Finland - Part Two
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Friday 30th March 2018
Khumo to Runkeli, 41 miles
At breakfast my fishing friends gave me a cursory nod and grunt. I assumed that maybe the evening before they had been fluid with their tongues after a drink.
I sat down and ate my porridge on the table next to them.
I was mistaken, my fishing pals weren’t hung over, they were in awe. A rock star fisherman from Holland was at their table and I listened as he told, in English, great tales of far off continents and fish the size of whales (or Wales), and how his cunning and choice of fly won the day.
He was a big set fellow and my snubbers hung on every word as the great Hans Van Klinken ate his breakfast and told his yarns.
I headed into town, it was Good Friday, the supermarket was open and so was the camping / angling shop. One of the poles in my tent had split the other night and I was looking for a splint to make a repair.
The owner was very helpful and held up duck tape and took me into his workshop where there was a plethora of rifles and shot guns and looked for tubing that might help. Sadly though, there was no solution.
Back in the main part of the shop I mentioned that I was staying in the hotel and that there was a fishing party with a celebrity Dutchman. His eyes lit up and he disappeared back into his workshop returning with a leather handled pocket knife, inscribed “Hans Van Klinken, Khumo 2018”. Perkele.
With the bike loaded I headed back the way I came to seek out the Winter War Museum of Khumo. After a couple of miles I arrived and behind a huge pile of road cleared snow was the closed for the winter Winter War Museum of Khumo.
Back on the road the going was good. The sun, denser traffic and warmer temperatures made a good clear road and after twenty miles I had a decision to make. To take the official route to Lieksa along the 524 and risk a reoccurrence of the Suomussalmi day or stick with the clear 75 road even though it was 40 miles further.
When I saw the state of the 524 at the turn off the decision was simple and after an hour on the 75 I was really pleased as the ‘clear’ road gave me a taste of what the 524 would have been like.
For twenty miles the 75 was a mix of slush, black ice, ice melt, grit, ice walls and polar bears. All trying their best to throw me off the bike. I came off a couple of times and cursed a hundred as I inched along.
I was rewarded when I stopped though with a cleared logging road. I climbed a hill, set up camp to a beautiful sun set and moon rise. Cooking with gas.
Saturday 31st March 2018
Ronkeli to Vuinisjärvi, 60miles
In the morning, I was greeted with a wonderful sunrise and the road to Lieksa was fast. I arrived in the town at four and made to the supermarket to find the ‘all you can eat buffet’. There wasn’t one and it was all I could do to sit with some pop and crisps and head on.
The town was flooded and the melt water came up to my panniers and boots as tractors shifted piles of ploughed snow to another zone.
I travelled until sunset and found a path that ran through a wood. I could see that it was used recently by a horse rider and a walker so set up a bivvy so as not to block the path.
Two days ago, I forgot to mention, I heard my first bird call since travelling. Although I had become used to logging trucks and passing traffic, it was still quiet. There was little wind through the woods and rivers stood frozen. Today I heard my first airliner, the air being dry it’s vapour trail was hard to find. As the weather warmed,
Through the night dog walkers passed by with their head torches, I stirred and went back to sleep.
Sunday 1st April 2018
Vuinisjärvi to Ilomansti, 51 miles
Through the night I became overwhelmingly warm and later found myself shivering as a the moon seemed to follow a low and unpredictable path through the forest. I dreamt of playing on a beach with my daughter and with dawn, woke to temperatures of -17. There would be no melt water that morning.
The pack up was fast and within half an hour of waking, I was on the road. I was absolutely freezing. The past two days of false spring had let my guard down. I quickly slipped back into the routine of adding and removing layers. Surprisingly though temperatures were above freezing by nine and at 5 by midday.
The frozen roads became treacherous and flowing rivers of brown melt water ran from the sunny side and froze on the shaded side as lapping waves caught still in time.
The going was slow, but I enjoyed the sun and the forests. The trees are noticeably taller here and trunks thicker. The slightly longer season must make a difference.
Tomorrow a snow storm is forecast and I Booking.com a room in the next town of Ilomantsi. I arrive at five.
The town is desolate and the hotel owner opens up the hotel five minutes after I call. She is in her sixties and the language barrier is broken with a call through to her daughter. She leaves me breakfast for the morning, shows me how to operate the sauna and takes my stinking clothes away for washing.
The snow comes down heavily. It’s like The Shining as I walk the empty corridors with flickering lights imagining the local wedding parties held here and visiting summer tourists. As I enter the empty bar area to check my bike I say, “Here’s Johnny”.
Tuesday 3rd April 2018
Ilomansti to Niirala, 47 miles
The snow had been heavy over the previous 24 hours and it continued to snow as I left the hotel with super clean clothes. I’m not sure how she managed it but every sign of dirt, grime and stove soot has been removed. I gave her a big cuddle and bid her and her daughter goodbye.
The roads were so much better than Sunday because they had been reset to their flat snow pact state. I let out some air from my winter tyres and pedalled into the wind and snow for the next eight hours.
The snow eased off around two and the sky turned a violent winter grey, pathetically retreating, losing its grey grip on the landscape as for a few seconds a pale afternoon sun shone pink warmth over fields and trees.
As I came close to the border the topography changed and an angry wind whipped across reclaimed farmland chilling its way through my clothes to weaken my resolve.
It was getting dark and border warning signs, shack like buildings and no amenities gave a complimentary desolation to the weather.
I pitched the tent on an incomplete, snowed in road at the side of the main road leading to the Naiirala border post. There was nothing covert about this ‘wild camp’. I had messed up, it was dark, it was hard setting up in the deep snow and I hadn’t eaten anything more substantial than three packets of rainbow Mentos all day.
The footprint of my tent was so uneven my sleeping position resembled that of a dentist’s chair. But with my bum sunk deep and my knees raised high even the rumbling sounds of the Russian convoys passing and empty stomach complaining couldn’t stop me from falling into a deep sleep.
If the border police or a vodka fuelled murderer came along, I didn’t hear them.
Wednesday 4th April 2018
Niirala to Puruvesi, 41 miles
It was well after 8 when I woke my awkwardly positioned body. I packed up quickly, the area looked a lot less hostile in the bright blue morning. Putting my coat on I found the key to the hotel in Ilomansti. I sent a text promising to post it back.
This was the main road, the 6. It was ice free and after some of the challenging days with the 400 types of road conditions I was glad to stay with this road for a while.
Although my speed improved and technically the riding was a lot safer. Those Russian truckers have man issues when it come to giving an extra six inches. It’s quite funny, you can tell what country a truck is from because of how much wake turbulence there is.
After twelve miles or so, I pulled over for a couple of Mentos. A police van pulled up next to me.
Apart from the border police I had two other bicycle police interactions in the past year. One in Germany where I was on an A road and ended up cruising a mile as a passenger in their van with my I’ll fitting bike hanging out of the side door. The other, Terminal Two tunnel Heathrow where I had ignored several no cycling signs. I was severely told off for that one.
With my guard up I chatted a while with the most personable guys I’ve met and expecting the worse asked If there was a problem.
“No, we just wanted a chat.” How lovely.
They asked how things were going and I said great, just the Russian truckers, grasping at the hand of solidarity.
“Yes, we have to check them.” The Finns have a very matter of fact attitude to problems which says nothing yet tells a whole life time of thoughts and actions. We would say stoic. These guys gazed at the road a while saying nothing, letting their thoughts wash around their minds.
They wished me good luck and drove on. After a while I came to a town and running along the side of the road is a snow covered cycle path. It looks slush free and compact and to have a break from the trucks I take the ride into town.
As I ride, the rear wheel fish tails, but not in the way it has done in the past. I ignore it and ride on. It happens again, this time the bike disappears from beneath me and I take a tumble.
There’s a pannier on the ground some way back and a crack in the path similar in width to the Grand Canyon. Hidden under the layer of snow and ice was a long series of fissures in the path caused by ice expansion. The weight of my rear wheel must have shattered the melting ice layer exposing the chasm
My pannier clips had broken and I set to work this with cable ties and straps. A minor inconvenience.
The rest of the day was spent posting off keys and rubbing a sore knee from the accident.
The road that I had planned to take was impassable and I stayed with the 6 for the day. I tried to listen to some radio but the truck noise was too much, it was a far cry from the quietness of the wilderness.
I found a good spot for the night at the side of the road and didn’t leave it too late. The cold temperatures had been left behind as the mercury stayed above zero and intermittent rain hitting the canvas gently stirred me in my sleep.
Thursday 5th April 2018
Puruvesi to Rautjärvi, 44 miles
With melting snow comes fog.
And with another day on the 6 ahead I set up my super bright rear light. That’ll keep those double trailers and logging trucks at bay.
It’s hard for me to big up this part of the trip. The scenery was tainted with dirty, melting snow, the miles drudged by and there was a different wet cold setting into my body. I set mini goals to help the miles pass and smelt the pine oil from the logging trucks as they covered me with spray and grit from their eighteen wheels to keep it positive.
At mile twenty four a black VW Passet pulled up and a lady stepped out of the drivers seat. People stop and chat when they see your bike, but this happens in supermarket car parks and the like. This lady had pulled up on the thin shoulder of the 6.
I then recognised her, it was the daughter from the Ilomansti Hotel and then her mum came out. It was so nice of them, we chatted at the side of the road for a while. They were in their way to Helsinki and then onto Ulm, Germany for a few days break.
Ashamed I showed my dirty cuffs on my coat but the grin on my face stayed with me well into the afternoon after waving them off.
At seven, I stopped at a quarry at the side of the 6 and set up in a translucent icy sludge, which was surprisingly comfy, a bit like a waterbed I suppose.
Friday 6th April 2018
Rautjärvi to Lappeenranta, 50 miles
The 6th of April and my last full day in Finland. It seemed appropriate to spend it on the 6.
I was on the road early, I didn’t fancy being shouted at by a quarry foreman or being run over by one of his rigs. About half a mile up the road was a service station and I stopped for a tea before continuing onto Lappeenranta.
It gave me a chance to think about my journey through this most wonderful country. It’s warm hearted people and it’s timeless forests and vast white ice lakes.
The leg of this journey was coming to an end and I was truly sad to be leaving the country that I had spent so many days in, in isolation. I have never heard such stillness, seen such an unchanging landscape or smelt the subtle release of spring smells. The mystical northern lights, conversations with strangers and wonderful faintly warming sunrises are now firm memories.
Finland you may be cold but you have melted me.
Saturday 7th April 2018
A day of learning.
Late the evening before my friend Paavo joined me. Paavo is Finnish and lives with his girlfriend Jannika on the West Coast of Finland. We met horse trekking in Iceland nearly ten years ago and both have a love for nature and the outdoors.
Paavo has the same cool, stoic approach that we have seen with so many Finns on the journey. He is thirty five and with his love of horses is learning to be a farrier. He is also a drummer in a band, an actor, a horse tour guide in Iceland and a quiet observer of my bumbles.
After breakfast, Paavo helps me sort out the bike, the dynamo connections were playing up yesterday and he gives me a splint for the tent pole.
My tent is soaking wet from the last pitch and I take it to the the reception and ask if there is a drying room. The receptionist thinks for a second and takes me to the basement. We approach a huge metal door, painted white with a large orange sign with a blue triangle. Two huge handles seal the door tight and the receptionist lifts these vault like handles and pulls the door towards her. Inside is a room, the size of a school classroom and across the ceiling is a lattice of rope. I’m instructed to hang the tent over the rope and turn the light off and close the door when I’m done.
When I’m finished I close the heavy door and huge vent fans begin whirring.
Paavo and I leave the hotel and the sun is bright in a clear blue sky. The streets are set out as a modern pedestrianised retail zone. Open shops display semi luxury goods to empty streets. Paavo explains that there was a huge capital investment in the town and it’s surrounding infrastructure over the decade. It was in anticipation of attracting Russian shoppers hungry for designer items and Western glitz. However the invasion of Crimea and the sanctions put in place together with retaliatory visa wars greatly reduced the number of Russian visitors.
There was a Russian presence and their new Mercedes and BMWs were are parked outside our £60 a night hotel, next to my bike. But I can only think that they are disappointed with the goods on offer in the struggling town.
After posting home some of the Artic clothing and equipment, including that bloody petrol burner, we take a trip to the old barracks on the hill. They have a strong Swedish, colonial look. In all there are a dozen buildings, some are for University use and others are museums. Paavo is keen to visit the Cavalry museum and is able to experience the ‘closed museum’ feeling that I have numbed to through the trip.
We take solace in a tea room on the campus in a relaxed 1800s setting and plan the afternoon. Paavo has a surprise up his sleeve and explains that we’ll be meeting up with some friends of his and going for a hike. In the meantime he suggests that he drive us to the town of Hamina, an Officer training town half an hour south.
We take the 6 south, an extension of the same road I cycled the day before. The roads are empty. Paavo explains that the wide dual carriageway was designed to export goods to Russia and to accommodate tourists with smooth roads to towns like Lappeenranta and luxury spa resorts. At times we were the only vehicle on the road.
Hamina is a town designed around one central town hall. This town hall is the epicentre of an octagonal roundabout, each eighth point has a straight road extending away. There are further rings linking these eight roads as you move away, an aerial view makes it look like a spiders web.
The design is about retreat planning. Should there be an invasion important documents and the army can retreat safely in any of the directions of the compass. It’s a bit more strategic than that and I’m sure that if you visit in the months of July and August you will be able to visit the Ruk museum and find out all about it. For Paavo and I, all we could do was look at the ‘Museum Closed’ sign as a bus load of Russian tourists came to join us.
In the car, Paavo explains about the room in the basement. It’s a bomb shelter and a legal requirement for all buildings of a certain size. They can be used for light storage but must be ready for use within half and hour. My tent was pretty wet and I couldn’t help but think about the poor hotel staff struggling with dripping canvas as aircraft jettisoned their cargo.
We were heading to Harjun Oppimiskeskus an Equestrian College and as we drove we passed through forests lit by the afternoon sun. It was in these forests that the blockbuster Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) was filmed in 2017. They used horses from the college for scenes and Paavo began his farriering career after a chance encounter with Essi and Soila, two ladies from the college who were advising the actors handling the horses. It was Essi and Soila who we were about to meet.
Essi, in her late thirties, wore a black puffer jacket and a black tight wool hat. She had a welcoming smile and blue eyes that shone. Her colleague Soila was slightly younger and was with her boyfriend Sami. After introductions we made our way over to the stables and I was introduced to the star of the movie Vilimon, aka Monni. This horse is as famous as Black Beauty in the UK and you know that feeling you get when your with someone famous, like a little awkward and don’t know what to say? I had it with a horse.
After saying good bye, Paavo and I made our way back to Lappeenranta where we went our separate ways. Paavo had a long journey home and was attending a horse show the following morning. As a parting warning he told me not remove the higher branches when collecting wood for fires. The enemy will see the broken stalks and it will be the last fire I light.
The Salpa Line runs along the length of my journey so far. From Norway to a little beyond the point where I stood. Made up of angular granite blocks each weighing no less than 3 tonnes in rows of four or more this defensive wall was designed to channel advancing troops and tanks to topographic defences where the out numbered Finns, short of ammunition could give the illusion of a force to be reconned with. The strategy was extremely effective, hence the Winter War lasting only 105 days. I hadn’t seen the Salpa Line on my journey though, because it was buried under masses of snow in the villages that I passed through.
The area that we were in is called Karelia. It was split as part of the peace negotiations and Soila told me how her grandmother was forcibly moved from her home twice. Once during the invasion and again as the region was divided. Soila had worked as a border guard before working at the college and she had no time for her neighbours.
Essi was more expressive in her feelings. Her great grandfather was a special forces war hero and saved many Finnish soldiers after a scouting mission went wrong. She had made a solem vow that she would never enter that country. Ever.
We spent more time looking at the eighty year old defences with their tall grown pines trees above and lush mosses covering the concrete bunkers and trenches and we walked along to the very end of the Salpa Line, the last stone.
It was for me a very symbolic point. The end of my journey through Finland. The final defence, disguised as a frozen lake surrounded by silver birch was in fact the Gulf of Finland and any troops landing here would have been gently guided towards the Salpa Line and its covert gun positions and bunkers. The Salpa Line’s physiological effect on the enemy has allowed Finland to remain an independent state.
Over the coming week I would be cycling around the Gulf of Finland, through Russia and on into Estonia.
After saying good bye, Paavo and I made our way back to Lappeenranta where we went our separate ways. Paavo had a long journey home and was attending a horse show the following morning. As a parting warning, he told me not remove the higher branches when collecting wood for fires. The enemy will see the broken stalks and it will be the last fire I light.
Thanks Paavo, drive safe.