It was Saturday morning, a bit over half past 4, pitch black and snowing. We were about to go on an adventure, to a land where night lasts for entire month. We were about to go to Enontekiö, Finland, about 200km above Arctic Circle and around 500km away from Lulea. To do so, we rented a car and I was designated driver (the joy).
The car was brand new (only 4000 km), slightly modified for artic winters up here, it had metal spikes impelled into tires, external heating of engine and cabin which you plug into electricity socket (in parking spot), steering wheel and seat heating.
The roads up here are not entirely cleared of snow, there is always 2 or 3 cm of compacted snow on them. This, combined with warm weather we had lately, led to a road that was made of ice. The first hour of driving was like a rollercoaster. I was full of adrenalin as the car was sliding everywhere all the time, breaking distance was 5 times longer and I couldn’t see anything because of darkness and snow. Yet it was somehow fun, a new experience, nothing like I’ve done before.
I remember few years ago when I was driving home from Ljubljana (capital of Slovenia – where I’m studying), there was unexpected snowfall and traffic slowed down to a crawl, even thought there was no snow sticking to the road. Here you would think people would drive slower because of all the snow, ice and darkness… well think again, I was overtaken by a truck when I was going 80km/h on a highway.
After an hour of driving I got a bit more used to everything and I was able to drive at cruising speed of 100km/h on a something that could be said highway. Highway here is basically just a wider road, it still has only one lane on each side (like normal road), though you can’t really tell the lanes because of all the snow on it. Sometimes when there is a hill, the side that goes up gets additional lane. Even so usually you drive somewhere in the middle and when you see a car in the opposite side you move more toward the edge. Because of the darkness you spot a car kilometres away so it is relatively safe. What about the curves? Well the land is almost flat so there are almost no curves.
After 2 hours of driving we reached Finland border and soon after crossed Artic Circle.
We continued north in American style (turn right in 250km). To my big surprise environment was getting brighter. Because of all the snow and clouds (it was a snowy day) the light reflects quite a lot even though the sun is nowhere near horizon up there, beyond Artic Circle.
With the help of camera’s high sensitivity we were able to take few shots of the road. Try to find road here, and mind yourself, we were going 100km/h here and it was darker than it looks.
After long 6 hours of driving and only 1 stop we reached our destination.
The huskie farm was large, around 120 dogs. Besides us there was an American family that was scheduled for a safari at the same time. That meant we were going on 4 sledges. Each sledge was pulled by 6 dogs, one person was sitting on it and one was driving. Yes you heard me right, we were actually driving the dogs.
After not so quick briefing, I was first to drive our (mine and Veronika’s) sledge. Start was surprisingly fast, followed by around 10km/h pace for around 5km over snowy tundra and frozen lakes.
Ride was a joy. Dogs knew the route by hart and we had little to no steering to worry about. The thing we had to regulate more frequently was speed. This was done by stepping on step-on break, which increased drag on snow, slowing the sledge down. In turns we had to be careful to tilt in the correct way, to prevent sledge from tipping.
On half way we stopped for tea and Finnish biscuits. After that we changed drivers and continued toward home over a different route. This time I was sitting on the sledge so I was able to take more photos. Sadly it was already dark by then so I wasn’t able to take any good ones.
Just before reaching kennel again dogs speeded up again. Breaking didn’t help and we just flew through last corners almost tipping over.
Despite being novice drivers we did a good job. We didn’t overturn, I only got hit by a few branches, we caught the sledge ahead of us and got caught by the team behind us. Haha we also had an accident when the dogs behind us overtook us, haha let’s just leave it at this.
After we arrived we helped feed the dogs and put them in their cages. Here I found a dog with a name which sounded familiarly.
Whole trip lasted for about 3 hours and was one of the best things I’ve done up here. It was worth 12 hours of driving, thankfully car had very good gas/km ratio so we didn’t spent fortune on gas, here in Sweden it’s little below 2€/l. The car, even with winter tires with spikes and driving on snow, had an average of 4.2l per 100km consumption.
After I finished my home exam, I had approximately 1 hour to finish packing. Soon after I was on my way to central bus station with my roommate Mikel. When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see that our bus was double decker. I’ve never rode on one so I was really excited about it, we got a sit in the upper floor at the front window. View was great as we started driving up toward northern coast, through vast forest, numerous lakes and rivers.
After about 3 hours we arrived to Tornio – town on the border between Sweden and Finland. It was already 7 pm here, since Finland is 1h+ in regards to CET. Soon after we boarded another bus and were off to Kemi, from where we had train to Helsinki. As we were entering a bus we could already notice we were not in Sweden anymore. How? Well bus driver didn’t spoke English. While in Sweden nearly everyone (from my experience everyone) speaks English in Finland only younger and more educated generations speak it. Besides price was in €.
After waiting few hours at the train station, which was luckily opened, train arrived. It was really big and long train with double decker sleeping wagons. Since we were on a tight budget, we booked seats, which weren’t as cosy as beds, but much better than seats on bus.
After 10 hours of restless sleep we woke up to a cold and clear morning in the outskirts of Helsinki. We arrived to central train station at 9 am, took some tourist maps and went exploring the city right after.
Around noon we decided to go eat something and yeah where else do you go, if you don’t know any restaurant then McDonald’s? After paying 7€ for standard BigMac menu, we were reminded how expensive Scandinavia is. While in Sweden prices are even higher, you don’t feel them as much since they are in SEK, but in Finland as you know they have €.
After lunch we continued walking around old city centre. I think at the end we saw all interesting buildings and landmarks in the centre, so toward 3’o clock we walked toward harbour where our ship was waiting.
While we were boarding the ship we met some other exchange students that booked the same trip as us. As it turns out they were mainly Spanish (hooray for my roommate who’s from Spain as well 🙂 ). As we later learned the trip was mostly booked by exchange students that are currently studying in Helsinki. As far as I know we were the only two from Sweden.
After boarding the ship we found our room, it was small, as expected. It was for 4 persons, and had a bathroom. It was about 9m^2, which makes it almost smaller than the bathroom I have here in Sweden. : )
The ship was relatively big. It had 8 floors, from which only 3 were used for sleeping cabins, others contained 3 bars/restaurants, cinema, “disco”/club, casino, swimming pool, sauna, fitness and most importantly duty free shop; most importantly because they’re kind of famous. We actually mentioned them when we were studying Nordic country in my Geography class in 6th grade of primary school.
As you can guess prices are n times lower than Finland or Sweden. For example 1l of vodka costs 4.6€. In Sweden I have no idea, since you can’t even buy alcohol above 4% in normal stores, but I would guess it’s around 20€. (As I’m writing this I’ve checked and cheapest vodka is 188 SEK, here is link to the only shop that sells alcohol here, if anyone is interested Systembolaget). One more thing that might be interesting here is that the store (whole ship) was accepting three currencies €, SEK and RUB with some really bad conversion rates for € and SEK (usually +0.5€).
Ok enough about shop. Evening or should I say night ended up talking/hanging with people we met there. It was really fun and hours flew by fast.
We docked at St. Petersburg at 9’am local time. Bear in mind that Russia doesn’t have winter/summer time so it’s another 2 hours + from Finland. I don’t remember at what time we went to sleep but in the morning I was almost dead. After disembarking we had to go through border control, where I got my first stamp in my passport. Border control was much stricter, than usually when you cross border somewhere in EU (before we were in Schengen), as expected for leaving EU.
I was officially in Russia. And first impressions were … hmm exactly what you see when you type “in Russia” in to Google. When we left harbour building it was still dark, at 9’o clock, sky was covered in clouds, harbour building looked like “general soviet Russian building”, big, grey block of contrite, a band was playing some traditional (I guess) Russian songs in front of it, yes it was Russia just as I imagined it. : )
After everyone passed border control we boarded a bus and went on a city tour. “Soviet” style soon disappeared, though I couldn’t but chuckle when I saw submarines and battle ships in city canals and later on train full of tanks.
City is about 300 years old, it was built by Peter the Great and was at that time capital of Russia. Because of this there are around 500 (if I remember correctly) palaces in the city. Everything is big, with different building styles, starting with barroc … this isn’t interesting so let’s just see some pictures. Besides if someone is really interested he or she can google it. =)
After few hours of city touring we arrived to our hotel, on the main street. I was really impressed with hotel room, it was nicely equipped, with a big bathroom. I didn’t have much time to admire it thought as we just dropped our suitcases and went on a hunt for food. It’s maybe cliché but we ended up in McDonald’s again. After struggling to order, for about 5minutes (no-one speaks English there), we ended up with something that looked like large menu, 0.8l of Coca-Cola, big French frieze, and what must have been burger that’s twice the size of normal McDonald’s burger. We paid around 4.6€ for this.
After lunch we went back to our hotel, where we slept until evening, when we had next activity planned. Whole trip was designed around different excursion that you could book, I and Mikel booked everything, so in the evening we were off to traditional “Russian dinner”. Meal was nice, though I’m quite sure they could have given us something more traditional :). While we ate a Russian “group” was singing and performing some “Russian” games, songs and dances for our entertainment. After the dinner we went back to our hotel, where we fell asleep in not more than 2 minutes.
Next day we woke up around 9’o clock, it was still pitch black outside. We went to a buffet-breakfast in the hotel dining room, where we ate for 3 days back and front. After an hour of feasting, we had next excursion planned. This time we went to outskirts of the city to visit Catherine’s palace.
After palace tour was over we were free to stroll in the park behind palace. There we met a Russian teacher of English with her class from Moscow. I’m mentioning this because she was really surprised to hear (young) people talking in English there. Furthermore the whole class wanted to take a picture with us. I mean come one, we don’t look that different than Russians. 😀
After about two hours we went back to the bus. As we were walking back we saw 4 or 5 couples that were about to get married. Never before have I seen that many grooms and brides in one place or even in one day.
When we came back to the hotel, we had free time until evening. Some people were hungry so we went searching for a restaurant that’s not McDonalds. I was still full from breakfast so I decided to take something to drink.
As you may guess it was some sort of smoothie, but in contrast to usual one where all the fruits are mixed together (and there is at least 80% of banana in it), here each fruit was separated, and there was no banana in any of them. Furthermore the mash wash thicker than in regular smoothie, all in all it was really good. If I remember correctly it costs around 2€ and I was full afterwards as if I ate at least 5 of each fruit.
After lunch, we went for a walk through the city, trying to find some landmarks we missed on previous excursions. One thing I noticed while walking around was just how full of people the city streets were. Yes, it was the main street, but still, people were everywhere. Second thing was their driving ethnics, to say it shortly: not good, everyone were beeping, driving over speed limit, red lights etc. We were also warned to really watch when going over the street, supposedly drivers don’t stop event on crosswalks.
While I’m talking about cars, as a Slovenian, I always tend to try and estimate wealth of population by judging their cars. This being said, I unintentionally took notice of what people were driving and it was all over the place. From old Zastava to new Ferraris and Porches. The only thing missing, to make it more Russian, was a tank driving down the main street.
In the evening we had another excursion planned. Limo ride through the city. About 24 people signed to this excursions, so at 23.30 two limos were waiting for us in front of the hotel. One for 8 people and one for 16. We got in the bigger one. It was that hummer limo thingie … for me it looks less luxurious than normal one, but inside it was much more spacious.
Inside we were greeted with some bubbling wine that actually didn’t taste bad, it was kind of sweet, nothing like what we usually drink for New Year’s. I’m not sure what we are usually drinking in Slovenian, but as far as I remember, every wine I ever tasted was bitter and/or sour, thought I haven’t tasted that many kinds in the end.
After about an hour of driving, partying, taking millions of photos, we made our final stop (we had some stops before) in front of the biggest night club in the city. Majority of people went inside, I decided it will be better if I go to hotel and catch on some much needed sleep. From what I’ve later learned I didn’t missed much. Club wasn’t that big, there were Russians everywhere (I’m not sure what they (students) expected that they will find some Eskimos or something inside? 😀 ) and they danced weirdly.
Last day morning, routine was same as the day before. Shower, big breakfast, excursion. This day we went to Hermitage museum. It’s the biggest museum in (Russia if not Europe). They told us that if you spent 9 seconds at each exhibit, it would take you 15 years to see them all.
Anyway the museum was …. eh museum. It was interesting first 25 minutes, then you get bored of seeing thousands of pictures, vases, busts etc. It kind of reminded me of the time I visited Louvre. Really big museum that you are too tired to visit whole, so you get bored quite soon. After two or three hours of guided tour of museum, we finally found a bench where we could sit/sleep and wait for the next excursion, exactly like Louvre 6 years ago.
For our last excursion we visited 3 famous cathedrals in the city. As you may know, Russians have a special way of building cathedrals, with lots of towers and colours. Everyone knows how that famous cathedral in Moscow looks like.
Cathedrals were really big (tall). Decorated with mosaic all over the walls. Every other thing was coated with (real) gold. I’ll share one fun fact that our tour guide told us: How can you tell the name of cathedral? When you look toward pictures around altar, the first picture to the right is always Jesus, the second one tells you the name.
With this excursion we have finished our visit of St. Petersburg. We then slowly drove back to our ship, where we spent night similarly as before. This time a day had extra 2 hours (remember Russia is CET +3) which was good for much needed rest.
In the morning we arrived to raining Helsinki. We (me and Mikel) bid farewell to our new friends, but not before we helped some smuggle some cigarettes off the ship. In retrospect I’m kind of sad I didn’t remembered to do it myself, on the ship you can buy a pack of cigarettes for 2€, in Helsinki they are 5€. The problem is you can only bring 1 big (?) package of them per person. So per one big pack you can actually earn 30€ (since I don’t smoke I don’t know how many packs does a big one include, I’m guessing that 10?).
Helsinki Numero Due
When we (me and Mikel) were planning this trip we were always counting on nice weather. A bit too optimistic for this place on Earth, since it’s raining almost every day. Because of this, we didn’t know what to do whole day, since we didn’t want to go sightseeing while it was raining. We ended up going to the train station where we waited 3 hours for rain to stop. It was noon and rain was still pouring, we were bored as hell and hungry, that is why we decided to go out and try to find something to eat, that’s not McDonalds. We ended up walking across the street in to a big shopping mall complex that was interlink with underground tunnels, spanning over large area of city centre.
We were walking around this mall for about two hours, trying to find a nice restaurant. When we finally agreed to going to an Italian restaurant. The waitress greeted us with big smile and was really enthusiastic to explain their daily menus etc. I’m not sure if she is generally this nice, or they rarely get customers (restaurant was well hidden in the furthest corner underground).
As we were eating we noticed that decorations in the restaurant are nothing like usually Italian style, but look more like Egyptian. Later we learned that the Italian restaurant was 5 meters to the left, and we really were in something that looked like Egyptian restaurant, though food was normal (nothing exotic). I had salmon and Mikel had chicken, if I remember correctly. I’m not sure, if it’s because we were really hungry or because it really was good, the dish tasted amazing. Everything was great, potatoes didn’t felt like frozen ones you get from McDonalds, fish was greatly cooked, seasoning was there, I even ate the “green” stuff (read as vegetables) that I usually leave. The meal all together (with Coca-Cola, salad-bar and main dish) costs around 13€, depending on what you choose for main dish. All in all I think it was worth every cent of it.
Sadly I don’t remember the name of the restaurant. If you are in Helsinki and want to check it out, it’s underground somewhere around here Google Maps. After entering at main entrance, go to the lowest floor, continue toward west, alongside bus station, near the end of hallway turn left (I think there is Lidel at the corner), continue forward, go up half floor and turn right at something that looks like restaurant. If you follow my great instructions you can’t miss it. =)
After lunch we went through the mall again. This time we found a spot where we were in reach of Wi-Fi, so we stayed there for few hours. After we got bored of that, we went outside where as it has stopped raining. We decided to go on a quick tour of the city again, this time it was night.
We took some pictures of the city and went back to the train station, there we waited 4 very very long and boring hours, until our train arrived. This was the end of our visit of Helsinki.
Longer Way up
Finally we were on our way back, but not for long. As soon as conductor came to check our tickets, he had a problem with our student cards. Now when I think about it, we were naïve to think Swedish student ID’s will be accepted in Finland, but at least on our way down nobody checked them.
First problem was figuring out what the conductor even wants from us as he didn’t spoke english. Later on he actually found some students who translated for him. Anyway, we had to pay difference to adult’s ticket, which was double the price as a student’s ticket. The “translators” later told us that we were actually lucky, since he could have charged us first 80€ penalty for bringing wrong document/ticket and then make us buy new ticket t.i. not considering what we already paid for student one. Though I wouldn’t count myself lucky. Another friend from here, went with the same train few days before us unnoticed with a Swedish student card in both directions.
After restless sleep we woke up to an icy cold morning in the middle of nowhere with snow everywhere and train standing still. There was some announcements over train’s speakers but they were in Finnish. Somebody later told us that the train has broken down, so we were stuck there for an additional hour.
When we finally arrived we were pretty late. It was cold outside, around -10, with lots of snow. Totally different landscape, that what I remember from the way down. Thankfully we just caught the bus from Kemi to Torni, before it left. When we wanted to pay for it we found out that it didn’t accept credit cards, luckily bus driver allowed us to ride for free, which was really nice of him and felt good after overpaid train tickets.
In Troni we changed to double decker buss for Luela and we were off. Again we found the front sits in the first floor and this time it was still daylight outside, so the view was amazing. At around 13’o clock we were back to Lulea. Our trip was over, the only thing left was going to sleep to catch up for lack of sleep in the past days.
Some fun things that I didn’t know where to include in the text above
As Russian is in the same language group as Slovenian, I was able to understand and speak surprisingly a lot of it. Well understand is an overstatement since they spoke to fast in most cases, but if I have pronunciation written down (as I can’t read Cyrillic) I understand surprisingly a lot.
Everything in Russia is much cheaper than in Sweden, even cheaper than in Slovenia. For example take a look on the lower picture of oil prices. Remember 1€ is around 43 RUB, do you remember when was the last time you paid 0.8€ for 1l of gas? 🙂
I’m still not sure if this is genius or not. When you enter a store (usually gift shop) they give you free vodka shot at the entrance. They probably figured out, that customers spent more if they are drunk; that’s why genius. 🙂
Nobody speaks English.
Take a look at some must know sentences in Russian that the agency provided us with. 🙂
From 1 AM to 5 AM all the draw bridges in St. Petersburg are lifted, so if you are on the wrong island at that time, you’re stuck there until morning as there is no other way to get across.
Vodka is almost cheaper than water. They sell it in all shapes and sizes, and they actually have more choice for different kind of vodka than water.
When I bought something in store, I got 10 Rubi cents back in return. That’s like 0.002€. 😀