Some weeks ago, I have published an article about a 20-year-old memory of how I spent 9/11 during a cycling expedition. That trip on an upright tandem bike has nothing to do with recumbents at first sight, but it played a major role in my journey to recumbents. And it has determined the direction of my life.. The reason is simple. I saw a recumbent for the first time in my live in north of Poland and was looking at it next 20 days. It was enough time to realize how this thing is comfortable although it was adjusted so that I couldn’t ride it. The recumbent seed was planted.
The other part of the story is more personal. We met Janne Corax in the south of Sweden. Pretty known Swedish adventurer. Thanks to him, I became a member of the Swedish mountaineering expedition to China in the Summer of 2002. That led to me hitchhiking to Sweden in the Fall to meet all the climbers and share the photos and videos captured in China. At that time, I traveled to Scandinavia with Eliška, whom I met on the internet while searching for the best hitchhikers’ places. She is carrying my surname now and is mother of my two lovely kids.
An article about the Tandem Expedition Arctic Circle 2001 was also my first one published outside the Czech Republic, my home country, and the magazine which was Charles Coyne’s Recumbent and Tandem Rider Magazine in 2002. 9 years later, I met Charles in person during the first Recumbent Cycle-Con in California. I asked Charles whether I could publish the original article, and he has agreed. Thanks, Chuck!
Because Charles decided to publish it exactly how I wrote it, you will have a chance to see how my English has evolved in the last 20 years. I hope you will find some improvement here.
The original article in RTRmag #18
In the summer of 2001, Czech students Honza Galla and his cousin Evina Navrátilová traveled by tandem to the Arctic Circle from their home in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The translation from Czech to English is not perfect, but the sense of adventure comes through clearly. Honza’s next epic tandem tour is a planned 4.500 km / 2,800 miles long trip through all the states on the Balkan peninsula and the Ukraine.
It is difficult to remember all the small things which happened within the expedition because it is three years ago. But one thing is very clear. It was a big adventure and also pioneer a tandem act in the Czech Republic and maybe in whole Middle Europe.
The snow is falling down and night is almost in her middle when I am cycling on tandem at first in my life. My pilot is Karel Lednicky – the owner of the small czech firm Tandemservis and our major sponsor. Till the start of the expedition left three months. This ninety days will be the shortest in my life. We have to prepare huge amount of small things, carry out couple of serious affairs and solve two or three big problems with bike and the trailer.
Finally. It is the end of the June 2001 and my cousin Evina and me are standing in front of house in quiet expecting. Will it go or not? And it goes. “Ufff!” 250 kg / 550 pounds in move. Ostrava lies in the northeast area of the Czech Republic not far from Polish borders and so we sleep first night in the first foreign country. Next day is very hard because the whole bike is bloody heavy and we are tired after four days of non ending preparing. The landscape is a bit hilly and we are going very slowly to Rybnik. Although I have cycled more than 4.000 kilometers / 2,500s mile this year before we began, some part of my body really don´t like the saddle and I suffer quite a lot.
Our first big goal is the capital city of Poland Warsaw. Heavy rain change quickly with non-crowded sky and the landscape get flat. Also our fatigue disappear. But I still have a problem because I don´t have the right expedition spirit. Every morning is like a hell for me and pushing to pedals connects with my sour face. The feeling that I must go, that we have sponsors and so we must reach the Arctic Circle damages me. Eva tries driving at first and I find her like a good pilot of such a big tandem bike. We are looking at many people around the main road which sell mushrooms. It is common in the Middle Europe to eat mushrooms but here are so much people with so small amount for sale that we don´t understand how they can earn anything. And we provoke them because we collect among them very nice and very big mushrooms two or three meters from the road. Before the Warsaw we must use a highway where the cars go very fast and almost everything like donkeys, tractors or tandem with trailer use this road. The traffic start to be very heavy and we turn left and use much smaller road. 10 kilometers / 6 miles after this turn stop us two polish guys and invite us to their eco-farm where they have five horses, ducks, dogs etc. We are really happy, that we can change tent with roof and take a shower. At evening they have a party and we are in the middle of interesting and many friends. We spend there beautiful evening and night.
But Warsaw calls us and so we start to pedal again. The sky goes wrong and 40 km before the Polish capital we are totally wet and also the amount of cars which go to the center of the town grows up and it is very difficult to drive. Then some van stops very close in front of us and makes me angry. “What is he doing here?” cry I. “Do you want to go to the center with me?” Ask the driver. “What?” We are sitting in the cabin in couple of minutes and hot air from the heating system dry us. When we see the terrible situation on the Warsaw´s street we are very lucky that we can go by car. We spend in the town quite nice time by watching the historic center and other sightseeing. One guy invite us to the pub and we have couple of beers and Eva get small flower. We wanted to leave from the city in the night when the traffic is light. Thanks to the beers we start at 11 p.m. and after two hours we are out. We sleep in the military area. Here are huge amount of areas like this in whole Poland but they are quite small compare to ones in Czech Rep. or in other countries.
Our next goal is the Bialowieza National Park which is known by the biggest bison herd in Europe. His location is on the border with Belarus and it is about 100 km eastern than we are going. Here don´t live so much people as on the west or south part of Poland and the villages are visible more poor. Also roads are a bit worse, but it is hard to say, because the roads in Poland are so bad, that all time we fell like on the track for tanks. The first interesting place in this area is forest railway in Hajnówka and than Rezerwat Zubrów with couple of animals behind the fences. We ask in the information center how it looks in the National park and they tell us that it is almost impossible to see bison in the park. Also the fee is too high for us. We are failure and angry too because we cycled so much kilometers for nothing.
Not far from the Bialowieza visit us huge disaster. Our trailer´s frame break in four points and it looks that this will be the end of our expedition. We call to our friends from eco-farm and tell them about our problem and then the situation looks much better. One of them come next day for us with very old car without any carriers. We have to put the bike and the trailer straight on the roof and the trailer´s box inside. Next 250 km by car from Bialystok to Warsaw are one of the craziest in my life. But the problem is not solved totally because it is Saturday and they won´t work before Monday and so we have to wait till Tuesday. We really enjoy the time which we spend with polish friends but three days are too much. They want to help us and so on Tuesday they put tandem with us to van and we go more than hundred kilometers north. Next couple of days we are cycling like mad because we want to see other countries as soon as possible. In August we celebrate first one thousand km and we are heading to Lithuania. In Suwalki, not far from the border, we meet a Dutch guy on the recumbent. He has cycled only two days and he is going to Baltic states and Finland. We speak to each other and he decides to go with us.
Lithuania isn’t large country and its history is also very short because for too long it was part of Soviet Union as same as Latvia and Estonia. The most interesting places are the capital city Vilnius and the Hill of Crosses. We are heading north and due this we will see only the second sightseeing. Through all three Baltic states goes very known road called Via Baltica and we use it first hundred km in Lithuania. The traffic here is not heavy but we have to go more west to see the Hill of Crosses which is near Siauliai. The hill has great atmosphere. The top of it is only about 8 meters higher than the rest of pure flat landscape and it is covered by 20,000 bigger or smaller crosses. The legend told, that one man had daughter and when she died after terrible illness he built the first cross on the top of the hill. Much younger history is also very sad, because the Soviet Union Red Army damaged this hill in seventies. But after the revolution Lithuania´s people want to show to Russia that Lithuania is very strong and they built thousands new crosses again. Latvia is almost same country as Lithuania. One hundred kilometers per day isn’t problem and the number of total distance on our computer grow up very fast. 50 km / 31 miles before capital Riga we come to the sea cost.
We are very happy, because now we can say that we came from Czech to the cost by tandem bike which sounds very nice. Riga isn’t nice city. Everything except the Old town is gray and the buildings are very often almost falling down. From Riga to the borders with Estonia it is about 150 km / 95 miles and we are on the borders in two days. We choose small border crossing point but we are very surprised when the police man tell us that we can´t cross the border, because here can go only people from Baltic states. We are very angry but what we can do. We turn our bars back and next fifty km we are cycling on the dusty road to Valga where is one of the three passes which we can use.
Whoow, we meet two Germans around seventy with old tandem and trailer. They are not too communicative and they go to restaurant to have a lunch. We have the lunch next to the small lake in the middle of Estonian part of Valga. Estonia is very nice country with large forests. It looks almost same as Czech republic. Sjaak, the Dutch guy, has a problem because his home-made recumbent has only one hydraulic brake and it lost the oil. Also bars are a bit moveable. Estonian family invite us to sleep in their house. We speak only with their friend from Ukraine. He worked in Czech and he knows our language. Each sentence we have to translate to english and he has to do the same to Ukrainean for parents who are of Ukrainen origin and they translate it to Estonian for small children. They also help Sjaak with his bars but the brake is job for good bike mechanic. We lend him one brake from the tandem and next 150 km / 95 miles to Tallinn we can use only rest two brakes which aren’t enough for bike of weight around 250 kilos / 550 lbs.
Tallin is very nice city and we are very happy, because Sjaak found huge bike shop with great mechanics who repaired him the brake and we bought really lot of food (around 30 kg / 66 lbs), because Scandinavian countries are too too expensive for poor Czech students. From Tallinn to Helsinki we use the cheapest ferry which goes at 10 p.m. We are surprised, because it is also the fastest one only for cars, not for lorries.
Land of 1000 lakes
It takes around one and half hour but we are in the Finland at 0:30 a.m. because here is plus one hour. We sleep in the middle of Finish capital in the children garden. Helsinki is a small and quiet city with beautiful sightseeing and views at the sea with huge boats. Next day we have a rest day on the coast 60 km far from Helsinki. We prepare big breakfast, big lunch and also big dinner. We have even dumplings with blackberries which we prepared on the fuel stove. Eva is simply great outdoor cook.
For next couple of days we have one big goal. The nicest Finnish castle Olavonlinna. It is a bit out of the shortest way to the Arctic Circle, but we want to see it. For many people is Finland flat like a table but it isn’t true. Very small hills make traveling here with heavy tandem very difficult, because we go fast down but in the middle of the opposite hill we use the lightest gear and our faces look sour. And what more. When we prepared our expedition, we supposed that the weather here will be quite cold, but the Sun is shinning like hell and we loose the power faster than normally. On the other side Finland is country of thousands lakes and so we sleep almost each day next to the lake and we can easy wash us and also wash dishes.
Olavonlinna is beautiful castle and we are glad that we decided to go here. Next place which we want to visit is the greatest wooden church on the world which is only 20 kilometers from here. But the church in Kärimäki is also the point where we must say good bye to our Dutch friend Sjaak. His time for this journey is in its half and he wants to see Sweden and Denmark too. We want to have nice last evening but it´s raining and so we spend all time in small beach cottage next to the lake.
From Kärimäki to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle it is around 600 km / 370 miles and it took 9 days. The landscape didn’t change too much. Whole Finland is a bit hilly and only in the north part there aren’t so much lakes. We used very often gravel roads like in the Baltic states, but here are much better. Also the traffic outside of main road almost doesn’t exist and due this the traveling by bike in this part of the world is quiet and beautiful. But because we like singing Czech country and folk songs filled finnish air as much as we could breath.
In Europe is Rovaniemi known like a place were Santa Clause lives. Here is also large Santa Clause center on the Arctic Circle, but it is on the road which is going north, but we want to go west and due to our 1.5 months of expecting of the Arctic Circle we miss the center. As big as was expecting is our disillusion, because on the point where we cross the most important circle in our life is only small table with three words: “Arctic Circle, Napapiiri” Not even line across the road. We sit in close bus station and write e-mail to our parents and friends and we think about our goal. The Arctic Circle? What stupid idea was it? Who could cycle 3.300 km / 2,070 miles to see such an unimportant place? Why we did it? And than comes first e-mails from our parents and we read that we are winners that we have done our dream and that they are waiting for us. Also many and many other short messages come in next couple of hours. Our mood grows up and we smile at each other and we are very happy.
Not far from the Arctic Circle we find children garden with small lake, fire place and wooden shelter. Also the wood for fire is prepared here as same as on the other places like this one, because people here don´t want you to damage trees in surroundings. We spend here one day. We need to change tires, cassette, rear chain and repair tubes and other equipment.
From the Arctic Circle we go west in the direction of the borders with Sweden and not far from them we cross the circle again. The place of second crossing is much nicer with info center, souvenirs shop, tables and benches. We meet Karin a swedish woman with children and she invite us to her flat not far from here in Sweden. We like to meet interesting people and call on Karin was one of the nicest. She tell us about PET bottles and ALU cans which is possible to collect and get money from them in the supermarkets. Whole journey in Sweden we collect them and we don´t spend any money which we have from home.
The distance between north part of Sweden and the south is huge and here are in fact only two roads which you can use and which are more less straight and because we want be as soon as possible at home we choose the shortest which goes next to the coast of Baltic sea. It is the main road which connect north and south but the traffic here is light, because in Sweden live only 9 million inhabitants, the main part in south. The nature here is magnificent and also people are polite and due to the cans and bottles we have enough money to have as much food as we want and our bodies goes a bit heavy.
The distances in Sweden are really big and when we see road sign with Sundsvall 546 km our heads turn around. After 2 km on the next cross-road we can read Sundsvall 544… And from there to Stockholm, the capital city it is next 300 km and from the capital to Helsingborg where we want to leave Sweden next 600. Crazy. Visit in Stockholm is same experience as visit in other capital cities. Heavy traffic, huge amount of people, leaving the city in the night. We even have to use highway, because we cannot find any small road which goes out from the town. But Stockholm means also lot of churches, old streets, bridges, castles etc. We like this city but after almost 2 months which we spend in the nature or in small calm villages and towns Stockholm is too much at us. South Sweden is very nice and the landscape is a bit hilly like in Finland. In Mallila, small town in the middle of south Sweden we meet Janne Corax and her girlfriend Nadine. They are the craziest long distance cyclists I have ever heard about and also saw. They have spent thousands and thousands kilometers on the saddle of their bikes on roads of all world and in their big love is Tibet. We sleep in their small house and half a night we discuss with them about traveling and we look the slides. The friendship which starts here will mean my trip to China, but it is another story.
From the bottle collecting we save also money for ferry from Sweden to Dänmark. The shortest and cheapest one goes from Helsingborg to Helsingör and the company which provide the ferry has good name. Helsingör is known thanks to Shakespeare´s drama Hamlet, because on the small peninsula stands castle Elsinor. From here to Copenhagen, the capital, it is about 60 km and we use very good cycle path. Dänmark as same as Netherlands is great country for cycling. Cyclists can use kilometers and kilometers of cycling paths with very good road sign. Almost each street in Copenhagen has on both side cycle path and they are used by almost all inhabitants of this city. We spend here two days and we sleep close to the hall of residence in the park. But the second day it is raining a lot and we are a bit disgusted.
When we leave the city we have a defect on the rear wheel and we have to repair it. In this moment comes to us young women and invite us to her home to have a coffee and hot shower. One coffee turns to lunch and wine and we spend with her and her husband nice evening and we sleep in their very small flat. Today is the 11th September 2001 but we don´t know about disaster which happened in NYC, because the discussion with Paula and Nicolaj is so interesting and long that we don´t see the TV even radio.
First information we get in the next days from Eva´s parents. They are nervous and they want we to go home as fast as possible. First picture we see in newspapers on the boat from Dänmark to Germany and the biggest hit we get in Berlin. Hundreds of flowers around US embassy, lot of crying people, signs with “FREEDOM” and other notices are very strong and we feel some kind of depression.
From Berlin to home we cycle like a mad. Crossing the Poland takes only few days and we stop only in Wroclaw a historical town which is one of the most important places in Poland with lot of sightseeing. Finally, we are standing on the border crossing with Czech republic and now we know that we will really finish whole expedition. In my mind goes czech anthems and also Queen’s´s song “We are the champions”. In the first restaurant which we see we stop and have Czech lunch and Czech beer. Our friends and my father are waiting for us in the next village and the celebration in a local pub is going to late night. The dangerous night journey within we are finding some place where we can sleep is big adventure for all of us, because couple of beers change your mind quite a lot. Last day of our expedition is one of the fastest because TV channel is waiting for us in Ostrava and also mothers, grandmothers and friends wants to see us. Tandem Expedition Arctic Circle 2001 was great experience, big adventure and journey which definitely change my life, because from the end of it I haven´t stopped thinking about next adventures and outdoor activities and each year I spend many and many days out of the door.