Finland has clear influences from Russia and Sweden more than Northern Europe. Norway was more aligned with Northern Europe.
The language, the architecture and atmosphere has an ‘eastern’ feel to it. Even though Finland was against Russia during the wars and ceded northern territory, the proximity has clearly influenced the culture here.
We took a taxi to the Train station with plenty of time, anticipating a bustling train station from this gateway city to Lapland. What we found was a blockish concrete building with a cafeteria, no station staff as such, and a ‘ghost town’ atmosphere. The prints on the wall were hung in about 1960, although the waiting area may have been updated in the 70’s.
There was an information board with a destination we didn’t recognise, leaving from Platform 2 at the time our ticket told us we were to depart. The board didn’t identify any intervening stops.
A train pulled into our platform about 45mins before we were to depart. Andy went for a recon walk to see what he could find out. Again, no one around to ask, and no information on the indicator boards regarding stations or anything. The train was all locked up.
Another train pulled in. No announcements, nothing.
We saw people heading over to the train on platform 2. So we thought we’d follow. We found a carriage and seats corresponding to ours, and settled in.
Indications are good. People are getting on, but still nothing on the indicator boards, no one to ask.
As the train moves out there is an announcement in Finnish – which is totally foreign to us. We think we heard the word ‘Kemi’. An English announcement comes over which does now confirm that we are on the right train and in 3 stops arrive in Kemi….phew!
Munro last is the first stop and only 10minutes down the track. The station is adjacent to a mill of some kind…looks like a paper mill. We have passed areas of forest that look to be in different stages of managed growth and some accommodation quarters that perhaps are for the workers here. I’m surmising of course, but it otherwise feels like the middle of nowhere. I have put Muurola into my google search, and only come up with Finnish language results despite setting my preferences to English.
The next stretch of the journey is through more forest. there are more silver birch trees and we are seeing a few red and yellow buildings similar to Norway here with the white trim and matching outbuildings. The forests are also opening out to farm land with the round white hay bales ready for winter feeding of stock – although we haven’t seen any livestock yet. The train ride is smooth comfortable even in the ‘cheap seats’. No need to splash out on 1st class tickets for this trip.
Monolithic wind generators are in view above the tree line. They seem really out of place on their flat terrain and against the back drop of the still forests, but they are moving so there’s obviously a reason they’re standing there.
Tervola is the second stop. There has been more in the way of homes and farms and around here. Paakkola is the name on the factory, but there is not much around to give clues as to what they produce. Google again isn’t giving any English sites either so I’m afraid we are non the wiser!
Next stop Kemi on the coast of the Bothnian Sea and our destination. A sea that is between Finland and Sweden and in Winter freezes over. We are not sure what to expect at this time of year and in the weather conditions that we are experiencing. Kemi is home to the ‘Ice Hotel’ and the activities are very much geared around ice and snow. However it’s a new area and there’ll be plenty to discover and enjoy…
Ok, so it is 6 hours since we arrived in Kemi and it seems there is not actually anything here. The hotel is a building site and there are no activities that we can do. We can totally see the potential and it is an ideal WINTER wonderland. We checked in and discovered that we are the only ones here, and there are no other guests expected until December. Quite why Bentours – ‘The Scandinavian Specialists’ would include this on a tour before December we really cannot understand. The natural attraction is the Bothnian Sea which freezes and the Sampa ice-breaker that comes to the area. There are plenty of activities to do when it is in town, but that again is not until December. A snow Hotel is built here also which would be fascinating to visit. Even without the unusual weather conditions, this area is pretty much closed down. The cabin itself is well appointed and would be ok, but honestly, we would have to sit here and do nothing for two days. The lady at the front desk even said, “sorry, but there is nothing here and on Sunday even the shops will be closed”.
So, we decided to ring VRail and see if we can alter our tickets to leave on the train tonight instead of tomorrow night. It means forgoing the night’s accommodation, but we would rather spend the extra day in Helsinki than stay here frustrated and disappointed.
Thus began another couple of hours of phone calls, emails, anxiously waiting and as yet unknown cost. VRail would be very happy to change our ticket, and it would only cost 5 Euros each to do so. Awesome!! …except none of the reference numbers on the voucher we had made sense to the person at VRail and their system did not register payment for our tickets. We called the 24/7 helpline back in Aus and they made some enquires that ended up with the same conclusion. Unfortunately they did not have access to Bentours database and Bentours were not available due to the time difference. There was no other local operator information that we could try. We tried calling the London office, a Canadian office number as well, but all to no avail. The train station station had no one either as it is not staffed until the season starts in…you guessed it…December.
The best anyone could do was suggest we buy another ticket for the train and hope to claim it back from Bentours when we can speak to them. What a dilemma! We consider our options… There are so many ‘what ifs’.
We weighed up the options, and trusting that Bentours will do the right thing by us we bought cheap tickets (70 Euros each) for the train.
By this time it was about 5pm and we arrived back at the deserted train station. I went out in search of some take away food. I noticed some lights on and a few people milling around in a cafe on the platform, so went in there. It was not far and it was cosier than the empty station, so I went and got Andy and we dragged our bags over and found a place to share at a table.
Just a side note here – when I say ‘dragged’ our bags over, I mean literally! I lost a wheel off my suitcase earlier today and Andy’s has an developed an issue with its handle. Things just had to get a bit easier!
Since I’d first popped my head in, the place had gotten quite a bit busier. We queued up for salad and drinks and watched as more and more people poured into the place. I think we must’ve found the only open cafe in town! We ate our food and this was the time we made some final calls confirming our new tickets and talking again to the helpline in Australia. By this time, people were standing around waiting for tables to become available.
We asked our table mates if it was usually this busy, and she explained that there was a ‘theatre’ about to start. We were treated to 4 actors who presented an improv/theatre sports show. Whilst it was totally in the local language, there are some things that transcend language. There was some amusing charades, improv scenarios, talented singing, and harder to discern monologues. It was genuinely entertaining for us and hilariously so for the locals. It lightened our mood greatly! What an absolute blessing.
The show ended, we walked outside, dragged our bags only 5 metres to stand under where we expected our carriage to pull up. We only had about 5 minutes to wait and two cars to dodge as they drove along the platform edge (!).
We boarded the train and explained our situation to the conductor. He checked his room list and whilst our original cabin number would be occupied, he did find one that was free all the way to Helsinki and allowed us to use it! Whilst we could probably have bluffed our way into a cabin after all, we felt much better having made the honest choice and legitimately boarded the train.
I will leave you with this latest twist…we have stopped at Oulu station and been sitting here for quite some time. Andy has just come back from investigating, and the train has just been boarded by hundreds of teenage girls, who seem to be returning from some big cheerleading event – I kid you not! The cabin where we bought the cheap seats is full of giggling teenage girls. The sleeper carriage where we are has been boarded by at least 50 more. With the door closed, all is quiet…the conductor is the hero of today’s story!