18/08/2010 - 21/08/2010 25 °C
I've enjoyed giving my knowledge of German a lick of paint over the last couple of weeks, and it became more useful further east as less English is spoken. I found myself able to have basic conversations with ease, if not with accuracy.
Now it was time to crank the next language into gear, but the effort of doing so is like not having a working clutch. Yet again I was surprised at how quickly the language shifts among locals; just the other side of the bridge I heard elderly residents passing the time of day in German, now I could hear teenagers swearing across the street to each other in Polish.
My first practice was to order some lunch in a cafe, and I treated myself to one of my favourite dishes in Poland, placki po wegierksu z surowka (potato pancakes with goulash). The prices were also very amenable, both compared to Germany, and the prices I was used to in Germany. A pint of beer in a bar was half the price than the capital, for example.
Within five minutes of being in Poland, the sun came out, and for the most part it was to stay that way for several days; literally a warm welcome. However, I was really somewhat anxious about this stage of the journey. I'd not thought about it too much until this point, but I knew very well what Polish roads were like, and more importantly what the traffic and drivers were like. I wasn't likely to see any cycle paths outside the towns (and those in the towns would likely be in a bad state of repair) so I'd be sharing the road the whole way.
I just wanted to get to Warsaw now; it seemed so close, but the distance still to tackle was depressing. I could go the direct route 470km east to Warsaw, or I could meander around following the marked R1 route as far as was useful, but this increased the distance massively to nearly 700km.
Barring the route itself, information about the R1 in Poland was sketchy, but it beat the lack of suitable details of any other route, so I chose the long way round. Someone had at least decided this way was as good as any for cyclists, so I may as well trust in that.
I set off out of Kostrzyn, and immediately noticed the difference. Cars and lorries roared past, usually giving a reasonable berth but occasionally a whisker away from me. Every few kilometres, a cross and some flowers or other memorial would mark a fatal accident at the spot, making me feel particularly mortal. If there was a time that I felt wearing a helmet would be sensible, it was now, though I reminded myself grimly of the other statistics about how much use they really are.
Fortunately, after 10km I turned off this road to a much quieter one, and then nearly fell off my bike in surprise when I saw a cycle path running alongside the road. This wasn't what I expected from Poland! It only lasted a few kilometres, and is apparently one of the few rural segregated lanes in Poland. It seems somewhat out of place on such a quiet country lane.
I passed through small villages and towns, and kept going until the odometer ticked up to 110 km. The next couple of days passed similarly, staying at cheap hotels, occasionally pausing for breath or a quick meal, putting over 100km behind me on three consecutive days. I sneezed my way through Pszczew, Krzyz and Trzcianka (a pint of Zywiec to the first non-Polish speaker who can pronounce those correctly), and noted how few touring cyclists there were compared to Germany. In fact the occasional others that I saw were all German, following the R1 route.
I passed through the remote town of Miedzyrzecz, which is Polish for irony, then had a fantastic stretch of excellent road with almost no traffic. The reason? Ahead the road was closed, and the diversion was nearly 20km long. I hoped that, as with previous roadworks, bikes could get through even if on foot, otherwise the trip back to the diversion point would be even more depressing. Eventually I reached it. They were rebuilding the bridge over a river, and it was clearly not passable, by anyone. My heart sank, but I asked around and was told there was a shorter route round, just half a mile back. This was an incredibly bumpy, sandy, stoney, muddy track that abruptly crossed railway tracks a couple of times, but eventually led me to the other side of the bridge, and I could continue once more on the empty road.
Soon after, I met a couple of German cyclists; we'd stopped at the same bar for a drink. They were doing the R1 in the opposite direction, so we were each a source of invaluable information to the other. Unfortunately, this meant my brain had to somehow switch back again into German, which it was reluctant to do, so the conversation was somewhat stilted. I left there in much higher spirits, knowing that the road surface ahead was generally good, where to watch out for heavy traffic, and so on. I realised that I also felt more positive than I had done because it was the first extended conversation I'd had with anyone for a few days. I missed Couchsurfing!
I continued to follow precisely the R1 route, as it had generally served so well, except for a recommended diversion that the Germans confirmed. Often the road was fairly monotonous, though nicely undulating without being too strenuous, and with the good weather made it easy to cover the longer distances. It was frustrating to realise that I was at times going in precisely the opposite direction from Warsaw. But the alternative was to risk roads with an unsuitable surface, or too much traffic. Even a tarmacked road with loose chippings was a problem, particularly in the heat as the small stones both slow you down and get stuck to your tyres, even trying to pierce holes through them.
Villages came and went, and villagers came and stared. Dogs barked from behind fences, and then eventually I had my first chase, a little thing yapping at my feet, keeping up with me until the road turned downhill. Compared to Germany and the Netherlands, the towns and villages looked more impoverished - economically, culturally and architecturally.
I stopped for lunch in one village where a cafe or resturant was marked on the map, but the small bar I found was closed. Further along the road, a shop marked as a cafe was open, but by cafe, all they meant was that you could buy bottles of beer, and sit outside and drink them. This was a true village shop though. Among the small selection of bread and traditional Polish cold meats, bottles and packets, were trays of nails and screws, sold loose by the kilo like a sweet shop for Jim'lls. In the corner sat a woman on a stool in front of a fold-up table, with the hand-written sign 'bank'.
Outside, blue postboxes were numbered in a row. People here don't have letterboxes on their doors; they walk down the road to their box on the corner of the street to collect the mail. The postman has the key to a big lid, each covering dozen boxes, and drops the mail in. Each resident has the key to a padlock to open a forward-facing door to retrieve the mail. Simple but ingenious - until that is you want someone other than the postman to deliver you anything. Until recently, in my flat in Warsaw, if the building administration people wanted to send me anything, they couldn't push it through my door or pop it in my box. They'd go down to the post office, and sent it registered mail to be delivered back to me.
I keep questioning whether I can now be bothered to keep going. I feel like I'm almost there, yet it's going to take more than a week to complete the section in Poland. There's less of interest to see here - I know Poland quite well, have visited all the interesting places, and rural western Poland really isn't it! But its still nice to be here, back to hearing Polish spoken all around, and I remind myself that it beats sitting behind a desk. The sun has also been out since crossing the border, and that gives me cheer and drive to keep going.
My third night in Poland was finally with another couchsurfer, after several days of anonymous paid-for accommodation. Hania and family were putting me up for the night. I had originally expected to get to Pila by Saturday, but the long distances I was doing got me there a day early. It was tempting to press straight on the next day; like reading the last few chapters of the book, I was keen to race to the finish line. But I also knew I'd need a rest - it had been over a week since the last day off the saddle. Not only were saddle sores still evident, but my hands needed a rest - since the Harz mountains I've started getting occasional numbness and tingling in my hands, apparently known as handlebar palsy, caused mainly by the constant vibration, particularly on bad surfaces. I've taken to wearing padded gloves the whole time, but really a day off would help. So I stayed for two nights, enjoying the excellent company and hospitality.
All Hania's family are geographers, cartographers or in tourism. Her Dad was responsible for signing the R1 along most of its route in Poland. We discussed my dilemma of having no route after I leave the R1 before Bydgoszcz - I want to avoid the main roads, but want to ensure that the alternatives are suitable for cycling. This is a problem, as there aren't as many side roads as in England, and many that are there are heavily damaged or stony or sandy tracks. We pore over the maps we have, and they make phone calls to colleagues, and fetch leaflets from the office, and we piece together the most likely route. It's still speculation of course, but a very educated guess, though beyond Torun it will be worth me checking in there at the tourist office to see if better local information is avaiable.
Saturday morning is a very leisurely time. The only time on the saddle is to pop round the corner to get my bike serviced. Large enough towns are far more spread out here than in Germany, and it would be a shame to have a problem at this stage. I've noticed a hole in my tyre, and I'm not sure if I should do anything about it. The mechanic's first response is that it's a big hole and that I risk a puncture. But he quickly follows it with the advice that any replacement tyre he can supply will be far inferior to mine, and one hole aside, it's in good nick. The hole hasn't pierced through, so he sets about reinforcing the weak spot with a patch on the back. He then prides himself on ensuring that my gears and brakes are tuned to perfection, not letting it off his stand until he's perfectly satisfied. I think he's enjoying the pleasure of working on a bike of good quality rather than the rustbuckets he normally sees.
Saturday afternoon starts with a wander around town. Pila was bombed in the war, so there's not much to ee, though it is actually a very pleasant town, with lots of greenery, a river, and easily the best town cycle paths I've seen in Poland. Later in the afternoon, we go kayaking on the river. The second time in a week! This is Hania's family passion, and they live right by the river. Fortunately, I manage this time to go in a straight line. I'm convinced there must have been something odd about Florian's boat in Potsdam.
All the conversation is in Polish, and I'm pleased by how much I manage to communicate - or maybe it's testament to their politeness as I vomit out a random stream of disconnected morphemes, and they nod sagely as they pretend they can reconstruct them back into a meaningful sentence.
In the evening, Hania has some friends round for a bonfire in the garden, and we roast sausages on long skewers, and drink beer until the small hours. An excellent day off; I'm glad I didn't rush off.
But next morning, the final 400km awaits. It's time to finish what I started over three weeks ago.