Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fintics #6: From Tartu to Valga (Estonia) to Valka (Latvia) to Riga (Latvia)

From Tartu, we travelled on to Latvia. Mom had planned that we'd take the bus, except that it turned out that the Tartu-Riga bus didn't run on the day we wanted. Fortunately we encountered an extremely friendly and helpful somewhat older Estonian woman in the bus station who helped us figure out that we could take the bus to Valga (Estonia) and then the train from Valka (Latvia) to Riga. This pleased me greatly, as it sounded much more adventurous than just taking the bus, and the train-buff in me would choose the train over the bus any day.

We waited for our bus in Tartu. Most people were relatively orderly about getting on the bus, but one woman with a swarm of young children pushed her way ahead and into the bus. She sounded Russian to me, in comparison to Estonian, but she could have been Latvian as Russian and Latvian sound similar. The bus was crowded without air conditioning, and the day was a little warm. There were about 10 passengers standing on the bus for lack of seats. Across the aisle from me there sat an old man who looked very drunk and was drinking more from a bottle. At one stop, his seatmate (in the window seat) got off the bus, and after letting her pass, he sat back down in such a way as to prevent anyone from using the free seat. From his illness to his rudeness, it was all very sad in so many ways. There was at least one polite (though somewhat shabby-looking) older soul on the bus, who had let everyone else board the bus before him, and therefore was standing rather than sitting for his journey.

Valga and Valka had once been one town, but when Estonia and Latvia were formed as republics in 1920, an international commission (or maybe just one British general) established the border, dividing the town. Things were especially difficult in the Soviet era, as the border was rigidly enforced and you needed hard-to-obtain permits if you wanted to do so much as bury your dead on the other side of the border. This surprised me; they had both been absorbed firmly into the USSR, so why would an internal border be *that* strictly enforced? Now that Estonia and Latvia are both part of the EU (and within the Schengen zone), the border is gone, and the two towns - or "One Town, Two States" as their slogan goes - are cooperating once more. They have torn down the walls but left some of the border-posts, signs in Russian to get out your passport, etc. It was refreshing to see this, as sometimes it seems that the Balts are so eager to move on from the era of the Soviet occupation that they might be relegating their history to the dustbin.

In general, Estonia is more prosperous and is doing better than Latvia, but in this town, it seemed like perhaps Valka (Latvia) was doing better than Valga (Estonia). I suspect Valka is important to the Latvian psyche ("On November 15, 1918 the decision to proclaim the independent Republic of Latvia was made in Valka. The red-white-red flag of Latvia was raised here for the first time," says Wikipedia.) Valga (Estonia) seems to have more of the old buildings, and more to rebuild. We had a few hours here, after the bus and before the train, which I found very interesting. Even in this tiny off-the-beaten-path destination (it's on the bus lines, but I think western tourists stick to the bigger cities), the restaurant where we had lunch offered an English-language menu. The presence of English and the ease of communication overwhelmed me. One of the more striking things in Valga/Valka, to me at least, was a strange smell that hung in the air in many places, and reminded me of bone-meal. It turned out to be associated with the train tracks, and I later encountered the same smell in Riga on the platform of the train station, but I don't know quite what it is.

In contrast, there was a smell I associate with Tallinn (but which we perhaps smelled in other places too), and at first I thought it was wood smoke mixed with coal. Later I wondered if the smell might be only woodsmoke, but from pine trees (pine is rich in tar), which we don't commonly burn here, but pine was the most common tree in Estonia.

What I think was shared by all three countries we visited was the general dustiness, much much more dusty than Canada. It had been unusually dry prior to our visit, so I don't know how much of the dust was due to that, and how much to the fact that the soil is fine and sandy, and how much might reflect local and regional pollution, and how much might be that this part of the world has less forest than Canada, and how much might be because of the frequency of old-town streets that were cobbled rather than paved... but whatever the reasons, it was much dustier than here in Canada.

Did I mention the ubiquity of English? Well, make that near-ubiquity. We had a bit of an adventure back in the grand but dilapidated train station, where we had to confirm:
- the departure time (there was a posted schedule, but it wasn't entirely clear to us),
- the price of the train tickets, and whether we could pay in Estonian currency on the Latvian train (Mom wanted to use up her Estonian cash as we would not be coming back), and
- that the Latvian train would indeed come to the Estonian train station (this is a recent restoration of service; in pre-EU days the Latvian train did NOT continue to the Estonian station, and folks needed to find their way to the nearest Latvian train station, some 7km outside town).
The older clerk didn't speak English, but she did speak German. Mine is rusty, but drawing some pictures and numbers in my handy notebook cleared these things up.

When the train came, it introduced us to the hierarchy of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. Finland's infrastructure is modern and often cutting-edge (like the fast, sleek, comfortable electric trains we took between Helsinki and Turku). Estonia is on its way; some things (like urban and intercity buses) are up to date, some things had been cut and are now slowly being phased back in (like intercity trains), and some things stumble on in a slightly outdated manner (like Tallinn's trams). In Latvia, perhaps the Soviet occupation was rougher, but the general pace of progress seems slower. Our diesel train was pretty old-fashioned, with vinyl-covered bench seats, no air conditioning, and "openable" windows that wouldn't always open or easily close. Some of the stations we stopped at were quite beautiful though run-down. Other stops were little more than clearings in the forest with a dirt path, presumably leading to some village or another nearby. Sometimes at intersections we would pass by a small signal house, where a woman (never a man) in an official grey uniform would come out with a little tennis-racket-like signal which she would flip one way or the other (though it wasn't clear to me whether this signal was for the train or for the road traffic).

The forests we travelled through were quite pretty - well-spaced trees, mostly pine, but also a lot of birch, amidst lots of sand, with a charming mossy-shrubby understory.

As we got close to Riga, we saw the urban decay that you sometimes see on the train approach to cities (abundant graffiti, sad-looking buildings), along with some frighteningly dilapidated looking tank-rail-cars labelled "Benzene" (i.e., petrol).

Mom had planned to arrive in Riga by bus, so our directions were from the bus station. Instead we arrived by train, and the tourist office was not open in the evening to give us directions, so it took us some time to find our way. We knew that the bus and train stations were next to each other, but the exact relation was not clear. Once we were finally on the right tram heading the right way (hint: the first tram we took was not the right one), it was easy to find our apartment.


Gautam said...

Hi Victor, this's Gautam Chakrabarti-- & who's in dire need of help in Tartu; I was stupid enough to not take a Latvian friend's offer of a ride to Riga in his car and now need to do the journey myself. May I ask you, please, as to what were the timings-- if you can jog your memory and gimme rough indications-- of your bus to Valga (Estonia) and the train from Valka (Latvia) to Riga; does this train come to the Estonian station or do I've to go to the Latvian station? Thanks in anticipation of your answer and for that evocatively-written account of your travels last year: I enjoyed reading it and'll try to use the information you've given.

Victor Chisholm said...

Gautam: In summer 2008, there was a direct bus Tartu-Riga most days, but not all. Another option would be bus to Tallinn, then bus to Riga... or maybe even plane, I think Air Baltic has cheap fares these days.

However the trip through Valga/Valka was a fun daytrip. A kind lady in the Tartu bus station helped us figure it out. I think it was a mid-morning departure from Tartu and mid-day arrival in Valga (EST). The bus arrived in front of the train station, and that's also where the train leaves from; in the old days, the train only made it so far as the Latvia station miles away, but that's a thing of the past. (In 2008 at least.)

We had a few hours to explore Valka/Valga. You might want to take advantage of this time to stroll over to the Latvian side and get some Latvian funds, as the train arrives late in Riga. I think we found Latvian banking machines on Rigas Iela though maybe it was Rainas Iela. The staff at the train station didn't speak much English (my rusty German helped) but we found tourist info on the Estonian side on or near the town square I think (Kesk).

To my knowledge the train left Valga mid-afternoon and we arrived mid-evening in Riga. The Riga Train station is next to the Riga Bus station. We found one (or maybe two) tourist info stations there but it (or they) were closed for the evening so try to have your Riga plan figured out before you arrive.

Bon voyage!