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Michael’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 19 Mar 2008

Location: Šiauliai, Lithuania

MapAs I said, things never seem to go to plan. We were up and out of the hostel early, walking to the bus depot with plenty of time to find out which platform we were on and the price of tickets from the lady at the information booth, who also told us to buy on the bus. We were even waiting at the bus 'platform' when the bus rocked up, so all was going well. I climbed on and tried to buy 2 tickets, and the conductor lady wrote on a piece of paper 36.00... Given we were told that the tickets were 24 each when at the info booth, I presumed we were getting a discount and handed over 40 for the two tickets... The lady said no, and then signaled to a girl to come up and explain to us, in English (kind of) that the tickets were 36 each. She smiled sheepishly then went back to her chair while Potter and I emptied our pockets and paid over a bit more money.

Almost immediately we put our headphones on and fell asleep on the bus. I was suffering for about 4 hours sleep post St. Paddy's Day celebrations and Potter was getting even more ill with his allergic reaction. Not only was the rash getting worse, but he was sleeping more and more. In fact he slept for most of the 4 hour journey. I came into consciousness as the bus stopped for 10 minutes at some 'city' along the way, and the passengers changed, and some just got off to stretch the legs and have a ciggie.

Next thing I know, the girl who spoke 'English' is sat across the isle from me after getting off the bus to quickly buy a top-up card for her mobile. When she got back her seat was taken and she sat in the seat across from me. Eventually I started chatting to her, somewhat intimidated admittedly and she was 'rather' attractive, though young looking... Through the not great English, though she did speak better French, Italian, and Lithuanian than I did, probably Russian too, I eventually found out she was on here way home from Milan, Italy. Asta lives in Šiauliai, where we were headed, and she gave me the low down on the town, and though we planned on seeing the Hill of Crosses and passing though, I politely listened. There was a scare for a bit when I was asking how to get to the Hill of Crosses and she had no idea what I was talking about, let alone how to get there. Being only 12 km out of the city, and a national land mark, I was worried we were on the wrong bus... but eventually she understood what I was on about, and said whilst it was nearby the town, she didn't know the easiest way to get there by public transport. All my hints at scabbing a lift there either went unnoticed or were bluntly ignored.

I finally asked what she was doing in Milan, and she said she was working there… from that point on it didn’t take a lot to figure out what her job was, but I asked anyway and she confirmed, and was admittedly quite shy about it, that she was a model. And yeah, she did look it… I don’t care what Potter says, I think his allergic reaction to whatever it was blurred his vision. She’d spent the last two years working two months on and off on photo shoots (most recently for Gucci, Prada, etc.) and catwalk work, doing stints in Spain, London, Milan, Paris, Asia and elsewhere. I thought she looked young, and to be doing this for two years meant that she must have started really young… when I asked she told me that she was 17… just, and celebrated her birthday was 2 weeks earlier while in Milan, at a night club no less. “Doors just open up for models”.

Once in Šiauliai, Potter and I grabbed our bags and tried to figure out how to get to the Hill of Crosses. I knew the tourism information was on Vilnius gatve, so we wandered towards what looked like the middle of town, until we came to the right street. At this stage we still didn’t have a map. When we walked in, the lady working there said hello and answered our question very quickly with a pre-prepared map of the bus route to the Hill of Crosses. Catch the bus to town A, get off at stop B a quarter of the way there and walk 2 km. Hmmm, and when does the bus leave? Oh, in 15 minutes, and then not again for 2.5 hours. Plus we’d have 30 minute turn around time to walk the 4 km return trip and see the sights if we wanted to catch the return bus, otherwise we’d have 3 hours… waaaay to long. Then she dropped the bomb shell that the last bus to Riga was at 1535, not 1700 as we were told when we asked in Vilnius. What? That meant if we missed the 1507 bus from the Three Crosses, (or 2km away) we’d be stuck in Šiauliai for the night.

We high tailed it back to the bus station to double check the Riga bus timetable and saw the same disappointing answer. Trying to figure out what to do, we asked a taxi driver how much it was to the Hill of Crosses. Unable to speak English, he also pulled out a map he’d prepared earlier, and it showed 100 Litas for the round trip. Knowing that the trip should be closer to 30 (according to my dated Lonely Planet) I walked away and he quickly whistled us back and said, “You draw”. I shrugged, unsure what he meant, and he repeated, “You draw… price”. Ah, make my own price… I offered 30 for the round trip and he shook his head, and did a sly laugh… then drew on the paper a line from Šiauliai to the Three Crosses and pointed at my 30… ok, 30 one way. Well, with the bus pulling out that would have dropped us off at the turn off for Three Crosses, we were left with a taxi or nothing, so agreed, and decided to bus back into town.

The taxi ride was made in silence, the language barrier confirmed, and when we arrived Potter and I paid him, grab our bags and started wandering around the site. It was incredible, so many crosses, EVERYWHERE.

Brief History Lesson, as I understand it:
It is believed that the tradition of planting crosses began in the 14th century, and continued until the two-humped hillock was covered in these crosses. During Soviet rule, they were bulldozed to the ground, and then miraculously, the crosses started re-appearing. The next time round, the Soviet burnt the crosses, and bulldozed them, and again more started appearing. After destroying them a third and fourth time, the first surrounded the area with barbed wire, and then actually stationed guards around the mound… still people planted crosses, risking the lives or being exiled to Siberia. Now it stands a monument to freedom and religion, and the independence of Lithuania. In the 1990’s, the Pope (John Paul) made a speech from a small cathedral next to the hill as well.

After our half our wander around the hill, we picked up our bags and had 17 minutes to march the 2 km back to the bus stop. We asked for a lift from a van driver but were turned down, and had our hitching thumbs out the rest of the way, more hoping for a lift into Šiauliai than anything else. Catching the bus into town still didn’t guarantee getting the bus to Riga, so hitching would have been a good result. With no hitchin luck, we marched double time with our packs on our back, dodging the snow/water falling out of the trees, and getting closer to the main highway, checking our watches constantly. AT 1502, we saw what looked like a bus fly past, and worried a little, but we were at the stop by 5 past, 2 minutes before the bus was due.

And by 10 past it didn’t matter weather the bus was coming or not, we were going to miss the connection to Riga. Finally at 1530, with no luck hitching, and no bus for another two hours, we started trudging the 10 km back into town. With Potter looking worse by the minute, we dragged on, and started looking for accommodation options. The trusty Lonely Planet had just two options, a hostel and the best hotel in the city. Armed with the address of the hostel and no map, kept walking into town and as we got closer into town and eventually realized that we were walking into town on the same road as the hostel, finally a stroke of luck. Of course when we walked in, the only thing the Russian speaking lady at the reception knew how to say was “No rooms”, and proceeded to walk off. After we stayed around a little bit, another woman came up and also said “No room”, but stuck around for our response… we managed to get through that we were welcome to suggestions and she pulled out a map… it was like opening a treasure chest in a dungeon in the Zelda video game, finally we could see where we were going. What’s more, it was a tourist map, in English, and had 12 different places of accommodation marked on it!

Straight away she circled the other hostel in town, at 15 Litas a night the cheapest place I would have stayed since Egypt. She walked us to the front and to the road, and then did some sort of abracadabra magic gesture with her hands. Potter and I were confused, and Potter asked “Road?”, “yes” came the reply. I asked “Hostel” and again the reply “yes”. Potter asked, “well, which one is it” and that was the end of the magic hand gestures and she walked off… we studied the map a moment and headed in the general direction that she was casting her magic spells.

Five minutes down the road it started snowing, rather heavily, and with the time getting close to six, still no room to sleep, and darkness setting in, I was wondering if she’d been cursing us or doing some sort of snow dance. As we walked through the neighborhood, honestly less than 1 km from the city centre of the fourth biggest city in Lithuania, I was astounded how run down these places looked, and couldn’t imagine how cold the homes would get at night. Then we passed a well on the side of the road, and actually saw people using it to get water for the night. I was astounded… this is an inner city suburb in a country that is a member of the EU, not some outback town in Africa. Amazing. Unfortunately, my joy at life didn’t last and we arrived at the second hostel and were again told “No rooms”. Map in hand we headed back to the city to try some of the more expensive options.

First we decided to head to the bus station and take one last check that nothing was leaving overnight towards Riga, but we lost on that front, and instead decided to check what time the first bus was in the morning. We found a motel and tried to get in there, but could find any sign of life at the reception, and after banging on the door a few times, wandered on. Finally Potter and I snapped, and we decided to think about it over a dinner and a beer. So we stopped at a restaurant run by a couple locals… who served Chinese food! One beer and a solid feed, and we headed back to look for a place to crash, with the time ticking on (it was after 8 now) and the temperature QUICKLY plummeting. We decided to try the guest house before resigning to staying in the luxury hotel in the centre of town which was going for about 300 Litas a night. The guest house looked closer on the map than it was in real life, though that may have been to do with the 15+ km we’d walked with our packs, and the temperature dropping below zero.

Finally we arrived there, and the lady asked what we were after… Umm, do the bags suggest we are tourists that would like a room. She wandered off and a minute later came back and said, “2 room, 150 each”. Potter could do the math and new that for the same price we could stay at the luxury place in town, and he asked in there was anything cheaper. The lady responded that she only had doubles left at 200. Potter looked at me and said “head to tail”, and I knew straight away that he felt like shit, wouldn’t be wanting to go out for drinks in Šiauliai and just wanted to curl up and die. I said yeah, no worries.

In the end, the bed was huge and we could have fit four in it. For a minute the thought of four in there put a twinkle in Potters eye and I thought he might actually find the energy to head out. I jumped in the shower and got cleaned up… despite the freezing conditions, carrying a pack around all day is sweaty work. By the time I came out of the bathroom, Potter was in bed, asking for just an hours nap before we headed out… I should have known better. I sat there watching TV for a while, tried getting Potter convinced in going out after a hour, and then two, and failed on both attempts, and by then wasn’t really interested in the freezing walk back into town. Instead I sat there watching English movies, dubbed in Lithuanian (with one person for all characters) and subtitled in Russian… bizarre.

The next morning we grabbed breakfast at the guest house – fruit, juice, eggs, bread – and then headed to the bus stop for the 930 bus to Riga. This time we got the lady at the information booth to write down the bus time, platform number, and price on a piece of paper so we didn’t get the confusion (ripped-off) we had last time getting on the bus. Whilst in line, Potter said he’d put my bag in the hold, and the guy in front of us turned and said “You guys speak English… Aussies?” We said yeah and he struck up a conversation straight away, albeit one way. He was an Irish bloke with a Lithuanian girlfriend and was just out here with her. She was staying back for a week and he was headed home. He told us to take the seat in front of him, and seeing the bus wheel well there I said I needed more leg room and moved further down the bus. Instead of taking the hint, he picked up his stuff, and took the seat behind us.

Potter must have been genuinely sick, cos within 3 minutes of getting on the bus he was out cold, despite having slept the best part of 10-11 hours the night before. But before he could get some shut eye, the Irish guy whipped out his mobile phone and started showing us pictures of his current girlfriend… and then exes. It appeared as though he was going through all the Eastern European countries, with Polish, Latvian, Estonian, Ukraine and Lithuanian covered… or in the case of the photos, uncovered! It was pretty clear that this 50 year old Irishman, whom we dubbed Paddy O’Tool, was paying for his young girlfriends, either that or he was rich or hung like a whale because his personality was nothing but grating, and certainly not a plus. Eventually I managed to tune him out and slept for much of the trip as well. The only real interruption was at the Latvian border where a guard came on board, checked everyone passport (I use the term check very loosely) and let us go. Again no stamp.

After 2.5 hours of driving in what was a blizzard at some points, we arrived in Riga. We quickly ducked away from Paddy O’Tool, who wanted to show us a great hotel to stay in (hotel, brothel, maybe they mean the same thing in Ireland?) and checked in at Fun Friendly Frank’s Hostel. That was a winner…

The minute we walk in, an attractive Latvian girl tells us to drop our bags and grab our passports. We’d missed the first night of our booking as we got stuck in Šiauliai, but that didn’t matter. Then she asks “Would you like a free beer?”… in the words of Lil Jon, “Okay”. The girl grabbed us a couple of beers and took our passports to fill our paperwork instead of making the guests do it as usually occurs. We sat down in the bar, with three TV screens of sports showing, and Potter says “I bet those guys are from Albury”, where Potter is from. He then went on to explain that he thinks he got into a punch up with one of them in a football game back home. Next thing Frank arrives, and says “Which one is Michael”. I shook his and he moved on to Potter, already also knowing his name. From that point on, there was no doubting Frank knew everyone in his hostel by name… and a little grilling later we found out that was 160 beds worth of guests at a time… Impressive.

He sat us down and pulled out a map showing us where we were, where to go and where not to go. Included in the advice were the casino and strip club to visit if we felt the need. Next, “Where in Australia are you from?” I let Potter field that one in case he wanted to hide his Albury identity (despite the fact he was wearing his High School jumper!), and he said Melbourne and Albury. Immediately Frank turns and says “these boys here are also from Albury, Tim, Scott, guy 1 and guy 2, this is Chris, also from Albury”. We have a quick chat, Potter was right in that they were from Albury, but he wasn’t the guy he fought with, it was his younger brother or something! Frank then asked if we were keen to go bobsledding, which left in half an hour. Of course we were, but we’d already decided that the first thing to do in Riga was to get Potter to the doctors. The bobsledding, weather dependant, would have to wait, and we crossed our fingers.

Potter knew what he needed – steroids – we just needed to get it… Frank rang a cab, and it took us to the door of the only English speaking medical facility in Riga. About forty minutes later, and 40 quid worth of drugs and consultation fees, and Potter was ready to feel better, and we were ready to check out Riga.

Thank God, he was slowing me down!