When I canceled my plans for an overland trip to Central Asia, but already had a new Russian visa in my passport, I decided to make the best of it by visiting Kaliningrad, that little bit of Russian territory on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. I probably never would have made it here otherwise, but it proved a fun several days and maybe I will go back someday.
I crossed into Kaliningrad oblast from Lithuania near Marijampolė (the Chernyshevskoye-Kybartai border crossing). Chernyshevskoye is a fairly post-apocalyptic looking village, with lots of rusting old constructions from Soviet times and no sign of any employment. When I hitchhiked towards Kaliningrad city, my driver had to make a delivery in a small town first, so we drove at terrifying speed on a badly asphalted minor road through a series of poor villages across the northeast of the territory.
But the city of Kaliningrad was surprisingly prosperous, with lots of new cars and fancy shops. Its status as a free trade area seems to have greatly changed it. There were lots of foreigners walking around, so I encountered none of the surprise or suspicion found in other parts of Russia that were formerly closed military zones.
In spite of that feeling of new prosperity, most of the architecture is typically Soviet. Reflecting the region’s brief but militaristic past as Russian territory, there is a greater amount of World War II memorials and monuments to sailors than in the typical Russian city. The only remnant of the Prussian city of Königsberg that was here prior to 1945 is the cathedral and some adjacent houses, but even these are recent reconstructions out of the ruins. In a perverse way, it’s impressive how the Soviet Union managed to completely eradicate whatever was here before.
On the way out, I hitchhiked from Kaliningrad to the Bagrationovsk–Bezledy border crossing with Poland. I wasn’t allowed to walk across this border, but there was a long queue of Polish cars and it didn’t take long to get a lift across with one of the numerous drivers who had just popped across the border for cheap petrol and ciggies.