Bracing myself for the Aeroplop experience, I barrelled towards the airport at 5am, pleased with a discounted price and in fact that I’d got a taxi (every car is a taxi in Ulaanbaatur) at 5am without getting attacked by one of those gangs. Winning!
The evening before, and my last night for the astute among you, I’d tried to do some shopping to bring exotic gifts back for those at home. Obviously a prized present would be the local Chenggis-branded vodka. Only this was the 1st of the month and shops in Mongolia aren’t allowed to sell booze on the first. Why? Cos it’s pay-day and they do what they can to try and stop the locals pissing it directly up the walls.
The first leg of the journey from UB to Moscow went without a hitch, even if the service was particularly Russian. Frankly that is all you can hope for from Aeroflot. Let’s not talk about the dining experience or the entertainment which consisted of a ripped off Russian version of Winnie the Pooh on a scratchy projector. Although I was then driven to the Russian English-language newspaper and learnt that a) Putin climbing walls is front-page stuff, b) BRIC countries together with Mexico, Indonesia and South Korea could contribute 60% of the world’s GDP by 2050. Mental. It did leave me wondering: whose uniform is more ridiculous, Austrian Airways or Aeroflot? You to decide.
With that ironic six-hour layover in Moscow, I decided – for shits – to have one last go at getting a transit visa from the in-house Consul. Who obviously wasn’t at his desk but in unspecified ‘meetings’ for as long as I was going to be around. His minion helpfully informed me by the power of google translate that it wasn’t remotely possible so I was as well to make myself comfortable and enjoy my connection. In a fit of petulance, it seemed that the best form of protest would be not to give the Russians any cold hard cash while I waited but hungrily rinse the free WiFi for all it was worth. It is highly likely that they didn’t even notice whereas I got on the plane ravenous, but victorious.
Arrived in Helsinki and was astounded to discover that when a bus schedule says it will arrive at, say, 1843 (that’s the time, not the year), it does! Found my way into town and rendez-vous’d with my generous host, Tommi, from the halcyon Filipino days. Immediately went down to the seaside to taste the coastal air and one of the best ice-creams in the world ever. Possibly something to do with Mongolian cuisine? Could this assertion be akin to Sarah and Dave’s claim, after the base camp trek, that Kathmandu’s Everest Steak House does the best chateau-briand in the world? Possibly.
I was supposed to be meeting the olds in Moscow to begin the great odyssey home but dying throe enquiries (including the visa-free for up to 72-hours cruise from Helsinki) revealed that there was no end to Russian bureaucratic malice. The olds continued with the Russian leg regardless and I dicked around in Helsinki, marvelling – vocally – at how it’s still light at 11pm and exploring the city and surrounds.
Lovely city it is too. Here are some random facts and observations, presented in schizophrenic manner. Sorry about that. A glimpse of life in my brain.
The Cathedral, for example, is Lutherian and a triumph of classy ecclesiastical design, if you ask me. Did you know that Helsinki is made up of 330-ish islands? Nor did I til I flew over it and saw the Finns basking on every available bit of rock like seals. They’ve been enjoying some fine weather so, being Scandinavian and accustomed to long hard winters, they all strip off in the parks and soak up as much as they can. The Moomins, Nokia and saunas are the country’s chief exports, though I shamefully didn’t manage an authentic sauna. The market halls (kauppahalli) were once a lynchpin of Finnish society (according to the guide books, but not the Finns) but now are just lovely middle class places to go for expensive pottery, antiques and coffees.
This part of the world is known for its beautiful people and mostly it’s rightfully credited. Good looking bunch, the Scandis. Except for a few of the ladies who still look like Asterix Vikings or – worse – weebles with legs. All the kids up here are cherubic, white-haired angels though. The lingo sounds a lot like Spanish but is apparently nothing like it and, having been given a crash course in pronunciation and grammar from Tommi and his welcoming chums over beers and hard-rock karaoke (you better believe), I’m inclined to believe them. Brilliantly, I also learnt that they have special words for ‘protective hangover’ (getting drunk the night before a big party to up your tolerance) and a ‘chew your arm off’ pull. Serious drinkers, the Finns, even if their beer sucks.
In terms of cuisine, Finland is mostly famous for pickled herring – tried a lot of that. Baked/poached salmon is on the menu alongside reindeer (quite gamey) and bear. Alas, I couldn’t track down a portion of bear as it’s not the hunting season. Bugger nuts.
Hankering for some of the great outdoors, I took myself off for a hike around the lakes and pine forests in the nearby Nuuksio National Park in Espoo. Kilometre upon kilometre of well-tended track await the not-terribly adventurous and the lakes are warmer than the sea at this time of year. I’d give you a reliable report on that fact, only I’d just changed into my swimmers and some ants launched a ferocious attack on my bum so I fled, quivering like a girl having only paddled. I did go for a bit of a stomp around several of the tracks though, pointed in the right direction – in impeccable English – by some ladies on the bus who were just out to pick some wild berries. As you do. The camping spots are insanely good, completely free and come with a proper, all-singing barbeque hut and little stash of firewood. So into the concept of conservation are the Finns that you’re not allowed to burn the fallen wood that you might find around you. Oh no, that might disturb an ecosystem; they bring it in for you from a managed forest instead.
Another day I headed in the opposite direction up to Porvoo, a charming old wooden town on the water. It’s famous cos of the Tsar. Once upon a time, Finland was not its own country but a Grand Duchy of Russia. Russia and the Swedes have historically fought over Finland and Porvoo was just one of the sites where the tussle played out. “Russia planned at first to annex Finland directly as a province of the Russian Empire,” says one website, I forget which, “but in order to overcome the Finns’ misgivings about Russian rule, Tsar Alexander I offered them the following solution. Finland was not annexed to the Russian Empire but was joined to Russia instead through the person of the tsar. In addition, Finland was made an autonomous state–the Grand Duchy of Finland–with its inherited traditions intact. Thus the laws and constitution of Finland remained unchanged, and the tsar took the place of the Swedish king as sovereign.” In 1812 the Tsar restored some of the lands to the Duchy that they’d nicked before. Nice of him, I suppose.
This was in 1809 and, don’t ask me why, but they call the meeting of powers and the deal they finally broker ‘The Finnish Diet’. Very odd.
Today it’s just a pretty bolt-hole filled with tourists and those same middle-class tea shops and trinket-peddlars that you find in the market halls.
Finally, Ma and Pa’s train pulled into town so I went to meet them at the train station where I passed time chatting to a Ghanan immigrant who, naturally, was trying to get to the UK. They’re all trying to get to the UK. He likes to hang out at the train station on a Saturday cos it’s busier and more exciting than his neighbourhood and he’s a bit weird. I bid the gent a polite farewell as soon as Pa’s pea-headed cranium came, glistening, into view and scooped them up to go check into our smug-as-fuck hotel (it was a particular pleasure for me to check in wearing my grubby backpack and crap Chinese flipflops) and reunite over a pizza. I know, how ignorant.
Spent the next day hopping over to Suomelinna Fortress island where Dad could enjoy working out all the military strategy while we ladies skipped around looking at the flowers. Thereafter I dragged them – I admit erroneously – to the Design Museum. I had thought it would be a celebration of fine Scandinavian design. It was a collection of glassware through the 60s. Pop didn’t even make it to the end before retiring.
Begrudgingly checked out of the hotel and into the overnight ferry to Stockholm. Ferry is a bit of a misnomer given the size of the beast. It’s like a floating airport terminal, complete with avenue of shops and restaurants. Because the olds like to watch traffic (??) we had to go up on deck to watch how the boat steered its course out of the harbour and through the shipping channel, adjourning to the bar at the front of the ship where Pop could still try to second-guess which <yawn> markers the Captain was going to steer for. A much more entertaining game after a couple of beers.
A buffet dinner was thrown in with the steerage seats so, ever hopeful, we dressed for dinner and made our way down to the resto in time for our allocated sitting. Yeeeah. Quite a result in the end though. Food was good local fare…and there was a wine tap. Two hours later, the be-ponytailed waiter who Ma had befriended came over to give us the head’s up that there were 15 minutes of drinking time left. Just enough for one for the road, whereupon we relocated to the bar upstairs with one-man-and-his-guitar performing the weirdest anthology of songs in the world. Robbie Williams, What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, other shanties, Dolly Parton – you name it. As his set drew to a close, the only remaining entertainment of the night was in the theatre. A tranny show! Delight. A nightcap perfectly attuned to my tastes.
Next morning we creakily arose and readied ourselves for the day with volumes of tea. Went up on deck to watch the docking (obv) at the appointed time to discover that we were still some way from Stockholm. What is this? This is not Scandinavian efficiency. Dawned not-quickly on our heavy heads that the clocks go back an hour when you go to Sweden. Arse.
At my insistence, the rentals had capitulated to one night in a hostel. Just so I could sort of give them an idea of what we long-term traveller bums live like. Only this lux Swedish model was a poor reflection of some of the hovels that I’ve stayed in over the years. One 30p a night Indian lodging in particular springs to mind. Let them off too easy.
After a picnic in the sunny park with the scabby tramps and refugees, we decided to cover more ground by getting bikes for the day. The hostel has a few fixed gear bikes available for hire and nothing else. If you don’t know, these are bikes that don’t have the conventional brakes but are stopped by pedaling backwards. Not the most intuitive, I’ll grant, and I didn’t love them… but not massively difficult to get the hang of.
Or so you’d think. Taking the rents out on them was at first like taking two geriatrics out for the day. We even got overtaken by a woman walking her sausage dog. In a fit of frustration after 45 minutes of dithery dawdling, I insisted that we abandon the bikes in the old town and go for a walk around the old buildings. Took in the heritage sites of the Gamla Stan (Old Town) and sought Dad’s fifth mandatory coffee of the day. We also stopped in at the Nobel Museum, an excellent display of why Mr Nobel – lonely, family-less inventor of dynamite and international businessman – created the prizes. Poor soul; all he really wanted was a wifey and kids to share his fortune with. He was a Swede but always said it should be administered in Norway for no clear reason. It engagingly shows the prize winners for science, literature and peace through the ages. This year’s science prize is ace; awarded for graphene (check out a vid of applications here, if you care), a carbon substance just one molecule thick that could revolutionize touchscreens and see the introduction of razor-thin, transparent mobile phones. Did you know that Hitler was nominated for the peace prize in 1939? Whoops.
A few of the prize winners have been invited to donate trinkets for display that are dear to them or represent their work. Particularly liked Llosa’s attachment to hippos. Apparently hippos develop keen family attachments and get ever so lonely when they’re not in company. One baby hippo in Kenya, distraught cos his Mummy had been washed away in a tsunami, became inseparable friends with a turtle. Substantially better than Helsinki’s Design Museum.
Back on the bikes we found our feet, so to speak, in the Royal National City Park, a lovely chunk of countryside hugging the seashore. It is an asset to the Stockholm landscape and well-exploited by the masses. Some of the lucky rich kids even get to live here.
We dined well but I won’t turn this into a ‘what I ate’ blog. That’s boring. Suffice to say that the blue cheese pre-starter was incredible.
Next morning it was a bright and early 6am start to get the train to Copenhagen. Bright and early cos I’d been in charge of booking and it was the same price to go first class at 7.15am as it was to go second class at a more humane hour. Settled into our sophisticated, comfortable private cabin and waited for breakfast to be served. Ahhh. Bit of a dweeby thrill for me to take the bridge connection from Sweden to Denmark too.
In Copenhagen we checked into the third accommodation option of the trip – a cheap hotel. Not bad but I’m not plugging it here cos I reckoned in the end it was a bit cher for what it was. Stockholm’s hostel was nicer, which is surely saying something. It was well located though and had a lovely view of the train tracks so the olds could indulge in their favourite pastime of watching and second guessing traffic patterns. On one Christmas trip to Dubai with the fam, we had rented an apartment in the marina on the 40-something floor. Returning from the standard trip to Karama with the sisterhood we found Mum and Dad delightedly reporting on the traffic patterns of the car park below, triggering much piss-taking then and ever since.
The Tivoli Gardens should have been on our hit-list but we skirted them and the theme park rides in favour of another bike tour, this time on city bikes. Bit like London’s Boris Bikes only they haven’t thought through a time limit so people ride off on them for days on end. Like a shopping trolley, you pop a 20 krone coin in the slot and release your two-wheeled steed for the day.
The city has similarities with Bristol, what with the bar/restaurant-lined quayside. One stark difference though. Guess how much a pint costs in this setting. £8.50! Good job it was Pa’s round.
Copenhagen highlights: the series of mermaids down at the waterfront, the creative approach to steeples, wildlife/conservation photo exhibition in town (ever seen a deer with an anteater snout?), learning that the original Zealand (sailors were notoriously unimaginative in naming new lands) lies here, and the formidable National Museum.
I should be all museum’d by now, but this one is super, ‘speshally if you’re into Vikings. Which everyone is. Of all the museums, this has to be in my top three. Obviously the British Museum is up there too cos we nobly nicked all the good artefacts from all over the world. The exhibition is exceptionally well curated and really conjures what it would have been like to live in pre-Historic times, from the iron age through to the Romans and Vikings. Did you know that the Vikings made it over to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and carved runic messages into the walls? Ruffians.
– Two 9,000 dog turds (their words, not mine) have made it into the exhibition to prove that humans were hunting with dogs yonks ago
– In 1783 a decree was passed in Copenhagen that limited dinner parties to 8 courses, plus salad, plus 4 desserts. A Lutherian measure to prevent excess.
– Breast pumps existed back in the 1800s
– Iron age women wore short skirts made of strings of cord and decorated with beads – inappropriate, much? Echoes of AA Gill’s incredulous appraisal of the Inuit traditional dress of seal-skin mini-skirts.
– Danish GDP doubled from 1960-80
After two days’ exploration and with the parents’ beginning to see that it’s hard, tiring work, this traveling lark, we jumped on the night train to Cologne. The closer you get to Britain, the worse the customer service. On this one the woman chucked a massive wobbly at being asked for a paper cup and the ticket inspector insisted on checking our tickets while we were still fully luggage-laden wobbling our way down the carriages in search of our seats. He didn’t see seat-finding assistance as a primary part of his job.
Our compartment buddy for the night was Daniel, a Syrian Christian with limited English who was in Europe visiting his various scattered children. He was some sort of legal assistant to the judges in Syria and, from our miming and pigin English/Arabic, told us that the current crack-down in Syria wasn’t as bad as it seemed and that the regime is not evil. Ahem. Interesting to know that Assad still has some supporters but I can’t say I wholly believe Daniel’s interpretation. Perhaps his standpoint would be a little different if he was in a Muslim underclass as opposed to the Christian elite but I don’t know enough about it all to pass judgment.
We had sagely stocked up on booze and snacks from Aldi ahead of our epic voyage, having learnt enough about Scandinavian prices to think it prudent. Cracked open our bottles of wine intent on sharing but Daniel was already armed with a hip flask of whiskey that he’d started tucking into. Made communications easier after the first couple.
I slept like a baby, so did Mum, who can sleep anywhere. Dad never does so whatevs. We awoke in Cologne to get a connection through to Brussels, with just enough time for a coffee at the station. Of course: Big Len is in tow.
Pulled into Brussels ready for a shower. All train stations in Europe have showers don’t they? Most do. Brussels has one dirty little cubicle with a door that doesn’t lock, no towels and a €4 price tag. And Notre Dame should check the Bell Tower cos I think Quasimodo was guarding it. Still, can’t be fussy so we spent time getting washed up and stashing our bags in a giant locker in the station (berated by some disabled girl in the process cos she couldn’t read the instructions and didn’t like the price) ready for a day out.
Well. I didn’t realise quite how pretty Brussels was. No wonder the MEPs like to hang out here. We went for a coffee, obviously, and a stroll around the Grand Place and Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, which looks a bit like Notre Dame – could be where our toilet attendant got confused – before meeting my old pal Norbert for some lunch and a personalised guided tour. He is a fountain of useful and useless trivia. Wickedness.
Obviously took in the famous Manneken Pis (didn’t realise they dress it up for different occasions throughout the year – banter), chocolatiers and beer houses, but he also showed us where Karl Marx once lived after being exiled and told us how Belgium more or less interviewed for a King after asserting its independence in 1830. The winning candidate was Leopold, which I think you’ll all agree is a fine regal name. They, the royals, subsequently decided that you weren’t a proper Kingdom if you didn’t have colonies, so they bought the Congo and created quite a controversy by brutally rinsing it of all its resources. But that’s another story. Separately, TinTin and the Smurfs hail from Belgium. We all have our claims to fame.
You can’t come to Belgium and not sample the beer chocolates and waffles, so off we toddled to a lovely cosmopolitan neighbourhood that I forget the name of but I’m sure Norbs will be quick to correct me on, for a couple of pre-Eurostar beers in the glorious sunshine. Bonus entertainment of inept drivers swinging into the posts at the side of the pavement.
Alas, this was the most fleeting of our stops so before long it was time to head back to the station and board the 1759 to London.
Arrived back in the motherland after a slap-up meal on Eurostar and raced across the smouldering wreckage of post-riot London (not really – didn’t look any different) to catch a train to Bristol. Made it by the skin of our teeth, necessitating a ridiculous laden wobble/shuffle/run down the platform from me.
Home again, home again, jiggedy jig.