Cobaka's Final Bow 01/11/2010
It is with heavy hand that I write about the last adventures of my incredible friend Cobaka (Sobaka), and her incredible powers that I have documented these past months. But before she gave in she conquered some incredible final challenges.
We got up at dawn, willing to brave the freezing morning air just for an attempt at crossing O'Cebreiro, the hardest climb on the Camino. Everyone had told us the roads would be clear and we should be able to ride it, but of course these things are easier said than done. Last time Levi and I crossed O'Cebriero Levi was so hung over he couldn't hold down water and I was not far behind in that department, luckily the incredibly steep climb, and the hurricane that was waiting for us at the summit distracted us from our agony. This time there was no hang over and no need for distraction, although there was the cold. It was a beautiful climb into Galicia, the western province of Spain, most known for it's never ending rainfall, but we were lucky, when we got to the top of the mountain and looked into Galicia, all we saw was sun. The sun was deceiving though, by the time we descended (for about 25 minutes) none of us could feel our extremities, and I was positively creeped out by going over so many mountain highway bridges. We reached a hotel with teeth chattering and adrenaline racing only to discover that the hotel room was colder than outside and there was little enthusiasm coming from the hotel staff to defrost the windows. It was a rough night, one of those “How am I still doing this?” nights. And it was Sunday to boot, meaning nothing was open and we found ourselves drinking 2 dollar gas station wine and eating Shell brand chocolate chip cookies.
It is a strange feeling to be at the end of a long, physically intense trip, you can’t really see yourself stopping until you are finally done, Adrian kept saying “Wow, I can’t believe it is almost over” and all I could think was “not yet”. We had big ambitions the next day, to get to a hotel that had heat, maybe 80 km away. We got out the front door and knew that was not to be. It was freezing rain and fiercely windy, amazingly it still seemed warmer than our room. We have been developing a new riding system to deal with the cold conditions, I call it “Race and Drink” we go 20k or so (sometimes the first café is farther away) to the first café you see and have either a wine, coffee or if particularly cold a hot chocolate. This session was one of the worst, we crossed over a mountain and were welcomed to the downhill with huge gusts of wind carrying tiny pellets of frozen rain, it was a pull down your helmet, close your eyes and just kind of guess where the switchbacks were kind of ride. I got in and drank 2 hot chocolates. We cut our day short finding a nice pilgrim hostel with heat and a wonderful hearth where the pilgrims gathered in the evening apparently to swap war stories (it was just us though, it being December, so the war stories were mostly about restaurants and house painting). It took us 2 more days of riding, less hills and better weather to reach Santiago, the end of the Camino, where Annette, Adrian’s wife met us. Levi and myself collected our second Camino de Santiago diploma, even this, knowing that the Atlantic Ocean was only a few miles away, did not convince me that the end was near, not until the bike stops moving and the morning packing is finished will I believe.
We spent Christmas in Santiago, Levi and I had been talking about “Our Christmas Together” for a long time, we spent it in a “look the other way bar” it was empty, but not because as I would assume it was too late and Christmas Eve, but because it is Spain and no one goes out until 2am, as we were walking home the city was coming alive, young and old on Christmas Eve.
We exchanged Christmas gifts in the morning, and ventured a knock on Adrian and Annette’s door a bit later, they were recovering from a typical Spanish Christmas Eve, they had gotten home at 5:30, “you wouldn’t believe how many people where coming home from the bars” Adrian said.
Adrian was still hungover when we started out from Santiago heading south 2 days later, an ironic twist of fate. It was the first time I got that little tingle that you get at the end, there were 3 days left and no more time off, until Porto. It was sunny and beautiful, we cruised for a couple of hours stopping only at a gas station café, something we hadn’t done since Ukraine. Suddenly we came up over a ridge and there it was, something I had been dreaming of for so long, a symbol of the end and a treat for the salt spray deprived nostrils, it was the Atlantic. It started as an inlet, but slowly we wound our way out onto the peninsula by mistake, a detour that led us to be surrounded by the ocean we were supposed to be “saving for Porto”. Adrian’s knee gave out soon after, we had to find a hotel, we found one right on the water. You couldn’t help but think that this was the true end of the trip, Adrian with a bum leg, the ocean right out the window and for some reason the Lord of the Rings playing in Spanish on the TV. Levi and I went out and “looked the other way” on the beach, watched our first ocean sunset in 8 months.
And that was it, the rest of the trip to Porto was neither glorious nor on bike, we rode 5k the next day, but Adrian’s leg was bumming, so we hopped on a bus, planning to ride triumphantly into Porto the next day, just for our parents. Levi and I stayed alone in a hotel in the center of Porto, Adrian went to the apartment his family had rented, and reunited. We went out, and celebrated preemptively alone, just one more pack and ride.
I guess I didn’t explain things very well to Cobaka, my bike, because when she got to Porto she said “okay no more riding!” The next morning she had a flat tire in defiance, I changed it and got on, then an act of God (or more likely a mechanic malfunction, but I’ll never admit to that) came, I think Cobaka even barked in anger as the chain seized to the wheel and ripped the derailleur into a position that I didn’t even know possible. The frame was finished, we waited in Mcdonalds until Adrian and Annette came to pick us up in a rent a car, I had a big mac and a coffee before taking a cab to “triumphantly” reunite with my parents.
They were almost delirious with lack of sleep, and they were tired and cold standing in the middle of the street in the rain holding a "Bravo Idiots" banner, but they were certainly a sight for sore eyes (rare you get to use that phrase to it's fullest extent). Certainly your parents don't get less crazy than when you left, but after a 10 month adventure across Siberia, you at least feel you have leveled the playing field. It was a great reunion, and finally I put my bike down in a place, knowing full well that the next time I moved it, I would be going home.
It would be difficult to describe what the feeling of being off the bike was like in Porto, you were off, but it really gave you no relief, the bike trip was still going, only now your "bike" part was over, and your family had joined the "trip" part. But we did have fun, and many laughs, we even dared to get the whole crew back together in the car and go out sightseeing, the scene of many "memorable" times in my childhood, often similar to scenes out of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles". But this time things went fairly smoothly, if loudly, perhaps we are getting better (probably best not to test this theory with another trip though).
All of a sudden I was in a bicycle shop looking at a box that was Cobaka's temporary home for the ride to the US. That strange sensation was quickly followed up with my last night on Eurasia, a landmass I was really beginning to feel attached to, and saying goodbye to Levi, a person I was really beginning to feel attached to as well. It was as everyone knows anti-climatic, he came home late from sightseeing, I was going to sleep before a 3am wake up call. 10 months later it was a quick hug and a "see you on the other side".
Then I was back, looking at a sleeping 14 year old basset hound, wondering whether it was worth waking her, I did, and she seemed vaguely to recognize me. And that was it, the bike trip was over, I sat down in a big comfy chair with a cup of coffee, just like I dreamed of on those worst of days in the cold, it was all that I imagined and more. But shortly after, I got up and wandered over to the computer, did a little surfing and ordered a replacement touring frame for Cobaka, I guess I got restless.
Riding With Adrian 12/19/2009
I read a book recently where the main character always described everything as "just so f$%&real", everything was just so f&%$ real. We were seated in our suits on the side of the street when Adrian pulled up and the only way I can describe that moment is so F%&$ real. For almost 8 months that life on Cape Cod has existed solely in my head, it was almost imaginary, when suddenly out of nowhere a real and tangible character stepped out of taxi into the Idiots world and just said "hey guys". I am a week in and I still look over and want to pinch Adrian just to see if this is really happening. And craziest of all he came to ride! He was introduced to our lives quickly as upon arrival we discovered that there was no bike for him to ride, even though he had rented one that was to be delivered to the hotel, there was nothing. Our first bike trouble day off followed as we waited for the rental company to drive the bike all the way from Madrid to St. Jean, welcome aboard Adrian, you´re officially the Third Idiot. It was awesome to see someone get excited for their first day ride, trying to figure out what to wear, how much should I bring to eat etc. Adrian was on cloud nine with excitement to get out there and it was catchy, Levi and I both got that same first day feeling which was nice. The weather could not have been better, there had been snow in the Pyrenees earlier that week but as we climbed, we could only find little traces on the side of the road, we were in tee shirts Basque- in the sun climbing into Spanish Basque territory. It was a long climb, we took it slow, but it was obvious that Adrian´s constant training meant he was going to fit in find with the Idiots. Finally we reached the summit, marked appropriately enough with a church (there is a lot of praying when you reach the top of the Pyrenees and realize that was only the first 26k), it was the nicest day Levi and I had seen in months, you could see all the way down into the far valleys. The day was finished with Adrian staying in his first pilgrim hostel, also probably the least pleasant of the whole trip, a cramped room with shaky bunk beds and a demonic shower. Last time we were there a pilgrim walked in, took a smell and said "Ugh this place reminds me of Iraq", still not sure what that means but it seems to describe the hostel perfectly.
Levi and I had been really worried about what the weather was going to do, and we were hoping that Adrian´s first day or two might at least be not too miserable. We didn´t even remember the last time we had seen weather as nice as the next few days (probably Russia), it was amazing. The beginning of the is one of the most beautiful parts anyway, but we spent 4 days just cruising, eating outside, something we hadn´t done in months, it was great and Adrian was fine with the pace. We took a day off in , discovered a street that seems to mimic certain "look the other way" policies of countries of Holland and . Everything was going great.
Fast Forward 3 days...
"Whew that was a close one, I was going to stop whether you did or not here."
"Adrian you don´t need to worry too much, I will always stop every 20 k so that we can get the feeling back in out toes."
"Has it been this cold before on the trip?"
"Not really, usually it is about 3 degrees Celsius warmer but raining and windier"
But it was cold, real cold as we climbed up the mountain pass and the snow began to really come down. Things had changed, it was impossible to be on the bike more than an hour without warming up for an hour. We got off the and on to the quicker road, we were going much farther each day because we no longer stopped for coffees in the street, or hunted out stamps at churches. We just rode. Finally one day it really began to snow, actually accumulating. Levi and I decided to take a day off, assuming that it would just be a little bit and tomorrow it would be gone or cleared and we could continue our ride. We awoke to 6 inches on the ground and suddenly the bike trip came to a standstill in Carrion , try as we might we could not stay on the bikes for more than a half pedal before falling in the snow. We were supposed to head into the mountains in two days, be in Santiago for Christmas with some of Adrian´s family on the 24th and be in Porto on the 28th, snow, or at least a snow storm wasn´t in the schedule and I couldn´t seem to make it fit.
We did what we had to do, and really what any reasonable person would do, we walked to the bus station (not without Adrian taking a "graceful" fall off the bike), and joined the 3 other pilgrims waiting for the bus. We went to Leon to monitor the situation and forget our troubles on Leon´s "look the other way" street, with days fading fast we decided to go about 100 km away from Santiago and ride in from there and then go directly to on the coast of Spain, that way we would miss the mountain passes, but still ride to the ocean. It didn´t make anyone particularly happy but it was a workable option that didn´t involve a complete bailout (did I mention that the weather forecast is rather heavy on the word snow for the coming days?).
Today we found ourselves on the train, on our way to a town in the valley between two mountain ranges, where we have to transfer to get over the next set of mountains. We are spending the night here at a pilgrim hostel, the attendant seems to think that the roads are clear enough that we can take a main road through the mountains tomorrow. Might as well try right? Just gotta get down before the snow storm for Monday moves in, but that´s why I brought my road bike.
Making Ends Meet 12/16/2009
There are many people that can be blamed for the situation I am in right now, and most of them have gotten their come uppance. Certainly I have gotten mine for carrying through with this "vision", my parents who so many years ago decided that instilling a good sense of adventure in their son by taking him on family vacations to Europe have suffered by having to worry constantly as we slowly made our way across Siberia, but so far there is one person who has made it out scott free, just reading the blogs and laughing...
"Hey Adrian" the over tired wait staff replied. It was August, Nate Tarvers and I were heading into senior year of high school and we were both looking for a way out of that inevitable immediate transition to college, but right now we were just thinking of how well coffee works in August to keep you going.
"Hey Ell check out this article I snipped out of the New York Times this morning." Adrian said with that wonderful positive enthusiasm that I curse when I am riding in the rain and wind. "There is this mountain bike trail across the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Mexico, I guess it is the world's longest mountain bike ride. Sounds amazing, you like biking you should do it."
By the time the words were out of his mouth Nate and I already had the article in hand and were working out the details of the trip.
" We could leave the end of next summer and ride it in the fall, we would have to take a year off, but..." We looked at each other with a glow of excitement, we'd found it.
I took that year off, we went out west biking for two months and all I could talk about during my first year at Alfred University was the bike trip and doing another one, and we know of course who I did most of that talking to.
So now it is Adrian's turn, he got me into this mess, and on the 7th of December he is going to help ride me out of it. We are going to ride the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage trail to Santiago, where the devout religious and the devout adventurer alike have been trekking to Santiago, Spain from as far away as St. Petersburg, Russia (and now Vladivostok). He will be the Third Idiot and perhaps the biggest one, having followed all the trials and tribulations he still wants in, you can follow him on the website, www.paneurasianbiketrip.com (shameless promotion I know).
But that of course is jumping ahead first Levi and I had to make it to St. Jean Pied de Port, the traditional starting point of the Camino de Santiago.
The weather for the last month has been so bad that it has transformed the entire structure of the bike trip, where as before we used to stop constantly and hang out, we now don´t stop at all, I see Levi in the morning we go over the route and then I stop at any point where there is a change in direction or an unclear sign, and we take that segment together and then separate, eventually stopping to hang out and eat at night in the hotel room.
The first day out of Futurscope was no different, weather was crappy and we hopped on the "buses" and started riding. I stopped at the first turn and waited for Levi to catch up, and waited...and waited, "Must have a flat" I thought. I turned back and retraced my steps eyeing as I went a small road off to the right "he wouldn´t have gone there would he?" I went half way back to Futurscope, and then decided there was nothing I could do, Levi knew the name of the town and the road we were taking, he would get there right, he might even have corrected his mistake and was now ahead of me.
The weather got worse, the rain turned to driving hail, I was alone and flying fast along the road, our waterproof gear is not what it once was and made for miserable riding, I was just hoping that Levi would be at the town when I got there. He wasn´t of course, and I was shaking, it was freezing on the bus, I think the driver left the door open, it was Sunday too, everything was closed, but I stumbled into a small bar that gave me a good spot to look out for Levi. You can imagine the looks a soaked shivering cyclist with hail in his beard gets walking into a small town coffee bar on a Sunday afternoon, but everyone was very accommodating and my hot chocolate was delicious (as were the coffee, the next hot chocolate and the final coffee as I waited for Levi to arrive and my core temperature to rise).
He came in finally soaked and weary as well, we had both ridden almost twice the distance we needed to that day, and we compared notes and had a good laugh, our first separation in 7 months.
We continued on to Congac, the home of all your favorites that I can´t spell, Hennassy, Courvousier, Martell, etc. We took another bike trouble day off, and for the first time in a month we saw the sun, of course. But sun and Cognac go well together.
Our bike trouble put us behind for the 1 millionth time during this trip and once again the idiots found themselves stepping out of a day off ready to push one more time "the push to end all pushes". We raced through one of the most interesting parts of France yet, a national park/logging camp. It is a huge forest, beautiful and partially scarred from logging. The roads were deserted except for logging trucks and military vehicles, very strange place. Eventually the forest gave way to the mountains as we climbed for a few days to St. Jean Pied de Port, the beginning of the End. We exchanged congratulations and enjoyed our last night before Adrian joined us.
Thanksgiving In Futurscope, France 12/16/2009
It is much easier and funnier to write about the harshness of the weather or to tell the stories of missteps and blunders of the bike trip, than to write about the beauty of the country side or the wonders of spending months on a bicycle. But sometimes I think that you might get the wrong idea of the bicycle trip, and so just for Thanksgiving I will try and give a more positive look to the bike trip. Just as a side note, the weather has in no way improved (don't tell Adrian but we have experienced some hail recently), our radiators are covered with smelly socks and dirty bike shorts every evening).
For thousands of kilometers Levi and I talked about where we are now, it was the dream. Siberia is fascinating an amazingly beautiful place, but there are an awful lot of birch trees for your eyes to scour and things move slowly, 1600km of mountains, then a city, 1000km around Lake Baikal and then a city. Things are different now, you are riding through the heart of Europe, a place where Pilgrims have walked in search of religious fulfillment for centuries. If you are not in a small town then you are in a city, we now avoid cities as too many red lights slow us down. Everything is closer and more manageable, what you lose in adventure you gain in comfort. The search for coffee?? Those days are over, there is so much good coffee that I can barely steer the bike my hands shake so much.
The tents rest quietly and untouched in their bags on the backs of the bikes, only moved to get to the clothing bags underneath, camping is a thing of the past for us, instead more often than not you will find us in a small bed and breakfast not unlike the ones that you dream of for your own European travels. We stayed at one the other day, off in the middle of nowhere, it was a small French chateau, for some reason it was incredibly well priced. It looked distinctly like a place that should not be admitting cyclists, due to smell alone, but they were more than willing, we had a great breakfast featuring over 50 varieties of home made jam, and as we were leaving (in the rain and wind) the owner came running out with a jar of the jam "a little piece of sunshine for you." I am doing my best to save it as a gift for my mother, who would appreciate it more than me, but any food on my bike is subject to spontaneous Sunday eating, as I usually forget to buy food for Sunday.
I talk all the time of the battle against the wind and rain, but recently there has been a dramatic change in the battle. I stopped fighting. I have pretty much always looked at the days ride as a bike ride, cycling is my favorite past times and I like to push myself, trying to keep up a good pace. But having faced a month of intense headwinds and a go nowhere pace, I stopped. Now I cruise, and I have discovered that cruising causes me not to notice I am cycling at all. What happens below my torso has no effect on me I just am in my own little world watching the small French towns pass by. I just get lost in my own thoughts and watching the French country side (the fox hunts, the mushroom pickers and grape vines being tended for winter)
I've taken to referring to my bike as "The Bus".
"Boy it is windy on the bus today, and I think there is a hole in one of the windows, cause I seem to be getting a steady stream of rain on my bus, what about yours Levi?" So really I don't battle I just kill a bit of time until the next bus stop.
And a bus trip across Europe is really quite interesting, I am often transported into the same mindset I had as when I was a kid traveling with my parents. I always would stare out the window as we cruised through the mountains and hills of Europe and wonder about the little details of the towns, those little caves in the side of the cliff with an ancient padlocked gate in front, "is it a mine or just a little shelter for cattle, a well?" Or perhaps you wonder what that word you keep seeing in French is. You watch the farmers get the fields ready for winter (we have now gone full cycle with the farming scarily enough).
For me it is a scary test of my history degree (and I seem to fail quite often) as Europe is a place that one cannot go a half inch on the map without finding ones self in the midst of a battlefield you can't quite remember the protagonists of or at the birthplace of a historic figure you can't quite remember why they are important. In the last weeks we have gone past the battle field of Waterloo, seen Marcel Prousts home town and Cardinal Richelieu's home town (conveniently called Richelieu) and many more that I have failed to recognize.
This is Levi and I have now shared 3 Thanksgivings together disturbingly enough. The first one was at my parents house about 6 years ago while we were going to school at Alfred University a typical college Thanksgiving where one is so hungover from "meeting up with old friends" that the turkey still tastes like beer. The last one was on the Camino de Santiago. It was the night before the biggest climb of the trip, Levi and I wound up hitch hiking back 10km to the last town in search of a good party, only to find ourselves quite drunk alone in a town which did not have "a good party" at four in the morning. We tried desperately to trudge through the muddy cow pastures to the highway in a pathetic attempt at hitch hiking we gave up and started walking home, only to find a couple of teenagers who were game for an adventure, we got in bed by 6 for the hardest day of the trip.
The third Thanksgiving wasn't like that, not even remotely. It was a long day on the "bus" once again filled with rain and wind. We had been doing some vague talking about the big Thanksgiving meal, a rotisserie chicken, a heaping pile of yogurt and granola (a bike trip staple) but it seemed like the meal was destined for delay, we just didn't feel the need. But then we hit Futurscope, France. Apparently right around the time that Paris was building EuroDisney, Poitiers, France decided it was not to be outdone, they built Futurscope. It is a rather bizarre futuristic theme park outside the city, when it first was unveiled 20 years ago it must have been quite a site, but just like watching those 1950's "the house of the future" segments on TV it seems a bit dated. It just kind of looked like modern city center, but instead of surrounded by a huge metropolis, it was surrounded by highways and open pasture (and our reason for staying there, cheap hotels). It was also completely empty, it appears that Futurscope has had a difficult time selling it's formerly state of the art business offices, everything was showing it's age. We couldn't even find a internet signal in the whole place. We did stumble across a buffet restaurant though and so Thanksgiving was saved. We hadn't been out to eat in what seems like months, so we put on our suits and went out for perhaps one of the nicest meals of the trip, although the French waiters perhaps didn't see it that way as the two Americans in poorly cut suits helped themselves to an undisclosed number of trips to the buffet line, but hell, we tipped well.
Highs and Lows in The Low Countries 11/19/2009
Entering Holland was a breath of fresh (smokey) air, nothing really got easier, but you relaxed a bit. Much of this trip has been like that, everything comes in waves, just when you are getting used to the challenges of a certain area everything changes and you are once again facing a new set of challenges which seem just as frustrating as the last. Holland and Blegium however, were that sweet time where you were used to the problems of Northern Europe and could just smoke- I mean ride the wave. We took an extra rest day right away in a small town just across the border, Levi needed to recoup from a freak chair dancing injury, we even became regulars in the local coffeeshop. It was a coffeeshop like I had never seen before, they are, if you have never been in one, almost exactly as you might imagine, a lot of Reggae playing and a lot of comfy places to sit and a lot of young giggling men. This one though reminded me of what it would be like if your local bar sold marijuana (It looked astonishingly like the Old Colony in Provincetown), before they opened there were regulars lining up to get that early morning pick me up, the woman behind the bar was in her 50's and lively and friendly, someone was always shooting a game of pool, the decor was wooden stools and dart boards. It was a booze free bar, very strange.
Although we were less perturbed by the challenges, there were certainly many, we did a 100 mile day purely by accident riding well into the night in search of a certain hotel, just barely making it in before 8. We found The Netherlands to be the most frustrating place to ride a bicycle yet, paths were too well marked and "scenic" for their own good, we spent hours zig zagging across the countryside while just trying to go in a straight line, often 60km would morph into 100km. But we took our time, first meeting up with a friend, Carl who we met while studying in Vladivostok. He was now back in Holland studying and met up with us in Utrecht (if you are a student in Holland you get free train travel). We spent a day with him, walking around Utrecht, a very nice canal city south of Amsterdam.
We also met up with a friend that Levi, Nate and myself had met on the Camino de Santiago three years ago. Bert lives in Leuven, Belgium, and he showed us a wonderful time. Since he is a former pilgrim, he knew just what to do with us, immediately taking us to the washing machine and getting our clothes started, and taking us out for some delicious Belgian Waffles. We wound up staying 2 extra days with Bert, we were just enjoying his place so much and getting everything ready for, what was in our minds, "the last cruise" down to the South of France. We had plenty of time, the Belgian roads had straightened out a bit and we were prepared for anything. We had felt this way before, in Chita, in Novosibirsk, hell in Perm we bought suits we were feeling so good (yes I have been carrying a suit for almost 4000 miles), always to be crushed, and find a new obstacle to overcome. But this time it felt complete, we had come almost 8000 miles, we have only 1500 left and we have plenty of time, we only have to be in the South of France by the 5th of December. We were leaving the 12th of November, according to any numbers we crunched we could still take our time, although not as much as we could have had we not spent 2 days with Bert and a day with Carl, but those were both well worth it.
We left Leuven feeling quite jolly, next stop we pick up Adrian and take that final trip to Porto! as we pulled out of the city limits, we were hit by a brutal headwind, we were 85km from France and immediately in my mind I thought, "well we probably won't quite get to France today, but early tomorrow, either way.". The hills were finally growing again as we rode towards the French border, the road strangely turned into a quasi Belgian Red Light District, so Levi and I decided to call it quits, one guy we talked to about long bike trips before we left, always talked about the days where the winds were too tough and you had to "pack it in early" it was one of our favorite phrases and acts.
We "packed it in early" at a Formula 1 a French hotel chain that I remember as an ultra modern, ultra cheap hotel from when my family used to stay at them in Europe, they now appear to be Ultra worn and Ultra dirty, what I remember as a toilet that went through a cleaning process like a self cleaning oven when I was a child appears to be a toilet modeled after a portapotty where the toilet flushes when you unlock the door. The bunk beds that endeared me so much as a kid because they gave the room that feel of adventure, now make me cringe as I wonder if my bike trip might end because of a freak Formula 1 accident. None the less they are cheap. We got ourselves out of the room the next morning, even managing to tear ourselves away from the BBC, a gift of Western Europe to the Idiots. We packed up the bikes just as the wind began to whip the flags into frenzy, we stood in awe watching out day flap away in the breeze as a terrific rainstorm moved in, in a matter of seconds. We looked at each other, all suited up in rain gear, "I'll ride in the rain, but this is a storm, I don't need to ride in this". Walked back into the Formula 1 and booked another night, sadly the program that we had been watching on Lima's declining water supply was over. Still the Idiots were feeling pretty good, we spent the day just lounging, using the Formula 1 internet, not even for anything really productive, unless you count following World Cup qualifying. The next day we got out there again, the rain was minimal, the wind was blowing pretty hard, but that wasn't going to stop us. Nor did it stop us, what did stop us that day was TNT, or tires n' tubes. One of the toughest things about a flat tire, is not changing the tube or pumping it up, it is finding what caused the flat, because more often than not it is still in the tire ready to cause the next flat just a few km down the road. On that stretch of road I had 3 consecutive flats, I traced each hole in the tube to the tire but still could find nothing. Every 10 kilometers for 30km I was getting a flat. Finally as we ran out of patched tubes, it was raining so everything was wet, and Sunday so you couldn't just buy a new tube, we came upon another Formula 1, "35k seems like a good riding day to me. "
At this point we knew that we were going to have to start doing some riding, we were still in Belgium!!! We woke up serious the next day, I went to the bike shop and bought two new tires for my bike and some new tubes and we got out there. The wind was again whipping, ever since we had left Bert's we have faced a brutal 20-30 mile an hour head wind, everyday the forecast says it will die down but it never does. We rode though, through clenched teeth and with heads down we battled against the wind seeking 10 miles an hour. After a certain point the wind changed to a cross wind, maybe we should have known then, but it wasn't until we had done another 10km that we discovered we had turned the wrong way, our map can be blamed for this one, although it is a 2009 France map, all the road numbers are wrong and most of it can be at best be considered a general sketch of how the roads lie.
But the map wasn't going to refund us our money or our kilometers, we still were not out of Belgium, in fact we were closer to our hotel than the border. We just wanted to be magically lifted back to where we took the wrong turn at least then we could make some progress today. We decided that hitchhiking might get us what we wanted.
I don't know whether the Belgians don't know what hitchhiking is, or whether they just choose to ignore hand signals, but we gave it a good hour and a half, thumbs out, in no other hitching situation on this trip had we had to wait so long, not even on the dirt road in Chita. People did stop, but for some reason they didn't understand what we wanted, they would always ask where we were going and what we were doing as if putting our thumbs out meant we were seeking friendship. Eventually they would ask, "So what do you want?" we would tell them (mind you we only stuck our thumbs out for cars big enough to accommodate us and our bikes, so usually vans). They would laugh and say "Oh of course I can't". It happened 4 times, a bizarre experience. Eventually we had to get back on the bikes and ride, we did reach France, not as far as we wanted to go, and it wasn't a cheap hotel night but we made it. On the map we had moved 35km, our odometers read 88km a rough day.
Each one of these days had brought a new level of frustration, getting lost being the pinnacle. Yesterday as we left the hotel I was determined to tackle the day frustration free, we were in France now, they don't seem to have bike lanes, you can just ride on the road, which for us is a great victory, we are free again. We got out on the straightest road we could find and headed to a Formula 1 about 90km away. It was a great day in many respects, we did not get lost (caution: I define being lost as having to turn around completely and backtrack) the roads were fairly clearly marked (I have discovered a way of interpreting the discrepancies on my map, D1044 is for instance N44 on the street signs, just a little extra calculation to challenge you). The road was as direct as possible, as straight a road as I have ever seen (rough with the hilly surroundings).
The wind however was spectacular, each day instead of decreasing I would say the wind has gotten better, France and Belgium have surpassed any other place we have been by far in strength and consistency, we did however manage to keep ourselves counting our blessings for the day (after a lost day, any day where you make positive gain all day is victory), and managed to stay frustration free.
We did 120km (maps are an imprecise science) in perhaps some of the roughest conditions to date, certainly since Ukraine. We crawled into the hotel room like beaten men, and tried to interpret the forecast tomorrow, "okay well those clouds are moving out, I think it should get better, god knows it can't keep up like this forever." We ate a huge meal, as if we had done 200km, it sure felt like it.
This morning the sun showed itself, the clouds were gone for the first time in a month or so, there was a faint hope. We exited the town again, slowly climbing a hill, with each meter the wind grew, finally we reached the top, was it possible it had gotten stronger? The wind was so strong today we gave in after 35km, when you are only going 8 miles an hour sometimes you just have to "pack it in".
It has been 7 months since we left Vladivostok, and only in the last month or so, since we entered the full on Europe section of the trip, have we been able to sit back and really reflect on the Russian section of this trip. It is really an incredible sensation, I look back at the guy who made it across Siberia and wonder if it is possible that I am still him, there have been so many changes since then. Some parts of this bicycle trip feel like you are being torn down and rebuilt again and again. Chita you thought you could accomplish anything now that you had done the off road, bicycle rack trouble and food poisoning brought you back down, but you slowly built yourself back up, fixed the racks as best you could and ate packaged foods, by Krasnayarsk you were king of the world again, talking big. The flats and wind of Novosibirsk brought you back down, showing you a new immense challenge, by Perm you were buying suits because "you had never met anyone better" and you had just ridden across Asia. Road frustrations and disappointment in how "European" European Russia is, brought you crashing back down. It is going to be interesting to see what might happen to you, if as I am beginning to think, you will face a twenty to thirty kilometer and hour head wind from here to the South of France. What is a person who battles the wind like after a steady 2 weeks? Crazy I guess.
Flashbacks to Fat Family in a Fiat 11/19/2009
When the Fat Family in a Fiat (as my mom called our early family vacations) got together, things were not always successful, is supposed to be easy, but travel always has it's difficulties. There was Navarro, a small town in France, where we spent 4 hours driving around trying to leave but every sequence of roads we took brought us back to the center. I was little and quite appropriately asked "are we going to die out here?". Or there was the time we were trying to climb Mount Vesuvius and the road slowly kept getting smaller and smaller, but no one wanted to acknowledge that we might be on the wrong road so we sat in silence until the road turned to a mud path and the branches were scratching the side of the car. Then there was the time we went to Cinque Terre, 5 small Italian towns only connected by train and hiking paths, very beautiful and scenic. We decided to take the path when we arrived in late afternoon since it said it was only 30 minutes. It took 2 hours hiking along a cliff, in some places the path had been narrowed because part of it had fallen in the sea below, we were passing all these Italian families who had also made the mistake, the grandmothers in their fur jackets and fancy Italian shoes splashing along the muddy path (did I mention it had rained recently). We arrived in the next town and Keith and I took some "extreme swigs" as we called it of water because of course we hadn't planned on a two hour hike. We would also spend hours looking for affordable hotels, cruising through several towns sometimes well into the night. But all this was my parents fault of course, I have a much better sense of direction and after riding a bike through Asia, this should be no problem, right? About an hour after leaving , we discovered that the bike path would be most of the time just that, a dirt track. If we were lucky it might be a big cobblestone cart path (ever ridden a fully loaded road bike over huge uneven cobblestones?). But it wasn't too bad, when the road was nice it was very flat and quick. We continued to ride along it for a couple of days to Germany, it was beautiful, riding along the Elbe river between the mountains, amazing hill top castles, really great riding. The weather was pretty good, the leaves are changing on the trees so it is cold, but there wasn't too much rain. The day we entered Germany, the weather was great, we even had a tailwind and the road was nice, we did the first 20km quickly and easily the area was getting remote and it looked on the map like the towns along the river were only connected by the train and bike paths, strange.... As I struggled to push my bike up the muddy rocky path along the cliff , I glanced back down the path I had come, isn't this thing supposed to be downhill? I stumbled to the rest area at the highpoint in the path and looked down, there was the path I was obviously supposed to take, it was along the rivers edge and looked like a total mud pit. "Oh looks like I chose the good way!" As I carried my bike down a flight of muddy stairs and bashed my leg into the pedal for the 400th time in an hour I reconsidered which might have been the best choice. At least down there I wouldn't be passed by all these bewildered hikers watching a man carry a fully loaded bicycle down a fully staired . I texted Levi and asked if he had made the same mistake, he responded "I just tore my waterproof pants with my pedal while carrying my bike down a flight of stairs, unless the other path features stairs as well I think I took the same one?" To be fair to Germany, the same thing happened to me in Czech, I tore my rain pants carrying my bike up a set of stairs onto and oil pipeline bridge that the Czech Republic uses for a bicycle crossing. For the rest of the trail all I could think about was Cinque Terre and being caught for a second time on a touristy hiking path screaming and yelling inappropriately with a huge fully loaded bicycle (My friend Nate and I went bike-hiking by accident in Yellowstone too). We made good time again after the bike hike and once again we began to think it was a fluke incident and the bike trail was overall good. We got lost outside of a small town about 2 hours later, slowly the road got narrower and narrower until it just stopped in the middle of a muddy field. Backtracking in a car isn't the end of the world in a car, but on a bike it is pretty frustrating, we lost hope for the bike path. We made it to Dresden and decided to get back on the road from there on(coincidentally the big mountains happened to have just ended, lucky us). We made better time, but things were different, since Poland we had started to see bike paths fairly regularly, in the towns, sometimes even out on roads. We often stayed with the road because it is much quicker and is always pavement as opposed to uneven bricks. But in Germany the bike paths were everywhere, and there were rules, we've been corralled, the cars now honk if you aren't on the bike path, you have your own lights that you have to obey, there are cyclists everywhere, big, small, slow, fast. We began to feel cramped, you seem always be stuck behind someone or facing imminent tragedy as a large family all ages and all on bikes comes barreling in slow motion towards you, you have to ride on the grass to avoid maming a toddler swerving on a tricycle. So sometimes we stuck with the road. Then we got pulled over. We had found that what often happened with the roads we were following was that they would have bike paths almost all the time and then when they intersected with another big road or city, the bike paths would disappear and reappear about 2km down the road after the intersection. We knew that this was probably a hint to find another way through the town, but we weren't about to go get lost when it is only two km on a nice shouldered road. Usually nothing happened, a couple of honks and we were off again, this time however a cop passed me and put his lights on, he pulled over to the side of the road and I guess we were "pulled over." He took our passports instead of drivers licences. After waiting a ridiculously long time (it was just like being in a car) he handed us back our passports and said what I believe were his only English words "highway! No Bike!". I was lucky enough to be pulled over again without Levi a little while down the road. This time they ignored my lack of German and lectured me for about 5 minutes, then escorted me with lights flashing, into the town, they were about to leave when one of the guys saw my toy machine gun that I have on my backpack it is just a little fake gun that makes a ratta-tat-tat noise when you pull the big red nob on it. The German police officer decided that this was too much and gave me another long speech about something to do with the gun, then made me hide it (great now I can get charged for a concealed fake weapon too!). They left and I spent 20 minutes trying to get back to the road. I would have been pretty angry and frustrated, but luckily we were on our way to meet my friend from Hamburg, Arne that evening, so I was feeling pretty jolly. Arne met us about 100km from the city in a hostel and we all rode in the next day. It was great to have someone ride with us and let them in on the whole experience. Arne even got a good day with 3 flat tires to set us back. We spent 4 days in Hamburg, Arne brought us to see the loading docks, Hamburg is an inlet of the North Sea, Levi and I both look at each other and say "North Sea!!!! What the hell are we doing up here!?!? We have GOT to get south." So we headed towards Holland, a small step south. We had mastered the system of navigating only bike accessible roads thanks to a day of riding with Arne. We rode like we hadn't a care in the world, we had the names and addresses of two hostels for the next two days, and besides that nothing planned except to be in the south of France in December. The terrain was now getting kind of thick with really cool normally dark forests, but now they were orange with turning leaves. The bike path often goes off from the road into the middle of the forest, so you get the full effect. We reached the first hostel, they are in reality kind of like summer camps that also allow guests, they are filled with little German kids on school trips. It was fully booked, no room for us. More and more this is the norm, no matter how remote the area, the European hotels are either full or really expensive, even on a Tuesday. Luckily the town nearby had a hotel for a good price. The next day we were not so lucky, we tried to find a reasonable hotel for hours, we wound up sailing through the dark (now that we have the bike path darkness is less of a threat) and the rain until about 7:30 that night (it gets dark about 5). I just kept seeing flash backs to the trips with my folks in the car, in the rain going from hotel to hotel, somehow that seemed a lot less unpleasant while watching the rain drip from my visor. The place we found wasn't even cheap, it was just acceptable in a downpour. Since then this has become our new battle, trying to find a reasonable hotel each day without having to ride far out of the way or at night. We now try and get book hostels a day in advance and try and make the distance each day. Of course that is all just water under the bridge, a day later we made it to Holland, where for some reason all my worries just seem to melt away, must be something in the coffee...where is that waitress. ellski
The weather forecast was right, the morning we left Krakow the rain was freezing and slush was thick in the street. Even before we left the hostel there were signs that this was going to be once again a trying section of the trip. I had, as usual tried to lighten the load a bit before another push, books, receipts and such get cleared out of my bags. This time I had decided that the pepper spray days were over, so not even thinking I left it in the middle of the table, innocently thinking that everyone would know it was pepper spray even though it was in Cyrillic. We aren't really sure what happened, but the theory is that someone looked at the spray can said "I wonder if this is perfume?" and sprayed it in the air, because a few minutes later we were all coughing and choking trying to escape the hostel as quickly as possible, an alternative theory is that someone was trying to gas the hostel because they found the staff there as rude as we did.
Our love affair with Poland started to fall apart as fast as the freezing rain from the sky, it wasn't that we didn't like it, it was just making us nauseous. As soon as the temperature dropped everyone turned on their heat, which apparently is entirely coal powered, every chimney was spewing black coal smoke and it was choking us as we road (luckily the thick cloud cover kept the smoke in) after about 3 hours of riding we were positively sick. We quit after just 60km, which really wasn't to disappointing considering the weather, we had a nice leisurely evening trying to decipher Polish news programs (my favorite game, you never can quite tell what is going on, just get glimpses of Obama smiling and Putin looking perplexed). We woke up the next day and packed up slowly, paying more attention to the guesthouse's dog than our packing, eventually we hopped on the bikes only to realize that when the bike mechanic in Krakow said that Levi was going to need a new bottom bracket for his bike, he wasn't talking about the distant uncertain future, he was talking about before we left the city.
Luckily for us when Kona designed it's touring bike, they thought ahead and designed it with the most advanced and cutting edge bottom bracket, only made in America, and it was a Saturday. We went to the local bike shop in town, the owner was a great guy, a cyclist himself, but he couldn't really do anything for us. He called all the bike shops in a 500 mile radius, and they all said we can do nothing until Monday and then we can only order the part. It was another one of those disheartening moments, we went to the coffee shop to discuss our plans. We no longer live our own time on this trip, it is scheduled, we are due to meet my boss Adrian Cyr on the 5th of December to bicycle the last 1100 kilometers to Porto, in St. Jean Port de Pied, and on the 25th we have to be in Hamburg to see my friend Arne while he is on vacation. A three day delay sitting in a small Polish town is not what the bike trip needs right now, so we made the hard decision to take the train to Prague (200 miles of skipping) and visit my friend Robert for a few days and get the bike fixed then, therefore getting to see Prague at the same time as killing time.
We walked back to the bike shop a little pissed at how things were going (luckily I encountered a large friendly basset hound on the way to cheer me up), but as soon as we entered the bike shop we got some good news, the guy thought he could fix it, it wouldn't be perfect, but it might last til Prague. "It might last 1000 kilometers or 2" was how he put it.
All of a sudden we were back out on the road and flying, the rain was less, the coal smoke dissipated and we were new men, it was as if we were given a second chance. We flew along the much improved Polish roads, pedalling to our hearts content until we hit Katowice, Poland. Katowice is an industrial center of Poland, or at least was, it kind of reminded me of old textile towns like Lowell in New England, a lot of brick buildings that seem to have little going on in them. Our arrival also coincided with the five o clock everyone get home and turn their coal furnaces on, so our impression of Katowice was not particularly charming. We started our evening search for a hotel, which has become one of the most interesting parts of our day now, for some reason even the most remote roadside hotels and bed and breakfasts seem to be full almost every night, I am beginning to think that we might not look like the most desirable guests given our muddy and scruffy appearance. As soon as we started looking however, our search was cut short by discovering that it was neither "1000 kilometers or 2" but instead 70.67, Levi's bottom bracket was done. It was disheartening, particularly considering we now had to fly back into the center of Katowice in the dark and try and find the train station to go overnight to Prague. We did successfully navigate the city to the train station, using a combination of Russian and English to get directions. All of a sudden we were hopping on a train putting our bikes in the bicycle car (!!!!) and heading to Prague, we would be there by morning (again a small loss of 300km on the odometer).
It is extremely weird to arrive in a city ahead of schedule, at least for us, particularly considering that we took the train and didn't "earn it" but I got over it as soon as we started walking around Prague and got one of those great street sausages. We met up with Robert Klima, a friend of mine that I worked with at Adrian's Restaurant with. We stayed for 3 days at his house with his wonderful family. For us it was a very strange sensation to be around young kids, we have become somewhat uncivilized and primal in our 7 months on the road, and just to be in someones house and in someones company I think had a good effect on us. Hopefully by the time Adrian joins us in France we will be semi normal people, or perhaps we will bring him down with us, "ever blown a snot rocket in a busy city street Adrian?"
One of the best new developments about getting to Prague was that from here on out we should be able to ride almost entirely on bike trails, from Prague to Hamburg there is a bike trail along the Elbe river, and it is supposed to be mostly downhill. A downhill, car and truck free ride to Hamburg, why didn't we just ride around Europe twice instead of crossing Russia?
We left Prague with Levi's bike fixed, our mentality somewhat more civilized and our stomachs ready to enter roadside sausage country, we rode down to the river in the center of Prague and just like that were on our way direct towards Germany, it was great, a nice wide bike path along the side of the river watching the cars climb into the mountains on either side and watching our path stay flat as plywood, everything seemed perfect as we headed into Germany, hell we might even make it in one day...
But then I forgot what my history of travelling in Europe is like
It was a short lived high entering Ukraine, the long arm of the visa police was beyond us, but the long arm of Former Soviet Republics was still alive and well in Ukraine. There were differences, hotels were appearing in stunning regularity (and we could now check in without fear of persecution), whereas Russia was mainly a cow on the street country with the occasional passing goat, Ukraine is more of a wandering goose country (much to Levi's chagrin), with a side of meandering goats. But overall the transition was fairly seamless, the phrase "Breadbasket of Europe" brought us a never ending flow of wind to battle, the roads still were troublingly narrow and potholed and of course there were the cafes. The Russian roadside cafe is something that I had taken for granted as being normal by this point in the trip, my lunch of mashed potatoes, borsch, fried eggs and 4 pieces of bread seemed so standard and normal to me that I didn't even think it strange that the cafes continued without interruption in Ukraine, the menu didn't change, the customers didn't change, it was distressingly similar. The language is extremely similar, once or twice Ukrainians even asked us where we studied Ukrainian, so we could still communicate.
We rode 2 days into Ukraine making jokes about riding against the wind, the geese and the breadbasket before one of those very same cafes struck me down again with food poisoning (apparently once you get food poisoning you are more inclined to get it for a period of some months before your stomach can fully repair, i.e. don't continue eating crappy cafe food.) Luckily we happened to be staying at a hotel wifi and the Ukrainian version of HBO, so I suffered only moderately (not to mention I am now a food poisoning pro).
We were back on the road 2 days later once again battling some of the worst headwinds of the trip, the first day back I might consider one of my lowest days of the trip, throwing a continual exhausted hissy fit against the wind, luckily by the next day my strength and sanity had at least partially returned to me in time for Kiev. It was my second time in Kiev, I went once for spring break during my semester in St. Petersburg, it was more medieval and European than I remembered it, based on several hills, the streets twist and turn in between many lovely Russ-err Ukrainian Churches (I guess hills become a lot more obvious on a bicycle). But we were in a rush, as leaves were beginning to collect on the ground, we spent just one night in Kiev before getting back out on the road for Lvov and Krakow. This stretch proved to be one of the most difficult for Levi, and at his expense one of the more amusing for me. It started the first day out of Kiev, when after seeing roadside babushkas selling fruit and vegetables since Vladivostok, Levi finally decided to stop and buy some pears. "You know Levi that on this entire trip you could not have chosen a spot closer to Chernobyl than we are now, it is barely 100 miles away."
"Oh god dammit, and these pears looked so good!!" He exclaimed as he put them down.
The next day he left his prized peanut butter and honey sitting on a cafe table, which is only funny if you know how paranoid Levi is about leaving things, he checks everywhere to make sure nothing is left behind, and a peanut butter loss is big on a European bike trip.
He hit his low point the next day when he accidentally put his knee to our laptop monitor, not breaking it, just making it resemble a broken mirror, making surfing the web (we have finally gotten to a region where wireless internet is commonly available) an amusing experience.
All this combined with some rough headwinds and difficult navigation days (cities are becoming a big problem to get through quickly) led Levi and I back to a term we hadn't used since we were in Santiago together suffering from arguably the worst hangover of our lives, we tried to "buy it off". We spent the second 3 days to Lvov, stopping at every roadside babushka selling wares looking for cheap gifts and small comforts (simply a new pair of wool socks alone can "buy off" a weeks worth of headwind gloom).
Lvov was not only a great stop, it was our last stop in Ukraine, it was perhaps not a great stop as you might expect: magnificent architecture, wonderful food, a great touristic experience, instead it was of course a great bike trip stop: the television had music videos, the Internet cafe was fast and nearby, there was a french fry stand outside the hotel and we got our laundry washed AND DRIED (that has never happened before) for under 8 dollars, oh and I got a patch kit for tubes at a terrific deal.
The morning we left Lvov we were all set with clean laundry, freshly patched tubes and stomachs full of greasy fries, everything you need for a border crossing. Amusingly enough, just as we were leaving Ukraine, we stopped at one last gas station (a nice one, a chain with a store and mini restaurant), one of the attendants offered us a shot of vodka, we declined, but happened to catch him swigging one down none the less on his way to fill up someones car. Goodbye Ukraine!!
Or not, it turned out that the border crossing we had chosen was of course one which only can be crossed by car! We had to sit on the side of the road hitching trying to get someone to drive us across with the bikes. Luckily "Tony" as we dubbed him was the man for the job, a Ukranian builder with a van who was going (I think) to load up on building supplies from Poland, he showed us his passport, and it was obvious he was an old border pro, I had never seen so many stamps in my life, he knew all the guards by their first names and thankfully was on great terms with them. I say thankfully because, you're going to like this, it turned out that there were some problems.
"yest bolshoi problema, no c menya, neechivo" (you have big problem but with me it is no problem)
"Shto eta problema?" (What's the problem?) we asked
"Vash visa, tolka tranzit, piyat dien" (your visa, only transit, 5 days)
YOU MEAN WE OVERSTAYED OUR VISA AGAIN?????? "SON OF A *%$#*, GOD@%$#^ WHAT THE *&^%^!!!!!
Apparently when we told the Ukrainian border guards that we were to be biking to Poland they thought we could cover the, oh say nearly 1000 miles in about 5 days, no problem and gave us a transit visa. Luckily we had Tony, he had gone to high school with the immigration official, so no night in jail for "The Idiots" (really earning that one) this time, just sailed right through on the wings of Tony our Ukrainian savior. All of a sudden we were seeing blue with gold stars swirling all around us, we were in the European Union!!!!!!!!!!
Poland hit us like a ton of bricks, when I told people I was going to Poland, everyone seemed to think of it as a very poor country, or at least referenced it as "one of the poorest countries in the EU", which I guess for us is akin to "one of the poorest families in Greenwich". Tony guided us to a local cheap hotel that he frequented (we rode behind the car) and rented us a room, as we don't speak polish (we have since just kind of been switching between Russian and English, much to the amusement of the locals). We went to a supermarket and were blown away, sure Russia and Ukraine have supermarkets, but not like this, the colors, the products, the prices, it was like we had died and gone to food heaven. We tried to play it down in our minds, perhaps it was just this one town that looked like I could be riding through the Netherlands or France, or this one supermarket that featured a wondrous collection of foods.
It wasn't though, the next day it was pouring rain all day for the first time since the beginning of the trip, but we hardly noticed we were to busy observing the hotels and restaurants on the side of the road, you could just stop the bike in a small town and get a slice of pizza, the towns had bike lanes and stop lights, signs were correct in their kilometers and directions. It was too much I think Levi and I fell immediately into culture shock. As Levi put it, for so long there had been a special formula of doing things, it had become the equivalent of home, but now it was gone, we didn't know the language and we didn't understand what was going on.
We of course had to take a hotel as the rain was pretty intense, Levi kept going into hotels and coming out "alright there are two prices, I am assuming that one price is without hot water" I went into the next hotel "Oh I get it, it isn't hot water, it is probably with or without bathroom." It turned out we had come farther than we had thought, "It is with or without breakfast" the hotel attendant told me. Surreal. We went with the breakfast.
Poland was a cure to a sickness we didn't even know we had, we did another day of riding in solid rain to Krakow, but rain is a lot less worrisome when you know that a bed is never more than a km away, and a good meal that isn't Russian cafe food is only a momentary decision away. The bike trip now seems to promise to be more similar to riding your bike across the US, something that initially we might not have been as appreciative of as we are now, without Russia and Ukraine this email would have been solely about headwinds and how all-day rain permeates your mind, instead it is about joy we are feeling about some seemingly small and insignificant changes that to us are like opening a door to a five star suite. But don't worry things are bound to get rough again, if you want a preview just type in Krakow Poland to weather.com or better yet here is tonight's forecast:
Periods of snow.
Low 32F. Winds NNW at 10 to 20 mph.
Chance of snow 80%.
2 to 4 inches of snow expected.
No body said it would be easy.
Last Day In Russia, First Night In Jail 10/08/2009
Leaving Moscow was refreshing, although we were both struggling with colds, we were excited to be back on the road and looking at Ukraine as our next destination. As soon as we hit the outskirts of Moscow, we knew things had changed, it was officially fall, the trees were yellowing and the streets filled with fallen leaves and babushkas gathering them. Over the first few days out we quickly realized why so many books begin with the phrase "It was a windy fall day" but luckily we no longer really care, we have cut our riding back and only do about 100km a day so even in the wind it is not too bad. This section was the determined section, our eyes fixed on the road in front of us as if we could see Ukraine getting closer. It was fascinating to be riding out of Moscow through Western Russia, a place that you can't help but look around and think of both Hitler's and Napoleon's Armies being beaten back slowly along the roads, the war memorials have a little more significance on this side of the Volga.
After two days we came upon Yasnaya Polonaya, the estate of Tolstoy, it was very beautiful, rolling hills, birch forests, wonderful rivers all at the height of fall. We went to see his grave, which is a simple grass mound in a secluded corner of the estate, very cool. We camped just outside the grounds of his estate and got to watch one of our last Russian Sunsets.
We were almost beginning to get nostalgic about leaving Russia, until the next day arrived and the roads once again disintegrated into a shoulderless, maniacal highway with more potholes than road. I spent the day thinking in my head about how for my next post I wouldn't even write a summary of our trip out of Russia, instead I would write "Russia. A Retrospective" finally not pulling any punches, letting the Russians know that their "roads" were an insult to the word. However 2 days later we arrived in Kursk, where the Germans and the Russians fought the biggest tank battle of WWII, and events took a different turn, I was forced yet again to write a summary of our trip out of Russia.
It started better than any city I can remember, the roads were smooth, the traffic light, and the tank Memorials wonderful, I immediately took a shine to Kursk, and was happy to be spending a night in a hotel downtown. I had always said to Levi before we started this trip, that we would be crossing so many towns that eventually we would hit a few on their name day, but so far we had missed every one, we missed Moscow by just a few days. But on entering Kursk we found out that we had finally hit one, everyone walking around in silly hats and wigs, little carnivals taking place on every street corner. "Let's get to the hotel and get out their, I want a corndog and some cotton candy"
"I can't wait to get one of those cheesy American Cowboy hats and a plastic saber!"
It was going to be one of those great evenings on the bike trip, you had just ridden 130km and it had made you kind of giddy and excited to see a town and a fair.
We walked into the Centralnaya hotel, an old but refurbished Soviet hotel, (the kind we usually try and avoid because their bedding is always geared towards a person of 5 foot 1) Levi handed the woman his passport because he is the only one who still has his immigration card (it is a small piece of paper that they give you on entering the country, which you must keep with you the whole time, a hotel back around Baikal lost mine, so I have been going without it). The woman filled out the first 5 minutes of paperwork (god I hate old Soviet hotels) and looked at me "passport?"
"Sure" And I handed it over, Levi and I looked at each other "here we go again" For some reason it is only the Soviet hotels that even care about the immigration card, no one else even looks at it.
"Where is you Immigration card?"
"I don't have one, a hotel lost it"
"Well you can't stay here, I can't let you."
"We have ridden our bikes from Vladivostok, I didn't lose my immigration card, a hotel did, I have a passport, I have a visa, please let us stay."
This is usually when the woman capitulates and says she can make an exception. "Sit down" She says.
Levi and I smile at each other, works every time. A few minutes go by, we sit joking about the situation and our last night in Russia.
"Cops will probably be here in a minute" I joke
"Man I can't believe that tomorrow we will just be out of Russia, just like that."
Now it must be mentioned that we had a bit of a problem to face at the border, our visas, although 1 year in duration only allowed you to be in the country 3 months at a time, every 90 days you had to leave the country for 90 days. This was a brand new rule that the Russians had introduced I guess to be more like the US. We had asked the Russian Consulate, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the company who had sponsored our visa about the new rule and whether we would get in trouble, they all said no, our sponsor gave us the great quote "Don't try and follow all the rules in Russia boys, it is impossible." Since our entrance we had received some warnings that we might have to pay a bribe or get fined, we could even face a five year ban from Russia, all this we have joked about for quite some time.
Finally a man appeared, he seemed to be the manager, him and the woman both expressed astonishment that we had gone the whole way across Russia (Kursk is 55 miles from the border) without running into trouble because of the lack of Immigration card.
"We can let you stay here tonight, but would you like an immigration card? You won't be able to leave Russia without one."
I was not really very worried about getting a new card, generally Russians are more afraid of their bureaucracy than is warranted, but this guy seemed nice and I figured it wouldn't take very long.
"Sure, why not"
I believe that it was just about this time that the first set of police officers arrived on the scene, and the Kursk Day Fireworks started (set to Tchaikovsky). The cops seemed to be in a good mood, but we were beginning to fade, we had ridden 130km and had sat in a hotel lobby for over an hour and a half, we were tired and wanted to go to bed (at this point I was willing to forgo the corndog, begrudgingly) The two officers were really not to be missed, we watched them with much amusement while they commented about the beauty of the American Passports, had a good chuckle at the thought of two Americans riding bikes across Russia. From time to time other Police Lieutenants passed through the lobby in packs apparently having rented "Party Rooms"(It was a holiday after all, and Russians have the incredible ability to continue partying in the exact style and manner you remember partying as a teenager even in old age) "our" officers would hail them over and let them in on the joke, roars of laughter would erupt.
"Well on the bright side we are getting our problems out of the way tonight, tomorrow we will be able to just cruise through the border."
Suddenly we heard words that made us break out into a cold sweat, "90 out of 180 days"
"Oh Shit they figured it out"
"Why haven't you left Russia? Your visa says you must leave every 3 months."
"well we wanted to ride bikes across, and it took longer than we thought."
"BAHAHAHAHAHA" They broke out again in jovial laughter.
"Well maybe I imagine they will call their buddies at the border and tell them we are on our way tomorrow and just wave us through."
Indeed the manager came over, he spoke a little bit of English and he told us "they are calling the Border, what time do you think you will be there tomorrow?" Nothing could be better, it was really like a dream.
"4 or 5" We said, glowing with excitement.
By now the police officers were on the paperwork point of the investigation, everyone had to be a witness, the guard, the woman behind the desk. Two new men had arrived as well, no uniform, I assumed they were just from another type of Police force, as Russia seems to have all different levels of cops and all with different types of forms to fill out. It turned out they were from immigration. The two new guys could hardly get their investigation underway because they had to stop every three and a half minutes to smoke cigarettes, the lead officer reminded me of an character out of a bad Sylvester Stallone film, the guy who wanted to be a real cop but had failed and now took his current job way to seriously, he had a huge mustache and was constantly struggling to come off as friendly. The other guy was young and seemed to be more interested in the bike trip than anything else.
"Why didn't you leave after 90 days" The old man asked us in an unfriendly tone.
We explained again, he seemed unimpressed. We were still in the lobby of the hotel, by now the police officers were on the stamping level of their interrogation (most of them seem to carry a rubber stamp in a holster by their gun for easy paperworking), but we seemed no closer to getting into our room. It had been 4 hours. All of a sudden Maigret, as we took to calling the old man summoned us "grab your stuff and follow me."
He led us out to his small hatchback which we proceeded to jam all of our belongings in. He drove us directly to the police station. We haven't been major celebrities since the Far East of Russia, where they rarely see Americans, the same principal applied here, I think we might have been the first Americans in the Kursk Police Station. Everyone wanted to know what we were in for, we spent about 40 minutes waiting around for the interpreter to be woken up (it was now midnight) which gave us plenty of time to bask in our glory and answer questions from our fans (on duty police officers and teenagers caught for underage drinking) no one could believe that Maigret had pulled to guys who had bicycled across Russia into the Police station. We still felt pretty confident that this would result in our being fined and everything being alright, we weren't spies, we weren't terrorists, we were simply cyclists. Plus one of the officers on duty had a sister who lived in Maine!!! Eventually the translator arrived, from the moment I met him I knew he was on our side, he seemed to feel genuinely bad for our current situation. Quickly they read us the Russian version of Rights "Are we under arrest?" I asked (It is a phrase that looks good in books and sounds good on television, but turns your stomach when you actually have to use it.)
"Oh no, they just want your statements" answered the interpreter.
Maigret then wrote down our side of the story with the aid of the interpreter, which I though I gave pretty well, we had asked everyone we could about the visa problem before we left, everyone said it wouldn't be a big deal including the Ministry of Foreign affairs and the Consulate in New York. We got business visas because they were the only ones that lasted a year and again that was what the consulate said to do. I lost my immigration card at a hotel. We asked at the American Embassy in Moscow about any troubles we would have and they said it was too late to do anything about it and that we would probably just pay a fine and maybe face a ban from Russia. But as everyone knows cops have an amazing ability to twist ones words. We chose to ignore the visa regulations, we got business visas even though we were travelling for tourism, I lost my immigration card but chose not to make any attempt to get a new one, and we ignored the warnings of the American Embassy and continued on riding. Right, exactly. We ironed out some of the details needless to say before we signed anything, by now the paper count was probably one whole tree.
We asked the interpreter "So what do you think is going to happen to us? A fine?" still assuming we would be out of this after the last stamp dried.
"Oh well tonight you stay here and tomorrow you go to court." I think at that moment an actual jail cell door slammed, or perhaps it was my imagination.
Things closed up for the night pretty quickly after that, we did our best to sound friendly when we said see you tomorrow to the two immigration officers. Suddenly it was just us, a bunch of drunk teenagers and the officer with a sister in Maine. He informed Levi that he couldn't have his glasses for the night, he did however allow us our waters and jackets. We were given a opportunity to use the bathroom, which made me wish for the outhouses of Siberia, I guess Levi got off easy because he couldn't see, then we were put in a room with another guy, 3 guys, 3 eight inch wide benches and a bright light. All things considered I think we both slept fairly well, the key for jail sleeping is to either be blackout drunk (as the man next to us was judging by the black eye and severe scratches that screamed I fell on the ground tonight) or have ridden 130km and stayed up half the night answering questions in a foreign language.
I woke up around 7 to the sound of the other guy pacing the room, probably trying to put the pieces of the night back together. Eventually 9am came and we were let out. Levi got his glasses back and we headed up to meet a police sergeant, the police of course had to make a report as to why we spent a night in their cell, he might have been the least friendly and most frustrated of everyone, we absolutely could not communicate, and to make matters worse, the immigration officers had taken our passports which has everything about us written in Russian. We spent about a half our with this guy yelling at us and accomplishing little more than our name and addresses, we were shockingly happy to see Maigret open the door and whisk us away. Not before we took our first mug shot though, a moment I could not help laugh at and wish I could get them for www.paneurasianbiketrip.com, it would make a good opening page.
We gathered up all of our stuff and got in a van. Finally we were allowed to eat some of the food we had bought the night before, we tore into our baguettes and cheese, regretting having not bought more, but it brought us back from the edge of delirium. Soon we found ourselves inside the Kursk Immigration office, where these two men accomplished virtually nothing for about 4 hours other than taking our case file from maybe 60 pages to maybe over 250, we were fingerprinted as well, and there were about 10 copies of those floating around by the end. Finally around 2 we found ourselves outside of the courtroom, with our translator back by our side. In the mean time we had somewhat struck up a friendship with the younger immigration officer, we now took up the opportunity to ask through the interpreter: "What do you think will happen to us?"
The guy sighed, a bad sign.
"Oh he is quite sure you will be deported."
"Yes, the judge could take another decision, but it seems that you will probably be sent back through Moscow and sent back to the United States."
Disbelief is all that could describe the Idiots faces at that point.
"So it is over, we are going home."
We sat their joking around as only one could in a situation like this, "well I guess I'll be getting that Cappo sooner than I thought."
"Can I get deported to a country other than the US?"
Talking to the translator calmed us as we waited for Maigret to get through with his meeting with the judge, he came out angry and took off in the van.
"What is going on now?"
"Apparently in order to deport you they need all the paperwork in English as well as Russian, because you don't speak Russian. So now he is going to a meeting with his boss to see if they can just let you off with a fine, which in my opinion is what they should have done last night."
Finally Maigret came back, said something to his younger partner, and the partner in the few words of English he knew said "Welcome to Ukraine!!!"
Finally not knowing a language pays off, if we had known more Russian we would be in Moscow in a detaining cell (apparently deportation can take up to 3 months). However we still had to spend another 2 hours getting our fines (more paperwork). It was 5 o'clock before Maigret was closing the van door on us and saying "okay go to the nearest bank and pay this fine and then get out of the country, next time don't break the rules."
We looked around, it was getting dark and all the banks had closed, it was Saturday night, how the hell were we going to pay this fine and get out of the country? We figured they would let us wait, we would just lay low. We tried to get a hotel room in town, but everyone knew about us, no one would let the convicts stay, we were exhausted and delirious and now we were going to have to ride out of the city. One woman started shouting at us that it was only 3 hours to the Ukrainian Border just go and ride it, get out of Kursk, we had come a long way since the Russian Far East.
We rode out of town, we found a hotel on the side of the road, as usual, they didn't ask about my immigration card (I still didn't have one), we took showers to wash the guilt of jail off, and slept like innocent babies.
We spent another day riding to the border, camping in the town before it and in the morning going to the bank to pay the fine, finally we were legal. We rode to the border, they looked at our fines and certificates of payment like they were three headed dragons, it was clear if we had just made it 55 miles further these guys would have laughed us through the border. Oh and my lost Immigration card? one of the guys at the border handed me a knew one and told me to fill it out, then decided it was easier to fill it out himself. Appropriately enough according to Russia Ellery Althaus Born 01/27/83 entered Russia on the 26th of January 2009, Pol Althaus, born 03/25/88 left Russia on 28th of September 2009
A Simple Update From Starbucks 09/19/2009
Much like trying to write in your journal about a day that is over a week ago (something that I am a repeat offender at, in fact i am right now about 7 days behind) it is difficult to write about the last few days before we reached Moscow with sincerity while sitting in a Starbucks thinking about how it has been a week since I last saw my friend Sabaka (my bike). We have spent a week melting into obscurity here in Moscow, something we needed, a place big enough where finally your language doesn't distinguish you. You can walk down the street here and listen to English almost endlessly even in southern accents "Oh I think Bobby-Sue is still looking for that Mah-Trushka doll or whatever they are called. Have you seen Billy?"
"Oh yeah I think he went to get a drink with Russel, lord only knows why, they could drink on the street like these Russians, everywhere I look there is a beer."
For us it is a little bit of heaven, sure we are no longer the "major celebrities" we were in the Russian Far East, but sometimes the endless bike trip questions get tiresome, here no one even thinks it strange to see a couple of American guys walking around, we are just a couple of tourists, boy is it sweet. At the hostel we do talk about it, but abstractly, it is something far away from us, more likely we talk about where we have been that day or how creepy Lenin's waxy hands are.
But all this is the easy life, before this about a week ago we were making some hard decisions.
Leaving Kazan was a tough moment, we had a wondrously cheap place to stay, and a beautiful and interesting city, the Mosques matched with the Orthodox Churches on the skyline had us spell bound, Eastern European and Russian city centers can often give that "fairy tale" feel, but Kazan may have taken the prize for us.
We were able to pull ourselves away, as we got out on the road it was apparent what we would be suffering from for the next few days, the pre-Moscow blues, we had them in the final days of the off-road and we were beginning to see we would have them again now. A feeling of already being in Moscow, and not really wanting to do the riding to make it there was setting in. I wouldn't call it being sick of riding, it is more that a certain stretch of road in your mind is already done, you have made it to Moscow, you are ready to start thinking about heading out of Russia, the only problem is that you are still 400km from Moscow. The road itself has of course undergone a new change, they mow the grass on the side of the road, the road seems more or less to be regularly maintained (I even saw two guys washing the reflectors on the side of the road, something i can only classify as a tremendous waste of time and money). The pavement had improved, I imagine if you are going by car from Vladivostok to Moscow, this the the point that you have been waiting for, granted there is finally what one might call traffic, so you have to be more aware of that, but for the most part it is smooth sailing.
For those of us on bicycles it is perhaps the most challenging yet. When the local Russian government decided to improve the quality of road as it approached Moscow they obviously had to cut something, they cut the shoulder, our road. The whole way to Nizhniy Novgorod, 400km, the shoulder was gone replaced by a soft sand (i.e. unriddable) breakdown lane. Our lane now consisted of the white line. The traffic was now thundering by, trucks barreling by on both sides of this narrow road, it was so narrow that at times I would look back and see that Levi had a line of cars and trucks behind him waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic to pass him (a little sweet revenge on the cars that usually have no shame or pretensions of passing us at 120km an hour). But overall it was a three day ride that left us with little pleasure. At one point Levi got a flat right after a stop, I was only a few meters ahead of him, but I couldn't hear him because of the traffic, to double the problem, he realized he had no good spare tubes and had let his cell phone run out of minutes (our usual way of communicating). The result was that 30km down the road when I stopped, I waited around for a while until a car came by and informed me that my friend was broken down on the side of the road, I started riding back after I sent a text to him saying it might be time to start hitching since the sun was going down. Levi meanwhile was already trying to hitch, with little success, despite the number of cars, finally a cop stopped, "uh oh" Levi thought "Am I finally going to get bribed?"
Instead the cop listened to his story, and realizing that the bike wouldn't fit in the cop car, waved over the first truck that he saw, and forced him to drive Levi the 25km to meet me. The truck driver was more than happy, he had initially feared a normal random stop which usually results in the paying of a bribe, so just having to throw Levi's bike in the back was no problem. By the final day we were both suffering, Levi was feeling quite ill from all the exhaust and riding with earplugs for the traffic noise, and we were both tight in the shoulders from trying to ride the white line so perfectly. We reached the beautiful city of Nizhniy Novgorod still facing another 3 or 4 day ride to Moscow which promised to be probably just as tough, with more traffic and perhaps the same amount of road. It was wimp out time. Call it what you like but we call it a smart decision (particularly after I witnessed a girl getting hit by a car downtown later that day, disturbing) we decided to take the train into Moscow and back out to continue our bike trip and avoid an unnecessary risk and discomfort. It also solved the Pre Moscow blues by starting our vacation 3 days early. Since then we spent 2 days in Nizhniy Novgorod checking out the beautiful Kremlin and getting our bicycles into working order. We took the train to Moscow, stuffing our bikes and ourselves into a sleeper carriage was an amazing feat but we did do it. The only thing that we have accomplished since then besides catching up on our sleep is planning our exit from Russia (apparently you can only exit by bicycle at certain border points, so we had to look one up) and talking about how exciting the next stretch of the trip should be, riding Moscow to Prague with little stopping, we need another long ride, we are sick of stopping at cities every few days, we are just going to get out and watch the pavement move and the countries change before our eyes, hopefully we will get a shoulder.
oh and next stop Ukraine, wish us luck at the border.