The Land of Lakes & Light

Lake Ivรคg and the Setting Sun

It is in fact, Finland, Sweden’s neighbour, that boasts to be the “Land of A Thousand Lakes” and yet it is here that we have really been awed by beautiful bodies of water as we cycle past lake after lake. 

The weather, much to my delight, is warming up; Spring has arrived in full bloom. Every roadside has delicate purply-blue flowers springing up in star or bell shapes depending on the variety. Snowdrops can be glimpsed on brown earth through silver birch trunks and the sun is making an appearance on an almost daily basis. 

With this new warmth beaming down on us, we are cycling in fewer and fewer layers as we struggle and sweat our way up and down Sweden’s many hillocks and against some wild headwinds. We are no longer afraid of our sweat freezing and are happy to push ourselves a little further and a little harder up those neverending hills. 

The lakes, then, that we pass so often become ferociously appealing. The crystal clear water is clean enough to drink and satisfies our thirst along the ride and tempts us to dive in. Finally, giving in, we decided to take the plunge one evening after a hot and sweaty day of cycling and go for a dip. 

It was beautiful. 

It was also bitterly cold!

Arron barely made it over his knees before retreating, shouting “Sorry Laura, today, you are on your own!” as he headed back to the fire smouldering on the shoreside. It took me some minutes more standing thigh deep with tingling legs before I could summon the courage to dive in. I eventually did, and as always with such cold water was rewarded with a warming sensation throughout my body as my skin reacted to the freezing temperatures I was subjecting it to. Having said that, I didn’t last long either, managing only a few quick strokes through the water before hurrying back to join Arron on warm, dry land. 

Since Spring has come, we have often chatted about the joy that cycle touring brings. Not only is it an amazing way to travel, it allows us to live a life that we both desire. We are able to enjoy breakfast cooked on the fire and a chilling swim in a stunning lake. We can get up early and watch the sun rise over the water and go to be as the darkness creeps in around us. We can read and write and watch the fire flicker.

Though winter cycling was a challenge, and fun in its own (“Type 2“) way, spring cycling makes my heart (and Arron’s voice) sing. 

Crystal Blue Water

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A Charmed Life

The Trees Above

What a wonderfullyโ€‹ charmed life I live!
I sat on a tree trunk with knees bent like those pictures of woodland fairies on toadstools. It had fallen to the ground years ago and was now covered in a sprinkling of green dust. The sun fell through the sparse spruce branches above, soaking me in its warm spring light. Ben Howard sang from Arron’s phone and he alternately snapped sticks and blew on the small fire behind me. The smell of woodsmoke drifted over. 

In the soft light, strings of spiders’ webs were visible in horizontal lines from the young trees in the small clearing we had found. I could hear a road in the distance. We were not so far from the town, but it faded out of my consciousness, drowned out by the beauty that engulfed my senses. 

My bicycle was propped up against one tree. Arron’s bicycle was propped up against another. The spokes on his back wheel remained missing, still broken since we discovered them last night. I knew he was frustrated, as I would be if the situation was reversed. Yet I felt grateful. How lucky I was to end up in the forest for an extra day, able to enjoy the sunshine and a campfire! How lucky we were to be living this simple life! 

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Sweden, Spokes and Setting Fire to the Tent (again)…

Eskilstuna River

As we entered Sweden by boat from Helsinki and the ferry chugged its way through the channel that leads into Stockholm, we were blown away by the buildings that lined the sea front. Everything was beautifully designed and constructed, built in stones of varying colours and decorated with delicate features around windows and rooftops. 
Though neither Arron or I are really city people, it was impossible not to enjoy the the old town. It is built on a small island in the middle of the city and every building is three or four stories high. Quaint coffee shops and stores selling an eclectic array of goods spill into the streets as tourists like ourselves wander round (or in our case, push our bikes up and down the steep hills) taking photos. 

We were lucky to arrive in sunshine and although it has not been sunny everyday, it is definitely beginning to feel more like spring with temperatures breaking free of zero and no snow on the ground! The warmer weather makes for great cycling and it has been so much fun following cycle routes around lovely lakes and through silver birch forests. 

Camping has also become much more enjoyable with the warmer weather. It takes us less than two hours on a morning now to get ready, pack up, eat two breakfasts and relax, compared with the four hours it would take us in the freezing conditions of China. On an evening we have sometimes had a small campfire and at night it is no longer a struggle to stay warm. On the whole, things are going great! ๐Ÿ™‚

However, our bicycles have continued to cause problems. Mine, also known as Monty, seems to hate panniers. Now onto my fourth pannier rack set-up you might be fooled (as I was) into believing all was well. However the Chinese panniers (all we could find before we left Hong Kong) then started to bend… into my cassette and disc brakes. Obviously this was not ideal and after multiple attempts to find a solution with no success, I crashed emotionally a few days ago. 

After a long cry that evening, I decided I was too lazy to cook in the drizzling rain outside and, as we were now running on gas again, it would probably be fine to cook inside the tent porch again. 

All was fine whilst I cooked…

But as I unscrewed the gas canister after cooking I realised I had forgottenโ€‹ to check the flame was completely out. Our cookers are also Chinese knock-offs and as a result the gauge doesn’t always work, meaning gas can leak and a tiny flame can burn unnoticeable after we think we have turned off the gas. It is easy to check and blow out but in my slightly over emotional state, I forgot. As I unscrewed the stove the gas caught and suddenly the canister was flaming in my hand and singeing the tent. 

‘Why are you setting fire to my tent?!?!?!’ Arron yelled as he leapt out of his side of the tent.

‘Not on purpose!’ I replied.

Luckily I unscrewed the canister quick enough and the flames subsided, but both of us were visibly shaking at another too close call. Suffice to say that whatever the weather, or emotions, we will not be cooking anywhere near our tent again!!!

Luckily, it did provide a bit of perspective and finally my bicycle playing up seemed a minor issue that we could and since have resolved with a simple solution – we swapped panniers.

Unfortunately that has not been the end of our bicycle problems. Arron’s ‘Trinx’ bicycle (also an unknown Chinese brand), also known as Jessica, has begun to snap spokes on a semi regular basis. Arron replaced one in Finland, as well as the rear mech which also broke, but now more spokes have snapped and on closer inspection it seems they are all rusting through (yet more top Chinese quality). As a result we are now in Orebro, enjoying a coffee while we wait for a bicycle shop to open, in the hope that we can replace some, or possibly all of the rear wheel spokes and continue once more. 

One of our friends in Hong Kong said to us before we left that it will be the things we hadn’t thought of that would be challenges along the way. He couldn’t have been more right! The cycling itself, the camping and the cold conditions were all challenges we expected and prepared for as best we could, yet none have been too hard or unmanageable. We have carried with us spare brakes, cables, gears, bolts, inner tubes, tyres, spokes (which later turned out to be the wrong size) and so on but we didn’t anticipate problems with pannier racks or the entire rear mech breaking. 

Setting up from Hong Kong and buying a lot of unregulated Chinese gear has definitely provided us with a few more challenges along the way and had kept us on our toes!! Thankfully we are now in Europe with extensive bicycle shops, high quality supplies and great coffee! ๐Ÿ™‚  

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Helsinki

We had arranged in advance to stay with Angel and Paula on Warmshowers, a spanish couple now living in Helsinki. We turned up outside their house on Saturday afternoon utterly exhausted.

They were incredible. They welcomed us in to their lovely, warm home with smiles and friendliness. Paula had cooked an amazing lunch of salmon soup and homemade brown bread. It smelt amazing. Deciding that showering was the priority, we took turns to rinse away the dirt and grime of the last ten days in one of the best showers I have ever had. 

Emerging clean, and completely dry for the first time since we left Saint Petersburg, we sat down and tucked in to her delicious soup. It was amazing to be so well looked after. Despite wanting nothing more than to lie down and rest our eyes, we forced ourselves to do all the jobs that we needed to do like laundry and drying out tents and sleeping bags so that we could enjoy the next day.

Yesterday we spent the day eating food, drinking coffee and wandering round the beautiful centre of Helsinki. It was beautiful.

However, it was the evening that was really fun. Angel, our host, asked us if we would like to try a traditional Finnish Sauna and of course, we said yes. He gave us a choice of 3; one of the oldest and most traditional saunas in Finland, a new, modern take on a traditional sauna that has many rules to follow but seeks to help customers find peace, and a third, free sauna that is built and run by volunteers next to the sea. At this point Paula interjected and just said “It’s the best!” If I wasn’t already persuaded by the hippy community sauna, I was now! 

And what a great choice!

Sompasauna is, as far as I can understand, totally unique in Helsinki, and everyone who goes thinks it is the best. We followed Angel on our bicycles (which, incidentally felt amazing to ride as we had no gear on whatsoever!) through the streets of housing down toward the sea. We cycled past old industrial buildings, big red brick chimneys and giant metal structures which were no longer functional, but, Angel explained, were being reborn into music and art festival venues. I could see why, the structures themselves towered over huge open spaces and made for a dramatic and beautiful skyline. 

After passing these, we ended up weaving our way through a construction site, Angel seemingly just following his nose toward Sompasauna. Graffitied and derelict buildings lined our route as we darted round red tape and plastic barriers. Eventually, we arrived. 

Three small shacks, built from reclaimed wood in a charming eclectic style, stood apart from the construction site on the edge of the sea. A giant, rust-coloured elephant sculpture, built from found metal, towered beside the shacks, a beautiful guardian of this special place. Two of the three shacks have smoking chimneys and all are covered in paintings and murals. There are crude benches built outside and a set of stairs leading to the sea behind the largest of the buildings. 

As we locked our bicycles to a some wooden sleepers, naked people milled about. Some were getting changed, either into or out of their clothes, some had just been swimming in the sea and were hurriedly wrapping towels around themselves and others were relaxing with a beer, laughing and chatting. Everyone seemed to be smiling. 

We joined in, getting undressed as the wind whistled around us, hanging our clothes on one of the many metal pegs in the outside wall and hoping they didn’t get blown away while we were inside. 

Naked, we crept through the tarpaulin that covers the entrance to the largest of the two saunas and then through the stiff wooden door beyond it. Inside it was packed. 

The room was about 1.5m wide and 6m long. It was divided into three and when we entered, we stood for a while in the middle section, next to the wood burning stove. It was warm here, but not too hot, being at ground level. On my left, there was a platform with seating built around it in a U-shape. I guess it was designed to fit maybe ten people comfortably. On the other side were two more benches, each for 3 people. Every spot is full so we waited until a seat on one or the other side of us became available.

After a few minutes some people left and we filled their spaces. We ended up on the side that has just two benches, each for three people. Angel sat opposite us, and Arron and I sat next to each other. Everbody was touching everybody, it is too cramped not to, but nobody seemed to mind. Behind me there was a window out to the sea, and the skyline of Helsinki beyond. The sky was scorched red and orange with the sunset and in the foreground, naked people hurried down the steps into the sea for a brief dip and back up again. It was beautiful. 

Inside, we were a mass of naked bodies. More people kept coming in and soon there were more people than spaces, even including the spaces to stand. Those on the other side of the sauna squashed up, slippery, sweaty, naked body next to more slippery, sweaty, naked bodies. They managed to make room for a couple more people to sit down. Someone was in charge of the steam and slowly made the sauna hotter, pouring more water on the stones. People went quiet for a while as everyone breathed in the hot, humid air. The temperature gauge read more than 80 degrees C.

Someone asked if everyone in the room had played ‘tetris’ before. Everyone laughed and jokes were made about playing a new game called “Wetris”. At one point I counted at least 24 people, probably more, inside a space designed for maybe 16 at best. We were squashed, but nobody minded. I cannot think of another place in the world where being naked with so many strangers, so close together, is not only acceptable, but embraced and enjoyed, and not at all sexual. 

After a while we left the steam room, very hot and very sweaty, freeing up space for the more people to sit. We skirted round the edge of the building and down the steps to the sea. There was still ice floating on the surface. I jumped in anyway. It is the coldest water I think I have ever been in and after a couple of rushed strokes I climbed back up the steps to find my fleece and down jacket, thankfully still hanging on the peg I left it on. 

Angel, Arron and I huddle on a bench, sheltered behind the only building that isn’t a sauna. We crack open some beers and chat away. I shiver….I am the only person who seemed to think jumping into the sea was a good idea (most people just dip in gently and quickly) and it showed. I don’t regret it, but the next time, I joined everybody else in walking in slowly! I definitely suffered less!

Half a beer later we got undressed again and headed for the second, much smaller sauna. It was designed only for three, so we are lucky and managed to squash together on the seat. We chatted away and a couple more Finns joined us, standing beside us in the small amount of space that there was. They soon introduced themselves and asked us about our trip. 

Everyone was friendly inside the sauna and although we have experienced nothing but friendliness in Finland, Angel tells us that this is something very unique to the sauna. In day to day life, Finns are very reserved and quiet, but inside a sauna, people open up, chat and have fun with strangers. He told us that sauna culture is an important and valuable part of Finnish culture and there is a lot of etiquette that is respected around it. I felt privileged to enjoy it! What a perfect end to our day off! 

The View of Helsinki from Sompasauna

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Eat. Sleep. Bike. Repeat.

Cycling through Finish forests

It has been eight days now since we struck out from Saint Petersburg on bicycles. We are yet to have a day off from cycling, or a proper shower, and it is beginning to show. 
Today has been hard work with yet more hills and a hefty headwind. After seven days straight of cycling our legs and minds are starting to feel tired. Despite this, we are still smiling, and the novelty of being back on the road had yet to wane for me. In fact, I feel like I’m just getting back into this cycle touring malarkey! ๐Ÿ™‚

Much of our day is reduced to simple things. On a morning we wake up as it starts to get light outside, around 6am. Usually I am upright first, and immediately make coffee with the flask of hot water I store in the bottom of my sleeping bag overnight. This habit started in China, when it was so cold at night that simply leaving flasks in the tent drained all of the heat overnight. With temperatures closer to zero now we could probably get away without this now, but the habit had stayed. 

After our petrol fire inside the tent last week, we have ceased to cook inside it. Instead we soak our oats overnight in a tupperware box with a mix of water, raisins, jam and condensed milk. We eat our cold porridge and warm coffee still inside our arctic sleeping bags. 

After that we go off on our own to find a secluded spot to do our business before the time-consuming task of packing everything down for the day. We have managed to improve on the four hours it was taking us in China and this morning we managed it in record time: from waking up to setting off in 2.5 hours. This morning that even included a second breakfast of eggy bread!!! Our stomachs seem to rule our days and we have started having many small meals instead of a couple of big ones – they are much needed with cycling like this! 
After a day of cycling, we usually arrive at camp somewhere between 3 and 4pm. We set up our tent again and begin dinner preparations. Our campstove cooking seems to be improving all the time, from generic soup/slop in China to gourmet curries and tonight, if all goes well, pasta carbonara! 

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Entering Europe Proper

After more than a year away from Europe, it felt amazing to re-enter, cycling beneath the familiar blue sign with a circle of stars that symbolises the EU, at the border into Finland. 

Our last couple of nights in Russia had been quite exciting. 

The evening after I last wrote this blog we camped in a field full of pale grass tussocks. We had eaten a good dinner (cooked on Arron’s new frying pan) and were winding down for bed. It might only have been 7pm but our body clocks are now well in tune with daylight hours and we tend to sleep long hours during darkness and wake at first light. Arron was boiling the last of our water to refill our flasks in his tent porch as I poured us both a cup of tea inside the tent. 

Suddenly I hear, ‘Shit, the tent’s on fire!!!’ I look over and see yellow flames licking at our bright orange tent. 

‘Get out of the tent!’ I say as I leap out of my side and run round to his. Arron couldn’t leave the tent as it was only because he was holding it away from the fire that it was not catching alight. He had thrown the stove a couple of metres from the tent and it was now just spilt petrol burning on the ground. I grabbed his brand new frying pan and hit the ground, realising too late Arron had had the same thought and had stopped because it seemed to make the flames spread not slow. 

It was at this point that Arron drew my attention back to the burning stove and petrol filled canister behind me. ‘It might explode!’ he yelled. 

Not knowing what else to do I grabbed the stove and hurled it away from us into the middle of the field. 

Then I helped Arron pull up the tent and roll it away from the fire, all the while he was still inside scooping the sleeping bags, clothes and dry bags away from the flames. 

Finally we deemed the tent area safe and somehow managed to blow out the last of the fire beside it. Then Arron’s attention turned to the stove in the middle of the field, still burning bright. 

‘Where are my gloves?!’ he asked. 

‘Why?’ I responded. 

‘I’m going to go and unscrew the canister from the stove to stop it exploding!’

‘What?!?!?!’ 

I watched, horrified, as Arron ran over to the stove in bare feet and untwisted the petrol canister. He dribbled the remaining fuel over the snow covered ground and then ran back to me. 

We were both barefoot and shaking with the exhileration of such a close call. I’m relieved to say that the fire ruined that particular stove, which had been playing up for some time, for good. Of course, we still had to boil water for the following day, so as one fire burnt out, we lit the other stove to boil the water on, thankfully with less drama this time around.

The following night was our final night in Russia. We collected water from a flowing stream before double backing and hunting for a suitable camp spot. We were about 5km from the border with Finland but had decided to tackle the border crossing the following morning, allowing ourselves the full day for it. Of course, being so close to the border, a Russian official had spotted our strange behaviour and came to check us out. 

After a look at our passports and visas (we did not hand them over after so many stories of corrupt officials refusing to return important documents without a bribe) he allowed us to continue our journey. We found a small camp site that evening just out of sight of the border post, but it wasn’t long until an official looking car drove past us on a track just a few metres away. 

We had strung our tent up in the trees to dry and I was certain the official had seen us and would soon come along to move us on. We drank tea and worried a little, but it seemed they either hadn’t noticed us, or didn’t care. We slept in peace that evening. 

It was with relief however that we crossed into Finland. Almost immediately things felt more familiar, and easier somehow. 

We were on a cycle path, an actual cycle path, for the first time since we had set off. It was glorious to cycle side by side without a worry about cars or trucks passing by us with next to no space. (Although this didn’t altogether remove risk – Arron crashed into me spectacularly while on his phone and I went flying to the floor!) 

After the cycle path ran out we cut off onto a small road, with almost no traffic. We cycled through woodland, snow on the ground but grit keeping it off the road, and everything felt great! 

Finishing early, we cleaned the bikes, had a fire and even a shower (if you can call a saucepan-full of tepid-cold water over the head a shower). We cooked on the open fire and made it inside the tent just as the rain came.

Today too, it has been near perfect cycling. Undulating hills and twisting roads through forest and farmland make for interesting, though not easy, cycling. We are keeping an even pace and finally it feels like we are cycle touring as we hoped to do! Three more days and we hope to be in Helsinki! ๐Ÿ™‚ 

Our last camp in Russia

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The Tortoise and The Hare

The Frozen Sea

We left Saint Petersburg three days ago and suddenly it felt like an entirely new trip! ๐Ÿ™‚ 

All the hassle of my pannier rack breaking, the lack of fuel and my illness (which we now think was pneumonia) fell away as we entered Europe. It was replaced by sheer excitement at what lay ahead. 

In Saint Petersburg, we made (yet) more adjustments to our bicycles, throwing our hostel room into total chaos in the process. On my last trip I remembered watching as a bike mechanic dismantled my bicycle and left bits strewn everywhere. I had been horrified, and had no idea how he would find all the pieces and restore it to it’s former glory. Yet now here I was, doing that very same thing! 

It was a lot of fun to tinker with our bicycles, tuning up the gears and the brakes, refitting my pannier racks (again) and making mudguards out of old orange juice cartons. However, the biggest change we made was to our tyres. 

We had been having problems matching pace in China and Kazakhstan. Arron had tyres that were narrower and less knobbly than mine and his rolling speed was considerably faster. I was left straggling behind despite trying my hardest to keep up whilst he sailed along with putting in as little effort as he could to try to slow down a bit. We decided that, with the new and improved trip about to take off, the time had come to buy the same tyres in the hope that it would solve our pacing problems. 

It has certainly helped, but i think I have had to accept that Arron is still a hare to my tortoise pace. I set off steady and go steady all day. I don’t really speed up at all, but nor do I slow down either. I just keep the constant pace of a tortoise. In contrast, Arron has bursts of energy after a sugary snack or when a particularly upbeat song comes on through his headphones and he disappears off in front of me….only to slow down to a snails pace a little further on! 

I’m fairly sure his average pace would be faster than mine but we seem to have found a happy medium over the past few days and finally we are able to cycle together. It has made a welcome change to the constant stopping and starting of our previous days’ cycling. 

On top of that, the scenery has been stunning. For the first time in more than a year I have seen, and even camped in, actual forest! The dappled light making it’s way through the trees is something I had forgetten and relished cycling through once more. what a change the spidery birch trees and moss covered trunks make to the dense jungle of Asia.  

Our first day was beautiful blue skies and sunshine. The cycling was near perfect, on reasonably quiet roads and no pollution in the air (also a first for a long time)! Even better, as we joined the coastline north of Saint Petersburg we realised that the sea was frozen solid. Neither of us have ever seen this before and it was absolutely incredible! 

The next day, in contrast, was what most might refer to as utterly grim. Heavy grey clouds hung over us and spat sleet onto the road in front of us. We got completely drenched as every passing car flew past us spraying up all the grit, snow and puddle water into the air, and over us! We donned our goggles and persevered despite the horrible weather, and actually, I had a great time. It might have been hard work, but for a change, I was not freezing cold! This weather was familiar and I could deal with this comfortably, unlike the minus 20 degrees Celsius of China. If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that I can deal with horrible weather as long as it isn’t too cold! ๐Ÿ™‚

Unfortunately, my waterproof layers turned out to be less than waterproof, and 4 out of the 5 layers I was wearing (one of which was down) was soaked through by the time we reached camp that evening. Arron had the brainwave to rig up our second tent as a drying room (it’s still not warm enough to have our own tents just yet!), with a stove burning in the middle of it to warm it up. Though my clothes didn’t dry, they were certainly less wet having been hung up in front of a fire for a couple of hours. 

Last night we camped on the edge of Vyborg, our last major town in Russia before we head to Finland in a couple of days time. Our campsite, I think, was the best yet. 

We left the main road and followed a frozen and winding track through the forest. To our surprise, it led us to the shoreline, and we camped on the beach beside the frozen sea! Having already decided that today would be a rest day, we had bought a can of beer to share earlier in the day and we sat, huddled in our tent boiling snow for water and drinking beer from plastic flask mugs. It was a great evening, and for once we remained dry, despite the hailstones falling outside! 

It feels AMAZING to be back on the road, and I can’t wait for the next few months cycling back to the UK through Europe. It might not be the trip I had been dreaming of, but it is an amazing adventure in it’s own right, and I am so happy to be on our way. What’s more, we have decided to raise money for World Bicycle Relief as we cycle. If you would like to donate, please check out our justgiving page at www.justgiving.com/2bikes1trip

Thanks for all your kind words and support guys, as always I am blown away and constantly encouraged by everybody who follows my adventures! 

Camping by the Sea

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