In September 2015, I was about to take the last week of my vacation time in 2015. My girlfriend was away in Cyprus, and no one else was coming along with me, so, pretty much for the first time in my life, I had freedom, time, and budget to plan a great solitary trip for myself. (I’m excluding some hitchhiking adventures many years ago of course.)
I had several destinations in mind. Some secluded corner of Norway certainly sounded like a nice idea. Or some Finnish island. Archipelago Sea? Or some islands in the Gulf of Bothnia? Or maybe not even an island but just a random cabin in the middle of Finnish nowhere? So many options.
In the end, the matter was decided when I found some inexpensive accomodation I liked. It was one of the Lost in Lapland cabins (direct link to their website), in a village named Äkäslompolo, in Finnish Lapland, next to Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. They offered a nice-looking cabin, named Kelostar, at a particularly reasonable price. I booked it (note: payment is possible only with a direct bank transfer — took me some time to figure out how to make a transfer from Russia to Finland), and started reading up about Lapland.
Lapland is most often thought of as the northernmost part of Finland. In fact it also includes the entire north of Scandinavia and also of Kola Peninsula in Russia. Lapland, in this meaning, is best defined as the region traditionally inhabinted by Sami people, also known as Lapps. There are about 100,000 of Sami in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. They have a flag, a funky national dress, a tradition of reindeer herding, and an utterly incomprehensible language (looks a bit like a horribly mangled Finnish), but they never had their own statehood. Sami are now a minority in Lapland, which is mostly inhabited by regular Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Russians (also Tornedalians, who are a sort of Swedish Finns, and Kvens, who are a sort of Norwegian Finns).
Finnish Lapland, Lappi in Finnish, is indeed the northernmost part of Finland, and the largest region of the country by far, some 40% of the entire territory or so. Finnish Lapland is very sparsely populated; its entire population is only 180,000. The only major (more or less) city is Rovaniemi. Lapland towns and villages are clean and neat but pretty boring and uniform. This part of the country was pretty much entirely destroyed in the little-known Lapland War. The war took place in 1944-1945, when Finland reallied with Soviet Union, and started to expel German forces, which mostly happened to be located in Lapland. There were very few actual casualties, but retreating Germans caused massive damage, burning down all towns and destroying all roads.
Thus modern Finnish Lapland has been rebuilt for scratch, and, apart from the residence of Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, is worth visiting mostly for its nature. There are many huge national parks in Lapland, with thousands of kilometers of hiking trails. There are numerous skiing resorts. There are reindeer and husky rides. Lapland, which, honestly, is pretty much just lots of spruce trees and low mountains and some lakes and a really cold climate — that describes, like, a half of Russia! — manages to sell itself amazingly well.
Lapland is usually visited in winter, and its skiing resorts (Äkäslompolo is one of them) get very busy and crowded. Myself, I don’t like cold, but I love (fairly casual) hiking, and early autumn is the best season for that (mosquitoes and gnats get very nasty in summer, or so I hear). So I thought this was an excellent chance for me to see some Northern nature. Of course I was going to go by car. The distance from St. Petersburg to Äkäslompolo was 1120 km; possible if exhausting to cover in a single day. The car also allowed me to use Äkäslompolo as a base, and see some other places, including the point where Finland, Sweden, and Norway meet, and a bit of the northern fjords of Norway.
In short, my decision to go to Lapland turned out to be absolutely right. This was the best vacation in my life by far, and I want to repeat it every year, preferably at least twice. It was even better than Western Norwegian fjords; the North is the prettiest and the most peaceful place in the world. And I enjoyed being alone for nine days. It’s not like I didn’t see a single person; I just interacted very little with anyone. The loner I am, I loved it.
This is going to be one huge post, so get ready!
So I decided to go to Äkäslompolo, Lapland. First, I packed my stuff. Сamera, laptop, clothes — that’s all obvious. I didn’t need many warm clothes, as forecasts promised about +8°C throughout the entire week, but still took some (and a pair of warm boots) just in case. Less obviously, I took some bed linen; my cabin, like cabins at camping sites, provided this only at an additional fee. And finally, I went to a supermarket and bought a huge bag of cheap microwavable food.
Honestly I hate eating out on my trips. I mean, tasting some local food once or twice is fine, and even I have to admin that an all-you-can-eat buffet on Baltic ferries is the most fun part of the passage, but otherwise, it’s just way too costly. On our Swedish trip we ate at restaurants daily, usually twice, and ended out spending a fortune on restaurants alone, more than on accomodation or gas. And it wasn’t even particularly fancy food, too! So, this time, while I had some money to spare, I decided to avoid restaurants completely or nearly completely, and just eat some microwavable burgers, potato chips, instant noodles and mashed potatoes, bologna sandwiches, and so on. I bought as much of this as possible in a Russian supermarket, and brought some beer and wine with me as well. This worked splendidly. I lived on this diet for years before my girlfriend moved in with me, anyway.
Then, I plotted my route. This wasn’t very difficult. Both Google Maps and TomTom navigator on my phone agreed that this had to be the shortest route:
I decided to go along with it. As you can see, predicted travel time was 13.5 hours. That figure didn’t include border crossing and other stops; actual time was going to be even longer. Nonetheless, I intended to drive all of it in one go. My previous record was about 800 km (Stockholm to Flåm, Norway), and by the end of it I felt like I was going to die. Still, I had some practice over the last summer, and I believed I could make it. (Spoiler Alert: I was right.)
I hate driving in the countryside after dark, mostly because I’m still very much afraid of hitting a moose; and that far north, hitting a reindeer is also a very real possibility. Still, it looked like there was no way to avoid it. Days already got significantly shorter since summer, and I expected they would be even shorter in the north. Surprisingly they were not, at least not appreciably so. Most of Lapland is located beyond the Arctic Circle, and the place gets some midnight sun in summer and polar night in winter, but in September day and night cycle is very ordinary.
So I got up at 3 AM, took a shower, had some tea, and went down to my car. I had some meat pasties to eat, and three cans of energy drinks to keep me from getting drowsy. I also brought a piece of paper and a pen, having decided to write down current time and distance travelled at every stop I make.
1. 4:17, 0 km: here I go, in a terrible downpour in the middle of the night. I got on the Ring Motorway and circled St. Petersburg counterclockwise. Rainwater in ruts made driving dangerous. In fact halfway along Ring Motorway, I saw a mangled and possibly burned-out car wreck sticking out of a guard rail. It’s like a war zone out there.
5:16, 74 km: I used the Western Rapid Diameter toll road to get from the Ring Motorway to Scandinavia Route (road A-181). After the tool booth I stopped for a few minutes and drank half of the first energy drink. It’s no fun getting up at 3 AM.
I was worried about driving in heavy rain in the dark (Scandinavia Route is unlit), but thankfully by the time I reached that exit the rain almost ended. Normally I don’t like driving on the Scandinavia Route, which should have been rebuilt into a motorway ages ago, but oddly enough it actually feels safer in the dark. There are less cars overall, there are less mad drivers, and overtaking is simple and safe enough, as you can be certain that the road is very straight, and any incoming traffic would be well visible.
At 5:55, the sky started getting a dark shade of blue instead of pitch black, and by 6:25 it became light enough to drive without high beams.
2. 6:32, 180 km: bypassing the city of Vyborg and refueling at a Lukoil gas station. Unless you’re going through the southernmost Torfyanovka border crossing point, this is the last decent gas station you’re going to see in Russia. Immediately after this gas station, I took a right turn onto Vyborg-Svetogorsk local road.
There are three Finnish border crossing points in the vicinity of St. Petersburg, and as I was driving to the north, it was only logical to pick the northermost one, Svetogorsk. It is located in a gloomy-looking border town of Svetogorsk (Russ. Light Mountains, although there are no mountains there), known to the Finns under its old name, Enso.
3. Vyborg-Svetogorsk is a very poor road. It has okay pavement now (used to be full of potholes), but it’s still very narrow, winding, and has no road markings. Nasty crashes due to head-on collisions and failed overtakes are common. It was pretty empty that early in the morning though. Right before Svetogorsk, there is a new bridge over Storozhevaya River (Russ. Sentry River) which has been under construction since 2006 or so. The Finns even ended up providing some financing for it, but it didn’t help much.
4. I believe the bridge actually got finished later in October or November.
5. 7:28, 230 km: after dragging behind a timber truck at 30 km/h through entire Svetogorsk town (there is a major paper mill factory there), I reached the Svetogorsk border crossing. As expected, there were no queues at 7 AM. There is an around the clock duty free shop between Russian and Finnish checkpoints, and I expected to buy some booze here, but it happened to be closed at that moment, so I didn’t wait.
Russia and Finland are located in different time zones. Our government however loves messing with time zones and daylight saving time, and, as of 2015, you don’t need to change your clock when moving between Russia and Finland in summer. (Annoyingly, some software can’t keep up with the changes, and updates time zones incorrectly. That includes my car’s media system and even my Android phone.)
7:42, 231 km: The Finnish part of border crossing point is named Imatra, also after the town on their side of the border. Finnish border officer, as usual, asked me about the destination and duration of my trip, and I answered "Lapland, ten days". Actually there is a supermarket named Laplandia, built right after the border and meant for Russian shopping tours, so I briefly wondered if there could be any confusion. "What, are you planning to shop there for ten days?"
6. 7:52, 234 km: Finland! South Karelia region, to be precise. I immediately pulled into the parking lot of Scandinavia Market supermarket, right next to the Laplandia one, and went to stretch my legs a bit. A few minutes later, some Finnish pop music was heard from the supermarket, and its employee unbolted the doors; the supermarket opens at 8 AM. I used its restroom and drove on.
7. The road spur between Svetogorsk/Imatra border crossing point and the National Road 6, bypassing the town of Imatra, is officially designated as part of the Kantatie 62 (Finn. Primary Road). It’s always so nice to drive on safe Finnish roads of nearly-perfect quality after the horrors of Scandinavia Route and Vyborg-Svetogorsk.
8. A short stretch of Valtatie 6 (Finn. National Road). In the vicinity of Lappeenranta and Imatra cities it has been widened into a motorway. In general, Finland has few motorways outside of Helsinki region, due to relatively sparse population and traffic.
9. And back onto Primary Road 62, which branches off again to the northwest. Road 62 is one of the prettiest roads in Southeastern Finland. It roughly follows the northern coast of Suur Saimaa (Finn. Greater Saimaa) lake of Saimaa lake system, and then just hops across some of the islands in that lake.
10. 8:47, 286 km: At a rest area at Road 62. My Renault Sandero can be pretty photogenic.
11. Finnish timber truck driving on Road 62. Notable features of a lot of Finnish cars and trucks are massive custom bull bars and spotlights. Both of these modifications are prohibited in Russia. A Finnish semi driving with high beams in the night looks more like an incoming train. These features seem to get more common the farther in the north you go.
12. The rest area is actually located next to one of small Saimaa lakes. Soon after this rest area, I left South Karelia region and entered South Savonia region.
13. 9:01, 299 km: another rest area down the same road, with a view of Puumala Bridge. The bridge on Road 62 dwarfs the tiny town of Puumala; it is the fourth largest bridge in Finland (780 m long). Built in 1995, it replaced the last ferry crossing on the network of National/Primary (single/double-digit) roads of Finland.
14. A small cafeteria at the same rest area. It was closed, due to early hours, or autumn season, or maybe just permanently closed.
15. Driving on Puumala Bridge. There is an elevator going from the town to the bridge; it is visible to the left ahead.
16. Shortly after Puumala, GPS navigation suggests taking a shortcut via Seututie 434 (Finn. Regional Road). This was the only regional-class (three-digit) road on my route until the very end. Regional Roads in Finland may have varying standards. Some of them may be winding and narrow enough so that they don’t have a centerline, like the 434; pavement may also be of less than perfect quality. Nonetheless, Regional Roads are almost always paved and always drivable without any difficulties. Traffic is usually very low, unless the road happens to be used as a some common shortcut. Driving this stretch was kind of fun for a change, on nice curves along steep cliffs and deep forests, passing only some lone tractor on my way.
17. Road 434 ends in a town called Juva, and passing through Juva, I turned onto National Road 5, also known as Viitostie (Finn. Fifth Road). Roads 4 and 5 are the longest roads of Finland, going through the entire country lengthwise. They get quite a bit of traffic, and their two-lane sections like this one can get exhausting. It helps that these roads are very straight, and overtaking is usually safe, provided there is a break in oncoming traffic.
10:09, 374 km: I stopped at a rest area near Viitostie somewhere in Joroinen Municipality. This rest area amounted to little more than a few hundred square meters of pavement right next to the road. I finished the energy drink and ate one of the meat pasties. It tasted horrible. Maybe they really do make them out of dog meat. On the other hand, maybe dogs are actually quite tasty, what do I know.
18. Viitostie has a few 2+1 sections, with an extra lane for overtaking. These sections are isolated; unlike Sweden, Finland does not have a tradition of 2+1 road building.
19. Bypasses of major cities are fully 2+2 lanes, although most of them aren’t designated as motorways, lacking signs with green background (Finland is very nitpicky about whether a road can be declared a proper motorway). This is Varkaus bypass in the next region on my way, North Savonia. Varkaus by the way means "Theft". Finland mostly has relatively plain place names, provided you translate them from Finnish, but there are some outright odd ones.
20. Viitostie passing Kuopio, the central city of North Savonia.
21. 11:32, 490 km: After Kuopio I saw a sign for a rest area and went for an exit. I didn’t find that rest area and in fact I got a bit lost, ending up on a narrow gravel road which crossed Viitostie on an overpass. At least I got to get a nice pic of the motorway.
22. After Kuopio traffic became a lot lighter. The next significant town was Iisalmi, and Iisalmi was where I took a left turn from Viitostie onto Primary Road 88.
23. 12:36, 567 km: By that time, having covered about a half of the total distance to Äkäslompolo, I got extremely exhausted already. I began to look for a decent rest area, and luckily one turned up quite soon, within the limits of Iisalmi. It was named Koljonvirta. Virta means stream, and the rest area was located near a channel between two of the innumerable Finnish lakes.
24. I left the car and walked around a bit, stretching my legs and sipping the second can of energy drink.
25. There were a few sights at Koljonvirta. One of them was the museum of Juhani Aho (1861-1921), a notable Finnish writer. Of course I had never heard of him before. In fact it struck me how little we really know of the culture of Finland and other relatively less famous countries. How many famous Finns do you know, anyway? I think most people would not be able to name even five. In fact, I’ve been trying to rectify that recently. I’ve been reading detectives by Leena Lehtolainen, and Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare became my favorite book. It is about as Finnish in spirit as it gets. Anyway, I digress.
26. I was more surprised to encounter a monument with an inscription in Russian. It is the grave of young Prince Mikhail Dolgorukov, killed in 1808 in the Battle of Koljonvirta. It was one of the battles of the last war between Russia and Sweden, and this one ended in a decisive Swedish victory. Nonetheless, in 1809 Russia won once and for all, and Finland ended up a Russian dependency (mind you, they were treated very good and kept a high degree of autonomy). As is typical for traces of Russian Empire era in Finland, the monument is kept in perfect condition.
27. I nearly dropped my camera into this porta-potty while using it.
28. After resting a bit for half an hour or so, I felt good enough to resume driving. Road 88 was the emptiest road on my way until Lapland. It mostly goes through endless forests, passing just a few small villages on the way.
29. Road 88 has one of about twenty road runway segments in Finland. These are just widened and hardened stretches of highway, which can be converted for use as military airfields very quickly. Finland carries out drills with actual takeoffs and landings on these strips from time to time. There is a similar stretch on Scandinavia Route near Vyborg in Russia, but as far as I know it hasn’t seen any actual drills in recent history.
Soon after the road runway, I crossed into the next region, named Northern Ostrobothnia. Ostrobothia is a very cool name, I like it. It is Swedish in origin, meaning "east of the Gulf of Bothnia". In Finnish this region is called Pohjanmaa, "Northern Land" instead. There are actually four Ostrobothnias: Northern Ostrobothnia, Central Ostrobothnia, Southern Ostrobothia, and Ostrobothnia unqualified. Northern Ostrobothnia is the largest and the most important of them; its capital is Oulu, the largest city in the northern half of Finland. In Finnish Northern Ostrobothnia is called Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, literally "Northern Northern Land".
Visually Northern Ostrobothia looked very boring though. Unlike Karelia and Savonia, it does not have many lakes or rocky hills.
30. 14:09, 670 km: While driving, I noticed a semi truck with Russian license plates parked at a rest area. A man, presumably its driver, was collecting berries in a forest nearby. I got curious, pulled over to the next rest area, got out and walked around the forest a bit. It was chock full of blueberries and cowberries. I picked and tasted a few. Seemed okay. Actually nearly any Finnish forest is chock full of berries. They should have named their country Berryland or something. There were numerous mushrooms too, but they were totally unfamiliar.
31. After Road 88, I took a right turn onto National Road 4, aka Nelostie (Finn. Fourth Road). Road 4 is the longest road of Finland, starting in Helsinki and ending in Utsjoki at Norwegian border, 1295 km long. It seemed rather similar to Road 5, very straight but with a lot of traffic.
14:30, 681 km: I saw a sign for a scenic viewpoint and pulled over. It was not much of a viewpoint, actually — just a ladder to the top of the dam bounding Uljuan Reservoir. The reservoir still looked nice enough, with sun peeking from the clouds.
32. I saw another Russian semi at a rest area near the reservoir. This was the last Russian vehicle I saw until my return trip (with the exception of a beat-up UAZ with license plates from some odd region, which I briefly saw right on the border of Finland and Norway a few days later).
33. Driving on for some more 70 kilometers or so. Oulu bypass is a long and pleasant stretch of motorway. Oulu is a fairly large city, with population nearing 200,000. As far as I know it has more IT jobs than most of other Finnish cities (except Helsinki of course).
34. Nelostie after Oulu.
35. The next city after Oulu (more like a suburb of Oulu) is named Ii. Yes that’s not a typo, just Ii. Same sound as in ski. Finnish road directions signs are in all caps, but apparently they felt that if they spell Ii like II, everyone would just get confused "WTF are those two vertical bars about?".
36. 15:46, 797 km: the gas I put in some 600 km before in Russia was beginning to run out, so I stopped at a gas station at a parking lot of some supermarket with a blow-up pig on its roof. I wonder whether it’s possible to feel any difference between Russian and Finnish gas. The Finns put 10% of ethanol into it, for ecology or something, but it drives all the same.
37. I ate another meat pasty, looking around idly. There was an electric car charging station at this parking lot as well. I think that’s the first one I ever saw. It seems like they are free.
Somewhere after Ii I left Northern Ostrobothnia and finally entered Lapland region. Its southernmost parts didn’t actually look any different from the rest of Finland. Nontheless there was a big sign at the border of the region, with a map having the entire territory of Lapland shaded, warning in several languages that entire Lapland is a reindeer grazing area. I couldn’t take its picture in time while driving, sadly.
Nelostie between Oulu and the next major city, Kemi, runs along the Bothnian Bay coast. You don’t really get to see the sea, but at least there are Rantatie (Finn. Coast Road) signs with a small lighthouse. Coast Road is one of Finland’s official tourist routes.
38. Shortly before Kemi, the road turns into a motorway (the northernmost motorway in the world!), and stays this way until the very Swedish border. Kemi is one of the larger Lapland cities; its population is about 22,000. As far as I know this is a rather plain town, and there is a nasty smell when you drive past it, presumably because of paper mills. Kemi’s claim to fame is that it builds a really huge snow castle every winter. This is also where the copy of the Crown of Finland is kept. If you can call it a copy at all; the original was never actually made. It’s an embarassing story. After Finland acquired independence in 1917, Finnish Parliament decided that maybe they need to get their own king, and show these stuck-up Swedes. It’s not as silly an idea as it sounds; Norway did more or less exactly this after getting independence in 1905, and they seem to be quite proud of their king now. The thing is, the king they elected was Prince Frederick Charles of Germany. Before he could actually move to Finland, Germany lost World War I and its own monarchy collapsed. Finland declared itself a republic then, and tried to pretend that the whole king business never happened.
39. Kemi sits at the mouth of the large Kemijoki river. A power station on Kemijoki is visible from Nelostie motorway.
40. Right after Kemi, Nelostie splits off to the north, going to Rovaniemi and continuing through Lapland to the Norwegian border. Meanwhile the motorway to the west along the Bothnian Bay coast continues. The rest of this motorway is known as National Road 29. This is the shortest of Finnish National Roads, at mere 16 km. I’m not sure why Finland felt like building a motorway here at all. Maybe they just wanted to impress Swedes across the border.
17:01, 883 km: another rest area, this one was quite large, but seemed abandoned, with faded and torn up information boards. A motorhome pulled into this rest area before me. An elderly couple stepped out, and the man walked to the restroom, but immediately went out again with an embarassed expression. Its toilet and faucet were broken, and the floor was half-flooded. It looked like something out of a Silent Hill game. Still, the restroom wasn’t actually dirty or smeared with shit or anything. That’s how you can tell that the Finns are a civilized nation.
Despite the fact that I had driven almost 700 km in Finland in that day, this was only the first or maybe the second motorhome I encountered. Apparently motorhome season was over in most of Finland. In Lapland, on the other hand, I saw quite a few of them over the following days.
41. Road 29 ends in a border town of Tornio. You can continue on westwards, onto a bridge over Torne river into Sweden. There is a Swedish town on their side of Torne, named Haparanda. Torne river, and farther in the north, its tributary Muonio form a natural border between Finland and Sweden in the north. Many Finnish towns along Torne have twin towns on the Swedish side.
Tornio and Haparanda seemed like interesting places in their own right, but I had to take a turn to the north, onto National Road 21. This road follows Torne and Muonio rivers closely up to the Norwegian border, at the northwesternmost tip of Finland.
Road 21 is a part of international Route E8, which continues into Norway and ends at the bottom of Lyngenfjord, in the town of Skibotn. The whole road, Bothnian coast to fjord coast, is also known as Northern Lights Road tourist route. That’s the coolest and the most romantic name for a road, ever. Well, actually I read on some information board later that the road was sometimes known as Four Winds Road in the old times, and that name sounds even more romantic.
Oh, and about northern lights. Northern lights are common in Lapland, and September or October are said to be a good season for seeing them. Nontheless, I never saw any throughout my entire vacation. I can’t say I really tried hard, of course. Mostly I just went out in evenings and stared at the sky for a few seconds. So maybe I just happened to miss all the northern lights. Well, anyway, that’s just one more reason to return once more, right?
I feel I also need to mention that the Finnish word for nothern lights is revontuli, which means "fox fire". Apparently the Finns used to believe that northern lights happen when a fox sweeps its tail across the sky. Finnish has some good-sounding words and a lot of silly-sounding ones, but revontuli has got to be my favorite.
42. The Northern Lights Road was the most pleasant road of that entire drive by far. I even got some second wind; driving on Nelostie had left me extremely exhausted again. The traffic was non-existent, and it offered a lot of nice views of the Torne river. And the landscape, which had been entirely flat throughout entire trip, started to get some hills along both Finnish and Swedish shores.
17:30, 910 km: I briefly stopped at a place called Kukkolankoski, at some rapids on Torne, near a small inn. Torne has never been navigable due to these and other rapids, but it is actually the longest non-dammed river of Europe.
43. The spruces on that shore are in Sweden already! How cool it that?
44. 18:13, 966 km: Stopped again after the town of Ylitornio. Ylitornio means Upper Tornio. Like Tornio, it has a bridge into Sweden (visible in the distance), and the corresponding town on the Swedish is called Övertorneå. Which, again, means Upper Tornio.
There is a total of six bridges between Finland and Sweden across Torne and Muonio. They are located in Tornio-Haparanda (several bridges actually), Ylitornio-Övertorneå, Pello (Swedish town is also named Pello), Kolari-Kaunisjoensuu, Muonio (no town on Swedish side), and Kaaresuvanto-Karesuando. Don’t worry, I know you have never heard any of these names, I just like to quote them. Fun fact: the border is defined as the deepest part of the river, but the river shifts a bit from time to time, and it gets surveyed and the border gets updated accordingly every five years. So some tiny islets in Torne actually passed between Finland and Sweden over time.
45. 18:33, 987 km: Shortly before the town of Pello, a sign notified me that I was about to cross the Arctic Circle. I had no choice but to stop.
46. There is a restaurant with a souvenir shop, but these were closed already. Rovaniemi is located almost on the Arctic Circle, and they advertise it endlessly, but I liked the fact that I first crossed the circle here, in a much quieter place.
Around 7 PM it started to get dark, but I was close enough anyway. I had to make a brief detour though.
47. 19:50, 1082 km: the tiny town of Kolari was actually the center of the municipality where my destination Äkäslompolo was located. Kolari (Finn. Car Crash; another odd place name; I didn’t get into any car crashes there though) itself is not a touristy place, although it has the northernmost railway station in Finland. You can actually load your car onto a train in Helsinki, and unload it here in Kolari (or in Rovaniemi; I think Kolari and Rovaniemi are about the only stations offering this service, maybe there’s one or two more here in the north). I considered that option while planning my journey, but decided that it was too costly and that I didn’t mind driving across Finland anyway.
The reason I still had to visit Kolari was R-Kioski. R-Kioski is basically Finnish Seven-Eleven, a small shop where you can buy fast food, beer, papers, and other commonly needed stuff. It also sends prepaid SIM cards for calls and for mobile Internet. I was not entirely sure but it seemed that my cabin was not going to have Wi-Fi (that turned out to be correct), so I decided to make sure to get a SIM card for Internet. I wrote down the address of R-Kioski in Kolari before setting out, and found it effortlessly with my GPS navigator. Well it’t not like it’s difficult to find anything in Kolari. It pretty much consists of a single street.
The store clerk at this R-Kioski turned out to be a severe-looking woman in her sixties, who didn’t speak any English. Almost everyone in Finland speaks reasonably good English, but there always are exceptions, especially among the older Finns. Still, I somehow managed to explain what I wanted. There was only one kind of prepaid SIM card for Internet, and I bought it; I think it was Sonera but I’m not sure. Prepaid SIM cards are a nice invention. Just buy it over the counter, stick it into your phone, and you’re ready to go. No need to sign any papers.
48. Driving the last kilometers to Äkäslompolo. Äkäslompolo is located some distance to the east of Torne valley, and the Regional Road 940 connects it with the Northern Lights Road. It began to rain just as I turned onto Road 940, and driving on this narrow road in severe rain and in complete dark was more that a little bit scary. I had to slow down to 50-60 km/h, and still expected to hit a reindeer at any moment.
The famous Lapland fells (low shallow mountains with bare tops) begin here, but there was no way to see them in the dark. Anyway after driving that much through Finland even I got a bit tired of it, until the next morning, that is.
49. Still, I watched "kilometers remaining" display on my phone steadily decreasing, and eventually I saw lamp posts in the distance. Äkäslompolo at last! I took a right turn onto Tunturintie (Finn. Fjell Road), the main road of Äkäslompolo, and immediately recognized glowing Jounin Kauppa sign over the local mall, which I had seen on Google Street View while planning my trip. Just a kilometer farther, I turned onto a narrow dead-end residential street, filled with wooden cabins. I made a circle, located the one that looked the most similar to pictures, and pulled into its gravel parking lot to get a closer look. The number above the door matched. I found my cabin.
You know, it always feels a little weird that I can cover hundreds of kilometers on my car, passing hundreds of villages and towns, and endless forests, and numerous rivers, and leave so many people behind, and then just arrive to one specific house in one specific place, which is already waiting for me. I mean I could drive to any one of probably millions of buildings in Finland just as easily. But I drove to this one. Well, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain this feeling.
20:39, 1123 km: finished. Didn’t even have to open the third energy drink.
I shut down the engine and just sat there for a few moments. Then I got up and tried to open the cabin door. There I had some unexpected difficulties.
Back when I booked that cabin, Lost in Lapland sent me a few pages of various rules and instructions. Some of them were in Finnish, some in English, and some in poor machine-translated Russian. It was the Russian part that included the words to the effect of "when you arrive, look for a small box on the ground. Enter the code you will be provided with a SMS to unlock this box and take the cabin key out". So I looked and looked for that box on the ground (in the dark, under heavy rain, using a flashlight), but just couldn’t find anything of the sort.
Seeing no other option, I had to call Lost in Lapland administration. I hate speaking on the phone and I feel very self-conscious speaking English (I know my English is okay, I just very rarely need to actually speak it, and when I travel with friends I usually try to make them do the talking for me), but the door didn’t seem likely to unlock itself, so I called. The administrator woman over the phone tried to help, but didn’t quite understand how I could miss the box. They called me back several times, asking questions like "are you sure you got the right cabin?", and I examined every square meter of ground, almost dismantling some vent pipe in process. They couldn’t send anybody over to help, but they were about to let me into some other cabin in another part of Äkäslompolo.
It was at that moment that I looked at the door once more and realized how stupid I was. The key box was on the wall all along, nailed right next to the door. It was small and the panel where you punch in the code was closed off with a lid, so it looked superficially like some sort of electronic lock. Well, the rest was easy. I retrieved the key, unlocked and opened the door, and apologized to the administrator for wasting their time needlessly. (The whole ordeal took up some 45 minutes or so.) Still, if anyone from Lost in Lapland is reading: guys, you have great cabins but please don’t send machine-translated instructions, just use English. The instructions I got said plainly "the box on the ground", in very rough Russian but the meaning was still very clear.
50. Anyway, I forgot all of this as soon as I entered the cabin. It was heavenly. I lugged my stuff from the trunk to the cabin, closed the door, and opened a bottle of sparkling wine to relax a bit. I will tell about the cabin and the first day in Äkäslompolo in the next part, so, to be continued.