• Aaron

Europe - Finland and the Baltic States

Helsinki, Finland

After riding a real horse bareback in remote north west Mongolia, and a camel in the Gobi Desert, this plastic carousel horse might seem decidedly tame for adventurous little Kornelia... but she loves riding them all!


This blog post was written from back home in New Zealand, while self-isolating as a family amidst the coronavirus lock-down. The kids and me arrived home five weeks before the lock-down commenced (Sylwia a month earlier, as will be explained below), this at a time when there was still only limited visibility of what was about to grip the world. And equally before it would fully dawn on me just how fortunately timed our 10-month long Russia & Central Asia to England expedition really was. We did not cut our trip short – there was no need, as we successfully reached our planned end point in England in February. But I shudder to think where we’d be now had we been attempting this overland journey this year, with borders shutting down all around us!

Casting my mind back to Tajikistan's thoroughly enjoyable high Pamirs, where local people live with seemingly negligible resources and survive on extremely low incomes by world standards, I wonder how the Wakhan Valley family we spent time with are getting on now. Quite possibly largely ordinarily! They grow their own crops in their manually ploughed fields and grow fruit in a little orchard above their mud-brick home. Their goats roam freely nearby. There appeared to be little they needed to source from a local market. Devlatsho may have paused doing ad hoc building work, although that income was largely for savings, as the family has no rent/mortgage to pay on their homemade house. Recall that heating and cooking is powered by the freely available and surprisingly effective fuel source of the Pamirs - cattle dung. Local Tajik and Afghan people may appear to have little from a Western perspective, but equally they need so little that they can't provide for themselves. They live far more in balance with nature than people tend to in developed countries, and at a time like this that may be to their advantage in some respects. Either way, I feel quite certain they did not rush to the local market to stockpile toilet paper!

When the kids and me visited the UK, from the end of January through mid February, there were initially just two confirmed cases of coronavirus there. I think this may have risen to around eight cases (zero deaths) before we flew out. As I publish this post the UK's death toll has exceeded 10,000. It's hard to believe how much the world could change in under two months! I can assure you that all was normal in Europe when we drove across the continent.

From locked down New Zealand I presently have ample time on my hands to complete writing this blog, so I'll return now to the main story.

Finland - Mid December 2019

Riding the metro train in Helsinki

Finland had not been an intended part of our journey. We might have briefly visited Helsinki by ferry from Estonia on our way across Europe, this assuming things had gone to plan. But things certainly weren't going to our original plan and we had never envisaged we would end up becoming so familiar with Helsinki as to feel like temporary residents. Not that Helsinki is a bad place to spend some time by any means, it's just that we lamented the lack of control of our circumstances and ability to move onwards.

Let me briefly recap where things ended with my previous blog post. We had all made it out of Russia (just!) in time to avoid any potentially severe immigration issues, hauling the crippled Pajero over the Finnish border too. I was first to arrive at the small guesthouse we'd booked in the tiny seaside village of Kotka, with the rest of the family joining me there around 1am. Owing to the confusion, chaos and even aggravation (a reference to the extortionate truck driver!) that had clouded our final day in Russia, the Pajero had been left at the Finnish port of Hamina - about 30km away.

And so we awoke to our first morning in Finland with mixed emotions. On the one hand there was a huge sense of relief to be out of Russia - it was such a big weight off our shoulders, even if we still had much to do to resolve our circumstances. By crossing into the EU the kids and me (on NZ passports) all automatically received 90 days entry, while Sylwia has a Polish passport. So we all now had ample time to arrange shipping of the Pajero back to New Zealand and to work out how we would complete our journey 'vehicle-less'. But things were about to take another unexpected turn. We entered Finland fully intending to ship the Pajero home, but it would turn out that our Russian shipping agent didn't really have experience with shipments to New Zealand and had based a reasonable sounding price estimate on a shipment he'd previously arranged to Venezuela. The reality is that it's highly cost prohibitive to ship out of Finland, or anywhere necessitating passage across the Baltic Sea for that matter, and when the final quote crystalised at double the initial estimate I quickly went cold on it. I knew we could ship out of the UK for a third the cost we were being quoted ex Finland. If there was any way to get the Pajero to the UK then savings of around NZ$5,000 would be available towards the cost of making that happen. Ultimately this caused me to revisit the idea of having the engine rebuilt in Finland rather than returning the Pajero home broken.

Initially things seemed to progress rapidly on the engine rebuild front. The Pajero was hauled to a workshop nearer Helsinki and we too moved to Helsinki. I was impressed that the workshop owner, an English speaking Russian man, was so eager to have us on our way before Christmas and had his mechanic working around the clock to achieve this. In hindsight I wonder if the workshop owner may have had cashflow issues and it was perhaps this that was prompting him to quickly turn around my job. But there's no point cutting corners on an engine rebuild - do it once and do it right. The good news was that the engine block and pistons had not been harmed by the overheat incident and a damaged cylinder head was the only issue - very lucky indeed and testament to how tough these Pajeros are. But in an overzealous effort to complete my job rapidly the workshop made some poor decisions, choosing to excessively machine the damaged cylinder head when it was clearly beyond being refurbished. They progressed this approach before I had been fully informed, and so I was pleased really that it failed to work - better that it fail to work immediately than fail 1,000 km down the road, leaving us to repeat this drama all over again!

And so it was agreed that a replacement cylinder head would be found and fitted and - just to be safe - the pistons would get new rings. I figured they might as well replace the bearings too for the negligible additional cost it would entail. Such a rebuild is a big job and obviously it wasn't going to be achieved over the Christmas and New Year period, so we accepted we would be in for a bit of a wait and set about determining how we wanted to enjoy the festive period.

A few photos from around Helsinki:

Tallin, Estonia for Christmas

Charming little Tallin's festive Christmas Market

Tallin, in Estonia, is just a three hour ferry across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki. It's also where we had been headed, before we were misdirected towards Finland. It's helpful that prices for pretty much everything are nearly half on the Estonian side of the Baltic, which assisted given I now had a very costly and unexpected engine rebuild to pay for. We rented a lovely little apartment in Tallin where we could spend an uninterrupted Christmas break.

Although we'd only booked four nights in lovely little Tallin, towards the end of that period we were growing restless. Tallin is small and little time is needed to explore it on foot. Additionally, being winter, we were spending too much time indoors for our liking - we are very much a 'free range' family! The relatively short period since blowing the engine in Russia had reconfirmed something we already knew - that our preferred means of overland travel is by vehicle. Preferably not just any vehicle - the Pajero is perfectly setup for our needs. We hadn't been enjoying the new found need to lug heavy bags on and off trams, buses and ferries and Sylwia was developing a back injury. And so out of the blue, I decided we would rent a car and drive it to Poland - Sylwia's country of birth - for New Year's. We were all reinvigorated by this idea! On the morning of Friday 27th December, Micky (Anastazja) and me set off to collect the rental car. We returned to load up the family and our bags and we were off!

Estonia to Poland... and Back!

The route shown on the map above turned out to be fairly slow going. Good roads, but mostly local roads with almost no motorway sections through this part of Europe. We're no strangers to Europe, having previously driven or flown to nearly every corner of the continent during the decade we lived and worked in London. But the Baltic states (including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Scandinavia were all new to us. We drove to Poland believing this would be a section we would soon be repeating when the Pajero was finally ready to travel out of Finland... but as you'll soon read below, the plan had evolved again by then.

We had an enjoyable ten days in Poland catching up with Sylwia's friends and relations. These are people I've met previously on numerous trips to Poland, and yet the vast majority of them don't speak a word of English. I'm accustomed to having to sit largely silently through these reunions, but at least these days I have the kids to join me in not understanding what anyone is saying! Fortunately however, we were able to attend an enjoyable New Year's eve party with English speaking friends. I'm not sure why we didn't take more photos in Poland.

In Poland is where things began taking an unusual turn with the engine rebuild - the workshop owner became suddenly non responsive. He had been highly communicative earlier on, but now he didn't respond to emails or texts and didn't answer his phone. I was eager to know if he had managed to find a replacement cylinder head, even if I wasn't overly keen on his plan to pick one up from a wrecker. He'd visited our apartment back in Tallin for cash to cover the cost of shopping for a cylinder head, and yet he didn't seem to be making any progress on that front - the situation wasn't inspiring confidence. In any case I couldn't see the point in mating a reconditioned engine block to whatever used cylinder head he could find at a wrecker, and this was bothering me! Eventually I managed to get some vague responses from him, during which it was agreed that I would take over responsibility for sourcing a cylinder head. I managed to locate one that had been fully reconditioned at a UK based engineering firm of good reputation, and they were willing to freight it to Finland. In truth that is over-simplifying things. I needed the casting number off the side of the old cylinder head in order to be confident I was ordering a replacement of the same precise specification, and though I asked the workshop manager to have his mechanic check this for me, he instead resumed being non-responsive. This was extremely unhelpful and the cause of considerable frustration on my part. Luckily I had taken many photos on a previous visit to the workshop and it occurred to me to check through those photos - as luck would have it I had taken a photo that captured the casting number I needed, and on this basis I was able to proceed with sourcing the part.

In theory things should have been coming together at this point. By the time we could drive back to Finland the cylinder head I'd ordered should be there, enabling final reassembly of the Pajero's engine. But this issue with the workshop owner being increasingly vague and non-responsive wasn't set to improve any time soon. And that's putting it lightly - the constant delays eventually were the cause of Sylwia needing to return to New Zealand without me and the kids, as will be explained more fully below.

Riga, Latvia

We took several days to return to Tallin, Estonia, most notably stopping for three nights in Riga, Latvia. With the cylinder head in transit during this time there was no mad rush. Riga has a lovely historic old town that is very enjoyable to stroll around. I'd love to visit again in the summer next time, but there was no shortage of charming little cafes to step inside for a break and to warm up. And it would seem that Latvians are well versed in baking delicious cakes and other delicacies. Also notable are the richly featured historic buildings.

Return to Helsinki, Finland

The all too familiar walk to/from our preferred aparthotel in Helsinki

Efforts to communicate with the workshop owner remained arduous during this time. On Friday 10th January 2020, the same day we returned to Tallin, Estonia, I received confirmation from the freight company that the reconditioned cylinder head had been successfully delivered to the workshop. Now it was all down to the workshop to complete reassembly. My calls and texts to the workshop owner continued to go mostly unanswered. Often he'd reject my call and send a text message indicating he would call me soon, but mostly he didn't. We took the ferry back to Helsinki on Monday 13th January totally unsure what was going on with the engine rebuild. By mid that week, with the communication issue failing to have improved, we were totally fed up. In an act of pure frustration we resolved that we would descend on the workshop in person - the whole family! - to see for ourselves what was going on. Two buses, a train and a bit of a walk - all of which actually took a long while - and we arrived at the workshop. Fortunately workers were present and we could enter, though I'm not sure our unannounced arrival was entirely appreciated.

The workshop owner was not present, but the Russian mechanic working on my engine was. By the looks of things if he actually had all the parts he needed he would have been making progress. He spoke no English and seemed disinterested in attempting to communicate with me. An English speaking worker got the workshop owner on the phone and I was able to make our frustrations clearly known. He indicated that some manner of family problem had taken his attention, but that he was now focussed on getting us back on the road. Right now the problem was that they still didn't have the new piston rings and bearings. I'd managed to source a cylinder head all the way from the UK, but they still didn't have the small parts to hand and this was preventing the mechanic from progressing the job. At least I got to see the reconditioned cylinder head that I'd ordered - pleasingly it looked brand new!

The 'Cheapsleep' hostel in Helsinki, where we ended up a couple of times. It's inoffensive, but not as good as our preferred little aparthotel, which we booked whenever it was available.

Promises were made that the engine would be rebuilt over the weekend. This failed owing to one piston ring said to have been missing from its packet. When the missing ring was finally sourced it was discovered that all the rings were the wrong size to fit my pistons. Frustratingly the poor communication with the workshop owner continued. Almost daily we would need to check out of our accommodations, unsure whether this would be the day we could collect the Pajero and move onwards. Several times we needlessly had to relocate to other accommodations across Helsinki on public transport; this after missing an opportunity to rebook at our preferred aparthotel due to the lack of communication. On one very disappointing occasion we moved out of the lovely little aparthotel that we all really enjoyed and into a filthy hostel that seemed to have some rather strange guests - that was just for one night thankfully and we couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Sylwia Can't Stay... We Must Complete the Trip as '4GoOverland'!

Helsinki Airport - 23 January 2020

As the engine rebuild became protracted I had continually recalculated how quickly we would be able to make our way across Europe when it was finally possible to hit the road. Sylwia had very limited time remaining, with a teaching position to take up in Christchurch. The workshop owner finally got serious about resolving issues after the piston rings turned out to be the wrong size. He offered that his friend in St Petersburg, Russia, would personally buy new rings at a Mitsubishi dealer and bring them by train to Helsinki. But by this point it was clear that Sylwia had run out of time. Although I'd managed to speed up our projected time-frame to cross Europe and reach England, in part by changing our route to go across Sweden (sleeping the first night in a cabin on a ship by itself saves a day), it was clear that we'd reached the limit of what we could adjust for and Sylwia would have to fly out from Helsinki. It was very disappointing that she would not be able to end the trip with us in England. On Thursday 23rd January we took Sylwia to the airport for an emotional farewell. Following her departure the kids and me returned late at night, by train and a bus, to the little Helsinki aparthotel that had begun to feel all too familiar - almost homely even.

The Pajero is Ready!

It seems ironic that after weeks of uncertainty, delay and my near daily chasing completion of the engine rebuild, it was finally all done by the night of Friday 24th - yes, this was just shy of 24 hours after we took Sylwia to the airport! The workshop owner collected me and the kids from our aparthotel after dark and took us to his workshop, where the mechanic was just finishing up reinstalling the engine. By this time the kids were all asleep in the back seat of the workshop owners V8 Mercedes SUV, so I didn't disturb them. Notwithstanding all the unsettling issues with the workshop, I must say the Russian mechanic impressed me. He'd had my engine totally stripped down into pieces and finally the moment of truth was upon us. The engine started up first try and purred reassuringly to life. One might expect the reconditioned engine to somehow run better, or sound different... just something. But no, it was exactly as it was before. With 250,000km on the clock the engine had been running like new prior to the overheat accident anyway, so I shouldn't really be surprised that now reconditioned it was no different. Mitsubishi '4M41' diesel engines are damned good.

I woke the kids and moved them from the workshop owners SUV to the Pajero and we went for a test drive. We drove out onto the road and unknowing onto invisible black ice, causing us to slide sideways across the road! Fortunately it was a deserted side street with no traffic, but a shock all the same. There was a very slight rise in the road and the surface was so slippery that I needed to engage 4wd to be able to drive away - a regular car would be stuck there... it felt good to be back in the mighty Pajero! We nearly had a further overheat event within minutes, but I knew to monitor the engine temperature carefully, aware that there would likely be an air blockage in the cooling system to resolve. We ended up having to wait by the side of the road for a short while for the engine to cool down before we could return to the workshop, where the mechanic was waiting. We bled all the air out of the system and after that everything was 100% fine. Administratively the workshop had been very poor, causing us considerable cost and delay and disappointingly necessitating Sylwia having to fly out of Helsinki. But at least from a competence perspective the Russian mechanic had performed excellent workmanship. Finally the kids and me could contemplate the final leg of this journey, across Europe to the UK. It had been six weeks since the unfortunate overheat incident at the side of that snowy motorway north of Moscow, Russia! It was now late on a Friday night and the kids were fully awake, though hungry. We drove back to the familiar little aparthotel to cook dinner. This was to be our final night in Finland.

Coming up next

When I began drafting this blog post it was titled 'The Grande Finale', because I thought it would be just that. But it was too ambitious of me to expect to cover two months of our travels in a single post. I don't mind at all really that there will need to be one further post in this series. The majority of my previous blog posts were written in early morning sessions in the tent, from ever changing locations across remote parts of Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia - always with a cup of coffee close to hand. I already miss those days! Now back home in locked down New Zealand, writing the blog is proving a cathartic experience that provides some mental escape from the realities of the changed world we're all presently enduring. Hopefully reading provides some of those benefits also.

When I return with what I expect will be the real 'Grande Finale' to this series, I'll cover the journey I shared with the kids across Europe, including taking three ferries. Before officially ending our journey in London we travel up and down the length of England, visiting family friends in Scotland. Anastazja and Marcel were born in London, so we have some reminiscing to do there before delivering the Pajero to the shipping company.

Departing Finland - our cabin on the overnight ferry bound for Sweden

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