From Baltic to the Black Sea #1

Riga, Latvia
28 August 1999

Dear All,

It’s Wee Cheng writing from a cybercafe in Riga, capital of the Baltic republic of Latvia, also a former Soviet republic. The Latvians speak a language close to no other peoples except the Lithuanians next door, and have not had their own country until 1919. Before that, they were ruled by the Germans, Swedes, Poles and for the longest period, the Russians. Their first period of independence was interrupted in 1940 when the Soviets signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty with the Nazis and occupied the country. The struggle for independence was intensified with glasnost and in 1991, they regained independence.

I arrived here yesterday afternoon. With a headache, a feverish temperature, slight running nose, fatigue from a late night at work the day before, as well as unexplainable insomnia, Friday was a rather bad start to this adventure – not to mention an extremely cloudy Riga which I arrived at.

I moved into the home of a Russian family – didn’t know they were Russian-speaking at first and knowing the dislike Latvians have for the Russians, I didn’t dare greet them with the usual Russian courtesies. Anyway, despite all, I began exploring the city. Interesting place with a cute little old town, an UNESCO World Heritage site. But again, the lousy temperature and my physical state didn’t make the experience a pleasant one. After a rather expensive dinner (about US$17) by Baltic standards with “so-so” food, I retired early yesterday.

Got up early today, and took the train to Sigulda, an old town and national park to the north, in the historic region of Livonia – land of the “Liv” tribes. Again, cloudy temperature affected my desire and ability to take pictures at what the Latvians call the “Switzerland of Latvia”. Had a fantastic 3-course lunch at a restaurant for only US$3. This, together with my much recovered physical state, really made my day.

I returned to Riga, which, by now, is no longer cloudy. The streets are full of beautiful people and attractive new lively shops, not to mention the brightly coloured flowers in parks and balconies. Riga IS definitely different today and I am feeling fantastic. But all is not necessarily what it seems – I saw a drunk lying on the floor, and a passerby coolly searched his belongings in broad day light in central Riga, probably taking his cash and valuables as well. I went to a discreet corner and took a pix of the crime…which will appear on my website!

I rushed to the Occupation Museum, which tells of a sad part of Latvian history – it is a touching exhibit on the tragedy of Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1991, a period during which the flower of Latvian intellengtsia was exiled to Siberia’s gulag or shot in cold blood.

After the museum, I strolled around the old city, shopping for souvenirs at the street market, sipping coffee at a cafe…And then had a great dinner at a traditional Latvian restaurant – great Latvian pork ribs, topped up with the local liquor, Riga Balsam, with over 40% alcoholic content. With the advice of Lonely Planet as well as that of old LBS Uzbek pal, Aziz (AZIZ, are you reading this?), I had it together with coffee. I’m not sure if I did it correctly, pouring half the glass of Balsam into the coffee. Anyway, if I have any typo’s in this meail, you know why…

OK, cybercafe ‘s after the dinner, and I will have an early night today. Tomorrow, I will set off for Siaulai in the Republic of Lithuania, on the 7am bus. Write to you guys again from Lithuania.


Wee Cheng

PS: Don’t worry, Mum, no fever, no headache. Just a

slight running nose. Not a problem.