Saturday, June 23, 2018

Запад в Россию (West, to Russia)

Russia is in the east, right? So how can you go west to Russia? Well that's what I did yesterday, travelling from my beloved Lithuania to the tiny Russian enclave of the Kaliningrad oblast. 

Lithuania's only border with Russia is to the West
The alarm went at 6 am and for a moment I thought. “Sod that. I’m going back to sleep” Until  I remembered that today I was leaving for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

I packed everything systematically, checked out, crossed Gedimono Prospect to the Novotel Lesley, Roz and me stayed at a few years ago where there was a taxi rank.

“Prasau, i trakyniu sostines” I spluttered what I thought was how to say the train station.

The driver nodded and off we went.

When we arrived at the “Gelezinkojo Sostines” I asked him what the difference was.

“Traukinys – Train. Gelezinkojo – Rail”


Once at the station I had a Mr Bean moment finding the platform (No 5) which wasn’t obviously (to me, at least) marked. But I asked and was led, like a senile old man might be, by a station official to the closed door I hadn’t assumed was an option to go through.

Of course. This was like a border control so I had to show my passport. The lady was very friendly and said she could tell I was Lithuanian from my name.

Then, it was through and up onto the platform where the train was already waiting. After a couple a queries, I found my carriage and my cabin where a man was sleeping. As the trained pulled away from Vilnius at 7:40 am, I dumped my bags and headed off to the restaurant carriage for some breakfast where I filled in an immigration form and typed up my blog.

After that, I wobbled my way through the five carriages back to mine (No 2) where my fellow traveler was still asleep. I crept in. and lay down and tried to get some shut eye.

"... toms control" Didn't notice that

First train ride... very pleasant

Eggs for breakfast

Not much sleep to be had

Getting closer to Russia
Passed Marijompole, almost at the border

But as we approached the border I got so excited I couldn't keep still. I got my phone to do lost of GPS map screen shots. I love that.

Finally the train came grinding to a stop at around 10 am. Things then happened fairly quickly. Firstly, bizarrely, two more passengers got on the train at this point. A couple, around my age, came and sat in our cabin, just as the Lithuanian border guard was about to come through our carriage checking passports.

It's always a bit of a nerve racking experience. They look at your face then at the passport. Then they flick through the pages looking for something, a stamp I guess. In Minsk they even got a magnifying glass at this point. This was a Lithuanian, so he's going to be friendly to me, right?

Not really.

"Where is stamp?"

"How you get into Vilnius?"

"At the airport"

I thought I had used my aussie passport to go from Belarus to Lithuania, but maybe not. Anyway, I showed him my British passport and he seemed satisfied. Then he stamped my aussie one, so all good there.

Then, the train rolled a few hundred meters across the border to the Russian border and we had the same process again. This time it went more smoothly as most people on the train had the FAN ID for the World Cup.

So then, after about 45 minutes at the border, the train continued west, towards the city of Kaliningrad.

The two newcomers were Lithuanians. Apparently, they'd driven from nearby Marijampole, parked their car at the border point and then walked to the train to catch it at this point. They were also going to the match but afterwards would get a taxi back to the border and then drive home.

It turns out this guy was no ordinary football fan. He was actually the president (or chairman) of the Lithuanian champions, for the past two years, Suduva. How amazing was that? We spent much of the next few hours trying to talk about football but as his English was about as good as my Lithuanian this wasn't easy. He's obviously a really nice, intelligent man though. His wife (damn, forgot her name) was very interested in Kaliningrad and spent most of the journey reading about it in guide books. The other traveller who'd been asleep, from Russia I think, had a guide book too so they swapped.

Vidmantas Murauskas and his wife on their way to Kaliningrad

In Russia here

Cold and grey in Kaliningrad

Off the train and off to explore

Raining in Kaliningrad

The man himself: Not Kant, but Kalinin

MacDonalds' embarrassingly, my first stop

"Big Mak, pozhalsta"

We arrived at around 1 pm and, like Minsk, it had turned cold and wet and miserable. There was no Wifi at the station so I decided to go to a nearby MacDonalds. They always have good free, easy-to-access, WiFi, right? Not any more.These days you have to register your mobile phone and get an SMS message before you can sign in. All right for those with data roaming or a local SIM but if you've got that, why bother with WiFi? Anyway, I scoffed a Big Mac and decided to get a taxi to the hotel which I knew the name and address of.

First taxi.

"Pozhalsta, na Otel Navigator, Sovietski Prospect"

The taxi driver looked at me, paused a second and then replied...


And drove off.


Next driver paused too, but nodded so I could finally get out of the rain.

I soon saw why the first driver had been reluctant. There was endless traffic for several kilometers, apparently around the Fan Fest. The driver kept asking his sat nav for alternative routes but eventually we did get there after about an hour of frustration.

You can double that time estimate

The receptionist at Hotel "The Navigator" was very friendly and smiley and I soon realised why. She was Lithuanian and seemed so pleased to be able to speak to me in her language. Better than English for her.

The room is a bit of a weird L (or V actually) shape but comfortable enough. I regret getting one so far out of the city but the central hotels were ridiculously expensive - almost certainly due to the World Cup.

I couldn't help but notice the "Keep the Hotel Clean" sign and wondering who was responsible for it. A man, I think. It certainly grabbed my attention!

The Brazil v Costa Rica game had already started  by the time I got here so I stayed and watched it on the postage stamp sized TV on the wall opposite my bed while my phone recharged. I also texted Leb as she arrived at Perth airport. She is an der veiks now, so soon I'll be back with her in blighty.

Costa Rica clung on for over 90 minutes and it looked like they'd achieved a famous 0-0 with the great Brazil side, but two injury time goals broke "Lost Ticos" hearts and Brazil remain favourites to go through.

As soon as the match finished I was ready to trek back to the city center and do a bit of exploration.

I waited at the bus stop with some Serbian fans who had driven all the way to get here. The bus took  about twenty minutes to arrive and as long as we showed our Fan Id and match tickets we were allowed on free, rather than paying the 25 Ruble fair (about 50 cents).

No 36 bus dropped me off near the stadium

I got off the bus when I saw the old Kaliningrad Baltica stadium. I had to get off and have a quick look at that. It's no longer going to be used now that the sparkling, brand new ground has been built. Whatever the problem of corruption is in FIFA World Cups with all this kind of thing, you cannot but think it's been a pretty good thing for football fans in Kaliningrad.

Baltica are a second division side in the Russian league and are perhaps best known, along with the side, Luch, from Vladivostok, for having to travel the furthest distance for a domestic match in a national league. (I wrote about derbies etc before for my Forest blog - one of my best in my humble opinion.)

Anyway, after that I decided to see the most iconic sight in Kaliningrad, the cathedral and then try to find somewhere to eat and watch Nigeria v Iceland.

It is a magnificent old cathedral on an island in the middle of a system of rivers (or canals, not sure).

I found a restaurant to watch the match and luckily I hadn't missed any goals.

I ordered soup and some beef stroganoff but the waitress spluttered back to me something that didn't sound promising.

"Sheshyat dyecat minute. Chas. Ok?"

What? an hour wait? For soup and some stroganov? That might give me real problems getting to my own match later, so I passed on the food and just had one beer.

It was then that I noticed that in this restaurant with people (mostly Swiss football fans) at least 20 tables, hardly any were eating. Mmm.

My Kalingrad sight-seeing tour. Wi a bit o culture chucked in too, youth.

Serb - ija!


Three lorries blocking off the main road


Sights on the Island of Kant

Is beautiful, no?

Rapid sight seeing in Kaliningrad

The Soviet era wasn't quite so pleasant, architecturally

Massive hallway/restaurant

Nigera v Iceland

I'm not waiting an hour, sorry

Anyway Nigeria scored probably the goal of the tournament to take the lead against Iceland and then got a second which wasn't bad either. Looks like the end of the road for the tiny country with a population the size of Canberra.

Nigeria, though, now face Argentina in what should be a great game.

After that, I was off to my first match at this World Cup: Serbia v Switzerland.

I'd deliberately chosen a restaurant that was on the way to the ground so I continued my walk there through the grim and dark weather. The rain poured at times and it was very cold. As I got closer there seemed to be more and more Serbians and fewer Swiss.

There were many really friendly and happy volunteers guiding fans on the way to the ground. Very sweet. The new ground, build just for the World Cup is, of course, fabulous and situated right by the river.

The security was very efficient and very good, I must say. There's no scamming here. Your Fan ID is scanned and then your ticket. Presumably if they don't match you'd get turned away.

Once inside, I was very impressed with the compact modern stadium with about a 35,000 capacity. I was starving so, bizarrely, for the second time today, I had a burger from the stadium catering. Not bad, I suppose.

The atmosphere was great and it definitely felt like a home match for Serbia. Thousands had traveled to watch the game but also thousands of Russians were backing their fellow slavs.

Serbia started like they were on fire and almost scored in the first couple of minutes. But the goal did come soon enough, though Mitrovic. Serbia continued to dominate and almost went further ahead before Switzerland began to settle and have a chance or two of their own.

In the second half, Switzerland came right back at them and soon got a deserved equaliser, an absolute cracker from Xhaka. From that point it was back to being a balanced end-to-end match that both sides wanted to win. Quite a thriller really.

It looked like both sides were settling for a draw when Switzerland grabbed the three points with an injury time winner by another odd-sounding Swiss player, Shaqiri.

2-1 to Switzerland and all three goals in my end. I said goodbye to the nice tall Irish guy I was sat with, from Kilkenny and set off through the rain to head back to the city center and then started walking in the direction of my hotel away from the city center until I stumbled across a bus No 36 waiting to leave. Sure enough, it was same route I'd come in on. With the help of GPS I was able to ensure I got off at the right stop and back to the hotel just after midnight.


A pear of a stadium, though

Everyone was so friendly in Kaliningrad

25 minutes until kick off

The stadium loomed

Crazy clouds, apparently Scandinavian weather being blown south

Superb Stadium

Rain returns

Walked back to the north west side of the city from the stadium

Archeological site, by the looks of things. Didn't have time to find out

Busy city center

Спасибо, номер 36

Back at the hotel - too blady easy, mate!

Another adventurous day follows today (I'm writing this in bed in the morning) as I have to find the bus that will take me along the Curonian Spit, past Nida on to Klaipeda. That will be an adventure too, but the down side is I'll miss all three games. In particular I was hoping to watch Sweden v Germany. Oh well. You can't have everything.

World Cup Summary

So another two groups have reached the second round phase.

In Group D, Croatia clinched their round of 16 place with their crushing 3-0 victory over previously fancied Argentina but the second place is still up for grabs. Argentina will have to beat Nigeria very convincingly to overtake them, assuming Iceland do not easily beat Croatia.

Nigeria v Argentina looks like being the game of the tournament so far then!

 In Group E you have to fancy the Swiss to beat Costa Rica to qualify which leaves Brazil needing only a draw against Serbia to qualify. I would love them to finish second as it means I'll get to see them play in St Petersburg.
The matches so far...
26 Matches out of 64 played
Four teams have won both games. Russia and  (especially) Croatia look the best so far
Goals per game hovering around 2.2. Pretty low-scoring World Cup this, but...
... not a single 0-0 as yet
2-0 catching up a bit on 1-0 and 2-1

Right. That's me done. Time to go and do a bit of exploring before going along the Curonian Spit to Klaipeda. As we're heading north and it was the summer solstice a couple of days ago, hopefully I'll get to see something before arriving back in Lietuva.

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