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.
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).
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.
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.
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…).
The morning was spent on a market and in the city center. I have to be more specific about prices here. Prices of imported goods and food are comparable to those in the west. Local stuff is cheap.
Getting on the train was a bit of an adventure. The train cars were of an old (Soviet era?) and heavy type where seats are arranged in a 6+2 setting with beds above and walls in between, but with an open aisle. There’s not really any space for a bicycle anywhere, so it was hastily wrapped in plastic bin bags by a somewhat annoyed conductress, and put on a normal seat. I also had to purchase another ticket for that seat (less than 4 Euros), despite having paid for it as luggage already at the ticket counter (about 50 Eurocents).
There is at least one conductress per car, who serves hot water/coffee/tea from the car’s built-in samovar on request.
The countryside is flat, and has been since Berlin. Somewhere after Baranoviči, I think, some remaining patches of snow appeared. It is somewhere around 0°C.
At the end, nearly in Minsk, the conductress went through the car and handed out tickets to everyone who wanted one. I didn’t quite understand the explanation. :/
So, Minsk. I checked into the nearest hostel and took the bike for a ride to Trapezia, one of the local bouldering gyms. I had checked with the hostel staff and indeed, it is advised to cycle on the sidewalk if one doesn’t want to be stopped by the police. I’m not surprised to see nobody cycling.
So I tried, and it is utter bullshit to have to avoid streets. It is slow and f*cking annoying due to potholes, curbs and people. And it’s probably less safe because at intersections drivers won’t see you. Oh wait, the curbs. No quick crossing at intersections anyway. o.O
Anyway, the bouldering was good. But I feel like I need to get used to other gyms’ routes. Here, for example, I found the coloring to be confusing sometimes (i.e. a route with green grips next to one with slightly-lighter-green ones).
The hostel (just next to the central station) is a bit of a failure. The rooms are too small and have too many beds in them. I met a Spaniard here who said he’d been here for 6 days and I’m the first foreigner he meets, and the first to speak English. He was quite happy to see me. However, I’ll go stay somewhere else tomorrow.
Belarusians have a nice way of ending a conversations. Amongst others, a lady in the market in Brest said it, and also the traffic cop who pulled me over in Brest: всего хорошего для ващ (all the best for you).
Early start again, taking the train to Terespol at the Polish-Belarusian border. The plan was to cross the border on bike, which I wasn’t sure would work. I had previously read that crossing the border to Belarus on bike or foot is only possible at one specific crossing further north.
Well, the passport checks upon leaving Poland/the EU took more time than those when entering Belarus. Plus, the Belarusian border guard switched to English when my rusty Russian didn’t suffice.
So, Brest (the one in Belarus) – two hours ahead of Central European Time. It isn’t the ramshackle place one would expect when reading about other traveler’s experiences in Belarus. In fact, it looks and feels quite nice. People are friendly and helpful, and I even survived my first encounter with the police.
I spent most of the afternoon cycling around Brest Fortress, a 19th-century fortification. I had found references to it on a web page that answers the question Где лазить? – Where to climb (boulder)? in Brest, where someone posted pictures of people bouldering the ruins. But I guess I looked in the wrong place. Anyway, the fortress is impressive and it is now also home to one of the biggest war (WWII) memorials built by the Soviet Union.
At the end of the day I was pulled over by a traffic cop right in front of my hotel. At first I thought it was for cycling on the sidewalk for a few meters and expected a fine or bribe. But after lengthy passport and visa checks I was told … wait for it … that he pulled me over for cycling on the road, and I am supposed to cycle on the sidewalk if there is one. Now, this is weird enough, and it is also inconvenient. Most curb edges in most(?) ex Soviet countries are impossibly high even for walking, not to mention cycling.
Belarus is cheap. Inflation has strained the country for a while already, and I can now have dinner in a posh place with no other guests for 3 Euros. Weird and sad.
It is cold, puddles are frozen, but there is no snow.
A Lenin bust is greeting everyone in the hotel’s foyer. I wonder whether I’ll find Stalin somewhere…
Early start, taking the train to Warsaw. I’ve been to Poland briefly before (years ago), but never this far to the east. I am, once more, on my way to the far north of Finland. This time mostly by train, so the stops will be few and the traveling (comparatively) quick. I’ll have a look at some of the major cities en route, and try to visit a few bouldering gyms. I have my beloved singlespeed with me, but I won’t be cycling any long-distance legs (not enough time – trains for that). Am I getting lazy? Nope. Taking the bike was a last minute-change-of-mind to be more flexible in the cities.
Warsaw isn’t exceptionally bike friendly. Also, there are not many cyclists, which may be a chicken-and-egg problem. But it cycles reasonably well, and it is flat (with the exception of the banks of the river Vistula).
In any case, taking the bike was the best idea ever.
Today was the culmination of the awesomeness of the previous days. The weather was again perfect for riding fast (if a little chilly at times); the countryside reasonably beautiful to not be too boring, and not too exciting to be distracting either. Consequently, I stopped only a few times when hunger (or reason) made me want to eat (and when another spoke or two snapped and needed replacing).
I followed road no. 4/E75 through Sodankylä and Sariselkä and made it to Ivalo by half past 9 or thereabouts.
Crossing the 200km mark on the last 10km from Ivalo was the icing on the cycling cake, as it were. That’s 540km in three days, since Oulu.
I’m at my friends’ place now and will stay here for a few days. How I will return is undecided yet.
Yesterday was an exhausting day. I set out from Oulu at 11am and followed E75 for a while, which was bad enough.
The ‘funny’ thing with Finish cycle lanes is that they are not very well sign-posted, that is, there are pretty much no signs telling me where a particular cycle path leads to. And while they usually follow a major road, their direction is not always obvious at junctions where they sometimes lead through tunnels underneath the road.
Anyway, I left E75 and turned north at Simo, to sample some of the wilderness of Northern Finland. I cycled on gravel tracks and did soon have to fight with the wildest and fiercest of Scandinavia’s inhabitants – mosquitoes. And a hell of a lot of them. I was quite unprepared for their onslaught when three spokes snapped in quick succession and I had to stop to install replacements. I put on almost all the clothes I had to cover up everything except my hands. Pitching tent in the evening was a similarly adventurous endeavor.
Today, then, I joined road no. 4 somewhere south of Rovaniemi, stopped there for lunch and to buy mosquito repellent, and continued north. Road no. 4 is the one I will follow up to Ivalo and a little bit beyond, that is, for the next 200 kilometers.
I pitched tent just a few meters off the road, behind some bushes, deep in mosquito territory.
Last night saw me at an annoying hotel in Pori, for lack of a camp site near-by. There was no reception and one had to book online in advance or through a terminal in the ‘lobby’. Payment by card only. Their mail server (DNS, really) is badly configured, so that I didn’t receive their confirmation email with the access code for the door, and had to call them twice on an expensive phone number.
The temperature inside the room, once I finally got there, was too high for my taste, but it was not possible to open the windows or to adjust the aircon.
Anyway, enough of the rambling. After yesterday’s maths puzzle I decided to hop on a train and travel to Oulu (takes ~650km off my route) on my ‘day off’ today. Finish trains are nice. Comfy, with uncomplicated wi-fi, and proper aircon. :)
Oulu is probably my favorite Finish city (for its location), before Helsinki (for its size and architecture) and Uusikaupunki (for its name). However, the fee of 23 Euros for staying on the local camp site is even more ridiculous than in Uusikaupunki.
Six years ago I came through Oulu on my way down from Ivalo. I wanted to stay on the same camp site I’m on now, except that they didn’t want me. Apparently I showed up a few minutes after closing time, and even though there were still people working at reception they didn’t let me in anymore. I can’t for the life of me remember where I ended up pitching tent. Maybe on their premises anyway, maybe outside.
From here it will be some 500km to the shores of Lake Inari, which should be easily doable in 5 days, Insha’allah.
Yesterday didn’t end that bad after all. Eventually, the sky cleared and the sun came out. I rode the 2 or so kilometers to the city for some dinner and karaoke.
Today was slow again. I had a late start (11.30am) and the winds didn’t help either. They had shifted by almost 180 degrees two days ago already and were blowing from northerly directions again today.
However, the (remainder of the) weather was fine: not too hot, not too cold, and no rain! And the wind turned out to be manageable as well. The route changed direction so many times that I enjoyed everything from headwinds to tailwinds.
I also did the maths and figured out that I won’t make it to Lake Inari until July 18 (still ~1200km to go).