Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
Trip End Mar 28, 2007

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Where I stayed

Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Finland was not on my original itinerary. I decided to take a small detour (5 hours on the train from St. Petersburg) and visit Helsinki for a couple of days. Iīm so glad that I did. In fact I extended my stay for an extra day after I got there.

It feels so good to be back in the westernized world again:

- where I donīt have to carry a roll of toilet paper with me everywhere I go;
- where I donīt have to wear my money belt (with my passport in it) underneath my pants, since a safe is available at the hostel, and more importantly, I am not required to carry my passport with me;
- where there is a tourist information center staffed by knowledgeable, helpful and friendly people;
- where all the locals (that I have spoken to) speak English (and the Finns speak Finnish and Swedish, and possibly French and German);
- where there are English signs everywhere;
- where I donīt have to pay for ketchup at MacDonaldīs;
- where I donīt have to say "skol-ka?" and pay full attention when they told me the price in Russian;
- where I donīt have to haggle with the taxi driver over the fares, since the taxiīs are metered.

Finland gained its independence in 1917, after under the Russian rule for 110 years. Prior to that, Finland was ruled by Sweden for some 750 years.

Helsinki (population of Greater Helskinki 1.2M) is the capital city, across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn, Estonia, my next destination. It is a very walkable city. There are designated bike paths all over the city. These paths are right next to the pedestrian paths. I had to keep reminding myself to stay off the bike paths. The public transportation (metro, trams and buses) is very efficient and reliable (most people in Helsinki donīt own cars).

During my visit to Helsinki in late September, the day time temperature was only in the 50īs. The locals think that it was warm, as they told me that autumn hadnīt arrived yet this year. Again, I lucked out with weather. My warmest piece of clothing is a fleece sweater.

What better place to go to a sauna than Finland - where it all began! It is believed that there are 2 million saunas in the country whose population is 5.2 million. Apartment complexes have saunas where different families are assigned different time slots during the week to use them. I visited a big sauna and swimming complex - there are 5 saunas (different means of heating and different levels of temperature and moisture) and a 25M pool. I swam 0.6 km, wearing only my goggles. Thatīs right, everybody was naked (except for the housekeeping ladies, who are not old). It was menīs day 3 days a week.

I took a 15-minutes ferry ride to Suomenlinna Sveaborg - an old fortress on a group of islands. As soon as I got off the main touristsī path, it was absolutely peaceful. The foliage reminded me of New England.

I was told that it was 89 days to Christmas by the official Santa Claus of Finland. Iīm not sure if he still holds the title since he spent the last 6 Christmases in Japan - where children, as well as adults, love him. We had lunch at the same restaurant.

I stayed at a youth hostel located right in the middle of everything - there are sophisticated looking restaurants and bars downstairs, and around the corners are streets full of antique shops and shops selling Scandinavian furniture and furnishings (which I like). On the 2nd night, a guy two beds from me woke me up in the middle of the night. The only thing I heard, before falling right back to sleep, was "... a lot of noise..." I realized the next morning that my snores were too unbearable for them.

Helsinki has quite a few Chinese restaurants (St. Petersburg, on the other hand, had a ton of sushi bars). I even found a Malaysian restaurant, Banana Leaf, but got there after their closing time.

Since I bought a 48-hour Helsinki card, I was very busy being a tourist. I went on a audio city tour on a bus. I also visited Temppeliankio Church (a "rock" church), Sibelius Monument (composer?), Lutheran Cathedral (most visited landmark in Helsinki), Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (which I totally did not understand), Finnish National Museum (Nokia phones are made in Finland) and Ateneum Art Museum (I was too "museumed out"). I also went to their Olympic Stadium that was built for the 1940 games. Due to the war with Russia that broke up in 1939, they didnīt host the games until 1952.

I strongly recommend Helsinki to anyone that likes to travel in comfort.
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