Finland, Finland, Finland

There’s more of it than you might have suspected, but say what you like about Finland, it’s not Scandinavia. The scenery tells you that for a start. It’s all much more subdued than the wild western coastline of Norway, yet it’s a good deal wilder than most of Sweden. Having driven down through the emptier parts of the country for three days now (albeit at our own distinctively random pace) we are beginning to feel that it’s time to enjoy the bright lights of city life for a change. Or at least go somewhere where you see a bit more road traffic. Our average for the past few days has been one quad bike, 4 cars and about 20 reindeer per day, which makes driving easy but boring.

We break the monotony with stops for coffee, lunch, tea break and so eke out what would otherwise be a three hour drive into the best part of a day. That’s one of the great things about being in your own self contained accommodation on wheels – you can stop virtually anywhere for a brew and a quick admire of the surroundings. And you can turn up the heating if it’s cold. Which brings me to an interesting question; why would Kate, who is renowned for her dislike of cold, choose to direct us to the road house in Pokka, equally renowned for holding Finland’s record for the coldest place (minus 60.7 degrees F in January 1999) in the country? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. The place itself had that curious air of a remote establishment who’s sole owner has let his imagination run away with him, taking both of them slightly out of the normal run of things. Inside the walls were covered in stuffed dead birds and huge sets of antlers, interspersed with tables of second hand clothes for sale and framed printed lyrics of what I imagine were roistering Finnish hunting, killing and stuffing songs. The only other customers were a couple who were working their way through a couple of beers each, and this at 11 in the morning. Mine Host was delighted to see us and offered us the visitors’ book to sign while he got our coffees. People had come from virtually every country to this place, it seemed, their often exuberant entries standing out from the more stolid Scandinavian and Finnish ones. We added ours to the list, finished our coffees and wandered on, pondering the local affinity for mid-morning boozing. Perhaps it was the pervasive Russian influence, creeping west over the border… after all it wasn’t far away. And some of the Finns looked more than slightly Russian, in notable contrast to the Norwegian and Swedish people that we’d encountered so far.  Undemonstrative, tending to expressionless and tightly controlled.  Even the Nature Reserves out here are Strict, you’ll doubtless recall from the previous post.

Filling up at a garage a couple of hours further on we noticed signs and ads in Cyrillic script – more Russian influence. Or was it pandering? I sought out the loo and was brought up smartly by a notice on the door in Russian, pointing out that would be loo-users had first to pay 1 Euro at the till. Not pandering then. I queued up to pay my entry fee, explaining in English to the woman at the till what it was for. “No, no pay, you go ahead” she announced, leaving me to conclude that the Russian surcharge was more punitive than anything. Mind you, having seen the state of the average public loo in Russia I could easily believe that it was needed to cover cleaning expenses. Mentioning this to Kate later on, she told me that Finland had only gained independence from Russia 101 years ago – no wonder the Finns wanted to charge their erstwhile overlords for using their smart Finnish designer porcelain then.

Given that our route for the next day or so was likely to run parallel to the Russian border, it was very tempting to go and have a look at it. However, the morning’s news from the UK was that the names and faces of the two Russians who had delivered the nerve agent attack in Salisbury had just been made public. In that context it might not be entirely desirable for a couple of Brits (with a previous Moscow background) to go capering around too close to a potentially hostile foreign power’s border guards. Time for the longest camera lens we could find, we felt, and headed on south with a wary eye to the East.