I gave my last wave to Liz as she passed through the small airports security check point. Outside it was still dark and cold, the taxi driver was still waiting thankfully, he flashed the cars headlights and I got in for the short journey back to the hostel. The street lights flashed passed me and my memory drifted back to last winter. Whilst a winter ride back through Europe would be a whole lot easier than cycling over snowed covered mountain passes in China, I still needed to prepare myself for being alone. Last winter I had not really registered just how accustomed to living with another person 24/7 I had become and was surprised when I struggled more with the mental challenges of self-motivation and isolation than the physical challenges of cycling over 4000m peaks.
I spent a few days at the hostel in L’viv sorting out some equipment problems, I waved goodbye to a friend and set off for another adventure. There has been a lot of discussion this year in my internet world about adventure. What is it, why do we do it? I hope that in one of the next blog posts I will be able to summarise some of my thoughts on this. There is a box below this blog post where you can sign up for email updates or an RSS feed of the blog if you don’t want to miss anything.
Cycling out of L’viv was quite easy, there was one main road to follow, however I stopped to check the map a lot just to make sure. Liz usually does most of the navigation so I was adjusting to trusting my own skills again, to get me home. The further away from the city I got, the easier it became and I was soon following road signs to the border town that would lead me to Poland. Despite the grey day and constant light snow I felt good about things,I was looking forward to following weeks, and kept reminding myself that this feeling of loneliness was temporary. In a week or so I would be used to being on my own again.
I set up camp in a snow covered forest just before last night. I contemplated what Liz would make of this and whether she would be enjoying it. She would like the enchanting forest but not the cold, which I seem to have a higher tolerance of, allowing me to continue to enjoying travelling in the winter.
The next morning it was dry and crisp, my thoughts drifted from topic to topic, and my mind slowly started to adjust to being alone. I stopped at a roadside rest stop to have lunch, my daydreaming was interrupted by the phone. Liz was calling, it was a welcomed interruption, just to hear everyday news from friends and family. After lunch I cycle the last few kms to the border, changed the last of my Ukrainian money into Polish money and started the process of crossing the line that divided one country from the next. I was directed to the non-vehical crossing, the grumpy man in the small box flicked through the passport looking for the relevant stamp and then handed back the passport. I tried to appeal to any sense of empathy he might have by trying to push my heavily loaded bike thought the turnpike. Hoping that there was a side door that could be opened. Instead he motioned for me to lift the bike over. I gave a half smile, half shrug and got the same response. I started the laborious task of unloading the bike and transporting each bag across. Reloaded and pushing to the next hurdle I mentally kicked myself, don’t get grumpy, smile and be patient. Luckily the Polish side was slightly more convenient with a large door for wheelchairs and bikes. After a slow 5 minutes I realised the buzzer to open the door really did not work and that I would have to knock on the door. Loud enough so they could hear, but not so loud so as to give reason for the rather stern looking customs officer to make my life difficult. Eventually I handed my passport to the last person, a friendly looking Polish lady that welcomed me to her country. Free again, I navigated my way to the main road and started to pedal.
If I was being honest to myself I would have recognised Ii was on an emotional roller coaster dealing with a new country, the challenge of communicating, finding maps, food and water as well as adjusting to being alone and the fact that the trip was coming to an end. I also was trying to make sense of all of the experiences from the last two years and work out what I was going to do when Ii got home.
As the day drew to a close I was energised by the smiles from the petrol station attendants and that I was living my dream. I pulled of the main road and lay down my sleeping mat and bivi bag down. Tonight I would sleep under the stars.
I woke the next morning happy that I had slept, thankful that I had not been disturbed in the night and most of all that Ii had been warm. In the light of day, the road was much more enjoyable and I slowly got into the cycling zone. Sometime after lunch it occurred to me that the next day was Christmas and I really ought to get some food for the next few days as the shops would probably be closed. I poked my head into a building that looked like a supermarket and was greeted by sight of a colourful array of fruit and vegetables. I wrapped the lock around the rear wheal and trailer, took off the two bags that contained my most valuable items and trusted the world not to steal the rest. I entered a new world, a small Polish supermarket. I drifted up and down the isles looking at new and familiar items, and left with an rather exciting stash of food that would easily see me through the next three days.
I peddled on, back in my own world and as the daylight started to fade I knew that at the top of the next hill I would need to start looking for a place to camp. As I crested the summit, a car with hazard lights on and a man beside it were waiting for me. He flagged me down and with a big smile he told me in broken English that his house was 1km away and I would be a welcomed guest. I accepted his offer and was soon taking off layers of clothes and being introduced to Adam’s wife and three children. Two of whom were at university and one had recently graduated and started working. One of them spoke excellent English and were were soon chatting away.
It was Christmas Eve and my understanding was that in Poland the meal this evening was just as important as an English Christmas day dinner. It is tradition that one extra place is always laid at the table for the unexpected guest or passing traveller. Today I was that person. It took me a while to adjust to being sociable again. I had hardly spoken to anyone over the last few days, but I was made to feel very welcome and soon started to relax.
Before dinner, prayers were said and then we tucked into my first Polish meal. It was completely different to England, except that there was lots of food. We started with fish and moved on to soup with some type of dumplings, potatoes and a dish that literally translated means pigeon, although it was a rice based dish wrapped in what I think was a flour tortilla. Everything was delicious and all homemade from scratch with pride. After dessert came presents and singing. Adam handed out presents to each member of his family, including the two grandmothers that were also at the table and had entertained me with their smattering of English words and stories that had to be translated. I was handed a large box of very posh chocolates. I don’t think anybody but Liz will realise how amazing this was, I love chocolate!
I was asked if I was religious and if I would like to attend midnight mass. Despite not partaking any form of religio,n I am very interested in it and welcomed the opportunity to experience a Polish mass. After dinner I was left to rest. It was about 7pm and I did not realise how tired I was, within minutes I was asleep and I awoke briefly as the family were about to depart for mass. I felt rather guilty but decided I was rather tired and sleep would be much more preferable. Adam seemed to understand and smiled again as he left me to sleep.
I woke up on Christmas day feeling refreshed, I was keen to cycle. I was more than welcome to stay for Christmas day but I had a very strong urge to know what it would feel like to cycle on this day. I had said that I would only like to stay one night when I arrived. I was also keen to try to get to Germany for New Year to meet some friends and my goddaughter for the first time. As I packed my things Adam and his wife woke and breakfast was prepared for me. Adam used the computer to help us translate each others languages as Ii filled up on bread, meat and coffee. Half way through breakfast I was hit by a wave of emotion as I grasped the magnitude of this situation. I, a stranger had been invited into this family and treated as one of them. I fought back the tears. I was given a huge chocolate cake and made my way downstairs to the garage. I packed the bike and was given water and some cola for the journey. Adam even tried to give me one his bicycle seats to replace mine which is falling apart. I tried to explain that while it was falling apart it was quite well moulded to my bottom and Ii was quite happy.
I took a picture with Adam and waved goodbye and said thank you for the last time before setting off without looking back. I had read another cyclist’s book before this trip, he described a similar breakfast scene where he was unable to fight back the tears until he was alone on the bike. At the time I though he was a bit of a woose, men don’t cry, but now I get it. For me it was not this one breakfast that made me cry. It was as if the kindness shown to me by every person that I had met on this trip had been wrapped up into a small package placed inside me and suddenly exploded.
Christmas day, I mused as I cycled on. What was the significance to me and why did I want to cycle rather than be with people. The day continued as many other days do, cycling, eating cycling, eating and so on. Perhaps it was the rain perhaps I missed my family or the company of others. Either way it was not my best day cycling but I am still glad I did it, just to know what it felt like.
After a detour though a small town due to the main road not allowing bikes I found a small woodland that would serve as a home for the night. I sent an email to my family had my dinner and went to bed.
I convinced myself that i was hidden enough to risk having a lie in. Last nights consultation of the map told me that i would have to cycle about 110km a day for seven days to reach Germany in time to see my friends, unlikely. I had breakfast, gave the bike a clean and found the main road i had left the day before. After only 10km i stopped to use the loo at the petrol station and found the golden arches were next door with free wifi and tempting cheeseburgers. I indulged in both and managed to have a brief chat on Skype with my Mum and Liz, by the time i was done it was dark again. I cycle through the nearby town looking for a cheap motel. I passed a sign for an expensive looking hotel but the thought of lugging wet muddy bags up stairs and worrying about getting cream coloured carpets dirty was far less appealing than the plot of land by the petrol station that would conceal a tent for the night.
Cycling into a town at lunch time the next day to find some gas for the stove i reflected on the last few days. I was tired, mentally and physically but also tired of travelling. I have always seen myself as a traveller, a nomad not attached to one house or country. At 25 I could not imagine ever not wanting to travel but here I was 5 years later wanting something different. I had changed and it was scary. I also realised i was being a little hard on myself, wanting to have a shower or a hot meal in a restaurant, setting myself unrealistic daily targets on the distance i should cover. There was no doubt in my mind that i wanted to cycle the last weeks back to England, it would feel strange to finish this journey any other way. But i needed to relax, go with the flow and enjoy it.
One the way out of town i met a local girl on her bike, she invited me back to her house for a cup of tea and cake. She was so excited to meet another cyclist and she had plans to do some touring in the future. She has lots of energy and i left her house with a smile her energy and kindness having rubbed off on me. A short way out of town i found a great place to camp by a river and set up home for the night again.
I was slowly starting to feel normal or balanced again. The freedom to camp by a river near a big town, the time i would spend on my own, the acceptance that this adventure was coming to an end and there were other types of adventures waiting for me.
The next day i took my time packing up, enjoyed my coffee, savoured the bread and honey and decided that the van that had driven past me did not care i had camped by the river. The weather was clear and the road was smooth. I entered the zone and cycled until lunch with only a few stops for snacks. I sat in a nice bus stop for lunch, i felt energised, strong happy. I smiled at the people in the slow moving cars as they past me. Some stared in confusion, others waved some smiled, but the majority of people seemed pleased to have seen me.
I drew closer to the Polish city of Krakow, my goal for the day. I had decided to spend New Year here, have some fun, make some friends go dancing. There was still a few days till new Year and the woodland to my left looked like a good home for the night. Why push on into the night. Wait until tomorrow, you will get to see the city it will be a lot easier. I pulled off into the forest and cycled around the trails until i found a suitable spot for the tent, my home home for the night.
It had been a good day, and the stars shone brightly though the trees that night.
By mid morning the next day i was cycling the last few kms into town. I arrived at the hostel, ready for a break, a bed and a shower. It had been an interesting week a small journey of self discovery with big highs and lows. This phase of my life, this journey, was drawing to a close and i needed to appreciate all that has happened, learn from my experiences, look forward to the future and not to forget to enjoy the last weeks of this incredible adventure.