Punctures & perspective in Poland
How many punctures is too many? I think three in the space of two hours probably answers that question, but a fourth the following morning really takes the biscuit. I entered Poland after a brief route through the Baltic states, taking in several frustrating, windswept and rain beaten roadside stops to repair my ailing inner tubes, but left feeling incredibly positive about my time in this beautiful country.
Puncture 2 of 4...
It was somewhere on the road out of Warsaw things went south. I'd allotted three days to cycle to Krakow but after a long lunch stop on the first day I pushed off to find the rim of my back wheel running on the ground. No matter, the sun was out and I could repair the puncture quickly and still get in a full day of cycling.
5km down the road I got that sinking feeling, both internally and literally as my back wheel sank lower and lower. This time I repaired the puncture at a petrol station, carefully checking the tube for any further damage - all good, it must just be a bit of bad luck getting two punctures in such a short space of time, I mused.
It's three! I only made it 2km this time, nervously glancing down to see the telltale bulge in my tyre growing ever wider as I pedalled in the rising torrent of rain that had replaced the sunny skies. Third time lucky though isn't it? Whatever that means in this context - I dug out my superpatch kit, located the hole in my tube, (curiously similar to the previous two), and covered it up.
The tube held for the rest of the day, panic over, it must have been bad luck.
Or maybe it was the fact I had three bits of metal in my tyre. Yes - that might have been it.
Puncture number four the next morning caused me to "lose myself" a bit. I was raging, shouting expletives at the road. (The trouble with solo travel is you have no one to moan at!). This time I found the culprits that had caused all the tears - a half-inch piece of metal sticking out of the inside of my tyre, another piece embedded in the inner tube and a third just rolling around the inside of my tyre, ready to make its mark whenever it thought it would be most inconvenient, the sneaky metallic devil.
By this point I'd been delayed so much I had to take an extra day to get to Krakow. In hindsight, this was a silver lining, as it gave me time to come down from the apoplectic level of frustration, and have an easy few days ride through what has become one of my favourite countries to cycle through.
Taking you back to how I got there, briefly...
Lost in the forest
After the marathon weekend in Tallinn I made quick progress through the Baltics. Seeing off my last night in Estonia with the epic sunset above; moving through Latvia in a couple of days via its capital Riga (previously visited in my brother's stag weekend - this time was more civilised); and losing myself in the stunning woodland of Lithuania searching for wild camping spots.
My go-to tactic these days is to find a big patch of forest on google maps and to plunge headlong into it as the evening draws in. The quiet and seclusion of woodland camping is perfect for me to get a good nights rest and not worry about being disturbed. The only visitors I have had of late have been a few frogs hopping around my tent trying to interrupt my dinner; a mouse trying to get involved in dinner by eating my cheese, and a fox prowling outside my tent, I suspect with the intention of just stealing my dinner.
One thing I've noticed of late is my day tends to revolve around dinner...
My route south followed parts of the Baltic Way. I'd been given a brief history lesson on this by my WarmShowers host Kristina in Tallinn. In 1989 a peaceful pro-independence protest against Soviet rule involving residents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was organised. Two million people joined hands in a human chain stretching over 670km through all three countries.
Having cycled much of this route I was astounded at the level of organisation, dedication and sheer force of will required to stage this protest over a distance that took me a week to cycle. As I rode on I imagined passing a line of people joined hand in hand for nearly 700km - high fiving them and having them cheer me on. I make my own entertainment.
The two weeks through these Baltic countries were fairly easy going, but I was feeling more and more tired, I suspect due to a lack of rest immediately after the Tallinn marathon. I managed to take some downtime in two of Poland's biggest cities and used this downtime to good effect - to get an education.
It's hard to escape the weight of history while travelling through Poland. While in Warsaw I spent a day walking the streets of the old town, set against a backdrop of new skyscrapers the clash of modern glass and ornate concrete was a reminder of how much this city was rebuilt after being levelled in WW2.
Warsaw houses POLIN (museum of the history of Polish Jews) which is the most interesting and educational museum I've ever been to. The 20th-century horrors we are all familiar with are left until the end of the exhibit, and for a few hours you are taken through a diverse 1000 year history of Jewish settlement, expansion and conflict in Europe, and Poland in particular.
A few days later in Krakow I took a tour out to Auschwitz-Birkenau (photos below) to visit the site of the largest death camp operational during the 1940s. The visit was impactful and eye-opening as expected, but I felt slightly strange on exit.
The 21st-century commercialisation of the site is a blessing and a curse. While allowing thousands of people to learn more about the atrocities that took place the camps have become a scene of snaking tour groups, guides shouting to be heard and even... selfies. I was a bit let down with this visit, it had not been as stark and moving as the POLIN museum.
The last few weeks I've encountered several people who have allowed me to reflect (positively) on my travels to date. On the road to Warsaw I met Gael, a French tourer with a very different attitude to his 'round the world tour'. We met in the early evening, I’d covered 120km that day, he had done around 50km having started at 2pm - I was a little envious.
After rounding up my total to 135km we camped in a field and talked about our varying approaches. He travelled with no phone or laptop - resorting to payphone calls in cities to catch up with friends and family back home.
I spent the following morning cycling with him and pondering the benefits of throwing my electronics into the woods and living more nomadically. While the sense of detachment was very appealing I do get a lot of enjoyment out of photography, reading on my kindle and access to family and friends. As it happens, it's quite easy to just not turn these devices on and imagine them languishing in a Lithuanian forest anyway.
Gael travelled on a bamboo bike and was aiming to follow an environmentally friendly route south through India. I asked him whether he felt guilty in destroying a Panda's source of food to build a bike, that doesn't seem very environmentally friendly...
In Krakow, I CouchSurfed with Krzysztof and his family - including four very excited and exuberant children. The family had won prizes in consecutive years for being the most 'active and adventurous' family entered in a Polish tourism contest.
Committed to travelling as a family they took on a 25-day trip around Europe a couple of years ago, relying solely on CouchSurfing. Krzysztof mentioned his son had recently been asking when the next long trip will come and the eldest exclaimed something along the lines of "I want to go there" when viewing my photos of mountainous Norway!
My two evenings chatting with Krzysztof were a delight, and I've resolved to make sure my distant future children are similarly adventurous and in wonder of the great outdoors. Their excitement was utterly infectious.
Marathon ready, maybe
My current level of excitement is being tempered by the prospect of two marathons in the space of 8 days. I'm writing this post from Budapest, where I'm taking three days of rest before marathon number 5! I spent five days crossing an extremely scenic Slovakia to get here, for which I'm writing up photo heavy blog post for next week.
For now, I'm hoping a couple of days walking the city and soaking in a thermal bath will ready me for the run, allow me to reflect on a strange few weeks of highs and lows and get me pumped for the final stretch across Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria before arrival in Istanbul, ending the ride across Europe!
Get ready legs, punishment awaits...
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Days on the road: 97
Rest days: 19