Pilgrimmage Into a Fallen Empire

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June 27th 2017
Published: July 11th 2017
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Hello my fellow travellers!

Today was my final day in Lithuania as I will go to Riga in Latvia tomorrow. It is fascinating, I find, that my last day in this country would also be, by far, the best one. This part of the trip was very spontaneous, I felt that I had seen what I wanted in Vilnius and I had heard, already back in Kaunas, about Kryžių Kalnas, a hill covered with over 100.000 crosses. It's located about 10 km outside of Siauliai so I decided to go there and it was a really good decision.

I sent a last minute couch request to a family of three, Ugne, Egidijus and their son Paulius and it was accepted immediately even though Egidijus was away, working on a boat, and Ugne was tired from preparing to move the whole family to Gran Canaria.

As I arrived in Siauliai I made my way out to Kryžių Kalnas right away and it is absolutely amazing! Sure, it has turned into somewhat of a tourist spectacle now but it still retains a really special aura. It is so steeped in it's resistance against the Soviet Union that you can almost feel it. The Soviets would burn the crosses only for the Lithuanian people to rebuild them over and over again. Ugde told me that after independence had been gained they interviewed people about the crosses and one metalworker told them that he had forged over 30 large and crude crosses from scrap metal at his workshop and driven them out there in the company car. When asked why he did it he stated that the reason was that Soviet kept destroying them so he kept building them to fight them in any way he could.

When you stand at the top of the hill, looking out over the thousands upon thousands of crosses you can't help but to feel immersed and wonder about the mythology of the place. There is nothing religious over it, at least not that anyone know for sure, even though the pope himself did pay a visit here not that long ago. The main spirit of the site is a battle against a repressive ideology, an ideology that is again spreading it influence over our world. Threatening our freedom of speech, our freedom of though and even our freedom of life. Standing here, talking to people who lost their relatives, either to summary executions, mass exile or while fighting as partisans against tyranny you know that this ideology must never be allowed to gain ground again.

While I was at Kryžių Kalnas I met two amazing Japanese guys, Katsu and Shuto, whom I got along well with and we ended up spending several hours together before they headed to Vilnius and I went to my hosts. We agreed to meet again in Tokyo when I return to Japan in October, so now it's them, Ruta and of course all my previous friends in Japan since before. I will need more time in Japan!

On the way to my hosts I took a look at most of the sights in Siauliai and while I generally liked it I wasn't really amazed by anything. At least, I wasn't until my eyes fell upon the cathedral, Sv. Apastalu Petro ir Pauliaus Katedra, I became absolutely entranced and it quite literally took my breath away! It is legitimately one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, and even ranks among the most beautiful religious sites I have ever seen and I have seen many over the years. It genuinely looks like it's taken straight out of the pages of a Tolkien book, like the white tower of Osgiliath. It is something that you must see in your lifetime!

After I came to Ugne and Paulius she boiled me some delicious local tea, made by herbs that Paulius had picked himself! She also cooked some local cuisine which was really tasty, it is actually quite similar to the food in Sweden. After we had eaten she took me on a tour of a nearby lake but when my eyes fell on an abandoned factory nearby and when she saw my interest in it she offered to show it to me. I of course thanked her and she proceeded to tell the most immersive story about the history of Lithuania, the good parts as well as the bad ones. This factory, and it was a huge complex with many buildings, used to belong to Khayem Frenkl. A wealthy Jewish industrialist and one of the most successful businessmen ever to operate in Lithuania.

He was a philanthropist who built several public institutions, including hospitals, in the region. However, he had to flee during World War I and he died in Germany without ever seeing his new factory. His son however returned and tried to rebuild during the interwar period. But as World War II came around the area was turned into a Jewish Ghetto and many died and the Frenkl empire fell once again never to rise again.

Walking amongst the remains of his industrial empire, complete with a synagogue for his workers, while listening to the sad history of Lithuania was an unparalleled experience in Lithuania. It rivalled such experiences as witnessing Konzentrationslager Auschwitz and the Hiroshima Heiwa Kinenshi Ryōkan, the peace memorial museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the effects of the atomic bomb and preventing such tragedies. Without the historical context I don't know if the area would have been as immersive but even so I really recommend you all to go here, the factory complex is right next to the waterfront and is easy to find.

During our walk she also showed me where the old trench lines had been, right through the local cemetery which was completely demolished during the fighting and the remains of those buried there was scattered all over, impossible to identify again. Part of her family had been fighting as partisans and one of them had died during his first engagement, since they couldn't give him a public burial at the to,e they buried him in secret in one of the family graves.

After Lithuania gained it's independence they had opened the grave again to give him a proper burial only to find yet another body buried in the same grave, most likely another partisan. Since they didn't know who was who they decided to leave them both there, both had been partisans, dying in pursuit of freedom of their country and now they were sharing their final resting place together.

I also learned from Ugne that Lithuania has the sad honour of being the most effective country in killing off it's Jewish population during the war by percentage of the population. Many towns along the old trading routes had been 90% Jewish before the war and now there are very Jews few left. As I wrote the other day there was once a hundred synagogues in Vilnius, now only a single one remains. On our walk we passed a memorial stone that marked the old entrance to the Jewish ghetto where so many met their end, today it is a regular residential area and this memorial stone is the only thing that reminds you about the sad history of the site.

Hearing about the people who died in the holocaust here, learning about the crimes of the Communists terror regime that followed, a regime that killed of most of Ugne's family, and imagining their ensuing struggle for independence. All of this today has really created the perfect setting for a very thought provocative and highly educational final day in Lithuania.

This is one of those days that I will always remember and that I will always treasure, few moments have impacted me so before. Only on such rare occasions as in the death camp of Konzentrationslager Auschwitz death camp and the atomic bomb museum Hiroshima Heiwa Kinenshi Ryōkan have I ever felt such a personal connection to history as I did here today. And it was all thanks to Ugne, this is why couch surfing is a way of life and why I recommend it to everyone.

Tomorrow I will continue to Riga in Latvia and Ugne have given me several good tips about what to visit while I'm in Latvia as well.

Until tomorrow I wish you all peace and happy travels!

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11th July 2017

Great to read that feels like i was there :D Please see RIU Hotels Coupon
11th July 2017

Glad you liked it :)

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