In retirement one has time for long bike rides but the time window is short before age and decrepitude take over. Last year we began the Iron Curtain Cycle Trail: more than 7,000 km that roughly follows the path of the historic Iron Curtain, starting in Grense Jakobselv on the border of Norway, Russia and the Arctic Ocean and finishing in Virolahti on the southern border of Finland and Russia. The route at this stage follows Eurovelo 13 and is marked as going through Russia to the Baltic States. Cycling through Russia? Much opinion was against it: the roads were unsafe, there were bandits, there were a lot of accidents on the roads, we would need to give a bribe at the border, our bikes would be stolen, St Petersburg was very dangerous and only to be visited with a tour.
We listened, then began to learn the Russian alphabet and plan our journey of 12 days and 500kms, booking our visas and a couple of hotels with Real Russia and more hotels through Booking.com. We took heed that the road E18 was rather unsafe for cycles. Instead we took the train from Helsinki to Imatra and on 22nd April, with a strong cold North wind behind us, we cycled the few kms to the border. No one asked for bribes. No one spoke English. We followed some local cyclists through, showing papers at various windows and causing some perplexity from the staff on duty. But eventually with passports stamped and luggage checked, we were through. For maps we had downloaded Galileo onto my iPad. This proved to be excellent and marked our first hotel in Svetogorsk, the first town over the border. Again no English but there were obviously problems. We were shown a form. No, we didn't know about this. Impasse. Then a Danish man who spoke English and Russian explained to them that the Migration Card they were asking for was only issued to motorists, not to cyclists. Incorrect! But we had forgotten the information about Migration Cards that came with our visas from Real Russia and in any case would not have had the Russian to ask for one. However, his explanation was accepted. Our bikes were safely locked in an attended car park, for which we paid a small fee, we enjoyed a good meal and fell asleep in a comfortable room.
The first morning in snowy Svetogorsk on the border with Finland
We woke to a view of whiteness and snowflakes swirling down. Pretty but not the best thing for cycling. Our next hotel in Vyborg was booked, so we had to keep going. The day was a mixture of snow, sleet, rain and sun. The road itself was snow free, hilly and often through forests, pleasant for our picnic lunch but cold in the snow. The road surface was variable. On the whole, lorry drivers were excellent and gave us a wide berth. The same cannot be said for car drivers, particularly the next day as we cycled towards the coast and St Petersburg, on a Friday. Like any big city, fast cars were escaping for the weekend and were not concerned about overtaking towards an oncoming cyclist.
A picnic in a forest on the way to Vyborg
It is true that there were not many cyclists outside the towns. We only once saw another person with panniers, doing a long distance ride, but coming into St Petersburg on a sunny Saturday, many people, including families, were out on bikes, roller blades, scooters and skate boards. For much of the way there was a separate path for pedestrians and cyclists and in the town itself it was acceptable to ride on the pavement. However we were a sufficient rarity that the owner of the bike shop in Vyborg, where we went to buy bike oil, took a photo of us. Perhaps even now it is advertising his bikes. Coming into St Petersburg had some scary moments when the footpath disappeared and we were in the middle of an awful junction with roads going everywhere, curling around above and circling underneath. Get it wrong and we would be heading on a motorway across the sea. And what was the colour code for motorways? Blue as in England or green as in France?
Saturday cyclists enjoying the sea. Children had fun climbing over the ice boulders on the shore.
St Petersburg and Petergof were days for tourism. A rainy St Petersburg was not a problem. We were inside the amazing museums and art galleries. Petergof on 1st May was a day of sunshine. May Day is no longer a big celebration but there were many school parties enjoying the fountains and delightful gardens. In St Petersburg there was also an attempt to solve the problem of the lack of a Migration Card. So far each hotel had accepted us because we had a receipt from the previous one but this time we were staying longer and the hotel wanted it sorted. They sent one of their staff with us to the Immigration Department. We spent an intriguing afternoon being sent from one section to another. At one point we joined men from the former Socialist Republics of Central Asia who were seeking work permits. They looked a fairly desperate group, as do any people who have journeyed far from their homes in search of work. When finally we got to the right place we were far back in the queue and the window was closed firmly two people ahead of us.
Classy facilities parked outside the Hermitage (туалет is Russian for toilet …)
Grand Fountains in the Summer Palace
From Petergof we planned to follow the coastal road through Sosnevey Bor. The road was busy and not very pleasant to cycle along. We were glad of a cafe en route and enjoyed the stalls of hand-made baskets. Then disaster struck. About 2015 kms before Sosnevey Bor there was a military road check and “Niet”. There was no way they would allow us through. We were told later that this was because of a nuclear power station in the area. We consulted the Galileo map and found a route inland that missed out the peninsular and with a hotel marked at Gostilitsy. We had another 40kms to cycle. The wind was against us bringing icy rain and the road was hilly. Would the hotel exist? We had a tent but the forest on either side was decidedly boggy. We were at a low ebb. Then the sun came out, the wind dropped, we arrived in Gostilitsty and found the hotel. They were surprised at our unexpected arrival but sign language and Google translate brought smiles all round plus a nice room and an evening meal. By the morning they were trying to teach us Russian but sadly we had to leave.
Marshland outside of Saint Petersburg
Our route now took us on minor roads with little traffic and much birdsong. The rain stopped and the sun shone. At last there were signs of spring, with wild flowers coming out and the leaves just starting to open on the trees. We passed a castle and resisted temptation to buy the jam and pickles at a market. On bikes you have to watch how much you carry. We knew we would be on very minor roads that were likely to be unsealed but maps don't show the condition. The first 40km were fine but how much of the second 40kms would be cyclable? After a further 20kms the road deteriorated with long, extremely rough stretches. Finally we had to get off and push through deep muddy ruts. Logging lorries coming out of the forest had churned up the road. A couple of kms later we were through and onto a quiet, good road to our hotel at Dubki. Again no English but a young couple staying there translated and once again we were offered an evening meal.
Our trip would obviously have been much more enjoyable if we had spoken Russian. You can get a long way with sign language and Google translate but you cannot go much beyond the basics. Learning the alphabet made a big difference and enabled us to read the essential words such as toilet, chocolate and vodka.
Our last day was 93kms to the Estonian border where we crossed into Narva. The road was mainly good with little traffic. There were more villages, one with a store, and more cyclists. Many of the villages we passed through had closed factories and abandoned workers flats but always there were people tending their gardens and allotments and on the riverbanks men were fishing. Gardens were beautifully kept but the forests were spoiled by heaps of rubbish. Apart from the St Petersburg district, every ditch, picnic spot or lay-by seemed to be a refuse tip.
And the Migration Card? It seemed to be less of an issue after St Petersburg. We were asked for it at the border. Again no English, we looked puzzled, shrugged our shoulders, said “Niet”. After a discussion we were issued with them to fill in. It was duly stamped and filed. With little fuss we were now legal and pushed our bikes into Estonia.
It is a popular (mis)conception that border guards the world over can be officious, cold and unfeeling. This is particularly true of Russia and other states who have, historically, been quite closed off to the rest of the world. No doubt this has left more than one traveller a little concerned when the time came to interact with these guards. I certainly felt this way; particularly as I always seem to be the passenger who is randomly searched/checked!
So, how was my experience?
Remarkably good is the answer. Completely painless.
The ticket check shortly after leaving Helsinki was quick, easy and hassle free. I simply remained at my seat as a gentleman came and scanned my passport before offering me my migration card to fill in while we travelled.
The migration card, for those who do not know, comes in two parts. One that you offer to the Russian border guards on entering the country, and one that you will hand to the border guards when leaving. Both parts require your personal details, your passport number and who your sponsor is (the company from whom you received your invitation).
At Kouvola customs officials boarded the train and a black dog surprised me by running past my seat! While I am not 100% sure on why it was present – it could have been taking a short journey home – I imagine it was there to sniff out any illegal substances. The officials then proceeded to check everyone’s passport at their seats.
There is a customs declaration form that must be filled in while en-route if you have anything to declare. These are available in Finnish, Russian, Swedish and English from a leaflet rack within the carriage. A helpful guide as to what must be declared is also provided, and while the English translation was not perfect in places, it is very clear as to what items must be declared.
At Vainikkala, the Finnish border station, the train stopped for around five minutes allowing the Finnish border guards to disembark. The train then got underway for the Russian border!
Next came the process I feared most, the Russian border guards.
After crossing the border, the train stops at a small town called Vyborg where the Russian passport and customs officers are collected. From Vyborg to Saint Petersburg, the train is in a ‘customs control zone’. After a few minutes the officials started their checks along the train, with some checking what luggage passengers were transporting and the others checking passports, visas and the migration card that was issued earlier in the trip. The officials take the entry section of the migration card and then move on.
This whole process was much easier than I had expected. I did not have to leave my seat, or even open my bags. It was quick and very efficient. I feel slightly silly for being worried about the process.
At the beginning, I mentioned that I had concerns about this process. Many based on preconceived ideas (and some prior experience) of border guards. I am pleased to say I could not have been more wrong. I also saw no other passenger searched. Questions were asked of a few people, but nothing more involved or complicated than that.
So when crossing the border from Finland, sit back, relax, and take in the view!
P.S. One more thing, something I noticed while travelling through the Finnish countryside; there is a distinct lack of fences anywhere! I do not remember seeing any. In place of fences there just seemed to be ditches. Lots of ditches. It gave the small villages along the route a much more pleasant, open-plan feel than you would find many settlements in Europe!
Have you crossed the border on the Allegro? Have you crossed going in the other direction? Have you entered Russia via any other land border? Share your experience below or on Facebook.
Over the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure of travelling through Finland and Russia, experiencing the people, places, food, culture and, importantly, the trains first hand. Over the next few weeks, I shall be trying to sum up my experiences into a series of blogs in order to give you a brief ‘insider view’ into the good, the bad, and the ugly, of travelling in this region.
Before finding out what I thought, or felt, it may help to have some context. What did I expect to find in Finland and Russia? How did I expect to feel?
Russia ‘is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. The words of Winston Churchill in 1939 hold just as true today as they did 75 years ago. It is unique. Both in the sheer size of the country, and in everything that is within those borders.
What I am trying to say is this, that even though I have been working with Real Russia for 10 months now, I still did not know what to expect. Particularly after the events of 2014.
All of the above?
To find out how I got on, and whether any worries I had were necessary, stay tuned to our social media and follow my blog posts over the next few weeks.
Spoiler Alert: Generally, Russia has been very kind to me, particularly the colleagues that I have met for the first time in our Russian offices, and any worries I may have had were unfounded.