Kiiking: Estonia’s Extreme Swing Set


Remember when we were kids playing on the swing set and we’d try to swing so high that we’d fly over the top bar and come down the other side? No, I never made it either. But in Estonia, they’ve taken a childhood dream and made it an extreme sport.

It’s called kiiking. Using a special swing with steel arms instead of chains, the kiiker stands on the swing and pumps back and forth until he or she gets enough momentum to make a full 360-degree turn. The best kiikers can go around several times. The longer the shaft of the swing, the harder it is, and according to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the record for kiiking is with a 7.02-meter (23-foot) swing used by Andrus Aasamäe of Estonia on August 21, 2004.

Kiiking has taken off in the Baltic states and in Scandinavia. Here we show a video of the Estonian army taking a little time off from defending the nation to practice kiiking.

Chasing The Estonian Army – And Finding A Different One

Estonian Army
Machine gun fire thudded through the snowy woods. Mart looked up from the missile shelter we were inspecting; an excited look appeared on his face.

“It came from that way, let’s go!”

He started running through snow up to his calves. I followed. The snow immediately trickled down the tops of my hiking boots, melted and gave my feet a cold bath. I kept running. At least I wasn’t wearing regular shoes like Mart.

We heard another burst from the machine gun. It sounded closer and a bit to the left. We changed course.

“Maybe it’s the APC that left those tracks we saw on the road,” Mart said.

I hoped so. I’ve ridden on an APC but never seen one in action.

Mart was my guide from Tallinn Traveller Tours. He was supposed to be showing me the west coast of Estonia and the old Soviet military town of Paldiski. Instead, we’d been chasing scattered gunfire through some lonely winter woods for the past hour. Mart is an Estonian college kid half my age, but we share something in common – our natural reaction to gunfire is to run towards it instead of away from it.

Not that we really had anything to fear. We were chasing the Estonian Army on their winter maneuvers, and they didn’t usually use live ammo. Technically they could arrest us if we got in the way, but chances are all they’d do was tell us to beat it. That’s what the Bulgarian Army did when I pulled the same stunt with them.

%Gallery-180122%The snow hampered our movements and we had to weave our way through the half-buried remains of abandoned Soviet military installations. The missile shelter we’d been inspecting was one of many in the area, basically a big tubular garage from which a short-range nuclear missile could be wheeled out and prepared for launch. Mart says that the Soviets built far more than they needed and moved the missiles around so NATO would never know where they were.

Eventually we gave up crunching through the snow and got back in the car. We drove around for a time and saw more tracks, but never caught up with the Estonian Army. Too bad. Back in 1918-20, the previous Estonian army managed to beat the Bolsheviks and establish Estonian independence. Estonia got swamped in World War II but became independent again in 1991. Since then they’ve joined NATO and served in Afghanistan. They currently have 150 troops there making them a small country punching way above its weight.

While the Estonian Army was nowhere to be found, detritus from the Soviet army was everywhere. One of the most disturbing stood just outside of Paldiski. This town was used by the Soviet Navy for nuclear submarine training. In one building they had an entire mockup of a sub for the cadets to work with.

In another building – a grim looking, windowless place that we studied from outside a chain-link fence – were two nuclear submarine reactors. The first was installed in 1964 and the second in 1982. The reactors were shut down in 1989 but they’re still in there. We didn’t see any guards, but I bet they were watching us through a hidden camera somewhere.

This made me think of all the military trash spread across the planet. In an earlier post, I talked about how my kid loves using Google Maps and discovered the remote Johnston Atoll. He’s obsessed with going there. I’m not. The United States used it for aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s, and later as a chemical weapons dump. A landfill on the atoll contained plutonium dust, sarin nerve gas, Agent Orange and various other nasties. I’m not taking my son there anytime soon. I want my grandkids to have ten fingers.

I wonder how many places like this exist in the former Soviet territories, places that Moscow never bothered to mention as the Soviet Union fell apart. I also wonder about the planet’s carrying capacity for heaps of radioactive and toxic waste.

Not all trash from the Cold War is harming the planet. Some of it has been recycled to better uses. After giving up on the Estonian Army, Mart drove me down a country lane for a surprise. Sitting on some private property was an old Antonov 12 cargo plane. Introduced in 1959, these planes did the heavy lifting for the Red Army for many years. This particular one was left behind when the last Russian troops left Estonia in 1994.

Somehow a local guy was able to buy it. He’s an avid model airplane hobbyist and he and his friends turned it into their clubhouse – a boy’s dream come true. We were greeted by the owner, a quiet man whose entire conversation with me consisted of “hello,” followed by half an hour’s silence as Mart and I explored his plane, and ended with “goodbye.”

The Antonov is in remarkably good shape. The cargo area is stuffed with model planes, a worktable and files of modeling magazines. The cockpit is still as it was. I got in the pilot’s seat and Mart acted as copilot as we fiddled with the switches, talked about what it would be like to fly this thing and basically acted like two overgrown kids with a wonderful toy. After that we headed to the rear of the plane where I squeezed into the gunner’s turret. My only disappointment was that the machine gun had been removed. I wonder where it ended up.

Mart also took me to see more peaceful sights such as the frozen waterfall pictured below and a stretch of coastline where swans fished in the chilly water.

“They’re taking a risk,” he said. “Usually they migrate away from the sea in winter because it freezes and they can’t fish. They’ve stayed this year because it’s so mild. But if it freezes, they won’t be able to eat.”

We talked about Estonia’s natural beauty for a time, and visited an old lighthouse that was on the verge of teetering into the sea because of erosion. Time and again, our mutual enthusiasm brought the conversation back to the Cold War. The Soviets didn’t just leave behind material and hazardous waste; they left behind people too. During the old days the central government tried to “Russify” outlying areas by sending Russians to live there. About a quarter of Estonia’s population speaks Russian as their native language.

These folks got caught in the middle during the independence movement in the 1990s. During the transition people were asked to get an unofficial Estonian identity card – unofficial because Estonia wasn’t a country yet. Many Russians didn’t, either because of loyalty to the homeland or fear that Estonia wouldn’t become a nation and anyone with a card would get in trouble.

When independence became official, the identity cards were used to establish citizenship. Many Russians in the nation were left without a state. They got “gray passports” that designate them as resident aliens. They don’t get to vote in national elections, hold government jobs, or enjoy many advantages of the European Union. Now the public schools are switching to teaching mostly in Estonian. Sounds like a good way to create a disaffected underclass.

Reactions from Estonians vary. Mart is sympathetic. Others are less so. One Estonian woman said of the Russians in her country, “We hate them.” Steps have been taken to give more Russian Estonians their citizenship, but official figures still show about 8 percent of the national population to lack citizenship.

It’s a messy business and while I see the problem, I don’t see an easy answer. What is surprising about the collapse of the Soviet Union is that many areas managed to get through it relatively unscathed. Back in the early 1990s, a guy I know in college who everyone called “Stalin” because of his hardcore Communism predicted that, “These countries will be lucky if they survive with half their populations.” At the time I thought he might be right.

For Estonia at least, they survived with a lingering social problem, some dodgy nuclear sites and one really, really cool clubhouse. If only every former Soviet republic had been so lucky.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Medieval Abbey In Estonia!

[Top photo by Mart the Psychotic Yet Well-Informed Tour Guide. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]

Estonian Army

Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

A Vintage Submarine And Icebreaker In Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour

Tallinn
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.

The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.

Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.

Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.

Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.

%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.

This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.

Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.

If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Estonia’s Rich Art and Literature Scene!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Exploring A Snowy Traditional Village In Estonia

Estonia
After so many years living in Spain, it was nice to visit Estonia and experience a real winter again. That numbness on the tip of your nose while the rest of your body is bundled up and warm, the way sounds get muffled by the snow, the intricate designs the icy branches etch into the sky – winter is a good season when you don’t have to experience it for too long.

The best way to experience winter is to get out into the countryside. Day trips from the capital Tallinn can be tricky, however, as the bus system isn’t the greatest. One quick way to experience country life and get a bit of history is to spend a few euros on a taxi and go to the Estonian Open Air Museum just outside of town.

This remarkable place is the Colonial Williamsburg of the Baltics. Historic buildings have been collected here from all regions of Estonia to recreate several traditional villages. Costumed employees practice traditional crafts as visitors wander around the forested paths between the villages.

I went on Shrove Tuesday, which is a special event in Estonian culture. The village tavern was serving up pig trotters with the warning not to wipe the grease off your chin if you wanted to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year. After a messy lunch that’s going to make me rich and fortunate in 2013, I headed out into the country lanes. Being the middle of a weekday, it was quiet. Visitors were spread out over the museum’s several acres and for the most part all was silent except for the crunch of my boots in the snow. Every now and then I’d hear the jingle of sleigh bells and see a happy family scoot by, driven by one of the museum employees.

%Gallery-179095%It’s a big day for kids, who go sledding on this date. For some reason sledding ensures that flax will grow tall in the new year. The child who sleds the farthest guarantees that his or her household will have the best flax crop. A gaggle of squealing Estonian kids hurtling down the slope next to one of the windmills were having too much fun to care whether the flax grew tall or not. Nearby was a merry-go-round set atop a frozen pond, spinning extra quickly on the ice.

Estonian kids have turned the making of snowmen into a fine art. Kadriorg Park, back in town, had an entire population of snowmen, snow women, snow dragons, and a snow bear climbing a tree to get a snow squirrel. Scattered around the 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the Open Air Museum I saw snowmen hanging out enjoying the holiday. It made me wonder how old the tradition of making snowmen is and why it started.

The homes, barns and churches collected here are now rarities. During Soviet times the emphasis was on collectivization and most old rural buildings were allowed to decay. So it’s a rare treat to see their distinct, homey style and watch kids play at the same games their ancestors did when these old buildings were new.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Estonia