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)
K.G. & Ville
In New Zealand on bikes.
“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