Fresh start, up north

24. August 2011 § Ein Kommentar

After a pleasant month at home, I´ve set out again to complete another leg of my 80-languages trip. This time, it´s about a slice of the Baltics, and I´ve committed the original sin and took a plane to get there. A bit of a cop-out after my complicated trip home from Dubrovnik. But my friend Reto and I only have 10 days for an ambitious bike ride through 4 countries and 4 languages.
Starting out from Riga, Latvia, we are planning to cross over to the Baltic coast, follow it down to Lithuania, hop over to the Kurische Nehrung and into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The final destination is Gdansk, in Poland, and so this Baltic arc encompasses, apart from all the borders (easy Schengen ones and troublesome visa-bound ones) a history of occupations, deportations, generalised atrocities and ultimate liberation, including some tentative economic success.
Well, the latter depends very much on your perspective. Having wandered through the Museum of Latvian Occupation in Riga, anything that smacks of freedom and self-determination seems like a huge improvement over years of Gulag and despondency. Cycling out of the capital city presents an up-and-down panorama of mouldy wooden houses in which at first sight nobody seems to want to live, modern glass-and-wood structures and Soviet Plattenbauten (buildings made with pre-cast concrete slabs), and the differences between the haves and have-nots become even more evident in the sleepy resort town of Jurmala. There are BMWs and Bentleys with Russian and Belorussian licence plates, billboards advertising luxury condominiums amid decaying and half-burnt datschas.
So evidence of winners and losers abounds, and our progress is hampered not only by the onset of a cool drizzle, but also by the need to photograph and discuss the political and historical repercussions of the holiday settlement as well as the depleted countryside.
We´re both a little touched by this mixture of post-Soviet charmlessness and nordic coziness. A melancholy veil hovers over the ochre-coloured beach, as one of the local princesses takes a shot of her friend posing with an umbrella, the only colourful splash in the scenery.
What a contrast to my heat-drenched days on the Adriatic. Do I discover a hint of regret in Reto´s comments: that we didn´t meet up, as originally planned, on the Black Sea coast of Romania?
We´ll see if the rain decides to stop tomorrow. Already, I´ve broken my oath never to put my bicycle on a train to abbreviate a disagreeable stretch of the journey. Shame on me! I admit I did make use of the generous services of the Latvian State Railways to get us to Tukums. Here, we´re staying in a luxury suite of a sports hotel attached to a skating rinks, with crowds of Russian youngsters honing their precocious skills.
Oh, and I need to make another confession: I´ve become disloyal to my trusty TdS touring bicycle. Practically last minute, I internet-ordered a folding bike from a shop in Germany, fulfilling a long-hatched plan („dream“ would be exaggerating) to tour in a more flexible way, and the attraction of taking the folded package of a bike on a plane or train has proved its worth. I boxed the Dahon 24-speed mini-tourer in its original cardboard shell together with two rack bags and exceeded the weight limit for checked baggage only by two kilos (the threat of repackaging everything and stuffing some things in Reto´s rucksack persuaded the Air Baltic agent to relent).
So here are two pics of us re-assembling the bikes in Riga´s arrivals hall.



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