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Published: July 21st 2013
One of thousands at the Hill Of Crosses.
This blog entry is coming to you from Kaunas, Lithuania, but it isn't supposed to.
It is supposed to be coming from Minsk, Belarus, a place that I have this strange obsession about visiting. My original plan was to take an overnight train from St Petersburg to Minsk before flying out of Vilnius, Lithuania, which is only a two hour bus ride from Minsk and from where there are cheap flights back to London. Four days before I left the UK for Russia however, the Belarusian embassy in London put paid to Plan A - I had applied for the cheaper "transit" visa for my visit to Belarus which would have allowed me in the country for 48 hours, but my application was refused on the basis that there is no physical need to go through Belarus to get from St Petersburg to Vilnius. Which begs the question - what is the point of having a transit visa at all? With the advent of air travel, you don't need to go through Belarus to get anywhere
I was obviously highly annoyed at this, as it meant that I had to make a last minute change of plan. I decided instead to
The number of crosses, statues and rosaries piled up here is staggering.
spend the weekend in provincial Lithuania, taking in the eerie Hill Of Crosses - perhaps the most astonishing sight in Lithuania - and a look around the town of Kaunas, which is supposed to be fairly lively.
So instead of an overnight train from St Petersburg to Minsk, I was now on an overnight train from St Petersburg to Vilnius. I would then take buses to visit the Hill Of Crosses and Kaunas before returning to Vilnius to fly back to London. I could've stayed in Vilnius - but I had been there before
But even Plan B didn't work out.
Because of a typical mad-dash from Pushkin to St Petersburg
I had no time to pick up any supplies for the overnight train. I was so rushed that I hadn't even eaten anything that day, so I was starving.
Where I was in relative luxury on my overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg - I even managed a shower before the train ride - I had no such comforts on this overnighter.
I was in 3rd class - smelly, non-air-conditioned, cattle class.
There are lots of families and old people on the train and it is quite social with everyone in the same open
There are some real pieces of art among all of the crosses here.
space and strangers were indeed talking to each other in Russian or Lithuanian.
Once the man looking after our carriage - the Russian/Lithuanian version of Alex McLeish - had dropped off bedding to each passenger, I then went looking for the restaurant carriage. On the way I had to pass through these horrible metal rooms at the end of each carriage that were the designated smoking areas. Arriving at the dining carriage, I wasn't the only one after a meal and the restaurant was completely full. With just one cook preparing food for everyone, it wasn't until I returned to the dining car around midnight that I managed to get a table and some food. As the restaurant was about to close, I just bought whatever food they had left, which was some pickled herring, Russian salad and bar snacks.
I don't know what it is, but there is something romantic about train restaurants - perhaps an evocation of luxury on the Orient Express, perhaps a sense of a romantic meal while eloping with your loved one while watching the countryside whiz by, or perhaps the fact that that the dining car features in many a scene from old school
Looking towards fields of sunflowers from the Hill Of Crosses.
After a fairly exhausting day, I had no trouble getting to sleep but around 2am I got nudged by Russian/Lithuanian Alex McLeish. The train had stopped and Russian border control needed to check my passport. McLeish seemed to have purposely brought the officer to me as well; no-one else was having their passport checked which I thought was a bit strange, but nevertheless I handed over my passport.
The officer looked at it before shaking her head and making a cancelling motion with her hands - she then said something in Russian to me, which of course I didn't understand. She then asked around for someone who could speak English and a lady in the bed next to mine piped up;
"She says that your visa is out. Expired."
I look at the lady and the officer incredulously.
"She says that you cannot continue on this train."
The officer points at the expiry date on my Russian visa; 31st May 2013. It was now 2am on the 1st June. You cannot be serious.
"But I'm leaving ", I protest. I can't be far from the border, I'll surely be over the border within the
Hill Of Crosses
Home to over 200,000 crosses.
"You have to get off the train and they will process your visa at a mobile checkpoint and then you can continue your journey", the lady tells me.
This is ridiculous. But I have no choice and I gather all my belongings before being marched off the train. It takes me time to get all my shit together and the officer rudely tells me to hurry up. A young man blocks my path off the train, before letting me through with an ironic cheer. I was so angry.
My anger then turned to apprehension. I was in a seemingly derelict railway stop in the middle of nowhere and there are a few buildings on the side of the tracks. I had no idea where I was, where I was being led to, or what was going to happen. Russian soldiers with machine guns walked around the place menacingly with dogs on leashes. It is dark.
The officer leads me into a wooden prefab hut where an middle-aged lady appears to have just woken up. The officer and the middle-aged lady exchange words and the lady then takes a photocopy of my passport. The lady asks me questions in
Path Through The Crosses
The site grew so large, to the point where they constructed stairs, rails and paths so that people could easily walk through the site.
Russian but I don't have a clue what they are saying and am unable to answer. She repeats her questions in exasperation, but it's no use. The officer leaves and I am then asked to take a seat on a worn-out leather armchair while the lady goes into an office. After a short while, I am then summoned into the office. The lady has an online translator up on her computer screen and she starts typing Russian into it. When she finishes typing, she hits the Translate button and I am able to read what she has written in English.
I am basically told that they will have to process me, take fingerprints, and get me to fill in and sign some paperwork but that after that is done, I have the choice of catching the next train to Lithuania from this station, or be dropped by taxi to the Russian/Latvian border. I type in my response, asking how long it will be until the next train. The lady types in her response; "this time tomorrow."
F*ck that - I'm not hanging out in this shithole for twenty four hours. I type in that I would like to take the
Showing Off The Camera
Such an sight presents ample opportunities to take great photographs and express yourself.
taxi and at the same time tried to ascertain whether the taxi could take me beyond the border to a Latvian town from where I could catch a bus or a train down to Lithuania. I also ask how much the taxi would cost. She tells me that the taxi would cost about 3,000RUB (£60) and that I would have to pay a fine of 2,300RUB (£45). Although annoyed at the extra expense, I am grateful that it is not more. I can't seem to get a clear answer on where the taxi could take me though.
To be fair, the lady was actually really nice about everything - she obviously knew that I was in a spot of bother and was trying her best to help me out, which put me at ease a bit.
I then ask her if I can use the toilet - the hut doesn't have one, so she leads me outside again and into another bigger building. This building is scary - it is dimly lit, has beige-painted brick walls and green metal doors. It looks like a prison.
The toilet is the most disgusting toilet I have ever seen. The bowl is half
Maximum cross density.
full of excrement and looks like it hasn't been flushed for weeks. The toilet is also infested with mosquitoes which are landing all over me. I wanted to get out of there ASAP and I'm not even sure that I even finished peeing before I bolted the hell out of there. I try to be a good samaritan and give it a flush but the flush is pathetically weak which explains why the bowl is half full of sewage.
Back in the hut, I am told to sit in the worn leather armchair (which is actually quite soft and comfortable) and "relax", while she prepared the necessary documentation.
The whole time this has been going on, my train still hasn't left - I wonder whether the lady can get everything processed quickly enough for me to get back on the train. It's a long shot though, as the lady had already given me my options and getting back on the train wasn't one of them.
I then hear the engine start up again and the train slowly pulling away. Sh*t.
After what seems like an hour, I am then summoned again into the office. She starts to interrogate me
The amount of stuff left here is quite incredible.
again via the online translator.
"Where were you born?"
"What is your occupation?"
"Are you married?"
I knew how to say "yes" and "no" in Russian - da
- so that saved me a bit of typing.
"Why did you overstay?"
Well, when the agency was filling out my Russian visa application, they asked me when I was leaving the country - I told them that my train was leaving on the 31st May. I didn't even think about exactly what time the train was leaving Russian soil, or what exactly the border control process was, which perhaps was a bit naive. I explain this to the lady and she nods her head understandingly.
I then have to provide fingerprints - all eight fingers, two thumbs and both palms - twice
. Surely this is a bit over-the-top? The fingerprints take ages and I am getting bitten by mosquitoes the whole time I am doing them.
I then have to sign about sixteen different documents - I'm not exaggerating - which are all in Russian so I don't have a clue what I am signing. Will I ever be allowed in Russia again?
Finally after four hours of interrogation,
I've never seen so many in my life.
waiting around, fingerprinting and signatures, I am finally ready to continue my journey.
The lady walks me to a bakery just outside the train station. I am in a town but I have no idea exactly where it is. The only clue I have is the sign outside the station that says "Пыталово". I can't read it but even if I could, I'd have no idea where it is - I guess it must be close to the Latvian border.
The bakery has an ATM and I withdraw enough roubles to pay for the taxi and my fine.
I am then led to a red, run-down, 80s Lada with a rough man sitting inside - this is my taxi to the border. The kind lady then bids me farewell.
The taxi driver seemed like more of a trucker than a taxi driver - big, smelly, dishevelled and with a bushy moustache, he was doing crazy speeds along the highway. I couldn't tell how fast he was going - his speedometer was broken. It was fair to say I was a just a tad worried.
The taxi driver pulls out a cigarette and lights up while we are going at
This is mainly a Catholic site but it is great to see the tolerance on display here.
what seems like 150km/h. He offers me one - I politely decline. He laughs. Seems like a nice guy.
We arrive at the border about twenty minutes later and I am hoping that he may take me to a town in Latvia. I get out of the car and approach the checkpoint booth. I hand over all of the documentation that I had signed at the railway station to the attractive lady in the booth. She asks me questions in Russian but I have no idea what she is asking. It takes a while and eventually the taxi driver comes over and I assume that he is telling them the situation and that all he had been told to do was to drive me here. He then uses sign language to indicate that he wants his fare - I guess he ain't taking me over the border then. I am surprised when he only asks for 500RUB - it meant that I now had quite a few roubles leftover. He drives off, leaving me to sign yet some more forms at the booth, all the while being devoured by giant mosquitoes. It must have looked ridiculous as I attempted to
It looks like the crosses are growing out of the hill.
answer questions and sign forms while swatting away swarms of mosquitoes at the same time.
I am eventually let through and I approach a second checkpoint with multiple lanes for cars and a large building. I walk down one of the lanes to a booth and hand over my documentation. After leaving me to fend off giant mosquitoes for five minutes, the officer in the booth then leads me inside the main building and into an office. Another officer who looks of Asian descent then looks at my passport and asks me a couple of questions. He then leaves the office for a few moments. I wonder how many New Zealanders have ever come through this checkpoint?
The officer returns and tells me to wait outside the office. While I wait, a bus-load of passengers are putting their bags through an x-ray machine. Another officer then comes and talks to me in passable English.
"Where are you going?" he asks.
"Vilnius", I reply.
"This bus is going to Vilnius", he tells me, "let me find out if they can take you." That would be perfect!
After waiting a bit longer, he returns.
"I'm sorry, they don't have any more room."
There are crosses and memorials planted here from all over the world.
"Where is the nearest town?" I ask him.
"Rezekne" he tells me.
I thank him for his efforts before he instructs me to walk to another booth outside the building.
Once there, I pay my "punishment" (fine - which is 2,700RUB, a little more than I had thought) before being interrogated again by a lady inside the booth as well as by another officer outside the booth who speaks good English. They ask me where I had been in Russia, where I had just come from, what my occupation is...all the while I am swatting away those pesky giant mosquitoes. I then finally get my stamp and am on my way.
"Good luck", the officer tells me.
That was the Russian checkpoints - now I had to go through no less than three different Latvian ones. They were a bit more straightforward but were more annoying because I had to wait my turn and then fill in a customs form while getting bitten by those bloody mosquitoes.
Once through the final checkpoint, I feel a sense of relief - I am in Latvia, back in the EU, no longer in trouble. My relief is short-lived however - I
Not Quite Christ The Redeemer
Smaller scale replica of Brazil's most famous landmark.
am at the start of a highway. I am literally in the middle of nowhere.
I speak to the Latvian officer inside the last checkpoint booth.
"Where is the nearest town? How far is it to Rezekne?"
"Rezekne? That is about 55km away." F*CK
"Where you want to go?" he asks me.
"You will have problems, to walk to Lithuania!" he tells me.
"There are lots of trucks driving through here - let me see if I can get one to take you."
How did it get to this? From doing vodka shots and visiting the splendiferous landmarks of Imperial Russia, I was now trying to hitch a ride from a Russian lorry driver to a Latvian town I had never heard of.
While I wait, I throw on my jacket and a pair of jeans to ward off those f*cking mosquitoes. I'm not the only one trying to hitch a ride - there is a smelly, dishevelled Russian man with bad teeth waiting with me.
Then suddenly out of nowhere, this big yellow bus suddenly appears.
The officer yells at me from his booth.
"Hey, why don't you ask that bus if they can take you
As well as Spain, crosses have been planted here by people from as far away as the US, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia.
to Rezekne? Go quickly!"
Smelly Russian Man is already over there as I run to catch up with him.
"Rezekne?" I ask the bus driver.
He nods his head and motions me on board. There is a fare to pay but I don't know how much - and I don't have any Latvian Lats, only Russian Roubles. Smelly Russian Man is in the same boat so the driver makes a call on his mobile phone. It's all good - 100RUB will take us to Rezekne.
Growing up in Auckland, the yellow public buses there had saved me many a long walk home, and now halfway across the world in the former Soviet Union, a big yellow bus has once again come to my rescue.
We reach Rezekne about an hour later at about 8am in the morning. I feel relieved to see a big town again; civilisation.
In between getting some much needed sleep on the bus, I had also got my Lonely Planet out to get my bearings. I figured that if I could get from Rezekne to Daugavpils, a big town further south towards Lithuania, there would probably be a good chance of getting a bus from
Probably the contribution from the furthest away.
there to Vilnius. I also got talking (or tried to talk anyway) to Smelly Russian Man, whose name was Ruslan.
Literally about five minutes after arriving in Rezekne, a bus bound for Daugavpils duly arrived - so on hopped me and Ruslan The (Smelly) Russian.
A couple of hours later, we arrived in Daugavpils.
Ruslan The (Smelly) Russian was proving quite useful and not so useful at the same time. He could use his Russian to communicate with the ladies behind the ticket counter at the bus station but he was also quite rude and couldn't understand anything I was trying to tell him. In the meantime, I managed to find a bank around the corner to exchange my roubles for lats.
As an Asian in a small eastern Latvian town, I obviously stood out like a sore thumb and I was getting looks from the locals as I ate one of their onion pastry donut things for breakfast. One young dude who could speak a little English was kind enough to help me out, talking to the ladies behind the ticket counter for me. There is a bus going to Vilnius in half-an-hour, though I have to buy my
3rd class sleeper carriage. The table in the foreground folds down to form my bed with the two seats either side of it. On the other side you can see four beds in each berth.
ticket on-board. The young dude then asked me what the hell I was doing in Latvia.
"It's a long story..." I tell him.
I bump into Ruslan The (Smelly) Russian again - he has somehow got a ticket for the next bus to Vilnius, whereas I was told I had to buy my ticket on board. Ruslan The (Smelly) Russian must've bought the last one with his actual knowledge of Russian, dammit.
The bus is about an hour late and when it arrives, it seems everyone at the bus station is trying to get on it. Slowly but surely, everyone including Ruslan The (Smelly) Russian who had tickets, manage to get on board - the young dude I was talking to tells me there is no more room on the bus. The bus agonisingly pulls away.
There was a reason why everyone was scrambling to get on that bus - it was the last one to Vilnius that day.
I approach the lady behind the ticket counter for what must've been the fifth time that morning.
She manages to convey to me that I should take the next bus to Visaginas, a small town just a little bit
The Dining Car
There's always something romantic about the restaurant car on a train.
south of Daugavpils, from where I could catch something to Vilnius. The next bus there was in a couple of hours time. I wasn't sure about going to a small town though, where the bus services were likely to be infrequent.
I then decided to reassess the situation and what I wanted to do. Despite everything that had happened to me, I was still determined to see Kaunas and The Hill Of Crosses. If I got to Vilnius, it was likely that it would be late, and then I would still need to take another one hour bus ride to Kaunas, where I had booked accommodation for the night - that is where I ultimately needed to get to. That would then only leave me the next day to look around Kaunas, take a three-hour bus ride to Siauliai to see the Hill Of Crosses, and then take another three hour bus ride to Vilnius to catch my plane. If I could get to Kaunas reasonably quickly today however, I might just be able to squeeze in a sightseeing tour of the Kaunas that night, meaning I could take my time going to the Hill Of Crosses the next day.
A local Lithuanian dish - surprisingly nice.
There was a bus to Riga in an hour, from where there are more frequent bus services down into Lithuania (and anywhere else for that matter). According to my Lonely Planet map, I figured that it would take about four hours to get to Riga and another three-and-a-half to get to Kaunas. So it was do-able depending on how long the layover was in Riga.
The decision was made - I was on my way across the length of the country to Riga.
I was right about the travel time - four hours later I arrived in Riga. But I had missed the last bus to Kaunas!
So I had to change my plan again.
There was a bus in an hour going to Siauliai - from there I could possibly catch another bus to Kaunas...but it was now 4.30pm meaning that I would only be arriving in Siauliai at 8pm, which might be too late to catch a bus anywhere.
I called up the hostel I had booked in Kaunas and told them that I only a had a slim chance of fulfilling my booking. They were pretty cool with it though, and just asked me to let
Church Of St Michael The Archangel
Surprisingly large church in Kaunas.
them know once I got to Siauliai whether I was going to make it.
I then had an hour to kill in Riga.
Having been here less than two years ago
it was a relief to finally be somewhere familiar again after everything I had been through in the last 24 hours. I knew at that stage I was probably going to have to find somewhere to stay in Siauliai as my chances of making it to Kaunas were slim. Lonely Planet came to the rescue, listing a hostel I could stay at in Siauliai - it was in fact, the only place listed in the book for the whole town.
It was thanks to my previous visit to Riga that I knew I could get free Wi-Fi at McDonald's so that I could look up on Google Maps how far the hostel mentioned in the Lonely Planet was from the bus station in Siauliai. It only seemed about a kilometre's walk, which was a relief.
Walking past The Naughty Squirrel hostel that I had stayed at last time in Riga, I was tempted just to pack the whole thing in and check in there and stay in Riga for the night, joining the
1.7km-long pedestrian street in Kaunas.
hostel pub crawl and getting absolutely wankered because hell, I deserved it. But I knew I'd regret it if I didn't see this through.
At approximately 8pm on the dot, I duly arrived in Siauliai and the bus timetables there confirmed that I had indeed missed the last bus to anywhere. I texted the hostel in Kaunas to confirm I wouldn't be staying there that night and proceeded to find the Lonely Planet-mentioned hostel.
It was on the same road as the bus station, the long main road that goes through the middle of the town, so it should have been easy to find. Looking for No.159, I arrive at No.161 which should be right next door to it, but No.161 is a massive glass building that houses a bank. Next door is just an empty lot. I keep walking past a park and notice there are some park benches there - I make a mental note of them in case I have to sleep on one of them tonight.
I walk past a church and a university campus building - the hostel is called Diauliu Kolegijos and the "Kolegijos" bit sounds like it could be related to the
Kaunas's main square in the old town featuring the old town hall on the right, now known as the Palace Of Weddings.
university but I don't see any sign of it. Looking ahead of me down the road, it appears I have hit the edge of town as the road turns into a highway. Park bench it is then.
A local woman walks past, so I show her the hostel's address. She points at the university building - there is a big sign on it saying "YOUTH HOSTEL". I thank her. I have now been up 21 relatively stressful hours straight at this stage, so no wonder my eyesight was going.
I walk inside and the place seems deserted. Looks like a student hall. Right on cue, a lady appears out of nowhere with a smile and leads me to an office.
"So would you like a room?"
"Yes", I reply, "yes please."
When she shows me to my room - my own room with two beds - I feel the biggest sense of relief. It was over.
Touching down in Moscow
didn't feel like that long ago yesterday - it sure did now.
It will come as no surprise that I slept well that night.
No sleep-in for me though, I was up at 9am on my way to the
As you can see, Kaunas's old town is very pretty.
taxi stand I had scouted the previous night. Rolling up to one of the awaiting cabs, I ask the driver to take me to "Kryžių Kalnas".
The advantage of staying overnight in Siauliai was that I now able to get the Lithuanian version of Phil Mitchell
to drive me to the Hill Of Crosses, just 12km and 15 minutes from Siauliai. After seeing it, I could then get on a three-hour bus to Kaunas to check the place out before moving on to Vilnius to catch my flight outta here - the logistics were perfect (for once).
The Hill Of Crosses is an eerie sight indeed. After a rebellion against Imperial Russia was ruthlessly crushed in 1831, relatives of the slain rebels planted crosses on this site to commemorate them. Memorial crosses were soon joined by devotional crosses and the hill soon became a pilgrimage site for Catholics and now the hill has over 200,000 crosses as well as statues and carvings, planted all over it. Made of wood, metal, and even stone, the crosses are all so tightly packed together that it looks as if they are growing out of the hill. The crosses range from massive crucifixes to thousands
The monument was hidden away when Stalin and the Soviets ruled over Lithuania.
of tiny rosaries and they come from all over the world - some are real pieces of art.
During the Soviet occupation, the Soviets saw the crosses as a symbol of resistance and thus the crosses were bulldozed several times and the site was guarded to prevent crosses being replaced. Yet the Lithuanians continued to risk their lives and freedom to creep past the guards in the middle of the night to replant crosses.
I spent an hour in the glorious sunshine looking around and taking photographs - that was how long Lithuanian Phil Mitchell said he would wait for me before taking me back to Siauliai. All for just £20 - his friendliness betrayed his Phil Mitchell exterior. With time of the essence, it was definitely worth it.
At noon, I was on my way to Kaunas and I duly arrived three hours later which left me about three hours to look around. It is a nice enough city - its old town is pleasant and its other main features include Laisves Aleja, a 1.7km pedestrian street, and the massive Church Of St Michael The Archangel at the end of it. The amount of run-down buildings and graffiti
Entering The Old Town
Street leading into Kaunas's old town.
was also noticeable.
While not quite Tallinn or Riga, Kaunas was still worth a visit. Rather unbelievably, after a glorious day, Kaunas decided to see me off with a storm out of nowhere that produced hailstones the size of Maltesers.
And with that, my ordeal/adventure comes to an end.
While I understand that technically I was in the wrong, and that the Russian officer was just doing her job by booting me off that train, it was quite clear among all of the Russian officials I encountered thereafter that they understood the pedantry, bureaucracy and ridiculousness of the situation which I think is why they were all a lot more helpful than I thought they would be. Despite that, surely the common sense thing to do would have been to just let me through and save everyone the hassle because at the end of the day, I was just minutes away from leaving the country and I had only overstayed for a grand total of 120 minutes.
In saying all of that, even when I was going through it all, I knew that one day I would be looking back at the whole episode with a smile and fond
Built on the river bank of the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers in the 14th century.
memories - a great travel story to tell for the rest of my life. A story that could perhaps even surpass this one
One thing's for sure - without my Lonely Planet and Google Maps, this long story would have been a whole lot longer.
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