The Cold War Vs. A Cold Lake

Here is what the Lonely Planet guidebook has to say about the abandoned nuclear missile site in Zemaitija National Park:

“Deep in the forests of Zemaitija National Park resides a former secret Soviet underground missile base that once housed nuclear missiles with enough power to destroy most of Europe. . . . Tours, which take about 30 minutes, explore the heart of the base: you see the control room, heating room, enormous diesel engine used to power the place and, most disturbing of all, one of the 27m-deep silos where a warhead once stood ready. It is cold underground so bring a warm jumper. Sturdy shoes are also recommended; 30 years of abandonment renders the bat-infested site hazardous.”

Considering that we’re a. supposed to return our bicycles to a shop in northernmost Estonia on August 1st and, b. we’re still in Lithuania, we’re a little pressed for time. But how often does one get to see abandoned missile silos, let alone ones that are infested by bats? We decided the detour was worth it, and woke up early yesterday morning to take a day trip to Plunge, a town about 25 kilometers south of the national park where the base was hidden.

Thanks to a local cycle map, we knew that there was an untrafficked way to get between Plunge and the park. We hopped off the bus, got onto our bikes, set out for the road . . . and discovered it was unpaved. Not like, unpaved in a hard-packed dirt kind of way (those aren’t too hard to ride on). Not even unpaved in a random-pockets-of-wheel-catching-sand way (those can be treacherous but are manageable). This road had occasional sand patches, but worse, it was ridged. You know the rumble strips on the sides of the highway, which are designed so that their vibration will jolt you awake if you start to veer off the road? They were kind of like that, except much bigger, bumpier, unavoidable, made of gravely dirt, and were on a shadeless road that was eight kilometers long. There weren’t many cars, but the few that did roll by left behind large clouds of lingering dust. Needless to say, I was eager to get to the park.

Once we were on paved road, the route took us through beautiful pine forests, between sparkling lakes, and past innumerable signs for guest houses. We had planned to ask for help from the park information office, but after passing a guesthouse on a shore of a particularly attractive lake, at the edge of which we could see a row boat and a swimming pier, we decided to stop, you know, and just see if they might have a room.

They did. What’s more, it was cheap, it was cool inside, there was a shared kitchen, a lovely yard and, oh, wait, according to the friendly English-speaking owner, a woman from a local hospital was coming by that evening to give massages to the guests. “They are 20 litas, maybe 30,” she said. “Not much at all. You want, she can give to you, too.”

Oh, we wanted. Convinced we had discovered paradise on the side of a Lithuanian road, we dropped off our bags and biked the remaining six kilometers into town, plotting what the fastest possible route would be between abandoned missile silos and our bathing suits. Our guidebooks had warned us that we needed to make arrangements for an English-speaking guide, so we popped into the National Park information office, where a friendly, English-speaking park employee informed us that the missile site was closed.

You mean like, for the day? No. For two years. Apparently they are “renovating it” (one hopes not too much) and turning it into a Cold War museum. Interesting – and relevant – information that would have been even more useful had we known it say, before we took a two-day detour to a random Lithuanian lake town. Now, given the guesthouse situation, I wasn’t complaining too much (in reality, a refreshing swim sounded great). But I would like to point out to the research team at Lonely Planet and Rough Guide that if you come out with a brand-new version of your guidebook (published in 2010 and 2009 respectively) and you have a half-page feature about a particular site in an otherwise unremarkable location that is a pain in the ass to get to, you might want to check to see if it’s still open. I know their manuscript deadlines were probably a while back, but the museum isn’t scheduled to open till the fall of 2011 – unlike the original existence of the base, I don’t think its closure was kept secret.

But anyway. We recovered from our pseudo-sorrow by buying groceries at a local shop, stopping for gross gyros on the side of the road (dear Lithuania: sometimes it’s okay to not put sugar in your garlic yogurt dressing), and then high-tailing it back to paradise. The lake lived up to its promise – we floated around happily for a half hour before retreating to our room for a quick shower before our other mandatory activity of the day: our massages.

Peter went first, and when he returned, the look on his face told me that something had not gone according to plan. (No, not like that! This woman was a nurse!)

“How was it?”  I asked. “And why were you only gone fifteen minutes?”

“It was an hour-long massage squeezed into fifteen minutes,” he said. And then, in response to my questioning look, “You’ll see.”

Now wary, I found the woman waiting for me in the main area of the guest house, a massage table set up at the head of the room. She, speaking about as much English as I speak Lithuanian, motioned for me to take off my shirt and lie down. I gestured toward my shoulders and back and she nodded. Then she grabbed a bottle of baby oil.

As soon as she began the “massage,” I knew immediately what Peter had meant. You know how Swedish massages are always described as having long, smooth strokes? This was not a Swedish massage. The woman took to my back like I was a piece of particularly dirty laundry that needed to be scrubbed. First, she ran her hands up and down my back, quickly and hard, spreading the oil around as she summoned the first of many rushes of blood to the surface of my skin. Next, she switched to her knuckles, running them up, down, and occasionally over my spine, using the same quick back and forth motions you’d use to get out a tough stain. The massage table creaked from side to side as she worked; from my face-down vantage point, I could see the ground shift beneath me. Who was this woman? I wondered. And what kind of nurse? I suppose I could see this “massage” technique being a good way to increase the circulation of bed-ridden patients, but I couldn’t believe that they enjoyed it. I imagined my white-clad assailant as a sort of Nurse Ratched patrolling the halls, bottle of baby oil in hand, as her victims cowered in their beds. “No, please! Not my daily massage!”

Or maybe that’s just what was going through my head – for the first time in my life, I was actually yearning for the massage to be over. She had moved on from her laundry work to a quick up and down the spine sweep that reminded me – in speed and technique – to a pizza cutter slicing through a pie. Up, down. Up, down. My neck, which had been mildly tense, was now rigid, achieving approximately the same degree of relaxation one would expect to have if anticipating being rubbed with a sharp blade. Just when I thought I might have to actually excuse myself from my massage, she stopped what she was doing and paused, hands in the air. And then? Hitting!

It says something about the massage that being pummeled by her fists was actually the most enjoyable part of the treatment – but unfortunately, it didn’t last. Instead, she went for a finishing round of briskly rubbing my back with the palms of her hand as if trying to start a fire. My spine was aching; my skin felt like it was developing rug burn. When she finally finished — indicated by a slightly lighter touch and something chirpy in Lithuanian, I leapt off the table as if recoiling from a hot stove.

This morning, when I got up and touched my back while applying sunscreen, I noticed that my upper spine is bruised. I’m glad I tried my Lithuanian spa treatment, but I think I agree with what Peter said when he returned to the room after his massage: “Fifteen minutes is long enough.”

The guest house had a rowboat.

And the rowboat attracted swans.

Mean swans.


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