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Published: November 7th 2009
Arrive Kaunas, Lithuania, night time. Ask young man in airport shop where to get bus to town centre. He smiles and replies in English. Very un-Soviet - in Russia would have had head bitten off for daring to ask such a question. Ask minivan driver in car park which stop to wait at. Jumps out of van and walks me over to right one.
Town centre cleaner and roads better quality than most places in Russia. Meet host from couchsurfing near central train station. Completely devoid of usual filth, wasted people and dog / cat shawarma stands found in this sort of area in Russian towns. Why am I comparing everything to Russia? Guess was expecting high degree of Sovietisation based on impressions of Latvia and Estonia but couldn't have been further from truth.
Stay up several hours drinking beer and smoking shisha. Host, Vaitautas, quite nationalistic. "So many Russians here, they speak their own language and don't bother to learn ours. Why can't they just go home? Its always been the Russians who've fucked us. We used to be the biggest country in Europe until they took away most of our territory. Then the Soviets
Coming into Vitebsk region
In the background is one of the little bus shelters that came to be my regular resting places
came and made us part of the USSR and sent so many people to be killed in Siberian prison camps. We lost a third of our population in the years during and after the war."
In morning Vaitautas takes me up in his plane. Not quite plane, but 2 seater (one behind other) with big plastic propeller. Can do about eighty mph. Fly over river and near Old Town. Very beautiful. Engine suddenly stops and we drop out of sky. Knuckles whitening and expletive forming on lips when engine picks back up and we stop plummeting. "What the hell happened?"
He turns round, grinning devilishly. "I just switched it off for a second to show you what its like."
After walk round town centre we say goodbye and I get on bus to Vilnius. I spend the whole afternoon wandering its streets admiring endless arrays of ancient buildings and splendidly decorated churches. In marshrutka (minivan taxi), Lithuanian passenger asks, "Where are you from? I'm from Wembley, just back here visiting family!" Reminds me again that this is NOT Russia, very much part of EU and people can move back and forth from
here and Western Europe.
Meet Couchsurfing host Flo. Stay at his house overnight, spend next day racing round town trying to find a cheap bike to buy. Once acquired I race around again trying to find road maps of here, Belarus and Russia. Finish late in the evening, go back to Flo's and load up my bike with 20kg of luggage. Somewhat nervous due to current low level of fitness, high level of alcohol consumption and rapidly spiralling cigarette addiction.
Day 3 (80 km by bike)
Set out early in the morning. Getting out of town involves cycling interminably up very high, very steep hill during which time I pull muscle in leg. Great start. Manage to keep on going. Once out of town begin passing rustic villages of wooden houses. Massive difference so close to capital. Somewhere after last village before Belarussian border pain in leg becomes intolerable. Have to keep on going on foot 5km to the border. Cross with no problems and take a long rest. Early afternoon. Keep cycling and pain comes back within minutes. Can't have to call of whole trip before it's even begun! Damn it. Thankfully discover that
if tilt foot until almost vertical pain not felt.
Stop to buy water in roadside shop. Mis-hear amount of money woman asks her for. Fancy I see two little fires blaze up in each eye as furiously screams correct price at me. Few kilometers across border and now things definitely VERY Soviet.
Manage to keep on going until dusk. Stop in little village called Komorovka. Buy a load of food and beer (good muscle relaxant) in shop. Woman can barely contain excitement at having foreign customer. Looks round shop trying to attract attention of other customers to me and my foreigness. Some glance with interest, others couldn't care less as belong to usual selection of old men or down and outs to be found perusing vodka and beer shelves in the lone shop in a remote village, occasionally stinking of urine.
Sit at bus stop making sandwiches and drinking 1.5 litre plastic bottle of beer. Eat ungodly amount due to massive number of calories burned. Watch sun start to set then cycle on to find wood to pitch tent in. Nearly freeze to death overnight.
Day 4 (85 km by bike)
shivering and get early start to warm up. Peddle away all morning along one of main highways across Belarus. Almost totally deserted of cars. Twists and turns through pine forests, past lakes and across stunningly green undulating landscape dotted with with tiny villages where people ride horses and carts. Early afternoon car stops to ask directions. Explain am not from here. He laughs, waves, gets back into car, disappears. Returns five minutes later to tell me there is zoo just down road. Follow them to find compounds of ostriches, goats and deer by roadside. Young couple with child who ask me constantly what am doing here, why here, etc. Child rattles off various dates in Belarus' history. Mother smiles proudly. Offer me lift to next destination but have to refuse as promised myself to cycle at least all the way to Russia. Already exhausted though and very tempted.
Reach town of Glubokoye in evening. Find bus stop (have become my usual haunts during breaks from cycling and meals) and sit down for more seemingly impossible amounts of food and 1.5 litre plastic bottle of beer. Nearly freeze once again overnight.
Day 5 (95km by bike)
5am Legs extremely stiff. Considering taking rest day. Cycle into town centre. Very pretty, small green areas with statues, fountains and memorials. Quarter of population of Belarus died in war, thousands of villages burned to ground. While looking at memorial on edge of lake elderly lady approaches me and starts slurring. I assume she's asking for money but when I offer her some she says "No, no." She's wasted but I just manage to make out the words "They're gone, all gone" as she waves a tree branch at the memorial. Uncomfortable, I say goodbye and wander on. Poke around 2 churches with beautiful array of flowers outside before sitting on bench to eat gargantuan sandwich. Buy blanket from shop when it opens then get back on my bike. Legs not so stiff any more.
Cycling uneventful most of day. Pass non-descript villages and one small industrial town. In middle of nowhere I spot beautiful turquoise domes of church poking over tops of some trees but no time to investigate. Must be in Polotsk by nightfall to meet Couchsurfing hosts.
Meet Irinka and Alexey in Polotsk centre. Drive back to their house to shower then back in to
town. They show me around. Many beautiful churches, monasteries and other buildings. They openly express displeasure with Belarussian government while other people are around. Strange. In country ranked number 6 in UN's list of oppressive tyrannies had expected to find people more reserved.
See memorials to first saint of country, holding double barred cross. "It has two bars instead of the usual one on Christian crosses," says Alexey, "because there was already a Pagan symbol like this so they used it to ease the conversion to Christianity. There were Pagans here as recently as 400 years ago, you know."
Day 6 (rest day)
Thank God am in interesting place to take day off. Legs so stiff can barely walk. Irinka and Alexey leave early to go to another town. Am left to wander streets of Polotsk all day taking in sights. Can't bear thought of sleeping in tent again but no money to pay for expensive Belarussian hotel. Don't seem to be any cheap ones. In evening have idea of asking at train station. Past shawarma stands, people sipping plastic cups of vodka on street, etc and into station. Find they have rooms for rent
for about 3 pounds a night! Very clean single, ensuite, TV, fridge, freezer! Am almost ecstatic. Go to station shop to buy sausage and bread. "Give me a sausage," says woman in front of me in the queue, "tasty but not made from dog, please."
Day 7 (125 km by bike)
Legs still stiff but a bit better. Apparently this section of road mostly flat anyway. Peddle an hour, rest an hour, all day, arriving Vitebsk late evening. Scenery here just as beautiful as nearer Lithuania but more lakes.
Meet Andrei, Couchsurfing host, at train station. Big serious businessman. Cannot understand why anyone would want to come to Belarus but happy for opportunity to meet foreignor. Takes me to small but plush apartment in Soviet tower block and introduces me to family. Drives me to dacha (country house) outside town. On way pass high-rise with massive sign on top saying "Long Live the Invincible Soviet People!" Stay up late drinking vodka around table and chatting. Andrei becomes less serious. Had imagined Belarussians to be somewhat anti-Russian but in fact all I have met so far seem indifferent. None speak Belarussian to same level as Russian,
though very few differences between 2 languages anyway.
Day 8 (rest day)
Drives me round town, leaving me only for an hour or so on my own when has to go take care of some business. See lots of nice churches, current KGB headquarters, beautiful park. Meet friend Alexey. Anti-Russian. "Don't go to Smolensk, it's dirty."
"It's dirty?" I ask, surprised.
"Of course, it's Russia. Watch out for criminals when you're cycling there too."
"Don't worry about him," Andrei chides Alexey, "he's lived in Russia before. Seems more Russian than English to me!"
Alexey very friendly and talkative though. Funny as well. Looking for restaurant we enter one. Check out menu at bar. I ask barmaid, "What beers do you have?" She doesn't move, doesn't turn her head, doesn't respond in any way other than tightening the scowl on her face. Alexey calmly puts down his menu and says to her, "Well we're not going to eat anywhere like this with such damned Soviet service." We turn and walk out.
Day 9 (75km by bike)
Cycle through seemingly unending steep ups and downs. Eventually arrive at border with
"Where have you come from?" demands large, sweaty Militsia man without even faintest trace of sense of humour in character.
"Lithuania," I reply. He looks me up and down. "But I'm English," I decide to add.
"Where are you going?" he asks.
"Moscow," I answer.
He stares me in the eye. "Moscow - on a bike - is this a joke?"
"Are you Lithuanian yourself?" he demands.
"No, no, he's an Englishman," his colleague buts in.
The Officer stares at me. After few seconds, just briefly, fancy I see remotest hint of smile lift up last milimetre on either side of previously humourless lips. Hands me passport and waves me on.
No proper Customs at border so no stamp in passport. Very worried as can mean trouble with Militsia in Russia, need to pay bribes, etc. Head into police station at nearest town, Rudnya, to explain situation. Take me to Immigration Office. Tell me no problem, Belarus stamp good for Russia too.
Friendly young man, Anton, speaks English and French. Studied languages at Smolensk University. Very keen to practice with me. I ask if there's a hotel
"Only one, but they don't have a license to receive foreign guests. I guess we can arrange something with them though..."
Grabs phone and within minutes has arranged me a place in the hotel. I leave agreeing to come back to have tea tomorrow morning.
Halfway down road to hotel car draws up. Anton leaps out. "Edward! I just wanted to make sure you know the way!" And he proceeds to explain the way to me four or five more times. Am by now only 200m away from hotel on same road. Has funny habit of leaning in closely and lowering his voice to a confidential half-whisper.
"Is there any internet in the town?"
His eyes dart around as if looking for eavesdroppers. He leans in close, voice low, and says, "No private club," by which I assume he means no Internet Cafe, "But we have it at the police station. Rarely works though."
Arrive at hotel to find very friendly lady owner. Shows me to room. Her and security guard pepper me with questions, bemused by what I could possibly be doing in such an out of the way place. Spend
the evening chatting to security guard who can barely contain his excitement and laughs at everything I say.
Day 10 (65 km by bike)
Anton from Immigration Office shows me around town to small but nice church and statue of town's one remotely famous person, some war hero or other. Then takes me back to office where we drink tea and eat entire enormous box of chocolates between us. Say goodbye after several hours chat and promise to keep in contact.
Legs now well and truly knackered. Cycle slowly with regular stops to rest in bus shelters. At one a man pulls up in car, jumps out and offers me huge basket full of apples.
"I have no money," I say.
"No problem, no problem, they're free!"
"Thanks but I can't carry them on my bike," I say regretfully.
"Come on, they're great apples! If you don't take them I'm just going to throw them away on the ground here!"
I take a few and watch in bemusement as he does indeed proceed to throw all his apples on the ground next to the bus stop. Seemingly uninterested in foreign
accent, then waves goodbye and drives off.
30 km outside Smolensk and get shooting pain in leg where pulled muscle on Day 1. Can no longer cycle at all and have to push bike or freewheel down hill all the way to town centre. Arrive in evening with time to look round beautiful Kremlin, cathedral and park.
Wheel my bike through one of worst train station areas have seen anywhere in ex-USSR. Litter, filth, everywhere. Seedy people, gypsies, urine, drinkers, passed out people, stray dogs. Get into stunning train station building and buy myself cheapest overnight ticket to Moscow. Have made it back to Russia by bike as promised myself.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia
, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.
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