BelaRushing: 7 Hours In Minsk

BelaRushing: 7 Hours In Minsk

Lenin just got served

 

Although the trip officially ended yesterday, 5 of us continued onwards for the optional extension into forbidden Belarus (or aka “Europe’s last dictatorship”…as per Western journalists) …because why not?

The 5 of us left our hostel at 7:30pm to try to make it to the 8am train from Vilnius to Minsk. For this train, you’ll need to take the escalators heading underground from Vilnius’ train station and go through a special part of the station involving passport control and customs where they stamp you out of Lithuania and into international territory.

 

Train to Minsk

 

The train ride from Vilnius to Minsk takes about 2 and a half hours and some serious looking security staff will get onboard the train about a third of the way through to inspect your passports and stamp your visas.

Once you arrive in Minsk, the city is all yours.

 

 

Since Belarus is not part of the Eurozone, we headed to a bank first to take out some Belarusian rubles. We then would learn that many of the ATMs don’t work and the Belarusian ruble was currently in freefall; you might see this all the time on the news, but it’s sobering to witness with your own eyes banks packed with worried people trying to take as much money out as they can.

 

 

What most struck us about Belarus after 17 days in Scandinavia and the Baltic States was the wide, open spaces and the magnitude of each building compared to the long, narrow and windy cobblestone streets of the Baltic’s old towns and Scandinavia’s diverse commercial districts.

This doesn’t mean Minsk is ugly. Quite the contrary; after being completely destroyed during World War 2, Minsk was rebuilt from scratch with monumental 1950s Stalinist/Soviet-bloc style architecture (way more lively and interesting than the drabbier Soviet buildings of the 60s and 70s) and hasn’t changed a thing since. Minsk therefore is the ideal locale to visit for anyone interested in seeing a slice of the Soviet Union in its heyday.

 

 

When we reached the city center, we enjoyed breakfast at a local restaurant serving traditional Belarusian potato pancakes, fried egg, and quarter of a chicken leg. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip:

 

 

Then we began our walking tour of Minsk, starting from the “Girl With Umbrella” statue…

 

 

….and the behemoth of open space that is Lenin/Independence Square:

 

 

On the southwest part of Independence Square is Belarusian Government Building and the Lenin Monument. You are supposedly not allowed to take photographs of this building (someone will approach you to delete the photos), but somehow we got lucky:

 

Lenin Monument just got served

 

On the southeast side of the square is the massive Belarus State University campus:

 

 

A few meters north of the Lenin Monument in the northwest part of Independence Square is Sts Simon & Helena Church, also known as “Red Church”:

 

 

Continue walking north up Praspiekt Nyezalyežhnastsi St. (thereafter known as “The Main Street”)  and on your left side will be the KGB Headquarters.

Sit on the steps or take a few photos and someone will come outside and give you a hard time/make you disappear. Keep moving.

 

 

On your right will the busts of a few important Belarusians surrounded by their respective small parks:

 

 

This one is of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a native Belarusian and founder of Cheka, the predecessor to the KGB:

 

 

Continue onwards on the main street and you’ll hit Kastrycnickaja Square, famous for being where the 2006 Denim/Jeans Revolution occurred where 10,000+ Belarusians gathered to protest the election of Alexander Lukashenko.

The Denim Revolution was named as such as “jeans”/denim was seen as a Western style of clothing; thus it was used as a symbol/flag by activists declaring that Belarus would not be isolated from the West.

 

A Concert Hall

 

Stray off a little to the west of the square and you’ll come across the Central House of Officers and the Tank in front of it, used as a memorial to the soldiers who liberated Minsk from the Nazis during WW2.

 

 

A little more east past the trees is the building where President Alexander Lukashenko resides and works.

 

 

Beside it, you can find another park with another memorial to another famous Belarusian:

 

 

At this point our stalwart group of 5 went down to 4 as our beloved William Lau had to run and catch his 8:30pm connecting flight to Moscow.

 

Awk hug

 

Keep going north along the main street, across Nyamiha River, and you’ll hit Victory Square with its Victory Obelisk and the Eternal Flame in the center:

 

 

You can go underground directly beneath the Victory Obelisk to see the base of where the eternal flame comes from…

 

 

…and follow it as it it comes out above ground burning in front of the obelisk:

 

 

Behind you is another great example of wide open spaces typical of Soviet/communist/socialist urban planning:

 

 

From here take a detour to the left of Victory Square, along Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St, parallel to the river. When you get to building #4, you’ll arrive upon the Former Residence of Lee Harvey Oswald, which is now a plain old cell phone store.

If you need a brush up on your history, Lee Harvey Oswald was the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Prior to the assassination and after serving with the US Marines, Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in Minsk for a few years where he married a local girl and developed a fondness for Marxism. And this building is where he lived.

There are no markers or anything that signifies it as a historic site; it’s more of an interest to Western tourists who appreciate quirky historical iotas. The fact enough of us come here to take so many photos of what is now a cell phone store has already bemused many native Belarusians.

 

 

Beside here is another park with another nice Soviet monument:

 

 

Taking a break from all our monuments, we continued up Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St and had an early dinner at corner restaurant Gurman, famous for its wonderful pelminis (aka “Russian” version of dumplings) that come in many variations:

 

 

After eating, we continued once again on Kamunistychnaya Vulitsa St and turned a left on Vulitsa Maksima Bahdanovicha St,. Then we headed south until we saw the Island of Tears on our right.

Cross the bridge and you’ll come across a small chapel flanked by large statues of mourners on all 4 sides, honoring the Belarusian mothers whose children served and died in war.

 

 

Off to the side on the island is a statue of Belarus’ Guardian Angel, designed to actually shed tears in the pond below. Observe the statue long enough and you’ll notice actual tears dripping down from his face.

 

 

Facing the Island of Tears on the mainland is a row of buildings in a quaint, compact neighborhood known as Traetskae Pradmestse, which is a redevelopment of what Minsk used to look like before it was destroyed in World War 2.

With its cobblestone alleyways and small corridors, walking through here was a nostalgic throwback to the architecture we had grown accustomed to in the old towns of the Baltic States. Even more impactful was when you realize how this small place is so different from the rest of Minsk.

 

 

Cross over Nyamiha River again south and check out Cathedral Square. The largest one is the Holy Spirit Cathedral, which is packed with worshippers and is incredibly atmospheric inside.

 

 

A few meters nearby is Minsk’s City Hall where wedding photos are usually taken:

 

 

Also nearby on the square is their “concert hall”, but rather it’s more accurately a philharmonic for children and an addition to the school of music behind it.

 

 

On the other side of the street of Cathedral Square is Minsk’s oldest church, Sts Peter & Paul Church, awkwardly flanked by ugly concrete apartment-blocs on both sides:

 

 

From there, turn left on Pieramozcau Ave and walk up northwest until you hit Melnikayte St

 

 

Then make a left and walk down until you reach Zaslavskaya St. There, you’ll notice The Pit, a famous Holocaust memorials to the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

While the obelisk was built in 1947, the pit is famous for the handmade (no machinery used) bronze sculpture entitled “The Last Way” added in 2000, taking over 8 years to complete. It shows a group of Jewish prisoners, walking down the steps of the pit about to be executed by the Nazis. It is remarkable for its expressive style devoid of national colors, poignantly showing figures of a violinist, children, and a pregnant woman.

 

 

Once you recollect your thoughts, retrace your steps back to Pieramozcau Ave and walk up even more, past the Hewlett Packard “Monument” (it’s actually a giant digital clock)…

 

 

…and you’ll definitely notice The Great Patriotic War Museum gleaming across the street:

 

 

By the museum is Pieramohi Park, which evokes imagery of some of my favorite paintings in the “Path to Autumn” motif:

 

Minsk, Belarus
Path of Autumn

minsk
Path of Autumn

 

Here were our own takes:

 

Our Path of Autumn (or Summer)
Path of Autumn just got served

 

Also in the park are distinct oversized white (but obviously dirty) benches:

 

 

At this point the sun was beginning to fall into the horizon, allowing Minsk to open up before us in a way that, for now, I can best describe as poetic. This was a gift that kept on giving as we were treated to a sublime sunset over the Nyamiha River:

 

 

At this point it was already nearing 9pm and we realized that we had seen every single major sight that was listed in all our guidebooks and online. Not even the park or the impressive Great Patriotic War Museum was listed in our Lonely Planet guide.

Satisfied, we turned around and started to head back out of the park.

 

 

As in any city from the days of the USSR, Minsk’s use of city lighting after sunset makes a Westerner feel like they’ve stumbled onto a different planet:

 

 

And with night lights as our guide back to our hostel, we knew it was about time to head home. Thanks to the 27 of you who made this one of the most successful trips we have ever led.

. . . .

 

But the story doesn’t end here. We have 2 more.

 

5 International Airports In 1 Day

After the 4 of us returned from Minsk’s city center to our hostel at around 10pm, we did a grocery run for some last-minute supplies to use on our international flights home. We all then passed out soon thereafter.

 

 

Jenn and I woke up first with only 3-4 hours of sleep in our system (to add ontop of the all-nighter we pulled the night before), calling in a cab to take us to Minsk International Airport at around 2am.

The cab ride cost us 400,000 Belarusian rubles and took about an hour to reach an airport (even in the middle of the night with no traffic) that was more than 40km away from the city. If you’re going to do this during the day, I suggest taking the bus as it’s much cheaper and will cost you the same amount of time.

Once we arrived we boarded our 5am Austrian Airlines flight for Vienna, which would then lead us on another Austrian Airlines flight us to Venice and then from there a United Airlines (UA) flight would take us to New York City. However, our flight to Venice was delayed by about 35 minutes because of technical difficulties, causing us to miss our connecting UA flight home. To add insult to injury, UA so-called “stellar” service (or lack thereof) led us to have no idea where to go was there was no agent or screen or anything waiting for us at the gate when we landed in Venice.

With no idea where to start, I made a shot in the dark (ie a lucky guess) that Lufthansa would be the preferred codeshared airline that would take on UA’s orphaned flyers as they’re the next largest leading carrier within Star Alliance that could afford to do so. And lo and behold, when we walked up to Lufthansa’s ticket kiosk on the 2nd floor, shiny business class tickets from Venice to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to NYC awaited the both of us.Knowing the truly stellar (this time with no sarcastic quotes) service I experienced when flying business class from Frankfurt to NYC last year on Lufthansa, this would be a big step up from our original UA flight.

Not only that, I ran into my college buddy Gilbert Papagayo a few feet away from the Lufthansa desk right before he was about to leave for Copenhagen.

 

 

After 5 international airports in one day, a crisis was finally averted.

 

Not a bad way to end our trip

 

The other story has a less happier (but still happy ending).

 

Alice Vs. Russia

As all of this was happening to Jenn and me, the Viber app (a chat app that our group used to communicate with one another and share videos/moments/photos, and ironically was founded in Belarus of all places) on our mobile devices was blowing up with emergency messages from one of our monsooners, Alice. Aeroflot agents had been denying her from boarding her exit flight from Minsk, Belarus to Moscow, Russia because of some arcane, outdated, Soviet agreement that the relationship between Belarus and Russia would be of a “local” shared space instead of separate international borders.

In other words the action of flying from Belarus to Russia is considered by Russia as “domestic” travel within their borders, so as a USA citizen, entering Moscow specifically via Belarus without a Russian visa will take you to a unique area of the Moscow airport that’s the equivalent of entering Russia illegally. And because your Belarus visa obviously does not substitute for a Russian visa when you land in Moscow Airport, you CANNOT fly from Belarus to Russia without a pre-arranged Russian visa, EVEN IF you don’t plan on leaving Moscow airport. If that still doesn’t make sense, your humble writer will agree as this whole thing still doesn’t make sense to him.

Either way, Alice was screwed. Since Russians aren’t best friends with either the idea of customer service or USA citizens, her ticket was automatically cancelled. And then a magical thing happened; 6 other monsooners in 5 different countries and time zones (Jenn and I in Austria, Dave in Lithuania, Jeff in Ukraine, Teresa in the USA, Emily with Alice in Belarus) rallied to spend the next hour sending over 150+ messages helping Alice with finding a solution.

Here were the options that our ragtag team came up with:

  1. Stand her ground with Aeroflot and threaten to report situation to the IATA that the airline should have informed her of this law when she booked her ticket. Storm into the local Aeroflot office and ask for them to make an exception for her and issue an emergency transit visa
  2. Ask Aeroflot to push back her Moscow to NYC flight to a later time and have them book a new flight from Minsk to any other city (like Istanbul), so she would be legally traveling to Moscow not from Belarus, and that she could still make her flight to NYC from Moscow.
  3. Book Emily’s Etihad flight from Minsk to Abu Dhabi and find a flight back to NYC from there.
  4. Book Emily’s Etihad flight from Minsk to Abu Dhabi and continue traveling with her to Bali. Screw going home.
  5. Take a flight from Minsk to Kiev, and then from Kiev to NYC for a relatively cheap price.
  6. Call CHASE Bank, who was the travel service that Alice booked through to get this flight, and complain that it was their responsibility to inform her of this travel exception between Belarus and Russia for USA citizens. Then, ask CHASE Bank to book her an alternative flight from Minsk and put it on their tab.
  7. Take a train or bus back from Minsk, Belarus to Vilnius, Lithuania where Dave can take her in and get her on a cheap flight back to NYC from Lithuania (which is part of the Eurozone).
  8. Sleep in a sleepbox just for kicks
  9. Drink

Options #1 and #2 couldn’t work because Alice’s Belarus visa would expire today and we didn’t want to risk her being arrested, processed and deported, have her assume the costs of deportation, and being red-flagged as an irresponsible traveler.

Option #3 and #5 were actually the cheapest options (under $700 one way) that allowed her to leave directly from Minsk, but they both required at least 33 hours of travel, which Alice preferred not to endure after this.

Option #4 would be great if Alice could afford an extra week of vacation.

Option #6 would be reasonable if we were to assume that CHASE Bank would also be reasonable (unlikely).

Option #8 and #9 would be irresponsible.

 

 

So she went with Option #7. After finally speaking with an empathetic agent at the airport, they put her on a same-day bus to Vilnius where she would then meet up with Dave (convenient given that Dave was still in Vilnius and made no plans to go anywhere after the trip was over), and then board a cheap flight back from Vilnius to NYC.

 

On the way back to Vilnius

 

A bigger crisis averted, but nonetheless still stressful to think about.

Here’s Alice’s account of her ordeal:

Earlier today I was supposed to board a flight going back to NYC via Moscow, only to find out that a Russian transit visa is required specifically from Minsk to Moscow because the flight considered to be “local” and I would be on Russian territory.

 

I was not allowed to board that flight because I would have been deported from Moscow back to Minsk, even though Aeroflot never informed me of this prior. In addition, when I tried to reroute my flight from elsewhere, Aeroflot cancelled my entire reservation. With a couple hours of scrambling for flights with the amazing help of my fellow Monsooners/Map&Movers, I am rebooked on a flight from Vilnius to NYC via Kiev in two days.

 

Now, I am fleeing Minsk via two buses to Vilnius because my Belarus visa expires tonight. Here’s to hoping I make it to Vilnius not as a villain.

. . .

 

I Google Translated (to Russian) and screenshot-ed every possible question I could possibly ask about my journey and relied on these screenshots to help me communicate through the next 8 hours.

I took a 1-hour shuttle from the airport to the bus station, where I bought my ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania by showing a screenshot of the exact route and time I needed. (FYI, very few people in Belarus speak English) I finally boarded the bus and thought I was on my merry way to Vilnius – which I was until I almost didn’t cross the Belarus-Lithuania border.

 

The Belarus Border Patrol workers didn’t speak a lick of English, and did not believe my passport was me (according to everyone my passport photo doesn’t look like me). Luckily I had my teacher photo ID on me (none other because I lost my wallet in Vilnius) and thankfully there were 2 English speakers who helped translate everything.

 

Then at the Lithuania Entrance Border Patrol, again I almost didn’t pass and no one spoke English except for my bus-mates, but luckily I made it through – most likely due to my calm yet desperate look at that point.

 

I finally got to Vilnius at almost 8pm with a sigh of relief and hearty Lithuanian food. I spent yesterday enjoying my extended stay before boarding my 7AM flight to Kiev this morning, then onwards to NYC.

 

And that is how I escaped Minsk and how ‪#‎CLUBALICE‬ has made it back to the hood – for now.

 

P. S. Forever thankful to Calvin, David, Emily, Jeff, Jenn and Teresa for helping me flee!

And now, as our plane touches down in NYC, the 27 of us look back on 17 unbelievable days in 8 different countries.

Until the next monsoon.

 

- At time of posting in Minsk, Belarus, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

I Trakai So Hard, And Got So Far

I Trakai So Hard, And Got So Far

Trakai just got served

 

Today we had a late morning once again, with some of us checking out flea markets and wrapping up the last Vilnius’ old town. At 2:30pm we left for the bus station (a 10min walk away) for the 20min bus for Trakai.

 

 

This is where things got testy. When we asked to buy tickets (1.70 euros) for the bus to Trakai, we were told at the information kiosk that we could buy them on the bus. We felt uncomfortable about this given the size of the group so we asked again to reserve them but once again was denied (“You can buy tickets on the bus!”). Shrugging our shoulders we headed to platform 28 for the 3pm bus, which was already boarding. There the driver told our group that he was already at capacity and 11 of us could not fit on the bus. Understandable.

We waited another 40 minutes for the 3:40pm bus and once again, as an empty bus pulled in and us at the front of the line, we were again told by the driver we could not board because this time: “You need to buy tickets beforehand to get on.”

An international war between USA, Spain, Italy and Lithuania then ensued; Spanish and Italian bystanders who had pre-purchased tickets tried to push us out of the way while we stood our ground and argued that it was wrong to have been told by the information kiosk earlier to buy tickets on the bus. So the commotion continued on from the bus back to the Lithuanians at the information kiosk where we demanded to speak to the manager…which of course got us nowhere but utter indifference and eyerolls. Either way, we ended up hailing taxis to take us to Trakai for 30 euros a car.

While the 20 minute drive gave us time to calm down, we then let it all go when we pulled up to Trakai:

 

 

Considering choosing the bus vs. the taxi, opportunity costs can be factored: It’s a 30 minute walk from the bus station to the castle, while it’s about a 5 minute walk to the castle from where the cabs drop you off.

 

 

The admission fee is 6 euros a person to get into the castle, although we “shock and awe-d” the ticket agent with enough student IDs to get the whole group the student price of 3 euros a person.

Once you walk in, you’ll come upon the main square where many concerts take place. For us, a “medieval rock/metal” festival was going on, which…sort of…contributed to the atmosphere. Otherwise, multiple activities for family fun abound here:

 

Handmade wooden swords

 

Keep walking past the square and up the stairs to the second part of the castle:

 

 

Here you can shoot airsoft guns, a bow & arrow, or a crossbow for 2 euros for 6 pellets/arrows.

 

 

At the very back of the castle is the museum portion, with basic exhibits on period pieces and the way of life way back in the 14th-15th centuries.

It’s a straightforward exhibition, taking about 15 minutes to breeze through all of it (although you’re welcome to stay hours here if medieval living is your thing).

 

 

At 6pm the group gathered for one last meal overlooking Trakai at sunset at the magnificent Apvalaus Stalo Klubas restaurant:

 

Crayfish Soup
Poached Egg
Red Snapper
Monkfish
Lamb Rump
Thyme Panna Cotta with Mango Puree
Mini Chocolate Cake


 

We then end our day with one final night together, led by Teja, a waitress I met a few weeks ago back in NYC who just happened to be visiting her home in Vilnius the same time we were, and accompanied by Judith, another Lithuanian visiting Vilnius for the weekend.

 

Teja Aleksandravičiūtė…for first running into each other when you were serving at my friend’s birthday brunch; chance would have it that you would be in your hometown of Vilnius at the same time we were and that you would join your new family of New Yorkers onstage for shameless karaoke renditions of “Bad Romance” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” before your aghast countrymen. Moments were beholden to magical coincidence that night as you learned that coincidence = preparation + opportunity. And opportunity certainly came. So may many more coincidences and opportunities await you at LSE; you are more prepared than you think. 08/24/15.

 

That night we showed off our karaoke chops (killing it with “I Want It That Way”, “Bad Romance” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”) to the entirety of Vilnius on a surprisingly lively Sunday night, and capping off the final day for many of us; 5 of us continue onwards tomorrow to our last “unofficial” extension day of the trip in Minsk, Belarus while 8 fly home from Vilnius. We miss you all already.

 

Vilnius at night

 

I can’t think of a better karaoke hit to end our last night together:

 

Or a hookah bar that Teja and I found together at 5am in the morning as she, nary a better guide I could ever ask for, showed me around the Vilnius only she knew, . . . .

Now Dave, who didn’t make any travel plans after our trip, is all alone in Vilnius.

 

 

- At time of posting in Trakai, Lithuania, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Vilnius: We Have A Gun Problem

Vilnius: We Have A Gun Problem

Cathedral Square just got served

 

Our group once again took advantage of Eastern Europe’s relatively laxer gun range laws and spent a whopping 3 hours shooting things we would never have a shot at — no pun intended — back in the USA. But more on that later…

We woke up to a beautiful late morning in Vilnius and started off our day with a long blynines (An eastern european version of pancakes) breakfast at Gusto Blynines:

 

 

While part of the group left early to check out the 2.5 hour free walking tour, the rest of us spent 2 hours trying to see everything in Vilnius’ Old Town on our own, starting off with the triad of castles near the Gate of Dawn.

Most notable is St. Casimir’s Cathedral, which was once a church of atheism when Lithuania was under Soviet control and still a fine example of baroque architecture:

 

 

Walk a bit more north and you can explore the former Jewish “ghetto” in the center of old town:

 

 

On the eastern part of Old Town across a short bridge is Užupis, a self-declared “breakaway” republic consisting of off-the-grid artists and bohemians (similar to the Christiania district in Copenhagen) living in a laissez-faire atmosphere. The neighborhood has its own constitution (posted on a street wall in multiple languages), president, laws, and even its own tongue-in-cheek passport stamp which you can get at a local bar/restaurant. 

The district declared itself an independent Republic of Užupis on April 1st (get it?), 1997.

 

Crossing the bridge to Užupis
The Užupis Constitution

 

 It takes about 20 minutes to walk around Užupis:

 

 

Before leaving, you can get your Užupis stamp at this restaurant/bar right across the bridge from the main old town:

 

 

Returning to the main part of old town west of Užupis, we went to check out the Orthodox Church:

 

 

 …and St. Anne’s Church complex…

 

 

…and finally St. John’s Church:

 

At 2:45pm a friendly Lithuanian soldier picked us up in his van to take us to an outdoor gun range 25 minutes outside of Vilnius. Unlike in our gun instructors in Tallinn, this guy taught us how to start from scratch, including loading bullets in our own cartridges, and locking and loading on our own.

We started off with 4 types of pistols, including the Glock-17, the SIG Sauer P226, a Colt, and a Makarov PM pistol with a shoulder stabilizer:

 

 

Then we put our Glock-17s in a submachine converter with laser sight:

 

 

After that, the classic H&K MP-5 submachine gun:

 

 

 The Uzi:

 

 

The Thompson “Tommy” Gun:

 

 

The Defender 1300 pump-action shotgun:

 

 

 And finally, the assault rifles:

 

 

I started off with an H&K G36:

 

 

I then got the chance to finally lock and load my own M4A1 Carbine with a silencer:

 

 

And finally the last 2 were variations of AK-47s:

 

AK-47
AK-47 tuned with laser sight

 

All in all, we had a very educational afternoon:

 

 

And yet none of this grabbed our attention more than our instructor’s brave 6 year old son, who was fearlessly driving a motorbike the whole time we were shooting our guns mere yards away.

 

 

After cleaning up our instructor was kind enough to drive us back to the old city:

 

 

He dropped us off at the foot of Gediminas Hill so we could watch the sunset with the rest of the group.

It takes about a quick 8 minute climb up Gediminas Hill. At the top is Vilnius’ 3 Crosses Monument, a memorial to 7 Franciscan friars who were beheaded on top of this hill.

 

 

The city views here at sunset are a must:

 

A memorial to all the Lithuanian bishops and priests who were persecuted and executed in Vilnius

 

 

 

After the sunset, we climbed back down the hill…

 

 

…and swung by Cathedral Square nearby:

 

 

At this point we happened upon the end of the all-women’s 5K that was taking place right around the corner:

 

 

After cheering them on, we had a long, lazy dinner among the quaint cobblestone streets along Vilnius University:

 

- At time of posting in Vilnius, Lithuania, it was 16 °C - Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

The Hill Of Crosses

The Hill Of Crosses

 

After an eventful night and saying goodbye to Teresa and Vivian early this morning, we packed our bags and planned for our most ambitious day yet: Take an international bus from Riga, Latvia to Siauliai, Lithuania to visit the Hill Of Crosses, before heading onwards by train to Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius by nightfall.

Leaving the hostel at 11:45am, we walked about 10 minutes south from old city to Riga’s bus station for a 12:15pm Ollex Express Bus to Siauliai.

 

 

We arrived at around 2:45pm into Siauliai‘s bus station, which is conveniently attached to a high-end mall.

After orienting ourselves with the bus schedule, storing our left luggage for a cheap 0.60 euros at the bus station, and getting some food at the mall, we got on the public bus on Platform #12 (0.86 euros fare). We traveled about 12km north of Siauliai for about 15-20 minutes, before getting off at Domentai

From there we walked another 15 minutes towards the Hill Of Crosses.

 

The Hill Of Crosses in the distance on the right

 

After 15 minutes of walking down a dirt path, we finally came upon an incredible, awe-inspiring sight.

For the many of you unfamiliar with what this place is, the Hill Of Crosses is a pilgrimage site in Northern Lithuania famous for Lithuanians leaving crosses on a hill since the 1800s. Despite multiple attempts by the Soviet empire and other powers trying to bulldoze the site, Lithuanians have risked their life and limb to continuing the practice and going as far as planting the crosses in the cover of darkness as a demonstration of “peaceful rebellion.” 

The Hill Of Crosses remains to this day a beautiful testament of the will and faith of the Lithuanian people for their beliefs. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but it has been estimated that there have been about 100,000+ crosses placed on this hill.

 

 

Follow the path of crosses until you arrive upon the main, central clearing at the foot of the hill:

 

 

 From there you can walk up the stairs and lose yourself among a forest of crosses.

 

 

There are multiple paths around and through the sides of the hill you can take, all eventually leading back to the top.

 

 

A few panoramas of the hill:

 

 

You can either easily spend more than an hour here and not want to leave, or see everything in under 30 minutes.

 

 

Some crosses are not even planted into the ground, but simply placed in a pile of other crosses:

 

 

After about 45 minutes there, we all elected to take a cab back to Siauliai instead of waiting another hour to take the return bus back. A one way journey by cab should cost about 20 euros.

Seeing that we had already taken buses, cars, ships, ferries, and flights on this trip, the last mode of transportation left to experience was a train. So instead of taking an evening bus back to Vilnius, we picked up our bags at the left luggage station in the bus terminal and walked about 8 minutes towards the train station northwest of the city.

Lithuania has a funny system of not allowing tickets to be pre-purchased/reserved outside the country, so unlike the overnight buses and cruise ships we’ve been taking the past 2 weeks, we had to buy our train tickets on the spot (for those of you running large groups like us can rest easy, however, that it is very rare for these train tickets to get sold out).

 

A pretty church close to the train station

 

Unlike the bus terminal, the train station is spartan with not much availability for anything but a waiting area.

 

 

 We then got on the 6:15pm train for Vilnius.

 

 

… and we arrived into Vilnius at 8:30pm.

 

Vilnius train station

 

From the train station we walked about 9 minutes towards Vilnius’ Old Town, coming upon the Gate of Dawn:

 

The Gate of Dawn

 

Our hostel, Hostelgate, is located only a few steps from the Gate of Dawn inside Old Town. We checked in quickly, and then went out exploring the neighborhood at night.

 

 

 After a decent dinner at Atelier Grill, we turned in for an early night.

 

- At time of posting in Siauliai, it was 14 °C - Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Getting Real In Riga: Paris Of The North

Getting Real In Riga: Paris Of The North

The Latvian Academy of Sciences just got served

 

We enjoyed a lazy morning in beautiful Riga, as the group congregated late for a 1pm free walking tour of the capital city’s quaint little old town:

 

Original wall marking the limit of the original old town

 

We first tried to make wishes come true by touching the noses of all 4 animals at this stature:

 

 

We then walked to the center of old town, where you can see the Dome Cathedral on your left and the House of the Blackheads, a reconstruction of the old guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga from the 1500s.

 

Dome Cathedral; no building in old town is allowed to be taller than this structure to preserve its skyline

 

We walked around some more.

 

An underground themed medieval restaurant

 

At the edge of old town is its famous freedom monument with Lady Liberty at the top, honoring the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence.

 

 

We also were told that the McDonalds by Riga’s Freedom Monument is particularly special for being the very first one built in Latvia and the first mark of Western influence in the country.

 

 

However, Riga is most known for its scattered but comprehensive displays of art nouveau architecture, which can be found scattered on over 750 buildings in the city.

These are our favorites in old town:

 

 

After the walking tour, the group headed southeast where right past the bus station are 5 huge converted hangers that were originally used to construct zeppelins during World War 2. Now its Riga’s Central Market Place that sell pretty much every and all types of food and goods that Latvia has to offer:

 

Pure salmon goodness for under 2 euros

 

Then we walked southeast of the markets to reach the Latvian Academy of Sciences tower, famous for its elaborate Soviet-style architecture.

 

 

For 4 euros you can take its elevator up 15 floors and walk up 2 more flights of stairs for some nice panoramic views of the Riga. It’s the cheaper view in town, as the other option is the top of Dome Cathedral, which would cost you 7 euros.

 

 

A few more blocks southeast of the Latvian Academy of Sciences is the preserved remnants of the Jewish ‘ghetto’ from the days of World War 2:

 

 

Afterwards we took a quick cab ride northwest to see Riga’s ornate Orthodox Cathedral:

 

 

No photos are allowed inside (and they do get aggressive with that rule) but we did our best anyway:

 

 

Finally, to cap off our daytime tour of Riga, we walked northwest more to the Art Nouveau district of Riga, which boast even more perfect examples of the “Romantic” Art Nouveau designs from the 1910s for which Riga is famous.

 

 

Then we returned to the hostel to change and make our reservation for the most popular restaurant in old town (recommended by locals), Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs.

Despite its atmosphere and great food, the electricity cut out in the middle of our dinner for a good hour and a half, leading the restaurant to offer us free shots of black currant liqueur and 15% off the bill. We ended up paying no more than 10 euros per person that included an appetizer, entrée, and drinks.

 

 

After dinner, the group split up for a Girls’ Night Out and a Stag Party, where we competed over chat who was having a better time.

 

Photo Credit: Teresa Thong
Photo Credit: Emily Chen

 

The rest of the photos are too inappropriate to post on this blog, and might ruin careers…but suffice to say after 3 hours apart both groups reconvened at the McDonalds by the Freedom Monument to share stories and compare our nights.

 

 

After finishing up at McDonalds, we walked back to the hostel at 3am when 2 of our monsooners, Teresa and Vivian, ran into their friendly pedicab driver/bicyclist friend that had driven them home for free the night before. 

Since their last day on the trip was today and they were flying out tomorrow morning, they got back on his cab for one last free ride.

 

 

However, when we returned to the hostel, they were not there. About 15 minutes passed by when we decided to head back out to find out what was going on.

5 of us race-walked back to the same bar where we had ran into their pedicab friend. His friends, however, were unhelpful; they first seemed dismissive of our concerns, then scoffing and patronizing us on how we were overreacting. We stood our ground and they eventually relented, calling their friend to come back. After about 5-10 minutes, Teresa and Vivian returned safe and sound and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

All in all, we can say a day is good when it’s full of stories and empty of casualties. This was one of them.

 

- At time of posting in Riga, Latvia, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

From Tallinn To Riga By Bus

From Tallinn To Riga By Bus

 

After welcoming Josh last night to our gang of 15 as our better-late-than-never monsooner with late night drinks and showing off our shooting range videos, we headed out this morning to explore the local markets north of Tallinn’s Old Town.

This is a large area right by the train station. While nobody here speaks a lick of English, they sell extremely cheap food and coffee for less than 1 euro for an entire meal.

 

Amazing food for under 1 euro

 

We found amazing Estonian coffee for 50 cents and their version of “Char Siu Baos” — fried doughnuts filled with pork and beef for 60 cents each, one of which can easily fill you up for breakfast.

 

 

Their desserts, while pretty, are much less inspired:

 

 

Afterwards we did a last minute stroll through the western part of Old Town from the Train Station:

 

 

At 4pm the group reconvened at Red Emperor Hostel and took extremely cheap Uber taxis (3-4 euros for a 10-10min ride) to the Tallinn Coach Station to catch the 5pm LuxExpress Bus to Riga (4.5 hours). While boarding, 2 of us realized they had left their passports back in Tallinn so they had to move their reservations to the 6:30pm bus. No biggie.

 

Waiting for our bus

 

After 2 hours on the road, we parked at a rest stop where I then experienced the first ever instance of a bus driver chasing passengers down telling them not to take a bathroom break. He literally told us: “5 minutes, 5 minutes only!”

And true to his word he got back in his seat and started driving away 5 minutes on the dot, leaving 1 person behind (even with his luggage still on the bus!). Although other Good Samaritan passengers walked up to protest the newly self-proclaimed bus Nazi, he refused to budge and continued to drive onwards towards Riga…his fascist grip on our bus unshaken.

Another hour passed by before our driver randomly pulled to the side of the road for what seemed to be a cigarette break. Around 6 minutes later that very same passenger who was left behind got on the bus, cursing the driver under his breath. Since that passenger rushed to the back and didn’t want to talk to anyone, we never got to know how he was able to catch up to us so quickly.

On brighter note, the wifi on this LuxExpress bus is the fastest wifi I have ever used; it operates just as well as a hi-speed landline cable connection, even with all of us connected to it.

 

 

Because of roadwork, we arrived 30 minutes later than scheduled at 10pm. From the bus station we hiked about 10 minutes around a park to get to our hostels, Seagulls Garrett and Old Town, which are adjacent to each other.

 

 

After checking into our hostel, the group headed out for late night munchies at Russian “dumpling” bar Pelmeni XL. You can get an entire meal for less than 4 euros.

 

This meal cost 2 euros

 

We then wandered around Old Town a bit:

 

 

And then it was shots at Skyline Bar at the top of the Radisson Blu, the tallest building in Riga.

 

 

 

 

After a busted visit to the Olympic Casino (only one blackjack table, which was completely full) at the very same Radisson Blu, we headed to a local hookah bar/club for drinks…

 

 

 

…where I then passed out and ensuing open mutiny was committed by my monsooners.

 

 

Well played. I’m gonna miss you guys.

 

- At time of posting in Riga, Latvia, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 40% | Wind Speed: 9km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear