Peat bogs, bears and dense forest – it's Europe, but not as we know it

Sankha Guha explores Finland's wild and watery frontier with Russia

Karelia poses a couple of seemingly innocent questions.

Where is it? And what is it? The answers, however, are not easy. Karelia is in eastern Finland, but also substantially in western Russia. Parts of it were ceded to Russia after the Winter War of 1939-40 and that remains a sensitive area for some Finns. Though it has a distinct cultural identity of its own, Karelia is the locus of Finnish nationhood – the wellspring of The Kalevala, the national epic poem. The one simple fact of the region is its untamed natural beauty. By contrast, its history, geopolitics, arts and religion are, both metaphorically and sometimes literally, Byzantine.

My first stop brings this home. The Valamo Orthodox Monastery is not in Valamo. The real Valamo is on an island in Lake Ladoga more than 100 miles away in Russia. The only Orthodox monastery in Finland was placed here as a result of that war with Stalin's Russia. Facing the Red Army onslaught, the monks evacuated the 800-year-old Russian Orthodox institution on Valamo, bringing a treasure of religious artefacts with them.

The displaced monks bought an old manorial estate among the forests and lakes of Heinavesi in western Karelia, and set about re-creating the Valamo monastery. The first church they built on site is a charming improvisation situated in a hall created by joining two buildings on either side of the driveway to the old manor house. The engineering is cheap and cheerful, evidenced in the ramped floor to connect the different ground levels of the two farm buildings. The walls and ceiling are faced with stripped pine. The rich glint of gold and colour emanating from the paintings and icons that crowd the walls seems at odds with the rusticity of the space. As church buildings go, it is decidedly unorthodox.

The monastery complex today is a popular tourist attraction. It includes guest houses, a hotel, a large conference centre, library, state-of-the-art icon conservation workshop and a sizeable gift shop with handcrafts and a range of berry wines made by the monks. In summer, coach parties descend and the monastery's claim to provide "a tranquil atmosphere in which to escape from the bustle of the modern world" is tested.

But there are transcendental moments to be found at the new Valamo even in high season. When the coaches have left and the guests have retired to bed I sit on the lake shore in the summer twilight. It is midnight and the silence is enveloping. I can hear the wing beats of a bird 200 yards away. There is a dying red tint on the western horizon; the water is like molten glass with steely greys and blues congealing slowly into each other. A bat swoops and dives soundlessly through the foliage on the water's edge – it is barely a smudge of disturbed air.

Then a hum grows in the distance. The hum magnifies to a roar and obliterates all else. It is huge and voracious. The beast of Valamo turns out to be a solitary lorry driving along the adjacent country road. It screams past and the receding rumble is accentuated by the returning stillness. The lorry is a reminder of the noise pollution that passes unnoticed in city life.

The next day in Ilomantsi, close to the Russian border, I meet Father Heikki Huttunen, Orthodox priest and general secretary of the Finnish Ecumenical Council. He shows me around the Orthodox graveyard, which is a wooded peninsula jutting into another glorious lake. The forest floor is covered in pine needles and a moving carpet of huge ants. There is little evidence of the cemetery. Father Heikki explains that traditionally graves were marked with wooden memorials and when there was no one left to tend them they were simply allowed to decay back to nature.

There are a handful of stone memorials, one of which is on the grave of a man "murdered" (according to the inscription) in 1918 – the year after Finland gained its independence from Russia. It was a time of tension between the majority Lutheran church and the Orthodox community (which was often associated with Russian imperial rule). The unfortunate man was executed as a suspected Bolshevik by the Finnish police. Father Heikki says he wasn't any such thing. He adds the churches get along fine these days.

Russia still looms large in Karelia. On the way to the village of Mohko I take a wrong turn and find myself on the edge of no man's land. The sign is blunt – "Stop" – it is accompanied by a graphic of a large red hand. The message is elaborated in five languages: "Border Zone. No entry without special permit."

There is a homespun museum in Mohko dedicated to the 19th-century ironworks that once existed here, but it is more significant as the former frontline during the Winter War. In the nearby Petkeljarvi National Park, the peace of the nature trails is challenged by the remains of trenches that were dug as defensive positions in the event of a Soviet breakout. The trenches were never used in earnest – the Finnish lines held. But the history of the bitter contest for Karelia is etched into the soil.

In Patvinsuo, another national park further north, guides Marko and Leena take me on a five-hour hike through a peat bog. It is in effect a giant sponge. We "walk the plank" – most of the hike is on narrow lengths of spruce or pine raised above the squidgy bog. Marko and Leena point out various flora en route, including tiny flytraps and a poisonous rhododendron that looks like rosemary. The return route is through woodland that is scattered with orchids and mushrooms.

We get to Lake Suomu in time for sunset. It is 11pm. At this latitude in summer the sun is in no hurry. An astonishing palette lights up the sky and the mirrored surface of the lake. God is jiggling his kaleidoscope every few minutes; creating new fractals of blazing golds and oranges, vivid pinks and purples, cold metal and icy mauves. At 1am I set off on the dirt road from Patvinsuo to Lieksa which climbs up a razor-edge ridge, wriggling and twisting, with steep drops on either side. Water is visible through the pines, catching the beams of a full moon. Mist is forming in thin wisps and settling on the lakes. It is an exhilarating drive, in the half light, between worlds, between myth and reality. It is the domain of bears, lynx and wolves.

To catch a glimpse of the notoriously shy wildlife of the taiga requires luck. Finland is the most heavily forested country in Europe; nearly 75 per cent of the land provides dense cover for the surprisingly tiny populations of the larger mammal species. The big predator species are still hunted in the country which must also contribute to their nervousness.

At Era Eero, which means Eero's wilderness, Eero Kortelainen has built a huddle of hides deep in the boreal forest to enable wildlife photographers and enthusiasts to get close to some of Europe's most spectacular beasts. His emblem is the vanishingly rare wolverine – a badger sized animal that looks bearish but is most closely related to the pine marten.

The hide is on a hillside next to a small lake. The whole area is pungent with the smell of rotting meat. About 30 yards away a pig's carcass, crawling with maggots, is dumped and tethered in a pit. One of the staff, the also bearish Hannu, darts around the area hiding fresh chunks of meat in nooks in the trees and under stones. All the while we are ordered to maintain silence.

The inside of the hide is basic but comfortable enough for the overnight vigil we are about to begin. Soon a disparate bunch of seagulls shows interest in the food. Then the ravens arrive; they gather on a log, trying to pry little chunks of meat from the hiding places. Noisy squabbles break out over the pecking order. For long hours nothing much happens. We speak in whispers and scour the unchanging scene for signs of animal life. Every once in a while the reek of rotten pig drifts towards the hide when the wind shifts. It is the smell of death. And those cuddly teddy bears love it.

At precisely two minutes to 10 an urgent hiss from Hannu alerts me. I peer out at the margins of the forest and see nothing. As my eyes adjust, a patch of shaded woodland appears to detach itself from the forest. Viewed through binoculars the shadow solidifies into the outlines of a bear cautiously emerging from cover. It sniffs the air carefully and makes its way to the pit. Soon it is snuffling around the maggoty pig. The evening light forms a halo of silver around its head. Then it grabs a limb and starts tearing flesh from the carcass. Any passing likeness to Winnie the Pooh is swiftly dispelled.

During the night two more bears swing by and, at about 3.40am, we are rewarded with a lone wolverine raiding Eero's larder. It disappears inside a tree trunk and emerges with fangs clamped on a large hunk of meat. The wolverine is businesslike and urgent, and makes a swift exit up the hillside to our left to the accompaniment of camera shutters clacking furiously.

The last great wilderness in Europe has shared a few of its secrets.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Finnair ( flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Joensuu (gateway to Karelia), via Helsinki, in August from £217 return. A weeks' car rental (Ford Focus) costs from €480 (£423): Valamo Monastery has double rooms from €110 (£97) with breakfast. The Sokos Hotel Koli has doubles from €99 (£87) with breakfast. For bookings go to:

Further information

Sankha Guha travelled as a guest of VisitFinland (

A Brazilian wandering spider

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Wonnacott dancing the pasadoble
TVStrictly Come Dancing The Result
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow


Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
Life and Style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past