Lithuanian Rifle Range (Bucket List #94)

Vilnius, Lithuania • December 2015 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

“The taxi will drop you off here,” said Paul, pointing at the city map with the nib of his pen. “Then you just have to walk up this hill to the dilapidated building behind the sports centre. You can't miss it." Our bearded hostel owner had booked us in for an afternoon of shooting at a rifle range and we were absolutely buzzing.

Paying the €2 cab fare, Gadams and I shuffled along the ice in the direction instructed and found ourselves at the entrance to some bathhouses; not quite the grandiose open-aired amphitheatre we were expecting. Making our way through the tunnel between these presumed changing areas we exited onto an abandoned athletics track; a icy climbing wall looming over the snow-covered basketball court to our right like it were the north face of Everest. As an eerie chill swept its way around the arena and shiver ran through my bones. I felt like we'd inadvertently stepped into a real-life level on Call of Duty.

We followed the frozen track round to the far side in what must have been one of the slowest 400 metres ever covered; hesitantly slipping our way past the steeplechase pit. Reaching the perimeter fence at the back however we still couldn't see the building Paul had circled. Pulling out the map in plummeting sub-zero temperatures we turned a blind eye to the warning signs plastered along the chain-links, taking the ignorant view that anything written in a language we couldn't understand didn't apply to us. As I tried to hold the map steady with trembling hands however a caustic bark started to pierce the thin air. This was something we definitely couldn't ignore.

Despite the fact that it was on the other side of the fence, the sheer sight of the big black dog was enough to send us gliding right back into the arena. As the wolf-like creature continued to defend it's territory we then quickly hopped up onto one of the grandstands for safety, and from there we noticed a yellow-bricked structure that had previously been hidden from view. A large plaque on the door bore the word: 'Policija'.

"That must be the place," I said to Gadams.

"Looks like it," he shivered. "I'm presuming 'Policija' translates to 'Police'."

We wandered over to the door and knocked. A man in a full-face balaclava answered.

“Hi guys, my name is Charlie. Are you here for the shooting?”

“Yeah we are,” replied Gadams. "Sorry for the delay, we got a bit lost.”

“Not to bother, come on in out of the cold and we will get started.”

Charlie led us along a corridor lined with tiny sleeping quarters and into a storeroom that was stocked floor to ceiling with weapons and ammunition. Beneath the balaclava he sported a scraggly beard, and his army jacket; khaki trousers; and boots portrayed the image of a soldier who had just returned from military combat.

“I’m assuming from your outfit that you’re ex-special forces?” I queried, usually quite attune to these sort of clues.

“No, this is just how I like to dress,” he chuckled. “Shooting is a hobby of mine.”

“And is this a government compound we’re in right now?” chipped in Gadams, keen to clear up our whereabouts.

“No, it’s just a shooting range.”

Gadams and I looked at one another with similarly questioning glances. A random, non-signposted, hut hidden on a snowy Lithuanian hillside; a tutor who held no qualifications; and an up-front cash only payment policy. Seemed legit.

“What package did you guys opt for?” asked Charlie, pulling out some boxes.

The Gang Banger,” we replied.

“Come again?” he frowned.

The Gang Banger," I said slightly more hesitantly."It was the third one down on the sheet.The seven gun package if that's any help?"

“Ah OK, I follow you now. We just know the packages by the number of weapons, not these stupid names. What did you call it again? The Gang Banger? Some people I know might have taken that as an invitation for a completely different type of weapon. Have you brought along a receipt for this said 'Gang Banger' package?

“Eh… we never actually got one,” gulped Gadams.

“Not to worry, the administrative stuff can be easily sorted out later. There are more pressing matters currently on our hands. If you could grab these,” he said, handing us some bundles to carry, “we will head upstairs to the range and get shooting.”

Lugging the equipment up a rickety staircase we dumped it on a table and took a seat. From one side of the stuffy, low-ceiling, room we got a remarkable view out over the athletics track, and on the other side was the range itself.

“Before we get started," said Charlie, "a quick safety briefing is in order. As agreed, today we will be shooting seven weapons: two pistols, two semi-automatic machine guns, a pump-action shotgun, and two big beasts. The handguns are probably the hardest to hit the targets with, so we will start with them from a 10 m range. If you would both like to take a pair of goggles, these should help protect against any ricocheting cartridges.”

Gadams and I put them on as Charlie then proceeded to give us an ‘alternative’ run-through of the workings, merits, and flaws of each of the guns we would be shooting. The Uzi’s 30cm retractable stem apparently made it the perfect size to be holstered inconspicuously under one’s suit jacket; not the usual piece of office equipment given to employees of British corporations but a handy snippet of information nonetheless. The AK-47 had ‘seen a lot of rounds pass through it’, but quite where Charlie refused to say, and the M4’s built in laser scope apparently made it 'perfect' for picking off targets at 50 m. He was extremely knowledgeable but the way in which he spoke made us frightened to ask too many probing questions, thinking it best just to sit in silence and nod. When his phone rang 5 times straight whilst teaching us how to load a magazine cartridge however I spoke up.

“You can answer that if you want. We don’t mind.”

“No it's OK, honestly. It's just some girl wanting to get a hold of me and I've learnt that it's best just to let my phone ring out."    

“Wait. Are you saying that's a mid-afternoon booty call?” asked Gadams in disbelief.

“Something like that,” he answered with a wry smile.

Concluding the briefing Charlie nipped out onto the range and put up the silhouette posters that would act as our targets onto some wooden stands. Once he was safely back inside we then took our positions at adjacent windows and let rip. The kickback from the handguns initially took us by surprise, but by the time we'd switched to the semi-automatics the targets were being splattered; the empty shells from Gadams' MP5 bouncing off my back as I tried to focus down the scope of my M4. Once the magazines had been emptied we then headed out to see what damage had been caused. It was evident as soon as we approached who had been the most accurate.

“Where the hell did all my bullets end up?” I said in confusion, scratching my head. Whereas Gadams' target looked like it has been shelled by a mortar, my silhouette had escaped with nothing but a few grazes.

"Looks like you'll be buying the first round tonight," giggled Charlie, the man's smile having remained a permanent feature all afternoon.

We thanked him and headed back down the hill and into the town, smelling of live rounds and buzzing with adrenaline.

"What a way to spend the last day of 2015," I beamed.


A Lithuanian Punch-Up

Vilnius, Lithuania • December 2015 • Length of Read: 4 Minutes

“What are you reading?” asked Gadams as we came in to land.

Bound for Glory by Woodie Guthrie,” I responded. “He was a pioneer of folk music during the Great Depression, garnering the nickname ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’ as he hustled along the railways of the American mid-west learning and playing the blues. Most famously, his guitar branded the slogan ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’. I’ve actually had the book for ages and just never got around to reading it until now. I took it to the Sahara Desert and everything.”

“Is it a bit of a dry read then?” smirked Gadams, awaiting my reaction. “Get it? Dust Bowl. Desert. Dry.”

“Oh, I got it alright. I just don’t feel that such a truly awful joke deserves a response. You’re quite smug about that one though aren’t you?”

“I could ask the pilot to turn around right now and would still regard this trip as having been a success.”

Upon arrival in Vilnius we joined the customs line and found a fellow Scot, of similar age, queueing up in front of us. The purpose of John’s trip to the Lithuanian capital was to spend New Year with his girlfriend’s family, the couple having met whilst at University in Dundee. It was safe to say he didn’t come across as being too thrilled about the prospect.

“Not a single other member of her family speaks English,” he sighed. “Last time I was across it was literally like playing a week-long game of ‘charades’. Also, they live in a kind of converted farm house out in the wilderness, so there really are minimal things to do. At least it’s only for four days this time. I fly back on Saturday. What are you two here for?”

“We’re here for a little New Year getaway man,” I said with little sympathy. “Last year we went to Riga, Latvia and had an absolutely epic time partying, making new friends, and going down an Olympic bobsled track. We wanted to repeat that type of trip this year, so decided to come one country south.”

“Well I’m certain you’ll have a great time here,” said John as we passed through border control; the three of us seemingly the only tourists on the flight. “I just hope you packed some warm clothes,” he concluded. “It’s -15°C at the moment.”

“Woollen jumpers were chosen as essentials before any form of fashion don’t you worry,” I chuckled. “Perhaps we’ll see you on the return flight. We’re heading back on Saturday as well.”

My watch read 12am as our taxi pulled up to the hostel we’d booked for the duration of our stay. En-route we had dabbled with the idea of going straight to bed so as to wake up refreshed for a day of exploring the city the following morning, but upon checking-in we were instead drawn to the group of French and English guys playing card games in the lounging area; knocking back a serious amount of alcohol in the process. As it so happened they were just finishing off a final round before heading out to a club to meet some of the hostel’s other residents. Instead of cosying up under our sheets we therefore dumped our bags, wrapped up in hats and scarves, and headed out with them into the blistering cold night.

The three English lads worked in similar finance jobs to Gadams and I down in London and were also in Vilnius for similar reasons. We entered a venue called Salento and whilst Brian and Neil found some of their dorm-mates Iain and I got chatting to two gorgeous, beautiful, memorizing, local girls that had also just walked in. I found myself at the bar doing shots of whiskey with Bella when a stocky, sandy-haired, guy waltzed over and interrupted in a rough English accent. He was an army lad and obviously knew the girls from elsewhere. Not one to be confrontational, I left them chatting and used the opportunity to visit the toilet, having not relieved myself since 1,100 miles previous in Glasgow.

I entered the bathroom and started going about my business only to become immediately distracted by the two blokes stood next to me; crossing swords at the same urinal whilst in a deep discussion over the opposing merits of Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Clearly having only just met, the German half of this weird pair then zipped up; gave the Mancunian a high-five; and turned to me. A bizarre look of confusion was glued to my face.

“As a 3rd party to this moment could you please take our photo and upload it to Facebook so we will have a permanent memory of this encounter?” he queried, like it were as normal a request as asking for the time.

“Eh, of course man,” I stuttered, not really sure how best to respond.

Not willing to extend the conversation any longer at the hand drier I left wafting my hands and went to the smoking area and reunited with the girls. They had fobbed off the army guy with a wrong number and I learned that Rapunzel was driving because the pair lived out in the sticks.

“You don’t happen to know a girl with a Scottish boyfriend called John by any chance, do you?” I asked.

“Sorry, no.”

“Suppose it was a bit of a long shot.”

As the club began to quieten we exchanged details, and with a hug goodbye I skidded along the ice and back to the hostel.

I awoke in the top bunk of my dorm the next morning to an incessant rustling in my ear. A Chinese girl was stood at my head height rabbiting away in Mandarin and having an apparent fight with her suitcase. Unless she had been wrapping a Ming vase for fragile international delivery however I have absolutely no idea how somebody could have been making such a racket. Unable to get back to sleep, I left her fidgeting with a supermarket-level volume of carrier bags and wandered through to the kitchen for some of the hostel’s free waffles. Iain was sat at the table nursing a fat lip.

“What happened to you?” I asked. “Hurt yourself sleepwalking?”

“I got punched,” he grimaced.

“What? I left you literally at the gate of the hostel last night.”

“Remember those army pricks we saw in the club?”

“The ones that were trying their hardest with the babes?”

“Yeah, well it turns out that they were staying in my dorm. I think they were already really pissed off with each other for one reason or another, and having 'spoken' to one of 'their' girls obviously didn’t make me their best friend. They recognised me immediately and as the sandy-haired guy grabbed my neck and pushed me against the wall the other guy just socked me one.

“Fuck man, you OK? Did you tell reception?”

“Yeah I told the girl at the desk and she fetched me some ice. Unfortunately the guys had already checked out though so just picked up their stuff after the incident and left. The worst thing of all though was that upon going back to the dorm room I noticed that someone had pissed on my bed.

“Shut up.”

“Thankfully there were a few spare ones free in another room so I could at least get a dry kip for the night.”

“Jesus. Well you look fairly refreshed all considering. Want to let your anger out at a rifle range tomorrow?”

“Maybe man, maybe. Hey, these waffles aren’t half good eh?”