KALININGRAD - Finding reliable background information about Kaliningrad in a time of mass global communication is strikingly difficult. In fact there are seemingly more English-language Web sites devoted to clam diving than there are to this tiny Russian exclave. A "Kaliningrad" word search on the Internet brings up news agency reports of smuggling, an AIDS epidemic, spying, and of an Su-27 fighter plane crashing in Lithuania en route to one of the exclave's secretive military bases.
When I told some Latvians that I was going to Kaliningrad on holiday they reacted as if I'd just told them I wanted to spend a few days participating in a reality show where I would be incarcerated on a prison island. Most of my British friends think Kaliningrad is somewhere between Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk in the middle of deepest, darkest Siberia.Â
Our bus arrives at the Kaliningrad/Lithuanian border in the early hours of Friday morning. Despite dishing out $100 each for our tourist visas we expect a whole host of weird and wonderful questions about the reasons for our November holiday in Kaliningrad. Aside from a couple of frowns and one poorly disguised smirk at the sight of three James Bond wannabees, there are no questions and we are soon back on the bus with a further two hours to travel from the border town Sovietsk to this Russian oblast's "capital."
It's 6:30 a.m. but it could easily be the height of the rush hour in any other city. Kaliningrad is thronging with cars, lorries and trolleybuses. As we stumble weary eyed up Leninskiy Prospect in search of the sanctuary of our hotel, people are scampering in every direction on their way to work. The roads might be heavily potholed, and the architecture certainly isn't pretty, but downtrodden this place is not. How can it be when Kaliningrad can boast less than 1 percent unemployment?
We are desperate for some sleep but reckon that there is more chance that Mr. Putin will stop having his political opponents assasinated than the Hotel Kaliningrad allowing us to check in early. But shock of all shocks, not only is the babushka on reception friendly but we are invited to partake in a very un-Russian buffet breakfast and then check-in to our rooms at 8 a.m.
Once upon a time Kaliningrad was known as Konigsberg, the jewel in the crown of East Prussia. Black-and-white photos taken before World War II attest to a city that was considered by many at the time to be the most beautiful on the whole European continent. That was until the British RAF obliterated the city in August 1944.
In the vacumous aftermath the Red Army sent in over a million troops to the region. The April 1945 four-day Battle of Konigsberg was one of the fiercest of the war. The Germans and Soviets each lost more than 50,000 men by the end of the battle, while upwards of 300,000 civillians died during the war itself. Consequently, this 750-year old city looks like it was founded in 1950 under the auspices of Stalin's tasteless central planning. Kaliningrad was transformed from being Europe's most beautiful city to what it is now something akin to a "Miss World" being the victim of an acid attack. Yet, despite this, Kaliningrad is neither oppressive nor ugly in the true sense.
Close to our hotel, museums intermingle with Soviet apartment blocks, parks and a "tourist" submarine. The grave of Konigsberg's most beloved son, and one of the world's greatest minds, Immanuel Kant, is nearby on the site of the restored Dom Cathedral. Adjacent to this, construction workers are attempting to recreate, and perhaps resurrect, several thousand square meters of the former East Prussia. Juxtaposed against this scene is the concrete Castle Greyskull monstrosity that replaced Kaliningrad's magnificent castle after the Soviet authorities totally lost the plot and dynamited the 700-year-old architectural gem in 1968.
The gleaming golden-domed Orthodox Cathedral 's a clear symbol of the oblast's oil money and the upwardly mobile direction this Special Economic Zone is heading in 's takes pride of place. The faces in the colorful central market 100 meters away are from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the Caucusus and European Russia.
A recent BBC report claimed that Kaliningrad is trying to attract 300,000 migrants. Perhaps that's why there's the sound of "happy" pop music blaring out of speakers attached to lamp posts next to Victory Square. Then there are the giant Tokyo-style advertising screens which flash out images round-the-clock(some of which are in Arabic), and yet there isn't a single international hotel or restaurant chain in sight.
The following day we jump on a train for a spot of time travel to the coast. In the streets of Kaliningrad it's 1 p.m. but inside the train it's 2 p.m. as this particular mode of transport runs on Moscow time. Svetlogorsk is Jurmala minus the pretense and multi-million euro mansions. Hundreds of people stroll up and down its attractive promenades lined with 100 year-old wooden houses with some leading down to the beach at knee-damaging angles.
Svetlogorsk is the nearest visitors to the Kaliningrad region can get to seeing how East Prussia once looked. A further hour away to the northeast is the Kursche Spit, a UNESCO World heritage site still unknown to most Europeans. This four-kilometer wide, 90-kilometer-long natural barrier, is one of Europe's highlights, and on this occasion, is ringed by Russian road blocks.
Here we find a completely deserted seashore and kilometer after kilometer of Saharan style dunes - a place where the sky, sand and sea merge into one to create an otherwordly atmosphere that puts one in mind of a science fiction film. Better known as the Curonian Spit, the dunes and forests on the Russian side of the border are noticeably wilder in comparison to those close to Lithuanian towns like Nida further north. The only signs of life we see are animal tracks which disappear off into the undulating dunes.
It is said that Kant never travelled more than 60 kilometers beyond his home town. For many of Kaliningrad's citizens 's unable to afford or attain a travel visa - they also inhabit a tiny world that does not extend beyond 15,700 square kilometers of territory. Those we do meet who have travelled outside of the borders of this exclave have only visited Moscow or St. Petersburg (if Mother Russia at all), while many have been to Poland and Lithuania. But do they feel Russian? "Yes," they tend to say, followed by, "But we are not the same as the Russians in Russia."
On the day of our departure the hotel bar, finally bereft of the ubiquitous in-house prostitute, is full of pot-bellied Orthodox monks swigging pints of beer. They are here for a monks' convention apparently.
Kaliningrad's sizeable "old school" domestic airport is packed full of Russians ready to make their way to St. Petersburg, Omsk and beyond. Khabrovo International Airport, on the other hand, is about the same size as a rural bus station. There are just three other people waiting for our flight back to Riga.
I thought I would enjoy Kaliningrad but be pleased to see the back of the place. Instead, as we board our Fokker-50 after three days on this safe and friendly time trap island, I feel more than a little sad to be returning to the normal world.