I have been wondering if the journey is ageing us. Go to the archive menu just to the left of here and pull up one of the earlier blogs. Then compare it with the portrait at the end of this blog and the conclusion is surprisingly obvious. Mind you, you’re not comparing like with like there, and thank goodness for that. The portrait here is at the end of days of wild camping, dusty and very rough roads and a burst of high temperatures of an early autumn heat wave.
What we have also had a run of, is uncertainty. Nothing travels faster than bad news, so they say. Well, add to that, nothing wears you out like uncertainty . Working with tree maps, none of which agree is a whole heap of uncertainty right there in your hands. Add to that, few or no road signs and roads that are tarmac one minute and wash board dirt tracks the next, and you are getting weary before you have turned a pedal and ageing faster than an over ripe banana on special offer.
We decided to wait for the rush hour to clear, before we set out from Vilnius. Truth be told, we were being a bit lazy and enjoying our little room and tree days of comfort and a little routine. It turned out to be a Saturday and every minute we waited the traffic was building. Bugger, should have noticed that. There followed somewhere between two and four hours of the worst navigational hell since we started the trip almost two years ago.
I took just one photograph and no notes, but I remember that there were more than one moment of wanting to pack it all in, and several of raised voices, accusation and even tears. It was a nightmare of the very first order and a waste of energy and all of the morning. Eventually, we get to Lentvaris where we pass the strangest thing yet we have needed to overtake. A procession led by nuns holding a big cross. Every twenty people, someone has a microphone, an amp and a big speaker. It has a police escort and a sag wagon, bringing it to a length of about two hundred metres, and making it an awkward thing to pass on a narrow and busy road. It is a saints day, but we have no idea which one, possibly the patron saint of apples if there is such a thing.
As a final, below the belt punch to our spirit, we pass signs showing that we have done twice the distance to Vilnius as we enter the beautiful town of Trakai. If you have picked up any tourist literature about Lithuania, then you have seen the castle before. That, and a picture postcard ‘ old town ‘, are at the economic heart of Lithuania’s marriage industry, which is here in Trakai. One set of polished cars with ribbons passes us and another goes in the opposite direction, as we head for the campground. We pitch the tent by the lake and lie there after food, with the still air of a warm evening bringing us the clear booming sounds of three wedding parties and a rowing regatta. Heavy rain stops the thud, thud and thud of a nearby game of basketball, but not the fireworks. We have had better days.
A blue sky morning, but cold for the first time. We retrace steps back to Trakai to pick up food. Good that we did, as we bump into Rob coming the other way. He claims the prize for the first ‘ Brit on a bike ‘ that we have seen in almost 9,000km. He has seen almost no one either, and we conclude that cycle touring may not be as popular as we had thought, or the world a much bigger place, or a bit of both. It is obvious in the first minute, that Rob is the kind of guy you would want by your side on a lion hunt. You know that you could be friends for life were you not travelling in the opposite direction. Travel is strange like that.
It has been such a cold start, that wood smoke curls from the chimney of every wooden house along the road. I do not think anyone could dislike the smell of wood smoke and the happy contented feeling that the hint of it on still air can bring. It is in with our DNA and a collective subconscious, of shelter and food. Even when you can go and ‘ Google ‘ the large number of carcinogens that are in wood smoke, I still like it.
We are on the 220 to Alytus and getting closer to the Polish border and in common with every border yet, it is getting more hilly. It is also getting far more Catholic by the kilometre. We stop to look at the church in Dusmenys. A full congregation are quite literally, putting their heart and soul into hymn after hymn. Just outside the village, three men and a quiet horse are showing equal devotion to the harvesting of apples. We stop for a chat in Lithuanian, Russian, German and unexpectedly ‘ French ‘ ( pomme – the French for apple ). If you are travelling in the Baltic states, you will be amazed at how far Russian can get you. Esther is dragging up vocabulary that has been dormant for twenty years or more and it is so well received.
With bar bags weighed down with more apples than we can eat, we continue. At the next village, two old ladies come out to see who the stranger is walking around with a camera and taking photos of their window and lace curtain. They are dressed in finest ‘ Sunday best ‘, having just got back from church. Again Esther’s Russian is a big hit. We sit eating lunch by the church as a huge truck goes past. It is full to the brim with apples – I do not think I have ever seen so many apples in one place before.
I had asked Rob, ” What song has been stuck in your head? “. Money too tight to mention by Simply Red, possibly on account of Rob’s €20 per day budget. Now the blasted song is in my head in a sort of viral contamination way. I hate it, no much worse than that and even loath is not strong enough, but will have to do. We end the day near the village of Daugai, on a community campground. If human perfection is 10, with Nirvana 11 or possibly higher, this camp should have been 9. It drops to 8, as yet again it is not signed and we go around and around for over an hour trying to find it. We pitch right next to the lake and enjoy a wonderful quiet but chillingly cold night.
The tent, and all around has so much condensation that it is dripping and there is a blanket of mist over the water by morning. The sun is strong enough to burn through quickly and we take things slowly and give the tent time to dry out. A cockerel calls ‘ cock-a-doodle-doo ‘, but Esther prefers the German version, saying that ‘kikeriki’ is more accurate. It was a perfect pitch for the weary traveller, but we need to get moving.
We are on the 128 to Alytus and it is all very busy. It is much like any road, were it not for the occasional field work being done by horse. They do give the impression of enjoying it. The road has the McDonald’s litter of any modern road. Finding its way to the verge from some unseen counter that may be even in the next country. We turn left, onto the 132, but not before the road gets narrower for 6km of hell and near misses.
Even the 128, which is marked as a minor road, is far from fun. I see on the gps a possible quiet road and we bail out. Peace returns, and to help with the high spirits, it is 23’C and with an hour rises to 28′ C. We head around a series of lakes; Lake Dusia, Lake Metelys and look to camp by them. Again a road that should be surfaced is not. Worse than that, it is wash boarded and hilly and trying to shake the bike back to its beautifully crafted constituent parts. The camp, so clearly marked on the big town map, has no sign. I am not even sure now if we camped in someones garden or a camping spot. Either way, it was perfect.
With the mellow low light of an autumn morning, we are doing our last bit of riding in Lithuania and heading into Poland. Lazdijai is 7km from the border and we change all our money into €’s and leave the coins at the church. The border we are heading for was only opened in 2004 and is still shown as closed on our tourist map. There are a number of borders, as the Russians had a 1km wide exclusion zone.
We tend to lump Poland in with the East, but all the time it was nominally a sovereign state. It had its own football team, that I do remember, but it also had more freedom of movement and cultural freedom than the totally Russian communist states such as the Baltic countries we have been through. There is still a watchtower in the trees and then 3km of unwelcome rough track before a E.U. sign and a paved road at Sankury. We are now in Poland. We celebrate with a meal at a restaurant, which we enjoy but think rather expensive. Esther leaves the €20 note and on we go. Only later and almost in tears do we realise that Poland is not part of the Euro zone, and we have given the girl twice her wages for the day as a tip. We have also lost one hour of time from our day as we crossed into Poland and the nights will be darker now.
There is a much more intensive feel to the agriculture here and a more purposeful look to the new and very much bigger barns, tractors and agricultural toys that they are pulling around the big fields. It is 28′ C, the last of the grain is being harvested and many are trying to catch a late cut of hay. At the village of Punsk, what looks from our map to be nothing at all, is turning out to have all the ingredients of a good place for a rest day. It should only take 30 minutes to sort out cheap accommodation, but takes 3 hours. The bar that has a menu ‘ food 10 till 22 ‘ , is closed for food at 19. These are the things that wear you out on a journey every bit as much as the distance covered. We do stay and things do work out and Punsk is a nice place to stay. Poland looks as though it will be a good place to bike and nowhere near as expensive as we thought when we paid for our first meal here.