After much ado, here is my post about the Lithuania trip (21 April – 26 April). Enjoy.
Remember hearing about that little volcano incident in Iceland? Along with being unpronounceable and messing up tons of other people's travels, it tried its hardest to mess up the aforementioned plan of awesomeness to go to Lithuania. In fact, both my flight and Braeden's (the aforementioned fellow Dickinsonian to be met in Lithuania) flight were canceled. Because of a volcano. In Iceland. A VOLCANO! I was a little dumbfounded and in shock and couldn't help but laugh (in that cynical kind of way) at the absurdity of the situation. Determined not to be outdone by the Voldemort-like volcano, we decided to fight back and venture to Lithuania by train.
If you look at a map of Eastern Europe, the train trip from Moscow to Kaunas, Lithuania, doesn't seem too horrible; it's basically a straight shot west. It would be really very easy, actually, if not for that pesky little country standing in between: Belarus. I have (or rather, had) nothing against Belarus, but they have this annoying little requirement of possessing a transit visa just to travel through the country, even if the traveler is just passing through and doesn't even give a lick about Belarus. I had an inkling of this transit visa business but set off to buy tickets anyways, convinced that I could just take trains around. After finally finding the correct line to buy tickets (after about two hours of standing in two other lines...), frazzled Kara asked the ticket lady for train tickets to Kaunas, but going through Riga, Latvia (so as to avoid Belarus). The befuddled ticket lady curtly responded: "What? How through Riga? Why?" I started to explain that I couldn't go through Belarus, but she said "No no no you can go directly to Vilnius" and assured me that Belarus wouldn't be a problem. This was convincing enough for me and I happily bought the tickets. (Keep in mind this was April 19th, the day before my train was to set off for Lithuania.)
I got home pretty excited that I defeated the volcano, when a random friend from class started talking to me and said something along the lines of "Um...you can't go through Belarus without a visa. Have fun being stuck at the border." This was at about 1 in the morning. I quickly freaked out to Jonathan who told me to calm down and then looked up Belarus on the travel.state.gov site (what a handy little website, by the way). There it was in black and white: travelers even just traveling through Belarus need a transit visa, and people have been kicked off trains in the past, fined, and even put in jail. Extremely worried and slightly seething with anger, I went to bed and got up in the wee hours of the morning (aka 8) to set off once again for the train station to attempt Plan C: taking a train to Riga and somehow finding a bus to Kaunas.
I got my money back for the cursed Belarusian tickets (which actually proved to be the easiest part of this whole process), and stood in yet another line, prepared to beg if necessary to buy tickets to Riga. It took the ticket lady a bit to figure out how to find the tickets to Riga, but find them she did. Finding tickets to come back to Moscow was a bit trickier for some reason, and she had to get up and go ask someone for help, giving ample time for impatient Russians to line up behind me and ask what in the world was going on and why our ticket lady had disappeared. She eventually came back after about 10 minutes, started clicking away at the keyboard, and announced that all my tickets were in order. Literally surrounded by Russians on all sides of me, I whipped out my documents and money, paid for the tickets, and then, finally, strutted away from the counter with an unbreakable smile on my face.
Later that evening the time finally came for me to get on my train and start my adventure to Lithuania. I may have mentioned this before: I love sleeper trains. They are the best thing since sliced black bread. I shared my area with a Latvian woman, Natasha, and her son, Igor, who had actually arrived in Moscow via the same exact train earlier that morning. For the first ten minutes of the journey I sat quietly and pretended to be focusing on a book, until finally a train worker guy (btw what's the equivalent of a flight attendant for a train?) came and asked if we would like tea. Once the tea arrived, Natasha promptly said to me, "Ok. Now it is time for you to explain why you are here." We talked for a few hours about my studies, why I was going to Lithuania, my family, etc., and I in turn asked them questions. It was really very cool, because we didn't have problems understanding each other. I can converse with everyday people about lots of subjects. Sweet. Natasha and Igor also have the best senses of humor; they would say something that could be serious but then ironically laugh about it. I loved it.
We were awoken around five in the morning for the border crossings. No big deal, just some Russian and Latvian border guards, dogs, and flashlights. About thirty minutes across the Latvian border I bid farewell to my new Latvian friends, and we even exchanged emails and telephone numbers. I now had basically the entire end of the train car to myself and sat anxiously until the arrival in Riga, Latvia. Once in Riga, I had an entire 30 minutes to find the bus station, buy tickets to Kaunas, Lithuania, and find my bus. Luckily they speak Russian in Latvia, and I easily got directions to the bus station, which happened to be about a five minute walk from the train station. I quickly bought bus tickets and was soon staring out the bus window as the Latvian countryside turned Lithuanian. It was lovely. I finally arrived in Kaunas six hours later, found Braeden and Evgeni (hostel man who picked us up to take us to the hostel), and epic adventures ensued.
Kaunas is a lovely little city and I really cannot describe how awesome our stay was. I won't even try. It. Was. Awesome. Also the fact that we successfully defeated the volcano added an extra little somethin' somethin'.
The trip back to Russia was not nearly as hectic. I had about four hours to spare in Riga while waiting for my train back to Moscow and thus decided to explore the old town and take millions of pictures. I've actually stayed in Riga before and it was really nice to walk around and be a little lost but still know how to get back to where I needed to be. It was also a beeeeautiful day and I didn't even need to wear a jacket. Scandalous.
On the trip back my train neighbors were an older woman on the bottom bunk across from me and two Belarusian men above us, who happened to be transporting a gagillion bags to Russia full of magazines which they claimed were for an “exhibit”. I’m pretty sure “magazines for an exhibit” is code for contraband. When we got to the Russian border crossing, the border patrol said to the men: “So, all these bags are yours? And you’re taking these magazines to hand out and not to sell, correct?” The men responded, “Oh yes, of course,” at which point the woman and I exchanged knowing glances. They did give us candy at the end of our trip, though. Sure it was probably smuggled candy, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I arrived in Moscow about 27 hours after leaving Kaunas (worry not, I am now a pro at sleeping on trains) and went into energizer bunny mode for my last three weeks of school.
Next post: about our group trip to Kiev, Ukraine.