From Baltic to the Black Sea #3

Vilnius, Lithuania
31 August 1999

Dear All,

Lonely Planet is really screwed up in terms of cybercafe locations – or maybe such places tend to open and shut down quickly. One of the two listed in Riga wasn’t there and I spent much time searching for one above a Vilnius dogdy nightclub, only to be told that none had ever existed there…

Anyway, I am now in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Yesterday, I had a 3 hour long meeting with my old friend Ricardas and his colleague Arlydas at a Kaunas cafe, about topics ranging to politics to stamps. After that, I took a bus to Vilnius, where I moved into a hotel opposite the bus station – it cost US$16 with attached bathroom and breakfast!!! (not to mention some slight sleaziness – a few not-very-pretty Natashas hanging around the restaurant and lobby) And I have a window view overlooking the city of Vilnius – an amazing sight – this city seems to have more grand cathedrals than many other cities of similar size.

This is a city of 3 major races – Lithuanians, Poles and Russians, and 2 religions – Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodox Christianity. The largest ethnic group before WWII were the Jews, who mostly ended up in the Nazi death camps.

Anyway, Vilnius was founded as the capital of the powerful Lithuanian grand dukes and was also an important spiritual centre of the Polish and Belarussian peoples. As a result, the city was of palaces and churches – all grand and mostly Baroque in style. I visited a few this morning, including one that has a holy icon of Madonna with lots of devoted praying at her feet – of the Eastern Catholic Church (people who come under the Roman church but practice Eastern Orthodox rites), and an Orthodox church with well-preserved bodies of three martyred saints – two brothers and their cousin – who died in the 1300s.

Also visited Museum of the Lithuanian Genocide aka KGB Museum – a display of the tragic destruction of the Lithuanian nation during Soviet days. The old town was also fun to walk around – with lots of artists and some souvenir stores, but without the hassling & touting one gets in places like Egypt.

In the morning, before “doing” the city proper, I went to Trakai, a small town nearby. Here, a castle sits on an island on a lake, or rather a number of lakes linked to each other through narrow waterways. Very picturesque – I really hope the pix will turn out fine – this is an amazingly beautiful place. I think it’s a lot better than Leeds Castle in England.

This is also the hometown of a bizarre ethnic group called the Karaites – Turkish warriors brought here by Grand Duke Gediminas in 1400s, and they practice a form of Judaism!!! Jewish Turks? Amazing! I went to a Karaite cafe and had one of their specialties – a kind of Cornish pastry, I think. (You see, Lithuania is a great place to eat – cheap and good food everywhere!)

Not far from the cybercafe is the Seima, or parliament. This was where in 1990, the Lithuanian Parliament declared independence from the USSR, sparking off a chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Looking at these friendly, goodlooking and seemingly mild people around me, as well as the bright new shops and McDonald’s outlets, I could hardly have believe that war nearly broke out here 9 years ago – 14 people died when KGB and Soviet interior troops attempted to storm government buildings here, and Vilnius’ citizens set up barricades to defend their rights.

Tomorrow, I will take an afternoon bus to Belarus. Many have warned me about the corrupt Belarus officials. Latvia and Lithuania are countries on the way to become part of Europe and things are kind of easy for me so far. However, the real adventure starts tomorrow!!!


Wee Cheng