The helmet mount for my action camera broke the very first time i tried to use it.
I was in Bendery, Transnistria. A curious bystander who saw me trying to put it back together with super glue referred me to the shop on the street corner — the owner Alex briefly stopped what he was doing to acknowledge my existence, gazed at the broken mount for a couple of seconds, then reached down to a very heavy box overflowing with all shapes and sizes of nuts and bolts — “here you go, if you can find what you need in there, it’s yours!” — and swiftly went back to what he was doing.
It was clearly implied that Alex is the local repairman — while i browsed the box, several people came in and out of his shop with all shades of appliances for him to inspect and care for.
The helmet mount was neither the first nor the last item in my kit to malfunction — but it appears to have marked the moment when the repair mindset kicked in.
In my previous life, i worked (by design, not choice) more hours than i wanted, for more money than i knew what to do with — getting good gear and replacing it whenever it simply didn’t look quite like what i wanted it to had never been an issue.
The decision now was a little more difficult though — i could spend a couple of days worth of my budget for that project getting a replacement for the mount, or i could try to fix it.
From holes in my clothes to the voltage stabilizer for my hub dynamo, upgrading or extending the lifespan of what not very long ago i might have thrown away at worse or surrendered to the expensive care of a specialist at best often turned out to be just a matter of understanding how it works, plus the interested ingenuity of a local.
___ Featured photo: my “brand new” helmet mount, which several weeks after the fix was still working perfectly well — and still is! ( Ukraine, May ’17 )
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‘Trelograms’ is a wordplay between ‘telegram’ and ‘trélos’ (Greek for ‘mad’)
Country #4 of the North Cape Hypothesis and #17 on a bicycle — which country is it though? — my passport now has an exit stamp from Ukraine, but no entry stamp — what does any of that even mean?
Transnistria might have been the first place i’ve ever visited just a couple of weeks after first hearing about it.
When i was still in Bucharest, preparing to leave on my bicycle towards Odessa and beginning to think about my route back to Ukraine through Moldova afterward, my host Paul warned me, pointing to a map on their wall, “there has been some tension around this area.” A couple of days later, in Galați, i learned from my host Dan, who had been to Transnistria about ten years before, that the issues i might face had a somewhat different nature — i was not so much to expect the danger from an ongoing civil war as the unwritten rules of a breakaway state in an administrative limbo. It was another couple of days until my next host Yuriy, in Izmail sent even those concerns largely away — “What, Transnistria? No problem! — I have some friends there and visit often myself.”
In Odessa, i then met Nastasia — “where are you from?” — “Tiraspol” — “Transnistria!?” — “oh, you know about it!” — “i’m going there in a couple of days!!” My initial reservation about what and how much to ask her wound up being totally uncalled for — she was delighted to share her experience growing up in Transnistria, and i was fascinated by her astute observations.
Still a bit apprehensive, but as prepared for what may develop as one could possibly be (and now also rightfully excited) i left Odessa loving my life like few times before.
Very first impressions
On the border, they first offered me only a 10-hour transit visa, as expected. But then i told them that i would like to stay longer — “do you have a hotel reservation?” — “i’m going to stay with a friend” — i gave them the address of my host in Tiraspol, and i now had a 24-hour visa, which i thought would be more than enough for me to figure out what to do next. The customs officer was friendly and polite, and it went just like it does most of the time, with all the standard questions about my overarching objective and what they might find in my luggage — “personal items and camping gear” — “OK, safe travels.”
The first thing i noticed upon entering Transnistria were the roads, which were impeccable — quite a blessing after about a month in Romania and Ukraine, where road quality oscillates between bad and worse. It was the first place where i noticed the three-lane system, which i thought to be a rather clever concept — drivers in either direction use their respective right lanes, and the middle one is just for overtaking.
Traffic was very mild throughout the whole of Transnistria in general and Tiraspol in particular, which certainly helps a lot to keep the roads in good condition. Either way, i was grateful for the blessing — Tiraspol was by far the most pleasant city arrival of my entire cycle touring career to date — it felt much like arriving in a typical countryside village, except perhaps for the buildings and underlying infrastructure.
My host was in the other end of town, and it was close to dawn, so i slowed down but didn’t stop — we’ll do more sightseeing before leaving tomorrow. Two guys in a car paired up with me, slowing me further down — it gets harder and harder to keep my balance while talking to them, so we eventually all stop. It takes a little while until another car stops behind them and becomes impatient enough to start honking their horn. They start moving again and pull into a small lot further down the road. I don’t remember whether or not it was clear that they did so with the expectation that i would stop also and resume our conversation, but so i did — i needed help contacting my host anyways, and hadn’t yet been able to find an open Wi-Fi connection. They lent me their phone, then offered to lead the way to my host’s place, and i agreed to follow.
A rather warm welcome so far — diligent border officers, good roads, and friendly locals!
The most interesting boring place on Earth
My host Vitaly in Tiraspol was a rather chilled guy, and we seemed to have quite a lot in common despite our diametrically opposed political leanings. I believe the best way to summarize it is that we seem to share a strong desire for the most uneventful possible existence — if i understand it correctly, he grew up in the capital of his home country (like me), was educated in the US (like me), set up a reasonable source of passive income and retirement security (working on that), then wound up in Tiraspol, where he figured he would be able to live a good enough life without too much of a hassle (precisely what i believe i found in L’viv). We parted ways on his apparent nostalgic feelings for Soviet times — though i’ll acknowledge our conversations have at least made me revisit some questions for which i had thought i already had the best answers — what is/should be the role of government in our self-actualization? — to what extent do conducive circumstances for that hinge upon the underlying political context? — might Western democracies have simply created the illusion of freedom for their citizens at the expense of the reality of limitation for those outside their borders? — it doesn’t seem like many people under even the best-functioning representative democracies around the world have fully bought into such illusion anyways.
Vitaly helped me register so i could stay longer in Tiraspol, an opportunity i gladly welcomed. The procedure takes a bit of time from you and your host, but it’s otherwise quite straightforward — there were no lines, and i don’t believe the clerk ever even looked at me — she just seemed a bit irked from having to fill out (by hand) yet another handful of forms with the relevant pieces of information from our respective passports. They didn’t seem to care about how long i stayed, so long as that amounted to a number of days smaller than or equal to 45 — i asked for three days, they gave me a week — word has it that one could in principle keep re-registering for rows of 45 days indefinitely, and the only institution that could potentially have a problem with that is the government of Moldova — i heard in turn they rarely make a big deal out of it anymore.
That was a great opportunity to experience more of the place — meet more chilled, friendly people, and engage with them in innocent activities ranging from having a weekday picnic in the park to attending a screening of Latvian cartoons,
venturing (by bicycle) out of Tiraspol, sampling the first layer of villages away from the city, only to experience the same flavor of countryside hospitality as anywhere else i’d been, and also across the Dniester River and into the nearby city of Bendery,
play with my recently acquired action camera,
and drink a fair amount of kvas, to which i got hopelessly hooked, and hoped i’d be able to continue finding throughout the former Soviet world.
They have their own money (Transnistrian Rubles), which at present can only be bought and sold in Transnistria. It has some of the most interesting features of any currency i’d ever seen — this includes but is not limited to plastic coins (in different geometric shapes, not just the round one shown in the picture), and an actual photograph (not a drawing) of a random denizen on the back of their 5 Transnistrian Rubles bill!
I’m surprised nobody has found the person on the photo and made them a celebrity-for-15-minutes yet.
No red flags at all?
Sure — you’ll find notable symbols of Soviet pride in Transnistria, such as well kept statues of Lenin and Gagarin.
In hindsight, i honestly have no idea what to make out of that.
A friend of mine reacted, seemingly upset, that they still use the hammer and sickle on their flag when i shared a photo of my arrival in Tiraspol on my FB wall — it turns out she’s from Denmark, which is ironically one of the many countries to still have a cross on their flag!
Apparently, symbols can be quite robust. Ideologies, on the other hand, i’m not so sure anymore — while the church in Denmark has gradually become a cultural relic, with their buildings hosting an ever increasing proportion of avant-garde jazz recitals over religious services, Transnistria seemed to be, for better or worse, a free market society where it would not be difficult for a foreigner to come in and start their own business, as my host in Tiraspol had just done.
I don’t travel to discuss politics.
Very first expressions
Incidentally, Tiraspol was where i started feeling an urge to stay longer than just a few days at the same place. Was it their quiet that i needed? Perhaps that urge was a reaction to the initial institutional restriction on how long i could stay? Or did the restriction simply draw my attention to something that in practice had already been the case all along?
I travel following and relying largely on the hospitality of locals. So, at least practically, my stay just about anywhere has also been constrained to the few nights my hosts have agreed to have me in their home — with a few notable exceptions, longer stays usually come with the expectation that you’ll work for them in return — may we call that a working visa? There’s no free will in this Universe — just manifolds of conservation laws — we’re all stuck in a metaphorical elevator.
Walking down the street with my host Vitaly and his friend Ol’a, i noticed a language center — what if i found a place to teach English for a few months somewhere in the world? I figured walking in to ask wouldn’t hurt, and was encouraged by their openness to having someone from outside teaching English there — they heard my English, found my story interesting, and it seems like it would have been mostly a matter of working out the underlying paperwork — to my surprise, the possibility of just doing it as a visitor and getting paid under the table was never implied.
It was the cordial Natal’ja, from the Tourist Information Center in Tiraspol, who connected me with the folks at the language center.
I don’t remember whether i understood them to be connected with each other, or if i simply first walked into the tourist information center by mistake. I told Natal’ja that i’d stop by when i came back for my appointment at the language center, and we ended up talking for quite a while. I was impressed with their resourcefulness, especially after hearing that they had only opened one week before. There was a variety of pamphlets and brochures describing suggested activities in and outside of Tiraspol, about most of which Natal’ja was prepared to talk at length. Their postcards and fridge magnets were simple and tasteful. They clearly want people from outside to visit.
Go for it!
The gist of this is that my time in Tiraspol was about as uneventful as it could have possibly been — whether or not you consider that to be a good thing, nothing much happened there. To be sure, i have not tried dancing naked in front of the statue of Suvorov, or else tested the boundaries of Transnistrian authorities’ agreability in any other stupid way — i minded my own, sincere business, and they minded theirs — whatever it may be.
In contrast, just before the beginning of this cycle tour, i was briefly stopped and interviewed by the police right in front of the house where i’d lived for the previous two years in Copenhagen, Denmark — presumably for walking back from the train station at a leisurely pace while checking my phone? This goes to show that authorities may feel threatened and react accordingly just about anywhere in the world.
So, are you nearby and considering whether or not to visit Transnistria? My only regret is not staying longer and exploring more of their countryside — next time!
UPDATED February 23rd, 2019 — after 154 days on the road, this project “concluded” with my temporary relocation to Lviv, Ukraine. Follow the links to read the chronicles of my experience in Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, back in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad), Poland, Sweden, Norway, back in Sweden, Denmark, one last time through Sweden, back in Poland, then finally home in Ukraine — more to come as i process it — sign up for my weekly newsletter to stay in the loop!
On April 2nd, 2017, i reassembled my cycle touring rig and left behind the lovely city and people of Niš, Serbia. My idea is to eventually reach Nordkapp, Norway via Eastern Europe and Russia.
About 25 days and 916 km later, on April 27th, i find myself in Bucharest, Romania. This has been my longest break on a tour so far, which i’ve taken to apply for a visa to Moldova, do some maintenance on myself and the rig, catch up with my writing, and along the way make some friends before throwing myself back into open water tomorrow.
So far i’m very happy i chose this route. I’m also happy i’ve been pursuing it at such leisurely pace — although this expedition has indeed been loosely guided by this hypothetical destination all the way to the far north, it has in reality been fueled by my encounters along the way.
I expect that to remain the case for the five or six months i have left on the road.
In coming articles, i will further develop on those encounters, and how they have shattered my assumptions and prejudices — about the places i’ve visited in particular, as well as how people behave and the world works in general.
There are also a few other dimensions to this project, such as the Geocaching trackable i’m bringing with me as far north as i can, the trees i’ve been climbing along my way, my efforts to pick up some Romanian and Russian on the road, and how i’ve personally dealt with some of the challenges and practicalities of a long-term cycle tour. These will also be discussed in future articles.
For the remainder of this one, i will just briefly describe the process leading to this route to North Cape via Eastern Europe and Russia.
On November 24th, 2016, i arrived in Istanbul by bicycle, after 62 fantastic days on the road all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark. That had been my greatest adventure so far, in a series of increasingly amazing adventures throughout the year.
It was clear what to do next — up the ante! So, i moved to Niš, Serbia, where i would brave the Winter tying up loose ends from my previous life in academia, setting up this website, and planning the next epic cycle tour.
The Silk Road Hypothesis
I’d wanted to ride to North Cape ever since my very first cycle tour, from Copenhagen to Oslo, back in Summer 2015.
But once i had reached Istanbul, the obvious follow-up was the Silk Road — in almost every regard, it would have made perfect sense to bring my bicycle back to Istanbul, spend a few more days hanging out with my Turkish friends living in the city, then resume my ride further East through Turkey, Iran, the Stans, China, hopefully my wet cycle touring dream of Mongolia, and neatly set myself up for what might eventually develop into a World tour. That prospect had a cost that i was not willing to pay at the moment though — its logistical challenges (basically, visa requirements and weather patterns) would put me on a tight schedule, and possibly cost me more money than i might have had to successfully fund the project.
According to my travel philosophy, i actually did Copenhagen–Istanbul in quite a rush already — i wanted to avoid the snow, and so had to be always on the move, declining several invitations to stay and hang out longer with my hosts along my way.
No. I wanted my next tour to be as unconstrained in that regard as it could possibly be — i wanted the freedom to stop for five nights at the same farm less than one week into the tour, as i did at Dragan and Vera’s while lending a hand to them and their workaway volunteers,
or to stay for ten days in the same city, making friends and being silly, as i did in Bucharest.
In what other direction could i ride starting from Istanbul? — or perhaps even Niš already?
From Cape Agulhas to North Cape
The next most obvious route would have been finding my way to Egypt, possibly on a boat across the Mediterranean, then riding down along the East Coast of Africa to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in the continent — something along the lines of what my friend Zelda did. I wouldn’t have to worry as much about the weather, and the few visas i needed could probably be obtained more easily, would be more flexible than the visas for Central Asia, and also cost me less.
Scared (by my prejudices) to pursue that route solo, i came up with a really neat “excuse” not to do it — even if i eventually do feel ready to cross Africa alone on my bicycle, wouldn’t it be great to do that starting from Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe?
How the hell would i get all the way up there though? I would not have enough time to reach North Cape and come back down before my Schengen visa expired, and i just talked about how i really didn’t want to rush on this tour!
Would it be possible to reach North Cape from outside Schengen?
So, Belarus and Brazil have just signed a mutual visa-free travel agreement for tourists!
Habemus cycle tour. Apparently, constraints can sometimes be blessings — privilege is not spanned along a single dimension like much of what we read and hear about it these days seems to imply.
I’m not deluded — of course crossing those borders when i get to them might still be a challenge, or perhaps even wind up not happening at all. But these are all bridges i can worry about crossing when i get to them — my point is, at least i’d be able to plan my tour without much preemptive bureaucracy.
Indeed, with the experience and gear i had from the Copenhagen–Istanbul tour, there was very little left to be done to prepare for this one. I just had to come up with rough estimates of the distances, to make sure i could reach North Cape some time in the middle of Summer without having to rush, do a quick inventory check to figure out what i could remove from my kit to make room for my tree-climbing gear and, finally, the most important part of preparation for any cycle tour — to leave!
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