The vast expanse of Russia ends abruptly down the middle of Lake Peipsi, where the Republic of Estonia begins. Topography on the Estonian side is muted. Should the lake level ever rise significantly, there is little to keep waters from completely inundating the country. The area is heavily farmed, and individual fields are often separated by small groves of forests. And while animals can still be seen pulling heavily laden carts, mostly Soviet-era tractors plow the fields.
On a lazy afternoon last May I drove out to see Lake Peipsi, Estonia’s largest freshwater body. At the end of a lonely gravel road, at the edge of the lake, I came upon the tiny village of Varnja. Guidebooks do not cover this area; the road was not on my map. It promised to be a slice of untouched Estonia that I was so anxious to see.
Varnja defies the stereotypical bleakness associated with Eastern Europe. It has order; it has color. Varnja is a little piece of Switzerland without the precipitous mountains and tortured glaciers. Houses, mostly wooden on raised stone and brick foundations, are kept freshly painted and adorned with flowers.
Each home has an immaculate garden with, curiously, the inverse of raised beds: sunken walkways. These access paths are perfectly rectangular troughs, about two to three feet in depth. Exposed soil is as dark as night. Some yards have firewood artfully stacked in individual teardrop shapes ala Andy Goldsworthy, every piece the same size.
Looking east over the water, only occasional columns of smoke suggested Russia’s existence. At the far end of town a border patrol tower sat unmanned. Two border patrol guards, backs to Russia, were fishing a feeder stream just below the tower.
As I pulled up in my van with German license plates, they seemed edgy. They acted as if preoccupied with their fishing, though no fish were biting. They averted their eyes and gave short answers to my questions. I had difficulty understanding their slurred Russian – perhaps they had been drinking – so I headed back through town.
Driving northward, other tiny villages dotted the shoreline. Many were in a state of disrepair. I stopped at one of the larger ones, near a park that borders the lake. A cracked concrete walkway led to a bizarre statue of a muscular, naked man with no arms.
An old man wearing a torn plaid shirt and faded Stalin-esque hat sat on a bench near the base of the statue. He twirled his cane while telling me it commemorates those fallen during WWII.
He remembered the war well as it was the only time he had ever left the area. He had been forced to join the Russian military and had been dispatched to Yugoslavia, which he spoke of fondly.
Born in a house bordering the park, he had raised four children there and now lives with one of his grandchildren. He had been in charge of a fishing crew, which pulled some 10,000 tons of fish out of Lake Peipsi each week. It had been a profitable industry in his day; the town had bustled.
Today, one can no longer make a living fishing the lake, though some still try. The largest building in town, formerly a hotel and restaurant, was currently being demolished. He did not know what would replace it. Few tourists come here now and there is no work. He asked me how an American knows Russian but otherwise was incurious.
Back on the road, I noticed that, instead of docks, the inhabitants have dug out passages through the thick vegetation along the shore that extend inland about 100 feet. Small boats are beached along the sides of these flooded trenches. While thinking about what it must be like in winter, it became clear why they chose to “dig up” instead of “build out”.
Parked in some driveways were vehicles with grossly oversized tires – not unlike small monster trucks. When the lake freezes sufficiently, these vehicles give access to ice fishing areas. Rather than dealing with the complexities of designing and building a dock one can drive off, access is immediately from the road. I learned later that accidents related to ice failure are not uncommon.
At another stop I noticed one of the van’s tires was low. There had not been anything resembling a service garage in hours, and a look at the map held little promise. The van and I limped on to the next village. Two people were in the yard of a house along the outskirts, working on a car. They seemed complete opposites: one was slim, bespectacled, and sported an attractive sweater-vest, while the other was rotund, unshaven, and in an old jogging suit.
They immediately had me back the van into their yard near a barn. The slim one came out of the barn pulling an air pressure hose and filled the low tire. He asked me from where I came. “Oh. And does everyone in America know Russian?” he quipped. He doubted anyone else nearby had an air compressor – I was lucky. We enjoyed a warm exchange and they suggested I take a walk along the lake shore to see the “famous red cliffs” about 10 minutes away by foot.
I had difficulty imagining cliffs in this landscape as I set out on an overgrown path. Rounded boulders lined the shore in this area though small beaches made entirely of shells had formed in places. Thick brush forced me to boulder-hop at times, and many spider webs hindered my progress.
The path ended, as promised, where pumpkin-orange sandstone emerges from the ground and stands defiantly overlooking the lake. I sat down on a boulder and contemplated Estonia’s tumultuous past. I felt the stillness of passing time. At my feet, small waves danced laconically with the shells and rocks, silently tossing sunbeams randomly about. And I recalled something the slim Estonian had asked of me:
“When you go back to America, tell everyone how beautiful it is here.”