Once upon a time in the south-east of Sweden, in Värmland to be precise, father and son took off from the westside of the mighty Klarälven River with a steady three-layered raft. This ‘self-made’ raft was constructed under the supervision of a great Swede and an occasional expat (who wouldn’t like to be an expat in the vast Swedish wilderness?!) both working for a company named Vildmark i Värmland. After hauling with logs and ropes for several hours, we succeeded in fixing together two heavily roped squared platforms which were supposed to do the rafting job. A simple shelter of poles and tarpaulin on one of the squares would be our temporary shelter against the Swedish elements. Our floating experience was ready to start!
Setting off was a great feeling. The timber raft floated peacefully, and it would be our means of transport for the next watery 100 km. The coming days and nights, we were expected to build unforgettable experiences. We did! I will never disregard the thirsty bloodsuckers roaming the grassy shores of the Klarälven River simply known as mosquitoes. Thanks to the attractive Allmansrätten (Swedish Right of Public Access) you can camp everywhere you would like to in the Swedish outdoors. If your destination is farmland in this part of the world, be sure the zipper of your tent is perfectly closing. Ours was not! And, for this trip, I overlooked the ducktape… They came in their thousands! It was a zooming orchestra! Relieving yourself in the outdoors during night time turned into a blood donation event at expedition level. A few words of advice for the outdoor enthusiasts: ask the proprietor for permission of the land you want to use, use a shut tent, and don’t invite the neighbouring mosquitoes.
Apart from a few skinny bites, we really appreciated the calm flow of the raft and therefore of life! We could neither steer nor accelerate. Bumping into the shores slows you down and made the raft turning clockwise or the other way depending on which shore you touch! We just went with the tides! A very peaceful meandering through the farmland of the county Varmland!
If you would like an ample river adventure with a very decent raft, please contact Vildmark i Värmland. I’m sure they will make the river flow for you!
What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home (Alain de Botton). So at the end of October, I left my hometown for the Baltic country known as Estonia. I was searching for a ‘winter’ region to meet winter circumstances. I packed my bike, my camping stuff including a tent and a thermos, and more socks than usual for a trip of one week. I first enjoyed the capital Tallinn with all it included. I experienced sophisticated open-minded people, excellent food and Italian-quality coffees. I came across beautiful Nordic houses and old temporary housing blocks of Russian design, and saw many remnants of historical suppression. Nevertheless, the Estonian mentality is another thing. This Nordic tribe people make something of their self-sufficient lives and their proud country! They have truly impressed me!
It was then time to head out. The wind took me to the Lahemaa National Park, where encountering the Eurasian Elks made my day perfect. And yeah, it did rain the whole day! Probably the reason why I was the only guest in the huge guesthouse in Loksa. The touristic season was long gone. Turning south was turning into fierce Estonian headwind for many many hours to come. I was so dead that I couldn’t make my tent my home and treated myself with an apartment in Tartu. However, after many hours of wind blowing straight into my nostrils accompanied with all kinds of rain, I saw the sun for few minutes at the end of the daylight, which is like very early in the afternoon there! It was one of the finest things I saw that day! One night, I stayed in this so-cool farm in the middle of nowhere. Never seen such a lively organic farm with marvelous people (and two playful kittens)! Perfect stuff for fairy tales)! Just living the dream! Check them out if you’re around (or here or find something else on WOOFF)! My last days were filled drying up in the southern county of Põlvamaa, bordering Russia. I really enjoyed wandering around in the Meenikunno Bog with cranberries floating on top of the peat along the hiking trail. The Pavlova dessert was one of the best aftertastes of this short cycling stay in a fabulous ‘exotic’ country.
All I knew about Moldova was two things. First, it existed! Second, it was a small country somewhere in southeastern Europe. The rest was pure guessing. Now I know so much more! I give you some of the relevant evidenced data. The country is populated by heavenly hospitable, amicable people. At least in the places I’ve seen. Wow! Such broad smiles! Such warm welcomes! It reminded me of Vietnam, which is by far inhabited by the friendliest people of the planet. Anyway, Moldovan folks make a very good second. I was sooooo nicely surprised that I loved the place at first sight. People waved, said ‘Hello’, even car and truck drivers used their horns! Sometimes I felt like a cycling rockstar. As it turns out, I was the only (crazy) long distance cyclist in the country! More news of Moldova: they like to grow stuff on their lands: mainly sunflowers, grains, corn, and fruit. As far as the eye can see. And it’s a national law that every paved road is bordered by a row of walnut-trees on either side. Great! Sometimes I could even struggle uphill with my ‘Zedd’ in the shade! Peaches, nectarines, juicy tasty big watermelons, and huge grapes are offered, all freshly captured, along the road. You can buy a whole watermelon for few Moldovan Lei, which is close to nothing. So I did! I cycled with a camel bag in front through this marvelous country!
I had decided that Moldova would be my first country to travel without a guide or much pre-read preparation. So indeed I was pretty unprepared and didn’t know a thing. Though I didn’t know anything about the language, or the value of their currency, or the prevalence of toilet paper, it all turns out to be rather well. Friendly people is all you need! With the usual hand-and-feet language, a German or English word, it was fun to go around. We all just want to have some fun in daily life. The first moments in Moldova were pretty scary. I arrived late, almost at dusk, in a town called Edinet and having no money on me was not called a decent preparation. I survived thanks to my Bear Grylls’ survival skills! I found an ATM and a hotel within minutes as people spoke a very decent English in the street…
Entering the Ukraine by bike was an experience by itself. Around lunch time on my last day in Poland, it started to downpour seriously. After two weeks of blazing sunshine, the earth needed water and it all came at once. Fully soaked, I decided to cross the border at the end of the day, so I could have my first night in the Ukraine. Great! Halfway the heavy ascend to the border, the rain stopped, and I was very happy and relieved I had made it so far! The first thing that the very important uniformed border patrol shouted at me was ‘Bikes are not allowed to cross!!’ I replied ‘Are you serious?’ The guy was dead serious of course. No question about it. I could only laugh! Luckily there was a huge queue of cars and the third car in the row was a Polish delivery car going for cheap gas to the Ukraine. The very nice Polish woman was helpful and happy to take my bike and me crossing this border. While we slowly moved towards the border, she explained that she had her own company, named SM Art, which shocked me at first…but it was a very happy trip to the other side…
I have to take back my words about the potholes in Poland. They are absolutely nothing compared to the ones in the Ukraine. Bigger, deeper, and much more nasty! It seemed to me like as if a huge meteor shower came down here. The potholes are so big that you can bath in them when it rains. I heard the story that after heavy downpours, you can actually dive in one of them and emerge from another. The huge difficulty is to know which two…
Cycling back and forth through the Carpathian Mountains was a wonderful trip. If it was not only for the scenery, then it was for rinsing my inner body. Just before going to dreams on my longest day of cycling in the Ukraine, I drank a huge amount of water and drink yogurts. I fell nicely asleep, but shortly after I woke up with pain in my stomach. Wow! Cool surprise! Quickly, I made a new friend. I embraced her in the bathroom and we got so close. Every single drop of fluid in my poor stomach had to go out via my head! And that’s not the right way! Soon afterwards, the rest came out via the other side of my already weakened body. Vomiting and having diarrhea, what do you want more in the Carpathians?! Fully rinsed from the inside, I woke up a new person, but a very weak new person!
OK, let’s say something positive about Poland. They do have some very nice asphalt around the potholes. That has to be said. There aren’t only potholes, like clear and deep places where asphalt is lacking, but there are also spots where the asphalt seemed to have been fluid for some time after which it has been pushed upwards. It’s like cycling on an old volcanic lava stream. Anyway, I survived and in short, Poland isn’t made for cyclists. It’s made for people who like sausages, mow lawns, shave heads of Polish males, and above all drive like mad…
Auschwitz is an incredible, strong and weird experience. I parked my bike in the garage of a local hotel and joined an English-speaking tour in the unavoidable baking sun. After hearing and seeing few of the most barbarian stories in the history of ‘modern’ human beings by a lovely French woman, I was confronted at the end of the tour by a 2 ton pile of human hair. It was saved up to be used as wool for clothes and carpets. No one talked anymore. No one could add any word to History. Fully empty, it was time to confront myself with my surreal fate, meaning cycling with a credit card in my pocket in a luxurious world…
And all that luxury came to me by just going on. I entered the globe of Krakow. Wow! I took it all there. First, one Polish beer! Air conditioning in a big shopping mall. Ice cream till it flowed out of my nostrils. Coffees till I couldn’t sleep anymore in my huge hotel room. We live in a very very weird place…
What can possibly be said about Berlin? Wow, what a city, what an atmosphere?! Not hiding from history and also not hiding its desire to live today at this very moment. We were shown around by a friend, a Dutch expat and his German girlfriend. We had a great time with this fantastic couple in this marvelous city in its own.
Then no blood this time, but just pure pain. When a man has pain, life is getting really serious! My dad went home, and just one night later and in the direction of the Polish border, I woke up during the night with thunder bolt pain in my jaw… Terrible! I couldn’t sleep anymore. I pressed my hands against my cheeks, begged someone to stop the pain and give me back the joy of sleeping my dreams. Finally, I drugged myself and before I knew it, I was lying horizontally in between two relaxed German women having a great time giving me enduring pain by cleaning, treating and filling three of my dear root canals of my last molar in my left upper jaw. Throughout a small hour my jaw was dislocated and I got dozens of German instruments going in and out of my body. All roots are now filled with DDR-medicines and cement. And we all know what that means! I’ll go very fast on my bike ‘Zedd’ after this treatment. Still half anesthetized, I did a DDR-massage just afterwards so as to replace body parts to their original position. Ice cream did the rest. Now, I’m back on track, but these roots stopped me for a good two days extra in Germany. Men and pain, what an unfair evolutionary combination… No more throes for this trip, please!
I had a fantastic start of my trip by having breakfast in Amsterdam with Great Divide riders! I met Patti in New Mexico in 2011 and few days later I slept at Patti and Gary’s place in Del Norte, Colorado. They’re biking a whole year with no planning: rolling with the moment. Very cool! And then it begun: Amsterdam to Istanbul. After the first 100k’s, the only thing I thought of was ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?!’ A quote recently encountered on the big net, but so true. The rest, I’ll tell you later.
On day two, I picked up my dad and we made it through the barren country of Twente, all the way to Germany. At Munster, we joined the Europa-Radweg R1, a route from the Netherlands via Berlin to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bikeline has a decent collection of routes, including this R1, and it’s nicely written down in a practical booklet. Four days had passed by smoothly through the land of corn, grains, and lovely cherries when it happened on the fifth day. A downhill gravel road through a beautiful forest along the Harz National Park. Patches of sunshine everywhere and one small tiny shallow pothole. I said ‘watch out!’, but too late of course. Losing control was easy. Even more easy was the fate of gravity. My dad hit the gravel with his left side and kissed the rocks in the shoulder of the road with his helmet. The helmet cracked, the head and rocks are still ok. Finally some true adventure… O yeah, he’s fine of course now!
See you in Berlin, M