A Cycling Journal From Eastern Europe
Customer Carol Waaser of the New York Cycle Club recounted her Eastern European adventure with our first ExpeditionPlus! (bicycling from St. Petersburg, Russia to Istanbul, Turkey) for her club newsletter last fall. She’s kindly permitted us to reprint her article here.
I stood on the cliff overlooking the Baltic Sea, the sun winking off the water. I had stopped to photograph a field of yellow flowers. The wind came off the sea and felt refreshing as I stood there. On the bicycle it was anything but! The previous day we had cycled 75 miles into a strong head wind and today a mere 35 miles into that same wind.
Our trip had begun in St. Petersburg with three days of just being tourists, but our goal was to cycle through Eastern Europe to Istanbul. The tour was organized by ExperiencePlus!, a company based in Colorado and Italy that mostly runs 8-14 day cycling tours in western Europe and Central America. Owner Rick Price had always wanted to tour Eastern Europe and had decided to enlist some experienced cycle tourists to help “scout” the area. Sixteen of us signed on to do the entire six weeks of cycling, with a few others joining us for shorter segments.
Our time in Russia was a study in contrasts: beautiful 18th century buildings in central St. Petersburg vs. Soviet-style blockhouse apartment buildings on the outskirts; working poor vs. nouveaux riche; our hotel in St. Petersburg, clean and comfy, vs. one in Ivangorod that can only be described as a rat hole. We spent our time in St. Petersburg, touring the city, visiting the Hermitage and going to the ballet. As tourists in the historic part of the city, we encountered little of the Soviet bureaucracy, although the occasional chatty cab driver would give insight into how things had been in the not too distant past. One spoke angrily about Putin because Putin was KGB when this man’s father was sent to Siberia. We left St. Petersburg for the suburb of Gatchina where we would begin our cycling.
The scent of pine forest and sea breeze catch my nose as I cycle down the Latvian coast toward Riga. It had been the same along the coast of Estonia. The Baltics are beautiful countries, but very flat, making it a bit monotonous. But the flat terrain is broken by the sight of a moose emerging from the forest or a stork taking flight on enormous wings or swans gliding gracefully in the Baltic Sea.
Practical matters are not always easily solved. Unlike Western Europe where the next village is only a few kilometers up the road and every village has a café and bakery, here we can ride for 20 miles without seeing a village with shops, and there seem to be no cafes except in large cities. Finding food, water, and bathrooms when needed is not always possible. We quickly learn to make cheese sandwiches at the breakfast buffet to take with us for lunch. And nature calls are just that – ducking behind a bush on the side of the road.
I was choking on dust as the car roared past on the gravel road. I reached for my water and the mouthpiece was covered in dust. My hands, feet and seat were hurting from road vibration. And I was less than 20 miles into a 100 mile day. Sometimes even the paved roads are very rough. The tertiary roads are surfaced in chip seal and even where it’s smooth it sets up vibrations. At times it’s washboard from tractor treads – this is farm country. The primary roads are generally more smooth, but then we have more traffic and they are not as scenic and don’t offer the same opportunity to interact with local residents.
On our day off in Riga, Heather, Helen and I decide to take the train to Drazini to visit the site of the Salaspils concentration camp. It’s now a memorial park with nothing left of the actual camp, so instead of being disturbing it’s quite moving. There are memorial stelae at the sites of various barracks – the site of the children’s barracks is particularly moving. A sculpture garden fills a central area, and off to one side is a polished marble slab containing an eternal metronome representing the heartbeat of the souls who perished in the camp. We do not speak Latvian and we are off on our own using public transportation. Fortunately everyone is very friendly and helpful, so after a couple of false starts we eventually get on the right train out, get off at the right station and ultimately find a bus back to Riga because the return train doesn’t stop here.
As Ed and I cross the border into Lithuania, the border guard asks where we are going. I say, “Ultimately, Istanbul.” He gives me an odd stare, so I say, “Today we go to Aneksciai,” and I point to the hotel on our itinerary. He nods and says, “Ahhh.” Then I show him a card with a rough map of our route through ten countries and he shakes his head to say we’re nuts. But then he says, “Good luck.”
With each border crossing comes the money problem. Each country has its own currency. There isn’t always an easy place to change money, so we have to withdraw more from the first ATM we find in the next country in order to have the correct currency to buy water and snacks. If we then exchange the previous leftover currency for the new, we have more than we can use in that country and have to exchange again in the next, losing money with each exchange. It’s not easy to guess how much cash we’ll need. Food and water seem incredibly cheap here, so we’re learning not to withdraw too much when we’ll be in a country only a few days.
The bird calls come in stereo from the forest on either side of the road. In the clearings, wild flowers paint hues of rust, gold and violet. Farmland is tilled and harvested by horse-drawn implements or ancient tractors, and women are out milking the family cow. Then seemingly out of nowhere, an American flag flutters in the breeze on a high pole, along with the Lithuanian flag and the banner of the development company: AeroDream.
We were on our own for dinner the second night in Vilnius. I scouted for restaurants during the day while taking in the sites of Old Town and came across an off-the-beaten-track place with an interesting menu. (Going down the wrong street will often lead to important discoveries.) Eight of us dine there, not in the more formal rooms of the main floor, but in the charming arched brick rooms of the beer cellar. The food is exquisite both in its preparation and in its presentation. Among us we have a variety of fish, meat, and vegetarian dishes and each is pronounced the best of the trip so far. The restaurant isn’t prepared for eight of us unannounced with no reservation, so each carefully prepared course takes about 40 minutes to arrive at the table. Thus five bottles of a very satisfactory Chilean red wine are consumed. Dessert (I could wax poetic over the baked chocolate cream with white and bitter chocolate sauces) is accompanied by a fine Lithuanian brandy.
It’s always the little dogs that chase the hardest and are the most vicious. A black one came barreling out of a driveway in full pursuit just as I started up a hill. I slam the gears up and hammer for all I’m worth, hitting 18 mph going up the grade, but the little runt is still nipping at my rear tire. He finally breaks off in the nick of time as I’m about to have an asthma attack.
I heard my first cuckoo bird while riding through the Polish forest. Though I’ve never heard one before, I knew immediately what it was. The sound was clear and distinct – and just like a clock! I stopped and listened, but I couldn’t see it; the bird was too deep into the forest. Each day brings new delights. This same day we cycled past canals with locks, part of an extensive system connecting rivers and lakes across Eastern Europe.
David found a strawberry farm and convinced one of the pickers to sell him a basketful. He was kind enough to share with some of us who came along. Delicious, ripe, juicy, freshly picked…what a treat! We pass fields of corn, beets, cabbage and other vegetables, also fields of cultivated raspberries and strawberries. But in general the food we’ve had in Poland is not as good as in the Baltics – it’s heavier and fattier. Still, it gets one through a day of cycling.
Marion (aka The Terminator), Canadian Rod and Colorado Bob are the leaders of the pack. They’re the A-train. Loren’s up there, too, and sometimes Dave if he’s not riding with his wife Barbara. Marion’s husband, Fred, will join them or not, depending on his mood for the day. Sometimes I can hook onto Howard and Minnesota Bob for an 18-19 mph paceline. They seem happy to trade pulls and do all the work, letting me draft off them – a real blessing in the headwinds. Sometimes I ride with Ed, but he stops often for photo ops. Scott rides with different groups or alone; same with Polo. Helen rides where she feels comfortable on any particular day, and Harold and Caroline bring up the rear. Al and Barbara, Heather, and Jon were with us for the first two weeks, but now are gone. Jody and Robin joined us in Vilnius to do the last four weeks; and Adrienne will join us in Romania for the last two weeks. Rick is with us for the whole trip; his wife Paola comes and goes, as do other ExperiencePlus leaders.
The group ranges in age from 46 to 75. What right do we have to think we can do this crazy stunt – riding 2,500 miles through Eastern Europe in six weeks! Still, we’re all a little full of ourselves that we’re doing it, and with very few aches and pains. What’s the old saying? That which does not kill us makes us stronger. We’re all growing stronger and losing weight.
We’re finally into the foothills of the Carpathian Alps in southern Poland. What a relief not to have the endless flat, windy terrain. The scenery is beautiful, the air is clear, and the hills are our friends. So far we have not had any particularly steep grades. We’re a little more than half-way through our journey and have one casualty: Harold and Caroline crashed on a particularly rough road and Harold has sustained a chipped bone near his elbow. He’s in a full arm cast and cannot ride. Caroline soldiers on.
I saw the Giant Hogweed today, so now I know what it looks like and can avoid it. The Poles imported the plant from Kazakstan as cattle feed, only to discover that in hot weather it becomes virulently poisonous – think poison ivy times five! If it touches your skin, red welts appear, then blisters form on the welts. We know all this because Scott brushed up against one with the back of his thigh. Three hospital visits, much cortisone and other medication, and three days in the van later, he’s back on the bike, though still in pain.
We cross into Hungary and enter the Tokaj wine region. We were in Slovakia only for one afternoon and the next morning, having crossed one section of the Carpathian Alps on the Polish side. The actual border is at the top of the pass (a low one at only 2,175 feet), but passport control is at the bottom of a gorgeous descent. We fly down the mountain hitting speeds in excess of 40 mph. Helen has left her passport in her luggage and does not have it with her at the border. Amazingly, she manages to talk her way through anyway!
Two days in Hungary – “Thank you” was the only word I conquered. Fortunately, our local Hungarian guide Denes typed out little slips of paper that say, “water without gas” so we can hand it to the store clerk to get non-carbonated water. (Water with gas turns our water bottles into bombs.) Language is a problem. If you’re in one country for 10-12 days, you can learn a number of key phrases and basic counting. But when you go through ten countries, spending only a few days in each, it’s difficult to get even the basics.
We enter Romania and encounter the worst roads of the trip. The country is poor and much of the infrastructure is falling apart. But the people are very friendly and the language is similar to Italian, so it’s easier to communicate here. Our local Romanian leader, Aleks, is terrific. He’s a professional tour leader and gives excellent service. He’s also a cyclist and has scouted our entire route through Romania, so he gives us accurate descriptions of what we can expect each day in terms of mileage and terrain. This hasn’t always been the case – on a number of days the mileage estimate was significantly below the actual total, making it difficult to judge whether we needed more water or food late in the ride.
I sit on my helmet under a shade tree between two villages. The air is sultry; thunder rumbles in the distance. Horse-drawn wagons pass almost as often as cars. My asthma is acting up from the dust and exhaust fumes, and I carelessly left my emergency inhaler at the last hotel. Rather than risk a crisis, I’ve called Michele, the tour leader driving the luggage van, and asked him to come get me when he can. Ed offered to wait with me, but Howard came along, so I sent them off together. Thus I sit alone with my thoughts, listening to thunder and watching horse-drawn wagons.
We’re finally climbing the high pass through the Transylvanian Alps. At 6,000 feet, it remains a snow-capped peak in July. The climb is long but beautiful, with a stop at the half-way point to get water and food. But at the top we must traverse the Terrifying Transylvanian Tunnel! This is a mile-long tunnel through the top of the mountain. It’s totally unlit, and despite the lights attached to the handlebars, I can’t see my hand in front of my face. It’s an utterly black void. I try to sense the wall to my right, hoping I won’t crash into it. The road surface is wet and potholed – I just try to keep my balance. Not a single car passes through to give me light. I know Ed is following me and hope he can see my taillight as a guide. At last I see light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve made it without mishap but unnerved nevertheless.
Cycling into Bucharest needs all my urban cycling skills. A few kilometers out of town we turn onto a limited access highway. There’s a wide shoulder, so we’re not in danger from the cars and trucks whizzing by, but there’s an on/off ramp ahead with a line of cars entering. I take the lead and direct the traffic from my bike. They stop and let us pass. The highway becomes a major boulevard with cross streets, and traffic is chaotic. I make eye contact with drivers and signal them where we’re going – they let our group of seven make our way through. A far cry from the forest and farm fields of the north.
By the time we reach Bulgaria, a cumulative fatigue has set in. We are now five weeks into the trip and are in the midst of twelve straight days of cycling with no days off. The two scheduled “half days” to give us a little rest turn out not to be – one is longer than expected, the other is very difficult terrain, including several miles of dirt road uphill. Everyone is tired, everyone has aches, pains and soreness. Some problems are bike fit issues. Small discrepancies from the exact proper fit or cycling position might not cause any problems when you’re riding 60-100 miles per week. But when you do 60-100 miles per day for six weeks, everything is magnified. We’ve had swollen Achilles tendons, numb hands, knee problems and lower back pain in addition to saddle sores. Most problems have been rectified, but some linger on. There have been a few spills, mostly minor but for Harold in his armcast.
Every city has an Old Town – the city center where buildings date from Medieval to Renaissance periods (or even Greek or Roman farther south). We get an occasional day off (five altogether over the six weeks) in such cities and have time to explore and learn some history which, of course, is rife with politics both historic and contemporary. Of all these former eastern block countries, the three Baltic states seem to have progressed the farthest, while Romania and Bulgaria are farthest behind. This is certainly true in terms of the economy and infrastructure.
At last we enter Turkey and are just two days from Istanbul. The border is at the top of a pass 2,200 feet above sea level. It’s a beautiful climb and the wind is at our backs. After the border we continue rolling climbs and descents, but halfway through the day we make a left turn and for the rest of the ride we face a vicious crossing headwind. The grades are steeper in Turkey than they have been anywhere else. We hit a short climb of 13-14% into the wind. There’s no reward on the descent – we still have to pedal against the wind. But the reward does come in the town of Vize. Our Turkish guide Alper meets us at the hotel and announces there will be a tour of the Thracian ruins at 5:15. It seems the mayor is so excited to have us that he’s provided a bus to take us up into the hills above town to see the ruins. We talk with an archeologist who’s excavating an area below a 5th century church. The local newspaper has sent a reporter and photographer to cover this new boom in tourism.
No one has dared mention the weather during the entire trip for fear of jinxing it. It’s been unbelievably perfect. In 36 days of cycling we’ve had a half-day of rain and three overcast days, two of which we were grateful for as they provided relief from a short spell of heat. Every other day we’ve had clear blue skies, sunshine and occasional fluffy clouds, with only a few days being bothersomely hot. The biggest negative weather factor has been headwind, which on some days was almost more than I could bear. But that’s a small quibble for an otherwise perfect tour.
Everyone in Turkey is friendly and helpful except, perhaps, the drivers in Istanbul. The city is chaotic and traffic lights have no meaning. Everywhere we go we are hustled by merchants and hawkers. And yet if I need help or appear lost, these same people offer genuine assistance. The day after arriving, Alper takes us on a day-long tour of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sofya. He is very knowledgeable so we learn a great deal of history. He takes us into hidden areas we wouldn’t have known to visit on our own..
The next day there is no organized group plan, so Adrienne and I visit the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar. We are enthralled. I leave Adrienne to her shopping and go off to the Mosaic Museum which exhibits, in situ, the restored fragments of a giant floor mosaic from the palace of Justinian that occupied the site prior to the Blue Mosque. The fragments are beautiful and there’s a history (in Turkish, German and English) of the site as well as an explanation of the archeological excavation and the rescue and restoration of the mosaic. It’s very well laid out and I find it fascinating.
Istanbul is way too big to see in two days, but we’ve done the highlights. And who else can say they’ve entered Istanbul by bicycle having cycled all the way from St. Petersburg? Everyone is elated that we’ve done it, and amazed at the same time. We’ve cycled over 2,500 miles with almost 60,000 vertical feet of climbing. We’ve come through in amazingly good condition. Almost everyone has lost weight and gained strength. Several have learned new cycling skills. And we’re all sick of doing hand laundry in the hotel sink! The bikes suffered one broken crank, two bent rims, one broken seat post clamp, one broken spoke, two stretched chains, one ruined bottom bracket, at least 25 flat tires and a few other small ailments. But they, too, held up remarkably well given the rough roads, potholes and unpaved sections we rode them over. Our leaders have put up with our occasional grousing and have done a terrific job of getting us here.
Now it’s time for “re-entry” – not so bad, perhaps, for the retirees (more than half the group) but more difficult for those of us still working full time. But memories of the trip will remain with us and provide tales to tell over the water cooler. And in another year or so we will be on to new adventures.