Deep inside every traveler is an unrelenting hunger for the one destination that has held a grip for longer than memory serves. The source of this hunger is often unexplained. You may have read about the destination in a book or travel guide, you may have seen a news clip or you may have been inspired by tales of a friend or a relative. Perhaps there’s a far less obvious reason for your obsession: you simply like the sound of the name.
That destination, in my case, was Russia. Far and away the largest country in the world, Russia fascinated me with its imposing size, intimidating history and vast ranges of land seemingly untouched by humans, at least as far as I could tell from Google Maps. Russia’s turbulent past, the Russian Civil War, the formation of the Soviet Union, World War 2, the Cold War and the messy breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 provided many hours of awe-inspiring reading. I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the mystery of it all.
Last year, from my base in beautiful, rural southern Sweden, I made a decision. Summer was coming to an end and I had funds to burn. A travel companion and I charted a course from Sweden through Estonia to Narva, one of just three border crossings to the vast Russian landmass beyond. After years of contemplation, I was headed for my obsession.
The first leg of our expedition took us past Stockholm and Helsinki and then, via ferry, to Tallinn, the picturesque capital of Estonia. Tallinn remains under the radar of the average traveler, who would most likely favour the more familiar Sweden or Finland, but the city earned the well-deserved title of European Capital of Culture in 2011. After two nights of sightseeing, couch surfing and final preparations, we made our way through the lovingly maintained Medieval cobblestone streets of Old Town to a bicycle rental shop where our 200-mile journey officially began.
Estonia is an ideal country for cyclists. There are few steep gradients, the roads off the main highways are virtually deserted and the country’s relatively diminutive nature means nowhere is totally inaccessible. That said, 200 miles in a foreign country, far from home, was a daunting task for novice cyclists—one of whom had a banged-up knee. The dream of Russia was my motivation, though I can’t say the same for my travel buddy. She was there for the sheer adventure of it all.
We were excited to get started but our mutual motivations wilted slightly as we struggled to find our way. Though our couch surfing host/guide knew the backstreets well enough to lead us out of town, his map skills beyond Tallinn were somewhat lacking. Temperatures of 30-plus degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) helped less, and our backpacks were torturous. Two painstaking hours later, after silent bickering, steady perspiration and a terrifying half-hour stint on the busiest motorway in the country, we finally found our route and set a course for Narva and the Russian border.
Once we were off the highway, mile after mile of deserted and wonderfully flat tarmac stretched before us. The weather was stifling and our bags cumbersome, but rarely had cycling felt more satisfying. The waterfall at Jagala-Joa was the ideal picnic place, park-like but without the crowds. It was a much-needed relaxant. Having accomplished the first stint, about 30 miles worth, the rest, we decided, would be easy. For the next two days, it was exactly that.
The weather was brilliant, the roads remained empty and our overnight camping spots were breathtaking. Estonia loosely follows the Freedom to Roam legislation that is most commonly practiced in the Nordic countries, allowing access to whatever the country has to offer, and we took full advantage of it in those first two days. The coastal route we followed around the many small peninsulas of Estonia’s northern coastline rival any similar coastal drives through the whole of Europe. The scenery, in a word, was stunning. Our expectations had been left well behind—really, as far as the ferry as it first pulled into Tallinn. Though our diet consisted of little more than tuna and breakfast bars, with a frequently too-short supply of liquids, the success of our adventure thus far kept us in good spirits. On occasion, we were even fed by passing locals, such was the welcoming nature of many of Estonia’s inhabitants. Our finances were in check, we were just about maintaining our dietary requirements and were over halfway to Narva. We felt invincible.
The rest of our trip wouldn’t be as easy. The almost familiar nature of western Estonia gave way to the slightly rougher-edged east, made more noticeable by the scandalous weather conditions. The consecutive days of sunshine that had started in Stockholm a week earlier became a torrential downpour that lasted the entire next day. The misery of cycling in the rain is an emotion that only cyclists and bikers can understand; there’s no escaping the elements.
We rode for 10 hours that day. Rain fell for eight, and progress was hampered by the treacherous conditions. Our spirits were not lifted in any way when our secluded campsite became a tourist hotspot in the tiny town of Toila, a mere 30 miles from our destination. Sharing a 20-meter area with a very loud, very large German family blasting a radio from their campervan throughout the night was not ideal preparation for our final day on the road. At least, we thought, it couldn’t get worse.
Oh, but it could! That night, a storm kicked in during the early hours, whipping the tent in a frenzy of stressed material. Our sleeping bags fared even worse. Water seeped in at a rate that made violent shivering uncontrollable and sleep impossible. All electrical equipment was either ruined or put into some sort of coma for the rest of the day. At 4.30 a.m., with just enough daylight and energy to pack the tent and our completely sodden sleeping bags, we took off. Toila had been a nightmare, as the lack photographic evidence demonstrates, but camera work was the last thing on my mind.
The storm continued to batter our bikes and us. Tempers started to boil and my companion’s leg was barely fit for the struggle we faced that day. With a severe side wind, the going was treacherous, particularly after making it to the motorway for the final 20-mile stretch. The constant traffic combined with the gale-force winds made those 20 miles the scariest of my life. The meter or so of road we had to contend with to avoid the traffic behind us was nowhere near wide enough for the continuous bashing we were receiving from the elements, but we finally arrived at the edge of town, hurriedly exiting the motorway for the safety of the cycle path running alongside.
Finding the border wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped, however. After two hours of exploring cul-de-sacs, hassling locals fluent only in Russian and struggling with the distinct lack of signposts, we decided we didn’t like Narva so much. The mood was sullen and gray, a complete contrast to the colourful and friendly atmosphere we experienced in Tallinn. Locals seemed quiet, secretive and, on top of the language barrier, particularly unhelpful.
Blind luck led us to the border, though our path was blocked by an almost endless stretch of stationary traffic. Our hopes of haggling with the Russians for a brief foray in to their country were shattered. We instead made for Narva’s premier landmark, Hermann Castle, located on the banks of the Narva River. This impressive fortress is made more striking by the castle situated on the Russian side of the river. The Ivangorod Castle is equally imposing, though, like Hermann Castle, is only used as a tourist attraction these days. Bathers were enjoying the calm river at the foot of the castle walls beneath us, while the view across the river attracted a small crowd of impressed onlookers.
This was the moment I had been waiting for. My exploration of northeast Europe had culminated in the sight I’d been dreaming of for years. I still find it hard to explain why I had found Russia so alluring for so long, but the view of Ivangorod Castle had every single hair on the back of my neck standing at attention. Nearly 12 months on, I still reminisce about that view every day.
Looking back, it was Estonia that really won our hearts. At times it was unbearably hot, at other times unbelievably wet and cold, but throughout, Estonia surprised us with its welcoming appeal and overwhelming natural beauty. I certainly never want to camp in a storm again, but the emotional rollercoaster of those four days made the finale all the more enjoyable and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Estonia provided the perfect setting for a personal challenge, with the Russian border providing the ultimate finish line. The experience was one of the most enriching of my life, and I would urge anyone with a similar sensation of longing for that dream destination to reach out to it, and, while you’re at it, throw in a bit of a personal challenge for yourself. If there is one location that pesters your mind and demands that you make the effort to seek it out, I wholeheartedly encourage you to fulfill those demands. The sense of achievement is unlike anything you’ll have experienced before. It will change your life.