In Seoul

Just a very quick update on where we are. Well, we’re not in Russia any more. The relief at just being able to write that is overwhelming.

We had a busy day yesterday sorting out (more) paperwork, seeing a judge, paying another fine and then organising a flight out, but we got to Seoul yesterday evening and finally, finally relaxed a bit. We’re both still feeling pretty strung out about the whole thing and we’ve agreed not to talk about it much at the moment. I think once we get home on Monday, we’ll both feel much better.

We’ll backtrack and write about the events of the last couple of days, as it may help someone else who ends up in the same position as we were. Some of it was scary, some bits were so ridiculous, other parts were just frustrating and some of it did give us a better understanding of who Russians are as individual people …. mostly they were very nice. If I was a stand-up comedian, I could write a whole show around our experience.

Here’s where we’re staying – Apartment in Itaewon, Seoul

The view from the window of our Seoul partment Korea

The view from the window of our Seoul apartment Korea

Reading glasses available at all tables for filling in your incoming passenger form at Incheon Airport South Korea

Reading glasses available at all tables for filling in your incoming passenger form at Incheon Airport South Korea


Our Trans-Siberian train trip, Part 1

Our Trans-Siberian train trip, Day 1-2

We’re on Train 002 Rossiya: Moscow – Vladivostok. We caught the train from Platform 2 at Yaroslavsky Station at 1:50pm yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. Trans-Siberian trains always leave from Yaroslavsky Station, from platform 1 – 5 at the eastern end of the station. The nearest metro station is Komsomolskaya. Train departure times are displayed on a large board at the near end of platform 2, so it’s not really necessary to go into the railway station to get information. Platform number is only displayed 40 minutes prior to departure, so if you get there earlier, you just need to wait until closer to the time of departure.

The day before we caught the train, we did a ‘practice run’ from our apartment, changing metro lines and trying to work out the best places to stand so that we could get on the metro trains with all our luggage and the least amount of fuss. When we caught our first metro train in Moscow, we hadn’t realised how quickly the carriage doors close, and we both got stuck between the closing automatic doors – thankfully a local passenger who was already on the train helped us prise the doors apart! We gave ourselves plenty of time to get to Yaroslavsky Station with our gear, and during our practice run we had found a good local supermarket so that we could buy water and food for the trip. The station was full of people arriving, leaving and generally milling about, which was a bit of a relief because the day before we watched 2 police harass 2 travellers for their ‘papers’, which seems to be a common occurrence at railway stations, but best avoided if at all possible. More people means we’re less likely to stand out as tourists or targets. So we got Greg settled with all our bags and I went across to the Billa supermarket on the other side of the busy road outside the station. Access is via an underpass near Lenin’s statue in the car park to the east of the main station building. There is also a smaller supermarket east of the car park, which mainly sells cooked & pre-packaged food and drinks especially for train travellers.

The Billa supermarket has a good range of food and drinks & I bought bottled water, bread, apple pies, long life milk, breakfast cereal, instant mashed potato and noodles. The 2 men in front of me in the checkout line bought several bottles of vodka (?!?), and the woman behind me had lots of styrofoam trays of cooked pancakes, dumplings and salads. When I got back to the station, Greg wasn’t where I had left him, and of course I immediately thought the police had taken him away, but he had moved because he’d been waiting near a garbage bin and all the smokers congregated there.  We got lunch from the cafe/takeaway place just near platform 3 – wraps filled with chicken and lettuce/tomato or cabbage/carrot. The service is fast, the food tastes good and the woman who served me spoke English.

The train was at Platform 2 around 40 minutes prior to departure, so we gathered our bags and walked down to our first class carriage, No 7. We have a 2-berth cabin with 2 bench seats that become beds, with a table in between. There is storage space under the seats, and there’s also a storage compartment above the door. The padded headrests of the seats lift up and have small shelves for a bit more storage. There are reading lights at either end of each seat, and a power point under the table. Greg bought a triple adaptor so we can plug in our small fridge, USB charger, computer and other electrical paraphernalia. At one end of the carriage there are 2 toilets with handbasins, at the other end near the carriage attendant’s office is a samovar, so hot water is always available. As far as we can tell, there is no shower. Good thing we’re only on the train for 3 days to Irkutsk, not going the whole way to Vladivostok (6 days) in one go. We do have a good supply of baby wipes.

So, we’ve been on the train for almost 24 hours. We have crossed 2 time zones and travelled 1500 kms so far. Our guide books (The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian book and Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook) both mentioned that it was possible to buy food on station platforms when the train stopped, but so far we haven’t seen any. The carriage attendant sells a range of drinks and snacks, and there is a dining car on the train and we’ll probably end up having a meal or 2 there. We went and had a beer there last night. On the second part of our trip, from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, our meals are included; for some reason we couldn’t just buy first class tickets, we had to pay for ‘services’ – meals – as well. The first class compartment isn’t full at the moment – there is an American couple who are also travelling to Irkutsk, then going on the Trans-Mongolian route to Ulaan Baatar, and several other people have hopped on and off the train at various stops.

The second class cabins are the same as ours, with 2 extra bunks over the bench seats. And then there are the 3rd class carriages, which have 54 bunks in an open carriage, arranged into open compartments of sets of double bunks at right angles to the windows on one side of the carriage, then a walkway, then double bunks arranged alongside the windows. Apparently the bunks at either ends of the carriage are best avoided (toilets at one end near the higher-numbered berths, smokers near the carriage door at the other), and the lateral bunks are short, so no good for anyone taller than 5’5″ and people keep bumping into them as they walk past.

Our Trans-Siberian train trip, Day 3

The Russian railways all work on ‘Moscow time’, so train departure & arrival times, and on-train & railway station clocks are all set to whatever the time is in Moscow. The timetable in our carriage has all the arrival and departure times for the whole Moscow-Vladivostok journey. Yesterday we were running a bit late, so our time at each station was shorter than stated in the timetable. We’ve read a few cautionary tales of people getting left behind, and there’s no warning when the train takes off, so we’re very careful about getting back on the train as fast as we can. Each time we stop, we make a quick dash for the nearest station kiosk to see what they were selling. Late yesterday afternoon we got lucky and found a shrinkwrapped (!) loaf of bread at one kiosk and some drinking yoghurt and filled bread rolls at another. The woman at the second kiosk did her very best to try and pretend I didn’t exist, by restocking and moving items around on her shelves, looking out the window, peering in the fridge and carefully avoiding any eye contact whatsoever, but when more customers lobbed in, she had to finally give in and sell me some stuff.

This morning when we stopped at Barabinsk, we hit the jackpot – babushkas (grannies) selling their baked goodies and berries up and down the train. They were also offering furry Russian hats, scarves and a range of other non-essential items. Greg spotted a supermarket nearby and dashed off to get us some beer and chocolate, and I bought some bread rolls on the platform. Next time I’ll try to be quicker and get some pancakes as well. We rushed back onto the train, leaping onto the nearest carriage ‘cos we couldn’t see anyone else on the platform and we thought it was about to depart, and then sat there for another 10 minutes. A little old lady with a box full of berries sold Greg a cupful at the carriage door. There were a few strawberries on top, but most of them are plump, ripe raspberries. Yum.

We are now in Siberia, and it’s a mixture of flat grassy plains (steppes) and forest, electricity sub-stations and with an occasional village or larger town. We just stopped at Novosibersk, the capital of Western Siberia, population 1.4 million, and the 3rd largest city in Russia.

Day 4
3 days (73 hours to be precise) on a long-distance train trip is long enough. We are stopping for almost 6 days in Irkutsk, and Thank Heavens for that! Doing the whole 6-day train trip in one go would be very trying – no showers, limited food choices and only occasional stops of 25 minutes or less. I’d strongly recommend anyone doing this trip to at least stop for a couple of days somewhere along the way, for a chance to walk longer than a few hundred metres at a time, to wash clothes (and yourself!), to get a better night’s sleep and for probably a whole lot more reasons that I can’t think of at the moment. The beds on the train are only 55cm wide, so if you’re used to the luxury of a wider bed, even turning over in such a narrow space requires some thought and planning.

Even on the train, we have people coming and trying to sell us stuff. A guy came into our  cabin and tried hard to sell us a battery-operated massager thing, then a while later a woman did the rounds with scarves. Closed doors are no deterrent and they are very persistent, so after that for a while after we left each station we would lock our cabin door

A video of our train trip. You can view it on Youtube in HD if you follow this link

No 2 train pulling into the station in Moscow

No 2 train pulling into the station in Moscow

Cabin panorama

Cabin panorama
crowds waiting at the Moscow station

crowds waiting at the Moscow station



1o minute stop at Perm

1o minute stop at Perm

loading more water at Perm

loading more water at Perm

triple adaptor to power all the electronics - the train cabin has only one power outlet

triple adaptor to power all the electronics – the train cabin has only one power outlet

The samovar in the corridor proving all the hot water

The samovar in the corridor proving all the hot water

train corridor

train corridor

there are kilometre posts all the way, this marked 1650km from Moscow

there are kilometre posts all the way, this marked 1650km from Moscow

the marker for the border between Europe and Asia

the marker for the border between Europe and Asia

Baraba Steppe

Baraba Steppe

babushka selling hats on the train

babushka selling hats on the train


Marlinsk Station at night

Marlinsk Station at night

We passed and got passed by lots of freight trains transporting oil

We passed and got passed by lots of freight trains transporting oil

Raining at Novosibirsk Station

Raining at Novosibirsk Station


Visiting the USSR in 1980

We’ve just arrived in Irkusk, Siberia, after 3 days on the Trans-Siberian train. I’ve written a bit about the trip so far, and Greg has taken heaps of photos and videos, and we’ll post some soon. But while we find our legs again and get used to the floor staying still and not rocking from side to side, here’s a post from Greg’s mum & dad, Fay and Ron, about a trip they did to Russia in 1980.

Memories of Russia 1980

Judy emailed us, wondering if we would like to reminisce on our trip to Russia in 1980, comparing it to their trip 2013.

So here goes.
We were in the UK to visit the relations, and had arranged a trip through Europe, called Russia, Poland and the Northern Capitals, cost $1,220 each, included dinner and breakfast along the way.

In July 1980 we left London for Harwich and embarked on the D.F.D.S. SEAWAYS for Esbjerg in Denmark, day two and three Copenhagen, and day four embarked on a ferry to Sweden, reaching the capital Stockholm in time for dinner. Day five spent sightseeing in Stockholm. Later that day we were driven to Norrtalje for the overnight crossing to Finland. Sightseeing in Helsinki our sixth day where we toured the bustling capital.

Then eastward to Russia:

First have to explain the times, we were arriving in Russia just before the 1980 Russian Olympics, several nations had banned athletes from attending the Olympics due to Russia invading Afghanistan. Australia did not send a full team to the games. Americans did not send a team.
We arrived at the border of Russia to overbearing custom people, there was only 18 of us in the coach (which could hold 44) many had cancelled because of the Russian situation.
They kept us in customs for four hours, went through everyone’s personal luggage, I had heated curlers, they took them apart, all books were searched through methodically. Small dogs were let loose in the coach; rods were put through the bodywork. Later they let us go.
Next Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, where we were taken by coach sightseeing and then to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a cemetery for 500,000 people. These people died during the siege of Leningrad, by the German army during World War 11. We walked down past this vast cemetery, to the monument where we found many Russians stood crying. A heart stopping moment to see such sorrow thirty six years after the siege ended.
In the evening we were taken to a performance of ballet at the spectacular Kirov Theatre.

Day nine we were driven to Novgorod where we first learnt you could only shop in Berioska shops, special shops for tourists. Shops in Russia at that time were not good; we see many queues outside premises, which to us did not have much displayed.
Hotels were unique as well. On every floor there were security, a lift in the Novgorod hotel could not be installed because the area left for it was not correct shape. Also food, we were served chicken which was so tough you couldn’t eat it. And we were served with caviar one time, which was a memorable moment.
In Novgorod we see young children led along holding on to a long rope, we see older children guarding the tomb of the unknown warrior, which apparently they performed this duty every day.
We learnt about another custom, brides on their wedding day they came to the memorial to honour the dead.
In the streets woman swept the roads with birch twig brooms, they were older woman and wore aprons and scarves.
In Russia there was not much traffic, mostly looked like government cars, few private. People did not speak to you; one place a man spoke in English but quickly moved away when security came into view. Not a happy country.

We continued on to Moscow where we did the usual sightseeing Red Square, huge queue for Lenin Mausoleum, we did not go in. The Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries and the amazing Pavilion of Scientific Achievement.
The special thing we did in Moscow was to visit the Moscow State Circus in their permanent home, I would say circuses do not come at the top of my list to go and see, but, the Moscow State Circus, what can you say, it was amazing, never seen anything like since.

The journey through Russia continues past huge housing estates, high rise, ugly places, no landscaping.
We see paddocks were people lined up in a long row were cutting corn with scythes.
Saw woman washing clothes in creeks.
We stopped to get diesel on our way to Minsk, 150 litres the cost two cartons of cigarettes, the driver had them under his seat.
During our long travels through Russia we came across many block houses with armed guards.

So you can see how 1980 behind the iron curtain was different compared to 2013.
When we were leaving Russia we had to give roubles we had back.

Into Warsaw Poland, we learnt quickly how they all hated the Russian people.
Still behind that Wall, taken to a hotel in East Germany, built by the Swiss and run by them, the best hotel we had been in.

Taken around to see the wall, Brandenburg Gate and the gigantic Soviet memorial.
Next day out of Russian hands through Check Point Charlie, with more security checks underneath the coach they used mirrors. Into West Berlin, like another world entirely, shops packed with goods, and happy people.

Day nineteen moved on from Amsterdam to London.

Our Moscow apartment

Welcome to our Soviet-era apartment in Aeroport, a northern suburb of Moscow. As you walked the 2 blocks from the Aeroport metro stop, you probably noticed that the whole street is lined with 5 – 8 storey apartment blocks, most of which have tiny shops along the ground floor. Our apartment block is 8 storeys high, and has 4 entrances. Each entrance has 32 apartments, 4 on each floor. We are at the very end of the block, on the corner of the street, and there is another similar apartment block next door, at right angles to ours. The 2 blocks are joined by a concrete slab on each of the 8 floors, half of which has been enclosed to become another ‘room’ in our apartment.

Housing in this area was built when Khrushchev was in power, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were built in a hurry and were only meant to last for a couple of decades, but here they still are, 50+ years later. They are known as ‘khrushchoby‘, after ‘trushchoby‘ (slums). The outside of our building is pretty depressing – shady, weed-infested gardens, graffiti on walls, rubbish on paths and when it rains the road and paths are awash, until the puddles evaporate.

To get into the building, you need a security key. The entry way is a small, dark, dank place. Walk up a short flight of crumbling terrazzo steps to catch the lift to the 5th floor, or continue walking up the steps (all 86 of them!) to our apartment. The lift is very slow and holds either 4 people, or 3 people, 2 backpacks and a large duffle bag. The only time we have used the lift was the day we arrived, and I guess we’ll use it again tomorrow when we leave. As you walk up the steps, you’ll notice the smell of stale cigarettes mixed with general decay. There are nearly always cigarette butts on the steps, and I suspect the smokers live on the 2nd and 3rd storeys as there usually aren’t any butts higher than that. You’ll also notice a couple of rubbish chutes on landings between floors. The one nearest to us has a long-handled shoe-horn for pushing rubbish bags further down the chute.

Each floor has 4 apartments, 2 on either side of the lift. As ours is at the corner of the building, we have windows looking out over the street and also over the ‘courtyard’ …. shady overgrown area where people park their cars on the paths. There are 2 hefty doors into the apartment – an outer, padded door that is key-locked from inside and outside, and another padded door that we lock from the inside plus there’s a chain on that one as well. Lots of security here, but we have only seen other people in the stairwell a couple of times, and hardly hear any noise from neighbours.

The actual apartment consists of a small lobby which houses the washing machine, a bathroom off the lobby, a small kitchen, one large room and an enclosed verandah. The kitchen and bathroom have been updated within the last 10 years, most (if not all) of the furniture is from Ikea, because how else does one get furniture up 86 steps if it doesn’t fit in the tiny lift? The kitchen and main room have old radiators under the window sills, and there is a more modern radiator in the enclosed verandah.The windows in the kitchen and main room have been replaced with aluminum-framed windows, but the original, rotting timber-framed windows remain in the verandah. Just going back to the washing machine for a sec, it’s only half the size of a normal front-loading machine – same width, but only 30cm deep. We can wash a couple of changes of clothes in it at a time.

The bathroom has hot and cold pipes in the corner, and an interesting tap arrangement where the same tap is used for the shower and the handbasin. The water pressure is good, and there’s plenty of hot water. The kitchen has a small table and 2 stools, a fridge, a gas stove and oven, plus a microwave. We have cooked a roast chicken & vegetables in the oven, and several meals on the stove. And now, it’s time for dinner …. pelmenyi filled meat dumplings and Russian beer that we buy in 1.5L plastic bottles!

This will be our last post for a few days. We’re catching the train tomorrow and will be offline until we get to Irkusk, on Lake Baikal, late on Sunday night.

Our apartment building is on the far right

Our apartment building is on the far right


Stairwell, with lift at bottom of the stairs

Stairwell, with lift at bottom of the stairs

Our Verandah is 3rd from the bottom on the LHS, with the window open. Then at right angles to it, along the brick wall, is our kitchen window,also open


Poorly laid bricks (5 stories up) opposite the street side of the apartment


Rusting balconies

Rusting balconies

where we are in Moscow

where we are in Moscow




Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

The Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery  is a monument to the Leningrad siege and contains the graves of 500,000 people.

We found a post on trip advisor that gave directions to the cemetery. So we took the metro (our first time, up to then we had used buses) and headed north. We emerged from the Metro to find ourselves in suburban Saint Petersburg. We then found the right minibus, paid our money and hoped that the driver would drop us off to the right place. Due to some mistranslation of Cyrillic he dropped us off past the memorial and we had to walk back about 1 km,

There were not many people at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, It is surprising as it is the most important event in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) history. The siege of Leningrad by the German Army and the Finns started in January 1941 and lasted 872 days. Approximately 1.5 million inhabitants died from starvation, and the bombardment by the German Army. 500,000 of those who died are buried in mass graves at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. Compare this with UK and USA deaths in World War 2 which totalled 800,000.

It is a very moving place.


Just some of the many mass graves at  Piskariovskoye. Each are marked by the year they are from.

Just some of the many mass graves at Piskariovskoye. Each are marked by the year they are from.


Some of the Individual graves, with names and year of death

Some of the Individual graves, with names and year of death

How to get there:

We got instructions from Trip Advisor, these are the slightly amended instructions-

Take the Red Line (#1) subway to the Akademicheskaya stop on the north side of town (28 Rubles) . Exiting the metro go straight across the plaza, cross the side street (to the right that runs between the metro plaza and the shopping centre) and look for an appropriate bus. Take either a private bus K172 (Mini bus 35 Rubles) or 178 (25 Rubles) to the memorial. Just pay the driver the Mini-bus (K172) the 35 rubles , On the way back, there is bus stop directly in front of the memorial. You will be let off across the main street from the subway. If there is no conductor on the 178 bus pay the 25 rubles to the driver (just put the money on a tray through the little window near the driver) when you LEAVE the bus.

the name of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Cyrillic. If you can copy thsi to your phone you can show it to the bus driver.

the name of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Cyrillic. If you can copy this to your phone you can show it to the bus driver.

the route the K178 bus takes from the Metro to the Cemetery, the bus continues on past the cemetery.

the route the K172/ 178 bus takes from the Metro to the Cemetery, the bus continues on past the cemetery.



Out and about in Riga

We spent one night in Riga on our way to St Petersburg because it was the cheapest and the most interesting way of getting there, and a chance for us to visit one more country. We stayed at the Monte Kristo Hotel, which is just on the edge of Old Town Riga, and as we discovered, very close to the local bus that goes to the airport. We got a room that was advertised as having no window, which was fine with us – we were arriving late at night and weren’t planning on spending much time there. There seemed to be a neon sign right outside our room, but in the light of day (yep, pun intended), we realised it was a fluorescent light in a fake window, and the only way to turn it off was to take the room key out of the activator, which of course turned everything else in the room off as well. Very strange. Still, the room was comfortable, the breakfast was good and the reception staff very kindly let us leave our stuff at the hotel until we were ready to go out to the airport.

It was raining when we left the hotel, and it rained a couple more times during the day. In between the rain, the sun shone and it was warm and humid. We walked around Old Town for a while, then went to the newer part of the city and wandered across the river to look at the magnificent new National Library of Latvia. It’s not finished yet, but from the outside it’s a very impressive building. I had known about the city’s central market, but wasn’t sure where it was, so it was a nice surprise to find it back on the city side of the river. It’s huge! We went into the wet market first, with a whole hall full of fresh, smoked and dried seafood, then into the meat and smallgoods hall, a partly empty fruit and vegetable section, then outside to see lots more fresh food stalls. So many stalls, so much excellent produce at really cheap prices. We only had enough cash to get us back out to the airport on the local bus, so we couldn’t buy anything … which was probably just as well.

We headed to a large shopping centre to find some lunch at a sit-down restaurant that took credit cards – the above-mentioned no-cash problem, and we wanted to kill some time. The shopping centre was mostly full of womens’ clothes shops (just like at home), but we found an Italian restaurant and settled in for the afternoon. Even so, we got out to the airport either way too early or in plenty of time, depending on how much pre-flight time your internal clock needs before boarding a plane.

It was a good day,and probably a good buffer for us to start making the transition from friendly, English-speaking Sweden to mildly scary non-English speaking St Petersburg, which I’ll write about soon.

Out and About in Helsinki

We are staying in Espoo, home of Nokia and the second-largest city in Finland. It’s actually just an extension of Helsinki. We are staying in another Airbnb apartment and you can have a little look at it here. Nice 1 bedroom apartment on the 3rd floor of a 4-storey apartment building, bus outside the door, shops and railway station about 10 minutes walk away. We’re here for 5 nights and will put the car and ourselves on the ferry back to Stockholm on Saturday night.

We decided to go into the city and have a look around today. It was overcast this morning but the forecast was for a fine day with temps in the low 20s. That’s double the maximum temperatures we had while we were within the Arctic Circle!

So … even though there’s a bus outside the door, we walked up to the nearest railway station and dithered around for a while working out where we were headed and how much it would cost. As Espoo is in Zone 3 of the local train network it was going to cost us 4.5 euros each. So we thought it might be cheaper on the bus and headed to the nearest bus stop where we boarded a bus and paid …. 4.5 euros each. Okay, so now we have all that worked out. We’re going to Tallin, in Estonia, tomorrow for the day and we wanted to check where the ferry leaves. The ferry terminal just happens to be near an open air market that I wanted to visit, so that was all rather good planning, or luck.

The market stalls are all selling berries, currants, cherries, peas and new potatoes at the moment so we bought some little new potatoes and peas still in their pod for dinner and strawberries and raspberries as well. I was interested to see that fruit and vegetables are sold by volume here, so I bought a litre each of peas, potatoes and strawberries, and the raspberries were already in a punnet. There were also a lot of stalls selling cooked food, with little tables and chairs set up. We went to a seafood stall close to the water where Greg had whitebait, fried potatoes, vegetables and salad, and I had prawns, fried potatoes etc. All freshly cooked, all delicious.

We wandered around to the ferry terminal and collected our tickets to Tallin, then did a modified walking tour of the main points of interest in Helsinki – the Lutheran Cathedral, the National Library which is currently closed for renovation, Pohoisesplanadi – Helsinki’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee and the highlight of our walk -  Temppeliaukio Kirrko (The Church of the Rock),  a 1960s church hewn into solid rock. A really simple but magnificent space, with a glass and copper dome and a beautiful organ. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos, but if you click on the link above there are some good photos with the Wikipedia article.

We caught a train back to the apartment, partly so that we could experience the full gamut of Helsinki public transport, but also because we couldn’t work out where the heck to catch the bus back out to the suburbs!


Buying fruit at the market

Buying fruit at the market

More market stalls in Helsinki

More market stalls in Helsinki

Its not a disease! The common name for Street food vans everywhere but Australia

Its not a disease! The common name for Street food vans everywhere but Australia




Finland, Finland, Finland …

Aww go on, how many of you remember the Monty Python song? I recall sitting in a lecture sometime during my nursing training in the early 1980s and the guest lecturer, probably a doctor, mentioned something about Finland, and Sue Sanossian (waves to Sue if she’s reading) and I spontaneously burst into song. Do you remember that, Sal? I still giggle when I think of it.

Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I want to be,
Pony trekking or camping,
Or just watching TV.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
It’s the country for me.You’re so near to Russia,
So far from Japan,
Quite a long way from Cairo,
Lots of miles from Vietnam.Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I want to be,
Eating breakfast or dinner,
Or snack lunch in the hall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.
You’re so sadly neglected
And often ignored,
A poor second to Belgium,
When going abroad.Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I quite want to be,
Your mountains so lofty,
Your treetops so tall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I quite want to be,
Your mountains so lofty,
Your treetops so tall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.Finland has it all.

written and sung by Michael Palin

Anyway, here we are. In Finland. Lots of trees, lots of lakes and lots of mosquitoes at this time of the year. We have camped ‘in the wild’ for the last couple of nights in nice spots in forests, and last night we were near a small lake as well. Tonight is our last night before we get to Helsinki and we’re staying at Vaihelan Tila, a ‘farmstay’ hostel a couple of hundred kms north of the capital. It’s still a small working farm, but the large barn has been converted into accommodation. It’s lovely – all timber inside and sleeps around 14. There are several self-contained huts on the property as well, but tonight we’re the only ones in the large converted barn, which also has a wood-fired sauna. Our hostess told us about the various accommodation options and mentioned that her house has an electric sauna ‘and it’s not as good as a wood-fired one’. So we have had a sauna which Greg liked so much that he’s planning to have another one in the morning. I did like it but I tend not to sweat (and that’s nothing to do with ‘ladies don’t sweat’, it’s actually a nuisance as I don’t cool down easily when I’m hot).

We have been so excited to be back in a country that doesn’t require a second mortgage whenever you go shopping that we have visited at least one supermarket a day, mostly just to see what’s available. Norway is not part of the EU and the range of food available there is quite limited and more expensive than in EU countries. Here in Finland, food, fuel and accommodation are all cheaper. We still have some food that we bought in Sweden a couple of weeks ago – pasta, mashed potato, pasta sauce and a jar of beetroot (what was I thinking I would cook with that when I bought it? I have no idea) and I’m looking forward to being able to use an oven in the apartment we have organised in Helsinki, I’m a bit tired of one-pot cooking on a camp stove.

I thought I’d share a recipe that I kind of made up last night:

Mince and White Bean Hot Pot
250g mince
1 small onion, diced
tomato paste
1 can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
1 small can corn

Fry onion in oil, margarine or butter, add mince and cook until browned. Add a couple of tablespoons tomato paste with some water and cook for a couple of minutes. Add cannelini beans and corn, cook until hot.
Note: Don’t try this at home, it probably only tastes any good when you’re camping and you’ll eat almost anything and think it tastes great.

How to pay a parking fine in Norway

This post probably won’t be of interest to our regular readers, but after spending ages searching the internet for information after we got our parking ticket, I thought it might help any other unfortunate tourists who get caught like we did.

So, a few nights ago we were staying in Tromso and decided to go out for dinner. In a restaurant, our first restaurant meal in Norway. We parked in a small private car park which had a parking metre in one corner. I went to buy a ticket and noticed that it gave a price of 23 kroner per hour, up until 2100 hours, or 9pm. I didn’t read any further, just put in enough coins to get to 9pm, took the ticket , put it in the car and we left. I really should have read all the instructions because there is also a charge after 9pm, of 10 kroner per hour. We got back to the car at 10pm to discover a yellow parking fine on the dashboard. For 760 kroner.

The parking fine is, of course, all in Norwegian, but it’s fairly self-explanatory. You can either pay with a bank transfer, or they give a website where you can dispute the fine. I visited the website and then searched all over the internet to see if I could just pay with a credit card online, but there doesn’t appear to be any option to do so. Paying with a bank transfer was really just all too hard to organise with one of my Australian banks … not to mention costly. So I did some detective work and by searching on the SWIFT code given with the banking details, I learned that Europark Norway uses DNB Bank to accept payment.

We found the DNB Bank in Tromso and I went to see if I could pay the fine there. Success! Kind of. They will process the payment, but they charge a 75 kroner fee on top of the 760 kroner fine. I had to show ID (passport) and got a receipt for the payment … and I made very sure that all the reference numbers on the yellow fine and the receipt matched up so that there would be no further issues.

Of course, it goes without saying that it’s better not to get a fine in the first place, but if you do, I hope the above information helps.

More about the Midnight Sun

Why do people applaud natural phenomena?

That’s not the start of a riddle, it really does baffle me when people clap in the presence of natural awesomeness. My brother John told me years ago about visiting Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park and seeing people clap, and we saw the same thing when we visited last year … so I guess it’s probably happened nearly every time in the intervening years. And it happened at Nordkapp at midnight last night when the sun stayed high in the sky. Well, not really all that high, but definitely well above the horizon. And it was awesome. But I didn’t feel like clapping.

My mum asked me a couple of questions and maybe other loyal readers are wondering too …. Have we seen the Northern Lights, and can we see any stars at this time of the year inside the Arctic Circle.

The Northern Lights are a winter phenomenon, occurring when the sky is dark. We’ll have to come back in winter to see them, and apparently in Tromso they are at their most spectacular at 6pm.

I must find out more about them, but at the moment I’m still trying to get my head around the whole ‘sun doesn’t set for 10 weeks in summer’ and then the ‘sun doesn’t rise for 6 weeks in winter’ thing. I know it is to do with the earth’s tilt, and I’m sure there are plenty of Youtube videos about it all that we’ll watch when we get home. Or I’ll ask Dr Karl. He probably know lots about this stuff.

And the stars. We haven’t actually seen a star since we left home. Even as far south as Copenhagen, there are only a few hours of night at this time of the year, and the sky just never gets dark enough to have any visible stars in it. Within the Arctic Circle, the sky is always light, although at midnight it’s not quite a bright as during the day, and it does cool down by a few degrees overnight. Our Lonely Planet Guide gives lots of dates of when the sun sets in various parts of Norway. It will set in Nordkapp around July 29th, for the first time since mid-May. And then the first star/s will be visible in late August.The sun sets for the last time in late November and rises again in mid-January. I know, I know – it’s all just strange for us who live in places where our days and nights only vary by a few hours depending on the season ….. and to people who live close to the Equator and have equal durations of day and night all year round it must be almost inconceivable.

And I’m by no means an expert, but if anyone wants to know anything else, ask us a question in the Comments and one of us will try to answer it for you.

We got to Nordkapp yesterday afternoon and paid the hefty fee to go into the Information and parking area. On the way there Greg had been looking out for possible camping spots, but I was fairly sure that there was only one place for us to camp last night … at Nordkapp itself. And we did. There is a field just outside the toll booths into the Nordkapp area and people are allowed to camp there, and lots of people with RVs just stay in the car park overnight. We went and looked at the lookout and read a few of the many obelisks, markers, monuments and other assorted items of interest, took photos and I sent a postcard to my 6 year old nephew to let him know that we’d seen Santa’s reindeer and would keep an eye out for Santa. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll find him in Finland …. Lapland to be precise.

So then we pitched our tent and waited. For our dinner to cook … for midnight …. for the sun to go down (or not). And it was well worth the wait. We were lucky that it was a reasonably clear sky with not too many clouds. Tour buses kept on arriving and disgorging passengers from cruise ships, motor homes and motor bikes rolled in and one young German woman arrived on foot. I had a good chat with her and found out that she was there to start walking the E1 Walking Trail, which is a 4900km route that starts at Nordkapp and finishes in Sicily. The route was officially opened just last month. She hadn’t been able to find the start, so I took her to the stone marker and took a photo of her with her camera. We had a nice chat about walking  – she has walked the Camino de Santiago, so have we – and I took her to our tent, gave her some water, we wished her  ‘Buen Camino’ and she started off on her very long walk.

Greg put a few more photos on the post below this one, to show where we have been so far this trip, and to give an idea of where we would be if we were in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m just going to state for the record that I have NO PLANS to camp at 71 degrees south, or anywhere within the Antarctic Circle. I’m not that brave. Or silly.