A stones throw from Russia
After leaving Riga I was planning on riding through Russia to Kiliningrad using a 72 hour express visa. However when I phoned up about it I found out that typically there are only two border posts that can issue it and both of these are on the southern border with Poland meaning you can only head south to north. It was very expensive anyway so I decided to call it quits and head to Poland. It happened that the shortest way meant following a road which skirted along a river which forms part of the Russian and Lithuanian border. I stopped to take a photo of "the only part of Russia I was allowed to see" however when I checked my GPS it was under the impression I had some how cycled across the river and was standing in Russia, I guess that was as close as I'm going to get. As I was only a stones throw away (30m) I decided to test the saying and hurled a couple of stones across the river into Russia. Also as I have found myself doing increasingly, I searched my iPod for a fitting song for the moment
. I wanted back in the USSR by The Beatles (it's my favourite song of theirs, but I'm not really much of a fan, controversial I know!) but I didn't have it on my iPod so had to settle for The Russian by The Bees. A bit later I did however get a bit of a taste of Russian policing. I was riding along the same dirt road when I noticed the van in front had stopped, when I got closer I saw that he had been flagged down by a solider I was unsure if he was Lithuanian or Russian. I noticed on the bonnet of his patrol jeep there was a massive pair of camouflage binoculars. There was also another soldier searching in the grass by the woods. They didn't ask me to stop so they must have been looking for someone who had snuck out of Russia across the river. They were obviously stopping vans and lorries to see if they had picked him up, they probably realised that I would struggle to fit a fugitive into my panniers. (note I am currently sat in a field eating my lunch and writing this, another patrol jeep has just driven past, this is exciting.... I just hope I don't meet the person they are trying to catch!)Everyone seems to be a farmer
People in the Baltic's and Poland still use very ageing farm machinery. Because of this a very common sight has been groups of big hairy Polish men all huddled round the open bonnet of a tractor or combine
. They can often be observed either scratching their heads or hitting things with hammers (at least they think carefully about exactly which bit they are going to hit!). When I was travelling through Lithuania It would seem it was during the middle of the harvest, there were combines everywhere. The farm machinery here seems to either be brand new and really high tech or very very old. For example some people were using combines without roofs and others that were amazingly rusty, the kind of thing seen rotting away in the corner of a farm yard back home. Others were so big I had to get off the road so they could pass. In Poland they were a bit ahead and had moved on to ploughing and to my delight muck spreading! I have be known to say the reason cycling is such a good mode of transport is that you get to experience the sights and smells around you, I guess I had it coming. My favourite sight happened a few days ago in Poland. I was going down a back road when I saw what I thought was a tractor creeping towards me. As I got closer I realised that it was actually a very ageing JCB type digger. It was going very slowly and as the road was very straight so it took at least 5 minute for our paths to cross. As this was happening I realised the reason it was going so slowly, it only had 3 wheels!! One of the front wheels was missing but in true Eastern European fashion this didn't put the owner off, he had strapped a fuel drum full of water to one side to redistribute the weight so it wouldn't tip over and was then just driving very very slowly in a straight line
. I have no idea how he got it on or off the road, he must have had to turn at some point i was just glad I wasn't anywhere near when he did!Hill of crosses
On my route down through Lithuania i happened to be passing one of the premier tourist attractions, the hill of crosses. I am not at all religious, and generally not a fan of really touristy attractions but was told it was worth seeing so decided i would stop anyway. The weather was miserable, there was heavy horizontal rain so it took me a while to venture away from the visitors centre and take a look (i did see a great sign whilst i was waiting though, it typifies how lazy bus bound tourists are, although i think it might have been done as a joke, there is a picture below). Basically it is two small hillocks which are literally covered in crosses, some are really old others have been put up recently by tourists. All the big crosses are covered in small crosses and there is around 50000!! in total. Apparently local people have always put crosses there, to remember people or to commemorate significant events or sometimes just for the hell of it. Apparently soviet forces used to mow the crosses down but brave locals would venture passed the armed guards and barbed wire at night and replace them. Although the weather was rubbish it was really amazing and i wandered round the maze of paths through the field of crosses for ages it really is a very unusual and unique tourist attraction
.Arriving in Poland
I had an unusual welcome to Poland. I crossed at the main border crossing between Poland and Lithuania. It was very busy and even though it was Sunday there was a crazy amount of lorries. There were no real options to get off the main road so I followed it to Suwalki, the first town in Poland. I had decided I needed a break and was going to only do a half day and find a place to stay in town (I hadn't had a shower for a couple of days!!) naturally I went to the tourist office to ask about accommodation. I ended up with a huge pile of useful maps, cycle routes and local information. Whilst talking to the girl that worked there I happened to mention I was from England. As I said this her eyes lit up, it turned out she was writing a brochure in English about activities in the area, although her English was very good she was looking for a native speaker to read through it and check that it made sense. Now although I am dyslexic and therefore cant spell a lot of words I am a native speaker and I do know when to use in and on and at a by etc. So soon enough I was sat with a pile of papers and a pencil correcting mistakes (as per usual I seem to attract these unusual situations). It took probably a couple of hours to make sure that non English speakers would be able to understand everything. Once we were finished I was gifted a t-shirt from the local blues festival as a thank you. She then went on to say that there was a folk festival on that evening which she was going to with some friends and asked if I would like to join them for a beer. As always when people make offers like this, you can't refuse. I managed to find a hostel but as is common in Poland it was a very traditional old fashioned youth hostel in an old school with staff that didn't speak a word of English and apparently no one else staying there
. What i was most annoyed about was that there was no kitchen so i couldn't cook any of the food i had brought. I wanted to go out, was very short on time and was starving so i had to unexpectedly break open THE EMERGENCY SUPER NOODLES!!! The emergency super noodles are something that all cycle tourers should carry, they are light and taste OK? (especially after cycling a long way) and are really quick to cook. Usually these would be opened on a Sunday in the mountains when every shop on the way was closed and i am virtually starving, not in a hostel in the middle of a town. I managed to cook the super noodles using a kettle, another reason they are so good. After my tasty supper i ventured out to the folk festival. It was taking place in a local park, there were probably a few hundred people there sat on the grass watching there were also beer tents and food stalls . It had a really nice atmosphere and everyone young and old were all just chilling out. I wandered round for a bit trying to spot the the girl i had met in the tourist office. After a while i happened to spot her at the bar and went and said hello. After grabbing a beer i followed them back to there table and was quite surprised when we headed back stage past the security and over a barrier. It turns out that the company she worked for had actually organised the event so they had a little tent where they could sit back stage. It was a great evening listening to folk music (some of it Irish) played and sung in Polish (which was very strange), whilst tasting the local food and beer
. I met all the people she worked with and they were all lovely although not many of them spoke English. It was one of those situation where i just sat back for a moment and thought WOW! what a welcome to Poland. I had gone to the tourist office for a couple of maps and ended up back stage at a folk festival with a free beer chilling with a load of locals, its the payoff for planning as you go along and is why i love travelling so much. The next morning i was so annoyed that that there was no kitchen at the hostel that i actually ended up getting out my camping stove and cooking porridge in my dorm room. Camping in a hostel is probably not very wise, but the floor was tiled so i figured i would have to have really bad luck to set it alight. Luckily no one tried coming in as i would have had slight issues trying to explain what i was doing without speaking any Polish.
One thing which is nice in Poland is that everyone is very friendly especially when they find out you come from England. It would appear that (not surprisingly given the number of polish people on England) a large number of people I meet have family in England. One guy was driving past on his very old tractor with his two very grubby looking sons (they had obviously been out ploughing all day). He looked very polish, with short hair and a weather beaten face, he had a very dirty USA baseball cap on and a lazy eye, he was also wearing the favourite polish deodorant..
. Cigarette smoke and alcohol! was quite supposed when he stopped and said "hello" his English was very minimal but he had sister living in London and had been to visit her. He couldn't believe it when i said i was going to Istanbul the look on his face was very funny, i wish i could have got a photo. He kept saying "you very brave man, wow too many kilometres, you are a good man". He also said "i think Poland and England they love each other no?" his English was a bit funny but he is right and Polish people love the English. This got me out of a few situations, I went past a farm full of geese, it was a pretty amazing sight there must have been a 500 all together in the farmyard. I took a few pictures and carried on my way. Moments later a stern looking farmer cycled up to me. He did the international sign language for a taking photo's. Thinking on my feet I said I was from England and we we don't have big farms of geese like this (we probably do but i didn't want him to get pissed off). He looked at me funny and although he didn't speak English he pointed at me an said "England?" I said yes he then pointed at himself and said "son England" I did to some miming of a plane to see if he had been there, it continued for a bit then realising we couldn't understand each other he wave good bye and rode off. I was an usual occasion when i was very thankful I was English (often British tourists get bad press, we do have a bit of a history of acquiring countries and more recently flocking to other countries getting really drunk and annoying all the locals)
. One other thing that you notice about the Polish is that they like a drink, I was quite amused when I was in the supermarket and saw a girl obviously shopping for a party. From the amount of stuff she was buying it looked like she was expecting about 10-15 people. The drinks she had chosen for this party, a single crate of beer and nine litres of vodka! And not "that rubbish stuff you have in England" as polish and Russians refer to it some vodka here is 80% and people still drink it straight!!
One unusual annoyance lately has been water. Usually I try and ask for water from local people but now as many people only have wells and buy bottled water themselves I feel a bit cheeky asking. It's so cheap that sometimes if I am running short I buy some (I know I hate paying for water but I need lots for cooking etc when wild camping). I have discovered (through multiple mis purchases) that everyone here seems to drink carbonated water, which quite frankly tastes disgusting! Obviously nothing on the label is English so in each country you have to guess which words stand for still and carbonated. As there are a lots of words on most bottles and so many different companies it often takes a few attempts to get it right (usually just as I have figured it out I move on to the next country and the fun begins all over again!). Obviously I don't realise my mistake until I open it (which has been strapped to the bottom of my bike for a few hours) and a fountain of water erupts from the bottle drawing attention from passers by, they must think British people are incapable of opening a bottle of water.
After 4 days of wild camping and continuous riding in Poland I was fed up of my own company and very dirty (basically i looked and smelled like a tramp)
. I decided that I would ride to the nearest town (Lublin) which I had been told by few polish people was really nice. It was in my travel guide so I figured there would be lots other travellers, i would be able to have a shower and put all my dirty clothes in the washing machine, then sit back talking to the other travellers in the kitchen whilst I wait. It would be complete bliss compared to the previous lonely nights in my tent. How wrong my vision was, I finally arrived after a frustrating and very windy trip (me and the GPS had a minor falling when it took me into the woods down sandy tracks as It decided it would be quicker cutting of a measly 2 km but ended up adding an hour and nearly ended with me falling off a couple of times!). The hostel was not your typical hostel, for a start there was no obvious sign so it took me ages to find. Then I pressed the buzzer and was greeted with Polish, when I asked if the lady spoke English there was a blank stare followed by an abrupt NO! and a continuation of the Polish blabbering. I spent a while using sign language and pointing to tell her how long I wanted to stay and managed to sort out paying. Then came the bike issue it's quite hard to sign is there possibly somewhere I can lock my bike where I can still get to it if I need it but where no one will steal it. Luckily I still had my helmet on so she was one step ahead of me and lead me to a large radiator. The building was odd it was very big, I am still not sure but think it is some kind of school or institution which also has rooms (the rooms next to my dorm are offices which is a bit strange when you come out half naked ready for a shower and there is someone sat with the door open busy typing away on their computer)
. Now came the interesting one, how the hell do you use sign language to ask if the have a washer and dryer so you can clean your clothes. We didn't get very far and soon she was on the phone. A girl came down who spoke very little English, they also both spoke some German (if you come to Poland it's useful to know that a lot of older people speak German instead of English). A long confusing Polish, German and English conversation ensued of which i think the gist was they have a washing machine but they are currently doing a renovation so it's not available, or it's broken. But there was some talk of washing my stuff in my room. So it wasn't looking good, the main reason I came to the city was to stay in a hostel and do my washing. "Oh well" i thought at least there might be some other travellers to talk to. My heart sank as I opened the door of my dorm room to find 4 beds immaculately laid out. Obviously it was the kind of place where there is no kitchen either, and there was definitely no way I would be able to chat to the staff, looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer for a good old natter. It's not all bad, there is free wifi, a TV and AIR CONDITIONING!! Which I have never had in a hostel before. To break the silence I have had the TV on most of the time. Polish TV is interesting, they show a lot of English and American programs but unlike other countries where they dub them into their own language using different actors for each actor on screen, in Poland they have one guy who reads the script with no attempt to match when they are saying and uses the same drab tone throughout (this is quite funny when there are women and kids talking or people that obviously would have an accent)
. Because he talks over the film, they turn the sound down a bit when people are talking but this means that occasionally you also hear the English from the original film. I was watching a Mel Gibson film, it's very confusing and basically really crap, although better than the Polish movies where the acting is akin to that seen on day time TV in the UK but worse and the plots don't look up to much either. Something I was surprised about in Poland is that it appears that Volley ball especially beach volleyball is very popular. I have seen courts in lots of usual locations and it's not just the women either, the men are very keen too, I saw a women's game being played when I rode into Lublin but unfortunately the weather means there is a desperate lack of the bikinis usually worn when playing this sport. I did get the chance to watch Poland's women's team vs China on the telly but I lost interest (it's wasn't the beach sort ;) ) so I can't tell you the outcome.Visiting a Polish doctor
So whilst I am still in the EU I decided I had better go visit a doctor. I have had a few more ticks munching on my legs in the last couple of weeks which is really not very nice. I happened to be reading the lonely planet and discovered that it specifically mentions ticks are a particular problem in the Baltic's with a lot more being diseased
. It also recommended that if you are camping or spending long periods of time in the woods it is wise to get inoculated, apparently it is such a problem people in these parts are automatically inoculated. All this started to worry me a bit especially as i was heading into the Ukraine and Romania. I asked at the tourist office and after a long time on the phone the guy managed to find someone who spoke English at the medical firm. I was told to go straight over and was given a very vague description of where to go. When I arrived I was confronted with a lovely polish girl who spoke English but obviously not very often so was really shy and kept giggling every time she couldn't think of a word, it was quite funny. After a while I had an appointment booked with a English speaking doctor that evening at another centre. So once again I found myself trying to navigate through unfamiliar streets looking for a vague address. I arrived and was soon sat in a waiting room with lots of Polish people (lucky the receptionist spoke English and was able to tell me which room I needed to go in). I waited and waited for my number to come up although It appeared that was a case of who ever gets to the door first gets seen (queuing seems to be non existent in many places). I continued to wait patiently (like the polite Englishman I am) luckily eventually as one lady came out she stopped the next person who was just getting up and said in Polish "it's his turn now" pointing to me. The doctor was a large smiley polish woman
. Straight away i asked "you speak English?" she looked up from the prescription she was writing and said "hmm little" i could see what was coming and as I started to try an explain the problem I could tell her English really wasn't up to much. After I finished talking she looked at me then said "I don't understand" and then said "moment moment" which is universal around the world for wait a minute. She got on the phone and the poor receptionist was dragged up to translate. I found out all all sorts of useful things, or example the sign I took a picture of in my German blog entry, which I though was a spider was actually a tick, which explains a lot! They had a similar sign on a big banner outside the clinic highlighting how much of a problem it is. I am now equipped with antibiotics just in case and have the joy if getting a blood test when I get home. Hand bike racing
Once again I happened to stumble across an event. I was in Zamosc a pretty little town near the border with Ukraine. Whilst cycling into town I saw quite an unusual sight, a guy on a really streamlined hand powered bike. I thought it was pretty odd and dangerous as there were still cars on the road but continued on. A bit later I saw another and another and then I saw people in skin tight suits speed skating down the road. It turns out that there was obviously some kind of marathon happening in town and before the runners started they let these other people compete. It was really interesting to watch (far more interesting than watching the runners). Some of them were going so fast as well. Україна
Getting into the Ukraine (Україна)
has been refreshing
. Firstly they have a proper border crossing where you have to queue up and be stared at by various guards and soldiers. But best of all you get a passport stamp, finally!! From the looks of it it's much more strict passing from the Ukraine into Poland because you are entering the EU, even though it was a quiet Sunday the queue was huge. I also experienced the typical fishing for bribes, when they saw the British passport, the woman was straight on the phone and i was told to go to the next window. There i was confronted with a more senior (and corrupt looking) official who started talking at me in Ukrainian and i think German, he brought up the question of money did some sign language which was obvious meant "you have lots of money right?". This is usually brought up in a hope you might show them how much you have or make you think you have to bribe them, at least this is what I think was happening, he may just have been asking me if i had funds but why the English speaking woman couldn't have asked this I don't know. Either way i just kept saying "I'm very sorry don't understand" in polite English way and then smiling lots when i did realise what he was asking i flashed a debit card at him (a common travellers trick, you even use an old one that's expired, it still works and is a lot safer than showing them cash even if you do actually have it). Instantaneously, either because he realised i had funds or more likely that I wasn't going to give him any money, he banged his stamp down a few times and abruptly said GO
! (he looked quite pissed off so i think he was expecting some cash)
So why is the Ukraine refreshingly different? Well for a start there are Lada's and other boxy Russian cars everywhere. Many have racks on the roof with all manner of items strapped to them and it looks just like pictures I have seen of Russia. The boy racers have Lada's with big exhausts and blacked out windows, in fact lots of the cars have blacked out windows. It is also nice not to have the EU number plates (you become addicted to looking at cars number plates when you are on the road all day), there us also much less cultivated farmland with more cows just wandering around in big grassy fields. Straight away you notice the difference from Poland. Despite what most people think Poland is actually pretty westernised, the houses in the countryside are more substantial brick and concrete affairs compared to wood shacks in the Baltic's, the roads are pretty good. I saw why so many Polish people feel at home in Herefordshire the landscape south of Lublin was exactly the same and some of the views could easily have been Herefordshire. The only slight difference is less hedges, more old tractors and more old women with head scarves on rummaging around in fields full of fruit and vegetables. This area was obviously where they grow fruit and I actually saw polish people picking strawberries. I was tempted to go and ask if they had any jobs just to be ironic but I decided i had better not. So the Ukraine is not like this at all, as I have said I want to get off the beaten track as much as possible I decided that I would not go on the main road and take some back roads instead. It is worth mentioning that my GPS does not have the Ukraine included so it's back to good old fashioned map reading which is also refreshing. The back roads are very funny, there are pot holes everywhere, some are as big as a bike, no really look at my photos
. The potholes are so bad that the locals go to great lengths to avoid them, this means that the cars coming towards you will use any part of the road, verge or hedge for that matter to avoid them (I witnessed similar driving by the minibus drivers in South Africa). It takes a bit of getting used to as often cars will swerve from one verge to the other and will zig zag about heading straight for you until the last minute all very disconcerting. Then there is the fact everything is in Cyrillic which means that even simple things like banks, shops etc become much harder to spot. Signs are also a problem as much map isn't in Cyrillic so I have to guess which place I'm heading to. One nice touch i noticed on the small roads is handmade road signs, they have the same designs as proper ones but people have painted them by hand and nailed them to a post.
The people here are also very friendly and just come up and start talking to you even though they speak no English. I have been in the country only a few hours and it has already happened 4 times. The first was by a cash point. It was a guy with possibly only one eye (i wasn't sure, he had a patch and aviator sunglasses on), with long grey black hair and smoking a cigarette. Having travelled a bit my initial thought was that it was some sort of scam and he was trying to distract me. I continued getting my money only half concentrating on him in a hope he would stop talking and go away. When i was finished I told him in was from England, "oh England" he said, "Liverpool, that's England" he continued "Liverpool football good, Beatles, john Lennon, Beatles good, Liverpool good" it turned out he was a local guy just interested in the crazy Brit with lots of crap attached to his bike. I think the main reason people are like this is that quite a few countries still require a visa to go to the Ukraine, also as the border crossing is more official and takes longer they don't get many tourists travelling through
. This means people are genuinely interested as to why you are in their country and what you are doing, it's just a shame they don't speak any English. Half an hour later I had another encounter with a farmer who shouted at me from across his field and flagged me down. He was talking away and pointing at his wrist, I thought he was trying to say it's getting late, where do you stay?, but I don't think he was, or maybe he was asking if I had a watch he could have but I am still none the wiser. As is usual with these conversations there was lots of pointing, arm waving and confused looks accompanied by smiles and an occasional shrug of the shoulders but as is normally the case it ended with a hand shake, laughter from both parties and a wave good bye.
I currently find myself in yet another unusual position camping in some woods in the middle of nowhere yet for some reason there is a festival or concert on less than a mile away which is can hear quite clearly. There is lots of folk music (the fast accordion based Ukrainian type like that Russian stuff they Cossack dance to) and singing. It appears to be coming from the woods somewhere but I am to afraid to investigate as it could also be a wedding party at someone's house, there is also bangs which could be fireworks or could be guns, and lots of shouting. To make things even more bizarre I also have beetles crawling under the ground sheet of my tent. There appears be a bit of an infestation in these parts and there are large black Beatles everywhere, i have seen loads crossing the roads. These are big beetles, you can see them moving the groundsheet of my tent but more importantly you can hear them which is really not nice! L'viv
Cycling into L'viv without out a GPS and without a map and especially not knowing what the Cyrillic for centre is was a very interesting experience
. I ended up having to ask in Russian at a petrol station for the centre as there is no Ukrainian in my travel guide. The driving is pretty crazy one particularly scary moment was when i was going round the middle of a three lane roundabout and indicating to come off. A guy in a big old Russian truck saw me, acknowledged that i was coming off but continued onto the roundabout without slowing down. I started to brake but he saw me do this and merrily waved me across in front of him still without slowing down as if i was stupid for even contemplating he might hit me, it just seems to be the way they drive here. L'viv is a cool place, although i am surprised i know this. I am probably (i don't know as i have nothing planned) half way through my trip, have spent far too long on the journey from Riga on my own and not spoken English for ages. For this reason i have not only got stuck in L'viv but also stuck inside the hostel. I have had a wander a few times but have spent most of my time sat talking and meeting lots of cool new people. It has been quite funny as people will be talking to me before they go off sightseeing, they often return a few hours later to find me still in the same place and continue with the same conversation. For the past few days i have been what's known as the resident hostel hang-about (there is always one, either a tired long distance traveller like myself or more commonly a creepy old man that just seem to sit and drink tea or more usually beer and vodka all day and talk to everyone as they come and go). I have done some stuff, i had the interesting experience of trying to purchase some nuts, bolts and zip ties form a Ukrainian market, luckily my pointing, miming and enthusiastic smiling skills have been developing well and i was able to get what i wanted. I was quite surprised about the price though. He said it was 70 for the 5 nuts and bolts, i assumed this was 70 hryvnia which is just under 6 quid, quite expensive i though but i guessed maybe they had to get them imported
. What he actually meant was 70 kopiyok which is a massive 5.7p a bargain i think you will agree. Stuff here is very reasonable for example you can buy a bottle of really good local vodka for about 2 pounds this purchase has been made a number of times, its quite hard to walk past when its this price. I was quite shocked when i thought back and realised that i could by nearly two bottles of vodka here for the price of one can of beer from an Norwegian supermarket!! A large pizza with 5 or 6 toppings in a restaurant is about £2.40, tram tickets cost 8p and a packet of cigarettes is about 75p. I think sometimes you need to just stop and stay in the same place and recharge you batteries (literally in my case). I have sorted out my gear, planned my routes, got some sleep (although not much, the vodka played a part in this one along with the many cool people i have met) and am ready to tackle the Carpathian mountains and head in to Romania, i just hope i don't meet any Romanian bears!Key Facts
Distance covered - Approx 4760 km ( 2958 miles)
Number of days - 77
Countries visited - 12
Currencies used - 10
Max speed - 60.4 km
Longest day - 147.5 km
Punctures - 1
Spokes broken - 4
Things broken / worn out (given my luck in the recent past this could increase rapidly) - 15
Different beers tried - 72 (approx can't remember some nights so well)
Languages spoken (well attempted) - 12
Proper mountains climbed - 0
Ferry Crossings - 8
Stamps in passport - 1!!!
Holes mysteriously appeared in my tent - 2
P.S i have included the photos of Riga i forgot to upload before!