Riding 30km on the wrong side of the road

Day 9 – Saturday 6th August – From Omiš to Dubrovnik (209km)

It was supposed to be an easy ride today, just 209km of nice coast road to be in Dubrovnik by mid morning with plenty of time to make the most of the day and visit the city, but things don’t always turn out as we would like.

The weather forecast announced cloudy skies with a chance of thunderstorms by noon, which I was actually quite happy with, as I did not want to ride in the heat of the last three days, particularly when there was a border to cross where we might be made to wait in the sun. After a stormy night with heavy rain the day started cloudy but dry, and we had the bike ready to go by 9:00 when the owner of the apartment building came to see us off. The previous evening, when we had gone down to his apartment to pay our stay, he had invited us to a glass of a red wine he made himself and he had told us a bit about his life. He had been working in Germany for 30 years, and had built the apartment block with the money he had earned there as an investment for his retirement. He did not speak any English, but he got his story across with what little German I remembered from university. The wine was rather good, and seeing that we liked it, he gave us a bottle as a goodbye present and told us to be ‘very careful with the wind for the first 20km or so’ on the coast road. ‘Langsam, langsam!’

20160806042020The moment we left Omiš it was clear that his warning was not to be taken lightly. Not since the fist day of my frustrated trip to Mongolia had I experienced such bad winds on the bike. The jagged coast and the winding road meant that the strong winds blowing from the sea buffeted in all directions, making it difficult to predict where the next gust was going to come from, and we had a few heart-stopping moments when a gust caught us from the wrong side while leaning through a tight corner. After only a few kilometres the sky ahead was completely black and we could see bolts of lighting striking the water and the cliffs relentlessly. It really did look like doomsday up ahead. As I was having these thoughts while fighting to keep the bike from being blown onto oncoming traffic or over the armco and into the sea, I felt a not-so-gentle tapping on my helmet – Nat had put her foot down and refused to continue riding in those conditions.

I stopped the bike and by happy coincidence there was a restaurant right across the road where we took shelter from the wind after parking the bike securely to make sure it would not be blown onto its side by the wind. With a cup of coffee and Wi-Fi to check the forecast, we studied our options, which turned out to be rather limited. Nat squarely refused to get on the bike again, so we could not brave it and go on to try to ride through the windy bit and the storm ahead and neither could we go back to Omiš to spend the day there in the hope that the following day conditions would be better. So we sipped our coffee and waited for almost two hours.

When the wind finally died down we rode on until we found the first road inland – we were heading for the motorway and away from the coast road in an attempt to escape the wind.

It worked, there was almost no wind there, but the moment we had collected the ticket from the toll booth and were pulling onto the motorway, the skies opened and the wraith of God fell upon us in the form of a deluge. We stopped at the first service station we found, but our supposedly water proof gear was already soaked halfway through. We spent another two hours there, watching the rain fall and other miserable bikers come and go while we chatted to a Dutch guy who had friends in MotoGP.

20160806064306Seeing that thing were not going to change anytime soon, we hit the road again and to our delight conditions improved a bit by the time the motorway ended in Ploče and we started heading down the coast again towards Dubrovnik.

We were more than halfway there, the rain had stopped and the wind too, but it was too soon to claim victory – there was one more obstacle to overcome. The region of Dalmatia, which comprises more than half the total lenght of the Croatian coast and at the southern tip of which Dubrovnik is located, is actually cut in two by a small Bosnian corridor that gives that country access to the Adriatic sea. This means that to get there you have to cross a border into a non-EU country, ride for about 10km and then cross another border back into Croatia. If you think this is a hassle, you are right. Now add to that thought the fact that we kkare talking about a narrow two-way coast road that cuts through all towns and villages and which is the only way to get to southern Dalmatia. In the midst of the high summer season.

Our friend Josep had told us that he had spent three hours to get through the border, but we were not expecting to find traffic completely stopped 20km from the border. O n top of that, it started raining again, so I did not think twice and did the only thing I could do – change onto the opposite lane and ride towards incoming traffic. For 20km I rode on the wrong side of the road, pulling in between stopped cars when something big was coming the other way, like a coach or a lorry (or a police van), and then for 10km more in Bosnia, where the traffic jam continued because there was another border to cross down the road. Had I not done that we might still be waiting there stuck in traffic and soaking through and through.

Just before crossing the border back into Croatia we stopped at a Bosnian petrol station to honour the tradition of getting a country sticker for the bike, which has to start earning them. It was the second this trip, the first one having been obtained in Croatia that morning.

For the last 30km before Dubrovnik both the weather and the traffic finally cleared, even though the strong winds made an unwelcome return. We finally made it to our guesthouse at almost 19:00, got the cases off the bike and went for a night visit of the old town.

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Rain in the Baltic

Day 50 – Tuesday 13th of August – Helsinki to Tallinn (86km – by ferry)

This was going to be my girlfriend’s first long trip on the motorbike, or for that matter, her very first trip on a motorbike, and crossing Europe from north to south was quite a bit like throwing her at the deep end of the pool with no warning. It was going to be a make or break trip, so I was hoping for good weather, even though I was not exactly optimistic about the dark clouds we had seen the day before.

Sure enough, as we rode out of the hostel and into heavy traffic, it started to rain. There was a huge traffic jam on the way to the ferry terminal, and what had to be a ten-minute ride was taking so long that I was afraid we would miss the ferry. If I had been in Russia, I would just have ridden onto the pavement and to hell with it, but we were in law-abiding Finland and there was no space to filter between cars, so I just had to inch forward patiently just like everybody else. In the end we made it to the terminal just in time to board and park the bike in front of a lorry. The rain was getting heavier and this crossing was on open sea, unlike the one from Stockholm, so I asked for some straps and tied the bike down just in case.

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By the time we got to the top deck and the ferry was leaving, the rain was pouring down and there was a gale force wind. Fortunately, this ship had a bigger covered area on the top deck, so we were sheltered from the rain despite not having a cabin.

In less than three hours we were riding off the ferry in lighter rain and quickly found the hostel in Tallinn, right in front of one of the gates in the old town walls.There was parking space right on the door, and as it was just the bike, they did not charge us for it.

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We dropped our bags and just as the rain had stopped, went to explore the old town. Unlike other European cities which are popular tourist destinations, I did not know anybody who had been here before, so I did not know what to expect of the city nor the country. Being an ex-soviet republic, I was expecting something quite gray, Russian-style, but it turned out to be a beautiful, city – the old town was charming, narrow winding medieval streets on a hill with views to a nice, modern, taken care of city.

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We spent the afternoon walking around and then headed for a pub to have a pint of the local black beer, which was delicious.

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Before going back to the hostel, we did some shopping (including superglue to repair my sandals) and then looked for a cheap place to have dinner out. This was a luxury I had not been able to afford since Russia, since prices in Scandinavian countries were ridiculously high, so it was a pleasure to find a cozy place where we had dumplings, salad, chicken Kiev, a pint of beer and dessert for 7€. I love Eastern Europe.

Nothing is waterproof…

Day 41 – Sunday 4th of August – Narvik to 10 km east of Mo i Rana (445km)

…if it rains hard and long enough. The sound of rain woke me up this morning, as Alf was coming down from his room and we both realized we were a bit hung over. The cup of wine had turned into two bottles that we drank with Bjorn as we enjoyed what they said was a very rare warm night out in the terrace. Wanting to make the best of the good weather, Alf got the barbecue going and we had some midnight grilled meat, which tasted wonderful. Then the wine gave way to home-made spirit, what they call moonshine, and then at about 1 am, as the day was starting again, a fine drizzle started to fall, so we moved the party inside until about 5 am. I had a great time with Alf an Bjorn, and discovered some excellent new music.

Alf offered me to stay for one more day, and I was very tempted to do so as the rain was quite hard that morning and I did not fancy another long ride in it, because that would mean having to pay for accommodation at the end of the day to dry all the gear before going on, and prices were just too high. We checked the weather forecast and it seemed that it would not last long, the sun was supposed to come out in the afternoon and there was no rain in Mo i Rana, 400km to the south, so I decided wait for a while and then go. We watched a couple of episodes of a comedy I did not know, called Better Off Ted, which I really liked. I will download it when I get back home. (Do not download things kids, it is illegal, buy the DVDs)

At midday I loaded the bike and set off under the rain, expecting it to clear soon. 80km further south, it was still raining hard, and I pictured the weather service offices that morning – two meteorologists sitting in front of a computer, writing the forecast for the day, and one asks the other ‘what do you think the weather is going to be like today?’ and he replies ‘I have absolutely no clue’, so the first one says ‘right, I’ll just put in the sun-cloud-rain icon, one of the three is bound to be right’.

So as I came to the first ferry crossing of my trip in Norway I wondered how long I would have to wait under the rain for the ferry to turn up. I was happy to see it coming as I stopped at the ramp behind only two other cars, and I thought that it would not take long. Sure enough, it docked, the cars rolled off and a guy approached us with a credit card terminal in his hand to charge us for the crossing. It was almost 8€ and there was no choice but to pay it, as the road ended there. As he walked to two other cars that had arrived in the meantime, I put on the gloves again, ready to board, but to my dismay, nothing happened. It seemed that the ferry was going to wait until there were enough cars to fill it up before sailing off, and with quite thin traffic that morning, I had to wait for half an hour in the rain. Great.

We were finally allowed onto it, and I parked the bike at the front. For safety reasons, passengers were not allowed on the car deck during the crossing, so I went down to the lower deck, were there were some benches and tables, hoping the sea would not be too rough, as I did not like the idea of the bike falling on its side again, especially on the hard metal deck. I walked into the passenger deck with my suit dripping with water and people looking at me with funny faces, found a quiet corner in front of an old lady knitting and had lunch, taking the opportunity of being in a warm, dry place. Just as I finished and packed the food again, people started getting up and going back to their cars, we were on the other side of the fjord. I went up, put on the helmet and the wet gloves again and rode off the ferry. To my surprise, the weather had improved in the 20 minutes the crossing had lasted, it was still very cloudy, but it did no rain anymore. My suit was soaked, but the waterproof layer was doing its job well and I was dry and comfortable, but the same could not be said of my gloves. They were supposed to be waterproof, but in less than an hour the water had soaked through. I turned the heated grips to the max to keep my hands warm and hoped the sun would come out soon.

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It did not until I was practically done with the day’s riding, past Mo i Rana and near the Swedish border, where I stopped for the night. I only stopped once for fuel and once at the point at which I left the Arctic Circle, where there was a monument and a souvenir shop. I was about to get a wristband, but the print on them was really bad quality and they were ridiculously overpriced, so I just took a few pictures, talked to a guy who was on his way north from Germany on a Harley and rode on.

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I had seen on the map that Sweden was only a few kilometers away from Mo i Rana, so I decided to cross the border and maybe find a campsite instead of camping in the wild, as prices were bound to be more reasonable than in Norway, where you had to pay a minimum of 20€ just to set up the tent, and they charged extra for using the Internet… In the end though, the sun came out and the clouds all but disappeared from the sky, and the area near the border was so nice that I just decided to find a good spot and camp. I found a picnic area that was away from the road, by a small pond, and I set camp there for the night.

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Rain and fog in the fjords

Day 39 – Friday 2nd of August – Nordkapp to Alteidet (343km)

A few km before the Nordkapp there is a small car park and a path leading away from it. It takes you to Knivskjelodden, which truly is the northernmost point in Europe, but you can only reach it by walking 9km. My plan for the morning was to go there and then take the rest of to ride as far south as I could, but it was not to be. I woke up at 6am to the sound of rain beating on the canvas of my tent, and two thoughts came to my mind. The first one, that I could not hike to Knivskjelodden, as I did not have footwear to walk 18km in wet ground and keep my feet dry, and the second, that I was going to have to fold my tent wet, which I do not like doing at all. I slept a bit more, waiting for the rain to stop, but at 10am it was still raining, so I decided to go.

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Sometimes you pay a lot of money for something that offers nothing over the competence, such as anything with an “i” in front of its name or a Volkswagen, and sometimes a design is so clever it justifies its price.  Happily for me, my tent falls into the second category, and today I discovered that you can unclip and fold the inner part without removing the outer layer or the poles, which means that both you and the part of the tent where you sleep stay dry in the process. Once I had done that and packed all my things under the protection of the outer layer, I folded the rest, put it on the bike and left.

It was foggy, rainy and cold, so before setting off I had studied a list of campsites and cabin camps along the route I was going to take to have several posibilites to stop for the night. If the weather improved, I would go further, if it did not, I would just stop and find a place to sleep.

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Almost 350km later, I was freezing and my supposedly waterproof winter gloves had soaked through. Fortunately I had heated grips on the bike, so I kept my hands warm, although the same could not be said of my feet. The sky was overcast all around and it did not look as if it was going to get any better soon, so I just decided to stop. I checked the map and found a campsite which also had wooden cabins and internet connection, just what I needed to get all my stuff dry, tent included, and spend the afternoon updating the blog.

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I paid and got the keys to a wooden cabin, hung up my staff all over it and turned up the heating and then went to the kitchen, where for the first time since I had entered Norway I had time to sit down and calculate costs.

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I was horrified to discover that the country is very expensive, and there is not much I can do to get around that. I can free camp if the weather is good, but petrol and food are still an important expense, and the cabin today and the entrance to the Nordkapp the day before had already put an important dent on my budget. I had no plan other than be in Helsinki by the 12th, where I am meeting my girlfriend to do the last three weeks of the trip together, so I did not know how far south I wanted to go in Norway before crossing into Sweden or Finland. Seeing the prices here, I thought I would ride along the fjords one or two more days and then go back east.

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.