Friday, 24 July 2009

Reindeer farming in Lapland

We decided to do some WWOOFing around Scandinavia, something we have both wanted to do for a long time. WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) means volunteering our services to organic farms in return for learning some skills and being provided a place to sleep and home grown food. And of course staying on a farm with locals means you learn a lot more about the country.

Jaana and Jari run an organic farm in Finnish Lapland, just north of the Arctic Circle. Jari's family has been farming reindeer here for generations and the village of Tapionkyla is full of his relatives (including his 85 year-old aunty, the multiple times ski and reindeer sled champion of Scandinavia).

A house without a sauna would be inconcieveable to a Fin, and a quick dip in a lake North of the Arctic circle isn't as bad as you would think!! In common with Belarus the mention of a sauna is quickly followed by the mention of vodka!

The Finnish women show us how it is done!!

On the farm they also grow vegetables, have several hay fields, horses and quite a few dogs including this one - a real elk-dog (no, not the result of an unlikely union between dog and elk but a dog that instinctively sniffs out elk and barks when he finds one - they just cant get enough elk!) .

Every car in Finland has a dog and a toilet in the back.

The least drunk people get to drive home.

Lapland is home to the Saami people who have herded riendeer here for hundreds of years. They are fiercely proud, and rightly so, of their beautiful clothes made from blue cloth and reindeer skins.

The reindeer are very wild and are only brought in for the winter. Once a year, the reindeer are herded by all the local residents. Young animals are given a distinctive ear-mark to show who owns them and remarkably they all end up in the right place in the end.

The forest around goes on and on for miles. It's a real wilderness (despite some slightly questionable forestry by the Finnish government) and a very peaceful place. Elk live here (moose in shamerican). This is the land of the Midnight Sun and we were very happily walking around the forest in the middle of the night, when there's less mosquitos to bother you. This also means that winter is very dark and much of the work bringing in reindeer and hunting for the winter must be done quickly before the sun sets for the last time that year! The berry is arguably the best in the world (??!) its a cloudberry mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

We tried to go horseriding but picked the fastest horse in the world and the slowest horse in the world so had to communicate with flags.

After a fantstic week at their farm we hitched north to Kilpisjarvi, on the border between Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Arriving at the Finnish/Norwegian border

There we saw the first mountains we had encountered in a long time and climbed the nearest one at midnight, looking across to Norway where we would head the next day.

It was a beautiful warm night and the clouds slowly crept into the valleys like big fluffy rivers:

In the Baltics

After leaving Belarus we had few plans. Our project we had lined up in India fell through and we were left with a blank page in the middle of summer! So we looked on the bright side and decided to head slowly north. We took a bus from Minsk to Vilnius in Lithuania. Borders can make quite a difference: we had become quite used to the way things worked in Belarus - there's a complex system and a lot of bureaucarcy involved in everything. Vilnius felt extremely laid-back in comparison, and there were tourists.... everywhere. So we ambled the streets and took a chance to relax a bit.

We had hatched a plot to go north through Finland and pick up some skills from working on organic farms in Scandinavia. We hoped to catch a boat from Klaipeda on the Lithuanian coast. Sadly the ferries don't run any more, but the Curonian spit, a long chain of sand-dunes running from Kaliningrad to Klaipeda, drew us in for a few days. Being coastal people, it was nice to see the sea again.

The Baltic sits on one side of the Spit with long white beaches.

In the middle there are big sand-dunes, rivalling even the dunes of Formby. These ones have been protected as a National Park though and access is pretty restricted as there is a lot of wildlife such as elk and wild boar inhabiting the woods.

On the other side is a big lagoon, very important to locals for fishing.
The view down towards town from near our campsite.
Wild strawberries were a good part of any bike ride.

One large part of the woods was completely bare. The largest colony of cormorants and herons in Europe had turned the trees white and if you stood still for too long, you would be too.

Wood warbler with food for its chicks.

Hooded crows in the lagoon.

Red-backed shrike.
So instead of an easy ferry to Finland, we had to take a few buses through the Baltics to Riga and then to Tallin. Unfortunately this was about all we saw of Estonia as the ferry took us across to Helsinki.

She likes to be beside the seaside.
Helsinki ws an impressive city to arrive in with small islands scattered everywhere. We were all too aware it was going to be a little pricey though. One 10 minute tram ride cost us 5 euros for a quick reminder, approximately 20 times more expensive than Minsk.
We thought summer was ending and geese were flying south but these seem to be popular pets.

Beware pickpockets.

Too many nights on buses means the site of a flat rock by the sea can't be resisted.
We also became aware that our standards had dropped a tad and Neil had to wave goodbye to some old friends.

Maybe we'd need some warmer clothes for futher north? These foxes and reindeer were pricey items - thankfully we found a good 2nd hand shop for some nearly new shoes. Helsinki seemed like a great place, but not to be a tourist. We booked ourselves an overnight train to Rovaniemi, right about on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, where we had organised to stay on a reindeer farm.

Weekend in Lagorsk, Belarus

For our last weekend in Belarus, at the end of June, our friend Olya invited us to go and stay with her family for some proper Belarussian hospitality and culture. So we headed to Lagorsk, a little way outside of Minsk, initially on the wrong bus of course. Lagorsk is not far away from the capital but you don't have to go far to get into the countryside. We had a very memorable weekend which made it pretty hard to leave - if the visa hadn't expired we might just have stayed.

Olya taking some pictures near her home.

Fishing lake outside Lagorsk.

The area was littered with beautiful small villages, flower meadows from the low intensity farming they practice and lots of wildlife.

Despite being in the country for two months, we hadn't had our first sauna yet. Saunas are a serious business here and we were given a serious cleansing with some birch twigs while wearing only these very practical hats. The experience was followed in the traditional way with a few vodkas, salted beef and wild mushrooms. The forests were just filling with berries and lots of people were out picking wild strawberries which can fetch a good price at the market.

Olya's mum kept producing pancakes (Blini) with honey from the back garden. Her dad is a forester and keeps bees in his spare time. This is a very popular past-time in Belarus and the value to the countryside is recognised with beekeepers being given tax breaks. Note the lack of gloves - he's quite hard and took me quite easily in an arm wrestle after a few vodkas.

On the Sunday we visited the nearby memorial at Katyn which commemorates all the hundreds of villages burned by the Nazis during WWII (or The Great Patriotic War as it is known in Belarus). The memorial lies on the site of the old village of Katyn. The monument depicts a man who returned to the village after the event to find his grandson. There's a chimney stack for every house that stood there and a bell on each that tolls every few minutes. Remembrance of the war and the country's eventual victory against occupying forces is frequent and not just once a year as in the UK. For example newly wed couples all visit memorials after their ceremony and place flowers there.

The Victory in the war is still an important political point and reminders are everywhere. Many plaques with strong messages and Communist symbology stood around the site.

On a lighter note, Belarus has some interesting cuisine. One example popular with us was Gil - stringy cheese smoked in beer!