One kilometer to go until the border between Finland and Russia. You can already tell that the environment is different and not as familiar as it uses to be to your Europeans eyes. You change money in an exchange machine located in a “Fish and Caviar” place along a stony road, you see Russian cars bursting with loud techno music, the land is a bit desert-like. But do we feel that the atmosphere is different because we know we are about to pass a controlled border (and we have been subconsciously fed negative information for years) or because we really feel it? Hard to tell.
Passing the Russian border is something that we were dreading. The current political situation between Russia and Europe is a bit tense and you often wonder if they can actually turn you down although you have been granted a Visa. “What if they don’t let us in? What do we do? Do we cycle back to Helsinki and take a ferry to Tallinn?”A couple traveling by bicycle with a French and a British passport facing the customs officers who communicate in a language that you know nothing about, and with all the seriousness and tension that arise from this situation will be something that we will remember forever! And particularly the “uy uy uy” when the last customs officer sees Marco’s (British) passport…
But that’s it! We are in! From there we cycled clockwise along the Gulf of Finland. 10 days in Russia and 3 totally different experiences: the Northern part, St Petersburg and the Southern part. The first part is where we can say that life begins at the end of your confort zone. Everything is so different from the European points of reference (and this is without saying that we have been traveling to a lot of different places in the world and that we are aware of what Europe is). Historically this land has been the center of a lot of quarrels and wars the last of which saw this area being emptied and most residents moving to the Finn capital. Hence today it looks like it is not as populated as it used to be in the past and you can see that a lot of houses have been abandoned or are not being really taken care of.
We ask ourselves why fight so much over something that you don’t really value …
Good roads are scarce so you either cycle on the busy roads or on the alternative muddy paths. The thing with roads is that drivers in Russia will not make any efforts to share them with other users. This is particularly hard felt by cyclists so, if, for example, there are incoming vehicles ahead the vehicle behind you will more often than not drive carelessly and overtake you without the stipulated safety distance and speed. Mentally speaking it is quite intense and every time you hear a vehicle coming from behind you hope that everything will be fine. In order to avoid this situation as much as possible, you try to use alternative roads and paths. We were released from the traffic, but at the end of the winter, in a marshy land, we had to face the renowned Russian mud. What an adventure!
After a few days in the countryside, we arrived to the bustling city of St Petersburg. At first it is a bit disconcerting from our European perspective because it has been built under European architectural influence so a lot of places seem familiar and you think that this is not what you were expecting to see. But after walking several days in this city and talking with locals you find this city unique.
Going from St Petersburg to the Estonian border has also surprised us and has been a totally different experience from the Northern part. It was sunny, there were many more and nicer alternative paths, more populated and well-preserved region.
In this vast Russia we have been to only these three small different areas and despite the language barrier, we can say that everywhere we went everyone did their best to help us and answer to our needs. We are very grateful of that. At the end we are all humans and helping each other is the key to a better world.
One thought which continuously came back to us was that we were able to experience Russia in a more genuine way thanks to the fact that we are touring by bike and we have seen places, met people and had amazing experiences which we wouldn’t have lived if we had traveled by car. This brings us back to the main reason why we are undertaking 421 Adventure; to give access to this magical world to more people.
Don’t forget that you can also be part of the story and help us to increase the use of bicycles in the world, especially for children and disabled people, to enjoy the power of the bicycle. So, if you’re feeling generous, consider making a donation here ; DONATE
We also have an amazing YouTube channel with lots of different videos (in lots of different styles) from the road; 421adventure on YouTube