around the world in 30 days – part two

Posted: March 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

Shanghai to Helsinki via hell

After a few fantastic days by the infinity pool and in the first rate work out center of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Singapore we were primed to travel. We’d eaten our way through the fantastic food of Singapore like champions. Our next leg was going to take us through Shanghai airport as transit passengers enroute to Helsinki , Finland. I can only describe China as a flawed modernity. Everything llooks quite up to date, but it regularly turns out to be something of a facade.

The ‘transit lounge’ in Shanghai was one of those. When we asked the airline representative to inform us about the process of entering the transit lounge when we landed in Shanghai we were told, quite politely, that there would be someone there from the airline to meet us at the gate to meet us. “Great,” we thought. “Couldn’t be better”. Our concerns about entering China as transit passengers were valid as they are very strict in their demands of a pre-issued visa for every visitor, rightly so, it’s their country. We had not applied for a second visa to enter China because of the expensive nature of such and did not want to officially set foot on Chinese soil and only enter as transit passengers.

The reality was somewhat different than we expected, there is no transit lounge in the Shanghai airport. There are signs saying there is, but that my friend is part of the facade of modernity that haunts China. Instead our friendly handler met us at our disembarkation gate and led us towards the immigration check point, much to our chagrin. We found out that transit passengers are treated like any other arriving passengers and when we asked why we were told by a very testy soldier that we were to do as we were told.

We found ourselves with two handlers in the line to the immigration counter, a tall soldier and our petite ‘attendant’. Once at the immigration counter the clerk did not recognize Patricia as a Canadian because she is Canadian Chinese, and began to fuss through her passport when she did not see the visa. Our explanations fell on deaf ears until a supervisor was called and only then was the explanation of the airline attendant included into the conversation. After a terse discussion we were stamped and sent on our way to reside in the departure lounge as if we had passed through a regular immigration checkpoint and not a transit procedure. China, does things a bit differently, so …heads up travelers.

Helsinki

Hands down, I love Finland and the Finnish people. I think that’s why Pat and I continue to travel there. We have done many trips to Finland, this time we chose to visit the western city of Tempere for the classic culture of the region, ‘purely Finnish’ the Fins like to say. Fins don’t consider Helsinki to be Finnish because it was built by the Russians and in truth it does resemble a Russian city with high flat featureless surfaces where the cold air seems to blow directly into your face no matter which direction you walk.We would also travel to the far north to the recreation capital of Finland in Lapp country, the ski hill town of Levi. Helsinki is a walkers city, it is small enough to be walked around in half a day.

The city is centered around a lake and everything is organized like the spokes that set into a central hub. An easy way to see the entire city is to take the circuitous tram that winds around the entire city core with stops in every neighborhood. We like to stay at the Radisson Blu Seaside, a redeveloped dairy processing plant that has an incredible view of the harbor. The Finnish style breakfast is lots of fun, smoked and cured meats, cheeses and forest berries, in particular the rare cloud berry picked in the local forests by guest workers from Thailand. The largest department store in Helsinki anchors the downtown, Stockmans is a wonderland of Finnish products and especially the fabulous chocolate. Two things strike you in this store, there are hundreds of different ‘blondering’ products due to the Fins love of dying their hair blond and the incredible selection of chocolate products.

Two days is plenty if you’re just wanting to see the sights of Helsinki, the low rise buildings can get monotonous after you’ve seen the same architecture repeated block after block. Because of the inclement weather most of the year the Fins have developed a coffee culture and these ‘kave’ shops dot most streets. Believe me, if you’re walking the streets of Helsinki in mid December you’ll want to get inside frequently. The Fins aren’t the most talkative bunch but service is polite and the ambiance is welcoming. If you really want to treat yourself, go to Fazer’s Cafe.

Fazer is the company that produces most of the chocolate and desert treats in Finland. They have a flag ship store downtown and serve up delicious hot chocolate and pastries. An interesting stop is the Postal Museum, few countries have taken as much pride in their postal system as Finland has. The interactive displays take you right back to the medieval occupation of mail delivery, quite fantastic. One important thing to consider is that the Finnish cuisine is quite simple. We like to use the extensive selection of take a way at Stockmans Food Floor rather than brave the restaurant fare of reindeer steak, herring and potato dishes. The rail system in Finland is punctual and comfortable. We took the train west to Tempere and after four hours across the rolling country side we arrived.

Tempere

After Helsinki’s bland architecture and driving winds, the small city of Tempere was a breath of fresh air. A resurrected industrial town, Tempere hosts some of Finland’s largest ‘tech’ industries. But if it is affluent, you wouldn’t know it, that wouldn’t be the Finnish way. Finland in general is very understated, the people are proud of the reputation they have as ‘The Silent Fins’. Bisected by a river that is lined by  older mills and crossed by a series of bridges, Tempere is walked across in less than two hours anchored on either side by two Orthodox cathedrals.

The most interesting building I found was the Kauppahalli, the traditional main market place for every town center in the country. The two concourses were lined with traditional Finnish fare, produce and handicrafts. I found that a bowl of soup and a small loaf of dark bread was a great ice breaker and I had my first sincere conversation with my fellow lunch counter attendants. They are interested in Canada.

What I found equally fascinated was that these men revealed that a serious interest of Fins was music of all varieties. Country and Western came up as a topic they could relate to.The coffee Fins love can peel the paint off the wall. One or two cups and we talked for hours. I came away considering the Fins reputation of solitude. They aren’t silent, they are giving of their conversation on a conditional basis. You just have to say something interesting. My good fortune is to be a travel writer. Everyone wants to tell me their favorite story about their home and culture.

Levi

Because we were in Finland in early winter, we decided that we couldn’t miss going to the far north for the Northern Lights and the Lappi culture of reindeer and Santa Claus. Fins consider the legend of Santa to have originated there. There is a ski hill in Levi which would be called a bunny hill anywhere else, but the Finns love it and pack into Levi as if it were an internationally acclaimed resort. It’s actually hard to book an internal flight to the town, we accomplished this by booking in advance. As advertised the high latitude village was below freezing. The cross country skiing trails are first class.

The mix of flat lonely forests and crispy snow is perfect  for the delicate rails to glide past the frigid creeks and over quaint wooden bridges. With zero light pollution the sky is as clear and as visible as an experience on the ocean far from shore. The silhouette of the spindly pine tree’s against the reflecting snow is as Scandinavian a scene as you can ask for. On the best days we could watch herds of reindeer being driven across the snow plains in the distance.  Closer contact can be arranged if you want to ride a snowmobile into the wilderness at sub-zero conditions. As a holiday resort the town has taken on the character of a resort with lots of fins imbibing far too much as is their national pastime. Did I mention the Aurora Borealis undulating like a green  florescent flag in the sky above? Jeans proved to be an inadequate clothing option for Patricia and she was frost bitten on the back of her legs. When you hear the phrase ‘Cold enough to freeze your butt off’, you now know it is possible! Since the Gulf of Finland hadn’t frozen over yet we decided to visit Tallinn, Estonia by ferry.

Tallinn

The ferry ride across from Helsinki to Tallinn is a booze cruise. It is only interesting because we got to watch a cultural event unwrap itself like a present. The Finns love to drink, they drink fiercely an in large quantities. This is not a culture of social drinking, this si a national addiction to alcohol. Fins take the ferry across to Estonia for the duty free liquor, period. Finland’s taxes on liquor are placed much higher than Estonia, this makes the day trip across the waters an economic consideration for the hundreds of thousands of Fins who make the trip.

A traveling Fin won’t pick up a few bottles, they have trolleys that they fill to where they look close to collapsing. Vodka is the drink of choice and it is purchased by the case, all brought back to Finland duty free due to the EU laws on free trade between member states. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be on a ferry with a few thousand drunks of all ages, the return ride on this ferry is the ride for you. Tallinn is a Unesco heritage site and well worthy of the designation.

The old city has been perfectly preserved as a medieval enclave. It is a wonder that it was saved from the ravages of the two world wars that ravaged the region. The winding streets lead into a massive square surrounded by the towering facades of the merchant houses. Patricia and I found a perfect cafe to while away the afternoon. I have always loved the ambiance of Europe knowing that the walls that surround me have the conversations of hundreds of generations before me. Tallinn was designated a Unesco world heritage site. The perfectly preserved cobblestones streets wind through the town leading up to the castle keep. A modern Tallinn exists around the old city. It is one of the most wired centers in Europe. The inventors of Skype come from Estonia. I found the city to be a convenient day trip from Helsinki and frankly, Helsinki should be a day trip from somewhere else.

Taking the ferry back to Helsinki is an other worldly experience in that we were the only ones who were in our right minds, the rest of the ship was dead drunk. There is apparently no age restrictions on the purchase or consumption of alcohol. I haven’t seen that many drunken fourteen year olds since I was in high school. The Finns had carted what looked like months of supply of liquor, mostly vodka onto the ship. It appeared to me that there was an ‘all you can carry ‘ policy. And, if you hadn’t purchased enough there was a duty free store aboard ship in case there might be a spare centimeter of storage space left in your car.

I would have thought the Finn police would have wanted to manage the number of drunks being let off tthe ship to drive home zombie drunk but there was no single representation of sanity at the dock. Given that Finland has one of the most onerous penalties in the world for driving drunk I would have imagined they would be a careful, not so. Fortuneatly my hotel was a stones throw from the dock and we walked home. I was kind of wondering about anyone behind the wheel at that point.

End of part Two…look for part three in a coming edition

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