Thursday, 31 July 2014

Last days in Finland

Rapids on Kymijoki River
 It is hot now in Finland, hot, hot, hot. I hadn't thought that it would get that warm here for such a long time. It hasn't rained for over two weeks. Forest fire warnings and heat warnings have been issued. I jump into every available lake to cool off but it doesn't last long. And I am facing a new problem with stealth camping: I need a campsite with shade in the morning or I'll be turned into a grill sausage after 6 am - sunrise is around 3 am... I am not even cooking any more and have lost all appetite for chocolate. Don't get me wrong: I am not complaining about the weather. This heat wave is just totally unexpected after a record cold June.

I am now cycling towards Kotka in the Baltic Sea coast and try to camp close to town. My quest for a nice, flat and morning shade campsite brings me to quite an attractive spot. I had turned off the highway towards the Kymijoki river when I hear some rumbling in the distance. Following the noise I come to some impressive rapids and I am glad I am cycling and not paddling. There even is a flat and shady campsite and not a single car comes down the dirt road all night long.

Museum facade
Kotka houses the Finnish National Maritime Museum, a huge modern building and the main reason I came here. Again I managed to coincide with a festival, the biannual maritime festival. There is a big fun fair in town, right in front of the museum. Fences and security guards everywhere. I play stupid tourist but no chance: they won't let me in with my bike. It is hot and I am totally annoyed. I don't want to leave my bags unattended on my bike in the sun but it is too far to carry them to the museum. After arguing with the security guys for 15 minutes I turn into a bitch and ask where I can complain. They call their supervisor. More arguing, but surprise, surprise: they agree to watch my bags for free. Luckily the museum is airconditioned. I wash my hair in the bathroom although hand soap probably isn't the best shampoo. I finally even see the museum which is huge and my enthusiasm for it dwindles as much as my hunger grows. Eventually I face the heat again and eat some sunbaked avocados and ham croissants out of my hot bike panniers.

I can't find a good swimming lake before setting up camp but next morning I pass a swimming beach and can't be bothered what the guy mowing the lawn on the opposite shore thinks about me skinny dipping. Lovisa has a Lidl and a Hesburger. I am not eating fast food but Hesburger has free wifi and I spend an hour outside (luckily in the shade) organizing my couchsurfing stay in Helsinki. Then onwards to Poorvo where I arrive late. Finding a campsite so close turns out to be even more difficult than expected. There aren't that many Finns but every single one of them seems to have a summer cottage here. Wherever I turn there is a cottage and now in summer people are also staying there. It is getting later and later and all I can find is more cottages. Finally a piece of pine forest with nice duff and even flat spots. There is morning shade but I can't enjoy it. I want to get up early to get into Helsinki in time to see the art museum.

As usual the last kilometres into town drag on forever. I stop to buy icecream. My GPS performs the usual nightmare and shuts down several times. Maybe it's too hot for it.  But I finally arrive at the Ateneum with 2,5 hours for sightseeing - and a hefty entrance fee of 12 €. It is not really worth it because one entire floor is being renovated and not accessible.

Helsinki Rock Church
Then on to my CS host Niklas where I ended the day discussing Buddhism while eating vegetarian lentil spaghetti. Next day was Monday when all the museums are closed giving me a good excuse to do nothing - or almost nothing. I updated my blog, visited some churches and had to make a decision. My ear has been bothering me since January. After endless ear infections my doctor had declared me fit for travel but my ear was still hurting. Not much, not always but whenever I thought the ear problem was finally over it started hurting again. Helsinki was my best bet for finding an English speaking ENT doctor - but was it with the trouble. Niklas helped me a lot by explaining the dual Finnish health system: there is public health care and private health companies. He showed me where to go and I was amazed by the efficiency of the system. A friendly receptionist explained in perfect English that right now no ENT doctor is in call in this specific health centre but she gave me an appointment for next day in the city centre. Perfect!

Upenski Cathedral
After another night under a roof and more enlightenment about Finnish politics I leave my friendly CS hosts to have my ear examined. Again nasty instruments are stuck into my ear and gunk is sucked out. The verdict is good though: no further ear infection, only an irritation. Ear infections take a very long time to heal completely I am told, so don't worry. It was a pleasant although a bit expensive experience with Finnish health care. I reward myself with a Chinese AYCE buffet before I head to the ferry to Tallinn.

I am a bit sad to leave Finland where I have had such a good time. But I have one consolation: in the travel section of Helsinki's biggest bookstore I found brilliant nautical maps of the Finnish Lakelands - I am already thinking of coming back for a paddling trip.

So now I am back in the Baltic States where I will slowly cycle along the Baltic Sea coast towards a ferry back to Germany and my next trip. But I guess I'll still be cycling for another three weeks or so.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Cycling in Finland: Conclusion and tips

When I prepared this trip I read a bicycle guide book for Europe. What it said about Finland was not very encouraging. Most long-distance cyclists would skip Finland and rather go to Sweden and Norway, because Finland is so "boring". Luckily this statement didn't deter me from coming here. Now, after more than 6 weeks of cycling through Finland I must say that I liked it a lot. A lot! This has been a very pleasant and enjoyable trip. In fact, Finland has become one of my favourite countries for cycling. Would I recommend it to a friend though? That depends on your trip expectations. Let me tell you why I enjoyed Finland so much:

Valamo monastery
Cultural diversity: In Finland you get three countries for the price of one! First of all you are in Finland - naturally. But you will also learn a lot about Sweden. The whole Finnish West Coast has traditionally been settled by the Swedish and they have left their traces up to this day. Western Finland is therefore often called "parallel Sweden". Town names are in Finnish and Swedish. All street signs are bilingual. In places like Vaasa up to 90% of the population speak Swedish as their first language. And you will also get a feeling for Russia in Eastern Finland. In Karelia, along the Russian border you will find more Russian-Orthodox churches than Protestant ones. There are the absolutely fantastic Valamo and Lintula orthodox monasteries. And nowadays you will see a lot of Russian again due to the masses of Russian tourists who come to Finland for holiday and shopping. Finnish history itself is fascinating: For centuries it has changed from Sweden to Russia and back. WW II history is especially interesting - as is Finland's special status as a Western country with "special" ties to Russia after WW II.

Great outdoors: 70% of Finland is covered with forest! You'll see elk, reindeer, beavers and hundreds of different birds. Especially for birdnuts Finland is paradise with its many bird viewing towers and bird hides. But there isn't only forest: There are vast swamp and mire areas. And there is an almost endless coastline. But it all depends on what you are looking for: If you want spectacular mountain landscape and fjords than Finland isn't the right country for you. Finland is mostly flat - a fact that I personally enjoyed tremendously as it made for easy cycling. Only South-Western Finland is sort of hilly, but it is mostly only short ascents and descents.

Faded marking
Excellent infrastructure for cyclists: Regardig infrastructure the first thing that comes to mind is roads and traffic. Coming from the Baltic States the condition of Finnish roads is great. All bigger roads are paved and usually in excellent condition. Potholes are generally repaired. Even the many smaller dirt roads are mostly graded dirt and not thick gravel. Unfortunately my road atlas did not show which roads were paved and which were dirt. Try to find maps which have this distinction and it will save you a lot of sweat. I still didn't like cycling on dirt roads but they weren't the bike catastrophe like in the Baltic States. Except for the really big roads and motorways traffic is usually light and Finnish drivers are considerate and polite. I had very few hairy situations. Only big logging trucks can be a bit of a problem but they usually give you a wide berth. The very best is the extensive bike path network. In really every city and often even villages there are bike paths paralleling the roads. And these bike path are usually very well maintained and have lowered curbs. Getting in and out of bigger cities is normally a nightmare for me. Not so in Finland: As soon as you get closer to a metropolitan area bike paths will appear everywhere and major destinations are even signposted.

There is only one thing that could be improved: Finland most have had a fantastic long distance route network. You can still see it on bike maps. But unfortunately the signpostig has not been maintained for years or even decades! Sometimes you can still see faded stickers with numbered bike routes but they have become undecipherable - and unreliable. Also there is no online resource showing the bike network which is a shame: Finland has so much to offer for cyclists and is missing out on attracting bike tourism.

Bottle return
But Finland has to offer more amenities for cyclists: First of all it is very easy to get water. All the usual "suspects" are good sources for water resupply: cemeteries, gas stations (look for the "wardrobe" like water and air station), churches (if they are open) and bigger supermarkets. Churches usually have toilets inside as have bigger supermarkets. Supermarket toilets are generally free, only in very touristy areas you will be charged. All Finnish supermarkets have a station where you return used plastic bottles and get your deposit back. In bigger supermarkets there is a little sink and water tap next to this station. It is meant to drain half empty bottles and wash sticky fingers but it is also great for getting a quick water resupply.

My personal favourite though were Finnish toilets. Private and even most public toilets are equipped with a little shower hose. The hose is connected to the wash basin. You'll turn on the water at the sink, push a handle at the shower head - and can then clean your "nether" regions with warm water. This is absolutely fantastic as these regions need special attention when you sit on a hard bike saddle 8 hours per day. But this little shower device is also great for washing your hair.

High fun factor: I guess it varies a lot from person to person what they consider as fun but for me Finland provided a lot of enjoyment. First of all there are the Finnish saunas. Every public swimming pool (uima halli) in Finland has one or several saunas attached. In a rather expensive country like Finland they are a great value: The normal price for a swimming hall with no time limit is between 5 and 6 EUR. This gives you access to sauna, showers with free soap, hair bbbbdryers, lockers and of course swimming pools. There is no better way to wait out bad weather - and no better way to get absolutely clean than frolicking in a Finnish sauna. You'll find public swimming halls in all big and medium sized Finnish towns, but be aware that the close in the height of summer. If it is too hot for sauna than you can easily cool off in on the thousand Finnish lakes. The magic word is uimaranta (swimming beach). Here you will find a sandy beach and sometimes toilets and changing rooms - all for free. But even if there is no official uimaranta you can usually jump into every lake.

Cooking shelter Rokua NP
My newest discovery are the Finnish National parks that offer better amenities than many campgrounds. You will find free forest campsites (although in some parks you are forced to stay in pay campgrounds), dry toilets, swimming beaches and sometimes even beach saunas (for rent), lean-to shelters and my beloved campfire sites. Here you will find heaps of firewood in a shelter that rivals most hiker huts in other countries, an axe for chopping it up and campfire rings or grills with grids and spits. Often there is even a cooking shelter for bad weather. Finland is grill sausage (grill makkara) country. Buy some sausages and have an outdoor barbecue but be warned: it is addictive.... To find these places go to where you will find a list of all Finnish parks and recreation areas complete with maps. These places are meant for hikers but usually some of them can be accessed by bicycle as well. Spend some time hiking some of the nature trails or visit the viewing towers!

Mute beggar
But of course even Finland has some drawbacks: There is no denying that Finland is a rather expensive country. It is not as bad as I thought and much cheaper than Denmark and Norway. Still, prices are about 20% higher than in Germany. When shopping food you can keep your expenses down by going to Lidl which is by far the cheapest supermarket chain in Finland. Lidl has become quite common in Finland and you'll find them in every big city. Other than that you are stuck with either a K-market or an S-Market (or an R-Kiosk). There are also ABC-gas stations and cafeterias that have a relatively cheap AYCE lunch. Only Lidl is still called Lidl and not L-Market.... I ate a lot of youghurt which is sold in 1 kg cartons and even cheaper than in Germany. Unfortunately culture is also expensive in Finland. Expect to pay at least 8 EUR entrance fee for a museum, sometimes a lot more. Accommodation is almost unaffordable. Even dorm beds in hostels cost up to 30 and 40 EUR. Commercial campground will charge you around 13 EUR per tent plus 4 EUR per person and as a solo traveller you will end up paying between 15 and 20 EUR just for camping! Don't even ask what hotel rooms cost... As a couple or a group your best option is renting a hut or cabin in a campground which start from 40 EUR per cabin.

Abandoned road camping
But on the more positive side there is the everyman's right: You can legally camp everywhere except on farmland and near houses. Although this sounds great be warned that free camping is not that easy. Finnish forest is a jungle! It is very difficult to find a flat spot big enough for a tent that is not overgrown, rocky or full of tree roots. And even if you see such a spot you might not be able to access it: A lot of Finnish forest is planted on drained swamps - and therefore between you on the forest road and your desired camp spot there will be a deep drainage canal..... Your best bet is to look for abandoned forest roads. Did I mention the mosquitoes? In summer it seems that everything is out there just to bite you. This not much of a problem while cycling but as soon as you stop you will be attacked by mosquitoes, horse flies, sand flies and all sorts of other insects. Bring repellent and/or long sleeves.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Endless summer in Finland

This little detour into the Lakelands had one big disadvantage: it was mostly along busier roads which was quite a shock after Karelian side roads with hardly any traffic. First sightseeing stop was Kerimäki with the world's biggest wooden church. The church is huge but otherwise quite unimpressive which doesn't deter hundreds of tourists to visit it. Much more interesting was the Savolinna museum where you can see how parishioners got to church. In the Lakelands going by boat was the natural choice - and this church boats were huge! Some of these rowing boats carried up to 150 people. Church goers did this boat trip in their underwear and only changed into their Sunday clothes once ashore.

Savonlinna castle
The most famous sight in Savonlinna is the castle which hosts a huge opera festival in summer. The castle is built onto an islands and can only be reached by a bridge. This led to an unusual problem for bike-friendly Finland: where to park the bicycle. Bicycles were forbidden on the castle island and there wasn't even a luggage storage - only champagne bars for opera visitors. The friendly guy at the ticket counter tried to help me but couldn't come up with a solution either. In the end he asked me to write an email to the city council and complain about the lack of bike storage as I wasn't the first one with this problem. I parked outside and left my panniers on the bike which made me feel totally uneasy during the guided your through the castle.  Like every other mediaeval castle in Scandinavia this one was quite impressive from outside - and rather boring from inside. Whenever we passed a window I tried to get a glimpse of my bike. In the end I got so nervous that I left the tour early to leave the castle - and stood in front of water were an hour earlier a bridge had been. I nearly panicked until I realised that this was a moveable bridge which had only opened to let a boat pass. Five minutes later I was happily reunited with my bicycle that hadn't been touched by anyone.... I tried to calm down by sitting on a park bench and watching the first opera goers in their elegant and sometimes quirky evening dresses.

Chainsaw tree
Next day was Lusto day. Lusto is the huge Finnish forestry museum and I wanted to get my 10 € entrance fee's worth out of it. Lusto is a real museum highlight and I spent 5 hours there. The exhibition covers every possible aspect of forest from history to machinery and from wolves to elves. I was most impressed by a tree consisting of dozens of chainsaws and even tried my luck in a tree loader where I realised that I'd be a lousy forest worker. Due to the swampy ground tree harvesting season in Finland is winter when the ground is frozen and the trees could be transported on sleds. Workers lived in huts in the woods in very primitive conditions. Back in the 50's wood and wood products made up over 70% of Finnish exports. Nowadays it is only around 20% - but still an important number.

View from the bird hide
I spent so much time in the museum that I almost had to rush to get my designated camp spot: Siikalathi wetlands and bird viewing area. I admit that I was lured there not so much by the birds but by the campfire site: it was grill sausage time again! I arrived late at this nature reserve and immediately lit a campfire. I was just eating my second sausage when at 10 pm some late visitors arrived: a group of Russian tourists. They left when I ate my fourth sausage.... As I had the whole place to myself now I slept in the information hut - a nice change from being in my tent all the time.

Bird viewing tower
In the morning - when I wasn't distracted by grill sausages any more - I finally took a look at the nature reserve. I am not into birding but even I was impressed with this place. The wetlands are an important stop for migrating birds and in spring this place must be crowded with birds and birdnuts. But even now in July it was fascinating. There were two bird viewing towers and an elaborate bird hide where even I managed to see an abundance of birds.

I stayed so long that I had to rush to get into Imatra before Lidl closed at 6 pm on Sundays - and I needed food! I shouldn't have worried: next to Lidl were several other supermarkets with longer opening hours, all caring for Russian tourists. Even Lidl had a "tax free for tourists" counter - and this was one of the biggest Lidls I have ever seen. The negative side effect of all the Russian tourists is that the usual supermarket toilets here all cost money - normally they are free and a great way for dirty cyclists to "freshen up".

Imatra was and is famous for the rapids of the river Vouksi but nowadays the river is dammed for an hydroelectric powerplant. But every day at 6 pm the power station releases water for a sound and light rapid show - which I missed because of shopping too long. At least the EV bike route rewarded me with cycling along the river shore. Although I had been cycling along the Russian border all the way through Karelia I have never been so close to it. Now everywhere were signs telling me that I was about to enter the border zone for which you need a special permit. Russia didn't look too tempting anyway: right across the border is Svetgorsks which I could see, hear and smell from miles away because an ugly noisy plant rises its smoking chimneys high up into the otherwise blue sky. No wonder the Russians hop over the border to Finland for holidays...

Sibelius in sand
Lappeenranta was next and again the whole place was full of Russian tourists - and tourists wanting to go to Russia. The reason is a visa loophole: from Lappeenranta can take cruises on the Saaima canal to Vyborg in Russia - without a visa. Vyborg was Finnish before WW II and is now the major theme in Lappeenranta's South Karelian museum. The EV route took me into town along the Saaima canal where I saw some pretty impressive looks.

Lappeenranta's summer attraction is the sand castle park where each year several sand sculptures are erected. This year's theme must be music as I saw Jean Sibelius next to Freddy Mercury.

Had the weather been unusually cold around midsummer it was now unusually warm, almost hot. For over two weeks now it was blue sky every day and temperatures up to 30° Celsius. I jumped into every lake along the way and the water in the shallow lakes was almost lukewarm. It had been so hot and dry that South Karelia had issued a forest fire warning. The long term forecast was for more warm weather and I wanted to take advantage of that. I decided to leave the EV route and make a detour to Repovesi National Park.

I openly admit that I like Finnish National Parks and nature reserves not only for their nature but also for their campfire sites (think grill sausage) and other installations. Repovesi was especially good since you are allowed to cycle on the forest roads which takes you to or very close to most sites and sights including several swimming beaches. This sounded like the perfect spot for a well needed rest day. I therefore bought two packages of grill sausages and set out.

When I arrived at the park I immediately realised that I was not the only one thinking that this is a great spot for a break. The parking lot was full of cars (with lots of Russian licence plates) and the first campfire site was already full. I cycled on. Next campfire site was also occupied with two tents and the campfire was already going - and nobody paying attention to it. My hunger for grill sausages was sort of urgent now and I therefore just took over the fire. Half an hour later I had demolished for sausages and felt much better when a Russian family appeared fully loaded with camp chairs, coolers and barbecue equipment. I fled. Luckily I had already discovered the perfect campsite next to a little lake. It was just off a maintenance road where no one else went except a cyclist - everybody else is using the trails. I spent a peaceful night - no Russian families, only loons. The very best was that it had morning shade - very important when sunrise is at 3 am and you want to sleep in.

At noon I finally left my shady campsite to explore the park. I soon figured out that the maintenance road did indeed get me anywhere but that it was hard, hard work. Steep ascents on loose gravel made me push the bike more than pedal. Luckily this is a small park! I soon reached a popular picnic spot where the campfire was already burning. While I barbecued my sausages I watched in amazement how two voluptuous Russian teenage girls tried to chop wood with a huge axe - clad only in tiny bikinis. They weren't even wearing shoes. They weren't very successful and soon their group leader came to their rescue - in true Putin style only wearing swimming trunks and a gold chain. So much for work safety. At least I put my bike into a safe distance from this looming disaster.

The park even boasts a viewing tower, something rare in flat Finland. I soon regretted going there on the steep forest road but I could soon wash off my sweat in a lake. The park was almost too crowded for my taste: Russian tourists, Finnish families in a hiking trip, mountain climbers, mountain bikers - and everybody was eating grill sausage. I returned to my stealth campsite where I knew I wouldn't have noisy company. But still: it had been a good restday and I had now planned out the rest of my route through Finland.

Friday, 18 July 2014


Cycling out of Patvinsuon
Unfortunately there was another 40 km stretch of dirt road to get to get from Patvinsuon National Park back into civilisation and I wasn't looking forward to that. Luckily the roads got better and better and after 5 hours I arrived in Hattuvaara. The tiny village boasts a War Museum but the 8 € entrance fee were a waste of money. Old fashioned exhibits and Finnish only explanations - the only good thing was free wifi.

Next day I cycled into Ilomantsi which is almost a metropolis in this region with 6000 inhabitants. Most importantly a famous restaurant there offers a Karelian AYCE buffet. For days I had been deliberating if I should invest 22 € in it and in the end I could not resist the culinary temptation. And I wasn't disappointed - the buffet was a real highlight with only local dishes. Drinks included blackcurrant juice and my beloved Kolijaki, the sweet non alcoholic beer which has become my favourite drink. There was plenty of smoked fish of all kinds, Karelian meat stew and salmon in cream. You could even watch the cook preparing pirrogi and egg butter - and of course eat it. Dessert was sticky berry soup after which I happily rolled out of the place.

Dug out
I realised soon that I probably wouldn't need dinner later which was supposed to be grill sausage prepared over the camp fire at Petkeljärvi National Park. I still cycled into the lovely little park but unfortunately camping there wasn't free. You had to use the pay campground. Petkeljärvi has been the battle ground between Finns and Russians in WW II and therefore I only had a look at the reconstructed dug outs and trenched before leaving the park. I found a beautiful free campsite just outside the park boundaries right next to a lake which meant a swim before going to bed and first thing in the morning. The weather has been incredibly good lately and consequently the water is nice and warm now.

Barbecue in Möhkö
I spend the next morning in Möhkö, a place that isn't even mentioned in my Lonely Planet guidebook for Finland. I can't believe how they could forget this lovely place which houses one of the nicest museums I have seen in whole Finland. Möhkö has always been in the middle of nowhere but it had two important assets: Lake ore and wood. I have visited dozens of mining museums all over the world but never heard of lake ore which is - as the name indicates - found on the bottom of lakes. The museum shows the remnants of the furnaces and describes vividly the story of owners and workers including forestry and war history. The grounds with several historical buildings are huge and pretty - and even include a lean to shelter with a campfire place where I finally barbecued my grill sausages for lunch. I usually don't have such an extended lunch break but I enjoyed it tremendously.

Now I had to work off four sausages - a good motivation to cycle 70 km in the afternoon until I finally set up camp just one km away from the Russian border. It was wonderful cycling. The EV 13 parallels the Russian border which means that there isn't much traffic. And now in the middle of a summer "heat wave" there are wild strawberries everywhere. There sweet smell is in the air and makes me stop several times per day for a quick "berry break". And slowly blueberries are coming out as well. At Värtsilä I joined a bigger highway coming directly from the nearby Russian border crossing and as a pass time I studied the cars. The Russians were all in brandnew high class cars, preferably in black and even better an SUV. The older the car the more probable it has a Finnish license plate.... Along the Finnish West Coast everything is in Finnish and Swedish - here it is Finnish and Russian. But I soon turned away from the border and followed the EV 13 inland to make another detour into the Lakelands again.

Monday, 14 July 2014

More bike problems resolved

I liked it so much at Valamo moastery that I had considered staying another day at  its female counterpart Lintula. But due to more bike problems this wasn't very practical. I needed a bike mechanic and as the weekend was approaching I had to get into Joensuu on Friday.

Russian Orthodox church Joenssuu
So what was the problem? Unfortunately a very well known one: my bottom bracket was failing. I have had the exact same problem before when I was cycling through Japan. It starts very innocently with grinding noises and the pedals getting stuck once in a while. You then have to apply a bit of brute force, you'll hear something break and the bearing works again - with more grinding noises. What happens is that one of the balls in the bearing of the bottom bracket breaks, gets stuck and blocks the pedals. When you force the pedals the ball will break and the movement of the bearing will sort of grind it down - thus damaging more balls that will break soon after. You can assess the damage by trying to move the pedals sideways. With a properly working bottom bracket this isn't possible - the pedals can only move forward and backwards. But with the bearing failing the cranks can be moved sideways. The more you can move them sideways the greater is the bearing damage.

Traditional hay making Koli
Although I had checked the bottom bracket thoroughly before I had left Germany I had noticed how it was deteriorating during the trip. Cycling into Valamo had been a bad day: the pedals had gotten stuck several times in one day. This could lead to a potentially dangerous situation in traffic. Unfortunately I was now heading into sparsely populated Karelia with no bike shops for at least one week. My only chance was Jouenssu which is a rather big university town and three bike shops.

I was already lucky when I called the first bike shop, MT-Bike. One of the mechanics spoke very good English and understood my problem immediately. He was also willing to do the repair if I arrived on Friday. When I arrived Friday morning he immediately remembered me and had a look at my bike. First it looked like they didn't have the right spare part but after some calling around and searching the whole workshop a fitting spare was found. Then I was sent away for two hours because this repair didn't look quick and easy.

View from Koli
When I came back after some sightseeing and two hours I was met by a rather exhausted bike mechanic.Let me quote what he said: "In my job you need a little problem once in a while like salt in the soup. It spices up your life. But this bottom bracket has been almost too much salt." Apparently he had had tremendous problems getting the cranks off and on again - and he couldn't find a better spare crank. Deep scratch marks on the crank told me that he must have used real brute force but he had been able to change the bottom bracket and get the cranks back on - and that is all that counted. He had worked almost two hours on it and still only charged me 50 € to which I added a generous tip for this VIP express treatment - they had set aside all other work in the workshop to fix my bike first. Very much relieved I could now leave Jouensuu with a new bottom bracket. Hopefully this had now been the last bike problem on this trip.

I was now headed to Koli National Park which boasts something rare in Finland: a view! In the park there are some 367 m high "peaks" that actually offer some kind of view over Lake Pielinen and its thousands islands. There even is a free funicular up to the top and its nature centre and I freely admit that I took it including my bike - it was a hot day and a steep ascent for Finnish standards. This was a weekend and the place was bustling. Therefore I decided not to camp here but take the ferry across Lake Pielinen to Lieksa and use the time "saved" to visit Paateri. Everybody I had met had described this as a special place but for me it was a 50 km detour.

Carvings by Paateri
Paateri is where Finnish wood sculptor Eva Ryhännen had lived and worked and it is indeed a special place. I saw her house (of course all wood including the TV table), her studio full of sculptures and the main attraction: a wooden church. Everything in the church is made of wood with the most unusual thing being the altar. It is the root of Finland's biggest spruce tree that had been donated to Eva when the tree had to be felled after being hit by lightning. Paateri used to be the farm where Eva lived with her devoted husband and the setting is most beautiful and even the 25 km ride back into Lieksa was nice.

Lieksa had two attractions: the last Lidl for about a week which meant a big shopping trip and a huge open air museum. The museum was huge but a bit lifeless and after a while all the wooden houses seemed to look the same. Still I was impressed with a wooden house in a raft and several examples of old saunas.

Campfire site at Patvinsuo
I had fallen in love with Finnish National Parks (and their free and luxurious installations) and had therefore decided to go way out of my way to visit Patvinsuo NP near the Russian border. This involved long stretches on dirt roads, something I definitely wasn't looking forward to. And my worst  expectations came true when I turned off into the dirt road section: the road was loose gravel with deep corrugations instead of smooth dirt and to make things worse it had several steep ascents. It seemed that I was pushing the bike more than cycling and I was worried about breaking another spoke. The one thing that kept me going was the thought of barbecuing my Lidl "grill wursti" over the camp fire.

Moonshine swimming
And when I finally arrived at the park I was amply rewarded for my toil. This park was luxury! Lovely flat campsites under pine trees, cooking shelter and campfire places, several sandy beaches for swimming and even a beach sauna (although you have to pre book that). I immediately lit a camp fire and was soon feasting on Chilli-Cheddar grill wursti. It was already 11 pm when I set up my tent but now it was time for the highlight of the day: a moonlight skinny dip in the lake (although I didn't need the moonlight because at this time of the year it doesn't get dark all night). It was heavenly to wash off all the sweat and grime of the day and go to bed totally clean. And first thing in the morning (after using the comfortable dry toilet) was another swim in the lake. Finland can be heaven.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Birthday in Finland

Birds at Kupio Art Museum
I arrived in Kuopio in the afternoon and had wanted to spend the evening in the local swimming pool sauna. Unfortunately this plan did not work out as the swimming pool was closed in summer - and its English website had not been updated with this minor detail. Standing in front of closed doors I decided to do something useful and clean my water bottles. They are made out of transparent plastic but had recently gotten darker and darker. I had tried to convince myself that this color is tea stains from transporting ice tea but of course it was algae growth. I found a cemetery tap, used my bandana as a cloth and the handle of a rake to insert it - and soon I had nice and clean bottles again. In fact I was shocked how much gross algae I had cleaned out.....
Kupio bike path

I camped a bit outside Kuopio to get into town early next morning and do plenty of sightseeing. Kuopio even offers a discount card for three museums and I took ample advantage of it. Kuopio City Museum, Art Museum, Natural History Museum and a complex of old wooden houses. I even splurged on a Chinese AYCE buffet although the food quality wasn't that great - but 9 EUR does not get you much in Finland....Next day was my birthday and I had great plans to celebrate.

Valamo monastery
 I had booked myself into the guesthouse of a Russian-Orthodox monastery! Karelia has had two big Orthodox monasteries but in WW II the monks and nuns had to flee from Russian Karelia into Finnish Karelia and they settled between Kuopio and Joensuu. First I arrived at Lintula, the female monastery - a very peaceful spot in the middle of nowhere. The church was almost brand new, the grounds lovely and not many tourists around. But my goal was Valamo, the male monastery and a big Finnish tourist attraction. Valamo is more a monastic town than a monastery. On its grounds there is an upscale hotel, several guesthouses, a cafeteria/restaurant, a cultural centre and of course several churches. I had booked myself into the modest guesthouse where 45 EUR got me a room with shared bathroom facilities and an AYCE breakfast buffet. The staff - all summer volunteers - was incredibly friendly and helpful. I even got a free coffee voucher because of my birthday.

Valamo church with tourists
I first headed to the Russian dinner AYCE buffet where I immediately fell in love with kotikalja, a Russian drink. It looks exactly like beer but does not contain alcohol and is very sweet like a kind of malt beer. After stuffing myself sufficiently at the AYCE buffet I headed over to the church for the evening service. There was no rush - the Russian-Orthodox "vigil" service lasts 2 1/2 hours..... To make things worse you are supposed to stand during the whole ceremony, although in Valamo there are a few benches for tired cyclists like me. I was fascinated by the monks' and priests' robes and even more by their beautiful polyphonic singing. Later that evening there was even more singing: a Russian quartet was performing Russian folk songs. As you can see I had a pretty busy birthday - and thoroughly enjoyed it.

My room at Valamo
Only I did not succeed in sleeping in in the morning. The "cheap" guesthose is not only used for accommodating tourists but mostly volunteer workers - and they started banging the doors at 6 am. I just gave up and headed over to the generous breakfast buffet. I liked the bread and porridge but could not quite cope with eating pickled cucumbers and fish in the morning. Valamo is a very modern place with wifi throughout the whole complex and therefore I am now sitting in the monastery's library using their computers.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Summer in Finland

Next on my schedule was to visit an internet acquaintance. I had posted a lot of questions about Finland on a German bike forum - and had received a lot of information from Thomas, a German living in Finland. Finally he had even invited me to visit him in Utajärvi where he worked in the nearby Rokua Geopark. I had announced my visit for Thursday morning and Thomas had even taken a day off work to show me around.

Oulu library in the rain
But now Wednesday when I had to leave Oulu to see Thomas in time the weather was plain miserable. The forecast was for a lot of rain the entire day. I could either leave very early in the morning before the rain or late in the evening when it was supposed to let up. I decided to trust the meteorologists and wait for the rain to stop. This meant I had to spend the day somewhere dry in Oulu and my choice fell on Oulu public library. This turned out to be an excellent choice: there weren't many customers and I was allowed to use the internet for several hours which gave me the chance to update my blog. But this fantastic library had a lot more to offer: I found German newspapers and even the American "Backpacker" magazine and spent a very relaxing afternoon reading. And before I could finish all the magazines the rain had really stopped. At 6.30 pm I finally left Oulu preparing myself to cycle late. It was 11 pm when I finally set up camp - in an unexpected rain shower. And of course it rained the next morning when I cycled the last 25 km to Thomas' home in Utajärvi.....

Thomas at Rokua park
But as soon as I arrived things improved dramatically. Thomas had already an early lunch waiting for me. Then we had a look at my bike where another surprise was waiting for me. When Thomas checked the tires he discovered that I had a broken spoke - a fact that had so far escaped my visual inspections. And what came next is another example of unexpected trail magic: Thomas did not only have the fitting spoke but also showed me how to change it. Even better: he had a device for truing the wheel and gave me a spare spoke. This broken spoke could have caused me a lot of trouble (especially since I didn't have a spare) if Thomas hadn't found it in time and fixed it for me.

Rokua park
But Thomas helped me even more: I had several route options for continuing through Finland and with the help of his great bike maps and all his info I finally decided on one option. With all that work done we could eventually do some sightseeing in Rokua park. With Thomas' explanations the hills and forests transformed into an interesting history. Rokua has some unique geological features: the park covers the remnants of the last Ice Age. The ground is all sand that has been left by retreating glaciers that has then been blown into huge sand dunes. Now these dunes are covered with light pine forest. And the lakes that dot the park are leftovers from melted dead ice blocks.

Camping in Rokua
We took a little stroll through the park before we came to the highlight of the day. Thomas had brought some sausages and we lit a fire in one of the campfire sites to have a little barbecue. Like before in Nuuksia the installations were total luxury: there was a firewood shelter, a cooking shelter with seats and barbecue spits and even a toilet. And all this next to a beautiful lake and virtually mosquito free due to the dry sandy ground. We even had some fantastic cake as desert - leftover from a business meeting earlier that day in the visitor centre. When Thomas left to return to his home and family I set up my tent on perfectly flat ground, kept the fire burning and enjoyed one of the best evenings of the whole trip. This felt like paradise and a flash of deep happiness came over me.

Next morning I met Thomas again in the park's visitor centre to get some more geological explanations and route info before I finally set off at noon. I had enjoyed me evening in the park so much that I was now heading to Oulujärvi, a different section of Rokua  Geopark, but with similar camping installations. Again the lake area was delightful and I had dinner in a cooking hut where I lit a fire just for the fun of it - something I hardly ever do. Again there were no mosquitos and I enjoyed a great evening. Unfortunately the nights wasn't very quiet because some Finnish campers nearby decided to go skinnydipping at 2 am and their alcohol induced screams of joy were carried across the lake and disturbed my sleep.

I was now cycling through the Finnish Lakelands, an area right out of a Scandinavian picture book. Of course it helped a lot that summer had finally arrived. No more rain, sunshine every day and temperatures above 25 C. One night I camped in an old overgrown meadow with no shade- something I regretted in the morning when the strong sun turned my tent into a sauna. It was impossible to sleep after 7 am and I got an unusually early start. I don't know whether it's the great weather, my great physical shape or just the higher pressure in my tires after Thomas bike repair: I am doing high mileage days now and end up with 100 km plus. The terrain is rolling hills: lots of up and downs, but none too long or steep.

The warm weather is driving people onto the beaches - and brings out the weirdest bike fashion. Cycling into Kuopio I saw a guy only wearing sandals, one tiny piece of men's underwear - and a bike helmet. Safety first!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cycling North into the wind

Church stables in Närpes
The northerly wind didn't stop. For me this was especially annoying as I had chosen to cycle the coast northwards because according to all weather websites the predominant winds here are Southwest. So much for predominant wind directions.... At least the Northerly wind explained why it was so unusually cold. Daytime temps hardly ever exceeded 15° C and now with a clear night sky night time temperature dropped to 4° C! But at least the rain was gone and the long term forecast was cold, windy but sunny. One of the most interesting sights on my way were the church stables at Närpes. You might wonder what church stables are. Närpes was such a big parish that people came to church from far away - of course in the olden days in horse drawn carriages. And while the humans attended church service the horses were kept in the church stables. Around Närpes church there are still 160 old stables!

The next big event for me was Vasa where I had already been during my first visit to Finland one year ago. Like last year I would have liked to see Hendrik Morkel again but unfortunately he was away when I came through town. Having been here already had the big advantage that I didn't have to do any sightseeing - I had already visited all the interesting places and even knew my way around. Therefore I concentrated on three things: shopping at Lidl, using the internet in the fantastic Vasa library and visiting the local swimming hall.

Kokkola swimming hall
This last point was the most exciting event for me and I had been looking forward to it for days now. Although I wasn't particularly grimy due to the cold weather I needed a thorough cleaning up - and this can't be achieved better than in a sauna. Finnish swimming halls always include a sauna and this was my main goal. Entrance fees to a swimming hall are quite moderate for Finnish standards and I paid 5,70 € and even splurged on renting a big towel. As I carry a make shift swimsuit I even went for a swim but I was much more interested in the sauna. Finnish public saunas are sex segregated. You are not allowed to wear swimsuits or any other clothing inside the sauna but you need a towel or a seat to sit on. I definitely can't compete with Finnish people in sauna endurance but I managed three sauna rounds after which I felt sparkling clean. Here even liquid soap and hair dryers were provided for free. I felt like in a beauty spa and stayed till the whole place closed.

It is difficult to explain the feeling after a sauna. On the road it is already great to take a shower and wash your hair after a week of cycling or hiking but the feeling is even better after a sauna. You not only feel incredibly clean but also warm and mellow. But instead of going straight to bed I still had to cycle out of town and find a campsite. Luckily it doesn't really get dark here this time of the year because it was already past 10 pm when I turned off the road into my "target camping area". The camping shock here was bigger than usual. Finnish forests are more like jungles. The ground is usually totally overgrown with blueberry bushes or other scrubs making camping rather difficult. But this was a camping nightmare: huge rocks everywhere! I haven't seen ground that impossible for camping since the New England states along the AT! My only hope was to find a man made track into this jungle and I had to cycle more than one km to find one. Exhausted I decided to camp here and now. Luckily my tent is almost free standing because due to the rocks I couldn't get any tent stakes in. After setting up camp and cooking it was almost midnight when I finally went to sleep - and cold!

Next night I was having similar problems finding a campsite. I had turned off the major road into a forest road and all of a sudden I passed a huge farm - but a huge farm of what? There were endless rows of cages and I first thought it was a chicken farm but the presumed chickens had for legs and looked more like cats. It finally dawned on me: This was a mink farm! I passed several of these farms on my way further North.

I soon encountered another problem: This was not a very touristy area and the few sights had very limited opening hours - usually from noon to 4 pm. But with distances so big it was difficult to be at the right place at the right time. I managed to do so at Jakobsstad another city of the "Swedish parallel". The Finnish West coast that I am cycling up now has been settled by Swedish people for decades. There are still plenty of Swedish speakers and every street sign is bilingual. Therefore also the Swedish name "Jakobstad".

I took a look at the Jakobsstad museum and learned why Finnish bread is round and has a hole in the middle. In the olden times the bread was preserved by drying it over the stove. Storing it on wooden sticks also made it inaccessible for mice and rats. Next stop was Kokkola and again I was too late for any museum. But I had a much better idea: Visit another sauna! And I definitely struck gold with the public swimming hall in Kokkola. There were two saunas, a hot pool with massage jets and even a jaccuzzi. I am convinced that the entrance fee here of 5,80 EUR was an excellent investment and again I stayed till the place closed.Uima halli (swimming hall) has become my favourite Finnish word!

Every day I was cycling into a strong cold head wind getting more and more annoyed. To make things worse the EV 10 now often follows the very busy E 4 road - though mostly on a seperate bike path. I was just pasing through the Finnish beach resort of Kalajoki when I saw a car parked ahead of me and two people waving at me. As I don't know anyone in Finland I immediately turned around to see who they were waving at - but there was no one else. Could they mean me? Maybe they were bike freaks and just wanted to say hello to a fellow cyclist. But when I came closer I did not trust my eyes.This was the couple I had couchsurfed with one year ago in Vaasa! I could hardly believe it but they had recognised me and my bike when passing me in their car. And they didn't even know that I was in Finland! This is such a small world and an incredible coincidence. Of course we stood there chatting for half an hour and I was so happy that they had stopped for me. Now that I have already met them twice I hope for a third encounter!

That night my "target camping area" was beside a minor road of the big E 4. But to my big surprise there was almost more traffic on this road than on the big E 4. Car after car came on to me and I did not have any other explanation than that the E 4 most be closed and this was a construction detour. I stopped at a farmhouse to inquire what was going on. A very confused farmer who hardly spoke English finally understood what I was trying to find out and told me not to worry. The E 4 was still open - the traffic just came from a "Christian festival". I managed to find a somewhat quiet campsite but when I resumed my journy the next morning there was an even higher amount of traffic. I was very curious now and finally passed the event. Thousands of cars and caravans were parked on mown fields. When I had passed the first parking lot I already thought that this is big but I passed more and more huge parking lots and campsites. Woodstock must have been nothing compared to this.

Only when I arrived in Oulu my CS host told me what this festival was all about. There is a conservative Protestant sect in Northern Finland called the Laestadians and I had stumbled upon their yearly summer meeting! It was a funny coincidence that I had just been listening to an audiobook by famous Finnish author Aarto Paaselinna which also dealt with this sect. And old Lapp woman had been expelled from her Laeastadian congregation because she had watched TV - and Laestadians are not allowed to do so (although computers are allowed.....).

I needed a bit of a break now and I had chosen Oulu to be my rest stop. It calls itself the capitol of Northern Scandinavia and is indeed quite big for local standards. I was very lucky and quickly found a nice CS host: Paula and her daughter Inka - a real little princess. She even let me sleep in her room and I slept like a queen surrounded by barbie dolls. Last year in Tampere I had discovered the Moomins but here in Oulu I learnt about Dog hill. Mauri Kunnas is a Finnish author of children's books and creator of the dog characters in Dog hill that re-enact Finnish history in dog form. There even is a canine Kalevala. Inka showed me all her Mauri Kunnas books and I tried to learn how to count in Finnish with one of his picture books..The local museum even has a permanent Dog Hill exhibition.

Master is at home
My rest day was also museum day and I went to visit the Ostrobothnian museum where I was offered a private tour. A history student was doing his internship here and this was part of his training. He could not have asked for a better tourist. Of course I asked hundreds of questions about Finland and its history and in the end the tour took 3 hours..... One of the things I learned is the meaning of Finnish porcelain dogs. They are placed in the windows of sailors' homes. When the dog is facing inside the master or sailor is at home. When its facing outside the sailor is at sea - and everyone in town knows his wife is alone at home....