The alarm goes off at 4.45am. Urgh. We catch a train to London. It’s 6.30am in the morning and the trains are depressingly full. We’re on day one of our overland journey to China, using a mixture of hitchhiking, buses, and of course, the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.
Chris has sorted everything out for me – my train tickets and my visas. But first we need to get through France, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
It feels like cheating when we get a coach to Berlin, and actually, it would have been quicker to hitchhike, what with the usual traffic jams on the Autobahn (why do the German motorways have a good reputation?!)
“Can I have some tap water, please?” I ask a worker in a service station somewhere in west Germany. She looks at me with a mixture of disgust and disbelief. She checks with her colleague.
“NO,” they decide.
“But the tap’s behind you.”
“No. You can buy bottled water.”
Welcome back to Germany, I think to myself. Last year, a worker in a service station here argued with me because I went for a pee in the woods. She told me that the police would come.
We arrive in Berlin and it’s just as amazing as when I lived there a few years ago. It’s a quick visit, seeing my friend Tom, eating Yellow Sunshine vegan food and visiting the Cuvry Strasse squatted land in Kreuzberg.
Our next stop is in Kostrzyn in western Poland. We’re visiting my friend Waldek.
Waldek texts me: “Lisa, there is a way to pay only 5 Euros for the train from Berlin. Look for old ladies on the platform. They will have tickets.”
We scan the Berlin platform and see two random old ladies. “Tickets?” we ask doubtfully. Sure enough, the ladies take a handful of monthly Germany-Poland train tickets out of their pockets. They lend them to passengers, who then give them back when they arrive in Poland, and the tickets are used again and again. Waldek tells us it’s a full-time job for the ladies. I laugh with glee at their ticket racket business.
We meet Waldek on the Polish border and he takes us to a beautiful village. We are hosted by his friend in their perfect house – a simple place with space to grow vegetables, sit around a fire, and be close to nature. The next day, we go lake swimming and blueberry picking with Waldek. What a perfect way to spend a day.
Once again, we cheat our way across Poland by taking a super-cheap Polski Bus to Warsaw. I become a horrible person in big cities and Warsaw is no exception. I whinge about the relentless traffic and ugly buildings.
After two nights in Warsaw, we’re on the road again, finally hitchhiking to Lithuania. Poland and Lithuania are similar in a few ways, with pine forests everywhere, an abundance of wild blueberries and mushrooms, and lots of lakes to swim in. There are also big, beautiful storks flying and nesting all over this region. Apparently, they fly back to the same nests every year. Polish people, in particular, are very proud of these amazing birds.
Lithuania is lovely to hitchhike through, with its small, quiet roads. There are no fences keeping us out of nature (“one positive thing about Soviet times,” Waldek says), making it really easy to wild camp. Whilst walking in the Lithuanian forest, we stumble upon on mass graves of 854 Jewish Lithuanians, murdered by the Nazis. It’s an alarming and upsetting reminder of how millions were brutally persecuted and killed. Suddenly the pine forest doesn’t seem so idyllic.
Our next stop is Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. Whilst hitchhiking, our driver, a young guy called Jonas, offers us the use of his apartment and hands us his apartment keys, even though he won’t be there himself. Once again, hitchhiking shows me just how kind humans can be!!
I feel like I have arrived in Vilnius ten years too late: that I have missed out on the days when it was a cool place. Like other eastern European cities, the beautiful old town has been gentrified to such a degree that it’s now just a place for the rich to flaunt their wealth and spend their money. Even the supposedly rebellious autonomous state of Uzupio is disappointingly bourgeois. Although we do see some tiny hints of alternative culture, we decide to move swiftly on to Latvia.
Latvia seems like it’s just as quaint as Lithuania, but hitchhiking goes slowly, so halfway across the country we’re forced to jump on a night train to Russia so that we won’t miss our Trans-Siberian train.
Suddenly we find ourselves in Moscow and we can’t speak a word of Russian or read Cyrillic! Once again, I become grouchy in this huge city. No-one here smiles (including me!). We do some token sight-seeing and get moaned at for not obeying orders:
“Don’t sit on the grass,” says a police officer outside the Kremlin.
“Don’t exit the metro station the wrong way,” says a station worker.
“Don’t sit on the chairs,” says a woman in Leo Tolstoy’s house, even though she is sitting on one of Tolstoy’s very own old chairs. We wonder what anarchist author Tolstoy would think about his house being turned into a museum with lots of stern people giving orders.
I join the masses and queue up for the rush hour metro. There’s hundreds of us, all shuffling along, all deadly serious. A man is pushing me in the back as we walk. I turn and glare at him. He shouts at me in Russian. Then other men join in and start muttering at me with disdain. I have seen enough of Moscow and retire to our hostel.
Chris does more sightseeing. He visits the memorial to the victims of totalitarianism, ironically placed next to Stalin’s old prison and HQ of the Soviet Union’s repressive security services. Ironic, also, that this building is now the home of the new force of repression, the FSB. And ironic that this memorial is pitifully small and difficult to find, whilst mass murderer Stalin is buried at the prime tourist destination, Red Square.
Moscow seems to be all about money and image. “We’ve only seen the equivalent of Big Ben and Trafalgar Square,” Chris remarks as we both agree that Moscow, with its stern faces and police everywhere, is actually a bit shit.
We’re excited when we get to the station and board our first train on our Trans-Siberian adventure!