Saturday, 24 March 2007

Poland and its borders with Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad) and Belarus

The last full day of my short Baltics trip was a Saturday and the plan was to visit Poland. Jan Krogh and I drove from Vilnius starting fairly early in the morning as we had arranged to meet another border hunter, Artur Kroc, in the northern Polish town of Sejny. He had made the 670km trip from Poznan by train and bus to meet with us on this expedition. It was really a great experience for me to have brought together 3 people from the esoteric community of border hunters, who had never met in person, 6000km from my home, to go seeking strange points on the earth's surface!

Having used the wonderful power of mobile phone texting to connect, we quickly found Artur at a bus stop in Sejny (despite getting confused by the one hour time change when we crossed the border) and headed off towards the point where Poland, Russia (in the form of its exclave, Kaliningrad) and Lithuania meet. First, however, there were a couple of geocaches I wanted to find. These were of especial interest as they were FTF ("first to find") opportunities - having been placed in August of 2006 and unfound as of yet. The best maps we had were old Soviet era black and white topographical maps georererenced and displayed on my laptop connected to a GPS receiver on the roof of the car. Some of the tracks on those maps were dubious at best.

As we approached the turn off the main road we planned to take to locate the first of these caches we were stopped by the Polish Border Patrol. So here we were - me driving - a resident of Canada, travelling on a UK passport in a Latvian registered car close to the Poland/Russia/Lithuania border. Obviously highly suspicious. I am so glad we had Artur with us at this point since he was our only Polish speaker and was able to ensure all parties understood each other. They took my passport and the car's papers (not the other fellows' though - was I worried?) back to their vehicle to check while we all got out and stood around at the top of a very windy hill - but it was a nice sunny day so we could enjoy the view. Eventually my papers were returned with no issues and we were on our way. However, our way happened to be to turn down the farm track immediately at the spot where we had been stopped, in a direction leading right towards the border. We certainly expected to be chased after - but we were not.

Anyway, we found that cache and another FTF opportunity in the area and so we then headed off to the tripoint.

The tripoint is only about 200m from the main road and clearly open for access - up as far as the fence. The fence is new since Jan's previous visit and unfortunately, although it ended only about 40m from the tripoint itself, was sufficient to discourage me from running over to do the run around the tripoint marker itself, thereby robbing me of an LTRU border crossing (I picked up a PLRU a short time later - see upcoming pics).

Closer view of the tripoint. If you compare this photo with those on Jan's site it would appear that the Russian border marker is still located on Lithuanian territory. There is also, now, a fence approaching the tripoint from the Polish side - it does not seem to have much practical purpose but might, perhaps, delineate the internal Polish municipal border that make this a quadripoint as well.

Big notice saying you could no go closer than 5m from the border. You could hardly say you hadn't spotted it!! However, it also says you can't take photos of the border area or of the land beyond it - so having broken one rule already maybe I shouldn't have worried so much.

And some nice touristy stuff.

The whole display board.

This is a view along the Russia (left), Lithuania (right) border - looking north.

This is the view along the Poland (left), Russia (right) border - looking west.

This is a view along the Lithuania (left), Poland (right) border - looking east.

Zoomed in on Russia/Lithuania.

Looking back at the tripoint from where I was considering making a run for it.

Looks close? Not when the camera is not zoomed in! It was just not worth the risk!

Artur (right) and me in front of the tripoint.

Jan and Artur in front of the tripoint.

Me taking one of those other photos (photo courtesy of Jan Krogh)

So - no border crossing happened there - but Jan figured that if we drove a short distance to the west there was a village with a track that led right up to the Russian border.

He was right - that's Russia over there.

There is a path leading up from the road to the border line, and a broken fence at the top of it. Off I head. (Photo courtesy of Jan Krogh)

And there, just a few metres away - an opportunity for a PLRU crossing.

Made it -(and back again safely) - me in Russia. (Photo courtesy of Jan Krogh)

Along the border line to the east - Russia on the left.

OK - now it's off to have some lunch and check out the border with Belarus.

Get out the tripod for a "team photo" (I really must wash that car with its Estonian dirt on it!).

Navigating our way to the BYLTPL was fun but with the laptop and the Soviet era topo maps connected to the GPS we eventually found our way to within 1km of the tripoint which Jan had previously recorded the position of on his handheld GPSr. We stopped the car once the forest tracks became too challenging for the VW and proceeded on foot through the woods. The spring flowers were just starting to appear on the forest floor - this is really one of my favourite times of year to be in the woods - before all the bugs are out and while you can still see through the trees before there are too many leaves on them. Anyway, we were following Jan's GPSr along the top of a ridge when I looked down and said "That looks like a Belorussian border marker" (it being green and red and all). Oops - it looks like Jan's coordinates might have been for a border marker further south than the tripoint (1788 perhaps - see his website). So we scrambled down the hill and were met with a significantly different vista than what Jan had encountered on his previous trip. Of course the undergrowth was much less (that having been later in the year) but, more than that, there was some major construction going on along the BYPL border to demarcate it more clearly as well as to ensure that the river's boundaries were not going to change. In retrospect we were lucky we had gone on a Saturday since had it been a weekday there would probably have been construction crews working there and we would have had great difficulty investigating the tripoint.

This tripoint is in the middle of the river and the river was reasonably full so, without wading gear, we could not attempt a circuit of the point itself - we confined ourselves to the BYPL bank of the river for our photographs and exploration.

Well, here I am in Belarus and you can clearly see the Lithuanian marker in the background along with the Lithuanian guards' hut - but where is the Polish marker?

Ah - that's where it is - temporarily removed for construction to take place.

This is looking south along the Belarus (left), Poland (right) border towards BM 1788 (pictured on Jan's website linked to earlier).

To give a better impression of the work being done on the river bank I took this series of photos going anti-clockwise - this one is looking towards the BYPL border - you can see the PL marker on the ground.

Round to the left a bit looking along the line of the Lithuania (left), Belarus (right) border - tripoint in the middle of the river.

Looking northwards along the Poland (left), Lithuania (right) border.

And finally - I took a few more brave steps into Belarus to get this shot along the Lithuania (left), Belarus (right) border - i.e. looking east south-east.

Meanwhile Jan is taking a photo of me taking the last photo, while standing safely in Poland.

We then headed back to the car, drove out to the surfaced roads (grounding out the rental car a bit on the way causing some minor consternation when the engine warning light came on and didn't go off again for at least 75km), said our farewells to Artur at the bus-stop in Giby, and Jan and I headed back to Vilnius. We got back to Vilnius safely, depsite my getting a 50 Lats "pay on the spot" speeding ticket on the way for doing 110km in a 90 km zone - open straight road - definite ticket bait territory - (thanks Jan for talking them down from 100 Lats), and found one more FTF geocache in Vilnius before picking up Jan's car. But all was not simple - his car had a flat tyre when we got back and I disappeared off (thinking I was following him whereas it was someone else with a similar car) - but with the power of the mobile phone we reconnected so we could go to the petrol station together, fill up, get my rental car washed (finally!!) and I could head off to Riga where I was to stay the last night before catching my plane. However, warning - avoid Riga hotels on a Saturday night - they are full of drunken Brits who have come to the "stag party capital of Europe" on super cheap flights from the likes of Ryanair. Not a pretty sight and makes me want to hide my UK passport :(

Thanks Jan and Artur for the company - it was a great day - one I shall never forget, made all the better by doing it with you guys. Looking forward to the next expedition!!

Friday, 23 March 2007

Lithuania and its borders with Latvia and Belarus

Stayed overnight in Riga but had a bad start by waking up late (messed up the alarm on my PDA) and so getting stuck in traffic leaving Riga. I also managed in all the rush to get out of the hotel to leave my glasses in my room. Fortunately I was back staying at the same hotel on the Saturday night and it was with great relief that I retrieved them when I arrived there. I was due to meet Jan Krogh (a Norwegian who lives in Vilnius and has the same weird interests as me when it comes to border hunting) in Visaginas near the Lithuania-Latvia-Belarus tripoint as he had kindly offered to guide me on the next two days of my expedition. Being from Canada I am not used to text messaging much so it was slightly challenging to keep in touch with him this way while driving (I kept having to spell out numbers as I didn't know how to enter them into a text message!) - but eventually I was 5 minutes from the border so was able to advise him where I was.

I crossed the border into Lithuania at Turmantas and continued driving slowly (I thought) through the town when I was pulled over by someone in military uniform as I was about to leave the town. "Uh oh" I thought - "I'm sure I wasn't speeding". My concern turned to pleasure when I discovered that it was Jan, wearing parts of his former Norwegian Military/United Nations uniform, who had pulled me over. So we were able to bypass Visaginas, although this did mean that we missed visiting the nuclear power plant near there that he had wanted to visit. It lies on the edge of a lake that straddles the border with Belarus - apparently there are Lithuanian controlled dams on the Belorussian side that are used to control to water level serving this plant. Jan had arranged from an officer from the Visaginas Cordon of the Lithuanian Border Guards to escort us to the tripoint. We travelled the last part of the route in the guard's 4x4 as it was a rather bumpy section of farm track leading up to the tripoint itself.

Before meeting him, however, we stopped at a quite interesting intersection:

The road sign is definitely unique.

We continued straight on until we came to the limits of where we were allowed to go unescorted.

We could just see the Belarus border down the bottom of this track.

We then proceeded to the tripoint and took lots of photos. It is interesting to compare these with the photos Jan took when he visited in August 2001:

A general view of the area on the Lithuanian side - the actual tripoint is in the background towards the left where a platform has been built to mark its location. In the foreground is an area where various traditional structures have been built for special celebrations to take place.

The open area in the background is in Belarus.

This is standing at the tripoint looking southwards along the Belarus (left) and Lithuanian (right) border - so here we are at the northern most point of this border - tomorrow we shall be at its southernmost point.

This is a view of the platform with the tripoint in the middle - Jan's excellent website shows the exact line of the borders.

And another - the only area where we felt comfortable stepping off the platform was on the Lithuanian side since we were in the company of the Lithuanian border guard.

All of this photo is in Belarus - taken from the tripoint itself. I really wanted to rush out and photograph the front of that sign but with the Lithuanian border guard there I did not dare.

The Latvian border marker - there is no Latvian infrastructure whatsoever leading up to the tripoint, unlike the Lithuanian and Belorussian sides.

Looking west from the tripoint along the ditch marking the Lithuania (left) Latvia (right) border

Looking east from the tripoint along the ditch marking the Latvia (left) Belarus (right) border.

A small monument has been placed in the Belarus section.

The guard and Jan at the tripoint. Unfortunately my camera misfired when Jan took photos of me at the tripoint so you will not see any of me there!

Lithuania in the background. I felt pretty certain that even on the platform, the Lithuanian border guard never stepped outside Lithuanian territory.

Looking from Lithuania down the Belorussian access road (although how many people are allowed to access this point and under what conditions, I wonder). Apparently the tripoint used to be about where the road curves to the left in this picture with the BYLT border running to the right through the woods into the lake that is behind those trees. It was moved to be to the west of the lake some time ago for easier maintenance.

The guard and Jan sitting at a picnic place near the tripoint discussing details of the arrangements with Belarus for controlling the lake level to manage the nuclear power plant. Apparently they have regular parties for the children of the Lithuanian border guards here. I hope there are no incidents where the kids rush off across the border - their parents would have some difficulty chasing after them!

Leaving the area we stopped to look at this bunker which formed part of the front lines between Germany and Russia in WW II. Nearby was a woman using an old fashioned well (bucket on a rope type) to fill plastic water jugs. With the curious clash of old and new (note the satellite TV dish) I almost expected to see her talking on her mobile phone while doing so.

Our next visit was to Adutiškis where the railway line runs (or at least ran) along the BYLT border. Again it is interesting to compare these photos with those taken by Jan in August 2001. Things have really changed since then.

There is now a fence on the Lithuanian side of the tracks - this prevents accidental border incursions at least.

Taken looking through the fence, into Belarus - there is actually a gate in the fence here - but it was padlocked :)

Along the fence to the east

Along the fence to the west - Jan in the foreground.

Photo taken over the fence - the binational track has now been removed. The small white marker is the actual border - so this is an unusual situation where the national markers are not equidistant from the border (because of the rail track that is still there on the Belorussian side).

A bit further to the west, towards where the station building pictured by Jan in 2001 used to be. That has now been removed as the line is no longer there nor active. Since this is the border of the European Union these situations where such "shared facilities" are accommodated are fast disappearing. Jan felt that this was causing gradual decline of the border towns which are becoming less viable due to such restrictions.

We had one more border stop to make before heading back to Vilnius - this was a farm that backs onto the border, a bit further west than Adutiškis. As we drove down the rough farm tracks to approach this area we encountered the border guards but Jan was able to explain our innocent enough intentions and having the business card of the guard who had accompanied us to the tripoint earlier in the day was certainly helpful. They still seemed a little nervous but were happy enough to accompany us to the farm and border area. The farmer was quite intrigued to meet a visitor from Canada - I imagine that there are not too many of those that make it to his farm. Jan explained that, in all probability, when he finally retires, the farm will be abandoned and there will no longer be a resident this close to the border here.

A view along the border line.

Jan checking the map with the farm in the background.

Now it was time to head back to Vilnius - we did stop to find a geocache on the way - my first in Lithuania - my 30th country for finding geocaches. By a strange coincidence this had been set by someone whom Jan had known well during the 1991 Lithuanian freedom struggle and who had also visited Jan's only cache exactly one year previously.

Tomorrow - off to Poland!!