Triplogue - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Tallinn as seen from the ferry (we chose a Finnish line)
Russian-speaking cyclist offering technical advice
|14 August, Tallinn,
Latvia to Parnu, 148 km
I was ready to leave Northern Europe for someplace more exotic and interesting. The civilized high point of Europe seemed too irritatingly predictable and easy to ride, with its big shoulders on the roads, friendly locals, copious roadside services and pure drinking water. The "adventure" really must begin. So when we set sail to Tallinn, I let go a little sigh of relief. Not to say that Helsinki wasnt more than a little fun, with the barfing Finns whose streets run with vomit after 4am. The thing I havent been able to figure out is how they puke and place a call on their cell phones simultaneously. I think that Finnish beer must be the cause of all the illness. The flavours of the local brews loom in my memory as the worst and flattest Ive tasted and almost cure me of my craving for the stuff. Sounds pretty terrible, but we did have fun in the 2nd Italy of northern Europe (Denmark being the first).
We arrived in the great seaport of Tallinn finding our resting place against a pier amongst tens of other great vessels. Couldnt help but wonder along the way there if our boat had been manufactured by the same outfit that built the famous sinking ferry. Andy, upon seeing a great oceangoing boat of days past in the harbor, mused about spending his "sunset years" at sea. Once we disembarked we found that port was an ugly maze of customs and parking. The sights deteriorated from there as we left the sea. Tallinns port was a field of gray-black Soviet commercial buildings. As we approached town the surroundings became, if possible, even more ugly. Big old blocks of gray public housing framed by impersonal and enormous boulevards created a fog that concealed the beautiful spires of the old town beyond.
Wed made a reservation at the swankest, biggest and cheesiest hotel in town, the former Soviet Inturist. The Viru Hotel, which we immediately dubbed the "virus", nearly shaded the charming old city with its 26 floors of fun. One great reason to stay there is that they let us roll our bikes right up to our junior suite. From our window you could get a glance at the old town if you craned your neck. The old towns charm made me forget the crap on the outskirts. The centers skyline with its spiky and domed skyline evoked days of glory passed.
Though I felt a nap was in order we had a great walk through the old town. It felt a little like Prague before they "Disney'ed it." Still quite a few streets and buildings in shambles, though the overall effect was lovely with the cobbled center of town bathed in late afternoon sun. We stopped in the center square and ordered a local beer, a Saku. It was great after the Finnish stuff. (cold dog urine is better than Finnish beer, it certainly has a better head). Afterwards we visited the Kafkaesque high town, the center of government. Trying to reach the high city was an adventure in and of itself. We climbed to the top, perhaps 35 meters, only to find that the end of our winding trail was blocked by workmans efforts to recobble the streets. We had to trudge down and reascend the hill by another route.
Winding through the streets below we kept mistaking some of the great houses of the towns for churches because they were so enormous. The churches had crosses and the grotesquely big merchant houses had beams with hooks jutting out of their faces like the houses in Amsterdam. Ostensibly that hook was for raising goods into the attics which served as warehouses for the merchant families.
The towns orthodox church looked like, well, a big onion domed orthodox church filled with icons whose gleaming blinded you. It was just out in front of that church where we agreed to stop referring to local currencies by their proper names. Wed become all too confused and called Finnish Marks Guilders and Swedish Crowns something else. Now, going forward, amongst ourselves, all currencies would be called Agoutis in order to simplify things. (see the triplogues and photo galleries for Belize, Mexico and Cuba for more detail, but an Agouti is a little central American rodent) Just after making this terminology agreement Andy tried to buy a candle or trinket in the church and asked the clerk in the souvenir shop if they took "Finnish Agoutis." To my surprise, without any hesitation, they seemed to understand and snatched the cash and gave change.
After our tour of town a nap was truly in order so we made our way back to the 26 floor brick we called home. As our heads hit pillows we discovered that there was an anti-nap conspiracy afoot. First, across the street Phillips electronics had erected a portable stage. Just as my eyelids drooped hopeless local performers were singing the local equivalent of "roll out the barrel" and other drinking songs to a ready crowd below. The performance was punctuated by an extra cheesey announcer whose comments echoed off the enormous commie plaza formed by our hotel and the post office across the way. When I finally tuned out the music a scaffold appeared in front of our hotel window. I thought theyd be performing some innocuous service like window cleaning, but I was quickly proven wrong. They began using hammers and power tools to chip away the gray tile on the outside of the edifice just outside of our casa. The noise the craftsmen made resembled what I imagined medieval dentistry to sound like. Andy somehow managed to sleep and I whiled away the hours trying to solve our seemingly endless technical problems.
That night, post nap, we hit the town for dinner, ending up in a basement of the old town. At first the place seemed pretty hip, and provided a great venue for checking out the shoe fashions of the patrons on the terrace and the townies who walked by. That dissolved when the piano player started in on "Feelings". Needless to say, we opted to have coffee elsewhere.
Elsewhere turned out to be a discreet gay bar in the shade created by the old city. The outer bar was a café so dimly lit I was hoping that the barman might rent night vision goggles so that I might be able to see the other patrons. We sipped a coffee and allowed our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Quickly we graduated to Vodka. As I was purchasing our first cocktail a wacky Ukrainian, Sergei, danced into the bar. He flashed his giggly countenance at us and insisted that we join him at his table for a drink. Serg showed a keen interest in me which I greeted circumspectly. I wasnt really very comfortable with his weirdness or the awkward nature of our conversation, which was dominated by his Russian ramblings. I suggested to Andy and to Serg that they might be a better match in an effort to diffuse his attentions. I left them alone and checked out the sad and empty disco before joining another table.
Daniel, a Tallinnite, plus another local entertained me until the bar took on a distinctly ex-pat turn. Paul, a boisterous healthcare worker, appeared on the scene. He heard "American" being spoken and invited himself to join us. Hed escaped from his tour and his sister to hit the town. Within a few moments he was performing the standard American butt-sniff, "where are you from?", "what do you do?". Soon afterwards another compatriot arrived, Kirk was a spook ("with the foreign service", he said). I found myself suffering from the size of the drinks and in danger of creating an embarrassing (a la the Finns) situation if I remained. I excused myself, and retired to the hotel before executing alcohol-inspired acts (I hope).
The next day came too early. The beer and vodka of the night before rang in my ears at breakfast and I was having great difficulty envisioning making a 150K day. Watching the flags flap wildly in the direction of our projected travel made it a little easier. Soon after quaffing a few O.J.s (can this abbreviation still be used?) from the monumentally unappetizing soviet style buffet breakfast wed packed and were en route.
Obviously we had found the Eastern Bloc. The road out of town was punctuated by unceremonious gaps in the pavement that revealed holes leading to the dark center of the earth. Traffic whizzed by us, but for the most part, the cars were respectful and left us lots of room to ride. I was surprised how quickly the city of 500K evaporated into countryside. Gaps in the pine and birch forest revealed the Soviet legacy of respect for nature. Through a thin curtain of trees we saw huge scars left by open pit mining marring the otherwise pristine groves.
We left the main road opting for a secondary road to Parnus. The map marked the road as paved but it deteriorated into gravel with alarming frequency. Every segment of the road looked paved, each beginning with at least 200M of pavement before disintegrating.
The gravel got the best of my front tire at one point and caused me my second flat since arriving in Europe. Id been reluctant to tout my fine luck in this area, now is a good time to "knock-wood," and hope for continued good tire fortune. As I stopped to change it with Andys help, my right arm was still not strong enough to disengage the tire from the rim, an older Estonian joined us. He rode up on his "tractor," a rather rugged one speed bicycle. It took him ten minutes to figure out from where we came. When he finally figured it out he recited his English lessons form grade school counting to eight and saying "the teacher is in the classroom" two or three times. This, and most Estonians, seem to think that Canada is part of the United States (perhaps it should be?!) "Amerika, New York, Kalifornya, Toronto ", he said during one of his English diatribes. "Heetler, bang, bad," babbled during another.
It seemed to take forever to change my tire. It was a multiple warhead flat, since the new tire failed immediately. I was proud that I was able to take the tire from the rim without assistance the second time. We found a lunch spot in the center of a town not far after. A pondside grassy knoll offered us a place to eat our lunch and rest my still aching head. Dozing while townspeople stopped and stared at us like aliens I dreamt of our final destination. I found it hard to imagine making Parnu this day knowing that we had at least 75k more to go. Id have found it even harder to believe if I could have foreseen our route.
Our afternoon snack placed us in a village that mined chalk. The whole place was covered by a white dust including every item in the Pood (which is the local word for some sort of shop or stop and is interchangeable with the word Kauplus.) Outside we met a second dude of the same age group as our tire change guy. He had been in the same English class, learned the same words and had the same historical/geographical perspective as the first. Of Estonians wed encountered I liked this type the best. The kids laughed at us and the middle aged were simply nonplused by presence.
The road after this point was more gravel than road. At times the pathway was so loose I could hardly maintain forward motion. One juncture was especially confusing. Andy thought we must turn right on a little narrow road I though I driveway and I thought we must go forward. He won the debate. 200 meters down the driveway revealed its end and a farmhouse where the master of the house was up to his elbows in his ancient Russian trucks engine. He paused, tilted his head and walked toward us to find out what two space creatures were doing on his farm. Our enlightening conversation was composed of the city name and a few hand gestures revealing the route to Parnu, none of us having the confidence that we could speak the others language.
We finally wandered to the main road and were blown towards Parnus and the Baltic. It was Andys turn for tire trouble. We repaired his twice on the road to Parnus before arriving exhausted in the ex-cure town of the Soviet bloc. We decided to "princess out" and went directly to the place that our guidebook touted as the undisputed "best" accommodation in the city.
Our first day on the road in the Eastern Bloc was rich and rewarding. I was so tired I couldnt even bask in the achievement. Before dinner we had reserved the Sauna, but during dinner we almost fell asleep in the piles of food laid before us. Our energy was so depleted we couldnt even manage to eat dessert or have our sauna. I was nearly asleep when we reached our room and Andrew couldnt even undress himself before falling asleep. He was snoring like a little lion cub within a few minutes of turning off the light.
|15 August, Parnu,
Estonia to near Ungeni, Latvia, 100km
This morning we were plagued with yet more flat tires, making me wonder if they would be a leitmotif for the long ride to Cairo. Parnu looked surprisingly good in the chilly morning light. We pedaled our way along tree-lined boulevards past funky old wooden houses on the way to the seaside, where Fred decided to perform his daily ritual of tire pressure adjustment. His furious pumping caused him to break off a valve, which made an ominous PPSSSHHHT sound. I made a mental note to buy another set of tubes at the next bike shop we found, and looked out over the beach an obvious former playground for the Soviet eliteas he did the change thang on his own this time (which seemed only fair since he had brought it upon himself). Of course I didnt expect my own tire to go flat just a couple of kilometers down the road. This time we were in a scruffy looking suburb full of ugly apartment blocks, where I pulled off into a bus station like substance in order to perform the necessary act. Most of the Estonians waiting there kept there distance, staring at us obliquely, but one older gentlemen who looked vaguely like Jack LaLane hovered around silently for a while before telling us that he had played host to a pair of Britannic cyclists last year. I think he would have extended similar hospitality to us given half the chance, but we had some miles to put on
We had a tailwind again on our way out of Parnu, but twelve k down the pike in a village with the excellent name of Uulu-- we made the terrible mistake of taking one of my famous shortcuts. While it did shave several kilometers off the route and was virtually free of traffic, the asphalt soon gave way to twenty kilometers of sand and gravel. After more than an hour of torture, we were thirsty and covered in dust. We stopped in a pood and guzzled a few liters of fizzy water before pushing on. The road from here followed the coastline and was mercifully blacktopped, which allowed us to look at the scenery for a change. The rolling forests of pines in the stark, chilly light reminded me of a set from "Eugene Onegin." A sign in front of an isolated old house on the beach announced a museum. Hungry for distraction, I urged Fred to stop and take a gander. As we arranged our steeds in front of the gate, two women waiting on the sun porch busily prepared themselves. The owner of the house was the robust Dora, who explained she had inherited it from her shipbuilder great grandfather. Dora lived in Parnu most of the year, but dragged her extended family back to their ancestral home every summer. We met grandmothers, cousins, nephews and grandchildren. She showed us an elaborate family tree before guiding us around her home. At first glance it was a pretty lame excuse for a museum, boasting little beyond tacky knickknacks made by family members fancying themselves artistic. The "very old furniture" she pointed out to us was unremarkable and would have looked right at home back at our hotel room at the Virus. But a closer look revealed photo albums both old and new which provided us with intimate insights into Estonian life. We even got to see more of our hostess than we wanted in photos of her at a nudist beach during a recent visit to Norway. In what had been the houses stables she showed us a collection of dolls she had made, as well as a pair of shoes she had worn "fifty years ago, during the German time, a very bad time " Wandering back to the main house, Dora shook a branch of an apple tree to offer us some wormy little sour apples, and then shepherded us into one of several living rooms for coffee and cakes. A crisis was going on in the kitchen. Grandma had left something on the wood-burning stove again and smoke was filling the house. Dora flew back and forth, emerging from the kitchen each time with armfuls of goodies. There was freshly baked bread and huge dishes of polenta with fresh blackberries. When she brought out a gargantuan bowl of potatoes and a plate of meat, we told her to stop. We had just eaten lunch, we lied, and wanted to make it to Latvia by sunset. What we didnt tell her is that we both desperately needed to pee and didnt feel up to asking her to use what was sure to be pretty scary plumbing (or lack thereof). So we bid a rather hasty farewell, the untouched bowl of potatoes still steaming on the table. When we offered her to pay for the visit, she thrust postcards in our hands and said she would accept no more than ten agoutis just over fifty cents. Pedaling away towards the nearest concealed bush, Fred announced, "I like Southern Estonia."
The coastal road led to a border crossing that is apparently is reserved for locals. The smiling armed guards there instructed us to turn back and take a dirt road back to the Via Baltica, the lonely highway connecting the Baltic capitals. A sign indicated that it would only be a 1.5km stretch, but what awaited us was a road not fit for a dune buggy. I had to push my bike through the sand more than once, thinking it an appropriate farewell to Estonia and its abysmal roads.
The border was vintage Soviet-era, with multiple gates guarded by dour-looking soldiers and endless lines of cars parked and waiting to undergo the agonizing customs process. One disheartened motorist managed to maintain his sense of humor somehow, and asked us if we had our registration papers with us. Luckily, bikes were given preferential treatment (something I consider right and fitting); soldiers toting AK-47s barked at us and waved us to the front of the immigration lines on either side of the border.
Our first impression of Latvia was of the markedly superior surface of its roads. We zoomed on down the deserted highway (all the cars were still waiting at the border), looking for a place that would exchange our remaining Estonian agoutis. We stopped at the first place that appeared, a sparkling new service station cum motel, but the unsmiling proprietor told us "nyet." He did take US dollars, however, which struck me as odd since Estonia was only a stones throw away and its currency is based on the rock-solid Deutschmark. A rotund Dutch woman materialized out of nowhere and started talking to us, saying she was staying in a cheap and clean room above. We considered following her example, until we learned our only food option would be what we could find among the standard gas station fare. She had come from the other direction, so we quizzed her on our options down the road. Not much, she said. We decided to push on in any case, a bit put off by the creepy feeling of the place and wanting to take advantage of the continuing tailwind.
We hardly had to pedal the next thirty kilometers, so strong was the wind at our backs. At one point the road mysteriously split into a divided highway, which we had all to ourselves, causing me to wish cycling could always be this good. The sun was already low in the sky when a huge white confection appeared before us: the "Casa Blanca Motelli." Obviously of recent construction, the hulking porticoed edifice looked like a monument to Latvian New Money; inside, the lobby was cold and cavernous, reminiscent of nothing so much as "The Shining." Even when we learned that a night here would set us back the sum total of our Latvian agoutis, plus five dollars (not including breakfast), it was too good to resist after a hundred kilometers of riding. A hip young woman with dyed black hair and appropriate dissolute grungewear led us back to our overpriced room, through a courtyard where chickens pecked and workers insulated pipes with styrofoam. Her stern-looking boss hovered in the background throughout, barking at her employees between shooting contemptuous glances at us. Fred and I theorized that this woman was a witch, and had put all of her employees under a spell. What else would compel the workmen to continue doing their thing until nearly midnight, like indentured servants? Whatever the case, we decided against dinner at the hotel, and ventured across the highway for a sunset walk on the polluted beach, followed by a chilly alfresco dinner of schnitzel at a truck stop. When we asked the funny mustached owner here if he accepted Estonian currency, he assured us "no problem," and proceeded to serve us with incongruous obsequiousness. Before retiring to our bewitchified accomodation, we asked truck stop dude if he served breakfast, and if he accepted US currency. He responded with perhaps the only two words he knew in English: "No problem."
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Fred sampling Dora's down-home cuisine
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"No Problem," says the proprietor of Ungeni's premier purveyor of gastronomic art
Dr. Andrew administers to Latvian cyclists in distress
|16 August, Ungeni to
Riga, 87 km
The breakfast menu at the truck stop was not unlike dinner. I was still happy not to patronize the restaurant at our hotel. The blond witch from the evening before managed to give me one more "how dare you spend your money here" look before we left.
Before I knew it we were on the road again. I found myself still tired from our journey two days before. That combined with the straight road and forest left Andrew to comment that he felt that he was on a stationary bike. Still, through the coastal forest we caught glimpses of ocean. Some thirty kilometers down the pike we made the town we intended to lunch in. As we approached there were three bike riders and their cycles stopped on the roadside. The three were huddled around one of the bikes looking frustrated. We stopped and offered our assistance, which was readily accepted. Theyd just gotten off the train a few kilometers down the road with the intent of traveling 40k north to camp. The least experienced of the threesome had collided into Natasha, sending her into the bushes and scraping her lip. The other casualty was the inexperienced ones bike (we dont know her name so well call her Anna). Anna had the worst bent rim Id seen. Andy pulled out his truing tool and went to work while I attended to Natashas lip. He gave up at one point and we sat and stared at the wounded bike until I came up with the idea of loosening all the spokes and then trying to true the wheel. Andy applied the idea and got the bike to the point that it was operable. They were happy to have had the help and gave us half a loaf of the best rye bread Id ever tasted. The dude with the two girls took the bike for a test drive and pronounced it "excellent". They said theyd be pressing on with their journey, but I suspect they rode back to the station retreating to Riga where they began.
We stopped at a beach side parking lot and food stand for lunch and watched Latvians and Russians frolic in the surf while munching salmon sandwiches. The toilets here were hilarious. They were simply four holes in the floor of a room. After lunch our pace really picked up. The wind whipped us along the highway to Riga while the road became more trafficked. One stroke of luck was that the road was closed and traffic was re-routed to Riga. We remained on the highway which was empty except for a few highway workers sealing the joints of the road with tar. We got a little splattered with tar along the way but the dirt was well worth the car-free travel. The road signs gave us very confusing directions, but before long we were in the city and making our way to the center.
I stopped in a Trek bike shop in order to have some help with my crank that seemed to be making more and more noise. It turned out that the peddle was the culprit, not the crank. My Ritchey clipless peddles had corroded and needed replacement. I didnt like the replacements they offered there and convinced the tech there to help me get the peddles in working order somehow. He sprayed, tightened and fiddled until he got them to work without squeaking, advising me to get new ones in Poland where they will be "cheap". Id forgotten about Andy who was waiting patiently outside and was near the end of his rope and bladder capacity.
We set out together to find a place to rest for a few days, finding a charming new hotel in the very center of the old town. As we traversed the historic center we came upon a dude with a crutch seeking hand-outs carrying what I thought was a lemur on his shoulder. Later walking about we saw him and his mate, a babushka with a dog, walking around muttering to themselves near our hotel. It turned out Id hallucinated the lemur, which was actually a common house cat. We ascended the massive tower of the church near our hotel in order to survey the capital of Latvia. We rode up in the elevator with the operator who was at least seventy years old and appeared to be made out of wax. Andy asked if the phone in the elevator was connected to the outside world and he replied "yes" and smiled. Later on the way down we asked him a silly question like "is the elevator internet enabled?" He answered "yes" and smiled, leading me to believe he only spoke the few words of English he recited as we mounted the tower.
The evening in Riga was a little frustrating. First we tried to find a vegetarian restaurant run by the Hari Krishnas only to find it closed. We then wandered looking for somewhere else to eat, finally returning to the tourist center to eat in a "Mexican" one. Then we went on a wild goose chase trying to find the Spartacus Guides recommendation for a queer bar in Riga. None of the three seemed to exist, so, again, we retreated to the historic center to find a bar for a nightcap. Andy was being a little too picky about choosing a bar and grudgingly agreed to have a beer at the Irish (ugh!) Bar in the same building as our Hotel. It was boring and nasty so we retired to our hotel room for an early evening.
|19 August, Riga to
Siauliai, Lithuania, 137 km
This morning while packing up I attached an icon of the Blessed Virgin onto my handlebar bag, hoping it would protect me on the road, but it soon revealed itself to have quite the reverse effect. After negotiating our way out of the cobblestoned hell of Riga (actually, the city had grown on us after our more than two days there, but its tramways, cobbles and countless potholes make it impossible to ride in), we found ourselves on a quiet country lane. The birds and crickets were doing their thing, the sun was shining, and I was thinking how ecstatic I was to be back in the saddle. Then Fred turned his head to gawk at a shirtless lad walking along the roadside, causing his bike to swerve violently into mine. Before I knew it I was face-down on the pavement, my elbows, knees and belly scraped up. But worse was my left hand, which hurt like hell from the impact. I was afraid I wouldnt be able to ride, and I chose to follow the route I normally do when I hurt: try my best to ignore it. This wasnt easy at first, but after a while it became clear that it would only be a temporary setback.
Not long after this incident, we found ourselves on the main road to the South, an excellent four-lane affair, with little traffic and so wide that the shoulders had shoulders. We were both reminded of our autopista experience in Cuba, especially when we saw an old couple leading their cow down the median strip.
Our first scheduled stop was in Jelgava, a biggish town dominated by a mammoth palace that once belonged to the Dukes of Courland. The rest of the town is of recent construction and u-g-l-y. No one could tell us where a restaurant was the whole concept being obviously alien to themso we had to settle for yet at another lunch of bread and salami purchased in a little kiosk. Since it would be our last stop in Latvia, we tried as we always do to spend our remaining agoutis, especially the coinage. Adding up the costs of a bottle of vodka, oranges, chocolate and yogurt, I felt like a contestant on "The Price is Right." The woman behind the counter found our antics (and no doubt our clothing-from-outer-space) amusing, and treated us to that rarest of things: a Latvian smile.
We ate at a table outside, entertaining ourselves by trapping wasps in Freds bottle of Fanta and watching the townspeople saunter by. Next to us were a table of young Latvian girls dolled up to within an inch of their lives. I theorized that one if not allof them was a Mary Kay representative, and wondered what makes Baltic girls such hopeless fashion victims. Do they feel that they have to look like streetwalkers in order to attract the (decidedly unrefined and inelegant) menfolk? In Riga Fred pointed to nearly every girl in the street and pronounced her a hooker, but I doubt the market could bear such a glut of working girls, convinced its just the fashion in these parts.
We still had nearly a hundred kilometers to our goal for the night, and I dreaded having to follow the main road to Sovietsk and Kaliningrad. But the dauntingly wide red line on the map turned out to be a charming country road lined by birch trees and apple orchards. It looked a lot more civilized than the endless forest wed seen up to this point, and the warm, sun-dappled road smacked of summer.
It wasnt long before we were at the Lithuanian border, which had the same gates and guardhouses as the Estonian border, but felt much more relaxed. The Lithuanian guards barely glanced at our passports before waving us through. A few kilometers later, Fred voiced his opinion that Lithuania felt more prosperous than the other Baltic States, just when I was thinking the opposite. I found it to and still doto possess an old-world, pre-war kind of ambiance. Contributing to this impression were peasants toiling in the fields, pitching hay into horse carts or carrying milk pails on their bikes; it looked like a Millet painting come to life. The few vehicles that lumbered past were ancient tractors and trucks of Soviet manufacture, and every woman we saw had a babushka on her head. We definitely werent in Belgium anymore.
The first town we passed through was called Joniskis. While Fred shopped for frozen treats, I looked around and taught myself Lithuanian. Its easy, I discovered, since all the words are English with "-as" tagged onto the end. Above me was a sign marking the bus stop marking the "centras," and across the street I saw a baras, a bankas, a restoranas and a telefonas. Fred reappeared with icecreamas just in time to see a drunken boy drop his beer bottle and stumble away, nearly falling on his assas. The perpetual perfectionist vis-a-vis his tire pressure, Fred decided he needed to change his rear tube, prompting me to go into a pharmacy for aspirinas for real-- though I had a harder time with "Band Aid."
Our next destination was Kryziu Kalnis ("Hill of Crosses"), mentioned in our guide book as one of Lithuanias prime attractions. Fred wasnt too keen on the idea at first, since it involved a bit of backtracking and didnt look like much from the highway. After so many miles of flat, he wondered if the attraction was not so much the crosses as the hill, which from a distance looked vaguely like an untended garbage heap. A closer look revealed it to be quite an amazing sight, though, and I found it rather poignant in spite of being a militant atheist. Apparently the place is a major pilgrimage site, and the tradition of planting crosses millions of themdates back to the 14th century. The poignant part and the part that draws Western tourists, no doubtis that the Soviets bulldozed the crosses down at least three times. (What P.R. firm did those people use, anyway?) The place looked amazing in the late afternoon light, and we took a bunch of pictures. Dizzy and weak from so much riding, I was easily persuaded by Fred to commit a shameless act of desecration and self-promotion: writing our web address on a cross contributed by a church group from California. In our defense, it was already covered in American graffiti of the "His name be praised" variety. [Andrew wins the Mr. Yellow Journalism 97 award for his writings this day. First, shirtless boy above is fiction, I was avoided children hitchhiking. Next, not keen on the hill of crosses, hmmm?! I did question whether our guidebook was just in recommending an entire day and night trip to this town just to see the hill of crosses. Lastly, Andy demanded for me to find a Sharpy so that he could write on the cross he stole, and I suggested placement of further writing.]
The road to Siauliai was mercifully short (thank you, Jesus!) but shockingly hilly. The town is perched on a high hill commanding a view of the surrounding plains, but apparently this strategic situation hasnt helped much, since like most Baltic towns-- it has been destroyed countless times. What remains is a nondescript provincial capital dominated by the hideous old Intourist hotel (where we stayed) and surrounded by crumbling concrete housing blocks. The fifteen-story hotel was virtually empty, and the Soviet-era staff had turned off all the lights in the cave-like lobby. Boris gruffly announced that he would keep our bikes in the luggage room for three agoutis, and Natasha explained that the t.v. in our room didnt work because it was new. The elevator was scarier than most rides at Magic Mountain, and the "floor lady" glared at us suspiciously each time we walked by. I meant to ask her how her town got its Chinese name, but it slipped my mind.
I held Fred to his promise to buy me dinner as an atonement gesture for this morning, and he got off easy. The only place we could find along the attractive though unlitpedestrian mall was a so-called "piceria" where I had a dog-food filled calzone and a salad that was mostly mayonnaise. Our waitress was competent but had the same no-nonsense personality of everyone else in Lithuania, causing us to doubt the many reports that Lithuanians were "the Italians of the Baltics" (the meal had assured us this wasnt the case as far as cuisine is concerned), warm, friendly and emotional. To me, it still felt like Brezhnev was running the show, especially as I lay in my tiny communist bed, listening to the plumbing leak and waiting to be carried away by sleep.
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View from the Tour de Riga
Takin' Bessie for a stroll on the Baltic interstate
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Fred gets more help from local tire experts
|20 August, Siauliai to
Kaunas, 150 km
I felt sure that our Intourist hotel breakfast was held in the same room where SALT II treaties were negotiated. Red carpet, a mile long table, hideous light fixtures and surly staff set the mood. Andys assertion that we were the only guests was disproved when Ivan from the KGB appeared and chowed his meager meal. After Ivan fled, Andy and I sat at the end of the oversized table for the next twenty minutes hoping that Sergei the waiter would reappear and present a second cup of coffee. We determined that Christ was more likely to make a second appearance than Serg and went upstairs to gather our goods and git. Much to our surprise, Serg did hit the light of day again, but only to gawk at us as we wheeled our beasts down the front steps to go.
On the way out of town we were shocked to find workers putting the final touches on the Baltics best bike path. We fled the not-so-charming town of Siauliai on the smooth tree-lined traffic free road sharing the path with happy bike commuters young and old. Just a few kilometers out of town the road evaporated and we were soon traveling on a narrow highly trafficked road with a soft gravel shoulder. Each time a big vehicle passed, it kicked up an enormous cloud of smoke that was half exhaust and half dust. The grit, grime and smog grated on my already scratchy throat.
We turned off the road after 20 some-odd kilometers to seek a picnic lunch. Finding the first marketlet we stopped and went shopping. Interrupting the babushka coffee hour was apparently a mistake; consequently we were treated to a dour welcome. I surmised that the managers of this store had not been told that the wall had fallen and they were free to carry any goods they wanted to. The products available were limited to things you really didnt want to buy because they were so ugly or useless. Ice cream was the only luxury item I could see, so I indulged. After we slurped down two Eskimo Pie like substances each, we left the town whose name sounded like "radioactivity." Andys shortcut out of town entailed traversing yet another loosely graveled road that soon put us back on my favorite smoggy and dusty route.
We breezed through another town whose name sounded like "carcinogen" before turning off the main route and getting on a slightly smaller one. Andy lost his temper and began to "flip-off" rude drivers until I reminded him of my discomfort with this practice.
The hot sun and dirty air were wearing me down, so I convinced Andy that we should stop in "Pour-me-ah-mai-tai" (or a town with a like sounding name) for our afternoon meal. At one point I had to stop eating. I couldnt smell my salami sandwich over the peasant standing next to me. We were out of water and simply had to find something before we both expired. At "Doras shop-n-snarl" I received my traditional market welcome while spending most of our remaining agoutis on more ice cream and beverages.
The road became less crowded as we passed "Schmegma" and the hills became more prominent features of the countryside. At our next (or should I say "My") ice cream stop I got another flat and proceeded to change it in front of a fascinated crowd of mini-market customers. In the defense of Lithuanians, the proprietress of the market was charming, smiley and friendly. In the crowd of onlookers was a 60-something dude who was especially interested in my work. He rambled in Russian to Andy while I made my wheel right. The whole time Andy and I bantered back and forth making assumptions about what our new friend was saying. "Yeah," Andy retorted," Fred is slow at changing a tire. Mhhmmm, he does spend too much time checking and rechecking his work." "Yes," I said, "it does get harder to pump at the end," as Boris patted the tire. Finally, he took Andy by the arm, said something incomprehensible and when Andy confessed to not understanding him he stormed off angrily.
The next kilometers were along a single lane road that wound through a wide valley. Big green trees framing bright and golden fields of wheat treated our eyes as we rode. Soon I forgot the heavily trafficked roads we traversed earlier. We roller-coasted over the terrain counting the peaceful kilometers to Kaunas. Our heavenly valley presented us with only one problem, its walls were the only geographic barrier to reaching Kaunas. In order to make it to our destination we had to scale 50 meters in less than 500 meters. At the top the sweat rolling off my body washed away the mosquitoes before they could bite. Within a few moments we had wound our way into town.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the day was before us: finding a hotel room. Wed intended to spend two nights in Kaunas, but were hard-pressed even to find a hotel. Finally we came upon what was the Intourist, only to realize that the clerk spoke no languages in common with us. After about a half-hour of discussions, room viewings and weird sign language I found a room that was later revealed to be available for only one night. Our receptionist, anxious to be free of us, found us a room a few blocks away and sent us on our merry way. While waiting outside with the bikes Andys attitude had turned sour. Now bitten from head-to-foot by flying bugs he was anxious to shower and change. I set him down with a beer in the lobby of the next place while negotiations were under way at the next place. I had a few sips too and felt tipsy as we ascended the elevators to our home for the next two nights.
Before I knew it we were walking down the charming walking street of Kaunas. We stopped to munch on the terrace at Astra Restoranas. All of the hipsters of "Sauna" were happily sipping beer on the patio in the warm evening air watching the big and golden nearly-full moon rise along the street. Only about half of them were talking on their cell-phones while ignoring their dinner company. While I waited endlessly for my dinner (there was some misunderstanding as to whether I was eating or not?!) a Syrian boy stared and smiled at me paying no attention to his female Lithuanian date. Though Andy pegged him as a "big-old-hairdresser" he turned out to be a medical student. He laughed when we asked him about Kaunas night life. Id gotten just a little drunk at dinner. Our waiter had made another little (or was it big?) error bringing me another half-liter of beer instead of a little beer.
We encountered our first operable cash machine in Lithuania on our way home. I reveled in the successful sound of the machine spitting out cash and printing a receipt, and celebrated by stopping at another mini mart where a happy clerk sold me my 6th ice cream of the day. Back in the room I slept soundly, lulled to sleep by the bassy rhythmic tones of our Russian neighbors nose snoring the night away.
|22 August, Kaunas,
Latvia to Suwalki, Poland, 120 km
In Kaunas we had no laundry to do, no FTPing, no pressing errands to run. Instead, we had a whole day to be tourists, which felt like a real luxury. We wandered up and down the two-kilometer pedestrian mall that puts Copenhagens Stroget to shame, checked out the cathedral (Lithuanias largest church, and full at 10 am for mass) and castle, crossed the river and rode a funicular to see a panorama of the unremarkable, industrial town, and visited two museums. The first of these was the predictably dull Postal Museum, which we stumbled into by accident, and the second was the Devil Museum, surely the only of its kind in the world, and consisting of an exhaustive collection of devil figurines. Frankly, I had expected more perhaps screenings of "Rosemarys Baby", hourly demonstrations of black masses, hexing opportunities.
When dinner time rolled around, we headed back to the Astra Restaurant where we had dined the night before, figuring it served the best food in town. We sat on the terrace to find ourselves surrounded by the same patrons as the previous evening, most of whom were wearing the same clothes. Perhaps they hadnt moved in twenty-four hours. We were clearly in THE place in Kaunas, but I knew that one more night at Astra and wed really feel like Bill Murray trapped in "Groundhogs Day." While Fred continued his aggressive flirtation with the Syrian boy from the night before (once again with girlfriend in tow) [Andrew again taking more artistic license], I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman from Lille, in town to help set up a textile factory. He said that Lithuanian labor costs are one-tenth those in France, and that he comes to Kaunas so often that his firm has supplied him with an apartment. When queried whether Astra served the best food in town, he looked at me blankly and told me that he wasnt sure because he didnt go anywhere else.
We planned on having a cold drink back in our hotel room, but obtaining ice was a serious undertaking. The front desk sent us to the dingy upstairs bar, which was surprisingly crowded for a Thursday night, but the Soviet-style barmaid barked that only the restaurant could supply us with ice. Of course, once we got the attention of a waiter, he told us we had to return to the bar. I dragged him along with us to settle the matter, which had all the makings of an international incident. The barmaid and waiter argued at length before a glass full of hard water (no, we didnt want ice cream, I explained for the fifth time) was slammed on the bar in front of me, with the understanding that wed bring the glass back the next morning at breakfast. To make it totally official, the waiter insisted on seeing our key and duly noted our room number.
But even after all that work, we never did take the glass of ice back up to the room. The other patrons at the bar urged us to stay, since it was "English Club," the social event of the week for the anglophonic expatriate community of Kaunus. There was the drunken Chinese American who complained nonstop about the state of Lithuanian telecommunications, the freakishly tall Croatian we had seen earlier at Astra who played on the Kaunus basketball team, an obnoxious young Lithuanian-American from Libertyville, Illinois, and the two Danish girls we talked to whose names woefully escape us for the time being. Like the Frenchman we had met, they worked for a textile manufacturer constructing a plant in Kaunus. They admitted with a certain amount of shame that they went to Astra "about five times a week." As interesting as this insular little scene was, we opted to retire to our room after quaffing one beer on the rocks. After all (as we kept explaining to our new friends) we had to get up and ride today.
And a nasty, long, hot and traffic-plagued ride it was. We spent the entire day on the "Via Baltica," the highway connecting the Baltics with the non-Russian world. Originally we had planned a little foray into either the Belorussian city of Grdno or the Kaliningrad Oblost, a chunk of Russia on the Baltic Sea (sort of a Russian Hawaii), but obtaining visas for these places would be costly and time-consuming. So we set our course in the direction of Poland and Lithuanias short border with that country, following the only possible route.
It was hot and we had a nasty headwind, but it was the traffic that got to us. The road was an endless stream of stinky trucks and Ladas driven by graduates of the Butthead School of Driving. More than once we were run off the road into the gravel shoulder by oncoming cars trying to pass.
After sixty kilometers we celebrated arriving at the halfway point in one piece, in Marijampole. Fred called it "MaryHambone" and deemed it the ideal place to spend all of our remaining agoutis. I sent him to the supermarket on his own while I decompressed on a sidewalk with a growing number of mute spectators. He returned with several bottles of non-carbonated water (a rare commodity indeed) and stories of Lithuanian consumer frenzy.
Our next stop was at the Polish border, where trucks were lined up on the Lithuanian side for more than four kilometers. We blithely rode by them, assuming wed be waved through as always. We passed through the several Lithuanian checkpoints without incident and marveled at the intensity of the No Mans Land on the way to Poland. There were more waiting trucks and an intimidating high fence on either side of the road. It looked very much like the old highway connecting West Berlin with the capitalist world, only with fewer guard towers and killer dogs. Then, at the first Polish checkpoint, we were stopped by a young immigrations agent with a Hitler complex.
He obviously relished making us wait. I found it especially aggravating that a petty functionary was putting us in a potentially dangerous situation, since the sun would be down in less than two hours and we had thirty kilometers to ride before the first Polish town. Amazingly, during the forty-five minutes that he tortured us, he let only a handful of trucks through. How did they deal with all the backlog, I wondered? Do all the truck and bus drivers simply take this idiotic manifestation of bureaucratic terror in stride?
When Hitler finally did deign to let us pass, we still had two more posts to get through, with lots more barking, phone calls and senseless waiting. All in all, it wasnt a very favorable first impression of Poland. The plus side of this ridiculous border operation was that the road was deserted not counting another four-kilometer line of trucks waiting to leave Polandon the other side. It was beautiful, too. Over the course of the day we had climbed considerably, and the rugged, lumpy terrain looked like a landscape painting by Van Gogh. The golden light of the fading sun made all the wheat fields and haystacks positively glow, and the wind had died down to a benign breeze.
Before long we were screaming down a serious hill into the concrete ugliness of our evenings destination: Suwalki. It reminded me of a provincial town in China, only with far fewer people. Hideous concrete housing blocks everywhere, and the high-speed Via Baltica for a main street. We found a nasty communist place to in which to spend the night before hitting the town. It was Friday night, after all. But all we could find in the way of action aside from a string of scuzzy barswas a pizza parlor with an outdoor terrace. We sat down at a table with a bunch of downtrodden looking German lads on their way home from St. Petersburg. They said they felt lucky that they only had to wait for an hour at the Lithuanian border, since it had taken seven hours to enter Russia. All five of them were clutching backpacks that contained what was left of their belongings after falling prey to theft in both Estonia and Latvia. Fred and I looked at each other and thought about all the times we had left our bikes unguarded or had exposed ourselves to danger. Unconsciously I fingered my safe travel medallion given to me by friends Susan and Bert, thanking my lucky stars that our trip through the Baltic States had gone without a single major hitch. Maybe we should have hedged our bets and made an offering at the Devil Museum
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The hordes waiting to penetrate Poland's impregnable frontier
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