This is a beta-version of the route! COVID is still making travelling extremely hard and certainly not safer.
This route goes through the Areas Lost in the War (Luovutettu Karjala). The Isthmus (Karjalankannas) is so close to Saint Petersburg that it’s partly inside its commuting area. The road network is way better than in most parts of nortwest Russia. You can even plan your trip by using Google Street View! The scenery gets better and local roads worse when you head north to Laatokan Karjala.
Many Finns have roots here. Visiting Luovutettu Karjala is a chance to see the old family house. Or its ruins.
The Map link isn’t active yet, but there should be enough information here for you to succesfully do all sorts of trips in Luovutettu Karjala, even if you’d have to look for the places mentioned here without a route drawn on a digital map.
Part of Sweden, part of Russia, then independent
Finland was a self governing Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire since 1809 and thus the pre war border was of significanse way before Finland became independent in 1917. Before the year 1809, when Finland was part of Sweden, so was the Isthmus. For some periods in history at least.
One could talk of a classic border (conflict) area. There has always been a border somewhere here. Different cultures have mixed for a thousand years. And there has always been Finns, until everyone was evacuated.
Evakot – Evacuees
This is a massive topic and one of the reasons I’m trying to establish these routes. About 100 000 Finnish houses were destroyed during the Second World War. 11 percent of the populaton was homeless and 400 000, evacuated included, needed a new home. In other words Luovutettu Karjala is an area where the whole population has been replaced. Where did these new inhabitants come from? This is yet another interesting topic!
Imatra and Lappeenranta
Both of these Finnish cities are good places to start your trip. Vuoksi flows to Russia never minding the border and so does the canal. Follow a smaller road from Imatra or the canal from Lappeenranta to the nearest border crossing point.
Border Crossing Points
Vaalimaa (not recommended), Vainikkala (for trains only until 2024), Nuijamaa, Imatra and Niirala.
Arriving from Nuijamaa gives nice views over the canal. Entering Viborg is a bit of a questionmark. Prefer a smaller road. Eurovelo route known as the Iron Courtain Trail could give some guidance to this.
Vyborg was once a big international city by the Gulf of Finland. The revolution in Russia suddenly closed the important connections to Saint Petersburg. This meant changes in agriculture, industry and commerse. People at Karjalankannas put in the effort, kept the wheels spinning and prospered. Then came Winter War.
Mannerheim and the Lines of Defence
Mannerheim was a true power figure. He served in the army of the Russian Empire, fought in Japan, made a two year far east expedition on horse back doing intelligense work and collecting cultural objects, was the head of Finnish army in the Second World War and wore a corset. Later he became president. Today Mannerheimin Lastensuojeluliitto protects the rights of children. There is a street named after him in pretty much every Finnish city.
In the civil war he was on the winning side. This is where he earned his nickname Lahtari (Slaughterer). Finland recovered fast from the horrors of civil war, but the terror in the concentration camps where the Red, meaning socialist workers who rebelled, were held, only ended when England and the international community refused to declare Finland independent. Treating dying men and women like animals left deep wounds. It is said that Winter War was what eventually united the people (good old blood sacrifice always works). Before that there were all kinds of attacks from right wing terrorists known as Lapuan liike.
Mannerheim Defence Line at the Karelian Isthmus was where the big battles went down. There is another line, Salpalinja, in Finland. It was the last line of defence and it was never used. It goes through the whole country and the southernmost 50 or so kilometers are now a hiking route. Salpalinja museum is worth checking out.
Sights in Vyborg
Most renowned sights of Vyborg include the castle (and its corrupted renovation process), the park of Monrepos and the library designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The building has recently gone through thorough restoration and the outcome is said to be top notch. Younger Finns often think Monrepos is in Paris, mainly because of this nostalgic evergreen. First performed by Annikki Tähti but I prefer the Ola’s version.
The city has lost most of its former glory, but there are interesting things happening, including a museum of war history that isn’t filled with propaganda. They should be able to help you find some interesting sights related to the subject. A website called sotahistoriallisetkohteet.fi is handy, but only if you speak Finnish. Another war museum, Gora Filina, is situated inside a cave/bunker near Kontupohja.
Suomenlahti, The Gulf of finland
Surprisingly there are some pretty nice sandy beaches here. They are good places to set up a camp. The Isthmus has a lot of pine forests that only have a very thin layer of soil. Scrape it a bit and you’ll find sand. So following the shoreline and visiting Koivisto is an easy option when choosing a route.
There are other routes too that might reveal more of the local life – past and present. ”Summan tie” for example, goes through Summa, Kaukjärvi, Uusikirkko and Vammelsuu.
Terijoki and Komorovo
Russian summer villas are called datshas. Terijoki and Komorovo have a lot of them. They have always been in favour of artists and the noblesse. Terijoki was once famous for its beaches, but the last I’ve seen it did not quite convince me.
A world famous painter lived near by at Kuokkala, later renamed Repinho. Replika of his home is now a museum.
Bigger roads cause problems for cyclists. In Russia they can be extremely dangerous. Russians seem to think it’s ok to suddenly turn a perfectly good old road into a one way exit of a highway. There is a new big road to Lahdenpohja. Try to avoid that. I’m really hoping they won’t destroy the scenic bits where you can see Lake Ladoga.
Reka Sestra (Rajajoki), the Border River
On my trip to the Isthmus we followed the river and later ended up inside a big suburb. It was actually very interesting. After thew less succesful route choises we arrived at Metsäpirtti. From there we took yet another risk an cycled to the river where it meets Lake Ladoga. Luckily we found someone to take us to the other side by boat. There was an airport and some big and luxurious buildings behind high fences. The Road starting from the riverside that goes to Sakkola, a famous battleground during the war, is rideable by military vehicles. And by bike!
Some other options after Terijoki
Raivola – Kivennapa – Rautu and Raivola – Parkkila – Valkjärvi have been suggested in guides written for people travelling by car. Feel free to choose your own route!
Vuoksi, Taipale and Burnaja
Vuoksi river once flowed to Käkisalmi. It is a mighty river, from the beautiful gorge-like damn at Imatra to the shores of Lake Ladoga. Molded for industry, the main branch now flows via Suvanto and Burnaja, wich translates as fierce. Vuoksi offers great possibilities for some serious gravel grinding.
Konevsky monastery (Konevitsa)
An orthodox monastery on a beautiful island. Catamaran boat leaves at Vladimirovka. The name of the island refers to a boulder that looks like a horses head, a place of worship long before the christian times. The monks built a tsasouna (a place of prayer) on top of it.
This as a bigger city, atleast in this scale. You can find basic info online. The city has a castle and a river. As an anecdote, when Swedes invaded the city (16th or 17th centuty or so), Karelians fled pretty far and started a new life in Tver near Moscow. There is still a community of Karelians scattered around the Tver Karelia (Tverin Karjala).
Good options to continue
As said, the main road is not the best choise. Instead visit the villages – Important Finnish and fascinating Soviet styled ones. North from Käkisalmi there are places like Kuznetsnoje and its surroundings, Hiitola, Kurkijoki, Eilisenvaara, Lumivaara and Ihala to choose from.
Shores of Lake Ladoga
After Lahdenpohja the main road and its scenery is the obvious choise.
During the pandemic these parts of the Karelian Republic have been in favour of domestic tourists. Some would even go as far as saying that the peaceful atmosphere is gone. Personally I prefer a city with people. Tourists bring life to the streets. And much needed money. Sortavalu has services and info can easily be found browsing the world wide web.
Nearby islands are worth a visit, and so is:
Valaam monastery (Valamo)
Ferry rides from Sortavalu. The Valaam Monastery was also evacuated during the war (The New Valamo is at Heinävesi, Finland). This first monastery of the area dates somewhere between 1100 and 1300 ad, times when Russia was ruled from Novgorod. The monastery was still one of the most important centers for the orthodox community after the revolution. Soviet Union, as you might know, was not so frendly towards religious thinking. Today it’s been renowated and is good as new.
The Marble quarry
The Ruskela marble quarry has become one of the most popular sights of Laatokan Karjala. It’s a hole in the ground. A nice looking hole with water on the bottom.
Alternatively you could take the long road and visit Suistamo, Soanlahti and Värtsilä, wich, depending on the moods of the border (FSB) officials is or isn’t critically inside the border zone. Good place to make camp at the sandy beach of lake Suistamojärvi. Ry’sya Gora near Värtsilä has nice views.
- Cycling to Suojärvi via Suistamo and other old villages would be nice.
- Following the shore to Salmi (and why not all the way to Saint Petersburg) is a scenic ride. The route description for Lake Ladoga roundtrip is mid prosess.
- For the ultimate bikepacking experience consider a visit to Tolvajärvi. There’s pretty much nothing left of the old village, but the roads that follow narrow strips of land between lakes are beautiful. Mind that the local road 86K-329 north from Värtsilä puts you inside the border zone for quite a long time. Permission might be required.
- Just visiting the Karelian Isthmus, cycling to Saint Petersburg or crossing the border at Imatra and heading north towards Laatokan Karjala are all options well worth considering.
- Vainikkala is now for trains only. There are plans of opening it for traffic in 2024. This would allow both Finns and Russians to do shorter roundtrips between neighbourging countries. I’ve heard there are allready route plans in case everything goes flying through the diplomatic and bureaucratic process like nothing ever does.
Good to Know – read this article!
You need a visa to visit Russia. There is free a digital visa that should work when staying in Saint Petersburg (or the Isthmus I’ve heard). There are plans of going digital nation wide, but due to the pandemic it’s a bit iffy.
Longer stays (more than a week) require registration. Bigger hotels do it for you, otherwise you’ll have to pay a visit to the local officials.
Mind the border zone! You’ll need a permission.
Finns refer to the the areas lost in the war as Luovutettu Karjala. It consists of Karjalankannas (the isthmus) and Laatokan Karjala, meaning bits between the scenic shores of Lake Ladoga and the new border and all land north from it that was Finnish before the Second World War. If you follow the lakeside clockwise, you’ll reach the old borderstone at Salmi. North from Lake Ladoka you’ll find the city of Suojärvi. It too was once Finnish.
Karjalankannas translates in Russian as Karelski pereshejek. However, Russians often assosiate Karelia with Respublika Karelija, and only see the isthmus as a part of Leningradskaja Oblast. Oblasts are administrative areas and Saint Petersburg was called Leningrad during the Soviet reign. You’ll propably guess who it’s named after.
Lost and Forgotten
Finns also lost land near Kuhmo and Salla. Paanajärvi national park is situated inside the old border but is now in Russia. Petsamo and Liinahamari at the Barents Sea were the gateway to the arctic. This imperialistic link, Finlands ”other hand” was lost too. When people talk of Luovutettu Karjala, these northern losses are often forgotten. The name itself only refers to the southern areas.