<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories
The opening chapter of our Trans-Siberian saga started in Finland, near the Arctic circle in a town called Kuusamo.
We landed in Kuusamo shortly after lunch, hit the tourist centre for information and organised some supplies, a taxi and a place to sleep. The taxi took us 75km north (dodging reindeer) to Ristikallio and an old school house converted to a hostel. There we ate, had a sauna and slept.
In the morning we slogged 3km back down the road to the start of the trail. The first hut at Taivalkongas was 9km away, not a bad distance. The ground was hilly, damp and densely wooded and the mozzies followed us in clouds. Stopping wasn't an option. While you walked you could leave them behind, if you paused they would catch up and drain the blood from you like water from a sponge.
We dropped our bags at the hut and went an extra 4km up and back to Oulanka canyon, but it was a bit disappointing and not really worth the extra effort. We tried sleeping in the hut that night but the mosquitoes were relentless so we retreated to the relative peace of our tent. Our sleep was fitful and itchy. The next morning we got up early and started off.
We were finding the walk very hard and we decide to change the plan. We'd walk another 9km out to a visitor's centre and catch the bus to a point further down the trail. But our two mostly-blind pals, Dan and Jarda, were bitterly disappointed, they wanted to finish the walk. After much debate, we managed a compromise - while V and I took their heavy stuff on by bus, they walked the next 33km by themselves!
V and I camped at a bend in the river and enjoyed dinner by the fire. We hiked out the next morning to the visitor's centre and jumped on a bus to Juuma. There we camped on the shores of the beautiful lake and enjoyed an ice cream in the coffee shop. While we waited for the boys we hiked a quick 12km around the Pieni Karhunkierros (Little Bear's trail), a diminutive form of the original 80km monster.
The boys were very, very late.
They finally rolled into camp at about 9pm looking like they had been run over by a reindeer. Jarda was limping and Dan was white as a ghost. They hadn't eaten much, having lost the trail several times. At one point they rang us on their mobile and we had to guide them back to the route using the map and a fair amount of guess work.
We were glad we'd chosen the easier route.
Having two blind guys along on the trip is a bit like having two teenage sons. We feel responsible for them, they need our help sometimes - but really, they're adults and can do what they damn well please. After walking 33km on their own they mostly wanted to sleep. We fed them, put them to bed and had a good laugh.
In the morning we discussed options. V and I were for moving on, for seeing something else in Finland besides pine trees and mosquitoes but Jarda said he wanted to finish the last (and hardest) 23km of the Karhunkierros.
I'd decided by this time he was just full of piss and wind, a nearly-blind blow-hard. I'm sure he could have done it, I'm just not sure what he was trying to prove. We talked a little more and Jarda stuck to his guns but so did we. We were leaving, moving on.
Jarda seemed just as happy as the rest of us when we clambered on the bus to Oulu, a big town on the coast, three hours away. It was raining in Oulu and we arrived late to find the tourist centre closed and settled for a hotel next to the railway station. We had enough strength that evening to creep out for some Bear's beer (Karhu) and pizza and then we slept, the midnight sun burning outside the window.
In the morning we abandoned Oulu due to the miserable weather, jumping on a train bound for Turku in the south west.
The trip from Oulu to Turku was about 8 hours or 600km due south. We changed trains in Tampere, Finland's second biggest city and arrived at about eight o'clock that night. Turku is a nice little town, originally the capital of Finland until 1812 when Helsinki took pride of place. Now it's a historic town and a busy holiday centre.
We marched around town with our packs for nearly an hour, trying to find some cheap accommodation, but with no luck. Tempers were beginning to flare and we went for our last option, a camp 7km out of town on the island of Ruissalo. As so often happens while travelling, a little bit of ill fortune turned into the best of luck. Ruissalo is a pretty little island with botanic gardens, walking trails and even a beach for the brave at heart.
The next afternoon we went in to Turku to look at the cathedral, the Sibelius museum and do some shopping and catch up on our email. Veronika and I hired some bikes and took a romantic ride, twenty klicks out of town to a ruined castle while the boys took a boat cruise around the bay and caught up on their beer drinking.
The next day we went out to Nantaali, a well preserved old town that is best known for being the home of "Moominland", home of the cartoon character Moomins. It was a nice spot to relax and soak up some sun.
From Turku we went west, towards Helsinki and our appointment with Russia.
In Helsinki we spent two nights at a cavernous but comfortable youth hostel in the centre of the city. We walked the streets, sight-saw, stopped for ice cream and V and I had a nice Thai meal in the evening.
Finland's an interesting place.
It's expensive - beer costs 4.50E or about A$6, a modest hotel room 100E and an average meal 20E per person. The urban architecture is mostly horrible - 60's concrete blocks and sheet metal, confused streets and old wooden houses lost in concrete tangles. But the rural landscape is heartbreakingly beautiful and every second road is a bicycle path.
The people are friendly too and (nearly) all of them speak very good English, Swedish and sometimes a little German. The tourist centre staff in every city bent over backwards to help us.
One lady from the Turku office explained Finnish culinary specialities to us - in the north they eat reindeer and moose, in the south pickled fish and in the middle herring and pork baked in a bread loaf or blood pancakes with jam. Most of the food we had in Finland was unremarkable and bland to the point of being boring.
A word of caution too - don't come to Finland, the home of Nokia, without your mobile phone! Some years ago they ripped out all the public phones in the country and trying to find somewhere to make a call can try your patience.
I liked Finland a lot but there was something a little white-bread, a little monochromatic about it.
NEXT : Russia and Her Children