We flew to Vilnius, Latvia with our eye on dipping our toes in Russia. We wanted to see if we could manage all the paperwork required to get a visa and visit a portion of Russia nobody ever talks about: Kaliningrad (Калининград). It’s way off on it’s own, separated from the main country of Russia by Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. It is the oblast or state that surrounds the former Prussian city of Königsberg on the Baltic Sea.
Bella found a company that helps secure visas to Russia in the Detroit area. Part of the Russian visa application required us to fill out an exhaustive online questionnaire with more questions than I’ve ever been asked, including listing all countries visited in the last ten years in chronological order, by month. “Have you ever been involved in armed conflict? Do you have any particular skills with nuclear energy or explosives? Where were you trained?” Despite my background in the Army Corps of Engineers (explosives) and Operation Desert Storm (armed conflict) we were both granted three year visas.
We knew we couldn’t drive our rental into Russia because Sixt was explicit about what countries we could visit. Poland and Latvia were fine, but Russia and Belarus were forbidden. That meant we had to find alternative transportation for that leg of the trip. Rome2Rio suggested a bus from Kaunas, Lithuania, so we decided that was the way to go.
The bus station was attached to a mall called the Acropolis. We arrived with a hand written note with the bus schedule.
The bus leaves at 1:45 AM and arrives in Kaliningrad at 6:55 according to this PostIt, but it all seems sketchy so we went to the pick up point early. It turns out to be a parking lot next to a large mall.
Look, that looks suspiciously like a bus schedule.
We were able to park the rental in the mall parking structure and catch a nap. Right on time a bus arrived with Cyrillic writing and a number of passengers hopped off to use the port-a-potties. Ok, so no bathroom on the bus for a five hour ride.
The bus had only two seats on the left hand side of the aisle and one on the right. It was quite cramped for the long journey ahead of us.
We stopped at a duty free station (beer for us and nearly everybody else loaded up on vodka), then the border for customs and immigration and were given the same type of document detailed here. Upon arriving at our destination we were exhausted and we needed to have our tourist documents registered so we used Google translate to ask a cab driver to take us to a “nice hotel.” He took us to the Radisson. We were able to book a “night”, get a few hours of sleep, and get the required documentation before exploring the city on foot.
We had planned to visit the Bunker Museum and it was open.
The museum was hidden inside a residential area but the exhibits were well done. It was dedicated to the capture of the city from the German occupiers during World War II.
Inside the cathedral are photos of the building following the war. All the yellow or beige colors are windows that had been bombed out. Vladimir Putin rededicated it after restoration.
The photo above always struck me for the contrast between the German or Bavarian roots of Königsberg and the stamp of the Soviets with the communist apartment complexes in the back. Communist housing is so prevalent in the former Soviet Union countries. All are in various stages of disrepair and the seem to follow the same design elements.
After a nice lunch we walked back to the Radisson before catching a cab back to the bus stop. Turns out there are two places where one can catch the bus and we chose the wrong one the first time. We were able to board the very same bus for the return trip to Kaunas, spending another cramped night dozing on the bus. We didn’t have any problems with our documents at the border, giving us the confidence we needed to begin planning the Trans Siberian Railroad trip before the visas expired.
Our car was right where we left it in Kaunas and we napped for a couple hours, essentially until the mall traffic woke us.
Kaliningrad was another one of those trips we’ve made off the beaten path. I don’t know anybody who has been there, but we enjoyed it. Sure, we missed a few things, but the memories are awesome.