Šiauliai (19 June 2013)
I decided to come to Šiauliai (I learnt from my landlady in Vilnius that it is pronounced something like “Show-lay”) before the Curonian Spit since the train from Vilnius stopped here before going on to Klaipėda. Although the railway system in Lithuania did not seem very extensive, the trains were comfortable and well run. Each car was attended to by an employee and they seem to know how to smile!
Most tourists come to Šiauliai to see the Hill of Crosses nearby and I decided to do just that. I think most people visit the crosses and then leave the city on the same day. However I wanted to have a more relaxed itinerary and so I decided to stay the night and then leave in the morning for Klaipėda.
The Hill of Crosses, or Kryžių Kalnas to the locals, is situated some 12 kilometres outside of Šiauliai. The employees at the bus station are very accustomed to dealing with foreigners going there and so were very well prepared with the answers I needed. I also realised that bus drivers headed that way did not recognise the name “Hill of Crosses” but only the Lithuanian name. A girl from Hong Kong boarded the same bus as I did and had to form a cross with her fingers to be understood by the driver.
I spoke a little with the girl from Hong Kong on the way in from the junction where the bus stopped to the crosses. There was a little confusion on her part about where to alight and I decided to help a fellow traveller and told her to get off. This was the last stop for her in Lithuania and she was going to catch the evening bus to Riga after that. Before Lithuania she had already seen Tunisia, Morocco, Malta and I think Hungary, and after Riga she was heading to St Petersburg. She was also on a solitary 3-month journey like I was except that she was far more adventurous than I could ever be. That definitely put me to shame.
We parted ways at the crosses since she needed to rush a little in order to catch the bus to Riga and I wanted a more relaxing visit.
Kryžių Kalnas is not a hill. It is simply a low mound with a tonne of crosses in all shapes, sizes and designs planted all over and around it. People have also left statues here and there among the crosses and hung a tonne of rosaries and pasted religious pictures and prayer notes all over. It was quite amazing to see them all!
The crosses were probably first planted by the families of people who had died in the uprisings against the Russians in the 19th century. Since they could not find the bodies of their loved ones, they planted the crosses here instead to remember them. Later during the Society occupation, the hill became a symbol of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet efforts to wipe out Lithuanian heritage and religion. There were at least 3 occasions on which the Soviets bulldozed away the crosses but more crosses would appear the very next day.
The story of how the Hill of Crosses came to be was really heartwarming and inspiring. It made me want to go grab every single Lithuanian I could get my hands on at the hill, scowling or not, and give him or her a big bear hug. But fortunately I was able to control myself and I made do by saying a a prayer and blessing for them in my heart.
The place can be made into a museum of religious art and art history since there are so many crosses of different designs from different eras, and probably from different countries, all over the place.
A Franciscan hermitage was built in the vicinity in 2000 upon the encouragement of Pope John Paul II during his visit.
The area around Kryžių Kalnas was countryside and it was lovely with all the bales of hay dotting the fields all around.
It was also baby season for the storks.
Šiauliai city itself is not quite a tourist attraction but it is always nice to be able to see a new place. Vilnius it is not, but it was quite alright spending a few relaxing hours in the city centre doing nothing in particular at all.
While in Šiauliai I could bear it no longer when I saw a restaurant serving Thai and Japanese food in the shopping centre above the bus station. In Singapore, different styles of cuisine are available just about anywhere and I never had to stick to just one style of cooking all the time. By the time I got to Lithuania I was already getting a bit sick of having Western style food everyday. And even more so I needed to feel some burn on my tongue! I got myself some spicy soup at the restaurant and it was alright. At least it was enough to satisfy my craving for something non-Western and spicy. It was on this trip that I truly learnt to appreciate how wonderful it was to live in Singapore where I could get good food of many different ethnicities too easily. On the other hand, being able to get good food so easily at home had made me a little too critical as well. Oh well, beggars cannot be choosers!