Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Our Kumano Kodo hike didn’t start that well.

The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka.  Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky.  Kodo means something like ‘old ways’.  Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century.  There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).

The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.

After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing.  Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.

Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine.  We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.

Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan.  It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you.  Travelling here is absurdly easy.  Thirsty?  There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee.  Hungry?  There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times.  (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…)  Tired?  Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds.  They also have coffee.  Free coffee.  What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.

Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous.  At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus.  A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills.  We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.

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After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier.  Hikers got on at every stop.  The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points.  Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.

We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.

At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.

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We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.

The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention.  And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.

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The water and scoops you can see bottom left here are for temizu, a Shinto purification ritual involving washing your hands and mouth.  But we didn’t know that at the time.  Arthur thought they were for symbolically feeding water to the stone dragons around the shrine…

As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.

I put down one foot, 
then the other foot, on the
Kumano Kodo.

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The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.

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Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.

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After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan.  Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency.  Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall.  Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works.  Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then.  So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.

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There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.

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I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.

Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest.  Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8.  A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town.  It didn’t say if they went quietly.  The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.

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After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages.  There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road.  We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall.  The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.

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While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before.  We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange.  This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.

Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.

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Obviously we had to try this.  It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before.  A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too.  The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us.  I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.

From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.

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The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building.  It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.

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After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu.  It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away.  Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen.  It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night.  I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.

On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.)  In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site.  Being there was like going back in time.  It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata.  The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.

A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay.  A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.

When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.

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Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe.  Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.

Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan.  The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking.  There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.

Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.

Going to an onsen has some procedure about it.  You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time.  Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.

Showering in Japan involves sitting down.  First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner.  At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall.  There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective.  When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.

Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.

Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so.  I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company.  The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall.  I think the dads had more children to look after.

Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin).  Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed.  All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.

After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent.  I slept the best I have in years.

Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe.  You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down.  The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place.  Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind.  I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.

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“I hate Mondays.”

Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town.  That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though.  His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.

Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.

Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.

Life’s hard sometimes…

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Baikal

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After being cooped up on the train for three days I was itching to get outdoors, and after being cooped up in cities for three weeks I was itching spend some time surrounded by fresh air and trees rather than exhaust fumes and Soviet apartment blocks.  So I had high expectations of Lake Baikal, which is nature to the extreme.  It’s full of superlatives: the deepest, oldest lake in the world, the largest by volume, and one of the clearest.  Three quarters of the species that live there are found nowhere else.

We headed straight from the train to Listvyanka on the shore of the lake.  Here we imagined we’d hike in pristine forests next to the clear water, and relax at our hostel, which came highly recommended, and had a banya.

A banya is a Russian sauna.  It’s usually steamier than a Scandinavian style sauna, and so can’t be quite as hot, but isn’t as humid as a Turkish bath.  As the sign posted prominently in our hostel helpfully explained, this is because hot dry saunas ‘only dry the skin’, and baths that are too humid are also ‘bad for the body’ in some unspecified way.  What the sign didn’t explain, was that the hostel banya was closed for the winter, so our plans to soothe our muscles in hot steam after hiking were dashed.

The hostel was generally a bit underwhelming, after the rave review the guidebook had given it.  It was a cosy log cabin, as we’d imagined, but the welcome we got was a bit frosty.  Though lots of people in Russia were instantly friendly and warm, there were also plenty of cases where you really had to look for signs that your attempt to use a good or service hadn’t ruined the proprietor’s day, or possibly life.  A crack in the stone faced armour would usually eventually turn up, but patience was required.

This was definitely one of those cases.  I felt mildly told off by the end our brief hostel tour, but this was nothing compared to the lambasting we got when we asked about hiking routes in the area.  The proprietress told us, in a tone of escalating disgust, that there weren’t any marked trails here, or in fact in Russia (It’s not like Europe you know).  Trying to explain that we weren’t expecting sign posts (as in Germany for example), but just some sort of path (as in much of the UK) just prompted repetition.  Apparently the paths are just made by locals, and locals can follow them, but tourists will just get lost.

Asking if there was anywhere we could get a map prompted an outburst of full blown contempt.

There are no hiking maps of the Baikal area.

How about just a map then, to show the contours and rivers and so on?

No, no maps exist.

I found this highly unlikely, especially as we’d heard you could get a hiking map at the Irkutsk tourist office, which was closed when we tried to do so on the way, despite a large sign proclaiming it was open.  But we clearly weren’t getting anywhere, so we went out to have a look at the lake.

The village was teeming with Russian day trippers, and there was a nice atmosphere on the sunny, chilly beach as we wandered along merrily licking ice creams (our first of the trip).  Arthur sampled the local smoked fish, and I had a tasty potato pancake and a dill smothered salad, which was actually quite nice, despite my suffering from early stage dill fatigue.

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Though it was quite cheery in the sunshine, Listvyanka was a little bit disappointing too.  The views of the lake were spectacular, but on land everything was a bit tacky and tatty.  We sat on the beach musing over what to do.  We’d just booked into the hostel for one night, hoping to go hiking from there, and perhaps to camp out.  It seemed like hiking was off the cards, so there wasn’t any reason to stay.  We would have hiked out without a clear route, camped, then hiked back the way we came, but snow was due the next day so this didn’t seem wise.  We thought about moving to a village further south, and hiking from there along a path that follows an old railway line, and definitely exists.  The other option was to go north to Olkhon island, which is more remote, and so might be more what we’d hope for.

Undecided, we went for a walk in the woods, which hinted at what we’d expected from Baikal.  Tall straight birch trees filtered the sharp light reflecting off the lake, and the only sound was the occasional woodpecker, tapping away, and our feet crunching the snow as we walked.  But we couldn’t venture too far without a map, and with the dark and cold falling.

Somewhat morose, we made it back to the hostel as the stars were coming out.

Within an hour we were sat at the kitchen table eating dinner and drinking beer, and had a three day walk along the lake arranged, complete with evening banyas.  The hostel lady had suggested that another guest, a Russian girl who was walking along the lake anyway, take us along for a nominal fee.  From feeling unwelcome and disappointed we’d instantly gone to feeling extremely fortunate, and extremely grateful for both of them going out of their way to help us.

Perhaps the language barrier played a part, or just different ways of communicating, but this overwhelming helpfulness was so opposed to my previous impression that I felt very guilty for jumping to judgement.

The next morning Arthur, I, Natasha and Sabine (a German traveller who’d also come to Baikal for the hiking, and even had a mythical trail map) set off on the Great Baikal Trail.  This trail is work in progress, which should one day run all the way round the lake, but several long bits of it have already been constructed by volunteers.  One of these (clearly marked) stretches runs north from Listvyanka.

It was beautiful and quiet, and all day we followed the edge of the shining blue lake in crisp sunshine.

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At lunchtime we stopped to share food and tea.  When I owned up to being vegetarian, Natasha informed us that vegetarians can’t drive (their reactions are too slow).  Russian superstitions are many and curious.  For example, women shouldn’t sit on cold benches because if they do they’ll never conceive.  The superstition that flowers should only be given in odd numbers seemed fairly tame in comparison when I read it, but seeing a man walking down the street concealed behind a bunch of flowers larger than the average family car, the practical implications of this belief dawned on me.

Pleasantly weary we arrived in Bolshie Koty (big cat), a collection of houses only accessible by boat, or a very rough 20 km track.

The village was more or less closed up for the winter (the locals mostly pack up and move to Irkutsk when the snow comes), but Baba Nina was still there to put us up in a little house in her garden next to the lake.  Smiling and abrupt, she showed us our lodgings, cosy and hung with rugs and blankets, and offered to cook us dinner.

Next was the banya.  Sitting sweating in the steam and woodsmoke, in a little wooden house perched on the shores of a vast blue lake, in a near abandoned village in the middle of Siberia, was a brilliantly unusual experience.  Especially the part where we hit each other with bundles of birch twigs, mercifully pre-soaked in hot water, as tradition demanded.

At one point Natasha stuck her head round the door and instructed us that we had to jump in the lake afterwards.  Obviously.  We were unsure if this was indeed de rigueur, or just an opportunity to laugh at the sweaty Europeans, but we did it anyway.

Running barefoot through an empty Siberian village, in the rapidly cooling dusk, in your pants, is an even stranger experience.  Hopping awkwardly over the rocks and bits of broken tractor that dotted the path, the banya seemed a lot further from the lake than I’d remembered.

And the lake was cold.  Very very cold.

Afterwards we sought out beer.  It took five minutes to get past the irate dog standing between us and the door of the miraculously still open village shop, but when we got in we were rewarded by a bundle of six tiny kittens curled up sleepily in a bed in the middle of the floor, warmed by a sputtering woodstove.

Similarly cosy that night we went to sleep after a delicious dinner, where Baba Nina had tried to trick me into eating chicken despite my protests, by hiding it under my cabbage.  To her disappointment I foiled her, and in the conversation that followed, I think she was saying (complete with throat cutting gesture) ‘I killed a chicken for you and you didn’t eat it!’.

Arthur thought she was saying ‘You can’t all sleep in one room, if I catch you (Arthur) in here I will kill you’.

Next morning we woke to a luxuriant blanket of snow.  In six inches of snow we couldn’t carry on as planned along the narrow cliff path.  Our options were to wait for a boat to go to Listvyanka, at an unknown time/date, or walk back along the 20 km track, which was wide and safe enough to be more or less passable.

We took the track, and set off through a wonderland of untouched snow on every surface.

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After bidding Natasha goodbye (she would wait for a boat, or for the snow to melt), we set off up the hills that lay between us and Listvyanka.  It was cold, and wading through the thick snow with uneven ground underneath was hard work.  Sometimes your foot would crash through unseen ice into a puddle, or slip down an hidden gully.  Just as we were tiring of slipping and tripping through the untouched snow, a man overtook us on a quadbike, compacting our route.

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Several miles later we came across his quadbike mired in the mud that lurked under the snow, with footprints leading away towards Listvyanka.  Tired and cold by now, we took this to mean that the village was close.

It was not.

By the time we reached the outskirts quadbike man had returned on the back of his mate’s quadbike, rescued his steed, and the two of them had sped past us again in convoy.  When we finally reached the deep snow quiet of the now near deserted village, we were somewhat relieved.

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The hostel seemed particularly warm and cosy on our return.

Next day was sunny, if nearly as cold, and we went for a shorter walk to a lookout point.  As we reached the top, the faint sound of chanting reached my ears.  The local faith has elements of Shamanism and of Buddhism, and you see ribbons tied to trees and anything else that will have them in sacred places, often high spots.  This hilltop was streaming with prayer ribbons, so I was intrigued to be stumbling across what could only be locals worshipping.

But as we reached the top, the chanting clarified into comprehensible words.  Hare Krishna.  Of course.

The spot was beautiful though, as was the walk there, and in the sunshine the cold seemed less dangerous, though still harsh enough to drive us back inside sooner rather than later.

The next day we headed back to Irkutsk, through the early morning mist, sad to leave, but almost glad to be getting back on the overheated train…

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Vilnius

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In Lithuania ‘thank you’ is said ‘achoo’.

We had one day in Vilnius, and this is more or less all of the Lithuanian we managed to learn.  Coming through the Baltic we’ve changed country roughly every 24 hours, so have been getting a bit confused with language. (P.S. We’ve made it to Russia!)  We decided to rush through Europe because it’s expensive, and to give us a better chance of nice weather in Russia.  It’s been pretty hectic, but I’m glad we saw all of the places we did, and since we arrived in St Petersburg it has been beautiful sunshine and not too chilly.  Fingers crossed for the next month or so.

We spent most of our time in Vilnius in the old town, but stayed with Raminta and her boyfriend Justas on the other side of the river, so we got a bit of an idea of the rest of the city.  They were wonderful hosts (thanks for the delicious lasagne and biscuits!) and we really enjoyed chatting with them about all sorts of things.  It was great to learn a bit more about Lithuania and Lithuanians, especially as we had such a short time to get a feel for the place.  My favourite thing that we learned, for sheer bizarreness, was that individual homeless people in Vilnius are famous enough to be reported on in the newspaper every now and again.  Also that in Soviet times you could get coca-cola in Moscow but not in Vilnius.  It was also interesting that we talked about some similar things to in Poland.  Firstly about how many people have left to work in the UK — Lithuania has lost a huge chunk of its population to people moving abroad to work.  Its population has decreased by more than 10% in the last ten years.  Secondly about how friendly people are and so on.  (I.e. people are more reserved, and less likely to smile.)  Now in Russia we’ve already had more or less the same conversation with our host.  I wonder if this is a former Soviet thing, or if it has older roots than that.

Today on the train out of St Petersburg everybody was looking very glum.  Possibly even more so than on a similar commuter train out of London.  The only person smiling was a little girl in a buggy.  Some of the time her mum was playing with her in an engaged way, but still not smiling.

Anyway.  We didn’t find Vilnius particularly unfriendly, and the glummest people we came across were a load of English guys.  They were dressed in matching waistcoats with nicknames on the back, and were sloping up the street drinking bottled water and looking very sorry for themselves.  We had arrived in stag-do territory.

We spent most of the day in Vilnius walking around, and eating.  (There’s a pattern here…) We’re finding that we get a better feel for a place and enjoy ourselves more if we don’t try to pack in too may tourist things (museums and so on).

We started with coffee and breakfast pastries, then wandered around town until lunch.

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My favourite bit was walking up the hills in the centre of the city and getting a great view.  I’ve really been missing getting out on the hills, so this was a nice substitute!IMG_5544 IMG_5545 IMG_5546

This castle was perched on top of one of the hills.  It’s the only remaining part of a larger palace.IMG_5552 IMG_5556

Vilnius has a lot of churches.  Like, alot.  The first thing we noticed when we entered the old town was people turning around and crossing themselves after they came through the city gate.  It’s called the gate of dawn, and has an icon of the virgin Mary in it.  I guess Lithuania is a pretty religious country (the internet says 77% Catholic).  Arthur also noticed that the mannequins in underwear shop windows were mostly wearing nighties rather than underwear.  Observant…  We wondered if this was a cultural/religious thing.

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Raminta recommended a vegetarian cafe for lunch, which was great.  It was ayurvedic, so no onions or garlic, but they still managed to make a delicious vegetable broth.  We felt like we needed some vegetables after stuffing our faces with pancakes and burgers in Warsaw.  Though we then went and had cake, but never mind.

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And that was pretty much it.  A day isn’t anywhere near enough to get a proper idea of a city, let alone a country, but we were glad we stopped anyway.  I feel I know a little more about Lithuania at least.

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