The best things in life are free but where are they?

From amber fishing in the Baltic to mushroom hunting in Russia, theres lots of stuff that doesnt cost a penny, say our reporters

Mushrooms in Russia

In Russia, mushroom picking is called the quiet hunt and it has a ritual all its own. From late spring through to autumn, the high season for mycophiles, Russians fan out into the forests in search of fresh air, solitude and fungi to fill their wicker baskets. Should you see Ladas and Range Rovers abandoned roadside after a downpour, do not be alarmed: it is just mushroom season, not the zombie apocalypse.

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The prey depends on the season: morels in spring, then pine boletes, broad milkcaps, orange chanterelles and the prized boroviki, the porcinis or penny buns that crown the season before the first snowfalls.

Yes, Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy wrote about mushroom hunts. But for a more hallucinogenic offering, turn to the Bolshevik functionary Alexander Tolstoy, who wrote a fairytale about talking mushrooms complaining how painful it is to be eaten, trampling a poisonous mukhomor and then shoving their way into the mouths of two children with the cry All right, kids, open up!

Ivanovo
The quiet hunt for mushrooms in the Ivanovo region of Russia. Photograph: Vladimir Smirnov/Getty Images

Soviet labour unions sometimes rented out buses to send factory workers off for a day of mushroom picking as a kind of teambuilding exercise. But the quiet hunt is really about leaving everything behind our troubles, our devices, and often our loved ones and communing with forests of birch and pine until we emerge again, our burden a little lighter.

Well, most of us emerge. Each year, dozens of Russians go missing and only stumble out weeks later in a kind of trance state. Others become so hopelessly lost that they are never found at all.

Andrew Roth in Moscow

The langar in India

Indians are born negotiators, and everything in Delhi has a price. But twice a day, tens of thousands of people file into the citys largest Sikh temple, take their place on their floor and eat a simple meal of vegetables, daal and roti without paying anything.

The langar, or communal kitchen, is a pillar of the Sikh religion. At the Bangla Sahib gurudwara in Delhi, an estimated 35,000 people are fed each day in a ritual symbolising the faiths commitment to equality and eradicating hunger.

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For everyone who comes it is free of cost, says Harbhej Singh, who runs the langar. It doesnt divide anyone by caste, creed or culture. Its for everyone.

Communal
Twice a day, 35,000 people are fed for free at Delhis largest Sikh temple. Photograph: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In a culture that has traditionally been riven by the caste system, an intricate south Asian social hierarchy whose rules include who can and cannot prepare food or eat together, the 500-year-old langar tradition is still a radical statement.

The main motive is to remove these class differences, Singh says. Whether its a foreigner, a minister, or anyone, they all sit together. A beggar might be sitting next to you, but you both eat.

Preparing the meal involves thousands of volunteers as well as staggering quantities of food. On an average day, the kitchens prepare 450kg of lentils, 1,800kg of flour, 300kg or rice and 900kg of vegetables, most of it garnered through donations.

And will the temple ever start charging? Singh is emphatic. It will never happen.

Michael Safi in Delhi

Public transport in Estonia

When the initiative to make public transport free for residents in Estonias capital Tallinn was introduced six years ago, it was seen as something of a throwback to the communist era.

No matter. Its predictably popular. Across ages, genders, mother tongues and ideologies, free public transport has become something that residents expect and value. The scheme has encouraged people to sign on as residents of Tallinn with the citys population registry. This has increased the tax base and improved revenues. Proponents of free public transportation in Tallinn have pointed to gains in the citys income that far outweigh the loss of fares.

I couldnt do without it, says Mari-Liis Kade, 20, a barista at the coffee chain Reval Caf in Tallinns old town who commutes in from a suburb 10km away.

Young people generally dont earn much in Estonia by EU standards, she adds. If you take home 300-400 a month, which is common in the service industry, you can see why a free mode of transport is a great benefit. A ride on the bus or tram in Tallinn is 2 for non-residents.

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Free
Free public transport in Tallinn, Estonia, has improved the citys finances. Photograph: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

But its not just the money, she continues. Its as much about convenience. Its great to just jump on the 1A bus, ping my (Tallinn Transport) card and not have to worry about the fare. I definitely use the bus more because it is convenient in my community but also for getting to other places. Tourists think of Tallinn as just the Old Town and centre but its actually quite a spread-out city.

And is free public transport alleviating traffic snarls? Well, the people of Tallinn are addicted to driving. I dont know how much it has helped with that. But for those of us without cars, free public transportation is a godsend. It definitely encourages my friends and I to go into the city more often.

Michael Amundsen in Tallinn

Quick guide

What is the Upside?

Ever wondered why you feel so gloomy about the world – even at a time when humanity has never been this healthy and prosperous? Could it be because news is almost always grim, focusing on confrontation, disaster, antagonism and blame?

This series is an antidote, an attempt to show that there is plenty of hope, as our journalists scour the planet looking for pioneers, trailblazers, best practice, unsung heroes, ideas that work, ideas that might and innovations whose time might have come.

Readers can recommend other projects, people and progress that we should report on by contacting us at theupside@theguardian.com

Sign up here for a weekly roundup from this series emailed to your inbox every Friday

Open-air workouts in Senegal

A hazy dusk descends on Dakars coastal strip as hundreds of men and women work out, undeterred by the heady blend of harmattan dust and diesel fumes.

Recently, China gave Senegal an improbable number of outdoor fitness machines a vast row of glinting seafront metal. Surely there are not enough fitness freaks to necessitate even a quarter of the pull-up bars, pec decks and leg-swinging contraptions that interrupt the view?

But by evening, they are full. Dakarois take fitness seriously. Packs of men jog up and down the citys chinks of beach, turning shoal-like every 50 metres to cover the same ground hundreds of times. Other groups do aerobics, play football or wrestle as the traffic splutters past. The most creativity is brought to bear on elaborate synchronised press-up routines: with legs crossed one way then the other, elbows in then splayed out, then holding each others legs aloft.

On a recent weekday evening on Yoff beach, a group did frog jumps en masse, first forwards, then back. Wrestling is equally popular, and you will often find a ring of spectators egging on two skimpily-dressed but deadly serious men circling each other before launching themselves at each others waists.

Exercise
On Dakars beaches, groups do aerobics, play football or wrestle as the traffic splutters past. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

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At Dakars biggest and most prestigious gym, the Olympique Club, staff confide that some of the countrys most famous wrestlers often come to work out but add that they preen a little more than they train. Senegalese boys are as likely to tell you that they want to be wrestlers as footballers, which goes some way to explain the citywide pursuit of musculation.

Often sensible of gifts that are likely to be popular, China has cottoned onto that too their donation of a large wrestling arena was inaugurated in Dakar last summer.

Ruth Maclean in Dakar

Amber fishing in Germany

Amber
Amber nuggets are often to be found floating among the concentration of disturbed shells, seaweed and driftwood. Photograph: Stefan Sauer/EPA

Amber fishing is a popular pastime for visitors to the Baltic Sea coast. Ive been doing it in the islands off northern Germany with my children ever since they were babies. Requirements are: the immediate aftermath of good storm, coupled with an onshore wind, after which you should make your way to the beach in the early morning to beat the other Bernstein Fischer (amber anglers). Take a scoop net known as a kescher to drag over the sea bed, and if youre really serious, a pair of waders, or waterproofs that reach as far as your oxters and enable you to walk through the breakers, and possibly even a rope fastened to the shore to stop you being swept out to sea. Still keen?

The idea is that a storm loosens the amber nuggets believed to be around 44m years old from the sea bed, and once its relatively calm again, the golden tears of the Baltic, as they are typically referred to, are either to be found floating among the concentration of disturbed shells, seaweed and driftwood or, if youre lucky, washed up on the beach.

The most likely time of the year is between November and March, when storms are most common. The sea must be cold.

Patience and luck is required to find the best gems, and the most magical finds include pieces with insects encased in them, or the rarer green moss amber, and sometimes even blue chunks. But we have always been thrilled by the tiniest find some little bigger than a pinhead. Other orangey-coloured stones on the beach can easily be mistaken for amber. But its lightness, hollowness and softness (tapping them against your teeth and biting into them helps to identify the real stuff) helps distinguish them from stones and pebbles. Polished them up is as easy as using a duster dipped in dry washing powder, and rubbing it over the nugget.

Make a hole in it (local amber shops are usually happy to do this for a small fee), insert a thread, and you have the perfect unique holiday souvenir.

Kate Connolly in Berlin

Visual treats in Tokyo

Now that the dawn tuna auctions at Tsukiji fish market have moved to more clinical surroundings, arguably the best possible early start to a day in Tokyo is a visit to a sumo stable. Several heya allow visitors to sit in on training sessions, although reservations are recommended to guarantee getting close enough to take in the slapping of sweaty flesh and the sweet scent of the wrestlers bintsuke hair oil. The Arashio stable has an English-language page on its website, but restricts visitors to watching the action through a window.

Famous
In Japans cities, you are never too far from a park or riverbank to indulge in a spot of cherry blossom viewing. Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

Keirin is the best cycling sport youve probably never heard of. The worlds first keirin races were held in the southern Japanese city of Kokura (now Kitakyushu) more than seven decades ago, with betting receipts used to fund the countrys postwar reconstruction. Its popularity among older men who enjoy a punt has saddled it with an image problem, but make no mistake, this is track cycling at its most brutal, with huge sums in prize money at stake for the best riders. Keirin tracks dot the suburbs of major cities, and admission is often free. Even when it isnt, it never costs more than 100 yen [74p] to pass through the turnstiles. And if the keirin gods are smiling, there is even the prospect of leaving the velodrome with a profit.

Visitors arriving in Japan in the next few weeks will have to be incredibly unlucky not to catch a glimpse of the springtime sakura or cherry blossoms whose pale pink petals appear at different intervals the length of the archipelago. The blossoms ubiquity means you are never far from a park or riverbank to indulge in a spot of hanami flower viewing and ponder the ephemeral nature of life as the petals float to the ground, not to be seen for another year. A Japanese picnic and a plentiful supply of beer and sake are optional, but recommended.

Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Generous grannies in Spain

They move with a stealth and speed that belies their years, materialising suddenly at pedestrian crossings, on cafe terraces and in tube carriages. They carry sweets, gooey compliments and, above all, centuries of accumulated wisdom and opinion. They are the grandmothers of Spain, and they are not shy.

Grandmother
Grandmothers in Spain are always keen to talk, ruffle hair and offer their wisdom. Juana, 80, at her kitchen table in Villacanas, Spain. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Undoubtedly the most assiduous worshippers of children in a country where kids possess semi-divine status no matter how infernal their true natures, the abuelas are always keen to talk, ruffle hair and magic up tissues for snotty young noses.

Their chief function, however, is the imparting of parenting advice whether solicited or not. God help the mother or father who dares to venture out without wrapping their offspring in at least two more layers than is strictly necessary. Being a guiri (foreigner) will not serve as mitigation.

There is something wonderful about these daily displays of affection and about the way old and young communicate in Spain. To be a child here is to be seen, to be heard and to be engaged with. And, obviously, to be fussed over relentlessly. I sometimes wonder whether the children and the grannies dont share some secret signal long lost to the eyes and ears of the generation that sits between them.

Perhaps it is something learned, forgotten and then rediscovered over the course of a life. Perhaps its just the smell of sweets.

Sam Jones in Madrid

The phallic shrine in Bangkok

Shrines are scattered across Bangkok, dedicated to deities, gods, ghosts and spirits. In a city where the luxury mall is king, they serve as a spiritual counterbalance to the ever growing number of Louis Vuitton boutiques and on days when Bangkok feels overwhelmingly urban, I go and seek out some of the weirder and more wonderful ones. And the Chao Mae Tubtim shrine is certainly weird, and certainly wonderful.

Chao
The Chao Mae Tubtim shrine in Bangkok is dedicated to the Chinese fertility goddess Tubtim. Photograph: Amnat/Alamy

The modest shrine, tucked away in a park in the hectic centre of Bangkok, is dedicated to the Chinese fertility goddess Tubtim, and since 1920 has been where women hoping to conceive have come with a phallic offering mostly in the form of a penis sculpture. It is a shrine dedicated to the power of the female and there is something both so endearing and so defiant about seeing the image of a goddess with hundreds of penises big and small; hot pink, red, black, brown and ornately decorated; some piled up on a gold platter, laid out before her like a phallic congregation standing to attention.

Another favourite is the shrine dedicated to Mae Nak, one of Thailands most famous ghosts. As the myth goes, she was so in love with her husband that when she died in childbirth she returned to the world and pretended to him she was still alive until unfortunately he noticed she could walk through solid objects. Then there is Trimurti shrine, known as the lovers shrine and always strewn with red roses: a joy to encounter in the midst of a crowded, polluted Bangkok junction.

In a city of chaos, the shrines offer a moment of stillness. And whether Im sitting in the company of a lovesick ghost or in a sea of phalluses, they offer a window into the spiritual side of Thai society that can otherwise be easy to miss.

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Bangkok

Festivals in France

A
A free film festival in Square Louis XIII, Place de Vosges, Paris. Photograph: Alamy

From summer outdoor cinema in deckchairs in northern Paris to Decembers monumental, nocturnal light creations in central Lyon, France has a vast array of free festivals all year long.

The Atlantide international book festival held in the western city of Nantes in early spring each year and currently run by the acclaimed Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou is among the best literary festivals in Europe, attracting top writers. And it doesnt cost a cent to attend.

Local festivals such as the Ftes dArvor in Vannes, southern Brittany, are about celebrating regional traditions and culture. Others such as the Techno Parade in Paris each September are more about hundreds of thousands of fans taking over the city centre in a giant, free street party.

The Parc de la Villette in northern Paris stages a summer free open-air cinema where people can bring their own picnics and watch films from Yellow Submarine to La La Land. In October, Paris also stages its Nuit Blanche nocturnal art trail, where people roam the city into the early hours looking at art installations in buildings and courtyards that they might not otherwise have access to.

Even Frances more than 16,000 public libraries over four times the number of libraries in the UK regularly stage their own free events, such as the Paris libraries which decamp to parks on certain days in summer.

Many of the most popular festivals are in smaller locations, like Saint-Louis on the Swiss border, well known for its free summer open-air music festival

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