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....

1 comment:

Chris Roche said...

Interesting custom about porcelein dogs facing in or out.