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WSWC (1/3): Travel to Lapland - John C. Kirk

Apr. 21st, 2014

01:09 am - WSWC (1/3): Travel to Lapland

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Last month I took part in the Winter Swimming World Championships, held in Finnish Lapland. Most of the team flew out there from London; however, as I mentioned in January, I used trains and ferries to get there and back. This took a bit longer, but there were a few interesting things along the way.

Monday 17th March



I left Kings Cross St Pancras at 15:00. I took the Eurostar to Brussels (Belgium), and changed there for another train to Cologne (Germany). This was my tightest change, since I only had 20 minutes between trains, and the Eurostar actually arrived 10 minutes late. However, I got some very useful advice from The Man in Seat 61 when I was planning this trip, including a shortcut between platforms at Brussels. So, I made it onto my next train with 5 minutes to spare.

As a side note, someone recommended the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. This would potentially be useful if I missed a connection and needed to work out a new route. The bad news is that they stopped publishing it last August (see Guardian article). The good news is that some of the employees who worked on it have now formed their own company to continue publishing it. The BBC reported on this, including a report on Breakfast News, and the company sold out of their entire stock about 3 days later: good news for them, bad news for me. I've contacted them to suggest a electronic edition, i.e. a pdf file that I could download to my iPad and read offline. That way, they'd never sell out, and it would be less for me to carry. They said that they're currently focussing on their printed material, but they hope to produce a electronic edition in the future.

The Eurostar train didn't have many announcements; when it did, they were repeated in English and French. However, the ICE train to Cologne repeated each announcement in 3 languages (English, French, German), so it sometimes took 5 minutes to get through each announcement! It also stopped far more frequently, so it felt as if they wouldn't shut up, but I tuned it out after a while.

I reached Cologne at 20:15 (local time), then had a couple of hours to wait until my next train. There's a big cathedral right outside the station, which is worth a visit if you're nearby, although I saw that on a previous trip. They also have some coin operated model railways (inside glass boxes), which are a good way to keep children happy. Speaking of German machinery, I was impressed by their vending machines: rather than dropping food/drinks from a great height, the trough at the bottom would rise up to the level of the item you requested, then a buffer at one end would gently slide it over to the side for you to retrieve. Truly, travel does broaden the mind!

There were several recycling bins around the station (including the platforms), with separate compartments for different types of recycling. When I got off my train, I noticed someone wearing plastic gloves peering into a bin with a torch: he took out a plastic bottle, inspected it, then put it back in. I initially thought that he was on official business, making sure that all the recycling was sorted correctly. However, later on I was sitting down and a beggar came round. The person sitting next to me took a moment to finish his drink, then gave the beggar the empty bottle, which the beggar seemed quite happy with. I took another look at the label on my bottle, and realised that the purchase price includes a deposit. Presumably you could get that deposit back if you returned the bottle, so it's worth money. This must only apply to certain types of bottles, which is why the first person I saw was searching the bins. I don't know how you actually reclaim the money (my German isn't up to the task), and I wasn't expecting a refund when I bought the drink, so I gave away my empty bottle when the beggar came back.

Next, I needed to catch the sleeper train to Copenhagen (Denmark), but this involved a bit of detective work. I knew the platform, and I had a carriage number, but it's not quite as simple as having #1 at the front of the train. Instead, there's a poster with a map:

Poster Poster 2

The idea is that you read down the left column to find the departure time, then double-check that it's the correct code for your train. Then you go along that row to find your carriage number, and compare that to the letters (A/B/C/D/E/F) which correspond to signs along the platform. For instance, 1 of those trains has 4 coaches, numbered 251-254. If you're in #251 then you need to stand next to the "D" sign.

Once I got on board, I found my compartment. There are different sizes, but I took the cheapest option: a room with 6 beds (2 triple bunks). This is similar to staying in a youth hostel: I booked an individual bed, then I shared a room with strangers, and I had to hope that none of them snored too loudly. However, I also discovered a key difference: unlike English hostels, the sleeper train wasn't segregated by sex. There were 4 people in my compartment (leaving 2 empty beds): 3 men and 1 woman, and none of us knew each other in advance. However, that meant that we were able to chat to each other, and they all admired my SLSC hat!

Here are a few pictures of my compartment:
Compartment Compartment Compartment

The sofas act as seating space during the day, and they're numbered in the usual way (3 seats on each side). At night, they act as bottom bunks, and the backrests flip up to form middle bunks. So, the beds are perpendicular to the direction of travel. There's a ladder stored underneath a bottom bunk, which attaches to the wall near the window. There's a bit of storage space underneath the bottom bunks, and some more on a shelf above the corridor. Unlike flying, there isn't a fixed limit on luggage, but it's best not to get carried away.

Compartment Compartment

The Man in Seat 61 recommends a 4-bed compartment rather than 6-bed, and you would get a bit more headroom that way (i.e. more vertical space between the beds in each bunk). However, I think the bigger issue is floor space. There's only enough room for 3 people to stand between the bunks, so if 6 people were trying to get dressed and sort out luggage in the morning it would be a tight squeeze! In the top bunk, I found that I couldn't lie flat on my back: there wasn’t enough space between the opposite walls, so I had to curl up on my side instead. I used the middle bunk on my return trip, which gives an extra couple of centimetres of room: well worth it if you're over 6 feet tall! (You may need to look closely at the photos to see the subtle difference; this is similar to what I found when I was shopping for a tent a couple of years ago.)

There weren't any power sockets in our compartment. They had toilet and sink rooms along the corridor (no showers), and those rooms had shaver sockets, but it wouldn't be practical to charge a phone/tablet in there: you'd either have to leave it unattended or stand in there for hours. There wasn't any internet access either, so I left my iPad alone to conserve the battery.

Tuesday 18th March



Germany and Demark are both part of the Schengen Area, so I didn't need to show my passport when the train crossed the border. There was a customs guy who came around the train with a sniffer dog, but that made the other people in my compartment say "Aw!" so nobody felt intimidated.

Once I got off, I had a brief stop in Copenhagen (just an hour). This wasn't long enough to really explore, but I had time for breakfast at the station. I then discovered that they don't use Euros, and the Danish Krone (DKK) is different to the Swedish Krone (SEK). So, I wound up carrying 4 different types of currency around with me. I took 2 wallets (to separate sterling from foreign money) but it would be neater to have 1 container per currency.

I then got on my next train to Stockholm (Sweden). This was a 5 hour journey, but the ticket price includes free wi-fi and a power socket; this gave me time to research what I could do in Stockholm, since I had a few hours there before the next leg of my journey. I settled on Hellasgården, a sauna/gym next to a lake. We've had a fairly mild winter at the lido, so I wanted to acclimatise to colder temperatures before the Championships.

According to Google Maps, I needed to take the "T" subway from Stockholm Central Station to Slussen (equivalent to London Underground), then catch a bus from the "T-bana" (presumably a station). I bought a single (paper) ticket from a machine in the subway station. However, I couldn't use this to get through the barriers, because they only respond to plastic cards (equivalent to Oyster cards) so I had to queue up at the information desk and ask the person on duty to let me through the side gate.

When I got to Slussen, I looked for the relevant bus stop, but I couldn't find it: none of them showed the relevant route number. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Here's what I saw:

Bus stops

You can just about see the "T" logo in the background, above the red car's front wheel: that's the outside of the subway station. There were a few bus stops there, but the big depot was underneath:

Bus stops

(Just to orient you, if you look above the grey trailer on the left then you can see the McDonalds logo which is bigger in the previous photo.)

So, I found the bus, but I couldn't buy a ticket on board. I had to go to a ticket office nearby and buy 2 tickets; I didn't want to get stranded at the far end! By this time, the original bus had gone and I had to wait for the next one, so this was all eating into my limited time window. That's why I'm going into so much detail here: it's better to plan ahead and know what to expect.

Anyway, I made it to Hellasgården. I didn't take any photos, but the lake is similar to the Hampstead Heath ponds, with a jetty sticking out into the water. It had mostly frozen over, but they'd cut a hole in the ice around the jetty, so people could have a sauna, then go into the water to cool down. However, I followed lido tradition by going for a swim first, then warming up. When I went into the men's changing room, there was a sign on the sauna door which said that bathing suits were explicitly forbidden: everyone had to go naked. I asked one of the other people about the lake outside, and he said that people would go in there naked too. That suited me, and it meant that I wouldn't have to dry out my swimsuit before I wore it again. (Putting on a cold, wet swimsuit isn't much fun.)

I paid at reception to get into the changing room, and there was a separate door which led out to the lake. However, they didn't want people to get into the sauna without paying, so this was similar to a fire escape, and it was locked from the outside. This lock used a keypad, and the combination was posted inside the changing room. So, out I went. At Hampstead Heath, the wooden platforms are attached to the bottom of the ponds, but here the platform was floating, and I could feel it tilting back and forth under my weight. So, I did wonder whether I'd end up in the water a bit sooner than expected! I was a bit nervous getting in, but I went down the steps, swam around the platform, and climbed out. I then jumped back in to get the full experience, but I held onto the steps as I jumped: it was after dark, with no lifeguard, so if I jumped too far and came up under the ice, I wouldn’t have a good time...

Anyway, I survived that, so I was quite relieved when I got back to the building. I then realised that I’d forgotten the combination to get in! I made a couple of attempts, but they didn't work, so I had to knock on the door and hope that someone was going past inside; luckily, someone heard me and let me in, so I didn’t have to walk back round to reception. After I'd left, I noticed that I was literally bouncing on the balls of my feet while I waited for the bus to arrive: I had the familiar buzz that I always get after cold water swimming, and I felt much more confident about Lapland.

I made it to the ferry port with 10 minutes to spare, and stashed my gear in my cabin. This time I had a room to myself, with an en-suite shower room. Frankly, this was better than some of the hotels I've stayed in! The setup was similar to the train: I had a sofa, with a bed that folded down out of the wall when I was ready to sleep. (This time, the ladder was tucked away behind the door.)

Cabin 1 Cabin 2 Cabin 3 Cabin 4

I went up on the top deck to watch the boat leave port, and I was surprised that only a few other people did the same thing; anyone would think it was cold outside! I then continued my training regimen by going to the pub. They had free wireless internet access in the bar/restaurant areas, which was useful because the menus weren't in English, so I had to hop online to translate a few words. I was surprised that all the pizzas contained meat: margherita (cheese and tomato) is normally the default. I found something else to eat, but this was a harbinger of things to come.

I had a power point in my cabin so I charged my iPad overnight.

Wednesday 19th March



On Wednesday morning, the ferry docked in Turku harbour, in the south-west corner of Finland. My iPad didn't automatically shift time zones, so my alarm went off a hour late. I missed out on duty free, but I had just enough time to raid the breakfast buffet, which included a few veggie options.

Ferry

Turku Satama railway station is about 2 minutes' walk from the ferry port, and I caught the train from there to Helsinki: it arrived 30 minutes late, but I had 2 hours allocated before my next connection, so that still gave me time for lunch, and I went outside the station to McDonalds. I know that's a tourist cliché, but it seemed like the most reliable way to get a veggie option. While I was there, I saw "Ranskalaiset" next to a photo of chips. Based on my Finnish book, I knew that "Ranska" means France, so I deduced that this meant French fries. However, logical guesses only go so far. There were signs next to the bins which said "kiitos" and I know from the book that this means "thank you" rather than "please give me all your rubbish". That could have led to some unfortunate misunderstandings later on!

Mind you, it seems that my reading was better than my pronunciation. Nobody in McDonalds or at the station could understand me when I used long words (3 syllables or more) so I mostly spoke English. Maybe I should have started studying a bit earlier, but then again it's also useful to hear native speakers while I'm still at a basic level, so that I don't develop too many bad habits.

The next leg of my journey was another train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. I met a couple of other SLSC members when I got on, and then a huge contingent boarded the train at Tampere; this was a double-decker train, and we took over the entire top half of our carriage. That livened things up, and it was similar to having conversations in our sauna except that I chatted to people who normally swim at different times of day.

The train also had a bar (similar to a buffet car), with a slightly odd door:

Bar door

(I didn't notice the mistake until someone else told me to look for it. If you really get stuck, leave a comment and I'll tell you what it is.)

When we arrived in Rovaniemi, we all hopped onto a private bus that took us to our hotel. We checked into our rooms, then a few of us wandered downtown to see where we'd be swimming. There were a few signs which displayed the current time and temperature: according to them, the air was a brisk -15°C.

To be continued in part 2...