Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Hello from Kaliningrad, Russian Federation:
This story starts fourteen years ago in 1999 while traveling through the Baltic states and discovering tiny Russian Kaliningrad (formerly German: Königsberg) would not recognize the Russian transit visa which was supposed to give me three days in "any" of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) formerly Soviet Republics. That discovery made the mysterious place all the more alluring and for years it has been on my short list of must see places in the world.
From my account in the previous Braniewo Postcard you already know things started to go wrong with the Kaliningrad plans before I managed to step one foot across the Polish-Russian border. In that postcard from Poland I had just hitched a ride with the Russian, Ivan and made it through the Polish immigration and customs checkpoint with Ivan making some sort of "money" finger gesture I couldn't figure out. Bribing the Polish border guards did not seem to be the meaning.
So, he wants me to bribe the Russians? The uncomplicated passport checks by the Russians took only a few minutes with simple questions and a quick rubber stamp. We were off again well before noon. Conversations with Ivan now took on a different tone. More friendly, he attempted to discover if we had any common language between us. German! We both spoke a smattering of German! Mind you, discussions of world politics or philosophy would never be enjoyed by these two travelers, but we learned a few things about one another, mostly inaccurate I suspect, things like the nature of our work (or lack there of), the locations of our homes and families... and in my case all my world travels.
Driving a car which has seen a lot of miles, Ivan is a professional musician, a horn player I think from his gestures. Neither his clothes nor visible possessions suggested affluence; well cared for, but modest. About fifty years old, he has a wife in Kaliningrad and a son, but little else about the details of his life could I guess from our limited communications efforts or observation alone. So, we traveled mostly in silence. A half hour later as we approached the congested part of the city he gestured palms together "sleeping" and asked: "hotel?" Fortunately, some pronunciation variation of the word "hotel" is widely understood in almost every language in the world.
I replied in German: "Nein." adding the two finger at eyes for looking and the walking fingers for walking. During his brief glances he caught my intentions and nodded. I added: "Centrum?" which he understood immediately, nodding. The display on my GPS showed we were getting close to what looked like the center of a bunch of concentric ring roads and I decided to increase the amount of money I had all along intended to give him to forty Polish Zloty (all my remaining Zloty, still only worth about $14, or about the cost of two gallons of gasoline in this part of the world).
When he finally pulled over to the curb I could see he had indeed brought me to the very center of Kaliningrad with its landmark golden domes cathedral! As I grabbed the door handle he twisted around and made that thumb and index finger rubbing gesture, but I had already extended my hand with the two twenty-Zloty bills to meet his reach. He took the money clearly surprised... and pleased, then thanked me in German. I replied with one of only two words of Russian I know: "spasibo," the other being: "dasvidaniya" and waved good-bye. As he pulled away from the curb and merged into traffic I wondered what wonderful details of his life I'd missed for lack of a common language.
That first few minutes in
a new city are always splendid, especially where there are no language
clues to help orient my senses. Which way is north (out comes the pocket
compass)? What do hotels look
like in this culture? How do the buses work? Now minutes before noon I
discovered clocks in Russia are set two hours later than those in
neighboring Poland. So, noon back on the Polish side of the border is
2PM on the Russian side! Though still not really hungry I kept my eyes pealed
for fast food joints which might tempt me later on and spotted a Mac
Directly ahead across the street with buses and trams crisscrossing every which way I marveled at the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the close by double dome companion chapel. The Clover City Center, one of the metropolitan's major shopping centers is located adjacent to the church grounds. Crossing the busy boulevard with the hoards of other pedestrians I found myself in the large open plaza, the Victory Square where a tall column monument commemorating the Russian-Germany Battle (1941-1945 Great War) stands.
Embedded in the concrete walkway of Victory Square is a large bronze star commemorating the 750 years in 2006 since Kaliningrad was founded and Russian president Putin made a state visit to rededicate the exclave as an integral part of Mother Russia, something hotly contested in some quarters of the Kaliningrad culture. When I asked one young man whether he considered himself Russian or "Kaliningradian" he responded enthusiastically the latter, noting the culture in the oblast is much more European than Russian! One of the young hotel staff members answered just the opposite, so I suspect the subject gets a lot of attention at social gatherings. Located on the Baltic Sea it is of vital strategic importance to the Russian Federation, so the debate is likely to be a long and heated one.
As usual, I enjoyed riding both buses and streetcars around the city. At one point noticing the leisurely pace forced on travelers as the slow trams bounce along their uneven rails provides plenty of time to take in the sights along the way. Rarely in a hurry any more, they are my perfect way to become familiar with a new city. Another way is to read stories found on the Internet designed to make a place sound interesting!
Walking into the shopping center I noted the entrance to the Radisson Hotel which occupies the back half of the shopping complex building. Long ago I learned deluxe hotels almost always humor vagabonds like me, providing suggestions and maps for profitable explorations of their cities. Undaunted, I march into the first one I can find in a new city, knowing full well the room rates will likely to be out of my practical financial range, but also that should the need arise the quality will definitely exceed my standards. This four star property does that and more.
The super gracious guest services and reception staff made me feel welcome even after I confessed traveling for five months required disciplined attention to budgeting. The single room rack rate at the Kaliningrad Radisson is 5900 Rubles (Pronounced rubbles like in Barney Rubbles.) or about $192 per night, almost three times my budget. With this information, Lina the knowledgeable guest services staff member set to work finding alternate lodging meeting my budget constraints. The Russian visa I'd obtained allowed me to spend as many as eight nights in the country, but not at nearly $200 per night!
Using the Internet and other resources she found several possibilities and suggested I first try the Hotel Kaliningrad located only a few blocks from the center. However, before going over to see it I wanted to check out the international bus terminal and learned a #37 bus would go right by it. She had marked the location on the hotel map so out I went on my first exploration. The bus got me to the location shown on the map O.K., but I could see no bus station as we drove by. Bus stations require a lot of unique infrastructure, so it is hard to hide one. Russia is different in this regard; bus stations here do not look like their counterparts in other parts of the world. Still on the #37 bus I rode it to the end of the line where I spotted the Baltica Hotel and made a mental note to check it out later.
On the way back I asked the bus conductor to alert me when we reached the stop for the international bus terminal, using the hotel map for communications. It is a good thing I did that because even with her alert I still would not have recognized the building as a bus terminal! Off the bus I walked to the indicated building and still missed it, because only the ticket selling office is in the building. There are plenty of buses back out behind the ticket office building, but nothing like a passenger waiting room usually seen in most bus terminals. I'm still not sure about all the logistics, but at least I know where to get the tickets. The bus fare for the seven hour run down to Warsaw is 750 Rubles or about $25, fare to Gdansk is 500 Rubles or about $16 for a 4 hour trip.
When the #37 reached the stop near the Hotel Kaliningrad I hopped off to check it out. On first inspection it looked like a typical example of the old Soviet era architecture: boxy, uninspired but substantial. Approaching the reception desk my Soviet era mentality suspicions quickly became confirmed. Two receptionists stood behind the counter, both preoccupied with something other than the arrival of a potential new guest. One worked with another guest , but failed to even acknowledge my presence. The other woman had her eyes glued to some work behind the counter and didn't even look up. Totally ignored for well over five minutes and tempted to just walk out, I wandered around the lobby trying to get a sense of the place. Institutional best describes my first impressions of the lobby area: functional, utilitarian furnishings, cold and devoid of inspirational color.
Now late in the day I felt the few options for a place to stay this first night in colonial Russia gave me little choice and when finally acknowledged I reluctantly asked to see a room. At 2220 Rubles per night including the extra cost breakfast, I hoped for better accommodations than they showed me. The room #829 contained a narrow single bed up against a wall with a short duvet for warmth and defective heating: stifling hot when I arrived, the only way to control the room temperature required opening the window for a brief cooling period, to be repeated several times throughout the night. The bathroom reflected the old Soviet economic limitations on design and functionality. Plastic fixtures which required a half turn before allowing water to flow and plastic shower curtains around a three foot diameter shower pan guaranteed clinging curtains as I tried to wash my body. Room #829 sits right over the main drag favored by motorbike gangs determined to prove their manhood by racing up and down the boulevard revving their screaming engines as loudly as their machines could manage until nearly midnight.
Before retiring I stepped out to ride a bus up to the Mac Donald's restaurant and found myself jousting with an inebriated young man determined to test his poor command of English as he attempted persistently to convince me to join him in some sort of celebration or...? Every time I'd move away from him he would follow and I considered the possibility he might follow me onto the bus with mischief in mind. Eventually he announced: "My bus." and left on it. I'd been warned to avoid guys like this one, though I needed no convincing.
The next morning the dreary episode continued in a prison-like dining room with only the essentials for furniture and uninspired presentation of breakfast foods, though the machine produced coffee was pretty good. As an introduction to the exclave of Kaliningrad, it proved to be woefully depressing. I couldn't wait to get out of the place and even began planning an early departure from this poor example of Russian hospitality. Just south of the Hotel Kaliningrad there is a new IBIS Hotel under construction. Nearing completion it will be a welcome addition to the city's meager stock of Western quality moderately priced hotels.
It looked like any transport out of the country would need to involve the buses, so I returned to the Radisson hoping that very helpful receptionist, Lina might again be available for some consultations. She was and cheerfully helped me evaluate possible options. After learning of my disappointment with the first hotel she had suggested we widened our search to houses further out from the city center. Using the information she had provided I hopped on a #37 bus and headed for the international bus station where there were supposed to be a couple nearby hotels. That is when I first spotted the Baltica Hotel at the end of the bus line and checked out the $50 Hotel "KenigAuto" in the International Bus Station. Neither excited me much, so I then checked out the Moscow Hotel that is supposed to be a more elegant version of the hotel I had used the night before, but came away from checking it out still discouraged and now seriously contemplating an early departure from Kaliningrad. With so little English spoken anywhere I have devised a test of someone's language facility: I simply greet them with a cultured question: "Good afternoon. Looks like it is warming up a bit, don't you think?" Non-English speakers blanch, but anyone who understands my question, naturally answers in English. Problem solved.
Then I remembered better hotels in capital cities usually have deeply discounted room rates over the weekends and dashed back to the Radisson to see what the possibilities might be for the weekend there. This was Thursday and I'd still need to make arrangement for one night before the deep discounts kicked in. Lina recognized me the minute the weather barrier revolving door spit me out into the warm interior of the lobby. As soon as I revealed my hopes she went to work with the other receptionist looking for ways to minimize the financial pains created by the Radisson's rack rates. "Yes, there was a substantially lower weekend rate available. Instead of the 5900 Rubles, the nightly rate for the three days between Friday and Monday would be 3900 Rubles!"
Then, her associate noted that if I could book a stay of at least three days, there would be an additional ten percent discount! That meant I could start my stay that very night and still pay "only" an average of 3960 Rubles or $128.50 per night for the four nights. That did it. With few other options and none more attractive, I asked to see what my $130 would get me.
Lina loves her job; she loves her city and loves to tell visitors why. Bubbling all the way up to the rooms her enthusiasm became contagious and I felt sold on the prospect of staying in the city and this hotel even before seeing the absolutely gorgeous room, perfect in every way. As we returned to the reception desk to handle the formalities she insisted I must try the sparkling wine with my breakfast each day and extolled the wonderfully elegant dishes I'd find each morning. I could hardly wait. After checking in I found the suggested ATM machine which spit out 4000 Rubles, about $130 for pocket money.
With the four weekend nights starting Thursday settled I still had to consider arrangements for the following week days when the Radisson room rates would again soar up into the stratosphere. That attractive looking hotel out at the end of the Bus #37 line, the Baltica might be a possibility for my last few nights in the Oblast, so I grabbed the map on which Lina had marked locations and looked for the bus stop. This time around on the #37 bus I stopped off to check it out.
The Baltica Hotel is an old elegant, Soviet era structure still with grand pretentions: lots of marble, spacious pubic areas and elegant dining room setup. The 2000 Ruble single rooms are small and simply furnished, but functional. The larger lake view double rooms with king-size beds at 3000 Rubles for single occupancy are much larger and more elegant. Breakfast is included in those room rates I learned from the English speaking receptionist who appeared upon being specially summoned when I approached the desk. Judging by all the conference facilities throughout the hotel and the several gatherings I saw during my visit, I suspect the convention use must be a major part of the hotel's business. Located quite some distance from commercial distractions, it looks like convention planners might find the isolation an advantage. My changing plans didn't allow me to stay in the place, unfortunately, but it looks like a delightful hide-away for anyone who wants some slow quiet time in this out of the way part of Russia... and an excellent value.
In the future I'll never hesitate to choose a Radisson Hotel should I ever I feel a rare urge to splurge in an emergency. With the hot water kettle, everyday the supply of coffees, teas and hot chocolate packets are replaced along with two bottles of water; one sparkling. My second day in the fantastic super upscale "expensive" Radisson Hotel brought another humbling surprise. Answering an unexpected knock on the door I faced a room service maid pushing a cart full of goodies. An elegant plate with a Pippin apple, a Bosch pear, a large bunch of luscious Globe grapes and a bucket containing a small bottle of iced Chablis wine together with a glass and utensils screamed VIP treatment! As the waitress with her cart retreated I commented: "I'll bet Lina had something to do with this," which she confirmed.
While no surprise, the Internet access has been fast and reliable: both the WiFi and Ethernet connection in the room. It has been difficult to leave the comfort and convenience of my well feathered nest for the always beckoning forays into the surrounding areas of the city where church bells serenade those of us who like to wander in the cold open air.
The Chinese, as far as I know have a monopoly on down coats in the world. They must be making a fortune here in northern eastern Europe where the weather this time of year is FREEZING. Every other person is wearing one. Of course the light weight, very warm, water resistant garments are eminently sensible, especially for travelers or back packers. I wish I had brought mine instead of the down vest, though that with several layers of silk and wool has usually provided enough insulation unless the air turns really nasty and I am out in breezy air for an extended time. I learned first hand about wind chill factor on this trip. Zero degrees Celsius feels considerably colder in a breeze than it does on a windless day. Stylish ladies favor fancy designer garments made of animal furs. Some I've seen have been truly exquisite.
As I finish this postcard I am winding down and preparing to fly back to America and home sweet home on Tuesday, 12 March with Air Berlin for the first three of four legs. I've achieved all of my original objectives for this expedition and feel ready for some serious hibernating... as usual. I'll emerge growling and hungry when the snow melts enough to allow sunlight into the den.
Fred L Bellomy