I’ve never been to Poland before. I’ve always expected it to be a slightly wealthier Romania or Ukraine, to be more part of Europe’s East than its West. However, what I most certainly didn’t expect was the following: maintained villages, good roads, nice houses, neat gardens, well dressed people. Keep in mind that we just crossed the border, we’re in the easternmost part of Poland! So, Ukraine, with all its minor and major problems, is literally not even one kilometre away! I feel more like we just entered Germany, if anything.
The second thing that I notice are the prices: suddenly everything is more expensive again. Well, I mean not unaffordable expensive, but you know, Austrian level expensive. I kind of got used to Romanian and Ukrainian prices, having been in those countries for some weeks.
Other than that, I didn’t really know anything else about this country beforehand. To be completely honest, I just considered it a transit country. A country that just happens to be there. A country that extends the way between Russia and us. Russia is actually the first country I am really looking forward to. I can’t really say why … it’s just a feeling. I think it has something to do with the “mystery” that surrounds Russia. I, as an European, know next to nothing about this immensely big country. However, the media knows much: does something wrong happen in the world? Russia is the bad guy. Russians are said to be the world’s criminals, and so on. Well, I’m having a hard time believing that. However, I don’t want to talk about Russia now. I’m not even there yet.
Two hours after we arrive in Poland, it begins: rain. What we don’t know at this point is, that the rainy weather is not going to change significantly during our stay. In a way, it’s funny: back in Austria, in my day-to-day life, I wouldn’t have considered going outside on a rainy day. Not for even two seconds. I mean, why would I? Back then I was made of sugar (a Romanian proverb). However, here in Poland I need to crush 100 kilometres a day through pouring rain on national highways. Whether I like it or not (which I currently don’t). I’ve heard the saying “humans adapt to everything” before. Now I can say that it’s true. It really is. Definitely not in a philosophical, abstract way, but in the realest way possible. You just go with it. You wake up in the morning, you see that it’s raining outside, you know that you’re going to be out there in less than an hour, and you still manage to smile about that. Crazy, right? However, what is worse is the cold and the wind that come with the rain. Often we have temperatures as low as 3-4 degrees Celsius. That’s freezing! After a longer pause, the first half an hour of riding is bad, feeling the cold sweat on your skin. But then the sweat heats up to body temperature and you’re good to go again. Gross!
After 5 days in Poland we arrive in Warsaw. Wet again. The city somehow reminds me of New York. Lots of skyscrapers. To be honest, I don’t really care about the city because the arrival’s bittersweet. Sweet, because hey, we’re in Warsaw. That means we came pretty far! Bitter, because Denis leaves us for Austria. He took a one month vacation from work for the sake of coming with us. Making the goodbye from Austria easier for us. It’s strange seeing him getting on the train. As the train slowly takes off, waving goodbye to each other through the window I can’t help but think to myself that we had a piece of Austria with us all along, someone from home. Not just a stupid, lifeless souvenir or a random object. In a way, I’m jealous of him: he will be back home, have a warm bed, see his family and all of our friends again. He will even see my parents sooner than I will… Goodbye Denis, thanks for being with us for a whole month, it was a blast!
Another thing worth mentioning from Warsaw: we took a hostel. So far, so uneventful. However, we had to share a room with a certain guy. I’m not joking if I say that we thought he was there to die: 50 years old, grey haired, heavily coughing, reading in bed, loads of medicine next to him, farting and burping like no one was around. But… I was there. Literally 3 metres away from him, in my own bed. Are you kidding me, old man?? That night I had unholy thoughts that I didn’t know existed within me, among them: an urge of setting that man’s pants on fire while still wearing them and stuffing my stinky socks down his throat.
“Go outside to the bikes”, says Dominik. I look up. Through the glass entrance door, I see some Arabic looking young people gathered around our (because of the heavy load) strange looking bikes. I sigh. We’re in the middle of checking in this student dorm, here in Bialystok in Poland. I take a seat on a comfy looking chair while Dominik negotiates with the female receptionist, who doesn’t seem to be able to handle a credit card. I’m tired and don’t really want to get up. The thing is, I’m not really afraid that my bike will get stolen, however, Dominik’s right. It’s better if they see that the bikes belong to someone. As I arrive outside, I give the group a short nod and walk over to my bike, while the others investigate Dominik’s bike more closely. They do look somehow suspicious and dangerous. Or is it just my mind, tricking me into believing that everybody with a beard has to be a terrorist? If that is true then Dominik must be a terrorist too (you never know). Did I watch too much news?
After reaching the 10th floor (have you ever tried to squeeze a fully loaded bike into a small elevator? It was a first for us too) the alarm in the whole building goes off. We have no idea what’s happening, but head downstairs anyway (back in school a fire alarm going haywire was always great! It shortened the math lesson significantly, as you had to go outside and make sure that no one was left in the burning building, etc.). You never know. As we exit the student dorm the police and firefighters are already on site. Strangely enough, only a handful of students are gathered outside, talking casually to each other. What about the rest? I look up the building. There are still students “trapped” up there, having the windows wide open and looking down to us. “Are they mental?”, I think to myself. Well, seems like they are not. I find out that at this particular student dorm the fire alarm is going off at a regular basis. “Why is that?”, I ask a nearby standing student. “Nobody really knows”, he says, shrugging unimpressed, “probably someone’s cooking something and the smoke triggers the alarm.”
“Hello. My name is Khurram and we want to invite you to dinner tonight. We will cook some traditional Turkish and Pakistani dishes for you”. It’s one of the guys who was eyeing our bikes earlier, speaking English with an Indian sounding accent. Alright, so that’s where he is coming from. It’s not Terroristan, next to Afghanistan. “Are you sure? We’re pretty hungry”, we respond, speaking English with a German accent. “Very sure. My room number is 1024. Meet you at 9 pm.”
Although Dominik and I were unsure about this at first, eventually it turned out to be the best evening so far on this trip. Ayse and Achmed from Turkey made some sort of vegetable soup, and Sichan from Pakistan served rice mixed with beef. It tasted so good that I forgot to take pictures. It turns out that they are all Erasmus students (European Student Exchange Program) and the nicest bunch of people you could possibly meet. Things get creepy when Ayse offers to read Dominik’s and my future out of our coffee grounds. She said that she learned it from her grandmother, who was a professional coffee reader. Things get even creepier when Khurram confesses that he didn’t want his future predicted by her when they first met. He believes in it and doesn’t want to know what his future holds. Does that mean that this is some legit way to predict the future right there? I’m nervous, but as I don’t want to spoil the fun for everyone, I’m in. I won’t go into details about what Ayse “predicted” me, but I have to admit that I’m impressed. I never thought my coffee knew that much about me. The evening soon comes to an end after that.
The next day our new friends borrow city bikes and accompany us outside the city. We manage to have a little encounter with the police: the bicycle group, which consists of 10 persons chatting and driving rather carelessly on the street, must have looked suspicious. We are prompted to stop and to show our passports. Luckily, Dominik is quick to grasp the seriousness of the situation and hands his Austrian passport first. I think that the police here wouldn’t be too happy to see only Turkish and Pakistani passports…
The remaining time in Poland flies by. I can’t wait to enter Lithuania, and eventually that day arrives. Because that country is also a member of the Schengen Agreement the border crossing consists of nothing more than a sign stating “Lithuania”. Huh, that was easy.
Can you believe that by chance we came across the geographical center of Europe? It literally lies 200 meters to the left of the road that we planned to take. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing! Anyways, unexpected random tourist sights are more than welcome. After some photos in front of the pillar marking Europe’s center, I enter the tourist information office to get my certificate stating that I, Andi, truly was there. I think the lady there liked me because she grabbed me pretty strong when Dominik and I took a photo with her (I had my beanie on, so she didn’t see my shaved head. Maybe that’s why).
To be honest, there’s not much I can say about Lithuania and Latvia. We were just a few days in each country. Both countries are full of forests, hills and lakes. In essence, they’re both very beautiful countries. It’s also impossible to find 100 metres of road that is not ascending or descending. Finally, we arrive in Zilupe in Latvia. The last village before Russia. Back at home, while I was planning the route, I used to look it up on Google Maps, zooming in and out. “The door to Russia”, I thought to myself, over and over again. Back then, I wondered what it would feel like to be there, knowing that Russia would be only a few kilometres away. Russia folks, Russia! Can you feel the excitement?
But whatever it may have been that I imagined, the night before entering Russia I lay in my tent calmly, closing my eyes. The border being only one kilometer away. I fall asleep. Then, suddenly! I feel a rush of excitement, as long beams of floodlights from the Russian border head in the direction of our tents. Searching for intruders. Every now and then I hear loud, threatening voices (or are they warnings?) coming out of what must be massive speakers. As if they knew that someone was there, hidden in the woods, waiting for his chance. As no tank shows up to bomb us away, the excitement slowly fades and I fall back asleep with a smile on my face, at peace with the world and myself. Knowing, that tomorrow morning I would finally, finally!, leave Europe behind for good. For a whole year. For a whole year! Knowing, that I would enter a part of this world that would be so different to my world. Knowing, that the real adventure was just about to begin… just a few more hours of sleep …