Country Archives: Lithuania

Klaipėda - Skoudas - Liepāja - Rīga

So, by bus to Skoudas. There was one other passenger (ok, it’s Sunday morning). It did have wifi.

From Skoudas the bus goes along the Lithuanian-Latvian border all the way to Mažeikiai and Naujoji Akmenė, both of which would have been good starting points for the ride north to the Liepāja-Rīga rail line. Writing this I feel a bit like in the Wild West, where people would trek towards the rail line and it wouldn’t really matter where exactly they hit it. Anyway. There isn’t much difference in the distance I’d have had to cycle, so my choice was Skoudas, hoping I’d manage to be in Liepāja in time to have a wee look around.

While temperatures were comparatively mild in Klaipėda (slightly above 0°C), further inland puddles and flooded fields were covered with thin ice.

The ride from Skoudas pretty much started with crossing the border to Latvia, which was easy enough. This is all Schengen. There was just a sign, “Latvia” (not even “Welcome to”…).

And the ride itself? Grand, gorgeous, just great! The sun was shining, there was hardly any wind, and I didn’t feel cold at all, perfect! It was also exhausting due to the backpacks. I rode mostly on compacted sand and tarmac roads of debatable quality, but the bike held up well. It has, by the way, never been this far away from home.

I arrived at Liepāja’s train station at 3pm and first of all I verified that the train was indeed going today at 5.30pm. That left me with just over 2 hours to have a look at Liepāja’s center and its suburb Karosta.

I left my luggage at the station’s kiosk and cycled – free and light! – into town. Liepāja is amazing (from the 1-hour look I had at it), especially the architecture (that’s basically all I saw). It is also a bit crumbling. Many of the old wooden houses are in desperate need of repair.

Karosta is also interesting. During the times of the Russian Empire, and after that during Soviet times as well, it was a Secret City, closed to all outsiders. After Latvia broke off of the Soviet Union, Russia withdrew its personnel and the town is now open. The population dropped from 25000 to now 7000. It is a most weird place. A mix of red brick housing blocks, houses that look more like villas, those typical Soviet concrete tower-blocks (Plattenbauten), and newer (and older as well) detached houses. And in the very center a massively impressive Orthodox cathedral.

I was back at the station at 5.20pm. Interestingly, the ticket booths there are now used to sell bus tickets. Train tickets can be bought only on board the train.

The rail network seems to be well used for fright, but passenger transport is mostly done by bus. Earlier, when I arrived at Liepāja’s station the first time, people where queuing up for the bus to Rīga (and there was more than one going today). This train still has some capacity, to put it nicely.

Hm, if the other lines operate only once weekly as well, they could get by with one train, one conductor, and one train driver. Nah, fortunately, my next connection to Valga in Estonia, is served three times a day, every day!1! (That is also the only currently existing connection to any neighboring country – and Valga is literally just across the border.)

Yesterday’s hostel was a treat, but the hotel I just picked in Rīga leaves a bit to be desired. Plus I have to park the bike in the backyard, without roof. That’s a first.

Cycled: 75km

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Klaipėda

Klaipėda is becoming a bit of a dead end for me. I could probably go back to Kaunas or Vilnius and catch a bus to Riga from there that also takes my bike, but backtracking doesn’t feel right. I found out that there is a weekly train to Riga from Liepaja in Latvia, just 100km north of Klaipėda. This incidentally goes tomorrow evening! But the bus to Liepaja doesn’t run today, and tomorrow it goes too late to reach the train. So that leaves me with one option: cycling. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate, but with a heavy backpack that’s no fun. So what I’ll do is get as far as possible towards Liepaja by public transport, which seems to be as far as Skoudas, more or less directly at the Latvian border. From there it’s still ~50km, but I guess I have no choice. Brrrr, it will be cold.

Due to bad planning on my part I didn’t leave Klaipėda today. Too bad, I would have liked to have that extra day in Liepāja.

So this is an ‘office day’ today, overlooking the main bus terminal from my desk.

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Klaipėda & the Curonian Spit

It’s been my dream all my life (well…) to cycle along the entire Curonian Spit, which includes crossing into Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast. Today I managed to cycle on the Curonian Spit for a couple of hours. That’s something. It can be reached by a quick (and cheap) ferry ride from Klaipėda.

The Curonian Spit (Kurische Nehrung) is basically a long sand dune, some 5000 years old, and of course overgrown. It’s nearly 100km long and between 400m and 3.8km wide. The northern half belongs to Lithuania, the southern half to Russia.

Other than that, I explored the city and realized that my plan of going to Riga tomorrow won’t work. For some reason all rail lines between Lithuania and Latvia are severed. One line (between Kaunas/Lithuania and Jelgava/Latvia, I think) is currently being renovated to become part of a new Baltic link between Warsaw and St Petersburg. I have no idea when this is going to be finished. All other lines have been demolished years ago or don’t work for some other reason (for example Vilnius – Daugavpils, no clue what’s going on there).

Anyway, since going through Russia or Belarus again is not an option my idea was to take the bus to Riga. Today I learned that this route is served by so-called micro buses, 18-seaters (approx.), with little to no space for luggage, let alone a bike (not even with wheels taken off). I’ll have to think of something else.

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Vilnius - Hill of Crosses (Šiauliai) - Klaipėda

Tired start, by train to Šiauliai (pronounced Showlé – who would’ve thought?) a bit less than 200km northwest of Vilnius. The train was of the old, massive (Soviet?) type again, of almost truck-like appearance with the cabin high on top of the wheels; and it did have a separate bike compartment, just like Lithuanian Railways promised it would.

I parked my luggage at the station in Šiauliai and rode the 12km to a place called Kryžių kalnas, Hill of Crosses. It’s a hill… full of crosses – a Catholic pilgrimage site which also expressed Lithuanian resistance during the times of Soviet rule. And a bit crazy, see below.
Halfway through the visit it started to snow. That and the headwind made me look like a snowman when I was back in Šiauliai.

The next train, Russian-made and extremely noisy, brought me to Klaipėda, at the Baltic Sea. I like the name, and the city seems likable as well, so far.

Lithuanian drivers are really the worst. And no, neither Indians nor Bangladeshis come anywhere near.

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Vilnius

A bit of a quiet day. I’m tired and the weather isn’t great, so some looking around the city center is all I did. The Old Town is really big (allegedly one of Europe’s largest) and lovely. Lots of cafés and beautiful old buildings, many of them in a bad state of repair.

There’s cars everywhere. The drivers are heedless. They’ll speed through puddles and spray passers-by without thinking twice.

Shortly before leaving on this trip I got my hands on an older Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera. It has a sensor more than 4 times larger than that of my trusty ol’ Olympus Stylus 1, and I find myself using this ‘new’ E-PM2 more often than my Stylus 1, at least in easy light conditions, as the lens is not as good (14-42mm, 1:3.5-5.6) as the Stylus’ one (28-300mm, 1:2.8). Can you spot the difference in this trip’s pictures? The E-PM2 doesn’t have a level gauge so some of the pictures are a bit skewed and I haven’t corrected that; that’s one indicator.

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Minsk - Vilnius

In the morning a Georgian guy checked into the hostel who’d just arrived from St Petersburg. He was supposed to start his university studies there but upon arrival his visa was canceled and he was evicted to Belarus.

Back at the police station at ten. ещё ждать. I was done with all the paperwork at quarter to 2pm. Then they took my fingerprints as well and I couldn’t opt out of it anymore. Everything was done by 3pm and I was free to go wherever.

The only real option for leaving today was the 7.52pm train to Vilnius/Lithuania. All other plans have fallen victim to time.

The lady at the ticket office insisted that the bike would be carried free of charge and didn’t want to sell me a second (normal) ticket for it, but also said that there would be no luggage car on the train. I was mentally preparing for a similar struggle as on the trip from Brest to Minsk.

And it got even worse. The train is one of Lithuanian Railways; modern, Diesel driven, and with nice hangers for bicycles. I happily hopped on, hung the bike, and was stopped dead in my tracks by a stern but composed conductress. She explained that it was impossible to transport the bike like this (i.e. in one piece). It would be ok in either Belarus or Lithuania (with extra tickets, of course), but under no circumstances would it work across the border. Why, she couldn’t say. I’d have to take it apart. Wtf?

After some explaining back and forth I finally succumbed one last time to Belarusian bureaucrazy [sic] and detached the wheels and lashed them to the frame. What difference does it make, I wonder. It takes more space (3 seats instead of 1), it can’t be hung at the hangers designed for it, it’s got a few more scratches, and I got dirty fingers. Wtf.

I haven’t been to a less bike-friendly country, over all. On the other hand, in Germany it is 100% impossible to take a bike on a train that is not designed for it, like the ICE. There is no option of buying a second ticket. On an IC, if in fact there is space but you haven’t got a reservation before embarking, the conductor will refuse transportation. Unlike Belarus, where you just buy a second ticket on the train, and on top the conductress will wrap the bike in plastic bags so it doesn’t wet the seats.

In hindsight, of course, it’s not a big deal to take off the wheels. Two minutes. There is, however, a massive mental barrier that makes me want to keep the bike in one piece.

Anyway, enough of the ranting. My mood is not as bad as it may sound. In fact it is quite good, for I have 1.5 days of exploring Vilnius ahead of me, including some bouldering and, weather permitting, cycling and photographing. And I already love Vilnius. It has that charming, somewhat run-down feel to it, with old seemingly wooden houses right in the city. I also received my dinner for a ridiculous small price, a million sorry’s, and free ice cream and free beer on top just because there was a wee tiny snail in the salad (apparently very fresh).

Everything will be better from now on anyway. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the border).

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