Visaginas, August 12, 2005 - Friday

Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
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Trip End Aug 27, 2005


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Where I stayed
"Aukstaitija" hotel

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Our destination was Visaginas, quite likely the most bizarre place in Lithuania we could think of. Until we were given an offer to play at a local festival, I had had no idea it even existed. And then I realised that, for starters, it was by no means easy to find it on the map. For it most certainly doesn't belong in the first or the second category of places an average tourist would want to visit here. Most likely not even the third, either. Consequently, for someone who knows nothing about it, the first task is to find a reference to simply start further search from. And when I eventually found first information on it, I saw that in many ways it was unique in comparison with anything I had seen up until then.

We were talking about a town younger than any of us in the van, with the sole exception of G’s five-month old son. Its foundations were laid in 1975, in the eastern part of Lithuania, near the country’s biggest lake, the Drūkšiai, and all that just in order to accommodate the work force that would service the near-by Ignalina nuclear power plant. And their families, of course.

But not everything went according to plans. At first, things did follow the schedule. Preparation works for the plant construction started in 1974. The construction itself was launched four years later and Unit #1 came online in 1983. Then in 1986 Unit #2 was completed with its launch scheduled for later that same year. But then the Chernobyl happened. As a direct consequence, its commissioning was postponed for a year. And then the Soviet Union followed suit and its collapse marked the end of much of what Ignalina plant stood for. Besides, who could have back then expected Lithuania to join European Union in short order? And once they did, Lithuanian EU membership spelled the doom for the plant. Tough EU environmental and other policies stipulated the closure of the plant. Lithuanians were to a large extent less then thrilled with that idea, but it was one of those either-or issues with no room for substantial compromise. The only concession Lithuanians managed to wheedle out was to the extent that decommissioning was agreed to be phased. And also, the EU agreed to foot most of the not exactly inconsiderable bill. With the end of 2004, Unit #1 went into scraps. Unit #2 is facing its end in 2009. Unit #3 and #4 were never finished.

All that left Visaginas pretty much high and dry. It was a typical example of an artificially built settlement with a single purpose of existence. No matter what locals claim, like historical records first mention the location in 1526, there was not a village at that place and it is one of the most prominent examples of when a large plant, town, or other industrial object is built in an empty field with no prior infrastructure. Now that its original purpose is being phased out of existence, the town has found itself scrambling for a new sense of purpose. Or even life, as it were.

One of the ways to stop dying out of the hardly born settlement is a plan to build a new, modern nuclear power plant at the same site, forestalling at the same time the likelihood of an upcoming power shortage in the region. That could save the town which, so it seems, has decided to live on no matter what, so it started to increasingly diversify its activities in every possible level. One facet of that make-over obviously needs to be awakening of the cultural life. The festival we were invited to was a part of it.

Lithuania is a green country. Green fields or green forests, but green in any case. And flat. Area from Rokiškis to Visaginas was increasingly covered with forests and as we some hour and a half later saw first signs announcing entrance into the town, we were practically driving through the forest. And in those woods, a number of assorted blocks started popping up one by one, mostly residential, and in front one of them our driver pulled up. It was „Aukštaitija" hotel. We finally reached the end of our journey.

„Aukštaitija“ hotel, in Veteranų str. 9, is touted as the largest and most comfortable in entire Utena region. Utena region, of course, being the one we were in right now. Whenever it was really built, it’s a ten-storey building, housing a hotel, a restaurant, a few bars, a barber’s, a tailor’s, a laundry, a solarium, a bowling alley, a pool room, a souvenir shop, a travel agency and so on and on. In other words, things usually featured in four-star star facilities. Visaginas allegedly has one or two places where one can stay overnight, and rather expensive at that, but all those places with their combined accommodation capacities, hardly fill a corridor wing on one of the „Aukštaitija“ hotel floors. So even if we had wanted one, there was no alternative to this accommodation.

We went through the festival registration and hotel check-in procedures, they dished us out room keys, we teamed up according to rooms the way we deemed it best, and then went up to leave our stuff. And that was when we entered the second worst accommodation we had ever got as the band. Entering our „Aukštaitija“ hotel rooms, I believe we were inadvertently offered a glimpse into what a good accommodation in the former Soviet Union was supposed to look like. Small rooms, out of which a great deal of doubles – including the one R and I settled in – actually had only one bed, and in the stead of the other one there was a narrow three-piece fold-out, moonlighting as a bed. Whereas one of its three pieces sank in, and when it fell through, a hole would open in that place. To avoid arguments as to who would sleep where, I offered to sleep on the fold-out, hoping it wouldn’t sink under me during the night.

Bathroom consisted of a decrepit and to a large extent rusty shower for at first I believed couldn’t deliver any hot water. But we had a long journey behind us so I had my shower in the water as it was. Which meant only three or four degrees warmer than the cold water. But I was used to worse things than that on my travels. Naturally, there was neither a whiff nor a trace of any ceramic tiles on the floor. There was only a sloped concrete cover layer, so that spilled water was directed to the sink. Toilet cistern functioned, but only on an on-and-off basis. In other words, once you flushed the toilet, the water flow through the cistern never stopped again. So I had to go down to the reception to fetch someone to check and see what the problem was. However, it seemed everything was under control and regular. A uniformed guy appeared, a young twenty-and-something lad, who rolled up his sleeve, opened the cistern lid, pushed his arm inside the cistern, manually put the discharge valve lever and shutter back in place and water finally stopped flowing.

There was a small and dirty mirror there, affixed by four rusty screws on the wall, and below it there was a ceramic sink gone yellow from sediments in the water which after all those year had left their trace on it. In one word, „Aukštaitija“ hotel was ripe for rehabilitation. And not right away. „Two days before“, rather.

And for all that, it turned out we lived in luxury. The kind of rooms we were booked in was on the right side of the corridor. Left side of the hotel corridors accommodated the likes of Lithuanians, Latvians and so on. Those rooms had no bathrooms whatsoever, but rather shared a common shower down at the end of the corridor, and its door, at least on our floor, could not even be closed. It was obvious that here tourism was not exactly a strategic goal of local economic development.

We had an agreement to meet again at the reception after we unpacked, had a shower and so on. For starters, the organisers were going to give us free meal-tickets and clarify some additional details regarding our stay. Once we were there, the complaints started.

„This is horrible,“ S began. „I won’t sleep here.“

The complaint was directed at me, like I was the one who had chosen the accommodation.

„So what will you do?“ I asked.

„I have no idea. Tell them I want another room. I had to wait for half an hour for the hot water to start flowing!“

So it turned out there was hot water after all. Only, installations took half an hour to wake up. Besides, S and Marin had two proper beds in their room, unlike R and me. And yet, S complained. R and I didn’t. It was not that we exactly enjoyed the level of comfort and luxury offered, but what could you do now? One didn’t have to be too smart to realise that the hotel was the way it was and Visaginas wasn’t really overflowing with different possibilities. The way I saw it, we all had a very simple choice. Either to take it all in stride and try to make most of our stay, or to complain, to focus on the negative and possibly miss the good things here. For nothing could be changed. Either for us or for the others.

Laura, on the other hand, had problems of different variety. G and she had a room of the same level that S and Marin had. Which means somewhat better than the one R and I had. So Laura had the same complaints as S with an addition of their being magnified by a factor that whatever is not Italian, even if best in the world, it can’t be as good as when being Italian. There are people who „know everything“ about every country in the world even if they have never moved away from home. And that „everything“ usually boils down to the fact that elsewhere is worse than what they have there where they have never moved from. The fact that Laura had had her passport made for the first time in her life, and precisely for this trip, never prevented her from having a very clear opinion on places she would never see. And first glimpse of Lithuania, through the prism of „Aukštaitija“ hotel accommodation, only confirmed the picture she had long ago formed in her mind.

I was in no mood for listening to that. The organisers were very nice. They really tried hard to please us and did their best indeed. Nothing was unworthy of going out of their way for it, no question was pointless, even if in reality it might have been silly. It was not their fault that someone somewhere had come to a conclusion that Visaginas needed no hotel better than this. So I just collected the tickets, gave them to people and moved away from everything.

Then a tall, slender, blonde lad appeared and one woman from the organisation board brought him to me.

„This is Sasha,“ she introduced him. „He’ll be your guide and assistant while you’re here and whenever you need something, ask him.“

I shook hands with Sasha and took him to the rest of my bunch. I introduced them to each other and then we exchanged mobile phone numbers, so we could be in constant touch even if he was not with us. First thing we needed help with was lunch. He explained the ticket system principle and as soon as it was clear to everyone, they set to ordering. Something told me that once they finished eating, not even the accommodation would look so insufferably bad. In fact, the greatest problem was mine. For some reason the fact that I was a vegetarian caught the restaurant personnel off-guard. I had this notion that this fact didn’t necessarily belong to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! I had an impression that most of the people had heard about the likes of me. But here it provoked a general consternation and they obviously didn’t know what to begin with me. There was clearly not a single meatless dish on menu. Luckily, food was never much of a problem in my life. In a certain, perverse way I almost felt a relief. Instead of trying to muddle something out by combining side dishes and salads, I simply gave it up. Having decided that the official part was over and that now everyone could take care of themselves, I waved the others good-bye, exchanged a word or two more with Sasha and disappeared.

The weather outside was at the edge of rain. It didn’t rain yet, but could any second. I stopped for a minute at the hotel entrance to send Ruta an SMS message that I had finally arrived in Lithuania, and put my raincoat on and set out to explore the town.

After only a few paces it was clear that, if nothing else, Visaginas was extraordinary. One look at Lithuania’s newest town confirmed that it was indeed the product of pure, unadulterated socialism. The architects’ dream may have been concocting a model town constructed in harmony with the surrounding countryside. But what you actually get is a collection of grey blocks, or reddish brown at best, built in a forest. Depending on one’s particular viewpoint, it may be good or it may be bad. But either way, Visaginas is a town unlike any other I’ve seen. I have no way of knowing what its architects had in mind at their drawing boards. Personally, I found it almost bizarre.

What mostly gave out an impression of this being more of an experiment than a real town was, the way I saw it, the fact that in what was pedestrian zone, and there were quite a few such areas, there was not a single classic square, not a single drinking joint and not a single shop which wasn’t called a supermarket. I found two of those and as far as they were concerned, I had no complaints. Now I knew that regardless of collective state of disbelief in the hotel restaurant, I won’t go starving in Visaginas. But other than that, the town lacked a soul of a real town. There were no street cafés, no shop windows, no newspaper or souvenir stands, not a single advertisement which would indicate where one could here go out in the evening and meet local life. In one word, there was nothing there one could in any way term as street life. What came closest to any semblance of social gathering in the open was an occasional bunch of few drunken or about-to-get-drunk kids in their late teens or early twenties, who staggered and reeled somewhat aimlessly about wet benches or lay sprawled on them, holding booze bottles in their hands, recently purchased in one of the two supermarkets I mentioned. Some were already bidding good-bye to sobriety and pointed dull stares at the ground right in front of their own feet. Some yelled at imaginary apparitions and irritants known and seen to only themselves. The rest worked hard to catch up with either of the first two as soon as possible.

It was a bit distressing to see that not all of them were only young men. But even if it had been so, it would nevertheless have been a distressing sight.

Now, if the day had been sunny, which one would realistically expect in mid-August, then entire town would possibly have left a brighter and more optimistic impression on me. After all, people did live here. I think the last census talked about more than 30000 inhabitants. So even a settlement like Visaginas had to be given some kind of soul. On the other hand, there were towns which even during worst possible weather conditions couldn’t hide their soul. Maybe Visaginas was simply still for too short in this world for its stones to have it yet.

I followed my nose and at one point I saw a crowd. On a square, in – let’s say so – an artificial basin among some high-rises, not too far from what to me looked like the main thoroughfare since it passed before the seat of Visaginas Municipality, there was a stage set among a number of souvenir stands. Just when I thought there were none in town. Now it rained boringly, now it didn’t, so there were umbrellas and raincoats all over, but by the looks of it, nobody seemed to be too upset. Whatever programme they had rolled on unimpeded and everyone appeared to have a good time. It was clear that this stage was of no international character and it was some future local talent that was getting their first chance here. Officially or unofficially, this was probably the beginning of everything that we too were here for.

I sent an SMS message to R to tell him about this. I assumed that at least some of the guys back in the hotel might be interested in seeing it. But no one answered and the rain started again. Besides, I knew I would have as much of this kind of fun as my heart yearned for in the days to come. So I didn’t linger around for too long. I just had a feel of the atmosphere, and then continued wandering around Visaginas. Unfortunately, my foreknowledge on Visaginas was limited. „Lonely Planet“ devoted to it literally four or five lines only and mostly within the context of the nuclear plant. There was almost no word on the town itself, i.e. on what could possibly be seen here. So I walked around in a pretty random fashion, not even knowing what exactly I was looking for. And there were no visual landmarks like in most of „usual“ towns to help you get by and later get informed if necessary.

Then I got an SMS from Ruta. She told me she was still kept busy in Poland and wouldn’t be able to come to Visaginas. She wished me a good time hoping we would meet when I later arrived in Vilnius.

Finding nothing else of further interest, after a while I turned roughly back in the same direction I had come from. I found myself on the main street again, in front of the municipal building and there I saw the only thing „Lonely Planet“ mentioned. It was a Geiger counter with a permanent display of radiation level in town, probably to appease the local population and occasional visitors, and prove that Visaginas was as healthy to live in as any other town away from the plant. Radioactivity level reached, at least according to the display, nine of something. Units of measurements. I assumed it was well below the tolerance limit. What I was curious about, though, was whether the display would faithfully show if the radiation level for some reason jumped into red. Or would some kind of a cover-up mechanism step in? I hoped I would never have to find out.

On top of the column, a crane – the first symbol of the town - spread its wings. I don’t know why precisely the crane as theoretically (almost) every bird has wings and can fly, and there are those symbolising freedom and heights more than cranes. Maybe because Visaginas was built on Drūkšiai lake, so there were many water birds there and crane was one of them? In any case, it was my speculation and nothing more. But what was no speculation is the fact that some environmentalists started to warn that the lake is too small for such a powerful plant as Ignalina is – because its water is used to cool the reactors off - and point out that the average water temperature has risen a few degrees. If so, then the lake’s ecosystem is in for some tough times ahead. And Visaginas itself isn’t likely to reap a profit from it, either.

Not far from the counter there was a so-called cornerstone of the town, i.e. a huge chunk of stone the builders of the power plant had brought in and put near the first apartment block ever built there. The shape of the stone allegedly resembles the shape of Lithuania on the map. Whereas I must confess that I’m not the leading expert on Lithuania, that claim was nevertheless a bit of a stretch to me. Anyway, the day when it was lugged in, 10th of August 1975, was declared the town’s birthday and there is even a commemorative slab stuck on it to mark the occasion. A youngster, by all standards.

And then it occurred to me that I might take a look at the place where we would play the next day. Following the signs, after a while I found myself on the town’s football stadium. As the football stadia go, this was certainly no Wembley or Nou Camp. In fact, it was a small edifice which in my country would probably be suitable for a better second-division club. However, for the festival we were going to appear on it was more than impressive. Theoretically, with the capacity crowd, on terraces, race tracks and the grass pitch, maybe even as many as twenty thousand people could bundle in. And there, behind one of the goals, a stage larger in size than any I’d ever played on was just being assembled, the P.A. and light systems more impressive than any ever used for my band’s gigs. Next to all that, there were already two Lithuanian Television vans. I think that only then I started to gradually realise what kind of festival we had come to.

Back in the hotel some time later, I met Sasha. He was an information student hailing from Visaginas who was now home during his summer vacation. He studied in Kaunas. Since he was already here, he signed up for a guide to one of the bands on the festival to make some extra pocket money. And to practice some English along the way. They assigned him to us. He was a friendly lad and it seemed nothing was too difficult for him. I asked him if it would be possible to visit the nuclear plant one of these days.

„I don’t know. I’m not sure if they allow it.“

„I read that they take visitors in.“

„When would you like to go?“

„Not tomorrow. You know, as we play, then my entire day is devoted to that. But on Sunday, if possible,“ I answered.

„Who would go?“

„I don’t know about the others. Maybe they won’t be interested. But I would for certain, if there’s a chance.“

He said he’d see what could be done.

In the hotel I stumbled upon some of my band-mates. I told R I had sent him an SMS to tell him about the downtown festival inauguration. But it seemed he’d never got it. Besides, they all had taken a nap while I had been outside. Hearing from me what I’d seen, now others were interested in seeing for themselves what was going on outside. But it started raining again and no one was in a mood of going out in such a weather. As for me, it was because I had already seen it, and as for the others, they just wouldn’t get wet. They did want to have a stroll, but general consensus decided they would go out once it stopped raining.

Sasha was with us all the time. At one point he said his ancestry was from the Balkans.

„My family name is Mandich.“

„It’s a Serbian family name,“ Marin said as an amateur expert on origin of names and family names, particularly those from the Balkans.

„Yes. My grandfather came from there,“ Sasha replied.

„And otherwise, what’s your nationality?“ I asked.

„Ukrainian.“

„But you have Lithuanian passport?“

„Yes.“

I told him I had read that Russians, as well as all others who didn’t speak Lithuanian, had quite a few problems after Lithuania had regained its independence, and now certain doors were closed on them for that.

„Is it true?“ I asked.

„Yes, but it was all more in relation with the elderly. Who had no intention to study or pursue careers, anyway. All from the younger generation speak Lithuanian.“

I also told him I had read that Visaginas, maybe the only one still holding out as such in entire Lithuania, was a town where Lithuanians were in a minority. That there were maybe some fifteen percent of them there, not more. And that the Russians still made more than half of the local population. He confirmed it was right. In other words, in a way it also meant that we had not arrived in a typical Lithuanian town at all. OK, of course we hadn’t. How can a town which only two days ago celebrated its thirtieth birthday be typical? But Visaginas was obviously atypical in more than just one aspect.

When the rain stopped, it was almost dark outside. In translation, it was closer to ten than nine. But the air was clean, as it should be after rain, so one more walk promised to be pleasant. We all, with an exception of G and Laura, went out, including Sasha. I took them to the square where I had seen the first musical event, but now, except for the empty stage, there was no one and nothing there. Even almost all young soaks disappeared from the street and except for us, there was nearly no one outside. Or at least we couldn’t see anyone. Then we headed towards the stadium. Everyone was curious about where we would play tomorrow. Same as I earlier, they were all impressed by the stage still relentlessly in the works, only now under the floodlights.

„This is like for the 'Rolling Stones’,“ R said.

We returned to the hotel some time around eleven.

I had a shower again and R and I set our sights towards the bed. But then M knocked on the door, informing us that J and he were going down to the bar to have another drink and asking us if we were interested. R was too tired in spite of the fact that he had slept in the afternoon, so he decided not to go. I did.

Downstairs, it was quite busy. We ordered up a drink, took our seats at the bar itself and chatted about this and that. It was soon obvious that „Aukštaitija“ hotel was very possibly the only, or at least one of the very few places, to go out in Visaginas on Friday night. Which, if correct, only confirmed my afternoon observations from the streets. So, unusually many people had gathered here and they quite openly stared at us. Some even said hello, probably wishing to start a conversation. Russian was the language mostly spoken.

And ladies... J, M and I couldn’t believe our own eyes. None of us could remember ever seeing such a high concentration of killer girls on such a small area. We would have understood it somehow if we had been on some trendy spot with a pile of tycoons – or oligarchs, as they call them in Russia – swarmed over by girls whose biggest asset are stunning looks. But we neither belonged to such circles nor were in such a place, and yet, just the same, the girls were so pretty that it took a hefty amount of self-discipline to take our eyes off of them. Any of them.

However, it was soon clear to us that at least some of them were friends of the night. Not all, of course. Some of them, though. A few more foreigners were in the bar, also most likely in the capacity of participants at the festival, one way or another. But vast majority around us were locals. And girls, well, some of them at least didn’t waste much time and grabbed the first opportunity to take a place at the bar, so they could be close to either us or some of the other foreigners. One of them as good as leaned against my back. Of course, professionally enough that it looked as if by chance, for – certainly – it was crowded. But she was there.

Marin popped up, too.

„I knocked on your door. No one answered, so I’ve come to check if you are here,“ he said to J and M. And so the four of us stood there, exchanging a word here or there with a local Russian and rather unabashedly watched local ladies.

The one behind my back didn’t aim at me specifically, of course. She was just there, at the strategically best spot, with one of her mates, and waited for whoever would first bite the bait. They didn’t wait for too long. Only a few minutes later they were already having their drinks paid by someone. As far as the four of us were concerned, none of us had any intention to kill the time in such a way. We had just come for a drink, for some more talk at the end of our first day in Lithuania, and then we were going to bed. After all, we had the gig tomorrow and that was why we were there.

But girls were pretty, regardless of our plans. Both those on the prowl for foreigners and those who had merely come out in the evening with their friends. You couldn’t deny that. And that was why none of us was in any particular hurry to go to bed yet.
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