Riga – Stockholm – Estonia – Russia – Finland – Karlstad

The trip to Riga on the famous International Student “Booze Cruise” began. This cruise goes from Stockholm to Riga and returns… The main purpose is to party. We boarded the cruise ship and found our room on deck 2, strategically placed below the cars and the animals. My last trip with the “Anaconda” group. Daniel, Andrew, Lyndsay and Taylor who had been my travel companions for 8 countries now, this was to be for now… our final trip! We didn’t let that get us down and we had a lot of fun, dancing and drinking the night away. A lot of the students came from Karlstad so it was great to go on a trip with everyone. The Baltic Sea was rough, but I didn’t get seasick which was perfect. I can’t remember who it was that found it, but somehow a group of us managed to get to the back of the boat, where we acted out some titanic scenes, “don’t let go Jack” etc. Thankfully no one fell off into the freezing ocean.

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Day 2 a tad hung-over, we arrived at 10am in Riga, Latvia. We had six hours to explore the city. On this day, Riga was celebrating their National Memorial Day. We felt very welcomed in the ceremonies, getting a badge from the children handing them out. We found a church, explored inside, got some pictures, ate lunch, and collected food for the ship back to Stockholm. I didn’t want to buy food on the ship again as the previous night we paid 30 euro for dinner. We then boarded the boat with bags of snacks and spent the entire night chatting with Taylor, Lyndsay and Andrew. We stood up at about 11pm to join the celebrations, that’s when the realization of how much we had drunk set in. Oh the booze cruise, how we lived up to its name.

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Day 3, we were back in Stockholm, arriving to a very chilly day. We decided to stay in Stockholm between this trip and the next, as it was 2 full days. We spent the afternoon with some retail therapy and eating. I also found some henna in an Indian supermarket, so whilst Andrew was watching Interstellar at the cinema, we tattooed ourselves.

Day 4, still continuing to recover from our trip, we wandered around old town and then a huge Mongolian BBQ buffet with the entire group from Karlstad who had the same idea. That evening we tried to make it to Stockholm’s outdoor ice rink, unfortunately 30 minutes after closing. It was a gorgeous night nonetheless with the Christmas decorations all over Stockholm lit up by night and having a “snowball” fight with the Zamboni snow on the side of the rink. Taylor, Lyndsay and myself then made our way back to the hostel to our nightmare. We confirmed that our hostel room had bedbugs as we found them everywhere when we looked properly. We had a lengthy discussion with reception, managed to get our money back for the night we were yet to have, and also used their laundry facilities to wash EVERYTHING we had. This took us from 10.30pm to about 2.45am. We figured out after about 3 hours waiting on the driers that they don’t work. Whilst we waited, Lyndsay and Andrew ran the streets of Stockholm literally going in to every hostel or hotel that was open. Thanks to a trusty friend back in Karlstad, Lyndsay had found a place. A hostel on a boat with 24-hour reception. Taylor and I loaded up everything in to garbage bags and it was adios Interhostel! In the midst of lugging 10 tones of wet clothes to the new hostel, I injured my back. What a night is all I have to say. This hostel didn’t have laundry facilities and the kind receptionist also politely let us know that Stockholm doesn’t have Laundromats. We hung everything we had out in the room and got as much sleep as possible. What was meant to be a relaxing night was absolutely flipped on its head. I had to laugh and we had to keep saying what a funny story it would make one day…

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Day 5, I woke up in agony from my back and face timed my nurse mum and back expert Dad for advice. I wasn’t sure if I should be getting on a cruise to Russia as my healthcare worked for Sweden, as I was a student here, in Russia, not so much. I found a pharmacy, snatched up some ‘Voltarin’ and got some breakfast. Taylor and Andrew had found another hostel, with one dryer and they must have felt sorry for us because they let us use it and their kitchen facilities. I found a super cute café in old town Stockholm and brought a $22 sandwich with no regrets, we needed a fix-me-up. I didn’t want to miss out on the trip either and I figured either way it will hurt, not much you can do to fix it. So with almost everything dry, we met up with the group and boarded the ship, first stop would be Tallinn, Estonia.

Day 6, we had arrived in Estonia. Tallinn is such a gorgeous town. We had a guided walking tour of all the essential sights. It was a lovely day. We then had a ‘Fika’ break and continued on exploring the streets and stores. We then found a supermarket and picked up some pasta for diner as we were staying in a hostel. Afterwards, got dressed for a Pub Crawl. It was a bizarre start, as we had to take our shoes off in the first venue. I met multiple Australians and New Zealanders here and it was great to hear some familiar accents. Taylor and I hit 11.30pm and decided to go for food and then ended up making our way back to the hostel. Who knows how we found it through the winding coble stone streets.

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Day 7, we ate some breakfast and boarded our bus back to the port where we got back on a ship to Helsinki, Finland. This journey only took 2 hours, so we played Monopoly Deal the entire way. We arrived in Helsinki where we had to wait for 3 hours to sort out our Russian Visa’s. After collecting some more food, we jumped on the Russian ship. We ended our day by watching a show from the St. Petersburg Ballet Company. Not the type of Ballet I was expecting but it was amazing to see. The boys then were brought up by the ships entertainer for a drinking game, had us all in stiches.

Day 8, St. Petersburg Russia! We had made it through the intimidating immigration with a stamp in the back of our passports and began the adventure. Our coach took us on a driving tour of St. Petersburg stopping off at all of the main city sites. I was not expecting the city to be as big as it was, it does have 4.8 million on record, but it stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. Mid way through the tour we stopped at a fortress, for a walk and it is tradition for a cannon to blast here at midday. We were aware of this and decided to go and watch the ceremony. We were right around the corner from the procession when it blasted. It was so loud it set car alarms of, you can imagine our fright being so close, aware, yet not prepared in the slightest.  The highlight for me was the ‘Church of the Savior on Blood’. Mimicking the bigger version in Moscow, it was what I had pictured of Russia before I visited. We then got our body temperatures back to normal and found a restaurant to seat all 18 of us. It was serving traditional Russian food too, which was what we were all hoping for. The food was awesome; I tried Pelmeni’s that is almost like Ravioli. I had it with a white wine sauce that was amazing. I then had a fresh lemonade and apple pie for desert. The bill for 18 people to enjoy a main, drinks and deserts only came to 200 Euro. We were all in shock I think after living in Sweden for 5 months, to then eat out for such a price.

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Day 9, we started the day walking down Nevsky Prospect (5km main street) to the Hermatige Museum. We arrived to the museum to the rest of the group who took the bus. It was a shock to find Taylor in tears. Her wallet had been taken out of her purse on her arm on the busy bus. It was so lucky her passport wasn’t with her that would be a nightmare in Russia. It was a rough start to the day for her. She found an Internet café to cancel her cards and we continued on the tour. If you were to look at every piece of art in this museum, it would take 11 years. Our guide showed us the essentials. Just casually got to check out some of Da Vinci’s pieces for example. A lot of pieces in the winter palace were described as priceless. They are so valuable, that no price can be placed on them. The room, in which everything is covered in gold, first has wood, and then is covered in pig stomach lining and then the gold, to ensure it doesn’t crack. The princess, who lived in this palace, never slept in the same room more than once. Elton John rented the ‘room of mirrors’ in the palace 3 times for a party and his piano is left there. Likewise with President Bill Clinton. A chess set in one of the rooms was a gift from Napoleon. These palaces are so extravagant it’s incredible to think that people actually lived in them once upon a time. So many names you heard in history class came alive here. After the tour we headed back up Nevsky Prospect to stop off in some shops and eat some lunch. It was so awesome walking up this street; you cannot understand anything that is going on around you. There are loudspeakers on every corner talking about goodness knows what. There are Army trucks and soldiers driving around, the money collecting guys have AK-47’s. It was an unusual walk that’s for sure.

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That evening we had a stretch hummer tour of St. Petersburg by night. This was so much fun, we all got dressed up and enjoyed the free champagne whilst stopping off at the main sights for evening pictures. We then ended the night at a club and once we were ready for sleep, walked down Nevsky one last time to the hostel. It was a little intimidating walking home as anyone who has a car in Russia can be a potential taxi driver, so they were all pulling over on the side of this 8 lane road. It may be norm for them but seemed weird to us. We walked the entire way, had warm showers because it was -9 outside and slept.

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Day 10. Today we hopped on a coach to explore the beautiful summer palace about an hour out of St. Petersburg city. Although it wasn’t a summer setting, as soon as we left the city, there was snow everywhere, it was -10 degrees, coldest I had ever experienced. Any open water was frozen. I had never seen this before, so for me it was amazing. The palace was just as stunning as the winter palace. Art everywhere, gold everywhere, pure elegance. We had to even wear bags over our shoes to preserve the floors that have numerous different types of precious woods in them. Here we learnt that the same princess who never slept in the same room more than once, also never wore the same dress again. The wealth that is concentrated in one place was crazy to witness.

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Our Russian adventure had then come to an end and so we took the coach back to the port, got through the scariest immigration and boarded the boat.

Day 11. Seven hours to explore Helsinki, Finland. We had a walking tour of the city with a very happy guide. It was a beautiful city but I think everyone was too tired to truly enjoy it. My drink bottle in my pocket was freezing up and so the cold combined with sleepiness wasn’t the best. We did however find an amazing Indian Buffet for lunch, which hit the spot perfectly. I even wrapped up some naan bread for later that evening. Back on the ship and it was full steam ahead to Stockholm.

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Day 12, Lyndsay, Taylor and myself found the first bus back to Karlstad. When we got back, we all re-washed everything and then slept. It was an awesome trip, the highlight of course being Russia. It felt so different to anything experienced in Eastern Europe, and I was really grateful to get the chance to visit.

I have been back in Karlstad for about 2 weeks now and have got to enjoy Swedish living once again. I went to my first ice hockey game where all of my Mighty Duck dreams came true. We sat next to the opposing teams supporters and it was amazing to see just how aggressive they got. There was also aggression on the ice, with one guy loosing his helmet to a punch. They blast flames when the teams skate on, play loud music the entire time. The atmosphere was so much fun.

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Last weekend I also went to a Christmas market just for a wander. Saturday evening we all went out to Korriander a club in Karlstad, where we counted in my 20th Birthday. No longer a teenager and I’m finally legal in Sweden! Sunday, my actually birthday day we spent the day lazing around in the kitchen baking Christmassy deserts. Thanks again to my international friends and friends and family in AUS for sending the birthday wishes my way, felt very loved!

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The coming weeks will be very emotional. Exchange is coming to an end already! Last night was the last night out with everyone here in Karlstad. After this week, everyone is slowly peeling off to travel home. Tomorrow we are driving about an hour north to a moose farm; we get to feed them and everything. Then on Sunday we are going ice-skating at Mariebergsskogen, which is where the petting zoo is. They have made an outdoor ice rink with a huge Christmas tree in the center. I’m looking forward to our last adventures with the group here on exchange.

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