Riding the underpants express from Vilnius to Riga

  • 2001-01-11
  • Graham Anderson
It's not murder on the Baltik Ekspress but underpants. And if you
think it's a whodunit case, you'd better start preparing for a long,
tough case of whencanyadoit.

It's 9 p.m. in Vilnius and the Baltik Ekspress sits smoking heavily
in the elegant decay of the leaky central railway station preparing
for its 400-kilometer journey through the former "evil empire" states
of Lithuania and Latvia. An equally heavy-smoking taksi driver drops
me off at the provincial-sized station and points out proudly that
Lithuanians have solved many common spelling errors imported from
egzotik lands.

The neatly uniformed staff of the Ekspress welcome us on board as
they stoke the Russian boilers, which will provide all with a wash
and a cup of tea in the morning. It's 9:05 p.m. and the station
announcer sounds like a mother whispering sweet nothings to her child
as she announces the departure of the Baltik Ekspress on its journey
to Riga. Even though we're almost in the land of the midnight sun,
most of the journey will be by night, so the scenery will have to be
inside. I'm not disappointed, as the carriage is like a walk-through
bedroom and bedtime is like the Baltic "Underwear Show."

With a friendly, flute-like whistle the Russian-built locomotive
pulls the three carriages of the Ekspress through the hilly suburbs
of Vilnius into the endless forests that characterize the Baltic
states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In 1990, the three tiny
republics broke away from the Soviet Union and had their first taste
of independence since 1939, when they fell alternately to Russia as
part of the Hitler-Stalin pact, then under the murderous German
jackboot, which saw their populations enslaved and murdered, and then
once more into the asphyxiating grasp of Russian communism. Signs of
the stagnation and neglect which took place in the half century of
socialism are everywhere to be seen, with battered old buildings
reflecting a long-gone glory and the countryside peppered with the
eerily deserted ruins of gray and monotonously uniform socialist
factories. Perhaps it was not only people who were equal in
socialism, but buildings too. Whatever the reason, the buildings lay
testimony to a disastrous lack of architectural style and a total
neglect of the human need for variety.

Today, the lively Baltic spirit has once again been released from the
bottle and the many wonderfully restored buildings lift the spirit as
I dodge the fire hydrant-like leaks in the roof sheltering the
Vilnius railway station from pouring rain. Now is an ideal time to
visit the three republics as prices are still favorable, a beer and
steak costing $7 in a restaurant for example. Things won't always
stay that way as their economies lift, despite a couple of hard years
since 1988 when their traditional eastern European markets collapsed,
Russia and its currency calamities being the main cause. Despite the
regional uncertainties, Lithuania's economy is expected to grow 3.4
per cent this year, a tribute to its drive.

The comical warning in the guide book that the toilets on the
Ekspress are guarded by former members of the Soviet Union's
heavyweight female wrestling team prove to be true, and I feel the
eyes of a blonde heavyweight burn into my back as I tentatively edge
my way to the toilet. There I find a map on the almost permanently
bolted and heavily guarded door which describes where the toilets may
and may not be used - basically 50 kilometers either side of
anywhere. Despite the fact we can't speak to one another, her body
language lets me know that it is she, and only she, who must be
obeyed. I retreat sheepishly to my bed and watch the underwear show
under her wary glare.

As we rumble through lonely forest towns late in the night, station
staff in bright red caps appear and wave the Ekspress on. Soon it is
4:30 a.m. and I hear the deep, guttural roar of the locomotive die
and realize we're at the Latvian border. From the top bunk I kick one
of the border guards in the head as I struggle to free myself from
the bed linen. He re-adjusts his unusual and artistically styled
border guard's floppy cap and returns a wistful smile. It must be a
feature of the Ekspress he has experienced before. An hour later and
we are sipping hot tea and bathed in early morning sunshine as we
enter the outskirts of Riga. The Latvian artistic twist reveals
itself in the futuristic design of the telecommunication's tower,
which resembles an ultra-streamlined Eiffel Tower darting into the
sky instead of the ubiquitous bat and ball model. A walk through the
early hour streets of Riga reveals a meticulously clean capital, and
it is refreshing for the ego. In these northern climes my shadow is
an impressive 14 meters long in the early morning sun, which
struggles up at a very low angle to the horizon. With these sort of
statistics, I reckon I've got a great career ahead of me in world
championship wrestling as the "The Baltic Shadow."