A Travellerspoint blog

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Vacation vs. Travel

A rather arrogant enquirer into what I'm actually doing

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A lot of people have been wishing me a “good vacation” or been asking me “how’s the vacation going?” and it seems to be the general impression that I’m on a vacation. That is, however, not even close to my own impression. So lets correct that misconception.
I’m travelling! And travelling is something very different from being on a vacation! It might sound arrogant, but so much differ the traveller from a mere tourist or a person on vacation. I’d like to explain this more thoroughly, as it might bring some insight to how I live when I’m on the road and bring everybody back home a little closer to my current life.

Visas take a lot of time

Visas take a lot of time

It is hard work – travelling – harder work than studying back home and the hours are longer than most nine-to-five jobs. If you don’t believe me ask someone who’d travelled or been on simple vacation with me. My sister’s boyfriend even got a cultural shock, during the first few times he went with us to British Columbia and Athens, respectively.
Here, I’d like to apologise. It might get a little technical, but we need some definitions at this point.

Searching out tickets

Searching out tickets

Let’s begin by looking at the words. Vacation is “a period of suspension of work,study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday” or “freedom or release from duty, business, or activity.” Note here that the word travel is part of the first definition,but as its own, separated entity.
Travel on the other hand is not associated with freedom or a suspension of activity – instead travel is an active labour: “to go from one place to another, as on foot, by car, train, plane, or ship; take a trip; journey.” The word has the following origin: y. 325–75; Middle English (north and Scots), orig. the same word as travail (by shift “to toil, labour” > “to make a laborious journey”). *

Hiking is exhausting

Hiking is exhausting

So even though travel is included in the first definition of vacation, it’s surely not included in the second. To the contrary is freedom from activity in stark contrast to a laborious journey. And the share length of my journey, seven months, makes it more than just a holiday or a period of suspended work.Especially since I’ve finished my studying, getting my bachelor’s degree. I don’t necessarily have to return…
But how is whatever I’m doing a laborious journey? You might ask. A genius question by all means. To examine this lets have a look at a typical day in Ask’s life on the road.
Most days start around 08:30 or 09.00 – depending on when consulates, sights or the stations ticked offices open, and given that I don’t have any early morning buses or trains. Coffee and breakfast are next and then the duties begin. To let’s make it a little easier by giving an example of a daily program, this one from Saint Petersburg:
09:30:Head to the bus station to buy a ticket for the next day bus to Tallinn (half hour transportation time each way)
10:30: Excursion to Peterhof
11:30: Visiting Peterhof
13:00: Return to Saint Petersburg
14:00: Lunch
14:30: Visit to the Kunstkamera/Anthropological Museum
15:30: Visit to the Zoological Museum
From 16:30: Do the evening paper work (will return to that) and dinner, before going to the State Hermitage at 18.30 to see the demonstration of the Golden Peacock Clockwork at 19.00.
(Not all days are this heavy in museums, but keep in mind the Saint Petersburg is probably going to be the trip’s high culture highlight.)

Transportation is on foot, here: Tallinn

Transportation is on foot, here: Tallinn

Most sights and consulates close between 17 and 18 in the evening, and the daylight disappears around the same time as well. So the exploring of places usually ends around that time a day – just like a normal work day. The evenings are spend differently depending of where I’m staying. If I’m couchsurfing they’re reserved for conversation and quality time with my host, if I’m at a hostel it is typical used in the common room on sporadic conversations.
Evenings are also reserved for “paperwork”. Paperwork refers to all the stuff that must be taken care of surrounding the actual travel and exploring. It might be searching for new places to stay, especially couchsurf requests take time because you need to personalize the requests to the specific hosts in order to show your honest interest in them and aren’t just using their apartment as a free hostel.
Other times places only have a few or very popular hostels that you need to book ahead for. There is always a lot of picture editing – you simply have to do that as you go along. Failing to do that for my last two trips I ended up with 1000+ pictures which are too immense to get through once you’re home. Drafting up or rewriting blog entries is considered travel paperwork as well – one of the reasons we travel is to tell the stories.

Figuring out history

Figuring out history

Some places I need to visit embassies or consulates to arrange visas, but in Eastern Europe it’s done online. Application forms needs to be filled at checked and double-checked – and a time for actually visiting the visa centre needs to be booked.
Finally there’s the reading up on and making of a rough program for the next day. Have I missed anything I really wanted? Do my host have any with need-to-know information? When do I need to leave for the bus-/train station? And so on…

Chance for a rest

Chance for a rest

What are the relaxing parts you might ask? Because no one can keep up this pace for much more than a few weeks, let alone seven months, without having a few breaks. And the beauty of long time travelling is that you always have the possibility to take a day resting – if you don’t feel like doing anything, you just don’t. But it’s necessary to minimize those days. Otherwise you’ll never get anywhere.
Instead the actual travelling are chances for rest and recreation. A seven hour bus trip or three hours in a train gives a welcoming, and often well-deserved, change of pace…

*Definitions and origins are taken from dictionary.com

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:37 Archived in Estonia Tagged travel vacation travelling Comments (0)

Dark Tourism

Spending a night as an inmate in a Soviet prison

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The light flickers rapidly before the prison guard starts yelling. First in Russian, then in English. I don’t longer hear the actually words, but knows what to do: Get out of bed, leave the cell and stand at attention on the right side of the door, while the guard searches my cell. It’s the third time tonight, but I have no idea about what time it is. Only that it’s still black night. When he is done throwing my bed around (it’s not actually a bed, just a couple of wooden planks for a matrass and a few blankets) I get locked up in my cell again, with the knowledge that I need to clean up before I can go back to bed – otherwise there will be additional punishments.

Karosta Prison

Karosta Prison

I’m part of an “Extreme Night” play at Karosta Prison – an old KGB prison in Liepaja,Latvia. Lasting from 9pm to 9am. The stuff in the cell is not mine, that’s locked up somewhere else, and I had a thorough briefing about what to expect(and signed a contract) before being allowed to participate.
It’s all a play, where it’s possibly to experience some of the horrors prisoners under the KGB were exposed to during Soviet times. All in all, I was woken up five times during the night, with the trashing of my “bed” as part of all of them.On the fourth time the bed wasn’t made well enough and I was forced to clean the most degusting (squat) toilets I’ve ever seen… I really hope the shit on the floor – and everywhere else – was fake!

My 'room'

My 'room'

The idea sounds repulsive, I know. The horrors of the KGB – exposed to innocent people just 20 years ago – performed as a game. But it was a possibility I just couldn’t miss out on.

The concept is called Dark Tourism. And was first coined in 1996 by two British professors who defined it as:

“the phenomenon which encompasses the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites”

.
It still sound’s rather repulsive that sites associated with deaths and disasters should be the end goal for tourists and travellers, and that people make a profit on the suffering and deaths of – sometimes – thousands.

Latrine in Karosta Prison

Latrine in Karosta Prison

The concept isn’t new however. Think of gladiator fights in Rome or public executions. These practises have luckily been abandoned, but have been replaced with sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Ground Zero. Hundreds ofthousand visitors visits these places each year – something they surely wouldn’t have if there had been no deaths in connection to the imprisonment of Jews or attach on the WTC buildings.
Granted,visiting a prison; living there for a night; in a place no one have ever heard of, seems more horrendous then a visit to Ground Zero. And sure the literature on the subject of Dark Tourism devise between pale, grey, dark and black forms of Dark Tourism. Ground Zero would probably be considered pale, Auschwitz and the Extreme Night experience dark and visiting a public execution in China or the Congo as black.

View from abandoned apartment block in Karosta

View from abandoned apartment block in Karosta

The literature also differs on the reasons why people travel to these places: from visiting a grave or assassination scene of a celebrity, where the visit focuses more on the persons’ lives that their deaths; over a focus on historic significance or nostalgia at battlefields and memorials, such as Utah Beach; to fantasies about stepping in the footsteps of the death in order to experience the borderline between life and death in a safe distance; and finally directed integrations with death by going on tourist tours to places like besiege Sarajevo during the civil wars in the Balkans. So to some extent all of these reasons are educational.
A less morbid reason – also mentioned in the literature – for visiting sights and places for dark tourism is the traveller wanting to ‘survive to tell the tale’:to go somewhere to be able to tell “I went there” or “I did that”.

So why did I spend a night locked up at Karosta Prison, cleaning toilets?

Entrance to nuclear missile silo

Entrance to nuclear missile silo

Some of the reason is definitely the prize: To be able to write this story. But this is only a (big) bonus to the experience. I must admit to being fascinated by everything Soviet or Communist. As every boy I liked to play “war” and some of that fascination is left in me. During the last few weeks, I’ve been visiting old Soviet facilities in Estonia, a nuclear bunker in Latvia, a half a dozen of WWII memorials and a handful of museums describing the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, and I’m on my way to an old nuclear missile silo.
So a big part of my visit was to learn, how KGB-prisoners was treated. And although I knew it was artificial and that it would end in the morning, the night gave me just a glimpse of what those poor people went through. Not that I have the mental capacity to imagine how it have actually been! I don’t think anybody who hasn’t tried the real thing can… But I’ve learn from it – both about myself and about a world that just ended.Remember it isn’t more than 22 years ago, within my lifetime, that the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in 1991.
So for all the above reasons, with the exception of the integration with death, I’ll continue to visit, and to go out of my way to do so, sights of Dark Tourism.

Memorial in Valga

Memorial in Valga

It might be hard to accept that these sighs are becoming touristy-lized. But if it can be done, without disregard or contempt for the victims and their families,dark tourism sites – whether it is memorials, prison tours or Holocaust extermination camps – should be kept open and visited in order to remember the crimes and horrors that happened there. In order to make sure that it never happens again!

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:57 Archived in Latvia Tagged prison dark_tourism karosta grief_tourism Comments (0)

Arriving 101

How not to do it!

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It’s around 21:40 and I’ve just arrived at the international bus station in Kaliningrad. Unfortunately is it about 2.2 kilometres outside the city centre where my hostel is.
I’ve not really heard anything bad about Kaliningrad or any warnings about being out at night. But as anywhere you’re wound able waking from a station towards the city when you’ve just arrived, especially at night. Simply because everybody knows you’ve just arrived, the luggage will give you away in a second, and you probably don’t know anything about the place yet either.

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I know this – and I know how to look like as I belong, and all the other small tricks for lowering the risks and losing someone shading you. Years of travelling helps you develop your own little black book full of James Bond like manoeuvres and tactics – even though most of them are just in your own head.
Anyhow, the first thing that happened when I got out of the bus was one of my fellow passengers handing me a business card to an establishment in the business of‘pleasure-girls’ to put it nicely. While I bust around the station, trying to get information about tickets and schedule to my next destination, that same passenger apparently just lingers, because he leaves the bus only a few seconds after me.
I’m painstakingly aware of him walking only six or seven metres behind me and my paranoia is from the start setting in with full force: “Is he following me?”“He is going to rob me!” and “Hopefully he only got a knife” (as if a knife isn’t bad enough).

IMG_1132.jpg

Starting to look for options I realize that the only thing around me is low industrial buildings and dark parking lots, where I will be even less safe than on the half lit sidewalk I’m currently at. I decide to pick up the pace. Walk faster.At least I’ll know if he is following me if I don’t shake him off. For the next 200 meters or so a pretend to fasten my eyes at random building I’m walking past, looking at them like I’m interested in them - just because it gives me a change to glare back at my follower. He’s not falling behind. Dammit!
A hundred meters ahead is a fairly crowded bus stop: “I’ll be safe in the crowd” my scumbag brain figures… Nope, because just before I get there the bus arrives and pick up most of the waiting passengers. But there’s also a crossing to the other side of the road, where there is a little kiosk. Always a good idea to pop into a shop is you want to lose someone.

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The light is green so, thankfully, I don’t have to stop. The moment I’m across the steps behind me is picking up speed. I glare back and the guy is running towards me!I literally jump a meter into the air, backpack and all with me. And I scare the crap out of this poor fellow. Hearth still racing I’m trying to show that he just shocked me and while I slowly backs away he goes into a nearby supermarket, still noticeable shaken.
Scumbag paranoid brain of mine! But that’s what happens when you try to prepare for the worst.
That was the easy part of that night of arrival. My hostel should be down town –Kaliningrad’s only hostel I might at – in a big apartment block. Of cause I didn’t check the location when I check the availability this morning, but even though things changes in a two year old guide book locations are usually solid.

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The block is there alright, but there’s no sign of a hostel. After having walked around it a few times I finally knock in the gatekeeper’s door. He doesn’t speak English and I still don’t speak Russian, but he has clearly said the words “No Hotel” a lot of times before, so I figure they’ve moved. And I have no idea about where to and at minus six degrees I don’t really want to spent a night in the park.
The second best option is the train station about a kilometre to the south. There should be a dorm there so you have the change to crash before an early morning departure for a few dollars. It’s just past 2300h when I get there. Outside, smoking, is two women an older lady from the train service and a younger security/policewoman (their jackets give them away). I explain that I’d like to use the station dorm the – younger woman looks at the older. Something is said in firm Russian including the word “niet” a couple of times. Then the old woman looks at me shaking her head. I try – looking very sad, lost and confused while I do it – to confirm that there’s is dorm in there, but the only reply I get is a very firm “Neit, neit!” The security woman points to a sign reading “05:00 –23:00” and making an apologising gesture. Apparently I’m five minutes late…

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My options were running out now. The cheapest hotel in Kaliningrad would set me back two daily budgets – and I really didn’t want to do that. On the other hand, I didn’t want to spend the night in the 24h McDonalds I passed on my way to the station.
I start walking back to the city centre, hoping some solution comes up – either on the street ahead on in my head. The solution turns out to be a café that doesn’t close till 02.00 and have a big sign saying WiFi on the door. The heat inside feels incredible good and when I get served chocolate pancakes and coffee (at this point I hadn’t had dinner yet) am I – for the first time on this trip –actually happy about bringing a computer along!
For better or worse it seems the hostel moved to a location seven kilometres outside the city – and I’ve honestly walked enough! No hotels, plenty as they are, will cost me less than two daily budgets so I’ve really only manage to postpone my troubles a few hours.

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When the clock strikes two, the nice staff explains me directions for a rather nice place, open 24 hours a day (earning themselves a nice tip) and I manage to get there after a 20 minutes’ walk. Without many incidence, albeit some drunk Russians insisting to keep a very one-sided conversation with me going for the first hour, I’m able to spend the last few hours there while shooting a lot of coffee down, cheering the Russians’ vodka shots along.
At 05.00 am I finally able to through my tied body in a bed on the second floor of the train station, giving me six hours of sleep before getting out to see how Kaliningrad looks like in daylight.

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:37 Archived in Russia Tagged arrival arriving kaliningrad Comments (0)

Europe's last dictatorship

Impressions from a week in Belarus

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Back to the USSR

Back to the USSR

I’m actually not sure whether the term ‘dictatorship’ fits on Belarus or if ‘pseudo-democracy’ or ‘authoritarian regime’ would be better. For once though, I won’t bother you with the usual social-science-student stuff about how and why this is bad. Instead I’ll try to look at Belarus from the view of the naïve traveller.
This might not be all that politically correct, but then: isn’t all that political correctness a bit boring?
First of all, given that Belarus is a dictatorship, it’s very much off the beaten track for ‘tourist’ (not that I would define myself as such, but that’s another story). It is so, for – at least – two fairly obvious reasons: 1) It is kind of a hassle to get in (e.g. get a visa), but so is Russia, 2) the country lacks obvious sights and tourist infrastructure.

Stalinist architecture

Stalinist architecture

Just the fact that you need a visa, and can’t get it on the border either, is off setting for a European country and would through most people off. The fact that you also need to book your stay in advance or have a letter of invitation from a tour company just to apply for a visa doesn’t make it any easier. And register with the local authorities if you stay in a place for more than five working days… Then again – it’s the exact same with Russia.

Brest memorial

Brest memorial

But Russia got Saint Petersburg, the Kremlin, the Red Square, the Trans-Siberian, world class art and so on – plenty of interesting stuff known to everybody!
Belarus got none of that, and even less ability to cope with foreigners that doesn’t speak Russian (more about that in the next blog entry). Especially budget travellers have a hard time since hostels are almost unheard of, only Minsk got a handful and just one of these is in the centre of the city. International student cards are useless most places and cheap eats (in the form of old Soviet-style canteens) are almost impossible to locate.
All information about buses and trains are in Belorussian or Russian and there is no one around to translate. Even most museums have 95 % of their explanations in those two languishes only.

You figure it out

You figure it out

So why go?
Exactly because it’s off the beaten track: It’s challenging, it’s untouched and it’s less crowded. And the country isn’t without interesting places to visit, though they aren’t of the usual kind.
Entering the country is like stepping into a melting pot between the Soviet Union and Western consumerism. The last part has reached Minsk in particular, but the hammer and sickle, the propaganda and the red stars are still flying high and proud across the country.

The West has arrived

The West has arrived

Minsk is the uncontested centre of Stalinist architecture. Levelled by the fighting in WWII, Stalin decided to make the city an ideological statement in stone and concrete, rebuilding almost every building in this heavy style that bear his name.
The second city is Brest, home of one of the most impressive (even if it’s a little shabby) memorial from WWII – or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in the Russian speaking part of the world.

Lenin, pointing towards Moscow

Lenin, pointing towards Moscow

But old Soviet memories can’t be the only attraction in Belarus (even though it’s a big one in my book), and it isn’t. As almost any off the beaten track destination, the local hospitality hasn’t been ruined by the introduction of mass tourism. There’s no-one around to buy all the tacky souvenirs or overpriced tours, no-one who doesn’t respect the local population’s culture or think they are just around to make your holiday easier. People here are just fantastic.
This illustrated best by my arrival to Minsk with the train from Vilnius: I had shared a compartment with an English speaking couple and had spoken a bid with them on the way. Arriving 23.30, without any local currency (or open exchange booths) I had a 2 km walk to my hostel – not unusual or trouble if the hostel is actually there… Yet, this couple insisted on driving me there from the station, and even called for directions to be sure to end up the right place. Just fan-fucking-tastic!

KGB's Headquarter

KGB's Headquarter

Last thing about dictatorships*: They are safe! And Belarus feels and is safe. Heavy military and police presents – KBG still exists in Belarus (!) – means the population simply don’t dare to commit the slightest piece of crime. Such a supressed population is normally a thing to celebrate, but for a traveller this is great news. No need to worry about walking around with your backpack or being out alone late at night – just don’t begin to break any mayor laws and you’re fine…

*This goes only for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes where the dictator or armed forces actually have genuine control over the country – it doesn’t count in all those failed states.

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:50 Archived in Belarus Tagged soviet belarus kgb soviet-era dictatorship Comments (0)

Buying train tickets in Belorussian

Travel's exciting because all the small things suddenly becomes a challenge

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How do you get by without talking the languish? It's a question I get a lot talking about these trips of mine to obscure places.
Normally going to the ticket window and ordering a train ticket is a fairly simple task – and should therefore be a nice example on how it's possible to get by without any thorough communication.
The official first languish in Belarus is Belorussian, but on the street everybody speaks Russian. So no bitching about them not learning a second languish… To ad a little to the challenge does train tickets in the former Soviet Union come with all kind of specifications: Train type; Class; Top or low bunk; beside the usual: time, date and destination. And of course the fact that the lady selling you the ticket is hiding behind the ticket window's thick glass.

Russian e-ticket

Russian e-ticket

Given a relative big amount of hassle when buying the domestic train tickets I tried to cheat the system a little bit. Just to get over that whole languish barrier thing: Instead of going through the usual mill I figured it would be easier to just order the train ticket between Minsk and Moscow via the Russian Railway’s homepage. It’s in Russian, but that can be translated at the hostel and at least they've got a homepage.
Piece of cake, I though, bed 20 in carriage no. 3 on night train no. 028 – done!
Not in Belarus I wasn’t… To lessen my coming pain, I'd for once been a little cleaver; instead of arriving at the train station last minute I went in the morning, to convert my e-ticket to an actual ticket. Something you still need to do at the ticket booth – but handling in a piece of paper seemed like a shortcut.

Find your preferred departure

Find your preferred departure

Little did I know, that the Belorussians doesn’t convert Russian e-tickets (they cooperate about everything else), that was what I figured from the poor girl in the booth pointing at the Russian logo and shaking her hear. And neither do they have an office anywhere in Minsk…
Back at the hostel we (mostly the guys running the hostel) did figure out that it’s possible to get a refund when cancelling a ticket and I got most of my money back. After having spend most of the afternoon on this, the easy thing seemed to just go to the train station, getting a new ticket and then burn the last few Belorussian Rubles I had left in the train station bar… Even though I felt that I really deserved some cheering up beers, the pits would undeniable have made it even more complicated to get the right ticket…

Find the right queue

Find the right queue

First of all, it’s not just getting the train to Moscow – there are about 20 daily(!) departures from Minsk, and at least four of these can be considered night trains. Schedules are posted different places at stations. Trains are divided into their destination, which means finding Москва (Moscow) is fairly easy. Hereafter six times are posted, from left to right: Departure time from initial station; Time of journey before arriving at Minsk; Arrival time at Minsk; Layover time at Minsk; Departure time from Minsk; Time of the journey after Minsk; and finally arriving time at the destination.
With a little luck you now have the departure time and number of the train you want. Then you need to find the right place to buy the ticket. There are different queues to different ticket windows depending on whether you are going with: local, region, inter-city or international trains; whether you’re going on 1st/2nd class or 3rd class; and for international trains different queues depending on where you’re going. Some are divided into former Soviet countries or Western Europe others are just ‘all trains east’, ‘all trains southwest, etc. You pretty much just have to ask random people “Москва?” and let them point you to the right queue…

Turn in a pre-written lap of paper

Turn in a pre-written lap of paper

So far so good, but somehow you still need to make clear through that glass window what class you want. One obvious option in the situation is just to scream “Плацкарт!” (platskart – 3rd class) at random point during the sale. But you have no way of knowing when the ticket seller is asking you about class (or anything else for that matter).
So far, the most viable solution I’ve been able to come up with is just to write all the information on a piece of paper (in Cyrillic if necessary) and showing that to the person selling you the ticket – that way they can type everything in, and you don’t need to worry about not getting what you want unless something is sold out. In that case, the person can point out what’s not available on your paper and with a little luck you have a backup suggestion you can write down on the spot.
This whole manoeuvre went pretty smooth, and in a masterpiece of life’s thick, brutal irony, I got my ticket, telling me: bed 20, in carriage no. 3, on night train no. 028 – the exact same spot as I’d had on my Russian ticket!

Get your ticket

Get your ticket

When you have your ticket – and learned to read it (which you’ll have after you’ve done it once or twice), just have a sit, wait for the train’s track and platform to be announced on the screens and off you go…

Show up and wait

Show up and wait

And that is how you buy a train ticket in Belarus - getting by without talking the languish!

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:23 Archived in Belarus Tagged travel train ticket languish Comments (0)

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