My good friend, Alex, from high school is studying in Finland for the semester and a few months ago we decided to plan a trip to Russia. Not knowing anything about the country (other than the normal stereotypical stuff) we thought it would be a crazy adventure. I think we are both drawn to sketchy, corrupt and slightly dangerous places, so this definitely sounded like an amazing adventure.
As the departure date for our trip drew nearer, I began to question our rash decision to visit Russia. My image of the country was a tall, skinny man with pale skin, jet black slicked-back hair (and a matching goatee), clad in tight black leather pants, a leather jacket and army boots, standing on a rainy sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I guess you could call it the hardened criminal look, all I knew was that as the departure day grew nearer and said image continued to replay in my mind, I was afraid of Russia. On the night of our ferry departure, I’m busy envisioning the worst case scenario for our trip to the land of hardened criminals and begging babushkas, and Alex makes some comment about getting deported to a labor camp in Siberia. At least we were on the same page.
If this stereotype image wasn’t enough, all the laws Russia has regarding visas and loopholes you have to jump through to enter the country are enough to discourage any tourist. Regardless, we were drawn to this mysterious land and nothing could deter us from investigating the strange place.
On the day of the trip we had to make a two hour trek from Alex’s town to Helsinki to catch our ferry. We decided any trip to a land as epic as Russia must have an equally epic start, so hitchhiking to Helsinki was really the only option.
Finland is an extremely safe country, however, Finns aren’t very trusting people, and hitchhiking is virtually nonexistent in the country. Alex’s Finnish friends advised us against the idea saying we would never get picked up, but we had to give it a try! I made a giant “Helsinki” sign on cardboard and we staked out a spot alongside the freeway entrance. Five minutes later, a black SUV pulled up on the sidewalk and stoped to pick us up. We were ecstatic!
As luck would have it, Harry, the man who picked us up turned out to be the ex-CEO of a company in Moscow. He was married to a Russian woman and had traveled and lived in Russia for many years. Even though he wasn’t going directly to Helsinki, he was willing to go out of his way and drop us off at the ferry terminal! Talk about front door service, he had hitchhiked around France in his younger years, so I think he empathized with us.
Alex and I were so proud of our hitchhiking endeavor that we decided “Helsinki” would be our mascot for the whole Russia trip. Below are a few highlights of our adventures with Helsinki…