Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Mysterious Pyramids of Güímar

For many people Tenerife is a place where pasty-skinned Europeans go to roast themselves in the sunshine and drink themselves silly in the plethora of bars that line the costas. Indeed, some 5 million tourists visit the island every year and the vast majority of these head straight to the barren south-west coast, packing tightly into purpose-built high-rise resorts like Los Cristianos and Playa de las Américas.

But beyond the beaches and the sunbeds Tenerife is stunningly beautiful. The largest and most populous of the Canary Islands, it’s essentially one massive volcano and the landscape is appropriately diverse – high ridges and deep valleys plunge dramatically into the sea and lush sweet-smelling pine forests cloak the twisting approaches to Mount Teide, at 3718 metres (12198 ft) the highest mountain in Spain. Teide’s distinctive snowy peak dominates almost every aspect of Tenerife, in the process making it the tenth highest island in the world.

Away from Teide and not far from the island’s capital of Santa Cruz de Tenerife sits the unassuming town of Güímar, which would have little to attract the casual visitor if it wasn’t home to a mysterious collection of pyramids that some think are proof that humans crossed the Atlantic centuries before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In the early 1990s Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl became aware of some unusual heaps of rock that, it was claimed, were “real pyramids on the Canaries”. Intrigued, Heyerdahl relocated to the island, where he quickly saw parallels between the terraced structures he found there and other pyramidal edifices in Egypt and Mesoamerica.

Heyerdahl had made his name leading the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, sailing 5000 miles across the Pacific in a hand-built raft made from balsa wood. The idea was to demonstrate, using indigenous materials and technology, that early pre-Columbian peoples from South America could have settled the Polynesian islands. The success of the expedition – as well as his subsequent Ra and Ra II voyages – convinced him that transoceanic cultural contact and exchange had taken place hundreds if not thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Now in Tenerife he believed he had found evidence that the same thing had happened in the Atlantic.

Between 1991 and 1998, with the agreement of Heyerdahl, archaeologists from the nearby University of La Laguna excavated the site and found numerous objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a walled up lava cave that had been inhabited by aboriginal Guanches, the mysterious original Berber inhabitants of the islands who had most likely migrated from mainland Africa around 3000 years ago. The archaeologists concluded that the terraces were created as a byproduct of agricultural practices in the 1800s; the local rural population, it was suggested, had formed these structures as cultivatable land was cleared of stones.

Heyerdahl, however, was having none of it. Instead he posited that the rocks had come not from the local area but from the lava fields of Mount Teide, and that the mounds were not some random collection of stones but rather had a profound astronomical significance. At around the same time as the archaeologists were beginning their excavations it was discovered that by standing on the platform of the largest pyramid on the day of the Summer Solstice it was possible to observe a double sunset – first the sun would sink behind a mountain top, then reemerge and set behind a neighbouring peak. Further, all of the pyramids have stairs on their western side which, when climbed, will leave an individual facing the rising sun on the Winter solstice. The pyramids, contested Heyerdahl, were therefore of pre-Hispanic origins and had important religious and ceremonial functions – the presence of the Guanche cave proof that they were responsible for its construction.

The whole 65,000m² pyramid complex is now a museum dedicated to both to the pyramids and Heyerdahl’s theories of early transatlantic travel. Situated on the edge of town, the self-styled ‘Ethnographic Park’ contains six pyramids, a museum, an auditorium and various other temporary exhibition spaces, almost all with the sole aim of documenting Heyerdahl’s voyages and advancing his theories.

Strolling around the pyramids is a surprisingly pleasant activity, particularly as a walkway skirting around the edge of pyramids one to four is lined with a variety of plants, flowers and trees from all over the Canary Islands, as well as regular information panels documenting rural Canarian life. The pyramids themselves are modest in scale – anyone expecting structures on a par with Giza or Chichen Itza is going to be sorely disappointed. They’re shaped a little like miniature ziggurats, each with a stepped appearance leading up to a large flat platform. The largest of these can’t be much more than five or six metres in height but the platforms themselves are far greater in proportion to their other dimensions than similar constructions elsewhere, giving a definite sense of elongation. A series of parallel walls also criss-crosses the site, their rocks similar in colour and texture to those that make up the pyramids. It’s not possible to touch or climb them but the walkway gets you fairly close; for the best view head for the aptly-named “Panoramic Terrace”.

The remaining couple of pyramids are isolated from the rest of the group and it’s here that you can really see how tightly the stones that make up the pyramids are packed together, as well as the straight lines of the individual steps that would have been hard to achieve if the stones had been randomly dumped in situ. Whoever built these pyramids – and for whatever purpose – clearly did so in a deliberate fashion.

For Heyerdahl, however, it was the pyramids’ supposed similarity with other ancient edifices around the world that proved the transatlantic link, and it’s a theme that’s taken up with gusto in the accompanying museum. Those already familiar with the topic will recognise well-worn motifs; images of beardless American Indians are pictured alongside native impressions of bearded men with European features; a white man with blonde hair sacrificed by dark-skinned natives in pre-Columbian Aztec art; apparently idiosyncratic pottery with Old and New World equivalents; and cultural practices such as trepanation, hieroglyphic writing, mummification, and the construction of reed boats that appeared to develop spontaneously and simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic are all cited as evidence of early oceanic exchange. Tenerife, so the theory goes, was merely a stepping stone on an ancient Atlantic shipping route.

But it’s pyramids, of course, that take centre stage. Dozens of examples are depicted from all over the world – from Tahiti to Guatemala and from North Africa to South East Asia – and all with a distinctive stepped shape that are to varying degrees reminiscent of Güímar. It’s hard not to leave the park feeling at least a little persuaded, even if the pyramids don’t look that old; it is strange, after all, that such apparent similarities in culture and construction should develop in isolation from each other.

Near the exit to the complex stands two somewhat kitsch statues stood side by side, one of a Spaniard in Conquistador-style garb and the other in native dress. Between them lies a plaque inscribed with a final thought from the park’s founder:

“The Discoverer and the Conquered. The sea was their common highway. These islands became their common home. The sea was the birthplace of life on this planet. The sea tied the early seafarers together and set mankind on the road to cultural contact and civilisation”.

Heyerdahl himself died in 2002, just four years after his Parque Etnográfico opened to the public. Despite the conclusions of the archeologists involved in the original excavations Heyerdahl went to his grave believing them to have been built by the ancient Guanches – part of a prehistoric oceanic superhighway that connected the continents aeons before modern Europeans managed to achieve just that.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Feeling the Heat

Another very short travel piece - this one won a recent Wanderlust travel writing competition and appeared in the October 2013 edition of the magazine. The mini-competition is a regular event on the WL forum and it's a great way to practice writing short and succint articles and potentially win a goody bag to boot. Each winning piece is also featured in the print edition too, so it's well worth entering.

The heat is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It burns the skin just to wind the window down and the driver is struggling to hold the wheel. The little battery-operated fan I bought back at a service station in the middle of nowhere – “last gas for 20 miles!” – is busy working overtime.

I peer through my sunglasses at the parched landscape around me. There isn’t a single tree or shrub in sight and the valley is completely flat, like a pancake, and dusted with a fine white powder that could almost pass for snow if it weren’t for that omnipotent sun. It’s no wonder that the first visitors to this place named it after Death itself, a valley where surely no creature on God’s Earth could live.

The road winds its way by the salt flats until we come to a small car park, a couple of stationary motorhomes the only evidence that a few foolhardy adventurers have made it here before us. We park up and go through the ritual one more time – sun cream to face, arms, hands, legs and ears. Now we’re ready. One, two, three… go!

Doors quickly open and we all pile out and rush over to the sign that tells us that here, at Death Valley’s Badwater, we’re a full 282 feet below sea level. Cameras click and photographs are taken, and then we sprint back to the merciful coolness of the car. Sometimes it’s just too darn hot to hang around.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Dog

This is a short piece I wrote about an encounter I had recently in Kazan - it seemed to get a positive response when I posted it on the Wanderlust forum so thought I'd put it on here too.

The woman’s face was red and wrinkle, her cheeks streaked with dirty tears. She stood swaying ever so gently from side to side, pathetically dabbing a damp tissue against her eyes in obliviousness to the passing throng around her. They, in turn, ignored her sorrow.

I watched for a time as she cried quivering and alone, curious as to the object of her grief. Dressed in a standard jeans-and-blouse combination there was nothing to distinguish her from the crowd rushing to their trains, no idiosyncrasy that made her stand out from her peers. Nothing, other than grief.

My curiosity was aroused now. I edged slowly around the side of the station to get a better look, taking care not to spill my hot, sickly-sweet 50-rouble cup of tea. And then I saw it.

In front of the woman, just the other side of a mesh wire fence, lay a dog, one of those dark mongrel types of indeterminate origin. It lay helplessly on its side, body convulsing uncontrollably and white foam seeping from its mouth forming a sickly pool of liquid on the cold, hard concrete. Occasionally it would stop, as if death had finally relieved it of its misery, only for the violent twitching to resume.

And this woman, this person who at first I considered weak and pitiable, was transformed; she seemed taller and more compassionate, more human than everyone else around. As the others stared and moved on, or simply tutted and turned to look the other way, she was the only one to show sympathy and compassion.

I had to go, my train waiting impatiently at the platform. But as I left I felt a twinge of guilt at the knowledge that I would be joining that faceless and uncaring crowd. And as I slunk back into the vast sweaty bowel of the station I turned my head one last time to see the woman still rooted to the same spot, unable to help but unable to move on, a single drop of dignity in an ocean of hurt.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Travel grants

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm really into travel. It'd be fair to say that it's what I love doing most; there's just something about experiencing as much of this beautiful, diverse, amazing and sometimes terrifying planet as possible that has always captured my imagination. Of course the dream would be  to one day combine that passion with writing - maybe magazines or newspapers, maybe online, maybe even the travel guides that have been such a valuable resource on my travels to date.

The only problem is that travel costs money. It's expensive, which makes it largely the preserve of the relatively well off, and until very recently my minimum-wage background meant that any desire to travel was largely restricted to flicking through those glossy publications packed full of exotic locations, or scouring an atlas whilst trying to imagine what all those strange sounding places were like.

So a few years ago I started having a look around for travel bursaries, and it turns out that there are an awful lot of them out there. Some have some exceedingly specific entrant requirements, often the result of an individual's bequest or an organisation wanting to target a particular group of people. Still others put age restrictions on their bursaries, with a maximum cap in the mid-20s being all too common.

So those bursaries that are open to the rest of us are few and far between, and those that do exist are understandably competitive. Still, I've had some limited success to date; there was last year's Peter Kirk European Travel Scholarship  and the trip to Transnistria courtesy of Wanderlust. And I've managed to get some writing out of both trips too; a two-page spread on the Kaali Meteor Crater appeared in the February 2013 edition of Fortean Times and a piece on the latter won a recent writing competition.

One of the grants I apply for regularly is the Royal Geographical Society's Journey of a Lifetime, and I've been doing so on an annual basis since 2006. It's incredibly competitive and understandably so, and although I've made it through to the first shortlisting stage three times I've never got any further.

Anyway, I'm always keen to find out what each recipient does with their award, and this year is no different. As such I recently came across this Tweet from the RGS:

Now if the name of the recipient is familiar it's because Will Millard won the RGS Neville Shulman Challenge Award back in 2009, with a fantastic trip to West Papua. His latest venture will see him set off on "a packrafting journey into the heart of Sierra Leone and Liberia's Peace Park", which looks absolutely incredible and I can't wait to find out how it goes and to hear the finished piece on Radio 4 in the Autumn.

However a little part of me can't help thinking it would be nice if these awards didn't go to known quantities; Will's blog suggests his application for the Journey of a Lifetime was his first but I'm sure the NS Challange Award didn't do any harm. He's also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Still, I guess it shows just how desirable these awards are and the sort of competition that exists out there. I know that if I were to get one it'd change my life completely; I'd be able to actually do some of the serious travelling that I've always dreamt of doing and perhaps even ditch the office job for something I really believe in. I've got a few ideas for the next RGS award applications and maybe - just maybe - this'll be my year...

Soviet ghosts - uncovering Estonia's communist past

(This is an abridged draft of an account of my time in Estonia in 2012, the result of a Peter Kirk European Travel Scholarship; you can read the formal report here and see some more photos from the trip here. I've got an idea to produce something of greater length as I think there's potential, so watch this space!)
 
There was a party atmosphere on board the packed ferry; even though it was barely 9 in the morning small groups of men and women sipped from cans of weak beer as their raucous offspring ran amok between decks. Some of the older passengers quickly retired to the on-board restaurant, whilst others sidled up to some of the ship’s numerous game machines emblazoned with names like ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Treasure Island’. The dollar signs flashed in staccato yellow.

I decided to give the Bacchanalian delights a miss and instead headed out on deck. The sea air was bracing, rippling the waters of the Gulf of Finland as an unseasonably warm April sun glinted and gleamed on the waves. I took a deep breath and looked back towards a receding Helsinki, the city floating on the horizon like some half-forgotten dream.

Soon the soaring spires of medieval Tallinn slid into view, and the ship glided effortlessly into a swish modern dock. Before long we disembarked into glorious sunshine, and I strolled effortlessly through customs; no border guards, no checks. The majority of the ship's passengers – day-tripping Finns - had no need to hide their beverages.

When I was born back in the winter of 1982 such a scene would have been impossible. Tallinn – today the capital of an independent Estonia – was just another city in the Soviet Union, all but closed to curious foreigners. Leonid Brezhnev was not long in his grave and the short rule of Yuri Andropov had just commenced. The Era of Stagnation was at its zenith.

Things now, of course, are very, very different. Estonia is an enthusiastic member of the EU and NATO, having joined with its Baltic sisters Latvia and Lithuania in 2004 - the first (and thus far only) part of the former USSR to do so. Indeed, Estonia went one further by adopting the Euro seven years later, right at the height of the European Debt Crisis. Estonia has firmly thrown its lot in with the West.

My arrival in Tallinn heralded the start of a two week stint in the country. I was here partly because Estonia was effectively a blank to me; this was, after all, a relatively unknown country tucked away in the north-east corner of Europe and I knew very little about it.

But my curiosity ran deeper than that. I wanted to find out how the country had changed since independence 20 years previously and whether there was any evidence that this had once been Soviet soil – would there be monuments and statues and buildings left over from the previous regime? Or would these all have been destroyed in an unrelenting and systematic act of political rejection, as had happened elsewhere?

The Old Town was lovely, a warren of medieval streets and alleyways that seemed little altered from the days when this was an important Hanseatic port. Then known as Reval, the town earned its fortune from the web of trade routes that crisscrossed the Baltic Sea.

And yet it was never intended to be an Estonian city; founded by Danish King Valdemar II in 1219 its heyday was under the Germanic Livonian Order. Post-reformation weakness led to Swedish domination before incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1710 by the all-conquering Peter the Great. For almost the entirety of this period Estonians constituted a minority of the city’s population but were denied full citizenship rights. German would remain the language of social advancement right up until the First World War.

Things only really changed with industrialisation. The arrival of the railway in 1870 and the modernisation of the economy attracted more and more workers from the countryside, and by the dawn of the 20th century Estonians formed a majority, making the city the focus of Estonian nationalism. It would be here that the movement for independence would be most successfully galvanised by the chaos of the Russian Revolution, and in 1918 Tallinn became capital of an independent Estonia for the first time.

Soon I found the place that I was looking for, on one of Tallinn's most touristy streets - an Indian restaurant, complete with street side tables, chairs and parasols. It wasn’t long after midday but already the place was doing a brisk lunchtime trade; the distinctive smell of hot spices wafted over me as I open the door. Some customers were eating cross-legged in special booths by the windows.

One of the waitresses spotted me. "Ah, you must be Elo's couchsurfing friend!" she beamed. I asked how she guessed, winking as we both acknowledged the rather incongruous bag on my shoulder. "She's in the back. Just grab a seat and I'll go find her".

After a couple of minutes Elo appeared. "Hello! Welcome to Estonia! It's good to see you!" she said, giving me a warm hug as I stood up to greet her. It was the first time we'd met and yet I already felt that we were good friends, and she looked as lovely as her picture. Green-blue eyes, warm smile, dark blonde hair and a horrendously unflattering uniform. Welcome to Estonia indeed, I thought.

The occupation came gradually. At the outset of World War II the USSR demanded that its forced be permitted to establish military bases in the Baltic, to which those states meekly complied. By the summer of 1940 the Soviet Union was in a position to occupy the countries outright; fixed elections produced pro-Soviet governments, who then obediently petitioned Moscow for formal incorporation into the USSR.

This first period of Soviet rule would last roughly a year, and was characterised by mass arrests and deportations. Estimates vary but it’s generally accepted that around 30,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were sent to camps in Siberia and elsewhere.

All this changed when the launch of Operation Barbarossa saw Germany quickly invade and overrun the Baltics in July 1941. Welcomed initially as liberators by many local inhabitants, the Nazis successfully rolled back Soviet forces and set up the Reichskommissariat Ostland, a sort of military-civilian government.

By 1944 the war had swung back in the Soviets’ favour, and the Red Army once again swept through the Baltics. A curious and bitter three-way fight developed; German SS legions comprised of local volunteers were formed whilst opposing communist sympathisers joined the advancing Soviets. Still other disparate nationalist groups formed a partisan movement known as the Forest Brothers, fighting a guerrilla campaign that would continue well into the 1950s. Occasionally members of the same family would be pitted against each other.

At war’s end the Baltics were devastated. Hundreds of thousands of people had been killed or had fled abroad, national infrastructure was devastated and society deeply traumatised. Moreover Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been reincorporated back into the USSR – and would remain as such for another 45 years.

I was sipping a hot chocolate in Tallinn’s Coca-Cola Plaza when my mobile rang. “Sorry I’m late!” blurted a heavily-accented female voice down the line. “I’m just finding somewhere to park. Give me five minutes”.

And exactly five minutes later Valeria Jakobson burst in. She spotted me straight away and came over, joining me at the small table without ordering. Valeria was a social communication researcher at the University of Tartu, and her blonde hair and Slavic looks betrayed the fact that she was a member of Estonia’s minority Russian population. She was keen to talk about the status of the Russian language in Estonia and launched straight into conversation.

“There is a big division between Russians and Estonians in Estonia”, she said. “We are like two communities, living separate lives”.

“In what way?”

“Well, things are easier now than they were in the 1990s. Then there was a lot of uncertainty but some of that still remains. We celebrate completely different events, for example.”

It was an interesting point. I asked her about the city’s Museum of Occupations – created in 2003 to document the Soviet period – and she pulled a face.

“These museums are politically motivated, everyone knows that they are not a fair reflection of events. Look” – she stared at me intently – “Russian speakers do not share the same standards of living as Estonian speakers, they have lower incomes and cannot hold positions of authority. I know a lorry driver, he’s perfectly bilingual. He applied for a job and was successful until they saw his name, a Russian name. Then the offer was taken away. Estonians always have priority”.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“It’s to do with narratives. In Estonia anything that reminded people of the Soviet times were rejected. Russians speakers were marginalised.”

‘Alien citizenship’ immediately sprung mind. When Estonia first became independent it refused to offer full citizenship to people who had emigrated from elsewhere in the Soviet Union after 1945 or their descendants unless they could demonstrate a degree of proficiency in Estonian. Those that cannot pass the test are unable to vote and have to use ‘Alien’ passports, which prevents visa-free travel within the EU.

It made me wonder whether Russian speakers felt any sense of nostalgia for the Soviet period.

“Oh yes, absolutely. I have one student who thinks of the Soviet Union as a happy time, when everyone was smiling. When I asked him why he said he’d seen it watching old films. It’s a bit like how Estonians hark back to the first period of independence as some beautiful time when everything was perfect.”

“And what about the Bronze Soldier and Bronze Night?”

Valeria looked a little sad, as if she’s been asked this question before.

“Any affinity with the Bronze Soldier is not a wish for the Soviet Union to be recreated, even thought a lot of people think this is the case. For us it’s about Russian dissatisfaction with our role in present day Estonia. We know the USSR will not return but we want to be full citizens.”

Bronze Night was an event that shocked Estonia and brought the issue of Russian speakers to the attention of the world’s press. In April 2007 the Estonian government declared that it would remove a controversial statue from the centre of Tallinn. This statue – the ‘Bronze Soldier’ – is a Soviet World War II memorial and for many Estonians it symbolised the occupation and repression of the Soviet years. For Estonia’s Russian speakers, however, it represented not only the defeat of fascism in the apocalyptic Great Patriotic War but also symbolised their right to participation in Estonian society.

When rumours started that the statue was facing imminent removal it sparked off two nights of violent rioting resulting in one death, dozens of shops looted and hundreds of arrests. A panicky government ordered the statue be taken down immediately, placing it in temporary storage before transporting it to the Military Cemetery several kilometres from the centre of town where it now stands.

It was only a short distance to the cemetery and Valeriadrove like the wind, covering the distance in only a few minutes. It was early evening, and there was no-one else around in the fading light. From the entrance a wide path led past rows of well-maintained graves straight to the statue. It dominated the area; a weary soldier, head bowed, stood solemnly between plaques inscribed in Russian and Estonian. Flowers and candles lay at the soldier’s feet, and although the monument was in the typically heroic style of the Soviet period it conveyed a certain sombreness.

I mentioned this lack of triumphalism to Valeria and she agreed enthusiastically.

“This monument is a monument to everyone, not just Russians” she said. “See, even the soldier looks Estonian.”

It was less than a fortnight to Victory Day, and I asked Valeria if she would be attending.

“Yes, of course. I come every year. It’s important to me - as a Russian - to go.”

“So will many Estonians be attending?”

“No, none. We celebrate separate events”.

We continued to stare silently at the bowed statue for a few more minutes before heading back to the car. It was a poignant introduction to this divided land.

The next morning I trudged from the apartment into town, the roads clogged with rush-hour traffic. The northern air was cool, crisp and refreshing – Tallinn is on a similar latitude to Scotland’s Orkney islands – and I almost felt like whistling. The dull ache at the back of my head couldn’t dampen my spirits.

Ah, last night. Elo and I had gone into town and visited a few of Tallinn’s bars. Some were new, some were old, some catered almost exclusively to the burgeoning trade in stag parties – apparently this constituted the stereotypical view of British tourists, so I was told – and some of those reserved for locals. We ended up in one of the latter, a small venue that felt like it had been built in what had once been someone’s house. The speciality was a strange mixture of vodka and coffee, served as a warm shot. It turned out they went down rather too well.

I was heading towards the Museum of Occupations, on the corner of Toompea and Kaarli puiestee. Located just outside the walls of the old town, I found it down a leafy street not far from the hill that once formed the political heart of medieval Tallinn.

It was a modern building. A concrete-and-glass structure had been slightly raised at ground level, providing an opening into a small courtyard filled with birch trees. A solid-looking metal door – inscribed OKUPATSIOONIDE MUUSEUM in capital letters - marked the entrance to the museum proper.

There were only a couple of other visitors. I bought my ticket at a little desk, where the smiling attendant told me about the museum. “Please, do ask questions if you need answer”, she said sweetly.

Inside were exhibits relating to both the Nazi and Soviet periods. A pair of stylised trains dominated the main room, adorned with a swastika and hammer and sickle respectively, and all around the edge of the museum were suitcases. Each represented the numerous Estonians deported before, during and after World War II.

There were also plenty of paraphernalia from those times – propaganda posters, military uniforms, surveillance equipment and so on. There was the tiny cell with barely enough room to stand that individuals would sometimes be kept in for hours or days at a time; now a section of wall with an almost invisible spy-hole used for monitoring suspects. In the basement was an assortment of Soviet statuary, including a huge marble Lenin head slowly gathering dust.

I wondered from the museum, past the leafy Hirvepark – scene of an anti-Soviet demonstration in 1987 to mark the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – and up to the fine medieval Kiek-in-de-Kök tower. Nearby was Vabaduse Väljak, a square once used for parades on Soviet holidays but now dominated by the Freedom Monument, an Estonian cross mounted on a pillar of frosted glass. It was made to resemble ice, representing freedom’s fragility.

I made my way up to Toompea, the limestone outcrop that stands tall over the rest of the city. It was a little quieter than the town below, and from the top it offered splendid views across the Old Town and beyond. The strategic value of the hill and of Tallinn was readily apparent; wedged between the sea to the north and Lake Ülemiste to the south, it was in prime position to dominate this part of the Baltic.

The town too, it seems, was a hotbed of le Carré-style Cold War espionage. I could see across to the Viru Hotel, where a secret ‘23rd’ floor had been recreated to depict its former life as a KGB surveillance centre. Complete with telephones and other bits of machinery, officers would spend their days intercepting radio signals from Helsinki and passing messages onto Moscow. Predictably almost the entire hotel was once bugged.

Slightly closer I could see the might spire of St. Olaf’s Church, once the world’s tallest building and still the highest structure in Tallinn. This too had once been appropriated by the Soviets, used as a radio and television jamming station. It’s now a Baptist church and a popular viewing point.

The queue in the train station was moving along at an agonisingly slow pace. I nervously glanced at my watch; 4 minutes until the train would depart. Why was it, I thought, that some people take forever to buy tickets and why do they always insist on doing so when I’m in a hurry? Why?

Finally I got to the booth.

“A ticket to Tartu, please” I blurted.

“Oh, you don’t buy that ticket here. You must get it on the train”.

I dashed outside to where Elo was guarding her bicycle and she almost slapped her forehead when I told her about the ticket. “I completely forgot!”

We hugged and I said that I would be returning to Tallinn soon. Elo smiled. “I know. Let me know when you’re back. Have a nice time in Tartu.”

And with that she was gone.

I ran to the train with only seconds to spare. It was busy, and instead of taking a seat I decided to stand at the end of the carriage so I could enjoy the views out of the window. It was a lovely sunny day, with azure blue skies all the way to the horizon.

Tartu is Estonia’s second city and is the country’s intellectual heart, a sort of Baltic Oxford or Cambridge. The 370-year old university is the most prestigious seat of learning in the region and something like a fifth of the population of 100,000 are students, at least during term time. It’s also very ‘Estonian’ – migration from other parts of the Soviet Union was relatively low and today a smaller proportion of the inhabitants count Russian as their first language compared to most other urban settlements in Estonia.

The university was also the primary reason for my trip to the city. I’d arranged to meet some academics and students from the Centre for Baltic Studies, who had been particularly interested in the project and were keen to help.

I’d also arranged another couchsurf. I met Margit at the station and as we walked the short distance to her flat we spoke more about the purpose of my visit. “You’ve picked a good time to come”, she said. “Right now it’s the Student Days so there’s a lot of parties going on with the different fraternities. And it’s also Walpurgis Night, do you have this celebration in England? There will be fireworks and music, we can go tonight if you like”.

We turned down Kastani street – the name means ‘conkers’ – and shortly arrived at Margit’s home, a pretty green wooden building divided into a couple of apartments. We entered the bottom flat where we were met by a large and extremely friendly orange tomcat. “He’s called Zeppelin”, explained Margit, giving him a rub on the head.

I dumped my things and we set off for the centre of town. The bright sunshine had continued into the evening, bathing the streets in a warm evening glow and inviting an unhurried pace. As we strolled down Vanemuise Margit told me about her life. The same age as me, she was Tartu born and raised and she seemed proud of her city. I could see why; first impressions were of a leafy and tidy place unscarred by unsightly brutalist construction.

We emerged into Raekoja plats, Tartu’s modest central square. The cobbled surface was thronging with students, some dressed in formal evening wear whilst others took a much more casual approach. “They’re part of the fraternities” Margit explained. Most of them were Estonian but I also heard snatches of German, Lithuanian and Russian.

We grabbed a bite to eat in a café before heading down to the river, the Emajõgi. It was dark by now and as we pushed our way through the crowds to find a good spot we could see a large installation lit up on a small footbridge. A man began to play a steady drumbeat before an unseen woman began chanting in Estonian – a traditional type of singing that Margit said was known as regilaul. It was hauntingly beautiful, and the crowds became silent in a mark of reverential respect.

Singing has a special place in Estonian cultural life and played a key part in the independence movement. Special outdoor arenas – known as Song Grounds – would host huge events, where thousands would converge to wave national flags and sing popular anthems. In September of 1988 a gathering of some quarter of a million Estonians in Tallinn did just that , leading the Baltic pushed for independence to be christened the ‘Singing Revolution’.

After the regilaul came drummers with sparks flying from their instruments, colourful fireworks and the lighting of small flames on little barges in the river. It was a peculiar mixture of somberness and celebration, of Nordic tradition, affinity with nature and a palpable sense of national identity.

As we wondered back to Margit’s flat she asked if I had brought anything smart to wear. “Because I am going to one of the fraternities tonight. It will be fun, lots of drinking and partying”. I looked down at my jeans and trainers and shook my head.

Margit got back in at 4 am. I didn’t even stir.

Eneli was already waiting for me when I arrived at Tartu’s Café Pierre, a trendy establishment in Raekoja plats. She was reading a book on Basque culture, and as I was about to introduce myself Maarja arrived. Both were students at the university, and they were interested in talking to me about their impressions of Estonia’s Soviet history. They were Estonian speakers and had a typically Nordic look; Eneli with a slight build, Maarja tall and both blonde.  I ordered tea and then we sat and talked in the bright morning sunshine about their hopes and fears for the future.

“I think there are two kinds of people in Estonia” said Maarja. “There are the rich, and then there are the poor. I think the gap is perhaps worse now than it was when our parents were young”.

“So do you think that can lead to some nostalgia for Soviet times?” I asked

“Perhaps. We hear stories from our parents and they’re the most influential source of our opinions I would say. But with nostalgia there is also sadness, because yes some things were better but there was also oppression, and this affected everyone. Estonians, Russians, all of us”.

“True, but there were still divisions between Estonians and Russians in the Soviet occupation” interrupted Eneli. “There has always been this mutual suspicion. Russians to us remind us of Soviet times, especially because Russians do not think of those times as an occupation, and this will always be the case I think”.

“So could this perhaps cause trouble in the future, perhaps another Bronze Night?”

“Absolutely, of course. We are always worried that this can happen again.”

Eneli fixed me with her blue eyes. “We are scared of Russia. We are scared that Russia will come across our border again, just like they did in the war.”

I asked her if Estonia’s membership of the EU and NATO made her feel more secure.

“Perhaps. There is some collective security. But we are small and because of our history the west thinks of us as Eastern Europe when in fact we are part of the north, like Scandinavia.”

When I asked them if they would consider emigrating they shook their heads. “No, our place is here. Maybe we might work for a year or two abroad but we will want to return to Estonia” said Maarja.

The day before Margit had suggested we visit her parents, who lived a mile or two away in another part of town. The short walk had taken us through a pleasant part of the city, with tidy Tsarist and independence era- wooden buildings lining the streets. At one point a panorama opened up, and in the distance the grey monolithic Soviet apartment blocks lined the horizon. “Most Russians in Tartu live there” said Margit, the descendants of the workers who came here in times past from all corners of the USSR.

When we reached their home Margit’s mother and father were both out in the garden, making the most of the morning sunshine. Kersti and Jaan were a middle-aged couple, Estonian speakers who readily seized on the opportunity of having a couple of extra pairs of hands by pressing us into service with promises of homemade fruit juice and snacks as encouragement. So it was that we found ourselves clearing away dead leaves from the strawberry patch.

It was a decent sized allotment; aside from strawberries the Meiesaars also grew cabbages, carrots and an assortment of other vegetables. I could see other gardens nearby were also well-stocked, a testament to the fertile soils in these parts.

By the time we’d filled up a
bag with the product of our endeavors Kersti had brought out the refreshments,
and we gratefully sat and helped ourselves to warm meat-filled pastries and the
tastiest blackberry juice I could ever remember drinking. Between mouthfuls I
asked my hosts about their lives in Tartu.

Kersti was a friendly woman with glasses and a warm smile. Could she ever have imagined an independent Estonia back in Soviet times? No, she said, it wasn’t even entertained as a possibility. She – like so many other Estonians of her generation – had been a member of the communist party but this wasn’t as much for ideological reasons as simply doing what was expected of them and what in many ways was a key to professional advancement.

Jaan nodded throughout but I wasn’t sure how much he understood of what was being said; he spoke no English and when he did speak Margit was on hand to translate. Jaan had also been a member of the communist party and was a refrigeration engineer, working on Soviet ships before independence. His job saw him travel all over Europe and this made me especially curious.

“What was it like working on the ships?” I asked.

“It was hard work but I enjoyed it. For those times it was well-paid and I preferred working on the boat to being stuck in a factory somewhere”.

He smiled, his bushy white moustache tracing the outline of his mouth.

“And there was a mixture of people on board the ships, from all over the Soviet Union. I worked with Russians, with Tartars and Kalmyks too.”

I asked him if there were any restrictions on their movements when they were docked in a foreign port.

“Yes, we were allowed on shore but we could only go in groups, never on our own. This was to stop us defecting.”

Had he ever been to the UK?

“Aberdeen!” he beamed. There was no need to translate.

I topped up my glass of juice. Kersti picked up the black-and-white cat that had been brushing by her feet and gave it a warm hug. Were things better now, I wondered out loud.

They nodded. “I think overall things are better”, said Kersti. “Before we couldn’t travel and we were told that the West was a bad place and now I can go there and see that it isn’t. But” – she paused – “there is probably more uncertainty. Back then you could always get a job, and there was more security for people. It’s not like that anymore.”

After we said our goodbyes Margit and I headed into town, both feeling good about our morning’s work.  Down by the river further festivities were taking place, with students in fancy dress coming lining up to compete in a wacky boat race. We took our places among the crowd by the river’s edge, cheering on the home-made boats as they made their way around a circular course. I particularly liked the Teletubbies and the zombie nuns.

I mentioned her parents’ views on the stability of Soviet life to Margit, and she nodded. “Yes” she said, “a lot of older people have these opinions.”

“So can there be conflicts between older and younger people when it comes to the past?”

“Yes, definitely.  Very often the older people can be annoyed when they see youngsters treating the past in a trivial way. Sometimes the students will have pretend-communist parties where they dress up in uniforms and get really drunk. They see it as disrespectful I think.”

A cheer went up from the crowd as one of the nuns fell into the water.

I spent the rest of my time in Estonia criss-crossing the country. In Narva I stared over to Russia across the river that bears the town’s name, with twin fortresses facing each other down only a stone’s throw apart. On the beautiful island of Saaremaa I cycled past meadows of flowers and forests of pine. In Valga I crossed the border into Latvia that had once divided this town clean in half.

And everywhere I saw traces of the USSR. Apartments, government buildings, bridges, roads – some crumbling and all with the severity that so often characterises Soviet construction.

Eventually I returned to Tallinn, and Elo. She had been right; I did come back to see her, and as we laughed and drank that evening I told her about my adventures in the rest of the country. “I knew you would like Saaremaa” she smiled. “It’s beautiful!”

And as I waved goodbye from the bus one last time the next day I thought long and hard about what I had learned during my time in Estonia. I’d found a country that, on the face of it, seemed self-assured and confident about the future. And yet by scratching under the surface I could see that the USSR’s demise had not brought an end to cultural tensions, that the Soviet’s greatest legacy was not wrought in brick and steel but in the people themselves.

Yes, I thought, I will return again one day. And I smiled.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Kaali Meteor Crater


The Estonian island of Saaremaa is without doubt one of the most beautiful parts of this northern Baltic country. Cloaked with sweet-smelling pine forests and studded with grassy meadows and rich farmland, its more than 1,000 square miles is home to less than 40,000 people. For many Estonians and foreigners alike this truly is an enchanted place.

It’s probably not surprising then that the island is also the source of a rich variety of myths and legends stretching back into antiquity. Many places are associated with tales of heroic deeds and epic adventures with hills, lakes and other landforms playing a prominent role. None, however, are perhaps more mysterious than the Kaali Meteor Crater.

It’s a 4-hour coach journey from Tallinn to the island’s capital Kuressaare, a quick ferry crossing the short distance from the mainland. It’s a pretty place – the town boasts the impressive medieval Bishop’s Castle, a fortress that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale – but I’m not here to sightsee. Instead I dump my bag at a local youth hostel and pick up a rented bicycle; this will be my transport for the day.
Kaali is little more than a hamlet, and it takes me just over an hour to pedal the dozen miles or so through a mixture of farmland and meadows. There’s a village store, a small post office and a scattering of houses and farm buildings. And there, incongruously tucked next to a school building, is the Crater.

A perfectly round hole in the ground, it measures over 300 feet (100 meters) in diameter and is over 60 feet (20 metres) deep. In the centre lies a still green lake with barely a ripple disturbing the surface. Surrounded by a steep embankment covered with shrubs and trees, it’s unusual in that it’s fed and maintained almost entirely by rainwater. On a crisp summer morning like today it’s a serenely impressive sight but during times of drought it’s often little more than a puddle.

The force that created such a hole was impressive. It’s believed that the meteor responsible hit the Earth at some 5-10 miles (10-20km) per second, punching its way into the ground with a force equivalent to an atomic bomb. Eight other smaller craters pepper the area – formed as the original meteor broke up into pieces in the Earth’s atmosphere - but it’s the main crater that takes centre stage.

But what makes Kaali particularly special is that at a mere 4,000 years old it’s thought to be one of the few such impact craters in the world to be created in the recent past, and the only one to have taken place in a populated area.

At the time of the impact Saaremaa was entering the Nordic Bronze Age. People were starting to form small settlements and communities, and numerous rock art sites across Scandinavia attest to a period of innovation and expansion. On-going contact between different groups led to an ever-increasing exchange of cultural ideas and new technologies; in particular a rich collection of myths and legends began to develop, with epic tales of heroic battles between the gods featuring both in regional mythology and further afield.


It’s thought that Kaali features prominently in some of these stories. In nearby Finland – there are strong cultural and linguistic links between Finns and Estonians – the Kalevala epic tells the story of Louhi, a mighty witch-queen capable of changing shape and casting powerful spells.

One day Louhi steals the Sun and fire from mankind, plunging the world into total darkness. Ukko, the god of the sky, orders a new Sun to be made from a spark. Ilmatar, the Virgin of the Air, begins to make a new Sun but the spark drops from the sky and hits the ground, creating a new lake in its wake.

“The Sun with a long tail flew with deafening noise over the sky, wood was cut down, trees were set afire and the fortress destroyed. The bright flame of the explosion shook the shores of the Baltic Sea and it was even noticed in faraway countries. ..

“Then it was as quiet as a grave, pitch-dark and only a shimmer from burning forests could be seen. The Sun had fallen down and perished. We couldn't explain it in the other way. But the next day the Sun was in the sky again …”

But all is not lost. Finnish adventurers witness the ball of fire falling somewhere "behind the Neva river" - the direction of Estonia from Finnish Karelia – and after journeying in that direction they are finally able to gather flames from a forest fire.


Another story has it that Saaremaa is the legendary island of Thule. First mentioned by ancient Greek geographer Pytheas, the theory is that Thule is derived from the Finnic word tule ("of fire") and thus ultimately from the folklore of Kalevala. Similarly, the Ancient Greek myth of Phaëton tells of the son of Helios who lost control of his Chariot of the Sun, scorching the Earth before being struck down by a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus. The meteor strike is also thought to inspire parts of the Edda, a prominent collection of medieval Icelandic peoms. Notably, Kaali was considered the place where "The sun went to rest.

Archaeology certainly seems to back up the claim that Kaali enjoyed some sort of sacred status at the time. Thought to have been surrounded by an Iron Age wall almost 500m in length, a large number of domestic animal bones have been found in or around the lake dating from prehistoric times right until the 17th century. It’s believed that these sacrifices were offerings to ensure good harvests and that these continued to be made in secret long after the church forbade such Paganesque practices. Silver ornaments dating from the first few centuries AD have also been discovered at the site.


Near the Crater is the Kaali Visitors’ Centre, a smart modern building housing a small museum. The receptionist looks genuinely surprised to see a visitor and jumps into action, racing around the few rooms switching on lights. The displays are mostly dedicated to the geology of the Estonian islands but it also features a section on the history of the Crater, including the moment in 1937 when researchers realised it was created by a meteor and not by volcanic activity. It’s a display that firmly has its scientific hat on; little attention is paid to the myths and legends associated with the Crater. It seems a shame.

As I cycle my way back to Kuressaare I try to imagine the “Falling of heavenly fire, explosion, clouds of dust and smoke, and the landscape changed beyond recognition, (which) must have caused fright and horror and awe among the surviving inhabitants.” It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that such a cataclysmic event must have left a lasting impression upon the people of the island and that stories of the sun falling from the sky spread to other cultures as trade and warfare grew. The most tangible legacy of the Kaali meteor is perhaps not found in the Crater that bears its name but in the stories and legends that find their origins in this most idyllic of places.

(This article also appears in Fortean Times 297 - February 2013)

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Living in Northern Ireland

At the end of August I moved from Leeds to Belfast. The move was for purely pragmatic reasons; I was offered a job that paid substantially more than my previous employment and that holds much more in terms of career prospects. Unfortunately it's meant that the Cycling South America dream is on hold, but now that I'm no longer scraping by on the minimum wage I'll be able to raise funds for projects and expeditions in the future that bit more easily.

Unfortunately (for me at least!) the nature of the job means that I can no longer  muse and pontificate on all matters political. The nature of society in Northern Ireland means that many positions call for absolute neutrality, and whilst it might be fine to express these views in private publishing them online puts them in the public domain and thus could impact on professional relationships. Ah well, it was fun whilst it lasted.

Adjusting to life in North Belfast has also been interesting; whilst I'm still ostensibly living in the same country as before the cultural and political context is in many ways very different. And what a few months it's been; there was trouble outside a Catholic church on the edge of the city centre, riots just down the road in Carlisle Circus, and the ongoing flag protests that followed a vote by Belfast Council to remove the Union flag from the City Hall for all but a few days a year. Perhaps the hardest part for me in all of it is that I've not been able to voice an opinion on any of it.

On the plus side it now means I can concentrate my efforts on travel writing, and I've already got a few interesting trips lined up for 2013. No doubt you'll read all about it on here in due course..!

Other than that, let me wish you a very happy and productive new year.

Monday, 29 October 2012

20 Years Later: the Soviet Legacy in the Baltic States

Earlier this year I spent seven weeks in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as one of this year's recipients of the Peter Kirk European Travel Scholarship. The aim of the trip was to examine the Soviet legacy within those countries, and as I travelled from Tallinn to Vilnius and from Narva to Nida I found that even after 20 years of independence the influence of the USSR could still be felt.

I've just finished the report for the study and you can view a copy of "20 Years Later: the Soviet Legacy in the Baltic States" by clicking here. It should be noted that this is not an in-depth piece of academic research; rather it is a record of the impressions I gained during my time in the Baltics.

On some occasions it felt like I was chasing ghosts of the past, intangible fragments of collective memory slipping away as the countries marched ever Westwards; at other times the presence of the Soviet Union was far more overt. In either case, I hope you find the study an interesting one and if it inspires you do something similar then I'd love to hear about it.

Finally, I'd like to thank both the Peter Kirk Memorial Trust and all those people who took part in the research - without either I would never would have been able to complete it. It really was a great experience.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Cycling South America - the dream on hold...



It's been a little while since I posted on Cycling South America. Since the euphoria of being awarded the Bill Wallace Grant died down I've been busy settling into a routine of firing proposals to various companies, sending out press releases, promoting the circumnavigation on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, talking to other explorers, and in between improving both my fitness and knowledge of long-distance cycling.

Results have been mixed. Most organisations have declined to participate and getting sponsors on board has not been straightforward. I was under no illusion that this wouldn't be the case but I had hoped for a little more success.

But not all is doom and gloom. Many people I've spoken to report that they have secured funding for their expeditions after they've set off. In some ways it makes sense; sponsors know that they've got the real deal and that it's worth their time and money to get involved. Obviously that doesn't help people from low-income backgrounds but that's how it seems to be.

Another opportunity has also come my way. I've been offered a job which doubles my current salary, and I've decided to take it. This will let me raise the money I need initially to set off and then I'll be able to advertise for sponsorship sans South America.

This means the Cycling South America project is temporarily on hold. This doesn't mean that I won't be doing any work on it; on the contrary, I'll still be researching potential sources of funding whether that be via private sponsorship or expedition awards. I've returned the money given to me by the John Muir Trust but I'll look to reapply in future.

Similarly, I'll continue to welcome any ideas, comments and feedback that you might have - you can contact me by clicking the relevant heading above. I'm also going to set up a small travel blog which will hopefully make for interesting reading, although as I'm still busy typing up the report for the recent trip to the Baltic States I undertook earlier this year as part of the PeterKirk European Travel Scholarship it might take a little while to get off the ground. All I can say is watch this space!

And to all those people who've voiced their support over the last few months I'd like to say thank you, it really is appreciated. I'm already looking forward to returning to Cycling South America soon.