The Worst Travel Experiences Of My Life, Part Two: Riga 2003

Cheap beer, free vodka and beautiful women taken with boastful westerners is why I went to Riga, not to be chased by angry coppers in a battered Lada...
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It was the good old days for tourists in the Baltics, the prices were dirt cheap, the pound was strong, hardly any Brits visited for leisure and the Baltic countries had yet to experience the rapid economic growth that was about to tip their society from looking back towards Russia, to looking forward towards Western capitalism, with all it's sinister trappings.

The food was worse than awful, the service was worse than the food. At that time, there were I believe, only three McDonald's restaurants in Latvia and Lithuania combined, and my three travelling companions and I knew where they all were. Out there, in those days, it really was the best food available, I've never said it before, I hope not to say it again, McDonald's was my friend.

Of course, this was before the days that stag dos in the Baltics took off, that didn't happen on a serious level till a few years later.

A friend of mine had travelled in the Baltics and had described them as lands where impoverished citizens of the UK could be King, he described pubs where a beer was still 60p and vodka was so cheap they were practically giving it away, he spoke of exceptionally beautiful Women interested in bagging exotic foreign tourists (that's certainly not the case these days) and a World for single men that was akin to paradise.

He was correct, up to a point.

The legacy of the Soviets was still hanging over the Baltics, holding them back, in Riga the cops were still driving Ladas, hardly the high performance vehicle one might imagine being used to chase down the Russian mafia speeding along in their imported Mercedes. It is they who really controlled the nightlife, the drugs and the Women, and for all I know, probably still do.

What followed was possibly the most farcical car chase in history, four blokes in a battered minibus driving at 25 miles per hour being chased through the streets of Riga by two cops in an ageing Lada

As for the four of us, we were travelling around Lithuania and Latvia in my friend Stu's battered old Volkswagen minibus which, shockingly, he is still driving even as I write this in 2011. We were about to head from Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. We left our pisspoor accommodation - there was no other kind in Riga for our budget - and made our way to the minibus. On arrival we discovered the worst had happened, we'd been clamped by the local police, even though we were parked in an area where free parking was allowed.

We quickly assessed the situation, the impoverished police force had obviously noticed the UK number plates and, desperate to receive some bribes, had clamped the bus, intending to extract our money and generally give us a roughing up. We'd heard tales of this sort of thing involving lengthy detainment, interrogation, extortion, threats of violence and general mistreatment.

"Fuck this, let's just abandon the van and make for the border by bus", I suggested. My mate Ian had a better idea, "this clamp is a total piece of shit" he said in his broad Herefordshire accent, "we'll have this off in no time".

It was true, the clamp, for some reason painted in luminous pink, was a piece of shit, and, with the four of us taking it in turns to variously boot the arse out of it, hit it with spanners, yank it, and twist it, within a minute or two we managed to free the vehicle. Ian was busy holding the clamp aloft in celebration as if he were Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet trophy, we hadn't noticed that behind him the cops were back and had vacated their Lada, they were running towards us shouting incomprehensibly in Latvian and blowing whistles. Had the cops not been quite so stupid as to inform us of their presence by doing this, we would have been done for. Instinctively, we got in the van, Stu turned the keys and pulled out into the Riga traffic. What followed was possibly the most farcical car chase in history, four blokes in a battered minibus driving at 25 miles per hour being chased through the streets of Riga by two cops in an ageing Lada* also driving at 25 miles per hour. Whilst this seems funny now, at the time it was genuinely terrifying, I can only imagine what punishment the police in Latvia would have meted out had Stu not spotted a gap in the traffic across a tram line and darted down some side streets, losing the cops in the process.

We got out of the Riga city limits quickly and headed towards the border with Lithuania, we stopped in a town called Bauskas and for reasons I don't quite understand, we spent the afternoon perusing white goods in a Latvian supermarket.  I don't know why as a group we decided to spend time doing this, perhaps a healthy dose of normality was in order, it was a quite surreal end to a horrible day.

* I was in Riga recently, the police have shiny new Western European and Japanese cars.

The Worst Travel Experiences Of My Life, Part One: Oslo 2005

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