November in the Baltics: Beware of Radioactive Thieves

Apparently there are many reasons not to travel in the Baltic Countries, but the main one is radioactive thieves. “You might get mugged…. Don’t leave anything unlocked…. Be careful where you camp…. The drivers are crazy…. They dump nuclear waste by the roadside….”

We pedaled off the ferry into Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, on a chilly autumn morning with pitch forks in hand, prepared for the worst. Besides some bundled up old ladies, the car-free cobblestone streets were empty… phew! It was a Sunday morning and the gangs of radioactive thieves must still be asleep, hunched over broken vodka bottles.

We spent the rest of the day seduced and confused in the ‘crumbling beauty’ of the medieval centre. Graffiti on grey concrete. Irish pubs, American pizza parlours and strip joints. Sullen blocks of apartments with large sheets of paint peeling off. Glorious spires and towers thrusting into the sky. Beggars pleading on the pavement underneath. Cameras pointing in every angle. An old woman in a fur coat walks by, and answers her mobile phone to the jangly burst of a Lily Allen ringtone.

We pedal out of town and the signs of neglect and poverty only increase. Sullen buildings become grim. Gas stations have anti-theft alarms at the entrance of the building and outside of the toilets. Many people smile at us, some spark up some conversation, while many others remain focused on avoiding all eye contact. When we attempt to pronounce basic Estonian words like ‘hello’ (tere) and ‘thank you’ (tanan) people look at us like we are speaking in Wingdings. So mostly we smile and play the part of the dumb tourist.

The cycling is painful, as you would expect. November is not a good time to be cycling in most parts of Europe, let alone up north. The temperatures are yo-yoing above and below freezing, there is a chilly headwind, our tires feel like they are frozen to the road. But we are too stubborn to backtrack to Tallinn to catch a train, so we push on.

The greater part of the day is spent cycling through withered fields and naked forest, watching languid puddles turn to ice. At least if we were in the high mountains we might have some stunning scenery to distract us. There is no singing, no talking, just quiet anticipation of the next meal, and the next place to unthaw our feet and fingertips.

From our brief experience, food in Estonia is cheap, fresh, and very tasty. Nice salads with cabbage and pickles, big portions of hearty carbs, and lunch time milk aplenty for the dairy lovers. Normally we cook a lot of our own food to save money, but here it is cheap and plentiful, and we are happy to add our small contribution to the struggling economy. Vegetarian? Hmmmm… that can be difficult. “This soup has three kinds of meat in it. This one has four…”

Camping is a letdown. No radioactive waste after all, nobody hiding in the bushes, but lots of free RMK camping sites with outhouses. Unfortunately our timing is always off so we end up in a naughty camping zone or inside a bus shelter, not that anybody cares.

Our most difficult night of camping coincides with our first snowfall in Estonia. It is getting dark by around 4pm in November, meaning early camping and long hours in the tent. Where did all the forest go? The only suitable patch has nasty surprises of barbed wire winding through it. We dither around until Zoa is getting too cold to care, and we head towards an old barn. The roof is semi-collapsed and the door is jammed up with dirt. Ten minutes of digging out the doorway with my hands and the heel of my boot was enough to force an entrance.

Our headlights sweep through the darkness. An old stable with straw bedding. A closer inspection reveals toilet paper and human feces scattered around the interior. Mmmmm…. We setup tent on an unsullied patch while snow is falling through the cracks in the roof. We curl deeply into our sleeping bag, hope that the roof doesn’t collapse on top of us, while our tent poles stick together with ice. Why are we doing this again?

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