Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Eastern Europe - Days 9 and 10 - Lithuania
Our next stop was Vilinus, in Lithuania. Vilinus was a gorgeous little town which had a dark history through the war and through the Soviet regime. We came to Vilinus by day train from Poland, arriving in the early evening, just in time for a late walk around town and some supper.
The next day was a full day of sightseeing. Vilinus is about half a million people, which meant that the town centre was very walkable and easy to get to. We started with some of the churches in the town centre, and then climbed up to the top of the Vilinus castle to get some panoramic views of the city. After that, we walked a short distance to a museum that explained the occupancy of the town during the war by the Nazis and following by the soviets. It was an interesting museum as the bottom floor was a KGB prizon which had largely been untouched since the time it was used - very interesting, but hard to see. Most of the towns that we went through had some sort of record of either the Nazi or Soviet occupation - we certainly didn't go to them all, but I thought it was important to learn something about what the area went through in the recent past.
After sightseeing, it was time to board another overnight-train to Russia. We passed through Latvia, and so got woken up by border guards twice through the night - once to cross into Latvia, and the other to cross into Russia. The Russian guards were interesting - we had one set of guards to pick up the paperwork to exit Latvia, one set to check under the bunks for stow-away passengers and one set to complete the paperwork to enter Russia. Entering Russia requires that you have a visa, which is filled out in advance, and is sealed into your passport. Even so, the guards scan the visa under a black light to make sure it's a valid visa, and then check the visa against a central register of visas for the week. The central register of visas is a big stack of paper in a binder, and one of the guards calls out your name, while the other one flips furiously through the binder to find your visa in the registry. Once found, the other guard confirms that you are in the register, and shuts the large binder. This procedure is repeated for all members of the group, despite the fact that our visas were all registered together, and should be in the same part of the binder.