Finnish Karelia, Laponia

Kirkenes, 29.05.2019

It’s been just 14 days since I left Barcelona, and I’m on another planet somehow. I thought I had changed planets three days ago when I reached Helsinki in the morning. Finland is one of those places in a Scandinavia that seen from Southern Europe or the US is very far away, terribly rich, always scores high in quality of life rankings. It’s clean, safe, prosperous, educated, and medium-exciting. So, pretty different if compared to the developing and catching-up-fast(ish) part of Europe I had just passed. Finding a café was easy, publishing the last blog post not so much. WordPress froze during an auto update and I had to re-publish the whole thing incl. pics after I finished writing. That made me skip the revision, sorry if the post is a bit unpolished.

– Caution: long post ahead –

“Leaving” Helsinki took about two hours. As I left the motorway at Valimaa, just before the Russian border, and entered the small road through the woods to the north, something started to change with every km I drove. Speed went down, pressure to arrive disappeared, there was no specific place to see or reach – decompression began. Endless woods for hours, no people or cars in sight, about an hour later first lakes appeared. Weather was OK, temperature in the 15C range. Overland Finland reminded me a lot of mountain Switzerland, it’s solid, well thought through, reliable, organised, no frills. I didn’t understand a word on the roadsigns, making traveling difficult. You thought German words are long? Ha, try Finnish. And try reading “Lappeenranta” or “Linnansaaren kansallispuisto” on Google maps on an iPhone screen that vibrates while you drive at 100 km/h. It’s not just the length of the words, and there are a long of long ones, it’s the double letters all over the place. And there is zero resemblance to any language I speak or vaguely understand. Russian in Cyrillic is easier for me.

Olofsborg castle.

At about 17.00, after a stop at Olofsborg castle, I started to look for a place to sleep, or better: camp. Yes, the time to get the tent out was finally there, and my mind saw me already on the shores of a lovely lake, under the trees, drinking wine near a campfire while dinner was cooking. The area I was driving through is the Finnish part of Karelia, a beautiful land of lakes and forests that extends into Russia as well. Nature has a very calming effect here, it’s a mix of wilderness, the beauty of nature, the elements of water and wind, and the intense smell of a wet and dark forest. The lakes tend to mirror the surface if there’s no wind, while the water is deep black, or dark brown in more shallow areas on the shores. So, at some point I tried a track off the road, into the woods, to find a spot. But there was a house at the end of the road, with a car in front of it, so there were people. OK, so back to the road, and off into the next track. Same story. Long story short, I did this game for almost two hours. This wilderness seems deserted? No way, there is a Finn with a house at the end of every single track off the road! I tried 100% of all tracks between Savonlinna and almost Varkaus, no spot for me. WTF! My frustration was very high, also because this meant either camping on the side of the road behind some trees, or in the middle of a forest with zero view. There were also no hotels or roadside motels around, and it got later and later. At some point I noticed a sign of a camping ground passing by. No way, camping grounds are for camper van drivers and outdoor pussies!

Lakes and forests and lakes and more forests.

By the time Kuopio started to close in, I was nearing my 600 km for the day and it was 20.00. There was a camping ground at Kuopio, and with great distaste I followed the directions to it as I seemed to have no other alternative. The receptionist said “good evening” as I walked in, my non-Finnishness apparently preceding me. “Good evening, is there space for me, my Mini and my tent for tonight?” “Sure, we have plenty of space. You’re the first tent camper this year. The season only starts next week.” “Well, somebody has to take a first step this year.” €21,50 for car and tent, right on a lake, under the trees, with just two bikers and four camper vans far away. The floor was wet, and the sky couldn’t decide if to drop more rain on me or not. I had a “nuvola di Fantozzi” following me all afternoon, and it seemed it would stay with me here in this place. So, second attempt at the tent, and 10 mins later it was ready to move in, perfectly pitched under the trees. A few ducks flew around to inspect the new intruder. After a glass of expensively Belarus-taxed Ribera del Duero wine I went for a walk of the camping ground. There was a lake and a hill with a dark forest right beside, with a BBQ hut that could sit 10+ people. Over the hill, the lake extended further, and the camping ground hard its own ferry and canoe dock, a sauna house, another wooden BBQ and party bungalow, plenty of wooden huts of all sizes, beautifully hidden in the forest to give some privacy. There was nobody around, and the silence gave the whole place a more peaceful touch. Back at the tent I made dinner, and started to re-organise the Mini’s load. At about 22.30 there was still light in the sky, so after I slipped into my sleeping back I closed the blinds of the tent. The last time I had slept in it was years ago in a desert in Oman, on the shores of the Arabian sea. I remember waking up at sunrise and feeling the first rays of sun in my face to wake me up. A wonderful moment I’ll never forget. And how here I was, in Karelia, 10 degrees outside and the fog from the lake coming up the lawn next to me, as I closed my eyes for the day.

Still not very pro, but a start.
The lake on the camping ground’s shores in Kuopio.
Jump into the lake or not?

04:57 I woke up, and it was light outside already. The night was cold, I had forgotten I barely fit the tent if I stretched out, and my feet were cold. Everything was cold. Time for a caffé, with yogurt, and magdalenas from Spain. The place had warm showers, and I washed all my cooking equipment. The Mini was now packed properly to redistribute weight and allow for faster packing and unpacking in case of hotel or camp, the spare tank of gas empty again (no need in Finland), and in the end the car is a little emptier once more. I hit the road at 07.30, and with blue skies and no rain the day started off perfectly. I had a second caffé in my thermos, and as I started to make good km in the morning drinking it, I realised my diesel consumption kept dropping. Around here speed stayed in the 80-100 km/h range, there was no need to speed, and as nature flew besides me I started to feel happily relaxed. Shortly after Suomussalmi on a field to my right I suddenly saw an army of “silent people” standing there, looking at the cars drive by. I had read about this art installation by Reijo Kela, but seeing them look at me in real life made quite an impression. There was nobody around the field, but a car on the parking space told mere somebody must be around. In one hut next to the field I found two women, preparing to spruce up the place. “Hello, where are you from?” “From Spain.” “Buenos dias, what are you doing here?” “I’m wondering what the meaning of these people on the field is.” “Well, what do you think it is?” It was a week to the beginning of the season on 1 June (I had heard that before), and they were preparing the place for tourist visits. “Next week you can have pancakes here with us.”

The silent people.

At lunch I stopped at a lake with a table under a wooden roof, and took out Spanish cheese, Finnish sausage, tomatoes and black bread. As I enjoyed my lunch, a small jeep stopped, and a guy came out for a smoke. “Hello, you must be a long way from home.” “Indeed, it’s been 5.500 km from Barcelona.” “Oh, Barcelona! Where are you headed to?” “Further north, to Murmansk.” “Oh, we’ve been on the road from Switzerland for four weeks now.” When I asked him in German where in Switzerland he was from he got confused. But we finally cleared the nationalities and languages situation between us. “If I drive further north towards Kirkenes, is there anything you’d recommend me to see?” “No, not really.” I appreciated the direct answer, but that was not what I had hoped for. And why would he then go there too? “There’s a Sami museum at Inari, do you know it?” “Yes I know.” “Is it any good?” “No.” Wonderful, thanks for that. We wished each other safe travels as he took off with his wife, that had stayed in the car all the time.

Towards Laponia.

About an hour after my glorious outdoor lunch suddenly I started to get very tired. I took a half hour nap in the car at a parking space, but it didn’t help. So I kept driving, there was a national park I had wanted to see not too far away. As I reached the Pyhä-Luosto national park, that seems to be popular for skiing in winter and hiking in summer. I had googled some bungalows, but when I found them everything was closed. “The season starts on 1 June…” several people had told me. The weather forecast predicted sub-10C temperatures and rain all night and morning, no chance to camp. My eyes were closing and no place to stay in sight. Not good, the only way was forward. 20 mins later I reached the next village, and one hotel had a lot of big cars on the parking lot. “The season starts only next week, but we’re already open.” Great, I don’t care the room is brutally expensive, I just need to sleep. And a reindeer steak with a beer before. It’s 18.30? No worries, right now I’ll have dinner at any time.

With his wife!
Hotel room accessories.

12+ hours of sleep later the next day greeted me with a white sky and light rain. Outside the two doors with double windows of my room I saw a shovel as part of the room inventory on the balcony. Interesting place, in winter this must be fun. At breakfast I read a book I had found in Berlin on Russian history in maps, a great read even if the German translation from English was pretty lousy. Checking out I asked the receptionist why there were so many Americans at the hotel. I had noted several army-style dudes that screamed USA from miles away. “We have an army base 50km north and had some military exercises with Americans, Canadians and other Scandinavians all of past month. That’s why we didn’t close in April-May like everybody else. For once, the military was worth something. So, they’re practicing NATO war with the Russians a few km from the border, and wonder why Vlad get’s upset about NATO getting so close and then freaks out. Interesting.

They’re everywhere, not just the next 2km.
All white and very curious about tourists.

As I left the national park heading north, reindeer started to appear. First one couple, then herds. They came in white, grey or brown, or a mix of these colours, and are zero scared of crossing the road with cars approaching. Also tourists stopping to take pics are no concern. Today the road led pretty much straight north to the border with Norway. After about two hours the forest start to disappear, the land gets more arid, trees have no leaves, and colours reduce to grey and brown, with an occasional dirty yellow spot of grass. This is the land of the Sami, an “Eskimo-like” population in Laponia. At a museum of Sami culture they explained the origins and cultures of the peoples inhabiting the northern hemisphere, be it in Scandinavia, Russia, or Alaska and Canada. They share not just the arctic heritage, but also a lot of culture. Including their respective interactions, conflicts and assimilation v survival with their southern neighbours.

Nordic tribes.
Mini-Viking longboat – modern style.
Sami outfit, anybody?

Approaching Norway, it started to rain and the terrain got hillier, more mountainous, although altitude around here had been 220-280m all day so far. Reaching the border, the road led for another 50 km along a river on both sides (Finland and Norway). Unlike the British, I’m all for staying in Europe, so I took the European side of the road. The ground was sandy around here, not dark black earth. Blocks of blue-ish ice started to appear, on the hills and also the river banks. Norway is not in the EU but I wasn’t aware they’re in the Schengen area, hence no border here. I kept looking for a border post but none was around. About half an hour into Norway I reached the northernmost point on this journey, and the northernmost I’ve been in my life so far. It’s a spot between two villages on a hill, 70:10N 28:21 E.

The northernmost point.

It was so cold, rainy and windy-ugly that I got out of the car for a brief pic and got straight back in to my heated leather seat, to finish today’s last 140km to Kirkenes. The landscape with its occasional mostly red and yellow wooden huts didn’t offer a lot to see. Except maybe the Barents Sea that starts here, with its icy blue waters. Kirkenes is my last stop before entering Russia tomorrow. The only open hotel I found is again expensive and comfortable, and the weather is again cold and rainy and not fit for camping. Then I’ll cross the border tomorrow, the next chapter of this trip will begin, and I can’t wait to start.

Not sexy.
Border land – lands of memorials.

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