Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Scandinavian Expedition 2010 - Diary Day 29

I'll remember the 29th July 2010 as my Great Hitch-hiking Day. With no expectations and low morale in the morning, through 650 km of zigzagging across Northern Finland, to finally reaching my destination at night. It was a looong day.

Leaving Rovaniemi, happy and unsuspecting
With my belly nicely filled up by Lordi's burger and two pints of a decent Finnish brew named Karhu, I left Rovaniemi yesterday afternoon and was heading East to the 190km distant city of Kuusamo. Getting a ride at the busy crossroads was a matter of minutes and for the first time, at last, it was a trucker to stop. Unfortunately, he was not going all the way and dropped me off in Posio, 120km from Rovaniemi. That's where it all started. The trucker left me at the crossroads near a petrol station, a good thumbing spot with a good chance to reach my destination quickly. Indeed, the very first car stopped, but I'd rather it hadn't...

Sorry poika, en puhu englantia, enkä aio mennä Kuusamoon.
The man at the wheel was an elderly Finn with knowledge of English equal to minus zero. When I asked "Do you speak English? Are you going to Kuusamo?" and he replied "blablabla finnishbloodybla Kuusamo bla hahaha", I shouldn't have assumed it was a jolly "Hey, don't worry if we can't understand each other, I'll take you to Kuusamo". No sooner had I realised my mistake than he left me standing a couple of kilometres down the road, in the middle of absolute nowhere, and disappeared on some kind of country road. I guess what he had really said was something like: "Hahaha, I'm not going to Kuusamo, just to the next farm".

I wouldn't mind, every kilometre counts after all, if only he hadn't dropped me on a long, deserted and straight stretch of road where everybody keeps the gas pedal on the floor and has no intention of slowing down, let alone stopping, if not for the occasional reindeer grazing on the tarmac. After thumbing uselessly for two hours despite the high traffic, I gave up, pitched my tent in a field, hoping that the reindeer wouldn't eat it overnight, and set my hopes on a brighter morning.

Apart from standing in a bad place, I think that my being stuck there was the consequence of the Finns' utter indifference to hitch-hikers. In spite of the guide book's statement "Finns are used to student hikers so it's easy to get rides in Finland", from my experience so far, it's much harder than in Norway and Sweden. I shall let the book's authors know what I think of their advice...

View Posio - Kuhmo in a larger map

New day, new hope, new horizons
In the morning I still felt the evening's frustration and each passing car with an indifferent face behind the windscreen got me angrier. Some 40 minutes later a retired Finnish couple just left a nearby campsite and was still driving slowly, luckily for me. And they spoke English. The relief was immense!

After the freshly experienced struggle, Kuusamo was the last place I wanted to hear about. The couple would have left me just 27km from the city, but I wasn't ready to swap the car's comfort for another thumbing horror, so I decided to change plans, stick with them and take a different route to a different target. Instead of Kuusamo, I was now heading to Kuhmo, a little town far South, with promising nature walks and landscapes near the Russian border. I had previously scrapped this destination due to its remoteness and difficulty to reach by thumb. Now it was on the board again, and that's how my Great Zig-Zagging Day began.

The couple's destination was Taivalkoski, where I realised there was no other option but go to Oulu in the West, way out of my route, or backtrack to Kuusamo after all. Ironically enough, the previous day's trucker was heading to Taivalkoski as well. If I had had a crystal ball, It would have saved me a lot of trouble. A practical example of Murphy's Law... Anyway, I opted for Kuusamo, by bus, hoping that the local tourist office would help me get clearer ideas. What awaited me was an unexpected turn in luck! Although the tourist assistant tried to be as helpful as possible, the only outcome had been a complicated and expensive, though somewhat feasible, bus itinerary to Kuhmo. Thanking her politely, I skipped several bus stops on my way to a sunlit thumbing spot in the shiny afternoon.

Mother Russia!
Ten minutes later, I was brushing up my limited Russian skills and absorbing the cultural shock caused by meeting genuine Russians, so different from those I've met in the UK (no offence, either ones). Let me tell you - it's way easier and safer to communicate with a Russian who doesn't speak any English than with a Finn who doesn't speak any English. In Russian I can at least say "Ya nemnogo govoryu po russkiĭ, ya nemnogo ponimayu" and understand some "blablabla russianbloodybla, bla", so it was easy to clarify that they were heading South, towards the 245km distant Kajaani, but would turn East at some point and continue to Russia. I thought "what the hell" and went along to the border. Have I had a visa, I'd have crossed it. We split 2km before the border, at a small bistro, where I treated myself with a chilled Lapin Kulta before tackling the next challenge.

Near the border
Thanks to this ride I was only 70km from Kuhmo, but on a nearly deserted road copying the border. That was a big risk, as I could have been stuck for real, with those hiker-unfriendly Finns and almost out of supplies. It was a stone's throw from the UKK trail, which was included in my plans and it would have been a nice way to arrive to Kuhmo, but 70km was too much. In fact, my plan was to reach Kuhmo by car, resupply, rest and then tackle the UKK Northwards for a while. By the way, the UKK is a several hundred kilometre long trail near the border with Russia and intersected by the Salpa line, a majestic World War 2 defence project against the Soviet invasion.

Privet, Pavel
In a day full of tough decisions, I decided not to take any risks and gave hitch-hiking another go. It was still early and I had a good chance of getting further. And voilá, in ten minutes a westbound Volvo FH12 was taking me to Kajaani, a large city 120km to the West. Second truck on this Scandinavian adventure. I like trucks, hearing the powerful engine underneath and overlooking the road from high up. As a bonus, I got the chance to practice more Russian and try "Chlebný kvas" (alcohol free yeasty-something beverage). It tastes good, but beer's beer.

The closest I got to Russia... for now.

A small detail I hadn't realized was that Kajaani isn't directly on the route to Oulu, where the truck was heading, but 28km further North. Luckily for me, again, my thumb didn't get numb and another Russian driver stopped, going directly do Kajaani. Russians really made my day. Once there, there were still 100km between me and Kuhmo. Although I had the bus as a backup (if I got stuck for 3 hours, that is), it wasn't necessary. Incredible as it sounds, I hadn't even put my backpack down and already a young Finnish couple was taking me aboard their road vessel. They were only going for a ride to pass a boring evening, planning to turn back in Sotkamo, but once I offered to pay the fuel, they were more than happy to take me all the way to Kuhmo.

Sotkamo, smoke in the sky due to forest fires in Russia.

All in all, this was The Hitch-hiking Day. In the morning, I had no idea of what was ahead of me and that I would reach Kuhmo in a single day, hith-hiking for 650km in the process! Now I just hope I'll enjoy the actual place as much as getting here. I've added a map with the whole zig-zagging thing.

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