The last two weeks were spent at Jan’s apartment in Ekenas, Finland (Jan is my friend from Swakopmund, Namibia, and he owns the Yamaha dealership there, where I bought my bike). Once Jan arrived from Namibia, he made sure I got a taste of the local Finnish backroads. And I must say, I was very happy to ride like a local, with a local.
Jan knows the woods and the tracks through them like the back of his hand. He grew up in this part of the world, and I was privileged to see amazing places and meet excellent people through his network of friends. We explored amazing gravel roads, winding beautifully through the forests and farmlands of Southern Finland, on the bikes as I piloted my Yamaha Super Tenere. And we explored the Finnish archipelago as well on a boat belonging to his friend. I was amazed at how many islands, inlets and bays they have in Finland. Everything is so peaceful, with private islands hidden away from the buzz of the city and surrounded by nature.
I also visited our friends in Turku, Heikki and Ulla, long (very long) distance bikers that have seen and done it all, from Ushuaia to Cape Town, from Israel to Nordkapp. Heikki and Ulla spoiled me while in Turku, taking me out to various restaurants and showing me a good time. With friends like these (Stina and Pile in Ekenas as well, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for feeding me and arranging for a great article in the local newspaper), it was hard to say goodbye and I realized once more how easy it is to get comfortable in good company and how quickly the human mind relaxes in favorable circumstances. For all the above, I have Jan to thank, as he is the initiator of all good things.
Having found friends and relaxation in Finland, I headed south to Estonia. I arrived in Tallinn, the capital and largest city in Estonia, at 6:30 p.m., waiting for Jan first by the ferry and then at the hotel where we were supposed to stay. I soon realized that he missed the ferry (there was no other explanation) and once I found out how bad the backpackers hotel was, where we were supposed to stay, I headed out of town where I found a campsite (still a dump, but cheap).
Once I set camp, I rode back to the Old Town to see if I could still find Jan, who hopefully would come with the evening ferry. I hovered around the same spot until around 9:30 p.m. and then I ate something and headed back to the camp. As I rode out of the old town, by the roundabout at the Viru Hotel (the tall one) I looked for oncoming cars but I overlooked the fact that there is a tram way as well. I accelerated to enter the roundabout and I heard screams and loud honking of the cars around me. I turned and saw the tram within meters from my bike… I accelerated again but, from panic, I opened the clutch too fast and the bike stalled and died on the rail. The tram driver saw I was stuck and started to brake, people were shouting louder and running towards me, and I knew that I was dead. My bike was on the rail and I was looking straight at the driver’s face, which became very white and his eyes very big. My blood rushed down from my face and I knew it was all over. I heard screeching noises and the tram literally stopped with its bumper touching my left crash bar with my knee only four inches away from it.
The passengers jumped out of the tram, and the driver came out pulling his hair, thinking he broke my leg. Drivers in the cars behind me came to help push the bike back and looked at my leg. All this happened within a few seconds, but I saw everything in slow motion, as if I was not actually there but watching the whole thing from the side. I was in such a state of shock. I couldn’t believe that I was still alive, and neither could anyone else around me. The onlookers were very friendly and extremely courteous, and two cars actually escorted me for a while as I headed back to camp. I had nightmares about my close call with the tram the whole night.
I left the next day, after breakfast (which I had in the Old Town, again, but this time extremely focused on trams), for Narva – the easternmost city in Estonia and bordering Russia. I rode straight to the border, trying to find out if I need to do anything in advance before entering Russia. I am glad I did. I needed to reserve my space, buy a reservation number, fill in four different customs forms and change money into rubles. I then went to camp in Narva. Then I returned to the border at 8 a.m. on June 12, which, as it turns out, is a big holiday in Russia so lots of people were crossing into Estonia.
I arrived with my bike at the border kiosk and presented my passport. The guy looked at it, put it through the computer and then looked at me strangely. He called another guy, spoke something to him in Estonian (this was on the Estonian side of the border, not Russian) and then said: “Come with me, please.” He took me through some very dark corridors, into a room with no windows, barred doors and it really looked like an interrogation room. Then he took the bike keys, the passport and the bike registration and said to wait here. Then, I waited, from 8 to 12. No one came to see me, I had no water, it was freaking hot and I couldn’t hear or see anything. I was worried about my bike, with so many people around it and all my valuables there.
Eventually, at noon a big guy with a gun and two stars on his uniform shoulders came with my papers, and very imposingly said: “You are an illegal immigrant in Europe and you stayed three months longer than you were allowed.” I said “What? What do you mean three months? I have a visa that expires today.” He said “No, you were not supposed to get another three months in March when you came back from Morocco, so you stayed illegally in Europe for the past three months.”
I got so pissed with this guy, because he thought he would scare me with this tactic. I said: “I need to contact my embassy and I need a lawyer. How could I stay illegally if I have a perfectly legal visa on my passport?” He replied: “You do, but the Spanish Immigration officer in Tarifa should have not stamped your passport.” I said, “Really, so why am I the guilty one here? I am just a tourist, he should have known better.”
Apparently, he said that I can only stay three months in a six-month period in Europe and after six months I can come back for another three months. I think this is incorrect, as I know for sure that you can have a three-month tourist stamp and then you have to exit the Schengen area (what they call most of the European Union) for few days (which I did, staying in Morocco for more than two weeks) and then you can re-enter Europe and get another 90 days, which I also did. As proof, my wife Carmen had the same visa as me, “overstayed” by two months (according to Estonian immigration) and when she flew back from Belgium back to Canada, no one said anything to her, she was legal.
Well, after a few more questions, the guy left and again I waited for more than an hour. Then he returned with a stash of papers (which I have with me as copies), explaining to me my “crime.” Therefore, here is my offense:
1. I am an illegal immigrant in Europe. They took photos of myself (front and side, just like the criminals) and gave me a copy of the paper stating this, next to my photograph.
2. I have to pay a fine of 100 Euro to the Estonian Ministry of Finance within 50 days
3. I have to present myself in court to dispute my case
I then told them to handcuff me and send me back to Estonia to jail, as I will not pay anything, I will not come back for a court trial and I couldn’t care less if I am banned from the beautiful Schengen area. He said he couldn’t do that because I am not allowed back in Europe, but he will let me go to Russia now. I asked him: “How can you let me go and how do you think I will come back to court in Estonia?” To which he replied: “It is not my job to think of that, it is my job to make sure you comply with European law.” I showed him the finger (only in my mind, of course).
So, I got all my papers, my passport, the new offense papers (which I have kept with me to prove how they tried to screw me and to write articles about this everywhere), jumped on my bike and headed to Russia’s border. I got to the Russian line, where a blonde lady greeted me with a smile, stamped my passport and sent me to Customs. There I got another paper, and in less than 15 minutes I was welcomed into Russia.
I rode to St. Petersburg guessing my way more than anything, because the GPS didn’t do much for me. I loaded the maps for Russia from opensource.com, but for some reason the GPS does not see them. So, I rode towards St. Petersburg (I read and speak a bit of Russian, which so far, has been a lifesaver here) and then I tried to find roads that would take me closer to my camp, for which I had the GPS coordinates. I discovered something amazing in the process: If you have the destination coordinates, even without the maps, you can still see the destination and just try to ride on the closest road that you find in front of you. I did this and after about two hours arrived at my camp.
St. Petersburg is an impressive city, and Russians like to build big. The historic city is a gem of architecture and design, including its massive citadel, but only now did I realize how big the rest of the city is and that it is much more than just the bridges and cathedrals. Most of the pictures and videos I saw with St. Petersburg focused on the greatest attractions it has to offer, but never the neighborhoods surrounding the historic downtown. It is massive, with apartment blocks that stretch for miles, lined up like giant dominoes on each side of the road. The traffic is crazy. These guys drive over 120 km/h (75 mph) in the middle of the town, slaloming in and out of lanes like there’s no one else on the road.
My first two days in Russia and my head is already spinning. I have 10.000 kilometers (6213 miles) to go… I cannot even begin to even imagine what it’s going to be like.
Nomad’s World Ride: Norway
Nomad’s World Ride: Zambia
Nomad’s World Ride: Tanzania & Kenya
Nomad’s World Ride: Morocco
Nomad’s World Ride: Norway
Nomad’s World Ride: Baltics & Russia
Nomad’s World Ride: Moscow
Nomad’s World Ride: Moscow to Ufa
Nomad’s World Ride: Ufa to Krasnoyarsk
Nomad’s World Ride: Moscow