Poland: May 10-24
Sky was shrouded in grey clouds. The border patrol buildings were empty and disused. There were several trucks on the roadside. And I felt strangely excited and proud with myself: we would soon enter the second country of our trip.
We knew that the possibility of rain was quite high, so when it started spitting, we simply put on our rain gear and kept pedalling. But then it started to get cold and the rain was getting stronger and stronger, until it turned into snow. Snow on May 10th! We were cycling towards Druskininkai in our shorts and t-shirts only a couple of days ago! Where’s this snow coming from? It was getting colder and colder, our gloves were soaked, and we could hardly feel our fingertips. We were both very hungry, and that damned snow and cold wasn’t helping at all. I have to admit, I’m not an easy person to be around when I haven’t eaten. We were asking ourselves, how could we act so recklessly and have given all our warm gloves, scarves and hats to my parents in Druskininkai. Hands were freezing, bellies growling, and the patience quickly draining. The town we had reached was small, barely anything was there. Quickly having considered our choices, we bought some food and cycled towards a forest nearby, because I stated that I need warm food and a tent. NOW. Cycling on a sandy forest path, I was thrown off my bike. I got angry at the bike – why is it doing this to me, it’s already difficult enough. I pulled myself together, lifted the heavy bike off the ground and got back on it. Not even another hundred metres later, I hit the dirt again. Except this time, I started shouting and swearing at the bike and said I’m not going any further. But after a few deep breaths, I got back in the saddle and pedalled, as we needed to quickly find a place for a camp.
We quickly raised the tent, with no intent of standing around. Dovydas stretched the tarpaulin so we’d have at least some dryish space. When there’s a roof over your head, even when it’s just a piece of cloth, it’s much easier to get your stuff out of the bags and cook food. No one wants to log around a big and heavy piece of tarpaulin, but when the weather’s treating you like this, one starts thinking that the weight is not such a big deal after all. While cooking our dinner, we watched the seasons change like in a time warp – we entered an autumnal, brownish forest, but ate our dinner in deep winter. Finally, we got into our tent to warm up, and stayed in the whole evening. Trying to forget the taste of a bland meal, we drank tea with biscuits – and we needed a whole heap of those to make that unpleasant taste go away. Snow wouldn’t stop falling. We were warm and cozy in our sleeping bags, but kept watching the temperature outside dropping. Snowfall was so heavy that the branches of the trees would shudder with weight and unload heaps of snow onto the ground. Exhausted and lulled by the sounds of the forest, we fell asleep.
In only two days, sun was out again, and all that snow was just a bad memory. Camping in winter can be really fun, and we’ve done this more than once. It’s just that we weren’t prepared for it this time. Snow in May was the last thing we expected. Life itself must have sent us a lesson – on a trip like this, you must be ready for anything, any time.
Poland is the first country where we’re having fun by not being able to speak the language. It’s really strange: Dovydas knows all kinds of random Polish words, and I know approximately two. When you need to stitch a sentence together, those two words don’t really help. Then I roll (more like stagger, really) in Russian. I haven’t spoken any Russian since high school, so it all has been long forgotten. In fact, I was never really fluent in Russian. And yet, there’s a bigger chance that an old Polish lady will understand my broken Russian than English. And, funniest of all, when you ask the Polish if they speak Russian, they nod and say yes, and then start speaking in Polish and you can’t get a word in edgewise. Turns out, we can understand quite a bit – many words are similar.
Warm Showers and stacking wood in Bialystok
In Bialystok, we stayed with a Polish family. We found them on Warm Showers – a global community of cyclists. People, who are part of this community, invite other cyclists to stay with them for a day or two. Some offer a sofa in their living room, some have a spare room, and some have a place for your tent in their back garden. Whatever they can help with, one of the rules is that they cannot ask for a fee in return. And the travellers must return the generosity by welcoming other travellers in their home when they’re back from their journeys. This way, the community maintains its values and the wheel of generosity keeps turning. People welcome other travellers, because they’re interested in communicating, helping, introducing them to their town or country. Everyone has their own reasons, but love for bicycles is the core one.
Our first experience was great. We stayed with Kamil and his family. They live in an old restored house. We got a big room and, most importantly, a warm shower. Kamil and his wife Agata were incredibly welcoming, and treated us to some organic eggs, sorrel soup, and cakes. We originally planned to stay with them for one night, but arrived much later in the evening than expected. The morning was very slow and we wanted to regain our energy, so we timidly asked if they’d be ok with us staying another night. Kamil and Agata ensured us that we can stay for as long as we’d like. In the afternoon, Dovydas helped stack wood, and I was cooking dinner – that was the least we could do to express our gratitude for a great visit. It was really interesting to spend time with them as they have a very active lifestyle, are passionate cyclists, and Kamil runs a cycling bags company Crosso. As it turns out, they are one of the most popular companies in Poland. We received loads of tips and suggestions on what we should see in the country, got plenty of rest and I truly hope our paths cross again.
The not-so-friendly locals: mosquitoes
We were cycling towards the oldest, primeval wood in Europe, Bialowieza. The number of mosquitoes in the air was rapidly increasing. We pedalled hard and without stopping, because, as you’d stop, there immediately was an infinite cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around you. We both got quite hungry though, and had no choice but to layer up with all possible items of clothing to stop the little buggers from biting us. One of the best accessories we’re carrying with us is a baseball cap with a detachable net. No bugs near your face! Quite funny when you raise some food to your mouth forgetfully – and instead get a bite of a net. We were having quite a bit of fun in the first hours of this experience. But in the evening, when we reached the forest – all laughter evaporated. At least mine… The moment you slow down, a hundred buggers land on you with an intention to bite. A black cloud above your head lingers waiting for the right moment to attack uncovered skin. I can’t express the amount of them in words. I’ve never seen that many mosquitoes in my entire life. We wore gloves, but that didn’t help – my hands got bitten so badly, that the right one was swollen, red and incredibly itchy. The situation was so bad that I had to get the medicine bag out. Everything was maddeningly itchy. I wanted to scream. Even worse – the sun went down and the infinite number of mosquitoes seemed to double. I wanted nothing but to hide in the tent – I couldn’t endure this. But Dovydas found a way to convince me that we’ll start a fire and the mosquitoes will be gone in a wink.
Non-stop sounds of birds, and so many of them. I have never heard such a forest symphony before. It feels like you’re surrounded by sound. A subtle one and difficult to describe, because everything weaves into one. Evenings by the fire are always pleasant and warm. Especially when the forest is this magnificent. Especially, when you have a chance to hear the second part of the symphony – when the darkness falls, the forest transforms. The sounds don’t stop but change into something different, something that you wouldn’t witness during the day. An opportunity to camp in a forest like this doesn’t occur that often… I’m not even sure camping there is allowed.
The next morning, we kept exploring the never-ending forest. Words fail me – it’s impossible to describe the beauty. It’s as if the whole forest floor is moving. Swarms of ants scurrying, carrying a twig, a leaf, something thrice as big as them. And all those different types of ants! Multicoloured bugs are buzzing around, flying, beating against the ground and in the air. Spiders, scary, big and fat, stealthing for a chance to bite off my finger. Other long-legged athletes look as if they’ve just gotten off the running track, proud of their furry little bodies. I was trying my best not to pay too much attention to them, and yet saw plenty by chance. And when you’re afraid of something, it seems like their only goal is to sneak as close as possible and sit in your lap.
We also saw some deer dart past us, and all kinds of animal tracks. Even bisons live there.
In all Poland there are almost 1 700 of them – more than a third of the global bison population. You can only imagine our astonishment when, while cycling through a quiet forest path, we spotted the whole family of bison. Sadly, I saw much less of them than Dovydas – only in the corner of my eye, when the two bison and their three calves have already taken fright and ran into the depth of the forest. But the sound of hooves, and breaking dry twigs, echoing through the whole forest, stuck in my memory. From the noise alone it’s clear that they’re large and powerful animals. We’re incredibly happy to have seen them in their natural habitat, roaming free. Truth be told, it’s hard for me to comprehend that such big beasts are freely wandering in forests. And not some distant forests on the other side of the world, but very close to my home. Bialowieza national park left a great impression – it’s a forest from a fairytale.
A few days ago, a friend messaged me saying that she’s impressed by our journey, but really worried that it might be hard on me. It got me thinking that day… and yes, there are difficult moments. Sometimes you have no energy to keep cycling, or feel lazy, or it starts snowing in May. Sometimes I’m in fowl mood or the mood is ruined by millions of mosquitoes. Sometimes I react very sensitively to rain. And even if I know that I cannot change anything about it, I still mutter about it. There are all kinds of difficulties. It seems to me that every one of us has them, whatever our chosen lifestyle. When the adversities are only of this scale, you get over them quickly. By the way of an example, that dreadful snow is just a distant memory today. And even if I know that plenty such difficulties on this trip still await, my real trials are something else altogether.
In all honesty, it’s the most difficult for me that my sandals (which are our main footwear because they are very practical) are ugly and wide for my narrow feet. Even worse, very often I have to wear them with socks! Such heights of style. At least, the front of the sandals is not entirely open, so you can’t really see that much of the sock. And if the socks are black, I can even pretend they’re not there at all.
It’s difficult when in the evening we have a very limited amount of water for cooking and washing up. When there’s not enough of it to wash your hands. That’s why I take every single chance to fully enjoy washing my hands properly. We’re trying to carry as little weight as possible, so we’re bringing these really light, titan cups (quite a few of our belongings are made of titan these days). The cups are great, but not when you’re always drinking from them. I think the item I’m missing the most is a nice ceramic cup! I can picture myself in the morning, in some beautiful forest, in the sun, drinking tea from a pretty china cup.
It turns out that my problems aren’t that dire or serious. They’re not even problems – just things that annoy me or that I miss.
When you don’t know what’s the day today
We had to reach river Bug that evening. We saw on the map that there’s a ferry crossing. And we didn’t even bother checking the schedule, because there was a pedestrian bridge marked on the map, too. We reached the river, cycling through small villages, and located the dock with a ferry standing there. Doesn’t look like it’s working. Not a single soul around. We looked around, hoping to see that bridge – it must be nearby. If we crossed the bridge, we could cycle at least for another hour. But we couldn’t see a bridge – not even in the distance. We started reading signs on the bank, and they said something about the ferry working only on odd days. We looked at each other and realised from each other’s perplexed expressions that neither of us knows what’s the day of the week or of the month. Checked the calendar on the phone – it’s May 18th. So the ferry comes only in the morning.
No big deal – there’s no reason why we can’t wait. We looked around, and decided it’s not a bad place for a camp. Nice river, wooden tables with benches, some even surfaces for the tent. Time is on our side, we can spend the evening by the river, and continue on our way in the morning.
While setting up camp, I caught myself thinking about London. If you needed to wait for the next train for 15 minutes, that would be an absolute torture. You can go really far in 15 minutes! Funny how these things change. 15 minutes is nothing when you’re travelling on a bike. We can stop and admire the views of the mountains, lakes, and the world around us for this long, without feeling the time pass. And we can wait much longer than that for the ferry, as it turns out.
Dovydas was building a fire, and I was cooking dinner, when we saw a car approaching in the distance. And not just some car, but with flashing beacons. I felt uneasy – are we doing something illegal? Did someone call the cops? The car was slowly approaching us. I stopped cutting vegetables and hid the knife under a kitchen towel. When the car was finally close enough, we realised this was border patrol. The car window went down, the officers said their hellos and asked what we were doing there. They asked us for our documents. Dovydas started explaining that we’re cyclists and we’re waiting for the tomorrow’s ferry. The officer behind the wheel took our passports and started relaying our information through the radio. The second officer got out of the vehicle – a short blond lady with an automatic gun on her hip, running the whole length of her thigh. She seemed really pleasant, but it was clear you’d want no trouble with her. She started asking us about our trip and asked if we knew that we are half a kilometre away from the Belarussian border.
I’m not sure how long the check went on for, but it felt like an infinity. We didn’t know what else to say, and they weren’t returning our documents. Finally, still in conversation, they gave back our passports, wished us a good evening and a great trip, and left. Phew, we could finally relax and have our dinner.
In the morning, as promised in the schedule, a small ferry, carrying a single vehicle at a time, carried us across river Bug and we cycled onwards.
Colleagues on the road
When cycling through Poland, we tried choosing the narrow country roads. This meant we didn’t see the usual touristy places or bigger cities. Even during our stopover in Bialystok we didn’t see the city centre. I loved cycling through small towns and villages. I was surprised by how neat and tidy everything was. Even when the house is old or the yard is full of barns and other farm buildings, the surroundings were spruced up and orderly. People seemed sincere and very friendly. During the whole trip, not once did we have to buy drinking water, we ask people we meet. And when we enter someone’s garden, so it starts… neverending conversations about who we are and what we’re doing, everyone’s interested. People want to talk and tell us not only about themselves, but about their children and grandchildren too – where they live, what they do, how they fare. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand, but we’re trying our best with our limited knowledge of Polish and the art of interpretation.
Somewhere on the way to Chelm, we met two long distance cyclists. We were cycling in opposite direction to them, but waved at each other and stopped for a quick chat. Robert and Pavel are cycling around the perimeter of Poland, as close to the borders as possible. They want do finish the whole route in four weeks. When we met them, they had already cycled 80 km that day, while we were on our 22nd kilometre only. Later, I and Dovydas decided, that they must be skipping sleep. Not like us, 10 hours every day. We had a lovely chat with them, Robert had lived in the UK for a long time, so his English was perfect. We shared our adventures, advice and bid each other farewell. It was great talking to them, because they’re the first colleagues on the road that we met.
First swim on the season and onwards to Ukraine
It seems that Poland decided to apologise for all the snow and sent us a true summer. It was so hot that we opened the swimming season. We arrived at the lake in late afternoon, but the heat wasn’t going away and the water was really tempting. I’m not sure what the temperature was that day, but it must have been really hot if even I got into a cold lake on my own will. Last days in Poland were sunny, the landscape was beautiful, the forests were mesmerising, towns changed one after another, and we realised we’re very close to the Ukrainian border already.
And in Ukraine unexpected adventures awaited. I’ll tell you all about it in the next blog.
More pictures from Poland (apologies for the captions in Lithuanian):