1 DM costs Country Unit (summer 1996) Finland Markka 3.03 Russia Rouble 3,280.00 Estonia Kroon 7.85 Latvia Lats 0.36 Lithuania Litas 2.58 Poland Zloty 1.76 Germany DM 1.00 Denmark Krone 3.30 Norway Krone 4.24 Sweden Krona 4.41
"Sunrise!", I realised with a shock.
I slept fitfully the rest of the night and was glad when early morning arrived and I could pedal off to the ferry. The boat was enormous, unlike any I had ever been on. I felt like a child as I prowled through all thirteen decks, exploring the shopping mall, cinemas, hairdressers, duty-free supermarket, bank, casino, disco, swimming pool, sauna and restaurants. But the best part was standing outside on the top deck, looking down on the thousands of islands passing by. I became lost in reveries imagining the life on each island that we passed - the sprawling estates enveloped by trees, the mossy green meadows, and the lonely islands of bare rock ringed by the white foam of the crashing waves.
My reveries were broken when several groups of German tourists discovered the upper decks. Although I count Germans among some of my best friends, some strange transformation seems to occur when they venture abroad. At first they were amusing, but the novelty wore off after several nearly had a punch up over a deck chair. I retired to the floor of an unused corporate lounge to catch up on lost sleep.
The Finnish language belongs to the Finno-Ugric subfamily of the Uralic languages, not related to Indo-European languages. Finnish has been the official language of Finland since the early 19th century, but Swedish is still prominent and all Finns learn Swedish at school.
Reality came in a thrilling rush as I cycled off the ferry - it was about to start! After a restful sleep in the Turku youth hostel I set off for Helsinki. The weather gods were kind to me on the first day: bright sunshine with a light breeze blowing and the sky filled with fluffy clouds. The gravel used to pave the roads was full of mica that glistened in the sun, but gave the unsettling impression of glass on the road. The countryside was mostly undulating forest dotted with numerous lakes, the intense northern light illuminating the landscape with an unearthly glow punctuated with intense shadows.
The cycle tracks in Finland were wonderful. These weren't just the short tracks that meander around major towns, the "let's go cycling with the family for an hour" type; these were proper long distance cycling routes sensibly located alongside the major highways, a no nonsense "I want to cycle to Helsinki today" sort. That Helsinki was nearly 200 km distant didn't make an impression at first.
It was unreasonable to expect the cycle tracks to last forever, and the first crisis of the trip came a few hours after I had been cycling on highway 110. Traffic from the E18 motorway had recently joined the road and the frequency of trucks became particularly high. The wind generated by each passing truck nearly tore off my clothes and I was continually unwrapping coils of shirt from my neck. I pulled into a lay by and collected my wits. Headache, sore eyes, feeling out of sorts - quite a pathetic picture and hardly the invincible touring cyclist that people took me to be. I reached into my panniers for life's antidote to such misfortunes (chocolate) and gradually things got better.
Around the 120 km mark I found another of Finland's wonderful long distance cycle tracks and began to think of reaching Helsinki that evening. It was almost with regret when I finally arrived at the Helsinki youth hostel - I had cycled 187 km on the first day of touring.
A growing feeling of dread was starting to haunt me. Everyone I had confided my plans to recently thought I was mad to contemplate such a trip. Did I really plan to cycle through Russia? The last straw came at the Helsinki railway station when I went to arrange Mackenzie's transport to St. Petersburg. Tales of modern day bandits on the road from Vyborg to St. Petersburg put me off the idea of cycling that stretch. Motorists are advised to fill their tanks with petrol on the Finnish side and stop for no one until reaching St. Petersburg, lest they be forced at gun point to abandon their car and watch while the bandits drive away. Although the thought of bandits balancing on Mackenzie and pedalling into the distance had some appeal, it didn't seem worth the risk. So there I was at the railway station listening to the incredulous man at the baggage room saying "You want to send your bicycle where?!" Then his colleague came to life saying there was no way he would let *his* daughter do such an insane trip. This was getting tedious. Fortunately Finnish professionalism prevailed and they processed the paperwork without further discussion.
As I walked to the railway station in the early hours of the next morning I decided that one of life's greatest tragedies for a cyclist was to be deprived of one's bicycle. It was hosing down with rain, and by the time I had hauled myself and all my gear over the 3 km distance I was soaked to the skin. But the train was luxurious, and I happily passed the time practising Russian verb conjugations and reading up on Russian history.
The Russian language belongs to the Slavic subfamily of Indo-European languages and uses the Cyrillic alphabet, developed in the 9th century for Eastern Orthodox Slavs and based on the Greek alphabet. During my time in Russia I found few people who spoke English or German, a marvellous incentive to improve my Russian beyond the repetitious drills that constituted much of our Russian class.
No one paid particular notice as I cycled from the railway station to the youth hostel in St. Petersburg. All the stories had worked my imagination into overdrive, and it was with great relief that I discovered that people on the streets were not in fact brandishing knives with my name on them. I visited and gave a lecture at the Russian Academy of Sciences, accompanied by a simultaneous Russian translation. For a reward I received the various stamps on my visa that would get me out of the country. Sleeping was difficult with nearly 24 hour daylight - it was the time of the St. Petersburg White Nights and darkness never really came while I was there.
Everyone I confided my plans to in St. Petersburg was aghast at my intention to cycle west to the border, so it was with some trepidation that I loaded Mackenzie in the early morning of my departure. Some surprises were waiting, to be sure. Cyclists (of which I seemed to be the only one) had no priority on the road, and I was regularly forced to take evasive manoeuvres when motorists turned into my path. Trolley tracks popped out everywhere from the street like frost heave, and potholes reached depths that would swallow my tyres whole. The journey seemed endless and for awhile I imagined I was a character in a Kafka story. But just as I was thinking I was doomed to spend the rest of my days there, I arrived at the edge of town, 45 km after leaving the youth hostel.
The motorway started soon after, and with a guilty pleasure that only a person living in Germany could appreciate, I boldly cycled onto the M11. There was little traffic and the road was in great condition; in retrospect it was one of the best roads of the trip. Every small village was lined with people by the side of the road selling odd items like cookware sets, but there wasn't much food available and I was glad that I had stocked up before leaving. Even petrol stations were infrequent, but a source of gratification as I sneered at them with the contemptuous smile of the self-propelled. I still felt apprehensive about my safety, but started to unwind a bit when I realised that everyone was too involved with their own problems to be concerned about a solitary cyclist. There were numerous GAI (Gosudarstvennaya Avtomobilnaya Inspektsia) checkpoints, in fact six between St. Petersburg and the border, and I had heard tales of documents being confiscated, trumped up fines being levied, and cars being shot at for failing to pull over. I approached each enclave of uniformed and armed men with trepidation, but I was waved through all but the last where they only asked to see my passport. Life looked hard for people in the villages, and I wondered if they even had enough to eat. One woman just outside St. Petersburg yelled at me in angry earnest, saying "You have so much money, why are you so stupid to travel with a bicycle?"
I had to stop for water several times, and each time I rehearsed carefully the word for water (voda) in my head several times that I didn't accidentally ask for vodka. None of the villages I passed through seemed to have running water, so I had to get water from the communal wells. At one well there were a pair of old babushkas who drew the water for me and thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
There had been monsoon-like rain over the past few days, but it diminished to only moderate rain on and off through the afternoon. I didn't realise it then, but this was Day 1 of a head wind that was to last until Norway. The landscape was flat and monotonous but with lots of forest. Progress was tediously slow on my 1:400 000 map, so I invented a simple game to pass the time. I had to pronounce all the names on each direction sign that I came to several times out loud before I was allowed to look at the map to see how far I'd progressed. My Russian was feeble enough that gems like "Alexandrovskaya" and "Nobolyatnitschkaye" kept me amused as I stuttered out the sounds, and almost before I realised it I had cycled 150 km and was at the Estonian border.
Crossing the border was reminiscent of formalities in 1985 at Checkpoint Charlie. It felt like a spy exchange on Glienicker Bruecke as I crossed the Narva river bridge that separated Estonia from Russia. It took approximately one hour to thread myself and Mackenzie through the bureaucracy, including a 15 minute interlude when I was pulled from the queue amidst animated discussion between the border guards. One asked me just what I thought I was doing and was rather amused when I told him.
Nearly 40% of Estonia is forested, but relatively flat. At first glance it looked similar to Russia with its drab tenement buildings, grey store fronts and boarded up restaurants, but a closer look revealed a surprising affluence. Modern development was taking place at breakneck pace, and there was a general air of prosperity betrayed by the frequency of non-Russian cars, smart looking petrol stations and colourful shop fronts. In Tartu I discovered bookshops full of quality hardback Estonian titles and translated bestsellers - a testament to the rebirth of the Estonian language.
Curiously Estonia had some of the worst roads. One of the more interesting examples was a curious roadworks where tractors scraped the dirt from the side of the road and spread it in a thick layer over half of the driving lane. When another tractor came the other way and performed the same on the opposite side, the entire road was reduced to a single lane that made cycling somewhat interesting. My guidebook said that Estonians were not openly friendly and they weren't wrong. I was seldom rewarded with that thrill that comes from addressing someone in their own language and seeing their face light up with a smile. The first time I stopped at a farmer's house to ask for water I was met with unblinking stares, the "What planet do you come from?" sort. After a few such experiences I gave it up and asked for water only at bars where people were less suspicious. More opportunities for interaction came when I cycled past queues of people waiting for buses, but a cheerful "Tere hommikust" from me was usually met with suspicious stares reserved for axe murderers and such types.
The crisis of the trip came about 80 km into Estonia when I gradually realised that something was not right. I was stopping every 2-3 km and staring zombie-like into space, and it was several minutes each time before I could motivate myself to get back on the bicycle. What was wrong? I couldn't imagine it was related to the head wind, the rain or the rough road surface - after all hadn't I anticipated these challenges? In an indulgence of self pity I took inventory: the raw spots where the seat had rubbed bleeding holes in my body, the nerve pinched by developing shoulder muscles, and the sore palms and wrists that produced shooting pains that reverberated from arm to arm. It was true that I had probably overplanned the trip, with inflated expectations of the distance I could cover each day. In fact to reach destinations at the western end of the journey in time to deliver scheduled lectures I had to average 150 km per day. It should have been a trivial exercise for me, but the head wind had a definite retarding influence (or perhaps it was I who was retarded to plan a cycling trip from east to west).
This wasn't the first time I had overestimated my abilities, and the memory of another failure was still fresh in my mind. Earlier in the year I had given myself 2 1/2 days to cycle 350 km to Heidelberg, the constraint being an invited talk at the Goldschmidt Conference on the afternoon of the third day. But the rigours of an early start after arriving from North America the day before, a strong head wind with snow and ice storms that had me kicking steps in the ice up the steeper roads, and a lack of training that left me wheezing for breath - all of these defeated me and I finally put myself and Mackenzie on a train halfway through the 2nd day. I did go with the train only to Heilbronn, hoping that the 80 km cycle along the Neckar river would dispel the cycling blues. But it was still an extremely dejected and sobered Catherine that arrived in Heidelberg that evening. Back in Estonia it was time for drastic action and I stopped in the early afternoon at the side of Lake Peipus. I walked for ages on the sandy beach under dark overcast skies, and gradually my pains subsided. What was all the fuss about anyway? I was alive, I was healthy, and I was standing at the edge of Europe's 4th largest lake in a beautiful and remote spot on a trip that I had dreamed of for nearly a year. Who could ask for more?
The next day I reduced my daily distance, started an enforced regimen of changing my cycling position every ten minutes, practised riding with no hands, turned off my cycling computer display, and stopped focusing on anything more than 5 minutes into the future. This helped considerably, although it was curious that I still had to impose such discipline after so many long distance cycling trips. It was not until halfway through Latvia that I discovered the essential detail: my seat had become loose and tilted forward by a few degrees. Restoration of the correct angle brought an immediate end to the reverberating pains in my arms and suddenly I felt ten years younger. Latvia came after 2 1/2 days of cycling in Estonia and was the start of a succession of new countries every few days. But the immediate problem was finding the way in. I arrived in Valga and cycled for one hour in circles looking for signs. Valga was a casualty of independence and had been split into two by the border between Estonia and Latvia. Similar to Berlin, families had been separated across this now quite real border and it wasn't obvious how to get through; it was as if they were pretending that Latvia didn't exist. Finally after asking numerous people I found an unmarked black and white striped gate leading into an open field - this was finally the door to Latvia.
The Latvian language is in some danger: just over one half the people living in Latvia and only one third of those living in Riga speak Latvian as their first language. Latvian is completely different to Estonian, being part of the Baltic subfamily of Indo-European languages. Others in the Baltic subfamily are Lithuanian and Old Prussian, although the latter has been extinct since the 17th century.
It was quite a shock to enter Latvia. Soviet-style blocks, a plethora of Russian cars and rather poor road conditions made it look like Russia all over again. There was little traffic on the road and sparse habitation; hardly surprising considering that more than half the population lives in Riga. The highway divided about 30 km before Riga with a great surface and I had the entire shoulder (one lane wide) to cycle on. It was all downhill and should have been glorious, but the relentless headwind was still blowing. I tantalised myself with the prospect of a boat trip from Riga to Klaipeda (Lithuania), but later discovered that the boat didn't go anymore.
Riga was a captivating mix of German, Russian and Latvian influences, and full of shadows from the past. Cycling through the centre was an adventure I'll not repeat. I splashed out and stayed in a Soviet-style student dormitory for the princely sum of 5 latis; words fail to describe the wonderful feeling of a hot shower. The "dezhurnaya" (floor lady) was extremely nice, understood my Russian (!), and even let me bring Mackenzie into my room away from the thugs. It was an extraordinary feeling having my bicycle beside me as I fell asleep, and I realised with some alarm that I had developed a rather unnatural attachment to Mackenzie.
After a small hiccup in navigation leaving Riga I was once again on a long, straight, flat road. I felt even more isolated from the rural population than in Estonia and was surprised to find my attempts at speaking Latvian were generally made fun of. On several occasions I saw cars with small boys plastered to the back windows, the boys leering at me with extended middle fingers. I had some hope that the Latvian meaning was different to the one I knew, but after another experience I wasn't so sure. Some children in the fields ran alongside as I cycled, shouting things I didn't understand, and afterwards were briskly scolded by their parents. My heart shrivelled inside. Two days after entering Latvia the road stopped and I was in Lithuania.
The Lithuanian language is similar to Latvian, being from the same subfamily of Indo-European languages. Although there are a few similar words, the languages are not mutually intelligible and I had to commit yet another set of essential phrases to memory.
The road in Lithuania started out long, straight and flat, quite boring really. However on the second day it climbed a few hundred metres and I revelled in the pleasure of stretching little used muscles. There were tantalising glimpses of lakes through the trees, but my joy was short lived as the terrain flattened out again.
After 1 1/2 days of cycling in Lithuania I was at the border with Kaliningrad. Here was a part of Russia isolated by the receding Soviet tide, but too important as Russia's only year round ice-free port to have been given up. Kaliningrad was German from the 13th century until the end of the Second World War, an important territory of the Teutonic Knights and later the Prussians. In 1945 it was occupied by Soviet troops, most of the remaining Germans were killed or sent to Siberia, and its name was changed from Koenigsberg to Kaliningrad. Until 1990 the region was closed to Western tourists, and even now it remains an important military zone.
The city of Kaliningrad was some 120 km from the border, and I had started early in anticipation of a full afternoon to tour the city. It was 6 am when I passed through the Lithuanian border, but on the Russian side of the bridge things came unstuck. The border guards looked at my visa (now reduced to a single sheet of paper), but were perplexed how to deal with what should have been three sheets. I explained in my best Russian that the consulate in Muenchen had assured me this was a double entry visa and that it was valid for Kaliningrad. More discussion followed. I could tell from their conversation that they didn't want to send me away, knowing that the detour around Kaliningrad on a bicycle would be long indeed. They called over the officer handling the truck traffic, but he couldn't deal with it either. They took my passport and told me to wait 5 minutes. One and a half hours went by.
A new official showed up, this one in a smarter uniform and he was quite angry. The situation rapidly took an alarming turn for the worse, and it dawned on me that I was in some sort of trouble as he went on about penalties and fines for improperly registered visas. He was indifferent to my pleas to explain things slowly as I struggled to keep up with his rapid Russian. I said I would return to Lithuania and forget about Kaliningrad entirely, but he wouldn't give my passport back to me. Crikey. He went away and I thought dark thoughts about bureaucrats in general and the Muenchen consulate in particular. After an hour another official showed up, this one in an even more impressive uniform. He was *really* angry. But he spoke English and he had my passport.
"You have an improper visa!", he said in a voice of cold steel. "You must go at once to the consulate in Klaipeda and apply for a proper visa to enter Kaliningrad!" He gave me back my passport, and I was so pleased to have it in my hands again that I mumbled a meek "Yes, sir" and "Thank you, sir" and pedalled off back over the bridge as rapidly as dignity would allow.
I bought a fizzy drink at the kiosk on the Lithuanian side of the border and stared into space for a time before I could bring myself back to the present. Cycling northwest to Klaipeda 100 km in the wrong direction, dealing again with Russian bureaucracy, the only good outcome being the permission to do what I had planned in the first place but at least three days behind schedule - this option had little appeal. On the other hand the possibility of cycling east was enticing. Discovering more of Lithuania, penetrating deeper into the southeast, cycling through the northeast region of Poland and the Masurian lakes region - this prospect filled me with eager anticipation. That the detour was 500 km seemed a trifling detail as I turned Mackenzie to the east.
I was freed from my schedule! There was no possibility now to reach Copenhagen in time for my lecture without some form of assisted transportation, which had a marvellously liberating effect on my spirit. The only downside was the anticipated tail wind that wasn't there: the wind gods had maniacally changed the wind direction to the southeast.
I made progress with my Lithuanian and particularly enjoyed saying thank you (aciu, pronounced "achoo"), always expecting to hear "Gesundheit" afterwards. Everyone was in the fields making hay, and I made notes on the process in my diary. They didn't use much machinery and it wasn't uncommon to see people wielding huge sickles to cut the hay. The reputed outgoing friendliness of the Lithuanians wasn't so evident, though, and I thought about the general coldness of people in the Baltic Republics. In some ways it seemed quite an arrogant attitude, that interaction with a stranger had nothing to contribute to one's life.
To be fair, though, I had little chance for interaction beyond requests for water, spending most of my waking hours pedalling. Was I crazy to be whizzing through these interesting cultures in such short times? At two days per country I barely had time to learn the essential phrases, let alone appreciate the differences in history and culture. On the other hand a month was not a long time, and a circular tour left little possibility for turning back. I remembered the previous year during my crazy cycling trip from Glashuetten to Rimini (Italy) in a week, 1000 km over the Alps. I did make it, but resolved along the way never to put myself to such a timetable again. How short our memories are, sometimes.
The last leg in Lithuania was on highway A226, "via Baltica", the only land link between the Baltic States and western Europe. The road surface was very bumpy and there were lots of trucks, but it was quiet compared to the roads in Italy. The head wind was intense, my pace became slower and slower, and I had to stop every 5 km or so to catch my breath and ease my aching arms. I felt quite distant from the Baltic coast, last sighted in Finland. Where were those lonely windswept shores that I had dreamt about?
Approximately 6 km from the border I came upon a queue of trucks parked by the side of the road. Could it be? It was. This was the queue waiting for the border, and a few enquiries revealed that the average wait for trucks was four days. Golly gosh. I was fascinated looking at the trucks and drivers from all over Europe and discovering which countries were importing what. For example most of the Estonian trucks were loaded with second-hand cars from Germany. I realised that a lot of life passes through this narrow window. The border itself was enormous, and spanned at least one km. I cycled past the cars (average wait 1/2 day) and completed the entire crossing in 45 minutes. The men at the Polish border seemed to find something hilarious about my visa (or perhaps it was my bicycle), but I smiled back, secure in the knowledge that everything was in order with my papers.
That evening I read in my guidebook that the Slavs arrived some 2000 years ago. The Polish State was born in 966 and throughout its history has been plagued by wars with its neighbours, primarily the Germans and the Russians. The Teutonic Knights controlled the Baltic coastline for awhile until the 15th century when Poland finally regained access to the Baltic Sea. A large German population remained, however. During the 15th and 16th centuries Poland was one of the great European powers and the arts and sciences thrived. It didn't last, however, as a period of decline and foreign invasions took its toll. The Swedish invasion was particularly disastrous, destroying many cities and parts of the countryside, and the Polish population was more than halved through war, famine and disease. The country disappeared from the map after the Partitions in the late 18th century. Polish culture endured, however, and nationalism remained strong.
Hard economic conditions in the early 1900s forced many Poles to seek a better life abroad, including my grandfather who emigrated to Canada in 1928. Poland regained independence in 1918, only to be carved up between the Germans and the Russians in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. Within less than a year nearly 2 000 000 Poles were sent to Siberia, the Soviet Arctic and Kazakhstan. The Poles suffered further atrocities during the war at the hands of both the Russians and the Germans, only to end up in 1945 under Communist Rule. The Polish spirit remained strong, however, and events led to the formation of Solidarity in 1980. Pressure for democracy grew, culminating in free elections by 1990. The Poles had a head start on their Baltic neighbours and new development was evident everywhere.
The Polish language is part of the west branch of the Slavic subfamily of Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet was adapted to write the Polish language with the addition of diacritical marks, but I was surprised how close many of the words were to Russian.
I looked at people toiling in their fields with a new awareness. Perhaps I felt a kindred spirit from my roots that a relatively nomadic life had otherwise removed. It tugged at my heartstrings to recognise so much from holidays spent with my grandparents - the religious icons, the facial features, the style of clothes, the food, the words and phrases from conversations long ago. I realised that but for a courageous spirit that brought my grandparents to Canada, it could have been me there in the fields. Well, perhaps not since then my parents would never have met, but the idea still consumed me over many kilometres.
The wind was now blowing steadily from the west as if anticipating my change in direction. It poured with rain but I had some hopes that the wind might change. Ha! In the morning the skies were dark and threatening and I realised it was the sort of day which would either be great or horrible, but nowhere in between. It was a full on head wind, quite intense, and progress was tediously slow. After ages of cycling I looked down at the computer to find I had only gone 5 km. Blimey. After that I turned off the computer. But I seemed to tap some deep reservoir of energy whose release brought a state of euphoria that lasted throughout the day. I cycled faster and faster, quite exhilarated, and broke out in peals of laughter at unexpected moments. I leaned into the fresh breeze and thought of the Baltic Sea, that distant body of water that defined my trip but now was a nearly forgotten memory. Later a proper storm came with inky black clouds and forks of lightning across the sky followed by crashing thunder. The rain came down in buckets accompanied by hail, but even puncture #1 made barely a dent as my face broke out in irrepressible smiles and I realised that I was incredibly happy.
On the way to Gdansk I saw a couple pedalling the other way on a tandem. These was the first cyclists that I had seen on the trip and we both came to a screeching halt to greet one another. Here was an authentic example of Galen Rowell's hello factor ("Galen Rowell's Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography", Mountain Light Press, 1993), separating adventure from the mundane, the desire to say hello in situations out of the ordinary instead of passing without comment. The cyclists were from Stockholm and were pedalling from Gdansk to Tallinn; it was the first day of their trip and they were fascinated to hear of my travels. Such was the fellowship between cyclists that they immediately offered their place to me in Stockholm. They described the incredible feeling of going 60 km/hr without pedalling, the wind at their back. Indeed. I thought of my own experiences that day pedalling in the lowest gear going down the hills but said nothing.
I arrived in Gdansk in the early morning, determined to take my first rest day after 11 days of cycling. But the youth hostel was already full and enquiries went poorly at the railway station. It should have been a simple task to find a train that would take Mackenzie to Szczecin (a city as difficult to pronounce as it is to reach), but the only information produced with my feeble Polish by repeated attempts at the ticket window was that I had to go to Gdynia. My spirits sunk but Gdansk still beckoned. Suddenly an elderly woman approached, spoke to me in German, and in one of those extraordinary miracles of modern travel all my problems were solved in an instant. We went together to the ticket window where she spoke in perfect Polish, and I came away with a ticket for the following day to take Mackenzie and myself on the Berlin InterRegio (appropriately named Mare Balticum). She also did private accommodation, lived nearby, and offered me a bed for the night. Later she told me that she normally goes to the railway station to find overnight guests, was drawn to my open face and followed me around before approaching. Both her parents had died the previous year and now her husband was in hospital with lung cancer; somehow her need for sympathetic companionship and my need for human contact after so many lonely days on the road had intersected at the railway station.
Gdansk was a fascinating city, and I wandered around in the afternoon thoroughly entranced. It was once the greatest port on the Baltic Sea and the most important trading centre in central and eastern Europe. In the mid-16th century it was the largest Polish city and controlled 3/4 of Poland's foreign trade, and Napoleon was heard to say it was the key to everything. History was everywhere: the Second World War started here on 1 September 1939, and strikes in the shipyards in 1980 led to the formation of Solidarity. More than 90% of the city was destroyed at the end of the Second World War, but after removal of more than two million square metres of rubble, it was restored brick by brick to the stunning city it is today.
Scenery flashed by at an unbelievable rate, and I peered through the rain trying to glimpse a view of the Polish Baltic coast. This was the part of the Baltic that I knew best from childhood, the tales of amber washed up along the beach. It seemed ironic that I had to miss this part, but life is too short for regrets and I decided this was an excellent incentive to plan a week-long cycling tour some sunny week in autumn.
I arrived in Szczecin for my last night on Polish soil. The city looked drab and grey, a result of unimaginative post-war restoration during the Soviet era. While I was in one hotel enquiring about rooms, I heard a loud explosion outside. It didn't enter my consciousness until the second explosion occurred, when realisation suddenly dawned that I might have just heard Mackenzie's last gasp. I rushed towards the door just as I heard the third explosion - it wasn't Mackenzie's tyres after all and I returned to the desk quite relieved.
So far each country had given me a farewell present and Poland was no exception. The 20 km stretch to the border was paved with spine-shattering cobblestones, a preview of surprises to come. The man at the Polish border asked if I had any vodka or cigarettes, then laughed at his own joke. There was no border control on the German side, only the familiar "Bundesrepublik Deutschland" and I felt like I was coming home.
The German language belongs to the West branch of the Germanic family of Indo-European languages. Six years of living in the country had given me a passable fluency, and I savoured the ability to speak in sentences of more than two or three words.
Road conditions had steadily improved since Lithuania, and if Polish roads were glass, then German roads were silk. There was only a quiet whoosh to be heard and pedalling seemed nearly effortless. Except for the incessant head wind, of course, and I idly wondered what it would be like without it. Dangerous thoughts, those, best left alone.
I had forgotten the fondness of former East Germany for cobblestones, and it wasn't long before my world disintegrated into a blurry haze. Nearly every town was paved with these treasures, and occasional long stretches of the main road between towns. Was this their answer to speed control? It certainly reduced my speed, and it was difficult to put visions of cycling in clouds of flying bike parts out of my head. Later I discovered that some parts really did fly off and I had to stop in Anklam for repairs. The lady in the cycle shop asked where I had been, and didn't believe me at first when I told her. She said she couldn't imagine doing such a trip, even in a car.
Former East Germany has always been interesting for me, perhaps because of its forbidden borders (forbidden things have fascinated me ever since childhood). My journey was very much focused on borders, both old and new, and I thought about borders I had already crossed - those which have ceased to exist such as Sweden/Finland, now both members of the European Union, and those which have recently appeared such as between the Baltic States. These latter borders were quite real, separating the population cleanly as with a knife, and it was rare to see motorists with number plates from the adjoining Baltic countries.
As if sensing my intentions the wind changed to the north. (Superstitious? Me?) I took my time along the road to Rostock, deciding not to rush for the ferry. Looking at the map I saw that the autobahn went directly to the ferry terminal, so naturally all signs pointed that way. Everyone I asked could only point me towards the autobahn, having no clue how a cyclist would reach the ferry. I ended up lost in the industrial area of Rostock (not a pretty sight), and had to take compass bearings to orient myself. Salvation finally came in the form of transit maps at bus stops, and I navigated from bus stop to bus stop like a ping pong ball.
"Hurry, or you'll miss it!" Miss what? According to my schedule the ferry to Gedser didn't leave for another 45 minutes, but I cycled madly along the ramp and got on the ferry just before they shut the door. How odd. I settled myself in a comfy chair, ate lunch, then fell fast asleep. The next thing I knew a woman was shaking me saying we were there. Where? At first I didn't know where we were - in my stuporous state I thought it was five years ago and I was on a ferry in Scotland. I looked at my watch and was even more confused; it was supposed to take 2 hours but only 90 minutes had gone by. I asked people where we were, but they looked at me like I was feeble in the head (I certainly felt it). Still in a daze I cycled off the ferry, not knowing what country we were in. To add to my confusion I had boarded the ferry in heavy overcast skies and now it was cloudless sunshine. But the gods were on my side, and only twenty four hours after arriving in Germany, I was in Denmark.
Separated at last from the constant whoosh of overtaking cars and trucks, I recovered the joy of cycling. Denmark rated quite low on Galen Rowell's hello factor scale; there were so many cyclists we barely gave one another a second glance. Summer still hadn't arrived in northern Europe, but the clouds gave the landscape an intensity that animated otherwise placid scenery. There was lots of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, but the gods were still smiling on me when puncture #2 came in one of the sunny breaks.
The Danes are thought to have migrated from Sweden some 1500 years ago. The Danish monarchy, claimed to be the oldest in the world, dates from Gorm the Old in the early 10th century. In the late 14th century Denmark, Norway and Sweden formed a union under the Danish crown to counter the influence of the Teutonic Knights. Sweden pulled out in the 16th century, however, resulting in many border struggles between Sweden and Denmark over the next few hundred years. Denmark thrived during the reign of Christian IV, and many Renaissance cities, castles and palaces were built. Denmark's borders were gradually reduced through failed military campaigns, including the loss of Norway to Sweden and Schleswig-Holstein to Germany in the 19th century. Denmark remained neutral during the First World War, surrendered to Germany at the start of the Second World War, but had an active Resistance movement. Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to become a member of what was then the European Community (now the European Union) in 1973.
Danish belongs to the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic subfamily of Indo-European languages. Like Swedish and Norwegian, it derived from an early common Scandinavian language. Pronunciation is challenging and "consonants are drawled, swallowed and even omitted completely ...". Although I had good intentions to learn something of the language, my stuttering attempts were almost always met by replies in flawless English.
I reached Slangerup and the home of Ole and Dorrit Johnsen on the afternoon of my second day in Denmark. We had first met on a field excursion in northern Italy, and I had promised to visit them one day in Denmark. The warmth of their hospitality was overwhelming - a genuine example of "hygge", a Danish concept I had read about meaning cosy and snug. I struggled to maintain a semblance of normality despite the withdrawal symptoms and extreme restlessness that developed when I put Mackenzie away for a few days. Ole and Dorrit were fortunately tolerant and indulged me one day by taking Mackenzie on their car to Copenhagen, 44 km to the east. Cycling back against the west wind was a bit breezy, slowing my progress to little more than walking pace, but it was glorious to be cycling again after a three day break.
I gave my scheduled lecture at the Technical University of Denmark and was rewarded with more offers to dinner than I could accept. In the end I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Steen and Jette Morup, my last dinner before setting off on the next leg of my journey.
My legs were positively tingling at the thought of getting on the bike, and although part of me was reluctant to leave, I knew it was time to be moving on. Nearly all roads had bike tracks alongside, and when they didn't there was usually a sign saying no bikes allowed. I thought about the left hand rule, that cyclists may not turn left from the left hand lane with other traffic but must instead make a wide turn using the two right hand crosswalks. I decided it was almost as if they didn't trust cyclists' judgement. But then perhaps it was just the head wind making me cranky.
This was now Day 17 of cycling against the head wind, and I decided if it changed to the east for the ride from Oslo to Stockholm there would be a wail of despair so loud they would hear it back in Bayreuth. I noticed that all other cyclists were going in the opposite direction; all except one from Copenhagen, that is, who said it was complete madness going in this direction. My brakes seized from lack of use; when I wanted to stop I simply took my feet off the pedals and the wind did the rest. In one memorable moment a particularly strong gust blew me completely off my bike. I picked myself out of the field, rather surprised but unhurt. Engine performance was deteriorating and I took frequent naps during the day using Mackenzie as a pillow and my map as a blanket. Perhaps not a dignified position for a German civil servant, but then dignity had been an early casualty of the trip.
Arrangements for Oslo still hadn't been settled, and I kept myself occupied by stopping along the way at isolated telephone booths, assembling coins in piles and dialling assorted numbers in Norway. I reached one answering machine that had a voice so professional I wondered if it was the Norwegian equivalent of "the number you have reached is not in service".
My destination was Hirtshals at the northwest tip of Denmark. After arriving I took Mackenzie for a ride on Tornby Strand and dipped my toes into the North Sea while a heavy mist rolled in from the ocean.
In the morning I took the ferry to Norway. For more than four hours I sat outside on the deck with my face in the wind, no thoughts of boredom as my mind wandered freely and struggled to assimilate the experiences of the trip so far. Not so many people understand why I take such holidays, shunning a pleasant cycle through Provence or similar for the rigours of the Alps or eastern European borders. It is rewarding, certainly, but the reason goes deeper and reflects more of my approach to life than I realise. One month away from research is a long time and I thought of what I could have accomplished had I stayed at home. I realised, however, that my accomplishments are as much due to work invested directly as they are to extracurricular activities. The latter provides much of the enthusiasm, energy and creativity that separates the innovative from the mundane, the inspired from the ordinary. Many of my best ideas come during cycling, and I value greatly the two hour commute by bicycle to and from work each day. These trips are an extension of that concept and enrich the physical and mental aspects of my being in ways that a holiday on the beach could never achieve.
News of Uncle Bill's death was still fresh, and I felt the tight knot of grief that had formed when I had spoken to my parents the day before. I wrote a letter to Aunt Emily, tears running down my cheeks. I cried for Uncle Bill's death, for Aunt Emily's grief, and for the inevitable fact that we can never go back in time. In some ways my trip seemed rather frivolous and I thought of the recent postcards that I had gaily addressed to both of them in ignorance of his passing away. But then I thought how much his death was a reminder of life's fragility and transience and felt very lucky to be able to pursue challenges with a whole body and mind.
Like Danish, Norwegian also belongs to the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic subfamily of Indo-European languages. Unlike Danish, Norwegian has two forms. Bokmal evolved from Danish, the official language of Norway from the late 15th century, incorporating native Norwegian pronunciation and some native grammatical influences. Nynorsk evolved from Landsmal, which was based on Norwegian dialects and free of Danish influence. Both are official languages of Norway.
The approach up Oslofjord was spectacular, with mountains rising from the water against a deep blue sky. Norway produced a resonance inside me unlike any so far this trip. I spent the night at the home of Geir Sonnerud, a scientist I had met on an airplane last November. I was somewhat hesitant, uncertain how far hospitality from such a passing encounter extended. But in the end I needn't have worried - the reception was warm and welcoming and belied our short acquaintance.
From Oslo I moved onto Gjerdrum, a small town 40 km to the north and the home of Truls and Ingvild Norby. I found the Norwegian version of "hygge" in the cosy and warm feeling of their hospitality. I spent a wonderful two days with them and their two children, visiting museums, talking science, and sampling more of Norway's yummy food.
Too quickly the visit was over and it was time to move on. I noted with some alarm that I had only pencilled in three days for Oslo to Stockholm, a journey of nearly 600 km. During the previous days all was still as if the wind gods were waiting to see which direction I chose. In the end it was a cold north wind, more reminiscent of autumn than midsummer.
The day started terribly. I was queasy, out of sorts, and out of resonance with my surroundings. I pedalled like a zombie - looking but not seeing. I missed Richard, at times with an intense ache, and felt a melancholy so deep it touched the bottom of my soul. My legs were well trained, though, and their mechanical action kept the kilometres moving beneath the tyres.
After such moments the good times are so much better and they weren't long in coming. By early evening my stomach had untied, the cobwebs were gone, and life was good again. My legs responded and I was seized by an unearthly energy - it was no problem putting 200 km beneath the tyres before the sun set.
There was lots of rain. I loved to feel the first drops hissing on my hot face, washing away the crusts of salt. I loved to stretch my face into the sky, closing my eyes to the soothing massage of water on my aching eyelids and tasting the fresh rain on my tongue. Bubbles of happiness grew inside, erupting in explosions of joy and laughter. After each deluge the sun would return, shafts of sunlight illuminating single objects, shining with an unearthly glow against the stormy background. I used to think I was such a complex person, but at times like these I realised that the simple things in life are the ones I cherish most.
During Roman times Sweden was dominated by two Germanic tribes, but by the 11th century the Svear (Swedes) eventually overcame the Gauts (Goths) and a Swedish state began to take shape. The south belonged to Denmark for awhile, but eventually Sweden broke away from the Danish crown. Swedish power strengthened and by the 17th century Sweden controlled much of Finland and the Baltic countries. Subsequent military defeats, however, particularly by Russia, reduced Sweden's territory. Sweden remained neutral during both the First and Second World Wars, escaping relatively unscathed. Together with Finland and Austria, Sweden joined the European Union in 1995.
Swedish is part of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language subfamily. It evolved from the common Scandinavian language into Old Swedish and developed a unique accent involving both stress and variations in musical pitch, giving it a singsong rhythm.
Like heroin to a drug addict I couldn't resist the final challenge. After the first day it really did look possible to reach Stockholm in two more days - stupid, perhaps, but a satisfying way to end the trip.
The last day arrived. Scenery became flat, somewhat frightening to look at, but was enlivened by the occasional thunderstorm. My body was really hurting - muscles throbbed, sores opened, bruises on my hands were painful, and my shoulder burned. This was near my limit and I realised that doing this distance every day on a tour would be difficult.
I reached Uppsala at lunchtime. Everything looked the same from previous visits, yet it was so different seeing it from my present perspective. I plotted a route for the remaining 75 km to Akersberga. At times I was nearly overcome with thoughts of finishing and wondered how emotional I would feel when it was all finished. Would I collapse in tears like after the running marathons I had completed? I rather hoped not as Ulf and Elke Halenius were scientific colleagues as well as good friends. In the end it was quite mundane, only a formal shaking of hands. Mostly I just felt numb. It was incredible to stop, though, and my body felt really shattered.
Hospitality in Akersberga was wonderful, and together with the children, Astrid and Erik, we spent many happy hours sightseeing, playing games and just relaxing. During the games I learned useful words for colours, numbers and animals. I also learned words to say when things don't go quite right, words that don't normally make it to the dictionaries.
As I slowly unwound I began to realise how much the frosty reception through the Baltic States had shaken my self confidence. The day after finishing I sat on the terrace writing postcards and felt an incredible peace and tranquillity inside. It was not a proud or conceited feeling for having completed such a trip, but simply a contentment to enjoy simple things - the gentle breeze, the gurgling of the fountain, the birds singing. I did make a few mental notes to myself for future trips, however: