Suur Munamagi – 1,043 ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: May 5, 2013 (Eric), April 18, 2015 (Eric and Matthew)
2:06am – Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (Belarus)
12:16pm – Aukstojas Hill (Lithuania)
6:14pm – Gaizinkalns (Latvia)
10:01pm – Suur Manamagi (Estonia)
“Why at night, Eric, why at night?” the taxi driver’s words rang through my head again. I ducked under a branch and pushed through some bushes deeper into the woods. A few angry dogs started barking at me not far away. I glanced down at my GPS again, and cursed the incorrect summit coordinates I had trusted so blindly. I glanced at my watch and winced – 1:37am and I was still wandering through the woods in rural western Belarus. I knew Dzyarzhynskaya Hara had to be close, but I was running out of time.
Phase 1: Getting approval to enter Belarus
I’d found myself in Europe for a conference, and decided to climb some country highpoints in the Baltic countries and Belarus on the side. Now, the country highpoint of Belarus – Dzyarzhynskaya Hara – is not a place you easily stumble upon. My journey to Belarus started two months earlier, when I applied for a tourist visa to enter the country and was rejected. The consulate said I needed to provide a voucher and letter of invitation from of government-certified tour operator to get the visa approved. I had no intention of going on any government tours, though – I just wanted to climb to the highest point in the country. However, they suggested I could apply for a private visa and not need the official invitation. The only catch, though, was that I needed a private individual in Belarus to invite me to their house to stay.
I emailed around and found a friend of a friend who actually lived in Belarus and was willing to let me use his name/address for the visa application (even though I didn’t intend to stay with him). I applied for the new visa, and, amazingly, it was accepted. I could now move on the phase two of the planning: figuring out how to get into Belarus.
Phase 2: Figuring out how to get into Belarus
My goal for the weekend was to climb four country highpoints (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus), and, since the countries are so small, it made the most sense to fly into one city and drive a rental car to all the highpoints. Unfortunately, according to their websites, almost every car rental company prohibits travel across any border into or out of Belarus, with two exceptions. The Alamo in Vilnius, Lithuania supposedly allows cross-border travel into Belarus with written permission and a special permit, and the National Rental Car in Riga, Latvia also supposedly allows travel outside the European Union with a special permit.
Riga was a cheaper and more convenient airport, so I called up the US branch of National Rental Car to make sure, and the customer service person assured me I could indeed drive the car into Belarus. Everything seemed to be falling into place, so I bought my plane tickets, booked my car rental, and relaxed.
Two days before the trip I decided, just to be completely sure, I’d call up the actual car rental local phone number in Latvia to verify I could drive into Belarus. I used Skype to save money on the international call, and luckily the person on the other end spoke some English.
“No, I am sorry we do not allow travel outside the Baltic states, and certainly not into Belarus,” the representative said, “And I do not know of any car rental companies that would let you drive into Belarus.”
I angrily hung up and started thinking of a backup plan. Certainly the Alamo in Vilnius will let me drive into Belarus, I thought, since it says very explicitly on the website that travel is allowed into Belarus. My plans could still work.
I quickly bought a round-trip flight Riga to Vilnius and relaxed, thinking for the second time that the Belarus logistics were solidified. The new itinerary would give me only 1.5 days on the ground, but should be just enough to climb all the mountains.
“I’d call up the Alamo in Vilnius just to make one hundred percent sure,” Matthew warned me later that day. I reluctantly agreed, but wasn’t too worried. The website pretty clearly said I could cross the border. Because of the seven-hour time difference I had to wait until the next morning to call, though.
The Alamo at the Vilnius airport wouldn’t pick up after repeated tries, so I called another Alamo in downtown Vilnius.
“No, I’m sorry but we do not allow travel into Belarus,” the lady on the other end told me. I was taken off guard by this.
“But your website says you do,” I countered.
“Well the website is wrong,” she replied. “No car rental companies in Lithuania allow travel into Belarus.”
I hung up angrily again and started formulating Plan C. I quickly called up Air Baltic to cancel my flight to Vilnius, since it’s usually free to cancel within 24 hours and I was at 23 hrs 40 minutes since I’d bought the ticket. But the person at air Baltic told me they had no such cancellation policy and there was no way for me to get any money back for the flight.
I was getting used to such setbacks by this point. I momentarily considered giving up on Belarus, but decided I had to keep trying, given the effort I’d already put in getting the visa. So I modified my plan to simply fly to Riga, drive to Vilnius, take a train to Minsk, Belarus, and hire a taxi to take me from there to the highpoint. Train tickets, however, had to be purchased at the station (not possible to purchase online), and based on the train schedules I would at best have an 8-hour layover at night in Minsk. The train tickets might be sold out when I arrived, but I had no other options.
I finally settled on Plan C at t-minus 12 hours before my Europe flight, reserved a rental car in Riga, Latvia, and started packing. I suspected the taxi drivers in Belarus wouldn’t speak any English, so I quickly typed out a few sentences saying where I wanted to go and how to get there, translated into Russian/Cyrillic using google-translate, and printed off a copy. I could hand this to the driver and hopefully get where I needed to go.
Boston to Lithuania
I landed in Riga, Latvia at 1:15pm on Saturday afternoon, picked up my rental car, and started driving. My car GPS worked perfectly, and I easily drove southeast, crossing the border into Lithuania and rolling into Vilnius by 5:30pm.
I walked into the train station and asked for the next ticket to Minsk, Belarus. The woman didn’t speak much English, but we managed to agree on the 7pm train, arriving at Minsk at 10:30pm, then departing at 7am the next morning. I was extremely relieved when I finally held those tickets in my hands. I might make it into Belarus afterall!
Now all I needed to do was park my car in a safe space overnight and get on the train. But there was no obvious overnight parking at the train station. I saw an information desk in the station and started waiting in line to ask what to do.
Somehow the woman at the desk had no idea where I could park my car overnight. Surely I wasn’t the first person to ever come to that train station and need a place to park my car? I wondered what questions that lady was even capable of answering if she couldn’t help me with this one.
Luckily there were two British gentlemen (Bob and Mark) in the room that overheard me and had run into the same parking dilemma.
“You can actually just park your car across the street at the hotel parking lot,” Bob told me. “It’s supposed to be just for guests, but they don’t ask any questions and there’s a security guard so your car will be safe.”
Me:“Thanks! I’m on the 7pm train to Minsk and will just be there for a day so need to leave my car somewhere.”
Bob: “We’re on the 7pm train too! And we’re also in Minsk just for a day. We’re actually just going there to climb the country highpoint.”
Me: “Really? That’s exactly what I’m doing in Belarus!”
Mark: “Are you Eric?”
Me: “Um… yes. Wait, how do you know my name?”
Here I was 4,000 miles from Boston in the Vilnius, Lithuania train station, and someone I’ve never met recognized me?
It turns out there aren’t a whole lot of people in the world trying to climb country highpoints, and the few out there tend to find out about each other. Mark had seen one of my trip reports online from some other country highpoint adventure, and somehow had recognized me from the pictures.
Bob and Mark are also working on climbing all the European country highpoints, and are a little ahead of me and Matthew (currently 26 to 24 if you’re keeping score). They’d just finished the highpoints of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that day when I met them in the train station.
We walked over to see where the hotel was, then I drove over to the guard and parked the car. We met up back in the train station and started strategizing about how to reach the highpoint. It seemed like it would make sense for us all to go together, except that I had to do it at night, and Bob and Mark understandably preferred to sleep at night and hike the highpoint in the day. We thought we could probably save money over multiple taxi rides by renting a car, except there was no car rental place near the train station, and the airport wasn’t close by either.
We agreed the best bet would probably be for me to take a taxi there at night, then let Bob and Mark use the same taxi driver the next day (since the driver would then presumably know where to go). Unfortunately the combined extent of our Russian vocabulary was “da” (yes), and “nyet” (no), and we’d heard that nobody in Minsk really speaks any English. Bob had a brilliant idea, though, to get around this.
“Why don’t we take a taxi to the hotel, and have the hotel receptionist negotiate with a taxi driver to take you to the highpoint?” Bob asked. “The hotel person will certainly speak both Russian and English, and can make sure you get a fair price for the trip. It should be easy to get to the hotel – taxi drivers are used to tourists asking for that.”
We agreed that plan had a much higher chance of success than using my print-out paper with Russian translations.
Shortly before 7pm we boarded the train. Unfortunately Bob and Mark were ticketed in a different car than I was, but we planned to find each other in Minsk. Soon several official-looking Lithuanians in uniforms boarded the train and checked everyone’s passports and tickets, and then we departed.
The train was pretty old, and didn’t move very fast, but after an hour we stopped and a tough-looking woman in camaflouge boarded my car. This was the Belarus border. She started inspecting everyone’s passports, and I nervously waited as she approached. My visa clearly said I was allowed to enter the country on this day, but I got the sense this lady could kick me off the train if she merely didn’t like my smile that day.
Finally it was my turn and I handed over my passport. She carefully looked at the visa, then said something to me sternly in Russian. I asked if she spoke English, and she repeated herself in English.
“Do you have health insurance?”
“Yes,” I said, quickly fumbling through my wallet and handing her my MIT insurance card. I vaguely remembered some lonely planet forum post saying Belarus required health insurance to enter, but didn’t think it would be a problem, and the consulate hadn’t said anything about it. She carefully scrutinized the card for a few seconds, then handed it back.
“No, no good,” she said. “You must have Belarus health insurance. You have immigration card?”
“No, what is that?” I replied. I was getting nervous I wouldn’t be allowed to enter now. I thought my visa was all I needed. Other passengers were starting to get a little mad, since I was clearly holding up the whole train now.
She handed me a little paper to fill out, and a pen. I starting filling out my name and passport number, then came a section of intended address. I had printed out the address of the friend of a friend in Minsk, but it was buried deep in my backpack, so I dug down to find it. The border lady was getting pretty annoyed now at me.
“Here, I fill it out,” she said, taking the form and filling it out based on my passport. For address she just wrote ‘Minsk.’ “You must buy health insurance in Minsk,” she said, ripping off and handing me my portion of the immigration card.
“Thank you! spa-see-ba,” I said, trying to remember ‘thanks’ in Russian. I had no intention of buying that insurance, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. She walked off the train and we started moving again. At long last I had officially crossed the barrier into the netherworld of Belarus. I felt like celebrating somehow, but even more than that I felt like sleeping. I’d taken the red-eye flight over to Europe the previous night, and anticipated possibly another sleepless night tonight trying to find the highpoint. I leaned against the wall and quickly fell asleep.
At 10:30pm we arrived in Minsk and I soon found Bob and Mark outside the station. Our first order of business was to obtain some Belarussian rubles, so we entered the train station to look around. We found an ATM and Bob looked up on his phone that the exchange rate was approximately 1,000 rubles per us dollar. I figured I’d take out 100USD worth of money to cover the taxi ride, so that would be 100,000 rubles.
When I entered this in the ATM, a single 100,000 ruble note came out. That seemed odd – ATMs in the US wouldn’t output hundred dollar bills, and there was no way a taxi driver would give me change for that. Then I went to a convenience store around the corner and saw that a piece of chocolate candy cost 4000 rubles. I guessed that should be about 50 cents worth of candy, so the exchange rate should be more like 10,000 to one. Just to be certain we didn’t mess up again, we decided to actually exchange currency at a booth instead of using the ATM. Luckily I’d brought plenty of US cash, and took out $100 worth of rubles.
Satisfied, we walked out to the street and flagged down a taxi.
“Hotel Victoria?” Bob asked.
“Da, da, hotel Victoria,” the driver responded nodding. We threw our packs in the back of the beat-up old 1950s-era sedan and took off into the night.
Ten minutes later we pulled up to a fancy hotel on the outskirts of town and walked up to the reception desk. The guy at the front was super friendly and spoke perfect English. He didn’t even flinch when we told him we were trying to get to the country highpoint tonight, about an hour away, and needed his help getting a taxi to take us there.
I showed him my printout maps and guidebook, and he called up someone to arrange a ride.
“The driver says 850,000 rubles, but he is just guessing and wants to use the meter. I think I can get you a better price with someone else, though,” the receptionist said. He walked outside and started talking to a taxi driver who was waiting outside the entrance. The driver then came inside and started looking at my guidebook and printout maps.
“Ok, this driver will take you for 640,000 rubles flat rate,” the hotel guy said.
“Perfect,” Bob said. “And he can take us two tomorrow morning to the same place?”
“Yes, that is correct,” the hotel guy replied.
Bob and Mark wished me good luck, I threw my bag into the taxi and we started driving at 11:30pm. I turned on my car GPS and hiking GPS to make sure we were going the right way, and the taxi driver – Jenya – also had a car GPS on. It turned out Jenya spoke a little bit of English, and said he usually does VIP taxi rides for the hotel. He’s driven people to Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and all over Belarus, so he was used to making long trips like this.
We started heading west on the bypass road around Minsk, but passed the turnoff that the taxi GPS and my GPS recommended to take. I didn’t question this, though, because I thought Jenya knew a better way. I expected some roads in Belarus are, perhaps, in rough shape and maybe Jenya was just avoiding these. We continued along the ring road and then exited heading south.
It looked like we were heading the opposite direction we needed to, and eventually Jenya pulled out his phone and called a friend. I assume he was asking for directions, because we took the next turn and finally started heading towards the highpoint. We couldn’t go too fast, though, because dense fog covered the whole road and it was the middle of the night.
Eventually we turned off on another road and then came to a sign in Cyrillic that Jenya said pointed to Skomatova. My guidebook said the highpoint was next to a sign for Skomatova, but it was unclear whether this was the sign. And my GPS coordinate of the summit was still a mile away. So I told Jenya to turn into the village and see if we got closer to my waypoint. Unfortunately I hadn’t loaded the satellite images on my GPS, and the car GPS didn’t have these small roads, so it was unclear how exactly to get to the coordinate.
We passed through the village and kept driving, sort of approaching my waypoint. Jenya pointed to a brown sign in front of us and said it read pointed to Dzyarzhynskaya Hara, the highpoint. I couldn’t read Cyrillic, but that sounded good to me. We followed the sign, then hit a dead-end at a farmer’s house and a gate. A dog started barking loudly at us. By now it was 12:30am and I was starting to get a little nervous.
Someone came out of the house and Jenya rolled down his window and started talking to the person. Then we turned around and started heading back to the village. I think the farmer was giving directions, but it was unclear. In the village Jenya stopped and talked to a woman walking on the side of the road, but it didn’t seem like she knew where to go.
We finally drove back to the main road, and stayed on the main road until at last we reached within a few hundred feet of my coordinate. I told Jenya to pull over and I’d run into the woods and find the highpoint.
But before he’d let me out he called up the hotel, talked to the receptionist guy in Russian, then handed me the phone.
“Your driver says he did not know it would take so long to get where you wanted to go, and now wants 100USD for the trip,” the hotel guy told me.
I wondered why Jenya didn’t just ask for more money himself, but I guess his English wasn’t good enough.
“Ok fine,” I replied. I had guessed it would cost $100 in the first place anyways. I told Jenya I’d pay him 100USD, then got out of the car with my GPS and started looking for the highpoint. This place sort of matched the description of my guidebook, but when I got to the coordinate there was no summit marker.
I ran all around the field and along the trees on the edge, but didn’t see anything. I ran back to the car to get the guidebook, and it showed the highpoint at the end of a dirt road. I ran up along the road near the car, until I was about a quarter mile past the highpoint coordinates. The road started going downhill, and some dogs started barking at me, so I turned around. Maybe my GPS coordinate was wrong? I had stupidly just input the coordinate from Wikipedia and had not double-checked it with any other resources. It must have been wrong.
I jogged back to the car and got inside.
“No summit,” I said dejectedly to Jenya. “Let’s just come back in the morning, I don’t have any idea where it is.” By now it was 1am, I was tired from running around, and I felt bad making Jenya wait in the taxi all night.
Jenya nodded and started driving back. I looked at the guidebook again, and started thinking about how much it would set me back to come back in the daylight. Certainly it would be much easier to find the highpoint during the day, but I would have to get a later train back to Lithuania, and probably have to climb the remaining three highpoints at night to catch my flight home in time. I was so close now, though, that it pained me to retreat.
“Jenya, I’ll give you 120USD if we can find the highpoint tonight,” I said, leaning forward.
“Ok, ok we find it then,” Jenya replied. I knew he would listen to that sort of offer. We stopped and looked at the guidebook, and guessed the sign pointing to Skomatova must be the same one as in the book. The highpoint was supposed to be up a dirt road close to that sign. We pulled up to a faint path directly opposite the sign and I got out and ran around the woods and the field, but didn’t see anything. We got back in and drove down a little farther, and I saw another faint road with three red poles sticking up on the side. Now I got excited because the guidebook said ‘Look for three red poles – these are very close to the highpoint.’
I jumped out and ran up the road and all around the woods again, but still had no luck. By now it was nearly 2am, my feet were soaked from running through mud, I was soaked in sweat, and I was ready to give up.
“That’s it, let’s just come back in the morning,” I said again as I got back into the car.
Jenya quietly backed up and started driving back on the asphalt, but then stopped at another dirt road.
“Don’t worry, Jenya will find summit,” he said, pulling off. I saw a big blue and white ‘P’ sign for parking, and started getting excited again. We pulled up a little farther, and the headlights illuminated a large stone on top of a hill with a small fence around it. This was the summit!
“This is it! We made it!” I said excitedly, shaking Jenya’s hand. “I’ll give you 130USD for this. This is beyond the call of duty for a taxi driver.”
I jumped out of the car, ran up to the highpoint and slapped the top of the rock victoriously. I snapped a bunch of pictures, and Jenya got out and took some pictures too. We exchanged high-fives before getting back in the car.
Now I could finally rest easy. I could still catch my same train out of Minsk, and have plenty of time for the Baltic States. On the return drive Jenya took the more direct way following the GPS route, and we made it back to the hotel by 3am.
I reluctantly handed over the money for the ride, then walked into the hotel. Surprisingly Bob and Mark were still awake at the bar! They’d wanted to wait for me to finish to see how it went and to make sure they talked to the taxi driver. Jenya came in after me and went to the bar. He agreed to drive Bob and Mark to the highpoint, but not before 11am.
Bob, Mark and I hung out at the bar exchanging stories for about an hour until we were too tired to talk anymore. I had originally planned to just walk around Minsk all night not sleeping until my train left, but they convinced me to sleep on the floor of their hotel room for a few hours. I snuck up with them and had a nice two-hour nap until it was time to wake up for my train.
I took a quick taxi to the train station, and had a little trouble figuring out which track to get on. Everything was written in Cyrillic and nothing looked like it said ‘Vilnius,’ but luckily only one train was leaving at 7:45am (my train), and the numbers were still the same as in English.
I hopped on the train and promptly went to sleep. I was woken momentarily for the border crossing, but this went smoothly and I logged a few more hours of sleep before arriving in Vilnius at 11am.
I picked up my car exactly where I’d left it and started driving toward highpoint number two for the day: Aukstojas hill. This one promised to be much easier. It was daylight, I had my own car, no visa requirements, and I was pretty sure I had the correct GPS coordinates.
I drove for about half an hour out of town back towards the Belarus border, then turned south at Medininkai on smaller roads. My car GPS faithfully navigated me all the way to the trailhead with no wrong turns.
The exact highest point of Lithuania has actually been a point of contention recently. Until recently the hill called Juozapine Kalnas was considered to be the highest in the country, but a Vilnius University student a few years ago determine that a nearby hill, Aukstojas, was in fact 24cm taller. Because these two hills are so close together and almost the same height, I thought it prudent to climb both of them.
There was actually a nice parking lot and short trails to both peaks, so I parked and hiked around a little, officially tagging Juozapine Kalnas at 12:04pm and Aukstojas at 12:16pm. There was an impressive tower next to the highpoints with a great view of the country side.
After a short break I returned to the car and started driving north toward my next objective: Latvia. I drove through Utena, and Rokiskis before crossing the border with no trouble. The country borders between the Baltic countries are basically like state borders in the US: the road quality might change, but there is no hassle with border patrols.
By 5:30pm I finally reached a small dirt side road outside of Madona, Latvia, and drove up following my GPS. I parked the car where the road seemed to end, and ran up to what looked like the tallest hill around. However, there was no summit rock or any marker. I jogged back to the car, turned on my hiking GPS and started reading the guidebook. The true summit was about ¾ mile away line of site, so I’d need to do a little walking.
I followed an old dirt road up into the woods, and actually saw a few patches of snow in the trees. I continued until the road reached the base of the mountain, then bushwacked up a grassy slope and reached the summit of Gaizinkalns at 6:14pm. It’s not quite a wilderness summit. This is the site of the only ski resort in Latvia, so there’s one ski lift at the top that looked like it just shut down for the season. I read there used to be a huge red-brick tower on top, but now there’s just a pile a red bricks.
I snapped some pictures near a rock at the summit, then jogged back to the car. I still had one country left to hit today: Estonia.
I was pretty tired when I got back to the car, after not having much sleep for the past two days, but was still alert enough to drive. I headed north again, and noticed more snow in the trees on the sides of the road. I was indeed pretty far north – the same latitude as Labrador – so I wasn’t too surprised there’d still be snow hanging around.
Many of the roads in Latvia were packed dirt and gravel, but I could still almost maintain the speed limit on them. I easily crossed into Estonia, and reached the base of Suur Munamagi at 9:45pm. After a short food break I walked up to the top at 10:01pm, just as the sun was setting. That made for four country highpoints in just one day (actually 19 hours, 55min), and I doubt there’s anyplace else in the world where so many country highpoints could be climbed in the same day.
I walked back down to my car and drove across the street to a big open field labeled as the camping area. I didn’t see any other cars, and nowhere to pay money, so it was the perfect place to sleep. I’d planned on sleeping in my bivy sack outside, but the temperature was already 40F and dropping, and I only had a thin summer sleeping bag. So I instead folded down the seats and slept in the car.
By 8:30am I was up and driving again, and made it back to the Riga airport just in time for my flight back to my conference in Germany.