21 Dec 2008

The very dark and very cold Via Baltica

Posted by walterheck

After spending a week in Helsinki, it was time to get back to Holland. I had decided to challenge myself (traveling is all about going out of your own comfort zone :) ) and hitchhike back 2300Km across the Baltics, Poland and Germany during the darkest week of the year, in which nocturnal temperatures reach -10 celsius. It was harder then I expected, but I made it in a nice amount of time after all. Click through to read the story :)Tenting outside Marijampole

Day 1: Helsinki – Riga

So, on Monday morning at 5:45 I had to get up to catch my ferry-ride from Helsinki to Tallinn. It’s about a 2 hour crossing and I wanted to do the earliest possible one on Monday so I would have as much time as possible for hitching on Monday. On the ferry I prepared my gear for the hitch. I had been to Tallinn before on my trip last year and didn’t have the best memories of it (remember this?). You can imagine I was not overly keen on going to this city again, even though the situation was totally different this time :)

When the ferry arrived in Tallinn I was of course sleeping, so I was one of the last people to get off the ship, way too late to catch any of the trucks coming off of it. I was surprised by the low temperature. It was freezing at least 3 degrees, which was at least 5 degrees colder than in Helsinki. I was glad I came prepared for all of this, so it didn’t bother me too much. I just know that when I saw ice crystals on the windows of the corridor out of the boat I got a little worried over how cold this was actually going to be.

I made my way off the boat and to the start of the Via Baltica. It starts right outside the terminal, as the ferry ride is officially part of it as well. It is in downtown Tallinn though, so hitching is not really an option unless you catch the trucks coming off the boat. Since the next boat wouldn’t arrive until 2 hours later, I decided on the next best plan: walking. This turned into maybe not so much of a good plan as I had to walk to the outskirts of Tallinn before finding a ride. At -3 celsius, walking 14 Km to get there is quite far. It took me about 3 hours I guess to get there and then get a ride. The ride wasn’t even taking me very far, but that didn’t really matter. I was glad to start feeling my toes again :)

The next ride took a while to find, but eventually a guy picked me up that was going to Pärnu. He was very friendly, but it was not very clear to me what he was actually going to do there. Communication was in very basic German and English. When we got close to Pärnu he said that he would call a friend who was going to Riga that day. Again, not being sure what was going on, I decided that it was my best bet at still reaching Riga this day. It turned out to be okay, he had a friend who was in a car accident and his brother had driven the man from Riga to Pärnu, and he was driving the guy back to Tallinn (Pärnu is about halfway in between Riga and Tallinn). His brother and his brother’s wife were happy to take me back to Riga.

As many residents of Latvia (and even the baltics) this couple was Russian. I was offered some mysterious liquid containing a high percentage of alcohol, which I gladly took. It was cold enough for it :) We drove to Riga and arrived there far after dark. They were kind enough to drop me at a gas station on the other side of Riga, on the road to Lithuania. I tried hitching a bit more, but in the darkness in the outskirts of a city nobody will pick you up.

Temperatures had reached -8 or 9 by now, and would soon drop to below -10. I decided it was time for my tent and sleeping bag. Like a full-blown alpine climber I rushed to get my tent up (at these temperatures you loose feeling in your finger tips within minutes when your handling stuff :) ) and got in my sleeping bag. It has a comfort temperature of -7, but an extreme of -20. I can now confidently say this is true. I kept on some of my clothes (never keep all of your clothes on as you will have nothing to warm you up in the morning) and only had really cold feet all night. The rest of me was just not super-warm :)

It must have been around 22.00 when I faded into sleep.

Day 2: Riga РMarijampol̩

The next day I got up early, as it wasn’t really comfortable in my tent anyways and I wanted to catch commuter traffic out of Riga. I catched a couple of short rides in the pitch dark, thumbing along in the headlights of oncoming cars. I was taken on a very busy two-lane road through a bunch of very small villages, not really getting any miles done. Again, I walked a lot. I had a very good time despite the cold and the darkness, listening to The Doors on my iPod. I was singing out loud (yes, me, singing. It was not like anybody could hear me ) and smiling while thumbing the traffic :)

Somewhere along the way I figured out what had gone wrong; Teh Via Baltica is designed to lead around cities and not through them. The same is the case with Riga. I knew I went off the VB to enter Riga, but I presumed that when my last drivers said thsi was the road to Lithuania, they put me back on the VB. This was not the case; they merely had put me on the main road out of Riga, leading back to the VB but not actually being the VB. It took me hours to make it to the point where that road rejoins the VB (only 17 Km away :( )

From there it was easier though. A Russian trucker picked me up, speaking only Russian and not even able to read latin alphabet. He took me to Panevezys. Again the VB leads around the city. He needed to go in the direction of Vilnius, but I needed to go to Kaunas. The VB splits off right after Panevezys. He totally missed the signs though, and I had no way to explain to him that he was about to head into the city off of the VB. So instead, I let him make an emergency stop and jumped out of the truck right before Panevezys. This is where it started raining. Now, with temperatures just below freezing and not to many salt-trucks around, this gets _really_ dangerous really fast. Over the next couple of hours, the road would slowly tunr into an ice track.

I waited for quite a while as I was in a pretty shitty place to hitch with nowhere else to go. In the end, a guy picked me up with the most creepy intriguing look in his eyes I’ve ver seen. Kind of like he was on coke or something. He was really friendly though, and told me he would drop me off on the other side of the city on the road to Kaunas. He did and I got a good ride from there really easy. The guy picking me up was a really friendly Lithuanian, driving back to Kaunas after having worked in Norway for 5 months. He was really interested in my travels and the things I was doing.

When we arrived to Kaunas, I asked him to drop me off at a gas station on the road to Poland. He responded saying “Oh, so you are not coming with me to my house to meet my wife and have some food?”. He didn’t ask me before and we didn’t talk about it, but to him it was so natural. I knew Lithuanian food was good and even though it would cost me the last couple of hours of daylight I agreed. We arrived at his house and once again I was met with incredible hospitality. He offered me a shower, I got soup, dinner, was offered wine and pastries, the whole nine yards. After a while of watching TV i felt really bad about asking him to drop me off, but I needed to get back on the road to try to get closer to Poland that day. He told me he would like to show me a little bit of the city, so we took the scenic route to the gas station on the road to Poland.

I decided that I wanted to try to get out of there, but by now the gas station was more like an ice rink. People were falling on their asses everywhere, cars coming off the highway were spinning, it was crazy :)

It took me until far after dark to get a ride. A young guy took me to after Marijampole. On teh way we saw many car accidents involving trucks and normal cars. We drove over stretches of road that made the car slide even though we were going straight. It was kinda scary. After he dropped me off, I tried a bit more to get to Poland, but it was just pointless at this time, so I set up my tent behind a gas station and went to bed.

Day 3: Marijampol̩ РPoznan

The next morning I slept in a bit, since I knew it was ultra slippery and it was kinda comfy in my sleeping bag. I got up around 8 and started hitching after a warmup cup of coffee at the gas station (coffee is always ready in the morning when you sleep behind a gas station, isn’t that convenient :) ).

It took me a long time before I got out of there, since the side of the road was scaring the truck drivers (they make up over 60% of traffic on the road!). Also, someone told me he was not picking me up because many people get robbed here by bandits who pretend to be hitchhikers and then pull a gun. That kind of thing doesn’t really make it easier for the real hitchers. Again, I played The Doors loud on my iPod. Listening to that music just makes me so happy and relaxed. I was jumping/dancing around just to stay warm. It must have been quite the funny sight.

The guy that finally picked me up was very cheerful and took me all the way across the border to Suwalki. he dropped me on the other side of town where the VB leads out of Suwalki (In Poland, it doesn’t circumvent towns anymore). He left me there saying: “You won’t be here for more than maximum 20 minutes”, which I kind of doubted seeing as my experiences earlier that day in Marijampole lead me to believe something different.

And then it happened: my lucky ride! 2 minutes after my previous driver took off, a Volvo XC90 pulled up. Inside was a big ass Polish trucker who had to drive that thing to Warsaw (250Km away). He knew the road very well, and even though it was mostly provincial two-lane roads filled with truckers, we sped up to 160-170Km/hour. Let’s just say it was like a 3-hour roller coaster ride. The manoeuvrings he pulled off were very dangerous, yet he did it like it was the easiest thing ever, with utmost precision and control. I was only shitting my pants half the time :)

He dropped me off 2Km from downtown Warsaw way before sundown, a lot earlier then I had expected. This was good, as I wanted to get out of Warsaw before the end of the day. I walked and walked until I found the start of the highway. I warmed up in a McDonald’s, amking a sign that said Poznan. I was getting cocky now :)

I waited for quite a while to get out of the city, and with a bunch of short rides from commuters goign back home I found myself outside of Warsaw along the E30 (the highway that leads past Poznan straight across Germany into Holland). It was very dark, but the temperature was now just above 0, which felt quite warm to me at this point. I decided to walk a bit to find a good spot to camp out, but could only find a mediocre spot. I decided to try hitching for a little bit more as there was a reasonable hitching spot right in front of it. I got very lucky. A young dude who spoke nearly only Polish (and kept doing so even after I made it clear I don’t :) ) picked me up in a trcuk and he told me he was going to the north of Poland, but was heading down the road all the way to Poznan. We talked, I slept, he dropped me off. Once again, it was in the middle of the highway, which had really high shoulders. On top of the shoulders there was a bit of grass and as I was exhausted, I decided to set up my tent there. I went to sleep late, but really satisfied over a good day of hitching!

Day 4: Poznan – Rotterdam

The next morning I woke up and decided to once again sleep in a bit. You know that feeling that you don’t wanna get out of your warm bed in the morning when you wake up? Imagine freezing temperatures outside, no place to clean up or take a shower or even have breakfast, and the prospect of a long day of hitching ahead of you. Needless to say I kept postponing getting up. I did eventually though, and started hitching. I decided to go apeshit and hold a sign saying NL. I did that because the highway that I was on was leading all the way through Germany into Holland, and because I knew Polish truckers like dutch hitchhikers. Once again, I got lucky. A truck stopped with a very friendly driver. He told me he was going all the way to Hannover (halfway through Germany). We only stopped twice because he needed to change his tacho (highly illegal but it allows them to drive for more than the allowed amount of time) and to go shopping at a supermarket. When we got close to Hannover, I asked him if he could use the radio to ask for any Polish driver in the vicinity going into Holland. He did and lo and behold someone responded. These radio networks are so cool! There are so many Polish truckers that they look out for each other, so they form a huge union amongst the european trucker community. The next truck turned out to be right at the next parking, so we stopped there and I put my stuff directly into the next truck.

When I was in the truck, I asked the guy where he was going. He was going to Dordrecht, just 20 Km from Rotterdam. F*^ck Yeah! This would mean I coudl go home this day, something I had never expected when I woke up that morning.

This guy was kind of creepy though, for many reasons. First of all his looks: he looked like someone I wouldn’t leave my 7 year old daughter alone with (had i had one 😉 ). next, he drove a 1 year old truck, but most of the cabin was still wrapped in the plastic it comes out of the factory in. Considering the amount of time these guys spend in their truck, the only reason I could think of was that it was easier to wash the blood off of it :) Then there was the cleaning product that was hanging in front of the fans that had such a penetrating smell, it was unbelievable. Last but not least, I learned about a new music style (6 hours in a row!): Polish Polka techno. Think Polish folk music combined with horrible techno.

Again though, the guy was quite nice, and he was very willing to share food and he let me sleep most of the way. I guess I’m just lucky I’m a big guy :) Also he was driving together with another ttrucker to the same destination, so that made it a lot safer. But then again, when we stopped for a break the guy watched an Asterix and Obelix cartoon on his laprop. I got the feeling he was just a very eccentric nerd that wasn’t alone in a truck, outside of normal civilization for no reason. Who knows.

He dropped me off just outside the city center of Dordrecht. I quickly found a bus to the train station and took a train for the last little bit of the road home. When I arrived home, I was happy I made it and satisfied with making it through this pretty big challenge. Now I total 17500 Km of hitching in my life, and I’m not about ready to stop :)

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5 Responses to “The very dark and very cold Via Baltica”

  1. Wow, cool (!) story (don’t have anything to say actually, but I just wanted to make sure you knew I read the blog immediately :-P)

     

    Eef

  2. Wow what a story again. I did 3,5 weeks America for my work after i last spoke you and have done many cool things there, but they are nothing compaired to this cool trip.

     

    Nukkel

  3. I love reading these, they make me giggle. It helps me get distracted while I am feeding the baby

     

    kellie

  4. awesome story walter! i will definitely post this in the next few days

     

    grant

  5. “so I set up my tent behind a gas station and went to bed” this is the highlight of my day. thanks!

     

    esteban

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