Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Sunday 9th April 2018
Lappeenranta to Vyborg, 44 miles
Tentatively I set off for the border leaving Lappeenranta and it’s memories behind. However, the warnings issued by friends of corruption, potholes and a murderous desire to slit tourists’ throats at any given opportunity rode with me into the sunshine.
With just twelve miles to the border I arrive all too soon and join a long queue of stationary vehicles held at a red light. Vehicles were being let through in batches of six, with each six going through every 10 minutes or so. Cars and buses at the back of this queue had about an hour to wait. I thought that bicycles were allowed to the front of this queue and no one challenged me as I smycled to the very front. The lights changed to green and six vehicles and a bicycle made their way to the checkpoint. There were two minibuses, both with Russian number-plates and everyone piled out into passport control. Customs men waited with the cars and held back the drivers whilst they did some checking.
Inside I discovered how professional queue bargers the Russian were as I found myself at the back of the group. I was going to make some comment about fighting for bread but I realised that I was the best queue jumper of the lot having just saved an hour. Gallantly, I let my fellow border crossers ahead.
Back at the vehicles I felt like a spare part. Everybody else were having their Lidl bags inspected whilst my panniers remained firmly tied up. After a while everyone including the guards became a little board and someone raised the barriers and we were off.
Uncertain of where to go I followed the cloud of dust and exhaust fumes and after a couple of hundred metres came to a Cyrillic sign with a bold RUSSIA beneath. The border hut was derelict and another sign said that the road was financed as a joint venture between the EU and Russian government. And it was a great road as if both sides had put in an extra special effort. And that was it, or so I thought. The road was littered with empty cardboard boxes and plastic containers that seemed to have a special smuggling design. It was strange to see so many boxes but after a mile or so there was a waste skip, maybe another joint venture, for cardboard boxes. I assumed that this smuggling evidence was a signal that the border process wasn’t complete. After another mile the border control buildings of Russia loomed. This was my first taste of a cycling outside of the EU and it was exciting.
The same group of vehicles were parked up in a similar fashion but although relatively new the buildings had been given a Cold War look. There is a real skill to achieving the solemn minimalist look and powder coated light green panels probably arrive at building sites with rusty edging pre-applied.
I wait by a red light. And then from one of the check point huts a guard raises her arm and waves me over. It’s the strangest thing as I arrive at the hut, there is the queue of people with their passports from the Finnish post and she beckons me to come to the front of the queue. She thoroughly checks my passport against a computer screen running Windows95 and I catch her looking at me intently as she checks the photo on the visa. In her early thirties she wears a low quality uniform and flicks through my passport pages with chipped, pink bedazzled fingernails. She gives me a form to fill out whilst she deals with the rabble. Once I’ve completed the form, I go to the back of the queue and she then comes out of the hut and collects the forms from me.
I then join the melee of cars being inspected. Passengers are emptied, boot carpets are being lifted and car seats are folded down. There’s a big hunt for cardboard going on I think and the man in olive drabs with his furry hat is disappointed as another vehicle is cleared. He then looks at me and says. “Go.” Everyone else has to stay behind, but I’m allowed to pass through. And I go. Thinking that I was going to get the once over at a more sinister inspection point I push on boldly. I push on and I enjoy open traffic free roads for the next five miles.
At Rattijävi, there is a basic petrol station and as I cross a canal that links the lakes along the road. I come to a check point. Cars are being stopped and documents are being checked by two guards with an Alsatian. One sees me slow down as I approach but he lifts the barrier and says “Go. Go.” and waves me one into the glorious afternoon. The road is now long and straight and there is a change to the countryside. After an easy twenty miles I enter the town of Vyborg.
Vyborg is a struggling town and as the afternoon light dims I see the effects of sanctions and border restrictions in this town. Aside from soviet tenements and a massive Lennin statue in the square there is similar evidence of investment in a dream of entertaining Finnish visitors as I saw in Lappeenranta. The hotel I stay at, the Druzhba, is a nine story building designed to look like a cruise liner, the reception is marble and finished well. Three wall clocks below a wooden ships wheel show the time in Moscow, Peking and Helsinki. As I wait to check-in a cat attracted to my rather unique body odour lies down for a scratch behind the ears on the reception counter.
The receptionist is cold. She has never spoken to anyone in English before. And I love it. I raise my eye brows and smile and cross my eyes as we establish that the reason I am in the hotel reception that evening with five bags is not to stroke a cat but to have a room for the night. She doesn’t however like the idea of me taking my bike to my room and asks me to leave it in the car park.
In the car park, there is a hut with an attendant. He is the most jovial fellow and we establish that the lamp post by his hut is the best place to lock my bike up. He moves his car and helps me position the bike. We establish that he is there all night and that the bike will be fine. He asks for 100 roubles but because I haven’t changed any currency yet he says that payment in the morning will be fine. A 100 roubles is about a quid. Watching us from the hotel’s loading bay is the receptionist having a bold cigarette, contemplating the concept of customer service and dismissing it as she tosses her butt into the carpark.
And for my thirty notes that night I got brown running water, a lamp that flickered, a TV showing ‘Songs of Praise’ but without the songs and a window without a curtain. It was clean though, so pound for pound it was brilliant! Goodnight Vyborg.
Monday 9th April 2018
Vyborg to St Petersburg, 86 miles
The bike is still there in the morning with everything attached and as I pack a group come and chat about the bike and the journey. We look at google maps and point at places in Finland that we had both been to. They wish me luck and I find that through the day there are many happy interactions and waves from passers by as I journey into St Pertersburg.
The weather was fine and the road was smooth. At times it was a three lane motorway with little traffic and a clear hard shoulder and again I think that like Finland the infrastructure is there for trade and tourism. And because I’m the only tourist buying the occasional pack of Mentos I guess that’s why I have the road to myself.
By the late afternoon I arrive at the suburbs of St Petersburg. The traffic builds but there is an adequate path that takes me to the city limits where I take the road into the city centre. The cycling is very safe, the traffic isn’t dense and the roads are of good condition. The streets are wide and lined with high red brick tenements. Pedestrians walk in the afternoon sunshine and on the river fishermen sit precariously on the melting ice, feet away from the flowing water. Their silhouettes look like a Lowry painting and the bustle of builders loading themselves onto perilously old and battered buses as they leave a skyscraper under construction create a classic snapshot of a moment in time.
There are few cyclists on the road, I see maybe four in the whole day. But the most curious thing about the city is the absence of emergency service sirens. There are none and although lights flash, they also seem to continue to observe traffic rules. As I near the centre I look for a hotel and settle for Vedensky, and rest up, ready for a day of site seeing tomorrow.
Wednesday April 11th 2018
St Pertersburg to Petrodvortsovy District, 32 miles
With thoughts from the small amount of time spent in the city spinning in my mind there was a reluctance to leave. With my bike I was able to take in more scenes of this highly cultural city. It’s hard not to avoid the siege of Leningrad which resulted in the death of 1.4 million citizens by the end of the German retreat in 1944 or the fending off of the French as Napoleon was chased back to France in 1812. What is the perception of Europe from this side of the curtain?
After lunch I cycle out of the city and find myself in the industrial zone. Like any city it’s full of recycling yards and I wait in a queue at a rail crossing without a barrier. I share some chocolate with the guy in the car next to me as we wait forty minutes. And everyone waits.
A cargo train passes with a polite toot.
When we move on I cycle through Soviet tenements for miles, the road widens and continues as straight as an arrow and tram trains run parallel to me with curious passengers, returning my smiles and waves.
The constant stopping and starting for lights is tiring and I stop at a BP Wild Bean Cafe for a break and yes, the food is just as crap as in the UK.
The city turns into roadside towns and eventually a wooded countryside. And with little mileage under my belt I stop for the day. The Hotel is situated on the wrong side of the railway tracks among disused industrial buildings. It turns out to be a friendly, clean hotel where I eat in the evening some good food. All in for about £35. The reason I’m staying in hotels is that it is a stipulation of the visa. I find the process of selecting and checking in and out quite tedious. The bike is safe in the boiler room and instead of untying the broken panniers I take out what is needed and turn in for the night.
Thursday April 12th 2018
Petrodvortsovy District to Kingisepp 74 miles
After a breakfast of cold greens, including Brussel sprouts and rice, I was all set up to go.
The owner of the hotel a tall, blonde lady with a wry smile and an air of hidden friendliness and her assistant a less emotionally covert younger girl dressed in a green maids uniform, similar to hospital scrubs, both bid me goodbye and wished me luck. They had never asked where I had come from or where I was going but both were curious about this bumbling middle aged dude who’s only coolness was his country of origin and the colour of his passport.
The journey from here was through countryside where for miles I could ride on open empty smooth roads or roads with more holes than tarmac. These roads were slow and cars would travel twice the distance as they danced from one patch of road to another.
A convey of troop trucks overtook me and the final truck's tarpaulin was lifted up by a young, gloved soldier. I gave him a wave and he smiled and waved back, leaving me with an empty road and views over the Gulf of Finland.
There are many derelict buildings and my assumption is that there is so much cheap land that it is easier to build a new house that to knock an old one down. Any potential that a town may have of looking aesthetically pleasing is lost and the brand new homes are colourful affairs with high steel paneled fencing.
I see two of those comical Russian road moments one involving a Lada with a failing clutch continually rolling back into the red Lexus at a set of lights. The only time I hear a car horn. And at the same junction, the only time I hear a police siren, a convoy of six missile launchers pass by with a police escort.
As the miles roll by the landscape doesn’t change and I pass a woman at the side of the road, sitting on a crate with a bucket of potatoes next to her, dogs bark, tenements and bus stops are the norm. When I eventually reach the town of Kingisepp I am mentally done in as I hunt around another industrial estate for Hotel MEGA.
The receptionist is pleasant and helps me lock the bike away in a huge empty industrial building behind the hotel. When I ask if the restaurant is open she say no and points me to the nearby McDonald's. I go and eat fries and drink milkshake, its dark outside and I am disappointed to be having my last meal in Russia, here.
Friday April 13th 2018
Kingisepp to Sillamäe, 47 miles
In the breakfast room of the hotel MEGA there were seven plates laid out, each with a pastry and a yoghurt. I took a yoghurt and a warm tea back to the table. The other guests were enjoying a type of cooked breakfast.
Olga, came over and I assume being beyond any hope in hells chance of wooing me into giving her a green card adopted the hard to get approach. She showed me a yellow plastic token and remembering the one the receptionist gave me the night before I handed mine to the lady in the tight fitting burgundy uniform with the short cropped dyed yellow hair.
After fifteen minutes of watching her clear up crockery left by her well fed Russian guests and watching clips of Trump and missiles flash constantly on the TV - I pointed at the table and with my index fingers drew a plate.
She grumbled, I waited.
After another fifteen minutes I left.
In the town of Kingisepp there are more crumbling tenements and thinking about how raw life here was I forgave Olga for our interaction and popped into a store and bought a couple of bananas and some strawberry milk. I sat in the sunshine and watched life pass by.
I headed to the border sad to be leaving. There is a freedom to Russia which is hard to explain. It was only when I reached Estonia that I saw the difference. There was the contrast of border control glitz and the embankments on either side of the river dividing the two countries couldn’t be more different. Shanty on one side and ornamental on the other. The basic living, the hardness and lack of aspiration creates a friendlier less threatening culture, I think. But it is also oppressive.
Estonia had spent 25 years under Soviet control and in that time the town of Narva, where the border crossing is, was flooded during occupation with Soviet citizens, a way of establishing cultural dominance. After 1991 and the granting of independence to the Baltic States many families were split by the border. Today those citizens seemed to have a special status. Above the River Narva I watched dozens of old ladies with tartan two wheeled shopping carts cross the river and back, seeing friends, buying goods and smuggling complex blueprints for the latest doomsday weapon.
Then I saw something I hadn’t seen for four days. Graffiti. And then I heard a siren. And then the people who I smiled at, didn’t smile back.
The Eurovelo 13 route follows the river Narva downstream back to the Gulf of Finland. The river is the the border for the whole stretch and both sides have watch towers and border markings.
I stop at a T-34 Soviet Tank a memorial to a Soviet Red Army battle in February 1944. It was erected in 1970 and demonstrates how strong the influence was in Estonia during the Cold War occupation.