastern Europe. So it is really a remnant of the failed efforts of empire. This sort of thing I have to see while it still exists.

The easiest place to visit is the capital Tiraspol. It is only a $3 and 4 hour bus ride from Chisinau so it was best to make a day trip out of it, otherwise you need permission. While it isn’t as commie as I was expecting, they do still have a KGB and I was hoping to get shaken down, but it didn’t happen. I did keep getting yelled at for taking pictures of government buildings, but they only told me to stop. The “border crossing” is really going through the line where the Russian “peace keepers” have been dividing the country since 1993. You get a permission slip at the border, not a stamp, since Transdinistria isn’t a country, even if it thinks it is. It was a lot more free than I expected but the locals who could speak English really parsed their words. To be honest, it was a lot like visiting a commie version of say, Bismark, North Dakota

I headed back to Chisinau because I didn’t want to miss the last bus and have to bribe my way home. I had a good time hanging out with the intellectuals in the hostel, but something else really got me. I had been corresponding with a friend from high school when the topic came to midlife crises. I thought, how weird it will be to have one of those. She then pointed out that I am “a divorced mid-thirties man on a sail boat abandoning reality and conventional mores.” Um, is that what this is, a mid-life crisis? I guess it could be. Then again, I have solved all the riddles that originally made me leave on the trip in the first place. Now I just have to finish, but I am really not sure what I will do next when I get home, er, I mean Boston. I guess the first thing is what another close friend told me to do yesterday – grow up.