Ivalo - Rovaniemi (- Helsinki)

The past week I spent at my friends’ place near Ivalo. All the grand plans of going on long skiing tours on Lake Inari and camping somewhere on the ice were drowned by the warmth and coziness of their place. Short trips had to suffice.

The weather was mild, just a few degrees Celsius below zero.
Interestingly, between the top-most layer of snow and the frozen lake, a layer of unfrozen water develops. This makes things very interesting when taking the snowmobile off of the established tracks, where ice and snow are very compacted. It also makes walking difficult, skiing is the best mode of transport. Cycling (with narrow tyres) didn’t work at all. Surprise. surprise.

And I saw my first northern lights. Amazing. Photographing them was a bit of a challenge and I’m not overly happy with the results.

Today I took the bus to Rovaniemi and am now on the beloved night train to Helsinki.

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Tallinn - Helsinki (- Ivalo)

Taro, owner of the hostel I stayed at in Tallinn, had the grand idea to send a letter to his 94-year old grandmother not by ordinary mail, but by other people. I am happy to be The First Bearer Of The Book, as it were, a notebook that contains the letter to his grandma, and into which every future Bearer can add their own page full of greetings, stories, or whatever, before passing it on to the next person who will hopefully carry it closer towards Japan.
It is made of a recycled book, see below, maybe you come across it one day. The title aptly translates to “Affections. Scenes of Time and People”.

Interestingly, I also started to draw after an interesting discussion which raised the question whether everybody could be an artist.

After the ferry to Helsinki today, I am now on the night train to Rovaniemi – the first on this trip that was supposed to be about bouldering and night trains.
I’ll be in Ivalo tomorrow, where I’ll stay with my friends for a few days.

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Tallinn's Paljassaare & the Ministry of Climbing

Spent the day out in the ‘countryside’, on Paljassaare peninsula at the northeastern end of Tallinn’s Bay. There are some old military structures there, and some can be accessed, but those I found/looked at weren’t very spectacular. There is a lot of snow there but cycling went well on footpaths with somewhat compacted snow and ice. It was a lot of fun actually.

In the evening I went to the Ministry of Climbing, one of the climbing gyms in Tallinn. It’s been more than a week that I last went bouldering (Minsk!). Ronimisministeerium is pretty cool. It’s not very big but the space is used well and the walls are laid out in quite an interesting fashion. The site is some kind of old factory (my wild guess).

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Tallinn

Ok, last night’s hostel was another failure. No storage space for stuff, noisy people at night, half the stuff is not working (shower head is off the pipe, bathroom door can’t be locked, half the lights in the bathroom not working – I have no clue whether my hair is looking proper today!), and who the f*ck allowed rummaging through plastic bags in a dorm room in the middle of the night???

Speaking of which, did you know that Rwanda has banned plastic bags completely since 2008? That’s the way to go. Not these half-assed announcements to maybe ban them 2025 or whenever.

Anyway, new hostel, and it’s great. Got stuck there chattin’ away and finally fixin’ my bike’s sneakin’ flat (hopefully for good) until it was too late to get far out of the city center. Also, it’s quite cold (-3°C or so).

Tallinn’s old town is very pretty, in many ways. Pretty beautiful, pretty expensive, pretty touristy.

And I got a bit annoyed by them many tourists that flash their expensive cameras but don’t pay attention to what they’re actually photographing – kind of walk ‘n click. The same goes for those who take pictures with their mobiles. So, in protest, very few and very carefully taken photos from me today. ;)

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Rīga - Tallinn

Was in bed late; early start once again. I had only 2 hours of sleep.

My plan to use as many night trains as possible didn’t work out well so far. There simply weren’t any, and travel times weren’t so long most of the time anyway. Today, however, was an 11-hour trip from start to finish. This would have been nice to travel over night. Instead, trains often leave very early in the morning. Yaaawn…

Latvian Railways have a service to Valga, just across the border in Estonia. The last stop before Valga is Lugaži (really not more than the ‘station’, from the looks of it), still in Latvia and just 3km from town and border. I got off there and cycled into Estonia over icy roads. There is finally snow here.

The border runs right through the town, with Valka being the Latvian part, and Valga the Estonian. I had 3.5 hours to kill until the connecting train would leave for Tallinn. I think I have seen most everything of Valka/Valga, and had lunch as well.

The train was new, comfy, sometimes fast, and bike transport is free. That is a first.

I’m in a hostel in Tallinn’s old town. It’s a touristy beauty (the old town). Hostels, on the other hand, are not what they used to be. Nobody says ‘hello’ anymore, there is no ‘backpacker feeling’, no ‘community’. Just cheap lodging. I’m too tired for this shit.

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Rīga

Hm, a day out in Rīga. The center is a maze of right-angled streets, lined with massive stone houses and tiny wooden ones. All of them beautiful.

There is waaay too much motorized traffic here. However, the number of cyclists has steadily increased since Minsk (which is not difficult).

The old town is the usual pretty tourist trap.

Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous.

As usual I tried to find some nice spots in the suburbs and was lured along the river Daugava towards the port and industrial areas. Also as usual, it is difficult to get anywhere near the interesting bits. There are lots of decaying buildings there and all over the city.

It is still around 0°C.

The bouldering options didn’t appeal. Is it time to set up a proper bouldering gym in Riga?

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Klaipėda - Skoudas - Liepāja - Rīga

So, by bus to Skoudas. There was one other passenger (ok, it’s Sunday morning). It did have wifi.

From Skoudas the bus goes along the Lithuanian-Latvian border all the way to Mažeikiai and Naujoji Akmenė, both of which would have been good starting points for the ride north to the Liepāja-Rīga rail line. Writing this I feel a bit like in the Wild West, where people would trek towards the rail line and it wouldn’t really matter where exactly they hit it. Anyway. There isn’t much difference in the distance I’d have had to cycle, so my choice was Skoudas, hoping I’d manage to be in Liepāja in time to have a wee look around.

While temperatures were comparatively mild in Klaipėda (slightly above 0°C), further inland puddles and flooded fields were covered with thin ice.

The ride from Skoudas pretty much started with crossing the border to Latvia, which was easy enough. This is all Schengen. There was just a sign, “Latvia” (not even “Welcome to”…).

And the ride itself? Grand, gorgeous, just great! The sun was shining, there was hardly any wind, and I didn’t feel cold at all, perfect! It was also exhausting due to the backpacks. I rode mostly on compacted sand and tarmac roads of debatable quality, but the bike held up well. It has, by the way, never been this far away from home.

I arrived at Liepāja’s train station at 3pm and first of all I verified that the train was indeed going today at 5.30pm. That left me with just over 2 hours to have a look at Liepāja’s center and its suburb Karosta.

I left my luggage at the station’s kiosk and cycled – free and light! – into town. Liepāja is amazing (from the 1-hour look I had at it), especially the architecture (that’s basically all I saw). It is also a bit crumbling. Many of the old wooden houses are in desperate need of repair.

Karosta is also interesting. During the times of the Russian Empire, and after that during Soviet times as well, it was a Secret City, closed to all outsiders. After Latvia broke off of the Soviet Union, Russia withdrew its personnel and the town is now open. The population dropped from 25000 to now 7000. It is a most weird place. A mix of red brick housing blocks, houses that look more like villas, those typical Soviet concrete tower-blocks (Plattenbauten), and newer (and older as well) detached houses. And in the very center a massively impressive Orthodox cathedral.

I was back at the station at 5.20pm. Interestingly, the ticket booths there are now used to sell bus tickets. Train tickets can be bought only on board the train.

The rail network seems to be well used for fright, but passenger transport is mostly done by bus. Earlier, when I arrived at Liepāja’s station the first time, people where queuing up for the bus to Rīga (and there was more than one going today). This train still has some capacity, to put it nicely.

Hm, if the other lines operate only once weekly as well, they could get by with one train, one conductor, and one train driver. Nah, fortunately, my next connection to Valga in Estonia, is served three times a day, every day!1! (That is also the only currently existing connection to any neighboring country – and Valga is literally just across the border.)

Yesterday’s hostel was a treat, but the hotel I just picked in Rīga leaves a bit to be desired. Plus I have to park the bike in the backyard, without roof. That’s a first.

Cycled: 75km

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Klaipėda

Klaipėda is becoming a bit of a dead end for me. I could probably go back to Kaunas or Vilnius and catch a bus to Riga from there that also takes my bike, but backtracking doesn’t feel right. I found out that there is a weekly train to Riga from Liepaja in Latvia, just 100km north of Klaipėda. This incidentally goes tomorrow evening! But the bus to Liepaja doesn’t run today, and tomorrow it goes too late to reach the train. So that leaves me with one option: cycling. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate, but with a heavy backpack that’s no fun. So what I’ll do is get as far as possible towards Liepaja by public transport, which seems to be as far as Skoudas, more or less directly at the Latvian border. From there it’s still ~50km, but I guess I have no choice. Brrrr, it will be cold.

Due to bad planning on my part I didn’t leave Klaipėda today. Too bad, I would have liked to have that extra day in Liepāja.

So this is an ‘office day’ today, overlooking the main bus terminal from my desk.

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Klaipėda & the Curonian Spit

It’s been my dream all my life (well…) to cycle along the entire Curonian Spit, which includes crossing into Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast. Today I managed to cycle on the Curonian Spit for a couple of hours. That’s something. It can be reached by a quick (and cheap) ferry ride from Klaipėda.

The Curonian Spit (Kurische Nehrung) is basically a long sand dune, some 5000 years old, and of course overgrown. It’s nearly 100km long and between 400m and 3.8km wide. The northern half belongs to Lithuania, the southern half to Russia.

Other than that, I explored the city and realized that my plan of going to Riga tomorrow won’t work. For some reason all rail lines between Lithuania and Latvia are severed. One line (between Kaunas/Lithuania and Jelgava/Latvia, I think) is currently being renovated to become part of a new Baltic link between Warsaw and St Petersburg. I have no idea when this is going to be finished. All other lines have been demolished years ago or don’t work for some other reason (for example Vilnius – Daugavpils, no clue what’s going on there).

Anyway, since going through Russia or Belarus again is not an option my idea was to take the bus to Riga. Today I learned that this route is served by so-called micro buses, 18-seaters (approx.), with little to no space for luggage, let alone a bike (not even with wheels taken off). I’ll have to think of something else.

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Vilnius - Hill of Crosses (Šiauliai) - Klaipėda

Tired start, by train to Šiauliai (pronounced Showlé – who would’ve thought?) a bit less than 200km northwest of Vilnius. The train was of the old, massive (Soviet?) type again, of almost truck-like appearance with the cabin high on top of the wheels; and it did have a separate bike compartment, just like Lithuanian Railways promised it would.

I parked my luggage at the station in Šiauliai and rode the 12km to a place called Kryžių kalnas, Hill of Crosses. It’s a hill… full of crosses – a Catholic pilgrimage site which also expressed Lithuanian resistance during the times of Soviet rule. And a bit crazy, see below.
Halfway through the visit it started to snow. That and the headwind made me look like a snowman when I was back in Šiauliai.

The next train, Russian-made and extremely noisy, brought me to Klaipėda, at the Baltic Sea. I like the name, and the city seems likable as well, so far.

Lithuanian drivers are really the worst. And no, neither Indians nor Bangladeshis come anywhere near.

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Vilnius

A bit of a quiet day. I’m tired and the weather isn’t great, so some looking around the city center is all I did. The Old Town is really big (allegedly one of Europe’s largest) and lovely. Lots of cafés and beautiful old buildings, many of them in a bad state of repair.

There’s cars everywhere. The drivers are heedless. They’ll speed through puddles and spray passers-by without thinking twice.

Shortly before leaving on this trip I got my hands on an older Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera. It has a sensor more than 4 times larger than that of my trusty ol’ Olympus Stylus 1, and I find myself using this ‘new’ E-PM2 more often than my Stylus 1, at least in easy light conditions, as the lens is not as good (14-42mm, 1:3.5-5.6) as the Stylus’ one (28-300mm, 1:2.8). Can you spot the difference in this trip’s pictures? The E-PM2 doesn’t have a level gauge so some of the pictures are a bit skewed and I haven’t corrected that; that’s one indicator.

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Minsk - Vilnius

In the morning a Georgian guy checked into the hostel who’d just arrived from St Petersburg. He was supposed to start his university studies there but upon arrival his visa was canceled and he was evicted to Belarus.

Back at the police station at ten. ещё ждать. I was done with all the paperwork at quarter to 2pm. Then they took my fingerprints as well and I couldn’t opt out of it anymore. Everything was done by 3pm and I was free to go wherever.

The only real option for leaving today was the 7.52pm train to Vilnius/Lithuania. All other plans have fallen victim to time.

The lady at the ticket office insisted that the bike would be carried free of charge and didn’t want to sell me a second (normal) ticket for it, but also said that there would be no luggage car on the train. I was mentally preparing for a similar struggle as on the trip from Brest to Minsk.

And it got even worse. The train is one of Lithuanian Railways; modern, Diesel driven, and with nice hangers for bicycles. I happily hopped on, hung the bike, and was stopped dead in my tracks by a stern but composed conductress. She explained that it was impossible to transport the bike like this (i.e. in one piece). It would be ok in either Belarus or Lithuania (with extra tickets, of course), but under no circumstances would it work across the border. Why, she couldn’t say. I’d have to take it apart. Wtf?

After some explaining back and forth I finally succumbed one last time to Belarusian bureaucrazy [sic] and detached the wheels and lashed them to the frame. What difference does it make, I wonder. It takes more space (3 seats instead of 1), it can’t be hung at the hangers designed for it, it’s got a few more scratches, and I got dirty fingers. Wtf.

I haven’t been to a less bike-friendly country, over all. On the other hand, in Germany it is 100% impossible to take a bike on a train that is not designed for it, like the ICE. There is no option of buying a second ticket. On an IC, if in fact there is space but you haven’t got a reservation before embarking, the conductor will refuse transportation. Unlike Belarus, where you just buy a second ticket on the train, and on top the conductress will wrap the bike in plastic bags so it doesn’t wet the seats.

In hindsight, of course, it’s not a big deal to take off the wheels. Two minutes. There is, however, a massive mental barrier that makes me want to keep the bike in one piece.

Anyway, enough of the ranting. My mood is not as bad as it may sound. In fact it is quite good, for I have 1.5 days of exploring Vilnius ahead of me, including some bouldering and, weather permitting, cycling and photographing. And I already love Vilnius. It has that charming, somewhat run-down feel to it, with old seemingly wooden houses right in the city. I also received my dinner for a ridiculous small price, a million sorry’s, and free ice cream and free beer on top just because there was a wee tiny snail in the salad (apparently very fresh).

Everything will be better from now on anyway. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the border).

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A wasted day in Minsk

So I met with Slava again at the hostel’s office et voila, no thief had shown up and returned the money. Also, the third victim, somewhat acquainted with the thief, didn’t show up either. 1 + 1 = …

Slava called the police. And then for me the most boring time in quite a while began. Slava told them on the phone what had happened. They sent two uniformed officers to the office to whom Slava told the story again. They called home and had a car sent to bring us to the department. Memory is getting hazy there but we waited at least half an hour for that. In the car, Slava told the story again. So far, nobody had so much as addressed me.

At the police station, Slava finally made his official report, while I waited in the hall. Through Slava and his translator app I was told that for me an official interpreter would need to be found and summoned, which might take several hours.

We were then driven to the crime scene, i.e. the hostel, along with a team of three investigators, who photographed everything, looked for fingerprints, … the whole shebang. Slava had to give his fingerprints as well and I was mentally prepared to denounce ownership of the money to avoid that, but miracle-like, I was left alone and not even talked to. So, more waiting (or ещё ждать, as the joke between Slava and me went by now).

Back at the police station: ещё ждать. Finally, at 6pm Evgenij, my interpreter, showed up and within less than half an hour my report was filed and signed. The good news: Before we left, the officer told us that they had already identified (albeit not yet found) the guy (he had checked in with this no-show third victim guy, so no contact details of his had been recorded at the hostel). The bad news: Proving that he had indeed stolen our money would be difficult (impossible) so chances of having it returned are slim.

My plan for today had been to take the train to the southeastern city of Gomel at 3.47pm (not far from Tchernobyl in Ukraine). That didn’t work. So I think I’ll bite the bullet and leave Belarus towards Vilnius (northwest) tomorrow.
However, I have to be back at the police station tomorrow at 10am for I-don’t-know-what. I hope it won’t take long.

After this very straach ordeal of waiting I went bouldering.

Ironically, I’m staying at the very same hostel again, and worse, was allocated that thief’s bed! I chose a different one. And at least I don’t have to pay.

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Minsk

Yesterday in the evening it started to rain, at night the rain froze over, and today in the morning everything was (thinly) snow-covered. I left the bike in the hotel and took the metro/subway. One ride, no matter how long, costs 5500 rubels, which is less than 25 Eurocents.

Most importantly, I went bouldering at Trapezia again today. Dinnis (sp?), who works there, gave me some special challenges by combining grips from different routes. Very good.

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Minsk

Today I was woken by fellow Belarusian hostel (in)mate Slava. He held his phone in front of me, with a translator app open, and the screen said something to the effect of “we have been robbed”. And indeed, someone had forced open our oh-so-secure lockers and taken his and my money. Alberto, the Spanish guy, escaped unscathed, for he had only a few hundred rubels (a few Eurocents – yes, getting 60 Euros worth of Belarusian rubels out of an ATM makes you a millionaire) in his locker.

Like I said, the hostel is a bit of a failure.

Another guest was suspected, but obviously he wasn’t there anymore. Apparently, involving the police would be a lot of hassle and they’d take 2 months to get anything done. Slava and I and a third victim met again in the evening to figure out how to proceed. For some reason the thief had called this third guy today (without revealing his number) and said he’d return the money on Monday (the total sum is something like 600 or 700 Euros – apparently the average monthly income in Belarus is less than 300 Euros according to a quick web search). So even though I would have loved to have a second encounter with the police, we agreed to wait for Monday and hope for the best…

Fortunately, it was ‘just’ money (even though quite a bit). My passport, credit card, camera, etc. were not stolen (or not in the locker in the first place…).

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