Hospitable Hunan

Jun’s birthday is in the middle of July. To celebrate it, we decided to get away from Shenzhen after having been isolated here since the end of January. COVID-19 cases in China had diminished for the majority of Mainland China. We felt with proper precaution it would be okay to travel to western Hunan. The area is sparsely populated and most of the sights were outdoors.

With that in mind, we booked our hotels and flights and prepared ourselves for the trip. Since I’m a foreign national living and working in China, I had to take a COVID-19 test valid for the week of travel. Two days before we were to leave, I went to the nearby hospital and took the test. I got my results the next day—negative—and was ready to leave Shenzhen.

Jun and I met at the airport after work and we were soon on our way to Zhangjiajie in northwestern Hunan province. When we arrived at Zhangjiajie airport, I was escorted out of the plane to provide my health and contact information because I was a foreigner. The process went smoothly; it did require different health codes specific to Hunan province. Soon, though, Jun and I were in the car he ordered to take us to our hotel in Wulingyuan.

At check-in, we found out that our room was upgraded. The room was spacious and comfortable. By this time it already was early morning. We were both tired and quickly took showers and got ready for bed. We were both soon sound asleep.

Day 1

The morning of our first day started with us looking out the window and watching it rain heavily. We were a bit disconcerted that the rain would hamper our visit to the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area.

We took our time getting ready. After breakfast, we decided to just go and explore. We had a general idea of how to get there. We left the hotel and walked to the entrance of the park. Health and security were enforced. We had to go through the different stages of checks before we got into the park. Then when we did, we randomly hopped on a bus and went on our journey.

The bus took us to the 10 Mile Natural Gallery. By the time we got there, the rain had cleared and we were able to see the surrounding sandstone pillars. As we walked along the trail the weather started to turn again. When we started our ascent up the mountain, the rain started to pick up and obscured our views of the surrounding area.

By the time we got up to Tianzi Pavilion, everything was covered in rain and clouds. We were a bit disappointed, but we decided to enjoy the hike and accept that we would only see rain.

As we were going down, though, the rain stopped and the wind picked up. The clouds started to move, and we began to see more of the stone pillars. Eventually, we started to see more and more of them. We were excited and enjoyed the views. The serendipitous moment made it even more special! The landscape is truly amazing, and we could understand why these mountains inspired the landscape for Avatar.

As we were going back down, the clouds started to come back in and covered everything in a thick fog. We were lucky we were where we had been to see the stone pillars.

After we got back down the mountain, the weather cleared a bit more and we were treated to the beauty of this part of the park before catching the bus back to the entrance.

Because we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, Jun and I decided to get an early dinner and found a local restaurant nearby. The food was amazing. The service was even better; they drove us back to our hotel!

We rested and enjoyed our hotel room for the remainder of the evening. We even ordered some ice cream from room service before going to bed.

Our first day ended up being special. Jun mentioned that even if we saw nothing the next day, he would be happy with our trip.

Day 2

On our second day, we decided to start from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the southern part of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area.

When we got there it started to drizzle as we walked around the area towards the buses. We ended up taking two buses to Yangjiajie. From there we took the cableway up to the top. While there, we walked around a bit and saw the Natural Great Wall. At first, it rained heavily, but then it turned into a drizzle.

By the time we got to the next bus stop, the rain had stopped. This bus took us to Yuanjiajie. We spent most of our time that day here. We walked along the Enchanted Terrace, which is the area that inspired Avatar. The clouds started to dissipate and we got to see some amazing views. Because of the pandemic, there were fewer people here than normal. We enjoyed walking around at a leisurely pace and not have to deal with crowds.

Once we reached the end of the Enchanted Terrace we took another bus to Bailong Elevator. The elevator is built on the side of a mountain. It’s the tallest outdoor lift in the world at a height of 326 m (1,070 ft). The bottom part goes through the mountain, while the top part is exposed to allow people to see the surrounding area. Normally there would be long lines and waits, but we just walked up to the entrance and waited five minutes for the elevator to reach the top before getting in and going down to the bottom. The ride itself took only a few short minutes. From there the views were pretty impressive. Looking up at the elevator put into perspective how high up we had been.

After looking around the area, we took our final bus to the same entrance we had used the previous day. We essentially made a circle of the park.

When we got back to the hotel we cleaned up a bit and went down to have afternoon tea. It was a nice way to relax away the afternoon.

When we were done we rested a bit before dinner. Jun found a local restaurant online that he thought looked good and we soon found our way there. It’s a family-owned restaurant. They were friendly and provided us with additional dishes on the house. The people in this area were wonderful and hospitable. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

We went back to the hotel and enjoyed a relaxing evening in our room before calling it a day.

Day 3

Our day started with a bit of trouble as we were checking out. There was an issue with the agency and the hotel in terms of payment. It took the rest of the day to resolve through instant messages and phone calls. It was annoying to deal with, but it ended up being okay.

We didn’t let this issue affect the rest of the day. Jun and I took a shared car to first visit the ancient town of Furong, which was founded by the ethnic Tujia people, one of the non-Han Chinese ethnicities. It’s a quaint town with a waterfall at the end of the village. There was hardly anyone there. We took out time and leisurely wandered around the streets before we left.

We took another shared car first to Jishou so we could change cars again to get to our final destination of Fenghuang. Our second driver was a lovely man who became our impromptu tour guide. Jun asked if he would be interested in driving us first to the Southern (Miaojing) Great Wall and then to Fenghuang. He agreed for a reasonable price and we were soon on our wall to the Great Wall. Like the more famous Great Wall in northern China, this wall was built for protection during the Ming Dynasty. The part that is open to the public as an open-air museum is well-maintained. By the time we arrived there, only a handful of people were visiting. We essentially had the whole place to ourselves to explore. We were lucky we went in the late afternoon as it was a hot day. The views of the surrounding land from the top was quite nice. The rain from the previous few days had cleared up the sky and everything was crisp and clear.

When we finsihed our tour there, our driver took us to Fenghuang where we settled into our hotel. We cleaned up a bit and got ready to go out. We went for a bit of exploring around the ancient town before having dinner. Dinner was a nice affair; typical Hunan food from this region.

After dinner, Jun and I went for a walk to enjoy the lighted structures along the river before we went back to the hotel for the night.

While it was a long day, we both enjoyed it, especially when Jun learned that the payment issue was resolved.

Day 4

Our last day of vacation had us first wander around the river. We found a noodle stall and had breakfast there. We both enjoyed our meal and felt ready to continue our wandering around Fenghuang.

We ended up just wandering the streets. One thing that was interesting about Fenghuang was that the old town wall is still in place in some parts while in others it had been torn down. As we continued our walk, we decided to get some drinks at a café near the river. We enjoyed relaxing in the river breeze and enjoyed not having to do anything. Finally, it was time for us to go back to the hotel to get our things and head to the airport.

We took a taxi. Our driver drove quite fast and got us to the Tongren Fenghuang airport earlier than we had anticipated. When we got there, we learned our flight was delayed. While we waited, I edited some photos and read my book.

Soon we were on the plane and on our way back to Shenzhen.

Jun and I had a wonderful trip! We enjoyed being able to get out of Shenzhen for a bit. We came back more centered and ready to get back to this new normal.

Winter in Finland & Estonia

Jun and I decided to visit Finland during the Chinese New Year at the end of January. We both wanted to see the northern lights and read that Finland would be a good place to see them. So, after looking around a bit we found a direct flight on Finnair from Hong Kong to Helsinki that was quite reasonable.

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Day 1

The start of our trip started really early as we left our apartment in the morning to reach the Shekou ferry terminal in Shenzhen. We decided to bypass Hong Kong immigration and just go straight to the airport. Everything went smoothly and we were soon waiting for our flight at the Hong Kong airport. When we boarded we left on time and sat back and waited to arrive in Helsinki. While most people watched TV, read, or slept, I was working on my class readings and taking notes for my reading journal. It was a productive period. It also made the time go by quickly.

When we arrived in Helsinki we quickly went through immigration and cleared customs. We were officially in Finland! It was around 3:00 in the afternoon when we arrived and it already looked like it was close to night. We quickly bought sim cards and found where the train into central Helsinki was and was soon on our way to our hotel. By the time we got to central Helsinki, it was already dark outside. It was also beautiful with the lights around the central area lit up. We both admired it as we waited for the tram that would take us to our hotel—Scandic Hotel Grand Marina—on the Katajanokan peninsula.

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Check-in at the hotel went seamlessly, and the front desk attendant was lovely and gave suggestions on places we should visit in Helsinki. Soon, we were in our room. We were able to shower and feel human again after a long day of travel.

After cleaning up, we decided to walk around the city a bit to start our explorations of Helsinki. Helsinki at night radiates a beauty that I associate with European cities. We enjoyed our walk and soon went to find something to eat for dinner. We ended up at a lovely Italian restaurant near our hotel that served really nice bread and herbal teas.

Afterward, we went back to our hotel to find little Fazer chocolates on our pillows. It was a nice way to end the day.

Day 2

After a night of rest, Jun and I woke up fairly late only to find it was still dark. Being so far north was still playing a bit of a havoc on knowing what time of day it was. After getting ready for the day we went down to have breakfast. It was a really nice breakfast. There were also sorts of Finnish breakfast foods, like different cold fish, berries used in different dishes and drinks, karjalanpiirakka (a pastry with eggs and rice), and Swedish meatballs. It was a fun adventure in breakfast foods.

After breakfast, we went back to our room to get our winter gear and head out to explore Helsinki! We first walked up to Uspenskin Katedraali, which is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It has a beautiful sanctuary and an ornate ceiling. It was also interesting to see how the cathedral was built using the topography of the hill. From this hill, you could look across towards Helsinki Cathedral, which was our next destination.

To get there we walked by the Presidential Palace and some interesting stops before we reached Senate Square. Being winter and a weekday, there weren’t a lot of people there, which was a nice change of pace. We were able to explore the area. When we went inside the cathedral there was a distinct difference in the décor of Helsinki Cathedral to Uspenskin Katedraali. It was quite simple in decoration and everything was in shades of white. It has a calm and solemn feel to the place.

Afterward, we decided to walk down Aleksanterinkatu towards the Design District. We did a bit of exploration of the Design District and saw a really neat store with wooden ties and ended up at Observatory Hill before going back down and had a scrumptious lunch at Naughty Brgr, which had a lot of creative burgers to choose from. It was a nice lunch and got us ready for the rest of the afternoon.

From the Design District, we walked northwest towards Temppeliaukio Church, which is a Lutheran church built directly into solid rock. It has a really unique design as a result of being built into the rock. It was also a nice place to sit and think.

When we were ready to leave, we then went towards Kamppi and walked around the area and decided what we wanted to do next. From there, we thought we would spend the rest of the afternoon at the National Museum of Finland. So we figured out the right direction and started our walk towards there.

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The National Museum is nicely laid out with a lot of interesting information about Finnish history. I was particularly impressed with the modern history exhibits that highlighted how Finland has grown and developed into the country it is today. The struggles and challenges that the people in this country have faced and have worked to overcome were quite revealing about the strength of Finns and how little I knew about the country.

After the museum, we walked back to our hotel to rest before we went out to dinner. I had to do a bit of studying and participate in an online conversation with members of my university cohort. But at the last minute, we had to reschedule the meeting, which meant we could leave early for dinner. We ended up at Restaurant Savotta, which had really nice Finnish food. I particularly enjoyed the salmon soup and my elk and reindeer sausages. It was a lovely meal.

By then it was late for us so we went back to the hotel and had a relaxing evening before bed.

Day 3

Waking up the next morning, Jun and I got ready for a day of further explorations. After breakfast, we walked to the Kauppatori ferry near our hotel that would take us to Suomenlinna. It’s an inhabited sea fortress built on six islands. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s still in use by the Finnish navy and other inhabitants.

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As we left the hotel we were awed that is had snowed overnight and that it had left a thin blanket over the city. It was quite beautiful. It also indicated it was a cold morning. When we got to the ferry we decided to stay inside instead of waiting out on the deck. But as we started to leave the dock, we decided to brave the wind to enjoy the view. The temperature became warmer as the sun rose in the sky.

When we got to the Suomenlinna, we decided to walk around the naval area before we ventured towards the main areas. It was quite a beautiful place. Jun and I enjoyed exploring the different parts of the island. Some places were more residential, others were more of the ruins of the sea fortress. It was quite fun to see different aspects of the islands. By the time we made a circuit around the island, Jun and I were ready to have lunch. We ended up a really nice café where we had one of the best creamy salmon soups I’ve ever had. We also had quiche and pasta for a lovely lunch.

After we had finished lunch, we saw that the ferry was about to leave so we ran to try to catch the ferry. The man at the ferry shouted for us to hurry so the ferry could leave. As soon as we got on the ferry it started to leave.

The ride back to central Helsinki was nice. As we got back to central Helsinki, you could see how beautiful the city really is.

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For the rest of the afternoon, we walked a bit around the city and did some shopping. We first went up to Kallio before heading back towards central Helsinki. While we were out we went to the Fazer Café and bought some chocolate. Before going back to the hotel, we stopped at the Moomin Café and had some warm drinks. Breakfast and lunch had been so big that Jun and I ended up just snacking for dinner.

When we got back to the hotel, we did some packing and prepared ourselves for the ferry ride to Estonia the next morning.

Day 4

After we had breakfast we went and finished packing. We quickly checked out and then walked to the Viking Cruise terminal building. We quickly got our tickets and waited to board the Rosella for our trip to Tallinn. When we boarded, Jun and I went to find a place to sit. We ended up on an upper deck that allowed me to do some school work while Jun did some reading and wandered around the ship for a bit. We also got to try some of the chocolate from Fazer that we had bought the day before. The chocolate bar we had was really good!

We soon arrived in Tallinn and walked to our hotel the Three Sisters. Check-in went smoothly and the front desk person was really nice and gave some recommendations of things to do and places to eat. He even upgraded our room to a junior suite. The room was really nice and comfortable. Jun and I regretted that we were only staying for one night. It would have been nice to stay longer.

After we had sorted our things, we went to explore the Old Town. It’s a really neat medieval town with city walls and towers. We started around our hotel and went towards the stairs that led up to the Upper Town. Exploring the city was fun. There were so many alleys and stairways that it was easy to get lost and find yourself again.

By then it was late in the afternoon and we were ready to each something. We ended up at one of the recommended restaurants and had an amazing meal at Restoran Farm. It had lovely Estonian food. Because we went at a strange time between lunch and dinner we had the restaurant to ourselves. It was quite a wonderful meal.

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Afterward, we walked back to the hotel. My rescheduled class meeting was that night and I had to get ready for it. The meeting went well, although with the jet lag I was a bit scattered brain. When it was over Jun and I had a nice stay-in before going to bed.

Day 5

After waking up and getting ready we went and had breakfast downstairs. It was another lovely breakfast with different Estonian dishes that were fun to eat. I found the breakfast sausage particularly delicious.

Then we went out to explore the city a bit more before we head to go to the ferry terminal for the cruise back to Helsinki. Even late in the morning, certain parts of the Old Town were closed off to vehicle traffic. That created a wonderful opportunity to take some nice pictures. As we were walking we ventured around the different streets and did some shopping as well. One of the neat places we visited was the Balti Jaam Market; it had all sorts of different things from Soviet antiques to different sorts of fusion foods. It was a really cool place to walk around. By early afternoon we realized that breakfast had filled us up and that we didn’t want lunch, but that a snack might be nice. We decided to have an early afternoon tea at Café Maiasmokk, the oldest café in Tallinn. It was really nice and a great way to start our afternoon. After our afternoon treat, we went through the Kalev Marzipan Factory Museum to see the different candies and marzipan sold there. We even got to see different marzipan artworks.

From there Jun suggested we walk towards Kadriorg Park. It was quite some distance away, but it did allow us to see the more modern parts of Tallinn. When we got to the park it was nice to walk around it and see the different cultural and natural aspects of it. One of the more beautiful structures there was the Kadriorg Art Museum, which Peter the Great of Russia had built for Catherine I as Kadriorg Palace. It was a beautiful beacon in the drab winter landscape. Jun and I didn’t feel like going into the museum, so we continued to walk around the park.

We soon realized that we needed to walk back to the hotel to get our luggage and then walk down to the ferry terminal. We were lucky with our timing. By the time we got to the ferry terminal, it had started to rain.

We had to wait a bit before we could board the Viking XPRS back to Helsinki. We quickly found a seat and then got some food at one of the restaurants and enjoyed a relaxing ride back to Finland. I took the opportunity to catch up on my studies and Jun went to wander around the ship.

When we arrived in Helsinki we took the tram to the train station and then waited for the train that would take us up north. Because we were a bit late in booking our train tickets, we had to first go to Tempere to catch the overnight train to Kolari.

It went really quick and everyone was really nice in helping us. We soon found ourselves in our sleeper car which was really nice. It had a bathroom with a shower inside and came with full bedding and a bottle of water. Also, since we wouldn’t arrive in Kolari until 10:48 the next day, I could sleep without being concerned that I would oversleep and miss our stop. It also helped that it was the last stop on the journey.

Day 6

After one of the rare nights where I actually slept on a train, I woke up refreshed and thinking it was still early because it was still dark outside. But when I checked the time it was already mid-morning and it was still dark! Being so far north in winter was a bit surreal for me. For the rest of the morning, I did some school work and got ready for when we arrived in Kolari.

By the time the train arrived the sun was rising and we were treated to a winter wonderland. Snow covered everything. With the forests and rolling hills, it was like watching a nature documentary. I sat mesmerized by the beauty of it all.

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Soon we arrived at the Kolari train station and found the bus that would take us directly to our hotel in Levi.

The ride went smoothly and Jun and I soon found ourselves in our room at the Hotel Hullu Poro. Our room was nice with a kitchenette and a sauna inside it. We decided we would try it later that evening.

But first, we were hungry and went searching for something to eat. We ended up at an Italian restaurant called Renna with oven-fired pizza. We ordered a reindeer sausage pizza and an Arctic shrimp pasta. Both were huge and quite delicious. We were so full that we didn’t think we would want to get dinner later that day.

After lunch, we went for a walk around the village. It was a cute little place and we went around the shops and enjoyed being in the snow. As we walked we found a grocery store and decided to stock up on some snacks for our room. It was nice to see the different Finnish products. We ended buying some drinks, fruit, nuts, and other dishes that we could snack on when we didn’t want to go out.

By the time we were done with our shopping, the sun was already starting to set. It was only 3 in the afternoon! The temperature started to go down and we decided we would go back to our room. There, I did more studying and Jun did some reading of his own. We ended up not being hungry and just snacked on the items we had bought earlier.

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Before going to bed we did use the sauna. It was a nice experience and left us ready for bed.

Day 7

After waking up and getting ready, we went to have breakfast and enjoyed the sunset late in the morning. When it was light out, we decided to go out and explore the village more.

We first went to the tourist office to see if there were any interesting activities or events in the area. We ended up booking a dog sled excursion for the next day and a trip to a snow hotel at night that same day. The person at the tourist office also gave us suggestions for what we could do that day. One of her suggestions was to go for a snow hike around the area.

We decided we would go on a hike around Lake Kivijärv. It was near the tourist office, but we first had to find the right trail. There was the walking trail, which we wanted, but there was also the skiing trail and the snowmobile trail. Finding the right one took us a bit of time. When we had found it, however, the hike was really nice. It was really beautiful and pristine in areas with the heavy snowfall. We found a little shelter in the woods for hikers that had a wood fire. It was nice to sit by it and enjoy the view from the window.

As we continued on our hike we ended up walking across the frozen lake and enjoyed the sun overhead. By early afternoon it was already starting to go down. By the time we got back to the village to find a place for a late lunch, it was starting to get dark.

For lunch, we went to KingCrab House which had really nice seafood. It was a wonderful lunch in a really nicely decorated restaurant.

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After lunch we decided to take the cable car up to the summit of the ski slope to have afternoon tea at Café Spiella. We were one of the few people there so we were able to get a seat near the window to look down over the village. It was a nice and relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

When we finished we went back down. We went back to the grocery store and then headed back to the hotel to call it a day.

Day 8

When we were done with breakfast we went down to the tourist office to get ready for our dog sled excursion. As we were leaving we discovered that it was -27 degrees Celsius. It was so cold that day! It was so cold that our transport to where the dog sledding was to happen couldn’t start. We had to reschedule for later that afternoon. As a result, we decided to get some tea and coffee at the aptly named Coffee House. We then did a bit of shopping before going back to the tourist office.

From there we had a quick drive out to where the dog sledding was. We were given an introduction to what to expect and changed into some warmer clothes. Then we were dog sledding. It was fun and a bit different. But it was so cold! After we were done they took us into a warm cabin where we were given hot drinks and biscuits to help warm our insides as we sat by the fire to warm our outsides.

After we were warm again we were driven back to the village.  When we arrived back we decided to have a late lunch/early dinner at Nili-Poro. It was another nice meal. I ended up have reindeer sausage again in a berry sauce. It was quite good.

We went back to the hotel to get ready for our next excursion to the snow hotel. Since it was going to be at night I changed into even warmer clothing.

Soon we were on our way to the Snow Village in Lainio. It was actually a really neat place. All the rooms had a unique design that went with the theme for the year Illusions. We even went down an ice slide. That was fun! After we had gone around the hotel, we went to the café and had hot berry juice and gingerbread cookies. It was a nice way to end our excursion.

Soon we were back at our hotel to relax and enjoy the evening.

One thing we had wanted to see but was proving problematic was to see the aurora borealis. The previous two nights we hadn’t been able to see it, so we were hoping we would get a chance on our last night. We walked down to the lake, which was the closest darkest area and waited a bit to see if we could see it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see the aurora and went back to the hotel. We decided that we would one day see it together, but we knew we had time and that one day we would.

Day 9

Our last day in Levi had us go for a hike around the woods and mountains. It was nice to be surrounded by the winter beauty of nature. It would be a while till the next time we would see so much snow. After we had circled back on our hike we went and had lunch at a different pizza restaurant at Kotipizza.

Once done with lunch, we went back to the hotel to check out and wait for our bus to the train station in Kolari.

The bus ride went smoothly and we were soon in our train cabin. When the train attendant came to check our tickets, she informed us that our toilet was out of service but the shower was still working. Because of the inconvenience, they were providing us with a coupon that we could use in the restaurant car. It ended up being okay since we got money for food and the public restroom wasn’t too inconvenient to use. The fact that we could still use the shower was fine with me.

After doing some school work and watching TV, Jun and I went to bed.

Day 10

Our last day in Finland had us start early. After our train arrived with the transfers, we soon arrived at the airport to drop our luggage off and to have breakfast. We still had a few hours before our flight departed, so Jun and I decided to go back to central Helsinki for a few hours.

When we got there we first took the tram so we could see the Sibelius Monument. I remember playing some of his compositions in high school, so it was nice to see a monument pay homage to him. And nearby was the cute Café Regatta that had an eclectic esthetic. It was a nice treat on our last day.

From there we went back to the city center and walked around a bit to do something shopping. We ended up buying a lot more Fazer chocolate. And then we had lunch at Kappeli. The restaurant is in a beautiful building and our server was sweet and lovely. I think it made our food taste even a little bit better. It was a nice meal to end our time in Finland.

After lunch, we had to go back to the airport to get ready for our flight. When we got there we went through security and immigration. We also did some last-minute souvenir shopping and bought the face masks we needed for the trip back to China.

We were both a bit nervous about what to expect when we arrived in China. With all the news about the COVID-19 virus, we had debated about returning. In the end, there were a lot of precautions that the different levels of government had put in place. Being sensible and not panicking has left for a calm period of staying inside most of the time and being probably generally cleaner and healthier.

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We were fortunate that we were able to spend a wonderful time in Finland and Estonia. It was a wonderful trip and something that happy to remember the first half of 2020.