Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kaliningrad Kraziness

OK, I hear you ask- what's Kaliningrad? That question will be answered later, but it was actually a backup choice after my hopes for visiting Moldova were cruelly dashed. I had wanted to visit the impoverished but up & coming state of Moldova, which in a bid to attract visitors on Jan 1, 2008 eliminated visa requirements for the US, Canada, EU, and of course all former USSR countries, but had overlooked the poor Aussies in this process.

This left only Australians, New Zealanders and some sub-Saharan African countries still requiring visas. This was further complicated by the Moscow consulate requiring an original invitation, yet with an active Russian embargo against Moldova, this meant the Dept of Immigration in Chisinau would have had to give my invitation letter to the train conductor of the weekly Moscow train, who would effect a handover with my driver at the Kiev railway station. While this cloak-and-dagger Soviet-era process added a certain intrigue and was no doubt reliable, this process took 2 weeks longer than I had available, so we decided to head to Kaliningrad instead.

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave on the Baltic, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, and is not actually connected to Russia proper (as Ariel said, "I think it's west of Ukraine"). As a former part of Prussia, it has a long, proud German heritage, which was largely obliterated by bombing in WWII, leaving it with a concrete and not-so-proud Soviet heritage, with just a hint of German (although, unfortunately, not in the cuisine).

Ariel, Guri and I embarked on this journey to the unknown (even more unknown than usual, since Cam forgot the guidebook), and landed in a dark rural airfield a million miles from anywhere, where we were informed that there was only a bus to the city, 25km away. We eventually arrived at the beautiful (by Soviet standards) Hotel Kaliningrad, which overlooked the brand new shopping centre (rent $25/sq. m). Despite being wedged between two EU members, Kaliningrad is more "regional" than cities I've visited in the middle of Siberia- absolutely nobody spoke English, (or German, for that matter), there was no McDonald's (a plus, except when we were hungover), and the streets still maintain their Communist-era names and monuments (corner of Karl Marx and Dzernzhinsky Ave, please!). In fact, Kaliningrad is so isolated, the locals even retain some positive sentiments about Moscow!

These positive sentiments were unfortunately not extended to foreigners, as we found as we were "feised" by several local restaurants, but thankfully the nightclubs saw things differently, although occasionally requiring some persuasion (Cam copped a Moscow attitude when feised due to his "sports shoes" with an "are you kidding, this is PRADA!" response, which opened the doorman's eyes- thankfully my Russian doesn't extend to "and they cost more than your annual income", which may have made him a little less hospitable).

We definitely enjoyed the local hotspots, but may have been influenced by occasional lingerie show and ubiquitous topless dancers, but then again, it is Russia. The clubs played our favourite Russki-Pop and top-40 hits, and had a fun crowd who was definitely out to party! Ariel found it most amusing that girls who could bust out a full set of lyrics to Justin Timberlake's latest hit were unable to communicate in a single word of English. Notwithstanding, everyone in our crew communicated with the locals in their own unique way, and by 7am we found ourselves back at another branch of the same restaurant where we'd had dinner. It was refreshing to see average menu prices of ~$3-4, compared with the same dishes in Moscow for ~$30.

The following morning (ok, afternoon) dawned with another dose of miserable Baltic weather, but we (actually, maybe just Cam) were determined to explore the city. We staggered to a strange cave-like restaurant, where as the only patrons, we had an acceptable Russian meal, and then strolled around the city centre. Of particular interest (other than Cam's fascination with Soviet architecture) were the local wedding traditions of locking an engraved padlock on the railing of a bridge, and throwing the keys in the water to signify endless love (at least without a bolt-cutter).

Our selection of restaurant that evening posed some challenges, as we were determined to find something edible that wasn't Russian. We stormed out of an early recommendation, when the combination of a cleverly-disguised Russian menu and the lack of either Red Bull or Tonic caused Guri to revolt, but then a starved Cam almost killed him when our backup option's kitchen was already closed (so much for Moscow's 24hr scene). Thankfully we found an acceptable Italian substitute and the evening progressed (assisted by absinthe shots).

Sadly, despite the public holiday the following day, our only late-night venue was the same Prada-debacle casino, which apparently offered a happening scene. Personally, I'd debate this, but thankfully the doormen were sufficiently cowed that they didn't make any further dress code commentary despite my thai t-shirt. After a few more hours of mediocre and middle-aged hits, we got the party started Moscow-style by bribing the DJ the equivalent of a month of Kaliningrad dinners to play "Moscow Never Sleeps", our favourite club anthem (definitely worth a listen), and a few other current Moscow hits, which kicked things into higher gear.

Staggering home from the nightclub, I managed to take a detour through the less-touristy (if that's even possible) side of Kaliningrad, some debris-strewn waterfronts, industrial shipyards, rusty suspension bridges, potholes the size of a mid-sized European country, and the mandatory Park Pobedy (Victory Park), a standard in any Soviet town. Unfortunately in this one the eternal flame to commemorate war dead had been extinguished by the delightful Baltic weather. I thought this seemed a travesty on this long weekend to celebrate the sacrifices of the military, so decided to relight the flame (after tossing the required three coins for three wishes into the cauldron- including the vital wish not to be incinerated). Despite a slight miscalculation in wind direction, I'm happy to report that the eternal flame in Kaliningrad is once again burning brightly.

Half an hour's sleep later, a bleary group of Muscovites commandeered a taxi and headed to the airport, thankfully navigating the sodden country roads without incident and making it to our flight before check-in concluded. Peering through the haze, Cam thought he noticed something familiar about the Aeroflot check-in girl. "Were you at Zhara nightclub on Saturday?", I enquired. The poor girl turned about seven shades before remaining red and peered ever more intently at her check-in screen. Thankfully I'd already been allocated a seat.

The photos can be seen here.


cmotes said...

I fully support strict visa requirements for Aussies, Kiwis, Antarcticans and North Koreans, in that order.


TinyTornado said...

You're not missing much in Moldova :-)

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