We’re on the night train to St. Petersburg, sharing a four-bed compartment with two young Russian women. Neither speaks English, and they don’t seem to like us very much – or at least, every time we enter the compartment, they leave it.
The train journey from Warsaw to Vilnius is fairly brutal; starting at 7am, a six-hour train to Šeštokai, on the Lithuanian border. For the last hour of the journey, we were turfed out onto a seventies-era bus decked out in lurid shades of orange which took us across the Polish-Lithuanian border on dirt roads. Then another, rickety train to Kaunas; then a third (surprisingly bright, modern, and mercifully air-conditioned) to Vilnius, eleven hours and a timezone change after we left.
On the other hand, an unexpected upside of long periods on trains is that I have rediscovered the pleasure of working without distractions and with total focus. On the train to Warsaw, I looked up from my MSc thesis and realised I’d been working for four hours, completely in flow. The small, cheap netbook I picked up months ago has proved itself completely, both in portability and indomitable battery life. I’m sorry I doubted you, baby.
Our stop in Warsaw was very brief; arrival at 3pm, a walk around the Old Town, dinner, early to bed for the next day’s trains. Our hostel was notable chiefly for being quiet and cheap. Vilnius, though; I liked Berlin, but I fell unexpectedly in love with Vilnius almost immediately. Most of my (low) expectations on it were formed by reading Franzen’s The Corrections, which was evidently not quite factually accurate. We were staying in the Old Town, and while Warsaw’s Old Town felt slightly cartoonish to me, I found Vilnius friendly and whimsical in a way which managed to steer clear of twee. Our single full day there, with an evening train to Russia to catch, was bookended by two experiences; the eccentric “Republic” of Uzupis, declared in a small area of central Vilnius by a group of artists, and the Museum of Genocide Victims, on the site of the KGB’s old offices and prison.
It’s hard to believe, looking at Vilnius now, and at the Lithuanian countryside we’d seen from the train, how badly it suffered from the Germans, the Russians, and being the front on which the two fought each other. There are mass graves within Vilnius, and others probably just outside, still undiscovered. Our guide for the short walking tour told us that before the war, Vilnius’ Jewish population was close to 50%; afterwards, 1%. The KGB museum is a harrowing experience, preserving as it does not just the evidence of the Lithuanian guerrilla fighters who tried to win back their country’s sovereignty, but also the miniutae of the petty numbing inhuman bureaucracy of the Soviet regime; the numbers that replace people. The prison cells are preserved; those for torture, those where the prisoners stood on a tiny concrete platform above a pool of water, or, in winter, ice. The worst was the padded cell, with a straitjacket still hanging limply but threateningly on the wall behind it.
Now, Russia, and our third new currency in three days. We left Vilnius just before 8pm; we’ll arrive around ten tomorrow morning.Time to start learning the Cyrillic alphabet.