My heart pounds as I hand the officer my passport, waiting nervously as he thumbs through its pages, the majority of which are covered with stamps and visas from the many countries I’ve visited on my travels around the globe. He turns to my partner, who is sitting beside me.
“Iz Avstralii?” he asks.
“Da, ona iz Avstralii”.
The officer’s serious demeanour wavers and he appears surprised and immensely curious. I don’t think he’s seen many Australian passports at this border before.
There aren’t a great deal of places in the world where this happens. But I’m sitting on a bus at the border between Poland and the Russian region of Kaliningrad, and everyone else on the bus – my partner included – is in possession of either a Polish or a Russian passport.
My partner had prepared me for a long wait at the border, so I am expecting a barrage of questions from the officer: What is the purpose of your visit? What are you bringing with you? How long are you staying for? But there’s nothing. At the actual border control (the officer on the bus turns out to be performing only a pre-inspection) I take a little longer to process than those before me in the queue but there’s no major problems and we’re back on the bus in a matter of minutes. I laugh as I think about how much longer it has taken me to enter the United Kingdom or the United States – or even my home country (it can take hours to get through the passport control, customs and baggage claim at Sydney airport, even as an Australian citizen). Maybe I just got lucky today, but I have a good feeling about this place already.
I travelled to Kaliningrad on a private visa that I arranged via the Russian Consulate in Gothenburg, Sweden.
To reach Kaliningrad from Sweden, my partner and I took the Stena Line ferry from Karlskrona to Gdynia and then a bus from Gdańsk to Kaliningrad.
To reach the Curonian Spit, we took a bus from Kaliningrad’s Yuzhny (south) bus station and got off at Rybachy. The journey took between 1.5 and 2hrs.
As the bus continues onwards to Kaliningrad, I gaze out the window as we pass fields dotted with purple flowers. This is my first time visiting the Russian Federation. I’m travelling to the region of my partner’s childhood to see the places and the people that he grew up with. Though he now lives in Sweden, he was raised in Kaliningrad for the first half of his life, so this is a place of some very special memories for him. I want to find out more about how it has shaped him into the person he is today.
Later, as we wander through the city, Kaliningrad strikes me as a place of many juxtapositions. We pass Soviet-era apartment blocks and the concrete montrosity that is the House of Soviets, but also beautiful fountains, cultural centres and modern architecture. In the Fisherman’s Village, we stroll past reconstructed buildings from the pre-WWII era when Kaliningrad was the East Prussian city of Königsberg. The McDonald’s situated near the main square is an unexpected intrusion of the Western world into the heart of this Russian city, with its universally recognisable yellow sign written in the cyrillic alphabet. To an English speaker it looks familiar yet foreign at the same time: Макдоналдс.
When we walk by the Upper Pond and watch young people flirting with one another in the sunshine and riding along the cycle paths, the city feels very European. Yet I know I’m not in Europe as soon as I board a tram. In Karlstad (the small city in Sweden where my partner and I currently live and work) the local buses all have electronic ticketing, TV screens and even free wifi. On Kaliningrad’s trams, handing over my rubles to an old-fashioned ticket collector who prints me a paper ticket, I feel as though I’ve time-travelled back to the 1980s. We explore modern shopping centres, grey concrete blocks and beautifully decorated theatre complexes. It’s all of these strange contrasts that make Kaliningrad a fascinating place. It’s full of surprises and a rich history and I get the feeling that unlike other cities I’ve visited that seem to give off a very distinctive personality – New York, London, Stockholm, Berlin – Kaliningrad is difficult to pin down.
While I find these contrasts fascinating, what delights and intrigues me the most is not the urban environment but the nature that lies just on its doorstep. Only a couple of hours away lies a completely different world of sandy beaches and pine forests. The Curonian Spit, a thin stretch of sand dunes nearly 100km long, separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is shared between Russia and Lithuania.
My partner and I take a bus from the Yuzhny (south) station in Kaliningrad to Rybachy, the largest settlement on the Russian side of the Spit, and use it as a starting point to explore the area on foot. It’s difficult to get lost as there’s a single road that stretches all the way along the Spit, which in places is only a few hundred meters wide, but caught up in the magic of the place, we do manage to lose our way. After a moment of panic, I realise that being lost here is not such a bad thing after all. We wander through the forest to the coast, which is relatively deserted despite the incredible weather that we’ve been fortunate enough to experience. Here, running up and down the sand dunes and strolling along the beach in 20+ degrees celsius, I certainly don’t feel as though I am in Russia. In fact, if I close my eyes, I could almost be home in Sydney on a warm spring day.
One of the curious surprises of the Curonian Spit that we find after hiking across to the Curonian Lagoon side, is the Dancing Forest (or Drunken Forest, as many still call it). The name comes from the pines that grow at weird angles and are contorted into bizarre-looking knots, which from a distance make the trees appear to be dancing. It is a strange and wonderful experience to wander amongst these eerie formations and wonder how on earth they came to look this way.
I am disappointed when we have to leave the Spit for our bus journey back to the city. For me, visiting this unique natural area has been a highlight of my trip to the region so far. Escaping from the urban jungle has enabled me to disconnect, to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and the sea, and to appreciate the natural environment around me. It is here that I feel that I have truly begun to understand my partner’s deep personal connection to the Kaliningrad region, and in particular to this special place of sand dunes and dancing trees that feature so centrally in his childhood memories. And though I am thousands of kilometres away from Australia, I will always remember inhaling the fresh sea breeze intermingled with the scent of fresh pine and feeling the sand beneath my toes as I skipped along the coastline, which reminded me, however briefly, of the place that I myself call home.
About the author: Clarissa Hirst is a researcher and freelance travel writer originally from . Sydney, Australia. Currently she lives in Sweden where she pursues doctoral research on identity politics and EU-Russia relations in the Baltic Sea Region. She also writes about her travels around the globe and manages online content for Irish travel startup GoCambio and international education platform PremierTEFL. You can connect with Clarissa on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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