Jan 222019
 


Woke up nice and early the next morning, but fortunately not too early since I wanted to still get breakfast before what promised to be a very long day. Years ago when I did both Lithuania and Latvia, thanks to a delayed flight, I got only the briefest glimpse of both of them. Thanks to my friend Naomi who had recently done a similar trip, I found out that a bus or taxi (3-4 hours) wasn’t the only way from Riga to Vilnius…you could actually take a full day tour that stopped at interesting places along the way. Absolutely perfect!

The company was called Traveller Tours, and I booked the Riga to Vilnius Sightseeing Tour Bus. Good thing was, we didn’t depart until 9am, which was good because not only do I hate early mornings, but it was still dark until 9am and I wanted breakfast. Everything worked out though, and at just before 9am I found myself limping to a hostel in Riga’s old town to begin the tour. Yes, the fact it began at a hostel should have been my first warning, but in for a penny in for a pound, and I was ready for adventure.

Limping to the hostel? See, on day one of this trip, way back in Frankfurt, the handle of my suitcase snapped. It was one of those rolling backs with a handle that’s connected to the bag by two telescoping “rods” for lack of a better word….and the handle cracked and came apart….and one of the rods fell into the bag never to be seen again. So I was dealing with a rolling bag that I had to steer with one thin post….on cobblestones…for about 700m. Yeah, now you see how this trip was getting super interesting…

Anyways, got to the hostel, and there were like a dozen people waiting around…but the vans only seated eight people, so it was all very strange, especially since when I booked they told me I got the last seat. Turns out there were two busses today, however, and since six of the people were a family it ended up being eight in the other van and only five in ours…which meant plenty of space! The downside to being with people for 12 hours is that if you have nothing in common it makes for a very long day, but I was fortunately that at least everyone in my van was nice to each other and it all worked out.

With that…we were off! First stop was the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble. Salaspils is a town maybe 30 minutes from Riga where first the Nazis ran a smallish concentration camp (at least compared to others) and then during Soviet times and especially under Stalin lots of people were shipped off to Gulags, many never to be seen again. According to our guide, everyone in Latvia has stories in their family of people who were shipped off during one of these two periods, and this memorial park was meant to commemorate both.

We got there as a light snow was falling, which only added to the solemnity of the site:

Beautiful, but also cold and foreboding…

A large gate that you enter by walking under, and an inscription that translates as “beyond these gates, the land groans”

Seven concrete structures dot the fields, known as  “Mother”, “The Unbroken”, “The humiliated”, “Protest”, “Red Front”, “Solidarity”, and “The Oath”.

More statues…the cold, grey, snow, and wind really added to a contemplative feel about the place…and I could swear I heard a heart beating. Turns out, there was a speaker somewhere playing a heartbeat, but it was just subtle enough that it wasn’t obvious. Eerie…

Close-up of the entrance gate. Seeing the people underneath, you get an idea of just how massive it was…

After that rather solemn start, it was back in the bus and off to our next stop – Rundāle Palace – which was about a 60-90 minute drive from Salaspils, and just north of the Lithuanian border. I’m not much of a museum person, but have to admit it was pretty interesting. Rundāle was originally the home of the Duke of Courland – an independent dukedom. It was built in the mid-1700s, and I had to wonder: why couldn’t it still be independent – I could count it as a new country!

During Soviet times, it was first used as grain storage, and then as a school, and eventually a local history museum. It was extensively renovated after Latvian independence and restored to its 1700s-splendor. From the outside, it certainly looked grand:

Fortunately, the self-guided walking tour with audioguide was only billed as 30-60 minutes – finally a museum that is appropriate for my attention span! A ballroom:

Loved this study – I’m still not sure what the thing in the corner was, but if I recall correctly it was brought to Latvia from China in the 1700s:

The Duke’s bedroom… I always wonder in these old palaces, who wants to sleep somewhere that fancy? When I go to bed, the idea of having “staff” around tending to things gives me the creeps…

After the palace, we drove the short distance to the border, and less than five seconds after crossing into Lithuania, a police car came up behind us…sirens flashing. Seems that despite the Schengen Area having open borders now, the police were conducting random checks, and picked us. First, they went through passports, and decided one of the younger backpacker couples in our van was a bit suspicious…so there was a luggage inspection as well that resulted in…some contraband being found and people being detained. I won’t give details here, but suffice to say some people learned the hard way that just because there’s no mandatory border inspections doesn’t mean you can cross internal schengen borders with whatever you want.

Police detour over, it was on to lunch!

Before the palace, a menu was passed around the van, and we were told to give our order to the driver so it could be ready when we got to the restaurant. Lunch was just over the Lithuanian Border at Audruvus – a restaurant, inn (I think?), and horse club / racing place/ not quite sure but there was a lot of horse-related memorabilia around. I went with the “Lithuanian cheese plate” as an appetizer, because you know I can’t resist cheese, and have to admit I didn’t really expect a platter of cheese cubes. Oh well, when in Lithuania!

Venison was very prominent on the menu, and my venison shashlik was pretty tasty:

Onwards another hour or so, to the Hill of Crosses. Short version, nobody knows just how it came to be that there were thousands or maybe even millions of crosses planted on this hill. Legend says the Soviets would bulldoze it, and every time they did by the next day it was back – with even more crosses. Many people think the number is now well over a million:

Crosses of every shape, size, and type:

There were just a few narrow paths through the crosses, and at my height I frequently found myself ducking to get around them.

About halfway up the hill, I stopped to take this picture towards that bottom that shows just how many there are:

After about 45 minutes at the Hill of Crosses, it was onwards to our final stop – the town of Kaunas – where we were given 45 minutes to walk around and explore the old town. Except it was cold. And windy. And New Years Eve so lots of places were closing up…and dark. But was still fun to walk around and see #Kaunas. By this point, it had already been a long day, and I’d had enough, so was kind of hoping we would hurry up and get to Vilnius. I wanted to get there in time to get some dinner before everything was closed and mobbed for New Years, but tried to make the best of it, and enjoy the stroll.

Christmas tree in the main square of Kaunas:

The old Town Hall:

With that, the tour was at an end, and we had about a 90 minute drive to Vilnius, where we were finally dropped off at about 8pm right on Cathedral Square and Gediminas Castle Tower right by the National Museum:

Grabbing an Uber to my hotel – the Courtyard Marriott was no problem. If it wasn’t getting late, and my bag wasn’t gimpy, I would have just walked the 900m or so, but I really didn’t feel up to strugglebussing with my bag over cobblestones. Uber worked like a charm in Vilnius (unlike Riga) and once again the lingua franca with my Uber driver was Russian. I was pretty surprised by the fact everyone my age or older still used Russian to communicate, and even many younger people I observed speaking it with what I assumed were Russian (or maybe even Latvian?) tourists.

Dropped off my bags, headed out to get dinner, and in Cathedral Square passed by a Christmas tree and market, just getting ready for New Years Eve celebrations:

I ended up at Beerhouse & Craft Kitchen, which was a super cool restaurant in the basement of an old building. But, it wasn’t just one room in the basement, it was like 10. Wandering about to try and find somewhere to sit was an adventure, and I finally found a room in the back with an actual bar I could sit at. Super cool staff who I asked for a recommendation, and I ended up with the schnitzel burger. Tasty, and definitely unique:

After dinner, and a few tasty beers, it was nearly 11pm, so back to Cathedral Square, where the crowds were starting to thicken for the show, which I expected would include fireworks.

The tower all lit up…at 11:55 they started a countdown on the side of the tower…it was super cool.

Another view of the square, and museum in the background:

Happy 2019!

With that, it was back to my hotel to pass out. It had already been a super, super long day, and I had another one ahead! It was off to Berlin the next day in the afternoon, and I wanted to pack in as much sightseeing as I could with the holiday before heading to the airport!

Aug 172016
 

You knew this post would be coming at some point. It’s the question I get the most often when I tell people I’m about to finish visiting every country in the world in just two weeks. Inevitably, they ask “what’s next?” It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Two things immediately pop to mind: first, I want to spend a little more time at home. There’s things I want to get done that I haven’t with so much traveling, so at least in the short term that will be nice. Plus, I have a few work trips to Zagreb and Bangkok coming up later this year, so that will close out 2016 more or less.

Second thing I want to do is go back to places I really enjoyed and spend more time diving a little more in depth. Some ideas that are already brewing:

Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia: I’ve already tacked this on after Iceland since it was the same price on Icelandair to fly to Europe with a stop in Iceland as it was to fly just to Iceland. Lithuania and Latvia I only got very short overnights in my first time, so this time I’ll take a full day in each to walk the old towns and take in the cities. It should be nice weather in September as well! After that, I’m off to Ukraine. You could debate if I really visited Ukraine at all, since when I was there it was 1989 and it was the Ukrainian SSR. So, I’m going back now to remove any doubt…plus I’ve been really curious to take the Chernobyl tour. I remember being a kid when the reactor blew and worried the whole world was going to die from radiation.

Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia: I’d like to visit all four of these more in-depth once it becomes feasible. Saudi Arabia because of a very difficult to get tourist visa, same with Sudan. Yemen and Syria will have to wait until things quiet down a bit.

Finland: I want to take a full week in the summer and go north of Helsinki and maybe do a road trip. Some camping, hanging out in lake country. Just a quiet laid back trip.

Namibia: I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country, and I really want to see more. From sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund, I’d like to spend more time there.

Palau: When I went the first time in 2011 I wasn’t certified for SCUBA yet, and what I saw snorkeling was mind-blowing. I want to go back now, go deeper, and see more of the country! I guess you could add Belize and Bonaire to this last as well – three places I really want to go dive!

Russia: Probably more medium term goal, but I want to take 3+ weeks and do the Trans-Siberian. Take the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, high speed down to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia. I’d like to break it up along the way as well, and maybe stop and see some smaller towns and more of rural Russia. A couple of years will give me a chance to strengthen my Russian more so I can really maximize the trip.

Being a bit of a list maker, there are two more goals I’m toying with:

All 50 States: I’ve visited 42 of the 50 states, and I’ve grouped the 8 remaining into either 4 or 5 trips. Suggestions and locals to show me around would be welcome in all of them:

  • First, I want to fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and do a loop covering Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans is the only must-do on this list, so I’d love any other recommendations people have. Definitely a 2017 trip.
  • New Mexico is also on this list. I have friends there, so will probably take a 3-4 day weekend and do some hiking and relaxing at some point in 2017
  • Iowa – yes, I grew up in Minnesota for 15 years and never made it to Iowa, despite being a less than two hour drive from home. I’m thinking it might be fun to fly to Minneapolis, visit family, and then drive down for a college football game either this fall or next. Any Iowa readers want to join me?
  • South Dakota – as above, somewhat embarrassed, although it’s a longer drive from Minneapolis. Definitely going to do Mount Rushmore. I’ll likely fly there for a weekend at some point. Any other must-sees while I’m there?
  • Last but not least will be Oklahoma. Haven’t given much thought to this one, so any suggestions welcome! I’d like to finish all the states in 2017.

So, after visiting all 50 states, the only other immediate list is my list of 215 Independent Places. This is 19 places beyond the list of 196 countries that I think are independent enough I really should visit them as well. So far, I’ve visited 11 of the 19 already (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Transnistria, Turkish Cyprus, Aruba, Curacao, Cayman Islands) leaving 8 to go:

  • Nagorno-Karabach – internationally-recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t exercised any control in the region for over 20 years. Almost entirely filled with ethnic Armenians it’s in western Azerbaijan and accessibly only from Armenia and uses the Armenian Dram as currency. They do issue their own visas/visitors permits though.
  • Abkhazia – an autonomous republic of Georgia according to the international community it lies between Georgia and Russia, and as recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of over smaller states. Russia is also cooperating with the Abkhazia military forces, so obviously the only way in is really from Russia.
  • South Ossetia – almost identical to the situation in Abkhazia, also sitting between Georgia and Russia. Should be able to make one trip from these two.
  • Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Annexed by Morocco from Mauritania in 1976, it has been largely administered by Morocco ever since. They want independence, and have been recognized by nearly 30 countries. Should be easy to do flying in from Morocco.
  • Niue – self-governing, but in “free association” with New Zealand. Sort of similar to Puerto Rico and the United States, except there’s no independence movement. Population has dropped in the past couple of decades from about 6,000 to 1,000 with most people fleeing for Australia or New Zealand. The major problem? Only one flight a week, and it often gets canceled.
  • Tokelau – three atolls that are a territory of New Zealand, with only about 1,200 people total. Unfortunately, there’s no airport, so boats are the only way to get there. There are occasional seaplane flights from Samoa too, which is good because you need to get a Tokelau entry permit from Samoa before going!
  • Cook Islands – like Niue, a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand. Plenty of flights from New Zealand, and resorts as well. Rarotonga has lots of resorts and a nice lagoon. Will need to combine with Niue and Tokelau to make a very interesting trip.
  • Somalia – so I’ve technically been before, but to the northern part known as Somaliland, which has its own currency and government and is quite safe. Mogadishu is separately administered, so it’s on my list to get to eventually. Definitely doable, but will be tricky…

That should keep me plenty of busy for a while! What does everyone else have planned?