Blink and you’ll miss Lithuania

21st JULY 2018

It’s a Saturday morning when I leave Riga and, although it isn’t too early, the other five bodies in my dorm are motionless. I quietly take all my gear out the room and begin packing it next to the lift so I don’t disturb the sleeping and hungover. Eliza pops out to say Goodbye and gives me a surprisingly crushing handshake before I depart.

I use cycle paths to pick my way out of the city and across the river, then simply start following the Via Baltica south once again. I’ve been cycling on this road for a few days now, building up a bit of a love / hate relationship with it. I love it’s directness, but I hate it’s traffic. However, I realise I’ll have to stick with it unless I want to add twenty or thirty kilometres to my total every day.

Today’s cycle is a short, straightforward one at only 40km, and is based mostly around my accommodation choices. I pull into a cheap roadside motel, to be met in the lobby bar by an ancient German man who reminds me of the confused Major in Fawlty Towers. We talk for a while and, when no staff attend to me, he shuffles off to ring the desk bell loudly and angrily on my behalf. Luckily he remains at the desk so the owners don’t mistakenly think it was me trying to rudely get their attention. I check in, put my bike in their garage and see how all my Lithuanian Warm Showers and Couchsurfing requests have fared. To my dismay, about half have declined and half haven’t replied. This is such a shame as spending time with a local gives you a much better feel for their country. I’ve never set foot in Lithuania yet, but I’m already a bit grumpy with them.

There also comes a time in every long cycle trip where you just have to get your head down and do some miles. If I want to reach the Mediterranean by mid-September then I’m going to have to get a wriggle on, and it’s probably better to do it now while I’m riding in countryside that’s flat. With this in mind, I resolve to start in earnest the following day.

On waking, my enthusiasm is dulled somewhat as it’s already baking hot before I leave. I’ve already added one more water bottle to my tally, which means I now start each day with four full vessels. In each new country I always ask the locals if it’s OK to drink their tap water. So far every single person has said that it’s safe and some even seem quite offended by the question. I have been putting my faith in them though and have drunk tap water since Day One. This either means that it is actually safe, or my stomach has become accustomed to housing different microbes than it normally does.

Despite the heat, I just keep spinning the pedals and reach the Lithuanian border some 50km later. There are some roadworks beforehand and I’m joined at the head of the queue by a car containing two guys in their twenties. We’re going to be waiting a while so we have a bit of chat. It turns out they are French and are driving to the capital, Vilnius, which will complete their tour of the Baltic States. They offer me an unopened bottle of water, which is a nice touch as they must recognise the struggle of cycling in today’s heat. It suddenly strikes me as strange that I’ve been passed by thousands of locals, yet it’s two French guys that are the first to offer me some water.

I cross the border without really being aware that I had. There’s no flags or touristy ‘Welcome to Lithuania’ stuff, just a massive roadsign telling me what the speed limits and road regulations are here. I much prefer a bit of pomp and ceremony at my border crossings.

After being underwhelmed by the border I realise I’m not even at the halfway stage of today’s cycle. However, the kilometres have been passing quickly as I’ve been keeping my mind active. I read an article on-line yesterday about a woman who, as an experiment, tried to get through a twenty-four hour flight from Sydney to London without having to switch on the entertainment system. Her tactic was to try and distract herself by attempting to remember the names of all her old school teachers and such-like. Apparently this worked so well that she barely noticed the time passing and she reached London in a Zen-like state of relaxation. In a slightly different take on this, today I’m trying to recall the running order and singing each song on albums I used to listen to in my teens. I choose Greatest Hits albums too, just to make the game last longer. I check later and surprise myself by getting more correct than I would have imagined. And it works ! What should have been a difficult cycle of 110km in draining heat is somehow made easier by distracting myself with trivia. However, I’m certainly in no Zen-like state on my arrival in Panevezys. (Pan-Ehh-Vicious)

I check into a motel / hostel hybrid on a busy crossroads and get ready to take a shower. I’m just about to jump under the water when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m actually glistening with sweat to the point where it looks like I’ve been oiled up with lotion. The next thirty minutes are spent in the shower cleaning up and cooling down. The bedroom is still stiflingly hot though, so all that time in the shower may just prove to be a temporary respite. I open the window to let in some fresh air, but that inevitably also brings in an influx of flying bugs. Especially green ones.

The following morning feels a little bit Groundhog Day as, once again, I have to cycle 110km on another baking hot day. I’m told that Panevezys is Lithuania’s fifth largest city, but I find my way out easily enough using a combination of terrible roads and even worse cycle paths. I’m aiming for Kaunas today as it’s on my route and a convenient distance away, despite me saying that I’d try to avoid any more big cities.

If anything, it’s even hotter than yesterday. There are clouds teasing me with the promise of cover but they remain tantalisingly out of reach on the horizon. The road I’m cycling on passes straight through flat, dry, golden wheat fields and often has long stretches without any shade. Tractors and combine harvesters are my constant companions today as they transport crops and move between fields. I’m using any excuse so I can stop for a break – re-applying sunscreen, food stops, buying drinks at every petrol station. Even when I pass through a shaded area I’ll sometimes pause for a while just to get out of the sun.

About 30km from Kaunas I’m able to turn off onto a quieter road that passes by some smaller farms and run down looking towns. The silence is almost eerie after the main road and it’s soothing to give my left ear a break from the sound of traffic buzzing noisily past. I have a laugh to myself at a roadsign warning of a six per cent gradient – that would be a gentle slope in the UK, but it’s probably more testament to the flatness of the countryside around here. I still haven’t seen a proper hill since Finland.

As I get nearer Kaunas the road starts to get busier, while simultaneously deteriorating in quality. I have to use motorway slip roads on occasion as cycle paths often just reach an abrupt dead end. On first impressions it’s quite an ugly city with many old Soviet-style apartment blocks and more roadworks than I would ever have thought necessary. This city actually feels busier than Riga to me, yet has only about half the population. I take a speedy downhill to the riverside then have to crawl up the opposite bank to reach my hostel. I check in, put my bike in the storage cupboard and am fast asleep in bed by 9.00pm. Two 110km days in roasting heat and humidity have taken their toll.

I still feel wrecked the next morning from my efforts of the previous days so decide to have a Rest Day in Kaunas. Instead of completely resting though, I go for a 3km walk into the Old Town to have a look around. It all looks rather average, but that’s probably a little unfair as I’ve been spoilt by visiting the spectacular Old Towns in Tallinn and Riga first. At night I revisit my Warm Showers and Couchsurfing requests, but without any success. Sadly, I’m not goimg to be able to stay with a Lithuanian host before I depart the country. Ironically though, it looks like my first night in Poland has already been sorted courtesy of Warm Showers.

My final full day of cycling in Lithuania ends up as my favourite, and that’s mostly because I leave the busy main road and go for a meander. It also helps that my leaving Kaunas isn’t half as stressful as when I arrived. I have to re-cross the river and deal with yet more crappy cycle paths, but I’m more or less able to follow one straight road out of town.

About half today’s journey is on quiet roads, but I do have to join a major route in the afternoon to get to Marijampole. I’m a bit apprehensive as it’s one of the main roads from Vilnius and it looks fairly daunting on the map. I needn’t have worried though, as this road is smooth, relatively quiet and a joy to cycle. It has shady, wooded sections and even passes through fields of black and white cows munching contentedly on lush green grass. This is such relief for my senses after days of travelling through dry, flat, dusty wheat fields.

Aided by a steady tail-wind, I speed into Marijampole and check in to a campsite just past town at the end of a 2km gravel track. It’s a lovely spot with tall shady trees, campers swimming in a small lake and a disarmingly friendly girl on reception. It will be nice to get back in the tent too, as most of my time in the Baltics has been spent using hostels in cities. After cycling all day my first priority is always a shower, but I notice something odd when I’m finished. As I’m drying myself the towel is gradually going a rusty brown colour. At first I think I may have been particularly dirty, but then realise that this campsite must use bore-water drawn up from underground.

I’m in my tent by sundown and reflect on my short stay in Lithuania. It’s fair to say that it’s not been my favourite country so far. I’ve spent the same amount of time here as I did in both Estonia and Latvia, yet I feel I haven’t really got to know Lithuania at all. Part of that is my own doing as I sped straight down the middle of the country and couldn’t really justify a long detour to Vilnius or the coast. Another part is not being able to find a Warm Showers or Couchsurfing host – you get a much better feel for a country by visiting a local, chatting with them, seeing how they live, being shown their town, trying local food. I’m disappointed I didn’t get the chance to do any of that in Lithuania, but there’s no use in getting downheartened – it’s just the way things happened to pan out. There’ll be plenty more chances in plenty more countries. And that starts tomorrow with Poland.

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