In Riga I finally manage to use a hitchhiker friendly alternative to couchsurfing, which I prefer but has a smaller user base. I’m hosted by a young, very laid back couple who take me to a hipster bar which I had first heard about on the other side of the Gulf of Finland . It used to be named after Noam Chomsky, but currently carries the even more enigmatic name of Čē. It’s an Interesting place, but since I found myself in a group of Latvian speakers I didn’t catch much of what was going on.
I’m in town to get a Belarusian visa. It’s not an easy one to get so I opt for an agency to do the leg work for me. But I find myself running around town for a few days finding an agency that will even help me. The trouble is I have to get a private visa since I’ll be couchusrfing, instead of a tourist one which will restrict my stays to hotels every night. But in the end, thanks to my Belarusian host in Tampere, and a friendly agency I manage to supply all the paper work.
To kill some time before the visa’s ready I head down to Klaipeda to see the Curonion Spit. It’s a long day hitchhiking but as usual I meet some great people on the way including a mother and her 8 year old child. I speak Russian to the mother, but the kid’s English is practically flawless to the point where I assume he grew up abroad, but as it turns out he just plays a lot of video games. The mother invites me for a short visit to the Hill of Crosses, one of Lithuania’s most famous tourist sights. I had no idea we’d go past it and if it wasn’t for her offer I’d have missed out entirely.
Actually Kleipeda itself turns out to be pretty interesting too, as it was once the eastern most city in the German Empire. And my hosts, whom I also find through Trustroots turn out to be pretty great people too. The peninsula itself is very pretty and luckily hitchhiking goes well enough for me to make my way to see some sand dunes close to the Russian border before heading back down to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
Next up is the Latvian beach town of Liepāja where an organisation has rented a floor in an old building and is letting people stay for free for a few nights. They’re a friendly bunch and it certainly is an inspirational, and pleasantly chaotic place. They even hooked up with a local cycling organisation so I borrow a bike for a day and go out and explore. Soon enough the waiting time for the visa is up and I head back to Riga for one final night there before hitching my way down to Vilnius close to the Belarusian border.
I don’t do much in Talinn, to be fair it’s my third time in town and I’m in need of a break. After a few days mostly spend hanging out inside the hostel with some brief excursions into town I gain enough energy to head out to my next destination, the coastal town of Pärnu where I’m more enterprising, couchsurfing again and visiting the local museum and the beach.
But seeing how I’ve been to the country before I decide to try and find some places to sleep in the countryside to see another side of the country. Turns out there actually are some couchsurfing hosts outside the big cities. First I stay with a Estonian-French couple who build their own house. They live close to Tartu in an interesting village where an enterprising local mayor used EU funds to transfer an old manor house into a center where people can rent a cheap workshop. Besides my host’s furniture making business the old stables and storage houses hold a smithy, wool workshop, pottery and oddly enough a longbow workshop.
After visiting a national park I head to the nearby town of Võru where the most interesting thing turns out to be my host. She works with mentally handicapped people and also she converted to Islam to marry her husband so she has some insightful views on Estonian society. I’m also her first couchsurfing guest so she’s still super enthusiastic and drives me around to show a feel local attractions, including Estonia’s highest point which is four meters lower to the highest point in the Netherlands so I’m not impressed.
My final days in Estonia I spent on the outskirts of a tiny village with a family with four kids and one giant and one tiny dog. It’s a busy household and I just try not to be in the way too much but I do join the family for a search in the woods for Chanterelles and ending the day with a barbecue dinner.
The guys giving me a ride to Turku are architects. So just before they drop me off I’m given a small tour past some cultural highlights with some background info. The city’s strategic location means that it has long been a center of power and has an impressive castle and church to show for it. What makes my stay even more enjoyable is the fact that my couchsurfing host is also really into music and takes me to a concert and introduces me to some friends with whom I have long nerdy conversations while sipping beer on the riverbank.
Helsinki is the first city in the Nordic countries where I don’t find somebody who’s willing to put me up for a few nights, and it not being a cheap town I opt to do some stealth camping in the city parks for three nights. That means I have to lug all my stuff around with me all day and as the sun sets roam around in search of a well hidden yet suitably comfortable place to lay my mat.
I’m never quite well rested and though Helsinki has a lot beautiful and interesting things to see, I do find myself going through the motions instead of actually enjoying my time here. By the time I catch a ferry to Tallinn I have a splitting headache. As soon as I get off the boat I head to a nearby hostel and sleep for a good 12 hours.
Though it takes a while to get a ride out of Oulu I get lucky and get a ride straight to my destination of Koupio. Once again the only reason this town is my destination is that I found a place to sleep there. This time my host is a Fin just shy of 20. But she’s incredibly well read and has some interesting things to share, including stories of her grandmother who came from the Finnish area in what is now Russia. The town is a big center for the diaspora, and the Finnish orthodox church is located here. Together we visit an exhibition of Orthodox Church relics including a bunch of original stuff from the Valaam monastery.
Next stop is the town of Tampere where I’m hosted by a Belarusian who works at the town’s main art center which provides a good insight into the reason why Tampere has such a good reputation for its art scene. But what impresses me most is the city’s old industrial architecture. One of the factory halls has been turned into a museum with an excellent exhibition on the Finnish Civil War, a conflict I don’t recall even hearing of before. Whereas Koupia is now the center of the Finnish Orthodox faith, Tampere is a city with a strong socialist history and it was an interesting, yet very unsafe, place to be a Communist roughly 100 years ago when a right-wing coalition declared independence as a reaction to the October Revolution. Tampere was even the place where Stalin and Lenin first met in what is now the Lenin museum. It used to draw in busloads of Soviet tourists, but nowadays is more like a time capsule of Cold War neutrality.
My next destination is something else entirely. Rauma is famous for its picturesque old town center filled with pretty little wooden houses along narrow streets. But after a few hours there’s not much more to see and my couchsurfing host has to work so I guess I’ll just walk around town once more.
Even though I get dropped off in Sweden, Tornio sits just across the border so I can just walk to my couchsurfing host. I even have some time to kill until he gets of work as a waiter in a restaurant, so I wander around town. Quickly I’m back where I started because it’s a tiny town. My host is from Samarkand, Uzbekistan and I kind of feel bad for him. He’s into partying and I can’t imagine he likes the long winters. He spends virtually the entire night I’m there playing computer games and we end up not saying a lot to each other after we get past an hour or so of small talk.
My first ride in Finland is in a convertible, so I’m off to a good start. The next ride begins pretty good too: a very big intimidating-looking guy covered in tattoos. In my experience people like this are usually super friendly. And he is, but at one point he starts mouthing off against refugees before opining that the Jews are behind the refugee crisis. He takes a detour to drop me off at my couchsurfing place and I feel kind of conflicted. On the one hand he was very considerate and pleasant to me, but on the other hand solely based on his political opinions I’d say that the guy is an asshole.
My hosts take me for a drive out of Oulu to a beautiful location just by a river to barbecue and hang out. Nature is still the best thing about these parts. The town is pleasant enough, but I don’t find a whole lot to do except for hanging out at a punk rock venue run in part by a guy I also manage to find on couchsurfing. It makes me realize how without hitchhiking and couchsurfing I would lose interest in traveling fast.
Just like in Norway it seems like a disproportionate number of the people giving me rides are either foreign born or have spent significant amounts of their life abroad. Out of the six rides it takes me to get to Umeå I’m given two separate rides by Syrians, once by a woman who lived in Australia but decided she found life in Sweden more gentle and returned, and one by a woman and her son who spent long periods of time doing voluntary work in South America.
As it turns out the woman and her son are friends of my couchsurfing host in Umeå who set up the local branch of the organisation with which the woman ended up in South America. My host himself plans to move to Chile soon. He has some great stories to tell about trekking through the continent, which provides some great entertainment in a city where apart from a decent art museum I don’t find much of interest.
Next I’m heading to Tornio just across the border in Finland. I get a ride there from a Ukrainian-Swedish lesbian couple in an RV who are on their way to the northernmost Ikea in the world. They invite me to spend the night in their vehicle and we have some pretty good conversations, even though it gets a bit confusing. The Ukrainian doesn’t speak English, the Swede doesn’t speak Russian and my brain gets tangled from having to switch every other sentence.
Stockholm is by far the biggest city I’ve been to since leaving Saint Petersburg and there’s a lot to see and do. But the most pleasant and interesting day is one I spend just outside the city. One of the people I asked for a place to stay declined my request, but invited me to celebrate midsummer with him and some friends. So one day I find myself collecting flowers in the Swedish countryside to decorate a traditional midsummer pole together with an odd mix of hippies and various other assorted folks.
Leaving town the next day isn’t easy. I get to a gas station fairly late and I’ve read that there is no good place to travel onward from until past Uppsala and the very few rides that offer to take me don’t seem to be going past there. So I spend half a night in a McDonald’s and half a night sleeping in the bushes waiting for day to break so I can have another go. This time I’m ready to take up just about any offer. A Turkish family drives me to the airport from where a a food safety inspector takes me to a petrol station on the north side of Uppsala. Then I’m driven to my destination of Hudiksval by an anarcho-capitalist musician and programmer.
After a few kilometers I arrive in the village where I’ve found a couchsurfing host. Other than the prospect of a bed and a shower I have no reason to visit this place. A man from Syria who works as a translator has offered to put me up, and I get the impression that he doesn’t have any reason to live in this town either. But we spend some time watching Russian sitcoms and drive around the area for a bit and it seems like an alright place to live. The area seems very beautiful but also very quiet and I’m glad I don’t spend more than two nights in the place.
Something about Gothenburg just strikes me as very pleasant. It has roughly the same population as my hometown of The Hague and is similarly leafy. But it also seems a lot livelier: perhaps that’s just because I’m spending two summer days visiting a really nice botanic garden, a bunch of museums and an overall pretty town.
Having reached southern Scandinavia I want to head north again, and follow the coastline of the Gulf of Bothnia to the Finnish border. I consider traveling inland, but people warn me off it, saying that there’ll be too little traffic. After a day I end up in the town of Jönköping, which isn’t much in itself, but lies on the edge of a beautiful and huge lake. After walking a few kilometers out of town I find a little path down to a small wharf with a wooden bench on which I spend a very comfortable night.
The hike to a highway rest stop the next morning takes way more time and energy than I’d like. Though the area is very beautiful it’s also very hilly. After about an hour and a half I finally get to the fence next to the highway, and after a few minutes I find a passage through to the other side. Then I wait: one hour, two hours… I decide to check the time on my phone less as it’s only discouraging me. Finally I get a ride. A pleasant guy who’s driving all the way up to Stockholm. But after about half an hour I notice my phone is missing. We search the van’s front seats but no luck. It must have fallen out at the rest stop somewhere. So we part ways in the hope I can still recover my phone by retracing my steps.
I dread having to go back since it took me forever to get here. But after about 20 minutes a Romanian truck driver gives me a ride. Him being an elderly gentlemen with a good socialist education I can use Russian to explain the situation to him and he agrees to drop me off at the rest stop on the other side. Luckily the highway is not busy, so I can cross it without putting myself in too much danger. But I can’t find the phone. So I start to hitchhike again in the same spot at the beginning of the rest stop so drivers on the highway can see me. After a short while a cop stops and says I can’t stand there because I’m being a distraction to the cars. I dread being condemned to only having to rely on the very few cars that stop at the rest stop itself. But after about an hour standing near the stop’s exit I get a ride from a woman to the capital and even manage to reach Stockholm before nightfall. As soon as I leave her car I pull out my netbook, find free wifi and manage to contact my couchsurfing host.
It’s a long way down to my next destination, Trondheim. A Romanian truck driver helps me along a few hundred kilometers, past the Arctic Circle. We fill the time with his stories about building a highway in the Libyan desert and his nostalgia for the days of Ceaușescu. But eventually he has to pull over to sleep. It’s almost midnight but the sun will not set. So I walk a kilometer or so over a deserted sunny road to find a place to sleep in the bushes. Next morning I’ve barely walked a few hundred meters before I think I hear something, turn around and stick out my thumb. A couple in a Tesla are heading to Trondheim airport and offer to take me along.
My host in Trondheim is a Greek student living on campus on the outskirts of town. It’s nice but slightly weird hanging out with him and his friends by the barbecue pit. I instantly feel ten years younger. After a day with him and his friends I spend the next day wandering around town and visiting its famous cathedral.
One of my host’s flatmates, an engineering student from China, has gotten curious about hitchhiking and asks me if he can tag along. Together we make our way to Oslo, where I spend a few days hanging out with friends and visiting museums before hitching out towards the Swedish city of Gothenburg. My first ride out of town is a bus empty except for its Chilean driver who has some great stories about making his living as a busker in England before falling in love with a Norwegian woman. Next a man takes me along who traveled to Central Asia and the Caucasus during the last days of the Soviet Union and the great stories continue.
Across from Hammerfest on the island of Sørøya lies perhaps the cheapest accommodation in Norway: a school that rents out beds in its otherwise empty dormitory for ten euros a night. But the reason I take a ferry there is not solely to witness this affordable miracle. The island is renowned for its beauty and It’s a great place to spend a day hiking over snowy hillsides and up a huge sand dune.
After one night back on the mainland it’s time to head south. I don’t have a whole lot of time to explore Norway’s north further as I plan to visit a friend in Oslo who will soon be leaving the country. So I hitch to a couchsurfer’s place in a small village a few hundred kilometers further south. It turns out my host is a pretty interesting guy: a former member of the Sami parliament who knows a ton about his people’s background, which is less obvious than it might seem. The government long tried to eradicate Sami culture and my host tells me he had to learn the language at university after his parents were forbidden from learning it.
I make my way to Narvik next. Hitchhiking is all right here, though occasionally I have to wait a while. But I actually don’t mind the occasional wait. The road follows a few fjords and it’s a spectacularly beautiful route. I do notice that almost half the people giving me rides are either foreigners or are married to a foreigner.
By far the most interesting thing in Narvik that I come across is the Second World War museum, which displays the conflict from various angles and does a great job delving into subjects other museums might leave out, such as collaborators and Soviet POWs. The city’s port was a major objective in one of the war’s early battles. Now it houses a lovely little marina.