China to Kuusamo: From 16 Million to 16 Thousand

After nine solid days of hilarity in China it is time for us to return back to the motherland. My kids are in Kuusamo Finland with Ashlee, and I sense they are eager to have their mother back at their side. Well, at least the reverse is true. When it’s all said and done I think all of us skeptical travelers to China know we will be back here again soon. You may remember when I got my Chinese visa they issued it for 10 years. That means I have to come back, doesn’t it? At least it will be easy for me! The only problem is that I know about zero of the Chinese language, and traveling here would be immensely difficult without knowing the language. Maybe I should have taken Tara’s Chinese lessons more seriously! My kids have studied Mandarin for two years, but it seems to me they have not retained much, otherwise I could haul them along as translators if I ever make it back here.

I don’t know how to describe the way it feels to say goodbye to Tara and Charles. It seems so weird to think that Tara has made her life here so far away from her family in this foreign land. She seems very comfortable and confident here, happy and content. I guess that is what’s important……that you are content with where you live and make your life full and happy.

Goodbye Tara! Goodbye Charles! Thanks so much for your excellent hospitality while we have been here! Maybe one day we can repay your kindness! Thank you for inviting me to your most beautiful wedding where you so skillfully wove western and Chinese wedding traditions into an intricate display of love and commitment for all of us to enjoy.

Goodbye to the millions and millions of industrious inhabitants of China, the high rise complexes and towering glass buildings, the fancy train stations and airports and glittering upscale automobiles, the fast trains and incredible Olympic stadiums, and temples and forbidden cities and Hutongs, and incredible spas and shopping centers and art galleries and crazy drivers, and the Great Wall of China in all of it’s glory and magnificence! Goodbye to the incredible delicacies, whose flavors will linger upon my tongue for years to come, if only in my imagination.

We are back at the magnificent Beijing airport. One thing I have to say about my limited experiences in China, which I have said before….they have spent some coin on infrastructure. Their airports and train stations and subways are amazing compared to our aging structures in the US!

They might need a bit of help with translation though….”do not eat the stone”…..I am not entirely sure what they mean! And no, I won’t trample the water fountain.

Here is the big new Finnair plane that flies from Helsinki to Beijing…..the shortest direct flight from Europe….

How was your trip, guys? Thumbs up, of course!

I may have told you that we flew from Helsinki to Beijing on Finnair. There would have been some cheaper options, but it meant flying there with a layover or two. Finnair flies direct to Beijing and I now know why. Finnair is the only international airline that has the right to fly over Russia to get to Beijing, which makes it a quick 7 hour flight. Not bad!

Shortly after we take off I look out the window and see what looks like a serious desert far below me. Everything is brown as far as the eye can see. Hmmmmm……that reminds me of Mongolia…… Obviously I have never been to Mongolia, but I feel in a way that I have been there once, because I read this blog by a couple who did the Mongolian road rally. They bought an old Toyota in Europe and they drove through Finland and Russia, and then through Mongolia. I was hooked to that blog, I can tell you! I was traveling vicariously through their experiences. Maybe someday I will talk someone into doing the Mongolian road rally with me…..but they better be good drivers and good mechanics… looked pretty sketchy to me! I look on the map on the screen on the seat in front of me, and I note that we are indeed flying over Mongolia.

Then I notice we are over Russian airspace. It seems to me I can vaguely remember that the Russians had shot down a passenger aircraft some years ago that was flying over their airspace. Furthermore, recent news reports seem to indicate that they are becoming increasingly more aggressive and have been flying their Air Force jets really provocatively close to U.S. Naval ships and planes, and even acting provocatively towards other European nations! Well, it’s silly to be nervous flying over Russian airspace, so I try to relax and sleep.

I fall into a deep sleep for about an hour when I awaken to several travelers talking Chinese loudly across the aisle to one another. I try to block it out. What misery. Why are people loud on planes? Grrr……

Interestingly enough when we exit the Russian airspace the pilot’s voice can be heard announcing ¬†overhead that we are now out of Russian airspace. I sense in his voice that he is perhaps happy about this. Or maybe he is just glad to be close to home…..his beautiful home country of Finland, with its verdant green meadows and beautiful forests and plentiful lakes and rivers.

I notice a new development when I get to the Finnish customs counter. There is a sign that states that all foreign passport holders must show their passport and proof of their travel arrangements out of the country. This plane of course has a lot of Chinese travelers. The agents scrutinize the Chinese passengers very closely on arrival to Finland. I can hear the questions. “How long are you here? Where are you staying? Why are you here? Show me your itinerary. Do you have a ticket out of the country? I must see it. When are you leaving? How many days did you say you are here?”

The woman in front of me seems to be particularly flustered. She speaks no Finnish and only limited English, and the agent speaks no Chinese. Another traveler attempts to translate for her. Finally she produces the proof of her planned departure from Finland and she is let through the customs inspection.

When it is my turn I decide that perhaps this is the opportune moment to use my Finnish language skills. I am traveling with a Canadian passport coming out of China, so that might make me a bit suspect. The agent simply remarks that I have excellent Finnish skills, which he seems to appreciate greatly, and does not ask me for my itinerary. He rather ceremoniously raises his stamper above the open page in my passport and I hear the very welcome sound of the stamp being applied. “Welcome to Finland,” he loudly proclaims, and sends me on my way. I breathe a sigh of relief. I am safe at home again.
When I step out into the arrivals hall my friends are there waiting for me. I say goodbye to my fellow China travelers. I am in Helsinki for just a 20 hour layover and tomorrow I leave to Kuusamo in northern Finland where my kids are. For some reason the only flight of the day to Kuusamo leaves before all the international flights arrive in Helsinki, leaving travelers the choice of an overnight layover in Helsinki or going by bus. That’s a 10+ hour bus ride….no thanks! Lucky for me my lovely friends are most willing to host me.

My friends are apologetic when they arrive. They run a part time catering business and had unexpectedly gotten an order for 9 huge cakes for a friend’s memorial service which they couldn’t refuse. They offer to bring me wherever I want to go in Helsinki, but they themselves would have to get right back to their kitchen to start baking.

Well, if you know me, you know I am a baker. I would have none of it. I told them that I am coming to the kitchen with them and will help them complete the task at hand. And so it is that we spent the afternoon and evening baking up a storm. Fresh Finnish strawberries….the stems need removed. Let me tell you…and you must believe me….Finnish strawberries are so flavorful and sweet. I think it’s the 24 hour sunlight. It does something miraculous to the strawberry plant.

We finish the project at 10 pm. I am glad I was here to help, for surely without my assistance their task would lingered late into the early morning hours. For the night I get put up in their awesome suite. There’s enough room up here for my whole family to move in. Good to know…..

This home is historic. My friends have renovated it while trying to preserve the home’s character and original design. Since winters are harsh in Finland they put in a second set of windows without altering the authentic appearance of the Windows from outdoors.

Their home is like a historic Finnish estate (kartano) just outside Helsinki.

The acreage is beautiful. Across the street they have a darling lakefront sauna.

Their kids and their families live in houses built on the property. Even great grandpa has a house here.

That means that the grandkids pop in whenever to help take care of the new puppy.

The next morning I am off to Kuusamo in a little puddle jumper. Kuusamo is a town of 16,000 located in northern Finland near the Russian border, and is where our daughter has made her home with her husband. Kuusamo is a favorite tourist destination especially in the winter, and hosts up to one million travelers each year, that’s if you believe Wikipedia. That’s a lot of visitors for a town of 16,000! Well, make it one million and one, because I am on my way!

Now I have to kind of eat my words. I have said before that Finnish people are quiet travelers and would never bother anyone with loud banter in a plane. Across the aisle from me in this puddle jumper is an Asian woman. Three seats back is a boisterously loud and obnoxious Finnish man, who clearly has had some strong drink at this early morning hour. He won’t stop his loud and obnoxious banter with a gal who appears to be his daughter. She seems embarrassed, but he has no inhibitions. The Asian woman beside me is visibly upset and her eyes appear to be on fire. She turns around to tell the man to shut up, but her Finnish boyfriend tells her to relax. She asks for noise cancellation headphones, which I guess they have packed away somewhere inaccessible. She keeps mumbling and muttering the whole way about how obnoxious the man is. He orders a drink from the flight attendant, which if you ask me he definitely does not need more drink. I find myself feeling sorry for a man. How pathetic is your life when you are in a drunken stupor all the time? That is one thing that I don’t like about Finland…..their drunks….. ¬†Luckily it is only a one hour flight.

The Kuusamo area is very beautiful from the sky. There are no towering high rises here, no glittering glass buildings, no throngs of people each jockeying for their own little bit of space, no smog clouds obscuring the sun, no sellers of wares pushing carts, and pancake makers, and movers and shakers. This is just a small town of 16,000 in the middle of towering pine forests, verdant green meadows, lush and beautiful river and lake landscapes, where the air is clean and the water is pure, and the mighty mosquito reigns supreme. Oh….wait a minute….there might not be 16 million people here but there sure may be 16 million mosquitoes! Gulp…..

And the babes are there to greet me. Annika has a big smile.

We head over to Ashlee and Ville’s home. The kids have made me a big welcome cookie.

I can’t help but notice that Ashlee has House Rules pinned up on the refrigerator. She is going to be taking care of the kids all summer, and will whip them into shape in no time flat, I am sure!

Well, there you have it….Annika and Bjorn are already hard at work cleaning the car! They are getting well trained and it’s only been a week and a half that Ashlee has been training them!

We make our way to a store to load up on groceries. This is what 100 euros will buy you in Kuusamo.

The next week we will be spending at Ashlee and Ville’s cabin. Can’t wait! It’s completely off the grid. No electricity or running water, just my style! The air is so clean and fresh up here…..maybe I could bottle it and sell it in China? Hmmmm… idea…..