Category Archives: Russia

Day 73 – Wednesday, September 9th, 2009, Veliki Luki, Russia to Riga, Latvia (466 km – total to date 15,502 km)

This day was exciting we were leaving Russia after 30 days of travelling across it. Our destination was Riga, Latvia. To tell the truth I had never heard of Latvia before this trip and now I absolutely love it.    Sergey’s trip ended at Russia’s border and our good-bye was very emotional. We would have loved to take him home with us (as well as Tatiana, Ksenia and James).  Hopefully they will all come to Canada one day and we can show them our Country.  We loved all of our guides and drivers but these few really touched our hearts and we will miss them.  Poor Sergey had to drive by himself all the way home back to Irkutsk, Siberia in his right hand drive car. Sergey please get a left hand drive car someday, you will be able to pass trucks much easier, I promise.


The day was beautiful, a bright sunny day, as usual. Our whole trip has been great weather the only day it rained was in Ekaterinburg and we were in the cars so it didn’t matter. School children were walking to school in their uniforms and backpacks and looked very cute. As we left Moscow we filled up our cars for the last time in Russia and I finally learned that the symbol for diesel was DT and not AT which I thought it was.  The Russian D looks like a fancy A to me! The young girls were still wearing their high, high heels even here in the poorer city of Veliki Luki.  Russ actually thinks that the heels in Moscow are a little shorter than the heels in the smaller cities!


To exit Russia we had to drive through three different stations and each time we had to show the same paperwork! The guards did a cursory check of our cars and let us through. All the guards seemed friendly (Canadian and US border guards could take a lesson from the Russian guards). I had to open my box with the Samovar and show him the paperwork from the purchase, then everything was okay.  It took us 1 1/2 hours to exit Russia. We stopped at their duty free shop and most of their stock consisted of vodka. I bought two bottles with Russian writing and went to pay for them.  The cashier gave me a sign of four fingers so I took out $40 US  and she shakes her head no, just 4 fingers.  I say okay and give her $8 US and she still shakes her head no and waves her four fingers frantically (probably thinking what a dumb blonde).  These two vodka bottles cost $2 each! Can you imagine that $4 US for two bottles of vodka, one-half litre each?


Now we had to cross the Latvia border, no problem I think. Wrong!   The Border guards did not like our insurance documents. They wanted the originals and we gave them our originals but they thought they were not originals because originals should be in plastic. Well Canada does not give us plastic insurance documents. So there was a stand off and they had our passports!  There was nothing we could do but wait. We couldn’t go back into Russia because our visas had expired on this very day and they would not let us into Latvia. We waited and waited, finally at 4 p.m. the guards decided to let us into Latvia. (Russ believes they wanted a payoff and realized we were not going to pay up). Unbelievable, we were starving! We had breakfast at 8 a.m. and nothing to eat since then.


As we drove away from the Latvia Border Crossing we noticed all these portable potties at the side of the road. The girls decided that this border must have long waits as a matter of course and the port-a-potties were there to help during the long waits!  Just a little past this we met up with our new guide, Edgars, and we began following him through Latvia.  Right away we noticed that the houses were larger, two stories and more windows. The fields had cows and goats grazing in them.  Still no fences but the animals looked fit.  Latvia does not use Cerlic; they have the same alphabet that we have so we can finally read the signage and not feel drunk. The cities or towns in Latvia seem cleaner with more parks and boulevards, and wider streets.  The apartment balconies are more uniform which makes them look better and most importantly the people are friendly and seem happier.  We did not see drinking in the street and it felt very safe.


Finally we stopped for lunch at 5 p.m. but in Latvia it was actually 4 p.m. as the time goes back one hour. It was an interesting lunch, an Italian restaurant. Edgars is newly married, just one month and still has the smile on his face.  He sat with us during lunch and told us a bit about life here in Latvia. He said that two years ago it was booming.  Latvia had joined the European Union and they received lots of money to upgrade. Construction was going on everywhere and all his friends had jobs.  They bought houses and new cars then all of a sudden everything stopped due to the recession and many people have lost their jobs (20% unemployment).  Because they lost their jobs they are not able to meet their mortgage and car payments and many  of his friends are losing their homes or cars. This recession is world wide and was all started by greedy Americans.   


Latvia has their heat transferred via steam pipes just like in Russia.  Remnants of Communism, I guess.  Edgars says that his apartment uses the heat transferred via pipes from the heat plants whereas his brother’s apartment has it’s own heating system.  His brother’s heat bill is one-third of Edgar’s bill.  We found this to be surprising because we thought the communist’s heat should be cheaper and it is not.  Edgars cannot turn his heat on or off or up or down. It goes on when the government decides to turn it on and it goes off the same way. Also in May each year the government shuts off the system for three weeks to clean it and there is no heat and no hot water during this period.


After lunch we passed a beautiful resort beside a river which starts in Russia and goes to Riga, the capital of Latvia.  This river was so smooth, it looked like glass. When I first saw it, I thought it was a lake! We stopped beside the river at a bakery, bought some delicious baked goods and walked out to the riverbank for a little picnic.  We practiced how to say “Thank You” in Latvia “Pauldias” whereas in Russian it is “Spasiba”. The country of Latvia does not export they have 2,000,000 people in the whole country and approximately half live in Riga the capital.


Day 72 – Tuesday, September 8th, Moscow to Veliki Luki, Russia (473 km – total to date 15,036 km)

Today we left Moscow to drive to our last city in Russia, Veliki Luki.  But before leaving Moscow I must tell you about how expensive it is to live in Moscow. A studio apartment in a Krushchev style building sells for approximately $130,000 US. This would be a 300 square foot apartment which includes a tiny kitchen area and a bathroom.  (This is smaller than a Coach House room at Abigail’s Hotel). Real Estate in the center of Moscow in a nice building costs $20,000 to $25,000 US for one square meter. That converts into $2,500 to $4,000 US per square foot. Which means that a 300 square foot studio apartment would sell for 1 million dollars! The average family has one child and lives in a 400 square foot apartment with one bedroom, one bathroom and kitchen/living area. 


We managed to collect ourselves and leave the hotel in Moscow by 11:30 a.m.. We were not in a hurry because John, our guide had explained the previous night that our hotel in Veliki Luki would not have any hot water because the heating system was shut down.  These are the huge steam pipes that bring the heat to the buildings.  They were not turned on yet so there would not be any hot water in our rooms.  Our plan was to arrive late in Veliki Luki and leave early. As we drove out of the city we had a good laugh at the parking by the citizens of Moscow. Cars park behind other cars, so if the driver of the first car wanted to leave they would have to wait until the car behind them leaves before they could move.  Obviously there are more cars than the city can handle because they park anywhere, on sidewalks, sideways and behind one another!


We drove for an hour and we were still in the city of Moscow. I believe there are 13 million people in Moscow and it goes on forever.  For lunch we stopped at another truck stop. We could tell we were getting closer to the border of Russia as everything was starting to look rundown, including this truck stop. We all figured french fries was a good bet because they are deep fried! Farm fields were now weeds and villages looked very poor. By the time we arrived at Veliki Luki with a population of 104,000 people, it was 7:30 p.m.. The city looked pretty rough, lots of Krushchev apartments, older cars, some unpaved roads and very few houses. The houses looked rundown and unkept.  Our hotel was also the Communist style with a small rickety elevator that Russ and I managed to  squeeze into and rode to the 4th floor. Only one side of our hallway had baseboards. I was not looking forward to seeing our room!  But to our surprise this was the biggest room we have ever had in Russia.  It was completely renovated. There was an eight chair dining room table, a living room with a huge TV, leather couch and two leather chairs plus two bedrooms! All for just me and Russ. Everything was new, carpets, furniture and paint on the walls plus we had hot water!! You just never know what to expect when touring in Russia.


Dinner was lots of fun.  We sat outside on a balcony (the weather was still warm and beautiful), overlooking a river. Gail was into her paralyzers (she taught the bartender how to make them and he is going to add it to his bar menu). We played crib and toasted Russia good-bye as tomorrow we go to the border!

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