Big long hop

Well, I left you at Suvarnabhumi Airport, fortunately hitting “Publish” just before the free wi-fi connection dropped. It was a long flight, but I made it.

Things to note when making a long-haul journey. In fact, primarily… make sure you have enough stuff to do. I’d left my spare novel in my hold baggage so I started to worry what would happen if I finished the one I was reading. Fortunately, between snoozing and reading newspapers I managed to spin out the time.

I flew with FinnAir and they were OK. No individual screens for the videos, so EVA Airlines still wins my prize for best long-distance flight. A shame that was way back in 2006 and I’ve not had a comparable aeroplane since. It was a moderately filled flight, so I had a lot of room and the meals were as good as in-flight meals get.

There was one upset as we neared Helsinki after almost 10 hours of flying. One Thai gentleman a few rows behind got rather ill all of a sudden. Judging by the mass exodus of people from the seats around him, I think this may have involved a degree of “splosh”. Fortunately, the cabin crew saw to it swiftly and he was OK.

Other than that, I fell asleep during the recent Indiana Jones film though managed to suffer through Kit Kittredge though I don’t know how. Bad as Crystal Skull was, Kittredge was like a feature length episode of The Red Hand Gang. With hobos. And yet I couldn’t nod off to spare myself.

With my sanity barely intact, we landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport where I had a fairly painless swap onto my connecting flight. The only slowdown was the annoyingly thorough security check. Welcome to Europe. As is not uncommon, my laptop bag went through a second scan, I assume as it’s full of cables and stuff. I’ve still never been cautioned or queried about the half-empty toothpaste tube that’s always wedged in the front pocket.

It must be the only location in Finland where you can’t get free wi-fi although there are three companies competing for your cash to use a paid-for service. As ever, I didn’t even look at the pricing and just folded up my laptop and waited. Fortunately, due to some good scheduling, I only had an hour or so to wait for my flight to Dusseldorf. As far as airports go, it was OK, but nothing special. They start to look the same after a while.

Despite it only being a 2-hour flight I was fed a meal which was good as I’ve not bought a thing foodwise since I left my hostel in the morning. I also managed to cram in an hour’s sleep, waking just before we landed.

We touched down at Dusseldorf International at around 20:15 local time and I reckon my body was at around 23:00 with all the sleep I’d managed. Hopefully this would offset some of the jet lag. I had no immigration to deal with as I’d had my passport checked at Helsinki, so it was only a short delay before I picked up my rucksack and made my way to the connecting train station.

Here’s a hint – make sure you have change before buying a train ticket. The machines will only accept EC cards, 5- and 10-Euro notes and coins. The ATMs at the airport will only dish out 20-Euro bills. Fortunately, a woman behind me had two 10’s which she helpfully swapped.

An announcement came out over the tannoy which I didn’t understand. I did, however, pick up the body language of the other passengers – delay. Thankfully it was only ten minutes and by 22:00 I was stood outside Dusseldorf Hauptbahnhof waiting for Melanie (who I met at this year’s Graspop) to come and get me. A shame that Chris – my CouchSurfing host from last year – couldn’t make it.

With no further ado, she showed me to the hotel she’d sorted, I dumped my bags and went on the very important search for the bar area. Dusseldorf claims to be “Europe’s Biggest Bar” due to the number of alehouses in one small location, though I think Norris McWhirter would have had something to say about it.

Needless to say the only problem we had was picking one out of the variety of offer. Eventually we settled on an outdoors place with a very pretty barmaid and stared sinking the first of far too many “Alt”s. Two bars and much beer (and a few shooters) later, we staggered back to the hotel and crashed out.

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Not the best of weather

I managed to repack my bags and get everything safe and secure. On the Monday morning, Mike shook my hand goodbye as he had to get somewhere with internet to do some work and left me to sort my stuff out and freshen up for the journey to Tampere Airport and on to Frankfurt.

I’d been told by several people that hitching in Finland and the other Nordic countries is pretty painless and quick.

They were wrong. Certainly on this occasion.

Part of my problem was a dicky stomach, probably from enjoying myself too much over the previous few days without enough food or rest. Then the weather turned for the worst. Not just a little drizzle, but heavy downpours, scheduled for just when I was preparing to stick my thumb out.

After an hour, I threw my hitching notebook in a bin as it was soaked through. The next number 10 tram took me to the central railway station and I asked about public transport to the airport. Tourist Information told me I would have to get a bus or train to Tampere, and then another bus out to the airport. Tight for time, but just posible with some luck. Thing is, I was sure there was a direct bus from Helsinki so I asked again at the train ticket window.

The incredibly helpful woman there informed me that, yes, there was such a bus and it ran two times a day to fit in with the flight schedule. The one at 17:15 would get me to the airport just as check-in opened for the Frankfurt flight. It’s 2 1/2 hours and €25, but dry and comfy and sure to mean that I wouldn’t miss the flight. She also printed me out a full timetable, details of how to read it, and a map of where the bus picked up from.

While I was outside looking for the actual stop I spotted the 615 to Helsinki airport that I coudn’t find the other day. There are two bus parks at Helsinki railway on opposite sides of the building! After 10 minutes I still couldn’t find the stop for the service I was after and decided to get indoors and out of the rain until closer to departure time.

This I did and used the time to send off the usual postcards. At 17:00 I went back outside and looked again. This time I saw the right bus coming into view. It slowed down and pulled up at the other side of the square, away from the other buses. Had I not seen the bus itself I’d never have found the stop. The driver was fine and didn’t ask for any cash so that was even better.

I settled in, watched some Dead Zone on my PSP, listened to music, read and dozed on the trip up to Tampere.

When the coach arrived, a young woman jumped on board and yelled “somethingfinnishIdidn’tunderstandtickets25Euro!”

Ah, she wanted money. Thankfully I’d withdrawn cash as she wasn’t taking Visa. So I didn’t get the ride for free. Well, this is RyanAir after all.

RyanAir fly from terminal 2 up at Tampere Airport and… well. It’s the worst airport I have ever seen. It looks like a handful of pre-fabricated shells bolted together. Electric cabling is “tidied” out of the way with cheap guttering, paint is flaky, advertising posters are nailed directly to the walls, there’s nowhere near enough room for the crowds queueing, security takes an age, there’s no space at the departure gate… It’s horrible. I mean, I’ve been to some ugly, cramped, crappy airports, but Tampere really takes the biscuit.

Thankfully, due to the awful queues, by the time I got to the departure gate I only have 10 minutes to wait until boarding. I would like to point out that the staff themselves were exemplary from the check-in people to the security officers. It’s just the airport that sucks.

The flight itself was uneventful apart from some “mild” turbulence that felt like being shoved through a tumble dryer that was taking its own trip along a roller-coaster. The sunset as we headed south was magnificent – a burning, fiery red. And sadly on the other side of the plane so I couldn’t get a picture.

Frankfurt-Hahn was a different kettle of fish. Clean, bright, spacious, efficient, wonderful. Within 20 minutes (I think – my watch stopped working just before the plane took off) I was reunited with my rucksack and on the €12 coach to Frankfurt proper.

I knew which hostel to head for as I’ve been here before and checked myself in. A quick internet check and then bed to get up early and catch Hans arriving!

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Trying to leave

[this and the previous post kind of overlap timewise a bit – I was tapping this all up from memory!]

I now needed to figure out a way of getting west. I’d looked at the ferry, but that got me into Rostock at 10pm after a 25-hour journey. Not much use as I don’t know anyone in Rostock and didn’t have time to arrange anything. The price wasn’t too bad, though I’d have needed to load up on food for the long journey. Meal prices on board weren’t cheap.

So that left flying and having to resort to the loathed RyanAir. Who, I discovered, would not let me book a ticket for same-day travel unless I rang them direct (at a cost of €silly per minute). Especially annoying as the flight I was looking at didn’t take off until almost midnight so it was almost the next day anyway.

End result was that I had to book a flight on the Monday night instead of the Sunday. And from an airport 2 hours away. And into Frankfurt-Hahn, which itself is 2 hours’ from Frankfurt. Fortunately I already know of a good hostel there. And I’d be arriving around the same time as Hans would be coming in from Darfur, which would be a bonus – and a surprise for him!

Of course, this meant an extra night in Helsinki. After some discussion and checking of maps, it was decided that heading to Mike’s again would make more sense. He lives just off the main road that turns into the highway to Rovaniemi. A short tram ride a few stops north would be an ideal place to hitch, so Mike invited me over and I said my goodbye’s to Tiina.

That evening, Mike and I struggled to find anywhere open where we could watch Italy v Spain, but eventually located Bar 99 down the road from his. When we ordered our beer, Mike asked if they could turn up the volume a little on the TV, but the reply was negative. “Sorry, we have music on so I can’t really. It is all finished anyway.”

We looked confused. Kickoff had been 10 minutes earlier. “Finished?”

“Yes, finished. All the commentary is in finished.”


With quarter of an hour or so of the game gone, we nabbed a couple of comfy seats and settled back. In fairness, the music wasn’t bad. You can tell Finland has a much better musical culture than the UK when even a regular bar has AC/DC and Iron Maiden on the music loop.

Partway through the second half, a rather drunk guy asked if he could use one of the other spare seats as he was waiting for his friend. We politely said yes, and the guy spent about 10 minutes staring at Mike. Rather unnerving.

Eventually his friend appeared who was even more drunk and kept falling asleep in his seat, in between trying to make conversation in very drunken English. I had to act as translator as Mike’s New York-ian ear couldn’t quite get the gist of drunken Finglish. All very strange.

Our new friends left one by one just as the bat was calling last orders. Unfortunately the game had gone into extra time and we were kicked out (very politely, by the nice lady who was in charge) at midnight with the second half of extra time to go.

No worries, Mike has a Slingshot box in the US which forwards TV down his internet connection.

Only the wireless signal he uses in the apartment was FUBAR, so we couldn’t get online. And the neighbour who’s connection he uses (with permission) wouldn’t be up at midnight so we couldn’t get the router rebooted.

Eventually, we picked up another signal for long enough to watch Italy get hoofed out on penalties. Shortly after, that signal vanished as well. We resorted to that old method of communication – talking. Mike had managed to Skype his sister before the connection was dropped. A good thing as she’s just given him his first “blood” nephew (his others are from step-siblings), and Mike’s over the moon about it!

So with plans in place for the next day, I zipped myself into my sleeping bag and pondered about how I was going to swap all my luggage around to fit in with the blooming 15kg weight limit…

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To Rovaniemi! Or… not

Today’s the day the plans changed.

I woke at Mike’s and sorted all my stuff out. I’d arranged to meet the others at the airport where Antoine had hired a car for the journey to Rovaniemi where we were to meet Heydi and some other surfers for the weekend.

A tram into the city and then a bus to the airport makes it an easy journey. There is a regular service bus (the 651, I believe) from the train station but I couldn’t find hide nor hair of it. I did spot the 451 which said it went to the airport, but it didn’t seem to run on the weekend schedule, which was being used due to the holiday.

I ended up on the official aiport shuttle bus, which costs a little over €6. I like that you can pay with Visa on board, so no need to grab any cash from an ATM. You can pretty much use plastic anywhere and for any amount in Finland.

I hooked up with Tiina when I got to the airport. Ulf was busy swearing at his laptop in the car somewhere and Antoine was trying to figure out exactly which company he’d hired the other car through. There were no ofices available under the name of the company he’d booked with. They must have been an agency that then deals direct with someone else.

We left him to find an internet connection so he could re-check his emails and sat and chatted for a bit. Then we decided to unload Tiina’s car and get everything into the terminal ready for Antoine’s girlfriend arriving so we could take everything to the new car in one go.

Only Antoine went to get the car and rang us to say he was parked near Tiina’s car, so we had to double back and take everything over to that one while he waited for his partner to get through customs.

As we were packing the car up, Tiina was mentioning about a party in Helsinki and a lot of thoughts that had been bothering me started to flood in. The 10-hour plus car journey to Rovaniemi. Getting back from there to Brussels in 4 days. Finding anywhere to stay while I hitched down. Not having seen much of the area I was already in. Getting up north and not having the time to see a lot of places up there I’d already hoped to.

So… I opted to stay in Helsinki for the weekend. After Ulf had magically made all of our luggage fit. So he had to “unfit” it so I could retrieve the beer, though I did leave them two bottles of vodka as an apology. I hope that helped toward my share of the car hire and fuel costs.

We loaded up Tiina’s car which she had to return to her mother. He mum’s a really nice lady who doesn’t speak a word of English, but who was happy to show off her apartment with it’s own 2-person Finnish sauna! She dropped us back off at Tiina’s before whisking the car away again. I settled into Tiina’s, had a shower (it was a really humid day) and after a light lunch we started cracking open the beers and watched a couple of DVDs.

Thing is, the party never really happened. One friend of Tiina’s, Lauri, came over and helped us drink more beer before we all nodded off at some silly time in the morning. I didn’t even make it as far as the blow-up bed, choosing to crash on the huge sofa instead. I swear this constant daylight plays tricks with your mind!

Tiina surfaced really late on in the day, making the most of her day off work. We packed some more beer into a carry-bag and jumped on a train into town where we transferred onto a ferry bound for Suomenlinna. This is a small island around 15 minutes’ boat ride off the coast where a fortress was built back in 1748. It was constructed by the Swedes (then owners of what is now Finland) as protection against the Russians.

Many Fins head there for an afternoon, taking picnics and beer to chill out. It’s quiet, clean and nicely situated to watch the enormous ferris pass by on their way to Sweden. At around 5pm, two of them went past where we were sitting and it’s an amazing site. The channel they’re sailing down looks far too small for them but is deceptively deep, and they dwarf everything nearby.

After a couple of hours, we travelled back to Tiina’s loaded up on more beer and food and walked round to Lauri’s.

I want his apartment.

I mean to say, if I was designing my own it would bear a remarkable similarity to his. The main room’s all black wood with a projector instead of a TV. Two life-size plastic models of characters from computer games “guard” the sofa and old editions of Judge Dredd reprints (in Finnish) adorn the walls. Then there’s the 24Mbit internet connection, which makes browsing the net feel like you have a local copy of it on the hard drive.

He also showed me possibly one of the coolest historical artefacts I have ever held in my hands – and I mean “cool” with as much respect as that word can be used. It was his grandfather’s war diary written during the months he served in WWII. It was all in Finnish, but with some illustrations. Tiina has read some of it and the details are apparently – to say the least – harrowing. Lauri is thinking of working on a book based on the information from it, including a full English translation. As soon as it appears on Amazon, I will be buying a copy.

We drank beer, enjoyed a decent dinner and watched a couple more films – and lots of Family Guy. Once more, far too late in the day (or early, depending how you judge it) Tiina and I walked back to her apartment and crashed. This time I tested out her inflatable bed. Really handy in a 1-bed apartment as it inflates in about a minute using an inbuilt electric pump. It’s pretty comfy, but I preferred the couch.

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Arrival in Helsinki

The magic ferry with free wireless pulled into port around 13:00 and I lugged the vast quantities of alcohol I’d bought down into the arrivals area. This is obviously a common reason for a trip to Estonia as others had trolleys laden with cases of beer.

I had a short wait as the nice people who were picking me up were stuck in traffic. A little late, though, the group of them appeared. Ulf (who I’d met in Bonn and Cologne), Tiina (a local Couchsurfing ambassador) and Antoine (from France, visiting Finland). We loaded the car up and drove over to Mike’s place.

Mike’s an American living in Helsinki with his Finnish girlfriend and he’d agreed to host me for the night as Tiina’s place was full of Ulf and Antoine. Unfortunately, he was away for the day but had left us a key in a little security box attached to the boot cleaner outside his flat. And one of the buttons on the box was slightly dodgy. It took us about 5 minutes to get into the thing, but once we did we got into the flat so I could ditch my bags.

We popped via a supermarket for Tiina to sort out her recycling. I tell you, this country is a world apart. I believe the system’s the same in Estonia from what I gathered when I was there, but I hadn’t seen the machines in action. Rather than the usual bottle banks we have in the UK where you simply throw things in and walk off, these ones scan each and every item inserted, read the bar code and credit you the deposit for them. Deposits vary depending on material (plastic, glass, cans) and size.

I’m impressed. We should really do something like this in the UK. Introduce money into the equation and people really start to think about recycling. The closest we’ve got is various councils threatening to fine people for throwing out too much non-recycled rubbish. Quite a challenge when they’re so picky about what recycled material they’ll take, how often they’ll collect it, the size of the containers they’ll give you to keep it in and assuming that every household consists of two people (maximum) who eat nothing but home-grown vegetables.

A tram took us into Helsinki centre where Tiina showed us around for an hour or so. It’s quite a small city centre with a handful of sites. You can walk around almost everything that’s worth seeing in less than an hour. It’s fairly clean, safe, flat and everyone speaks English so it’s hard to get lost.

We walked past the Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran church), a huge white building that looks like it got  a fresh lick of paint only hours ago. Further along the same road is the red Uspensky Cathedral used by the Russian Orthodox population (less than 0.5% of Finnish population is Orthodox).

The market is nice to see (apart from the fish stalls – yuck) as most stalls are selling fresh fruit. Strawberries and cherries were everywhere, so the smell was fantastic. Oh, and the women serving in them were without exception drop dead gorgeous.

Yup, Baltic women. They are as pretty as they’re made out to be. Seriously, it’s hard to look in one direction for more then 30 seconds without seeing at least one woman of model-level stunningness. I wasn’t even searching them out. They were just everywhere!

Trying to keep my attention on the architecture, we walked up through Esplanade Park and settled on the grass to munch on ice cream. If you visit here, one word of warning – watch out for the seagulls. They’re evil. Very, very evil. They will think nothing of dive-bombing you, knocking your ice cream off the cone and fighting over it on the ground. I watched this happen to one girl who was a little peeved about it to say the least.

This makes Helsinki one of the few places I’ve visited where pigeons aren’t the most hated avian species. I reckon they probably run a close second. Other bird, the smaller and cuter ones, will hop very close to you in their search for crumbs – something I’ve noticed in many countries outside of the UK. This rarely happens in the UK where you’re lucky to get within three metres of something the size of a thrush or smaller.

Tiina had to go to work, so she left us to find the bar where a couchsurfing meeting had been organised. Hemingway’s was only a short walk out, so we opted for a stroll and a chat. Ulf and I argued over stuff like we always do while Antoine worked out the directions. Incorrectly in the first instance, but we corrected and got to the bar without any problems.

There were a few people already there when we arrived and I’m going to apologise straight up for not remembering any names. By the end of the evening, around 30 people had passed through and it was a huge mix of people from so many countries. One girl I talked to was born in the Ukraine of Russian parents, grew up in France, spent 12 years in Boston and now lives in Finland. She was sat with a guy who was visiting from the Dominican Republic, somewhere I confessed I couldn’t find on a map without serious help.

Ulf segregated himself from the rest of the crowd by loudly supporting Germany as they beat Italy in the Euro 2008 match on TV. I confess to preferring the Deutch as well, simply because they don’t cheat like the Italians do.

Mike turned up with his girlfriend, and we were the last to leave along with Ulf and Antoine. I used my memory of Thailand and Vietnamese motorcycle taxis not to lose my seating as Mike zoomed us around the city to Tiina’s place of work. She was due to finish around that time so we’d arranged to head up there and collect her.

The crowd of us went back to Mike’s flat where we shared a couple more beers and talked for an hour or so. I swear people drink for so long here just because they don’t realise how late it is. At some time around 2:30am, Tiina drove Ulf and Antoine back to her place and it was still daylight.

Mike’s couch turned out to be very comfortable indeed.

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