Rail Replacement Buses

There’s nothing quite like being woken up at 3am on the train by a severe-looking Russian demanding your passport and then taking it away for 45 minutes to make you feel paranoid. The overnight train from Vilnius departs at ~8pm local and arrives at St Petersburg at 10:30 the next morning. This leaves the border crossing at quite an unfortunate time for either ongoing sleep or the heart rate. Other than that it seems a pretty effective train, the 4-person sleeping compartments are pretty comfortable and spacious. Given this will be our mode of transport and accomodation for a good chunk of the next three weeks, that’s probably a good thing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself slightly. We said a fond goodbye to Berlin and headed on the Berlin-Warsaw express operated by Polish Trains. It was a pretty dated old train and took the best part of 6 hours to pulls us along from Germany to Poland. We only stayed one night in Warsaw, it seems a very modern city compared to much of the Polish countryside and towns we’d seen. There are a large number of gleaming skyscrapers thrusting their way up for a number of blocks surrounding the central train station. The Old Town centre was slightly nicer, but felt a little artificial. We only spent one night there, but it didn’t grab us the way, say, Berlin had.

Bright and early the next morning we set off back to the station for the beginning of an epic voyage to Lithuania. A six hour train through north-eastern Poland saw us to Trakiszki – where our attempt for unending trains from London to Hong Kong was thwarted by a rail replacement bus service. A rickety old bus took us the 30 minute leg over the border to Sestokai. It was really beautiful countryside and this whole journey was striking just for the huge amounts of farm and woodland we passed through with minimal urbanisation (although the occasional industrial complex). It’s a marked change from South-East England and much of the corridor we’d travelled through western Europe. We connected with an even more rickety train taking us from Sestokai to Kaunas and then a thankfully more modern air-conditioned double decker taking us the last leg to Vilnius.

Vilnius itself was lovely, we were staying right in the middle of the old town and it was small and relatively easy to navigate. There always seemed to be something going on in the town square (including a huge number of young women in wedding dresses dancing to Tina Turner). There were also a number of Veggie restaurants, which kept us away from the Lithuania staples of boiled meat and potatoes. We went on a walking tour on Sunday, taking in a number of Vilnius’ many, many churches and also a section of the City where a commune of artists declared an independent republic.

We ended our time in Vilnius with a trip to the KGB museum, dedicated to the memory of LIthuania’s many victims in the 20th century – and being fought over by Germany, Poland and Russia for decades left a mark. I’ve rarely been made so genuinely upset and angry by a museum before. It’s a harrowing experience – especially the jail cells and torture rooms downstairs – but I recommend it as an education.

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