Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Goodbye Snow

On the bus from Minsk to Grodna, we drove out of town past most of the buildings and sites we had visited during our stay. It was a weird experience to drive by these majestic buildings and statues knowing that this would most likely be the last time in my life that I saw them. It's not because I didn't like Minsk or didn't find it interesting, but I can't see myself running back to Belarus in a hurry. First of all there is all the hassle of getting INTO  the country, both in preparation (visas were expensive and difficult to get) and when you get there (remember the border control back at the start of the story?). Then there is the fact that we'd easily exhausted the entertainment options in the space of 3 days and the absence of a meaningful party scene that can normally keep you busy even in places that completely lack cultural or architectural diversions. The first time I got off the subway in New York, I knew I would make many visits to the city. I will very likely make return visits to places like Bratislava and Sarajevo because I really enjoyed myself there. I know I'll be back in Sydney. Minsk, however, was a once in a lifetime experience, unless I win an all-expenses-paid trip there.

                                           Goodbye, Huge square

I won't bore you with the details of the trip to Grodna because there were no details. As soon as we left Minsk, there it was again: the never ending mountains of snow as far as the eye could see. I lost myself in my book immediately. I woke from my reading when Renae pointed out that we were approaching a city. I startled from my book in that vague state of limbo that you enter when you fall asleep in daytime and wake up to daylight and realise that you have no idea what time of day it is. Did you doze off for a couple of minutes? A couple of hours maybe? Or was it the next morning? Looking up from my book, I just couldn't tell if I had been reading for 10 minutes or 4 hours. It turned that it had been close to 4 hours as we were nearing Grodna. We got off the bus and directly went about our task of getting bus tickets back to Lithuania for the next day. There was only one bus a day so we absolutely HAD to be on that  because our visas would expire the next day and I really, seriously, didn't want to contemplate the amount of shit we would be in if we were stopped at the border with expired visa papers. A friend of a friend had once shown up at the border between Belarus and Poland with a visa that was 1(one) day overdue, demanding to exit the country and was promptly sent back on a 6 hour bus trip to Minsk and ordered to contact her national embassy and a host of local burocrats to obtain clearance and a flutter of forms in order to be allowed to leave. This thought alone made sweat well up on my neck and I was glad when we got our bus tickets. Where in Minsk we had had a more or less comprehensible map of the city, in Grodna we had to go by a print out of Google Maps. Maps of Grodna exist only in Grodna.
                                    A Map of Grodna, as available in the West

After half an hour of walking around in circles we finally managed to locate our hotel. After checking in and doing all the normal stuff you do in a hotel (jumping up and down on the bed, switching on all the lights, stealing all the small shampoo bottles, you know the drill)  we set out to explore the town. The main attraction, it would appear, was the abundance of fairy tale churches. They were everywhere. We walked around, admiring the churches and then, inevitably, stumbled upon a square with a large, stately building and a massive statue of our old friend Lenin.   

The Great Leader of the People was wearing a fishermen’s cap for the occasion and looked out sternly over the town. Grodna was a nice little city, but there is one thing I did not understand. The reason that we had put it on the itinerary, was because it was listed in one of those books of “501 locations you must visit before you die”.  As I said about 2 lines ago, it was a nice little city but I could not see why it would have been listed in that book, while places like, say, Stirling or Oakland or Malaga were not.  The main attraction of the town are those Disney-castle churches and to be honest, I had pretty much seen enough churches by now. 

           This one was pretty cool though

We had dinner at a really cool traditional restaurant. We were first asked to put our coats in the coatroom and then sat down at the table. While waiting for our food, and looking at the lay out of the place, at the exact same moment we both said “This would be a great place for weddings!”.  Strange how you sometimes have those moments. The food, again, was really nice and both the food and the beer were considerably cheaper than in Minsk.  As we were approaching the end of our time in Belarus and didn’t want to be stuck with any worthless money, we sort of had to budget around our last money without having to go to an ATM again. We had an extra beer after dinner and decided to spend the rest of the money on food for the trip back to Lithuania. 

The next morning, we had a final walk around the town, bought a bag full of candy and cookies to keep us occupied on the bus to Kaunas. In the supermarket we were approached by what I would guess was the store manager. I was taking a picture of the beer aisle (something I always do) and apparently this was not to his liking and he urged us to put away our cameras at once and depart.

We had already kept aside some of the currency as souvenirs (and to have an interesting story for in the pub) so Renae decided to give our final 20.000 or so roubles to local beggars. We walked by another church, and I had noticed that a rather battered looking homeless guy was always standing near the entrance. On each of the 3 occasions we had walked by, he was there, holding a dirty beanie and asking for money. We decided to have a look inside the church. When we approached the entrance, I noticed that the beggar smelled like shit. And I don’t mean that he had that token homeless people smell, that comes with irregular showers and sleeping under bridges. No, he literally smelled of human excrement. It was appalling. Renae threw a pack of currency in his hat and we went inside. In my mind’s eye, I had a cartoonesque view of the beggar, upon receiving such a generous donation,  taking a good look at his new found fortune and running off to a liquor store or the race track. When we came out of the church about 3 minutes later, sure enough, he was gone.

I donated the other 10.000 roubles to a young girl in a wheel chair outside a supermarkt and we got on the bus back to the free world.  It turned out we could easily have gotten tickets on the day itself because the 50 seater bus had a grand total of 4 passengers. Better safe than sorry though.  When we got to the border, I wanted to make sure we were first in line, even though there were only 4 people on the bus, but before we could get off, a serious looking border guard came in and collected all our passports and then checked the toilet to see if anyone was hiding in there. He walked to a cabin beside the road, where some 20 people were shuffling in the cold, waiting to be waved through. Due to our exalted status of bus passengers,  the border guard saved us quite a lot of time by jumping the queue for us. While he was doing some important stamping and visa checking, another guard came onto the bus, and checked the toilet again. Do people really still hide in bus toilets when trying to illegally cross a border?  Within 10 minutes we were across the border and back in the European Union. It might sound a bit overly dramatic, but I was glad to drive past the European Union sign and back into Lithuania. 
We arrived in Kaunas as daylight started to fade. A 10 minute walk took us to our hostel where we checked in and had a chat with  the manager. As a big fan of staying in hostels, I was glad to be staying in one again. I have nothing against hotels, but when given the choice I prefer to stay in hostels. The atmosphere is generally better, it’s easy to meet other people and you can always have a party with the other people staying there. Hotels are generally more business like and people do not stay there to meet others. I took an instant liking to Kaunas. I don’t know why, but I just liked the way it looked, the way it was laid out and the way the people went about their business.  We had a meal at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant, which was really nice, apart from the pig’s foot that came with the main course we shared. I’m not going to go into details (you, my dear reader, may be eating) but pig’s feet go in the same bucket as pig’s ears and chicken gizzards.  After dinner, Renae decided to have an early night, and I decided to go into town and check out some bars. The hostel guy had shown me where to find a heavy metal bar, a basement location that could only be reached by crossing a darkened parking lot and going down a stair case. When I found it, it turned out to be closed. I went to a different bar and despite it being nearly 11PM, there was still live Champions League football on tv because of the 2 hour time difference with Ireland. I appreciated this very much and watched the rest of the match and stayed until nearly closing time, enjoying many pints. 

We had to get back to Vilnius that afternoon to catch our flight back to Dublin, so our sight seeing time was rather limited. Fortunately,  we had only 2 things on our to-do list, the Old Town and Kaunas Castle. We started out at the castle, which was nothing like I expected. Castle tours normally bang on about the history of the castle and when it was built and what role it played in important battles and so on. This was included in the castle experience, but only in the basement, where a couple of plaques commemorated historical stuff and a model showed how it had been rebuilt throughout the years. The rest of the castle was mostly filled with art exhibitions, which was a nice change from your regular castle visit. I especially liked the work of a Lithuanian painter called Kloshar, whose works mostly consisted of brightly colored city scapes and other urban scenes that really appealled to me. 

The Old Town was basically like any other old town in Eastern Europe, so you can paint your own picture of that. What did stand out in the old town, was a bizarre bar/restaurant called the Crazy House. It was, in fact, really weird.It had a number of seats that were actually toilets, chains hanging from the wall and, well, the whole place had the look of an asylum for the insane, which was probably the idea given the name. The food was nice though and the beer cold, so it all made for a nice lunch.  Having ticked Minsk, Grodna and Kaunas off the list, it was time to head back to Vilnius for our flight back to Dublin. We got to Vilnius with a couple of hours to spare, so we walked around for a bit, had a couple of drinks and went back to Cili Kaimas for dinner where we had another fine meal. 

And so ended our trip to the barren, snowfilled lands of the East. Back at the airport, I spent some time trying to drink all my remaining Lithuanian money, but I didn’t quite manage it. As the airline also wouldn’t take Lithuanian money, I still have some 30 Litus left, enough for about 5 pints.  The money now sits in my foreign currency pint glass, and is in the good company of about a dozen other currencies.
It was an interesting trip, though it confirmed my hatred for snow and sub-zero temperatures. Vilnius was a nice city, and I will go back there sometime in the near future to have another look around, and spend my left over beer money. Kaunas looked promising too, but I only got to scratch the surface due to the limited time spent there.  As I said earlier, Minsk was a big surprise. It was big, clean and very well organised. It was a very interesting city but it appears to be somewhat limited when it comes to entertainment options.  All in all, it was a week well spent and visiting a paranoid dictatorship was certainly a different experience.  Next up.. Spain.

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