Diplomatic Wrangling to get Two Clowns Over the Border
We couldn't head directly up the Baltic coast,
as that would mean heading through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad
Oblast, for which we'd have needed a visa. Lithuania joined the
European Union in 2004, which meant no need for such paperwork,
but a slight diversion on our journey. It was late in the evening,
and we’d just driven down some of the worst roads in Poland (occasionally
the tarmac reached the edge of the road) as we finally saw the huge
white lights of the border crossing into Lithuania. Another leg
completed. Or so we thought.
I was driving, in a right hand drive van, so Jonathan
got the pleasure of handing over the passports to the border guard.
He checked the passports, and then checked us, and then said in
strong tones with heavy accent "Auto Passport". Jonathan
looked at me, I looked at him with my best 'I have no idea what's
he's taking about’ face, and Jonathan looked back at the guard who
said the same thing again, only this time louder, because he was
after all talking to foreigners, "Auto Passport!". This
went on for a few more iterations. There was a queue of traffic
building up behind us. Finally the border guard decided enough was
enough and simply stated loudly and firmly, whilst pointing in the
direction from which we had just come, "Go!!!"
One thing I came to realise about Jonathan over
the few weeks we traveled together, is that he is (very sensibly
I'm sure) more than happy to do whatever he is told by anyone carrying
a gun. I'm more of the, 'but this is Europe, of course they're not
going to shoot us' mentality (it's quite possibly my last words
will be "of course he won't fire"), but a look at Jonathans
face made me think, that maybe this is still an Eastern European
mentality, and it would be wise to do as we've been asked / told.
As we turned around, you could feel the sense of
disbelief in the van. This was the only way through. If we were
going to get to Latvia, we had to go through Lithuania. We've just
driven all this way…. across six countries. They couldn't possibly
have turned us back. There was no way this could be over. I was
a bit miffed. Jonathan looked utterly crestfallen.
There was a cafe / motel at the border crossing
and we could stop and gather our thoughts. Neither of us could believe
what had just happened. There was no other way through. Trip over.
Because Jonathan was aware of how much planning
had gone into this trip, as much on the Latvian side as on his part,
this hit him a lot harder than it had me. I was seriously upset
that they'd put an end to our adventure, but Jonathan knew how many
people we'd be letting down if we didn't get there. I think it was
that reason that I bounced back a bit quicker than he did. There
were after all, people we could call. We could find out what an
'auto passport' was. Maybe we could head back and get the ferry
after all, although that would take days. We were supposed to be
meeting the Mayor of Liepaja tomorrow. Maybe we could play a little
political poker - “I'll see your border guard and raise you a Mayor”.
To be honest, I didn't really fancy our chances on that one, as
it seemed hard to imagine the Mayor making the call "It is
of the utmost diplomatic urgency that you let these two clowns through".
Although I should point out, I'm not a clown, I'm a juggler. We
needed to stop, gather our thoughts, and see what our options were.
We at least needed to make a few calls, and see if anyone could
tell us what an ‘Auto Passport’ was.
So we had a coffee (that cost about tuppence) and
then made a few calls (that cost about the price of being mugged
due to call roaming charges). We called Katriina, who was our contact
in Latvia to let her know we had a problem. We called Clive in Germany
to see if he could check the internet and find out what an 'Auto
We decided it was best to wait until there were
no more cars at the crossing, and then walk up and talk to the border
guards. We could find out if there was a way around this without
blocking anyone else getting through, and hence miffing them. We
also decided we'd get them in a better mood if just one of us went
up, rather than a pair of unshaven long haired clowns (ahem) who
probably smelled like they'd been driving in a van for about thirty
I didn't realise at the time exactly how much Jonathan
was afraid of people with guns. He admitted afterwards that he was
completely ‘bricking it’ as he walked back up the floodlit road
to the crossing. It was about half an hour before he came back.
I sat and twiddled my thumbs, I wrote down notes of what we'd been
up to. I tried to think of things we could do. Mostly I just waited.
When he came back it still wasn't good. I’d hoped
for the big smiley face of a man who’d solved the problem. Instead,
I got the sad faced clown. He'd managed to find out (the guards
had a picture) that an 'Auto Passport' was a car registration document,
which was at least a step in the right direction. We know knew what
it was that we still didn't have. Maybe we could fax them a copy.
Nope, he'd already asked that, it had to be the original.
We got a phone call from Clive telling us that
he'd been on the internet and what we needed was a car registration
document. It's funny to say it, but even though we already knew
what we needed, it was just nice to know that there were other people
helping us fight our corner. We were stuck, if not in the middle
of nowhere, certainly on the edge of somewhere, and whilst tired,
and frustrated, that was very good to know. More to the point, Clive
had dug out the embassy numbers for the British embassies to both
Poland and Lithuania. We weren't quite sure how this would help,
but they might just know something we didn't.
Then we got a phone call from Katriina. Could we
get the phone number for the border guard? She had someone who could
speak Polish, and we might be able to work out a little more.
So Jonathan took the long walk again, and was gone
another half an hour. They hadn't wanted to give him the number
at all. Eventually they had and having passed this on to Katriina,
needless to say it still didn't get us any further.
What we had found out, although this is mostly
speculation, is that there was a problem with people stealing cars
from Poland, and taking them across the border to Lithuania. This
explained why you needed a registration document and why a car tax
disc wasn't enough.
Jonathan told me the following story afterwards.
When he’d gone up the last time, the Polish border guard had gestured
that if the Lithuanian border guard would let us go through that
they (on the Polish side) wouldn’t have a problem with it. With
a positive bounce to his step, as this after all seemed like progress,
he’d started to walk over to the Lithuanian crossing point, when
he’d heard a voice tell him to stop. Looking up, he’d seen the Lithuanian
border guard, so had started to walk over to talk to him. At which
point the crossing guard had reached to his holster and unclipped
his gun. At that point, Jonathan (soiled his trousers) very slowly
turned around, and come back, and decided that enough was enough.
It was gone midnight and we'd been there about
three hours. It was time to take a break. The motel here was closed
now so we decided to head back to the last town we’d passed and
see if we could find a hotel. We were down, but felt there were
still options. There were things we could try to get through the
border, and if the worst came to the worst, and they really wouldn’t
let us through, I suggested we could go on a busking tour of Europe.
Well, those countries that would let us in anyway. At least that
might bring a little joy to the whole situation. That was still
the second choice though. Anything other than achieving what we
set out to do was always going to be a bit of a disappointment.
The last town we’d passed was Augustow, which was
about an hour back down the road. So we headed back along the worst
road in Poland (occasionally the tarmac reached the sides of the
road) in search of a hotel. We found one a little before we reached
the town (and it’s driveway was even worse than the worst road in
Poland) and we headed in, stored the luggage, and then went to find
the bar for a quick drink to relax a bit and slip our brains back
into neutral before hitting the sack. Needless to say, the bar was
now shut, so we headed back to the room and decided to sample the
gift the folks from Xantern had given us. It's called 'Underberg',
and comes in a big tin, about the size of a litre
bottle. The first surprise was that it in fact contained eighteen
little bottles, all individually wrapped. The second surprise was
It tasted like cough medicine. It tasted like the
kind of cough medicine that you're supposed to rub in. It says on
the side of the tin 'Worldwide after a good meal'. I couldn't help
but think that it was probably only consumed 'worldwide after a
good meal' by bulimics. To say the least, it's an 'acquired' taste.
In the same way that petrol probably is. I've been known to say
that any alcohol is still alcohol and therefore sacred. The original
quote that came from is 'any book is still a book and therefore
sacred'. This stuff was right up there with reading the phone book
for fun, while bashing yourself over the head with the collected
works of the Encyclopedia Britannica… whilst smashing yourself over
the shins with the bookcase… which has nails sticking out… into
your testicles). I will say one thing for it. I've not laughed so
much at alcohol for a very long time, and while we tried to finish
our little bottles (we both failed) we were in fits, which I'm ninety
nine percent sure was as much laughing out the evenings frustrations
as anything to do with the booze. I think it was a better present
than anyone could ever have realised.
I’ve since been told that it’s generally used as
a cure for hangovers … I can see how that would work, as it could
almost be enough to make me give up drinking.