Adventures in Borderland

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June 15th 2011
Published: June 15th 2011
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These flowers I've seen right throughout my travels - in churches, by the roadside, in gardens. Even here in Latvia I've seen them still. I know we have them at home, and could be considered a weed, but they are beautiful.
Here's the deal. I'm in the library, banging on a keyboard who's spacebar seems to be stuck so am making quite a racket. I'm in the library because, according to tourist information who didn't listen to me when i said that the internet cafe they said I should go to is closed, is the only other place i can use the internet (according to them).

What's happened since I last blogged? Well, i've had my gear cable replaced, chain oiled and a new tyre fitted but well, i'm still stuck in first gear. Grrrrr. Not so bad because I'm in hilly country, Latgale, but still... And tomorrow I'm out the door (ie border) to Lithuania.

So after Aluksne I was Balvi bound. But, you know how things can change... I was still Balvi bound and what do you know, there on the right of me is a barechested, strapping young lad riding a beautiful red Raleigh "is good, is English bike" changed my course, kind of. You see, Sergey "I am Latvian, but I am Russian", was on his way to pick up his 20-year old audi "German car, very economical". He asked me the usual where are you from /where are you going questions to which I replied Australian and Rezekne bound. It was a bit difficult to explain that I didn't actually mean I hoped to be in Rezekne that night, it was just the direction I was heading in. When he heard that I prefer to camp than to stay in hotels he suggested I could camp at his house.

Now, I don't want you to think that I do these kind of things willy nilly. He told me his sister was also at this house and I met her so I did not in any way feel threatened. Plus it was still relatively early so if need be I could have kept going. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. And anyway, it was a great way to meet a local and see some things that well, you don't get to see and do normally. Like have dinner prepared, sitting outside (Lativian summer kitchen) of meat (yes, i know) by a young man in an apron whilst I, swat mosquitoes and drink Latvian beer. The following morning I was chaperoned to Balvi (I really don't think people cycling with no gear (ie baggage) quite understand how hard it is to keep up!!) and wished a good journey. And off I went. No longer Rezekne bound. Instead I decided to head to Ludza. I quite like that my plans are fluid and remain open to opportunities and chance.

My map indicated 20km of crap, unpaved road. Now, since most of the roads have been crap anyway, and these are the tarmaced ones I thought it really couldn't get much worse. And, what a wonderful surprise to see that this road was, in fact, not only paved from Baltinava but also in pristine condition. It was a joy. But, as soon as I was past the border point of roughly around Boncanci the road was just was stones and dust. Shit in other words. Nothing stays the same. Roads are no exception. It was 7km (not the initial 20km thankfully!) of quite hard going. If a car passed, you were caught in a plume of dust that took quite some time to disappear. It was like cycling in really bad fog. And took a lot of concentration. And with hills - not major ones but well, not altogether a pleasant experience. And in Karsarva, the next town, they decided to dig up the road so I didn't get an easy ride though there either. By the time I got on the P49, I was quite happy to see its patchworked tarmac - the surface of such a road I had been cursing just 20km previously.

I got to Ludza and stayed in the Hotel Valensija. For 15lts (around 30AUD) it was extremely great value - ensuite, TV, right across from the Orthodox church so really well located and pristinely clean.

Not much to do there other than visit the museum (too late), and have a look around the old fortress. I did have a man stop his car in the street, step out of his car and tell me "you are pretty, I want to help you" and then he signed that I should get in the car with his mates (all looking like they had not stopped drinking from the night before). Um yeah, I don't think help is the word you're really thinking of and um, right, you really believe that I would want to get in a car with a bunch of boozed up strangers (middle-aged at that!). I know I'm getting older but these guys looked like they should have been at home with their wives and kids, not trying to "help" a tourist. The answer was no, but said politely, with a smile. Thank you but I don't need help. How bizarre.

The following morning looked kind of ominous but the woman in tourist information assured me that it would not rain and I would be ok. (Damn, I wanted any excuse to stay put in a nice hotel no matter how weird things were in that place). I had all the brochures for Dagda, she kindly circled all the camping places along the road where I could camp (I told her I would not be cycling on untarmaced roads regardless of how beautiful she insisted it was on these. (I don't think people who don't ride a bike on these roads know actually how bad, or appreciate how much damage they inflict mentally and physically). And, I am quite sure that Giant did not have commuting (on minor roads) in Latvia in mind when they designed my bike). Then I headed out of Ludza. Into a head wind with not much energy and not much will. It was a pretty tough 27km to Rezekne by which time I was already pretty shitty and the roadworks in town were dire, and just sent me over the edge. I cracked it. Cussing and swearing - sometimes out loud I'm ashamed to say. Digging up road after road for what? People (trucks, buses, cars, me (!!) have such a tough time on the roads just getting to the city/town/village and then every place, once you're there, you're welcomed by such chaos that all you want to do is get out. So that's what I did. But not before I did something that could at least appease the crankiness somewhat...two cups of coffee,a small pizza, a fruit juice and a pastry later I was ready to face the road again. I decided against Dagda. It took me this much time to get to Rezekne, after an already late start, I had no desire to end the day with a 5km shit road ride into Dagda. So I headed to Aglona instead.

The fuel kicked in and it was a pretty good ride there. I camped just outside the town. An enterprising family had put up a tent/caravan sign and I took the first one I saw - theirs. It was more than I have paid for camping yet on my travels, especially without a shower (!!) but I had a beautiful view over Lake Ciriss, no mosquitoes and, what must have been the best night's sleep camping yet. So, money well spent. And really, for them, you have to make the most of the opportunities (ie me) when they arise.

I had coffee in Aglona the following morning. Along with, what I am ashamed to say has become quite a habit now and shouldn't leave me wondering why I am not losing any weight, a karum. Karum is really a brand name for these chocolate coated kind of like cheesecakey things they sell in the dairy section of the supermarket (and even the tiniest village shop). Highly addictive and totally calorie laden. And no, I'm not burning it off. Then I visited the Catholic shrine, the largest and most important in Latvia. A man walked past me and then came back and asked me, not where I was from or where I had been, but how many kilometers I had ridden. I told him, he crossed himself and then shook my hand. Oh dear, I hope he didn't think I had ridden these kilometres just for Aglona...

And then onwards. I visited Devil's lake along the way. The lady at the tourist information told me I should go and see it. Was there a sign? No, but it is the third road after the two lakes on both sides of the road. Really, I think a sign would be much easier. I asked an elderly woman who was walking with her granddaughter (when I say asked there was a bit of finger pointing at my map, some hand gesturing straight ahead and trying to say the Latvian for devil's lake). She got me - 2km and on the left. And sure enough, 2km on the left was a sign "P" and it was a lovely lake deep in the woods. She should get a job at tourist information!

Then I wanted to visit a potter. Latgale is also famous for its ceramic traditions and there are potters galore scattered around the countryside willing to show tourists their work and for tourists to get their hands dirty too. Well, I rode right past the village and didn't realise until I was about 7km along. No sign you see. I look for signs. Plus here, everything needs to be booked (called in advance, write in advance), it's just not what this holiday is about. Obviously I'm not meant to see any pottery.

I got to Kraslava, near the Belarussian border, and you guessed it, they were digging up the road. And not only that, once you got through all the sand and dust you got an 8% incline. Nice. Just glad I'd had coffee in the morning...

I was heading to Daugavpils but ready to stop off before then to camp. I asked at a place and they were fully booked. Guess I just had to go to town. I got into town and the place I wanted to go to I was told had been closed. The next place was the student hostel. It was not at the address listed. When I eventually got to where a lady in a shop said it was, the receptionist there (sitting at the back of an enormous, very dark and gloomy looking entrance (say the size of the foyer at 121) came out and redirected me to yet another place. I was feeling tired. It was about 7 by then. When I walked into this, yet another dark place but clean and modern looking, I thought the woman was not going to let me stay. I think she was simply confused about seeing me. She wanted to make sure I knew what this place was. Hostel. Yes. Hostel. She then took key and showed me my room.

This is such a lovely student hostel. It's clean and modern. There is a kitchen (it sparkles), shared shower (it too sparkes) and a toilet just outside my room (it sparkles as well but smells of stagnant water). And my room, although meant for three, is bright and airy. It's absolutely perfect.

So today just wandering around Daugavpils. Not all that much to see and do but just nice to have a bit of rest as I've been on the bike since last Wednesday. Tomorrow I'm off to Lithuania, making my way to Vilnius. Then the 'plan' is to do a kind of backwards 'n' through Lithuania and Latvia and finish in Klaipeda. But you know about plans...

I do like these border regions though. Be sad to say goodbye when I head well and truly into the western parts of Latvia and Lithuania. The "Russians" in both Estonia and Latvia have been really welcoming. I wonder what Lithuania will be like.

And oh, by the way in case you're wondering, my speedometer says 1527km (+ 283km from before I got the speedo). Looks like I'll make my target. Now, about my other target... Thanks so much for all the donations so far through the website for the Mental Illness Fellowship. It would be great to reach the $3,000 milestone so please, my all means, forward my blog details to your friends and family. It's for a very worthy cause.

Until next time...sveiki!


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