The Finn looks at me with a bemused expression. Before us, an Estonian farmer, wearing little more than a Speedo, appears to be smuggling potatoes. The Austrian, the Dane, and the Netherlander are discussing the lumpy man in several foreign tongues. The expression on the Brit mirrors the one on the Finn. Their looks say it all: "Is this guy for real?"
We are at the edge of Estonia, mere metres from Russia. There are no fences or guards, but ominous-looking cameras are pointed at us. Are we being watched? Probably. Would it be a good idea to make a quick, illegal visit to Russia? Tempting. Do I want potatoes for lunch? Definitely not.
So how did I come to be standing in this remote place with a half-naked Estonian farmer? Simply put, I like borders. International frontiers. Boundaries. Lines in the sand. And through the wonder that is the Internet, I have hooked up with others who share my passion/obsession. We call ourselves "borderfreaks" and we chase borders. Currently, we are in the middle of the Great Baltic Border Expedition--a journey around the Baltic Sea. A worldly bunch, we are from Canada, America, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, England, and Austria.
We started in Copenhagen, ferried across the Baltic Sea to Poland. From there the itinerary points east, along the Polish frontier with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and then up through the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. From outside Tallinn, Estonia, we'll cross the Baltic again, landing near Stockholm, Sweden. Just for the hell of it, we'll head north to cross the border with Norway. And then return to Copenhagen via Malmí¶, Sweden and the í˜resund Bridge.
The whole point is to visit international frontiers in places that are off the beaten path's beaten path.
THE BALTIC SEA (DENMARK TO POLAND)
The ferry from Copenhagen to Poland is marred only by three channels of truly horrific music on the closed-circuit "entertainment system" in each cabin. Between Polish-safety and duty-free-store information announcements, something akin to Céline Dion in a blender blasts out of the speaker. Luckily, my years of travel enable me to save the day: I turn the sound down using the volume knob that's cleverly labelled Volume.
After this amazing feat of survival, I decide that a reward is in order. I grab Jesper the Dane and we head down to see what we can find in the duty-free shop. The only thing we discover is that duty-free pricing is a sham. What happened to the deals?
POLAND TO GERMANY
Upon arriving at the Polish port of Swinoujscie, we take a jog to the right and visit the border with Germany. There's a small crossing, open only to foot traffic. We annoy the locals when we join the morning rush-hour queue to cross into Germany. I'm the worst offender because my passport and Polish visa have to be scanned in order to leave. That really slows things down.
In Germany, it's time for an abrupt U-turn to return to Poland and piss off the rush-hour crowd going the other way. The queue lengthens as I again create a bureaucratic nightmare with my visa.
This part of the Polish-German border is interesting as there's a large, sandy no man's land that runs toward the Baltic Sea. A hill prevents us from seeing very far, but I know I want to go there. I have a thing about international frontiers on beaches. It is such a dichotomy: a beautiful beach cut in half by a fence with a sign saying None Shall Pass.
We head down some back roads and come upon a large concrete pad with an H on it. Figuring that this probably means "parking" in Polish, we lock up the van and head to the beach. After a short stroll in the woods we arrive at the frontier and see two burly German Bundesgrenzschutz. They're friendly and come over to chat with us about the boundary. Things will change here somewhat, when the outer EU boundary moves to the other side of Poland this year.
We follow the boundary marked by a barbed-wire fence. The fence continues into the Baltic Sea. It's an ugly scene: the rusty barrier slicing a beach in two. Then a man comes running up the beach. Is he making a dash for the EU? A soon-to-be refugee? Nope. He simply touches the fence and turns around, continuing his morning jog back into Poland.
After dipping our toes in the Baltic Sea, we continue our journey east, across the top of Poland. We try to hug the border with Kaliningrad, Russia. The border is surprisingly open, but there are very few crossings. Most roads simply end at the border.
Several hundred kilometres later, we cross into Lithuania. This is fairly uneventful--but we do see remnants of the old Soviet internal border, the "Sistema". This was a strip of barbed wire and no man's land that surrounded the USSR.
LITHUANIA TO RUSSIA
Campings Viktorija is a holiday spot near the Lithuanian town of Vistytis. It is also on the boundary with Russia. When Lithuania joins the European Union this year, this boundary will become the outer EU border. And because of that, tighter controls will be introduced. But for now, it is one of the few places you can enter Russia without documentation.
We arrive late in the evening and there is a huge private party going on. Inside, it is very much unlike the "campground" I had been expecting. It's more of a resort, where most people--like us--choose the very plain rooms over sleeping in tents. Everything we need is here: a restaurant, a bar, and a lake. Lake Vistytis. And this is where it gets weird.
The lake is Russian and the border is the edge of the water. So, sand = Lithuania, water = Russia. A dock pokes into Russian territory as well. By walking down it, you enter Russia. We find out that the owner has made a deal with the Russians. His guests can venture several hundred metres into Russia and frolic in the water without fear of arrest. But the border guards are never far away. Patrol boats pass by often.
The other guests seem blissfully unaware of this odd political situation. They're having a big bash in the covered picnic area. A cheesy band is butchering the John Denver classic "Take Me Home, Country Road". It sounds more like "Taaaa meeee hooooooo, coooootreeeeee rooooooood..." I sing along as I down a beer. It's not all about borders.
The next day, we visit the town of Vistytis. Several Lithuanian families ended up on the wrong side of the border here when the Soviet Union collapsed. They have been struggling to have the boundary relocated on the other side of their homes, but it keeps getting delayed. They have special passes that allow them to cross the border with ease. But we bring out the Russian cavalry when we wander past the edge of Lithuania, tiptoe into Russia, and peer up the road.
"Here come the dogs," someone announces.
The Russians do not want us here--not because they are worried that we're going to steal state secrets, but because they don't want to deal with the paperwork. We would all need visas, which we do not have.
The Russians not only shoo us behind a line on the ground, they make us go behind a gate blocking the road. The gate is entirely in Lithuanian territory, and to the chagrin of a Lithuanian who has joined us, a couple of the Russians walk onto Lithuanian territory. Rather than creating an international incident, we snap a bunch of photos, curse under our breath, and walk back to our van.
There is probably another reason why the Russians don't want us to cause any trouble: they have a pretty good gig here guarding their country from the Lithuanians. I doubt any of them would want to be posted somewhere else, like Chechnya.
LITHUANIA TO LATVIA
The borders between the Baltic nations are surprisingly tight. Entering Latvia, we discover that we have to buy extra car insurance and are subject to a rigorous screening. Of all the nations visited on this journey, Latvia has the strictest border controls. It also has mean-looking German shepherds, surly guards, and a rulebook that means business. With our big smiles and numerous "yes ma'ams" we are eventually granted access. Perhaps it is the sight of all our different passports that immediately puts officials on the defensive.
Heading northwest, we overnight in Daugavpils, where we stay in a nice hotel with a bad name: Motel Stalkers. Even worse is the service in the bar: the arse running it says there is no beer. No beer, indeed! After howls of protest, he finally relents and says he meant there was no cold beer. We're damn thirsty, so we implore him to go get some.
After what seems like a century, he returns with a case of Corona. We want real Latvian beer, but alas, it is not to be. To make matters worse, Mr. Grumpypants just leaves the warm beer on our table; apparently there are no refrigerators here either. I wonder aloud how we can tip in the negative.
LATVIA TO ESTONIA
We're running behind schedule, so my memory of Latvia is little more than a blur out the car window. We cross into Estonia at the divided towns of Valka, Latvia, and Valga, Estonia. These pretty little towns have a long history of division--yet form one community. The border slices through the centre--and all but a few roads are blocked with high fences. Valka-Valga is eerily reminiscent of a divided Berlin, without the shoot-to-kill orders.
Up the road and back on the Russian border lie Narva, Estonia, and Ivangorod, Russia.
ESTONIA TO RUSSIA
The back of Estonia's five-kroon banknote shows the boundary between this former Soviet Republic and Russia at Narva. This is handy if you get lost. Just go to a local and point to the back of the fiver. Of course, you might end up with a pound of pork or a hooker. But that's the fun of travelling.
On each side of the Narva River massive castles loom. The river is the border. The banknote shows a dark cloud hanging over Ivangorod, named after Ivan the Terrible. The Russians say that the Estonians added the cloud on purpose. The Estonians just smile.
Because of its location, Narva has a huge ethnic-Russian population. After Estonia declared its independence, it looked like there wasn't much of a future in Estonia. Many people thought it would be a swell idea if Narva were to join Russia. Much more opportunity, they thought. Luckily, this never happened. And if you walk across the bridge to Ivangorod, you can see why. This part of Russia is poor. Estonia, by comparison, is a swinging country with tons of Finnish and EU investment.
A bridge connects the two towns, providing a nice alternative to swimming over. As we walk past a long line of cars and transports, I start to get nervous. This is Russia! I expect the worst at customs: cattle prods, AK-47s, and stone-faced soldiers with itchy trigger fingers.
"Passport!" a voice asks. "Your passport!"
As I look up, I am greeted by a young woman. She takes my passport, stamps it, and smiles. "Have nice trip!" I am speechless. It's easier to get into Russia than the United States these days.
Our first stop is the bank machine. I giggle as it spits out rubles. We're ready to spend! We walk up a hill and begin to explore this dusty town. It's as if no one has painted the place in 40 years. It seems barren. Soon, though, we discover an outdoor market stocked with all sorts of stuff. I'm looking for Soviet remnants, but there are none to be found. The best I can do is a tacky passport holder that says "Russia". It was made in China.
We stumble across a row of shops on the ground floor of an ugly apartment complex. From the outside, each shop looks abandoned. Broken neon signs from Soviet times describe what each shop used to sell. One sold tires, another sold food, and another sold vodka. These days, you have to pop inside to see what they sell. They all sell food, tires, and vodka. This is the Russian idea of capitalism.
On the way out of town we stop for a pint of Russian beer and get into a semi-conversation with some Russian soldiers. Most of the exchange consists of the soldiers repeating "Pavel Bure". But when one of us mentions Chechnya, things get very quiet. This is our cue to bid farewell to Russia.
Back in Estonia, we head toward the ferry that will take us back to Scandinavia. We pass a statue of Lenin that seems to be waving goodbye.
The Baltics are a land in transition, and more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, changes are still taking place everywhere. On May 1, many of these nations will become members of the European Union. Perhaps Lenin wasn't waving goodbye to us at all--he was simply saying farewell to his dream.