KOHTLA-NOMME - If you've already sat on the bizarre bench in Haapsalu that plays Tchaikovsky tunes, had your photo taken with the headless Lenin in Parnu or chucked pebbles into the meteor crater on Saaremaa, you probably consider yourself an expert on Estonia's tourism oddities. But until you've been to the Kohtla Mine Park Museum, let's face it - you're just another expat with a road atlas.
To get there I traveled two hours east from Tallinn, deep into Ida-Viru County. This is the part of the country hardest hit by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a forlorn industrial region saddled with environmental problems and high unemployment. It's also shale country, the source of most of Estonia's electricity.
The Kohtla mine is located in Kohtla-Nomme, a small hamlet 10 kilometers from the better-known city of Kohtla-Jarve. It's a popular destination for groups, which means you have to book ahead, even if you're coming alone. Interpreters can be arranged for an extra fee.
Luckily I'd done that, and I was expected. The second I was inside I was greeted by a man in overalls and a hardhat who asked me if I was ready for an unforgettable journey into the very bowels of the earth. Actually, that's not how he put it, but from his excited demeanor, I knew that's what he really meant. This was Rein Kiristaja, my tour guide. Like each of the museum's four guides, Rein had worked in the mine; he was an engineer here from 1959 until the mine closed in 2001.
Before we headed underground, he gave me a little background information on the place. An English company started the mine in 1937. In the early days, horses and men with shovels brought out the shale. The layer of shale comes from the Silurian period, nearly 500 million years ago, when this was a seabed. The oil-rich rock comes from petrified plants and animals, notably trilobites, bug-like creatures that crawled around well before the dinosaurs roamed.
In fact, the cute little trilobites now serve as the symbol of the museum. The shale in the mine is full of their fossils. They selflessly died by the billions so that today's Estonians could charge up their mobile phones.
Now fully in the know, I got geared up - a nylon jacket, hardhat, battery belt and an electric lamp. I had a coat and sweater on underneath, so I looked more like a fat mole than a working class hero. Still, I was glad for the extra layers. The mine is typically six to 10 degrees Celsius and extremely damp.
Passing another school group, we descended down a flight of stairs into the mine, which is about 10 meters deep. Now the interesting bit began. My guide took me through the tunnels and showed me how all the equipment worked - everything from the quadricycle used to travel along the electric train tracks to the conveyor that scooped out the rocks after tunnel blasting. Each piece of equipment made its own hellish racket.
My guide talked me through the process of drilling, blasting, venting, loading, etc. Taking notes was difficult with the water dripping on my notepad, but I did get some facts. There were three shifts a day, with three or four brigades of 15 men (and until the 1960s, women too) and two blasts per shift.
But mainly this is a hands-on tour. Visitors can play psychotic dentist, drilling holes into the rock as if getting ready to place explosives. They can ride the tiny, underground electric train that used to take miners on the 7-kilometer ride to their stations. For an extra fee, tourists can also prearrange a "miner's lunch," a kind of subterranean picnic. This can be anything from a simple affair to a three-course meal that includes a shot of "miner's vodka." The vodka is in fact a brand made by Liviko in Tallinn, not a local brew. Still, I think if I had to work down here all day, I'd be drinking the stuff by the bucketful.
The real miner's lunch, in case you were wondering, was a piece of bread and a thermos of soup - one hot meal each shift. It may seem like a rough life, but Rein insisted it wasn't.
As we were heading back to surface level, he dropped another interesting fact - the museum operates thanks to subsidies from Eesti Polevkivi, the national mining concern. And the biggest cost of keeping the place open? The electricity bill. o
Kohtla Mine Park Museum
Open Mon. - Fri. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sat. - Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Jaama 1, Kohtla-Nomme
Tel. 332 4017
60 kroons (3.8 euros)