Eastern European Expeditions: Breaking into Russia
We’re back folks. Back when I was planning this column, I had intended to write the second piece about my time in Narva, but someone beat me to it. Gutting. To be fair, it was a great article, so read that after this one. Anyway, the consequence is that you get this cracking story even sooner. Enjoy.
After Tallinn, I did a bit more of Estonia: Narva and Tartu. During my time in the latter I witnessed probably the most bizarre event of the entire trip. I’ll set the scene: me and the guys from Estonia’s number one eco-hostel were out tooling about town, imbibing the culture of the European Capital of Culture 2024. At the time the city was having some sort of launch party for the accolade. #tartu2024tilidie. We were drinking in a park near the centre with the rest of the city. It was a good vibe, then I began to hear some thumping hard-bass emanating from the depths of the park. It got progressively louder. Before I knew it, seven men in different coloured morph suits sprinted out of the undergrowth. Thankfully, they already had their target. They approached a be-hoodied man asleep on a bench and linked arms around him. Think Eric Andre’s “Nightmare! Nightmare!” story. The poor man was slowly resurrected, before stripping off to reveal his own morph suit underneath. You can imagine my enraptured surprise. Then they raced off elsewhere like a technicolour wolf pack. Fever dream.
Guess you had to be there. Moving on. After Tartu spent a solid three days in Riga before heading to Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and European Capital of Culture 2022 as it so happens. What are the chances? From Kaunas I took an early morning bus across the country to Nida on the Curonian Spit to get some beach time in before heading inland for a month. It’s a little resort town where well-to-do Lithuanians come every summer, nestled between the Baltic Sea on one side and a lagoon on the other, separated only by a sandbank about a kilometre wide. A couple of miles to the south lies the border with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. You can see where this is going.
Arriving in Nida at the peak of the afternoon’s sweltering humidity, I made straight for my guesthouse. On the way I saw the sights of the town itself: a (sizeable) supermarket, two museums about amber, signs to a lighthouse and a small marina. The star of the show was of course the pristine lagoon, with pedalos disguised as cars dotted across the azure. I sunk into an Adirondack style chair in the shade and admired the view. After the surprisingly bustling cities of the Baltic states, the break was welcome.
I headed over to the beach on the sea side of the spit (sorry), but didn’t spend a lot of time there as I wasn’t ready, mentally or physically, to deal with all the sand. It was a nice beach, broad, sandy and well-equipped with volleyball nets and other facilities. I watched the action from a café on the dunes with an ice-cold pint of kvass. Then, in the words of Virginia Woolf, to the lighthouse! After trekking up a small hill in the verdant centre of the spit, I quickly found myself at the foot of the lighthouse. Satisfied that there was indeed a lighthouse there, albeit not the best I’ve seen, I left.
The morning after, it was time for my mission: to sneak into Russia. My plan was simple: walk along the lagoon-side beach until I hit a fence, poke a couple of toes under it and snap a quick selfie. Run away under a tirade of gunfire. Job done. You probably think that this is a stupid idea. You’d probably be right. I commenced my grand expedition behind enemy lines, setting off southwards along Nida’s promenade. Past the marina and a couple of family restaurants, the sands opened up before me to a chorus of children screaming about whose turn it was on the see-saw.
I hugged the water’s edge for about an hour, enjoying the liminal space between the glassy sheet of the lagoon and the steep dunes that the spit is famous for. I was completely alone, imprinting fresh tracks in the wet sand amongst the occasional dead fish and oasis-like thickets of pure green harbouring the dulcet drone of various insects. Although stopping and simply relishing this idyll was tempting, the mission came first. I ploughed on regardless, slightly offput by the activity of several boats roundabout where I judged the border to be.
Then, disaster struck. A fence, and not one into Russia. I had reached an absolute nature reserve, no humans allowed under any circumstances. I thought it was a terrific coincidence that the reserve’s boundaries started exactly 1200m from the border and stretched the entire width of the spit. Tempted though I was to venture over the fence, the threat of a €2000 fine and being shot by the Russian border force kept that desire at bay. Mission failed. I turned around and set off back in a state of utter dejection.
This dejection was not to last, as I finally sat down and appreciated the paradise with which I was confronted. I embraced the privilege of my solitude, settling down in a shady grove to wonder at the perfect stillness at my fingertips. The two cardinal vaults of sea and sky became one, the horizon vanished into a gentle gradient of wispy blue. I had never really been lost for words at a landscape (or rather lagoonscape) before, it’s a special feeling. Shortly afterwards I jotted the following down:
“The sun is low now, the water and sky distinct, but tomorrow in that same place, that same shady pocket, earth and heaven will melt imperceptibly into one again.”
I hope you’ll excuse the romanticism. Even though I had not snuck into Russia as I had imagined, I was to experience a different dream. Until next time.