Day 06 : See you on the other side

Wednesday 27 August 2014

I’m typing this entry in Moscow Airport (SVO), thus demonstrating that the first of my two flights on Aeroflot landed successfully, and I had no problems with transiting Russia. I am however stuck in a very quiet and overly warm main area for the next eight hours. Sleep may happen; it is however much less comfortable than Singapore airport was, the last time I had an overnight stopover.

I’ve been quite lucky with the weather today – it’s almost rained all the time I was outside, but most of the rain that did fall seems to have done so whilst I’ve been indoors. It’s not been all fun and glory though – the wind’s been quite strong and biting at times, and it’s been reasonably cold, well, colder than it has been recently. Almost Autumnal, which feels odd for late August.

Much of today was spent walking – I decided to wander to the other side of the River Daugava, to take a peek at the ‘Soviet Victory Memorial’, a fairly large spiked column and associated ‘motherland’ figures to commemorate the Soviet victory in WW2. It stands in a fork in two roads, in front of a large park. Probably back in Soviet times this would have been the scene of processions, parties, picnics, etc, but today, in the grey dampness, it just felt isolated, unloved, forgotten. There was virtually no-one else around, and it felt eerily quiet.

Also on the other side of the river is the suburb of Kipsala – a quite exclusive island with a fair number of unique and traditional houses; predominantly wooden but all with individual stylistic tweaks, colours, layout, etc. While no match for the impressive vista of, say, Valparaiso, it’s a nice hidden gem in a quiet neighbourhood. It must be qute famous/popular, as I walked past a film crew doing a piece there.
Also in Kipsala is yet another war-related museum. This one is a symbolically-designed museum on the site of an old woodshed belonging to a chap called Zanis Lipke. During WW2, he built a bunker under his woodshed, and hid Jews in it, saving them from Nazi persecution. No-one knows how many lives he saved (estimates put it at around 50-60), but the fact he did it at all is worthy of commemoration. Inside the museum there’s a small series of glass cases with memorabilia in, but the real knowledge comes from the hand-held audio guide that goes into great detail about him, his family, his life, and his actions. Possibly too much detail, in truth, but I’ve always had a short attention sp…oooh shiny …

Back on the main side, I briefly went into one other museum too – the museum of the barricades of 1991. This might have been more useful if any of it had been any other language than Latvian, but the 20-minute newsreel that the babooshka-like woman running the place insisted I sit through at least was mostly voice-free.
The barricades were an event in January 1991, the culmination of tensions that had been building beforehand between nationalist Latvians on one side, and pro-communist forces on the other (remember, at this time, Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union). The nationalists felt that freedoms were coming too slowly and wanted the ultimate aim of an independent Latvia, whilst the communists wanted to restore stability and Soviet control in Latvia – an election the previous year had given the nationalists a majority in the Latvian SSR. Essentially, the barricades were the nationalists defending central Riga from what as effectively an ‘invasion’ by Soviet troops.
It occurred at a similar time as a similar massing of troops in neighbouring Lithuania; both ‘invasions’ were severely criticised in the International Community, and both were the last trigger in both countries declaring unilateral independence (and rapid response of recognition from the likes of Iceland and Norway).

Grabbed a burger and fries from a place recommended in my local map (called ‘Street Burger’ – it’s a small chain); despite what it sounds like, it was actually pretty good and nicely filling. McDonalds it wasn’t.

And that’s pretty mu h it for my Baltic adventure – next stop Kyrgyzstan. It suddenly dawned on me on the flight from Riga just how insane this adventure is. I’m going to places where Westerners generally don’t even know, never mind go, and I’m doing it on my own. Phrases like ‘The Silk Road’ and ‘The Great Game’ conjure up images of fancily-dressed traders, of disguised spies poking around in distant snowy kingdoms, of huge armies marching across the plains. Samarkhand, Bukhara, Transoxania, Bactria; mythical places on the edge of the known world.

Why couldn’t I have just spent two weeks in Lanzarote like most normal Brits?

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