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May 11, 2001

Liege

Dist. cycled 1151km (719miles)
Liege, Belgium
I've been pulled into what seems to be some kind of all day bar / club in search of internet access here today. Of course I'm having a beer as well just to fit in, and it's the trendy type of place where they don't give you change but keep it as a tip. Wouldn't happen in Scotland.

Yesterday I was going to stop in Maastricht, but although it seemed to be a pleasant, old town, when I smelt the border coming up I just couldn't stop. Actually I skipped the real border & took the bike through some barriers and down a blocked off road into Belgium. Liege is in the south of the country which means that they speak French, have better food, but most of all that the computers use French keyboards! This means real frustration when you're trying to type; half of the keyboard is like a qwerty, then someone has mixed up the other half of the keys. Can someone please tell me why?

It's turned into a bit of a pit-stop here actually. I've dropped the bike off to have it's freewheel replaced (it started to grind after 1000km) and I've spent the rest of the day hunting around (as usual) for maps and trying to plan my route from here into France. It looks like I'll follow the rivers and canals down there, and then I hope to pass through the champagne region for some tasting. The weather has been hot and sunny (about 27�c) which is good, but hard to cycle in.

May 16, 2001

Epernay

Epernay, France
Dist. cycled 1488km (930miles)
I crossed over into France on Sunday afternoon, and cycled into the Ardennes to be faced with mountain after mountain. It was very hard going, and covering much less distance than I expected to, I soon fell behind schedule. It started to get dark, and I cycled on, waiting for a campsite or hotel to appear, but none did. At dusk I found myself on top of a steep hill looking out into the face of an oncoming thunderstorm. The wind was almost knocking me off the bike, and people were outside in the village trying to tie things down. I stopped to ask if there was anywhere I could get a room or somewhere I could pitch my tent, but the nearest place was about 15km away. I started pedalling towards that town, but without warning the road merged into a motorway and I found myself cycling down it in the dark and the rain. I pulled off into a village and took shelter under a tree for 45mins while the rain got heavier and the lightning flashed around and I felt thoroughly exhausted. In all my years of travelling (and often pushing my luck) it was the first time I'd got stuck late at night without somewhere to stay. Finally the storm eased and I eventually made it into the town, only to find that the camping site was being redeveloped into a housing estate! It was midnight by this time and everything was closed, including the hotels, but after lots of banging on a door I eventually managed to get an old woman out of her bed and I checked into a room.

I cycled onto Epernay yesterday, and stopped for some champagne tasting on my way. It was definitely the way to cycle; lots of champagne houses scattered around the hillside for thirsty cyclists! This morning I went on a tour of Moet & Chandon, who are based in town, and saw a little of their 14km of wine cellars prior to doing some tasting. In fact, it was too much champagne to be drinking early in the morning, but I've recovered from it now.

From here I plan to cycle on to Paris to finish this trip, and fly back to Denmark for Nina`s birthday next week. Then I quite fancy cycling up to Finland, but that's another story...

May 25, 2001

Copenhagen, Denmark Total dist. cycled

Copenhagen, Denmark
Total dist. cycled 1656km (1029miles)
Well, after two more day's riding, I made it into Paris where after spending the weekend I caught a flight over to London and then to Denmark. Sorry for the lack of info over the last days, but my ass has been recovering from all the cycling!

One day in Paris I decided to take the metro over to the Eiffel Tower instead of cycling. So, as I was sitting on the train, it stopped in one of the stations and there was a mumbled announcement in French outside as people were getting off. The train then carried on, but I seemed to be the only one left on it. Then it entered a tunnel and all the lights went off and I started to think that maybe this wasn't normal. The train continued to speed through several stations without stopping and in darkness until finally it came to rest in the middle of the tracks at a station close to the Eiffel Tower and the engine was turned off. I tried the doors, but of course with the power gone, they wouldn't open so I banged on the window to some people in the station. They waved back and nudged the people next to them, but no-one went off to tell anyone. Pretty soon, the train engine started up again so I opened the door and stepped out onto a maintenance platform that ran along the middle of the tracks as I couldn't get over to the platform without crossing 3 sets of rails. I started to walk down towards the front of the train to talk to the driver, but as I did the train started moving again and sped off leaving me standing in the middle of all the rails! By this time everyone on the platform was watching me, but I was trying to figure out if they electrified the rails or an overhead cable on the Paris system. The station curved, making it difficult to see if there was a train coming, so I listened for a few seconds before making a run for the platform and jumping over the rails to avoid electrocution. On my way out of the station I decided not to try public transport anymore and go back to cycling.

And that brought the trip to an end. It was a terrific experience to cover northern Europe purely by cycling and one that I would certainly reccomend. One of the best things was travelling through so many small towns and villages at a pace that enabled me to really take things in and visit places that I would never have gone to had I been travelling by car or train.

March 6, 2003

Avon Cycle Path

This is Chris's bike in the woods
I had a cycle along the Severn and Avon cycle path today as it was a lovely sunny day and I hadn't done ridden a bike for weeks. As I wandered along the country lanes, I looked up and was amazed to see an eagle fly over me, especially being so close to the city. The route took me on a 20 mile (30km) semi-circle around Bristol, and then followed the river into the centre of town, by which time I was starving and went straight to Marks and Spencer's for sandwiches.

March 11, 2003

Cycle to Bath

A ferret eating a frusli bar
I'm in Bath tonight after cycling here today from Bristol. My healthy day of cycling got off to a bad start when I woke up suffering from a hangover, then stopped for a fried breakfast after the first five miles.

The Avon cycle path is really lovely though as it follows the path of the old railway line, and soon I was cycling through the countryside on my way to Bath. I stopped by a small river for lunch, and while sitting there noticed a stoat ferret (thanks, Mark) on the river bank. I crept over & took some photographs of it but I began to wonder if it was stranded on the bank, so I fed it a Frusli bar, which it really seemed to enjoy. A bit further down the path I passed some squirrels so I gave them some Frusli bar as well.

When I got into Bath, the youth hostel turned out to be at the top of one of the city's highest hills (11% gradient for over 1km), which didn't really surprise me as they always seem to put them on top of hills to piss off cyclists, but by the time I got there my face was bright red and the sweat was pouring off me.

Right now I'm in the pub, having just had dinner, but I think tonight might be an early one.

March 13, 2003

More Cycling

Stopping for a break by the Avon canal
Yesterday I cycled out of Bath along the Avon canal towpath through some really classical English countryside until I got to Devises, where I turned and headed back. I'd made it back by the evening, happy to have covered 50 miles (80km), and just in time to meet up with Chris, who, worried that I might be getting too healthy, forced me to eat large quantities of pizza. I stayed in Bath youth hostel again last night and coincidentally found out that one of the other guys in the room had once lived in Denmark for four years, and so we sat late into the night comparing notes. Today I cycled back to Bristol, having covered over 100 miles (161km) on the trip, though glad to be back.

November 16, 2003

Cornish Cycle Trip

I've been trying to find a cheap flight over to Turkey to visit one of my friends there but haven't come up with anything so I've decided to head down to Cornwall and do some cycling instead. I've spent today getting my bike sorted up and I catch a train down to Penzance tomorrow morning so I'm planning to wander around there for a while, maybe do some of the national cycle route, and get a bit fitter.

November 17, 2003

Penzance

After rushing down to Bristol station, I caught the morning train to Penzance, intent on doing lots of cycling this week, and stepped out into miserable, grey, drizzle. Undeterred, I dropped my bags off at the youth hostel and went for a cycle around town and over to St Michael's Mount, an island that sits out in the bay, connected to the mainland by a causeway at low tide. I've always wanted to go there, and by chance, the tide was ebbing, so I walked out over the causeway, getting my feet a bit wet in the process and took a look around. As is beginning to look normal in Cornwall at this time of year, however, everything was closed, so after what seemed like a respectable amount of time nosing around the harbour, I returned across the causeway, and. cycled back to Penzance in the rain.

November 18, 2003

Penzance to St Ives

After being kept awake most of last night by a fat American snoring so hard it was like he was trying to ingest his pillow, l was happy to cycle away from the youth hostel this morning. As I made my way out of Penzance, the sun even came out and I was making good progress until I got to Mousehole and hit the first big, steep hill. Suddenly I realised just how demanding cycling in Cornwall was going to be.

Eventually I got to Lands End, which, if you can ignore the theme park that now stands there, is quite a captivating place. I took a couple of photos, had a wander around, and decided to register for the End to End, so as to verify it just in case I end up continuing this trip at another time up to John O' Groats in Scotland. Then I set off for St Ives, by which time the weather had deteriorated again.

Even in the rain it was still all very beautiful countryside, and I was cycling on hedge-lined roads and passing standing stones in the fields. The going was quite tough though as the road went up and down steep hills continually and having been cycling all day I was now beginning to feel quite knackered. Because of the terrain it had taken me longer than I'd anticipated - it was beginning to get dark now and the road ahead kept turning up yet another hill. But finally after a huge climb, I got to the peak and looked down to see St Ives below, shining in the darkness. In what felt like seconds, I was down there, booked into a lovely, chilled youth hostel, and had a long, hot shower.

November 20, 2003

St Ives to Newquay

When I set off early from St Ives it was a lovely morning, and I stumbled across a McDonalds just outside Hale and stopped for breakfast. Just after that, however, it started to rain, and the rain continued all day. By lunchtime I was soaked and getting cold but was saved by a cycle shop and cafe just before Truro where I tried to find some parts, changed into my full waterproofs, had a cup of tea, and they even let me eat my sandwiches there. Rejuvinated, I continued on through the rain until I finally reached Newquay as the sun set over the sea, having covered 75km today.

I booked into The Zone hostel here and they gave me an en-suite dorm all to myself and even let me take my bike to my room - not bad for 10.

November 22, 2003

Newquay to Bodmin

Yesterday I cycled up to Padstow through the lovely Cornish countryside, saw an eagle on the way, then after some lunch and a wander around town I set off on the Camel Trail to Bodmin. The trail runs alongside the River Camel for most of the way, is traffic free, and is one of the nicest parts I've cycled on the trip so far.

Simon had offered to provide logistical support for me, picked me up from Bodmin Parkway station in his van and brought me to Merryfield. There we had a lovely sauna and a swim in his pool and a big meal, which was all felt like real luxury after cycling all day.

November 23, 2003

Bodmin to Liskeard

Yesterday I intended to go back to Bodmin Parkway by train to continue from where I left off, but of course, being in Britain this wasn't as easy as you'd expect. All main line train services in Cornwall are cancelled every weekend until Christmas and they're running buses instead. After a bit of friendly persuasion, however, the staff in the railway station had a word with one of the bus drivers and after the usual, "We're not allowed to carry bikes", they agreed to let me on (for free!).

So from Bodmin Parkway I cycled over Bodmin Moor, took a bit of a detour to go to a couple of places that Simon recommended, and finished off at Simon's place in the evening. There followed another sauna and swim (which I have to admit to getting used to after a hard day's cycling), and another lovely meal. The wildlife in Cornwall is pretty amazing, and I've now seen eagles on most days, as well as a kingfisher, and loads of squirrels.

November 26, 2003

Fun in Plymouth

I cycled out of Liskeard on Sunday, crossed the surrounding hills, and followed the river valley down to the coast and the village of Seaton. From there I continued along the cliffs past idyllic Whitsands Bay and onto Rame Head until Plymouth loomed up in the distance looking grey and ugly after a week of cycling through the Cornish countryside. I'd now cycled all the way across Cornwall. I caught the Cremyll ferry, an old wooden boat with union jacks painted along its sides, into Devon and carried my bike off in Plymouth.

Immediately, I got lost in the one-way system and kept ending up in dead end housing estates as I tried to escape from it. Plymouth was extensively bombed during the war so much of the city consists of ugly concrete boxes. Finally, however, I managed to find the youth hostel. Having had such a pleasant time in the independent hostels in St Ives and Newquay, I'd decided to skip the YHA in Plymouth and try Plymouth Backpackers. The door was answered by a guy who looked as if he'd been extensively brainwashed and I said I was after a bed and followed him in, hoping I wasn't joining a fanatical cult. We walked past the showers, which looked pre-war and were coin-operated, then he insisted on seeing some photographic id, which I didn't have. I asked why, but he just kept staring at me.

The room I was finally given only had one other person staying in it, but there was a stack of about fifteen empty beer cans and old take-away containers scattered around the floor and it smelled badly. I returned to the brainwashed guy and asked for another room. The room he gave me this time was cleaner, but the paint was peeling, sockets were hanging off the walls, and every matress and duvet appeared to have been pissed on or worse at least once during it's lifetime. I chose the cleanest combination I could find and went into town as fast as I could.

Everything in Plymouth had just closed and people were scurrying home before they got mugged on the streets. The only place open was McDonalds, so I ate there, had a hot chocolate, and sat and read, '500 Mile Walkies', the story of a guy walking the south-west coast path with someone elses dog and without any money.

Eventually though the staff began to stare at me and once they'd stacked every chair apart from mine I knew it was time to move on. Outside I passed a guy gathering any cigarette ends he could find on the street, intending to take them home and construct a whole fag out of the tobacco (as some of my old customers used to do in Dundee). Such was his nicotine devotion, however, that just behind him, he'd missed an unopened loaf of Tesco luxury granary bread which someone had dropped on the pavement (probably at knife point). The only other people on the streets now were either junkies or homeless, and as a police car cruised down the pedestrian area past me I realised that wandering around at this time in Plymouth may not be such a good idea. No-one seemed to be paying me any attention though, and it was only when I got back to the youth hostel and realised that my clothes were liberally sprayed with cow shit which I'd cycled through earlier in the day that I understood why the homeless people had crossed the road when they saw me coming.

The next morning I got up early and left the hostel. I cycled over to the seafront and there found Plymouth's saving grace. It was a beautiful sunny, calm morning, boats were leaving the harbour, and a soft mist was lying on the water. I spotted an outdoor cafe, The Coffee Shack, ordered a latte and a toastie, and sat for a long time looking at the view.

I'd planned to spend the day wandering around town, but I now realised that this was the last thing I wanted to do. I had to get back to Bristol on Tuesday and it felt sad that the journey, for now, was at an end and there was no more cycling to do. So in a Bernard Moitissier kind of moment I decided to get back on my bike, get out of the city, board the ferry, and cycle back through Cornwall the way I'd come the previous day. It was the best decision I could have made and I had a wonderful time cycling back to Looe from where logistical support picked me up and took me back to Merryfield for a sauna, swim, and Chinese take-away.

The Cornish Way

When I started cycling from Land's End I was surprised to find that there isn't an actual End to End cycle path going to John O'Groats, instead you just have to follow the roads. Sustrans, the UK cycling charity have, however, created a network of cycle routes around various parts of the country, so I based a lot of my route on 'The Cornish Way'.

I took a Sustrans map of the route with me, though it is very well signposted. Once you've spent some time on it though you realise that it is very much a leisure route, it doesn't take you from one place to the next the shortest way, and they're quite happy to divert you fifty miles to an offroad cycle path that they're particularly proud of. Most of the route follows minor roads, few of which have dedicated cycle lanes, and they have a very bad habit of taking you straight into the centre of every town through all the traffic you've been eager to avoid; obviously for the benefit of local businesses.

The Sustrans routes do make it easy for families to go cycling along a posted route, but if you can mapread you'd be just as well to buy an Ordnance Survey map and work out your own route on similar roads. Personally, I think Sustrans would do better building protected cycle lanes with raised kerbs along the sides of major roads, similar to those in much of mainland Europe, making a safe, practical alternative to travelling by car in the UK.

May 3, 2005

Dahon Helios P8

Dahon Helios P8
Before I went to Tokyo I'd read that cycling was the most popular way of getting around in the city and this I found it hard to believe, given the traffic. Many streets have cyclepaths, however, and those that don't everyone rides on the pavements - even through crowds, avoiding pedestrians with a zen-like talent.

On my last week in Tokyo I began to notice that lots of people were riding folding bikes - a type of bike much liked by people with boats whom I've always ridiculed as I overtook them on my mountain bike; their little legs spinning the undersized wheels like crazy. This time, however, I looked again and noticed that a lot of the bikes had larger bmx sized wheels, proper gearing, and were keeping up with their bigger rivals.

I soon found some bike shops with huge selections of folding bikes. The fact that Tokyo is such a crowded place and most people live in small flats means that they're very popular for buzzing through crowds then folding up and carrying into your room. Soon I was hooked on the idea of getting one and spending my last days in Tokyo cycling around - and it would also be perfect for keeping on the boat. After a couple of days of research I decided to buy a Dahon Helios P8 and headed over to a big bike shop in Shinjuku called Joker.

It was packed to the roof with lovely, expensive bikes and I just stood drooling for a long time after walking in. One of the staff spoke English well, and when I told him I would take the Dahon he replied, "Thank you." I think it was the first time anyone had ever thanked me for asking to buy something and it was far from being one of their expensive bikes, but such is the politeness and respect in Japanese society that it's just normal. He asked me to come back in an hour while he set the bike up.

lf-heliosp8.jpg
When I returned he went over the entire bike with me, took it downstairs in the service elevator, carried it outside, bowed to me, and asked me to be careful. The service alone was worth the price of the bike - which incidentally was two-thirds of the price it would have cost in Britain. I sat on the saddle prepared to cycle off into the Japanese sunset; but the problem was that this was Shinjuku - one of the busiest parts of Tokyo - on a Saturday evening! The streets were so packed with bodies that it was hard to even walk through them - but you can't buy a new bike and wheel it away! I bowed back to the guy from the shop, and as I cycled off, the crowds parted like the Red Sea.

I did 25km that evening and ended up cycling back to my hotel at the other end of Tokyo. The bike turned out to be perfect for crowded streets - the handlebars are shoulder width meaning you can squeeze through anywhere wide enough to walk, and the gearing is flexible enough to let you go very slowly behind people strolling, or accelerate away fast when you get onto open tarmac. In the last days I saw much, much more of Tokyo than I would have walking, and cycling somehow makes you feel more like you belong in a place. I'd highly recommend cycling in Tokyo - either with your own bike or renting one, as it's a great way to get around such a fascinating city.

This bike also introduces a new way of cycling to me as, weighing less than 11kg, it's easy to fold up and carry onto a bus or the metro when you don't want to cycle anymore, and it's much less hassle to take on a plane than a full-size bike. Being able to do some cycle touring in combination with using public transport could prove to be an easy way to travel compared to my last big cycle trip. The tyres are low profile slicks, which are really meant for fast commuting on smooth tarmac so I've let the pressure down a bit to give a slightly softer ride - probably I'll change them over to an all-round touring tyre that'll handle the rough better.


List of Tokyo bike shops
from IAC Tokyo

August 25, 2005

On The Road Again

I cycled out of Espoo on the King's Road - a route that runs along the coast all the way to Turku. It was 1600 by the time I got away but I was determined to get as much distance done before sunset as I could.

I passed a run over snake as I cycled along a forest road, which gave me serious doubts about camping in Finland. I was making good progress, however, and as the sun began to lose it's heat I cycled into Ingå. By now I was deep in the heart of Swedish speaking Finland. The houses were distinctly Swedish looking, and many of the signs were only in Swedish.

I was lucky enough to find somewhere to camp in Fagervik, right next to a lake - about thirty centimetres away from it actually, but the mosquitoes began eating me alive as soon as I stopped. I stuck the four tent pegs in the ground and jumped inside where I watched fish jumping as slowly the colour drained out of the sunset and the sky turned dark blue.

I'd covered 70km so I slept pretty well.

August 26, 2005

Quest for Cake

l got up and washed in the lake before packing the tent away. The previous evening I'd passed a lovely looking cafe in an old building just down the road so I decided to detour back there for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of coffee and some homemade apple pie, and I sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed it and planning the day's trip.

I cycled on through the Finnish countryside, which alternated between pine forests and tiny villages of painted wooden houses. By lunchtime I arrived in Tammisaari, a pretty waterside town of cobbled streets and piped Schlager music, giving the place the feel of a German old folk's home. In a bakery there, however, I found the best hindbærsnitte I'd had since Denmark, which in itself made the entire trip worthwhile. Cake and pastries seemed to be better now that I was in Swedish speaking lands.

I ploughed on northwards through yet more forests, missed a turning which cost me a twenty kilometre detour, and arrived in Matilda completely out of drinking water. The village shop was closed, and unable to find a tap or any signs of life, I carried on to the next village. Once again the only shop was closed so I asked at a house. I was told that their water wasn't good for drinking and I should try somewhere else. I knocked on another door but they wouldn't answer it. Finally, at the last house in the village I found a man sitting on his doorstep drinking beer and he gladly obliged to fill my water bottles.

By this time it was beginning to get dark and I needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. As always when this happens you can never find anywhere. I cycled on in the dusk until I was almost at the suburbs of Salo, then, with no other choice, detoured off on a forest track and pitched my tent on the edge of a field. 130km cycled today, which I'm quite happy about (200km total).

August 29, 2005

Cycling the Kings Road

The forecast was heavy rain for the next day so I got up early, packed things away before it started, and cycled into Salo to find some breakfast. With few other options I ended up on the ground floor of a concrete block in the imaginatively named Cafe Rio, eating a plastic-wrap sandwich and drinking over-stewed coffee - a permanent feature of Finland's cafes.

One of the nice things about being on a bike is that you're travelling slowly enough to really see places but when they turn dire it doesn't take too long to get out. I cycled on to Paimio, which my cycle guide described as having, 'Finland's largest and most beautiful museum of electricity'. Somehow I managed to resist.

Back out in the countryside the sky was darkening with low, grey clouds. The rain started slowly and gently, but increased until it was falling out of the sky in sheets. Taking shelter under a bridge I waited for it to stop until it became apparent that it was on for the day so I pulled on my waterproofs and continued on towards Turku. The chain was grinding with mud and water was flowing up my sleeves, but, cold and wet, I had no choice but to continue. When I finally pulled my soaking load into Turku late in the afternoon it was a welcome sight, especially as it marked the end of the King's Road and the first leg of my trip. 63km cycled (263km total).

August 31, 2005

Wrath of God

I cycled out of Turku yesterday afternoon, heading out to the islands that extend westwards from Finland. I covered 54km before I made camp under a bridge looking out over the river on the island of Nagu, which sounds like a place straight out of Star Wars.

Shortly after I got up this morning some fishermen came down and seemed a bit surprised to find me camped there. I went on to the town of Nagu, which was quite pretty, and had some breakfast, then cycled across the island and caught a ferry to Korpo.

Here, I'd been planning to catch a ferry out to Kokar, the first of the Alund islands, so I was disappointed to find out that today was the only day of the week with only one ferry at 0630. There was a ferry going to Houtskari, however, so I decided to jump on that and go there for a few hours.

So I was standing taking a photo of the church in Houtskari, moved the bike a few metres forward, got my foot caught in the pedal, and, unable to put my foot down to stop it, myself and the loaded bike came crashing down. I got off with just scrapes and bruises but the camera, which I was inng, hit the ground pretty hard, resulting in a broken display. I looked up from the gravel to see a picture of God on the church notice board looking down at me, and, apparently, giving me a two fingered insult.

September 2, 2005

Over to Sweden

I just managed to delete the post I'd written for the last couple of days from my phone when I was trying to post it, so I'll have to fill it in later.

I just boarded the ferry in Eckero, bound for Sweden to continue my cycling trip. As I forgot to bring my Swedish sim card, I may be out of touch for a few days.

September 5, 2005

Island Hopping

I stumbled out of bed and rolled onto the 0630 ferry to Kokar semi-conscious. With the islands since mainland Finland being flat, pine covered, and close together, the ferry crossings hadn't really felt as if you were going out to seperate islets, more as though you were just taking the ferry around a lakeside, never being able to see further than the tree line. Now, however, on this two and a half hour crossing, we were going somewhere completely different. The ferry motored out through wisps of mist lying on the still water and continued towards the empty horizon. The low, pine-covered islands, like fragments of forest splintering off into the sea, gradually gave way to rocky, rugged islets as we moved out to clearer waters.

Maybe it's because I'm used to doing long watches on Zamindar, but whenever I'm on a boat these days I always find it impossible to go inside, and spend hours standing on deck. This, naturally, happened this morning until I was forced to go inside from being frozen.

I was the only passenger to step ashore in Kockar, an island about 5km long and very tranquil. The total silence was incredible, and the main road across the island was so quiet that people just walked down the middle of it. Things were pretty remote and undeveloped now - the island shop was down a dirt track and there wasn't even anywhere to get a coffee. I spent a pleasant few hours there before heading back to the harbour and hopping onto the afternoon ferry to Foglo.

September 7, 2005

On Swedish Soil

I cycled off the ferry onto Fogero, which, with lovely green, rolling countryside was one of the prettier islands I'd been to so far. I was now much closer to mainland Sweden than Finland, and as well as being Swedish speaking, many of the Aland islanders consider themselves more Swedish than Finnish.

The thing was that, tourist season in Finland was now officially over, with everyone concentrating on getting depressed for the winter. Camp sites, cafes, and a lot of the shops were now closed as well, so although it was all very peaceful, facilities were a bit thin on the ground. I cycled across the island, and with evening arriving and the island's only campsite having shut down for winter the night before, began to look for somewhere to camp for the night. I hunted around but most of the countryside around the main village was taken over by summer cabins - a situation that can often make it hard to even get near to lakes in Finland - summerhouses just seem to be everywhere. The ferry to the next island, however, was sitting in the harbour about to leave, so instead I decided just to catch that then cycle into the biggest town in Aland, Marienhamina, for the night. After another hour of cycling I got there, checked out the town's campsite, was unimpressed, and opted for the freedom of camping on my own just out of town next to the water.

The following day I spent cycling around the island, and although it was pleasant, it wasn't all that different from all the other islands and you can only look at so many pine trees before you begin to go mad. I'd been planning to camp in the town of Eckero for the night, but arriving there I discovered that it isn't a town at all, nothing but a harbour, but once again I was lucky enough to arrive just as one of the two ferries of the day was about to leave for Sweden. As I'd now cycled across Aland, this ferry was the shortest, most direct crossing to the Swedish coast to continue my journey westwards and I quickly bought a ticket and cycled onto the big car deck with all the other vehicles, bound for new lands.

I did, however, feel a little unprepared for arriving in Sweden. I was going to be arriving in complete darkness with no idea where I was going to stay for the night, no Swedish currency, and no maps. As things usually do, however, everything worked out. The ferry pulled into the small village of Grisslehamn, and although the campsite was full, the guy there gave me directions to the village green where I could camp for the night. Finland and Sweden have laws that allow you to camp temporarily on any ground that isn't privately owned - a huge difference from Britain, and I enjoyed a very peaceful night on Swedish turf.

September 9, 2005

Night of the Beast

I awoke the following morning, asked for directions at the village petrol station, and cycled the 20km or so into the nearest town. Sweden immediately felt much friendlier and less shy than Finland, with people asking where I'd come from and where I was heading to. Finding a bookshop, I bought maps, sat in a cafe having breakfast and planned my route down to Stockholm. Much of the cycle was through lovely Swedish countryside - a really beautiful route through green, mossy forests, rolling countryside with old wooden farmhouses, and past still lakes.

I'd now passed four run over snakes, three of which were poisonous black adders, on the trip so far, which, in addition to Carita previously warning me about all the dangerous animals I might just be lucky enough to encounter in Scandinavia's wilderness (bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines...) was giving me pause for thought about camping at night. There was of course little other choice, however, so as darkness fell I found a field and camped at the bottom of a valley.

I lay in the tent trying to fall asleep as things rustled around outside. This was fairly normal, but as the rustling became louder and closer I began to wonder if it was rats looking for food. Often, lying in the darkness in a field with nothing between you and the outside world but a nylon sheet it's easy to feel threatened but I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind, rolled over, and tried to get to sleep. By now I could hear the footsteps getting closer - obviously it was a larger animal outside, and I felt my legs going tense with nerves. Suddenly, it was right outside the tent, right next to me, and began sniffing the tent itself. I shouted out a growl to scare it away, hoping it was possibly a deer, but it didn't move. Instead, it stopped sniffing, paused for a few seconds, then answered me back with a loud, aggressive snarl. I froze, and was just about to fill my pants with terror, when, after another few seconds, I heard it's footsteps as it ran off.

I was very tired from cycling all day and I really didn't want to pack things up and move elsewhere. I wished I'd remembered to bring my Swedish sim card as my phone wasn't working at all if I needed it. I went outside, had a look around, and tried to calm myself down. It was pitch dark by now, and the stars were shining brightly in the sky. A fog had fallen in the valley, giving the place a spooky appearance so I got back into my sleeping bag, and once again tried to sleep. Quickly, the rustling footsteps came back. I made lots of noise and flashed my camera to try to scare them away but they never left for long. After another thirty minutes I decided that I had to move.

Exhausted, and really just wanting to sleep in peace, I packed up the tent and my bags, got on the bike, and cycled up towards a farmhouse I'd passed on the way. The fog was so thick that I could hardly see anything as my headtorch lit up the air in front of my face, making me feel even more nervous. I wondered if I should just keep cycling and get well out of the area, but it was so dark that finding another place to camp would be almost impossible, so I put the tent up close to the main road and the farmhouse, thinking that the occasional traffic might keep whatever it was away.

As I pegged the tent out and unrolled my sleeping bag I heard the snarl again and again. It seemed about 300 metres away from me, back down towards the valley. Even though I grew up in the countryside it was a sound I'd never heard before. Once again, I climbed into my sleeping bag, and finally managed to get to sleep. In the morning when I cycled off I noticed the number of the bus service on the local bus stop. 666

Here's a recording I managed to make of the animal mp3 456kb, which Carita reckons was either a wolverine or a lynx (leopardsetc.com sound sample)

September 10, 2005

Cycling into Stockholm

That strange end of trip feeling was beginning to overcome me as I cycled towards Stockholm on the last day. Once again, part of me wanted to keep on going, keep on travelling. Gradually, the green fields and woods changed into grey concrete and traffic, and you could feel the tension in the air. I wove my way through colourless housing estates and past graffiti sprayed walls of suburbia, carefully following the signs to the city centre or risk being lost forever in a concrete maze. At least there was a cycle path and I didn't have to take my chances on the road. Cars were honking at me as it was, and an old man punched me in the back as I went past, for cycling too close to him. Maybe I was safer back in the countryside with The Beast.

After a long hunt I found the youth hostel I'd stayed at last year; in fact I'd been standing outside it's door at one point before continuing to search for it for another thirty minutes. I checked in, had a badly needed shower, and went into town for some breakfast/lunch/dinner - that all in one meal you finally sit down to at 1600 when you're too busy travelling.

I've always liked Stockholm and it's much bigger and more like a capital than Helsinki, but there's still something missing about all Scandinavian cities that doesn't make them feel as whole and vibrant as places further south. Still, I had a lovely day or two nosing around it's great architecture, cafes, and small shops - including Kartbutiken one of the best map shops I've ever come across. Just the place to go for that street map to Kinshasa!

The following evening I caught the ferry back to Helsinki. After queueing up with all the cars I was waved ahead of them through the hull doors and onto the massive car deck of the ferry where I tied the bike down to a fixing point and headed for my cabin. Maybe they just don't like cyclists, but, after much searching, it turned out to be deep underwater on a floor below the car deck next to the engines - making me feel like an Irish person on the Titanic. First sign of an iceberg and I was getting out of there!

After a fairly uneventful and ice free night I woke up to see Helsinki outside - well, not from my window obviously. We berthed in the centre of town, I cycled to my favourite cafe for breakfast, and Helsinki felt like a less stressed place.

September 13, 2005

Cycling in Finland and Sweden

Cycle Routes
In general, the 700km of cycling I did in Finland and Sweden on this trip were very pleasant. The national cycle routes in Finland tend to stick to quieter country roads and occasionally take you onto very busy stretches with little or no hard shoulder but you're normally not on a proper cycle path. Although the route I took was quite attractive, it wouldn't be too hard to pick out an equally good route yourself with a decent map. The cycle paths in Espoo are excellent, totally separate from the roads, and take you almost anywhere you would want to go. The same isn't true of Helsinki, unfortunately, as when you cross the city border into it the cycle paths instantly become pot-holed, and intermittent. Whereas in most other countries, Helsinki, Espoo, and Vantaa would be one big capital, Finland insists on splitting the area into three different, conjoined cities. Espoo and Vantaa are really suburbs of Helsinki itself, and it's a bit like pretending that London consists of three separate cities. Although the cycling I did in Sweden was more limited, the national routes I took again tried to keep to quieter country roads, and neither country's routes seem to compare to the fantastic, extensive cycle paths of Denmark or especially Germany. Stockholm seems to have a good network, and a well signposted cycle path took me from the very beginning of the suburbs right into the centre. Car drivers in Finland and Sweden seem really quite courteous to cyclists, rarely cut me off, and even stopped at crossings to let me pass.

Maps

Unfortunately, Finland doesn't have outdoor maps of the same quality as Britain's Ordnance Survey. They have a 1:50 000 topographical series called Maastokartaa but the detail is difficult to interpret, they use strange colouring such as orange for natural features, and they don't show amenities such as campsites. I soon gave up using them and turned to the less detailed but easier to use 1:200 000 Outdoor GT series, which show the national cycle routes, campsites, and youth hostels. In Sweden I used the Blue Series 1:100 000 Lantmäterriets Vägkarta (they also make a more 1:50 000 series if you need lots of detail), and they were a pleasure to navigate by, showing cycle routes, national parks, and camping places.

Transport
All the ferries from mainland Finland out as far as Korpoo in the archipelago are free, even for cars. The rest of the ferries are free for foot passengers and cyclists all the way across the rest of the islands to Mariehamn. This means that the entire crossing from Finland to Sweden only cost me €4.40 for the final ferry from Eckerö to Grisslehamn - quite a bargain! The return ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki was €38 with Silja Lines - the bike travelled free. Apparently, the buses on the islands do take bikes if they have space, although I didn't try it and most trains in Finland take bikes for a €9 surcharge, irrespective of distance.

September 19, 2005

Cycle Route Map

map1.jpg
I've put together a clickable route of my cycle trip here.

December 28, 2005

Arctic Cycling

Winter cyclingWinter has finally begun to arrive properly here in Finland, giving a white Christmas and snowfalls over the last few days. Whereas it used to be very unusual for the country not to have a white Christmas, in a global warmed world you just never know.

The other day, determined to do some cycling through the Finnish winter I set off to cycle into Helsinki, a round trip of about 30km, and although it was below freezing, the forecast was for things to get warmer. Normally it's a nice, easy cycle along the coast but the sub-zero temperatures made it much tougher. Wearing five layers of clothes and a shemagh wrapped around my head and face I thought I'd be warm enough - if I'd worn anything else it would have been impossible to pedal. The shemagh really helped keep my face warm and drivers also seemed to give me a bit more space on the road for some reason. By the time I made it into town I tried to unclip my odometer and the whole piece of plastic just broke off as it had become so brittle with the cold.

Needless to say the weather forecast was wrong and by evening time, rather than it getting warmer, the temperature had dropped to -10c. I returned to my bike to find it covered in ice, the saddle frozen, and the water in my water bottle had turned to solid ice! There was no other choice, however, so I set off homewards through the arctic winter night. It was bitingly cold as I cycled, my back wheel spinning in the ice when I tried to climb a hill. The windchill from moving brought the temperature down even further and although I was wearing two pairs of gloves my fingers were numb and my eyelids felt sticky whenever I blinked as they tried to freeze together. I cycled on along the shore with ice forming on the sea as it froze over.

I was relieved to get back to the flat alive rather than being discovered in the springtime thaw but it felt good to feel alive rather than having just sat on a bus like a zombie. Though I might wait for a slightly warmer day before I go out cycling again.