Poland, Lithuania

London to Latvia (and everything in between) - Part 3

Date April 2010
Posted September 2011
On the long road east to the Baltic States
Light was beginning to fade as our little Astra accelerated out of Berlin's busy city center. We were reasonably well stocked with beer (thanks to a super-cheap Netto store - German pilsner for 39 Euro cents a bottle) but little else save for a rough plan to reach Lithuania at the latest by the next morning. Unlike the first time I ventured into Poland this time we had a TomTom satnav (nearly lost by siologen during an encounter he had in a west London bus depot toilet) packing maps for no less than 42 countries.

Rest stop, somewhere, Poland (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Unfortunately, the further east you go the more the roads on the satnav maps fall away to just leave 'major routes'. For this reason we would be passing through Warsaw at some crazy hour, accepting the additional miles in the hope that we'd avoid getting lost. If it wasn't for this, and the fact that we wouldn't be permitted to enter Kaliningrad, we'd have stuck to the coast road.

Along with this satnav we had two further navigational aids: a laptop with a pre-cached Google maps layer (we wouldn't have the luxury of internet access on the move) and a Garmin GPS for the times when it would be necessary to ditch the car and continue on foot. As it turned out later, there would actually be very few of these. Despite all this apparent prior preparation, things were inevitably going to go wrong. Now that we had left Germany there wouldn't be conveniently placed McDonald's restaurants for siologen to 'feed' like an animal in to hook up to wi-fi in, so we'd be at the mercy of intuition or, more likely, guesswork.

Eating / sleeping arrangements, east of Warsaw, Poland (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

There's a golden rule for trips like these: only go on them with people you'll actually get on with, and will have interesting conversations with. If you're planning on covering a lot of miles then this is vital, especially if there are only two of you. Of course whoever's not driving can crank the passenger seat back and recline with a drink, but the driving duties need to be shared. For the 30EU or whatever it costs to add an extra driver to the rental you'll be giving yourself far greater range. It's easy to be ambitious at the planning stage, but getting this much done means lots of night-time driving.

An advantage to having just two people in the car means you can sleep in it. A night or two is generally enough to become accustomed to the uncomfortable seat position, and the inevitable, er, stiffness that you wake up to in the morning. It's not that hostels are a bad thing (on a second trip round some eastern European countries in 2010 we tried to find a hostel every other night), but sleeping in the car allows more freedom. And besides, we'd agreed in advance that this would not be an easy ride. It would, to quote siologen, be "balls to the wall".

Progress, somewhere east of Warsaw, Poland (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Before finding somewhere to stop for the night in Poland we rolled into Warsaw, making use of a big 24hr Tesco to buy more supplies and demolish at least one toilet. From here until the Latvian capital of Riga we didn't expect to encounter a city of this size, so took it upon ourselves to fill up with hot food. Decent warm kebab on a plate with the kind of price-tag you'd expect in the east.

And talking of which its always an idea to make some space in your baggage for a decent cooker. Something like a Primus, Trangia or in our case a JetBoil. Your meal options will widen somewhat, including 'just add water' pasta pots (or nasty mash potato ones if you're siologen), boil in the bag meals and of course the occasional tea or coffee (I took some of those Nescafe all in one sachets).

On the road, wherever, Poland (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Shelter for our night in Poland was provided by a tall pine forest. We'd spotted it from the main road - a dirt track crossing a field to the woodland. There was evidence that others had been here before in the form of a three-legged blue plastic chair propped up again a tree stump. Siologen reversed the car between the trees and we crashed out to the sound of lorries rumbling past on the road. We had hoped to reach Lithuania before calling it a day, but the journey took too long. Apart from this we decided it would be best to cross the border in the morning, rather than adding to our arguably suspicious appearance by turning up in the middle of the night.

The next morning we swung into a rough looking town not far from the border. The time had come to book our ferry over to Stockholm, and for this we had to make use of a local internet cafe. Somehow they worked out that using their wi-fi router would be a lot more expensive than logging onto one of the workstations, most of which were being mobbed by crazed kids playing loud Polish rap music.

A typical days nourishment, way out in the sticks, Lithuania (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Here in this dingy, miserable 'cafe' we were to learn another lesson: book the ferries early, especially when the surrounding airspace is closed. The one single crossing that we could make from Latvia to Sweden was, it turned out, fully booked. If we took the boat a day later than planned then we wouldn't have enough time to drive back through Scandinavia. As a long shot we checked some other routes, eventually deciding to buy tickets for the Tallinn (Estonia) to Stockholm route. This would add about 200 miles to our journey, but it couldn't be helped.

As well as learning a thing or two about ferries we were also to gain experience at crossing borders, but not just yet. Instead we crossed into Lithuania without even knowing it, unaware that we'd left Poland until the flashing lights of a police car (sporting a Lithuanian registration plate) appeared in the rearview mirror. At this point I foresaw the first of our problems with the language barrier.

Stopping to use a road sign as a bottle opener, who knows where, Lithuania (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

Carefully I hid the beer that I'd been drinking and the pair of us sat in silence as the humourless blue-clad cop strode up to the vehicle. His gesture implied he wanted documents and siologen obliged. He carried them away and left us for a few minutes before returning and pointing at our headlights. In many eastern European countries, it turns out, you're to drive with your lights on at all times. For some reason the cop didn't feel the need (or maybe he just couldn't be bothered) to fine us.

Here in Lithuania things felt just that little bit more tough. The people we passed looked weathered and battle-hardened, and rarely smiled. And who can blame them? Recent history hasn't exactly given them a soft ride. Most locals seemed to be driving 20 year old Audis or BMWs which had found their way eastward from Germany. Now and then though we were reminded that there were even less preferable ways to travel...

Doing it the hard way, Sesupe apparently, Lithuania (2010) courtesy of adventuretwo.net

In the afternoon sun we breezed along empty countryside roads, following the satnav to the rough location of our next waypoint. From the small village to which we were headed a GPS bearing would then, all being well, lead us to an ex-Soviet underground missile base.
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