Another “Rather Level” Day

24/6/17. Not!

With the forecast showing that a band of rain will be hitting on tomorrow we decided to try for the next large town, Suomussalmi, in a day. This would avoid wild camping and packing away a wet tent and would also mean that we could combine sheltering from the rain (what a pair of wusses!) with Christine’s pill day. However, the town was 95-100 km away so an absence of hills would be a real advantage.

Sadly this was not to be the case. There were no monster climbs but it was up and down pretty much all day apart from a 20-25 km spell near the end. The Garmin showed us have climbed 630 metres by the end but that of another cyclist, Ian from Scotland, who had made the same trip the day before said more than 700 metres. This may not sound a huge amount in comparison to the Tour de France where stages can involve 5,000 metres of climbing in a day but our bikes and luggage weigh the thick end of 100 lbs (each) compared to the TdF bikes at 16 lbs!

Suffice it to say, we were pretty weary when we reached the campsite 4 km before Suomussalmi (so our distance travelled was still more than 90 km) at 6.30. It being a holiday in Finland, the supermarkets in town closed early so we had to make do without “treats” (i.e. beer) other than the remnants of a half melted chocolate bar (amazing, considering how cold it has been) after the staple diet of pasta and tomato sauce, enlivened with a tin of tuna and a tin of mushrooms.

Over dinner we enjoyed sharing experiences with Ian who is also following the Iron Curtain Trail from Kirkenes. He had to walk the last 3 miles to the campsite as his back wheel split in a similar manner to Stephen’s when we were in New Zealand but in an even more dramatic fashion. He is waiting for the local bike shop to reopen on Monday after the holiday to see about getting it repaired or replaced.

“It’s Not Sodding Level!”

23/6/17. That was Christine’s thought on today which the guidebook said was ”rather level” when our experience was a road that was full of undulations for a good 50 km! She was not impressed. And to make matters worse, more than 20 km was on an unpaved road which she is very wary of since her accident in Serbia almost exactly 2 years ago. She was not a happy bunny.

Returning to Wednesday which was the day it snowed (Stephen would call it sleet but Christine insists it was snow!), we stayed in the cabin all day apart from Stephen venturing out to the supermarket 2 km down the road for food and beer. The snow (and at times sleet) was only sporadic and never settled but the day was bitterly cold.

Thursday appeared better (I.e. no white stuff was falling) so Christine agreed that we should make a move. As our destination of Kuusamo was only 25 km down the road we did not rush to leave but still made it by lunchtime. For what appeared to be quite a large place, the centre of Kuusamo appeared pretty “dead” (we were to discover that most of the shopping, including the first two international brands we have seen since arriving in Scandinavia, Lidl and Subway, is located in a large shipping centre on the ring road).

What appeared to be the only hotel in town was closed and not opening until 26 June so we were staying to reconcile ourselves to cycling 5 km back the way we had come to a campsite which we had dismissed because we wanted to be closer to the town. Then we happened upon another large hotel which was open. Christine played a blinder in negotiating the rate down – she is normally rubbish at asking for a discount, and we were in!

In the afternoon Stephen borrowed a “ shopping bike” from the hotel to cycle round the lake by the town in “honour” of the book he is reading by Tim Moore who cycled through these parts on an East German shopping bike. Christine remained inside as the weather hadn’t really warmed up!

This brings us to today with the undulating “level” road. The first 20 km were on the main road (up and down!) on which many of the drivers seemed to pass more closely than previously in Finland. We could only attribute this to the road being a little wider which encouraged them to squeeze through when a vehicle was coming the other way. As a result we were pleased to turn off it, although Christine quickly changed her mind because of the gravel surface.

By the time we returned to a paved road she was seriously unimpressed and Stephen was keeping his head firmly below the parapet! Her mood improved with the surface and a slightly flatter profile and we bowled along at a reasonable (for us) lick until reaching a campsite in a village called Hossa. We were excited to realise that this means we are on the 11th map in the guidebook out of 21 in the Norway/Finland section – so halfway in numbers of maps, and nearing the mid point in distance as we have completed almost 800 km out of an estimated 1,700. We’re feeling quite pleased with ourselves!

While sitting in the cafe at the campsite we were surprised to hear “Where are you from?” in a soft, lilting accent. It turned out that it is run by an Irishman and his (Finnish) wife. We had an interesting conversation hearing his take on the long, cold winters (he has experienced two) and reminiscing about our one holiday in Ireland when he was two years old.

Goodbye Lapland, Farewell Arctic Circle

20/6/17. As you will have gathered from the title of this post today saw our journey south take us past two milestones which, while not not in the same place, may be connected.

The first one was that we crossed the Arctic Circle so we are no longer in The Land Of The Midnight Sun, although strangely the sun doesn’t set on the town of Kuusamo (more than 50 km south) for a period of 10 days – at least according to a webpage that we found. Disappointingly there was no sign on the side of the road to indicate this landmark, although this may be because the Circle is moving north at the rate of 15 feet per year (something to do with the moon and the tides changing the Earth’s axis of rotation) so we estimated our crossing using the Garmin and an approximation of 66° 33.7’ North.

Another 20-30 km on, we saw actual signs showing that we had left the Finnish administrative region of Lapland and entered Northern Ostrobothnia. The coat of arms for Lapland was rather surprising, depicting a caveman wearing only a loincloth – hardly the attire suitable for this country!

The day had started late with Christine surprising herself by waking at 9.05 after more than 11 hours of well-deserved kip. We pootled around for a while as we were intending to take relatively easy day but then, just as we started taking the bags out to attach to the bikes Stephen struck! In an act of ineptitude reminiscent of his locking us out of the car in Charleston in the US, he contrived to shut the door to the log cabin with us on the outside and the keys on the inside!

And of course, this being laid-back Finland, reception did not open until more than an hour later! We tried to explain our predicament to the elderly couple in the next cabin but their English was no better than our Finnish so, initially at least, they did not really grasp what we were saying and miming.  However, eventually they cottoned on and phoned the cleaners (our phones were, of course, locked inside the cabin!) who rode to the rescue!

Stephen was hanging his head in shame and Christine was looking forward to dining out on the story for months, if not years!

Not surprisingly since we were staying in a ski resort, there were a few hills at the start of the day’s ride but they were not too taxing and then the road levelled out. With the help of a cool north wind at our backs we made good time and, shortly after crossing the Circle, we stopped at the information centre for a National Park for lunch which we shared with Marc from Holland who was enjoying a motorcycling holiday around Scandinavia. We had a very pleasant conversation with him.

As the afternoon wore on we continued to make good progress and decided to make for another ski resort, Ruka, even though it was further than we had intended to go – mainly because the weather was significantly better than yesterday and, in addition, the forecast for tomorrow was even worse (pouring rain and a high of 6°).

We were starting to regret this decision over the last 10 km as the climbing started again (not surprisingly since ski resort = hills!) but arrived at the town at about 6.30 and, after a couple of attempts, found a cheap and warm cabin to stay in.

After the evening meal Stephen jumped on his bike to do a little bit of food shopping (including the vital issue of beer acquisition!) while Christine washed up. When he returned Christine was looking a little sheepish and quite cold. She confessed that she had contrived to lock herself out and it had taken 10 minutes to get herself let back in again! How Stephen chuckled!

The Winter War

20/6/17. We forgot to mention that yesterday, shortly after leaving Savukoski, we saw what appeared to be tall, roughly hewn tombstones lined up in rows about 3 metres deep on either side of the road. We then noticed an information board which explained that these were a tank barrier from the 1939-40 “Winter War” when Russia invaded Finland.

Tim Moore’s book about cycling EuroVelo 13, referred to in the Books Read update yesterday, devotes several pages to this remarkable conflict which saw the poorly equipped and hopelessly outnumbered Finns valiantly defending their country against the Russians who were woefully led and lost a tenth of their troops to frostbite before they even crossed the border. The Finns held the invaders off for a long time before succumbing to vastly superior numbers.

We have seen a few other memorials to this war since but much of the signage is in Finnish which is a bit of a struggle, even for Christine’s linguistic abilities, Finnish being a complete outlier in European languages other than Estonian and Hungarian.

This war is an event in history that Stephen would like to know more about when he has time and ready access to the internet and books.

Books Read Update

Stephen has updated his list of books read here.

We can both thoroughly recommend two books that cover cycling journeys in this part of the world.

Firstly, Andrew Sykes’ “Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie” in which he details his journey from the southernmost point of Europe, Talifa in Spain, to the northernmost at Nordkapp, which is even nearer the Pole than Kirkenes where we started from. There is a lovely passage about why he wrote his blog/diary which sums up at least one of the reasons why we write this stream of consciousness – it’s the only way of remembering all of the experiences we are having because there are so many that there isn’t room for them all in our brains and some fall out of the other end!

The other is Tim Moore’s “The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold” about his journey along the Eurovelo 13 cycle route from Norway to Bulgaria, the first part of which we are following. The main difference is that he started his trip in March when the temperature was in the negative teens. And we think it’s chilly in the middle of June. In addition he used an old shopping bike from the GDR. He is seriously insane! However, the book is absolutely hilarious (as are the other two books of his which we have read).

We would heartedly recommend both of these even for non cyclists (and you never know – they may inspire you to set off like us!)

To the Middle of Snowhere

19/6/17. The relaxed atmosphere at the campsite in Sodankylä extended to people’s sleeping hours! On the first night we “enjoyed” being serenaded by someone playing the accordion 50 metres away from 1.30 to 4.00 in the morning. Unfortunately he was with about 20 other people who joined in the singing from time to time so we didn’t feel able to express our thoughts!

On the second night when we turned in there was a group of a dozen youngsters sitting around talking outside their tents – which happened to be about 10 feet from ours. Most of the conversation was in Finnish but every so often one of them would say in English “Perhaps we ought to get going”. We almost shouted out “Yes. Do.” but it was not until gone 11.30 that the rest agreed with her. Perhaps they were off to see a film.

We swallowed our annoyance and put it down to the Finnish youngsters enjoying the daylight after their long winter nights. Oh to be young!

As a result we were slow getting going on Saturday morning but by 10.30 we were ready for the off. As we were turning off the main road which we had been following for 3 or 4 days into less inhabited areas we made sure our food stocks were topped up.

It turned out to be a long day of undulating quiet roads passing many, many trees and lakes, about 4 villages and 1 shop which had closed an hour earlier when we got there at 3 o’clock. As we had been told that the weather was about to take a turn for the cooler and wetter we decided to aim for the next sizeable place, Savukoski, which had a campsite according to the guidebook where we hoped to get a cabin for the night rather than freeze our wotsits off wild camping beside the road.

Although the hills were not steep or long, they just kept coming for the first 70 km and we were both beginning to feel tiredness in our legs. However, the long light evening meant that we could keep plugging away and thankfully the last 20 km brought a welcome respite from the climbing as the road followed a river valley.

At about 7.30 w arrived in Savukoski only to find Mrs Santa’s campsite (!) did not open until 24 June which brought home to us how early in the “season” we are. Luckily a couple of hundred metres up the road was a hotel so we checked in for two nights to enable Christine to have her ”pill day” on Sunday.

Surprisingly the hotel was going to be closed on Sunday – in fact it closed at 9 o’clock on Saturday evening! – with large doors locked to keep the wing with the rooms, small breakfast room and sauna shut off from reception and the restaurant. The room key provided provides access to this wing through a separate outside for. Breakfast was plated up for each room (in fact only one other was occupied) and left in the fridge.

All in all a strange arrangement but it worked for us as we wanted a quiet day.

The rain arrived on Saturday night but stopped about 10 in the morning so Stephen went for a short ride (just to keep the legs supple, you understand!) while Christine walked into the village to visit the small supermarket for chocolate.

By Monday morning the rain had returned and looked to be set in for the day. We had our breakfast from the fridge and then, having packed, sat reading for an hour in the hope it might blow over.

It stopped – sort of – and so we decided to give it a try. The temperature was a real contrast to the toasty warmth of the hotel. Interestingly, Christine had over-estimated the cold and so soon started to remove an article of clothing or two while Stephen had veered on the optimistic side and had to resort to putting on more layers!

The rain did not hold off for long. It came and went throughout the day until mid afternoon but was not too heavy – just enough to give Christine grief with her glasses.

We headed southeast on a beautifully quiet road until we were within a couple of kilometres of the border with Russia. With a restricted number of crossings, there were several small, gravel roads that led off to houses but then came to an abrupt end. Eventually our quiet road met a more major one that did lead to Russia but we turned the other way as we do not have visas. (They cost more than £100 each and you have to list every country visited in the last 10 years with dates. This would be a major, major exercise for us since we are in our 37th country in the last couple of years and we did quite a lot of travelling before that.)

The road took us to our goal for the day – the town of Salla, which is close to one of Finland’s main ski resorts (ominous!) and which describes itself as The Middle Of Snowhere. We had read that most of the hotels were actually at the resort some 10 km further on but, having covered more than 80 km already in the day, we were hopeful that the one place in the town would need acceptable.

It looked pretty scruffy from the outside but decided to try. Inside was no smarter and when we were quoted €105 we declined figuring we would try our luck elsewhere. We pressed on and reached the resort surprisingly quickly as the road, while not flat, skirted the hill (it’s no mountain!) where we could see the ski runs. Pulling into the first hotel we saw we secured a small cabin with kitchen, bathroom and sauna for €70. Result!

Christine in particular was feeling pleased with herself for having completed more than 90 km on each of the last two days of cycling, meaning that we have averaged 60 km with a rest/pill day in between.

Back in Civilisation

16/6/17. It was another cold night by the goldmine, perhaps not surprising as we were at about 1,000 ft above sea level, but when we woke it felt a touch warmer.

The start of the day was not quite as flat as we had hoped but after a couple of smallish climbs it levelled out and we made reasonable progress. Passing through the village of Vuotso we took the opportunity to top up on supplies as it looked as though it was the last place of any significance for about 100 km.

However, crossing a river that flies between two large reservoirs we came across a small cafe and souvenir shop so we stopped for cloudberry pancakes with cream and ice cream – yummy! While we were eating a British motorhome drove up and we started chatting to the couple who got out. They were from Sevenoaks in Kent and explained they were on a group tour organised by the Caravan Club with 20 other motor homes – which explained why we had seen several British number plates driving in the opposite direction throughout the morning.

As the afternoon progressed it warmed up and we removed clothes so that by the end we were both down to two thin layers on top and Stephen was in shorts. However, as the sun got lower in the sky more clouds blew in and the temperature started to drop again. At these latitudes, if, the sun is out it is generally lovely and warm but as soon as it goes behind a cloud or you move into the shade, it gets nippy.

Late in the afternoon Stephen reached significant milestone, or rather his bike did. It passed 30,000 km since he bought it eight years ago, 18,000 of which have been done since we set off from home in April 2015.

With no prospect of reaching a proper campsite for at least a couple of hours we were on the lookout for a place suitable for wild camping. Spying a clump of trees on what appeared to be dry ground we went for it and it was only after Stephen had put up the tent that Christine spotted that a house was visible through the trees. After some discussion it was decided that it was too late to move (i.e. Stephen couldn’t be bothered to pack the tent away again) unless someone came and told us to be on our way. As it transpired we were not disturbed.

Again it was a cold night but by the time we stirred our stumps in the morning it was warming up nicely and so Stephen was in shorts from the start and even Christine set off with only three layers on the top.

The road was a little busier than previously and, although relatively flat, it was quite hard going as, when we were cycling there appeared to be a headwind which mysteriously disappeared whenever we stopped. We passed houses with increasing regularity,and it was a much more pastoral scene than we had passed through as we saw a small flock of sheep (the first farm animals we had seen other than the reindeer wandering freely) and a couple of the houses had small vegetable plots.

By late morning we saw an excellent cycle path on the opposite side of the road so we knew we were approaching the town of Sodankylä. We say “town” but compared to what we had seen since Kirkenes it was a bustling metropolis with 3 (count them) large supermarkets and at least half a dozen cafes, restaurants and pizza joints. And it was thriving with people! A few days earlier two Finnish girls on a tandem had told us we would probably reach there in time for the Midnight Sun Film Festival and clearly we had.

We made our way to the campsite just across the river and were told that, although busy there should be room for us to squeeze into the free camping area. Well, compared to a couple of sites in Germany last summer where it was almost impossible to walk without tripping over overlapping guy ropes it was positively palatial! In addition there was a washing machine which was only €1 and plentiful hot water in the showers (to catch up on personal hygiene after a night’s wild camping). All in all it seemed like paradise – so much so that we decided almost instantaneously that we would stay a second night.

As we both enjoy a good film we poured over the programme for the festival, hoping to find something to watch even if it was in the middle of the night (it runs throughout the “night”) but were disappointed to see nothing that took our fancy, it being mainly arty-farty Finnish language productions. These do not feature highly on our list of must-see films!

So instead we have had a very relaxing day and a half mooching around town, taking in the sights. These mainly consist of two churches, imaginatively called” the old” and “the new”! The former is very impressive being made entirely of wood and saying dating back to 1689. We also went for a very pleasant walk alongside a wide and lovely river that flies right through the town. The whole ambience here feels very relaxed and laid back, and we fitted right in!

Gold and Cold

13/6/17. We had an excellent night’s sleep in the hotel – so much warmer than a tent but much more expensive than wild camping!

Christine took her weekly pill early and then, after sitting still for a couple of hours as required, made her way to the buffet breakfast making sure that she got our money’s worth, as Stephen had earlier. A cyclist’s appetite is something to behold!

As a result, it was nearly 11 o’clock when we got under way but this had been factored into our plans (we do have them sometimes) the next village, Ivalo, was only 40 km.

There was an excellent cycle path for the first few km out of Inari but then we had to join the road which was “acceptably” busy – not that we had much choice of course. Although there were no big climbs, it was appreciably more hilly than we had become used to since entering Finland and we were not encouraged when a German cyclist going the other way told us that the road ahead had many mountains!

The route took us along the southern shores of Lake Inari, the third largest lake in Finland and the sixth largest in Europe apparently at 50 km wide and 80 km long. The views were stupendous with the reflections of the sky and the trees in the still water.

It was a few degrees warmer than the previous two days so we left off a layer or two but it was still in the “not sweating” range, particularly when in the shade, so we were pleased to reach Ivalo, where we headed for a holiday centre that offered small cabins with shared kitchen and washrooms for €45 a night. The chatty guy in reception startled us when he remarked that he and similar businesses now derive 90% of their income from the Chinese (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) visits coming in the winter for the Northern Lights, husky sleigh rides and reindeer safaris!

Stephen had cause for great merriment when Christine returned to the hut while he finished pratting about on the internet. She reappeared saying that she couldn’t make the key work and would he come and try before she went to reception. It turned out that she had been trying to get into the hut next door!

By Tuesday morning (I was going to say “dawned” but the next dawn is at least 6 weeks away!) it had cooled down again so we were again well wrapped up. Again leaving the village we enjoyed an excellent cycle route beside the road for a spell of 8 km before we had to rejoin the road.

After a few small ups and downs we reached a long climb that seemed to go on for ever. It was probably only 2, or at most 3, km but it took us up to an area where there were still large patches of snow and the temperature was decidedly chilly. The birch trees were noticeably still leafless compared with Inari and Ivalo where the few days’ warmth had made them look very green.

Christine’s legs were feeling the effects of for four days cycling after a long time off the bike and so the downhill that followed was most welcome. Thankfully the road levelled out after that and we made reasonable time to the hamlet of Tankavaara where there is a museum and an opportunity to go panning for gold on the site of a former gold ”mine”. We think they must make more of their gold by relieving tourists of it than the original purpose of the place.

Of more interest to us, it also offered cabins (€70) and camping (€13). Guess which option two accountants went for! The small camping area was dotted with piles of snow but the kitchen and showers were beautifully warm. After dinner Stephen adjourned to the adjacent bar for a beer costing €6.30 and a Wi-Fi top up while Christine went to catch up on the zzzzzs.