Midsummer in Abisko: Pass of Snow

Abisko National Park,
Lappland Province, Sweden


At 6 or 7 in the morning or so people in Kårsavagge hut started to wake up, dress up, make food, pack up, and were being not at all quiet doing all that. By the sound of it there were several couples. All of them were speaking Swedish. I felt awkward leaving my bunk, hoping that maybe they would all leave and I would have the room alone to myself, but in the end it became clear that the last couple was going to stay for a while (lighting up the stove and stuff), so I had to go down. They mumbled something in response to my “hej” and then just ignored me. I didn’t feel like staying with them there for long, so I dressed up and left, intending to have my sandwiches outside. So in the end I didn’t really use the hut in any way other than for sleeping.

1. Still at least it had saved me from the nasty night rain.

2. Gaskkamus Gorsajávri lake. Morning views didn’t differ much from midnight ones, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore and the cloud weren’t hanging that low.

3. I’m really not very picky when it comes to food, and even more so on hikes. I don’t bother with cooking anything hot.

4. Gorsavággi valley stretches on for a few more kilometers to the west, ending somewhere behind these bends with mountains described as normally impassable. The mountains north of it (to the right, on this picture), however, can be crossed, and there are three different trails (one of them unmarked) going through them, from Kårsavagge hut to Låktatjåkka mountain station.

Going to Låktatjåkka station, at the shoulder of Loktačohkka mountain, was in fact my original idea. It is a mountain station as opposed to a mountain hut, so it’s like a proper (though still spartan) hostel, with showers, restauraut and private rooms available. Such stations are much rarer than mountain huts, particularly in places not reachable by road; this one is located at the altitude of 1228 m, the highest such place in Sweden allegedly. The best known one is probably Kebnekaise mountain station, serving as a base camp for hikes to Kebnekaise mountain. Of course spending a night in such a place would have been much nicer than in Kårsavagge hut. However, Låktatjåkka unlike most huts/stations is operated not by STF but by Björkliden ski resort, and while STF huts and stations have their summer season starting before Midsummer, Låktatjåkka opens for summer only from 1.7. So going there was not a useful option. Instead, I intended to cross the mountains south of the valley, using a marked trail between Kårsavagge and Abiskojaure huts.

5. But first I had to pay for my stay. I went to this warden’s hut, knocked on the door, and said that I wanted to pay. A night in the hut cost me 500 SEK, which is of course not super cheap (the Seskarö camping cabin for example had been 450 SEK). It costs less if you book and pay in advance, and also less if you’re a member of STF or a sister organization from another Nordic country like the Norwegian DNT, and even less if both of these conditions are true. Of course you should bring a receipt (if you paid in advance) or pay by cash here, bank cards are not much use here in the wild without even cellphone reception. Conveniently I had 1000 SEK in cash from the previous year’s trip that I didn’t really have any use for.

(And yeah of course I could just leave and no one would force me to pay, I don’t think the warden would even have any idea that I had been there. I still paid anyway.)

The warden was a pretty nice guy. Well, he has a pretty nice job so he’d better be! Living in relative comfort in an own cabin in such a beautiful place. I think I read there is a great number of volunteers for these warden positions every year. He asked me where I came from and where I was heading now. He seemed surprised to learn that I had used a trail on the south bank of Gorsajohka (“you mean there’s a trail there?”). However he had some pretty solid advice, namely, where I should ford the river now.

6. So yeah, there isn’t any bridge here at Kårsavagge but I had to go south, and the river is shallow and calm enough to be crossed here, barely reaching knee level. The warden told me to look for a red flag in the stream, and I did for a while, but didn’t find any. Maybe it got washed away. Anyway while I was looking for the flag, the warden came out from his cabin and told me where exactly to do it anyway. The other landmark to use was that bush in the stream to the right. I headed towards it as is; I didn’t have any spare footwear for such occasions — plain slippers are pretty useful for these occasions but I forgot to take them — and of course had to enjoy wet boots for the rest of the day. Anyway the water didn’t feel as cold as it seemed.

7. From there one the trail across the mountains is mostly not very well visible in the terrain (particularly in rocky places higher up of course) but well marked with cairns. The trail is about 9 km long, but with significant elevation gain.

8. Snow patches begin to appear pretty much right away.

9. The trail does not just climb straight up steeply, instead going somewhat to the eastern direction along the mountain too. The mountain in question is a spur of Boazočohkka massif, meaning “Reindeer Summit” in Northern Sami. The highest point is at 1300 m, and the trail goes through a pass at about 1140 m on its Njunesgeahči spur. I’m not sure what the latter name means, but according to the dictionary I often use maybe it’s something to do with with “nose” and “see”. The climb from 690 m (Kårsavagge) to 1140 m is of course not a small undertaking with a full backpack, but at least there aren’t any really steep or exposed parts.

10. Going up. The cabin is still well visible.

11. Getting higher.

12. It is again possible (if barely) to see a strip of the huge Torneträsk lake beyond the valley’s end.

13.

14. Now we’re getting into the fun parts!

15.

16. Snow on the ground outside of old melting snow patches appeared at about 900 m above sea level.

17. And at about 1000 m it became contiguous.

18. And the actual mountain pass was not much higher than that. I walked a bit to the side of a trail to a small local summit (1150 m). Unfortunately the views from there are not particularly impressive, especially in this sort of weather. It was of course very windy and new snow was falling.

19. Snow areas were completely undisturbed and it appeared that no one had been there before me in quite some time. Although farther down on the other side one old set of tracks did appear. Maybe they didn’t climb up to the pass or just chose some other route in general.

20. I don’t like snow, but a bit of snow in the mountains in June is cool. There isn’t really any possibility of dangerous falls on this trail, so I was not completely careful and at one point I slipped in the snow and slid on my ass down a bit.

21. And beyond the pass, the snow zone ends again and you can see Ábeskojávri lake and Gámaeatnu river flowing into it far below. Abiskojaure huts are located near the river mouth.

22. The section of the trail from the pass to Abiskojaure is longer and has to descend more; Abiskojaure huts are lower than Kårsavagge, at 490 m over sea level.

23.

24.

25.

26. Eventually some greenery begins again.

27. And then, fell birch.

28. Descending to the lake through a fell birch forest.

29. There is a little beach on the shore close to the huts. The lake probably never gets really warm but I guess there are always people willing to go for a swim.

30. And finally the huts show up.

31. Abiskojaure STF huts are much bigger than Kårsavagge, with “51-75 beds”, as their website says. They include several buildings, with a sauna and a grocery store. This time however I intended to sleep in a tent, as the weather was better than the previous days.

32. The hut warden was an older lady, and she was quite impressed that I came from Kårsavagge over the pass. I paid her for staying here in a tent, which is not free as well; you have to pay a service fee of 300 SEK. You’re allowed to use facilities like sauna or a separate kitchen building for tent users then.

Note that the few huts along the most visited part of Kungsleden trail (and Abiskojaure is the first stop on Kungsleden) cost a bit more than others, as they’re the most popular and crowded by far.

33. Tent area next to the buildings. In general you can put up a tent in Sweden wherever you want for free, but this is not true within Abisko National Park territory; the regulations here do not allow putting up a tent outside designated places. The extent of the national park proper is however rather modest; it basically includes just a 12 km or so long stretch of the Ábeskoeatnu river valley, ending a short distance south of Abiskojaure huts. Gorsavággi valley for example is mostly outside the national park area, and thus wild camping there is completely legal (and indeed I had seen a number of tents there the previous day).

34. I had my own food again but I couldn’t resist buying some beer from the grocery store. It’s Norrland Guld, a generic Swedish beer brand that tastes like piss, and it cost 50 SEK a can.

35. I didn’t really have much sleep in the tent either (see, I’m really not that good with multi-day hikes). The tent that I took was a shitty 20€ from from a supermarket that I had bought on a whim. It was of course pretty flimsy, but not entirely unusable. It was a single layer tent, which means that it’s rather light but suffers from condensation forming on the inside surface. Well, and the night’s rain meant it became pretty wet both on the inside and the outside.

Having spent an evening and part of the night in the tent, I decided that this was going nowhere and I might just as well pack up and head to the car, as the third and the final leg of my hike. So this is what I did, at 3 in the morning or something, leaving Abiskojaure behind.

36. Kungsleden trail continues on to the Alesjaure hut, leaving the wide Ábeskoeatnu/Gámaeatnu valley. If you continue up the Gámaeatnu valley instead, you’ll eventually reach Unna Allakas hut, very close to the Norwegian border; from there on you could continue to Norway. But I of course was heading down the valley — in the direction of “Abisko Turist”, the main entrance to the national park and the Kungsleden trail.

37. Bridge over Gámaeatnu.

38. View upstream…

39. And downstream towards the Ábeskojávri lake.

40. The entire Abiskojaure-Abisko trail goes through fell birch forests on the eastern shore of Ábeskojávri and then Ábeskoeatnu river. The trail is extremely well trodden and marked, of course — this is Kungsleden/Dag Hammarskjöldsleden after all.

41. There is even a sort of a dirt road, mostly parallel to the trail and sometimes trail just goes along it. It even has these odd double duckboard tracks over some wet areas. I saw some tire tracks suggesting a quad bike, but really you could probably reach Abiskojaure with a good 4WD car (which of course wouldn’t be allowed without a special permission). Judging from the map this road seems to continue to Unna Allakas (but not along the main Kungsleden route).

42. The last view of the huts.

43. And sure enough, as I was getting closer to the end, the weather finally started to get better. Despite this trail being pretty easy, flat and not especially long, it was actually much more difficult for me to walk there than in the previous two days. I thought I was just that tired but eventually realized that my backpack just was weighing a lot more because the tent was soggy, and not only the tent in fact but the sleeping bag and mat both were also significantly wet with its condensation. Well, at least it happened only on the third day and not on the second… Eventually I got exhausted enough I had to take a short break every few hundred meters.

44. There are some private cabins along this trail.

45. About the sunniest view that I’ve got.

46. I passed some landmarks I knew from the previous year, including a camp site and a “meditation spot”. There’s a number of them along Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail specifically, because Dag Hammarskjöld was into meditation or something. I’ve got no pictures (because I was too tired to bother) so I won’t bother with telling a detailed story about him.

47. When the trail starts to follow the very river bank you know you’re close.

48. And then the Ábeskoeatnu canyon and road and railroad bridges visible ahead mean you’re really really close.

49. And finally I emerged from this gate at the Kungsleden trailhead.

50. Yay…

51. It felt so good to change into dry clothes. I didn’t waste much time and drove off right away, at 7 in the morning or so. The lack of sleep began to catch up with me rather quickly, and within the first 150 km of the 900 km drive I pulled over for a nap twice, the second time actually sleeping for an hour or so in my car. I normally sleep in the car no better than I sleep in the tent, so this says something about how exhausted I was. The rest of the drive was smooth and mostly uneventful. I stopped at a gas station in Tornio to eat a pizza, and eventually arrived home rather early in the evening.

This wasn’t the end of the adventures related to this hike. My legs hurt for three days, and the next weekend I discovered I managed to do some long term damage to my left knee, as it began to hurt again after walking just about 5 km. This got me pretty worried, as this never happened to me before (even though this hike didn’t actually feel like the toughest thing I’ve ever done). Thankfully it gradually got better over the next month or so.

So, overall this trip wasn’t perfect, with the weather lack of sleep and overexertion, but still…  mountains!  Yay!  I’m still glad I finally got to explore Abisko a bit more, and this also helped to quenched my wanderlust for a while until the big August vacation. Still wish I saw more reindeers though!

Midsummer in Abisko: Valley of Waterfalls

Abisko National Park,
Lappland Province, Sweden


It’s been some months since I last wrote anything here, having just almost finished the “Coming to Finland” story. It’s also been 8 months since I moved to Vaasa in Finland. Ever since the warm days came in early May, I’ve been visiting various places pretty much every weekend. Eventually I even started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of the places that I was seeing and the pictures I was taking.

For the most part I’ve been travelling around the Ostrobothnia region where I live and some adjacent ones, and so far there were only two relatively big trips this year. The first one was around the east coast of the Bay of Bothnia, to Kalajoki, Raahe, Oulu, Kemi, Tornio and Haparanda, and the second one was a three day hiking trip to Abisko National Park in Northern Sweden. Since I’ve got to begin somewhere, I might as well start with Abisko, because this is a mighty cool place, completely different from Ostrobothnia.

I hadn’t been in any mountains for a whole year, after my huge 36-day trip around Northern Sweden and Norway in May-June 2017. I wanted to see some already pretty badly, and luckily the Midsummer, which is a public holiday in Finland (juhannus), meant that I had three days off in a row, the Midsummer eve (22.6) and the weekend immediately afterwards. While Vaasa is still disappointingly too far from any mountains for a weekend trip, three days were already something. The area I chose (after considering Urho Kekkonen National Park in Finland, Kebnekaise and a few other places) was Abisko National Park, a relatively small but scenic, well-accessible and well-travelled area of the Scandinavian Mountains. I had visited Abisko last year rather briefly; 2017 was a cold year and in early June there still was plenty of snow there at the time. This time I wanted to do something I rarely do, a multi-day hike.

This was the route that I chose:

I was to drive 900 km from home to Abisko mountain station and main national park entrance, walk some 15 km up Gorsavággi valley, spend the night in Kårsavagge hut or near it, climb up to a mountain pass near Boazočohkka mountain and descend again into the valley of Abeskoeatnu river, spend the second night in Abiskojaure huts or near them, and walk 13 km down this valley back to the car. I packed up my big rarely-used backpack with similarly rarely-used sleeping gear, but was also curious to try out mountain huts. There are quite a few of those in Swedish mountains, in their commonly visited areas. Most of them are operated by STF, the Swedish Tourist Association (choose “Mountain cabin” as the accomodation type if you want to see them on the map, as STF also operates regular hostels and the like). They are staffed, and offer warm beds and sometimes other amenities, like a sauna or even a small food store. Of course using them is not free but prices are fairly reasonable.

1. Driving 900 km is no small task in itself, and normally takes most of the day. I didn’t want to start the hike late on Friday evening and already tired from driving so much, so in fact I booked a place for overnight stay and set out on Thursday evening. The place in question was Seskarö Camping near Haparanda, somewhat past Finnish-Swedish border, 475 km from home and 450 km from Abisko. In fact I drove a bit over 500, as instead of the most direct road via Finnish National Road 8 I went with an inland route through less busy roads. This one goes through places like Kauhava and Kaustinen and Ylivieska, and if these names say nothing to you this is because there is pretty much nothing there, just villages and fields. It’s pretty much flyover country and driving through it was really boring. I crossed the border in Tornio and arrived to Seskarö pretty late, at 23 or so.

If you read some of my older posts you might have remembered my red Sandero. I sold that trusty car in March in Russia with help of my cousin, and in late April finally got a new one, this Dacia Duster. It feels like a bigger and better version of Sandero, which it pretty much is, a Sandero in SUV shape. I quite like it so far and it’s been as reliable as Sandero before it, although it feels significantly slower and cost me much more. Well, all new cars in Finland cost a ton of money. Low loan rates thankfully make this less painful, and in general buying a car and associated things like insurance in Finland turned out to be very effortless. I should probably make a post about it too. But anyway here we are, my Duster near my cabin in Seskarö.

2. The cabin was quite basic, just two beds, a table and some cooking stuff. I hadn’t paid much attention when I had been booking it, and was annoyed to learn this one had no toilet or shower. Of course, this is normal for campings and I should have expected it for the price. More annoyingly, I had no Internet connection! My prepaid SIM card from DNA, which I use for everything in Finland and which works quite well there, refused to give me any Internet roaming (even though the tariff should include it), my Swedish SIM card from Telia from last year had no money on it, and there was no Wi-Fi. Well, there seemed to be some Wi-Fi near main buildings. I spent some time peering through the windows of the locked cafe, hoping that they have the password put up somewhere, and even managed to find some staff; they gave me a password but it didn’t work. Frustrated I went to bed finally. At least I had something to read with me.

3. Seskarö is actually a pretty nice place, mind you. It’s a rather big island in one of the northernmost parts of the Bay of Bothnia, and therefore of the entire Baltic Sea. It has nice beaches, pine woods on sandy ground, and some hiking trails. However it wasn’t my actual destination, and I had neither time nor any particular desire to explore it at the moment.

4. Bridge to Seskarö. The next day, after having some breakfast (in that closed cafe, they specifically walked me through a back door there), I left the island, briefly dropped to Haparanda again for some final grocery shopping and for catching some Internet from Finland, and then set off towards Abisko.

The entire period since early May has been exceptionally hot and dry in the Nordics, but Midsummer was one of the few exceptions. The weather forecasts were not encouraging at all, with continuous rains around most of Sweden including Abisko. The rain started on this day when I was in Haparanda, and for a while got strong enough that it was difficult to drive and hiking in such conditions would have been extremely miserable. I thought about giving up the idea altogether but in the end still drove on hoping for the best. Indeed the torrential rain soon ended, but overcast weather and minor to average rains kept plaguing me throughout the actual hike.

5. I drove west to the town of Kalix, then on some shortcut road along the bank of Kalix river (which was surprisingly scenic but I have no pictures), and then onto Route E10, the road across the northernmost parts of Sweden via Kiruna and Abisko to Narvik and Lofoten in Norway. Soon after passing the village of Överkalix the road became quite empty and remained this way all the way to Abisko. There aren’t any particular sights along this section, but at least I got to cross the Arctic Circle in a new location.

6. Some pretty minimalist gas station closer to Gällivare. The mileage on this Duster (1.2l turbocharged gas engine) is quite good, around 6.4 l/100 km on highways, driving with no passengers and without overusing A/C, but the fuel gauge is pretty inaccurate so I always keep thinking I use more gas than I really do.

7. The road around Gällivare and between it and Kiruna passes through some vast stretches of taiga forest.

8. But eventually after the city of Kiruna the true mountains begin, around the same time when the road starts following the shore of the huge Torneträsk lake. Not much remaining to drive at this point.

7. In the end I arrived pretty late anyway, past 18. There were plenty of cars at the parking lot at the trailhead in Abisko, but it’s huge enough to accommodate much more. Time to go, I guess.

8. Abisko is the starting point of the Kungsleden trail (King’s Trail), the most popular long distance trail in Sweden. It follows beautiful valleys along a large part of Scandinavian Mountains. The full trail is some 450 km long to Hemavan, and of course not many people walk it all, especially in one go. The most popular route is Dag Hammarskjöldsleden, which follows Kungsleden from Abisko but then splits off to the east, goes past Kebnekaise (the highest mountain in Sweden) and ends in Nikkaluokta village. It is 105 km long and doable in 7 days (although realistically you should allocate more for it, to allow for side trips or days of nasty weather), and all huts along the way are very well equipped so you won’t even need full sleeping gear. I would like to try it someday of course, although I want a hiking companion for that. Multi-day hikes alone are not that much fun for me, and staying in a hut with strangers would feel awkward (and it actually did feel very awkward later on this hike).

But this time I had to started not at the Kungleden trailhead, decorated with a little wooden gate, but on the other bank of Abeskoeatnu river. The destination for the day was Kårsavagge hut. I intended to walk not directly to it though, but via Kårsafallet waterfall also shown on this sign, which would make the total distance 15 km or somewhat more. I didn’t bother checking out the visitor center a short distance across the road, it was probably closed for the night already anyway.

9. Abeskoeatnu river canyon is very beautiful and easy to see just a few hundred meters away from a parking lot. In general Abisko’s main sights are very easy to get to, and it would be a good destination for someone who wants to get a feel of what the northern mountains look like, but can’t or won’t do any big hikes for that. And you don’t even need a car to get here, there’s a train station! Abisko thus will be one of the places I’ll be showing to my parents, with whom we’re about to go to a vacation this August.

9. Abeskoeatnu valley is mostly covered with fell birch forests. These are pretty enough but still make you wish to get past the treeline as soon as possible. One very pleasant surprise was that there were zero mosquitoes! These are normally pretty nasty in the north, and I fully expected to meet some (and had mosquito spray and hat with me of course), but it turned out the season was still a bit too early for them.

10. Njullá mountain dominates over the Abisko trailheads. You can actually go up this mountain on a ski lift, you can see it on the right. The low lying clouds of course were hiding all the mountaintops, and there was little hope of seeing the valley of Lapporten in the distance, one of the most magnificent Abisko sights.

11. Walking 4 km on a well-marked trail you arrive to a small bridge over Gorsajohka river.

12. And right nearby is the Kårsafallet waterfall. It’s not a very big one but it’s very scenic indeed. As is common with mountain glacial rivers, Gorsajohka water has a beautiful bluish color.

You might have noticed that “kårsa” and “gorsa” word stems look a bit similar. The original inhabitants of the area are the Northern Sami people (indeed they still herd reindeer in these mountains, and occasionally you can find some summer Sami camps), and most if not all geographical features have Sami names. These names can be easily recognized by the prevalence of á, č, ž, š letters and the general weird sound. Some of these names were Swedish-ized, so the valley of this river can be called both Gorsavággi (in Northern Sami) and Kårsavagge (in Swedish). I think using the Sami name is more proper in this case. Some places however never had a Sami name, like Kårsavagge hut (build by the Swedish people in the 20th century) or this Kårsafallet waterfall (as you’ll shortly see it’s not all that special and probably didn’t warrant its own name), in these cases of course I use the Swedish one.

13. The official topographic maps do not show a trail along the south bank of Gorsajohka, and that small bridge at Kårsafallet seemingly leads nowhere. However I planned that hike using the excellent guidebook of the area by Calazo, which mentioned the option of walking along the south bank up the river to the next bridge, as an alternative to the direct trail to Kårsavagge. This seemed fun, so this was what I did. The trail there is unmarked and in places seems to completely disappear, but you can’t stray too far from it, as you just need to follow the river in any case. And this route is highly rewarding, as you get to see not just Kårsafallet but a series of many more waterfalls, some of which I would rate even higher! Indeed the word gorsa in Sami actually means “gorge” or “canyon”.

I generally highly recommend guidebooks and maps by Calazo by the way. I also had their very detailed (1:25,000) map of the area with me, although in the end an offline version of the common fjällkartan topographic map on my phone was enough. The guidebook was actually in Swedish, but even though I know barely any Swedish it was easy enough to use it, and it contains a wealth of information on some pretty unique routes. For Kungsleden/Dag Hammarskjöldsleden there’s generally plenty information online, but one step off that and there’s barely anything, and what little information there is would be in Swedish too anyway. And sure, a good map will help to plan a trip but it cannot tell you precisely how scenic an area is, or how easy to walk the unmarked trail is, or how and where exactly it’s better to ford a small river.

14. I don’t think I ever saw that many waterfalls in such a short distance.

15.

16.

17.

18. Not much to comment here really.

19. Meanwhile I was slowly gaining some elevation. The trail started about 380 m above sea level, Kårsafallet was at 420 m, but my destination, Kårsavagge hut, was at about 690 m. A shallow and long climb, but at about 560 m the fell birch forest finally receded, and I found myself in the open tundra landscape. It’s called kalfjäll — “bare mountain” — in Swedish, and I love how this word sounds.

20. Continuing up the Gorsavággi valley up the river gorge through the kalfjäll.

21. Eventually it was possible to see the Torneträsk lake far behind me again. Somewhere close to its coast was the trailhead and my car.

22.

23. I rarely ever post my own mug anywhere but here it is.

24. Somewhere in the kalfjäll there should have been another bridge, which I had to use to return to the official trail. I passed a few river bends expecting to see the bridge right after, but it didn’t appear for a while. I was getting a bit worried; after all you cannot really 100% rely that a small foot bridge in the mountains relatively far from civilization would actually still be there, and wasn’t for example washed away by spring floods. The season was still pretty early after all.

25. But sure enough, here it was.

26. I refilled my water bottles here. I love the fact that you can generally drink any running water in Nordic countries.

27.

28. And a sign on the other bank points onto the main trail.

29. Most locations in Abisko are reachable in winter by skiing too (and the huts are in use in winter and in summer but not in between). Skiing tracks are marked with these red crosses. The track to Kårsavagge hut goes parallel to the summer trail. I assume snowmobiles go to the hut in winter there as well; snowmobiles are the only reasonable way to resupply such huts, as there are no roads and doing everything by helicopter would be pretty expensive.

30. I spotted a few tents put up near the river in some places. You can see one here, a tiny red patch in the distance. The river gets wider after the bridge and the waterfalls mostly cease to appear. From here on it forms a chain of narrow lakes: Vuolimus, Gaskkamus and Bajimus Gorsajávri. The mountain hut is behind the second lake, that is, Gaskkamus Gorsajávri.

31.

32. The rain was getting worse, and the trail was very muddy in places.

33. That’s some trail guardian!

34. While there still are some areas of fell birch here and there, you can notice how there is already quite a few snow patches on the nearby mountains.

35. Another tent and it looks people there are having some guests!  Reindeers!

36. I love reindeers and you can usually see quite a few of them here in the north, even when just driving around, but in fact I saw disappointingly few on this hike. Maybe they are higher up in the mountains in this time of year. These two were the only ones I saw on that day. Of course they sprinted away when they spotted me.

37. Getting close finally, this on the horizon is Gaskkamus Gorsajávri.

38. While this trail was well-trodden and hard to lose, I had to cross a few streams on it, and the last one was pretty wide and impossible to just hop across. I was very disappointed that I had to get my boots wet so close to the hut on the very first day.

39. But this last obstacle is behind, and here it is at last! Kårsavagge Hut! The actual hut is the cabin on the left. To the right there is the warden’s cabin, and other buildings are a toilet and a firewood shed.

40. And so yeah, this cabin is in fact pretty small — one of the smallest and the oldest operated by STF. It has 10 beds in two rooms (a 6-bed and a 4-bed one; worth noting that you’re always allowed to sleep on the floor if all beds are occupied). Initially I was debating with myself whether to try to use the cabin or just to put a tent somewhere nearby, but being thoroughly wet and tired by the time I actually got here I was pretty sure I wanted to be inside.

Unfortunately the cabin turned out to be quite crowded, and moreover everyone was already sleeping, as it was already well after midnight. Yeah, I was beyond the Arctic Circle and technically this was the midnight sun time! Even though in practice it was more like “midnight overcast sky”. At least I spotted an empty upper bunk in the bigger room. I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I had to undress in the tiny lobby and hang my clothes there, instead of inside of the room where it was very warm from a wood stove. I didn’t want to eat so I just took my sleeping bag and a bottle of tar-flavoured liqueur inside to have a few sips before sleep.

In the end I slept very poorly though, barely getting any sleep in fact. I can’t really sleep well in a room with strangers, and the fact that the bed was about 5 cm shorter than me didn’t help at all. At least it was dry and warm and I could get some rest until morning.


Taxes

One thing we haven’t covered yet is of course taxes. In reality you would have to deal with that soon enough after moving, certainly before your first paycheck.

Finland, along with the other Nordic countries, is generally known as the land of high taxes. You know, to finance the social policies and blah blah. Very broadly speaking this is true, but the reality is more nuanced. Certainly for an average salaried worker taxes are fairly reasonable, especially considering that, to use a tired cliche, you can actually see every day where your taxes go.

Compared to some countries Finnish tax system is certainly relatively complicated though. In Russia especially, the only tax the average person will likely ever have to pay is the flat-rate income tax of 13% (and property and car taxes, which you just get invoices for; the low income tax rate is mostly compensated by the high rate of employer contributions), and the average salaried worker may conceivably live his/her entire life without ever having to deal with the tax office and to file a tax declaration. This would not be possible in Finland. You do not need to know exactly how the amount withdrawn from your salary is split, but you need to know some basics like what a tax card is.

Continue reading “Finnish Bureaucracy (Part 2)”


Furniture

As mentioned before, all Finnish apartments are normally rented without any furniture. The exception might be a kitchen top, a wardrobe and other big embedded things; and also bathroom fixtures and a freezer and stove. But otherwise there won’t usually even be lights (except possibly in the bathroom and kitchen). Same goes for basic household stuff like plates. Of course this is all not some hard-set law and there might be exceptions, but this is generally what is universally expected by landlords and tenants.

For this reason, the Finns generally move with their own furniture, and moving companies making the process relatively pain-free are an important cottage industry (just Google for muuttopalvelut). But for an immigrant bringing much furniture from abroad will likely be too expensive and impractical, so it would be easier to buy it all here. Personally I never really owned almost any furniture of my own in my St. Petersburg years, which was good since this meant I didn’t have to spend time and nerve cells trying to get rid of it before the move.

Continue reading “Living in an Apartment (Part 2)”


Paying rent

Paying rent for the apartment is a rather straightforward process: just do a bank transfer of the specified amount, to the specified account, with the specified reference number once a month. Pikipruukki housing company gave me an invoice with dates and amount of payments up to mid-2019. I actually already showed it in the post about banks. The due date is the 2nd of every month, and the amounts are all the same, although they increased a bit (for 6€ of so) since March 2018. I’m doing this payment with online bank, and it’s really easy, having defined it as a payment template (maksupohja). The due date comes two days after my monthly salary, so this is quite a convenient date.

Continue reading “Living in an Apartment (Part 1)”


Everybody needs to live somewhere. If you got to that part, you probably have some place to stay and sleep temporarily, but you need to get your own place as fast as possible, both to save money and to ensure you have a permanent address.

If you have just moved to Finland, your only option is probably renting an apartment, rather than buying an apartment or a house. Finland offers ridiculously low mortgage rates, but you need to have at least 10-20% of the price as a downpayment on hand, which is going to be a pretty significant sum (two room apartments in Vaasa cost 50,000-250,000€ depending on location, area, and building age and condition; you probably want to look at something not cheaper than average). And I doubt a bank will give a mortgage to someone who has literally yesterday arrived to Finland. Well, I don’t know, maybe they will, but I haven’t tried.

Renting, on the other hand, is something you can do right away, with much lesser initial spendings. There are some countries where renting an apartment is quite difficult in general (I’ve heard Sweden has some rather weird regulations in that area, for example), but Finland isn’t really particularly bad. Of course if you’re looking for the absolute cheapest price, or want to live in a highly desirable area, or possibly coming here in a bad time of year (particularly when the university students are looking for apartments) it would be more difficult, but still hardly impossible.

There are two basic options for renting an apartment: from a private person, or from a housing company. You can find better prices and more interesting offers from private people. And in buildings belonging to housing companies there is often rather high tenant turnover rate, and the tenants themselves will likely be poorer people. This is by no means certain, however, and furthermore renting from a housing company is easier, and they will usually demand a smaller security deposit.

Personally, I went with the housing company option. I’ve been living in an apartment rented in this way for over two months now, and I’m quite happy with it. My apartment block has decidedly an immigrant background; less than half of tenant names are Finnish. But this is not a ghetto or anything — the house is exactly as nice as every other Finnish house is. And I’m an immigrant myself and in general I find it quite distasteful when the people who are immigrants themselves shun other immigrants because of their background or skin color or anything. The location is also nice, 3 km away from the city center, and I’m not planning to move away anytime soon.

Continue reading “Apartment Search”


Using a bank is a pretty basic part of life in Finland, even if you don’t need any loans or saving accounts or anything. A Finnish person may get his/her first bank account as early as the age of 10. Without a bank account you are basically crippled. This contrasts to Russia; I’m not sure if there are still jobs there that pay in cash (legally as least; there’s certainly no shortage of jobs with “grey” salary, paying a minimum wage legally, and the rest under the table in cash), but many people just use whatever bank accounts their employers open for them, and immediatelly withdraw their entire wages in cash in ATMs upon being paid. There are options for online payment like Webmoney and Qiwi that do not require you to have a bank account as well; Qiwi, notably, has a wide-reaching network of payment kiosks that accept cash. I myself got my first bank account the same time I got my first salary, when I was 22; this job actually paid completely under the table (“black salary”) so I didn’t even really need that at the moment, but I still deposited my envelopes of cash on that account for convenience.

All of this wouldn’t really fly in Finland. There are three things you most definitely need a bank account for:

1. Receiving salary and paying bills, i. e., bank payments. Your salary must come to your account from your employer. I’m pretty sure this is the only legal option in Finland. You also almost certainly will need to pay some bills from that account from time to time, at least rent and utilities. Buying really expensive things, like a car, is also done from a bank account. And while transferring minor sums between friends and the like has special apps to make this very easy and swift, these still do a usual bank payment between accounts.

2. Bank card. This is going to be a simple debit card at first, of course. This is what you’ll use for everyday grocery shopping and the like. There might be some places where you need cash (public buses, if you don’t have a bus card; old parking meters, possibly some markets) but these are very few and far between, and it doesn’t really make sense to carry more than 50€ or even 20€ of cash with you; you’ll use it very rarely anyway.

3. Online banking authentication, which will be used by various government online services, including, but not limited to, population register, tax office, Kela (social insurance service), post, traffic safety agency, and others. Thus you won’t have to visit all these organisations in person (unless it’s for something relatively exotic). Online banking is quite useful by itself as well; for example to pay invoices online which is, of course, hugely more convenient than going to a bank branch for that.

Continue reading “Banking”


In order to legally work in Finland you do not, in principle, need anything other than a residence permit with a right to work, and an employment contract (which you will need to get a permit in first place anyway). So you can drive to Finland or go there by train or something and go to work right away and enjoy your first workday in the company of the Finns. But obviously you still need to get a number of Finnish papers in the near future (so that you can actually get paid, for example). Getting them is simple and doesn’t take long; the most important thing is to actually know what you need to do and in which order. I don’t know of any exhaustive manual on that matter, so I guess you can use mine if you want. Myself, I got pieces of information from official websites, from Twitter and other social media of people who had already moved to Finland, and from russian.fi web forum (not the most pleasant place on the web but a valid source of information anyway).

Living in Finland is for the most part pretty simple and easy (much easier than in Russia in most aspects) if you are, well, a part of the system. If you’re not, you don’t really have a right to most services; just try going to a Finnish health center or opening a Finnish bank account as a tourist! But since you are not a refugee (probably) or something, but rather a work immigrant, becoming a part of the system will be easy for you. Although there still might be a few annoying gotchas.

Continue reading “Finnish Bureaucracy (Part 1)”


…I set the date of the actual move to the end of the same week when I picked the residence permit card at the St. Petersburg consulate. It could have been faster, really. I didn’t do all that much before the move; found a new home for my rabbit, bought boxes for the move, packed my things, visited my parents, resigned from my St. Petersburg job. I actually was on a long unpaid vacation at that point; my boss suggested it to me it case the Finland move doesn’t work out. Although I doubt I would have wanted to return to that job even in that case. And I could have taken the rabbit with me, in theory; the main difficulty would be that I wouldn’t be able to leave him with anyone when I go on vacation or something. But I can assure you that the big-eared rascal is in very reliable hands now, and gets sweet banana and apple treats regularly, along with more healthy food of course.

Continue reading “The Actual Move”


Mattias warned me that this part could be a little slow because they didn’t have a HR person or anyone else to deal with the paperwork, and he was busy enough as it was. Well, I wasn’t in any hurry.

In a week or so he sent me two documents by email, an employment contract and a TEM-054 form. For two options of applying for a residence permit at once: as an expert and as a regular employee. I guess it’s a good time to examine how these options differ now.

Unlike many other countries Finland, in principle, allows hiring any person from abroad, regardless of qualifications. But it still would be much easier for a specialist. The company would have to fill in much more paperwork for a regular worker; the main paper is the aforementioned form TEM-054. More importantly, the job opening will have to go to the unemployment office, and they will have to make sure there are no possible unemployed candidates from Finland who could fill that position. I suppose it might be possible to state the job requirements in such a way that this step would become a mere formality, but of course I don’t know for sure. But in any case that’s a pretty long process; getting an employee residence permit takes 3-4 months in total.

Things are much easier for a specialist; he or she should get a permit in just a month, and all that is necessary is: 1) a company which is willing to hire them (and made an employment contract with them to prove that); 2) a high enough salary (at least ~3,000 € before tax); 3) high enough qualifications of the person involved. And of course I, and my employer too, had concerns about the third part; this generally means a university degree, which I don’t have, and Migri and most of other relevant official websites say the degree is required. But I saw some mentions on various web forums that it can be substituted by work experience, especially in IT. So of course we hoped for the specialist route, and went for that.

Continue reading “Applying for Permit”


The first thing I have to note here is that this part of course describes my own experience in finding a job in Finland. Job search is kind of an art in itself and there can be no single unified procedure here, while I only ever looked for a job in Finland once, and that didn’t actually take too long. So it’s possible that I miss something in this part.

Okay, so, if you decided to move into Finland on the grounds of having a job here, then you need a job (duh). A good starting point for job search is Monster.fi website. It has only Finnish interface, so you may just well begin to get used to Google Translate being your friend! (Chrome automatically prompts to translate pages in foreign languages, and there are similar extensions for other browsers; I use http://www.sidetree.com/extensions.html#Translate for Safari.) Google Translate by now is fairly good at translating Finnish, and you can read Finnish websites without too much trouble. You should however always choose the option to translate into English, even if that’s not your native language; otherwise Google would actually make two translations, from Finnish into English, and from English into another language, and that will be a big source or errors.

But you probably won’t need to translate much on Monster.fi yet. Just type “php” or “frontend” or whatever kind of developer job you’re looking for into the first field, and optionally a city or a region into the second one. Some (maybe most) of the results will be in Finnish, and others in English. It’s likely, although not certain, that the language of the job advertisement will correspond to the language that is actually used on the job.

Continue reading “Job Search”


Let’s start with reading up a bit on the theoretical part: what do you need to legally live and work in Finland (of course it doesn’t make sense to even consider “illegal” options). In principle you need several papers for that, but there’s only one that’s really important (and which gives you access to others once you’re in Finland): a residence permit (oleskelulupa in Finnish). It is also sometimes known as work permit or work visa, but we’ll use the official term to avoid confusion.

Continue reading “Residence Permits”


Well, as a matter of fact, it’s pretty!

I originally began to write yet another pretty generic text about pros and cons of Finland (climate like St. Petersburg … so-called Nordic “socialism”… beautiful but a bit repetitive nature … severely introverted mentality … and so on), but then I thought, why bother? In my opinion, if you really want to move into another country, you have to already know and feel, deep into your heart, why you want to do that. It’s impossible to give a summary of a country in two pages or so anyway. I’ve been to Finland about 35 times before, I saw plenty of different places there, I have some general idea of its culture, I’ve been reading its news, I know some memes even (which is the most important part obviously), and I’ve been trying to learn a bit of Finnish. And I think I can say I actually can claim to know this country a little bit. Perhaps I’m actually mistaken, and time will tell. But I feel that even if I am, it’s not by much.

I want to emphasize that I am deeply convinced that you should be moving into a different country only if you really really want to be in this particular country, not just to escape Russia and Putin or whatever place you want to escape (well unless you’re literally running away from some life-threatening situation of course). I’m not really a patriot of Russia and I can’t say I love it much (although I try hard to be objective and base my opinions about Russia on facts, and same about Finland too actually) but I can’t say I had it bad there. In Moscow or St. Petersburg (or if working remotely for Western employers) developers have every opportunity to earn very good money by any country’s standards, six-digits sums in rubles. It is fairly easily to save for a car, an apartment or house, to feed a family, and to travel. This by itself makes IT workers perhaps not the cream of the crop, but quite privileged people stil.

And if you’re moving into Europe, particularly not to Britain or Germany but to somewhere like Finland, it is very likely you won’t earn much more there, if at all. In my case my salary at my new Finnish job, after taxes, by the current euro/ruble rate, is almost exactly similar to the one I had at my previous Russian job. A tiny bit smaller even, actually. And the cost of life in Finland is obviously generally higher. Money is by all means not why you would want to move to Finland. If you’re in IT and you want to have as much money as possible, try to go to the US, it’s a no-brainer.

Of course there are higher salaries too (but not that much higher; by 50% perhaps if you’re lucky and if you have really good qualifications). I agreed to this salary knowing that well. My salary is what it is largely because I went 1) to a small company; 2) to a smaller city. Most people moving into Finland want to go to Helsinki, which is basically the only large (by worldwide standards, not by Finnish ones) city, and IT companies and other qualified jobs naturally gravitate there. The salaries are higher than in other cities, but also not by that much; by 20-30% probably. But more importantly, Helsinki actually has jobs, while smaller cities have great difficulties in that regard, especially if you don’t know Finnish. Still, as my example shows, it’s not hopeless their too. And if large companies have HR depts, several rounds of interviews, and, often, already existing procedure for hiring foreign employees, small ones like mine have it more on a personal level, so to speak. For example, for the first two weeks in Finland I lived in a house on a farm belonging to my boss’ family, for free. How cool is that?!

In general this kind of move was sort of like downshifting for me. Many people in our field want to work in cool big companies like Google or Facebook or Apple or at least Yandex, and/or work on some really interesting tasks, and/or found their own startup, and/or just make a shit ton of money. None of these apply to me; some time ago they did but not now, when I’m almost 30. I just want to live in a quiet beautiful place, close to nature, and earn my living doing something useful (if not particularly exciting), and have plenty of time for my hobbies (which, as you could notice, are mostly about travelling around Nordic countries and learning about them). And to get a house somewhere in the archipelago and make some berry liqueur there when I get old 🙂 Finland is pretty much a perfect place for it all. But of course this way of life wouldn’t be for everyone, and of course many people would say there’s not enough money for them in Finland, or not enough action, or the Finns themselves would seem unlikeable, or something else.

Lahti (Part 1)

Päijänne Tavastia Region, Finland


It’s been two months since I last visited Finland. I kind of had to save up a bit of money and Finland trips, even short weekend ones, usually end up being quite big money-sinks (even when it doesn’t really feel you are spending money on anything in particular at all). In the end though I lost my patience and made a day-trip to the city of Lahti with my friend, in early November 2017.

Lahti and Kouvola are the only two cities in Finland (apart from Helsinki) which make sense as day trip destinations when going from St. Petersburg, because these are the cities the high-speed Allegro train goes through. A car trip practically requires an overnight stay; it’s a 200 km drive just to get to the Finnish border, and then crossing the border takes some time, and then you’ll need to drive to somewhere in Finland, and if you have to make the return trip on the same day it gets very exhausting and you end up with not much time in Finland itself at all. And it’s the same with Lappeenranta/Imatra buses, although at least you do not need to drive youself.

Allegro train, first introduced in 2010, on the other hand makes the St. Petersburg-Helsinki trip in about 3 h 30 min (and the border formalities are all done on board and don’t require any extra time), and it’s even faster if you only go to Kouvola or Lahti. There are four departures every day; the first train leaves St. Petersburg at 6:40, and the last one arrives to St. Petersburg at 23:27. So you’ve got plenty of time in Finland. The only downside is that it’s a rather costly option, several times more expensive than going on own car or by bus, unless you buy a ticket well in advance (which I never do).

Still, a day trip to Kouvola on Allegro was my first ever trip to Finland (in fact my first ever trip abroad) way back in February 2012, and this time we did the same thing only to Lahti, which incidentally was the Finnish city closest to St. Petersburg that I had never visited before.

Lahti (Finn. bay) is actually quite a big city by Finnish standards, at 115,000 population, located about 100 km northeast of Helsinki. However it’s a relatively young city and, like Kouvola, it pretty much owes its existence to St. Petersburg-Helsinki railroad (or more propery Riihimäki-St. Petersburg railroad, as the town of Riihimäki was where it connected to Helsinki-Hämeenlinna line which had been the first railroad built in Finland) built in 1870. Before that Lahti had been a rather unremarkable village in Hollola parish, by the Upper Vyborg Road (Ylinen Viipurintie), an old road going from Hämeenlinna to Vyborg/Viipuri, approximately along parts of modern National Roads 10, 12, and 6. Old Lahti had some twenty houses, and also a manor belonging to the noble Fellman family.

Lahti village burned down in the 1870s (with no loss of life), and a new city was planned in its place in 1878. Modern Lahti still keeps rather closely to the city plan of 1878. The location was a really favorable one, at the crossroads of trade routes. Apart from the old road and the railroad Lahti is located on the shore of Vesijärvi Lake, which had been connected via short Vääksy Canal to the huge Päijänne Lake System in 1871, which made it an important lake harbor, connected by waterways to Jyväskylä and other relatively remote places; lake steamships were a hugely important mode of transport at the time. And in 1900 a narrow-gauge railroad (eventually converted to a regular-gauge one) connected it to the Loviisa harbor, allowing easy export of goods by sea. Industries boomed in Lahti, and it remained an industrial city throughout the 20th century, although the 1990s recession hit it hard. As of the 21st century, Lahti enjoys excellent connections to Helsinki; the entire section of National Road 4 between Helsinki and Lahti enjoys motorway standards since 1999, and a direct high-speed rail line Kerava-Lahti (bypassing Riihimäki) was constructed in 2006. Since then Helsinki center can be reached from Lahti in about an hour (via Z-line suburban trains), making Lahti effectively an outer suburb of Helsinki.

Lahti doesn’t have many historical sights or much of old architecture due to its young age, but nonetheless in our opinion it’s quite an enjoyable place to visit. It also has some very beautiful nature (Vesijärvi Lake and many steep hills, including Salpausselkä Ridge) really close to the city center; something quite common for Finnish cities, of course, but I’d say Lahti is even better than others in that regard. Lahti is also a famous winter sports center, holding world-renowned Lahti Ski Games in particular.

Lahti is located in the historical region of Häme (Tavastia). Tavastians/Häme are considered to be one of the first tribes which made up the Finnish people; they are mentioned as Yem (емь) in Novgorodian chronicles. Lahti is the capital of the modern region of Päijänne Tavastia (Päijät-Häme), named after Päjänne Lake System; this is one of the smaller Finnish regions by area. Its other towns are Heinola and Orimattila but both of these are many times smaller than Lahti.

Continue reading “Lahti (Part 1)”

Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve

Karelian Isthmus; Priozersk District, Leningrad Oblast, Russia


Last weekend I visited the Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve, in Leningrad Oblast, Russia; on the Karelian Isthmus 100 km north of St. Petersburg. I do not often make posts about Russia (where I happen to live), and even less commonly, about Russian nature. Nothing wrong with it of course; it’s just that Russian nature isn’t particularly accessible. It’s not like Finland, where you have national parks, various trails ranging from municipal jogging trails to long-distance ones hundres of kilometers long, excellent topographic maps of the entire country, and a dense and well-maintained road network which make reaching even quite remote locations easy (assuming you have a car, of course). In Russia you’re basically on your own. Designated hiking trails only really exist in major nature reserves and national parks few and far between (which often have entrance fees and/or require getting a permit to visit them), maps are very hit and miss depending on the region, and only the major federal roads can be really relied upon; secondary roads may be in terrible condition, while logging or mountain roads are generally passable only on a 4WD car. Arguably, of course, this only makes the experience more genuine, as you don’t have anything pre-made for you. And Russia, being the biggest country in the world and all, does have some stunning nature. The “stunning” part however isn’t really uniformly spread. Most of Central Russia and Western Siberia really looks very uniform and bland. And for the most part so is Leningrad Oblast, which is the St. Petersburg region.

Finland, my favorite destination, is a very beautiful country — especially if you’re into forests and lakes! — but truth be told, it doesn’t have much variety too (unless you’re really familiar with it and begin to spot lots of minor details). However its landscapes actually do look a lot more interesting than Central Russia and most of Leningrad Oblast. The reason for that lies in basic geology: Finland is located on really ancient bedrock (Fennoscandian Shield), only thinly covered with soil; the bedrock was cut up by a great glacier in the Ice Age, resulting in innumerable lakes in depressions that the glacier scoured, rocky outcroppings where it scraped off the topsoil, boulders that it moved a great distance, and so on. Central Russia on the other hand is covered with a very thick (3+ km) cover of sediments (Russian Platform), which are very flat and remained very flat even after the glaciation. The boundary between the Fennoscandian Shield and the Russian Platform cuts across the Karelian Isthmus, fairly close to the Russian-Finnish border, approximately following Vyborg (Viipuri)-Priozersk (Käkisalmi) line. Most of the Karelian Isthmus, and the vast majority of the overall Leningrad Oblast lies south of that line, in the “boring” Russian Platform area.

Still of course there are some beautiful places, and Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve is one of them. It’s located on the Karelian Isthmus, and I’m not sure whether it lies north or south of the geological boundary; most probably south of it. It’s still beautiful, with low but steep sandy hills and ridges covered with pine forests, and small rivers and lakes among the hills. So after much deliberation about my day trip destination I chose this place. I knew essentially nothing of it but it seemed fairly easy to reach at least.

The name “Väärämäenselkä” is Finnish; the nature reserve has no Russian name. The name is transribed as Вярямянселькя into Russian, although Вяярямяэнселькя would be more precise. It means “Crooked Hill Ridge”. It can be found in old Finnish topographic maps and texts, spelled as Väärämäen-selkä, and sometimes also as Väärämäen-harju. The regional nature reserve was officially established in 1978.

Continue reading “Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve”

V: Murmansk

Murmansk Region, Russia


The biggest city north of the Arctic Circle in the world! That’s Murmansk (Мурманск), the center of Murmansk Oblast region in Russia, located on the coast of the Kola Bay, a long narrow fjord of the Barents Sea of the Arctic Ocean. Like Petrozavodsk, Murmansk is the only major city in the region. Its modern population is about 300,000.

A small town at the bottom of the Kola Bay, named also Kola (Кола), existed for centuries (and still exists today as a suburb of Murmansk), but by the end of the 19th century the need for a major seaport on the Barentz Sea became quite urgent. The new city, originally named Romanov-na-Murmane (Романов-на-Мурмане, Romanov upon Murman) was founded in 1916 (when the railroad connecting it to the rest of the country was finished), the last city ever founded in Tzarist Russia era. Shortly after the February Revolution of 1917 it was renamed to Murmansk. The northern coast of the Kola Peninsula has always been known as Murman Coast; “Murmans” was an old Russian word for Norwegians (likely from Norwegian nordmann, “northern man”). The tiny town quickly grew in Soviet years, becoming the base for many Soviet explorations of the Arctic.

Murmansk was extremely important to the Soviet Union in the World War II, as a warm-water port which the Germans could not blockade. Much of the lend-lease aid from Britain and the US came through Murmansk, shuttled south on the railroad then. Despite bloody battles Nazi Germany, attacking from Northern Norway and Finnish Lapland, never managed to capture the port of Murmansk or sever the rail line. The city itself was nearly completely destroyed in the war, and had to be rebuilt afterwards. This was accomplished as soon as 1952.

Murmansk continued to be the Soviet “capital of the Arctic” of sorts, but underwent a great depopulation after the fall of the Soviet Union. As many as a third of its population left. Although Murmansk climate is not as harsh as one could expect, it’s still colder than most of Russia, and polar night doesn’t make it a very attractive place to live in as well (unless of course you really like the Arctic). So people who lost their jobs mostly just moved elsewhere.

Nonetheless modern Murmansk looks quite good, much better than Petrozavodsk (the city we visited before Murmansk) anyway despite similar size. Despite the depopulation it doesn’t really appear to have any abandoned buildings (perhaps we just didn’t see them but still). The city is rather boring, truth be told (its surroundings are probably way more interesting, but we were just passing through and didn’t see them), but it appears to be kept in a nice shape.

Perhaps one reason for that is the closeness of Russian naval bases. Russian Northern Fleet is the most important one by far, as it is the one with most (if not all) nuclear subs. Most towns near Murmansk are naval bases: Severomorsk, Polyarnyi, Snezhnogorsk, Skalistyi, Ostrovnoi, Vidyaevo, and other smaller ones. In fact Murmansk is almost the only Russian populated locality on the Barents Sea that can be actually visited without a special permit! Severomorsk and the others are “closed cities”. Although Murmansk is located deep in the Kola Bay and you cannot actually see the open sea from it; the only place where you can is the semi-abandoned fishing village of Teriberka (Териберка), lately known as the place where Leviathan movie was shot. That’s a pity of course. Barentz Sea is incredibly beautiful but you really need to go to Norway to appreciate that (or to places like Sredny and Rybachy Peninsula, reachable only with a 4WD vehicle).

Continue reading “V: Murmansk”

IV: Petrozavodsk

Republic of Karelia, Russia


Petrozavodsk (Петрозаводск, Russ. Peter Works City; known as Petroskoi in Finnish) is the capital of the modern Republic of Karelia (Russian Karelia), and its biggest city by far; with its population of 280,000 it is almost ten times bigger than the second biggest Karelian city (Kondopoga).

I do not often make posts about Russian cities, because I rarely actually visit Russian cities, because I’m just not interested in them much; over the latest years my heart has always been with the Nordics, and it’s likely to remain this way. Which is not to say Russia isn’t worth exploring! Most of its cities and regions do not really have any major sights, but then, neither does Finland, yet I find exploring Finland so interesting and satisfying. And indeed a great many blogs about Russian cities exist, and I know of a few good ones, though I’m not aware of any that post in English. And as for us, we were passing through Petrozavodsk on our way north and staying here overnight, so of course we didn’t sit around in a hotel room, and went out to have a look at the city.

It should be said that Petrozavodsk is not really a Karelian city; it was founded in 1703 by the Russians and its population has always been predominantly Russian (at the moment there are 4% ethnic Karealians, <2% Finns, and <1% Vepsians). You wouldn’t find signs in Karelian or Finnish there. In fact Petrozavodsk is fairly typical of a minor Russian regional center, with dusty streets, crumbling plaster on buildings, potholed roads, and the general air of underfunding and neglect. It doesn’t really have any sights either. At the same time I must say I oddly liked Petrozavodsk. It’s a pleasant city to be in; it’s hard to express, but the people in the streets just seem… so nice and friendly. Far less alcoholics and gopniks that even in my native Yekaterinburg which is like five times bigger. Petrozavodsk is fun to walk around, taking pictures of various minor details. So this post is going to be a really long one, with 75 pictures.

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Autumn in Finnish Karelia

Various locations in South Savo and South and North Karelia, Finland


Just some pictures from Finnish Karelia (okay and a little bit of Savo too). I went there last weekend, this time not to explore anything new but mostly just for good company and some drinking in a cottage by a lake; thus I pretty much just revisited some old places. The weather however was exceptionally good (even more so considering the wet cold summer we had), and I managed to take some really nice pics

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III. Kola Route

Federal Highway R-21 (Kola Route), from St. Petersburg to Norwegian border, Russia


It really took me quite some time to get to these trip reports again, didn’t it? Well, uh, better late than never 🙂

St. Petersburg — Petrozavodsk — Murmansk — Norwegian border highway was previously numbered M-18, but in the confusing renumbering of 2010 it was redesignated as R-21 (Р-21). Nonetheless, its popular name didn’t change: it is still the Kola Route (трасса “Кола”, Trassa Kola), after the Kola Peninsula of course. At least in St. Petersburg it is also known as Murmansk Highway (Мурманское шоссе, Murmanskoye Shosse), or informally Murmanka, after its most significant destination.

The official length of Kola Route, from St. Petersburg to Norwegian border near Kirkenes, is 1592 km. Although our primary destination was Northern Norway, it was of course hardly possible to drive all those kilometers without an overnight stay. Thus we stopped in both major cities along the way, Petrozavodsk and Murmansk. I’ll tell more about both of them in the following posts, and this one is about the Kola Route itself and the minor cities along it.

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