Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

29 April 2007

Hello from PoccNR

Vyborg Cathedral, Russia
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We spent our penultimate day in Finland traipsing around Helsinki in the rain. Unfortunately Helen has a cold, so this wasn't ideal. A last ditch attempt to make her better was a trip to the sauna. I diligently sat in Wayne's Coffee whilst she sweated away with the local ladies. Upon exit Helen informed me that the results of her survey of a large number of naked Finnish ladies in the sauna and pool was as follows - 20% gorgeous blonde Scandinavian beauties; 50% 'normal' women of varying ages and sizes; and 30% very large, very scary shot-putters. From there it was back to the van and an early night so that we could get cracking up to the Lakes in the morning.

The Finnish Lake District could be more accurately titled the Finnish Forest District. I thought Sweden was heavily forested but that was before we came here - I cannot now sympathise with any concerns we have about losing small areas of trees in Britain when Scandinavia must be using up carbon dioxide like nobody's business (is that how plant respiration happens? I forget...). Anyway, Helen took over the driving and we had an extended argument/silly tiff about who's job it was to spot the seemingly endless speed cameras - driver or passenger. Looking back this was probably just due to the repetitive nature of the scenery, but I responded in a suitably mature fashion by sitting in a sulk and putting the Foo Fighters on loudly. That evening we approached the Russian border and travelled south along the Karelia Highway (Karelia appears to be a particular bit of lake/forest which has been repeatedly grabbed by Finland or Russia over the years and is now divided between the two) trying to weigh up the best place to cross the border. We were rather put off by the rumours of 15km queues of trucks at the main motorway crossing which we had planned to use between Vaalimaa and Vyborg, as you can imagine, so we decided on the Nuijamaa crossing instead. Our last night in Finland was spent (very appropriately) by a lake in a forest, but we both slept only lightly, being too excited/worried about the border crossing the next day.

Next day - a stop in Lappeenranta to post home excess traveller's cheques (to avoid breaching restrictions on the import of currency into Russia) and print out a few more copies of documents, then we headed down the road to the border. Even though we were not at the very busy main crossing, we still passed hundreds of trucks and car transporters patiently queuing in the right hand lane. We then went in the wrong lane to exit Finland but got waved through and past our first Russian, an army lady who seemed very nice - glanced at the passports and waved us through. This seemed strangely simple but it was, of course, only the physical border rather than the border control / customs. After a couple of kilometres of even more forest, we arrived at the actual border control and followed the Finnish cars into the 'Cars registered in foreign country' lane. The traffic was being marshalled by a lady who seemed to fit the mould for the Russian border guards - imagine a rather small but quite burly woman; dark hair; lots of make up; top half in army uniform; bottom half fit for a night out in Watford with tights and black leather boots up to her knees. She had a large white stick and waved it around unnecessarily aggressively, in an attempt to direct the traffic. We queued nervously at a small window to show our documents. When reaching the front we handed over our passports and vehicle registration documents to another heavily made up woman who laughed, rather scornfully, at each one in turn and then giggled at my polite note (in Cyrillic - thank you Claire and Becky) asking for her not to use a blank page for her entry stamp (given that I am going to run out of passport pages at some stage on this trip). She asked her friend for help; looked cross; stared at me for a bit looking concerned; rifled through the passport another five or six times ignoring the Russian visa; rifled through it again under a UV light, revealing tons of information on my passport which I didn't know was there, but apparently still not giving her what she was looking for; and then asked us to stand aside whilst the 'friend' shut her hatch and disappeared off with my passport. No-one spoke any English and we hadn't got a clue what was going on.

This then leaves you in a strange limbo where you have no idea what to do. We were now holding up a queue of Finns who had all been accepted straight away but Burly Army Lady With Stick was unable to manage the traffic to get them round our van, so they stood looking gruffly at us whilst we stood looking rather quiet and British and woefully short of ideas of what to do next. Time passed. A Latvian man indicated the way to deal with these problems by leaning through the hole in the kiosk and shouting loudly at the customs lady until she grudgingly stamped his passport. But he at least had the benefit of speaking Russian - we do not and decided that his approach was not the tactic for us. Eventually (about an hour after we had initially handed over our passports) the collective stares of many disgruntled Finns spurred the Russian officials into action. Our lady's 'friend' reappeared with the missing passport and ran off with Helen's passport too, only eventually to reappear and push us to the front of the queue to receive entry stamps (on an already used page - hurrah). We then had to try to work out the Cyrillic on our immigration forms, which we got wrong, but thankfully a random lady appeared who spoke just about enough English to get us through (she didn't even seem to be an official - perhaps someone sent by the waiting Finns to help speed things up?). Customs was easier, despite the incredibly complicated declaration we had to fill in for our van (twice), because we found a customs lady who knew some limited English and Helen employed the successful tactic of smiling sweetly and repeating "Spasiba" (thank you) over and over. Eventually we managed to get the fourth and final bit of paper we needed (bringing a vehicle in makes it so much more complicated than arriving at an airport with a bag or two) and had our van searched briefly (with very little interest from the guards). And that was it. After just over two hours, we were in Russia and driving off - and very strange it felt too.

We stopped at Vyborg (the rather crumbling old Finnish border town) but had to make sure that we made St. Petersburg by the time it got dark as I didn't fancy negotiating the traffic in the dark. The M10 'motorway' heads all the way there and wasn't too bad, bar the enormous potholes all over the place. The road consists of three lanes: one each way and then a mysterious invisible one in the middle that traffic in either direction can go down if they are feeling brave enough - needless to say lots of Russians took this option but my legendary lack of overtaking skill left us chugging along behind some dirty great trucks belching out smog whilst the happy Lada drivers cruised by - having a good old stare. We filled up with diesel once we had sussed the pre-payment system - you have to put the pump in your car and then go inside where they press a button - bizarrely, one indicates that you want a full tank by drawing your hand across your throat as though you want them to finish you off. Then into St. Petersburg, fortunately going against the rush hour traffic; locate hotel; drive past hotel as left turns are illegal; turn right 3 times and eventually get to hotel. Here we had to hand over our passports for 'police registration' and we collapsed knackered onto our beds. Now we are really excited about looking around the city over the next 3 days or so, just as soon as I recover from this hangover - too many 'Baltica' beers last night.

Spasiba very much to everyone for all the nice messages on the email and on the blog. 12B, you don't need to worry - little yellow man is still hanging from our window, he has been for every kilometre since Watford. He doesn't have name yet though so let me know if you think of a good one. The long hair is coming on well, a nice mullet is developing... I'm aiming for a Scase style mane.

25 April 2007

Finnish frolics

Helsinki Cathedral
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
The ferry to Finland was a bit of an odd journey. The ferry itself was fine, but we were suddenly on board with lots of Finns heading back to Turku after the weekend in Stockholm. Lets just say that they were an odd bunch – think of a marginally (and we mean only marginally) toned down version of the Finnish band that won the Eurovision Song Contest last year and you won’t be far wrong. We were particularly bemused by the three women dressed in glittering black Elizabethan dresses, complete with enormous Elizabethan skirts supported by hip boulsters (think Elizabeth I with her very wide hipped dresses, but less regal). We initially thought that they were the entertainment, but apparently not. And they were still wearing the same thing the next day, so they clearly hadn’t come from a fancy dress party either. So now we are confused – is it some form of traditional Finnish country dress? Or the clothing of an odd religious sect? Or just plain mad?

We are now in Helsinki where, not put off by the freak show on the ferry, Michael braved the big Art Deco Finnish sauna yesterday to sweat it out with lots of naked men in the boiling hot wood sauna, electric sauna, regular sauna and pool. They apparently like their saunas here (there is one sauna for every three people in the country) and also their public nakedness. Sadly, all the ice has melted, so we have been unable to participate in the Finnish tradition of jumping in and out of a hole in the ice and then rolling around in the snow a lot. Shame.

Last night we went to a bar at the top of a hotel with great views over the city. There is a sin tax on the alcohol here, so it is still expensive in bars, though in the supermarket it is far more reasonably priced. And unlike in Sweden you can buy decent strength beer in the supermarket – you only need to go to the state run alcohol shops (fantastically called “Alko”) for wine and spirits. So we have been enjoying some Lapin Kultas for the past few evenings.

We’re now feeling nervous about heading into Russia and wondering what we need to declare; whether they will confiscate our money / laptop / GPS as per the stories we have read from other overlanders; questioning how easy it will be to follow our Cyrillic map etc etc. Our nervousness is not helped by the fact that as soon as we mentioned Russia in Sweden, everyone we spoke to immediately launched into questions about whether we are fully familiar with the etiquette of bribing policemen. We are not. How much do we pay? When do we pay it? Do we get a receipt?!. Its exciting to be heading out to St Petersburg, though, and we are really looking forward to seeing the city.

Thanks for the comments on the blog, much appreciated. Congratulations to Gavin and Cesca!!

PS Claire – thanks for the educational info and you will be pleased to hear that they sell Newcastle Brown Ale even here. Pitto – Cally Thistle are struggling, rookie manager Broadwith is being threatened with the sack. Thrilling 4-3 defeat to Celtic last night, though. The crowds loved it.

“Hej” from Sweden

Boat and Stockholm skyline
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Having had gorgeous weather for a whole week in Norway (which was lucky given the time of year), Sweden brought us back to earth weather-wise, with rain on the first night and a full on storm (rain, sleet, hail, snow, thunder and lightening all within the space of a few hours) on our second night. At least we have now well and truly tested the waterproofing on the van of dreams, though, and it passed with flying colours.

We spent just a morning in Uppsala, the weather being just too miserable to make us want to wander for long (and prompting yet another wienerpølser – though they are varm korv in Sweden – to warm us up). We headed into Stockholm via Sigtuna, a tiny town which is reputedly the oldest Sweden. Once in Stockholm, we met up with Jon and went out for a few drinks with his friends (and seemingly the whole of the rest of Stockholm’s post-work-on- Friday-night crowd) at the incredibly crowded Scandic bar, followed by sushi and some more drinks at Stureplan.

That all lead to a very late start on Saturday morning. After breakfast we headed out into the now beautiful sunshine and still rather bracing wind to go for a long walk around Kungsholmen and Södermalm and a spot of lunch at one of Stockholm’s many lovely cafes. After lunch we headed off to Östermalm to have coffee with Darragh and Lotten; play a few games of apartment football with Leo; and say hello to their tiny but very sweet new arrival, Oliver, on the day before his one week birthday. We left there mid-afternoon and headed into Gamla Stan to sit in the sunshine with Jon drinking beer, before heading off for meze and more drinks with newly engaged Andreas and Hannah. Exhausted by all the fresh air (and beer drinking), we headed back to Jon’s for bizarre political discussion over a bottle of red wine - another late night.

Sunday brought yet another late start (which is becoming a habit); a leisurely trip out to Vaxholmen; some Swedish meatballs courtesy of Chez Jon; and then off to the ferry to Finland (which we eventually found having thought that we were leaving from a completely different port to the one we actually needed, thus prompting a quick and unexpected navigation across the city).

Jon – thank you very, very much indeed for all your hospitality whilst we were in Stockholm. It was great to stay at your place, giving us a break from the van, and we really appreciated you organising drinks / dinner / trips out of the city etc etc. Tack så mycket!

20 April 2007

Blog entry from the middle of a Swedish Forest at 0900

Norwegian flag, Oslo
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
Helen is still asleep (and will be for the next couple of hours, I predict) so I have grabbed control of the laptop and started typing…

When we came to Oslo, it was a bit of a shock to the system after a week cruising around the fjords and ferries of rural Norway. We headed straight for ‘Ringway 3’ which appears to be a carbon copy of our own North Circular Road. And so began “Michael and Helen City Navigation – Part II”: junctions that don’t exist, tunnels not marked on the map, one way streets etc. Remarkably tempers didn’t fray and we made it to the much recommended Sculpture Park – Ringelandsparken. This was created ages ago by a guy called Gustav who produced many sculptures in return for a studio and house in Oslo. The sculptures were pretty impressive, if a little odd in places, my own person favourite being the copper (?) man having a good old pose-down – penis to the wind – on the bridge. The photos are on the site so feel free to admire his handywork. They include the world’s largest granite statue which is the obelisk sculpture of people clamouring over each other.

From the park we continued into the city and eventually ended up at one of the outrageously expensive Parking Houses. With me bitterly muttering about the cost of it all, Helen dragged us into the centre (via a Bagel shop) and we mooched around the streets. It seems that the Norwegians primarily like their clothes shops and their Burger Kings. We did have a quick flit round the National Gallery and saw Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (which I thought had been stolen, but it was still there – either recovered or possibly a fake??) as well as watching the changing of the guards outside the Royal Palace. Then, postcards bought, internet checked and fjord-front strolled along, Oslo was done and dusted.

A few kilometres south of the city we tried a campsite that was shut – who would visit Norway in April? So we ended up staying in the large car park outside. We were soon joined by some oddly dressed people who looked like they were from Central Asia, who put up tents and stoves nearby in a kind of impromptu refugee camp. Although bizarre, this at least alleviated my fear that we were sitting in the middle of Oslo’s hottest dogging site. The police came for a brief drive-by inspection; finding no-one to arrest but ensuring that no-one slept all that easily.

Next morning, up early (Michael) and dragged kicking and screaming from bed (Helen), we crossed into Sweden and drove through the forest towards Stockholm. The Swedes do like their forests, miles and miles of them in fact – so after a good 200km or so we turned right on the smallest road possible and ended up here: a small grassy lay-by that required driving over a few small Christmas trees just to park the van. Unfortunately it has rained for the first time during the night and I am anticipating that our rock solid lay-by may just have become a slushy mud pit that we will never escape from. Hmmm.

Update at 1700.

You will be no doubt be relieved to hear that we made it out of the Swedish forest having not sunk into the mud. Though we did have to move a fallen tree to get out of our overnight clearing. We spent today driving east towards Stockholm via Örebro, which is a really pretty town with old cobbled streets; a castle right in the centre of town; painted houses by the river; and lots of pavement cafes. We are now in Uppsala, the university city just north of Stockholm. We will head into the capital tomorrow at some point.

17 April 2007

“God dag” from Norway in the sunshine

We have had a really good few days in Norway. In Bergen, we managed to avoid the rain altogether, which was pretty good going given that it supposedly rains in Bergen on 290 days each year. Devastatingly, the Leprosy Museum (which Michael and Rich visited on their trip here last year) was closed. We decided that we could cope without a dose of leprosy and so instead we meandered around the town; sampled some fantastic salmon from the fish market (sadly Michael decided against starting his portrait project by taking a snap of the craggy Norwegian fisherman in the market, on the basis that he was far too grumpy); had a lovely lunch at the Pygmallion café; and took a long walk up the steep hillside near to the funicular railway, which lead to great views over the city.

In Bergen we established that most of the roads are open (the Hamiltons had needed snow chains last week, but there seems to have been a thaw since then – and anyway we think that Chris was just trying to scare us…). We decided to spend the next couple of days heading north through the western fjords towards Ålesund and then Trondheim. What we didn’t realise was that we would end up spending the majority of our daily budget on ferry fees and tunnel tolls. The beauty of having a non-country-specific budget is that we will be able to live the high life in China, but the downside is that we have to scrimp and save our way around Norway.

We wild camped on a remote Norwegian island (and again came across a scary Norwegian fisherman – they seem to be the prevalent in this area). Despite some wheel spinning chavs disturbing our beauty sleep in the night by revving and beeping the horns at us, we survived in tact and headed into Ålesund the next morning to take a look around the (slightly bizarre looking) town. From Ålesund the road turns east towards Trondheim and we briefly left the main highway to travel along the Atlantic Highway, which dips spectacularly on and off the coastal islands. Cue Michael getting very over excited and taking lots of photos of bridges.

The next day had the most beautiful scenery yet, but we had a mild “disagreement” as Michael insisted on speeding past it all in a flash (none of that at the triangular box construction bridges, of course). Having got over that issue, we headed to Trondheim where we managed to get trapped in the one way system despite having a map and being in a smallish Norwegian city – bodes well for later in the trip when we get to some real cities! We eventually strolled around the town on a really beautiful sunny evening. The great thing about being this far north is that if you happen to hit a good day weather wise, the light is amazing and it lasts long into the evening. Trondheim was a bit of a surprise – although the modern centre is a bit of a concrete jungle, the rest of the city has a really good atmosphere and easily rivals Bergen in terms of being picturesque. The city used to be the capital of Norway many moons ago and the old part of the city reflects that - the façade of the cathedral is really ornate with lots of statues and gargoyles etc; the river area is very pretty and has lots of pavement cafes; and we really enjoyed sitting in the sun at the fort overlooking the city, along with lots of students having picnics, cooking on barbeques and generally relaxing.

We have today driven into Oslo, listening as usual to our new favourite radio station, P4 Norge, on the way down. They have a presenter who sounds, disconcertingly, exactly like Terry Wogan (but with a bit of hurdy gurdy Norwegian thrown in). We are not quite sure why we keep listening, because they only have a play list of about 5 songs, and the rule seems to be that both Mika and How to Save a Life by The Fray have to be played at least once every five minutes.

So far, touch wood, everything is going well. Admittedly we are only in Norway, which is easy going compared to some of the places we will end up (although we are not finding the people all that friendly). We are really pleased with the van and finding it easy to live in. Michael is already playing too much Football Manager (leading Inverness Caledonian Thistle to mid-table mediocrity), so all pretty much as normal there. We have taken an enormous number of photos already and are wondering how on earth we are going to get are hands on enough memory space to hold our photos for the whole trip.

Thanks for all of the comments so far (BJ, Pam H and Lisa amongst numerous anonymous girls from school) – keep them coming! We are now off to enjoy the sights and sounds of Oslo. Adjø.

PS We've put a few Norway photos onto the website - more to follow once we leave Norway.

Also Michael (Mr B) would like to say hi to all the girls at WGGS. I am thinking of you all back at school now. Especially big hello to my favourite class - my year 9s... only joking, my year 10s, no, year 11s. Of course, I like all my classes equally... and hello to 12B, I hope you are looking after Mr. Hepburn.

12 April 2007

And we’re off!

Hurrah! After much planning, we have finally started RTW2007.

The end of last week involved a trip back to St Albans for Michael; a visit to York to see the Holbrooks and Granny; and lots of frantic last minute packing.

We stocked up on lots of good food (plus at least three Easter eggs) at BJs - we are conscious that we have already spent almost all of our money in planning the trip, so we will mainly be living on gruel now that we have set off.

After tearful goodbyes and lots of photos in Silkstone, we set off towards the ferry, stopping only to eat our last meal in England (egg and chips at a service station, classy) and do one last shop at Tesco (including, on Mr Hamilton’s advice, food for the ferry).

The customs woman at the ferry terminal seemed far more concerned with finding out about our van and how the bed works than with inspecting our passports or the contents of the van, so we sailed through with no problems at all. If only we thought that all of the customs points / border crossings on this trip might run as smoothly……

We left Newcastle on the ferry at sunset and both felt a little unsettled. Although on the one hand we are only going to Norway at the moment, somehow sailing away from England suddenly brought home the scale of the journey ahead. But we concluded that we were probably just tired and that it would all be OK in the morning.

We managed to sleep for approximately 18 hours of the 26 hour ferry crossing. The added bonus being that we missed the “entertainment” laid on by DFDS Seaways. Line dancing is just not our thing.

After stops at Stavanger and Haugesund, we arrived in Bergen at 11pm. We passed through customs very quickly, though the customs official queried both the outside of Michael’s passport (which no longer bears any gold Great Britain stamp or text, following years of abuse) and also his hair. Yes, overseas customs stop number one and already people are questioning whether the hairy monster in the van is the same person as the skin head on the passport. It is only a matter of time before we have to shave his head to get through a border....

We spent the entire journey to the campsite chanting “drive on the right, drive on the right”. We found the campsite really easily and settled down for our first night in the van of dreams on RTW2007.

08 April 2007

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear

A roller coaster few days.....

Everything was going swimmingly. We had planned everything so that we only had a final few tasks and 10 days to finish them, leaving us plenty of time to g0 to Welshpool to visit Grandma and the Brooksies, relax in St Albans and then go to Silkstone.

On Wednesday, all was going to plan and we headed into London to have a few drinks with friends in Islington. Drunken photos will be posted on the website soon.

But then, the Thursday of doom struck. A computer virus hit our laptop threatening all of the documents which we had carefully scanned and filed for our trip, including copies of letters of invitation etc etc. And yes, we had backed it up, but the back up became infected too. The next 3 days involved approximately 8 hours in PC World (mainly pacing up and down but not acheiving very much); lots and lots of panicking; what felt like a million phone calls and attempts to rescue data; lots of expense; and a bit more panicking. The upshot was that we ended up having to get a completely new laptop yesterday, before getting Jase from SwitchSupport to come to Silkstone to save us by cleaning the virus from all our data.

Our stressful couple of days was somewhat alleviated by a very nice family dinner at St Michael's Mount in St Albans. We said goodbye to Michael's family on Friday evening, but we weren't leaving completely as now (with only two days to go) Michael has to drive back down the M1 tomorrow morning to St Albans to collect a few forgotten items.

Some of Helen's family came over to Silkstone to visit yesterday and worryingly reminded us of just how cramped the van really is...... three small children and it is full. Photos of that to follow on the website soon. Hello to Bradley, Corey and Mason - hope that you have managed to log on as you promised. And big kisses to Auntie Susan too.

Now into final preparations for departure on Tuesday. Feeling a bit better now that we have got some of the final bits and pieces done (fuelled by BJ's Yorkshire puddings tonight).

Note from Helen:
Don't worry, Auntie Jenny, Michael has no more races left now, so maybe I'll get some help with it all for once......