Eastern Europe by bike: Exploring Poland, Lithuania and Belarus
It was about this time last year that Melbourne-based cyclist Wade Trevean set off on a two-week solo ride around the island nation of Cuba. Now, a year on, Wade has just returned from his latest solo adventure, this time through Eastern Europe.
After a long holiday with his wife came to a close in Berlin, Wade bought himself a bike, waved goodbye to his wife, then headed east into Poland to begin another eye-opening adventure. The following is the story of Wade Trevean’s three-week ride through Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and the journey of discovery that came with it.
In setting off on my latest adventure, I was keen to replicate the simplicity of last year’s cycle through Cuba: a ride that involved me, my bike, a daypack, a loose schedule and the inspiring local hospitality. It was a journey that offered insight into the evolving country and some important winter kilometres!
In contrast to my previous trip, the cycling would this time come at the end of my trip with my wife. This meant I wouldn’t be taking a bike over with me but instead purchasing one in Berlin when my wife and I parted ways.
With five bikes already at home I couldn’t justify spending a lot, particularly given I expected to simply give the bike away at the end, as I did in Cuba. My requirements consisted of a large frame to suit my build, true wheels and a fixed gear. Pretty simple.
The renowned Italian frames of yesteryear on display in the Berlin second-hand store were well above my budget (approx AU$600) with only a couple others loosely around this figure. When the bike I eventually chose exceeded this price, my wife suggested I should probably bring it home rather than giving it away.
The selected bike was a local brand, a Kalkhoff, its history documented through its ‘Made in West Germany’ badge. Other characteristics were its single-speed gearing that would quickly turn my amateur climbing pins into those of a local track cyclist. The bike was also white, offering a point of difference to my stock of black bikes.
A beer with a German-based mate (Oliver) in Berlin two days before departure turned into a commitment from him — he would join me in Warsaw, Poland and would ride with me for the first four days. His longest ride prior to the trip was 80km but I did my best to assure him he would be fine. “It’s all in the head,” I explained.
My route was constrained by a three-week window and a desire to see unseen countries. With some time spent looking at maps I decided it was to be a loop through Poland, Lithuania and Belarus; countries that not only shared borders but also a history of war time occupation by German and Russian forces and, in turn, a period of communism.
They also share a love of dumplings. Subconsciously, the latter connection might’ve made the decision for me.
Although plans were vague, the tedious requirements for the Belarusian visa (and correlating sponsorship) meant I had to be fairly accurate with my entry and exit dates. Utilising quieter roads and looking at relevant sized towns for accommodation it seemed if I averaged 150km/day it would be feasible to complete the journey with a day to spare for my flight home. Over a Polish beer and dumplings the night before departure a final look at my individual country maps reassured me the rough early plans were feasible.
The first morning set the pattern for the next few weeks — up with the sun, enjoy a breakfast of muesli combined with local fruits, pack up my meagre possessions then head in a set direction before towns sprang to life and roads became busy. My daypack contained a single change of clothing as an alternative to my ‘formal’ lycra apparel, along with maps, necessary spares for the bike (tubes) and the bare necessities in tools.
Through previous experience I packed light with the assumption that any requirements could be purchased along the way. This was a stark contrast to a previous four-month cycling trip through Africa where, due to the isolation and long sections of desert, I carried everything from a satellite phone to a constant five litres of water.
Our departure point in Warsaw was the Palace of Culture and Science, an iconic building and one of the many examples of ‘subtle’ Russian architecture seen throughout the trip. Our route out of the capital aimed to keep us to quieter roads that often ran parallel to the single-lane freeways. This approach at times made the route resemble the tacking course of a sailing boat as we tried our best to follow a direct alternative course.
The first day blew Oliver’s largest day on the bike out of the water, with a total of 156km nearly doubling it. He did well. The distances didn’t change too much for his four days of cycling, allowing him some insight into his capabilities on the bike.
His commitment was spurred on by some repetitive (and probably annoying) words of support, sucking wheels and 10-minute rests (naps) in the towns we passed through. The days weren’t rushed — as long as we got to the intended destination by dark all was well and allowed exploration of the towns along the way.
The villages offered many highlights throughout the trip, each being a beacon to reach, the next one continually aimed for as the kilometres slowly ticked over. Each offered a reward of its own whether it was the chance to try a local dish, the opportunity to attempt engagement with the locals, or a simple change of scenery.
The northern villages of Poland were all quite beautiful, allowing reminders of small English towns with their once-main roads dissecting the towns, the doorsteps of the houses and shops literally on road’s edge. Most offered their own interpretations of a town square featuring a shaded seat to watch the activities of the town, or indulge in a book accompanied by tuna rolls for lunch.
Most days this lunch break came around 12pm having done 100km. This constituted the bulk of the day’s distance covered, providing a psychological advantage going into the afternoon. Days either featured a slower pace with numerous breaks to appreciate the Polish vistas, or a more time-trial-like tempo to arrive as early as possible at the next destination, allowing plenty of time for exploring.
The crossing of the border into Lithuania featured nothing more than a sign and a cluster of empty buildings, dashing my hopes of a stamp for my storybook passport. Having previously spent time in pre-EU Eastern Europe, border crossings back then were a defined ritual of process and patience — being dropped at the border with proof of visas at each country then long walks across ‘no man’s land’ before waiting for transport, the arrival of which felt more like a victory than a bland delivery of the public service.
Though tiresome at times this ritual certainly emphasised the significance of a border crossing, one that required an attempt at another language and a new currency. The Polish ‘come again’ and ‘welcome to Lithuania’ signs didn’t seem to offer that same experience this time around. Still, they did offer the excitement of a new country to explore.
The route in Lithuania was northwest to get to Šiauliai and then east towards the capital Vilnius, all while avoiding the tempting signs towards Kaliningrad in Russia.
Accommodation options became limited, the most common option being a “B&B” where an elderly couple would commonly vacate their house for the night. Hospitality was culturally limited with stern looks and short responses to our basic shared languages.
After a previous trip through Russia, I was comfortable with a blank look in response to my earnest smiles. It was explained that a sign of positive emotion during communist times revealed too much and therefore minimal expressions were preferred. Importantly, each place I stayed featured the simple necessities of a bed and a secure place for my bike.
Šiauliai was the first town that offered a well-known tourist attraction, a hill that featured thousands of religious crosses of varying interpretations placed as a shrine to anti-communism during Soviet occupation. It was also the end for Oliver as he was booked on a flight back to Berlin. It was good having some company for the first few days, considering that the next few weeks would be solo.
Silence was broken on the day after Oliver’s departure with conversations to myself and one of the loudest storms I’ve experienced, the latter amplified by an exploding telephone pole only 50 metres in front of me. Fortunately this climatic experience was a rarity with the European summer only delivering rain a handful of times on the trip.
The ride into the capital, Vilnius, was a short one. The goal: to spend the afternoon taking in the sites and sneaking in some vital laundry. Thankfully it was a short ride as I noticed very quickly that I had broken not one but two spokes. And then two quickly became four.
Being void of spares or tools — I had assumed the new wheel I bought in Warsaw would hold up — and being a long way from a suitable shop, I laced the spokes together and took the main road in case an alternative form of transport was required.
I made it to Vilnius, however, where new spokes were quickly obtained (along with chain whip and spoke key). Having previously built wheels, I knew it wasn’t a huge hassle to replace the now-fixed spokes, but I was still trying my best to avoid it happening again. Given the minimal weight on the bike and the fact I’d been conscious of avoiding rough surfaces as much as possible, it seemed the spokes had snapped when climbing, perhaps while out of the saddle pushing the 52×16 fixed gear.
I remained seated for any future climbs. Fortunately, there were no more broken spokes nor any other mechanical for the remainder of the trip. Not even a single puncture. It made me question the added weight of spare tubes for the next trip!
Vilnius provided a nice opportunity to get off the bike, to play the part of a pedestrian tourist. It was a pattern I repeated several times throughout the trip, assuming the town I was in offered enough of an incentive for further exploration beyond its sole street. Rest days were often filled with time at local museums, refuelling and utilising the longer hours of summer and the associated local cultural events. Despite the appeals of the larger cities it never took too long until the yearning to keep cycling returned.
If the visa requirements were anything to go by, the border crossing into Belarus was going to be more memorable than coming into Lithuania. Exiting the EU was fairly simple — it was the entry that offered the experience, with the Belarusian guards laughing at the combination of an Australian passport and my means of transport.
When the guards caught their breath my visas and support letters were checked and I was waved through, passing the usual long line of vehicles synonymous with disjointed borders. The humour upon my arrival and the general lack of tourists throughout the country did make me question whether I was the only Australian in the country, let alone the only Australian in the country on a bike.
The entry into Belarus made it clear this was a country of significance difference: the car-free roads (they were stuck at the border), the change of written language to Cyrillic, and a currency that offered considerable confusion. A combination of old and new rubles is in circulation in Belarus, the latter having had three zeros removed (i.e. 13,000 to 13) due to apparent recent prosperity. On the plus side it allowed some opportunities to practise my maths.
No money for the first day didn’t amount to stress — I thought all would be ok and that the locals would assist where required. Fortunately water was free — I used my Steripen water purifier at local sources whether from locals’ kitchen taps or village wells.
Days in Belarus allowed time to watch a town start its day, sitting as the sun rose and people headed off to work. Some towns were so small that their entry and exit signs seemed to be aligned, while others offered some scale that encouraged exploration beyond the main street.
At the end of the day the lack of TripAdvisor presence for most towns meant sourcing a bed for the night was a priority. Many of the hotels clung to their communist past with service that seemingly wasn’t interested in your business, despite being empty. This probably wasn’t helped when my bike inevitably following me into my room.
Once a hotel was found there was the necessary registration including proof of travel insurance, greeting the individual worker of each floor employed to assist the local employment figures, and hopelessly seeing if the room’s black and white television had any English channels. Fortunately the prices also reflected the historic times.
Walking the streets uncovered Belarus’ ever-present connection with Russia, from the committee-designed Ladas, the numerous references of its win in the ‘patriotic’ war, to the grandiose pastel-coloured architecture. Whether in city apartments blocks or regional stand-alone houses, the dwellings commonly mirrored nearby buildings, an historic approach to ensuring all in the community had a shared status.
The one restaurant in town typically required no booking, as most of the time it was only myself and a troop of four ever-changing waiters. Food was ordered through some very haphazard translation, mostly resulting in several ‘house specials’ being presented. Having long days on the bike made it much easier to finish off the three or four courses that commonly came out.
With dinner finished, the early morning starts easily justified daylight bed hours, but I resisted, instead preferring further time spent in the town squares. I sat between the locals and their popular statues of Lenin and other notable figures, reading some relevant Russian literature, happily distracted by the comings and goings of the community. These were quiet towns.
With a rest day coming up in Belarus I toyed with the idea of extending a day’s riding, thereby allowing for an early arrival into the more popular border town of Brest. This extension pushed out the planned 150km to 230km for the day. Taking a risk, I assumed the size of the dot on my paper map translated to a town that would include at least one hotel.
My experience of riding a fixed-gear bike around Cuba generated the assumption that 190km a day would be enough, but it seems one can go that little bit further. On a full day like this it’s incredible the ups and downs the body and mind deals with. One can feel heavy legs and a lack of enthusiasm at the mid-way mark, before it all turns to bliss in the final 50km. Perhaps it was the eventual smooth roads (which I praised some road workers for) or the ability to sit behind a horse and cart for a few km. It all helps!
Finally arriving in town after that long day, and after a bit of searching and some nodding from locals, it seemed my gamble paid off: there was indeed one hotel in town.
I was anticipating a complicated crossing from Belarus back into Poland so I made an early start, reaching the border by 6am. Passing all of the local cars for the front of the queue I wasn’t greeted with positive reactions but with process and the need for patience. Eventually I got an explanation from a senior officer: no bikes were allowed across the border and my only option was to ride back up to my entry point at Lithuania. This wasn’t the plan.
Despite numerous pleas (outside of a bribe) I simply couldn’t get a yes. As I rode away from the border I started to ask the drivers in the queue whether anyone would be willing to drive the bike and I across. This exercise in patience honed my comprehension of the local word for “no”.
Eventually a Russian couple (Ilya and Katia) took pity on my desperate appearance and helped load my bike into their car, grease stains and all. Four hours later, with my nostalgic thirst for epic communist-era border crossings quenched, I was back in the EU.
My final days in Poland offered more touring cyclists, more normal architecture and more palatable vodka. They also provided three days of headwinds that were seemingly keen to push me back to Lithuania. These are the days that offer the cyclist a mental test. But with a compressed timeline and my final destination looming, there were no real choices (besides the unfathomable public transport!).
After 2,100km of riding, I reached Krakow. There was certainly no fanfare waiting for me, just a simple sign, busy roads and constant rain — the weather possibly preparing me for my return to Melbourne.
At times it was easy to forget the fortune of being on a holiday amid the challenge of completing each day’s ride. But the harder days on the bike were quickly forgotten as I briefly looked into doing a U-turn and entering Ukraine to extend the odyssey. But all good things must come to an end and in my experience it’s much easier to plan the next trip from home.
Having again completed this simpler form of touring I am keen to embark on other, similar trips. I’m not ruling out another continent-crossing journey — as I did in Africa — but for shorter timelines, this simple approach still allows the infectious joy of cycling and the mental challenges of covering long distances, all coupled with the adventure of discovering new places.