Reindeer country

The troubled history of the Finnish-Russian border has not hindered its tourist trade

"My sister was a Nazi," the tour guide blurts out. "The Germans were good to Finland." I've made a faux pas. At the museum of Eva Ryynänen, one of Finland's most successful wood sculptors, questioning the artist's Nazi sympathies exposes a gash in the nation's psyche.

It is a tricky subject for North Karelia, the eastern Finnish strip of land on the Russian border that is reinventing itself as an Arctic tourist destination. Here, it doesn't take much to rouse a patriotic fervour born of the thousand-year tug of war over this contested region. Pitched between Sweden and Russia, Karelia (or Karjala) has been a pawn to its imperial neighbours, fought over long after its independence from tsarist Russia in 1917. Befriending Nazi Germany won it support against periodic Russian incursions. After the battle in the freezing winter of 1939-40 when the Karelian Isthmus fell to Russia, thousands of Finnish soldiers perished as 500,000 refugees streamed over the new border back to Finland.

Consequently, Finnish people have developed a kind of wily stoicism, known as sisu, that helps them balance this emotional undertow with jolly reindeer tours. North Karelia wants a piece of what Lapland, to its north, has got. Finland's famed winter wonderland is soaring in popularity, mainly with newly wealthy Russians.

But North Karelia is fast catching up. Russian, Austrian and Italian tourists are arriving. Chinese visitors to Finland are abundant following approval of the country's status as a destination under a 2004 European Union/China accord, although, judging by the looks I get, Indians are still somewhat of a novelty. Now North Karelia is eager to attract more European tourists. For nature lovers, this should be easy: it is largely unspoilt, and the population of 169,000 is sprinkled across 21,585 square kilometres of gentle hill, farm and forest, and 3,803 square kilometres of lake.

From the plane, North Karelia looks like sub-Saharan Africa - parched, until you notice that the rust-coloured patches are spring birch against black spruce. They call Finland the country of the thousand lakes: 188,000, to be precise, formed by melting glaciers. Some 70 per cent of the country is thicketed with forest, making it the green belt of Europe and guardian of increasingly rare brown bears, wolverines and elks.

For fishing enthusiasts, the region's lakes are crammed full of perch, pike and vendace. Winter snow sports are booming, from husky safaris and reindeer sledging to snowmobiling, cross-country ski-ing and ice-fishing. Above the water, the endless white Arctic sky burrows deep into the temperament of an often silent people.

In the car on our way to the farmstead of Anita and Heikki Ovaskainen, we see birch trees flashing by. Many of Finland's ancient peatbogged forests are being felled to grow the more commercial pine and spruce. Since neighbouring Russian Karelia raised duties on pine exports, the Finns have been striving to grow more of their own timber, in line with a general economy drive.

Anita and Heikki are organic farmers who, beside their burgeoning bed-and-breakfast business, grow rye, barley, oats and vegetables. Heikki complains that EU rules tell him when to plant his rye seeds and stipulate that the qualified butcher must take his cows 150 miles away to be slaughtered, instead of slaughtering them on his farm. North Karelia's farmers are quickly wising up to the fact that tourism pulls in more euros than ploughing the earth.

While rye brings in 15 cents per kilo, bake it up into bread and it brings in ?4 per kilo, says Heikki. Anita, who has baked for 42 years, now shovels rye loaves into the oven for photo opportunities when tourists drop by for a taste of her Karelian cooking.

The food of Finland, which in 2005 the then French president, Jacques Chirac, decried as the worst in the world, has been promoted as a model of healthy eating by North Karelia. At Koli, high on a hill, we set out to pick berries and wild forest mushrooms. Once upon a time, the composer Sibelius would come here looking for inspiration among the rowans, black woodpeckers and misty peatbogs. Now trips through the forest advertise the region's abundant ceps, chanterelles and lingonberries. That evening, our mushrooms are creamed into a soup that we eat before our main course of fried elk and mash.

Good health has been a struggle for the Karelians. Historically, the foresters and their children lived on a diet of fatty reindeer stew, sausages and egg butter pasties. In the 1970s, Finnish men had the highest rate of heart disease mortality in the world, and rates in North Karelia were 40 per cent worse than for all Finnish men.

In 1972, the Finnish national and local government launched the regional project to combat cardiovascular disease. Food manufacturers, supermarkets and health professionals puffed energy into convincing a reluctant population that they were gobbling their way to the grave. They marketed cloudberries as a substitute for sugar, pine bark flour and rye in pasties, mushrooms instead of meat.

Today, the older people whom I meet suppress a grimace at any mention of the project. Yet it worked. By the early 2000s, the number of deaths from coronary heart disease in North Karelia had fallen by 72 per cent. Yet Vesa Korpelainen, director at the North Karelia centre for public health, says that cholesterol levels in the region are rising once again because of the growing popularity of fast-food burger chains. And there is, he says, a new peril - alcoholism. "People have been bringing drink back from Estonia and the Baltic states since those countries joined Europe," he says.

There's a reindeer farm on the route to the airport. Out trots the excitable herd at the sound of our approach. The reindeer are a friendly bunch, and we cram their mouths with lichen. At North Karelia's main airport in Joensuu, passengers drink pints, rather than the lattes you would expect to see in London. Their chatter evaporates into the expanse of forest. Karelia's complex psyche floats, high above its people, disappearing into the white Arctic sky.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God