Helsinki Sightseeing

During my time in Helsinki I hadn’t done a great deal of sightseeing, because when I arrived Susanna had told me about a free walking tour of the city that runs every Sunday afternoon. I have to confess that I didn’t know a great deal about the city, and hadn’t done a lot of research either, so I wasn’t even sure what the major attractions of the city even were. I arrived in Helsinki on a Thursday, so I figured that I would be around until at least the end of the weekend, and that I could take the tour then and do some sightseeing with a knowledgable local.

As is turns out, the tour guide was from Tasmania. She’s been living in Helsinki for 11 years though, so she knew a great deal about the city and told us little stories about the city’s main attractions. The tour began in Senate Square right in front of Tuomiokirkko, a cathedral that is probably the most iconic and recognisable attraction in Helsinki. From there we moved to the lavishly adorned Uspenskin Katedraali, a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Now that I had moved out of Asia and well and truly into Europe, the host of temples that had formed the majority of tourist attractions were being replaced with churches and cathedrals such as these. We went inside to view the stunning interior, with paintings and alters and candles spread out through the entire building, but tread carefully so as not to disturb the large number of people who were there to pray and pay their religious respects.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The iconic Tuomiokirkko.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

The Russian orthodox Uspenskin Katedraali.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Inside the orthodox cathedral.

Helsinki's padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there's no shortage of padlocks.

Helsinki’s padlock bridge is far smaller than in Irkutsk, but there’s no shortage of padlocks.

We wandered through the city looking at a range of different things, from the government houses and monuments, to quirky hotels and interesting buildings. We also passed a bridge that was absolutely full of padlocks, just like the one in Irkutsk. I remember Jenna telling me there was a similar bridge in Paris, so I guess it must be quite a common European tradition. From there we moved to a market by the sea and had some lunch, where the tour guide warned us of the particularly vicious seagulls. After that we walked through a park and a graveyard that was commonly thought to be haunted, and finished with a building called the Chapel of Silence. It was a peculiar structure with a round shape and was made of wood, and served as a non-denominational space that could be used for all kinds of ceremonies, but what was so interesting about it was the acoustics. It was designed in a way so that it almost completely eliminated all outside noise – the silence inside the chapel was almost deafening. It was an eerie building, but at the same time extremely tranquil. The interior was beautiful, and I could imagine a small, elegant wedding ceremony taking place on the main elevated area.

One of the menacing seagulls.

One of the menacing seagulls.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia - and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

This monument was a gift to Finland from Russia – and was cheekily placed in front of the Swedish embassy in Helsinki.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don't waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

Despite the reputation for being haunted, Finnish people don’t waste a single moment of daylight, and this very central grassy area was full of living people soaking up the sun.

The Chapel of Silence.

The Chapel of Silence.

***

After the sightseeing I met Susanna back at my hostel to say goodbye. After a rushed and hungover breakfast that morning, I had decided that I didn’t want to spend much longer in Helsinki. I’d met some nice locals, seen the way they lived, and by the afternoon I would have seen the city’s major sites too. I have to admit, after being told how long I would be staying in each location for the last three weeks, it was a bit of a shock to the system to have to make these definitive decisions right on the spot. I like to think I can be pretty spontaneous, but I can’t deny it was a little stressful. Especially when I was booking my place on the overnight ferry at 10:50am and I had to check out of the room at 11:00.

But that’s what I did. I found an extremely good fare, so I snatched the deal up and bought a last minute ticket to Stockholm. I still had no idea where I would be staying, and I didn’t know anyone in Stockholm, so it was a combination of excitement, adventure, and sheer terror. I’d had a lovely time in Helsinki, getting to know Susanna and experiencing the excitement of the beginning of their summer, but it was time to officially kick off my Eurotrip and see what the vast, multicultural continent had in store for me.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.

Saying goodbye to Susanna, and to Helsinki.

The Fast and the Fearful: Tearing it up the in Siberian Spring

The morning after our first night at Lake Baikal was the morning that Kaylah and I were scheduled to go quad-bike riding. The rest of the group had decided to give it a miss, but the two of us approached it with an easy “I’m in if you are” attitude and ended up convincing each other that we should give it go, much like the way we both decided to climb the Great Wall back in China. I really liked that about Kaylah – she was always making the most of out everything, which motivated me to do same and take every opportunity head on, rather than just passively experiencing the journey. So despite having somewhat of a hangover – vodka is not my drink of choice, and I find the bouncing back a little more difficult – we geared up and headed off down the hill with Kostya to go trekking through the Siberian forests on quad-bikes.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

***

Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Oh my God, Robert! You fell off a motorbike in the busy streets of Cambodia! When are you going to learn your lesson!? But quad-bikes are a little easier to keep upright – so I kept telling myself – and I would have a guide this time, who would drive ahead of us so that we didn’t take any wrong turns, or attempt to drive down any dangerous paths. To save on the cost, Kaylah and I decided to share the quad-bike, with one of us driving for the first half of the trail and switching positions halfway through. We suited up, put our helmets on, and mounted the bike. I let Kaylah take the first turn of driving, so that I might be able to do some observation and hopefully pick up some driving techniques so as to not kill us both.

“This, accelerate,” the guide had said as he pointed to a small button on the right handle bar. “This, break. Follow me. About 10 metres between us.” The English was broken, but the meanings were clear. Yet as the guide took off down the trail and into the trees of the Siberian forest, Kaylah wasted no time getting started and speeding off after him. I’d started out leaning forward with my arms wrapped around her, like I did with all the motorbike taxis in South-East Asia. I very quickly slid back to assume the brace position, clinging to the small handrail that looped behind my seat. Kaylah has a pretty loud and feisty nature, so I guess I should have expected her to be a bit of speed demon. Though it wasn’t just the speed that slightly terrified me. As we raced through the forest, we occasionally had to slow down and stop to watch the guide manoeuvre through some tricky parts of the trail, so that we could follow exactly in his tracks and avoid any accidents. It was hair-raising business, though – the quad-bike jolted forward on some pretty sheer angles, and there were a few moments when I was sure that the bike was going to tip over. I clung on for dear life as Kaylah powered forward through the steep mounds of mud, seemingly unfazed.

Also – though I know my depth perception isn’t perfect – I spent basically the entire ride thinking to myself, She is not at least 10 metres away from the back of that bike. She’s two, maybe three, at the most‘. After about half an hour, we reached a small rest point in the middle of the forest. After we dismounted, the guide turned to Kaylah and gave her a big thumbs up. “Very good driver!” he said with a grin. “I smoke, then go back,” he said as he held up a cigarette, then wandered off a short way into the woods.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

“You were so not 10 metres away from him,” I said to Kaylah as we sat down on a small wooden bench that had been fashioned out of some logs.
“I know, I know,” she said with a laugh.
“I was so scared! There were a couple of times were I definitely thought we were going to tip over! But you were so close to him!” I was being completely genuine, but Kaylah has an infectious laugh that I can’t help but get carried away by, and so I giggled along with her.
“Ah well – I can’t help it! I’m Asian, we tailgate!” Now that made me laugh. Though she’d spent most of her life in America, Kaylah has Vietnamese heritage, but I loved that she still could find the bit of humour in what some people would have just deemed a rude or racist joke. We had pretty similar senses of humour too, which was probably why she was one of the people I’d been spending the most time with on the tour so far.

Then came the punchline of this whole scenario – it was time for me to drive. Once upon a time I would have considered myself a pretty good driver. I passed most of my RTA tests the first time around, including the one where you’re behind the wheel of a car. I can drive a manual car. I’ve never been in any major accidents. But my time living out of the suburbs has seemingly diminished these superior driving skills somewhat, as I stopped even owning a car. I became the public transport enthusiast that I am today, and while I still know how to drive a car, I guess the motor skills that are required to operate other motor vehicles just gave up on me. Cambodia was a great example of that, but the ride in as Kaylah’s passenger had already ensured that I didn’t have the same invincibility complex when I got behind the controls of the quad-bike.

Here comes trouble - me just before I took off on the bike.

Here comes trouble – me just before I took off on the bike.

That was basically just a long winded way of saying that I bogged the quad-bike in the mud within the first 30 seconds of me driving, and had to have the guide come back and switch the bike into 4WD mode so that it could get enough power to pull itself out. He stood in front of the bike, pulling on the bumper bar while I accelerated, and I was terrified that when it did eventually come free I would surely run him over. The bike didn’t go anywhere at any great speed though, and the guide just chuckled to himself as he walked back to his bike. Kaylah and I were also in hysterics – you can’t really do anything but laugh at yourself in that kind of situation, can you? – but I was almost tempted to surrender the driving back over to her right there.

But I didn’t. Just like I’d gotten back up on that motorbike in Phnom Penh, terrified it would still be the last thing I ever did, I revved the engine to the quad bike and took off after the guide. Unlike Kaylah, I was very meticulous about keeping the 10 metres between the guide and myself, though in the end he probably ended up slowing down so I was close enough to see his demonstrations of crossing the tricky bits. The scenery was quite repetitive, so I honestly couldn’t tell, but I feel as though we might have come back a different way. There was nothing anywhere near as steep or tricky on the way back as some of the obstacles Kaylah had had to ride over. For that, I was infinitely grateful. We arrived back in one piece, though I was dripping with sweat under the protective suit from all the strength and concentration it had taken me to not ride the quad-bike off the trail. You’d think that remembering to steer is the most basic rule that is impossible to screw up – but I’m just that talented, I guess.

***

Yesterday, we’d decided as a group that we wanted to take a boat out onto Lake Baikal. We’d been inspired by the beautiful weather we’d had on the first afternoon, but we were disappointed to learn that the overcast weather on the following day had made the lake waters quite choppy and rough. Kostya assured us that it would be windy and unpleasant, and so the excursion was cancelled. There was nothing else major that had been planned for that day, so in the end I was even more chuffed with my decision to do quad-bike riding, despite the mild terror it had incurred. So for me, the rest of the day just turned into a relaxing afternoon – a short walk down by the lake, watching funny YouTube videos with Kaylah and Kostya, and visiting the sauna again – though I missed out on getting another birch leaf massage. I’ve always been of the opinion that long periods of travel require those kinds of days, where they only agenda is to have no set agenda. There wasn’t exactly an endless supply of things to see or do at Lake Baikal anyway, so I think most of us were more than happy to just chill out and wander around the small town. We had another vodka filled evening that night, though no one stayed up quite as late as the previous night.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

***

The following morning we visited an open air museum on our way back to Irkutsk. It was interesting to see some of the old traditional buildings, and we had a bit of fun playing on the big wooden swings and stilts, but for me the whole day felt like a drawn-out, ominous lead up to the main event of our whole tour – the four days of transit along the Trans-Siberian railway. We stopped at a supermarket just outside of Irkutsk to buy supplies, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of dread. I had enough trouble buying groceries for one that wouldn’t go off in my fridge within a week – how was I going to plan and buy all the food I would need for the next four days? Technically, you coud buy food along the way, but we were told it would be far more expensive at the station platforms or on the train. I wandered around the supermarket, umm-ing and ahh-ing for a long time, making careful decisions, though the only one I was 100% sure about was the bottle of vodka – and even then I wondered if it woud be enough. Eventually Kostya found me and told me were about to leave, so I rushed through the check-out and back to the bus.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Travellers.

Travellers.

After that we had a couple of hours to kill before the train, so we wandered around the main streets of Irkutsk. We had a look inside one of the Russian Orthodox Churches, and then wandered down to the river. The fence along the edge of the river embankment was absolutely covered in padlocks. “It’s like the padlock bridge in Paris,” said Jenna, one of the Australian girls. They were all engraved or painted with names and dates, and pictures of doves and ribbons and other celebratory symbols. I hadn’t been to Paris, but a made a mental note to enquire about a padlock bridge when I got there. I think the idea is to lock it in the very public place and then throw the key into the river, so that their symbolic love can never be removed – but if someone had actually been explaining that, I mustn’t have been paying attention. I was probably still too busy worrying about whether or not I had enough food.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.