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.