Friday, August 3, 2012


In my last post I recounted some of my stories from Russia, and I left off just as I was departing from St. Petersburg, headed for Helsinki. In this post I'll talk about Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Unfortunately, it has been over a month since I left those places, and the details of my stops have already faded a bit. Accept my apologies for the bullet-pointy format.

Helsinki, Finland 

The overnight bus (rather than train or ferry) from St. Petersburg to Helsinki seemed like a good idea logistically – I wouldn't have to waste precious daylight hours on a relatively uninteresting bus ride and could spend more time sightseeing. I knew the sleep wouldn't be great in the bus, but what I got was way worse than expected. Even though it was overnight, we stopped every 2 hours for one reason or another. And I think we spent 2 or 3 hours at the border crossing around 1 am.

To make the trip even worse, the Russian border agent (who didn't speak English) seemed to think my passport was fake. I'll admit my photo is a little old and my hair has changed, but why would I be trying to sneak out of Russia with a fake American passport? Russia requires all tourist to register their location with the local post office if they stay in any one city more than 3 days and at least once within 5 business days of entering the country. I had even gone thruogh all of that silliness, but it didn't seem to make the border agent any happier. What ultimately satisfied her was a laminated photocopy of my Alaska driver's license. If I could counterfeit a passport, I'm sure I could fake a photocopy of a driver's license, but I wasn't going to argue.

The last straw for the night, and luckily the last thing I had to deal with (other than mosquitoes) before going back to sleep, was the Finish border agent. He took my passport, looked through all the pages with stamps from the last several months, stamped me in to Finland (and effectively the rest of Europe), and then asked standard “are you traveling alone?” I said that I was. He said “ok,” handed my passport back to me, and said “But, doesn't it get lonely?” …..  I just said “yes,” and walked away.

In Helsinki I stayed with a wonderful couchsurfer named Riikka. She gave me a great place to sleep, and I really enjoyed spending time with her and her roommates. Here are some of the more memorable things from Helsinki.
  • Immediately felt like home - Helsinki looks, smells, and feels like Anchorage in many ways. It's about the same latitude as Anchorage, so the days were long, and many of the plants and animals were familiar. 
  • Visiting couchsrufer friend Jose - Jose couchsurfed with me in Alaska 3 years ago. It was an interesting contrast to meet up with her again on the other side of the world for a fancy business lunch rather than instant rice in remote Alaskan hut. 
  • Trail run - In Helsinki I went for a trail run for the first time in what felt like forever. There's a giant park/forest in town that has lots of dirt paths and trail lights for groomed crosscountry skiing in the winter. 
  • Sauna - I finally got to have a nordic style sauna experience, complete with a vasta "massage" (ie beating). I wish I could have compared it to the Russian banya, but alas, I didn't have time in Russia.  
  • Back in the Western world - Since Indonesia, each place I've visited has been culturally more and more similar to the US, but unlike the gradual changes in customs and traditions I experienced at past border crossings, going from Russia to Finland was something of a step change. The people immediately looked and acted in ways I was more familiar with. There were a lot of English speakers; the streets, shops, and foods weren't so foreign; and the freedom and quality of life were noticeably higher. 
  • Ferry to Stockholm - In Helsinki, I picked up my 10-day Eurail pass which gave me a discount on the overnight ferry through the Baltic sea to Stockholm. Calling it a ferry seems a bit dishonest in light of the casino, fancy restaurants, and up scale accommodation, but it did carry cars, and I was able to get a cheap, comfortable bed.  


Stockholm, Sweden

In Stockholm I spent two nights at an over crowded hostel full of music-festival goers, but in spite of that and the bad weather, I still had a pretty good time. 
  • Stockholm is a beautiful city, full of old buildings and well dressed people on lots and lots bicycles. The city's location - spread over a tight cluster of islands situated in a brackish lake that connects to the Baltic - makes it especially scenic. 
  • My friend suggested kayaking as a good way to see and experience the city. He was right, but unfortunately it rained the whole 4 hours I was in the boat. It was still a good time, but I wouldn't have said no to some sunshine. 
  • In Stockholm I met up with yet another long lost friend. This time it was Kathie, whom I had spent a lot of time with during my summer in Dresden (Germany) five years before. Kathie is working as something like a tour guide on a cruise ship in the Baltic. I adjusted my schedule to overlap with their one-day stop in Stockholm. Unfortunately this meant that we only got to spend part of an evening together, but it was better than nothing. As I've said before, it's very strange meeting someone for a second time whom you thought you would probably never see again. It is the bitter-sweet reality of having friends spread across the world.  
Approaching Stockholm

Nice Swedish dinner with Kathie

Working on a blog post on the train

Bergen, Norway

  • Train ride to Bergen - From Stockholm I activated my rail pass and took a train to Oslo, and then on to Bergen. The trip through the mountains between Oslo and Bergen was absolutely gorgeous. Maybe it was partly due to the fact that I had not see any big mountains in a long time, but I really enjoyed staring out the window from my comfortable seat on the train. The topography and geology of a place is something that I consume and appreciate like most people do ethnic cuisines. The people don't (usually) make the landscape, but the landscape often makes the people.  
  • I spent my first night in Bergen in a hostel because I had been lazy about sending out couchsurfing requests. Unfortunately, some combination of the crowded hostel in Stockholm, kayaking in the rainy wind, and long travel days, resulted in my catching a nasty cold. I woke up the next morning feeling worse than I had since that stomach bug in Guatemala. Much to my surprise, and good fortune (hostels in Norway are expensive), an amazing couchsurfer named Sasha agreed to host me despite my infirm state. I was reluctant to stay with her for fear of getting her or her roommates sick, but she graciously insisted. It was impressively kind of her - I was given great bed to sleep in, allowed to stay home and rest all day while she was gone, and she cooked some tasty food for me. I did what I could to be a good guest, but I'm afraid the karma flow was mostly in one direction this time. After a few days I was in much better shape and ready see a little of Bergen and then continue with the rest of my trip. 
  • I took the "scenic route" when leaving Bergen: First a bus to the Hardangerfjord, where I connected with a ferry that went through part of Sorfjor and Eidfjord before dropping me in the tiny village of Ulvik. In Ulvik I caught a bus to Voss (probably the extreme sports capital of Norway). This mini-trip was very scenic, and thus the source of the majority of my photos from Norway. Nice weather and abundant fjords, waterfalls and glaciers is a good way to exhaust a camera battery.
  •  From Voss, I took the midnight train to Oslo. Train beds are very expensive in Norway, so I spent the night attempting to sleep upright and wishing I was back on a Russian train. In Oslo, I caught a train to Copenhagen, and from Copenhagen another train to into Hamburg. The train between Copenhagen and Hamburg crosses from Denmark to Germany on a ferry. The entire train actually pulls onto a ferry for the 45 minute crossing - now there's a creative engineering solution. And speaking of engineering, while on the ferry, I met a young guy from Colorado who is studying at my alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines. Small world. 


Amazing host, Sasha and an amazing salmon dinner. 

Ferry ride through the Fjord

In Hamburg I met up with Cassi, a friend from my time at the MASMC, whom I hadn't seen since graduation, a little over 8 years ago. I'll pick up with that story in my next post.

The photo albums that go with this post can be found here: Finland, Sweden, Norway.

And even though my blog is a month behind, the map is up to date. As you can see, I'm currently in Bellingham, WA. Tomorrow I'll begin the four-day ferry ride back to Anchorage. I'm excited to be back!

It has been a long trip - I'm exhausted in many ways - and even though I'll be "home" in less than a week, the real adventure is just getting ready to start. More on that, coming soon. 

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful person Sasha is to have put you up and gave you a place to get well!!! xo Aunt Karon