The first proper day of the Latvian End to End involved some border setbacks, abandoned villages, roads with skaters, and the first taste of what will undoubtedly be many gravel roads. A rather crunchy, dusty taste.
First I had to get from my guesthouse in Alūksne to my intended start: the border tripoint of Estonia, Latvia and Russia, about fifteen miles northeast.
I rode out of the town past the grand orange-pink museum and its trim parkland.
The lakeside scenery was a rich palette of deep blues and greens, like somebody had tweaked the Photoshop colour settings to ‘over-saturated postcard’ mode.
A tarmac road with no traffic rolled gently past farms to the village of Markalne, which for some reason put me in mind of 1980s pop-synth duo Soft Cell.
And here the tarmac ended, and the gravel roads began. Latvia’s road network, even some designated ‘main’ roads, largely consists of these unsealed forest ways: long straight flat bands of white and grey stones, pebbles and dust.
Their surface can be maddeningly varied: decent and smoothish stretches suddenly turn to wheel-sucking sand, or go all farmtrack-bumpy, or judder you with washboard ridges (created by the in-phase oscillations of vehicle shock absorbers, or perhaps just tractor tyres).
I had the full range as I negotiated my route, with the odd wrong turning, towards the border tripoint. It was all sparsely-populated farmland, with huddles of grey wooden buildings and huts in amongst the flat greenery and trees.
Sparsely-animalled, too, unless you count the menacing swarms of flying things that kept trying to bite me. No cows or sheep though.
In fact, the only mammal I encountered was a nasty guard dog that rushed out to attack me. Fortunately it understood English swearing and backed off. I congratulated myself on my confident handling of the situation, then a mile later realised I’d taken the wrong route and had to go back past it again.
Alas, I couldn’t quite get to the border tripoint itself. About half a mile before it, an imposing sign informed me I was entering BORDERLAND, which sounds like a 1980s Booker Prize-winning novel. The access road to the tripoint wasn’t actually closed off, but there were clear No Entry signs and warnings about permits being required and video surveillance.
Hmm. I doubted the cameras were working, monitored, or even existent. Probably the Russian border (which didn’t have a crossing here) would be a dull barbed-wire fence with the nearest border guard a glum 19-year-old, asleep in a hut.
Still, with things being a bit twitchy in these parts since the invasion of Ukraine, I thought it best not to continue.
LATVIA FACTS 1Latvians like their drink: in 2020 the country topped the EU for alcohol consumption per capita, at 12.1 litres per year
There was a road crossing into Russia a few miles further east, but it didn’t seem worth a try. After all, what I wanted was a ‘start of the trip’ image, and border photography is not a warmly encouraged genre over there. So I made do with my BORDERLANDS picture.
And so the Latvian End to End started, appropriately on a gravel road. Remote it may look and feel, but people really do live here: there are even scheduled buses, one of which scrunched past me sending up clouds of dust.
Rather than go back the way I came to Alūksne, I headed for the tarmac main road. I’d had enough of chalk and dust. No wonder I never became a teacher.
The ‘main’ road was empty. In the dozen or so miles back to town I was passed by about four cars and about one skater rolling along on those wheeled cross-country-ski things.
The village of Visikums had a forlorn air to it: two or three occupied houses and farms, a bus stop, an abandoned housing block, and a derelict shop once presumably a social hub but now a shell. Young Latvians understandably flock to Rīga, or abroad: the remoteness, poverty and hard work of farm life offers little for most of them.
Come to think of it, the cars I did see were all heading in the direction of Rīga, or abroad. Maybe there’s no-one left at all in Visikums now.
Anyway, I got back to the familiarity of Alūksne, where I’d decided to stay another night. This though was at a different place, whose rooms were less like shop windows.
I picnicked on Castle Island in the park, picnicked again by the beach, then picnicked a third time in the park opposite the museum. (‘Picnic’ sometimes means ‘beer’.)
Miles today: 40
Miles since Borderland: 15