Lahti (Part 1)

Päijänne Tavastia Region, Finland

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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.

1. It was about 8:20 Finnish time when we got off the train, which promptly zoomed away towards Helsinki. We decided we would like to have something to eat. A 24-hours McDonald’s was an obvious option, although the only McDonald’s in Lahti is located a bit out of the way.

The train model is formally known as Class Sm6 (all Finnish multiple unit electric trains regardless of origin are designated as Sm, after sähkömoottorijuna (electric motor train)). It is manufactured in Italy, and is a variant of Pendolino trains, used by many countries and notable for their tilting mechanism which allows them to pass curves at higher speeds. The train however only actually noticeably tilts on Fnnish territory; the track there is probably built to higher standards. (And the onboard WiFi only really works on Finnish territory too.) The word “allegro” means quick tempo in music, and was probably coined because 1) the word is of Italian origin and so is the train; 2) the older non-high speed train on St. Petersburg-Helsinki route was named Sibelius, after the greatest Finnish composer.

The train looks visually almost identical (apart from the paint job) to Sm3-type trains, commonly used in Finland on many internal routes (and nicknamed just “Pendolino” there). Sm6 is however a bit more complicated design, as it needs to operate both on Russian and Finnish tracks, with different overhead line voltages, and also slightly different rail gauges (just a few millimeters which is normally within acceptable margins anyway, but these millimeters begin to matter on high speeds).

2. Walking through the residential area south of the railway station. Arriving by Allegro train on a weekend morning is kind of fun because for a while streets look absolutely deserted. Not that most Finnish streets look particularly lively during the day of course.

The monument in the picture is devoted to the Winter War; Soviet bombings in particular. Finland didn’t have much of an air force at the time, and the Soviet Union enjoyed unquestionable air superiority. There however weren’t many worthwhile bombing targets in Finland (there wasn’t much of anything in Finland at the time, really) apart from cities. Many Finnish cities (including Helsinki, Vaasa, and Lahti for example) were bombed, including civilian targets, and 957 civilians were killed. Another thing they don’t write about in Russian history textbooks, I guess.

3. 2017 has been an exceptionally cold year (in Russian and Nordic countries at least; news say in general it was an exceptionally hot year), and winter temperatures came in October already. St. Petersburg weather is usually not too different from Finnish weather, but for some reason as of 11.11 we still haven’t seen any significant snow. Finland on the other hand was entirely covered with snow at one point. Most of that snow melted down when warmer days came in November, but there still were some piles of snow remaning in Lahti, and sidewalks were already coated with gravel (which is what they do in Finland in winter so that sidewalks won’t get too slippery).

November isn’t a very popular month in Finland. It’s called marraskuu in Finnish which literally means “death month”. The days are already quite short, the sky is almost always overcast, and there’s usually no snow yet — which means much darker nights (snow is bright, at least), no winter sports, and wet and miserable-looking streets. Or so the Finns usually say, at least. As for me I’d pick November over the freezing-cold February any day. I kind of enjoy such weather. I don’t think it looks all that bad either; the colors are not completely gone yet at least.

4. The McDonald’s in question.

5. Love the breakfast hours in McDonald’s. There wasn’t anyone in yet, although after a while a drunk guy came in, muttering and laughing to himself every once in a while. At one point he addressed us with a long speech in Finnish, showing us his old phone. I thought he wanted to sell it but my friend correctly realized that he wanted to use a wall socket by our seats to charge it.

The McDonald’s interiors were still Halloween-themed (in fact the same was true for many stores in the city center we saw later). More funnily, there was a Halloween-themed soundtrack — the usual McDonald’s pop music was intermingled with some tracks sounding like something out of a horror movie (and also a Bach symphony).

6. After the McDonald’s we decided to take a walk to Salpausselkä Ridge, and then by the lake shore and then into the city center. The part of the city adjacent to the McDonald’s is named Laune, and there’s a big park in the middle of it. It includes a “young chemist”-themed playground among other things.

7. Perhaps the most obvious Lahti landmark are these two huge radio masts, on top of a hill appropriately named Radiomäki, very close to the city center. They are visible from most locations around the city. The 150 m high masts were originally constructed as a long-wave transmitter, one of the first ones in Finland, in use from 1928-1993. They now house more modern (and much smaller) broadcasting equipment. There’s also a radio museum on Radiomäki but we didn’t go there.

8. In the western part of the park is a small arboretum with some nice-looking trees.

9. Although the rowan trees full of brilliant red berries are not a part of it.

10. There’s a small pond as well. All the smaller lakes already froze over during the October cold wave, and haven’t completely melted since then.

11. A lahtelainen squirrel. Sadly no hares were spotted during this trip yet again.

12. Crossing one of the smaller hills. Most of Lahti is relatively flat but there are some rather steep hills (like Radiomäki) here and there, covered largely with intact forests.

13. See this? It’s dog shit! This is a rare enough sight in Finland that I always try to take pictures of it.

14. Crossing the railroad. I’ve always found it a bit odd that the St. Petersburg railroad passes through inland parts of South Finland, almost a hundred kilometers from the coast, rather than using a shorter route through coastal cities (Porvoo, Loviisa, Kotka) like the highway does. Apparently this was for strategic purposes, so that the railroad wouldn’t be susceptible to potential attacks from the coast. The terrain might be easier here as well; the railroad can largely follow Salpausselkä Ridge, while the terrain between Porvoo and Kotka is difficult enough that a much-needed motorway was constructed through this section (Koskenkylä-Kotka to be precise) as late as 2013.

The railroad largely owes its existence to the Great Famine of 1866-1868, known in Finland as Great Hunger Years (suuret nälkävuodet), the last famine of Europe with natural causes: crop failures during several consequent extremely cold years, when lakes thawed as late as May or even June. About 8.5% population of Finland died (150,000 people), although the famine was quite bad in Sweden as well. The railroad construction was started as a public works project for the population. It didn’t really work very well as several nasty epidemics raged among malnourished workers, killing a fifth of them. The railroad was subsequently nicknamed “Hunger Track” (nälkärata) or “Bone Track” (luurata). That’s really sad, but of course it still was and is one of the most importain railroads in entire Finland; apart from international transit it is used for all traffic from Helsinki to the entire eastern half of Finland, all the way to Jounsuu, Nurmes, and Kajaani.

The direct line to Kerava (and Helsinki) through Mäntsälä, bypassing Riihimäki, branches off to the southwest a dozen or so kilometers from the location of the picture. Inaugurated in 2006, it was the biggest rail construction project in Finland in pretty much the latest half a century or so. Kerava-Lahti line also enjoys the best standards in the entire Finnish rail network, with up to 220 km/h train speeds (Helsinki-Tampere is 200 km/h and most of the rest of the network is limited to 120-140 km/h, with secondary lines often being even slower). It wasn’t really particularly difficult to build, as it pretty much just follows the National Road 4, which is already a motorway and thus also pretty strait.

15. The overpass over the railroad has some nice graffiti.

16. A small but deep (11 m deep) lake by the railroad, named Mytäjärvi, in the middle of a neighborhood of old wooden houses. It is a popular beach, used for ice swimming as well; an underwater pump near the coast makes sure a part of the lake doesn’t freeze over.

17. A major road in Lahti, named Hämeenlinnantie (Finn. Hämeenlinna Road). In fact this is not just a city street, but a transit road as well: a section of National Road 12 (Rauma-Tampere-Lahti-Kouvola). National highways passing through densely-populated areas of major cities are by now quite rare in Finland. A bypass road had been in plans for 40 years, consistently blocked by the inhabitants of Laune area through which it was meant to go (they advocated for alignment through Renkomäki, a more outer area of Lahti). The agreement was finally reached in 2016 and the bypass road construction, which is to include two tunnels under residential areas, started in the spring of 2017, to be completed in 2021. The new road will bypass not only Lahti but also Hollola, a much older town than Lahti itself, currently existing as pretty much its western suburb.

18. Salpausselkä area school.

19. Is that a steam engine? Looks a lot like it but I’m not sure.

20. The engine in question is parked on a short spur line, which formerly went to Vesijärvi lake harbor. The old harbor was renovated and doesn’t have any cargo operations now; the spur line was partially dismantled as well.

21. The spur line appears to be still kept in working conditions up to the old Salpausselkä Platform. The platform was once upon a time used for regular passenger operations, but of course these days are long gone (since the 1950s I believe); suburban trains pretty much are not a thing in Finland apart from Helsinki metropolitan area (although suburban trains from Helsinki now reach as far as Tampere since the summer of 2017). The platform is now occasionally visited by museum trains. At least in the 2000s apparently there also were some special trains bringing skiers to Lahti Ski Games from Helsinki directly to Salpausselkä, as the sport facilities are pretty much right around the corner from the platform as we’ll see in a moment. Incidentally, the sidewalk along the railroad is named after Veikko Kankkonen, a Finnish ski jumper who won a gold medal in 1964 Olympics.

The hills to the left and to the right are parts of the Salpausselkä Ridge, hence the platform name. Salpausselkä doesn’t look very prominent among the other hills and rocks of South Finland, but in fact it’s pretty special, at it stretches all the way from Hanko through Hämeenlinna and Lahti and Kouvola and Lappeenranta to Imatra, about 500 km in total, as a ridge about 20 m high (at some places up to 70 m, and in others eroded to nothing or artificially pierced). It is a terminal moraine; a mass of rock and gravel dragged by the front edge of an ancient glacier, and therefore marking its border during its largest extent. The glacier in fact expanded and contracted several times, so there are actually two more Salpausselkäs some distance north of this one (the third one is much shorter than two others), and one more similar ridge much farther out without any name other than “Central Finland ice-marginal formation”, which passes through Jyväskylä.

The first Salpausselkä, the one passing through Lahti, is still the most important one, as it pretty much forms the southern border of the Finnish Lakeland. All the huge lake systems are located north of it. Päijänne Lake System is drained by Kymi River, the only one penetrating Salpausselkä, while the bigger Saimaa Lake System drains through Vuoksi River, which pretty much goes around Salpausselkä (and ends up draining into Ladoga Lake rather than Baltic Sea). Thus the Salpausselkä name is quite appropriate, literally meaning “Padlock Ridge”.

22. The end of the rail line. You can see a women in light-reflecting uniform ahead, directing traffic to parking lots; there probably were some sport competitions on that day.

23. There are a lot of sport facilities in this part of Lahti, but the most prominent by far are three huge ski jumps built on the slopes of Salpausselkä. They were constructed in the 1970s but the famed Lahti Ski Games began as early as 1923. It is an international cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined competition, and probably Lahti’s best claim to fame overall. Seven times in history so far an even more popular event, Nordic World Ski Championship, was held in Lahti; in 1989 it drew a record attendance of 450,000 people (I have no idea whatsoever how is this even possible in a city of 115,000). The last championship was held this year, in 2017; even if you don’t really follow sports (like me) you might remember a story about a Venezuelan skier who competed in the championship where he literally saw snow for the first time ever in his life (with predictable results); that was in Lahti. This year the audience however was a bit more modest (180,000).

24. Audience stands.

25. Skier statue (1938), modeled after Tapani Niku, a prominent Finnish skier at the time. I originally assumed that was some war hero due to the cap, which is very similar to, or possibly the same as the cap used in Winter War/Continuation War era (prominently seen e. g. in the trailer for the new The Unknown Soldier movie). Incidentally, the Finnish nickname for this type of cap is “verikauha”, which means “blood scoop”.

26. There’s even a ski museum, too.

27. An underpass of sorts under a ski track. The sign above says “Röllin talvimaa” — “Rölli’s Winterland”. Rölli the Troll (Rölli-peikko) is a popular Finnish children TV and movie character. He’s, well, a troll, who lives in a forest and doesn’t have very good personal hygiene habits. He’s popular enough that he was voted the best Finnish fictional character of all time in 2006, surpassing among others Moomintroll, Väinämöinen (from Kalevala) and Rokka (from The Unknown Soldier). Apparently during the skiing competitions some games for younger kids are held here.

28. Behind Rölli’s Winterland there are a total of five much smaller ski jumps, which are meant for kids. And there were kids actually training on them at the time! (these ski jumps do not require snow — actually the big ones don’t either).

29. This looks really scary. I know I wouldn’t dare to jump even from the smallest ski jump (even cross-country skiing was a bit scary to me when I tried it) and these kids look perfectly fine with it. Then again these are Finnish kids. Sisu and all.

30. Further on, this bear guards one of the entrances to the forest. He actually looks quite friendly but of course bear’s nature as a bloodthirsty monster is common knowledge.

The forest that starts here is pretty vast, stretching in a strip to the west. You can hike (or ski) here all the way to Hollola and its church village, possibly even farther if you set your mind to it. Notable locations on the way are Messilä ski slopes, Pirunpesä gorge, and Tiirismaa, the highest point in South Finland (at 223 m over sea level). All of these are however relatively far from Lahti and we wouldn’t be able to combine a hike there with a walk around Lahti itself.


32. The location we did want to see is this tiny lake named Häränsilmä (Finn. Ox Eye), which is located pretty much on the edge of the forest.

33. The lake is a pretty typical kettle lake, formed when an ice lens, a part of a glacier trapped underground, melted away and the ground above fell in. Such lakes are extremely common in continuous permafrost areas (such as Arctic Siberia and Canada). It did remind me a bit of “bottomless” saivo lakes in Lapland.

34. It probably wouldn’t look particularly unusual on some other day, but mist hovering over its surface made it look quite a bit more magical, although I don’t think I really captured that in the pictures. The mist remained there even though it was already noon by this time.

35. Thin ice on the lake. We wondered if there was a skaimmadas living there (according to some interpretations of Sami mythology these are ill-tempered sea bass fish guardians, looking like huge antlered fishes, not unlike the one depicted on the coat of arms of Inari Municipality in Finnish Lapland). Googling revealed that there was a man who drowned there in 2008, with apparently no foul play suspected. We decided that a skaimmadas did it.

36. We walked a bit through a thick beautiful forest covering Salpausselkä hills.

37. And very soon ended up on a residential street.

38. From which we walked down to the shore of the large Vesijärvi Lake. To be continued.


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