One of the problems with travelling to these less popular destinations is a lack of infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite happy to have to work a little harder to find places to stay in the evenings. Our applications were blank for much of Latvia, so we had to free-style, and use our guile to find a safe and quiet place to stay – which is easier said than done. Most of the side roads are driveways to private properties, so we thought we’d try and aim for a national park. It turned out to be just a forestry road, with no parking, but we found a tiny clearing that was flat and off the road, surrounded by dense pine forestation.
It was weird being so remote, and again I felt a little uncomfortable at the prospect of being away from the safety of city lights and other people. I know that deep down it’s the other people that are the only threat, but my imagination still told me that there is safety in numbers. Opening the door after sunset, and stepping out in the pure black of night, there was a primordial fear that struck me. It was incredible to see the stars again, but I couldn’t help want to return to the safe cocoon of our van. It took a while for me to get used to walking around in the dark in Australia, controlling my imagination. I clearly need more practise here.
For all the horror scenarios that played out in my head before going to bed, we only heard a single car while we were having breakfast – and they were probably more surprised than we were.
It was surprisingly cold this morning, with frigid winds chilling things down to low double digit temperatures.
We had to return to the motorway back along the corrugated unsealed road, passing old men on bicycles, again, unsure who was more confused at seeing the other on the road. The winds had really picked up overnight, and we were struggling directly into a headwind – which meant slow going, even on the flat roads.
There wasn’t much to look at on our drive. It was flat, mostly featureless pine forest, with occasional farms breaking things up.
We were headed west to see an ex-Soviet military base, which was abandoned after the collapse of the USSR. It was a top secret RADAR facility, and housed several thousand soldiers and their families at the peak period of operation. After the collapse and withdrawal of Russian military, it sat unoccupied – and still continues to do so. Like many of the top secret Soviet sites, it was named after the nearest local town, and with a designating number. The town of Skrunda supposedly didn’t know about this facility, but assumed something with radios once it started playing havoc with their TV/radio reception.
It’s hardly a secret now – you can find it on Google Maps. There is currently official tourism organised, with a lady collecting entry fees (€4) at the gate. I read a rumour that the site has been put on auction several times, but is now back in the hands of the Latvian military, who plan to close the site to tourism at some point in the near future.
The small road connecting Skrunda-1 to the regular road was overgrown, with weeds growing out of the cracks in the slabs of concrete. We passed through the old gate, and using the provided map, we started exploring the overgrown, and now thoroughly abandoned city. It was eerie seeing so many large concrete buildings just sitting empty and idle. Trees were growing on the roof, and curtains were hanging out the windows and flapping in the breeze. The trees were starting to take over the open spaces, and apple trees were getting out of control.
While lots of the damage was due to nature, man had played a rather major role in the destruction, with fairly widespread vandalism. Hundreds of the windows were smashed, doors were kicked in, broken bottles of vodka, graffiti and garbage. Standing by ourselves in the large open areas, it was creepy to hear the sounds of the building, with the strong winds slamming doors through the complexes, as well as whistling through the rungs of the balconies and flapping the metal panels on the roof. We weren’t completely alone, spotting a military duo, as well as a few other tourists. However, the complex was so large that we felt alone in this isolated environment.
Our first stop was the old officers club, which had walls decorated with some mediocre murals, as well as a giant mosaic of Stalin. Surprisingly, these were still intact and free from graffiti. Stepping further into the building, it was incredible to see just how poorly the building has fared from its time alone in nature. The wooden floor of the basketball court was almost entirely rotten, and the paint was all flaking. There was something beautiful to me about the dilapidation in this building. There was an incredible amount of rot, but still there was some colour.
I could imagine the parties that would have occurred here back while it was in operation, and it was weird to see it in this current state.
We visited a few of the buildings, scouring for something exciting. After visiting three or four blocks of apartments, traversing up five or six floors in each, it started to feel a little repetitive.
Looters had obviously visited at some point, and many of the metal fixtures had been cut from the building and likely sold for scrap. Wiring has been ripped out of the wall, and switchboards gutted, too. The is no furniture, or other fixtures, just hundreds and hundreds of empty, rotting rooms spread across a dozen or more multi-story buildings. The apartments seemed to be more rotten the further we headed up the stairs. I’m assuming that the roof is leaking, since trees are growing up there, and we can hear panelling flapping in the strong winds.
The first thing I thought when I saw these abandoned buildings was it’d make for incredible paintball matches. It seems that the Latvian army has one upped my modest thinking, and has been using this for training exercises, with some rooms filled with shells of blanks. It was strange at first to see so many empty bullets littering the floors, but once I realised they were blanks, things were calmer in my mind.
It’s not to say that the apartments were completely empty. Some of them featured posters and paintings from the original inhabitants. Most were disturbing, but some were odd – like the giant MTV logos painted in a kids bedroom.
Some of the other tourists had made it onto the rooves of some of the buildings, but the only access I saw looked sketchy, using a DIY ladder made from branches and rope to access a manhole above a stairwell. I wanted to see it from above, but had to settle for the footage from the drone instead. I thought the two men from the Latvian military might have cared about the drone, but they gave it a quick glance, and continued on their routine.
To break up the apartments, we went to explore the old bunker. If walking through abandoned apartments or hospital hallways isn’t creepy enough, you should walk through the corridors of an abandoned underground bunker. It’s completely dark, the floor is wet, wires hang like spider webs, and it smells like a mixture of rust and damp – or blood, if you’re creative enough. Again, left in the dark my imagination took hold, and I start remembering the movies or games that I’ve watched or played (The Descent and Silent Hill come to mind). This paranoia and fear wasn’t helped by the torch on my phone being only shades better than useless – much like Silent Hill.
The hospital looked much the same from the outside, but much more open from the inside. The corridors stretched the length of the building, with light leaking in through all the doors that had been kicked open, or removed completely. The walls were all painted black, and I’m curious who went to that trouble – and why. The equipment had mostly been removed, with a few mounting fixtures from diagnostic equipment still remaining. Also remaining were the terrible murals painted in what I can only assume was a paediatric department.
We left the large residential area, and went to the other smaller area, which included the prison, as well as the canteen, which had been converted for military exercises with sandbags, blank shell casings, blocked windows and makeshift ladders.
We’d been here for nearly four hours, and we were exhausted and hungry – thankfully having our home in the car park, we didn’t have to travel far to have lunch!
It was incredible to see something the size of a small town left to rot – though, I’m sure there are plenty of other examples out there. A friend visited a former Soviet mining town in Siberia, and we visited one in Japan. It was well worth the detour to visit.
After lunch, we continued driving towards the west coast of Latvia, before driving south towards Lithuania and the Curonian Spit. The whole coast seems to be fringed with beaches, and we happened to find one that we could park right next to – if we had a 4WD like in Australia, we’d be able to drive out and camp on the beach, but there was no chance I’d get near sand in our front-wheel drive motorhome!
The chilling wind we’d felt all day in Skrunda-1 was still blowing here by the beach. It looked surprisingly beautiful, but there was no way that I was getting wet today, as much as I wanted to be able to say that I’ve been swimming in the Baltic Sea. It was also surprising how soft and clean the sand was here. It’s some of the nicest sand we’ve experienced since Australia – and we basically had it to ourselves.
Closer to sunset, a few brave locals headed to the beach with picnic baskets (and thick jackets). We’d love to sit and watch the sunset over the sea, but with the sand being blasted off the beach, as well as the cold breeze, we settled for what we could see from inside our van.
And, I’m glad that we didn’t sit out there waiting for the sunset, because at the last moment, it disappeared behind clouds, and fizzled out.
I woke to learn a valuable lesson about property this morning. I left my sandy tripod outside the van last night, with thoughts about taking star photos later on. It was a remote park, and it was leant against our van. This morning, it was gone. It was a nice sturdy tripod, and brand new worth a reasonable amount of money. But, it’s had a hard life, and was on the list to be replaced with something more portable. The most annoying part is whoever stole it won’t be able to use it without the quick-release plates – plus, I don’t have a tripod for the rest of our journey.