The monumental facade of Helsinki Central Railway Station has an elegant symmetry. Four giant granite men, each holding a lantern, are there to greet me. It’s before seven o’clock on a quiet Saturday morning and I’m here on an eastbound mission, headed for the only passenger railway in the EU that crosses the 30th meridian east of Greenwich.
From the train number, Finland’s IC1 service sounds like it should be the most prestigious train in the country, just as 50 years ago the number TEE 1 was reserved for the premium Trans-Europe Express that ran direct from Paris to Bordeaux. Finland’s IC1 doesn’t whiz anywhere, averaging just over 60 mph on the 300-mile journey through lakes and forests to Joensuu, the administrative center of the region known to Finns as Pohjois-Karjala (North Karelia). From Joensuu it’s another 100 miles and two hours on a local train to Nurmes, passing through the gorgeous North Karelian countryside and crossing the 30th meridian along the way.
The intercity train from Helsinki to Joensuu is almost empty. What is striking is the innovative interior design of the six-car double-decker train. There is a children’s play area, complete with slide, in a carriage, designated space for pets at the end of the train and elsewhere a choice of private compartments for two or four people (which can also be booked for an extra charge by solo travellers), and some airy carriages with an open layout. I head for the restaurant car and a simple breakfast of oatmeal with berries, accompanied by orange juice and coffee (all for €7.90).
Now we slip out of Helsinki, passing sidings to the left where a couple of Allegro trains look very smart in the morning sun. Until the end of March, these sleek high-speed trains were used on the regular run to St. Petersburg. The service was abolished in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the trains ran, St Petersburg was only three and a half hours in Allegro comfort from Helsinki. Now the Russian city seems light years away.
IC1 from Helsinki to Joensuu runs close to the Russian border; at one point we cross the eastern arm of Lake Simpele, and pass within half a mile of the border. For Finns, the eastern territories ceded to Russia in World War II have been the subject of much myth-making, with stories of an idealized Karelian past that inspired Finnish music, song, art and literature in the 19th century. The reality of life on the other side of the border is less romantic. “Do you see the dark clouds?” asks the conductor, pointing to the east. “There is pollution from the Russian pulp mills at Enso,” he says, emphatically using the former Finnish name of the Russian community now called Svetogorsk.
There is an increasingly Russian feel to the landscape as IC1 heads deeper into Finnish Karelia. There are many Orthodox churches, easily identifiable by their distinctive crosses, and many log houses-cum-barns combined into very large two-story buildings. The train’s pace slows as we cruise up the east coast of Pyhäselkä and enter Joensuu. It is the end of the line for IC1, and here those going to rural outposts further north must change to a Czech-built railcar for the onward journey. Within ten minutes of arriving in Joensuu, we are heading north, rattling across a white girder bridge that spans the fast-flowing Pielisjoki.
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About 15 minutes later we cross the 30th meridian east of Greenwich – the first of four occasions when our train passes that meridian. The easternmost railway station on the line (and therefore anywhere in the EU) is at Uimaharju, a village as far east as St Petersburg. Uimaharju has a nice lakeside location, slightly marred by a cluster of pulp mills and sawmills. Here an Orthodox priest joins the train. We chat and he explains that Orthodoxy can be a brand for the East, but it is not necessarily Russian. “The Finnish Orthodox Church is an official state church here in Finland,” he says, breaking off to point out a small wooden chapel covered by an Orthodox cross, in the forest by the railway. “That’s what we call a tsasouna,” he says.
The last 90 minutes of the journey, from Uimaharju up to Nurmes, is the finest part of the whole trip from Helsinki. When this line was built, the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and there are moments where I feel transported back in time to rural Tsarist Russia. Now the green-white diesel van is empty. We slide past clearings in the forest where rye and potatoes are grown, past wooden houses in the Karelian style and some very nice wooden churches. This is a journey into another world, one that reaches Nurmes all too soon. As we approach the town, we pass a large farm that had been painstakingly moved, log by log, from its original location on the Russian side of the border. It is a fine example of how Finland has “recreated” elements of Karelian culture and identity within its limited post-war borders.
Nurmes is a lovely little town that is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Tsar Alexander II in 2023. This rural community, located on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the northernmost part of Lake Pielinen, is a perfect place to spend a day or two. Although it is only possible to take a day trip from Helsinki to Nurmes and back, a round trip of more than 16 hours, the better choice is to spend the night and then continue by bus. The two main options are to head northwest through the Karelian forests to Kajaani or southwest to Kuopio, both well placed on Finland’s rail network. Both bus routes run once a day (except Saturdays), with a journey time of approx. two hours.
IC1 leaves Helsinki daily except Sundays at 06.57. With a change in Joensuu, arrival at Nurmes is 2 p.m. The return service leaves Nurmes at 15.40, and arrives in Helsinki at 23.03. Interrail cards are valid all the way without surcharge.
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One-way tickets in standard class (called Eco in Finland) from Helsinki to Nurmes if booked well in advance, starts at €25.60 but can be more than double if booked just before departure. The supplement to upgrade to first class is always €17.90. Charges for private compartments vary with the number of people travelling. Book tickets online at VR Finnish Railways.
Tickets for onward bus journeys from the railway at Nurmes can be ordered on the Matkahuolto app or website. The single fares from Nurmes to Kuopio and Kajaani are €21.80 and €25.80 respectively.
Nicky Gardner is a Berlin-based writer. The 17th edition of her book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian bookstore. She is co-editor of the magazine Hidden Europe