Cycling in Russia and Estonia

Anticipating Russian cycle-touring produced loads of anxiety that, in hindsight, seems quite unwarranted. The compass and the following of canals proved more helpful in facilitating a Petersburg exit than following a street map, as the latter was in Latin letters while most street signs are in Cyrillic.

I headed west towards Petrodvorets (Peter's Palace), taking the road along the Gulf of Finland. A little short of what I had figured should be about 30 kms, I found the palace compound, with tourists queuing for entry. It looked brand new; what restoration! How sumptuous the tsars lived. How decadent! I waited and then compared my map of Petrodvorets with the one on display. The Gulf and boat dock were correctly located, but the rest of the plan didn't jive. I had stumbled upon the summer palace of the current president, rather than that of Peter the Great, built some 300 years ago. In 300 years, will crowds be flocking to visit the Putin Palace, as they now make the pilgrimage to Petrodvorets?

Eventually I found and visited the latter and cycled on to Lomonosov, a dozen kms down the road, where P. the Great's deputy built his own palace, Oranienbaum, now a park dotted with out buildings in various states of decay. I had the address of accommodation, the only tourist housing in the area, a building that seemed not to be open. But I then stumbled upon an Ecological Summer Camp for young Russians, Estonians and Finns. They were staying in a park barracks formerly used to house the tsar's troops, now converted into a guest house.

In addition to roofing young ecologists, the guesthouse was hosting 2 weddings. Russian weddings are quite a phenomenon. After the signing of legal documents at the equivalent of city hall or a marriage palace, the couple, along with best man and maid (matron, but I am not sure on this point), both wearing sashes across the chest and a very few friends stroll around Petersburg visiting the various lucky spots -- the Sphinx monument to persecuted artists, sitting atop the camel in Admiralty, tossing coins in selected canals or fountains for luck and sipping champagne. As the day wears on, the group staggers around town until it ends up for a banquet. It was this last stage I myself had stumbled upon in the former tsarist troop center: A room, without bath/toilet, cost me US $20.

The Russian ecologists warned me to change my route as I was planning to follow the coastal highway right into a restricted zone that circumscribes the nuclear power plant near Sosnovy Bor. Thus, the next morning I back-tracked to Petrodverts, to travel south to meet up with the major Petersburg - Tallinn (Estonia) highway. On Sunday, not very busy and designed to move the army and avoid urban areas, the wide road was easy cycling. After 6 1/2 hours, 127 kms I detoured to Kingisepp, the only city of size on the way to the border. No description of it in the guidebook; no idea about accommodation. I had a paper with "I am looking for accommodation" in Russian. I asked a few locals who pointed me to a dilapidated housing estate. Basically everything in Russia seems in a sad state of disrepair. On the 5th floor of one cookie-cutter building was a guesthouse. Clean, friendly, if falling apart, too. US $15 without breakfast, not especially good value, but any accommodation was welcome.

The next day I arrived at the Ivangorod (Rus)/ Narva (Est) frontier. It was an easy border crossing. I had to complete the customs un-declaration form, which was only in Russian. The clerk found me a form in French, from Soviet days, with the words "roubles Sovietiques" and "URSS" repeated. I filled out the form somewhat scantily, seeing no need to write down the serial number of each banknote I had. The form was chopped in 3 places; then the Russians didn't wanted it; it was mine to keep! Soviet ways die hard.

Crossing into Estonia, what I did NOT find was a startling black-white contrast. No question Estonia is western and European: the existence of supermarkets, a plethora of retail stores, and a tourist office all suggest one has left Russia. The streets and buildings are in better condition than their Russian counterparts; but the locals speak Russian here. Estonia, in fact, is around half Russian speakers, ethnic Russians compared to ethnic Estonians (who are linguistically more like Finns). This section of Estonia is maybe what Russia of the near future will feel like, will look like. Almost immediately after the border crossing, I find myself face-to-face with a bicycle route marker. The local tourist office, however, does not have the accompanying map ( so I take the main highway and pass through Estonia's region of heavy industry.

Here and there I catch up with the bike route, which goes through Sillamae. This town, during Soviet days, was a closed area for uranium processing. As it celebrates its 50th birthday the town is in splendid shape; the buildings are not dilapidated as in Russia. The town was based on Russian town planning concepts, especially scale. Everything is larger, houses, office buildings, trees, streets, about 25% larger. The city hall is built like a church, complete with a steeple. Sillamae is what a Russian town centers might look like today if they weren't falling down. Later I visited the tourist office in Johvi, procured the bike map and found a hostel ($12 with breakfast) at Ontika on the Gulf of Finland.

The next day I follow the bike route through woods, sandy roads, farmland and eventually through the Lahemaa National Park, overnighting at a guesthouse in Vosu. The following day, after 6 hours of rain (I have new Ortlieb panniers which keep stuff dry), I arrived in Tallinn, a splendid medieval town, the darling of Baltic tourists and of Finnish liquor tourists who take the quick ferry trip from Helsinki to stock up on duty-free booze. You see dozens of these Finns rolling their alcoholic suitcases toward the ferry.

I spent several days as guest of the SERVAS coordinator for Estonia, a real treat to see how Estonians live, which is not all that different from how most people live: fairly hectic lives. We spent the weekend at their farm on Saaremaa Island, without cycle, but the island is fine for cycling. Tourist highlights include St. Mary's church, Poide and Kuressaare Castle and museum.

After Tallinn, I cycled on national cycle-way # 13 to Paide and then cycle-way # 2 to Parnu, getting lost in a forest and finding the lovely town of Sindi, a lot of well-kept wooden houses, as so characterizes the non-Sovietized rural Estonia. The following day I had an easy border crossing into Latvia.

Sigulda, Latvia

18 July 2003