Dancing with wolves in the Latvian woods

Latvia walks

February 2006: Heartbreak! Latvia’s national Bobsleigh track is closed on Sundays, which means we’ll be unlikely to fulfill our ambitions of becoming the biggest mockery to the sport since Cool Runnings; the only reason myself and a number of good friends from University travelled the 32miles from the capital of Riga to the sleepy town of Sigulda.

It was about this time that the Winter Olympics Games were taking place in Torino, which may explain the lacklustre presence of the nations finest sportsmen.

Oh well, fair enough – this was only a bonus extension of our random trip to Latvia. Our serendipitous peak surely came a week previous back at Liverpool University’s Carnatic Halls, as we huddled around Greg’s laptop in his dorm room and stumbled across Latvia as a Ryanair destination. Student loans had been credited, winter exams rescheduled for a September re-sit and we sobered up in the cab to Liverpool John Lennon airport.

Forget the bankruptcy of New Century Financial or increased LIBOR, if you wanted an earlier indication of the Credit Crunch, you only had to look to 2006 where any old wankey student could flake around Wavertree High Street, walk into a bank with a NUS Card and half-hearted promises to make it their principle student loan account, and walk out with a 0% overdraft of no small amount. Times were good for spontaneous capital and the resultant student travel.

Back in rural Latvia, reassessing our options over coffee and piragi in the only shop open when the owner kindly interrupts with news of a small ski resort that sits just beyond the dark snow-covered woods on the otherside of a nearby gorge.

A brisk walk through the quiet town we locate the cable cart launch pad that we need to get across. The startling surprise by the quirky operator who springs from nowhere offers hope the cart is open for business.

We hop in and away, across the gorge and its vast snowy landscape, the cart’s shadow on the frozen river below a tiny spec, a single wolf prowling amongst the forest as the sole representative of life.

Turaida Castle

Turaida Castle

The words of the eccentric cart operator, something about our return crossing, get lost as we step off and delve into the enchanted forest with its castle ruins and distant smells of burning wood fires.

Eventually we find the makeshift ski resort, seemingly the only ones who had that day.

Given the last minute prep for the holiday, needless to say key items usually required for skiing were not packed, such as gloves. Whilst atop the summit, Greg and myself were approached by a young Latvian couple who lived nearby and out for their lunchtime ski. Her opening gambit was to force her gloves on me. I was a little surprised, not at her concern (they were in the early stages of falling off) but her genuine interest in our motives for visiting Siguilda. Given the lack of engagements from the locals back in Riga, stolid service was thought to be a nation-wide thing. But everybody from the coffee shop guy to the savior of blue hands had been supportive of our plight. Rural Latvia had proved more welcoming than its urban brother.

According to Economist Tim Harford, behavioral economics can answer this. In the Undercover Economist he compares the manners of people in both Paddington in central London and Preston in Lancashire. Arguing that people in Preston were more likely to be polite than their London counterparts, due to the former’s relatively low cost of time. Whereas in London people have an abundance of choice and opportunities, time is valuable, and the tolerance for holding a door open or willingness to strike up a conversation are often sacrificed first. Why would you want and chat to your lonely yet fascinating neighbour, when there’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert to see in the West End?

Of course ignorance may play a part. Here we were a novelty. It’d be interesting to know how this pleasant couple would perceive our value if they knew the true extent of the stag-orchestrated horrors being dished out night after night in their capital city. We’d been pretty well behaved however; one night Greg took all the girls from the strip club below our hostel out for food. For no other reason other than because of the sweet guy he is.

Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006

Us in Riga the previous day, February 2006

The rural woman mirrored the radiantly fresh faces that would represent innocent Norway at the Eurovision Song Contest. A stark comparison to Riga, where they resembled representatives of, well, Latvia I suppose.

So much fun is had it’s not until 5.30pm when the words of the cart operator come back to haunt us – the final crossing leaves at 6pm!

We race back through the forest but are too late to catch it. The last train back to Riga departs at 7pm and if we missed that, we really were in the red.

Sam, as usual, kept cool and decided we’d just have to head down to the river to find a bridge. Time was against us, and we soon found the easiest way down the deciduous valley was by sliding on our backsides through the icy paths created by the prowling wolves of the forest.

We’d had some practice in central Riga a few days earlier iceskating on the frozen Daugava River (the stupidest thing I’ve ever done), but we must’ve been sliding non-stop in single file down the riverbank slope for 10 minutes before we got to the bottom. Once there, Ben pointed out the old iron bridge that stood out from the surrounding snow. Although unsure if it was still in use, it atleast gave us a rough idea as to where the frozen river stopped and the opposite riverbank began below the thick snow. Sod it, our only real option as far as we could see.

Greg and Sean scouted the terrain to confirm where was safe to tread, allowing us to navigate a quasi-safe route onto the bridge. Our stupidity was rewarded with access across, just in time to catch a car bombing through a forest road somewhere behind. Me being the nearest flagged it down.

It’s dark by the time we catch the train back to Riga (with 3 minutes to spare) and we all conk out, woken only by the ticket collector looking for our slips.

Right, let’s crack on with the rest of the trip!

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