Monday, June 28, 2010


A couple of weeks after deciding to go on this new trip I received an e-mail from my best friend from school announcing that he was getting married this summer and that I was invited to the wedding, to be held in Germany. Perfect, I thought, another wedding I will miss because I'll be on the road - all my friends seem to wait until I'm travelling to get married for some reason. But since I knew I would still be in Europe I insisted to myself that I would not miss this one and figured out roughly where I would be at the appointed time and set about finding a cheap flight. Yes, that's right, I would have to have to momentarily suspend my no-flying principles in order to attend, but there was no other way around it - this trip of mine isn't supposed to be a jail sentence and so I decided to make a 5-day exemption from my self-imposed rules. Luckily Ryanair fly from Tampere in Finland to Frankfurt Hahn in northwest Germany (though not really close to Frankfurt at all, though that actually suited me to a tee). It seems strange to me, but in the UK budget airlines, and especially Ryanair, are universally despised for their poor service, added charges and flying to hard-to-reach airports. But that's what makes them so cheap in the first place - people who complain have only to take more conventional flag carriers. If you pay bargain-basement prices you would be stupid to expect five-star service. In fact my one complaint of budget airlines is that they're too cheap: flying half way across the continent now costs less than taking the train half way across the country. The price doesn't correspond to what is being offered and people take flying for granted, which leads to flights taken on a whim and elephant-sized carbon footprints. The problem, of course, is that air travel (or at least jet fuel) is not taxed and so therefore is artificially cheap compared to other forms of transport. But since I was taking advantage of this cheapness I suppose I'm not really in a position to pontificate.

From right to left: Marina (with Elouan), Yann, Bahareh, Florian, Guillaume and Me (looking surprisingly presentable - so much so that even my friends were shocked).

Friday, June 25, 2010


I was lucky when I finished the Karhunkierros hike that I met a father and son duo who were driving south to Helsinki via Oulu, my next destination, and so gave me a ride. It was particularly lucky because it was a Sunday and transport options are always scarcer on Sundays. when travelling for such long periods you lose track of the days of the week and are only reminded when trains and buses don't run on weekends or when a museum is closed because it's a Monday. My luck continued when my host in Oulu, Pekka, picked me up and drove me straight to his parents' house where they were celebrating his sister's birthday. His parents didn't even bat an eyelid that he had brought an extra guest around, let alone one who was not especially clean (not surprising after 3 days of solid hiking and fighting off the mozzies) and was eyeing the table laden with cakes, biscuits and other delicacies like a starving hyena. Not only were they very understanding, but they also started up their sauna so that I could get clean and have an authentic Finnish experience. Going to the sauna in Finland is as close to a religious ritual the Finns have (except for perhaps getting absolutely hammered at the pub on a Saturday night) and there are many minor points and intricacies that can trip up the inexperienced novice. My favourite part was that you whip yourself with fresh birch branches - not because of any latent masochistic sentiments, as you'll get more pain from whipping yourself with a wet hanky, but because of the intensely fresh smell of the leaves when held over the steaming coals; the only word I could think to adequately describe it is that it smelled of pure green. The warm, soothing effect of the sauna was just what I needed and it made me wonder why we don't have them back home. I couldn't think of a better way of unwinding after a hard day at work, followed by a sticky, sweaty commute home, than spending a refreshing half hour in a sauna.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bearing Hike

Before coming to Finland there had been a small mystery that had been confusing me: why do you not see many Finns abroad? During all my travels I have met many people from neighbouring countries like Sweden, Norway and the Baltics, even from small countries like Slovenia and Singapore, but never (as far as I can recall) any Finns. The conundrum became a lot clearer when I went to Oulanka National Park: the Finns stay in their own country pottering around, savouring their exquisite countryside with its lakes and forests and grilling sausages over an open fire.
The pristine pine forest of Oulanka national park. And away from the main trail not a sound to be heard but the singing of birds, sighing of the wind and buzzing of mosquitoes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lapp Rap

The north of Fennoscandia (I had never known what to call the landmass that incorporates Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Kola Peninsula and Karelia as people get annoyed if you include Finland in Scandinavia and Nordic just doesn't work as a noun) is home to the EU's only indigenous population, the Sami (or at least that's what they claim, although I might include the Basques as well, but that semantic argument will have to be for another time...). Many people may know them as Lapps - hence Lappland - but in the same way that Eskimo has given way to Inuit one should now refer to them as Sami. There are about 75,000 Sami living in an arc from just north of Trondheim to the tip of the Kola Peninsula, with the grand majority of them living in Norway. Traditionally the Sami have been either fishermen or reindeer herders, with the latter visible everywhere in the Lappland interior and I'm continually amazed at how they were able to carve out a niche for themselves in such an inhospitable environment. Both industries are still important for the Samis, but technology advances mean that instead of using dog sleds and snowshoes to round up the reindeer snowmobiles and even helicopters are used instead. Despite having such a colourful and unique way of life the Sami don't have a particularly high profile, even within the countries where they live, where people are more likely to know more about native North American tribes and the differences between Apache and Iroquois than they are about the Skolt and Fell Sami. This is probably due in part to the fact that people find it hard to face up to past injustices that they have committed against others and also in part to the fact that, in appearance, the Sami are hard to distinguish from their neighbours: they are perhaps a little shorter, their faces a little more rounded, and the corners of their eyes a little sharper (a bit like the Hollywood actress Renée Zellweger who, incidentally, is probably the world's most famous person of Sami descent).
Santa may be here in Lappland, but this is as close to a picture of him as I was going to get: a snapshot with the avuncular bearded saint costs 40 euros. At least I now know how he pays for  all the presents he distributes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cape Fear

Nordkapp (North Cape). The famed northernmost point of Europe. Even the name sounds foreboding. The ultimate goal for many who venture into these far-flung lands - the End of the Earth. Never mind that there's a good tarmac road that leads all the way there (€22 toll for the tunnel per car ... each way); never mind that there are petrol stations, supermarkets and hotels in almost every town along the way; never mind that the visitors' centre with the multimedia show that you have to go through (€25 entrance fee) to reach the majestic, 300m cliffs, with dominating views of unending Arctic sea as far as the eye can see: east, north, west ... hey, wait a minute! What's that land doing there? Indeed. Norway's premier tourist attraction pulls in visitors from far and wide, and charges them a pretty penny for it, so that they can go to the edge of the cliff and say "no-one in Europe is further north than I am now". Let's for a minute forget pedantic nit-picking that place Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land much further north, but far closer, the next headland in fact, separated by only a 2km bay, is 1.5km further north. Nordkapp's notoriety is based on fraud, but it's a fraud that most visitors want to believe because they would rather just take the car than have to hike the 18km round trip; because Knivskjellodden is not as easy to pronounce (or as flagrantly obvious) as Nordkapp; and because you can buy a postcard and a cup of coffee there.
Looking south (OK, actually east southeast) at the cliffs of Nordkapp, not Europe's most northerly point.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Something Fishy In Norway

Norway is a big country. Or at least it is a long country. Many Norwegians I have met have regaled me with the factoid that if Norway were flipped over, using its southern point as the axis, the northern end would hit Barcelona ... or Rome, or Morocco, or some other impressively distant southern point. The accuracy isn't too important, but suffice to say it's a long way to the top. A lot of my time spent since Trondheim has been in the pursuit of bridging the gap to the north. Such is the size of the country that in Norway (and Sweden) when people talk of distances they talk in miles (mil), but not our paltry 1.6km miles, no, Scandinavian miles are each 10km long; so beware if a Norwegian tells you that something is only a few miles away, it may be further than you think!
I spent quite some time hitching in the north of Norway. It's quite a boring way to pass the day and so any amusement, howeverlame, is always welcome. Like the sign in Mo-i Rana.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


When I awoke the morning after the country music concert I had over 400km to cover to get to that night's destination, the small mining town of Røros. I consulted my map and saw there was what the key referred to as a "primary route" heading in exactly that direction and so I asked around town to see where and when I could catch the next bus along it. I finally found the manager of a camping who informed me that the next bus would be after Midsummer. I didn't quite realise that the road passed over some of the highest mountain passes in the country and that there was still plenty of snow up there. Going back by public transport would almost double the distance and so I put all my eggs in one basket and decided to carry on hitching. It was two and a half hours before I got a ride from a friendly retired vet. Unfortunately he was going up to the mountains to do some cross-country skiing and could only take me up to the pass. I was tired of sitting around in my spot and agreed to go with him, saying to myself that anywhere closer to my destination would be better than where I was. 45 mins later I was standing 1500m up, looking at snow in every direction, and quickly putting on my jacket and gloves before trying to get a ride any further. My luck was in and I didn't have to wait long before a couple, who had just been to help their daughter kit out her new student flat, picked me up almost all the way to Røros.
I slept in this goods dock after the concert. There was a soft bale of roof insulation and it was pretty secluded.