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Cycling with the Ecotopia Biketour

Posted: 2006-08-16 02:02:12, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Ecology, Cycling, 623 words (permalink)

In the evening of August 3rd I joined a group of about 30 cyclists which formed the Ecotopia Biketour. The tour is one way of traveling to the yearly Ecotopia gathering but for many participants the biketour is more important than the actual gathering. Many join only for a part of the tour, but those who do the whole of it spend about 3 months together.

Arto bikes for freedom,
Arto bikes for joy,
Arto's got a special feeling,
so let's bike with him
and sing this song
all the biketour long,
as our wheels fly
to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia.

That's how new members were welcomed into the group around the evening campfire. It was a nice and warm welcome, accompanied with a guitar. Accommodation was usually camping, occasionally staying at schools or similar, so there was normally a campfire every night. The fire was also used for cooking meals for the group. And as you might already guess from the theme, it was vegetarian food.

Some biketour cyclists dressed according to the theme flying just before arriving to EcotopiaOne surprise for me was that almost half of the tour participants came from Moldova, Armenia and Russia. One reason was that Ecotopia had been held in Moldova last year, another was an EU grant which helped them to pay for the visas and other costs. Otherwise, the costs of the tour, mainly food, were covered by passing a "magic hat" around. There was a guideline of paying a certain number of Ecos — which were converted to real money in a factor relative to the average income in your country of origin — but eventually you paid what you felt was right.

The Ecotopia gathering 2006 was held in Zajezova, a small village tucked between hills in rural Slovakian countryside. The community in Zajezova tries to live sustainably, doing a lot with hands instead of machines, recycling as much as possible, experimenting with alternative building techniques using clay and straw, and generally causing a low impact to the environment. Therefore it was a perfect place for the Ecotopia camp too.

The camp program consisted of workshops which ranged from discussions in a circle to self-defence skills and acrobatics, helping local people, helping with tasks in the camp, a very interesting tour in Zajezova and just having fun. There was music and dancing by the campfires every night — it was really the drummers and other musicians which kept me there for several days. :) On Friday Aug 11 evening there was a bigger party where participants from each country were expected to sing something. There was also one Finnish girl at the camp so we were two to perform "Pienet sammakot" to the enthusiastic audience.

The Ecotopia biketour was a nice experience and I made some friends which I'll surely meet in the future too. The best parts were singing around the evening campfire, common meals and other small surprises which can only be done in a group. The worst part were long discussions whether to continue cycling on a day previously allocated as a rest day or not. Fortunately the group did not strictly stick together during the actual cycling: there was an agreed destination where to sleep at the end of the day and people made their way there in small groups taking their time. However, it was still a large number of people with the pros and cons of being a group.

For long term travel I prefer more flexibility and freedom so now I'm again on my own way, posting this in Budapest. Next I'll make a side trip by train to Bratislava and Vienna to meet my family who are also coming there. After a week or so I plan to return to Budapest, spend a few more days in the city and then resume my bike tour from here.

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Waterfalls in Slovakia

Posted: 2006-08-05 13:26:27, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Cycling, 370 words (permalink)

A waterfall in the Piecky valley, Slovensky Raj national parkOn the last day of July I crossed the border from Poland to Slovakia. The two first days I spent still in the region of high Tatras. On the Slovak side of them I didn't go up to high altitudes, partly because the weather had turned cloudy, occasionally rainy. Instead I did just a short hike to see some waterfalls near Stary Smokovec.

After the Tatras I continued a bit further south to another national park called Slovensky Raj, which translates to Slovak Paradise. There the main attractions weren't alpine style views from high peaks but gorges which go through the forested valleys of less high mountains. There were steps and ladders places in the steeper places so one actually climbed up right next to the waterfalls.

On Wednesday morning I climbed up the Piecky valley which had been suggested to me by a Hospitality Club member living nearby. It was a magically beautiful place. I walked slowly along the stream on the bottom of the gorge, looking around, listening to the flow of water and occasional raindrops touching the leaves of the trees. Cloudy and slightly rainy weather didn't matter there, it actually made the experience even more special.

I spent the whole Wednesday and Thursday morning walking around in the park and seeing many magnificent places, including the Klastorisko and Sucha Bela gorges. Sucha Bela was the most famous one and offered the most dramatic rock formations, but somehow it didn't reach the subtle beauty of some other spots. Maybe it was just that there were so many more people in Sucha Bela, I don't know, but Piecky clearly remained my favorite spot, with Klastorisko gorge scoring second.

On Thursday evening I joined the Ecotopia biketour and spent a nice relaxed Friday with them in a small village called Brdarka. I had already contacted them before leaving Zakopane so we didn't meet just by accident. I actually decided to continue with them at least for one more day, probably until the Ecotopia gathering to which we'll arrive in a few days. After a couple of days of the gathering I plan to leave on my own way again. I will then write more about the biketour and Ecotopia.

Two different nights with the locals

Posted: 2006-07-25 11:20:10, Categories: Travel, Poland, Hospitality exchange, Cycling, 1019 words (permalink)

I like traveling without advance reservations. While on the road I often don't know in the morning where I'll spend the following night. Usually it's easy to find a hostel, a guesthouse or a nice place to camp. However, sometimes everything doesn't go exactly as planned and that can add some extra spice to the trip.

Scene 1: Hospitality of an alcoholist

Last Tuesday I was looking for a hotel or guesthouse in a small town called Jozefow. According to my map there should have been one, but a quick tour in the city center didn't reveal any. I stopped at the main square by the pharmacy and asked two men if they knew the way.

One of the men was willing to help. He first seemed to have an idea of where the hotel might be, but then muttered something which maybe meant that it's closed or that he didn't know after all. Then he asked me to follow saying that he has a sofa and I could sleep there. Well, why not, I thought, even a place to set up the tent would be enough. It was obvious that the man had had a couple of drinks but it didn't look too bad.

Ten minutes later I was in his flat. If I'd make a list of the worst flats I've seen, that would have probably scored the top. Yes, there was a room with the sofa, plus a table, a chair, a TV and even a tiny bathroom. Besides that, the furnishing consisted of a few dirty plates and cups, beer bottles and cigarette stubs which were all over the place. The short corridor between the bathroom and the room was flooded — it later turned out that flushing the toilet would spill part of the water on the floor. At that point I would have rather escaped, but it was too late. All my bags were in the flat, my bike locked in the cellar storage room and it was already dark outside.

My host's name was Krysztof and he was more drunk than he earlier appeared to be. He offered me a beer and was clearly happy when I had working matches (his own were wet) and could help to light his cigarette. I accepted the beer but successfully refused remains of some unidentifiable foodstuff from the bottom of a jar. Krysztof did not want my bananas or oranges. He clearly wanted to have a conversation with me, but due to the language barrier we didn't get much further than saying our names and where I come from.

I thought it would work out best if he had some sleep so quite early I indicated that I was tired. Krysztof produced a surprisingly clean camping mattress from behind his bed and insisted that I'd use that instead of my own. I took it but replaced the offered moist blanket with my own bedsheet. I placed the mattress strategically so that he had an unobstructed path to the bathroom, my handlebar bag with valuables and bicycle helmet were next to me under the table so that he couldn't fall on them and started thinking about scenarios which could occur next morning. Fortunately Krysztof also soon crashed on the sofa.

I even managed to get several hours of sleep before around six Krysztof woke up and decided he needed more beer. There wasn't any left in the flat. I suggested the shop and he came to the conclusion that it's best that I leave at the same time. I was more than happy with that solution, so quicker than ever I had all my stuff out, my bike out from the cellar and I was on the road again. Krysztof headed towards the shop and I gave him 10 zlotys (2.5 euros) beer money. After all, although I didn't particularly enjoy the night, he tried his best to be friendly and offer his hospitality. Maybe my visit was a highlight for him and made a good story later in the local pub, or maybe it was quickly forgotten — I'll never know.

Scene 2: Camping at a meat factory

The Barczyk meat factoryTwo days later I was in a bit larger town called Wolbrom in the same situation as in Jozefow. I had planned to go a youth hostel which was marked on my map but couldn't easily find it and it was getting late. This time I chose a group of young guys and girls to ask for help. They had no idea about the hostel but knew about a new hotel nearby. However, they said that the hotel would be expensive and offered a safe place for my tent. Sure, I thought I'd give it a go and opted for the camping.

The guy leading the discussion turned out to be the son of a meat factory owner. Incidentally, also his name was Krysztof, but I knew it was going to be a different experience this time. The place to camp was in a guarded area on the yard of the factory. There was a large lawn which was perfect for the tent and even a toilet and washroom I could use. I quickly set up the tent and went back to the city center with my new friends.

That was a fun night. First we went to a kebab joint to get the biggest kebab I've ever had — one of the girls worked at the place and decided to make a special one for the crazy Finnish cyclist. Then a few drinks in a local bar, interesting discussions (Krysztof spoke good English) followed by a visit at his brother's place.

Next morning I was led through the factory to take a shower and treated to a sumptuous breakfast in Krysztof's father's office. Other employees were certainly curious about who on earth had first put up the tent in the front yard and then was accompanied to the executive section of the offices. :) During the morning I also met Krysztof's father, mother and his second brother, and got a kilo of different sausages as the farewell present. We'll keep in touch via email.

Across the Mazurian lake district

Posted: 2006-07-15 14:15:44, Categories: Travel, Poland, Cycling, 646 words (permalink)

Paddling in the MazuriaMy trip has advanced until Warsaw. But before Poland I'll get briefly back to the Kaliningrad part.

We didn't have any major problems, but as we expected, traveling through Kaliningrad was a bit more complicated than crossing the Baltic states. First of all, the citizens of most countries need a visa to enter Russia. In Finland that's easy to get, so it's mainly just an extra cost. There are less accommodation facilities especially in smaller towns than in the surrounding countries, so you may need to plan a bit more to ensure a place to stay. And the hotels may give odd answers when trying to make reservations as we discovered.

Our friends in the Koenig bicycle team had recommended us hotel Deima, which was a bit outside city center but reasonably priced. They had web pages so we enquired about room availability via email. Completely full, was the answer, even when asking separately whether there was room for any of the days during our stay. The hotels which said they had rooms available were very expensive and offered only single rooms. But surprise surprise, when the local cycling team members called Deima on the same day we were arriving, we were immediately offered a three person room, just perfect for us. At the hotel it was obvious that there were plenty of rooms available — we were not the only guests but there weren't many other customers. Interesting way to do business.

When in the region everything was much easier. Our local friends were kind enough to guide us around in the city, but going to places on our own and later traveling to the east wasn't a problem either. English was not usually spoken and our Russian abilities were minimal, but very often we found someone who spoke German. Traffic wasn't bad, especially when choosing slightly smaller roads on the countryside. Definitely an area worth a visit. Final word of warning: reserve time for crossing the Kaliningrad–Poland border. For us it took 2 hours and we were luckier than even any of the Polish cyclists crossing at the same time. Had we come by car, 24 hours might not have been enough.

After crossing the border we were again surrounded by facilities targeted at tourists, increasing further when riding to the Mazurian lake district which is a very popular holiday destination also for Poles. For a Finn who has spent time on the lakes in Eastern Finland the area was maybe not as magnificent as for the locals, but nice nevertheless. We rented a canoe for one day and did a small paddling trip to the nearby shores and small islands.

Another completely different interesting sight which is located in the same area are bunkers of the German headquarters during the Second World War. They are actually divided into two largish groups about 20 kilometers apart from each other, both groups consisting of several dozen bunkers with thick concrete walls. You can go and take a peek to the massive building where Hitler gave his commands and read about the history on the information boards, but more interesting was to see how the bunkers actually disappeared in the forest even though they weren't built underground.

After the lake district we spent three days riding to Warsaw. Mikko and Sami flew back to Finland on Thursday so I'll continue my trip alone again. Warsaw is a nice city with lots to see, but I'll write more about that later.

P.S. I added a picture of a torpedo boat and Dom Sovietov in my Kaliningrad post. I had prepared it already on a usb stick earlier, but the library machine which I used to write the post wasn't so new that it would have a matching port. More photos some time in the future when I've time to select the best ones and prepare picture galleries.

Riding on the beach

Posted: 2006-06-28 14:30:10, Categories: Travel, Latvia, Hospitality exchange, Cycling, 235 words (permalink)

Riding on the beach My trip has advanced until Liepaja, Latvia. After Tartu I continued towards south-west, spent one night in Sangaste castle and crossed the border in Valga. There were some very nice places and very bad gravel roads in the Gauja national park on my way to Riga. Mostly the roads were perfectly okay, though.

In Riga airport I met my old cycling friends Mikko and Sami and we've been riding together since then. We spent the midsummer in a camping area in Mersrags. It was actually quite similar to the Finnish midsummer, with a big bonfire built of old boats. Then we continued along the coast to cape Kolka.

The best part was the beach to the south from Kolka. We spent one whole sunny day riding on the beach, occasionally stopping for a picnic or swimming. It was actually much easier than the road would have been, and the scenery certainly beat the roadside 10-0.

We also had our first stays with Hospitality Club members in Jurmala and Ventspils. Greetings and thanks to valmundos and walx! Currently we are in Liepaja, Latvia, and will continue towards Klaipeda in Lithuania, the Curonian Spit and Kaliningrad.

The possibility to leave comments in the blog has been at least temporarily disabled due to excessive comment spam. I'll try to find a better solution later, but meanwhile you're welcome to send feedback simply by email to ajt@iki.fi.

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