Howdy Ho Good People!
Back for another update of life in the slow lane, huh? Well, we left off last in the capitol of Latvia, Riga. On our last biking adventure we made no plans, booked nothing in advance, and were full-on wingin' it. But unfortunately, this adventure has posed more challenges to that lifestyle we are discovering as we bike around Eastern Europe during everyone's summer holidays over here. Completely forgot that our European bothers and sisters have the luxury of five (that's right 5) weeks of paid vacation a year to go take time off and travel and they actually use it! So a few times now we have ridden into town after a few days of camping with the plan of a hot shower, bed, and a need to clean clothes to find everything booked solid. Riga was no different. We hit the town right before a Rammstein concert and were able to squeeze in one night before hoping back on bikes and heading out of Dodge. At least we biked all over the City running errands so were able to take in quite a bit, but it was the whirlwind tour of Riga.
As we pedaled south out of Riga, crossing a windy bridge over the Daugava River, we quickly found ourselves on the "wrong side of the tracks." As we continued south it slowly got worse and worse. Not dangerous by any means, but poorer and poorer. After about 15 miles out we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on food supplies right smack in the middle of giant concrete run-down six-story projects, remains from the former Soviet Union. And not a few of them, but towering dilapidated buildings, rows, upon rows and stretching for a few miles. It was pretty depressing. And this is the REAL Latvia. When Ville and I take a backpacking trip, we hop on a plane or bus and arrive in a town. Walking around in the Capitol of Riga or the Old Town is romantic and with lots of history, but we are really drawn to bike touring to get outside the destinations and see the in-between. Even and especially if it looks like the former Soviet Union was here yesterday.
We stopped for a quick lunch stop in a tiny roadside town and happened upon the local hangout for elderly ladies drinking vodka shots and wine with lunch. Even though they were Russian speaking and we couldn't speak a word, we pointed at plates and got meat patties with ketchup, buttered noodles and veggies. With a glass of juice. All for $3. I was very tempted to down a vodka with them if I wasn't worried about weaving and getting killed on the highway after. They were so excited to talk at us, even though we didn't understand a word and threw up a "cheers" as we thanked them and walked out. Ah nice people everywhere.
As we continued south, Ville found us a Motel on a fairly clean river in the town of Jelgava. When we biked through the dirt streets winding through the outskirts of town to get to the motel I was a bit skeptical, but when we arrived at this completely locked-in-time Soviet era Motel, complete with dark pink wallpaper (even on the ceiling), sparkly pink thick drapes, a dark felt couch in the room and very questionable plumbing, I was pumped. The dream of the 80's is still very much alive here! Even the lady that worked there had pastel eye-shadow, outlined pink lips and a wicked teased perm. In the morning, we found a cafeteria style cafe and loaded up on some savory and sweet blinis (think crepes stuffed with all kinds of goodness) before hitting the road.
Unfortunately, the roads in Latvia were pretty sub-par. The only road with pavement was the Via Baltica (think I-5 of the Baltics) osculating between little to no shoulder. As soon as we crossed into Latvia, we opted for a side road that took us onto an at-best ATV trail and then bailed back to the chaotic Via Baltica. Once heading south from Riga, thought to gamble and try our luck at back-roads again. Of course it started out promising, with paved roads through little towns, but then we noticed a giant dust cloud in the distance. As we pedaled closer, we realized it was because the pavement turned to dusty gravel and giant farm equipment was ripping down it as if they were in the Indy 500. You can imagine how excited we were, having to suck air through our neck Buffs and then, it started raining. Pouring really. And the road had taken us 15 extra miles out of the way to finally dump us onto a paved road that we took all the way back to Via Baltica, the lesser of the two evils.
Once we hit Via Baltica, it was a section with no shoulder, and by this time it's really pouring rain, and the giant semi-trucks and cars are spraying us with all kinds of nasty water as they fly right next to our faces. We both were so taxed. We crossed into Lithuania, snapped a quick pic trying not to look as pissy-pony as I felt, and pushed onto the next town. When we hit the next town, Jelgava, we found a decent little pastel pink motel with a bubbly, short, stalky little lady who spoke broken English and checked in. The shower was magical. We ate some dinner out of the grocery store and organized with the lady how to get a bus to the next big town, Kaunas. We had put in our time biking the entire Americas and this was suppose to be a ride for fun. If we weren't having fun on a major highway in pouring rain with no shoulder, we agreed we didn't have to do it. We found a bus in the morning that we were able to load bikes in cargo and had an enjoyable ride to Kaunas as we watched the bike lane disappear from the window of the bus.
When we arrived at the bus terminal in Kaunas, we headed out to ride around the town and find a hotel. Again, after lots of "booked" places, we managed to find WiFi and booked a couple nights at a nice place with even a washing machine (major score to not have to hand wash all my clothes in a sink for once), and took a whole day off our really sore butts and legs. Kaunas has a neat Old City, very similar to all the other Baltic countries and it rained almost the entire day off so I was happy to not be riding. What was really strange about Latvia and Lithuania, that I am still very perplexed about, is lots of people drive really new, fast, expensive cars in countries with actually no roads. Who the hell buys a Maserati, Bentley or Audi A8 and then drives it on the Via Baltica? I mean, there is no way they are cruising the cars up and down dusty, cinder roads! WHY? Please someone tell me why they have these cars?
After riding south out of Kaunas, we wound on dirt roads through farmlands and eventually made it close to the Polish Boarder where we found a really cheery farmer out working to ask to camp. He spoke a little German and since my Scandinavian Stallion of a husband took classes in High School, they were able to talk. He was really happy to let us camp anywhere and we pitched our tent next to his massive combine he used on his soybean farm. We made him a sandwich for dinner and he brought us out some tomatoes he had grown. In the morning, he brought us out coffee and a charcuterie board; complete with bread, meats and even chocolate! What a guy.
As we rode on in the morning into the mist, the dirt roads winding through more wheat and soybean fields, we came upon our first set of actual hills right at the Poland Boarder. Until now, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had all been as flat as a pancake. As we crossed into Poland, the roads were paved and the grass fields turned into thick wooded greenery everywhere. We stopped by a church to spread out and dry our wet tent and eat some lunch. The road continued on through hills, finally opening expansive views to us, and by late afternoon we rode into a larger city Suwalki. We agreed that cold and wet after more rain, we should look for a cheap place to stay and was again really disheartened when, yet again, everything was full. We ate kebabs and headed on our way planning to camp just outside town.
Oh so quickly did we realize that asking to camp in yards in Poland was not going to be so easy. We came to farm after farm where it was apparent no one spoke a word of English. Nor did they grant us permission to camp. We found a nice guy in some small town who pointed us to a hotel and they were also booked. Now we were getting really bummed. We were over 50 miles in, tired, wet, and done. Ville saw a farmer and said, "I promise, this is the last one I'll ask" and although he didn't speak any English, he shook his head yes that we could camp out in his field. I wanted to hug him, although completely inappropriate and so I didn't. But I wanted to. And it poured rain all night and as we packed up and rode away, his wife leaned out the window and I yelled "thank you" as we waved and blew kisses at each other. Universal language, blowing kisses.
The scenery biking through Poland is beautiful. Wide open fields of grass and littered with black and white spotted cows. You know what comes with cows? Cow poop. Lots and lots of smelly cow poop. Although beautiful, and with nice little narrow paved roads, Poland smells of overwhelmingly rank cow sh*t. And on the little narrow paved roads, the Polish love to drive cars fast. And by fast, I mean around 60 mph on single lane roads full of blind corners (Ville's and my guesses differ because I think they drive at 110 mph) and if you aren't on the alert at all times, you might end up a stylish hood ornament. After many miles of winding farm roads, we had about 15 miles forced onto a busy highway into Grajewo, cow milk processing capitol of Poland, where we stopped for lunch. We had a really nice chat with a guy named, Pawel outside petting his dog. We stopped to resupply at the grocery store and as we were riding away, Pawel, drove up in his car and jumped out to give us a gift. He had brought us a big cellophane wrapped sweet candy called an anthill. Thanks Pawel!
We biked south from town another 10ish miles and found a nice thick wooded area to camp in the trees. And proceeded to stuff our faces with anthill. The next morning, we planned to stop and get a lunch before we would arrive in Lomza. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be open during the day in most towns we ride through and so it was a long 35 miles without food before we arrived in Lomza, cranky, wet from more rains, and in desperate need of showers and rest. We booked two nights where I am sitting in bed and writing this after a long shower and good nights sleep. Tomorrow, we will head towards Warsaw. On wards and upwards! Until next time, keep on keepin' on!
More cool Eastern European T-shirt logos continued: "Good Girls, Bad Girls Everywhere", "Illegal", "Just Do Nothing", "Turn Up" and my personal favorite "Enjoy" (I think it was in reference to her chest)
Ville riding a statue of Baron Münchhausen, best known for his adventures riding atop a cannon ball.
Just rolled into Riga, the capitol coastal city of Latvia today after a packed full week of remembering what it feels like to ride bikes. Luckily, the saying "it's like riding a bike" is actually true. Once you know how, you kinda should always know how. It's just that, well, it's been a year since we were in the saddles for longer than a spin around town and we both were a bit out of shape and pretty rusty. But dang girl it felt goooooood!
After spending a few days in Helsinki trying to cram in seeing as many friends in town and not on summer holidays, we boarded a giant ferry headed for Tallinn, Estonia. Having lived in Finland a while and never having made the trip over, we planned ahead and booked a couple nights in Tallinn to see the sights. Having grown up in Finland, Ville had remembered coming to Tallinn in the 90's, having only come out from under Soviet Union rule in 1988. According to Ville, it was stepping back in time to a country still playing the Soviet Union part, had a lot of shady areas young Ville was told not to go, and was recommended to travel with a guide. The country has developed leaps and bounds beyond what Ville said it was like.
Tallinn is a bustling and hip little capitol; full of cobblestone streets, three-storied old stone buildings, decadent inexpensive food joints, breweries, bakeries, creperies, and cheap booze, all surrounding an old giant fortress up on the hill. It was cool! After two full days of walking all over so we could justify stuffing our faces, we got on our bikes and pedaled west to near Paldiski on the coast. We camped with a great new friend we met on the ferry from, where else, but Portland, Oregon. Small world we live in. Meghan had only a handful of days to bike, but we ended up getting to meet up a few nights to hang together. From there we biked to Haapsalu, another cute little Estonian town on the coast with a fortress and a handful of lakes. We took a day off already (thanks to the massive heat wave in Europe, our butts were not loving it) and ate too much good food with Meghan.
While in Haapsalu, it finally rained and cooled down from high 90's to 60's and we were so pumped. I had worn biking shorts most of the Alaska to Argentina ride, but had only really used chafing cream in the Central American heat. It had been so long, I hadn't even brought cream along and was a bit stranded without it. It really is a miracle I can even feel from the waist down anymore. I know you are probably thinking that is the REAL reason we don't have kids :) From Haapsalu it was a day and a half ride to Parnu. Along the way we camped in a super nice lady's yard. Lucky for us she was voted one of The Most Beautiful Homes in Estonia 2005 & 2007, so her outhouse was the nicest one I have ever seen (it even had a sink with running water).
Parnu, another large coastal Estonian city, we rode in early and decided to only stop for lunch and make a few more miles down the road. The road dumped us onto Via Baltica, the I-5 of the Baltics where the shoulder all but disappeared and giant semis careened past our faces and and we actually had countries with worse roads to compare it to, such as Honduras. Although longer, we opted off the road to some side roads as soon as possible and met the sweetest little old lady, Tiiu, who was so excited we asked to camp in her yard. Actually, there has been a bit of a language barrier since entering Estonia, because although the language is similar to Finnish, most Estonians speak Estonian or Russian, a product of their checkered past. So Tiiu called her son and he translated for her and she was still very excited to have us camp, hugged us profusely, and even made us some coffee before sending us on our way in the morning.
The next day we were able to stay on side-roads all the way until we entered Latvia, and then we ended up on a side-road into a massive forest that turned into a bit of a sand pit and we opted for the crappy Via Baltica highway instead of risking pushing bikes through sand. The shoulder was hit or miss, but the landscape was pretty, flat, lots of trees and pretty much the same as Estonia. By end of day we ended at a really swanky resort that we contemplated staying at because we could (it was in the budget), but after walking in and seeing the fine linen table clothes and super quiet dining guests, we opted for the wacky campground nearby instead. Empty, quiet, with a working shower and random cartoon painted RV trailers scattered in the yard to rent. We slept in our tent and met a really nice Dutch bike-touring couple that showed up and another very different Russian family who stayed in a trailer.
Now the Dutch couple were really nice, but wanted to ask me a bunch of questions about Trump and, well, why? I completely understand why travelers ask me, but I always get so bummed because I wish they could go ask him themselves why he doesn't care about the planet, tweet terrible things about other countries and basically be the opposite of a diplomat. I can't answer them, but I realize why they are upset. Wish I knew how to make it better. As for the Russian family, they were super nice, just a little different. Odd. I was sure I would find a dead horse head in my sleeping quilt, but in the morning, they packed up, and as they pulled out, stopped, rolled down the window, and with a thick Russian accent that sounded just like Bulrat, said, "Have a nice journey."
We had a full day of biking on and off the highway, had an unexpected mouth-watering burger stop, and when we arrived at a hotel on a lake we thought might pan out to stay, they were booked for a work event and we opted to stay at the hotel next door. Of course the restaurant was also closed and the one time we don't hit up the grocery store in the last town, there is no dinner. So we opted to drop panniers and bike without bags three and a half miles back to town to get dinner and man it was probably one of the best meals we have had! Mussels, salmon and jambalaya all better than some of the nicest restaurants in Bend. We stocked up on candy at the gas station and pedaled back to our hotel. There was some partying festivities from next door well into the early morning that could be heard through the walls, but we did get some sleep before the cannons (yes, literal cannons) started going off this morning. Turns out there was a military base on the lake and who knew there would be rounds of gun fire and cannons all morning. That and some pretty cool wasted Latvians and Estonians stumbling around. After breakfast, we had only 30 miles into downtown Riga and most of them winding through little towns on back roads.
There was a really nice bike path this afternoon winding us into the capitol, Riga, and we fairly easily found our hotel. The afternoon was spent walking all over the Old Town area, which is so similar to all the old towns of the Baltic region. But outside the Old Town was a much more run-down and sadder looking city where you can almost see the corruption. Ville left me sitting outside a few stores to go find me headphones, and it was some pretty spectacular people watching in Eastern Europe. Not that I am the poster child for fashion, but the outfits and t-shirt sayings are just too much. The roads in Latvia off the Via Baltica are really bad and as we rode through so many seaside towns with gigantic houses, we would joke that the Head of Transportation must live in them. Latvia is like the US, and so many other countries where there is a big divide between the haves and have-nots.
We tried to book a second night for a day off the legs, but no go and so we are back in the saddle tomorrow and heading south. No set plan in place, Ville mentioned a quirky motel in 30 miles that gets great reviews. I hope they have a work party and cannons. Until next time ya'll, keep on keepin' on!
K.G. & Ville
On a Book Tour
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” - Hunter S. Thompson