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  • Day1105

    Visaginas, Soviet era city

    July 6 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Visaginas's fascinating history and current social dynamic drew us to visit this small city in the far north east of Lithuania, near the Latvian and Belarusian borders.

    Apologies for the information overload, but we found our research really interesting and hopefully you will too! Back in 1975, in the time of soviet rule, four existing settlements were demolished to make way for this brand new development. Its purpose was to house families and workers involved with the construction and operation of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant; Lithuania's only nuclear generation facility and one of the world's most powerful. In 2004, as a condition of accession to the European Union, Ignalina began the process of closing down; its design was very similar to that of Chernobyl and there were fears over safety. We've not watched it ourselves, but apparently scenes from the recent mini series 'Chernobyl' were filmed here.

    Plans were made with Latvia, Estonia and the Chinese company Hitachi to build another plant. However the country is turning more and more towards renewable energy and these plans stalled in 2012 when 65% of voters rejected nuclear in a referendum.

    Visaginas's original design had intended it to look like a butterfly from above, but this was never fully realised as the city suffered massive depopulation and construction was halted. Interestingly, more than half the residents are ethnic Russian and this is the main language spoken. The rest of the community are mostly Lithuanian, Belarusian, Polish and Ukranian.

    Emerging from the forest, we came to a shopping complex and parked up at the Iki supermarket. Nothing unusual about that. After buying some groceries we set off on foot to explore the city. We've seen plenty of high rise apartment blocks since arriving in Lithuania, but these have always been mixed with individual houses. Here, there were no houses, just flats, many of them identical precast concrete panel affairs, with a few more modern red brick edifices. Although there were roadworks on the good quality main street, adding cyclepaths and walkways, many homes looked in poor condition, their outer walls stained with damp. The blocks were close together, following the curve of a road like you'd expect two up two down semis to do. Cars lined the residential byways. We imagine parking is a real difficulty round here with so many people per square kilometre. A few of the ground floor residences were being used as businesses. We passed by a hairdresser but went and bought some wine and cheese from a cramped newsagents with a friendly east asian proprietor who spoke no English.

    Communal areas existed between the rows of flats, with sparce children's playgrounds, colourful washing lines and even a homemade dove cote! After a while our path led to a couple of large, insulated pipes running overground to the accommodation. Intrigued, we followed them, finding a small valve that was warm to the touch. Translating a label, we discovered they were drinking water pipes! Now that's something we haven't seen elsewhere!

    After exploring the residential district we visited the recreational, administrative and another commercial area. Visiginas's open air, track and field sports stadium sits behind a wire mesh fence with green, yellow and red plastic chairs set into concrete stands. Beside it is an astro turf football field, also fenced off, were a few teenagers kicked a ball around. We may have expected there to be more people, considering the high density housing, but like the rest of the country there were very few others out and about on the streets. Passing through the grounds of the utilitarian looking administrative building, we came to the Visaginas geiger counter; a relatively uninspiring cuboidal column topped with a silver metal sculpture of a Crane in flight. This bird was chosen as a sign of caution and vigilance in the city's coat of arms. Although the red digital sign displayed the date, time, temperature and humidity, we were disappointed not to see a readout from the geiger counter.

    There is something about Visaginas's story we found intriguing and to be able to see the place for ourselves, soak in the quiet, calm atmosphere and discover features such as the overland water pipes was a great perk of vanlife.
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