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September 2, 2005

Over to Sweden

I just managed to delete the post I'd written for the last couple of days from my phone when I was trying to post it, so I'll have to fill it in later.

I just boarded the ferry in Eckero, bound for Sweden to continue my cycling trip. As I forgot to bring my Swedish sim card, I may be out of touch for a few days.

September 5, 2005

Island Hopping

I stumbled out of bed and rolled onto the 0630 ferry to Kokar semi-conscious. With the islands since mainland Finland being flat, pine covered, and close together, the ferry crossings hadn't really felt as if you were going out to seperate islets, more as though you were just taking the ferry around a lakeside, never being able to see further than the tree line. Now, however, on this two and a half hour crossing, we were going somewhere completely different. The ferry motored out through wisps of mist lying on the still water and continued towards the empty horizon. The low, pine-covered islands, like fragments of forest splintering off into the sea, gradually gave way to rocky, rugged islets as we moved out to clearer waters.

Maybe it's because I'm used to doing long watches on Zamindar, but whenever I'm on a boat these days I always find it impossible to go inside, and spend hours standing on deck. This, naturally, happened this morning until I was forced to go inside from being frozen.

I was the only passenger to step ashore in Kockar, an island about 5km long and very tranquil. The total silence was incredible, and the main road across the island was so quiet that people just walked down the middle of it. Things were pretty remote and undeveloped now - the island shop was down a dirt track and there wasn't even anywhere to get a coffee. I spent a pleasant few hours there before heading back to the harbour and hopping onto the afternoon ferry to Foglo.

September 7, 2005

On Swedish Soil

I cycled off the ferry onto Fogero, which, with lovely green, rolling countryside was one of the prettier islands I'd been to so far. I was now much closer to mainland Sweden than Finland, and as well as being Swedish speaking, many of the Aland islanders consider themselves more Swedish than Finnish.

The thing was that, tourist season in Finland was now officially over, with everyone concentrating on getting depressed for the winter. Camp sites, cafes, and a lot of the shops were now closed as well, so although it was all very peaceful, facilities were a bit thin on the ground. I cycled across the island, and with evening arriving and the island's only campsite having shut down for winter the night before, began to look for somewhere to camp for the night. I hunted around but most of the countryside around the main village was taken over by summer cabins - a situation that can often make it hard to even get near to lakes in Finland - summerhouses just seem to be everywhere. The ferry to the next island, however, was sitting in the harbour about to leave, so instead I decided just to catch that then cycle into the biggest town in Aland, Marienhamina, for the night. After another hour of cycling I got there, checked out the town's campsite, was unimpressed, and opted for the freedom of camping on my own just out of town next to the water.

The following day I spent cycling around the island, and although it was pleasant, it wasn't all that different from all the other islands and you can only look at so many pine trees before you begin to go mad. I'd been planning to camp in the town of Eckero for the night, but arriving there I discovered that it isn't a town at all, nothing but a harbour, but once again I was lucky enough to arrive just as one of the two ferries of the day was about to leave for Sweden. As I'd now cycled across Aland, this ferry was the shortest, most direct crossing to the Swedish coast to continue my journey westwards and I quickly bought a ticket and cycled onto the big car deck with all the other vehicles, bound for new lands.

I did, however, feel a little unprepared for arriving in Sweden. I was going to be arriving in complete darkness with no idea where I was going to stay for the night, no Swedish currency, and no maps. As things usually do, however, everything worked out. The ferry pulled into the small village of Grisslehamn, and although the campsite was full, the guy there gave me directions to the village green where I could camp for the night. Finland and Sweden have laws that allow you to camp temporarily on any ground that isn't privately owned - a huge difference from Britain, and I enjoyed a very peaceful night on Swedish turf.

September 9, 2005

Night of the Beast

I awoke the following morning, asked for directions at the village petrol station, and cycled the 20km or so into the nearest town. Sweden immediately felt much friendlier and less shy than Finland, with people asking where I'd come from and where I was heading to. Finding a bookshop, I bought maps, sat in a cafe having breakfast and planned my route down to Stockholm. Much of the cycle was through lovely Swedish countryside - a really beautiful route through green, mossy forests, rolling countryside with old wooden farmhouses, and past still lakes.

I'd now passed four run over snakes, three of which were poisonous black adders, on the trip so far, which, in addition to Carita previously warning me about all the dangerous animals I might just be lucky enough to encounter in Scandinavia's wilderness (bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines...) was giving me pause for thought about camping at night. There was of course little other choice, however, so as darkness fell I found a field and camped at the bottom of a valley.

I lay in the tent trying to fall asleep as things rustled around outside. This was fairly normal, but as the rustling became louder and closer I began to wonder if it was rats looking for food. Often, lying in the darkness in a field with nothing between you and the outside world but a nylon sheet it's easy to feel threatened but I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind, rolled over, and tried to get to sleep. By now I could hear the footsteps getting closer - obviously it was a larger animal outside, and I felt my legs going tense with nerves. Suddenly, it was right outside the tent, right next to me, and began sniffing the tent itself. I shouted out a growl to scare it away, hoping it was possibly a deer, but it didn't move. Instead, it stopped sniffing, paused for a few seconds, then answered me back with a loud, aggressive snarl. I froze, and was just about to fill my pants with terror, when, after another few seconds, I heard it's footsteps as it ran off.

I was very tired from cycling all day and I really didn't want to pack things up and move elsewhere. I wished I'd remembered to bring my Swedish sim card as my phone wasn't working at all if I needed it. I went outside, had a look around, and tried to calm myself down. It was pitch dark by now, and the stars were shining brightly in the sky. A fog had fallen in the valley, giving the place a spooky appearance so I got back into my sleeping bag, and once again tried to sleep. Quickly, the rustling footsteps came back. I made lots of noise and flashed my camera to try to scare them away but they never left for long. After another thirty minutes I decided that I had to move.

Exhausted, and really just wanting to sleep in peace, I packed up the tent and my bags, got on the bike, and cycled up towards a farmhouse I'd passed on the way. The fog was so thick that I could hardly see anything as my headtorch lit up the air in front of my face, making me feel even more nervous. I wondered if I should just keep cycling and get well out of the area, but it was so dark that finding another place to camp would be almost impossible, so I put the tent up close to the main road and the farmhouse, thinking that the occasional traffic might keep whatever it was away.

As I pegged the tent out and unrolled my sleeping bag I heard the snarl again and again. It seemed about 300 metres away from me, back down towards the valley. Even though I grew up in the countryside it was a sound I'd never heard before. Once again, I climbed into my sleeping bag, and finally managed to get to sleep. In the morning when I cycled off I noticed the number of the bus service on the local bus stop. 666

Here's a recording I managed to make of the animal mp3 456kb, which Carita reckons was either a wolverine or a lynx (leopardsetc.com sound sample)

September 10, 2005

Cycling into Stockholm

That strange end of trip feeling was beginning to overcome me as I cycled towards Stockholm on the last day. Once again, part of me wanted to keep on going, keep on travelling. Gradually, the green fields and woods changed into grey concrete and traffic, and you could feel the tension in the air. I wove my way through colourless housing estates and past graffiti sprayed walls of suburbia, carefully following the signs to the city centre or risk being lost forever in a concrete maze. At least there was a cycle path and I didn't have to take my chances on the road. Cars were honking at me as it was, and an old man punched me in the back as I went past, for cycling too close to him. Maybe I was safer back in the countryside with The Beast.

After a long hunt I found the youth hostel I'd stayed at last year; in fact I'd been standing outside it's door at one point before continuing to search for it for another thirty minutes. I checked in, had a badly needed shower, and went into town for some breakfast/lunch/dinner - that all in one meal you finally sit down to at 1600 when you're too busy travelling.

I've always liked Stockholm and it's much bigger and more like a capital than Helsinki, but there's still something missing about all Scandinavian cities that doesn't make them feel as whole and vibrant as places further south. Still, I had a lovely day or two nosing around it's great architecture, cafes, and small shops - including Kartbutiken one of the best map shops I've ever come across. Just the place to go for that street map to Kinshasa!

The following evening I caught the ferry back to Helsinki. After queueing up with all the cars I was waved ahead of them through the hull doors and onto the massive car deck of the ferry where I tied the bike down to a fixing point and headed for my cabin. Maybe they just don't like cyclists, but, after much searching, it turned out to be deep underwater on a floor below the car deck next to the engines - making me feel like an Irish person on the Titanic. First sign of an iceberg and I was getting out of there!

After a fairly uneventful and ice free night I woke up to see Helsinki outside - well, not from my window obviously. We berthed in the centre of town, I cycled to my favourite cafe for breakfast, and Helsinki felt like a less stressed place.

September 13, 2005

Cycling in Finland and Sweden

Cycle Routes
In general, the 700km of cycling I did in Finland and Sweden on this trip were very pleasant. The national cycle routes in Finland tend to stick to quieter country roads and occasionally take you onto very busy stretches with little or no hard shoulder but you're normally not on a proper cycle path. Although the route I took was quite attractive, it wouldn't be too hard to pick out an equally good route yourself with a decent map. The cycle paths in Espoo are excellent, totally separate from the roads, and take you almost anywhere you would want to go. The same isn't true of Helsinki, unfortunately, as when you cross the city border into it the cycle paths instantly become pot-holed, and intermittent. Whereas in most other countries, Helsinki, Espoo, and Vantaa would be one big capital, Finland insists on splitting the area into three different, conjoined cities. Espoo and Vantaa are really suburbs of Helsinki itself, and it's a bit like pretending that London consists of three separate cities. Although the cycling I did in Sweden was more limited, the national routes I took again tried to keep to quieter country roads, and neither country's routes seem to compare to the fantastic, extensive cycle paths of Denmark or especially Germany. Stockholm seems to have a good network, and a well signposted cycle path took me from the very beginning of the suburbs right into the centre. Car drivers in Finland and Sweden seem really quite courteous to cyclists, rarely cut me off, and even stopped at crossings to let me pass.

Maps

Unfortunately, Finland doesn't have outdoor maps of the same quality as Britain's Ordnance Survey. They have a 1:50 000 topographical series called Maastokartaa but the detail is difficult to interpret, they use strange colouring such as orange for natural features, and they don't show amenities such as campsites. I soon gave up using them and turned to the less detailed but easier to use 1:200 000 Outdoor GT series, which show the national cycle routes, campsites, and youth hostels. In Sweden I used the Blue Series 1:100 000 Lantmäterriets Vägkarta (they also make a more 1:50 000 series if you need lots of detail), and they were a pleasure to navigate by, showing cycle routes, national parks, and camping places.

Transport
All the ferries from mainland Finland out as far as Korpoo in the archipelago are free, even for cars. The rest of the ferries are free for foot passengers and cyclists all the way across the rest of the islands to Mariehamn. This means that the entire crossing from Finland to Sweden only cost me €4.40 for the final ferry from Eckerö to Grisslehamn - quite a bargain! The return ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki was €38 with Silja Lines - the bike travelled free. Apparently, the buses on the islands do take bikes if they have space, although I didn't try it and most trains in Finland take bikes for a €9 surcharge, irrespective of distance.

September 15, 2005

Cycle Trip Photos

The photos from my cycle trip are now up on the site. It's also running Gallery 2 now with some nice improvements which I'm migrating all the photos over to.

Cycle Trip Photos

September 18, 2005

Winter Arrives

When I was over in Stockholm it felt like the middle of summer - it was warm, sunny, and full of tourists. Here in Finland it's a different story and everyone's been acting as if the summer's been over for the last month or two. A favourite saying here after Midsummer is that, "It's all downhill now" - and the winter depression seems to set in.

Unfortunately, over the last month it has been getting colder and colder, and last night for the first time the temperature went sub-zero (I know, I had to take the dog out in it). That, coupled with the fact that you can see the hours of daylight getting shorter every day means that winter does seem to have announced itself.

September 19, 2005

Cycle Route Map

map1.jpg
I've put together a clickable route of my cycle trip here.

September 20, 2005

Finnish Nudity

I've been surprised just how modest the Finns are during the summer compared to their Scandinavian neighbours. Nowhere do you see much nudism, and the topless sunbathing which any visitor to Copenhagen's parks can enjoy on a summer lunchtime would, I think, shock the average Finn. Although the Finnish do get naked in their saunas, these seem governed by a complex web of rules as to who shares a sauna with whom, rather than the general, mixed nude gathering that most non-Finns assume it is. Or maybe I just haven't been invited to the fun saunas, instead always ending up in them with a bunch of guys.

September 23, 2005

Back in Scotland

On Wednesday I caught a flight to London then flew up to Scotland to catch up with things here. Last night Colin and I went out for a drink with Andrew, which was very pleasant, then we went back to his massive new house in the West End of Glasgow and relaxed in his 12 metre long living room.

Colin and I are flying down to Murcia tomorrow morning, from where we plan to head over to Almeria then get the ferry across to Morroco, if everything goes to plan, for a couple of weeks of travelling and chilling out there.

Though maybe we should just sail here instead?

September 26, 2005

Lost Passport

We flew into Murcia, caught a taxi to the bus station, and managed to just catch the only coach to Almeria that would get us there in time for the evening ferry to Morocco. Being so close to Zamindar, I decided to quickly head over to check up on things, and after a couple more buses and a taxi ride I´d seen that everything was fine on board and I was back in Almeria to get the ferry with Colin. Everything was going really smoothly.

Just before we went to buy the tickets, however, I noticed that the zip on my backpack was open so I had a quick check to see if everything was still in it and discovered what all travellers fear. My passport was gone. Maybe I´d just lost it, or I suspect someone could have gone into my bag when it had been in the luggage compartment of the coach (passports are much sought after in this area, being so close to north Africa), but wherever it had gone to didn´t really matter now. We decided to head over to Zamindar and stay there for the night, but after slowly walking over to the bus station we just missed the last bus by five minutes and had to pay €45 for a taxi.

The following morning we decided that heading to the consulate in Malaga was the best idea to try to get an emergency passport when they opened on Monday morning. The coach stopped everywhere on the way, however, and after four long hours we finally arrived in Malaga very tired and hungry. After finding a cheap hotel we grabbed something to eat, I went to the police station for a police report, then we crashed out.

After about three hours sleep I was at the consulate just after they opened where I was told that an emergency passport was €69 and would only be valid for travelling back to the uk. I couldn´t use it to go to Morocco, or for my connecting flight from London to Finland. Instead I would need to go to the main consulate in Madrid in person to apply for a full passport.

So currently I´m exhausted and we´re about to catch a coach to Algeciras, from where Colin is taking the ferry across to Tangiers and I´m getting the overnight train to Madrid. With some luck I hope to get a replacement passport issued tomorrow and make it across to Morocco on Wednesday but right now nothing would surprise me anymore.

September 27, 2005

Quest for a New Passport

We left Malaga shortly after discovering that our beds were full of bugs and Colin's arms had swollen up in reaction to all the bites. After managing to grab an hour's sleep on the coach, we said our farewells in Algeciras and I caught the overnight train to Madrid. I was incredibly exhausted and was having more problems than usual with simple things like telling the time. I had a peaceful night on the train, nonetheless, with earplugs in.

I had to make it to the Madrid consulate before ten o'clock in order to get my passport today, so, needless to say, everything conspired against this. Train late, metro station closed, no taxis, and running through the rush hour streets of Madrid trying to find another metro station.

Finally, with veins bulging out of my head, I made it, only to go through rigorous security screening, have my phone and bag confiscated, then allowed to join the queue to talk to someone through a bulletproof screen. Thankfully, British citizens were given priority over all the bloody foreigners, and I handed over my stack of completed forms, police reports, and � 128.

There could, however, be a problem in granting my passport today, I was told. The applications were processed online, and although the consulate was in the offices above the telephone company's headquarters, their internet connection was down. Without it there would be no passports today. They did, however, say that this was fairly normal, and that it was usually working again by the afternoon. I hoped it was as my return train tickets were booked for tonight, and I'd very little cash left until a bank transfer would go through later in the week. Anyway, the weather was good and I could always sleep in the park.

I returned to the consulate in the afternoon, however, and was delighted to find that their internet connection had come back, and that there was indeed a passport with my smiling face inside waiting for me there.

September 30, 2005

Madrid to Marrakech

I caught the overnight train back down to Algeciras, the ferry across to Tangiers, and literally walked into Colin on the street there. This was just as well as we were each heading to a different cafe, thinking it was the one we had agreed to meet up in and we'd probably never found each other. Colin was as pleased to see me as he'd ever been, having been getting hassled by guides since he'd arrived. In the evening we decided to catch the overnight train down to Marakech; my third night in a row sleeping on a train; where we booked into Hotel Afriqiua and we've been just chilling out and taking in the souk since.

I'm writing this in an internet cafe; using a hellish French and Arabic keyboard, hnce this has taken ages to type.