Helsinki (30 June – 2 July 2013)
Leaving the port at Tallinn felt like I was embarking on another phase of my journey. But I was only going across an 80 km stretch of the Baltic Sea to Helsinki. Finland felt so different in my mind from the Baltic States that I would not associate it with them. In fact I do not even entirely associate Finland with the rest of the Nordic countries either. I tend to place countries into groups in my mind but Finland just feels so different from the rest of Europe that I think of it as among the Nordic countries only grudgingly and because people normally do. Finnish is not even Germanic like the rest of the Nordic languages.
The ferry crossing took about 1.5 hours. When we arrived it felt so much to me like I had come to a different part of the world that I kept asking myself if passport checks would be conducted. In reality, Finland and the Baltic States are all in the Schengen Zone and so there is normally no passport checks when travelling between those countries.
I never really knew what Helsinki looked like before this trip. The pictures I had ever seen of the city before were almost always about that white church.
There is something beautiful and elegant in simple structures and the Helsinki Cathedral is a good example. After all that overly lavish and ornate churches (I am thinking of Rome) I had seen, the Lutheran ones, starting from those in Riga, were a refreshing change. However, Helsinki Cathedral is quite something else altogether. There was an ethereal quality in the interior that was absent in the other Lutheran churches I had visited on this trip. Maybe it was just all of that whiteness. Maybe that is why Apple products are so white.
The cathedral is however not the only white church in the city. Near my hotel is the Helsinki Old Church. It was originally meant as a temporary church before the completion of the Helsinki Cathedral. However, rapid population growth ensured its survival to this day. The Old Church is the oldest existing church in central Helsinki.
When I walked into the church I was in time for an organ recital. Like what had happened in the Riga Cathedral, I was not too impressed with the performance. The pieces were just not lyrical enough for my liking. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the church was lovely.
I did not visit any Catholic church in Helsinki, but there was an Eastern Orthodox one in all its blazing glory. The Uspenski Cathedral, like the Helsinki Cathedral, is set on a hill and therefore very visible in the city.
Helsinki has some rather interesting buildings. There is a church that I could only describe as “incredible”. It was so incredible that I went out of the way to go see it. The Temppeliaukio Church is located in a residential area somewhat away from the city centre but attracts its fair share of curious visitors.
This church is also called the Church of the Rock because it was built by digging into rock. The copper ceiling makes it look somewhat like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. I thought I heard ET when I sat in there enjoying the sun shining in through the skylight. Are the parishioners able to distinguish between the voices of ET and Jesus?
I am still not so sure how I should feel about the architecture of the Temppeliaukio Church. I am however more able to accept some other buildings in the city.
Helsinki has some pretty good museums to visit. The very first one I visited was the Ateneum which was a really good art museum. It houses an extensive collection of Finnish works. Another art museum I visited was the smaller Sinebrychoff Art Museum which has a collection of paintings by foreign artists.
For an overview of Finnish history, I went to the National Museum of Finland. It presents the story of the country from prehistory to the present era. It was truly quite a fun place to be at especially the exhibition on the modern era.
I learnt that even in the early 20th century, the preferred methods to go, especially for people in the rural areas, were “a pole to sit on, a tuft of straw by the door or going around the corner”. How does one go on a pole? I tried imagining how one would but could not quite get around the physics, ergonomics or utility of using a pole at all. The privy exhibited in the museum was used up to the 21st century by the way but I am guessing that its heyday was in the 50s to 60s.
Speaking of the privy, one must also think about food. Or at least I did. I was hard pressed to find a truly Finnish restaurant in the city. There were the usual fast food restaurants like MacDonald’s but I also noticed that the kebab stand was an ubiquitous sight too. On the first day of my visit, within thirty minutes I came across three Nepali restaurants. What happened to all the posh French restaurants or Chinese restaurants that serve either really bad rubbish or food that only looks Chinese but is not?
I tried a Nepali restaurant to see what Nepali food was like. It was just like north Indian food with the curries, basmati rice, rotis and lassis. The flavours were all too familiar to me. And the whole meal cost me more than €30. But not that I am complaining since it was a delicious dinner.
One very popular day trip to take from Helsinki city is to Suomenlinna. This is a fortress built on a group of islands off the coast of Helsinki. The fortress was built by the Swedish in the 18th century to protect their territory from the Russians. At that time, Finland was under Swedish rule and the fortress was named Sveaborg.
The fortress was unfortunately unable to fend off Russian ambitions and in the early 19th century the fortress surrendered to the Russians. Ironically, at one stage when Finland was part of the Russian empire, Sveaborg became a part of the defensive system for St Petersburg.
Upon independence, Finland renamed the fortress Suomenlinna which means Castle of Finland. Suomenlinna is now part of the city of Helsinki.
Today there is little military presence there and the islands are a nice place to have a picnic in the sun. There are however also a few hundred people who make the islands their homes.
I strolled around the island where the Naval Academy was situated. Halfway into my stroll I saw signs indicating that I was on restricted military grounds. Those signs only appeared inside the compound and there were no barriers to stop anyone from wandering in. Now how is one supposed to know before intrusion if he is intruding or not?
There is a decommissioned submarine called the Vesikko that is now a museum. It was quite fun walking through the very well-preserved submarine. I read that life on it was pretty unpleasant. It was hot and noisy and so very cramped in there.
The Suomenlinna Museum at the Suomenlinna Centre gives a good overview of the history of the fortress. Well-preserved remains of the old defensive structures can be found especially on the island of Kustaanmiekka.
Since the days are long in summer so far north, I had enough daylight to explore Helsinki a little after I was back on the mainland after Suomenlinna. When I found myself at the Senate Square in front of the Helsinki Cathedral again, I decided that I had time to take a look at some posters put up by a practitioner of Falun Gong. I had seen those the day before when I visited the cathedral but I never paid attention then.
The lady who put up the posters saw me and spoke to me. She thought, to my utter horror, that I was from China. But I was curious and so I started speaking to her. Falun Gong is a spiritual discipline that combines meditation and qigong with some Chinese Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. China views its practitioners as members of an evil sect. Needless to say the movement is banned there. I think its is banned in Singapore too but I am not quite sure why since it has not even openly criticised my government. Maybe my government was ‘economically influenced’ to do so by the PRC government.
The point of those posters was to inform the world about what was happening in China to Falun Gong practitioners. Apparently the PRC government would harvest their organs to supply the country’s organ transplant industry after murdering them.
I am not sure how true this is but it is definitely sensational and I was quite surprised to hear about it. I think the world is very prepared to believe the worst about China and I am sure the allegations are that much more believable to many people simply because the perpetrator is the PRC government. On the other hand, it does seem to me that many people in China can be capable of some very incredible inhumanity.
As for the lady I spoke to, based on what I could gather from her despite her strong accent, she was apparently arrested on trumped up charges and tortured while in detention. She was only released with the help of some friends then managed to flee to Finland where she obtained refugee status three years before I met her. Her organs were still intact I think. Now she spends her time fighting for justice. She got me to sign a petition to the UN asking for help for her fellow Falun Gong practitioners. She also took some photos of me while I was reading her posters. That was somewhat unnerving although I did not stop her. I was actually a bit worried about whether my own government would raise any issue over this if my photos were used for her cause.
I also noticed that her posters were written in traditional Chinese script. She said that the simplified script was created by the evil communists and not truly Chinese.
Later, a group of PRCs walked by. She tried to engage them in conversation but they mostly ignored her. Besides trying to raise awareness of her cause, she also tried persuading her fellow PRCs to quit the CCP if they were members. It did not look like she was very successful and she admitted that her fellow PRCs were mostly either disinterested or afraid. The petition she got me to sign only had two signatures and I gave her the second one.
One thing I agree wholeheartedly with her though, even if I did not know enough to agree with her on anything else, and that is that one does not have to love his government in order to love his country. I wish more people in Singapore could see that.
Before I left the square, I wished the lady well and good luck. If what she claims is happening is true, then surely someone needs to go to hell for that.
The Falun Gong lady had picked a very nice place to be a refugee in. I enjoyed my time in Helsinki. The city was very pleasant and its people were really friendly and kind too. When I walked to the wrong counter to get my ferry ticket to Suomenlinna (I could get a discount for a different company’s ferry) the girl pointed me to the right one without any hint of irritation. Friendly people make me smile more and that cannot be a bad thing at all.
And one more thing. Helsinki was not expensive like the other Nordic cities either. Another point for Finland!