Friday, 13 June 2014

Leg 12: Finland, Estonia, Russia part 1: St Petersburg: 1500 km

The last 2 weeks were spent at Jan’s apartment in Ekenas, Finland.  Once Jan arrived from Namibia, he made sure I get a taste of the local back roads and I must say, I was very happy to ride like a local, with a local.  Jan knows the woods and the tracks through them like the back of his hand, as he grew up in this part of the world and I was privileged to see amazing places and meet excellent people through his network of friends.  We explored the back roads (amazing gravel roads, winding beautifully through the forests and farmlands of Southern Finland) on the bikes and we explored the archipelago as well on a boat belonging to a friend of his.  I was amazed how many islands, inlets and bays they have in this place and how peaceful everything is, with private islands away from the buzz of the city and great nature all around.
I visited our friends in Turku as well, Heikki and Ulla, long (very long) distance bikers that have seen and done it all, from Ushuaia to Cape Town, from Israel to Nordkapp.  Heikki and Ulla spoiled me while in Turku, taking me out to various restaurants and showing me a good time.  With friends like these (Stina and Pile in Ekenas as well, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for feeding me and for arranging for a great article in the local newspaper), it was hard to say goodbye and I realized once more how easy it is to get comfortable in good company and how quickly the human mind relaxes in favorable circumstances.  For all the above, I have Jan to thank for, as he is the initiator of all good things. 
I arrived in Tallinn at 6:30, waiting for Jan first by the ferry and then at the hotel where we were supposed to stay.  I soon realized that he missed the ferry (there was no other explanation) and once I found out how bad the backpackers hotel was, where we were supposed to stay, I headed out of town where I found a campsite (still a dump, but cheap).
Once I set camp, I rode back to the Old town to see if I can still find Jan, who hopefully would come with the evening ferry.  I hovered around the same spot until around 9:30 and then I ate something and headed back to the camp.  As I rode out of the old town, by the roundabout at the Viru Hotel (the tall one) I looked for incoming cars but I overlooked the fact that there is a tram way as well.  I accelerated to enter the roundabout and I heard screams and loud honking of the cars around me.  I turned and saw the tram within meters from my bike... I accelerated again but, from panic, I opened the clutch too fast and the bike stalled and died on the rail.  The tram driver saw I was stuck and started to brake, people were shouting louder and running towards me and I knew that I was dead; my bike was on the rail and I was looking straight at the driver’s face, which became very white and his eyes became very big.  My blood rushed down from my face and I knew it was all over.  I heard screeching noises and the tram literally stopped with its bumper touching my left crash bar with my knee only 10 cm away from it.  The passengers jumped out of the tram, the driver came out pulling his hair, thinking he broke my leg, and other drivers in the cars behind came to help me push the bike back and looked at my leg.  All this happened within few seconds, but I saw everything in slow motion, as if I was not actually there, but I was watching the whole thing from the side.  I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t believe that I was still alive and neither anyone around me.  They were very friendly in the end and extremely courteous and two cars actually escorted me for a while as I headed back to camp.  I had nightmares about this the whole night. 
I left the next day after breakfast (which I had in the Old town, again, but this time extremely focused on trams) to Narva.  I rode straight to the border, trying to find out if I need to do anything in advance for entering Russia.  I am glad I did: I needed to reserve my space, buy a reservation number, fill in 4 different customs forms and change money into rubles.  I then went to camp in Narva.  Then, this morning, 12th of June, I was at the border at 8:00 am.  It is a big holiday in Russia so lots of people crossing into Estonia.  I arrived with my bike at the border kiosk and presented my passport.  The guy looked at it, put it through the computer and then looked at me strangely, called another guy, spoke something in Estonian (remember this was at the Estonian side of the border, not Russia) and then he said: “Come with me, please”.  He took me through some very dark corridors, into a room with no windows, barred doors and it really looked like an interrogation room.  Then he took the bike keys, the passport and the bike registration and said to wait here.  Then, I waited, from 8:00 to 12:00.  No one came to see me, I had no water, it was freaking hot and I couldn’t hear or see anything.  I was worried about my bike, with so many people around it and all my valuables there. 
Eventually, at 12:00 a big guy with 2 stars on his shoulders, with gun and everything, came with my papers, and very imposingly said: “you are an illegal immigrant in Europe and you stayed 3 months longer than you were allowed”.  I said “What?  What do you mean 3 months?  I have a visa that expires today”.  He said “No, you were not supposed to get another 3 months in March when you came back from Morocco, so you stayed illegally in Europe for the past 3 months”.  I got so pissed with this guy, because he thought he would scare me with this tactic.  I said “I need to contact my embassy and I need a lawyer”.  “How could I stay illegally if I have a perfectly legal visa on my passport?”  He replied: “You do, but the Spanish Immigration officer in Tarifa should have not stamped your passport”.  “Really”, I said, “so why am I the guilty one here?  I am just a tourist, he should have known better”. 
Apparently, he said that I can only stay 3 months in a 6 months period in Europe and after 6 months I can come back for another 3 months.  Which I think it is bullshit, as I know for sure that you can have a 3 months tourist stamp and then you have to exit Schengen area (what they call most of the European Union) for few days (which I did, staying in Morocco for more than 2 weeks) and then you can re enter Europe and get another 90 days, which I also did.  As a proof, Carmen had the same visa as me, “overstayed” by 2 months (according to Estonian immigration) and when she flew back from Belgium back to Canada, no one said anything to her, she was legal.
Well, after a few more questions, the guy left and again I waited for more than an hour.  Then he came back with a stash of papers (which I have with me as copies), explaining to me my “crime”.  Therefore, here is my offense:
1.    I am an illegal immigrant in Europe.  They took photos of myself (front and side, just like the criminals) and gave me a copy of the paper stating this, next to my photograph.
2.     I have to pay a fine of 100 Euro to the Estonian Ministry of Finance within 50 days
3.     I have to present myself in court to dispute my case (I told them to f... off)
I then told them to handcuff me and send me back to Estonia to jail, as I will not pay anything, I will not come back for a court trial and I couldn’t care less if I am banned from beautiful Schengen bloody area.  He said he couldn’t do that because I am not allowed back in Europe, but he will let me go to Russia now.  I asked him “how can you let me go and how do you think I will come back to court in Estonia,?”  He replied: “it is not my job to think of that, it is my job to make sure you comply with European law”.  I showed him the finger (in my mind of course).
So, I got all my papers, my passport, the new offense papers (which I have with me to prove how they tried to screw me and to write articles about this everywhere), jumped on my bike and I headed to Russia border.  I got to the Russian line, a blonde lady greeted me with a smile, stamped my passport, sent me to Customs, where I got another paper, and in less than 15 minutes I was welcomed into Russia. 
I rode to St. Petersburg guessing my way more than anything, because the GPS didn’t do much for me.  I loaded the maps for Russia from but for some reason the GPS does not see them.  So, I rode towards St. Petersburg (I read and speak a bit of Russian, which so far, has been a lifesaver here) and then for 2 hours I tried to find roads that will take me closer to my camp, for which I had the coordinates.  I discovered something amazing in the process: if you have the coordinates, even if you don’t have the maps, you can see the destination and then you can just try to ride on the closest road that you find in front of you.  I did this and after about 2 hours I arrived at my camp.
St. Petersburg is an impressive city, and Russians like to build big.  The historic city, of course, is a gem of architecture and design, but only now, by visiting this citadel, I realized how big the rest of the city is and that it is much more than just the bridges and the cathedrals.  Most of the pictures and videos I saw with St. Petersburg before were specific, with the greatest attractions it has to offer, but never with the neighborhoods surrounding the historic downtown.  It is massive, with apartment blocks that stretch for kilometers, lined up like giant dominoes on each side of the road.  The traffic is crazy, these guys drive over 120 km/h in the middle of the town, slaloming in and out of lanes like there’s no one else on the road.
My first 2 days in Russia and my head is already spinning.  I have 10.000 km to go...  I cannot even begin to even imagine what it’s going to be like.

 Samba Festival in Turku, Finland (I was the lucky photographer :)

 Exploring the spectacular Baltic Archipelago

 Private island, a paradise of silence and nature.  I loved it here.

 This is by far, the best outhouse (not lighthouse) I have ever had the privilege of using...

 Exploring the villages and bays by bike.  Jan is a master of small roads.

 Ekenas market place, where everything happens on Wednesday and Saturday.  Very friendly people!

 We went fishing... actually, I was just taking photos, because Jan caught all the fish... I swear he hired a guy to sit under water and just hook the giant pikes for him :)

 Quaint villages along the way

 Tallinn Estonia

 my camp in Narva, by the Russian border.  The owner was a Russian, go figure.
 Beautiful St. Petersburg

 This is one of the thousands of blocks where people live.  It is scary to ride among these giants of cement towering on each side of the street.  Lots of wires above, crossing every way for the trams.
 Modern buildings in a very historic city

 Moskovsky University
 Palace of Congress
 Village museum at my camp
 I traded my Super Tenere for this beauty... She is very economical on gas... I might have to buy a donkey though
 The gate of St. Petersburg

 One of the many cathedrals; the big one was covered with netting for renovation