26th JULY 2018
I leave my campsite at Marijampole after scoffing down a plate of hot rolls and bread that the reception girl sells as a money-making sideline. She must ask every customer if they want morning bread when they check in, as she spends the first hour of her day heating and delivering bakery goods.
With a full stomach, I continue on the same minor road that I used coming into town yesterday, before I join a main road for my last few kilometres in Lithuania. From here to the border there’s a nice metre-wide margin at the side of the road to allow for safe cycling. The border itself houses a few imposing looking buildings from when it was a functioning crossing, but today no-one is stopped and everyone passes through freely. The only official presence takes the form of three soldiers on the Lithuanian side, but they are just sitting under the shade of a tree and chatting. I wave as I pass and they return the gesture.
Once again, the only real giveaway that you’d crossed a border is a large sign on the Polish side advising of their traffic regulations. I’m a little apprehensive about cycling in Poland as I’ve heard a few bad reports about it – German Nicklas cycled from South to North and described the country as having ‘nasty roads and nasty drivers.’ Just as his warnings are swirling round my head the safe buffer zone at the road’s edge disappears, leaving me at the mercy of these awful Polish drivers.
As it turns out the drivers aren’t particularly nasty compared to anywhere else. The concern for me is that they often zip past at motorway speeds on this narrow-ish road. Thankfully though, the further I cycle from the border, the quieter the road becomes. Pretty soon I’m cycling through a pine forest, with twenty metre tall trees on each side of the road providing coolness and shade, but still with enough gaps to let dappled shafts of sunlight through. I follow this road towards Augustow, where a new-looking cycle path starts a good 15km from town. I don’t know it yet, but this is to become a recurring theme in Poland – good quality cycle paths when close to towns and cities, but next to nothing in between.
I’m staying with a Warm Showers host tonight named Jan (Yann), who lives about 4km North of the town. I takes me a little while to find his address, but I call at two houses beforehand and both instantly knew who I was talking about. When I find him he’s an affable chap who’s probably in his late fifties, and a veteran cycle-tourer. His first tour was from Poland to Hungary as a teenager in 1976, and since then he’s taken a month off every year to go travelling with a bike. Off the top of his head he recounts destinations in Europe, South East Asia, the Caribbean and Central America, although he’s bound to have been to more. His favourite cycle-trip country is Iran, which may be a surprise to some, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that from a cycle-tourer. According to people who’ve cycled there, the hospitality of the Iranian people is amazing.
It looks like he owns the holiday apartments across from his house, but must keep a room free for any cyclists who put in a request to be hosted. His own house is a huge, modern two-storey building and he’s clearly quite well-off. Another two cyclists show up that night and he lets them put up tents on grassland beside his private beach on the lakeside. I also notice that every single person who’s been kayaking or swimming at the lake goes to his house afterwards or stores all their gear there. He tells me he’s received so much hospitality during his cycle tours that now it’s good to be in a position to give something back. I’m shown to my accommodation, which is similar to a private room in a hotel and he just leaves me to it. I’m also shown the communal kitchen and he tells me to help myself if I don’t have enough food for tonight. What a thoroughly decent bloke.
The next morning I go to knock on Jan’s door to say Goodbye and Thank-You. He arrives in a dressing gown like Hugh Hefner, clearly a little bleary and hungover after a few wines last night. He shakes my hand and tells me Poland is a great country to cycle in because it has good food and it’s cheap. I go back into town to withdraw some Polish Zlotys and then immediately go to Lidl and spend some on road food.
I’m on a mission to avoid major roads today, so head East out of Augustow when really I should be moving South. The cycle path I’m on has signs for the Green Velo cycle route, which German Nicklas had used in his trip and had recommended to me. It doesn’t always go in the direction you want and is sometimes reduced to a sand track, but it does cover a fair chunk of Eastern Poland. I also see a sign telling me that it’s 32km before I reach Lipsk and am able to turn South again. I feel this is a wasted distance as I’m travelling in the wrong direction, even though the road is quiet. After Lipsk the road quality becomes shockingly bad and I bounce along uncomfortably for the 40km it takes me reach Sokolka.
Now I really have no choice but to join the busy Route 19 to Bialystok. There are a lot of trucks on this road and I’ll often take to riding in the roadside gravel if I hear one approaching from behind. Even if I see a queue of trucks coming towards me I’ll sometimes just pull in to the side anyway to be safe. By this point I’m thinking I’ll stop for the day if I see a campsite any time before the city.
Strangely though, I start to focus that bit more because it’s so busy and my head gets into a ‘just keep going’ mode. A long, well-timed downhill then speeds me towards Bialystok and now I decide that I’m going to get through the city to the campsite tonight. I’m able to skirt round the city centre fairly easily by using a network of brilliantly smooth cycle paths that follow the motorway. The campsite itself should be easy to find as it’s beside a lake on probably the only stretch of beach in the whole of Bialystok. However, I still almost conspire to miss it as it’s tucked away behind a sports club that uses the same lakefront. I have to walk my bike past beach volleyball courts, changing rooms and children’s play areas, before a security guard on a bike gets me to follow him to the camping area.
I’m treated to another lakeside sunset, with clouds reflecting a pinky-orange glow onto the boating lake. It’s a nice way to round off a long day, but it’s almost dark by the time I get my tent set up. With my winding round-about route today I’ve ended up travelling 130km. That’s eighty miles. I’m not sure cycling that amount of kilometres every day just to avoid busy roads is a sustainable tactic. I’ll wreck myself. And, besides, even though it was quiet to begin with I finished the day on a busy main road anyway ! I feel that getting through Poland may prove a bit of a conundrum.