Location: Lublin, Poland
Miles on the clock: 4820
During my last couple of days in Arctic Norway I noticed the leaves beginning to yellow and the temperature dropping close to freezing each night. Autumn comes early in the Arctic and I realised I would be chasing the tail of summer as it receeded south. Having befriended a generous bunch who work in the Alta cinema (and provided me with all the free popcorn, drinks and films I could have dreamt of) I was sad to leave the city.
Finland is an anomoly. Geographically it firmly belongs to Scandanavia but it feels culturally closer to Russia and linguistically has more in common with Hungary. There is even a subtle difference in ethnicity; it is just visible that the Finnish population has historically intermarried more with the Asiatic Saami.
There are two national pasttimes: saunas and motorsports. Many rural houses have a private sauna and every small town owns a tribe of tiresome teenagers who roar aimlessly up and down the main street on tiny dirtbikes, often trying to hold shouted conversations through their helmets and over their engines.
I enjoyed a week of glorious sunshine during which I passed the Sametinget (Saami Parliament) building which is shaped like a vast post-modern wigwam. At night I camped wherever I pleased, picking wild blueberries for breakfast and enjoying the posturepedic quality of the thickly moss-covered forest floor. I crossed out of the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi which suffers from the glib dubbing "Santa City". However, they doubtlessly profit from the busloads of tourists attracted to the Santa Claus Village. It was bright, warm and sunny with not a snowdrop in sight when I wheeled through the place where Christmas songs play on loudspeakers every day and the staff are dressed as elves. Usually it costs €20 for a photo with Santa but I managed to wangle a free one and was wished a very 'Merry Christmas' by a lovable-looking bloke with a brilliantly billowing white beard.
It drizzled during my day in the capital and I managed a comedy wipeout on a slippery tramline which resulted in a busy street, cars included, stopping and laughing heartily . I visited the Museum of Helsinki and quickly formed the impression that the unfortunate city's past consists of being conquered alternatively again and again by differing foreign invaders.
I shot south through the Baltic States (which are mostly flat) and in Latvia's capital, Riga, began retracing part of my route from when I drove home from Mongolia last summer. Accordingly, it may have been an instance of deja vu in Lithuania that caused my first full-speed fall. I was wobbling along performing a tightrope act (made necessary by the ridges and ruts as deep as 12 inches which have formed on the edge of the roads due to liberally-overladen lorries) when my front wheel slipped off the tarmac and bit deeply into the sandy verge. When a front wheel goes abruptly from 16mph to standstill, the rear wheel and helpless rider have little choice but to accept a couple of moments of airborne glory before meeting their earthy fate. I landed in an ugly sprawl, half on and half off the road. I looked up instantly to see if I was soon to be squashed and saw a car load of faces gawping as they slowly passed before accelerating aggressively and kicking up some grit in my disheartened direction. Luckily I was only scratched and bruised and made my peace with Lithuanians a few miles further on where a farmer allowed me to camp in his garden and took me for a walk around his small orchard, gibbering gleefully and filling my hands with apples, pears and plums.
As I sped along I was often mesmerised by the vast flocks of small migratory birds (my interest/knowledge doesn't extend to names) marshalling for their imminent journey south. My relatively new twitching tendancy thrived on watching them when disturbed from the waterlogged fields by passing traffic. They would gradually take-off in a sweeping succession, like a label being peeled off the land, before jinking and diving and swooping in no particular direction but with strangely anarchic uniformity, not unlike waves in a storm-tossed sea.
The Baltic states bore signs of their former Soviet status at every turn. Some of the smaller towns I passed through (often with unpronounceable names) felt as though they were frozen in time; living out a ceaseless stereotype of the USSR in the late 80s. Portly babushkas, clad in curtain-like skirts with hankerchiefs for shawls, selling hand-gathered mushrooms and berries at the roadside; large, characterless blocks of buildings left abandonned to an unaesthetic decay on the outskirts; antiquated tractors bouncing and wheezing along the pot-holed streets; tracksuits instead of business suits; grey sprawls of suburbs with grass thriving on the once-paved pathways; lean, elderly men on bicycles that look older than themselves; lithe, leering teenage boys in small packs on street corners with close haircuts and bottles of beer; and of course many magnificent moustaches of all shapes and sizes to rival 19th century portraits of officers from the Queen's Royal Hussars.
I also noticed a significant rise in the amount of roadkill. Little woodland critters scattered sickeningly over twenty yards of tarmac; most disturbing were the dead dogs. One morning I morbidly counted four bodged badgers, two pancaked pooches and a flat fox in less than five miles of road.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. I'm enjoying the challenge in a perverse way and the satisfaction from miles covered is continual. I'm also racing ever closer to Szeged in Hungary where I will soon luxuriate in a few days R&R with my brother-in-law's parents. I dare say the odd glass of palinka will be sampled.