Entering The East

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

The ferry to Turku in Finland from Stockholm was quite impressive. Both Turku and Stockholm are surrounded by an archipelago of islands. This means that the ferry has to weave it's way between the islands. Some of the gaps are pretty small (30m each side) and the ferry is very big (9 decks and hundreds of feet long). It must be quite strange for the people that live in the houses on the islands as periodically they are cast into darkness as the ferries rumble past. I was lucky that the other 3 people in the cabin I had booked were really nice and i was also very lucky that they came from Finland so gave me a list of things to do and see. The ferry was very impressive, we (Brits) are not so used to travelling longer distances by ferry but in this neck of the woods it's the norm. The ferry had a supermarket, restaurants (some proper posh ones), bars each with their own theme (one cocktail bar was called the piano bar and actually had a pianist sat in the middle playing). There was also the main bar at the end of the boat which was spread over two floors, it was basically like a theatre with a balcony although more glitzy (think cruise ship). They had a band playing all sorts of covers throughout the night but later on in the evening an announcement came over the tannoy that the Brazilian show would be starting. I decided I would have a look even though it would not be my cup of tea. I was however mildly surprised, it was pretty spectacular. The cast was only about 6 but they could all dance and had their own specialities. Most of them were obviously gymnasts, I came to this conclusion as one guy lay on his back with his feet in the air, then the other guy preceded to put one had on each foot and do a handstand an then a double back flips off. Another guy was moon walking one minute then juggling 5 clubs the next. One of the girls did a dance with a huge looking Finnish guy who threw her (literally) all over the place, at one point she did a back flip cartwheely thing (don't know much about gymnastics) and landed on his out stretched hands with her feet, he then raised his hands up right over his head so she was standing about 10 feet off the floor, then she did an impossible looking twisty flip thing off, landing perfectly of course. It was very entertaining and I was quite worried by how much I enjoyed it as it reminded me of the kind of entertainment you would get on a cruise ship (maybe I should sell the bike and just sail round the Mediterranean for a few months?

Finland was unusual, the Finnish people are very different to those in the rest of Scandinavia, the language is very different and you really get the feeling that you are crossing into Russia and Eastern Europe. The people are really nice once you get talking to them but they are quite shy and cagey. A perfect example happened whilst cycling into Helsinki. A guy rode up along side me said "hi" then rode off. I caught up with him a little later at some traffic lights, he stood there for a while and he finally plucked up the courage to ask me what he probably wanted to ask in the first place, "so from where have you cycled?" I replied "England" and the ice was broken, within minutes he was guiding me through the maze of woodland and parks that surround Helsinki, I hardly saw a building until I was about 1 km from the centre. If he had been Norwegian or Swedish he would have just come up and started taking (I know from experience, see my Oslo blog entry!) but it's refreshingly different and makes Finnish people intriguing. The Finnish men seem to like sporting long blond pony tails and big beards, often goatees. This, coupled with the fact the Finnish love rock music (especially metal) and often wear t-shirts from heavy mental bands makes for quite a menacing look. Luckily it is just a look and they are actually really nice, I discovered this one day whilst taking a break from riding. I had found a perfect spot on a rock by the side of the road (see picture) and was sat taking some much needed calories on board. After a minute or so I saw a big Harley Davidson approaching, it had passed me moments earlier in the other direction (I could tell as the guy riding it had his feet sticking right out sideways, it was a very unusual riding position and had drawn my attention). The massive rumbling engine noise began to slow, this was when I quite worryingly realised he was stopping. As he pulled up I got a good look at him, he was as described but looked even more menacing. He had a massive handlebar moustache, long blond (Viking like) hair flowing out the back off a black "piss pot" helmet (a round one like a basin), a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off and loads of patches sewn on, the look was finished by some black sunglasses. To say I was a little worried was an understatement my initial though was "oh no he has seen me, turned around and is going to rob me", at least I hoped he was only going to rob me and not rough me up a bit as well. He pulled up and started speaking to me. I could hardly hear over the tremendous thundering of his bike, "sorry I don't understand" I said, he said the same again. I calmly walked over and said "sorry I only speak English", he then repeated the same words for the third time, I felt really bad as I realised he had been speaking English all along but his accent was so strong I couldn't tell. He had actually been asking "is everything ok with your bike, do you need some help?" It turned out he had seen my bike lay on the ground by the side of the road, gone all the way to the next junction then come back to offer his assistance. As the old saying goes, you should never judge a book by it's cover!

The Giulia's
When I got to Helsinki i reached a point in my trip where I didn't really know what I was doing any more. I realised this as I went into Helsinki to look around and ended up sat in the middle of town in the sun people watching for ages. I didn't know what I had come to see and I didn't feel like seeing anything....I had been travelling for too long!! Luckily although the hostel I was staying in lacked atmosphere (it was the fourth one I tried because they were all full) there were lots of interesting people staying there including The Giulia's. The Giulia's were two very smiley Italian students who very confusingly were both called Giulia (apparently it's a very common name). We had some great evenings sat in our kitchen chatting away, learning random Italian words (apparently i have a very funny accent when i speak Italian) and meeting some of the other guests staying on the same floor. For my last night there (I had already extended my stay a bit) I asked if they wanted to go for a drink in the evening to get out the hostel. When the evening came I was busy cooking my dinner and having a natter, I hadn't heard anything from them so assumed they didn't fancy a night out or wanted to do their own thing. I was blissfully unaware that they were say in their room waiting for me to finish eating (it takes a while as I have to eat so much). I must have kept them waiting for at least couple of hours and when I realised I felt sooo bad. Luckily we still went out (eventually), they had seen a reggae night advertised on a poster stuck to a lamp post in town so we set off in search of the club which was about 4km out of town in the suburbs. We had a name and a street unfortunately the street was a very long one, and we got the tram to the wrong end! This lead to half an hour of walking along a main road with no clubs or bars or for that matter people. When we finally arrived we didn't even realise we had found the place, it was just a grotty looking doorway leading up some stairs with two bouncers and lots if people smoking in the street. It looked like the kind of place you would normally avoid, but we went in anyway. The club was really cool, dark and dingy with a very eclectic mix of people and lots of sofas. The dj's both looked like Moby and were wearing matching checked shirts and braces. They were playing reggae, soul and 50's and 60's rock 'n' roll. It was a top night and just a shame we had to leave to catch the last tram at 2! So after a few days doing nothing (not strictly true this should read, doing slightly less than usual) in Helsinki and chilling out I was revitalized and ready to hit the road once more and in the process I made some new Italian friends. It just go to show that often when you are traveling you remember people more than places.

Entering Eastern Europe
A quick note is required here as many people think of Eastern Europe as a backward place full of crime and peasants with horse drawn carts or battered old cars. Don't get me wrong these things exist but in the Baltics especially it is really not like most people think. To put it in perspective until recently Estonia had more wireless hot spots than Finland and Sweden, a lot of people have nicer cars than the majority of us do in the UK, there are lots of massive shopping malls and it's not even that cheap either. I just wanted to point this out as people keep telling me to be careful now I'm in Eastern Europe which seems silly considering I feel more threatened cycling through Manchester. I'm sure that it will change, I realise there are some countries, not mentioning and names (Bulgaria, Albania), where it is a bit more dodgy, but the Baltics are fine and you should definitely not let your preconceptions put you off visiting.

Taking in Tallinn (Estonia)
Tallinn was great, for a start I stayed in the first proper backpackers of my trip. By proper I mean more akin to those you find in other parts of the world. Most hostels in Europe are clean, modern, expensive, very well organised and....well boring. Backpackers have a vibe they are cool places to hang out and meet people, normally they are not the cleanest, or well laid out, they are never quiet and some things can appear frustrating (having to wake a member of staff up who is a sleep on the couch recovering from a drinking session the night before) but it is what makes them fun and interesting. Generally the best ones are run by travellers, everyone is very friendly but there is often huge lack of organisation. They usually have a bar (often buying beer from the supermarket then pretty much selling it at cost as they don't set out to make lots of money). This was one of those places, an old building with an amazing old staircase, no real reception, pub crawls seemed to spontaneously happen most evenings, there were communal meals, free internet, always people hanging out and often people passed out the next day on the sofas. It was a cool place and as such attracted cool people so there was always someone interesting to have natter with. Tallinn itself is very pretty, it has a large old town, large enough to get away from the crowds especially if you go for a wander in the evening when most people are eating posh meals or preparing for a night on the town. I got a good view of the town from the tower of one of the churches which was a 60m climb up a spiral staircase. I was quite amused by the fire exit signs pointing downwards (quite where else you would go in a tower with two foot thick walls I don't know). I was quite impressed and its definitely worth visiting if you get the chance or fancy a more usual holiday destination.

Once i left Tallinn i headed south, i was unsure about where there were campsites so popped into a tourist office to ask. The guys exact words were "well your riding through a forest, so just find a road that goes off to the left.... or to the right, then follow it for a bit and camp there". It's nice to get such practical advice from a tourist office. He wasn't wrong when he said that it was all forests. The route I had decided to take used mostly back roads, which are marked on my sat nav as unnamed roads. Some are gravel, others are newly surfaced cycling super highways through pristine country side..... others are mud tracks which have been used my forestry workers who have driven a bulldozer down them creating continuous ruts and foot deep muddy holes (see picture). The condition of the so called roads was crazy, it is lucky I love mountain biking and have decent tires on my bike or I would have been stranded (even then I nearly came off on a number of occasions) however there weren't the worst roads i would encounter in Estonia. Down the coast I came across the most dangerous roads I have ridden on yet....SAND! I don't know if you have ever tried riding a bike on sand before but it without a doubt it is the hardest surface to ride on. If you get it even slightly wrong you snake around a bit (pretending you are in control), then your front wheel finds a nice deep patch and digs in and before you know it your picking sand out of your teeth for the next few days. Don't let my talk of bad roads put you off, the main roads at great, I am just choosing to get off the beaten track. The problem is that all these countries have very few people living in them compared to the UK so they don't have much money to spend on road and hence only the most important roads are paved. It just hard for me as they are all marked the same on my maps so its a lucky dip as to what condition the next road will be in. This is ok but can be very frustrating when you have to ride over 100km to the next campsite as the road condition can slow you down a lot.

Getting into Latvia has been refreshing. Estonia is much like Scandinavia but as I have headed south it has got more like I imagined countries which used to be part of Russia would be. I have been on lots of gravel back roads through farms and small villages. I had seen a number of really old Lada's normally driven by very old couples which look so stereotypically Russian. Many houses have an old soviet tractor or lorry or massive vehicle of some description festering outside. I have also had lots of people especially kids just standing and staring at me as I ride past (I always give them a wave and a hello, even though they look at me like I'm an alien!). The number of dog encounters has also increased. My favourite was a dog I nicknamed Bruce. I love dogs but Bruce was BIG and pretty beefy and when he came bounding across a field towards me I was 90% sure he was going to bite me. Unsure of what to do I said hello in a cheery way and stared talking to him in English (I learned this trick in Canada, it's what you do with bears). Luckily it seemed to work, however I soon found out it had worked too well and we became travel buddies. Bruce decided to run along side me for about 5km, occasionally stopping to undertake small missions. He nearly killed a poor cat, tried to pick a fight with a horse and stopped approximately every 10 meters to pee on something. After a while we went past a farm yard that was obviously too tempting and Bruce was off.... Never to be seen again, I just hope he got home ok.

Unexpected Distractions
Lately i have come across a bit of a problem. I have lots of things to do, fixing my bike, washing clothes, writing this etc. I never get a chance to do these things when I am in a hostel, so I save them for when I am at campsite where there is much less to do and see. However, lately whenever i start to do any of these tasks i keep getting befriended. The first time was at a campsite in Pärnu (Estonia). I was just in the middle of trying to fix my rear brake which has only been half working for the last few weeks (don't worry mum the other one is perfectly capable of stopping me) when the Norwegian couple camped opposite said "Hello". We soon got chatting and i was invited to their camper-van to drink beer, it would have been rude to refuse, so the rest of the night was spent swapping travel stories. They were a really interesting couple. They had a VW van which they had turned into a camper but had built everything themselves. Previously they had a Mercedes estate car which they also made into a camper. We got taking some more and I found out that quite amazingly they had managed to drive every single public road in Norway. It had taken them three and a half years using most weekends and all their holidays and they had driven something crazy like 120,000 km in the process because they kept having to drive up to the north. He was a photographer and she had been writing everything down and they were planning to publishing a book about it. Another topic of conversation was BEARS! Now I had been quite happily wild camping in the forests blissfully unaware that in Sweden, Finland and Estonia they have BEARS. I was also reminded that in the Baltics there are other lovely creatures lurking in the forests such as WOLVES! And WILD BOAR! Needless to say I haven't been sleeping quite as soundly since!

A couple of days later in Latvia I stayed at a really nice basic campsite by a lake. By basic, I mean very basic, using the toilet was a pretty horrific experience, it was nothing more than a shed with a whole in the floor, great care was needed not to fall in. I arrived as the sun was setting and had an amazing swim to cool down (it has been a scorcher of a day). Later that evening I was sat eating the usual pasta and sauce but in a very lack lustre way as I had managed to by tomato purč instead of pasta sauce. This had obviously not gone unnoticed as a few minutes later two kids from the bench just down the bank appeared with a plate piled with BBQ chicken and salad which they offered in my direction. It smelt and looked amazing and once again I couldn't refuse. I asked if they spoke English and as with most youngsters in Europe they had been learning virtually since primary school and were eager to put it to good use. We were chatting away when the father managed to tear himself away from the BBQ for long enough to come and say "Hi". Soon enough I was invited over to join their family and found myself sat at a pick nick bench (complete with table cloth) covered in all sorts of wonderful food. We chatted away and I got to try some Latvian favourites like black bread and a really amazing Latvian lemonade. They lived in Rīga the capital where I was headed next so they said they even said might be able to meet me the next day and give me a tour. They had only come for the day so when they left i was gifted the rest of the bread, lemonade, water, a mosquito candle and a huge pile of chicken drumsticks for my breakfast. It was such a nice gesture and gave me a really good insight as to what Latvia is really like.

Rīga is a bit strange I have hardly met any Brits for ages and here they are everywhere. Rīga has become a bit of a destination for Brits to go and get pissed, it is therefore full of backpackers and stag groups, this means that all the hostels are fully of guys which is a bit strange. I found it very odd as i had met maybe 8 or 10 Brits since starting my trip and how pretty much half the hostel were Brits (they all seemed to come from London as well), most of the other half were from Oz so it was very odd speaking with natural English speakers again (apparently i have lost my accent a bit as i have been speaking so slowly for so long with non English speakers that i have started to stop using complicated words and think a lot more about what i say, probably a good thing). Luckily i have not lost it too much and i still managed to get some very complimentary comments about it from some lovely Latvia girls (note to any British guys travelling, remember to make the most of the Hugh Grant effect, this is that no matter how bad you accent in the UK when you talk to foreigners, especially in North America they love your accent and think you sound like Hugh Grant, this is a very good thing!). At this time of year most cities are full of tourists which scares a lot of the natives off and makes it very hard actually meet local people. For this reason one of the best things I did I Rīga was to visit the local market. The market is held in and around four huge old Zeppelin hangers not the usual venue for a market. I just wondered around watching the local people and looking at all the unusual things on offer. This allowed me to identify a couple of worrying stereotypes for Latvian men. I saw a large number of seriously out dated, seriously bad and extremely uncool hair cuts. There were a number of full on mullets, perms and the most common and worst in my opinion is the normal short hair cut but with a long bit right at the back kind of like a pony tail. The second thing which seem to be very popular even with the young (trendy) Estonians is man bags! For anyone that doesn't know a man bag is basically a handbag for men, but as men don't have much to carry apart from dosh they are smaller more like a large wallet with a shoulder strap. I think the reason that Estonia men can get away with sporting such bad fashions is due to the fact there is a three to one female to male ratio in the country so the men really don't have to try as hard. This also means that there are a lot of very attractive fashionable women walking hand in hand with very average unfashionable men (my kind of country, I might actually stand a chance!)

Key Facts

Distance covered - Approx 3660 km ( 2275 miles)
Number of days - 56
Countries visited - 8
Currencies used - 7
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) - 11 
Different beers tried - 54 (approx can't remember some nights so well)
Languages spoken (well attempted) - 8
Proper mountains climbed - 0
Ferry Crossings - 8
Stamps in passport - 0
Holes mysteriously appeared in my tent - 2
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Timmi on

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