Thoughts on Finland

16/7/17. We have been reflecting on our time in Finland- a period of about 5 weeks. We have really enjoyed ourselves and feel that we have had a really good look at the country but it is now time to move on. Although we have had a few moans about things (principally the drivers in the south and the mosquitoes) they are heavily outweighed by the plus points.

Things We Liked

  • Lapland. It was definitely the highlight – so remote and unspoiled and beautiful.
  • The trees and the lakes. If you don’t like these, do NOT come to Finland!
  • The campsites. Almost every one was in a stunning location, generally on the shores of a beautiful lake.
  • The long evenings and extremely short nights. It was always daylight when we went to bed and it was interesting to wake at 11.30 or 3.00 and find the sun still shining. We haven’t seen real darkness since we left the UK.
  • The reindeer, although we didn’t see any with red noses.
  • The Finnish people. They can appear quite dour and reserved but their nature is to let other people get on with their lives without interference. Underneath it they are friendly and helpful.

Things We Didn’t Like

  • Some of the drivers in southern Finland came far too close at high speed.
  • The mosquitoes and other insects were insufferable on a couple of occasions when wild camping. At “formal” campsites they were much less of an issue.
  • There were many times when the undulating roads were unrelenting. We would crest a rise to be faced with a series of two or three more small ups and downs going off into the distance.

Last Few Days in Finland

15/7/17. Having been unsuccessful in locating a Warmshowers host in Helsinki for the last two nights, it made sense to stay at the campsite in Kouvola and catch the train to Helsinki on Sunday morning in plenty of time for the ferry to Germany at 17.00 – or so we thought!

That was until we had the thought, on Friday evening, that it would make sense to check where the ferry port was in relation to the main station in Helsinki. It was a bit of a shock to find that it was 15-20 km away and we started to have doubts about the wisdom of staying in Kouvola on Saturday night given that trains were not very frequent and, in addition, some of them did not allow bikes on board.

To make the decision to move even easier we discovered that there was a campsite only about 5 km from the port. The only fly in the ointment was that we had already paid at the Kouvola campsite and they operate a strict “no refunds” policy. Still, an extra night’s camping fee was a small price to pay for Christine’s peace of mind – she gets extremely nervous if she is not at the station or airport or ferry or bus stop well in advance of the scheduled departure.

On Friday Stephen had taken the train into Helsinki. The bottom seams on both of his rear panniers had split during the journey through Finland and they were held together with a mixture of super glue and duct tape. He had emailed the manufacturers, Ortlieb, in Germany as the bags were less than two years old and have an excellent reputation with touring cyclists for being hardy and waterproof. They had made arrangements for an exchange to be made at their main dealer in Helsinki but would have sent replacements to any address specified, only asking for photos showing that the old ones had been destroyed. That’s impressive customer service! He is very pleased to have some smart new bags as the old ones had become quite scruffy even before the addition of the tape and glue! When the dealer pulled at the seams they split further easily – a sign that the material was not welded properly and he expressed done surprise that they had lasted as long as they had!

In an attempt to extract some value from the wasted campsite fee, Stephen had a sauna before we left on Saturday morning. Then we climbed the steep hill to the ridge overlooking the lake and campsite and made our way to the station. We had more than an hour and a half to wait as the first train was one of those which did not carry bikes. We were puzzled by this as we had checked this previously but then noticed that on Mondays to Saturdays it was a Pendolino train (no bikes) while on Sunday (which was the Shanghai we had checked) it was an Inter City train (bikes allowed)!

The next one, an hour later, was an Inter City so we waited in the main hall using the free Kouvola City Wi-Fi (excellent quality!). Christine was excited to see a train for St Petersburg arrive at the next platform just before ours pulled in. The journey into Helsinki took almost an hour and a half but was very comfortable on a smart double-decker train onto which we could roll the bikes straight from the platform. No lifting meant that we did not have to unload the bags before the train arrived and then rush around throwing 12 bags onto the train after the bikes!

As Helsinki was the final destination we also had a relaxed time unloading the bikes before setting off on the short but very pleasant ride (bike paths all the way!) through the city to the campsite in the suburb of Vuosaari.

The Barents to the Baltic

Done. Box ticked. Finito. 1,700 km ridden from the top of Norway to the bottom of Finland.

13/7/17. We made it! Today we cycled the last stretch to the Baltic Sea and a lovely ride it was too!

There were a few spots of rain in the night but by the time we woke it was a beautiful morning. Just right for completing our journey. From the lake shore it was a short but stiff climb of the ridge overlooking the campsite but this was made considerably easier by the absence of most of our luggage – we had only one lightly loaded pannier each containing rain coats (ever the cautious accountants!) and lunch.

From the top of the hill we made our way to a road that followed a river (so downhill!) and enjoyed the next 30 km on excellent cycle paths passing through farmland with crops other than hay. These included oilseed rape which was in full flower and perfume – so at least 2 months behind the UK. The only slight disappointment was a breezy headwind but being sans baggage this was not too much of an issue.

At the end of this stretch, the road we had been following joined a major road heading down the coast so we turned away from the river to what we hoped was a quieter alternative. We had been half expecting it to be gravel but should have realised that in the more heavily populated region along the coast this was much rarer than in the “wilder” parts we had passed through.

The road may have been paved but in other respects it was quite typically Finnish. It was undulating (ok, not as much as many we had risen but it still had its ups and downs) and it passed through lots of trees! After about 20 km we passed out of the woods and into a built up area so it was back onto cycle paths for the last 15 km of the journey through the town of Kotka to a rather lovely park (on the site of an old oil terminal) at the end of the promontory jutting out into the sea – the Baltic Sea!

We took the obligatory photos to mark the end of this stage of our journey and had a celebratory (expensive but tasty) ice cream before heading back to the rather elusive station to catch the train back “home”.

Down Came the Rain

12/7/17.  The rain continued intermittently throughout the night – at least at the times we were awake – but when we woke there were, on a positive note, no drumming noises on the tent. A quick poke of the nose outside quickly dispelled any optimism. It was a gloomy, grey day in the best traditions of a British summer! There was no way Christine was going cycling on a day like that if she didn’t have to – and even Stephen was going to see if things improved before throwing his leg over the crossbar! The blast to the coast was going to have to wait a day, at least.

Things did not improve! By the time we had both made our way to the kitchen the rain had set in and it went on and on and on! We had pitched the tent in an idyllic spot down from the main part of the campsite, very close to the lake shore. However, when Stephen went to get his wash things and towel to have a “morning sauna” it was starting to get squelchy underfoot close to the tent.

We started to have thoughts of the “exciting” night in Japan when we had to evacuate the tent at 4 in the morning to avoid floating away (see Drying Out) and so took it in turns to inspect the state of the ground at half hour intervals. By lunchtime, there were puddles pretty much all round the tent but, amazingly, we had put it on a piece of ground a few centimetres higher than the surrounding area (a complete contrast to Japan where we managed to do the opposite!)

Old site in Kouvola.

We decided to quit while we were ahead and move the tent about 30 metres away to higher ground which, of course, involved packing everything away first.

House move in progress!
New site in Kouvola

We were just grateful to have the kitchen area to sit in while the rain fell – such a contrast to the day spent in the tent in Donaueschingen in Germany 2 years ago (see What a Difference a Day Makes) when Stephen almost went stir-crazy.

The rain continued for the rest of the afternoon but just after 6 o’clock the sky started to get a bit brighter and by 7 Stephen was of off on his bike to the supermarket for supplies of yoghurt, fruit juice, peanuts and beer!

The forecast for tomorrow. Thursday, looks much more promising so we are hopeful of completing our journey to the Baltic.

Almost There!

11/7/17. The route from Mikkeli to Kouvola was too far to cover in a day at almost 140 km so we were resigned to splitting it into two. The problem was finding somewhere to stop for the night.  There was a town at about 55 km where we could find no details of any accommodation and was not really far enough as we preferred a long day day followed by a shorter one rather than the other way round. However, the next place, a campsite, was nearly 90 km which was, possibly, a little too far. We decided to set off and see how it went. We could always wild camp if necessary.

Progress in the morning was slow as the route we were taking south from Mikkeli, to avoid the manic Finnish drivers on the main road, was undulating and largely on gravel roads. In addition the sun was blazing out of a cloudless sky and there was a headwind. Christine, in particular, wilted but Stephen also found it tough going.

We reached the “55km town” by mid afternoon and it definitely felt too early to stop so we pressed on – at least we were on paved roads and a few clouds were taking the edge off the sun’s heat by now. After many more small hills we were thinking of stopping but just before 6 o’clock we received some welcome encouragement in the form of a signpost to the campsite showing 18 km to go. That’s “doable”!

With about 5 km to go Stephen stopped waiting for Christine at the top of hills and headed for the campsite to get checked in and erect the tent. He was just starting to put his bags inside before going to find Christine when she arrived – hot, tired but proud to have covered a tough 88km!

A quick dinner and refreshing showers were taken before we hit the sack for some very welcome sleep.

Waking the next morning to a thin layer of cloud keeping things a little cooler we had just enough food for breakfast as we had been scoffing supplies throughout the previous afternoon to keep us going. It wasn’t a problem as we knew there was a small supermarket about 15 km down the road where we could buy lunch and then we would be close to Kouvola which is a large town.

Another undulating road to start of off with slowed things down somewhat but by the time we came to eat lunch it was flatter and we were approaching the outlying villages around Kouvola so we arrived at the campsite around 3 o’clock and checked in for 2 nights.

We are now a day’s ride from the Baltic so we intend to leave most of our bags here and have a “blast” down to the coast without luggage returning by train. That is always assuming the weather plays ball – the forecast is not promising and it has started to rain this evening!

A Tale of Survival

9/7/17. After a grim start on Friday when we survived the “14” for about 10 km we have had a lovely time passing through pastoral countryside on mainly quiet roads, combined with a rest day.

Leaving the campsite at Savonlinna we had a few km on a cycle path beside the main road but then had to take our chances with the traffic. All that can be said is that we lived to tell the tale! Christine was not far off a gibbering wreck, reduced to dismounting whenever she heard a vehicle approaching from behind (which was a frequent occurrence and made for sssssllllloooowww progress), while Stephen was reduced to gesticulating wildly (and fruitlessly) at just about every second car that passed for coming too close. It was not a pleasant experience and has confirmed our reduced opinion of southern Finnish drivers – they are definitely on a par with New Zealanders for their inability to turn the steering wheel enough to pass a cyclist at a safe distance. And yet, like the Kiwis, they are lovely people when not behind the wheel!

The plan had been to follow the 14 all the way to Juva, some 50 km from Savonlinna, but we were both unequivocal in our desire to take the first turning off that presented itself. It added more than 20 km to the trip but it increased our chances of living to see Juva many fold! That is not to say that we didn’t experience some crap driving on that road (cue more gesticulations and heart palpitations) but it was far less frequent and we had the opportunity to enjoy the country we were passing through.

Arriving in Juva in the early evening we felt a great relief and were surprisingly tired from the emotional strain of the early part of the day. With the campsite being in a beautiful location on the shore of a lake

it was not a difficult decision to take Saturday as a pill/rest day and a chance to recharge our batteries (literally and figuratively). Stephen suffered from a temporary panic when his tablet started to malfunction raising fears that he would not be able to listen to podcasts (He is downloading 4 regarding the Tour de France every day at the moment!) but he managed to sort it out (hallelujah!). This freed him up to take his statutory ”rest day” bike ride while Christine mooched into town and generally took things easy once the period of no movement post pill swallowing had passed.

Sunday’s route was from Juva to the town of Mikkeli, only 40 km away – but that was via the “14” and the “5” (which looked as though it could be even worse). However, there were minor roads that, although wiggly, went in broadly the same direction and only involved a km or so on the 5. They added about 10 km to the route and, being mainly gravel, were much slower but they had the major advantage of not being lethal. It was a lovely relaxing ride through countryside that is much more pastoral. Interestingly it is almost exclusively grass/hay that is being grown which can only be to feed animals (?) and yet we have seen very little evidence of them. Perhaps they live inside all year round. Anyway, we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, particularly when we contemplated the alternative.
Just realised that the weather hasn’t been mentioned! Thursday had been really cold and the forecast that we saw said that Friday and Saturday would be the same with the possibility of some rain thrown in. So when it was chilly on Friday morning we were not surprised and donned our warm weather gear (Stephen even put on his woolly bobble hat). However, the sun soon broke through and we were stripping off like there was no tomorrow! And it has been glorious (low twenties and wall to wall sunshine) ever since. Much more like it!

Although we have left the Land of the Midnight Sun far behind we still have not seen real darkness in Finland. While we are turning in early (generally between 8 and 10 o’clock, but sometimes by 6 if we are wild camping in Mosquito City) we have woken at, say, 11.30 or 1.00 and it has been more what we would call “twilight” than “night”. It is an indication of how far north we still are even though we have cycled almost 1,500 km since leaving Kirkenes. We were surprised to learn that Helsinki is on the same latitude as the Shetlands.

Of Cycle Paths and Fast Narrow Roads

6/7/17. Again we were left to our own devices for breakfast in the hotel. The fridge was well stocked with cheese, cold meats, yoghurts, hard boiled eggs, etc. and the coffee machine just needed the button to be pressed so it was not a problem – just a little unusual!

With the inner man & woman satisfied, it was time to hit the road again. Unfortunately the fairly quiet one that we had been following the previous day had joined with a busier one but was no wider. The traffic fairly raced along and a significant proportion of drivers seemed to be reluctant to move out to pass. It reminded us of many roads in New Zealand – which is not a flattering comparison!

We endured this “excitement” for upwards of 10 km until we noticed a gravel road running parallel. The Garmin showed that, while it was less straight than the main road, it went in the same direction and was clearly the old superseded route. We took it and it was a great relief – even for Christine and her dislike of loose surfaces since her accident near Belgrade.

After another 10 km we reached a junction on the edge of suburban Joensuu – a city with a population of 74,000 according to Wikipedia (although this may include outlying villages in the metropolitan area). Here we joined a “proper” cycle path (shared with pedestrians but there were few of those until we reached the centre) and it was bliss.

The campsite was only about a km from the centre and was amazing value at €12 a night, including decent loos & showers and a substantial kitchen/dining area. There was also a morning sauna which Stephen would have used if we had stayed a second night (we were tempted but feel the need to press on towards Helsinki). Walking into the centre once we had made camp, it felt strange to be in such a large city after all the tiny “one horse” towns we have passed through since leaving the UK.

It was a cloudless sky when we woke and so we were slapping on the sunscreen before we left. This had the obvious effect and the clouds started to roll in. Soon we were getting the raincoats out as we headed southwest into the wind.

On the plus side our route was along cycle paths for almost 30 km but these ended as we left the town of Liperi and we were back on a narrow road which was surprisingly busy and fast. With the occasional rain showers, it did not make for pleasant cycling.

However, as we got past lunch and further out into the “wilds” again (the countryside has been much more inhabited and pastoral for the past 2½ days) the traffic thinned and was less intimidating. An initial look at the map showed that we were heading into an area that looked to be as much water as land so we were anticipating a picturesque and relatively flat ride. A closer inspection, however, showed that the road we were on went across the only large land mass in the area so we had only limited sights of water and encountered more than the expected number of climbs. It felt very much as though we were back in the countryside that we had become a little fed up with and which the South Africans had been complaining about so vociferously.

It was also sparsely populated and lacking in campsites so after 80 km and 500 metres of climbing we found a spot for wild camping. Although we had not been bothered by insects for much of the day as soon as we started putting up the tent clouds of mosquitoes and midges descended. We scurried into the tent and forewent a hot meal in favour of bread and cheese munched in the insect free zone of the inner tent. We also restricted our liquid intake to avoid trips into the bushes in the middle of the night!

Thursday morning saw us up and on the road before breakfast in order to avoid our flying tormentors. A 12 km ride took us down to the lake shore to a ferry which was really a floating bridge – the gap was a couple of hundred metres and it operated “on demand”. We rode straight on and it set off with us as the only passengers. We had got about 5 feet when the operator noticed a car coming down the hill so we went into reverse to allow it to join us.

Once across the other side we sat down to eat and were munching away when a lady waiting for the ferry called us over to her car to offer us a pastry each from a large basket full on the back seat. We were more than happy to accept!

Leaving the little ferry crossing we were back on an undulating road passing through lots of trees with little view of the water. It was however the reverse of the previous afternoon as, overall, it was downhill but the road gradually became busier as we neared “civilisation” again.

We could see that we were coming to a major road, the “14”, but thankfully just before we reached it a cycle path appeared which took us into the city of Savonlinna. The campsite here was not as conveniently located as the one in Joensuu, being on top of a hill a few km the other side of town, but we took the opportunity to stop in town for coffee/chocolate, an ATM and to stock up on supplies.

Robbers!

3/7/17. We arrived at the only hotel in the village of Eno to find it locked and unmanned but with a phone number to call.

Stephen: “Do you speak English?”
Lady: “No.”
Stephen (ever hopeful): “Hotelli? Open?”
Lady: “If you want to make reservation, email me.” Phone gets put down.

Stephen was still optimistic and went into the hair salon next door. He explained what happened and the lady looked surprised that we were asked to email when we were on the doorstep. She offered to call and translate. After a short exchange she offered over her phone and the lady on the other end apologised, saying that she thought we might be robbers! Apparently there are some scammers using a UK phone number bothering old people in the area and the police are issung many warnings.

We agreed to take a room and she drove over to open up. When she arrived she was profuse in her apologies for her rudeness on the initial call and reduced the price of the room by €20. We can put up with a little rudeness for that sort of discount!

This came at the end of a day that we both found quite tiring even though we only cycled 65 km on comparatively flat roads. Perhaps it was the inconsistent headwind which we encountered at times. Anyway, the scenery, particularly for the first half of the ride, was a step above that of the last few days which have, to be perfectly frank, been rather “samey” and somewhat dull – mile after mile of trees with the occasional glimpse of a small lake. Don’t get us wrong – it has been lovely but there has been little variety and we have just a bit jaded.

We perhaps came to this realisation after speaking last night to a couple of South Africans, Karl and Nielen, who have also cycled from Kirkenes and who were much more vehement in their views. They were so bored with things that this morning they caught a train to the last town before Russia! We also chatted with Alois from Regensburg in Germany who was with the South Africans for the last few days. He has been traveling since March and started in Spain and has been up through France, UK, Ireland and Norway to Kirkenes and is now heading to Greece. (He did not take the train!)

The better scenery combined with two other improvements to make for an enjoyable day despite the tiredness. Firstly, the number of mosquitoes and flies along the road was much reduced – we do not understand why but we are more than happy as they were becoming a significant downside to our enjoyment.

Secondly, today has been gloriously warm – well into the 20’s. It was a reminder of the weather when we rode across southern Finland with our daughter, Eleri, 11 years ago. Everyone kept telling us “You are very lucky. It’s not normally like this.” The shower in the hotel, once we had persuaded the lady of our bona fides, was extremely welcome to wash off the unsavoury mixture of sun cream, insect repellent, and sweat.

Cavorting in Karelia

2/7/17. Happily, when we woke on Tuesday the rain had stopped and we managed to get the tent packed away dry. Less happily, the rain started again as soon as we reached the road outside the campsite and it continued for the next hour of undulating roads that took us to the Winter War museum on the Raate Road.

This road, from the Russian border to Suomossalmi, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting around Christmas and New Year 1939/40. The guidebook gives the museum a good write up so Stephen was looking forward to a visit. There were some interesting exhibits, but the lack of an English guide and all the signage being in impenetrable Finnish left him rather disappointed.

We had said “adieu” to Ian when leaving the campsite anticipating that we would see him again on the road and so it proved. He was arriving at the museum as we left and we played leapfrog a couple of times when visiting the one shop on the road and taking lunch at different times.

For the first hour we seemed to be right on the edge of a shower that was travelling in the same direction and at the same speed as us which was unfortunate to say the least as we were on the “wrong side” of the edge! (You might ask why didn’t we stop and let it blow over? Well, it wasn’t completely obvious at first and we did have quite a long ride to the next campsite as well as the museum visit to fit in.) By the time we left the museum the shower had passed over and for much of the rest of the day we kept dry, but the rain returned just before we arrived at our destination of Lentiira. Nice.

Thankfully, the campsite had a small kitchen in which we could keep out of the rain and, even better, shelter from the mosquitoes which were quite numerous. Their numbers have been increasing as the really cold spell of weather has moved away and have started to become a real nuisance at times, particularly when Stephen takes one of his (frequent) stops at the side of the road.

On a more positive wildlife note, we saw our first (and, so far, only) elk as well as a hare, a fox and a vole, in addition to many birds, most of which we cannot identify!

The rain continued off and on throughout the night. As our destination, Kuhmo, was little more than 40 km away we could afford to take a more relaxed view of when to start riding which allowed us take advantage of a brief window in the weather to get the tent dry before packing it away.

We had last seen Ian when he was taking a late lunch and had been expecting to see him at the campsite but there was no sign of his tent so we concluded that he must have found somewhere else to stay closer to the main route (the campsite being 3 km along a side road). However, while stopped in a layby for a quick snack a couple of hours into our ride, we saw him approaching and it turned out that he had taken a cabin at the campsite as it was raining and late when he arrived.

Just as we approached Kuhmo the heavens opened and we dashed for shelter under a convenient porch. Emerging 10 minutes later we saw the sign for a campsite referred to in the guidebook but as we headed for it we met a slightly bedraggled and damp Ian who reported that it was closed. Together we made our way into town and, at the second attempt, found a reasonably priced hotel.

By the next morning, Thursday, the sun was shining and it was feeling much warmer confirming the weather forecast which we had seen the previous evening. Ian set off well before us and this may well be the last we saw of him. Thanks for your company, Ian. Safe travels.

When we eventually got under way it was a pretty unremarkable day. The next accommodation was in Lieksa, more than 110 km away, so we were expecting to be wild camping somewhere along the road. We stopped for a drink and a munkki (=donut – Stephen’s third word of Finnish after “thank you” and “beer”!) at a small cafe 80 km down the road in the late afternoon where the lady confirmed the nearest campsite was indeed in Lieksa. The 30+ km seemed a little beyond Christine after quite a lot of ups and downs and so we decided to stop at the next likely looking spot.

Based on the amount of climbing we encountered the next morning this was the right decision although Stephen was not so sure when the clouds of mosquitoes and flies descended while he was cooking dinner. It was a veritable Mosquito Metropolis! The insect repellent seemed to have little effect. We combined eating with walking around as it seemed to reduce the numbers of the pesky blighters a little and then, after a very cursory attempt at washing up, dove into the tent as quickly as possible.

This was almost a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” (literally) because the sun was shining directly onto the tent and it was like an oven in there for a while! But at least we were spared even more bites.

Not surprisingly, the mozzies were still out in force the next morning so we just threw everything into the panniers as quickly as possible and set off without eating breakfast. We were glad to be away from that spot! We stopped to eat about 5 km down the road but didn’t take long over it as another cloud of insects came to plague us.

The desire to keep moving meant that the hills did not slow us too much and we reached the campsite in Lieksa before noon. We were pleased to note that by then a strong wind was blowing off the lake which kept most of the mosquitoes away so we were able to relax in peace before walking back into town. We visited the very modern and extremely lovely Lutheran church and then found a nice cafe to while away an hour or so over coffee and pastries before shopping for our evening meal in Lidl. Some tasty fresh pasta with a Greek salad made for an excellent end to a day that improved significantly after the rushed evacuation of our impromptu wild campsite in the morning.

The campsite is in a great position on the shore of Finland’s fourth largest lake, Pielinen, so Christine decided to take her pill day a day early which gave Stephen an excuse (not that any is really needed!) to go for a long bike ride. The countryside around here is very pastoral and it was a bit of surprise to see the farmers cutting hay already – at the cafe 30 km north of here we were told they were dog-sledging at the beginning of May! We are also amazed at the number of lupins growing wild around here – they are everywhere. Obviously they are hardy enough to survive the winter.

We met up in town mid-afternoon but were disappointed to find that the cafe we had enjoyed the previous day shut at 2 o’clock on Saturday (how strange) so we patronised the only alternative we could find – and it was nowhere near as good.

However, we again had an appetising evening meal as Christine found a roast chicken in one of the supermarkets which made a very pleasant change from pasta.

We have going to stay here for a third night as the campsite is so appealing and it will give us a chance to plan our future route. The semi-official Iron Curtain Trail shown in the guidebook follows the border closely in a wiggly route that seems to be mainly on gravel roads before heading off towards St Petersburg. Because we do not have Russian visas we are going to Helsinki so we will be going more south west “off piste”.