WiFi in the wild

Day 36 – Tuesday 30th of July – 5km north of Ruka to 10km north of Ivalo (429km)

I woke up shortly before 6 am, and even though I took my time to have breakfast and pack everything up, I was on the road fairly early. I had removed the thermal layers from the suit the day before as it was boiling hot, but today the day started cloudy and chilly, so at 10 am, seeing that it was not getting any warmer, I stopped, put them back on and switched to the winter gloves.

I had chosen a route close to the border to avoid main roads again, and rode all morning on my own, on narrow deserted country roads that took me through lakes, woods and swamps. The landscape was beautiful, but in the cold gray morning it was also desolate at times, and I could very easily imagine how hard it must have been in winter for the ill-equipped soldiers that had to make their way across these lands.

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By midday I had covered a lot of distance, and the day had improved a bit. I stopped at a café to have some lunch and had a short chat with two Swiss bikers coming down from Norway. They told me that the weather there had been miserable for the last few weeks. That worried me a little, as I was counting on camping all the way in Finland, Norway and Sweden…

Seeing that it was early and I was making very good progress, I started considering the options I had. It was too early to call it a day and stop for the night in Finland, so I could keep going and get as close to the Nordkapp as possible to be there early the following day and camp already on my way down along the Norwegian coast or I could keep going straight north instead of taking the main route to the northeast and then ride along the northern coast of Norway to reach the Nordkapp in the evening in time to see the midnight sun. In the end though, a sharp muscular pain in my chest, possibly from a bad sleeping position the previous night, meant that I decided to get to the last big town in Finland and find a place to sleep.

I was going to go a bit further before starting to look for a place, as it was only 6 pm, but then I saw a sign indicating a campsite by a lake, and I had a feeling that it would be a good place. I have always trusted my gut when it comes to finding a good place during the trip and it has normally turned out to be right. This time was no exception. The campsite was more expensive than the previous one – 15€ a night – but the much better facilities made up for the price, especially the fact that despite basically being a forest by a lake, they had wifi, which meant that I could write this post while lying in my sleeping bag.

As it was early, I decided to take the evening to relax, and went down to the lake for a swim. The water was crystal clear and very cold, but it felt wonderful. I sat for an hour in the sun, drying off and reading my new book: Fahrenheit 451.

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Just before going to bed I was heading down to the lake again to take some pictures, as the sky was a very nice shade of violet with the midnight sun, when I saw a man arrive on a bicycle and stop next to my tent. I noticed that he had something written on his back, and when I got closer to say hi I saw that it said ’10,000km’. I told him that was the distance I had covered so far on my motorbike, and he told me that he was riding around Scandinavia in 8 weeks, doing as much as 260km a day. Or rather a night, as he preferred to ride nights. Or days, as it never gets dark here. Oh well, it is a bit confusing…

I told him where I was going and he recommended a couple of places to see, one further to the east than the Nordkapp, the other, 9km on foot from the Nordkapp, which is the real northernmost point in Europe. It all sounds very tempting, tomorrow I will decide how I plan my route for the day.

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The Winter War

Day 35 – Monday 29th of July – Joensuu to 5km north of Ruka (539km)

For the first time since I left Barcelona, I got up this morning, fired up the engine and rode onto the road without a fixed destination nor a number of kilometers to cover for the day. I had been unable to find a cheap hostel anywere, and the couch requests I had sent to Rovaniemi had been declined or gone unanswered, so I had decided to just ride and then find a campsite or somewhere to camp in the wild then I got tired.

The previous day I had stopped at a petrol station at the corner of the street where the hostel was and bought a road map. The GPS had been of great help so far, but it had also kept me on main roads, which was fine in Russia, since anything other than main roads would be a nightmare to ride, but now I wanted to explore the back roads, I had to cover about 400km a day to get to the Nordkapp on schedule, which was not much taking into account how good the roads where in Finland, so I wanted to see the road network in detail and pick a route away from the main roads.

Shortly after leaving Joensuu I saw that the main road went to the left of a big lake, and there was a smaller road to the right that went closer to the shore, even closer if I took a smaller road branching out of the first one. I went for it, and discovered a wonderful road.

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It was sunny, the temperature was perfect, the views breathtaking, I had my music on and there was nobody else around. It had been a long time since I had had such a good time on the motorbike, and then the road turned into a gravel road, but not a Russian gravel road, a Finnish one, which are very good, and it was even more fun, riding on the footpegs, kicking up dust at 100km/h.

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I had started early, as I had got up at about 7 am, impossible to sleep more with the sun shinning as it does so early this far up north, and the first 200km felt more like 20. I stopped for petrol for the first time in Finland, the last fill-up had been in Russia just before the border, and was glad to discover that while it was a bit more expensive than in Spain, the price was still within budget and lower than Italy, the most expensive I had paid so far. I also checked the prices at the petrol station café and they were also very reasonable, I had a menu for 8€.

While I was outside the café putting all the gear back on a KTM parked next to me. It was an Adventure S in Dakar colours, in pristine condition. I told the rider ‘nice bike’ and ten seconds later I was back inside, having coffee with him and talking bikes. His name was Sami and he was a photographer from Helsinki. He told me that he was exploring the gravel roads along the border with Russia, and since he was also going north from Kuhmo, where we had stopped, he invited me to join him. As I had plenty of time and no schedule for the day, I was happy to have some company.

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We rode on back roads for about 100km, but not gravel, since there were no gravel roads near the border in that area, and then we he waved at me to stop. We had just passed a building at a crossroads and he asked me ‘are you interested in history?’ ‘Sure’ I said. It turned out that the building behind us was a museum about the Winter War, and the road to the right, the road that used to lead to Russia where the most important battle had taken place.

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There were still some pieces of artillery scattered along the road, and Sami gave me a very interesting history lesson. He was very knowledgeable, and he had even used some of the actual artillery guns the Finns had captured from the Russians in that battle during his military service. We rode the gravel road for a while, saw a memorial and then went back to the main road. A while later we came to a crossroads, and we parted out ways, as I wanted to try and go further north before sunset and he was going to get some food in the next big town and then go off road and find a place to camp. He gave me his contact and told me to get in touch when I was in Helsinki.

Before leaving, he gave me one last piece of advice: I was soon going to cross into the Lapland region, and he told me that there were a lot of reindeer walking around and it was dangerous to cars and especially motorbikes. I thanked him, and sure enough, about half an hour later I saw the first one, lazily walking down the road. I slowed down and rode past it, but it disappeared into the forest before I could stop to take a picture. After that, I saw dozens of them.

At about 7 pm I stopped to buy some food and then started looking for a place to spend the night. There were lakes everywhere, and I fancied camping near the shore and maybe have a swim, and a few miles out of town I saw the entrance to a campsite. I asked and it was only 7€, so I decided to stop there, it would be nice to be able to have a shower. The campsite was just an open grass field by the lake, and you could put your tent wherever you wanted. I camped, and since it was still early, I cleaned and greased the chain, took the panniers off the bike and rearranged my stuff, getting rid of a few things I had not used and was not going to, trying to shed some weight.

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I also did some repair work on the straps that held the jerrycan in place. The vibrations had managed to cut one of the two straps and the other one was badly frayed, so I repaired one and reinforced the other with duct tape.

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There had only been really bad vibrations in Kazakhstan, so I was surprised to see that the straps had failed. After discovering it when the rim broke, I had secured the jerrycan with some rok straps until I could find a better solution. I had bought the whole thing, jerryan, support and straps from Touratech, and they are supposed to be high quality products for trips just like this. I doubt the straps would have lasted more than a week in Kazakhstan, so it was a disappointment. I took some pictures and they will definitely hear from me when the trip is finished.

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I cooked dinner on my stove and then sat by the lake before going into the tent to write a bit. It was a magical moment, and I felt relaxed as I had not been for weeks, in complete harmony with myself and my surroundings. This was what I was looking for. Gazing across the lake, with my bike and my tent behind me, I felt I did not need anything else.

It was almost midnight when I went into the tent, and there was still enough light to be able to sit outside and read a book without problems. I wondered whether it would get dark at all that night.

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No more Russian roads

Day 34 – Sunday 28th of July – St. Petersburg – Joensuu (419km)

And I cannot say I will miss them… A few days ago I was riding to St. Petersburg, a long ride, and I realized that it had been a while since I had had fun on a road. Ever since I went into Ukraine, I had been on main roads, because the back roads were in appalling conditions or simply non-existent. From enjoying wonderful European country roads I had gone to just riding in pretty much a straight line all day, hot, sweaty, eating dust and smoke from trucks, watching out for ruts and potholes… the road had changed from something I had fun on to something to get out of the way before reaching the next destination. I had been doing this for so long I had forgotten that I was supposed to enjoy the ride! Today, the road away from St. Petesburg was a good dual carriageway, and then it turned into a beautiful country road that reminded me of how enjoyable these roads are. The landscape had also changed, and if it were not for the road signs, I would have sworn I was already in Finland, not in Russia. However, this was still Russia, and in Russia you cannot trust a road for long. The minute you think ‘wow, this is a nice one’ and think it is going to stay that way to your destination, it just turns to complete crap. There is no logic to it either, it does not follow province boundaries, proximity to cities or any other rational criteria, it just changes suddenly from motorway to gravel road, to broken asphalt, to no road, to new unpainted asphalt… you never know what is coming next.

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In my case, a dusty gravel road for almost 100km. By the time I was near the Finnish border and it was tarmac again, I was white with dust, so I was very, very happy to cross the border. However, I will miss Russia. It has been an amazing experience and the people I have met there have been wonderful.

Back in the UE, the road was lovely, smooth, new tarmac. Then something strange happened. The speed limit was 80km/h, and people were sticking to it. No crazy overtaking. Nobody pulling out in front of me, everybody waited patiently on the side before driving onto the road. Speed cameras in every town. And I thought ‘this is boring’. I could not overtake whenever and wherever I felt like it, or go as fast as I would have liked to go on those roads… I suddenly missed Russian craziness!

The wonderful landscape, and the fact that I could actually appreciate it because there were no more potholes waiting to kill me more than made up for it, though, and I had a very enjoyable last part of the day until I got to the hostel where I was spending the night.

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It was a really nice place, I parked my bike in the back yard, where there was a barbecue and a couple of picnic tables, cooked some food and then sat outside to finish The Grapes of Wrath with a cup of coffee in my hand.

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And what a book it was! I had started reading shortly before I entered Russia, and it really got to me. A harrowing story, but definitely worth it. I will leave you with a fragment I read, ironically, shortly after having broken the rim:

And his thought and his worry were not any more with rainfall, with wind and dust, with the thrust of crops. Eyes watched the tires, ears listened to the clattering motors, and minds struggled with oil, with gasoline, with the thinning rubber between air and road. Then a broken gear was a tragedy. Then water in the evening was the yearning, and food over the fire. Then health to go on was the need and the strength to go on and the spirit to go on. The wills thrust westward ahead of them, and the fears that had once apprehended drought or flood now lingered with anything that might stop the westward crawling.

The Hermitage

Day 33 – Saturday 27th of July – St. Petersburg (0km)

Today I spent the whole day at the Hermitage museum. There are lots of things to see and do in St. Petersburg, but I can tell you that if you are an art lover, it is worth paying for a plane ticket and Russian visa only to see this place. They have an amazing collection, and I could have spent another day there. I cannot share any pictures with you because I was not allowed to take any, I am on a tight budget and I preferred to spend my money on an audio guide to make the most of the visit rather than on a photo permit and spend the day like Asian tourists did – racing from one piece of art to another, taking one picture of the painting, another of the label next to it. I wonder if they really appreciated any of the paintings at all or they were just taking trophies to show their friends and relatives back home. Anyway, anything I could tell you about the collection or the building, which itself is more than worth the visit, would be wasted words, as words do not do justice to either, so come and see for yourself.

A drink on the rooftop

Day 32 – Friday 26th of July – St. Petersburg (0km)

I got up late today, I really needed a long sleep after yesterday’s ride, and then I checked my food stash and made a shopping list for the following two weeks, as I will mostly expect to camp in Finland and Norway to keep costs down. I did some shopping, sent a couple of CouchSurf requests and then went out to explore the city.

And what a city! It went straight to the the top of the list of my favourite cities. It is beautiful, absolutely nothing to do with any other city in Russia, with its canals, river, majestic buildings… It is imposing, grand and at the same time welcoming, it combines an air of classicism with an undeniable feeling of cool and trendiness, and people look very central European rather than Russian. I really wish I could spend a few weeks here, as the city is definitely worth it.

In the evening I went up to the bar on the roof, which turned out to be a time café, where you pay for the time you spend there rather than the drinks, and you can have as many tea, coffee or lemonade as you want. I sat on a hammock and read my book as the sun set over the roofs of the city, casting a red glow over my drink. You could really tell I am already further north, as the sun set well past half past ten, at there was light until eleven.

I will leave you with a few pictures, and check out the Facebook page for the whole album.

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Never trust a weatherman

Day 31 – Thursday 25th of July – Moscow to St. Petersburg (708km)

I will get the best thing of the day out first, as it was practically the only good thing that happened today. This morning Ilia let me have a go on his KTM, and I loved it! I have always liked this bike, and I have been seriously considering one when the time comes to replace my V-Strom. I took it for a short spin and it felt great, responsive, powerful, comfortable and the suspension soaked up the potholes with complete ease. Ilia told me that it is so good on bad roads that he does not even bother checking the road ahead, he just goes.

He had to go into training today and the shooting range he was going to was on the road to St. Petersburg, so he told me he would ride with me for a while. I was very happy to have him in front of me to navigate the way out of Moscow and out of the heavy traffic surrounding the city. We made a short stop at his wife’s job to say goodbye and take some pictures, and then went on. The traffic was quite bad, but it was to be expected, what I did not expect was the road after I had left Ilia at the crossroads to the shooting range and promised to meet again either in Russia or Barcelona. The road coming from the south was a nice motorway that made the long ride easy, so I was confident that the one connecting the two most important cities in the country would be even better, making light work of the 700km I had ahead of me.

I really do not understand what kind of planning goes into Russian roads. Who in their right mind would think it is a good idea to have a two-lane road going through every single city, town and village between Moscow and St. Petesburg? I just could not believe that this was true. It took me forever to cover the first 200km away from the capital, it was an endless traffic jam, with cars and trucks completely stopped at some sections, drivers off chatting patiently to one another. If I had not been on a motorbike, I might still be there. Piece of advice – if you ever come to Russia, use a bike or the train. Do NOT take a car or you will spend your holidays in a traffic jam.

Fortunately, half way there the road became a dual carriageway and I was finally able to make some good progress. The problem now, however, was the rain. I had checked the weather forecast before setting off, and it said that it would be cloudy in Moscow and sunny in St. Petersburg. Well, it was not. I do not know if weather forecasting is officially considered a science, but it definitely should not be. Like faith healers, tarot card readers, fortune tellers and economists, meteorologists are a bunch of charlatans that most of the time have no idea what is going on. They might be quite good at studying past weather and drawing statistics, and from time to time they might glance at their fancy radar and tell you where there are clouds and which way the wind is blowing, but accurately predict the weather? No way. A peasant who has spent his whole life sitting outdoors and learning to read the signs might be able to tell you if there is going to be sun or a storm in his area, but someone sitting behind a computer at a desk? Nope.

It poured down all the way to St. Petersburg. All 700km. And to make things more interesting, I had completely forgotten a small but important detail – my GPS comes with very good maps for Europe, but not the rest of the world, so when planning the trip I complied and downloaded a map from Open Street Maps that covered the countries I was going to visit outside Europe. I had not included all of Russia, as it was huge and I was only going to travel through certain parts of it, so just outside St. Petersburg, I ran out of map. I had to stop, take out my mobile phone, find the hostel’s address on Google Maps and then memorise the way to get there, as I did not have anywhere to put the phone while riding. Fortunately, the traffic in the city was nowhere near as bad as in Moscow, in fact it was very quiet, and I got to the hostel without any problems.

As I have discovered is usual practice in Russia, there was no sign at all indicating where the hostel was, so I just parked the bike in the street and walked up the stairs of the building at number 9, hoping there would be a hostel somewhere. There was, and the girl at reception very kindly walked down to the street with me and showed me a gate leading to an inner court where I could park the bike for the night.

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The hostel was quite nice, in a very cool old building in the center. The other floors were occupied by a Jazz bar, an independent cinema, a dance school and a roof bar. A good place to stay. It is a shame that it is somewhat spoiled by the staff, the girls were nice enough, but the two guys could not care less about the hosts – they did not show me the facilities, did not give any information about the city or the hostel’s surroundings and were completely ignorant of the hosts. One of them was more interested on playing videogames in the common room computers and playing music until well past 1am and the other in his girlfriend to the point I wondered whether they were two teenagers on holiday at the hostel rather than staff.

I went for walk around the area, which looked really nice, and then spent the rest of the evening planning the route ahead and trying to find accommodation in the following cities.

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Ah! And I finally found a Russia sticker for the motorbike.

Russian hospitality

Day 30 – Wednesday 24th of July – Moscow (0km)

I woke up at about 8 am after a very good night’s sleep, and while I was folding the sofa bed back into a sofa, I noticed a delicious smell coming from the kitchen. I walked in to find a wonderful breakfast waiting for me – eggs, sausages, toast, coffee… Ilia told me that he had called his job and taken the day off so that he could show me around Moscow.

We talked about our respective jobs over breakfast, and got to know each other a bit better despite the language barrier. I was surprised to find that he was a major with the Russian army, and his job involved security in the city, liaising with the police. His father had also been in the army, as well as his grandfather, who had fought against the Germans in WWII in the Black sea. He showed me his medals.

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After breakfast we took the bus and then the metro and went to see the VDNKh Park, which used to be a kind of universal exposition but only of the countries that formed the former USSR. The exhibition covers a vast area, and to give you an idea of the size of the city, this was all still in Ilia’s neighbourhood, which was not the center.

We walked around the pavilions, drank Kbac, saw a rocket like the one that put Gagarin in orbit, a Yak-42, the fountain representing all the soviet republics and then took a ride on a ferris wheel that presented us with a great view of the area. At the other end of the exhibition we walked past the space museum and the imposing Cosmos hotel, with a statue of Charles DeGaulle in front of it.

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The underground took us to the center, were we visited the Tretyakov gallery, containing some of Russia’s finest artist’s woks. From there, we took a walk across the Moskva river and I saw the Kremlin for the first time.

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There are some cities that are so embedded into popular culture that they somehow become part of a collective subconscious, and when we visit them for the first time, they feel familiar, as if we had been there before. That was the feeling I had when I walked past the Kremlin’s main entrance, around the corner and into the Red Square. My second thought was ‘how did Mathias Rust manage to land a plane here?’ as the square looked smaller than I had imagined. Part of the blame for this impression lay with the fact that there was some kind of religious music concert going on at the square, and they had erected a huge stage that completely ruined the view of the place. Talk about bad luck…

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We went for lunch at a place called My-My (pronounced Mu-Mu) which is a Russian fast food chain, and then visited the interior of the Kremlin. On the way back home, Ilia took me on a tour of the most spectacular underground stations in the city, with their great halls, sculptures and lamps.

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It had been an exhausting but wonderful day, and I decided to leave straight for St. Petersburg the following morning, as I had seen what I had planned to see in Moscow and I wanted to make sure I had time to complete my route and visit everything I wanted to visit on the way down from the Nordkapp. After dinner, however, Ilia had one more surprise in store for me. He waited until dark, and with no traffic on the streets, he took me on his car for a night tour of the city. It was great, not only because I got to see the main streets, but also because being a passenger meant that I could appreciate what I was seeing. The problem with riding in Russia is that you have to concentrate 100% in what you’re doing. Take your eyes off the road to look at the landscape or a building, you hit a pothole, you fall and you die. Take your eyes off the traffic around you, a huge truck changes lane, crushes you and you die. Take one hand off the handlebar to rest or touch the GPS screen, your front wheel catches a rut, the bike flips and you die. All this means that you really do not have time to see anything else than the road and the traffic for miles and miles, so the night drive across the city was a welcome break.

To culminate the drive, Ilia took me to a place in front of the university where bikers meet. Now, if you ever hear that there are a lot of bikers in Moscow and think that it might not be that many, because you do not see a lot on the streets, visit this place. There are hundreds of them, every single night of the week, gathered there.

It was getting cold, so we headed back home, sat down and drank some beer that Ilia had bought earlier. I regretted having to leave the following morning, he had been a wonderful guest, but I had a long ride to the next city and an even longer ride to the north.