Our last day in Russia, for now… The weather has improved a bit and we enjoy the fast gravel roads we’ve chosen to bypass the boring motorways on our way to the Latvian border. Before going to the border post we fill up to the brim on cheap Russian fuel. The crossing itself makes Jo a bit anxious as he’s still carrying the immigration card with the incorrect dates. Not sure how the Russian officials will react to that. It turns out that we needn’t have worried, they only care about it being properly stamped and don’t even look at the dates.
A cheerful Russian blonde in kakis insists that we open up every bag we are carrying, to not even look at the contents afterwards. After making us do all that work she could at least have taken a peak. On the other hand, we were smuggling some Russian cheese illegally into Latvia, so luckily she didn’t do her job too thoroughly.
So, we’re back in the EU again! First impressions of Latvia are showing us a very clean, charming and homely country. Everything just looks cosy! Payments are in Euro, most people seem to speak English, supermarkets carry familiar western products and judging from the amount of camp sites on Maps.me it also has a much more vibrant camping culture than its neighbour Russia. And to top it off: it’s a gravel highway country! So we’re having a blast on perfectly maintained glorious yellow smoother than smooth gravel. Even the weather has cleared up since we entered the country!
We end the day on the banks of Sivieri lake where we find a very nice and quiet campsite.
The next day we make our way to the Latvian capital Riga where we have found and booked a hostel online. So, if you stay in the cheapest place in town and they still advertise breakfast included, beware and don’t get your hopes up too high!
The city itself is very interesting. On our first evening we spot a familiar looking BMW GS in one of the small streets of the historic city center. Sure enough, we immediately recognise Sunny, a Turkish-American traveller we had first met at Motokamp in Bulgaria. The world really is a small place. We agree to meet up later for dinner and take one of the free walking tours together the next day.
Riga itself is well worth a city trip and the free walking tour we take is quite interesting. Our guide Kaspers takes us away from the the main center and shows us some of the places the locals like to enjoy. Additionally, we learn a lot, not just about the history and culture of the city, but about the country and its historical relationships with Germany, Poland and Russia as well.
Tallinn is only a days ride away from Riga and, to our surprise, there’s no border control between Latvia and Estonia. We haven’t crossed borders without borderposts since the first week of our trip, now over three months ago. So it does feel a bit weird. After our experiences in Riga, we are keen to also explore the Estonian capital and, making the most of our stay at the hostel in Riga (they at least had working wifi), tried to book a place in Tallinn. Accommodation, however, seems to be even more expensive or fully booked. This clearly is still the high season.
The cheapest hostel I can find only offers dormitory beds starting at a rather ludicrous 60 EUR. So we decide to put up our tent at the municipal camp ground just northeast of the city. The campsite is definitely not the cheapest one either and it looks more like a gipsy trailer park, with all the camper vans parking up in the evening. This is clearly a popular stop for group travels around the Baltics. But it’s only a short drive from the center and they have an excellent bus connection so it’s perfect for a visit and we can leave the bikes at the campsite. The staff are very helpful and friendly, and they have hot showers!
We are incredibly lucky with the weather. Since we entered the Baltics, the forecasts haven’t been too favourable but so far, we haven’t had any rain and for our visit to Estonia’s capital, we are greeted by beautiful sunshine in the morning. It’s cold though, but that’s probably because we’re still not used to anything below 25 degrees.
Having had good experiences with free walking tours, not only in its Baltic neighbour Riga, but also in Krakow last year, we make sure we can join a guided tour in Tallinn as well. It doesn’t disappoint. Tallinn seems just as interesting and cosy as Riga.
The tour takes us along the most interesting sites of the city, including a lot of churches. During Soviet rule, most churches were demolished, but some could be saved through the inventiveness of the locals, converting them into museums or other public buildings. One particular church was saved by claiming it would be converted into an atheism museum. That never actually materialised, but the Soviets seem to have been so blinded by the idea of killing all religion, they never bothered to come and check.
Late afternoon, we spend some time just chilling in one of the parks. It’s nice to just sit and watch life go by. Turns out that sunshine and water have a similar attraction to children everywhere…
Eager to continue on our way to our new planned destinations we don’t stick around too long. We still have a second entry on our Russian visa to cash in and we are really looking forward to visit Saint Petersburg. From there we plan to ride further north through Karelia and then cross into Finland somewhere halfway on the road to Murmansk. So after one day in Tallinn, we move on towards the Russian border. The day starts out very wet and it ends wet. Nothing more to say about it. We end the day on a campsite, about half an hour’s drive from the border. It’s so cold and wet, that we eagerly take the receptionist’s offer of a cabin. A hot meal, the heating on full whack and curling up in our sleeping bags. Heaven!
And then there’s another border crossing to negotiate. This turns out to be the weirdest and most Kafkaesque experience we’ve had so far, and will have for quite some time. The most northernly border post between Estonia and Russia is located smack in the middle of the busy city of Narva/Ivangorod. When we arrive there we are told that you can’t just show up and cross. You need to make a reservation, go to the waiting area until you are called and then you’ll be allowed to enter the customs zone. We’re handed a nice flyer in English that explains it all. Reservations can be made online, so we strategically position ourselves to pick up an open wifi network and start filling out the electronic forms. An administration fee is paid with credit card, which turns out to be not that easy but with some swearing we finally manage it. A couple on a BMW GS arrives just when we are getting ready to ride to the waiting area, which by the way is located back the way we came, a couple of kilometers outside the city.
Since we had so much trouble getting our heads around the complicated procedures, we offer to give Luciano and Emanuela from Italy a hand. After they’ve finished the reservation request we make our way to the waiting area together. Once there, after checking our reservations, the officials almost immediately send us back to the border post. By now, it really is starting to feel like a Monthy Python sketch. But at least this time the gates are opened for us and we are allowed to enter the customs area. Checks and paperwork go relatively smooth, especially since we can just copy from the paperwork we had filled out the first time we entered Russia. I do make sure Jo double checks the dates on the migration card.
Together with our new Italian friends we enter Russia and ride towards Saint Pete’s. After lunch in a roadside cafe our ways split again. They want to visit a Romanov castle somewhere on the coast and we decide to ride directly to the former Russian capital built by Tsar Peter The Great. It would not be the last we see of them though.