My Scandinavian winter cycle trip was by far and away one of the most rewarding periods I’ve spent on the road – even more so than the excellent experience I had in Mongolia last year. What made it such a success? I think it boils down to a few key points.
I’ve almost done more travelling than I can keep track of. Essentially, the last four years have involved living on the road or as a foreigner somewhere deeply unfamiliar. And cumulatively, more than two years of that was spent on my bike.
I needed something new – some mental and physical boundaries to push – in order to make a new venture worthwhile. The north Scandinavian winter was a daunting prospect, and the little information I could dig up with Google almost caused me to drop the whole idea.
But I booked my tickets anyway, and discovered that – contrary to what everyone seemed to think, and not without times of great difficulty – it was not beyond the realms of possibility to pull it off. Achieving a scary-sounding mission, then, was an important part of the overall feeling of satisfaction.
My familiarity with the ins and outs of life on a bicycle meant that I could spend my energy getting to grips with the unfamiliar climate, landscape, roads and people, rather than with the routine elements of a bike tour.
The ability to focus clearly on developing new skills, and on the land that I passed through, meant that I was able to learn and absorb significantly more than had I chosen a completely new discipline, such as skiing.
It also allowed me some time and energy for creativity. I badly wanted to make photography a key element of this trip, rather than filmmaking as on previous trips, and in that regard I was really satisfied with the progress I made and the images I was able to create.
If you want to travel through vast tracts of uninterrupted forest, lake and mountain, Lapland and the Norwegian highlands are probably your best bet this side of the Iron Curtain.
The society that dwells within it is appropriately liberated: I noticed very strongly the freedom that people have to do as they please in this environment, with the result that each person developed a great sense of responsibility and respect for their landscape – infinitely preferable in my opinion to a top-down framework of regulations on behaviour in the great outdoors such as we have here, and realistic in such sparsely-populated lands.
Length and Location
I am not a free agent. I have ties and roots. I am totally committed to my wife, and my parents and friends deserve my attention after such a long time spent away from my home country. So a 1-month trip was, for me, the perfect duration to acclimatise, accomplish, and return safe and sound. (A month on the road lasts a very, very long time compared to the same period of time in a 9-to-5.)
Northern Europe isn’t so far away. I was able to travel overland to my starting point and home again by the same means, keeping in touch with my nearest and dearest by mobile phone, being as I was in rich, developed Europe, where 3G signal is ubiquitous – even if there’s barely anyone around to make use of it.
I whinged at the start of the trip about people’s avoidance of me. But as I progressed northwards, I found – in line with my Oslo friends’ predictions – that people really warmed up. So I had plenty of social encounters in between long stretches with snowy boreal forest for company – a pleasing mixture of down-time and riding time.
The fact that almost everyone spoke excellent English was a godsend. I’m not trying to sound like an arrogant Englishman who refuses to learn foreign languages – speaking English is the modus operandi for travellers of every nationality all over the world to communicate, regardless of their mother tongue, and Scandinavia’s educational focus on this was obvious.
This meant that conversations could run deep – something I sorely missed during journeys in places where there was no such common tongue.
I’d never attempted anything remotely like a daily blog, until this trip – I usually shack up once a fortnight in internet cafés. It was a huge amount of effort to crank up the equipment at the end of a long day, and to fashion something fresh and creative through the fog of exhaustion – but for a trip of one month I felt the format worked really well.
Having done so, I am able to look back over my online diary with real interest. Reading my own writing reminds me of times and emotions I would not have otherwise committed to memory, and these in turn spark off further recollections that I did not put down in writing.
The human memory is a frail and quirky thing indeed, which is why a primary record like this is so valuable, and – I guess – will grow increasingly more so in years to come.
Balance and Luck
I think it was the combination that made this experience so fulfilling. Misery and awe balanced out so very well, as did pedalling and pausing, steep and shallow, mild and bitter, sun and snowfall, anonymity and encounter.
This was 99% luck – I could never have planned it so well!