Monthly Archives: September 2015

Back Door to Russia—Down the Saimaa Canal

23 September 2015

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal with the Finnish-Russian border just ahead.

While Putin blusters and the value of the ruble dips ever lower, we wanted to slide into Russia without the need for an inconvenient—and expensive—set of visas. We found our back door through the Finnish Saimaa Canal, thanks to the fact that the Russians allow 72-hour visa-free travel, so long as one enters and leaves on the same watergoing vessel.

During the summer, the Finns run a daily boat from Lappeenranta on Lake Saimaa (Finland’s largest lake) down the length of the canal to the now-Russian port of Vyborg, on the Baltic Sea. First attempts to construct a waterway to link Lake Saimaa with the Gulf of Finland go as far back as 1499 and 1607, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the canal was finally opened. Goods traffic blossomed and between the world wars, Vyborg was Finland’s busiest port.

Then came World War II. While attention was focused elsewhere, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in the Winter War of 1940 (and later, in the Continuation War). When the dust had settled, the Soviets had claimed half of the canal, and large swaths of the Finnish region of Karelia, including Vyborg. Decades later, a lease arrangement was concluded, allowing Finland use of the canal once again.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal. Notice the old, smaller canal on the right.

In efforts to maximize our time inside Russia, we traversed the length of the canal four times on the M/S Carelia. Down a series of 7 locks, across a scattered chain of lakes (one with floating islands that changed positions every time we passed), past hidden summer homes and fishing holes, and on into the Gulf. There was a hearty meal of salmon and pork, Karelian folk songs, and a cohort of hard-drinkers making the most of the tax-free alcohol. Virtually all other passengers were Finns, crossing the border to savor the dying light from old Karelia and, in particular, the once-vibrant city of Vyborg.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Our ship docked in the shadow of Vyborg’s 13th century castle, set on its own private island in the estuary. Passport control was surprisingly low-key, as if we were entering a foreman’s trailer on a construction site. On the other side, tangled streets ran through Vyborg’s old city up to Market Square, where a medieval round tower faced off against city hall. This was once Finland’s second largest city. Much of the architecture is still in place, but only the facades are intact. Interior after interior remains empty, still bombed out a full 70 years after WW2 ended. An eerie feeling, wandering back streets in the summer twilight with empty windows reflecting the sky.

Parklands abound—both along the river estuary walk, and running for blocks through the middle length of the old city. Where the parks end, Krasnaya Square begins, decorated in red, white and blue streamers withering under the severe iron gaze of Comrade V.I. Lenin, still proudly perched on his plinth, commanding the city. The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution.

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution and still, apparently, in favor with the present government.

Our fellow passengers spend no time here. They are visiting Alvar Aalto’s library, and Hakman’s House, and St. Hyacinthus’ Church; or studying the historical exhibits inside the castle, which recreate the golden era between the wars, replete with photographs and letters and remnants of household goods.

Karelian culture still lives on, in its Finnish half of the territory. On the Russian side, the fractured shell of the culture has proved to have deep, stubborn roots, though all the original populace fled generations ago. There is a sadness underlying all this. Finns we spoke to about the loss of Karelia seemed resigned, but embittered. Russians seemed not to notice. On the boat trips back to Finland, the last light of sunset hung on until we’d crossed the border. As darkness fell, the stars emerged, along with the distant lights of Lappeenranta town. Not all of Karelia has been lost.

[For more, see photo gallery Saimaa Canal & Vyborg, Russia, 2015:]

Iceland: Land of Ice and Fire

2 September 2015

Nearly at the Arctic Circle, the land does benefit from moderating trade winds.

Nearly at the Arctic Circle, Iceland does benefit from moderating trade winds. That exploding volcano (south central) is no joke. When it erupted in 1783, the lava and poisonous gas created a nationwide famine.

Just back from a flying dash through Iceland, Finland & Russia. Will put up some photo galleries in the near future. For now, here are a few tidbits from the northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik:

Icelanders know exactly when their culture was founded. Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarson sailed in around 870 AD and gradually imported people, livestock, and seeds over subsequent decades. There was no indigenous population. Even today, the vast majority of inhabitants are the descendants of Vikings.

The written Icelandic language has barely changed since the 12th century. It looks remarkably like Old English, and is about as hard to read. The Viking Sagas are still at the heart of the national literature, and great attention is paid to poetry and the literary arts. Icelanders have a shared, private language; almost a holy connection to the past that only they can savor.

The quality of carving—and storytelling therein—is astonishing.

The quality of whalebone carving—and storytelling therein—is exquisite.

The oldest parliament in the world was convened at Thingvellir in 930 AD, as 36 chieftains gathered at the spot where the European and North American continental plates collide, leaving a dramatic valley rift. The Althing met annually for centuries, ending only in 1798. In 1000 AD it was the spot where the nation agreed to adopt Christianity as the sole religion.

There are only 300,000 Icelanders, and nearly half live in the greater Reykjavik area. 97% are connected to the internet. There are 126 swimming pools. More than half of the population believes in elves. Unless you ride the bus, you would never need cash. Virtually all workers pay 40% tax, but public services are high. Value for money, for sure (e.g. education at the public University of Iceland is only $700 per year).

Big Brother watches to make sure none of the celebrants has TOO much fun.

Big Brother watches to make sure none of the celebrants has TOO much fun.

As late as the end of the 19th century, most people either worked on fishing boats, or were indentured servants, grubbing out a bare living for a handful of gentlemen farmers. Between 1875-1914, a quarter of the population emigrated to the New World, leaving entire remote districts of the island empty. Bitter poems were written about the inability to survive on the land, and its harshness.

Reykjavik today is a hotbed of bands and electronic trance music. Back in the early rave days (late ’80s), the few local DJs were so desperate to kick the scene off that they imported an entire night club from London, just to show the local underground what they were missing. Those long, long winter nights pass a lot faster inside the clubs.

Dockside restaurants serve thick “haunches” of salmon, beet-red whale meat (no, it doesn’t taste like chicken), and even tender puffin, gathered from their cliffside aeries. Icelandic water—whether in the vodka or straight from the tap—is as refreshing and delicious as it comes.

Sculpture is an art form that seems to express vital elements of the Icelandic soul. The solidity, the weathered shaping of natural elements, the solitary silence of the wood, or stone . . .

The North Atlantic beckons from the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Museum.

The North Atlantic beckons from the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Museum.