Europe Stories and Tips

Week 01 - A Mouthful of Beaver

Warsaw by Night Photo,

It’s been almost a week now since I left England, so I thought I’d fill you all in on how the journey is going so far. For those of you who don’t know, along with my wife I’ve decided to go travelling again, this time around the world without flying. The first leg of the journey will be from England to China by train, where we will both be taking up teaching positions in a small city near the North Korean border. After this everything is still open to discussion (if we even manage to go further than Asia!), but the idea is to catch cargo ships from Asia to Australia, New Zealand and South America and then travel through the Americas before taking another boat back to England.

In the space of a week we have gone from my home town of Hinckley in England and reached Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (and also officially the centre of Europe!). I think I’m getting sick of train travel already, which isn’t the best when there’s another twenty plus days to go, including one 90 hour train journey.

All in all, the journey hasn’t been that stressful so far. It might have helped matters if I'd actually realised the weight of my bags before leaving, as my non-existent muscles are certainly having trouble coping with the extra strain. The first real problem didn’t occur until the Paris-Berlin night train, when for some unknown reason the train conductor started to gesture that our tickets were not in fact tickets, but only reservations. I was just about to argue my stance in the best French I could muster when he whipped my London-Paris tickets out of the book I was reading and declared they were in fact the tickets he wanted to see.

Berlin passed in a state of jetlag from lack of sleep, but after sneaking in quick viewing of the largest section of the Berlin Wall still left and one or two ‘happy hour’ cocktails, the mood soon picked up in time for the next train to Warsaw. I hadn’t heard the nicest things of Warsaw in the past, but upon arrival to be greeted with familiar name brands such as Hard Rock Cafe and Pizza Express I was wondering what all the negativity was about.

I was supposed to break my dormitory duck in Warsaw, but after checking in to the hostel I was told that for everyone’s safety people from this one particular dorm were being moved to other private rooms free of charge. Worried to why this might be the case I enquired with the receptionist, who pointed towards a man behind me. "He’s very crazy and we don’t think people should be with him alone" she whispered. Obviously not too crazy though to be allowed to still stay in the hostel and drink copious amounts of high percentage Polish beer!

With a train at the crack of dawn the following morning, there were only a couple of hours to see as much of Warsaw as possible. The night ended in a local restaurant, watching the owner do his best Chinese impressions and arguing the need to carry at least one bottle of vodka on every train journey taken.

With the slight hangover aside the ten hour train journey to Vilnius passed rather quickly the following day. One thing I have learnt pretty quickly so far is that a lot of trains in these parts have at least two destinations, so if you don’t get on the right part of the train, you could find yourself in a completely different location to what you were expecting. Upon finding myself in the wrong end of the train to Vilnius, I quickly moved myself and my belongings to the right end of the train. Unfortunately I wasn’t realising that the doors between carriages closed at breakneck speeds and on the first door I went through it closed while I was halfway through, leaving myself and my backpack on opposite sides of the carriage door. I was completely stuck and my little stumpy arms couldn’t manoeuvre themselves enough to open the door so I could escape. My wife had already disappeared off in to the distance, leaving me stranded like an upside down tortoise. I had to stand there helplessly for several minutes with a group of Polish boys laughing at me and taking photos on their mobile phones until my wife came to my assistance.

I arrived in to Vilnius with torrential rain turning the roads to rivers and my last clean set of clothes drenched. Luckily more familiar sights from the previous year’s trip to Kaunas (the second largest city in Lithuania) of Pizza Jazz and Bobeline (cranberry based hard liquor) helped motivate my saturated soul. Not fancying venturing out in to the monsoon, I stayed in to watch a bit of Lithuanian TV instead. I can see why most of Lithuanians speak some English. Most of their TV shows are English produced and have Lithuanian voiceovers, but instead of having a different person for each character, the same husky voiced man talks for everybody. It kind of ruins any romantic scenes in the show.

Vilnius is the first place where my wife and I have managed to stay for more than a day so it’s the first place we’ve had time to explore thoroughly. Vilnius with a population of just over half a million is pretty small for a country capital and has endured a torrid time in the past; being invaded continuously it seems by either the Russians or Germans.

After strolling through the UNESCO protected old town and having to listen to many a young student trying to impress me with their understanding of the words fuck, fucking and fuckers, I decided to take a trip to the one museum most guidebooks say ‘not to be missed’; the old Gestapo and KGB Lithuanian headquarters. This building is now a museum showing Lithuania’s struggle for independence and as can be expected the walls are full of grotesque pictures of death and suffering. Amongst these hideous pictures, there are the old prison cells in their original conditions; including water (or ice in winter) torture cells and an execution room with the bullets of the fallen still cutting silent holes in the walls.

When I came to the solitary confinement cells my wife walked in to one and being the immature adult that I am, I thought I would jokingly close the door behind her. Little did I realise (not that it was a real prison or anything!) that as the door clicked to, the only way to open it was through a non-existent key. For a start the, "I’ve accidentally locked the door" comments were met with a jovial response, thinking I was just messing around. It didn’t take long though until the pitch blackness and realisation I wasn’t joking sunk in. At least it gave me a good chance to practice some Lithuanian to the aging stern faced warden and I think if I can get across the message, "I’ve accidentally locked my wife in to the solitary confinement cell," then I should be able to say more or less anything. It’s probably a good job it wasn’t the padded cell next door (complete with straight jacket) she’d chosen to go in, as no one would have heard her screams and anger. As you can imagine I wasn’t in her best books after this little episode!

It didn’t take long until we both could see the funny side of this as we sat down to eat some traditional Lithuanian food; beaver. I’m not sure what I was expecting but tender and juicy are two words that weren’t front runners! I’d probably give it another go if I ever came across a country that delighted in beaver eating. I might have to wait until China though to taste anything so exotic when cats will be on the menu (see, I could have said something far more vulgar there!)

So as I sit here finishing this off, I have to say I’m starting to get a little nervous about the next leg of the journey to St. Petersburg in Russia. It’s amazing how many horror stories you hear of people travelling to Russia and not be given the compulsory ‘migration card’ on arrival. Without this you are basically in Russia illegally and face huge fines or bribes to get a migration card, or stay in Russia without one. Being the tight-fisted individual that I am, the thought of giving over any size of bribe fills me with anger!

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