Monday, 18 November 2013

Boozers and Beavers in the Baltics 1997

The Night of the Bear


We’re in Latvia. It’s 1997, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Empire.


My trip was through the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although Latvia was the poorest of these Baltic countries, the people were friendly, hospitable, courteous.


In Estonia I had stayed at a farm run by an enterprising man called Viedrig (Viedrig the Viking, I called him) who owned woodland around his farm. With his own hands he had cut down trees, sawn them into planks, and constructed a timber-beamed extension to the farmhouse with the most artistic staircases and landings and bedrooms. The whole place reeked of essential oils of pine, including my room. He had built a sauna onto the place, fired (of course) by a wood stove, which generated an excruciatingly high temperature. I leaked from every pore, and reflected how much better this was than in the electrically-powered versions I had tried in England.


Viedrig the Viking

I came to these countries with a bag of preconceptions. They would (I thought) certainly be happier since the fall of communism; people like Viedrig were obviously better off, and raking it in. Viedrig disabused me of my haughty ideas. When I asked him whether democracy was better than communism, he replied that the previous socialism had been better than the capitalism that had taken its place. It was as if he had taken my words, twirled them in the air like a skilful wrestler, and slammed them down on the canvas, exposing them as the vacuous notions of an English know-it-all. For communism (in which powerful boss-men oppressed the innocent populace) he substituted socialism (in which we look after each other, from each according to his ability; to each according to his need); for democracy (government of the people by the people for the people) he substituted capitalism (where the rich push their greedy snouts into the trough and deny the poor a look-in).


He explained to me that his people had been in this land for three thousand years. There had been a mass migration of Turks from Turkmenistan, long before they had invaded Greek Asia Minor and renamed it Turkey – the names of Finns and Estonians (such as Hakkinen and Rankonen) so reminiscent of Turkish place-names such as Pamukkale. He told me that Stalin had exiled his family to Siberia earlier in the century (Stalin would play with whole populations as lightly as playing agame of chess) but he was not bitter, or anti-Russian.


Later on in my trip, an East German expanded on the theme of socialism/communism. In the old days, he said, everybody was equally poor, so there was no jealousy. People would look out for each other; help each other out. These days it was every man for himself, and some greedy bastards were getting extremely rich at the expense of everybody else.


These nuggets of information were invaluable to me. Travel should broaden the mind, especially a narrow one like my own. The more I travel, the more I realise that the traveller has an annoying tendency to shoe-horn his guests into his own set of values (or rather, to try to do this). Like a rich person visiting a poor area, he is prone to impossible crassness (“why doncha just buy some?”). Or like the poor, benighted pop star who wrote a song to help the famine relief effort in Etiopia: “do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” To really benefit from the exchange, the visitor should gain some appreciation of the others’ starting-point. Theirs is not his. Therein lies the benefit.


But I digress.


We’re in Latvia. Between Cesis and Sigulda. Between these two towns lies the Gauja (Gow-yah) National Park. It is immense. Do not be deceived by the word “park”. Here are there no park benches; no public conveniences. This is forest. When I say “we” I mean “I”.


The two towns are of course joined by a road. And, by a quite different route, a river has the same start and end points. The plan is to walk from Cesis to Sigulda along the riverbank, just like walking from Dudley to Wolverhampton along the canal towpath. On the outskirts of town is a road bridge. At this point the River Gauja departs on its separate journey to Sigulda. I just step over the cast iron railings, skid down the slope, and I’m at the water’s edge. What could be simpler? Just follow the river on my left.

Here we go into the wild blue yonder!

The first mile or two is easy. There's a track alongside the river, and I mock myself for the banality of this great adventure. But the signs of civilization then disappear, and I am in almost virgin territory. It stops being an easy stroll. Every footpath peters out because - duh - these are game trails, not paths trod by humans. As I follow the river mile after mile I come to realise that, bend after bends, it is alternately flat and then steep. Where flat on my side, it was boggy. I look a hundred yards over the far side: it's steep there. Where steep on my side, it was hell on the ankles, and the undergrowth so thick it had to be pushed through. At some places I would have to beat a track away from the river to avoid these twin scourges, bog then steepness, and then spend hours trying to find the river again – no river, no signpost towards Sigulda. After five miles or so, a massive sweeping bend to the left appeared (I was on the right hand bank, the river to my left). Rather than necociate the flat swampland on my side of the river, I decided to cut the corner by wading across. I wrapped my camera in plastic bags, and then again in my poncho, and put the bundle deep in my rucksack. Taking off my shoes and socks, I rolled up the legs of my jeans and began the crossing. After the first third of the river's width, calf deep, I wondered why I had hesitated to consider any risk. Risk? There’s more risk in a paddling pool! In the second third, my jeans started to get wet, even though I rolled them higher. And at the last third (nearly there! Just keep going!) I saw the riverbed slope down to maybe two metres, maybe four. Oh, no! The final ten metres are too deep to wade, and trying to swim would be madness: risky and ruinous to my equipment. Why didn’t I realise that at a river bend, the bulk of the water takes the inside track? It began to rain as I beat my soggy and chilled way back, and had to set up the poncho and climb into my sleeping bag to recover my body heat. How pathetic! In bed in the middle of the afternoon!


As evening approached, I chose an ideal place to bed down on the bank of the Gauja. Breaking wood for a camp fire, I set up camp. My food was plentiful, and I improvised a barbecue for my chicken legs. The sun went down and I sat there as contented as a king.


Over the far bank, a moon arose over the trees. I set up my poncho, stapled to the earth on the landward side and propped up on a pair of vertical sticks on the river-side, held down by elastic bunjee ropes. Snug in my sleeping bag, my fire smouldering comfortingly nearby, I went off to sleep. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. From time to time I would open an eye and observe the moon progressing across the southern sky like the hand of a giant clock.


Lighting the campfire

At maybe two in the morning I was awakened by a loud splash, I was camped maybe two metres from the river’s edge and a metre above water level. I asked myself if I had really heard such a sound, or dreamed it. I replayed it in my mind: it had the gulping quality of a heavy boulder hitting the surface of the water at high speed, followed by a splash. Gloonk – splosh.


It happened again. Gloonk – splosh. Now, this was worrying. I had no idea what could be causing the sound, but it was big. I flitted through the possible hypotheses:


            -A joke being played on me by local yobbos – let’s throw a rock in the river and put the shits up this unsuspecting tourist. Only, the nearest habitation was miles away, and the forest was so quiet that when a slight breeze approached I could hear the slight creaking of branches approaching. Any approach of people would be very obvious.

            -A seal that had swum up the Gauja from the Baltic, and was splashing around? Not very likely.

            -A dolphin? Ditto.

            -Beaver? No, they are only north American.


The only explanation that I could think of was a bear. Gulp. Just before coming here, I had seen a Michael Palin TV programme, Full Circle, in which he had witnessed an Alaskan bear sitting in a shallow river and whacking passing fish with his paw. Now, that would make a gloonk-sploosh sound. Gulp.


I was barefoot in my sleeping bag. If I had to flee for my skin across the forest, I wouldn’t make a hundred yards before collapsing. I slithered out as silently as possible, my knees knocking with fear, and put on my shoes. At least now, if something came charging towards me across the shallow river and up the bank, I was mobile.


The gloonk-sploosh happened again. I plucked up the courage to switch on my torch. To my relief, no green eyes reflected back at me. The surface of the Gauja was so flat that my beam reflected off the surface and could be seen on the trees on the far bank. This would reveal an object the size of a football, let alone an object the size of a bear. No bear. I was safe.


Among my supplies I had two dozen party poppers. In discussing this trip with the lads down the pub, we had discussed how to deal with the wild animals listed by Lonely Planet.


“Take a gun with you, Brent”, said Chris.


“Well, dumb-arse, firstly I don’t possess a gun, and secondly, if I did, I wouldn’t dream of taking it on a fucking plane.”


“How about party poppers?” said Damian, just being flippant.


“Now, you aren’t as stupid as you look, Damian”, I said. “They make a right old bang, and might just frighten off a wild boar, a bear or a wolf.

As I calmed down from my imaginings of a bear lolloping across the river to make a snack of me, I wondered what effect the party poppers would have had if used in anger. I fired one off. Boooooom! In the silent forest, it sounded like a sodding hand grenade going off! A wonderfully effective frightener!


                - # -


In the morning, I carried on along the right-hand bank. At a certain point I found a tree whose lower bark had been stripped away in a ring, and the timber nibbled into. Deer? Deer sharpening their teeth? I am so ignorant that it's funny.


A bit further on, my way was barred by a stagnant creek. The water, coming from right to left, towards the river, was stagnant. Skirting it leftwards I found a fallen tree-trunk straddling the creek. Aha! A perfect bridge! I broke off some branches to use as crutches, and began my wobbly way along the tree trunk. Half way along, my foot went through the rotten timber, and I was rewarded with a shoeful of water. Doh!


After a change of socks, I hacked further leftwards along this tributary, down towards the Gauja. The stagnant creek ended abruptly at….. a beaver’s dam! Ah, so!!!


So that’s what was splashing around in the river last night! Beaver! Swimming along the riverbed, looking up for any fish silhouetted by the full moon, spotting one, accelerating upwards, taking the fish, exiting the water afrom sheer upward velocity and… returning earthwards…. Going gloonk-sploosh! Around the dam, the place was littered with felled tree trunks. The earlier nibbled tree was also explained. Deer, for Chrissakes!


On the second day, thoroughly fed up with getting bogged down in riverbank undergrowth, I beat a path away from the river and lose it altogether. For all I know, the river has invisibly bent away from me at a right-angle. I have no map worthy of the name. Plodding through the forest, I come upon an unpaved logging track, and yomp along it at a satisfactory pace. Not a vehicle, not a person comes into view. This is the first time since I was a new-born baby that I have not seen a human face for over a day. I begin to go slightly barmy, imagining I can see faces in the bushes, and fighting off the loneliness by dredging up all the pop songs from memory and hooting them at the top of my voice through the trees standing unimpressed either side of me like mute sentries.


And then I come upon a fenced-in field. In the field is a horse. His coat is sleek and glossy; his shape athletic, built for speed. I know nothing about racehorses, but this was one.


He comes up to the fence, cranes his neck over, and observes me closely. Passing visitors must be quite a rarity for him.


He gives one of those horsey snorts, blowing through his big blubbery lips as horses do. It's as if he is trying to communicate with me. So I snort theatrically back at him. He maintains eye contact, and nods his head up and down, bowing his great neck ponderously down to left and right three or four times. Again, I mimick him, deliberately winding him up. He looks a bit annoyed at this, and lets out a full-voiced “neigh”. I jolly well neigh back at him with all my might.


Unable to contain himself any longer, my horse takes off to his left, alongside the barrier, and then curves round to his left in a great loop around the field which slopes up from the fence. His shiny skin shows off the fine muscles beneath. Upon completing this frantic circuit, he slams on the brakes and almost skidds to a halt in the same place as before, forelegs slightly akimbo. It's as if he is challenging me: well, what are you gonna do now, Smartarse?!


In response, I take off in a miniature version of his circuit and, rucksack on back, I trot around the track keeping eye contact with him until flipping my head round to again meet his furious gaze.


And then… I hear the sound of human laughter. Away to my right, up the slope, arms folded in stern reproof, stand the farmer and his wife. Oh, dear. I have just made a public tart of myself. Summoning up my most fluent body-language, I traipse up the hill towards them flapping my arms about, and hitting my forehead with the ball of my hand, and shaking my head with a big stupid contrite embarrassed grin on my gob, whilst intoning, in fluent English, “Oh, no, what must you be thinking of me? I didn’t know I had an audience!”


After having a good laugh at my expense, they tried to answer my enquiries on the distance to Sigulda. Chink (five) kilometer? Otto (eight) kilometer? They waffled a lot of complicated explanations, but none of them were a straight answer. In the end, the farmer grabbed my rucksack and bundled it into the back of his dirty old Lada. The old nanny came out of the house to see what all the ruckus was about.


A few miles down the road, he pulled up at a river crossing where stood a single house. This was a ferry. Tethered at either bank was a heavy duty steel hawser. It ran through a crude pulley system on a floating flat platform riding on pontoons. The house belonged to the ferryman, whose role it was in life to wait for foot passengers or cars or lorries, and then man-haul the thing across the river with sheer musclepower. So, this was the reason they couldn’t just give me a distance! I tried to pay the farmer for his kindness, but he pooh-poohed the idea. For just such eventualities, I had a few dozen sweets (Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs) and fished him one out. He accepted it, but tried to decline a second. “For your wife,” I said, making the universal gesture of a pair of breasts. “Ah, Da! Da!”, he responded, taking the second sweet. I fished out a third sweet, which he again declined until I made the universal gesture of a pair of drooping breasts at navel-level…. “For your mother!” He took it with a guffaw.


There were a few more scary moments on this memorable trip. In Lithuania, I reached the famous Hill of Crosses just before nightfall, and after strolling around this bizarre monument to crazy religion with literally tens of thousands of crosses from three metres high to three centimetres, the little ones festooning the big ones like creepers in a creepy swamp, I decided to bed down next to the hill. But it was mosquito country. As I pitched camp, a mossie, then ten mossies, then a hundred angry little bleeders began to attack. I had never seen more than three at a time in my life. Quickly grasping the fact that this position was untenable, I bundled my affairs together and legged it across the fields. Looking back (I am not exaggerating here) the swarm was following me in an elongated plume, as if in some Disney cartoon.


The capital of Lithuania is Vilnius. Napoleon went through it on the way to Moscow and, nicely whupped, back westwards again with his tail between his legs. At the beginning of WWII, Hitler’s boys made the same mistake, but Adolf stayed nice and warm back home in Berlin. In the run-up to the meeting of the German and Russian armies, the Russians had prepared a great circular trench on a hilltop, intending to store tank fuel in it. As the Blitzkrieg advanced, the Russians withdrew, leaving the bare ring-trenches. The conquering Germans demanded that the people of Vilnius hand over their Jews for execution. The non-Jewish population, instead of reluctantly acceding to these monstrous demands, joined in wholehartedly, and helped scourge their former neighbours up the hill, doubtless later returning to Vilnius rub their hands in front of their new houses. The Jews were frogmarched up to the circular trenches, ordered to lay head-to-foot, and then machine-gunned where they lay. The emotional toll on the obedient murderous German soldiers in events such as this (“I voss only following orders”) caused the authorities to later devise methods which were less distasteful, more efficient, more industrial. In Vilnius’s Jewish Museum are displayed hand-written eyewitness accounts of this stuff. It’s close to unbearable. One of the staff made eye-contact with me. I read in her expression, “Yeah, it’s tough to read all this, but don’t go looking for my sympathy, pal. You’ll move on. It’s tougher to have had it happen to one’s own people.”


On another hillside in Vilnius I camped out. I had planned to stay in a hotel. Lonely Planet said that it had rooms at “only” £30, whilst everywhere else was at least twice that. The taxi driver gave me a funny look when, at the train station, I gave him the address. After he took my money, dumped me out and sped off, I found out why: Closed for Renovation. (Translation: Closed to transform this £30 hotel into a £100 hotel, suckers.)


So… where to sleep? Lonely Planet showed a park. That’ll do. But the park, even after dark, was full of lights and benches and people drinking cans of beer. Can’t bed down here. Down the track, over a little bridge, lots of foliage, no lights now, up a slope with wooden beams set into the hillside to make steps, I find an octagonal concrete tower, a beacon, smelling of urine. I set up my poncho nearby, the air getting a bit of a nip, and go off to sleep. Nobody know’s I’m here, and nobody’s going to disturb me.


About two in the morning, I am awakened by footsteps clonking the wooden beams. Somebody, or maybe more than one person, is coming up to join me. I hear a heavy breathing approaching the back of my poncho. It’s one old guy, no companion. He doesn’t see me – my poncho is dark green and invisible. I have my torch ready, and also party poppers. He is talking to himself – gubbedy gubbedy gubbedy, which means, “What the hell am I doing on this cold hilltop with a bottle of vodka instead of tucked up in a warm bed with a family aound me.” (My Lithuanian is that good, honest.) If I hear his tone of voice change…. Gubbedy- wha? – gabba gabbo doo?!!!... I shall fire off a party popper, shine the torch in his eyes, and we’ll see just who craps himself, not me. But instead, he staggers into the tower, the accoustics changing, gulps down some vodka, talks to himself for a few minutes, then departs.


The third and final scary event in the Baltics (I don’t count the many people who strangely dragged one foot behind them, inexplicable until one of them sprayed vomit around him – ah, it’s a vodka thing!) was in Latvia. My bus was going North, following the coast road, the sea to our left. Lonely Planet referred to a suitable hotel on the coast, and the bus dropped me off there. Unexpectedly, this was just a straight road in the middle of a dark forest. No hotel, no town, no sea, just trees. I yomped North a bit and came upon a tiny garden shed nestling under the dark trees. It served as a bar, just big enough for the barwoman and three of four drinkers. I ask for a beer. She leers at me and makes a negative wagging movement with fingertip… no-no-no you don’t! This is a bit unusual for a booze-seller, and I’m baffled. I ask where the hotel is, and instead of pointing thataway-two-kilometres, there is a long incomprehensible explanation. In the nick of time, a car draws up outside, and a scruffy unshaven bloke enters. He says, with Alexei Sayle comic commie accent: “Khen I khelp-a-you?” “Ah, yes, two things: why can’t I buy a beer, and where’s this hotel?” After a brief gabbedy-gabbedy, he explains that beer is bad for me (Jaysus, this is mad) and that the hotel is now a children’s home. Ah… so that’s it.


He offers to drive me to another hotel – great! We go out to his car, and he drives off with the steering wheel in one hand and swigs from his bottle of beer with the other. Alus = beer, hence “ale”. We got that word from the Vikings, and the b-word from the Romans. I’m sure the Vikings didn’t drink and drive.


He makes polite conversation.

“Ey em so unhappy! I hev not sleep for three days.”

“Oh? Why haven’t you slept for three days?”

“The policemen they look for me.”

(Oh, fuck.) “Why are the police looking for you?”

“In front of my lights (he gesticulates towards the headlights with his bottle hand)… a boy, a girl.”

(Oh, fuck.) “Did you hurt the boy, the girl?”, I enquire with a tremor.

“Det’s my bizness,” he replies. I now see his scruffy-sweaty-unshaven look through new eyes. The words “desperado” and “fugitive” come to mind.


We stop at a red light. A signpost indicates a hotel to the right. Phew, we’re there. But when the light goes green, he accelerates hard, as if he is making a statement of his power over me? I’m getting scared. For the first time I understand why women being abducted prior to a rape prefer to keep quiet than challenge the abductor… maybe it’ll be all right if I say nothing. But that’s no good. On a cord around my neck I have compass, whistle, and Swiss Army Knife. I remove the knife, discreetly open the blade and, without showing it, feel confident enough to challenge him in a loud voice:

“Where you take me?”


“No! I saw sign. Hotel back there!”

“No,” he contradicts me, “hotel here….” and he swings the wheel round onto a sidestreet on the left. There is indeed a hotel on the right, with a narrow flagstoned pedestrian path flanked by little bushes. He whirls the steering wheel again, bumps up on the pavement, then accelerates towards the hotel’s glass doors, brushing the little shrubs on each side. I brace myself for the smashing Keith Moon moment, but he slams on the anchors in time, the bonnet dipping down a couple of feet from the doors.


We get out, he carries my rucksack into the reception, speaks to the receptionist, offers to escort me to my room. I politely decline, and when I’m safely inside, wedge a chair under the door handle with shaking hands. Scary stuff.


Next morning, full of the joys of autumn, I find another drinking shed. There are two old street sweepers knocking back the vodka four hours before midday. Again, they won’t let me indulge. One of the street sweepers insists that I go to his house. I decline. He grabs my rucksack and dashes off with it, crossing the road. Do I rugby-tackle him, or go along with it all? No choice. His big rambling wooden house is surrounded by fruit trees. These people have been through some very hard times, and maybe such fruitfulness has warded off famine in the past. He sits me down and proudly displays his Soviet music centre, as big as a coal bunker and sounding like crap. He shows me his photo collection, all ties and suits. I wonder what his toilet is like, and pretend that I need to go. It is a vertical hole, drilled down into the earth like a well, with a wooden seat over the top. On a shelf are boxes of white powder intended to keep the smell down. The stink is indescribable. But despite the fact that my compatriot Thomas Crapper had invented a far superior water closet a century and a half before, I didn’t feel superior to this smashing old guy who coped as best he could, and had made it to old age.

I shall add to this account and tell the story of young Jaanis Sondars whose schoolteacher Mrs. Rabushko wrote to me and said that his encounter with a lost Englishman had made him buck up his ideas at school. I must write back to her to find out if Jaanis is today the multilingual business hotshot I thought he might become.


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