After 8 days on my bike from Berlin, I have arrived in St. Petersburg (SPb), Russia. That last stretch, starting in Narva (Estonia) at the Russian border and ending in SPb was despite some “navigational complications” (read: involuntary detours) comparatively short (165km) but certainly not less eventful, as you will read. The arrival in SPb means that I reached the most important milestone for this tour; and that my legs will get 3 days of heavenly rest during which I will make use of all possible modes of transport except for one: my bike.
So, here I am, in St. Petersburg on Monday 11th of July 2016. And it feels fantastic: until just a few months or weeks ago, St. Petersburg was a “far away place in the northwest of Russia”. Of course, while I was in the planning and dealing with the detailed geography of the route, the “far away” turned more and more into “x many km/day” and a better understanding, context and overview of where that city is ‘cituated’. But now St.Pete’s location is as tangible to me as it can get: I feel where on our precious sphere I am; feel it in my muscles and my bones and my mind; they have been working for this. (This is btw. exactly in line with what I wrote in the “approach” section of this blog.) Not that I have much pain now; that phase was maybe in and before Riga. By now I feel strengthened rather than weakend, which already played its role in managing those 275km to Narva without feeling completely (but just a little) wrecked.
Still, after that long day until Narva I needed some decent and long enough sleep. I used to think (without any scientific backup that is) that there are two kinds of ‘tirednesses’: the one that concerns your body and muscles and just needs you to relax, and the one that lies rather within your brain and makes you sleepy. And I thought the long cycling would only result in the former but leave you normally awake. But by now I realized: cycling long distance makes me really tired in that I need a lot of sleep. And that makes it even more difficult for me to keep up the number of km/day for many days, simply because additional sleep is part of the time-equation and deducts even more hours from the day so that there’s less left for the mileage.
So, in Narva, too, I slept long enough and got going slowly. Went to a supermarket to buy all the food that I would need for te day. Also I wanted to send myself a thick letter with all the maps of the past and passed countries that I didn’t need anymore; I like keeping them (vs. throwing them away). Getting this done on a Sunday in a city where hardly anyone speaks any language that I know, turned out to be a time consuming task. So just around 12.30h I got going and surfed downhill to the Narva River to cross the Russian border.
ACT 1 – borderline
Border-control: check. Easy and seemed to be less thorough or more efficient than in Kaliningrad. This time I had to fill out an entry/exit form myself. Back in Kaliningrad they did it with a machine and put the form in my passport without any instruction about it. Thank god (rhethorically) I didn’t loose that thing: you need it to leave the country! There could be greater places to get stuck than Kaliningrad. Anyway, now I had that same form again and would guard it like Mordor’s Ring.
A couple of 100 meters behind the border I thought it’s time for a selfie. So I recorded a 3 dimensional selfie for you (two space, one time axis). See how innocent and optimistic I look?
Remember that impression for the post of one hour later (further below). Because this moment constitutes the start of a valuable lesson in both navigation and cycling in Russia. I regret I hardly took pictures for you of the coming events but you’ll see why I wasn’t in the mood for additionally dealing with photography.
Also in that selfie moment my face was facing west, to the border and to ‘Europe’. There was a huge thunderstorm over Narva and I remember I found it quite peculiar that it seemed like the storm would stop exactly at the border above which the sky was separated into black (EU) and blue (Russia). As usual, the storm didn’t bother me or make me alert or anything: in the end my only option is always to continue and react to the storm only the moment it would hit me; there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it anyway.
ACT 2 – detour ahead
Now the journey could beginn! The fact that I made it to Narva as planned also meant: I could pick up my originally planned route from there which I had planned in detail and loaded digitally on my GPS. That planned route would let me cycle mostly along the coast; it is quite a bit longer than the highway route, but then… its not a highway! Given that it was already pretty late by now (maybe 13h) I was dreading the fact that I’d not make it to St. Petersburg before sunset. So, I better really hurried up a bit; my legs felt fine, as they always do after a few kilometers, wearing fresh and clean gear, oiled chain… so nothing to hold me back.
I remembered I had to continue on the highway for a few kilometers before I could branch off left to my alternate coast route, so I went on for a bit, and mistook the standard colour of the highway on my GPS display for the indication of the planned route. Until I started wondering that the left turn didn’t come up yet. I then checked and realized: I was completely wrong; I would have needed to turn left almost immediately after the border. That way I already wasted a few km (maybe 5) of time and energy, but even worse: my detour was mischievously supported by the wind so that returning to the right track would mean fighting back all that against the wind. I could have decided here to stay on the highway; in fact to my surprise the signs for the highway route indicated it to be only 115km to SPb instead of the roughly 190km of my own planned route. But: you may remember that a few days before I decided to put a higher emphasis on actually seeing the places I go through; and going all the way on the highway would certainly not present me any new or even typically Russian landscape. So I decided to turn back and take my route.
ACT 3 – detour imminent
Fighting against the wind for quite a bit, I started seeing the route I wanted to take, showing up on my GPS. And I saw some street that appeared to be a shortcut to my intended route, leading me through a little village. Shortcuts are good, and villages, too, because they tend to show a more truthful side of a country; so I thought/hoped/made myself think. Taking a turn to the right, finally leaving the highway and the opposition of the wind. “Wow, the road to that village is remarkably poorly paved. Holes and cracks everywhere. Even though the map indicates it to be kind of proper…” I said to myself. Yes, I do talk to myself sometimes while cycling; not in English, but in German, trying to do funny regional accents at times. That is one advantage of traveling by yourself: you can do vocal excercises, funny accents, false lyrics and cheesy pop-song improvisations without embarrassing yourself in front of anybody but yourself.
Anyway, so I thought the road was bad but was driven by the idea to maybe see an interesting village and at least have a shortcut to my route. The village arrived: a few grey/white houses and/or huts. The same bumpy road, two people sitting on a bench, watching the abandoned crossing And that roboter-alien-like looking cyclist who was about to pass. That’s it. Ok, at least I made a short cut; so I thought, continued and just a few dozen meters later the road started getting worse very gradually. So gradually that I had the impression I was on some kind of demonstrational test track that represents all the degrees of bumpiness ranging from the mild type of “completely neglected by any governmental investment” to the severe type of “even a mountainbiker’s nightmare”. That’s what it was, too much even for a mountainbike; and if you saw my first post and the picture of my road equipment: too much for my road bike. At first I managed to elegantly twist my way around the deep and wide puddles and muddy pits (don’t ask how I found out they were deep). At last I struggled to wind the crank through the meter high grass. “No worries”, I thought, watching myself (on my GPS device) approaching the properly paved main road I had planned to take to St.P. Who wouldn’t do a few meters through an open field if the real road was getting ever closer. And indeed, soon I was just a couple of meters away from that road; what a relief it was to hear the first couple of speeding cars being so close! The only problem: the bushes and 50cm deep creek within a 1 m deep ditch between me and that road were indicated neither on my digital, nor my paper map. Actually: when zooming in on my GPS to the highest zoom level, there it was: a tiny little gap between the main road and the presumable path I was on. Great, how accurate! I could have known it all along the way.
I decided to cycle along the creek (and thus along the road behind it) for some 50m through the grass, realizing this wouldn’t get me anywhere. No matter what: I could cycle again all the way back to the highway or cross that creek. But you remember that it was already afternoon and I still had some 190km ahead of me, so clearly I had to cross that creek. First thought: carefully cycle through it; down into the ditch at a 45 degree angle, through half a meter of water, up the ditch; ca. 45 degree angle again. No way. The only option left was: taking off my shoes, pushing my bike ahead of me through the water, wading through the creek adm climbing up on the other side. That’s what I did.
I heard a dog barking through the bushes on the other side, it’s master calming it down. Great, because it meant that I could at least brighten up somebody’s day with that view: a robotic looking cyclist awkwardly pushing his equipment and himself down a muddy slope through the bushes through a deep creek and clumsily climbing up the other way. With one hand holding the back of his bike in the creek, with the other hand taking off his cycling shoes and socks, one shoe sliding half into the water. This degrading condition was accompanied by:
- remember, there was a thunderstorm coming up, which by now apparently didn’t care about national borders anymore
- Consequently the air was now extremely humid, making me – in the face of my feat – hot and sweat like hell.
- And I was in a swamp that was inhibited not only by wet and lost cyclists, but also by hundreds of big, green, thirsty and aggressive mosquitos.
I arrived on the other side. One sock and one shoe completely wet, my legs and feet, too, of course. Mud and little stones sticking to my feet and enriched by many mosquito bites, I was – in my good manner – trying to exchange some units of semantic content (sorry, no further specification possible) with my Russian spectator; simultaneously applying the international language of gesticulation and provisorically cleaning my feet and putting on my shoes and guarding off many mosquitos who I had apparently lured out of their swamp into following me onto the admittedly perfectly paved road.
ACT 4 – detour complete
The creek was done, and I was eager to finally continue my journey; because it was late, because there was a thunderstorm coming up and because I wanted to escape that humid swamp environment and exchange it for some let’s say 30km/h headwind on my route to St.Pete. Pure motivation.
Waving the master and his dog, who certainly had a story to tell when they came home to their families, I went off. I rememer I wondered already how these few farms and houses deserved such a perfect road, but thought this must have been the result of some government initiative to have at least one well-paved alternative to the highway, broadly following the coast line – my line. One more kilometer and the hope-destruction-machine called “Russian road infrastructure” completed its job by presenting me with this sight:
This was the road that according to my plans would lead me for 185km along the coast to St.Pete. NO F****** WAY!
Maybe one or the other among you readers has asked her/himself during the past posts how I could motivate myself to do many of the uncomfortable things that are part of my tour. Here’s maybe the best example. It might sound very much like a cliche, but it’s true:
- think positive.
- Be pragmatic.
- Face the current reality. And
- don’t whine over hypothetical scenarios
ACT 5 – less action, more time
My answer to that gravel road: great: reality made the decision for me to get to St.Pete the easier way. I.e.: take the highway which would be only about 115km according to the most recent sign. Additionally I would be guaranteed a kind of okay pavement, arrival at daylight and – thanks to the thunderstorm behind me above (by now beyond) the border – I’d have some decent easterly backwind.
Did I mention the thunderstorm? Now it started; time to react, as mentioned above. Finding the best sheltering tree around, getting out the rain jacket, putting on the overshoes, installing my flashing backlight, and fighting off some more of those mosquitos. And all that just a few meters away from the swamp and creek that had their big moment in ACT 3.
Soon I realized that waiting for the rain to stop wouldn’t make sense, that I would have a wet day ahead and get soaked anyway, I just went off. Soon I arrived at that notorious spot close to the border whose vibe I earlier asked you to remember. There I did another 3-D selfie for you. I felt like in “Groundhog Day”:
From here I started at point zero. With a shorter than planned distance ahead, but also at least another hour later and in shitty weather. I now knew: taking a Russian road off the highway is like Russian roulette with 5 bullets: better don’t even start the game.
And the Russian roulette metaphor holds for my next challenge, too: the Russian highway. It’s a highly frequented two lane road (one in each direction), with 70% of its traffic participants weighing more than 3,5 metric tons (statistics based on pure emotion). These monsters take over at speeds around 90km/h and keep a distance of about 30cm to a meter.
The game is a lot more in your favour though: the magazine contains a few million slots, I guess, but only one bullet in the shape of a drunk, sleepy or otherwise unaware driver just like in any country (again some emo-stats here), and on top of that you do have a chance to escape it by following some very important rules:
- Use a rear mirror!! I seriously think I spent about 50% of the time looking in the mirror while dedicating the rest to what’s happening ahead of me.
- Use a flashing back light to be visible but
- Cycle as if you were invisible
- Cycle predictably
- But also: cycle like you are a respectful but also respectable participant of traffic.
Since there was constant traffic anyway I didn’t need to be auditorily warned of upcoming trucks. I decided to rely on my sight (again: rear mirror!!) instead and used my ears as the supply hatch for some motivational treats:
The soundtrack of that long and rainy 115km highway stretch:
- Started off with Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon to get in the mood
- Dirtyloops – Loopified because this is so well produced it conveys all of its drive despite the noise of headwind and traffic around me. Perfect for the tougher medium stretch; motivational pulses and grooves.
- D’Angelo – Brown Sugar; also well produced, a good contrast to the Dirtyloops and I needed to check this one out anyway.
There were some more motivational issues. For example there was from the beginning on for roughly 70km always that blue patch of sky in front of me that I never seemed to reach and instead was constantly exposed to rain. I think the bad weather and me moved eastwards at the exact same pace meaning my timing was really bad. Also, already after a few kilometers the road signs to StPb jumped up to 165 km as opposed to 115 km but changed back again.
One other element was new to me, btw: usually I place great importance on knowing exactly where I am; within a confidence of, say, about 3 km. The paper map that I had bought in Riga was not helpful at all though: names of places only in cyrillic, very unclear colourscheme and lacking road numbers. My GPS is also not very helpful at placing myself precisely in the grand scheme of the day’s route. So this was a rare occasion of floating freely and blindly, completely giving and exposing myself to the road and the route and the road signs to St.Pete. All I could do was have faith in my eventual arrival at the entry signs of St.Pete and pedal for the movement of the moment only.
It took a long time and I think I endured it quite bravely, safely and efficiently. When the signs indicated “40km” the sky started clearing; I kept the rain jacket on because it seemed more airodynamic and also produced the perfect skin climate in this instant. The following short clip serves as a snapshot of the situation:
40km is also the distance at which I can switch to a different motivational mode, namely the one of counting down the kilometers. Sometimes I count them in units of 13km because that’s the circumference of my hometown lake Baldeney See that we used to cycle around when I was little. 3 lakes left… 2 lakes left… 1 lake left… At some point I reached the edge of St. Petersburg.
And just about 2km later I saw the first signs of a metropolitan area, namely this arch on a roundabout that reminded me – given the day I had and state I was in – of a welcoming port to heaven:
As you can see, by this time I regained the motivation to take pictures. After all I thought it would only be a matter of maybe 20 minutes to arrive at the B&B I had booked.
Wrong. It took me another 1 1/2 hours. I completely underestimated how huge St. Petersburg is. For example, soon after that arch I entered a very urban, fancy looking, residential area that made me think I was already in the center and made me wonder why there would be no industrial or cheaper residential belt I’d have to cross before reaching the wider core of the city. But these belts came soon. Luckily I could stay on that one road without caring too much about navigation and turns, unluckily the road turned into a real(!) highway in a smooth transition.
When the highway part was over, it was a more urban main road with a vibe like this:
In this video you can faintly see some enormous apartment buildings in the background towering over the city like utopian lighthouses or corners of a fortress that is too big to see. I regret I didn’t take any photos of that majestic view. A little while later the first buildings appeared that much closer resembled my vague preconception about St.Pete:
In a separate city-post I will provide some true city shots though.
To wrap the whole thing up: with the help of google maps (previously downloaded the right excerpt for offline use) I soon arrived at the B&B that I had reserved in the morning in Narva.
Wow… Narva… felt so far away already. I had really arrived in a different world and a different time.
Just one picture from the window at my B&B. It is situated right at the big and central Fontanki Embankment. A warm, clean room after that day; you can imagine I was very much at peace.
The city is so grand and rich that it will receive a separate post later. For now – I guess you agree – you have read enough.