And so I found myself standing at a border crossing between Lithuania and Belarus, in the middle of a snow storm, engaged in a conflict with a Belarussian border guard who had an impressive fur hat but little vocabulary outside of Russian and was telling me that I could not enter their territory because I had bogus travel insurance. Argueing that my travel insurance was from the acclaimed insurer AIG, and that it did in fact include medical cover, seemed pointless, so I trudged through a foot of snow to the border insurance office, erected there for the sole purpose of forcing those few tourists that enter Belarus by road to purchase the official state insurance.
But let's go back in time a little bit. How the hell did I end up in this situation in the first place ?
But let's go back in time a little bit. How the hell did I end up in this situation in the first place ?
Rewind a couple of months to mid December. My friend and flatmate Renae has been travelling across Europe on and off for the past 11 years. She had visited every country in Europe, even the tiny ones like Kosovo and Liechtenstein and the ones that seem to exist solely for the purpose of tax evasion like Andorra or to keep the stamp collecting industry rolling, like San Marino. She'd been to each and every one of them. Except for Belarus. So one night somewhere in mid December, she asked if I wanted to come along with her to Belarus. When I initially balked at the idea, she threw a couple of days in Lithuania in the mix to make it more interesting for me. We settled on a week around the Easter weekend. It had all seemed like an excellent plan, sitting at home by the fire, working out an itinerary on a map, with a glass of bourbon in my hand, but now, standing in a foot of snow with an angry Soviet border guard staring down at me, I was having second thoughts about the brilliance of the idea.
We had set off from Dublin on Thursday afternoon, after a couple of days of snow scares. Just days before, I had been talking to a friend about our trip. I had told him that, even though I have a number of friends working for Ryanair, and I have been on well over 100 flights with the airline, I had never seen any of them on one of my flights. Sure enough, when I walked onto the plane, one of my friends was there checking boarding passes. We exchanged a quick greeting but as she was working and I was holding up the line, we didn't really have time to talk. We had a quick chat later on in the flight though, which got me appreciative nods from my 2 Lithuanian plane neighbours who were clearly impressed by the fact that I was on a first name basis with the crew. The flight continued without any real excitement so at around 8PM local time, we walked across the Tarmac at Vilnius international airport. Vilnius is roughly the size of Edinburgh so I expected a similar sized airport. To my surprise, it was much biggerthan that. I soon found out what accounted for the difference in size though: Vilnius airport mainly consisted of long, empty corridors whose only function it was to take travellers on a long walk around the terminal to the arrivals hall. 10 minutes later we stepped into the arrivals hall, got a map from the tourist office and took a bus into town. Lithuania is generally regarded as the least western of the Baltic states and this showed in our hostel. Where in Tallinn or Riga all hostels are run in typical western style, normally managed by Australians, Kiwis or Canadians, with a cheap bar, exciting excursions on offer and a lounge area full of backpackers enjoying a beer and playing with laptops and iPhones, this place was supervised over by a grumpy old lady, who didn't speak two words of English and was constantly interrupted by the gruff looking locals who were hanging around the hallways and kitchen, seemingly without purpose.
We were first shown to a double room near the entrance but when we explained that we had ordered a twin room, we were sent down a rabbit warren, up and down steps and through narrow hallways to our room. It was basic, but clean and warm so that was good enough.
We set out for something to eat and after wandering around for a while settled on a lively place call Cili Kaimas. It was laid out so as to resemble an old farm. It looked really cool and it even had a fish pond and a glass enclosure with some real life chickens in it.
Just for the sake of novelty, we ordered a plate of pigs ears and chicken gizzards for a starter. I have no idea what a gizzard is, but after trying two I can confidently inform you that they are not suitable for human consumption. Neither are pig's ears, for that matter. We chewed through about a quarter of the plate and then swept the rest aside. Our mains, however, were excellent, a nice concoction of potatoe dumplings filled with pork, served au gratin and with a salad. It was lovely. We washed all this down with a beer tower, a 3 litre vat of lager from which you could poor your own pint. It was all much fun. We played with the beer tower until it was empty and that was when we noticed that 5 waitresses were staring at us and it became clear to us that it was way past closing time and we were the only obstruction standing between them working and them going to the pub.
We retreated to the bar in the basement and had a couple of drinks until, again, we noticed 4 sets of eyes staring at us and we understood that we had passed closing time again. We walked out into the street and decided to have one for the road if we could find a suitable establishment. As luck would have it, next door to the restaurant was a place that, with a bit of imagination, could pass for an Irish pub. It was quite busy when we got in but the crowd gradually thinned out as the night wore on. We were the last but 3 of the customers when we stumbled into the cold Vilnius morning at 4.30. What a great start to the trip!
I woke early the next morning and had a shower, eager to explore the city. My friend, however, told me to go ahead on my own while she caught up on lost sleep. Like their Baltic counterparts Tallinn and Riga, the old town of Vilnius consists mainly of winding streets and cobblestone alleyways, interrupted every now and then by a small square with a picturesque church or a statue of some national hero, which has nearly always been involved in orchestrating the downfall of communism and the Soviet Union. I wandered around for a bit and had a look at the statues. At one point, I encountered a statue of what looked like an old man reaching out one of his hands to a little girl. Curious as to what this might be, I walked over and found that it was standing next to a tourism information centre. I thought it was odd that they put the information centre in a back street, whereas it would normally be in the central square, or at least close to it. Upon further investigation, I found that it was the information centre for the former Jewish ghetto, which had been situated in this area before the second World War. It had not occurred to me before, but Vilnius was one of the main centres for Jewish people and culture in the world. Up to the second World War, YIVO, the central research institute for Jewish culture and language was situated here in Vilnius, rather than in more obvious centres of Jewish culture, like Warsaw or New York. Sadly, aggression from first the nazis and then the Soviets, resulted in a diminished presence of Jewish culture in Vilnius as most Jews that weren’t killed or deported left for Israel, Poland or the USA. The statue of the man reaching out to the girl is there to symbolise bridging gaps between the generations and people of different faiths. It was quite touching.
We walked around for a bit, had a drink at a pub with an unpronouncable name, which had a statue above the door of a man clutching a beer mug while sitting on a keg. It was pretty cool. The drinks were quite expensive for Baltic standards though. A Red Bull and a pint of Grimbergen set me back 18.50 Litus. While we’re on the subject, Grimbergen beer is somehow immensely popular in Lithuania. Every bar I went in had at least one type on draft, and most had 2 or 3. I’d say it is easier to acquire a pint of Grimbergen in Lithuania than in its native Belgium. It was rather strange.
Having done our admin work for the day, buying bus tickets to Minsk for the next morning, we set out for the district of Uzipis. Uzipis is an area on the river Vilnelne, just east of the centre of Vilnius. Like a lot of these micro breakaway states, the inhabitants are mainly artists, squatters and drunks. It reminded me immediately of Frestonia, an area in West London that declared independence from the UK in the late 70s. The story is quite interesting, if you want to know more about Frestonia, check this link: Frestonia
In any case, in 1998, the inhabitants declared a breakaway state and set their independence day to April Fool’s Day. On this day, they position ‘border guards’ on the bridge in fake uniforms that will check your passport and stamp it. As we approached the area, I noted that they have an official sign informing you that you are about to enter the Uzipis Republic. The district mainly consists of art galleries, artist’s studios and other low-strain enterprises. Along the main street, there is a wall with the republic’s logo, a big iron hand with an eye in it, and 3 big silver plaques on which the Uzipis constitution has been engraved. Among much other things, the good people of Uzipis are entitled to living along the Vilnelne river, the right to heating and a roof over their head and the right to die, although this is not mandatory. It was all quite charming.
We walked around for a while, and passed the symbol of the ‘nation’: the Angel of Uzupis. We enquired at a couple of places if we could have our passports stamped, but unfortunately nobody seemed to know. Just when we were about to go back to Lithuania, we decided to ask one more local and, as luck would have it, he directed us towards the local office of the Free Tibet movement, whose souvenir shop doubles as the Uzipis Department of Foreign Relations. I am not making this up. The girl behind the counter was a textbook hippie, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and long unkept hair. The whole shop was full of beaded armbands, keychains, buddha statues and other Tibetan trinkets. The girl was happy to stamp our passport and as a token of appreciation I bought a Free Tibet keychain. It was all very refreshing to see.
We had dinner at a pizza place called Cili Pica, obviously a sister establishment to Cili Kaimas where we had had dinner the night before. I ordered a pizza that looked as if they simply tipped everything that was left in the fridge on it, and it tasted great. I had a large beer with it, and it went down a treat. Isn’t that the great thing about pizza? If you have a good pizza, it’s absolutely great, but even if you have a pizza that isn’t that great, it’s still pretty good. Some research I did when I got home revealed that the ‘Cili’ brand comprises 5 or 6 different chains, and apart from the pizza places and the traditional restaurants, they also operate a chain of sushi restaurants (Cili Kanija) and some other assorted food barns. It was cheap, good and the beer was cold, so I was happy. We picked up some cans on the way back to the hostel. I toyed with the idea of going out for a beer after we took a rest at the hostel, but it was cold outside and warm inside and in any case we had to get up at 5.30 the next morning to go to Minsk, so I had 3 cans of Utenos beer, watched some videos on Youtube and went to bed early.
Minsk was waiting.