After Summer Camp I allowed myself 1 day of rest before I was off on another adventure to – where else? – the Arctic!
The plan was to drive, for three days, from Moscow to the north-east coast of Norway just north of the Arctic Circle. We would pass through Finland and Sweden and drive around the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost portion of the Baltic Sea. My girlfriend Janna would be doing all the driving – she had second and third thoughts before deciding to go ahead with this adventure – and we would be finding and booking our accommodation on the way, depending on how far we were able to drive each day.
I would be travelling very light – just a bag with a few clothes in, which I could take in the cabin with me. I didn’t even have my tablet, the screen cracked during Summer Camp rendering it unusable. I took an evening flight from Volgograd to Vnukova Airport – for some reason only one door at the airport was open so it was very difficult to get into and out of, but we did eventually escape and set off on our journey late on the Wednesday night. The plan was that Janna would drive as far as she could on the empty night roads, while I dozed in the passenger seat. When she couldn’t drive any more she would park and try and get some sleep.
I woke up on Thursday morning in a roadside car park somewhere north of Moscow. We were using toll roads – another time-saving measure – and instead of having regular petrol stations with little shops selling barbecue briquettes and windscreen fluid, petrol provision on these roads came from anonymous looking cargo containers, with the pumps locked inside the boxes and connected to a credit card reader. There was only one pump for each type of petrol at each station so you could end up waiting a long time.
We pressed on for St Petersburg, having to join the regular roads because the toll roads only went so far. Janna had bought a special digital box and put lots of credit on her account for these roads, so the barriers at the entrances and exits would automatically open. Unfortunately the roads in St Petersburg were run by a different operator, and while in theory they should have been able to read the box too, in practice we kept finding ourselves stuck behind barriers showing defiantly red lights, and having to reverse and go through the cash barriers. It was very frustrating and turned out to just require a change in the settings of her online account, which no-one had previously explained to her.
The toll roads in St Petersburg were magnificent, they had huge curved walls, with “ribs” for the overhead lights, so it felt like you were driving through the skeleton of some very long, and long-dead dinosaur. It skirted the outside of the city – which meant going over the sea, on impressive bridges that seemed to go up and down almost like roller-coasters. It was a side of St Petersburg we hadn’t seen on our previous visit in May.
From St Petersburg we headed north-west towards first Vyborg, and then the border. We joined the back of a long, long queue of cars that seemed to move forward at a frustratingly slow pace. We sat in that queue for maybe 2 hours before finally reaching the border control point and being waved through. There was a bit of confusion about where we were supposed to go – people were getting out of their cars, some going to a window, others into a building opposite, and there were border officers checking the vehicles, asking everyone to open their doors and boots (rear trunks). It turned out that the queue we had been sitting in was for foreign vehicles only, as we had a Russian vehicle we could have just driven past the queue and into the (considerably shorter) next lane!
Janna was frustrated with herself – there is nothing I could have done as any signs there were would have all been in Russian and I had no idea how the border crossing process worked. I hadn’t seen any signs for the queue we were in or alternative routes. As a British man, I am quite accustomed to just joining any queue I see assuming it’s the only way to get to where I want to be.
The control officer took a close look at my passport and visa – it was strange, a British citizen travelling from Volgograd to Finland – but everything was in order and he stamped my passport, and we left Russia behind. We had to go through a very similar process on the Finnish side, though this time it was Janna’s close-to-expiring Schengen visa that was scrutinised, while my EU passport was just waved through with barely a cursory glance.
And then we were driving through Finland! Smooth roads, fewer roadside buildings, the buildings we saw were all modern, functional and neat, none of the collapsing wooden shells and huts you often see by Russian roads. I have been in Finland before, but only Helsinki in winter, I’ve never seen the Finnish countryside, and here it was in its full summer colours.
We thought we might get as far as a town called Pumaala – in the heart of Finland’s lakeland country, with a series of long bridges criss-crossing the lakes. In the event, even with our unwelcome delay at the border, we got beyond Pumaala, and a couple of hundred kilometres further, ending up in a smaller town called Juva. We called into a supermarket for some supplies but we didn’t see any guesthouses or somewhere we could use wi-fi to find one, so we decided to just roll into a campsite and see what they had. We had seen a sign for one as we came into the town.
We went into the reception area, I momentarily thought will it be better to try and speak English or Russian here? Should I let Janna do the talking or myself? I just started speaking English and the impossibly tall and handsome Finnish man at the desk seemed to understand me fine. Well almost. He was giving me quotes for staying for the evening which sounded suspiciously inexpensive – 13 Euros? I decided some clarification was needed and said we were looking for beds for the night. He had been giving us the rate just for parking our car and staying in it!
They had “cottages” that would cost us 60 Euros for a night with everything included. Janna thought it was a little expensive, to me it sounded like quite a good deal – 30 Euros each for a bed for the night? The tall Finn said we could take a look at the cabin before we decided and tossed us the key.
We walked through the forested campsite – passed a couple of wooden buildings, and came to a couple next to each other, there was a man sitting outside the first one with a little dog barking which reminded Janna of her dog – she went and said hello. We tried the door of the second cabin and couldn’t get it to open, because it was the wrong cabin, ours was one of the next ones!
Janna took a look inside and was sold. It was pretty basic but there were 4 beds (two bunks each side), a little refrigerator, and outside there was a verandah with a table and two chairs, a washing line. We could see the lake through the trees, which excited Janna who wanted to swim. So we went back and made the payment, then brought the car up to our cottage.
I was travelling light so I hadn’t been able to fit my crocs (fake) into my bags, so I made my way barefoot to the lake. This was quite painful, all the little stones and rocks digging in, though I managed to avoid stepping on any pine-cones or stinging insects. We got to the beach area and dipped our toes in the water – warm enough though colder than the air of course. Janna didn’t like all the reeds and grasses she would have to wade through and declared she wanted to go in from the jetty. We walked onto the little wooden jetty, and Janna lowered herself into the water for a swim, while I took pictures with her phone.
She tried to persuade me to go in also but I really wasn’t feeling like immersing my body in cold water and I chickened out. My masculinity was further dented when she lent me her shoes to walk back to the cottage, while she unconcernedly walked back barefoot. We both had welcome showers in the respective bathroom blocks and then went to the kitchen area for dinner. We were only going to have hot-water pasta cups from the supermarket, and the pasta was not cooked as much as it should have been but it wasn’t a bad meal.
We slept well in our little cabin in the woods and had breakfast in the kitchen area again. We had the place to ourselves. There were other people in the camp but mostly keeping to themselves in their own cottages, tents and campervans. One of the perks included in the cost of the camp was free use of the sauna in the morning, and I decided to check it out during the men’s hour – 8.30 to 9.30. Last time I was in Finland I left without ever using a Finnish sauna, to my eternal regret, and I was determined to have the full experience this time.
I told Janna where I was heading – I didn’t know if I would be back quickly (if I didn’t like it) or if I might be 20 minutes or so. I figured this was just like my morning shower. I don’t think Janna got the message though, she was upset I took so long! There were two saunas but the one for public use was electric-heated. I went in, had a shower, then joined another man in the sauna and sat on my towel. First faux-pas! There was a roll of paper sheets just outside the door, and everyone else was using them to sit on, keeping their towels clean and dry for drying themselves!
There was a window in the sauna with a view of the lake. After about 15 minutes the other man (who was periodically throwing water on the stones to make more steam) stepped outside and next thing I saw through the window he was walking down the wooden pathway outside, just holding his towel in front of him, and then he jumped in the lake and swam around for 5 minutes.
He came back, and another man also came and joined us. Then outside the cabin, I saw a woman. She seemed to be looking for something. She sat in the seating area outside the sauna for a few minutes, then came right up to the window and squeezed her face against it. I don’t think she could see in, but it seemed like a bit of an etiquette breach to me! She went and sat down again, then the first man went out for another swim in the lake and I later saw that she was talking to him and taking pictures of him, so I guess it was his wife. I was enjoying the sauna but knew we had a schedule to keep and that Janna was waiting for me, so I came out, had another shower, and headed back to the car. (She wasn’t happy I had spent so long there!)
We kept driving north through Finland and its thousands of lakes and forests, and around lunchtime we were going past a city called Oulu, so I suggested we stop there, investigate a little and get some lunch. I wanted to see the sea-front but we only got as far as the shopping centre in the middle of the city, where we ate at a rather fancy, tech-savvy burger bar called Fries and Friends. The fries were very nice. We took the opportunity to book our accommodation in Bodø, our final destination, using the wi-fi. We thought we were being clever by joining a hotel group’s loyalty scheme to get a 20% discount.
We still didn’t know where we would be staying that night – we thought we would get into Sweden but we weren’t sure how far. In the event the border caught us by surprise, it was just a couple of signs, one on each side of the road, there were no stops, no controls, no police. Disappointingly, as we followed the road around the north end of the Gulf of Bothnia, we couldn’t see the sea at all, the road just went through miles of forest.
We came to another big Baltic city, Luleå. This time we did get to see the sea, and the sunset. We stopped just outside the city to try and find a hotel (using good old MacDonalds wi-fi without actually buying any product), and found a rather promising place that didn’t seem too expensive, we booked it and then followed our sat-nav into the city. In the end we got an upgrade, the hotel we booked was a grand old building and the room we were given was almost palatial! It was a shame we would only be in it for 10 hours or so! We had a very good sleep that night, and in the morning we had one of those awesome Scandinavian breakfasts where you can have just about anything! I was able to have toast and marmalade, English style and a glass of real full-cream milk. Janna went crazy for the fish, ham and cheese.
Sweden and Finland have very similar roads and towns, all very neat and tidy, everything made of wood but painted in contrasting bright colours. As we crossed Sweden we started spotting reindeer by the side of the road – we had seen signs for deer since Russia but this was the first time we saw them. We only saw reindeer though, no larger deer, and no moose. Janna promised me that Norway would be packed with deer, so many deer we wouldn’t be able to move along the road. I was sceptical.
We started to ascend into the mountains. We experienced rain. We saw patches of snow on the slopes in the distance. This was the borderland between Sweden and Norway. Eventually on a high plain, we came to the border, marked with a big stone. There was a border checkpoint for drivers with goods to declare, but we just kept on driving.
On the Norwegian side we drove through steep gorges with fast flowing rivers, grey-blue in colour, scouring the bottom. Along the edges trees grew, sometimes precariously with all their roots exposed. I wondered how often these trees “jumped” when the force of gravity proved too much for them to resist? Occasionally spectacular waterfalls streaked down the mountains, from a distance looking like unmoving ice, but foaming and bristling as they came closer.
At some point, still in the mountains we officially entered the Arctic as we crossed the polar circle. Disappointingly there were no signs or announcements or lines on the road. Gradually we came down from the heights and then, almost immediately, we were driving alongside coastline again. Not quite the Atlantic coast, but the intricate network of fjords and inlets that connect to it. There are no straight roads here, despite the ongoing tunnel-boring industry trying to simplify and shorten transport routes – you have to follow the coast which means twisting and turning and doing 180-degree turns on yourself.
We reached our destination at about 5pm, meaning we had travelled almost all the way across Norway and Sweden (from Luleå) in one day. Our sat-nav had the right city but the wrong destination, we made our way to the Scandic hotel only to be told that we had booked in the OTHER Scandic hotel – for some reason Bodø has two! (The first one looked nicer, to be honest).
Bodø sits on the end of one of those twisting peninsulas, flirting with the Atlantic coast while being sheltered from its worst excesses. It has an airport, a railway station and a port, all of which are about 20 minutes walk from each other. Points of interest we didn’t visit include an aviation museum and a herring factory. We did check out the harbour, and a feature called Saltstraumen – in English, “The Maelstrom.” This is the result of one of the biggest tidal differentials in the world, every 6 hours when the tides change, the water in the part of the inlet where they meet, broils and churns like a whirlpool. The seagulls love it as it pushes all the fish to the surface. Fishermen love it too, though they have to be careful not to let their boats get caught in the current.
Sadly on the day we went to the Maelstrom it was very wet and windy. I managed to get some pictures before my little camera’s retractable lens decided it had retracted for the final time, and I could no longer use it. We spent much of our second day sheltering from the rain – I spent some of it in a sports bar watching English Premier League football matches. There was a little arts festival going on while we were there and we enjoyed some free music in one of the town’s squares from a group which seemed to have Israeli influences. We ate in three restaurants – the first one, En Kopp was excellent (steak and fish), the second one, Peppe’s Pizza was ok (American style pizza), the third one Great Gandhi (Indian) was again excellent! For a fussy eater like me to find a city with two restaurants serving food I would happily go back to every night, is impressive.
The journey back was a little more rushed and not really as interesting, as we had seen everything already. We decided to aim for Oulu on the first day, get back into Russia on the second day, and get me to the airport for my 19:30 flight by 6pm on the third day. We stopped for waterfalls pictures just after the Swedish border, and got to Oulu after 8pm.
We stayed in an AirBnB-type arrangement this time, the home of Hannu, a bearded technology-loving Finn (he had an 88 inch TV screen!!) The technology was so advanced we couldn’t work out how to use some of it – our pasta was again undercooked because we couldn’t find a good old-fashioned kettle and had to use a slightly less-than-boiling water heater. In the evening we took a walk around Oulu, as we had not really seen much of the city on our first stop. Compared to Russian cities – even British cities – all the buildings seemed so modern and futuristic. There were so many canals and waterways and fountains and bridges. Some buildings were powered by hydro-electric force as water trickled through open dynamoes in the parks.
In the morning we enjoyed Hannu’s private sauna – smaller than the one at Juva but cosy and convenient – before heading to the beach, so I could finally see Oulu’s waterfront with the Baltic Sea.
We raced south through Finland, trying not to buy any petrol before we were back in Russia where it was much cheaper. It was exactly the same route again – through Juva and Pumaala, and this time we got through the border moderately quickly. There was a bit of a panic when the two petrol stations next to the border turned out to be closed and we didn’t have enough fuel to reach the next nearest one, according to the sat-nav. For a moment we contemplated going back into Finland! But then we tried our luck at a lorry-stop – not marked as a petrol station on the map, but which advertised petrol for sale, and did indeed have the Benzine 95 we needed.
I was nervous about getting to the airport in time and wanted as many miles under our belts as we could manage before we stopped for the night. I vetoed Vyborg and said we needed to get past St Petersberg. We picked a little town called Pushkin just south of St Petersberg, found some accommodation available, and parked up for the night there. It was on the top floor of a tower block, in a noisy district – not ideal but better than sleeping in the car! At least the mosquitoes sharing the room with us enjoyed their night.
In theory we should have had more than enough time to get to the airport, even allowing for stops. We were using the toll-free roads where we could drive fast without other traffic. But as we came towards the Moscow ringroads, we just kept hitting jam after jam after jam, and the clock kept on ticking. To make things worse we were driving into a thunderstorm (although as it turned out these clouds really did have a silver lining, in some way).
With less than an hour to take-off (never mind check-in!) we were taking desperate measures, using bus lanes and beating the speed limit, and we were denied our long emotional goodbye because when we did reach the airport we didn’t have time to find parking, I literally had to jump out of the car with my bag and sprint for the check-in gate. Of course first you have to go through security to enter the airport, then find the right check-in desk, then there is a queue you have to wait in…
My flight was still showing as checking in so I waited in the queue for about 20 minutes until it flashed “Boarding now.” At that point I waved my passport at one of the “helpers” in the queue just saying “Volgograd!” and pointing at the screens, and she lifted the barrier to let me jump the queue. While I was getting my ticket, she started calling for other passengers for Volgograd and Samara. I clearly wasn’t the only one in a hurry!
I got my ticket with ease and dashed to security, again there were people in front of me not really in any hurry and I was squeezing past them to join quicker-moving queues. Again I passed through security without being picked out or challenged, and made my way to the gate. Would I have time to buy something to eat or drink? People were standing in a line at the gate, so I figured I’d just have time to get a bottle of water.
I went through the gate (again no-one asked me to check my bag size as they had done at Volgograd!) and learning from previous mistakes where I’ve got on the wrong bus and had to get on the back of an aeroplane when my seat was at the front, I checked the buses and picked the right one for my end of the plane. We waited ages on the bus, while it rained outside, eventually the bus took us to the tarmac and again we seemed to wait ages while lightning flashed around us and we could see cleaning crews entering and exiting the plane. There was one man on the tarmac waving his arms, he came and talked to the bus driver, and then suddenly we were heading back to the terminal.
I had no idea what was going on, but seemingly neither did anybody else. There were no announcements, no information on the boards, and the gate crew had all vanished. I could see people from the buses milling about not sure what to do. I knew what to do. I went to Burger King and got something to eat!
With no particular place to go I just waited, it seemed like most of my flight was also still hanging around, and eventually our flight number reappeared on the boards with a new take-off time. The time had already passed, but it showed they were still thinking of us. Finally there was an announcement – in Russian and English – apologising that our flight had been delayed and giving a new take off time. Then the gate crew came back, everyone crowded round them anxious to get back through the gate, I was happy to just sit and wait knowing the buses wouldn’t be leaving until the last person went through.
In the end we got into Volgograd at about 23:30. I knew I had lessons the following day so I needed to get home and sleep, but it seemed I had missed the last bus or train from the airport. Everyone else from my flight was waiting outside but their numbers gradually diminished as taxis and family cars appeared to take them away, in twos and threes at a time. I spotted one other woman with a suitcase, alternatively looking at her phone and at the (useless) train timetables and figured she was in a similar predicament but my Russian was not good enough to make a suggestion of sharing a taxi – I didn’t know where she was going, or if she had made arrangements already.
In the end, a speculative taxi-driver appeared and asked me if I needed a taxi. Perhaps, I said, in Russian, still half hoping the number 6 bus would roll up so I could get home for a standard 20 roubles. I showed him my 20 roubles and said “no bus?” and he laughed. I asked him how much, explaining I was going to the centre, he said 800 roubles. That’s 40 times more than I had expected to pay had my flight been on time! On the other hand it’s 200 roubles less than I paid last time I took a taxi to the airport (which I’m not even sure was a taxi). Not wanting to stand there all night I reluctantly agreed.
He then had a similar conversation with the woman. It turned out she was going to a different district to me. She tried to argue we should pay 800 roubles between us (400 each) but the taxi-driver was pretty dismissive of that suggestion. It was expensive but at this time of night we didn’t have a lot of choice, and its a little bit safer to share a taxi than to just get in someone’s car on your own.
So I made it home, and I was teaching lessons the next day. Fortunately my August schedule is very light so I have had plenty of opportunity to catch up on sleep and other things I need to do. September will be busier, October will be mad, but by November it will all be over and I will be back in the UK planning my next adventure.