My journey along the Finland-Russia border, where stoic locals look nervously to the east

·9-min read
Saimaa lake, Lappeenranta, Finland - Getty
Saimaa lake, Lappeenranta, Finland - Getty

“If you see a bear, take a photo, keep still, and hope for the best,” says Riina Helppi-Kurki, smiling. Ursus arctos or Russian bears, I wonder?

She’s made my arrangements for four days of cycling along EuroVelo 13, dubbed the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’. This pan-European route includes an 830-mile stretch along Eastern Finland’s border with Russia amid Western Europe’s most extensive boreal forests.

I expected immersion in wild nature, and maybe the odd bear, but Finland’s announcement today of its intention to join Nato, ending decades of non-military alignment with Russia, now means this cycle route runs along what is destined to become one of the world’s most scrutinised borders.

Saimaa Canal, Finland border - Mark Stratton
Saimaa Canal, Finland border - Mark Stratton

The wildest corner of Europe

A good place to start is Lappeenranta in South Karelia, part of southeast Finland’s Lakeland district. Besides its accessibility (a two-hour train journey from Helsinki) Karelia has been historically divided between Finland and Russia.

This city of 70,000 inhabitants sits alongside magnificent Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake and studded with thousands of islands. It had been a long cold winter here and all cruises to mark Finnish Mother’s Day (May 8) were cancelled because the boats remained frozen in dock.

From Lappeenranta, it’s 19 miles eastwards to the Russian border to join the Iron Curtain Trail via the Saimaa Canal towpath. This mid-19th-century waterway is shared between the two nations and is important for trade as it runs deep into Russian Karelia. Finland has a lease on it until 2063, which Russia is now threatening to cancel. The towpath leads me to a sign reading: ‘St Petersburg 180km’, where I veer northwards and join the trail close to the Russian border. Things then start to get really wild.

On narrow lanes, I plunge headlong into the boreal forest which covers 75 per cent of Finland. Cones of pines, spruces, and larch crunch beneath my tyres and in the forest’s muffled silence, the birdsong intensifies to a crescendo, woodpeckers pulverising trees like jackhammers. Bears, wolves and moose inhabit these woods, but its flurries of yellow brimstone butterflies, dancing as if stirred by Sibelius’ Karelian Suite, that cause me to screech to a stop.

A glimpse across the border

In its foraging and hunting, folklore and summerhouses, Finnish culture embraces trees – indeed, over half of all Finns live within 200 metres of forest. It’s no surprise therefore to encounter red-painted farmsteads deep in the woods and little summerhouses with saunas. One, on a tiny islet on Lake Nuijamaa, offers my first view across into Russia’s taiga. There are no fences just an open border delineated by painted posts.

The farmsteads yield delicious produce that finds its way onto my breakfast plate throughout my journey. Spruce syrup, lingonberry preserve and Karelian pies – oval-shaped tarts of rye dough stuffed with rice porridge – are all regional specialities.

Karelian pasties, traditional Finnish food - Getty
Karelian pasties, traditional Finnish food - Getty

At times I’m exploring centuries of shifting borders where ideologies and soldiers have clashed. Beyond Imatra, a sprawling town on the River Vuoksi which Catherine the Great visited in 1792, the 17th-century Niska-Pietella border road once demarcated the Swedish and Russian Empires.

Beyond this, at Rautjärvi, Heikki Penttilä has built lakeside chalets for guests. As I arrive he’s constructing a second sauna cabin from alder wood with his son and a Ukrainian employee, Alesia. Sauna is perfect for weary legs and best enjoyed with company, and the four of us sweat and sip beers until darkness falls.

Where to stay in Finland, lakeside chalets in Finland - Mark Stratton
Where to stay in Finland, lakeside chalets in Finland - Mark Stratton

“I built this lodge with Russian guests in mind in 2014 – and they invaded Crimea. Now, I start work on a second sauna and they invade Ukraine,” Heikki says with droll Finnish understatement. Even Alesia, whose father is fighting in the Donbas, smiles.

The next day, I ride within 50 metres of a border screened by a silver birch curtain. But I’m focused skywards on the mass migration of barnacle geese arriving from the arctic tundra to pitstop on Siikalahti’s damp meadows, joining lapwings with Tintin quiffs.

They’re still honking away overhead as I settle down for my third night by Lake Suur Rautjärvi, near Saari, in a cabin. The owner, Kari Kiiveri, arrives with a thick wedge of Mother’s Day cake. He says his family have lived around this lake since 1683. At times Russian, or Swedish, but always Finnish at heart.

Lake Suur Rautjärvi, Finland - Mark Stratton
Lake Suur Rautjärvi, Finland - Mark Stratton

A turbulent past

Moscow warned Finland of ‘consequences’ when it announced it was considering joining Nato. Initially, border relations were turbulent after Finland fought for independence from the Soviet Union in 1917. And further conflict followed. The Winter War of 1939 saw Finland defending against Soviet invasion and losing 10 per cent of its territory in Karelia; the 1941-44 Continuation War saw the Finns attempt to retake it.

Thereafter, Finland pursued appeasement and neutrality during the Cold War era, or ‘Finlandization’ as it became known. The cost of independence, however, was Soviet interference in its domestic and political affairs. But it maintained the status quo, until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine finally swayed public opinion, previously against joining Nato, to abandon neutrality.

Very cold wars

Several excellent museums along the trail highlight Finland’s fraught relationship with Russia. Even if you’ve little interest in military history, Imatra’s Veteran’s Museum, inside the 1925 neoclassical Villa Piponius, hosts a treasure-trove of family heirlooms. Dapper 69-year-old Jarmo Ikävalko shows me around a collection of war memorabilia accumulated by his polymath father (lawyer, Olympic wrestler and polyglot) who fought in both the Winter and Continuation Wars.

Imatra Veteran’s Museum - Mark Stratton
Imatra Veteran’s Museum - Mark Stratton

Among medals and tunics are extraordinary items, not least photographs of Hitler in 1942 arriving outside Imatra to formalise an alliance with Finland to attack the Soviet Union. At one stage Jarmo winds up a 1940s mechanical air-raid siren. “Let’s hope we don’t hear this again,” he says.

Simo Häyhä Museum at Miettilä repurposes a former 1880s Russian garrison. It’s dedicated to a local lad who became a national hero as a sniper during the wars between 1939-44. Volunteer Kari Partanen shows me the medals Häyhä earned for his skiing and shooting prowess. He says the Finnish army are masters of fighting in snow and woodland and have nothing to fear. “We’ve no problem with our neighbours,” he says. “They want the same things in life, enough money to survive and food on the table”.

Things to do in Finland, Finnish museums - Mark Stratton
Things to do in Finland, Finnish museums - Mark Stratton

A nation of stoics

Finland topped the World Happiness Report in 2022, yet its people have a reputation for being melancholic and taciturn. This is perhaps a little overstated, but they definitely possess sisu, a stoical determination and pragmatism to prevail in difficult circumstances. Those I spoke with are calm about joining Nato and if small talk isn’t their thing, they’re open to discussing the situation.

“I was against joining Nato but I’m now glad. We have a strong army but must protect ourselves. I think the border will remain safe because there are hundreds of kilometres of forest that we feel part of,” says Heikki Penttilä, during our sauna, displaying admirable sisu wearing a woolly hat in 150F heat.

The economic impact concerns Riina Helppi-Kurki, who promotes tourism to Saimaa. “Russian tourism was very important for Lappeenranta. Russians come here to holiday and shop while we head over there to buy cheaper petrol and vodka. This has all stopped,” she says. Likewise, Kari Kiiveri says he’s losing business as 60 per cent of his guests were Russians, many on weekend breaks from St Petersburg.

Finnish cabins, Finland cabins
Finnish cabins, Finland cabins

Nature heals

My final day involves cycling back to Simpele to catch a train to Helsinki. I hadn’t met a single other cyclist on the trail, although the summer season had barely begun. Perversely, all the jittery attention the border is currently attracting may shine a positive spotlight on this unique and adventure-filled region. With every day I spent immersed amid fragrant forests and shimmering lakes, any tension of geopolitical proximity simply ebbed away.

That’s the philosophy of Anne Repo, with whom I end my stay at her B&B by Kangaskoski rapids. Within 700m of the border, her guesthouse is a converted border guard post, active between 1955-2008. She calls it her ‘nature healing powerhouse’. You can walk the sparkling salmon-rich river near her property, and she offers guests herbal or peat saunas to restore body and mind. “People come here to calm down and use nature to de-stress,” she says. I can certainly think of one man in desperate need of this to ensure beautiful South Karelia remains all quiet on the eastern front.

The details

How to do it

The Iron Curtain Trail (see eurovelo.com) runs through multiple countries yet the Finnish section is barely signed. The website enabled me to plot the trail on Google Maps, which worked well. If you’re less confident navigationally, bestguestfinland.fi offers six-day Iron Curtain Trail packages from Lappeenranta to Pukaharju from £615.

  • Bike hire: Drakkar Sport offers rates of £26 per day or £95per week (drakkarsport.com).

  • When to go: Peak time is May-September.

  • Getting there: Finnair flights from London to Helsinki start from £147 return (finnair.com). From Helsinki Airport I boarded a train to Lapeenranta via Tikkurila (vr.fi).

Kangaskoski rapids, Finland - Mark Stratton
Kangaskoski rapids, Finland - Mark Stratton

Where to stay

Scandic Marski (Helsinki) is a suave city hotel with B&B doubles at £117 per night (scandichotels.fi).

Original Sokos Hotel Lappee (Lappeenranta) is £45 per person for shared doubles (sokoshotels.fi).

Imatran Kylpylä Spa Resort (Imatra) Lake Saimaa spa-hotel. Prices on request (imatrankylpyla.fi).

Hugon Villas (Rautjärven) sample Heikki’s smoke sauna with £86 per doubles (hugon.fi).

Kiiveri Holiday Cottages (Saari) is £171 for two-night minimum (kiiverinlomamokit.fi).

B&B Hiitolanjoki (Kangaskoski) has doubles from £128 (bbhiitolanjoki.fi).

For more information, visit gosaimaa.com, visitfinland.com and kollaa-simohayha-museo.fi.

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