Category Archives: Latvia

Siveri to Tver 30 June – 8 July 2012

Heat, dust, flies, mosquitoes, appalling roads, belching trucks, undrinkable tap water, a dearth of fresh vegetables…Russia can be hard to love at times. But the friendly locals and our excitement at being back here go a long way to make up for the difficulties.

The last blog post saw us preparing to leave Camping Siveri in Latvia. We had a fairly easy run from there up to the Russian border near Zilupe, apart from a 15km stretch of un-surfaced road which we encountered shortly after stopping to chat to some Latvian cycle tourists who were on their summer holiday with their son on a tow-along bike. We hadn’t seen many other tourists on our trip this year so it was especially nice to stop and chat for a while.

We wild camped about 25km short of the Russian border and, after a typically lazy start the following morning, arrived at the border at around 1.15pm. We knew the clocks would go forward and we’d lose an hour, but still thought we’d got plenty of time in hand….until we saw the queue of traffic. We rolled past car after car after car, all stationary in the heat, and no sign of the actual border. Embarrassed to be jumping the queue, we turned and pedalled back to take our place at the back, and asked the car-driver in front of us if he was familiar with the crossing and if this length of queue was normal. He said it would take a minimum of 4 hours. We groaned inwardly and settled down to have lunch.

The sun beat down as we huddled in the tiny scrap of shade afforded by our trailer. It had taken about an hour to move two car lengths. Keith went for a stroll up to the front of the queue, and came back to report he’d found the border crossing and there was no sign of a foot-passenger queue or any obvious place for us and our bike other than to queue with the cars.

We waited. Aeons passed. Stars died and were reborn. Galaxies collided. We crawled forward another car length. Keith went for another stroll.

During Keith’s absence, one of the other motorists came up to me and indicated that I should take the bike to the front of the queue. Not knowing where Keith had got to I waited for him to return, which he did in due course announcing that he reckoned we should just ride to the front and take our chances. I told him this concurred with the motorist’s advice and so that’s what we did….cruised in a slightly self-conscious fashion past the patiently sweating motorists until we reached a red light with a sign in Russian and English telling us to wait until our registration plate had been noted and we were called forward. We ignored this and pulled forward to a respectful distance from the Latvian border guard’s booth, who, when he was free, greeted us with a big grin and an envious look at the Pino, stamped a bit of paper, and waved us through. We handed the bit of paper to the Latvian customs officials, who waved us through, and then finally, we stopped at a third Latvian booth and once again were waved through. At this point we met an English guy on a motorbike who lives in Moscow. He was well-used to the procedure and assured us it was fine for us to keep jumping the queues of cars. So we did, at every opportunity.

Next stop was the first Russian booth, where we were given an entry/exit card to fill in. We then had to hand that to someone at a second booth, and have our bike and baggage inspected (of a fashion) by a woman in military fatigues. She started to ask us to open the trailer, but when she saw what a hassle it was to remove the solar panel, spare tyres and other paraphernalia, just asked us to unzip a couple of pockets on the panniers, and then spent the rest of the time asking us about our trip. She then led us to the Russian customs booth where we answered a few questions about what was in our bags and showed them our bottle of wine (for that evening’s dinner) and vodka (bought in Latvia to use up the last of our Lats) and were then waved on our way to the fourth and final Russian booth where, for reasons unknown, they wanted to look at our passports again. So after two hours of pointless queuing in the heat, it only took a further one and a quarter hours of jumping the queue, passing bits of paper around and smilingly opening a couple of bags before we were free to pedal on Russian soil. Yay!

Church built of logs

The M9 road runs directly from the border crossing to Moscow, but we guessed it would be the main truck route so as soon as possible we turned off towards the town of Sebezh, got some money from an ATM and then continued on a quiet road with pretty good tarmac for a small number of kilometres before camping near a lake.

We awoke to find we hadn’t been robbed or murdered by bandits, proving correct our suspicion that the nice people we met on our trip in Russia last year were more representative of the general populace than the bandits that many people seem all too ready to tell us about.

The next 25km or so were on the same quiet, well-tarmacked road that we’d been on the day before, but then we got routed back onto the M9. At first this didn’t seem too bad. A few big lorries came by but there was decent tarmac and plenty of space. Then, sadly the true nature of the beast was revealed: ruts, bumps and potholed tarmac that had us weaving across to the other side of the road at times to try to be as kind as possible to our wheels. The number of lorries increased and there was barely enough room for the two facing streams of traffic to pass each other, let alone pass a Pino too.

Trees, swamps, and if you’re lucky…decent tarmac!

There was a tailwind for the first day or so, which was appreciated for a while, but then we realised it was enabling some large grey and yellow flies to cruise with us even at 30kph. It’s horrible sweating up a hill with half a dozen large, buzzing beasts performing figure-of-eights around you, pausing only to try to land on your face. Keith had the worst of it as in between swatting flies he also had to look out for pot-holes and keep an eye on the mirrors to make sure approaching trucks had seen us and were pulling out enough that he wouldn’t need to take evasive action onto the gravelly hard shoulder, and also keep an eye forward to see what the oncoming traffic was up to. After 25 hot, stressful kilometres we stopped at a petrol station and chugged down a couple of litres of Fanta, and thus fortified made our way a couple of kilometres off the M9 into a town to find a supermarket. We had lunch under the town statue of Lenin and then returned to the M9 to do further battle with the juggernauts and the flies.

It had been a few days since we’d washed (perhaps that explains the flies!), and after the lack of wifi in Camping Severi we were keen to post our belated blog, and also wanted to get our visas registered, so that evening decided to treat ourselves to a hotel – our first night in a bed for almost two months.

It took a bit of time and the promise that we’d be paying in roubles to reassure the proprietor to let us in, but eventually we managed to allay whatever concerns he’d had. We never did unravel the rapid stream of Russian sufficiently to establish what his concerns were but it seems that one of the problems was our visa registration, which they told us was unnecessary. We hope they’re right.

We had a shower and headed to the restaurant for dinner, deeming this to be the more prudent approach rather than risking the wrath of the owner by firing up the stove in the bedroom.

We tried our best to look at the menu, but the waitress was having none of it. After some confusing exchanges, during which the waitress enlisted the help of some other guests who spoke even less English than we did Russian, we eventually agreed we’d be very happy to have whatever it was we were being offered at the price they were offering it, and so enjoyed a nice meal and a beer before retiring to the reception area to post our belated blog from Latvia. Keith then stayed up until after 3am sorting out a load of banking and other important things to keep the trip and our lives running smoothly. I was in bed reading Turgenev to get me into the Russian vibe.

We love these little vans and are wondering how difficult it might be to buy one.

The next day, showered and in clean clothes, we resumed battle with the M9. It was actually a relief to have a headwind which meant there weren’t so many flies. Wherever possible we tried to move onto side roads, but aside from one slightly hilly but otherwise lovely 20km stretch we didn’t have much luck with them.

The next day saw us still on the M9: the distance from the Latvian border to Moscow looks insignificant on the overall map of Russia, but it’s around the same distance as going from London to Glasgow. Sadly the headwind had dropped sufficiently that pedalling was still difficult but the flies could now join us – which they did with gusto.

Any side roads were either un-surfaced or simply not well-signed enough for us to identify them working with our 1:750,000 atlas, and so we continued with the trucks, and the flies, and the headwind, and the heat, and the crap tarmac.

Beijing to Paris, via Moscow

In the afternoon we had a treat though when we came across some other cycle tourists: three guys from Beijing who were cycling to Paris. After cycling across China they’d had to take a plane to Moscow as they’d been unable to get Kazakh visas, and in a converse situation to ours had only spent one night under canvas on their trip, preferring hotels each night. We chatted to them for a long time, comparing routes and kit and experiences, before going our separate ways. We gave them our Latvian and Lithuanian maps since they were heading that way and they told us we’d got about 30km of chaotic roadworks ahead of us. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that although they’d got the tailwind, they’d probably got more flies. It’s from small mental victories like this that strength is drawn when pedalling in adverse conditions.

The roadworks turned out to be comparatively pleasant. For much of the time we were able to sneak onto the new tarmac whilst the rest of the traffic made do with the single un-surfaced carriageway remaining to them.

Cinema Sputnik

In all it was five full days from the border until we left the M9 for good. We’d had a few brief detours into towns to buy supplies, and one disastrous attempt to follow what started off as a nicely tarmacked road but which ended up being a fly-ridden dirt-track that sapped our speed and had us off the bike at one point when a sudden unexpected patch of deep sand caught the front wheel. To frustrate us further the big noisy flies had been joined by horseflies that were happily drawing blood and even biting through our clothing. I donned the bug-mesh smock and sweated a lot; Keith just swatted and pedalled harder through the sand and gravel.

On the bright side though, we’ve now spent a day and a half on a road with good tarmac and fewer lorries, and Keith bought a new gear cable and borrowed some (crap) cable cutters from a market stall selling bikes, and has replaced the bent cable housing near the rear mech which had become kinked (probably when I caught the trailer on it by mistake). So today we’ve had a pretty good day with slick gear changes and not too many trucks or flies.

Buying and fitting a new gear cable at the market in Staritsa

We camped last night in a mosquito-ridden forest through with some monstrous scary hornets buzzing around, plus the usual share of horse-flies and the large grey-yellow flies that insist on flying into the vestibules and then buzzing frantically between the inner tent and the fly despite there being two gigantic vents for them to get out through, not to mention the two open doors.

The aftermath of a single unnoticed mozzie overnight in the tent. Keith it would appear is unpalatable and remains unblemished.

We’ve been discovered by locals twice now whilst trying to sneakily camp in Russia. The first time was at one of our more desperate spots in some woods just out of sight of a couple of small wooden houses. We’d already tried several other spots and decided they were no go, and were getting pretty fed up with the impenetrable, bug-ridden forest.  The forests we’ve been in in the rest of Europe have been criss-crossed with paths and logging tracks and camping has been fairly easy.  The Russian forests have few trails and thick with nettles and other dense plants.  Even the meadowlands are mostly uncultivated in this area and full of waist-high grasses and flowers that make camping rather difficult.  So we set up camp at a less than ideal place and I dived into the tent to escape the thronging mosquitoes (by far the worst we’d had to date) and Keith donned his bug-smock and went foraging for bilberries. We’d only been there 30 minutes or so when a man came walking by. He seemed unfazed by the appalling mosquitoes. Perhaps he’s immune to them. We asked if he minded us camping there, and he seemed OK about it and told us the name for bilberries in Russian, and tried to tell us a load of other stuff that we couldn’t understand, and all in all didn’t seem to upset by our presence at all.

Our second discovery was in a fairly mozzie-free field that had been recently mowed. I was just preparing to squat for a pee before retiring for the evening when I caught sight of an old Lada bumping towards us across the field, causing me to zip up quickly and try to look nonchalant. The old couple in the car waved and smiled enthusiastically as they passed us. We grinned and waved back. Wild camping in Russia can be pretty good!

About to cross the Volga in Rzhev

In fact, the response we’ve had since crossing the border has generally been great. Truck and car drivers hoot their horns (in a nice way) and wave or give us a thumbs up. People stop to chat when we’re at the supermarket and pose for their photo next to the bike, and a few people have stopped at the side of the road to offer us water or simply say hello and find out what we’re up to.

Some locals drivers who stopped for a chat

In Rzhev, where we finally left the M9, we were asking some locals where the supermarket was when two cycle-tourists came riding by in the opposite direction. They were a French couple heading to Moscow from St Petersburg, en route to Mongolia and beyond. We’ve agreed to try to hook up in Moscow as we really enjoyed chatting to them about their trip to date and their future plans. We’d originally fancied Mongolia as a route into China, but have heard it’s next to impossible to get a Chinese visa in Mongolia. Mind you, we’d also heard it was impossible to get a Russian visa outside your country of residence but they’d managed to pick one up in Helsinki, so perhaps they know things we don’t.

We’re currently treating ourselves to lunch in a cafe with wifi in Tver and hope to arrive in Moscow in about 3 days time. We’re really looking forward to staying with the parents of a friend of my brother, who have kindly agreed to put us up for a few nights.

These ornate window surrounds have been an attractive local feature

Oh, and Keith’s knee is looking much better. Not quite back to normality, but coping well with 90-100 kilometre days, so we’re very pleased and feeling pretty confident that it’ll settle down completely in due course.

Vilnius to Siveri 24-29 June 2012

It’s so good to be back on the road!  Keith’s knee is not fully recovered so we’re taking it very easy and keeping a close watch on it, but knee worries notwithstanding it’s a delight to once again be pedalling past rustic wooden cottages, rolling meadowland and peaceful woods.

Keith outmanoeuvring Tamar…yet again.

We’ve slipped into a lazy routine of dozing in the tent until 11ish, then having a late breakfast and packing up in a leisurely fashion to be on the road for around 1pm.  We stop for a snack, supermarket shopping and a game or two of backgammon around 3 or 4pm and then do another hour or so of pedalling in the early evening, generally covering 50-60km a day.  Tailwinds most days have helped keep the pace up without straining Keith’s knee too badly.  Every day it seems a little less swollen and perhaps a little less hot to touch, but recovery feels very slow.

We almost didn’t leave Vilnius on the 24th as at lunchtime Keith noticed that not only was his knee swollen, but his ankle and shin had puffed up too, but there was no pain or heat in them so he decided to stick to plan A and start pedalling; and thankfully the swelling disappeared from his lower leg after a couple of days.

Our lazy schedule means that as well as time for some seriously competitive backgammon, I have amused myself by prettifying the Pino.  For some reason, our latest frame came without decals and I thought it looked terribly plain, and so just couldn’t resist the 3D butterfly stickers I spotted in the supermarket.  Keith remains unconvinced, but I think you’ll agree they make the Pino look quite beautiful.

Prettified Pino

Keith has put his time to a more practical application: stringing up a washing line in the large vestibule so that stinky socks can be dried outside the sleeping compartment.

I’ve also finished off all 24 Tarzan books.  My favourite line comes in the final book, which was written in 1944.  The eponymous hero is helping some Americans beat the Japanese in Sumatra (as you do) and the Americans are unaware of his true identity, knowing him only as Colonel Clayton.  Circumstances dictate that ‘the ape-man’ sheds his clothes and takes to the trees.  The Americans joke that he’s a ‘regular Tarzan’ but when he single-handedly slays a tiger armed with just his knife, one of them realises that he actually IS Tarzan.  His lower-ranking compatriot, who is not so quick on the uptake says “Wot, is he dat Johnny Weismuller?”  Well, it made me laugh anyway.

In our own little bit of wilderness, we may not have to build bomas or sleep wedged into the crotch of a tree to avoid marauding carnivores, but we do seem to spend a fair amount of time waging war against somewhat smaller combatants.  We’ve encountered far more ticks this year than last.  Keith’s had two and I’ve had three so far (one nestled into my belly button, which was particularly irksome to evict), and we’ve removed countless more from the tent before they could make a greater nuisance of themselves. We’re very grateful to Nina and Clive who bought us the tick-tweezers.  They’re brilliant!

I’ve also been bitten or stung by various unidentified creatures.  I’m pretty sure I’ve had three wasp stings (no sign of the perpetrator but they feel and look like wasp stings) and last night I hopped out of my wet cycling kit into some dry trousers only to have to hop out again a few minutes later as I became aware of a burning sensation on my thigh.  All I could find was a small black ant, the same as the ones which we’ve had running over us in the tent for weeks now with no ill-effect so I don’t think it was that, but nonetheless I have 3 itchy raised lumps on my leg.

Happiness is a bug-proof smock!

Our biggest triumph to date in the battle against the bugs has been the purchase of two mosquito-mesh smocks, which we picked up in the supermarket as we were leaving Vilnius.  They were less than half price (about £3.50 each) and definitely money well spent.  Combined with a mosquito-coil they make life outside the tent much more pleasant.  Oh, and by the way, citronella candles don’t work so don’t waste your money.

It took us three days of pedalling from Vilnius to reach the point at which we’d previously turned back due to Keith’s knee, and it was a good feeling to get past that and onto unfamiliar roads.  We have left Lithuania and are now in Latvia.  On our initial schedule Keith had anticipated being in Moscow by now, and indeed had emailed friends a few weeks ago to say ‘We’ll be in Moscow in 3 weeks’.  History has shown that men before him have had similar aspirations and seen them thwarted, so I’ve told him not to make such bold statements in future.   Don’t tempt fate and all that.

We stopped for lunch yesterday in the pretty town of Kraslava, on the Daugava river.  The river has played an important role in the development of the town, and its coat of arms is a silver boat on a blue background.  The boat has five oars to symbolise the five national roots of the town’s inhabitants: Latvians, Russians, Belorussians, Poles and Jews.  The leaflet we picked up from tourist info elaborated further on the crest’s meaning: “We are in the same boat, so we should row together.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if we all felt like that?

All rowing together in Kraslava.

Back in the Vilnius campsite we’d picked up a leaflet of Latvian campsites, predominantly because it contained a rough roadmap that would be sufficient to link the end of our Lithuania map (part way into Latvia) to the start of our Russian maps (a gap of about 100kms) and meant we wouldn’t need to buy a map for Latvia, however, we noticed there was a campsite marked on our route that was next to a lake and offered showers, toilets, sinks, a playground, football, swimming, boating, fishing and internet access.  Yay!  So, in the interests of resting Keith’s knee we decided to take a day out at the campsite.

After 4km of pedalling along a soggy dirt track we finally found it.  There’s a lovely lake, some rowing boats, a nice table and bench above which the campsite guys erected a gazebo to keep the rain off us, and only two other guests: a Swiss couple who are motorbiking around Europe for 4 months.

The facilities were not quite as advertised though.  There’s a single chemical toilet, no taps, no showers and no wifi.  We were told internet could be provided very slowly via a USB, but, as we were to discover the next day after preparing the blog entry, the USB connection was only available on the first evening we were there, as after that the USB had left the site with one of the guy’s sisters.

For drinking water we’ve been given a 5 litre bottle of water which we’ve been told is drinkable tap water brought in from off-site, but the green gunge on top when we opened it didn’t look too healthy so it went through our water filter before going anywhere near our lips, and when we asked about showers we were told that the lake is clean enough to wash in.  That’s as maybe, but it’s damn cold!

The shower and laundry facilities at Camping Siveri

Still, it’s lovely and peaceful, with no motor-homes, some frogs hopping about, dragonflies wheeling and diving, a small flock of goldfinches bouncing and chirruping in the trees and even the occasional snake swimming sinuously across the surface of the lake.  And, unexpectedly, the waste facilities comprise a row of four burgundy wheelie-bins courtesy of Chichester District Council.  We’d love to know the story behind that!

We took a boat out for a couple of hours on the lake this afternoon, and rowed out to an island and back, which was very relaxing and knee-friendly.

PS – This entry was written at the lakeside campsite in Latvia on 29 June, but is being posted from Russia on 2 July.  You’ll have to wait for the next blog instalment to hear about our border crossing and what we’ve been up to since leaving the campsite.  Keith’s knee continues to improve though, despite some longer days on the bike, so we’re very happy about that.