Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Geography of Helsinki

1. The Geography of Helsinki
Helsinki is a smallish city on the southern coast of Finland, centered on a peninsula that they used to call Vironniemi. The capital region is roughly the size of Singapore, including also Espoo, Kauniainen and Vantaa which call themselves cities but can not for the lives of them live up to the name. The heart of the city exists as two chambers: Long-distance coaches start and end at the shopping center at Kamppi; long-distance and commuter trains converge at Central Station. The metro links the two chambers and continues on the eastern coast, part of the hellish lineup of inland seas, peninsulae and islands that is southern Uusimaa.

South of the double-chamber heart lies what I now call the Inner City, characterised by a rather idle and European disposition and ridiculous housing prices. North of the heart, the city is bisected by the railway line, which only starts to diverge at Pasila: To the west of the railway at Pasila is familiar territory, including the rugged mess of Töölö, the local businesses at Pitäjänmäki, and the grounded comunities of Haaga where I live. The east side of Pasila are the relatively uncharted traditional strongholds of the working class and the present strongholds of incredibly productive artisans of Arabia. The sad district of Pasila exist in fact in two pieces, east and west of the station, separated by the rail lines and an expansive wasteland used to fix train cabins and goodness knows what else.

Helsinki has an old town, existing now as the district of Vanhakaupunki (which means old town) north of Arabia. I have not been there, but I have been told that nothing is left of the original settlement. Finnish cities, unlike Baltic ones, had the irritating habit of burning down, many thanks to the overabundance of wood in the country. I like to imagine the city's residents collectively throwing up their arms in frustration at one point and bringing in their celebrity architects Aalto, Saarinen, Geselius and co. to build everything once and for all. In concrete.

Further to the north, the city begins to look like any other capital: a city by the coast, with roads radiating out of it. By the coast it would be nature, not man, that dictates the spread of the city. Among the numerous islands surrounding the place that they used to call Vironniemi, one could find many islands that have each been adapted to suit a unique purpose; Lautasaari a maritime suburbia, Suomenlinna a tourist attraction, Korkeasaari a zoo, Seurasaari an open-air museum, and Kuusisaari the place where they put the embassies.

2. To compensate for the wordy description 3 posts ago, here is a map of the commute. Also included is an alternative bike route for a detour to the heart of the city, for various reasons, but mainly to show off and brag about what a daring and outdoors person I am (only works on those with no sense of distance and/or have not done route marches in armytime).

I should sleep.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


The trip to the Baltic countries was originally planned with no higher motive than to bump my country-hit-count up by two. As with most solo travels, the motive of "just hanging around and absorbing the friggin' atmosphere of the place" is not good enough; I tend to get bored within a half-hour of reaching the place. However, a few things have made the trip worthwhile:

1. The Hill of Crosses
2. Kokle music (picture above from this site)

Trip is in four segments of forward-return routes, secured separately:
Helsinki <> Tallinn <> Rīga <> Šiauliai <> Hill of Crosses
Accommodation 2 nights in Riga (Hostel Tiger) and 1 night in Tallinn (Hostel Tallinn)
Thursday 12 July to Sunday 15 July
Expenses around 240 €

Tallinn was not part of the trip, but I think it should be mentioned because the interns went there together the week before.
Navigation pointer: The city focuses at the old town. The old town is next to the harbour. The city plan is very disorganised. The old town has two major axes, the alleyways Pikk and Lai. The center of the old town is the town square. When we were there, it had a medieval market similar to the one in Turku the week before. The medieval market had a medieval dance party, and the dance party is hosted by a medieval DJ.
Tallinn is where Finns flock for cheap liquor. We detoured at the harbour market to buy it, because drink is so important.

Transport segment Tallinn <> Rīga: Lux Express line, 19.80 € each trip
Free internet (works only insofar as coach is in Estonia)
Free flow coffee/tea/cocoa (tastes like cigarette smoke)

Rīga is the capital of Latvia. Now, through the devious influence of this thing called the Latvian Joke, the country has an international reputation of being poor and oppressed by Russians. Latvian Jokes are not strictly jokes, just extremely and improbably sad stories told in broken English. I should be ashamed of having ever laughed at them.

The Latvian countryside is similar to the Estonian countryside, with broadleaf trees, big fields, fluffy clouds, and rolled hay. The city of Rīga is frankly a dump, except for the old town.
Navigation pointer: The river Daugava flows northwestwards. The old town (Vecrīga) is by the river. A moat has been carved from the river around the old town. In the old town there are N Lutheran churches, 1 Catholic church, some museums, lots of restaurants and a rather modern shopping centre. I spend most of the time within the old city parameters, because it feels the safest here.

On Saturday morning in Vecrīga, I listened to kokle music. When the strings are let to ring, they make cool synthesiser sounds. The instrument looks like a kantele.

Transport segment Rīga <> Šiauliai:
Forward trip 5.7 Lats, return trip 40 Litai (nope, no Euro)
By the way, 1 € = 0.69 Lats = 3.45 Litai
Transport segment Šiauliai <> Hill of Crosses 60 Litai by taxi.

Šiauliai is a neat Lithuanian town in the north, and English is hardly spoken here. The town is a focal point for pilgrims on the way to the Hill of Crosses some distance away in the north-east.
The Hill of Crosses can not be called a hill in good conscience. Without the crosses, it is on the scale of a small pile of earth. The small pile of earth is covered in crosses and rosaries, which spilled over from the hill confines onto some of the paths leading up to the place. Historically, this was the site of a battle of will between the Lithuanian Catholics and the Vodka-chugging Soviets, in which the Russians bulldozed the place thrice over and the Lithuanians just kept the crosses coming. The crosses here today come from places other than Lithuania also, and I left my rosary beads there for good measure.

On the trip back, I stayed in Hostel Tallinn in one night. Hostel Tallinn is a dark and dismal place, and I am glad to have gotten out of there. To be fair, the toilet and showers are not too bad, and there are lockers.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


There's a mosquito in my room. Beforehand I have had the misconception that Finland is totally not a tropical country and therefore should not have mosquitoes. Then I remember the assorted {insert intimidating prefix}-flies in Siberia and hearing that in the furthest north of Lapland there are mosquitoes that carried babies off in their sleep. So the one in my room now, which is the size of a small bird, is considered tame. I should sleep