Cycling into Estonia

Head down, start to pedal. Legs are aching and it’s taking a lot of effort to rediscover the rhythm from yesterday. As we hit the main road a buoyant tailwind kicks in; now we’re spinning. As the familiar mechanical pulse of rubber on tarmac and the habitual bending and flexing of knees takes hold the kilometres begin to fall with the metronomic regularity of a ticking clock.

As my body shifts into autopilot my mind begins to wander, inquisitively following one idea like a dog picking up a scent. One thought leads to another, switching back and forth like an indecisive couch potato with free access to the remote control. Unable to grasp solidly at one idea the brain flicks back and forth, halfway around the world and back before finally settling down to a low frequency buzz as my eyes begin to focus on the blur of the road racing beneath my front wheel at twenty kilometres per hour.

I look up.

“Wow, what beautiful scenery”, i think to myself.

“Just like South Eston… wait, we haven’t crossed the border already have we? How long was i daydreaming for?”

Check the map frantically. I couldn’t have missed the decisive moment could I?

“Ok, still a while to go.” Back to the daydreaming.

Thick forests and rolling green fields slip by as we roll on; mind and body maintaining that low frequency drone, oblivious to the beautiful landscape we are cycling through.
Suddenly… Ape! The turnoff for Ape. Surely we are only a few kilometres away now.

With a jolt of electrical impulse my senses spring into life. Fuelled by excitement our pace quickens as Ape passes by in a flash accompanied by a sign emblazoned with the word ‘Moniste’ – “that’s an Estonian town!” – and the indication that it is only ten kilometres away. The dog has picked up the scent, stronger than before. So close he can almost taste it.

Tarmac stretches out like a congratulatory red carpet, beckoning us towards the biggest of milestones while trees line our way, standing back in quiet admiration as these two dishevelled but determined travellers edge ever-closer to the climax of their day. Excitement builds, adrenaline rushes, pupils dilate as we turn the final corner and…

“Eesti Vabariik”.

We have made it to the border. We have cycled to Estonia.

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Dreaming of Tallinn

Maintaining an inquisitive mindset can be difficult on a longer journey. At the start I had many romanticised ideas of navigating with only a compass, waking at sunrise and watching the sunset from our wild camping spots but in reality our phones have proven to be excellent navigational tools and the luxury of campsites have tempted us on more than one occasion. Similarly, many of the locations I had ‘starred’ on Google Maps before we began this journey have also gone undiscovered purely as a result of their geographical placement. I still have the urge to visit these fascinating locations but have deemed it equally important to maintain an eastward trajectory and not add too many extra kilometres to our ever-growing total. Idealistic plans will always be changed and shaped on the road. This is not a problem for me.

Although I would say that my mind has remained inquisitive and I do appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am to be exploring these places on a bicycle, I cannot deny that as the kilometres tick by I have been dreaming of Estonia more and more. Days have slowly morphed from a meandering jaunt to a more purposeful ride in the direction of the finish line. Success is measured more by distance covered than ‘places seen’ at the moment.

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The truth is that Estonia is getting closer and the thought of actually finishing this ride is  becoming tangible, tugging hard at the impatient part of my psyche; the part that doesn’t particularly enjoy sharing the road with trucks, panting up hills or grumbling my way over long uneven gravel paths.

I believe that these feelings are only natural after over two months on the road and the rewards of warm comfortable mattresses and familiarity of city life are certainly a huge lure having cycled such a long way. I am also aware that this journey is not a race and that such trappings will always be there and I owe it to myself to not be drawn too quickly towards them.

I do not want to look back on this segment of the journey and regret rushing towards the end too fervently but I can’t deny that Tallinn is exerting a greater pull on me each time I see an Estonian licence plate or glance at the map to see our predetermined finish line creeping closer and closer.

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As such, we have decided that when we cross that final border into Estonia, we will not make a quick dash for the northern Baltic coast. Instead we will head eastwards, into the areas that few tourists get to see, slowing our journey down one last time to appreciate the quaint countryside charm of southern Estonia, the fascinating communities living on the shores of Lake Peipsi and the often overlooked towns in the northeast, near the Russian border. There are stories hidden all around Estonia and one of my passions in the last few years has been to go out and find them, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Every day I dream of Estonia and the finish line, but we are not finished with this journey just yet.

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Leaving Poland

From noisy traffic-laden highways to silky smooth coastal routes; from flooded swamp-like ‘roads’ and downpours to rolling green hills bathed in warm sunlight – cycling through Poland has been a real experience. Never quite able to relax but never on the verge of panic, we have been constantly in a state of alert readiness; appreciating the beauty of countryside and savouring brief moments of tranquility while simultaneously bracing ourselves for the inevitable hours of struggle and challenge. One minute, the sky is blue, the cycling is smooth and off-road and all is calm and relaxed, the next, rainclouds loom on the horizon, the smooth ribbon of perfection will dive underground, out of sight, dumping you onto a ‘red road’; the Darwinian realm where the larger vehicle is king. Just as you are about to slip into despair a gleaming, shimmering lake will fade into view on the horizon. Your campsite has arrived. Another day in Poland has passed.

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We sit here in the town of Suwalki, a mere stones throw from the Poland-Lithuania border. (Alright, you’d need one hell of a throw to launch a stone 25km but in terms of a border-to-border traverse, such a distance feels tanglible, like we could just float a paper aeroplane into the Baltics). When we entered Poland two weeks ago we were greeted by a whirlwind of energy as we literally saw our comfort zone slipping beneath our wheels. Since that day we have learnt to deal with the challenges of the traffic, ever-changing weather and navigation through some less-than-ideal terrain. We have also been treated to some fantastic campsites, swam in refreshingly-cold lakes, boosted our morale with soft ice cream on hot sunny days and continued to make memories as we cross one of the largest countries in Europe by our own steam.

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While many of my smiles have not been returned and we have certainly noticed that people have been more guarded here than in other countries, I have certainly felt the warmth and good wishes of the Polish people and had the pleasure of many friendly and memorable encounters. Language barriers are not barriers to kindness.

So, we press on now, towards Kaunas and north into Latvia. Our journey is nearing its end but we are certainly not ready to rush to Tallinn just yet. Many more experiences, chance encounters and unexpected discoveries lay ahead as we enter the final stages of our cycle to Estonia.

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Routine

Perhaps it is ironic that in an attempt to escape the daily grind of city life and free ourselves of the cyclical routine that characterised our London lives we have stumbled into a lifestyle that is governed by repetitive structure more than we could have imagined. We are not perturbed by this unavoidable routine and fully accept that in order to continue our trajectory towards a Baltic autumn such repetition is necessary, but nonetheless it is an interesting observation to air.

“Routine is the enemy”, I thought before we departed. “Full time employment leads to routine which, in turn, leads to comfort and, ultimately, a monotonous lifestyle”.

Yes, it seems like I talk to myself a lot.

There are many cyclists who have travelled much further than us and for greater swathes of time who have also pointed out the prevalence of routine in their day-to-day lives. Although this is a price worth paying for exploring the world on one’s own terms, many bicycle travellers cannot escape the realisation that, much like the pedals on their bike, their lives are characterised by a similarly rhythmical revolution.

Here is our routine.

Wake up. Instantly go back to sleep. Wake up again. Listen out for rain. No rain. Yet. Still don’t know what the time is. It’s cold outside of the sleeping bag. Check the time. It’s Early. Kilometres must be cycled today. Sit up. Get dressed without leaving the sleeping bag. Leave the sleeping bag. Deflate mattress. Pack away. Open the tent. Brave the morning air for the first time. Look around for the Sun. Guess we must have left that back in Berlin. Pack the tent away.

 

Oats for breakfast. Splash of milk. Coffee. If necessary. Usually necessary. Brush teeth. Splash water on my face. I’m ready for the ride.

 

First priority. Find supermarket. Buy food for the day. Maybe a cheeky pastry or two as well. Food stocks replenished. Chocolate supply replenished. So far so good.

 

Begin riding. Slip into familiar mechanical rhythm. Observe scenery. Decide whether scenery is beautiful or dull. Usually beautiful. Sometimes dull. Keep drinking water. Continue to follow road. Break for lunch. Ride some more. Embrace inevitable monotony. Start to daydream. Mainly about dinner. Sometimes about eating chips. I love chips.

 

Sometimes we find wild blueberries and sometimes we stumble across a fascinating ghost town covered in street art. Other times we cycle through a quaint town and decide to stop for an afternoon coffee. Sometimes we notice some menacing rain clouds so dive under a bus stop to prevent inevitable drenching. Occasionally we get lost and have to cycle unnecessary kilometres to rectify our mistake. This is annoying. Ice cream is a huge tempter so we usually stop if this temptation becomes overwhelming. Slowing down to appreciate where we are and what we are doing is a pursuit we try to adhere to. Sometimes we just want to cover kilometres though so we push on. Details differ. The structure of the day remains the same.

 

Find campsite after cycling well over our pre-planned distance for the day. Pitch tent. Inflate mattress. Unroll sleeping bag. Make slightly disappointing version of the amazing dinner that was the subject of todays daydreaming. Do I want tea? Probably do. Make tea. Excellent decision. Write diary. Update total distance for the journey. Set alarm for tomorrow in a futile gesture to wake up at sunrise. Brush teeth. Lay down. Shiver. Warm up. Sleep.

 

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Fuel

When touring a continent by bicycle the most important engine is your body. Keeping it fuelled and sufficiently watered is a vital part of a smooth successful tour. When boiled down to its essence, food is fuel; just like putting petrol in your car or recharging your phone. We don’t have access to a kitchen, fridge, freezer, oven, fancy utensils, large storage cupboards, toasters, kettles, food processors, grills, work surfaces and any other everyday items we would take for granted at home.

Indeed, our ‘kit’ consists of some small saucepans, a £4 walk frying pan, one small stove, a knife, a spork and (arguably our most important item) one coffee pot.

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Given our restrictions, it is important to remember that we are travelling through Europe, a land of plentiful supermarkets and amazing abundant produce. If you sprinkle in a little bit of imagination it’s possible to eat interesting, varied and delicious meals. Of course, for those who aren’t foodies, boiled pasta for dinner, bananas for breakfast and a huge jar of Nutella will also suffice.

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So whether it’s mushroom and mozzarella pasta, pesto and garlic butter toasties, avocado, tomato and cream cheese sandwiches or just a simple plate of chips from a Belgian Frituur (easily our favourite lunch/dinner/snack/any time of day/any excuse meals), cycle touring does not mean monotonous eating.

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Gradually however, practicality does win the battle over imagination and our diet has become far more budget oriented. Oats for breakfast, fresh bread and cheese for lunch and pasta and jars of pesto for dinner provide a nice balance between cheap, easy-to-store meals and fresh tasty food. Calories are our fuel.

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Crossing Borders

Imaginary lines drawn at random through the map to separate one piece of earth from another. In theory, borders are just that. Arbitrary lines. The people living either side of them are biologically the same, the nature continues right on through and the weather certainly doesn’t adhere to these made-up boundaries. It is a strange occurrence, therefore, that the world can change so much and so drastically either side of these random dividing lines.

Thankfully, the borders we have crossed and are yet to cross on our journey are wide open – indicated only by a small sign informing us that we are seamlessly transitioning the frontier into a new country. No big burly men asking for papers and documents, no barbed wire fencing and no security forces. No fees, no fuss and no song and dance. In essence, a beautiful symbol of peace and co-operation across Europe. The only person to look at my passport so far on this entire trip has been a uniformed French man in Dover… and even he wasn’t that bothered.

Despite the ease of crossing borders here in Europe, it was the latest crossing from Germany into Poland that felt instantly like we had entered a new world.

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As we crossed the river I was struck by the way in which such an innocent stretch of road can beckon forth such a dramatic transition. Apartment blocks sprouted from the ground in the quickest germination I have ever witnessed, roads developed a serious case of pothole-itis and the small family cars that had slowly overtaken us minutes prior magically morphed into trucks hurtling their down our new road. The atmosphere changed almost instantly; we were on edge, our senses heightened and our brains furiously whirred as they began processing this dramatic change in stimuli. Undoubtedly a scary transition but simultaneously exhilarating. The feeling of having our comfort zones visibly moved from under our wheels is the very reason we came on this journey. Poland has arrived and has instantly made herself known.

Borders are certainly opening up in this world. There are some I would still not wish to cross but on our trip we have been seeing first hand how accessible this continent feels. Despite the fact that they do sometimes feel arbitrary, I feel we are reaching the stage of our journey where our road is changing more dramatically. All of a sudden Estonia seems that bit closer… but first, a whole new road full of villages, towns, forests, lakes and unknowns stretches out in front of us. The next chapter has begun: Poland.

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Spontaneity vs. Control

When we began this journey we had not planned a route. A vague bit of Google-ing had ear-marked a few interesting places to check out on the way (such as Doel in Belgium) but in general our aim was to allow spontaneity and our own sense of adventure to take hold as we weaved our way across new landscapes towards our goal.

This has proved a fantastic way to travel – keeping the sunrise at our noses and sunset at our backs as we travel eastwards, filling in the gaps by picking wild blueberries or just slowing down to appreciate the simplicity our our journey. This was our mentality in the beginning and certainly saw us in good stead.

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However, as we entered our third week of cycling an interesting dilemma emerged. As we prepared to cross the German boarder we had set our sights on Berlin: the Cold War embodiment of West meeting East, the halfway point in our journey and a city we have a strong affinity to. In essence, a perfect place to take a few days off from riding. Our homing pigeon instincts were drawing us towards this important milestone; a gravitational tug too strong to resist.

At this point the dynamic of our ride had changed. We were no longer free spirits guided only by our sense of exploration but two increasingly weary cyclists with 500km between us and our chosen goal. Such a distance is not a problem for an inquisitive mind free of deadlines and schedules but for a mind that is wrestling with the desire to slow down and not turn this journey into a race and a burgeoning eagerness to get arse on saddle and cover some serious distance, this scenario proved tricky.

Impatience won through as we picked up the pace, abandoning our care-free meandering for a much more direct line heading east, recalculating averages each day as we pushed on towards our halfway point. Reaching Berlin was growing into an obsession as we broke the 100km mark several times. Our fitness was fantastic and covering such distance was a great morale boost but I knew we were sacrificing our enjoyment in order to reach such peaks. Despite this realisation, it took a strong message from my body to jolt me out of this ‘Tour de France’ mentality and back to reality. After our longest ever day in the saddle (127km), my body sent me a very clear message that it was time to slow as the kilometres caught up with me and forced us into a rest day.

This day of exhaustion was an important jolt, reminding me that we had been allowing our desire to make geographical progress obstruct our enjoyment. Berlin wasn’t going anywhere. Whether we averaged 100km a day or just 10km, I’m pretty sure the German capital wasn’t going to do a runner overnight. Prompted by this wake-up call, we decided to add a few extra days to our projected arrival date, slice our daily average and instead head for the green areas on the map. Consequently, we glided into Berlin through dirt tracks in the forest, across farmland and through some amazing quiet countryside roads.

So what have we learnt from our first three and a half weeks on the road?

Firstly, there is no harm in having an end goal. Berlin provided fantastic motivation to set an early alarm each day, get out of bed, eat a good oat-based breakfast and hit the road. We had focus that were able to channel towards physical achievements that we never thought ourselves capable of. 127km in one day is certainly a first for me!

However, we have learnt that there is certainly a compromise that must be made between ‘control’ and ‘spontaneity’ when it comes to bicycle travel. A destination provides the direction of a journey with a clearly defined beginning and end but without spontaneity and a keen nose for exploration there is no story. We are here precisely for these stories. London to Estonia is the ‘A-to-B’. The experiences and achievements in between are the reasons we keep going.

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Free Camping in the Netherlands

At the time of crossing the German boarder we had kept up a simple ratio of one night wild camping followed by one night on a campsite. This enables us to spread the cost of our accommodation, catch up on some sleep after a 6am sunrise start and helps reduce the pressure of searching for wild camping spots every single night. Experienced adventurers would be dismayed at this sparse ratio of wild camping but we know that as our confidence  grows we will certainly step up our stealth camping game in the weeks to come. Right now, this compromise works well for us as we adapt to this new lifestyle.

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One of our favourite features of the Netherlands was the availability of so-called ‘pole camping’ sites. These are free wild campsites set away from the road, nestled in the forest and accessible only by foot or bicycle. With a lack of signposting they are deliberately difficult to find but with a simple smart phone or a decent map even a pair of amateurs like us had no problems tracking them down. Their website contains all the GPS co-odrinates scattered across an interactive map so with a tiny amount of prep it’s possible to set of on a days ride with several ‘accommodation’ options for the night!

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Wild camping in the Netherlands – like every country so far – is illegal so this is a fantastic compromise. The sites are already set up with space for a campfire and flat ground to pitch your tents but there are no other facilities so providing you have the GPS co-ordinates and an eagle-eye to spot the official ‘pole camping’ signpost you have an authentic wild camping experience, for free in an absolutely gorgeous spot. Kudos Netherlands, kudos.

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We Found Blueberries!

For those with a keen nose and eagle eye, the forest holds much more than beautiful aesthetics, shade from the heat of the day and a place to pitch a tent for the night; there are more than deer and rabbits hiding within those trees.

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In keeping with our mantra of slowing down we were determined not to rush out of the Netherlands, despite the obvious temptations of crossing the German boarder and adding another important milestone to our journey. This mantra served us well once again when our progress through the stunning Veluwezoom National Park was halted. Screeching to a halt, it was clear that Kerli’s nose had sensed something, nestled among the mighty trunks of the trees; something sweet, something delicious, something… no, it couldn’t be, could it? Not here, in the forest. Surely not.

…but it was. It really was. In our casual saunter through the forest we had found blueberries! An endless supply. Way too many for two people to devour alone.

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Needless to say, we did not waste such a precious opportunity and within half an hour we had two full stomachs and two full pots for the road. Nature provided us with a bounty… and we obliged. A great start to any day on the road.

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