Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Urban Odyssey through the UAE

Dubai, December 22, 2011

I am typing this while lying beside a rooftop pool atop a high-rise luxury apartment building in Business Bay, Dubai. All around me are the improbably shaped architectural fantasies that make up modern Dubai, and in front of me, glinting silver in the sun, is the fantastic needle of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. Below me I can hear 14 lanes of traffic roaring along the Sheikh Zayed road, and the omnipresent sound of construction cranes and pneumatic drills that are building this year’s crop of skyscrapers.

I am not much of an urbanite. I have enjoyed living in big cities for short stretches of time (a summer in London, an autumn in Budapest, a winter in Toronto, a month in Barcelona, a few months in Cairo, two years in Boston, three years in Yangon), but much of the best living I have done has happened in smaller cities or towns. I am really enjoying living in tiny Leysin now because of the wonderful outdoor activity that I can do right outside my front door. When I’m travelling, a lot of what I most enjoy is the spaces between cities, especially if I’m on my bicycle. However, much of what is most distinctive and dynamic about different countries around the world is to be found in cities, and so sometimes I have to step out of my element and into huge urban conglomerations.

This Christmas vacation, I’m spending the first half of my break doing exactly that. I flew to Abu Dhabi a few days ago, leaving behind an epic winter storm that made me wish I was sticking around to ski. I had never been to the UAE, Oman or Qatar, and that was reason enough to want to come here. The fact that several of my friends from various parts of the world have gravitated here provided motivation to make the trip this year. And so for the past few days, I have found myself in two of the most highly urbanized hypermodern cities of the world, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

When I told people that I was coming to the UAE, a frequent response was “What are YOU going to do there? You don’t even LIKE shopping!" And indeed much of the face of the UAE’s megacities consist of gargantuan shopping malls. But there are things to see that are fascinating, if not soul-satisfying, and they’re not all malls.

I’m staying here with my Canadian friend Rhea, whom I met while diving in Indonesia 7 years ago. She has since taught in Bahrain and Colombia before coming to Abu Dhabi 18 months ago. It was her suggestion that we go diving in Oman that clinched my decision to come here; experiencing the underwater world will be the perfect antidote to too much city life. Rhea has been a great tour guide, taking me around the sights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the most efficient, photo-friendly way possible without feeling the need to browse through designer shops along the way.

My first day in Abu Dhabi revolved around lunch at Tim Horton’s (a Canadian institution, specializing in coffee and doughnuts) at a nearby mall. Nearby is always a relative concept in Abu Dhabi; it means only 20 minutes in a car. It’s a bit sad that Abu Dhabi, as it has developed, has done so on the model of Los Angeles and Houston, sprawling enormously and designed around the automobile. It’s not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city, and the few pedestrians you do see tend to be the poor labourers from the Indian subcontinent who make up the majority of the population and do all of the actual work. Without a car, you’re dependent on taxis or the very occasional bus. After touching base with our Canadian roots, we got in the car and tried to find the Grand Mosque. Rhea’s GPS let us down, and we ended up making our way by eye to the mosque, which dominates the skyline of that corner of the city. Finding our way in was a challenge, and we ended up driving for several kilometres around the perimeter of the vast grounds looking for an entrance that was open.

Once we got inside, we realized that it had been well worth the effort. The complex is brand spanking new, and was built to be the largest, the most expensive and the most exquisitely designed mosque on earth. The architecture is quite wonderful, a mélange of styles that is huge without being bombastic, full of egg-shaped domes, slender minarets and a huge courtyard surrounded by beautiful porticos and placid pools of water. The outside of the mosque is relatively simple, with lots of big, blank white wall punctured by arches. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place until you walk across the courtyard and realize how long it takes. The hundreds of tourists gawking at the mosque were dwarfed by the huge expanse of inlaid marble floor.

Inside, the simplicity gives way to a profusion of geometrical flourishes, most of them showing five-fold or ten-fold symmetry. It’s a riot of intersecting circles and curving tendrils, with a great variety of finishing touches borrowed from all over the Islamic world: Egyptian alabaster, Persian rugs and the sort of marble inlay that adorns the Taj Mahal. Everything shows really high quality workmanship, and should stand the test of time without starting to fall apart. The ceiling is particularly impressive, especially as it supports gargantuan crystal chandeliers. The overall impression is surprisingly serene, given all the individual details, and it’s the sort of place that would reward sitting quietly for an hour or two, absorbing details.

That evening we walked from dinner at the Hilton (one of three in Abu Dhabi) to the Emirates Palace hotel, a gargantuan complex that is, by some accounts, the most luxurious hotel on earth. It was a long walk through a construction site; six months earlier Rhea had walked the same route under jacaranda trees and beside flower beds, but a new road-construction project had erupted since then. Once we were inside the hotel, it was a rather surreal experience. There was a handful of staff around, and one or two guests, but the overall impression was that this entire hotel was deserted. Everything is oversized: the world’s largest and most expensive Christmas tree (last year it had $13 million worth of jewels on it), the enormously high ceilings, the huge staircases, the building itself. We crawled through the cavernous interior and out to the beach, where the scale of the building finally became evident. I felt Lilliputian as we made our way past the towering façade. When we finally emerged, I felt as though the scale and the expense and the luxury was just too much for me, and I was glad to get in a cab and head back to Rhea’s more human-sized flat.

The second day in Abu Dhabi found us renting bicycles and riding along the waterfront Corniche. I was pleased to see that the government actually found space for a bike path, as the rest of the city looks like a cyclist’s nightmare, with heavy traffic and insanely careless drivers. Feeling the wind in my hair as I flew along, I felt much happier than being stuck in a car waiting for a light to change, which is where most Abu Dhabi residents seem to spend much of their lives. We went to the huge Marina Mall to see another huge Christmas tree and to get sunset views over the Emirates Palace hotel and the nearby fantastic curves of the Etihad towers, before heading to have dinner with my friends from my Yangon days, Jared and Anna. She’s working for the Emirates education ministry, and living in a luxurious, outsized apartment in a brand-new skyscraper that costs an unbelievable sum in rent (covered by that staple of the expat life, the housing allowance). It was wonderful to catch up with them and get another inside view of life in this strange, ephemeral country.

Yesterday we jumped into Rhea’s car and drove 120 km up the road to Dubai. While Abu Dhabi has its share of huge, eye-catching modern steel and concrete, Dubai is like a set for Batman. I have never seen such a dense collection of huge buildings with such a variety of architectural flourishes. We drove along the huge, busy artery of the Sheikh Zayed Road, past the new Dubai Marina cluster of skyscrapers, and stopped at the Mall of the Emirates to have a quick peek at the indoor ski hill. Having just skied knee-deep powder in Leysin, I wasn’t really tempted to ski, but it was fascinating to see the entire artificial complex of ski hill, chairlifts, toboggan runs and Christmas trees, surrounded by restaurants with glass walls facing out onto the slopes. We walked out past yet another gargantuan Christmas tree (fairly amazing to come to an Islamic country to see the biggest Christmas trees on Earth) and hopped back into the car to head further downtown. We stopped at the beach near the iconic Burj al Arab sail-shaped hotel for some pictures (and to get sandblasted by the scouring wind) and then drove the final few hectic kilometres to our Dubai base of operations.

We’re staying in Business Bay, in the apartment of one of Rhea’s friends who taught with her in Colombia and now teaches in Dubai. It’s a ridiculously luxurious pad, with sweeping views of the surrounding architecture, but the best views are from up here on the 42nd floor, where a small pool and lounge overlook all the crazy towers of Business Bay. The Burj Khalifa looks amazing from here, like a gigantic hypodermic needle aimed at the sky; at its foot is the enormous Dubai Mall, reputedly the world’s largest, and surrounding it is an artificial lake with huge fountains that give a musical light-and-water show every evening.

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening catching up with old friends. I met up with my friend Natalya, who was in Yangon when I was there, and with whom I stayed in Baku a couple of years ago. Her parents teach here, and she’s catching up with them and then flying to Iran and Baku to take full advantage of her 4-week Christmas break from her school in Colombia. Then I went to the Dubai Mall, past yet another towering Christmas tree and the musical fountains, to the incense-scented Souq al Bahar for dinner with my friend from high school, Debashis, who’s a corporate lawyer here in Dubai and who has watched the frantic development of the Dubai skyline and real estate market over the past six years. After a fine meal, we went for a nightcap on the ground floor of the Burj Khalifa itself in a hypermodern cocktail bar, before Debashis’ driver took me back through the convoluted roads and construction detours to this apartment building.

Overall, I would say that Dubai is incredibly impressive, having been constructed out of nothing but sand and money over the past 20 years. It’s a bit like Las Vegas, an instant city in the desert, but much, much bigger and richer. I can’t say that I would ever want to live here; the car-based culture and inhuman scale would probably drive me crazy, while the difficulty of getting outside and doing sports would be even worse for me. It’s in some ways a dystopic view of the future: hyperdevelopment, built on an unsustainable base of cheap oil, desalinated water and cheap indentured labour. On the other hand, for many people in the Arab world and in Iran and Central Asia, Dubai is probably a vision of the sort of future they would like to have for themselves in their own countries: rich, modern, socially liberal, full of culture and shopping and a sense that anything is possible.

Three years ago I visited Delos, a small, uninhabited island near Mykonos in the Cyclades. Delos is in some ways a cautionary tale, as it was once a free-trade zone where merchants from all over the Mediterranean gathered to make money and build opulent residences. It was the Dubai of its time, creating out of a fairly barren and almost waterless island a bubble of enormous prosperity. Delos attracted the envy of surrounding pirate bands, and eventually the pirates sacked the city and destroyed its prosperity. I don’t think that Dubai will fall prey to pirates (unless the Somali pirates improve their range and firepower) but I’m sure that the envy of surrounding states and the enormous bubble of real estate prices here will provide strains on Dubai’s continued prosperity. The abandoned artificial offshore island of the World complex, visible off shore from where I am sitting now, might well be a harbinger of further shocks to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Guest Posting on Another Cycling Blog

I've just written a short piece on Amaya William's excellent World Biking blog about the top 5 reasons to cycle China, so if you're interested, click here to have a look. My friend Kyle Henning, who cycled recently from Africa's lowest point (Lake Assal, in Djibouti) to the foot of Kilimanjaro, which he subsequently climbed on foot, also wrote a piece on the top 5 reasons to cycle Djibouti. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Tallinn, August 17, 2011

It's all over. I rode into Tallinn two days ago, under grey, cold skies, getting hopelessly lost in the Stalinist suburbs that ring the lovely Old City, and now the bike is packed into a box, ready for tomorrow's flight back to Switzerland, and I'm reflecting on a summer well spent.

I rolled out of Riga on August 13th, after a night of sleep in the dorm disturbed by the cacophony of a band of drunken English stag party revellers. As I lay in my bunk in the morning, summoning the strength to get up, a face peered up at mine and said "Are you travelling on a bike? Are you leaving today? What direction are you going? Let's ride together! See you in the kitchen."

After that introduction, I did in fact spend the next two days riding with Ilya, the one and only long-distance Israeli bike tourist I've ever met. It was fun to have someone to talk to on the rather dull flat sections of highway ahead, and his GPS found us a couple of quieter highway sections near the coast. It was also good to have moral support dealing with a couple of Latvian drivers with serious road rage issues; one swerved off his exit ramp to come back to the highway and try to beat me up, because he actually had to slow down for me, but I cycled around him and he decided that discretion was the better part of lunacy. Ilya, who was born in Russia, thinks that it's because Latvia has so many Russians that you see such angry driving. As the day wore on, we began riding in a pace line, taking turns breaking the wind, and absolutely flew along at 27 km/h despite a slight headwind.

The weather threatened rain all morning, and our beach picnic saw us looking anxiously out to black clouds massing over the Baltic, but by the time we reached our campsite at Meleki, about 90 km north of Riga, it was sunny and warm. The campsite was easily the nicest since the Caucasus, and we swam in the Baltic (almost fresh water; less taste of salt than in most mineral water), cooked together and swapped stories from the road. The beach was deserted, part of a nature reserve, and was easily the nicest of the summer. It was a nice antidote to all the rainy, grey weather I'd had in the previous weeks.

After a long night of deep sleep, we awoke to grey skies and rolled out of our campsite towards the Estonian border along Sunday-morning-empty highways, and then two great side roads that kept us out of the traffic. The previous day we had seen no fewer than 11 bicycle tourists, and that day we saw 6, including a German couple with whom we played leapfrog all day along the road. In Parnu, Ilya turned off to head west to the coast, while I kept heading north on a beeline for Tallinn. Another 50 flat, dull kilometres, with heavy Sunday afternoon traffic heading north to Tallinn from the coast (carrying hundreds of expensive mountain bikes from a huge bike race), and I finally ended up camping for the last time this trip in the back corner of a fallow farmer's field, tormented by mosquitoes and horseflies, after a day of 145 km, the third-longest of the summer.

The ride into Tallinn was a bit of an anticlimax, under grey skies and with cold headwinds; my thermometer read 17 degrees, and it felt colder, so I rode in my GoreTex rain jacket just to keep warm. There was little to look at, and I managed to get hopelessly lost in the suburbs before finding the little island of Gothic loveliness that makes up Tallinn's Old Town.

I felt pretty worn out by the end of the trip, despite all the flat cycling of recent weeks. I think that I took fewer rest days this summer than I usually do, and as I careen down the slope of middle-aged physical mediocrity, I think my body needs more recovery time, not less. I spent yesterday dealing with my bike (new chain and rear cassette, new handlebar grips and tape, all the cables and housing replaced, and then packed neatly in a box, all done by the nice folks at Veloplus), finding a new hotel (accommodation is tight here in Tallinn, and I couldn't stay a third night at my hotel because of previous reservations) and generally schlepping around.

Today, my last full day in the city, has been a day of exploration, under brilliant blue skies that make the soaring Gothic spires and their gilded tops look even more breathtaking than usual. I visited the three big museums in town (Tallinn City, Estonian National and Occupation) and while I thought the first two were pretty good, I thought the Occupation Museum came a distant also-ran third in the Baltics behind similar establishments in Riga and Vilnius. The only real highlight was the final resting place of the Communist statues, down by the basement toilets, rather appropriately. Tallinn has a wonderful feel to it, with a bigger Old Town than Riga, although not quite as large as Vilnius, and it feels very wealthy, self-confident and culturally alive. Being the 2011 European Capital of Culture probably helps on the last count.

I got told off a couple of nights ago by a convenience store clerk for asking her a question in Russian instead of English. This struck me as hopelessly silly in a city that is 50% native Russian-speaking, where I hear as much Estonian as Russian being spoken around me, and where many of the older generation don't speak any English. I think there are still some thorny linguistic political issues to be sorted out here.

Although Riga gets most of the buzz in Western Europe for having the most beautiful women in Europe, an unscientific study undertaken from cafe tables and while walking through all three Baltic capitals suggests that it's not necessarily the case. I found Lithuania to be full of statuesque blonde women, while Estonia has more than its share of beauty of the human sort. One thing that I did hear from Latvians was that Riga, with its RyanAir connections and reputation as a place for British stag parties, is becoming well-known for what Manila and Bangkok have long been notorious: sex tourism. I don't know about that, but there definitely seemed to be a seedier edge to Riga's Old Town than I saw in either Vilnius or here in Tallinn.

On a much brighter note, as I was coming back to my hotel this afternoon, I saw a huge crowd gathered. I thought it might be a political demonstration, so I wandered over to have a look. Instead, it was a throng of thousands of Estonians gathered to hear the Dalai Lama. I had never heard him speak in person, and I was impressed with his message, his delivery and the reaction from the crowd. Hearing a message of compassion, right thinking, environmental concern and hope for the future was a welcome antidote to the dark clouds of history still swirling over the Bloodlands of eastern Europe. As always, the Chinese government thundered warnings of economic consequences to the Estonian government for letting the Dalai Lama visit Estonia, but with a long history of defying the might of another continental empire, the Estonians politely but firmly told the Chinese to bugger off. The Dalai Lama held out the Baltic independence movements of the 1980s as examples of right thinking and non-violence in action.

I have been generally impressed by the Baltic states. In 20 years, they have all made huge strides and distanced themselves socially, economically and physically from the other post-Soviet states. I am particularly impressed that these three tiny linguistic units (Lithuania has 3.3 million people, with 2.1 million in Latvia and only 1.3 million here in Estonia) have such vibrant publishing, broadcasting and cultural industries. I think that there are other larger, richer countries that could learn a few things about organizing a progressive, forward-looking society from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

So now that the summer's riding is over, I will probably have to do one more post on highlights and lowlights and future travel plans, but until then, I will leave this post as is and thank all of my loyal readers, whether I know you personally or not, for reading through my stories from the road. I hope that they have inspired some of you to undertake your own adventures of whatever sort appeals to you.

Peace and Tailwinds


PS A couple of images that will stick in my mind from Tallinn. First are the old Russian ladies begging at the foot of the stairs leading to the Orthodox cathedral. The other, completely the opposite, is the sheer monetary excess involved in renting the Segway scooters: 32 euros an hour???? Cars, skis and computers don't cost that much to rent. I'm sure the Dalai Lama would have something to say about the contrast between these two images.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Absolutely Baltic!

Riga, August 12

I have been resting, recuperating and watching rain fall in Riga now for two and a half days, so it's time to pack up for an early departure tomorrow on the last leg of this trip, the 310 km from Riga up to my final destination, Tallinn. I hope that it all goes as easily as my ride from Kaunas to get here!

My friend Sion, whenever weather got cold, windy and unpleasant this winter in the Alps, would refer to it as "absolutely BALTIC out there", and I have to say that so far Latvia has lived up to his epithet, as daily highs reach the low teens, and rain and wind batter the city and the countryside. I hope that Tallinn is more Mediterranean than Baltic!

I set off from Kaunas on August 8th at 12:30, a very late start caused by my having to trudge into town, in driving rain, pushing my one-wheeled bicycle to the bike shop to pick up my newly rebuilt back wheel. I was impressed with the workmanship, and with the price tag: 50 litas, or about 15 euros, for what must have been an hour or two or labour. In Switzerland, it would have been well over 100 euros for the same job.

It had stopped raining by the time I got back to the campground, so it was actually a pleasant day for riding. I had changed my itinerary to shorten it because of the lost two days in Kaunas. I headed north and a bit west towards the town of Siauliai and its Hill of Crosses. I passed a few carved devils, one of the great obsessions of Lithuanian popular culture, well documented in Kaunas' Museum of Devils. I didn't make it all the way, but I did manage to cruise 113 very enjoyable kilometres across flat, undemanding terrain, aided by that rarest of creatures, a slight tailwind. As well, I think that the new back hub that I had installed is substantially quicker than the old hub, with less rolling friction. Whatever the reason, I managed to average an unheard-of 22 km/h that day, with long periods of cruising above 25 km/h. It was all easy and enjoyable, and I even managed to camp out in a secluded corner of a farmer's field, my first wild camping in over 3 weeks.

After a wonderful night's sleep, I awoke in the morning to the sound of strong wind rattling my tent. I stuck my head out and was happy to find that it was still a tailwind. I had to cut across the wind for an hour to get into Siauliai, slowing me down substantially, but after that I absolutely flew, often at 30 km/h across the flats, barely pedalling. It was such a wonderful feeling that I barely wanted it to stop.

I did make myself stop at the Hill of Crosses, however, and it was well worth it. Lithuanians, who must rank with the Maltese and the Polish as the most ardently Catholic nation in Europe, have been planting crosses on this hill for centuries, but the Soviets bulldozed the crosses and spread the hill with manure in order to stamp out the practice. This failed, and since independence, hundreds of thousands of crosses, from the microscopic to the towering, have been erected in a chaotic flowering of popular religion. Most crosses are planted by individuals on pilgrimage, but some carry various messages (Messianic, political, hopes for world peace). The overall impression is of an organic mass of crosses springing from the soil. In the bracing wind, the smaller crosses, often dangling on larger ones, tinkle in the wind like a vast assortment of wind chimes. There were hordes of people there, both curious tourists and Lithuanian pilgrims. I've never seen anything quite like it, and it was well worth the time lost to sailing before the wind.

I raced north towards Latvia, stopping to change money at the last town before the border, and then tacked at right angles across the wind to head east towards Rundale Palace. I got there slightly too late to go into the palace and the grounds, but I circled the moat on my bicycle and went as far as the ticket gate, admiring the sheer Versailles-like scale of the place. It was built in the time of Peter the Great by the Italian architect who built the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and it absolutely dominates the flat landscape. The gardens weren't on the opulent manicured scale of Versailles, but were still very pretty.

I rode off and found another good field for camping, with a wonderful sunset over golden fields of wheat. I awoke to yet more tailwinds, and this time I had a straight shot into Riga, with no stretches at all against the wind. I made the 63 km into Riga in 2:37, an average speed of 24 km/h, by far the fastest flat day of ing I have ever had on a bike tour. I was almost tempted to bypass Riga and just keep flying along towards Tallinn; I could easily have done 200 km that day without breaking a sweat.

Riga is a wonderful city, bigger feeling than Vilnius although with a smaller Old Town. It's on a broad river, which always helps a town's prettiness, and the Old Town (which is actually mostly reconstructed after the damage of the Second World War) is surrounded by the real jewel of Riga, the belt of Art Nouveau buildings put up around 1900 by Michael Eisenstein and other architects.

I haven't seen as much of Riga as I thought I would. Partly this is because it has been raining almost continually since I got here, reducing the appeal of walking in the streets. Also, I went out on a pub crawl on my first evening here with other inhabitants of the hostel I'm staying at (Fun Friendly Frank's), and spent much of yesterday's daylight hours asleep. I have taken some pictures of the Art Nouveau buildings, rich in carved detail like dragons, gargoyles and Greek gods. I went through the Museum of Occupation, which details with chilling precision the losses inflicted on Latvia first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets. Like Lithuania, Latvia suffered enormously between 1939 and 1953, losing some 550,000 inhabitants to murder, deportation to Siberia, flight to the West or death by overwork in German concentration camps. That's about one-third of the country's population, an almost unimaginable scale of loss comparable to Rwanda or Cambodia. It's a tribute to the Latvians that they survived this series of disasters with an undamaged sense of identity and purpose.

I tried to visit the Jewish Museum today, but after a long plod through puddles and downpours, I got there to find that it's closed on Fridays. I did find a Holocaust memorial to the 70,000 Latvian Jews and 20,000 Jews from other countries who died during the Second World War; only a couple of thousand survived in German labour camps. Again, unimaginable horror and destruction.

Riga is awash in tourists, as it's a big destination for RyanAir, and after a while the hordes of Germans, Dutch, Italians, Spanish and English gets a bit much, especially the proliferation of bars, restaurants and dubious nightclubs around the Old Town. I find myself wishing for the relatively tourist-free streets of Brest or Zamosc. I think Tallinn will be more of the same, and somehow I feel as though the adventurous part of this summer's travels has already come to an end. Maybe Tallinn, this year's European Capital of Culture, will re-excite my sense of arrival.

Peace and (Epic) Tailwinds!


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Beautiful Baroque Cities and Charming, Unusual Belarus

Kaunas, August 7

I am stuck in Kaunas, Lithuania's second city, for couple of enforced days off. Two days ago, as soon as I arrived here and set up my tent, my long-suffering freewheel, the bit inside my rear wheel hub that lets you coast without pedalling but then start accelerating when you start pedalling, died. It was actually kind of funny; one moment I was pedalling along, and the next my legs, pedals, chain and back gears were all spinning madly, but I was slowing to a stop. Within a few seconds, my bicycle was now an expensive and uncomfortable scooter. I scooted back to the campsite, and the next morning walked into town with my rear wheel and a spare hub that I had bought in Slovakia when I first realized that the strange noises I was hearing were presaging the demise of the freewheel. I was lucky that this happened in a biggish city in a cycling-mad country, rather than (say) in the middle of the forest in Belarus. I found a bike store that is apparently, as I type, rebuilding my old wheel (rim, gears, spokes, brake rotor) around the new hub. I hope it all goes to plan, and that at 10 am tomorrow I will be ready to ride out of here, fattened up on beer and Lithuania's great contribution to the world of beer snacks, deep-fried rye bread. Having lost two days of riding, I will have to modify the end of my route and skip the west coast of Lithuania in favour of a straight cross-country shot north to Riga.

I was actually, in a way, pleased that the freewheel broke, although I hate the loss of cycling time. This more or less completes my career grand slam of breaking things that can be broken on a bicycle. Here's a more-or-less complete list of different broken bits over the past 21 years of cycle touring.
  • Spokes (beyond counting; once broke 24 on one trip)
  • Flat tires (ditto)
  • Shredded outer tires (once went through 14 in a single year of touring, before getting Schwalbe Marathons)
  • Handlebars (hilarious slow-motion break as I sat waiting at a traffic light)
  • Pedal (had to take a taxi out of Nagorno-Karabakh just to find a new pedal)
  • Front chain rings (gears)--most recently in Przemysl, Poland
  • Chain (worn many out, but broken them too)
  • Derailleur (destroyed one in Bulgaria that required a couple of bus rides to find a new one)
  • Bottom bracket (several)
  • Frame (cracked and rewelded previous frame in Kyrgyzstan)
  • Braze-ons (the little rings that allow you to screw racks onto some frames)--broken and rewelded in several Caucasus towns
  • Wheel rims: on this trip and at the end of my Balkan Blitz too. I need to have a bomb-proof 48-spoke tandem rear wheel built, I think
  • Headset bearings
  • Pedal cranks (had to have them hacksawed off recently in Switzerland)
  • Saddle (ever tried riding 70 km with no seat? Luckily it was all downhill)
  • Rack
  • Rack screws
  • Front forks (OK, bent but not actually shattered--yet)
  • Seat post (again, bent rather than shattered, but once you bend it it's pretty much useless)
Anyway, this allows me the chance to bring the blog up to date. My last update was pretty selective, dealing as it did with sites associated with the Holocaust. Here I'll try to fill in the gaps between Lvov and here.

I was stuck in Lvov for an extra day because of bike repairs. I eventually managed to get my rear gear cassette loose with the help of a bike mechanic from the Torpedo bazaar on the outskirts of Lvov. It took 20 minutes, two strong adult males, a metre of chain to immobilize the gear cassette, a huge wrench with a steel pipe for extra torque and the mechanic jumping up into the air for more leverage to get the old cassette loose. I rather think Dom Cycles overtightened it before the trip! I sat out the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm talking to Taras, the mechanic. It was a typical post-Soviet conversation, about how the Ukraine is going to hell in a handbasket, ruined by corruption and inept government. He was so down on the future that when I remarked on how much rain had been falling on me along my route, Taras replied "Even the weather is getting worse. It was much better in Soviet times! Now it's either too hot or too rainy in the summers!" That's a man deeply mired in post-Soviet depression!

After that, I went to cheer myself up in Lvov's wonderful city cemetery, full of 19th-century Polish graves ornamented by deeply-aged stone angles. Joanne was always a fan of cemeteries and photographing them, a taste that I acquired from her over the years. After this, and more yummy cake and hot chocolate at another of Lvov's wonderful cafes, I was ready to hit the road the next morning.

My ride through eastern Poland was covered in the previous post, as I rode through Belzec and Sobibor. I just wanted to add that Zamosc, a town I had not originally intended to visit, was an unexpected architectural highlight. It was laid out as a perfect Renaissance planned town in the late 1500s, and still looks like a piece of Italy transplanted into mostly Baroque Poland. The main square, with its near-perfect symmetry and soaring Town Hall, is rightly UNESCO-listed and is a perfect spot to eat, have a beer and people-watch. I actually camped for once that night, as the monsoon rains stopped for two days. At dinner, I spent nearly an hour trying to decide whether another restaurant patron was my friend Greg Swanson. He looked physically identical, with many of the same mannerisms, but from what I could tell he was speaking Polish to his companion, and looked just a little too broad in the shoulders. If it wasn't Greg, it was a perfect doppelganger.

The next day's ride, through Sobibor and on to Okuninka, was also rain-free, the first two-day interval without rain since Romania, although there was rain off in the distance, making for a great rainbow. The Carpathians were well and truly behind me, and the riding was almost Dutch in its monotonous flatness by the end of the day. As much as it's sometimes nice to trundle across the flats at a good clip, I find that for cycle touring a lack of hills makes my mind wander and I end up missing most of the scenery.

I entered country 102, Belarus, the next day, July 29th, at a small border crossing north of Wlodawa. I wanted to avoid the main crossing at Terespol, near Brest, to get through lineups faster. Instead I found myself, for the third time this summer, at a "vehicles-only" border crossing, where I had to load myself and my bike into a passing van in order to get through formalities. I don't understand this; this always happens when leaving the EU into post-Soviet countries, rather than the other way around, and it makes no sense to me. The explanation here was that the computer system needs vehicle registration numbers in order to process border crossings. This sounds completely silly, but I'm sure that somewhere there's a kernel of sense hiding. Apparently just before I arrived, two more cyclists on Dutch passports had just gone across after two and a half hours of arguing and complaining; when I showed up, there was much rolling of eyes and remarks about "tell the Dutch that they can't cycle across this border!" When I finally got into Belarus, I changed some money (at 7200 rubles to the euro, and prices given to the nearest 10 rubles, you end up with an enormous number of small, useless bills!) and then rode towards Brest. The road was pristine and more or less empty; there was a strange post-apocalyptic feeling that reminded me of riding into Tiraspol a month before. I passed through dense forests and small, swampy lakes, seeing only fishermen and the odd car, before finally entering the endless suburbs of Brest.

Brest has a strange road system that meanders all over hell's half acre before finally getting serious about going downtown. I asked some locals for directions (it was good to be able to talk to local people again after a couple of days of muteness in Poland!) and ended up entering town through Brest fortress, one of the most famous WWII sites in all of the former USSR. It was there that the Red Army, who had been occupying Brest for two years, held out for nearly a month against a huge German assault in June and July of 1941, finally being overrun when they ran out of water in their underground hideouts. There are dozens of Soviet-era memorials scattered around, with martial music being blared through loudpspeakers, Red Army tanks for kids to play on, huge sculptures and lists of the dead. It really is as though the USSR were still a going concern; even in Russia, I didn't see such an amount of active reverence for the Red Army. All the innumerable war memorials I saw in the country had neatly-tended lawns and fresh floral wreaths; this is perhaps not surprising given that Belarus lost over a third of its population during the war, in mass killings, starvation, partisan warfare, Nazi retribution and Soviet score-settling in 1944. As I left the fort and rode into the downtown core, huge signs commemorated individual war heroes.

The delightfully named Hotel Bug (that's the name of the river that forms the Polish-Belarussian border, and is pronounced Bukh) put me up for the night, and I had a good wander around the streets, trying to get a feel for the city. Several things leap to the eye in Belarus, compared to most other post-Soviet republics, although very similar to what I saw in Transdniestria. The streets are almost spotless, swept daily by a small army of street cleaners, but also thanks to people using trash cans. There is almost no advertising, probably because there is little private commercial activity. People look, on the whole, quite prosperous; there are no beggars or people picking through the garbage cans, as you see everywhere in Georgia and the Ukraine. Buildings look well-maintained, with fresh coats of paint. Shops have full shelves, but most goods are made in Belarus, with quite low prices, probably partly due to the recent currency collapse. (Strangely for the FT, they're missing three zeroes on the figures in that article; the ruble went from 3000 to 5000 to the dollar.) Any imported goods are quite expensive in comparison. The streets were full of people enjoying themselves, without the edge of public drunkenness that you always seem to get in post-Soviet countries. One man I spoke to said "Everyone talks about Lukashenko, and he's an idiot, but life here is normal, you know, pretty good."

The next day I rode out of Brest, through industrial suburbs that were full of Soviet-era factories that seemed all to be still working, a radical change from, say, the Caucasus republics and their vast blighted areas of rusting, decaying derelict factories. I rolled through farming towns, realizing that villages are still run on the Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm) basis, with village co-operatives running the local industries, whatever they are (bakeries, breweries, distilleries, sawmills). All the towns looked ridiculously neat, and in the fields combine harvesters were busy bringing in the summer harvest, often followed by storks who were gobbling up the frogs in the newly-tilled fields. It was all a bit like a documentary from the Brezhnev era of the Soviet Dream.

My destination for the day was a UNESCO-listed national park, the Belavezhkaya Pushchka, famous for hosting the last surviving (semi-) wild herds of European bison. By the time I got close to Kamanyuki at the park entrance, dark clouds had built up and an immense downpour started. When it finally cleared, I went for a look around the museum and wildlife enclosures before having a short ride around the park. It was once an imperial hunting reserve, where Russian tsars came to slaughter big game, and this was why the forests are particularly well preserved, with stands of centuries-old oak trees. The bison were actually introduced here after the last herds were wiped out elsewhere in Europe, and in fact many of the species here, like the red deer, are not native to the area. The bison get supplementary feed in the winter, so they're not exactly 100% wild anymore. I rode around with my eyes glued to the underbrush (good thing there's no traffic and the roads are perfectly paved!), but all I saw was a family of cute little baby wild boar scuttling away under the oaks, and more mosquitoes than I've seen for a long, long time.

That night, with more rain threatening, I slept at the Kamanyuki Hotel Number Two (spot the government-enterprise name!), where 8 euros bought me a luxurious room with satellite TV and a vast bed. Given how infrequently Belarus features on most cycle tourists' minds, there were no fewer than 7 cycle tourists in residence: the two Dutch guys who had preceded me over the border, two Belarussians, and two Ukrainians. It's actually a great country for cycling, with very good roads, cheap food and digs, and little traffic. I rolled out of town the next morning through the woods, where I again failed to see any bison, headed up towards the Polish border before turning southeast towards the park border and the main road from Brest to Slonim. There was no traffic at all, and it was wonderful riding through the forest in complete silence. I eventually exited the park and, somewhere over the next ten kilometres, managed to get on the wrong road, probably in a stretch of road construction. I raced along newly-laid tarmac, loving the forested surroundings, and it was only when my odometer told me that I should have reached Pruzhany and I was still in the forest that I realized something was wrong. I finally found someone to ask, and found out that I was on a new forestry road that doesn't appear on my map. I was 30 km south of Pruzhany, and it was a long, hungry slog to get there for a very late lunch. I called it quits at Ruzhany, where a search for a hotel (I had cycled through a Biblical deluge in the forest, and more rain was on its way) led to a grocery store with rooms above. This time 5 euros was the price, and I slept soundly.

Ruzhany was a bit of dead-end town, where Sunday night was spent by the local inhabitants in buying beers in the grocery store and drinking them in the park, but the next day I rode through one model city (Slonim) to stay overnight in another (Lida). Lida in particular seemed almost like the instant add-water-and-stir Chinese cities that have sprung up over the past decade. Every building in the downtown core, other than the old Lithuanian castle, was brand new, with new paint, new signs and perfectly-laid sidewalks. I splurged on an 18-euro room and was rewarded with BBC World on the TV. The sidewalks were alive with merry-makers, but everything seemed orderly and civilized, and I went to sleep pondering what makes society in Belarus function well, although in an ideosyncratic style. One theory another traveller had is that with all the government factories working, there's little unemployment and people have a sense of purpose lacking in places like the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. I don't know, but something has to explain the smooth functioning of a country that is technically bankrupt (OK, so are Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and the US is on its way, but you know what I mean). Whatever the case, seeing a country without litter, graffiti, advertising, massive unemployment or visible poverty was certainly a welcome change. Keep your eyes on Belarus; whatever happens politically or economically, they seem determined to steer their own course.

I rolled out of Belarus into Lithuania with remarkably little border nonsense, and was soon rolling through more dense forest north towards Vilnius. There was more traffic, but the excellent road surface continued right until the Vilnius suburbs, where I had the strangest approach into a national capital, along a narrow, potholed street that seemd to be going nowhere until it debouched at the main gate to the old city. Suddenly there were Western tourists absolutely everywhere (I haven't seen so many Germans, Dutch and American tourists all summer), and the streets were lined by beautiful Baroque facades.

I spent two days off the bike in Vilnius, partly because I loved the place, and partly to let my legs recover. I thought that after time off in Lvov, my legs would stay fresh, especially with such flat cycling, but I think my body is finally realizing that I'm in my forties. My thighs felt as though they were full of lead on the last couple of days of riding, and I just wanted to sleep. I did find time, though, to explore the various museums on offer, and to wander the streets in a state of sensory overload. I would actually rate Vilnius very highly as a European city to visit, up there with Prague, Dubrovnik, Venice, Split and Bruges for beauty and architecture.

The Museum of Genocide refers not, as you might expect, to the near-total destruction of the Lithuanian Jewish population from 1941-44. That's at the Holocaust Museum. Instead, this museum chronicles the determined Soviet efforts to stamp out Lithuanian nationalism and independence from 1939 to 1941 and again from 1944 to 1991. Only a week before Germany invaded the USSR, the Soviets deported thousands of Lithuanian intellectuals and potential leaders to the furthest parts of Central Asia and Siberia, and over a hundred thousand more went after the Soviets recaptured Lithuania in 1944. There's more to the history; when Poland was partitioned in 1793, Russia gobbled up its confederate state the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Lithuanians resisted Russification with revolts in 1830, 1863 and 1905 before grabbing independence in the chaos following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Lithuanians never warmed to the idea of being part of Russia or the USSR, and they led efforts to break up the USSR in the 1980s. The museum meticulously chronicles the arrests, torture, deportations and executions that marked Soviet power in the country, and wandering through the underground KGB prison is seriously spooky.

I found myself admiring the plucky Lithuanians, and I'm impressed with what they've managed to make out of their country in the past 21 years. The country feels prosperous, modern, forward-looking and very European. There's a continuing strain of rebellion, as shown in the "constitution" in a particularly bohemian corner of Vilnius, and a love of Frank Zappa (see the memorial above). It feels as though they've successfully turned their back on the USSR in a way that many other countries can only envy. The city of Vilnius has been transformed into a cycle-friendly cultural hub (have you ever seen police patrolling on Segway scooters?), with Baroque architectural gems and a very outdoorsy, outgoing vibe that seems a world away from Taras and his post-Soviet depression in Lvov.

I rode out of town through the Holocaust site of Paneriai (see previous post) and the fairy-tale castle at Trakai (a town inhabited by the truly obscure religious sect known as the Crimean Karaites; I'd never heard of them; has anyone? Sort of Jewish, but revere Jesus and Mohammed as prophets, only believe in the first five books of the Old Testament) before making my way across hill and through vale to Kaunas. My sideroads eventually turned to sandy tracks and died, so I swept into town on the shoulder of the A1 motorway. Kaunas is like a much smaller version of Vilnius: more Soviet concrete around a smaller historic core, but still a warm, welcoming feel in the old town.

So now it's time to abandon the plan to see the Curonian lagoon and head straight north to Riga and on to journey's end at Tallinn. Six days of riding should see me there with a few days to spare to explore Riga and Tallinn. Let's hope that wheel reconstruction goes to plan!!