May 2022: I flew to Vilnius, Lithuania from Budapest, Hungary on LOT Polish Airlines. Arriving at noon. The Baltics would be the last of the Eastern European countries that I had left to visit. My plan was to take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, and then onward by bus to Tallinn, Estonia. The goal of my trip was to visit the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, see the old city of Tallinn and find an old Soviet underground military base with miles of underground tunnels in the outskirts of Tallinn. 

About the Baltics

The Baltics consist of three countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Over the centuries they have changed hands many times and at times some of them have even managed to have their own empires like Lithuania. But on the most part they have been heavily influenced by Swedish, Polish, and Russian Rule. The Russians ruled under the Tsar and then again later under the Soviet Union. Only in the 90s did the Baltics manage to finally obtain independence from the Soviet Union and now they are part of the European Union and NATO alliance. 

My route across the Baltics

Train Ride to Siauliai/Hill of Crosses

From Vilnius I traveled by train. I selected a window seat so I could see the countryside and I’m glad I did. Much of the Lithuanian countryside was beautiful. I watched from my train window as vast forests, small wooden villages, communist era buildings and a few factories belching out smoke buzzed passed my window. The day was gloomy and rainy and broke my good luck streak of good weather on the trip.

I took advantage of the late sunset-930pm, to cram as much into the day as possible. I arrived in Siauliai late in the afternoon and I immediately took a taxi to the Hill of Crosses located 10 miles outside of town in a remote hillside. The Hill of Crosses was a must see on my itinerary. The attraction was as much symbolic as it was visual. 

The Hill of Crosses became symbolic of Lithuanian endurance and the crosses are a way to remember all of those brave Lithuanians who lost their lives in wars of independence or became victims of oppression. The Hill of Crosses originated in the 1800’s and had changed locations many times due to its forced closure by Tsarist and Soviet authorities. Authorities couldn’t break the Lithuanian spirit however and locals would find a new location and start a new hill of crosses. Currently there is reported to be approximately 50,000 crosses on the hill and many visitors bring their own cross to leave as an offering. Some visitors even leave crosses symbolic of victims of oppression and independence struggles in other areas of the world. One Taiwanese tourist left a cross for Taiwan independence. A Chinese tourist later went virile on social media for destroying the cross and filming its destruction. 

When I arrived in the Hill of Crosses, the weather was beautifully gloomy and solemn and there was a steady rain. The upside to the rain, is that I had the place to myself.

Hill of Crosses

Me at the Hill of Crosses

After visiting the Hill of Crosses, I returned to the town of Siauliai, where I checked into a hotel located inside a row of communist bloc apartment buildings. My room was very austere but the value for the money was good considering I paid less than 40USD. 

My Hotel Room in a Communist Bloc Apt Building

On the eve of my 45th birthday, I set off to get a beer and some dinner at a local restaurant or bar. I walked into the first bar I found. it seemed empty at first. There were two pretty blond girls working the bar that were very friendly, a common characteristic of Lithuanian people in my experience. I thought I was just going to sit and enjoy a peaceful beer with a meal of fish and chips but as soon as I sat down a a group of older men emerged from the back of the bar and sat next to me. They were visually intoxicated. The first man asked me if I was a NATO soldier. I said tourist and he didn’t believe me. I thought for sure I was NATO. According to him there was a NATO base near town, so it made more sense for me to be NATO. He wanted me to know that I was welcome to Lithuania, and he introduced himself as a Lithuanian oligarch. He insisted on buying me a beer and food even though I tried to politely decline. The whole conversation with him happened within a few inches from my face. He seemed to always want to maintain a very uncomfortable closeness to me when talking. Then he asked me if I wanted to share some cocaine with him. I knew he wasn’t bullshitting because he presented a small bag of cocaine and tried to insert it into my nose. He insisted we could party like rock stars and have all of the girls. The bar girls laughed at him.

Eventually he headed off to the alley to snort his coke and a new drunk man replaced him. The man was elderly and was extremely inebriated. he fell to the ground and the owner unsuccessfully removed him from the bar. He found a place next to me and decided to take a liking to me. For about 30 minutes he engaged in an un-intelligible conversation of grunts. I had no idea what he said other than that he was sorry he couldn’t speak English. However, he was very proud that he was able to say a few words in English-the words you suck my ….., which everyone in the bar thought was funny. 

The bar owner rescued me and started a conversation in good English. he discussed how he is worried that Russia will attack Lithuania. He said every morning he waked up to sounds of NATO jets practicing and he is worried about his children. He admitted that he was very bothered that Russia invaded Ukraine, but he was even more bothered that Lithuania might get caught up in the middle of the fighting between USA and Russia. 

After a few hours of meeting the locals, an experience I really enjoyed, I snuck out the back of the bar undetected because I knew my new friends wouldn’t let me leave so easily. But I had to get to bed to catch my 7-hour bus ride at 330am in the morning to Tallinn, Estonia.  

 

Tallinn, Estonia

uI barely slept. It seemed one drunk person after another would congregate outside my window chatting loudly and, in some cases, vomiting profusely. I walked to the bus station at 3am in the dark cold and waited for the bus in a nearby gas station convenience store with a friendly cashier girl.

The bus arrived and I was the only one to board at this stop. It had come all the way from Poland. When I boarded, I saw an old babushka woman sleeping in the aisle seat of my row of two seats. I purchased two seats together in the very front row so that I could have space and a good view of the countryside. I felt bad but I paid for the seats and once I informed the bus driver of this, he asked the woman to move to her seat and she willingly did. 

For the next 7 hours, we drove through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We passed incredibly villages that I really wanted to photograph and lots of forests with moose crossing signs on the road. I read that in Estonia there are hundreds of wild wolves, bear and moose. 

Upon entering Estonia, we passed an immigration check, and all of our passports were checked. This was a temporary measure due to the sudden onslaught of Ukrainian war refugees. 

The long drive restored some respect for Eastern European drivers. The bus driver and other drivers in the Baltics seemed to drive far less aggressively than in Hungary and Romania. 

At approx. noon, I arrived at Tallinn, Estonia. I headed straight to my hotel in the old city, dumped my pack and despite being exhausted set off on foot to explore the beautiful old town. 

 

Talinn, Estonia Old Town

Talinn, Estonia Old Town

Talinn, Estonia Old Town

Talinn, Estonia Old Town

Talinn, Estonia Old Town

I walked for hours through the old town looking for old buildings that weren’t restored to photograph. The old town was perched on a hill near the Baltic Sea and in many ways reminded me of Scandanavia with bits of Eastern Europe mixed into it. 

Putin protest

An entire street outside of the Russian Embassy was dedicated to the anti-war effort in Ukraine with angry posters of Putin along with a police vehicle posted outside to preserve the peace.  I saw something similar to this at the train station in Lithuania. Russian tourists, although not allowed to fly into Estonia, were still allowed to cross the border and I did see some Russian tourists. Additionally, many citizens in the Baltics are Russian speaking. 

The old city has some incredible and ornate architecture. 

KGB Prison

 In the old prison that was operated by the KGB, you can enter the cells where unfortunate souls were taken to face unspeakable torment before being executed. The scariest thing about the rooms were the lime green colors and sound proofed windows that were designed to not allow in any light in other words hope and to muffle the sounds of screams so that people outside could not hear them. 

My Hotel

An Old Church

Old City

Soviet World War II memorial in City Center

Soviet Era Prison

Secret Underground Soviet Military Base 

One thing I really had on my bucket list for Estonia was to visit the secret underground Soviet military base. Not much is known about the purpose of the base and there is very little info online. But I knew from what little info I could find online and by reaching out to some locals is that there were some 50 km’s of underground tunnels and bunkers and the entrance to this place was located in the outskirts of Tallinn in an area called Laagri but I didn’t know exactly where to go, and I couldn’t find anyone familiar with the tunnels to take me. I hired a very confused taxi driver to take me to the general area where the tunnels might be located in some wild forest area and after a few failed attempts and on the verge of giving up, we came across a hill, which I recognized right away as being a military fortification. Scattered throughout the forest whole seemed to be random half buried military fortifications with the occasional openings to lure adventurers into unknown depths. My taxi driver was not interested in joining me. In his words, he had seen enough Soviet things growing up in Estonia and didn’t understand my attraction. We exchanged phone numbers in case I needed help and I set off to explore while he stayed behind. 

Entrance to some of the tunnels that from a short distance is completely concealed by forest

Entrance to some of the tunnels

Wild Deer

Creepy Underground Tunnels

More Tunnels

Descending Tunnel with a small hole that I crawled through. It seemed that the authorities attempted to close the tunnel by cementing it shut but someone else cut a hole in the wall re-opening the tunnel. 

The tunnels were dark and creepy. There were lots of broken glass, rebar sticking up ready to impale you if you were careful, and graffiti.  The purpose of the tunnels I read were not well known but were likely some kind of nuclear fallout shelter in case of for soldiers to hideout in case of nuclear war. I followed a series of rooms and corridors going underground until I came to one tunnel that sloped downwards. it appeared as if someone tried to cement closed the entrance but some else had come along and busted it open. I crawled through the entrance and into a room which continued to lead down further underground into another dark tunnel. 

Me Inside the Tunnel shining my light on the hole I crawled through

The area was wet, filthy and full of glass. I wasn’t comfortable continuing on alone in a tunnel that appeared to be unstable going into unknown depths, so I turned back. Besides the tunnels were creepy as hell and I kept seeing things in the corner of my eyes.

Entrance to underground building

Desolate chair in underground building that looked like the interrogation chair

Tallinn is a beautiful seaside city with a mix of medieval and communist era buildings that I really enjoyed. The people are kind, food and beer pretty amazing. It was definitely the kind of place I could linger in for a few days and there were many more abandoned buildings to explore all around it, but I had to head back the next morning to the USA. 

4 + 7 =

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