Remember that one time we met a Polish Soldier on the side of the highway? And he insisted you hold his gun?
Hey Hey Hey! Welcome back friends. You give up or are you thirsty for more?
Sorry for the long delay good people, but we had a lot to pack in and little time to stop and write. And now I have a lot to catch you up on so bear with me. Maybe take breaks :) Last post I left off nestled in bed writing in Lomza while stuffing my pretty little face with pierogis and ice cream. Pierogis are a steamed pastry stuffed with all kinds of good stuff; meat, potatoes, spinach or fruit and can be found all over Poland, Russia, and many other European countries and the origin is greatly disputed (as is with all good foods). Thanks to the ridiculous number of cows all over Poland, there is more ice-cream (lody) shops than coffee shops so we are not going hungry. Although most of our meals between town stops are cold sandwiches made out of grocery stores.
Riding out of Lomza (pronounced Womza), we decided to follow a route recommended by Szymon, a Warmshowers host in Warsaw who allowed us to leave bikes in his place while we flew to Prague. But I'll get to that. We had about two and a half days ride, zig-zagging a bunch of slow back roads to get to Warsaw and found a place in the woods to camp a night and then found a shockingly not booked single bed in a hotel about 28 miles outside Warsaw on the second night. As romantic as spooning with your honey in a single bed sounds, the reality is not quite so Hollywood. We later learned from Szymon, that camping in Poland in the woods is illegal, so hopefully we don't get arrested. Our mug shots are probably posted all over police stations, "Wanted for Illegal Camping: Long Haired Swede and Stinky Tanned American Woman. Last seen with rifle, may be armed and dangerous" (I'll get to that too).
Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki (say that 10x fast), Warsaw, where we crammed into the single bed, had the best designated bike route from there about 28 miles south all the way into Warsaw. It wound through towns, forest, and even in along the giant Vistula River that runs through Warsaw. As soon as we left town, we passed a guy fully dressed in a WWI Polish Military Uniform. Ville stopped to find out the scoop, and as it turns out he happened to speak enough English to tell us he walked over two days from Warsaw fully dressed, heading to the town we had just left to do a War Reenactment. When Ville asked if he could take a picture with him, he insisted Ville hold his gun. The rest of the ride into town was really pleasant being separated from traffic. And as we rode into Warsaw along the promenade boarding the Vistula River, it was the first time since entering Poland that we saw Polish people out on bikes, scooters, roller blades, etc. and it was really cool! And Warsaw had excellent bicycle routes that ran all over the City as well.
Ville had booked us a room online (he found some deal) where it actually turned out to be one of the most plush rooms we will likely ever stay; river-front with views of a bridge and the PGE National Stadium. When we were biking through the pouring rain in Chile, Ville had asked to camp in a farmer's barn and the man actually said, "No, it's not hygienic" and Ville, stressed that we would be turned away, argued that it was just fine for his wife before the man insisted we camp in his clean shed. After that experience in Chile, we hysterically reference it in how low the bar is set for what Ville deems acceptable for his bride to sleep in. Animal feces you say? No problem! She's a champ! My wife will sleep anywhere. Needless to say this place was on the far opposite spectrum of the animal barn and pretty dang pimp!
We spent a day walking all around Warsaw; the Old Town, Mila 18 (bunker where 51 Jewish resistance fighters had died), History of Polish Jews Museum, and The University Library, one of my favorite buildings with a giant garden with lots of little spaces to explore on it's rooftop. We tried to go to a football (soccer) game, but didn't know until we got there we needed passports to get in, so walked along the miles of riverfront promenade and snacked at food carts instead. We biked south of the city the following day to meet Szymon who bought us lunch, stored our bikes, and even drove us to the airport to fly to Prague for four nights. Thanks Szymon!
Prague was a dream! A massive city not bombed to the ground in WW2 and most of the city preserved by the Czech Republic so lots to explore. We left the biking clothes behind with the bikes and I was able to wear non-sweaty clothes for 5 glorious days while using our legs to walk to all corners of the city. We took an Alternative Walking Tour of Prague, focused on graffiti, art, random sights, and the non-touristy sights of the City. We walked across the City up to the Zizkov Television Tower, built by the Czechs under Soviet rule, and had lunch with some of the best 360 degree views of the City. We even stayed in a giant purple room with a kitchen and washing machine. If you have noticed I mention washing machines often as a highlight, it's from spending over 2 years now hand washing sweaty bicycling clothes in sinks when I am exhausted at the end of a bunch of consecutive camping days. A washing machine is a massive perk.
After four nights/ five days in Prague, we flew back to Warsaw and stayed a night in Szymon's home (they were out of town) and headed out the next day south. A massive Thank You to Szymon for your hospitality! Although we had the best intentions of meandering slowly and taking our sweet time to make it to Krakow, the sweltering heat was making me sweat buckets, causing issues with chafing, and leaving me with migraines every evening in the tent. I just couldn't drink enough liquids to stay hydrated and so popped migraine pills like candy each day and used Baby Wipes to sop up all the salt on my skin by night. It took us three and a half days to get to Krakow and I really can't remember many highlights through my delirium.
On day four of biking from Warsaw, we dropped down a small hill (I really think our first since we started this bike tour in Eastern Europe) and into Krakow and found our weird little apartment. With all the best intentions of seeing the sights, we got up early to wander around the City and were back in our room early to crank the A/C and sit in temps under 100' with 80+ percent humidity. Neither of us grew up with A/C and almost never use it, but unfortunately, the temps are just too hot to be in. I keep asking people, "Is this normal?" thinking it's just a heat wave, but the answer is sadly, YES. The planet is warming up. Bend, Oregon use to be 70-80 degrees in the summers when I was a kid, now it is 90-100 degrees every summer. More people need A/C units. This sadly is the new normal. But trying to be proactive, Ville and I are cutting way back on meat, but mainly dairy/beef. Cows will soon pass oil/gas in greenhouse gas emissions and so eating less helps. So does not using plastic bags, these also have been found to emit methane when exposed to light. The small things, when everyone joins in, become big solutions!
On our second day in Krakow, we were picked up by a van early for a tour to Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. World War II had been briefly touched on in my American Education (I remember reading Anne Frank), but after asking Ville so many questions as we biked past lots of museums, concentration camps turned sights of remembrance, all over Eastern Europe, I spent a day reading up on WW I and WWII to familiarize myself with Eastern Europe's very distant past. A past that ended in only 1945, less than one person's lifetime away. If you haven't spent the time, I highly recommend doing so as well. "Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana
Auschwitz was really, really heavy and very surreal to be inside of. I actually felt the weight of it once we walked in under the ARBEIT MACHT FREI archway into the barbed wired compound. We went building by building with a guide explaining the horrific details of what happened to real people there. If you have not been to this place, again, I recommend going. It is something that words cannot describe. We saw massive rooms stacked to the ceilings with shoes, eyeglasses, clothing, suitcases (having been brought by people all believing they were being relocated to a better place to work and live). Their families were separated immediately after unloading from the packed cattle train cars and put into two separate lines: those that could work and those that could not. Those that could not were led to underground enormous rooms and told they would strip naked and get showers. Even the rooms were outfitted with fake shower heads. Here they were gassed with poison used for rodents and their bodies burned in incinerators by those that could work. The gas chambers could hold up to 2,000 people and 12,000 could be gassed and incinerated each day. The image that sticks in my mind the most is one of the massive rooms full to the ceiling and walled behind glass: human hair. It was used by the Germans to weave into rope and clothe after shaving it from all those that arrived, used for army blankets and socks for U-Boat Crews.
Auschwitz II - Birkenau was built after Auschwitz I became too small and was about 450 acres of barracks surrounded by electric barbed wire fencing. Each barrack had shelving/bunks three compartments high packed in with starving people, those deemed able to work. Just for a minute think about that number for this is only ONE of 20 large concentration camps, with thousands of sub-camps, built by the Germans for the sole purpose of killing people, mainly Jews, but also Romas (Gypsies), Slavs, homosexuals, mentally challenged, and others: 450 acres of barracks, each one packed full of people working without food until they were too weak and then were gassed. The size of this place is what stuck with me the most. Before WWII, there were about 11 million Jews living in Europe. During the Nazi Party's rise to power in Germany , the German take-over of surrounding countries during WWII and the Holocaust, 6 million Jews and millions of others were killed.
After Auschwitz, we rode in the van about an hour just south of Krakow to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Having biked over the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and visited the Maras Salt Mine in Peru, I expected just to get out of the van and look at a lake bed of salt. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was incredible! We walked down 400 spiraling wooden steps and walked 1.8 miles through caverns and hallways of chilly salt, only a glimpse of the 180 miles of tunnels. As you can see in the photos, there are statues, carvings, salt pools and even multiple churches where everything inside; floors, walls, ceiling, statues and even chandeliers are all carved salt. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place absolutely worth seeing.
After our very full day, we had a nights sleep before we headed south out of Krakow towards the border of Slovakia and into the foothills of the Tatar Mountains. As we began climbing the temps began to slowly decline. We found a Homestay at a small farm in the foothills called Na Zagrodzie and were treated very warmly by Anna and her family. Riding up and out from their place, we climbed along the river about 40 miles, many of the climbs 9-12 percent inclines very reminiscent of Guatemalan hill climbs. By the time we crossed the Slovakian boarder and dropped into Sucha Hora (oh yes, it is really called that!) and got a hotel, we were both beat. And as my luck seems to go with technology on this trip, my brand new cell phone decided not to turn on for no reason. Even after trying all the YouTube video tricks. Ville is still working on finding a place to try and fix it. We both rolled out our aching muscles on a little ball of magic I'm packing called The Orb (you can use a lacrosse ball) and were able to get up, a little less muscle tight in the morning, inhale some more pierogis and head out with more climbing into the Slavakian mountains.
We had two decent steep climbs for the day, over 2000 ft elevation (after over 16,000 ft in Peru this is child's play) but found a place open for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the views! We both agreed we would rather climb all day long to have beautiful views and speedy downhills in our days. And there are cyclists everywhere, cars drive slower and make room as they go around us, the air is cleaner, ski resorts everywhere, and the Slovakian people are super friendly! A stark difference from our experiences of the people in Poland. Although we met a few very kind people, Polish people felt more reserved, didn't return our smiles, hellos, or go out of their way to help us. Many actually turned us away when we asked to camp, written note asking in Polish or not. Language was a huge barrier for us, not speaking any Polish, and maybe our trip through would have been far different if we spoke Polish. Very few Polish speak English from our experiences, including the youth, and so many places we asked if someone spoke English we just got a hard, "No." I think maybe those in Poland that think Polish speak English are not speaking English to other Polish people. But knowing more about the history in Poland; invaded, again and again, the majority of the concentration camps from WWII all around Poland bringing tourism hugely for that purpose, I understand where maybe it's not the friendliest of places. I can understand having reservations about strangers. And we travel to experience all people and cultures with all their differences.
After a full day with our two climbs, we dropped down out of the mountains, pedaled around the shores of one of the few lakes in Slovakia, and made it to our pension in Ruzomberok. We took a day off here today, taking a short walk through town, but mainly hunkering down as after a handful of days dodging all the large thunderheads, today it actually poured rain (what timing!) and worked on writing all of you. I wanted to thank you all for continuing to follow us, for taking the time to read our Blog, for writing us emails and comments below, and supporting our continued travel. It is a lot of work to take a day to put this all together on the road, but knowing you read it, makes it worth it for me. I know this last post had some heavy material in it, but there is kindness everywhere and I hope this continues to inspire others to get out there in the world! The more friends we make all over, makes this planet smaller, minimizes our differences and reminds us how similar we are. Thanks Everyone!
Until the next stop, keep on keepin' on...
Eastern European T-Shirt Sayings Continued: "Hidden Jungle", "NASA" (we see tons of these with no idea why?), "No One Knows I Care Nothing", "Brave Mind", "Speed Xtreme", "Running Sucks", "Youth Has No Age", and "Peak Performance Extreme"
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