Two wheels of folly
Aukštaitija National Park, Lithuania
“And you follow this hiking trail …” said the woman from tourist information. “If it’s a hiking trail, will I be able to ride a bike on it?” I asked. “Of course, of course,” she said.
My hotel advertised bicycles for rent, but when I asked, none were available. “No bicycle today,” said the girl at the bar, in a tone that suggested that Comanche bicycle rustlers had descended from the hills during the night and driven off the entire herd. I ended up renting one instead from the local mobile phone store, which seemed to do double (or triple, if you count bicycle rental) duty as a leather goods shop.
The bicycle that I finally chose – having rejected two rather sedate-looking road bikes on the grounds that they probably weren’t up to the rigors of off-roading – looked as if it had been designed by someone who knew something about mountain bikes but had overlooked the part about them being rugged and sturdy. It was a rather delicate-looking object that didn’t seem to fit in any obvious niche, as if it had been designed to fulfil a range of functions with equal inefficiency. This turned out to be more than merely a surface impression. First gear proved to be as unhelpful on steep hills as sixth was on the flat. The brakes exerted not so much stopping power as a mild restraining effect, the metaphorical equivalent of placing a hand on the bicycle’s figurative shoulder and murmuring “I say, steady on, old chap.” On rough terrain, pieces – fortunately mostly inessential – tended to fall off.
The first part of my journey was uneventful, if you overlook the large pig truck that I was forced to tailgate for a half-kilometer, immersed in an eye-watering cloud of Essence of Hog that caused roadside vegetation to turn brown and small birds to drop limply to the ground. It was when I hit the aforementioned hiking trail that I knew I was in trouble.
The trail began with a modestly steep downhill section liberally sown with tree roots and crowded with actual trees whose largest ambition in life seemed to be to reach out and caress the skull of passing cyclists. This gave way to some stretches of black mud deep enough to bog an ox, and then switched back to the tree-root slalom again. More mud, more roots. Lather, rinse, repeat. The high ground was unattainable; the low ground was occupied by a swamp. It was, in short, less than ideal cycling terrain.
Luckily, this particularly nerve-wracking section was relatively short. I gathered up the pieces of the bicycle jolted loose by the tree roots and emerged shaken but unspilled into an open stretch labeled “skulptūra takas”. Energetically primitive wooden carvings leered at me from the undergrowth as I pedaled on my way.
A little before Meironys, the sculpture trail gave way to actual blacktop, and I was able to pick up a small measure of speed. An enormous stork, approximately the size of a fighter-bomber but eerily silent, glided overhead. I didn’t see any sign of a baby, so I presumed it must be returning to base after making the drop-off.
All too soon, I passed through Meironys – the red line through the name of the village on the road sign had an ominous “abandon hope all ye who leave here” quality – and the blacktop ran out. From here until Puziniškis, the trail reverted to rutted sand, probably the least forgiving of all possible road surfaces for anything on two wheels. On downhill stretches, the bike fish-tailed; uphill stretches were simply impossible, the deep sand draining any vestige of momentum I might have been able to acquire. I ended up getting off and walking a lot.
The trail was largely unmarked, but here and there a brown sign with a cloverleaf symbol hinted at some site of special interest. Unfortunately, the text was in Lithuanian, making it difficult to guess what was actually on offer. I ended up trying to guess from context, hesitating between alternatives such as “group of pine trees that look just like all the other pine trees” and – based on the density of spider-webs blocking the trail – “Lair of Shelob”.
When I finally reached Puziniškis, a pleasant little village perched on the crest of a long, sandy hill, a sign helpfully informed me that the entire village had been destroyed by fire in 1933. It added cryptically that “the oak and the linden have witnessed every stage of the Lithuanian struggle for independence”. None of the oaks that I could see looked as if they were old enough to drink, much less to have witnessed even the most recent episode of Lithuania’s long struggle for independence, and there was no sign of any linden at all. Assuming that the oak and the linden hadn’t been cut down to make signposts and picnic benches, I guessed that they’d probably gone off to smoke a cigarette together.
All the trails out of Puziniškis seemed to end in someone’s back yard. I backtracked, fish-tailed my way back down the sandy track that I’d just struggled up, and followed a different sandy track in the hope that it would lead me to somewhere with more options. To my immeasurable delight, it finally led me to a stretch of paved highway, which eventually led me to the Ginučiai castle mound, one of my nominal objectives. The mound itself was as unspectacular as only a Lithuanian tourist attraction can be, but there was a large wooden signboard featuring an imaginative depiction of what the castle might once have looked like, and a second signboard explaining how the Livonian knights had, once again, been handed their asses by a better-organized enemy on this very spot. I dutifully climbed to the top and admired a panoramic view of scenic but largely-indistinguishable lakes through a screen of pine trees. It was pretty enough, but all four points of the compass looked remarkably similar. I started to suspect that after a few months squatting on top of this particular mound, looking out over an unchanging landscape that was nine-tenths old-growth pine, the Livonians were simply too depressed to offer any meaningful resistance when the enemy showed up.
I had, by now, had my fill of ‘hiking trails’, and resolved never to leave the paved road again, even if it meant taking the long way back. I swung through Ginučiai village, where a man with a loudhailer was barking orders at a battalion of teenage girls in bikinis, paused briefly to admire the historic water-mill (which would have appeared a great deal more historic if it had actually had a wheel), and then pedaled for home.
On the outskirts of Ignalina, I paused to reattach all the pieces of the bicycle that had fallen off. The woman from the mobile phone shop gave me her best smile as I rode up. “Nice ride?” she inquired brightly. “Delightful,” I told her through gritted teeth. I shook sand and pine needles out of my socks and hobbled away towards my hotel.