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Michael’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 22 Mar 2008

Location: Riga, Latvia

MapThe following morning, which would have been the Thursday before Easter, Potter and I were feeling rather sorry for ourselves, headaches pounding away fiercely. We were booked for Bobsled trip, if enough numbers were booked and the track opened for us. The excursion was due to leave at 3 pm from the hostel, so when we dragged ourselves out of bed around midday we showered and headed to our new favorite restaurant, Lido, for lunch. I thought we were hungover, but when I saw Potter return from the buffet with a plate of gherkins, I was wondering if he was still drunk. He claimed that he thought they would re-hydrate him, but after one bite, we pushed the plate way from himself, preferring to stay dehydrated. I instead opted for the chicken parma, again, and what I though was a moist looking scone, but instead was sweet bread - oh well, dessert I guess.

After fighting through the lunch time crowd, and fighting with our stomach’s and the food, we headed back to the hostel. We still had some time to kill before the tour and quickly checked out email, etc. and then headed to the hostel bar - to watch rugby, not to drink. Finally 3 pm came around, and despite Potter and I being the only ones signed up for the trip, it still went ahead - I think Frank liked us...

We, along with our 'guide' (really, they could have just said "go to train, catch 1545 to Sigulda, get off at end of line, walk to massive bobsled complex you can't miss, sled, catch next train back") headed to the train station, bought our tickets and jumped on the train. It was a bit over an hour train ride, and Potter spent most of the train trip with his head either pressed up against the window, sleeping, or pressed into his hands sleeping, I felt bad for the guide, but was also nodding in and out of sleep... Thankfully the 'guide' who was really only there to make sure we didn't get lost as opposed to 'guide' us on anything, was happy reading her magazines. The train was old and every time we stopped, which was rather regularly, the doors opened and the cold air came streaming in, freezing out the carriage, and then once we were moving again the heaters would ensure that the temperature would rocket back up again - not so much fun.

Finally the train arrived in Sigulda, a pretty quiet town that was covered in snow. It is in the heart of a national park, and has the only real ski slopes in the relatively flat Latvia. And these ski slopes are probably what gave way to the building of a bobsled track. The track was back at the start of the town and loomed bigger and bigger as we headed back towards it. The track itself wasn't so impressive looking as it dived away from the main road and into the valley surrounded by trees. Of course, the only one that I can compare it to was Lillehammer, and that we actually drove up from the bottom to reach the top and saw the extent of the track. Here in Sigulda, the main road leads to the top of the track, the opposite to the Lillehammer track.

Standing at the top, Potter and I waited around, with the guide diving inside to get warm. There wasn't much to see, and I would have loved to walk the track, but with no-one telling us when, even if, we'd be getting a run, it didn't seem wise to just wander off down the slope. Eventually some Latvians rocked up and milled around, but didn't say a word to us. A couple of them walked down onto the track and I could see a third person come onto the track at another fork from a different starting platform. An object was thrown on the ice and Potter and I speculated that they must be checking/clearing the track. Then I caught a glimpse of a girl lie face down on the board and realised she was doing a skeleton run, and the other two guys down there were coaching here - at that stage I was like, "hell yeah, stuff the bobsled, let me do that"... that would all change! In fact, my dream of doing the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, which is on my "to do before I die" list, is quickly fading into a bit of a nightmare!

Anyway, about half an hour later a truck shows up with a couple of bobsleds in the back of it. The big Latvian units get out of the truck and unload the two bobsleds onto the ice and they sit there for a while sawing nothing – both the Latvians and the bobsleds. Eventually the guys pull out the helmets and put them on us, at about the same time as a bunch of young American tourists fronted up. One of the big Latvian bobsled drivers waved me over and sat me in the back of the bobsled and indicated for me to hold onto the bar between my legs on the back of the seat in front of me. Potter was sat in front of me and then one of the American tourists in front of him. Lastly, one of the bobsled drivers jumped in the front and we were pushed down the ice chute.

The first turn was easy, and the decent seemed pretty slow. The second corner was a massive jolt, the cause of which I am not sure – bad driving or rough track – and from that point on the speed of the decent picked up dramatically. The ice shelves came hurtling past, one corner after another, short corners banking left and right, then some long sweeping corners. From the back of the bobsled, it was clear things were picking up speed, and I was gripping on to the bar in front of me like a mad man, just hoping Potter didn’t shit himself all over the bar that I was holding on to! The ride just seemed to keep going and going, clearly the track was longer than one could see from the top of the road!

And then suddenly it all ended, the track imperceivably rising, then much quicker. The driver had the brake dug in and then we slowed quicker until we were stationary. The final result, a ride of around 1.5 km, peaking at around 100 km/hr, completed in around 50 seconds. Potter and the American climbed on and then I climbed out, by then the American had already lit a cigarette and was breathing in the refreshing narcotic smoke. Both looked back down the slope that we used to slow ourselves and stated they didn’t even know we’d gone uphill. A few minutes later, with our bobsled on the back of the truck, the low rumblings came down the chute and not much later the second bobsled came hurtling towards up, the driver wedging the brake into the ice to slow down. Next thing we were taking a ride, standing in the back of the truck, back up the hill to the start of the run. A most intense 50 odd seconds, and worth every penny.

Back at the top we caught up with our guide and headed off to the café at the bowling alley in town for a couple of drinks – Potter and I stuck to the lemonades rather than the beers, still nursing our sore heads. Eventually the train was ready to head back to Riga and Potter and I again took up our positions of semi-unconsciousness. Back in Riga we left the guide and headed for dinner straight from the train station – Čili Picca. This was the second time we had eaten at the Lithuania pizza restaurant, and we loved it. Some crazy pizza, including the old chicken with peach and mango pizza (one of my favorites) and some good home grown food including the cheese and bacon dumplings and fried bread sticks with cheese dip – and having tried it a second time, this time sober (well hung over) we can confirm that they are pretty damn good!

We headed back to the hostel and finally managed to stomach a couple of beers before we were due to head out. We were due to head out to the club Essential in Riga, supposedly the best club in all of Riga and by midnight we finally headed out. It was a total farce, and it seems as though the people organizing the trip didn’t take into account the fact that the following day was Good Friday and the place was going to be RAMMED. We stood on the street for about 10 minutes, in a line that was well over 150 meters long and waited for the organizers to get us in – eventually we gave up and headed up the road to the Skyline Bar with about a dozen others from the line into Essential. At the top we chatted for a while and drank beers and cocktails until the bar shut at 2 am and headed back to the hostel, to drink a bit more at the bar.

On Good Friday, we did what all good people do and headed out to a former Soviet war bunker and fired guns! It was bizarre… Having been to the gun range in Las Vegas, and seen all of the OH&S safety precautions they had there, not to mention the license check and locks on all of the gun cupboards, it was funny to see guns just resting on walls behind the counters and no-one caring about checking any sorts of ID’s. But the funniest part was walking into one of the bunker wings, and seeing a massive Latvian guy, shaved head, smoking a cigarette and loading a hand gun, then wave it in the air at us as a welcoming (we think) and grunt a few words in Latvian. We couldn’t help but laugh! And the gun shooting ‘bays’ that they had in Vegas were replaced with a red line on the ground! And the pulley’s used to bring the targets back were replaced with nothing – we just waited till we had all off-loaded our rounds and then walked up together to get our target sheets! Hahaha, what a laugh. We had half a dozen rounds with a hand gun, then a shortened AK-47 clip, then a pump action shotgun! It was really good fun, though the value for money was much better in the US I thought. And not getting a full clip to rattle off of the AK was a little disappointing.

That afternoon we wandered around town taking in the Good Friday crowds in front of the churches and then headed for a burger at TGI Friday’s… well, it had God and Friday in the title, so it seemed like a good idea at the time, but we did go for a meat burger and missed out on the fish! Then we headed for the bus station and by 7 pm we were on the last bus to Tallinn for the evening, and spent most of it crashing in and out of sleep – finally arriving just after 11 pm.

Estonia next…