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  • Steve Wilde

THE BLEAKEST PLACE ON EARTH

A bitter wind whips at my face, as I face a leaden black sea, watched over by a derelict lighthouse, which feels like the end of time - on the edge of Estonia.


Get me out of this place.

In a state of helplessness, I yell I'm not going to be able to make it! Sergei is about 20 metres in front of me and pacing away, as he runs faster and faster. The train is at the station already. The station seems like a small dot on the horizon. There is no way we can get to it in time. We'll have to spend the night in this black, bleak, Soviet inspired shit hole. We'll never survive this. There is no way we can do it.

A bleak Baltic enclave, precious to the Soviets

Home to the Soviet Cold War submarine training centre, complete with a nuclear power station. Today it is an inhospitable relic of the past.

Earlier we had decided to make a play for it. It seemed easy. Let's train from Tallinn to the former Soviet military port of Paldiski. It was only less than an hour away. The trains are comfy. Warm. Reliable. We will be treated to the rugged coastal beauty and a bit of history.


Paldiski began life as a Russian naval base in the 18th century. But it was in the 1960's it really came into its own - as the home of the Russian Nuclear Submarine Training Centre. Yes, that's why I wanted to go there. On the land stood two nuclear reactors - decommissioned after Estonia left its Communist captor. This was a hot zone in the Soviet days.

Upon arrival it was somewhat different.

Row upon row of Soviet era housing.

This feels like the end of the world

The supposedly restored Soviet era housing blocks are, as they had been designed to be, utterly utilitarian. Sergei chastised me for speaking to the locals. But I am excited. I smile at the grumbly old men as they make their way to either the only tavern, or secondly the one hotel to buy Estonian Vodka.


"Tere," I say as we pass them. "Steve; stop it. Estonians are not that friendly." He says. And he is right. Estonians don't smile and say hi as they pass each other in the street. But they do sometimes give a knowing look in their eye. That look is one of guarded welcome - usually. We walk quickly past the old Seamens' Club on the left as we head directly out of town on Majaka Tee.


Once out of the town, the seaside soon emerged beside us.

I feel like we are being watched


As we leave the apartment blocks behind I notice CCTV cameras on poles all along the deserted road. There are high fences everywhere - but what is behind them?

Soon I know, exactly. Cars!


Paldiski is now a giant car yard. A receptacle for fresh new automobiles. Its glory days as The Baltic Nuclear Hub may have faded, but today its role is just as important. It is the landing point for hot cars. And they are all lined up in their thousands behind those high covered fences.


These German beauties are destined for the East. Russia. The wire compounds which line Majaka Tee are full of tens of thousands of Beemers, Mercs and Audis. But no photo's here. A lone guard ensures that, telling me in Estonian, but in words which I fully understand, this is no place for me.


Every year this old nuclear hotspot accepts 250 carrier ships, stores the cars in its high walled compounds and quickly ships them to the East on demand, inside special railway wagons.


Paldiski still enjoys a direct link to Russia. This "customs free zone" ensures cars destined for Mother Russia can seamlessly pass from ocean to shore, and on to the Highways of the Federation, to be polished carefully and shown provocatively on Tverskaya Street in Moscow or Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg. How simply effortlessly beautiful is all of this is, in place which is so grey and uninviting.


The Pakri Lighthouse. A lone sentinel on a bleak outcrop at the end of a faded Russian empire.

Get Inspired

We march on past the endless car yards. Head first into the bitter cold. The sea surfaces on our left. The Pakri Lighthouse materialises to our right and a column of wind turbines, churns, finger like in the distance.


Sergei wants to explore the coastal cliffs. I'm not so keen. They look too dangerous. But the sun is now smudging through the black and white clouds, close to the horizon. It valiantly tries to invigorate a hopeless scene. Now that will make a good picture. I stand dangerous close to the edge of the cliffs. The cauldron black sea foams white on the rocks far below.


A sliver of warmth. Only just. In a bleak cold Soviet remnant.

By now we are more than 5 kilometres from the Paldiski Station and it is getting late. The last train will be leaving in 15 minutes. Run.


The wind pushes us back. It might not let us return. Ever.


"I don't think we will make it Sergei!" But that loud thought is lost to the Baltic howl, which swirls and evilly licks at our ears. I look behind and see a lone car on the road. It isn't a Beemer, nor a Merc. It's a Nissan. Silver. Almost blending into the grey, bleak, distance.


I take action, stepping out into the middle of the road. After all it's not moving that fast. But it is moving with purpose. I make it stop. The grumbly old driver winds down the window. "Tere," I say. He smiles, with that knowing Estonian eye. "Kas sa aitaksid meid jõuda jaamani," Sergei says. "Thank Goodness," I mutter.


We jump in. It is so warm, my face burns red.

On the floor are two fish wrapped in newspaper. I peel back the pages. It looks like Brown Trout, caught recently, fresh from the sea. In the front passenger seat a woman, well-fed and round, perfumed and confident, asks her husband, "Kas nad on välismaalased?" But Sergei interrupts her, "Ta on, et ma ei ole," he says. She smiles.


All in silence we roll along the black tarmac ribbon and they quickly drop us off at the Seamens' Club, but still one and half kilometres from the train station. "Run!", says Sergei. "I'll never make it!" I say hopelessly.


But he rushes off ahead anyway and I can do nothing but follow.


The station is still a tiny dot in the distance. I can clearly see the orange and black Stadler FLIRT train sitting at the station. I can almost hear its electric engine; now revving ready, preparing to leave. The last train back to Tallinn. My heart is in shock, as we run endlessly on. We will be trapped here overnight if it moves off now.


The modern Stadler FLIRT electric trains, bought from the Swiss, ensure Estonia is up with the world when it comes to moving its people.

I pound the pavement hard. The old black and white Khrushchyovka apartment blocks blur as we race on past. The bright orange train still sits there - tantalisingly, but growing larger in the distance.



The Elektriraudtee train carriages are spacious. Modern. Warm. And always on time.

Then just as the departure announcement is made, we race across the platform and step inside the doors. I collapse, into a seat, exhilarated. Exhausted. We have made it.


Sergei checks out the view on our way back to Tallinn.

As the train slips away from the station, I laugh. It is a laugh of relief. Drinking Vodka at the Seaman's Club and drunkenly hoping one of the grumbly old men would put us up in their grey Soviet apartment is not a prospect I enjoy. Maybe they would serve us fresh Brown Trout?


I settle back, remove my jacket and enjoy the warm ride all the way back to Tallinn.

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