Karelia: Land of Inspiration

It is now almost one year since I visited Karelia in Finland. The following is a reminiscence, before I once again travel to Finland for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Jean Sibelius’s birth.

For someone like me coming from a small, heavily urbanized and developed country like Singapore, our perception of a forest can perhaps be quite limited. I think we take for granted that the trees planted all around us in the city are “enough”. They are not a bad thing, but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the way we sculpt forests within the confines of our buildings and roads.  There is something too neat about it. Some trees in Singapore’s urban landscape are very old, for sure, and I wonder if they have always stood there, the roads being built around them to preserve them. Other trees – the newer ones, are obviously planted to follow the roads. And now we have the Gardens by the Bay, the  most gardened of gardens, with “Supertree” sculptures meant to emulate the majesty of real trees. But I’m sorry to say: I am not impressed. A tree is not merely a sight by the road to see from behind car windows, or conveniently placed to provide you shade and beautify your surroundings. Trees are life itself. Mankind can try to sculpt nature, but he would do best to  allow nature to sculpt herself.

It was the day after my first visit to Ainola on this Summer 2014 trip, and I woke up early in Kallio-Kuninkula, former home of Eva Sibelius and now a musical venue for the Sibelius Academy, to pack for the next part of my journey: a full-day’s train and bus ride to Lieksa, in Northern Karelia. After breakfast, we departed and walked to Kyrölä station, which as of this writing has now been renamed the Ainola station. But for now we are not going to Ainola.

Treeline on the way to Karelia

The train journey was long. In between trying to take some pictures of this remote part of Eastern Finland, walking to the cafe carriage of the train to buy a orange juice and struggling with my big luggage case, I dropped my camera. The Hoya filter did its job, sacrificing itself to break the fall. My heart definitely skipped a beat. Luckily I had a spare lens, but it was a little worrisome at that point.

We disembarked from the train at Joensuu in Eastern Finland to take a bus to Lieksa, further north. While we waited in the freezing cold wind – this was the coldest on my trip so far, a Somali woman asked us for directions, first in Finnish, then in English. It seemed quite strange to me to see a Somali woman in this windy cold day in Finland, asking me for directions in Finland. She was a little lost herself, but seemed more at home with the language than I was.

In the learning years of my music-listening, before the years of the Flying Inkpot, all I possessed with which to imagine these foreign lands and cultures that  all these non-Asian composers come from were pictures in books and pictures on record covers. They were always different and untouchable, even if the music connected us. In the early years when I championed Sibelius on the internet, online images provided a bit more variety that I could curate. For years all I knew of Finland were images of their quintessential lakes, forests and little tree-studded islands. Beyond looking at the pictures, I could only listen to Sibelius, and somehow try to make the connection.

The bus finally came while I sat in an empty lobby trying unsuccessfully to detach the broken filter on my camera, trying to ascertain if the lens itself was damaged. We boarded the bus in the frigid wind and settled down for the ride to Lieksa where we were greeted by two more of my good hosts for this trip, Paula and her sister Kikki (Andrew’s wife). Paula drove us to her cottage by Lake Pielinen.

On this cloudy, cold and grey day, I met Karelia for the first time in real life.

Pielinen in grey

Melancholy and distant Karelia.

Pielinen in grey2

Silent and poignant Karelia.

To my relief, my lens was intact. Only the Hoya filter was cracked beyond repair. The camera worked fine. I was given a choice to spend the night in a small sideroom by the sauna, which would be heated naturally by the sauna; or I could sleep in the new cabin, which is not heated. Admittedly, I chose the new cabin because it seemed a little more spacious and neater. The night was cold and I woke up with a slight headache from it,  but it seemed tolerable.

Karelia dawn

I was up at 5.25am to try to catch the sunrise. I sat on a rock by the lake, but the sun never really appeared. It simply went from dull grey to light grey, with a glow on the horizon that never quite blossomed. I guess I must have missed it or the sun rose into the thickness of the clouds, without sunburst. The Sunday was spent in a leisurely manner, breakfast, followed by a break. Then a walk in the woods where I was shown the spring from which water was sourced for everyday use, including drinking and cooking. The water is remarkably fresh and delicious. When you drink this water, you will understand how altered tap water is.

Sibelius’s music is likewise, remarkably honest. It has a purity that is on the one hand difficult for many people to appreciate because so many of us are used to the “altered” and embellished music of other masters. Which is not to say they are inferior or overcooked. It’s just that, once in a while, you need to take away the excessive sweetness, the adulterated additives or the chemical neutralizers, to remind yourself – or sometimes to inform yourself for the first time – the sound and taste of purity.

These days, we are used to seeing pictures of beautiful National Geographic-esque, pretty (or prettified) landscapes on the internet. They are a dime a dozen. Even your friends post pictures from their vacations, inciting a mixture of marvel and envy. For me, pictures of Finland and especially Karelia have always been just pictures. Pictures in jpeg format that I decorate my reviews with, to give flavour to my writings about Sibelius, and also as soothing eye candy for the word-weary reader.

But today, it was different. Today, an image on the internet became reality for me. The jpeg was not something I downloaded, but something I was going to see for myself and as a bonus to capture in my camera. At about 5 o’clock in the evening, after a 4-hour walk in the forest and hills nearby, Andrew and I were resting in the cottage when Paula came by and from outside, hollered for us to come out. In her wonderfully dry, minimalistically Finnish and godmotherly fashion, she uttered, quite simply, “Come out. The sun has come out.”

What I beheld took all my breath away. The entirety of it all had transformed. The whole world before me sang Sibelius.



The First Symphony, the Third Symphony, the Karelia Ballade – it was all coming from the landscape.


And beyond or perhaps before all that music the immense, immense and soul-searching silence.

Karelian sunset

For one entire year, back home in Singapore, I could not figure out how to repay my hosts for this privilege of being here. I wanted to express my gratitude, beyond ordinary ways of thanks and gifts, but there was simply nothing to match the gift of Finland that I had received. I am forever grateful to Andrew, for all his knowledge and his generosity in making my Finnish trips work out; for Kikki, his wife, her unassuming joy and warm friendship – which has kept us connected all this time. That one photo she shared online with which I commented, “Bring me there someday!” and it really happened. And last but not least, Paula, her sister who has connected me spiritually to the forests and to the Finnish soul, by way of Sibelius. I sometimes wonder at how to explain it, but I always feel additionally indebted to her. In part for nothing less than this opportunity to stay at her Karelian cottage.

And so, this year, I decided finally, that the only gift worthy of Karelia is Karelia itself. I sent a number of photographs from my 2014 trip for printing and gave these to Paula. Judging by her emotional reaction, it seems my choice is right, if I may say so. I told her, it seems to me that it’s strange to give you photos of a place that is your home that you already “have”. But I hope that the photos can represent a moment in time which I’ve managed to capture, and give that moment to her as a gift. A  moment in her very own land, a land of music and inspiration, a moment in the music, in the homeland of Jean Sibelius.