Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Countryside charm

I’m originally a country girl, and living in Finland, it’s hardly possible to be a totally urban creature. Especially in summer, cottage life attracts most Finns at some point. We don’t have a cottage of our own but have had the great privilege and pleasure to be invited to celebrate Midsummer at our dear friends’ cottage for ten years already. In the last few years, part of our 3-day celebration has been to visit a quirky café/shop in a small nearby village.

Vähikkälän suvipuoti, Vähikkäläntie 721, JANAKKALA

We usually drive there on Midsummer Day, just to see what’s going on, and how many people are there. Regular village folk usually come on foot or by bike but also random drivers-by stop to check what’s going on. In addition, quite a few summer cottage residents from the surrounding area are keen to have a break in their cottage routines, just like us. It’s a refreshingly eclectic mix, with the odd village fool who has perhaps had a few Midsummer drinks too many. People of all ages, from babies to grannies and granddads, which is otherwise too rare in modern Finland. The atmosphere reminds me of my childhood family gatherings at my grandparents’ place, convivial and relaxed. It’s as though everybody knows each other, and even strangers talk to each other, which we reserved Finns rarely do.

The owner of the place, Ms Sanna Juupaluoma, I’ve heard, is a school teacher, who, like me, has the long summer holiday to invest in this wonderful summertime endeavour. It is a family business with her siblings, and was started after Ms Juupaluoma returned to her home village after years abroad and was sad to see the village shop closed and deserted. The siblings bought the place, and a summer kiosk was set in it. This was 13 summers ago. Since then the business has become more and more popular, and these days it is not only a thriving café but also a shop selling local farm produce (potatoes, vegetables, bread, even meat) and other basic groceries plus a village information office displaying brochures and leaflets for visitors, for example.

Ms Juupaluoma is almost always there in person, serving customers in a happy and friendly manner, always chatty. This picture is from 2015.

The good-humoured banter between the owners and customers, and also among customers is a trademark. If you sit there for a while, you can hear the latest local gossip and news, spiced with plenty of humour and laughter. While being thus entertained, you can enjoy a large variety of home-baked pastries, both savoury and sweet, ice-cream and sweets, tea and coffee, of course, soft drinks and also bottled beers, and as it’s summer and you’re in Finland, lots of ice-cream is on offer, too, naturally.

Enter through the lace-curtained front door, and it really feels like a 1960s village store.

An eternal kid at heart, I always go for a scoop of ice-cream.

The decor of the place is very bohemian, with all sorts of second-hand furniture, and it seems constantly accumulating knick-knacks in every corner. Very attractive in its quirkiness, (possibly too messy for some!). A storeroom in the yard has been converted into an open ” living room”, with a collection of odd, old chairs and sofas. The arrangement of the furniture changes from year to year. There is even a bookshelf, with the books actually meant to be read. You can even borrow them as from a library! What especially pleases my eye, are the colourful, traditional summer flowers in pots all over the place.

Hubby enjoying his beer in the “living room”

The first time we visited in 2o13, we were curious about the British double-decker bus and red telephone box there. We learned that the owner had acquired them as she was keen on British culture, after spending years abroad.

They have since disappeared, and been replaced by annually changing ethnic food providers in the yard. One year there was a Thai kitchen, this year a mobile pizza hut. The pizzas were a real success as we had never seen such a crowd there on Midsummer Day. But unfortunately for us, we came just a little too late to taste the freshly baked pizzas – all sold out.

If you are ever driving anywhere near this place in summer, it’s well worth making a detour for a quick visit.

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It is open every day from 10-18, during the three summer months. They also have their own Facebook page, for information on special events. I’ve also read that it is a geo-cache site, and popular with Finnish motorcyclist as a welcome alternative to petrol station chain restaurants. Not only is this place one-of-a-kind curiosity to see, but also the whole village is postcard pretty, and full of old Finnish romantic countryside feel!


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Buy experiences, not things

About time to reopen my blog after almost a whole year’s pause! Terrible really how school work totally absorbs me, leaving little time for other pursuits in life. Luckily, it’s another long – and well-earned – summer holiday now, and I will soon embark on an exciting adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tick off a distant destination in my bucket list.

Hongkong 2015, being a filmstar 🙂

I love travelling, and mostly spend my extra euros on a ticket that will take me somewhere outside Finland. I’ve often wondered what it is that made me this way since my two brothers are very happy to stay safely in their familiar homeland. Funny really! One decisive factor certainly is my passion for learning languages. I am proud and happy to say that hubby and I have also managed to instill the same wanderlust in our only daughter – who, by the way, is currently in Morocco, doing a two-month research project for her Master’s dissertation at the University of Edinburgh.

On a school visit with my girl in rural India, 2006

Of late, our mantra has been: “experiences, not things.” Interestingly, I found scientific proof of spending your money on travelling making most people happier than purchasing possessions. In 2014, Cornell University researchers Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar, published some of their findings in a paper titled We’ll always have Paris: The Hedonic Payoff from Experiential and Material Investments. They looked extensively into how purchasing experiences (i.e. spending your money on doing) and purchasing things (i.e. spending on having) affect people’s feelings of well-being and happiness. While, initially, both seemed to have a similar positive effect, it was the experiential purchases, such as travelling, concerts, movies or eating out, that tended to yield a more enduring feeling of satisfaction and happiness.

We will always remember the first time I took my girl to Paris in 2007

Research has found several reasons for this. Firstly, there is the anticipation and planning of an experience, which seemed to be very important. I can definitely relate to this. For weeks now, I have been doing background reading, getting ready to go and  dreaming of my trip ahead. For me, the anticipation is sometimes almost as rewarding as the actual experience!

The thrilling preparations – wonder if you can guess my destination this summer!

Secondly, there is the social aspect of experiences. These sorts of purchases are mostly enjoyed in the company of others, social interaction being an essential part of it all. On the contrary, material purchases, often offer solitary moments of enjoyment. Moreover, there are the memories and stories that will live on long after the experience, sometimes for the rest of your life. I will probably bore everyone with my endless stories of this trip afterwards, as I’ve done after each trip I’ve ever ventured on. People want to share their fascinating memories and learning experiences, and even negative incidents easily turn into hilarious stories afterwards. However, this is not the case with a disappointing material purchases – you’d probably rather forget all about them, get rid of them, or, at least, not talk about them that much.

Merry Christmas from Île de la Réunion 2011

Another finding seems to indicate that material purchases are easier to compare with what others have, often leading to disappointments when you realise that your neighbour, or “the Joneses”, have something better than what you just invested in. This will often result in so-called ‘buyer’s remorse’, and reduce the long-term satisfaction with a material purchase. In the case of experiential consumption, feelings of regret are directed more towards inaction, ie. wishing you hadn’t missed a wonderful opportunity.

All of us are likely to regret the planes we did not get on far more, and for far longer, than the clothing, jewellery, gadgets, or furniture we did not buy. (Gilovich and Kumar)

Finnish poet Pentti Saaritsa has described the excitement of travel beautifully in one of this poems. He writes how nothing warms you up like tomorrow’s travel ticket in your pocket, or how your familiar coat suddenly turns into the fairy tale invisibly cloak. He also urges us to set off on a trip whenever we can. And this is why, I’ll be leaving on that jet plane again in only two days’ time!

Honolulu 2015


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Morning magic

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This just had to be by picture for the weekly photo challenge of ‘morning’! Not my typical morning, definitely the once-in-a-lifetime type.

This was in June this year, just before Midsummer. We spent a few days at my brother’s summer cottage by lake Saimaa in eastern Finland. It was the ‘nightless night’ time in Finland. Something (most likely an irritating mosquito!) woke me up at 4am, and unable to fall back asleep, I decided to take a walk outside. How lucky I did! The sun was rising from behind the trees on the opposite side of the lake, reflecting gorgeously on the mirror-like, calm surface of the water. It was peaceful and calm. Only some fish making plopping noises, while jumping up from the lake, and a few peeps of birds.

I stayed on the wooden jetty for some time taking in all this natural beauty. I would have wanted to stay longer if it wasn’t for the annoying mosquitos disturbing me, and whining in my ears all the time. What a zen moment, though and an indelible picture in my mind from this summer!


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Trendy breakfast in London

During my April visit in London, I decided to skip the traditional fry-up breakfast included in my hotel deal, and head for a different experience instead on a Sunday morning. For a small-town girl from Finland, who knows more of less every café, eatery and restaurant in her hometown, the endless choice in London is quite overwhelming. That’s why I’d done my homework online before leaving, and found just the place for me. For a long time, I’d wanted to try an acai bowl for breakfast. Acai, you know, the hailed “super berry” from Brazil, which surprisingly grows in palm trees and not in bushes or on the ground as other berries. The Huffington Post even called these bowls “The World’s Best Healthy Breakfast” a couple of years back. As these berries are not easily available in Finland, I decided London would introduce me to this wonder food.

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THE GOOD LIFE EATERY, 59 Sloane Ave, London SW3 3DH

I chose this café for the location – I love the area around Sloane Square! – and for the good online reviews, but, most of all, for having acai bowls on their breakfast menu. On a sunny Sunday morning, I took the tube from Pimlico to Sloane Square, and then walked leisurely along the very quiet streets, admiring the blooming spring trees along the way.

A rare sight for us Finns - gorgeous magnolia trees!

A rare sight for us Finns – gorgeous magnolia trees!

In a side street from the Kings Road, I found The Good Life Eatery, small and cosy, with a welcoming smell of freshly baked scones and rolls wafting to the pavement through the open door. Mmmm, spelt croissants! I knew I’d chosen the right place.

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Inside, the café was furnished in the typical, rather minimalist, modern style. The brick walls, old-looking wooden tables, lines of hanging metal light fitments and colourful, patinated metal stools pleased my eye. Service was efficient and very friendly and all in all, I can warmly recommend this eatery to anyone who is after a slightly different breakfast experience. The clientele seemed to be mainly young women in their 20s-30s, having breakfast in twosomes. Most of them seemed to go for bread topped with lots of pureed avocado and either salmon or a poached egg. Interestingly for a Finn, the bread seemed to be dark rye, just like at home! Even though all this looked really tempting and delicious, I had made up my mind, and ordered a cappuccino with an acai bowl, as planned.

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Being an English teacher, I can’t help eavesdropping on people’s conversations whenever in an English-speaking environment, to pick up all the latest catch phrases and popular sayings. Sipping my coffee, waiting for my breakfast, I quickly noticed that the male waiters’ favourite seemed to be ‘cool’, which can apparently apply to anything positive, and also mean the same as ‘OK’. The young ladies, on the other hand, gossiping about their Saturday night events, kept repeating “… and then he was like…”, “… and then I was like…”(I gather meaning ‘he said’/’then I said’), with a fashionable, Ozzie-like upwards tilt in their accent. Aren’t languages just so intriguing!

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And then my long-awaited treat arrived. A big bowl full of cold, velvety, thick smoothie-like, purple acai puree, decorated with strawberries, chopped banana, whole acai berries and some bee pollen. It was heavenly, and definitely lived up to my expectations! The taste reminded me of a mix of blueberries and maybe blackcurrants (mind you, I think the colour affected my tastebuds a little bit, too) but I didn’t get the hint of dark chocolate often associated with these berries. After slowly savouring every last bit, I felt well nourished, energised and ready for a day of London sight-seeing. I probably looked a bit younger, too, as, apart from many other health benefits, acai berries are also claimed to have an anti-aging effect. I wish I could find frozen acai in Finland to prepare this at home!

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Ferries across the Baltic Sea

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We are lucky to live on the south-western coast of Finland, in the ex-capital city of Turku, with bi-daily ferry connections across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm, Sweden. Indeed, a popular get-away for many Finns is just to go on a cruise to Stockholm and back on one of the huge ferries. And when I say ferry, I’m not talking about anything like, for example, the ones crossing the English Channel. These are more like floating hotels, with many restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, even whole spas these days! And, of course, they don’t only take passengers across but also their cars, and huge transport lorries, too.

There are two competing ferry companies: the red Viking Line boats, and the originally white Silja Line boats, although latterly Silja Line has started painting all kinds of patterns of different colours on theirs. Traditionally, Silja Line used to be the slightly dearer, more sophisticated folks’, if you like, option while the ordinary folk travelled on Viking. At some point, though, Viking considerably revamped their restaurant menus, and has recently added new, ultra-modern ships on some routes, making the old distinction gradually disappear.

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For me, the absolutely best part of this voyage is looking at the views. Flying is fast but you’d only get a short, distant glimpse of this unique archipelago. It’s amazing how these giant ships can meander their way along the narrow passageways between all the thousands of islands. Naturally, the scenery really dazzles you on beautiful, sunny summer days but sometimes a cruise in arctic winter weather, with a frozen sea, can be quite dramatic, too.

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Sunrise and sunset from the ferry deck in January 2016

Sunrise and sunset from the ferry deck in January 2016

You can either take the morning or evening ferry, the one-way voyage taking around 12 hours. Both ways the ferry stops half way at Mariehamn, on the Åland islands, to let passengers and cars in and out. If you only have limited time in Finland, you could try a one-day “picnic cruise”, meaning you leave Turku in the morning, change ferries in Mariehamn, and return back to Turku by the evening. If you are on a full cruise, you travel all the way to Stockholm but don’t get out at all , just wait for the ferry to start the return in just over an hour. Then you’ll get to experience both night and day at sea. Another option is to spend a day in Stockholm, arrive in the morning and leave on another ferry at 8pm in the evening. This will leave you a nice 13 hours to explore the charming Swedish capital. Viking Line docks close enough to city Centre in Södermalm for you to walk to town. The Silja Line terminal is further away, and you’ll need a bus or the underground to get downtown.

Stockholm's Old Town in the early morning light

Stockholm’s Old Town in the early morning light

When it comes to cabin choice, I would definitely recommend one with a window. Since the Estonia catastrophe in the 90s, I’ve been too scared to sleep in the windowless cabins below the car decks even though they would be much cheaper! The cabins are small but practical, accommodate a maximum of 4 people in bunk beds, have their own bathroom, some also a TV. They are for sleeping in, and storing your luggage during the crossing. You wouldn’t want to spend much time in them, unless you had bad luck with the weather, and chose to just relax in peace and quiet with a good book or the view through the cabin window.

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Otherwise you ‘d probably be showing your moves on one of the dance floors, belting it out at the karaoke bar, having a sumptuous buffet meal or a special à la carte creation, checking the best bargains in the shops, or just admiring the views while sipping an exotic cocktail.

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I know many Finns who wouldn’t be seen dead on one of these ferries as they think they are totally untrendy and not classy enough. I wouldn’t snub them, though. How else would you get to enjoy the constantly changing panoramas, one more beautiful than the other, and decent food, for less than 200 euros for two people? An easy weekend mini-break, right at our doorstep!

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All is quiet on the opposite bank

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Summer is cottage season in Finland, and we are lucky to have friends and family whose cottages we can visit since we don’t have one of our own. The best Finnish cottages are close to some body of water, big or small it doesn’t matter.

Our friends’ cottage is by a tiny lake, almost like a pond. My favourite spot there is on the wooden jetty, looking across the water to the opposite side. The jetties are popular places for just sitting on, to listen to the sounds of nature – or often the almost complete silence around you. They are also used for easy swimming access as the bottoms of many Finnish lakes tend to be murky and muddy, and not so pleasant to step on.

Whenever the people from the cottage opposite have their sauna and swimming moment, you’d politely leave the jetty to respect their privacy and peace. For these pictures, nobody was around on the other side, so I felt comfortable snapping away. It’s lovely to observe the light and colours change during a summer’s day. Above a morning view, underneath the warm evening light. Only a cuckoo could be heard in the distance in the evening. Morning and evening – other opposites, sort of.

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Weekly photo challenge – OPPOSITES.

 


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Hong Kong dim sum

Last summer (2015) we had the chance to visit Hong Kong for the first time on our way to Taiwan to visit our daughter and her boyfriend, who also flew over to HK for the weekend to join us. As we only had 3 days to look around, I tried to do some online research on must places to see and things to join advance. One find on an online Time magazine article was a tea house serving traditional dim sum breakfast. Even though dim sum, as such, was not new to us, having tried it before in Malaysia, China and Singapore, and the youngsters, of course, in Taiwan, we wanted to try the HK flavour as we’d always liked it so much before. Another reason for choosing this place was that it was at a walking distance from our hotel. So off we went early on a sunny Saturday morning, after arriving the afternoon before. We loved the walk along the narrow streets and lanes of SoHo, up and down hills and stairs, and past colourful markets and stalls. Unable to read or understand any of the Cantonese signs around, I was brimming with excitement. It finally sank in that we were really far away from home.

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Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington street, Central, Hong Kong

Described, rather unflatteringly, as the “Dim Sum Warzone” by a Singaporean food blogger, we found the Lin Heung delightfully eccentric. Most of the waiters seemed to be ancient, and a little bit grumpy – made me wonder how long people kept working in Hong Kong. Service worked quite efficiently, though, although it took us some time to find a free table in the totally packed place, even that early in the morning. In fact, as we entered there was such a hullabaloo going on that we had our doubts first whether we’d manage to get any breakfast at all. We’d been warned about this by several web sources, but in the end, we were quite comfortable even having to share the table with total strangers. It just came with the territory and added to the novel experience.

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No sooner had we managed to sit down than a pot of really dark brown, steaming pu erh tea appeared in front of us. Later on, we got bolder and went to order a few other teas among the several choices on offer. But what to do to get our food? Just had to look around and observe for a while, to get the hang of it. The waiters kept coming round with their trolleys stacked with bamboo containers and plates, howling loudly in Cantonese – possibly the names of all the dishes on offer. All you had to do was to go to them and get the ones you wanted. Mind you, not so easy for us poor foreigners who didn’t understand a word, and had to try and get the waiters to open the containers to see what was inside. They weren’t too happy about this, rushing around the slightly too narrow aisles between the tables. Another piece of advice: don’t be polite and wait for your turn, like any descent Finn would. You’ll never manage to get a bite! You’ll have to be fast, or all the dishes you’d like will be snatched by somebody else right in front of your eyes! Once we learned the ropes, we got to try all sorts, the savoury seafood and meat dumplings, as well as the sweet buns and more familiar spring rolls.  All very good, I must say.

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The noise around got louder and louder while more water was constantly poured into the cute, round-bellied tea pots, and ever more exciting dim sum choices kept appearing on the trolleys. Soon enough, our eyes started being bigger than our belly, and we realised that we were already too full. But what a great experience on our first morning in Hong Kong! A bit chaotic perhaps but in a positive, intriguing way. Certainly a welcome change to quiet and organised Finland. Happy and well nourished, we were ready to hit the streets and explore the new city for the day.

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One interesting observation: as the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged or above, hardly any smart gizmos were in sight, but instead, like in the good old days, people read real newspapers! How quaint! As far as we could gather, most of the customers seemed local rather than tourists, which is always preferable to us. Whenever we can, we try to get small glimpses into the everyday lives and culture of the local people in the foreign places we visit, to see and try something that we would never come across at home.

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I would definitely recommend a visit to this tea house to Hong Kong visitors. An extra bonus: in an otherwise fairly pricey metropolis, at least by Asian standards, this was easily affordable. No Michelin star quality, and very old-fashioned for sure, but good value. I would have been prepared to pay extra for the entertainingly fascinating ambience alone!


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Do the math

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A factory chimney with random numbers, glowing in the dark. Or maybe they are not random at all. Connect the dots, and you will be amazed. Unless you already know this sequence, you may be able to start working the sequence – 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5 and so on. Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the sequence. Logical, and could be continued infinitely.

These illuminated numbers, however, are a neon light art piece by Italian artist Mario Merzi, which he placed on the chimney of Turku Energy, the energy company of my hometown in Finland in 1994. Since then, these red numbers have been a landmark along the riverside.

The work of art is called: Fibonacci Sequence 1-55. Mr Merzi was fascinated by mathematics all through his career, so it’s no wonder that he chose his fellow Italian mathematician’s sequence for this piece.

Fibonacci, in turn, was a genius 13th-century mathematician. The Fibonacci numbers are not in the least random but form the basis of many natural phenomena, such as the spirals of shells or the way sunflower seeds grow. This sequence has also been called the western definition of beauty, since the “golden ratio”, widely used in art for centuries, comes straight from the ratio of these numbers. Fascinating how math is not just numbers and calculating mechanical equations but relates to everything around us! I wonder how much this “other stuff” is touched on in today’s math lessons? I’ve only learned all this long after leaving school.

Weekly photo challenge – NUMBERS.


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Chasing high mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. – Lin Yutang

Coffee really is “my cup of tea”. But, being married to a Brit has taught me to appreciate tea, too. In fact, in our home, the kettle is put on dozens of times a day, and cups of tea are constantly on offer. Bad day at work, dear – never mind, have a cuppa, the universal remedy. In recent years, we have moved more and more into Chinese green teas, and latterly Taiwanese Oolong since our daughter moved there two years ago. No mugs of sweet, milky Indian black teas in our household!

Last summer we had the wonderful chance of visiting our daughter in Taiwan for two weeks. One of the musts was a visit to a tea plantation on the mountains as I’d always dreamed of seeing how tea grows. Taiwan is renowned for its teas – black, Oolong and green. Apparently, the conditions in Taiwan are ideal (temperature, humidity, altitude), which makes Taiwanese teas highly sought after by real tea connoisseurs.

THE JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN

Quite the journey it was. Starting off from the southern city of Kaohsiung, we (that is four of us: I, hubby, daughter and boyfriend) first took the train to Chiayi city, from where we continued by bus up the Alishan mountain (literally Ali mountain – ‘shan’ meaning mountain in Chinese). Little did we expect how high the mountain really was, and we didn’t even reach the highest point of it! Our destination was only at an elevation of some 1,400 m, while the highest peak would have been over 2,000 m. Once we started the ascent, it felt almost like being on an aeroplane taking off. With totally blocked ears, we oohed and aahed the scenery and, higher up, spotted the first small tea plantations on the slopes. How delightful! At times I had to close my eyes out of fear, though, when the steep mountain sides seemed far too close on the twisty and turny roads. More and more mist appeared, the higher we got, and the air got cooler and cooler, which was actually quite nice, after struggling with the humid heat of June on lower ground.

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We had booked our B&B accommodation through booking.com, and the owners kindly offered to pick us up at a certain bus stop. Waiting for our ride, in the middle of the late afternoon mist, we were lucky to have a pick-up truck stop by, with tea picking ladies with their signature bamboo hats and special bamboo baskets, happily travelling on the open back. I’d read about the physically hard and meticulous job of these ladies, carefully hand picking each tea leaf, to ensure premium quality. It was a pity that the best picking season wasn’t until a month after our visit, so I didn’t manage to see any of these ladies in action.

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Soon enough, the son of our B&B owner arrived to get us, but wanted to take us to Fenchichu Old Street for dinner first because he said they didn’t have any provisions for evening meals at their place. At first we felt a little disappointed as we were quite ready to settle in for the night but the evening turned out quite good in the end. Lovely little village style setting on the slopes of the mountain, but also quite crowded and touristy.

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Strolling around the little streets and alleys, we found a nice-looking little tea shop that also offered tasting. In we went, of course! Our first taste of the genuine Alishan high mountain Oolong. Surprisingly mild, beautifully yellow in colour, and somehow curiously reminding me of the taste and faint smell of raw peas. Very smooth, with no hint of the slight bitterness of many green teas. In the traditional fashion, it was served from teeny, tiny cups, and the lady serving had quite an arsenal of little implements in front of her, to prepare the brew. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, nothing like the rigid and ritualistic tea ceremonies in Japan, for example. The hostess kept filling the kettle again and again, and pouring us more and more of the tea. It really was good, and we left with a few packets of it in our bags.

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For dinner, we tried the local speciality, ‘lunchbox’.  In the old days, when Fenchichu was an important half-way refuel stop along the Alishan Forest Railway, somebody came up with the idea of selling train travellers a quick lunch in a box (made of wood, bamboo or iron) that was considerably lighter and easier to carry to the train platform than the previous noodle bowls. The lunchbox tradition is still kept alive in some restaurants. The food itself was not exactly to our liking – rice with some vegetables, a piece of chicken leg and chewy pork – but it was very cheap. To wash down the rather greasy taste of the dinner, I just had to buy a selection of Taiwanese mochi. They are sticky rice paste balls with different fillings, such as peanut butter, black bean paste, or various fruit pastes. I adore the consistency and taste – one of my all-time favourite Asian desserts!

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It was a nice surprise for us that Fenchichu is actually one of the stops of the famous Alishan Forest Railway. We were really happy to get return tickets on it for the next day – something we had wanted to do anyway! Finally, at the end of the day, we were driven to our B&B in complete darkness through almost impenetrable fog. We had no idea where we’d arrived as visibility was almost zero. Luckily we weren’t the drivers on the tiny mountain roads!

B&B ALISHAN YUN MIN GI                                                                                                                          No.4 Shizhuo, Zhonghe Village, Zhuqi Town, Chiayi County 604, Taiwan

We had chosen our inn based on the fact that it had its own tea plantation. As we only had very limited time, staying on Alishan only for one night, we had to make sure that we’d at least see one plantation. After all, that was the main reason of our visit in the area.

We all stayed in one huge room, which was lovely, and tastefully furnished, with big windows in two directions, a spacious bathroom and a balcony, too. Everything in the inn was perfectly tidy and clean. Late at night, with the fog and darkness, we couldn’t see a thing outside. We were hoping to catch the rising sun early in the morning, though, and set our alarms, keeping our fingers crossed for the fog to disappear by then. Most Alishan visitors travel to a special spot, either by car or the Forest Railway to admire the sun rising from behind the peaks but, as we were unsure about the weather, we opted to stay at the inn and hope for the best. After a quick tasting of the inn-keepers’ own Oolong tea downstairs, on a magnificent wooden table, special the the mountain area, (and buying some more packets of tea!) finally, tired and with excited anticipation, we fell asleep in our comfortable beds.

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Between 4 and 5 am, we were woken up by excited cries from our daughter: “Come and see, the sun is rising!” The night before, none of us could have anticipated the spectacle that unfolded in front of our eyes. Gradually, the mountain peaks around, and the valley below started to take shape and get in focus. The colourscape kept changing until the fabulous, sharp panorama revealed itself in all its glory, in brilliant sunshine. In addition to all the visual splendour, the silence was almost deafening, especially after the bustle of busy Taiwanese cities. And all this, from the best possible vantage point, right there on our own balcony – how awesome is that!

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We took a short walk around the inn before breakfast, to finally get an idea we were had come to. For me, the new modern wing of the inn, where we stayed, looked a little bit out of place in that natural setting but, I must say, it served its purpose well. Tea grew all around, and the rounded rows of it could be seen through all the windows inside as well. In fact, the windows were like landscape paintings, depicting the surrounding beauty of the area. After a nice breakfast, it was time to go for walks in and around the many tea plantations.

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WHERE OOLONG GROWS

At last I had the chance to walk in between the rows of tea, touch the waxy leaves and try to get the very faint scent. It was easy to walk up and down the nice wooden stairs, provided on the slopes. You could even go for a hike in a bamboo forest nearby. And wherever you turned, there was yet another spectacular view. We were in heaven! One word of warning, though, for anyone going on Alishan: the cool mountain air is very deceptive – I ended up totally burning my arms (through the silly holes of my sleeves!), not feeling the heat of the sun in the mountain breeze. I should have seen it coming!

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While our youngsters preferred to do several hikes, we found another tea plantation down the hill, went to have a look, and ended up having one more Oolong tasting session around a wonderfully carved wooden table. More and more people kept coming in, and eventually it looked like we had the whole family tasting tea with us. It transpired that these people were actually related to our inn owners if we understood it correctly through the few broken English words our Taiwanese hosts tried to say. No common language but still we shared a fun time together. Just the sort of impromptu meeting that we so enjoy during our travels. And off we went, with more packets of tea to take back home.

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THE ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY

Once the only way to get up and down the mountain, the cute red engines still chug along the steep mountain sides. Unfortunately, according to Focus Taiwan, after serious typhoon damage in 2009 and more just last autumn, the whole 70 odd km stretch has still not been repaired to this day. Opened in the early 20th century for timber transportation, the railway was turned mostly touristic in the 1960s. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, with the completion of the Alishan Highway, cheaper and faster buses started to take customers away from the trains. Today, it’s mostly diesel engines instead of the old steam ones but, nonetheless, it’s definitely an experience not to miss. The technology required to run a train on those steep slopes is amazing! Waiting for departure on the platform, there was an elated ambience of setting off on a grand adventure – and that’s what it truly was.

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The two-hour return journey down the mountain took us through bamboo forests, and more tea plantations on the slopes, dramatic mountain scenery and unbelievably lush greenery. The tiny carriages were cosy, and I noticed that the regular clickety clack of the train made several passengers nod off at some point. What a way to end our brief, but unforgettable, glimpse of mighty Alishan.

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And now, a year on, I still vividly recall all these memories and sentiments, the views, the sounds and the smells, every time I’m enjoying a cup of fragrant Oolong from Alishan.


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A night in a lighthouse

The sun came up over the sea and shadows and colours began to appear. The island began to take shape and draw in its claws. Everything began to shine, and the chalk-white gulls circled over the point. … But right across the island lay the shadow of the lighthouse like a broad dark ribbon stretching down to the beach where the boat was.

That was an extract from the Finnish children’s book Moominpappa at sea by our beloved author Tove Jansson. It’s a wonderfully emotional story of the Moomin family starting a new life in a lighthouse on a remote island.

In recent years, visiting lighthouses around our coastline has become widely popular. We are lucky to have quite a few that are open to the public, some even with accommodation facilities. It is already three years since I and hubby spent one night at Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse on the western coast of Finland, off the lovely little town of Rauma.

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The lighthouse is easy to reach from the Poroholma camping site in Rauma from where comfortable water buses transport visitors to some of the islands and islets off the coast daily in the summer months. A return ticket only costs around €30 per person for the 1-hour-long crossing. In good weather, the best place to sit is on the sunny upper deck, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the sea, and watching the lighthouse getting closer and closer in the horizon.

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Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse was constructed in 1952, and in its time had as many as 12 pilots working on the islet. Coast guard operations have since been discontinued, and today the whole islet is only for tourism. There are 13 rooms in the actual tower, a restaurant downstairs, a summer café and a souvenir shop, as well as sauna facilities, so no need to bring your own provisions unless you want to. One night in a double room costs around €130.

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In the good Finnish way, it is all perfunctory – simple and rustic but with nice little marine touches in the decor. For example, our room was called ‘Sarastus‘ (meaning ‘first light of dawn‘ in English). The restaurant serves an archipelago style menu, with various fish dishes, of course. I’d recommend sleeping with the room window open, to be soothingly lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and the sea wind. Another thing worth experiencing is getting up at night to look at the lighthouse light go round in the darkness. Well, this depends on which part of summer you visit. In June, with the almost “nightless night”, it would probably be less spectacular. We went in August when the nights are already getting dark, and thoroughly enjoyed the strangely eerie sight of the rotating light.

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What’s there to do then? Not that much. It’s a quiet place for appreciating the natural environment on one of the outermost islets before the open sea towards Sweden. It’s very sparse, with not a lot growing there. I must say I couldn’t imagine living in a place like this for long. Hats off to the tough, persistent folk who still do! Winters especially must be an ordeal, let alone getting through storms. There must be regular strong winds, judging by the small conifers all bent in one direction – good reminder of the forces of nature.

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There is one plant, however, that seems to thrive in the archipelago: the sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). During our visit, the thorny shrubs were heavy with their orange berries, which have many health benefits. They are used to make juice or jam, rich in vitamin C, in particular. The oil extracted from the seeds is also said to efficiently lower cholesterol levels. Quite a super berry, in fact!

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Once you get tired of soaking in the surrounding views, or admiring the wider panorama from your high-up room window, you can hike around the whole islet. It is quite a challenge on slippery rocks and boulders, without any proper paths, but well worth the effort in the end. During birds’ nesting times you need to be extra careful, though, as the future bird parents tend to defend their eggs and young rather aggressively. We saw quite a lot of seagulls and Canada geese, and even managed catch a brief glimpse of a sea eagle in the evening sky (no luck with a picture of it, unfortunately!). If you are adventurous enough, you can, of course, go swimming. Hubby ventured for a dip between the rocks, I chickened out. Bracing and exhilarating, according to him. I wouldn’t be so sure!

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What surprised me, however, was how quickly the restless, urban mind starts to calm down, and you get the idea of the whole experience: spending some down time in the lap of Mother Nature, in absolute, respectful awe. Your senses wake up, and you start noticing the tiny, miraculous details around you – how centuries, after centuries of waves, winds and all kinds of weather have shaped the environment. It’s as though suddenly time stands still, and there you are, an insignificantly small human being in the midst of natural history.

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During this lighthouse visit, I realised what great inspiration artists can find in such an environment, and why, for example, author Tove Jansson must have loved spending long periods of time in the Finnish archipelago. Sit or stand on the rocks to watch the day become night, the changing light transform all the colours and the scenery around you, eternity and infinity right there in front of your eyes! Breathtakingly beautiful! And then, in the morning, it all starts over again.

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He came to the edge of the water and stood watching the breakers. There was the sea – his sea – going past, wave after wave, foaming recklessly, raging furiously, but, somehow, tranquil at the same time. All Moominpappa’s thoughts and speculations vanished. He felt completely alive from the tips of his ears to the tip of his tail. This was a moment to live to the full.

When he turned to look at the island – his island –  he saw a beam of light shining on the sea, moving out towards the horizon and then coming back towards the shore in long, even waves.

The lighthouse was working.

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For those interested but unable to visit, why not check their live webcam.