I emerged from the coach in the wee small hours to find myself in the rather attractive town of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I was busy trying to suss out how I was going to get into Belarus (avoiding all the tomfoolery of yesterday) when I ran into none other than Lynn Robinson, my ex-girlfriend Michelle’s mum! She was in the coach station getting a bus to the airport. What are the chances of that?
Well, statistically speaking, pretty damn high. In fact, considering the number of people I know, times the fact I am travelling for a full year, I think the chances of me running into somebody I know are probably one in one. But that doesn’t stop it being really cool!
Anyways, we unfortunately didn’t have time for coffee as her bus was due, so I headed off to the Belarusian embassy to try and blag myself a transit visa. Only, the embassy was closed. And it would be closed until Wednesday.
What do I do? Sit on my hands in Vilnius for two days and then have to wait another 24 hours for the visa to come through?
Nah, not my style. So I booked myself on the next coach to the border and helped myself to a quick tour of the town, meeting a couple of lovely Lithuanian girls along the way. They took me to see the Gates of Dawn and the old city walls. Vilnius is BEAUTIFUL. And awesomely cheap! Why are you still reading this? Get onto Ryanair or Easyjet and book yourself a £20 flight over there NOW!
Right, if you live in Europe, I’ll assume you’ve done that. Good. But (unlike you in two month’s time) I wasn’t here to sightsee, I was here to get movin’ baby yeah! So before too long I was on a local bus heading for the border with Belarus. Well, as it turned out, three kilometres from the border – I had to walk the last bit WITH MY LEGS!
Not wanting what happened yesterday to happen again, this time I took the official route in. The Lithuanian’s didn’t even check my passport. The Belarusians, well, they’re a different kettle of fish. In fact, they probably actually put fish in their kettles – they’re that mad. The last outpost of full-on fascist communism in Europe, the KGB is still alive and well and living in Belarus. They want to be Russian even more than Russia does. With a potty-mad dictator in charge since 1992 and political dissidents locked away without trial, the Belarusians like to party like 1989 never happened – and they don’t take kindly to amateur adventurer-types thinking it’s a lark to waddle about into their territory.
But that’s pretty much what I did.
I thought I could see how far I could push it, but I should have turned back on the border line. They looked at my passport and rather than just saying no, go away you don’t have a visa (or certificate of medical insurance) they took me into a small room and began scanning my passport over and over again, making numerous phone calls and asking me a lot of questions.
At one point I swear the KGB/border guard guy wrote ‘Narva’ on a piece of paper whilst having an animated discussion on the phone. Had they heard about yesterday’s shenanigans? Was I to be locked away as a habitual border pest? My toes curled. No – it doesn’t say Narva – it’s not even English, it’s weird Russian letters, plus you’re reading it upside down you moron.
I just want to leave now, thanks. I’ve stepped foot in your crazy country and if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to hotfoot it back to the good ol’ EU where I know they can’t give me the old electric shock shower fandango. They kept me for half an hour. Then, without any kind of ceremony, they let me go.
I trotted back over to Lithuania and slogged the three kilometres back to the bus stop. Arriving back in Vilnius in good time, I went for some good old-fashioned Eastern European nosh in the old town before jumping on the old overnighter to Warsaw.
It was a long day.
Today should have been a breeze – well timed connections marked my passage through Poland. My coach arrived half an hour early, so it wasn’t even a rush to the station for the first train to Bratislava. I hopped on board – oh wow! It was one of those old fashioned ‘The-Lady-Vanishes’-type trains where you sit in sealed off compartments facing three strangers. Yey!
Only I had two strangers, Iva and Monica, and they were the best kind of stranger – ie. Bubbly, lively ones with nice eyes who laugh at my jokes. Iva was from Croatia, but living in Vienna and Monica was from Poland. So I sat with my captive audience and entertained each other as we passed effortlessly through the Czech Republic on the way to Slovakia. I had just finished reading ‘White Tiger’, the winner of last years Man Booker prize (damn those judges have a bone for Indian novelists) – and I have to say, a damning and accurate portrayal of modern India – you know, that place where 500,000,000 people have to use the streets for a toilet and the horrifically corrupt government, instead of building sewers, spends money on nuclear weapons it can never use.
DON’T GET ME STARTED.
Anyway, a good book, given to me by Toby, the Aussie Chef I met in Halifax and now in the safe hands of the delightful Monica.
Incidentally, I remember when the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country. BUT THERE ARE PEOPLE BEING SERVED IN BARS NOW WHO WERE NOT EVEN BORN THEN.
That’s a bit scary isn’t it? Crazy days.
Once I arrived in Bratislava, the capital of
Slovenia Slovakia (whoops! sorry Tery!), I bid my fond farewells to the lovely Iva (Monica got off a little earlier) I then had a few hours to sit, have a coffee and read up where I go next. Which turned out to be Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Wow – I’m tearing through Europe like a man possessed.
So on to the 14:33 to Pest and Buda (they are two separate towns, like Manchester and Salford). I threw my bag into the luggage rack in my second class compartment and then bribed the guard a couple of Euro to let me sit in first class so I could make use of the electrical socket and charge my laptop/camera/mobile phone.
Very soon we started pulling into Budapest station – I tried to get back into second class, but my way was barred by the restaurant car which was now closed. No biggie – I waited until we stopped, got off the train and then back on again on the far side of the restaurant car.
Er, where’s my bag gone?
Frantic, I searched up and down the coaches – nothing, nada, zip. It had GONE.
My clothes.My sleeping bag.
Oh **** – my spare GLASSES. They cost a fortu… Oh holy mother of monkey – THE ODYSSEY TAPES FOR THE LAST THREE WEEKS!!!
Vanished. Into the ether.
To make matters worse, my connecting train to Bucharest left in less than 20 minutes. And the next one was not for two days.
Actually, the word ‘frantic’ is much too mild to describe my mental state.
I asked the Hungarians working on the train. They were about as much use as Anne Frank’s drum kit. I then went to the ticket booth. They told me to go to the station manager. I went to the station manager. The station manager told me to go to the police. I went to the police. They told me to go to information. I went to information. They told me to go to left luggage. I went to left luggage. They told me that they couldn’t help. By now, it was just minutes until may train left from the very far platform of the station.
So far, the Odyssey has been one difficult decision after another – some work out (the two-minute connection) some don’t (Cuba), but this was crunch time – I had only seconds to work out the permutations.
Somebody wouldn’t have stolen it. There were no valuables in there (it’s got a toilet seat strapped to it, for heaven’s sake!). So that left me with two options – somebody took it by mistake (it’s got a toilet seat strapped to it, for heaven’s sake!) or that the conductor of the train had picked it up, maybe everyone else in the compartment got off early and he saw a lonely bag sitting up in the luggage rack and thought somebody had left it.
Either way, I would have to stay in Budapest to get it back. And that would mean losing two days.
However, if it did show up – and it’s got a stack of my Odyssey Cards in it so I shouldn’t be too hard to contact – I could always swing back into Budapest on my way from Slovenia to Liechtenstein.
I ran for the train.
I sat down, my face bright red and sweating like a politician on Hampstead Heath at 2 in the morning, in a compartment opposite a Hungarian woman called Delia. I then had an animated discussion with my dad on the phone about ringing the railway station in Budapest and finding somebody who speaks English and sorting this mess out.
The conductor came and wanted to see my reservation – I hadn’t had time to make one. My throat was dry and I was so hungry I would have eaten a cold Pot Noodle. From the bin. I didn’t have enough change to pay for the reservation – I only had a hundred Euro note that the cash machine had unhelpfully spat out at me.
Delia, bless you Delia, sorted me out. She paid the two Euro reservation fee (yes the world is a silly place I know) and then she gave me a carton of juice and some chocolate eggs to eat.
What an angel.
It’s times like this I remind myself how bloody wonderful people really are.
Unless they are being paid to be helpful, and then they tend to be anything but. Go ask a ‘porter’ at a British railway station – you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t spit in your face. Funny old world, innit?
Thank you Delia!!
I then took my laptop into the next carriage and fired up the Internet. There was an e-mail for me from a chap called Ors.
Subject: I have your luggage!
No, it wasn’t a ransom demand. This guy had picked up my bag, thinking it had been left on the train by accident, tried to give it to the police, the police refused to take it (the unhelpful idiots) so he had taken it home thinking that I could come meet him and pick it up.
Only I was now a good fifty miles away from Budapest heading into Romania.
I guess I’ll be returning to Budapest this weekend. But not before Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia!
Christ, my pants are going to smell.