Trucking Along The Via Baltica

IF the Baltic States are to become the Hong Kongs and Taiwans of the 21st century, a modern-day Hanseatic League, as some people envision, I wanted to see what their main road, Via Baltica, was like.

From Helsinki to Warsaw, I fancied myself a kind of Baltic Marco Polo riding shotgun to a professional trucker across some of Europe's newest borders.

I hoist myself up into Teet Oispuu's 364-horsepower Volvo truck. A proud Estonian trucker, Mr. Oispuu gives me a tour of his tidy home on wheels.

Everything has its place, including me. ``You sleep here,'' he says, pointing to the top bunk. A refrigerator behind my seat is stocked with his wife's home-made goodies, while a camping stove is neatly stashed in a cupboard. The truck, with new yellow Estonian plates, is filled with 260 gallons of diesel fuel, enough for Oispuu's 2,500-mile trip from Finland to Austria.

From Helsinki, we drive the smooth 190 miles to Lappeenranta in eastern Finland. ``These are nice roads in Finland, but just wait till we get to Russia. Oy!'' he exclaims. First, however, 21 tons of plywood must be forklifted into the trailer. By late afternoon, the load is strapped in, papers filled out, and the trailer sealed with a lead customs stamp. We are ready to go to Russia.

After crossing the Finnish-Russian border, a 6-mile swath of no man's land, the smooth Finnish roads give way to an agglomeration of patches, potholes, and bumps - a kind of free-for-all racetrack, where drivers fishtail their way through impossible passes. But Oispuu handles his truck with the ease of a go-cart. ``I love big trucks,'' he says, downshifting. ``As a kid, I dreamed about big Volvos. I saw them at the movies. Now, this is my life. This is really freedom for an Estonian.''

Conversation is difficult in a truck. Besides the deep diesel rumble, Oispuu and I are separated by five feet. So I immerse myself in his Russian road atlas, and realize this road officially doesn't exist. Roads leading out of the ex-Soviet Union were simply kept secret. ``The whole world knew of this road,'' Oispuu says, ``except the Soviet people.'' So Oispuu penciled it in.

The miles roll by. The bumping rhythm of the road is only partly absorbed by our springy seats.

At one point, Oispuu draws my attention to the wide desolate road ahead. Trees are cut back and cables are absent. The road was strategically built to double as a runway, he says.

We hit St. Petersburg by lunchtime, but only leave it by midafternoon. Our time is spent at endless traffic lights through 40 miles of sprawling suburban apartment blocks. It is raining.

Oispuu knows a place for lunch. We park on the banks of the Neva river and walk into Nevsky Melody, an empty cavernous restaurant. They are out of Pepsi, Fanta, and mineral water but not vodka. We settle for a cold molasses-tasting beverage and order what they have: cabbage soup and escallop doused in ketchup.

Several hours later, we reach the Russian-Estonian border, where Russian soldiers stand guard, machine guns nonchalantly slung over their shoulders.

We cross the Narva river to Estonia and Oispuu gets his documents stamped. The passing countryside is flat, and like southern Sweden, a patchwork of farms and fields. Even the houses and towns are noticeably better cared for than those in Russia. ``We are a poor country, but we are rich in freedom,'' emphasizes Oispuu, visibly relieved to be home.

We reach Tallinn by midnight, and his family is there to greet us. Tallinn has changed since my last visit a year ago. Sidewalk cafes are bustling with clients, restaurants are full, tourists are wandering about. Suddenly, Tallinn feels fashionable.

After a two-day delay in Tallinn, we start off again for points west on the Via Baltica. Oispuu's employer, Baltlink, is building motels, truck stops, and service stations along the road. But it is still unfit for long trucks. The Latvian and Lithuanian borders are crossed without a hitch. Pulling out a camera, however, still agitates the border guards.

Several hours later, we reach the Polish border. Usually hundreds of cars and trucks are backed up, inching through searches, document inspections, and customs. But we got through in just five hours. Photographing was easy. ``This isn't an Iron Curtain anymore; you can take what you want,'' one customs official said.

Once in Poland, though, the Via Baltica changes. Advertisements, the first since Finland, stood beckoning, and the road became visibly commercial. Oispuu even drove differently, more on his guard. He pulled over, checked the tachograph, and said he couldn't drive anymore. We were now in Western Europe, and driving more than eight hours a day risks heavy fines.

``In the West, people live and work normally, and maybe have time for a game of golf,'' Oispuu says. ``Where I come from, we have only begun to have our freedom. And if you don't work, you don't make any money. But today I drive only eight hours.''

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