A Great Finnish to the Year

Day 291 (26th of December 2016) – Stockholm, Sweden

Today, after a relaxed Christmas stationed in Copenhagen, Denmark, we were moving on to our next country: Sweden. One of the first things I did before hopping aboard the train to Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, was research the stereotypes of the country. Why? Well, I find stereotypes to be very interesting. “Stereotype” has become a dirty word in our increasingly politically correct culture. In some senses, though, it can be a useful thing to know about in order to understand how the people of a country are viewed and how they view others. What’s controversial is aligning a stereotype with absolute truth, not merely using it to satisfy your curiosity.

Sweden’s stereotype from its Scandinavian neighbours is one of arrogance and state power. This no doubt emerges from Sweden’s population being the highest in the region (10 million), their GDP being the highest in the region, and with the Kingdom of Sweden going as far back as the 6th century. The Swedish national identity is also informed by their country being the dominant state in the Nordic area. Their national anthem, for example, does not mention the country’s name once, but instead ends with the line, “I will live I will die in Norden”.

An article I found online quite well sums up the countries’ views of each other. I think it’s really interesting, and it can be contrasted to Australia-New Zealand or USA-Canada stereotyping.

“Jokes featuring ‘the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian’ are ubiquitous among children in the three countries: the Swede is always depicted as a rich and arrogant child of the Enlightenment, the Dane as a slightly decadent hedonist, and the Norwegian as an uneducated, often stupid country bumpkin. These jokes illustrate how mutual stereotypes not only contribute to the definition of the other, but also function recursively in the definition of the self.”

After some morning tutoring and an almost all-day train ride, we ploughed our way on a high-speed rail through the city limits of Stockholm.

Stockholm, with its 2.3 million people, is the most populous city of Sweden and of all the Nordic countries. The city is spread across 14 islands on the coast in the southeast of Sweden by the Stockholm archipelago and the Baltic Sea. The area has been settled since the Stone Age, in the 6th millennium BC, and was founded as a city in 1252.

With our stay having been shortened to two nights in exchange for a deeper journey into rural Finland, we decided yet again to go with the higher-end hostel option. It didn’t work out too badly. The lobby and eating area was luxurious, the room was spacious, and we had a big row of windows to look down into the city.

After some research on good eating options which would suit the both of us, we identified a sushi joint within walking distance. After our walk along the edge of the Stockholm’s Norrmalm district, we arrived at the restaurant only to see that it was undergoing renovations. We roamed around a bit until we had found an alternative – a taco house.

img_3076

After downing a set of enchiladas, a burrito and tacos, we left with full stomachs.

Luckily the hostel had a meeting room which I could use to tutor late into the night, meaning that Aimee didn’t have to be kept up.

img_3077

.

Day 292 (27th of December 2016) – Stockholm, Sweden

Our breakfast was characteristically Stockholm.

img_3079

I say this because despite it being one of the cheaper options available to us, it was still very expensive. But, the thing about this expensive city is that everything delivered to you is of the highest quality. This breakfast was no exception.

In Sweden, you pay for what you get. It’s just that you have no option but to get the best.

While we ate, it also began to lightly snow outside. The snowflakes melted as soon as they hit the wet road, but it was still good to see some of our first snow of the season.

After some discussion the day prior about what to fill our day with, we remained undecided. It was at breakfast that we worked everything out. We made a plan which was purposely too large, hoping that whatever we didn’t finish would spill into the next day.

After purchasing an all-day travel ticket, our first stop was the island of Djurgården.

It is here that two of Stockholm’s biggest attractions are located: “Skansen” and “ABBA: The Museum”. Skansen was our first destination.

dsc02280

Skansen is the world’s first open-air museum, founded in 1891. It allows you to stroll through five centuries of Swedish history, represented by the buildings and characters in the park.

We walked through the museum and struggled with our map-reading skills. Our multiple wrong turns brought us past some beautiful scenery though. Like a frozen lake…

dsc02282

…a vantage point over the rest of Stockholm…

…and a windmill.

dsc02330

The founder of the museum wanted to bring the traditional rural culture of Sweden to life by exhibiting furnished houses, farmsteads, gardens as well as domestic and wild animals. It was the animals which mainly interested us, so we brought ourselves to the reindeer plot in time for a talk on the species.

dsc02313

The talk coincided with the animals’ feeding, and so we got to see them at their most active.

I find reindeer to be beautiful animals. Perhaps my image of them is too deeply intertwined with childhood stories of Santa Claus for me not to hold a soft spot for them, but I genuinely find them to be fascinating to look at. I particularly like their antlers. Some of them have huge, beautiful curls and maintain an incredible symmetry.

dsc02321

The talk was mediocre at best. The presenter was lazy and clearly not a natural public speaker. One interesting thing we did learn, though, was that reindeers’ back legs click so that they can communicate with their herd in case they get separated in a snow storm. If you were quiet, you could very easily hear these clicks with their every step.

Near the reindeer pen were the moose and foxes.

The most interesting of all the animals ended up being one which we didn’t expect – the Great Grey Owl. This is the largest species of owl in the world by length. The way they slowly rotated their heads almost 360° as if it wereon a pivot was creepy to say the least.

Their feeding time was the most fascinating part. A staff member of the park emerged with a bowl of dead mice and dangled them tauntingly in front of the owls.

dsc02327

Then, with a darting stab, the owls would shred the mice with their talons and swallow the pieces.

There’s no hiding the fact that zoos are not my first choice of attraction while travelling. Aimee was much more enthusiastic than I was to go and see these animals. But, there’s something about it being in the cold north of Scandinavia that made this place so much more interesting than your average zoo.

Our plan for the day quickly changed when our appetite got the better of us, and we soon found ourselves back in Norrmalm.

It was here in the commercial centre of the city that we tracked down a well-priced all-you-can-eat Asian buffet, and together we learned the lesson that you never eat sushi from a chef who isn’t Japanese.

img_3081

It was the early afternoon when it started getting dark again. We boarded a bus straight back to Djurgården for our next stop at ABBA: The Museum. ABBA are one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music, and I think it’s fair to say that we all have a soft spot for them.

img_3083

I always thought I took after Björn.

dsc02335

After killing us with their steep ticket prices, the museum made up for it by offering some surreal collectors’ items.

Some original stage lighting.

dsc02340

And an in-tact recording studio where ABBA’s biggest albums were recorded.

dsc02347

The museum is based around a chronological journey from Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Frida’s solo careers to their rising fame as a group and their eventual split. A lot of the museum in particular highlighted the band’s breakthrough at Eurovision 1974 with their song “Waterloo”. As well as this, the museum guided us through the development of their other biggest tracks, including Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia, Honey Honey, Take A Chance On Me and Knowing Me, Knowing You just to name a few.

dsc02354

The exhibition ended with some gimmicky but lighthearted interactives.

Overall, visiting the museum is definitely not mandatory when visiting the city, but an exciting addition nonetheless.

We bounced back to Norrmalm yet again, more specifically Kungsträdgården.

dsc02356

Swedish for “King’s Garden”, this park hosts one of Europe’s most famous and beautiful ice rinks. After a lot of fun skating in Copenhagen, we were eager to get back on the ice.

dsc02366

Despite the hour-long session being lots of fun, we had certainly lost our mojo from Christmas Day. We left with a few knocks and bruises likely from our over-confidence. But nonetheless, we still made a few flawless rounds at a good speed together.

Still with skating-legs, we walked from Kungsträdgården to Stockholm’s most famous area, Gamla stan.

Gamla stan is the old town of Stockholm. The town dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets and archaic architecture. North German architecture has had a strong influence in the Old Town’s construction. Gamla stan is home to a number of famous sites, including the Stockholm Cathedral, the Nobel Museum, the Riddarholm church, the Swedish Royal Palace and the House of Nobility.

dsc02368

For all of its hype, though, Gamla stan was very quiet.

But we quickly realised that this was the town’s biggest strength. At night it wasn’t overrun by hordes of tourists vying for “I ♥ Stockholm” shirts, but instead it consisted of winding, cosy alleyways filled with beautiful restaurants.

Among these alleyways is Stockholm’s most narrow – Mårten Trotzigs Gränd. This street is, at points, less than one metre wide.

dsc02391

Here’s some perspective.

dsc02374dsc02389

We found a beautiful Italian restaurant with real candles (always a good sign) and settled in for some mouth-watering pizza. Our order was met with much confusion, though. Since I was the one who asked the waiter whether they had gluten-free pizza bases before entering, they had initially assumed that I was the celiac and passed the information onto the chef accordingly. At some point there was some miscommunication – Aimee’s pizza was, thankfully, gluten-free. But my pizza was, well, meant for Aimee.

The chef came out to deliver it personally.

“For the lovely lady,” he remarked, as he placed the plate carefully in front of me.

img_3086

He turned to look at me and instantly went red as he realised the mistake that he’d made. Serves the bastard right for trying to steal my girl.

The laughter continued on the bus ride home.

.

Day 293 (28th of December 2016) – In Transit

After only a brief stay in Stockholm, today was the day that we would be heading to Finland for the beginning of our week-and-a-half long sojourn there. Our options for getting to the capital of Finland, Helsinki, were an overnight cruise or a flight. We took the flight option so that we would get more time to see Stockholm, and that payed off in the morning’s activities before going to the airport.

We certainly got a lot done.

We started off with a very familiar breakfast.

img_3087

Then we went to “Friends Of Adam”, a gluten-free bakery where Aimee wanted to stock up on some snacks. I do feel bad for her with how much extra her food costs compared to mine. I do even up the balance sheet wherever I can in compensation.

Conveniently, this bakery was in the Södermalm district of Stockholm. Once­ working­ class, “Söder” – the southern island – is Stockholm’s coolest neighbour­hood, jammed with up­-and­-coming bou­tiques and galleries, hip cafes and underground bars. As such, it was an area which I really wanted to visit.

Its main street in the “SoFo” area looked a lot like New York.

dsc02394dsc02404dsc02406

Tall, colourful apartment buildings line the streets and beneath them are more superfood stores than you would have ever thought necessary.

One of the main reasons that people come to Södermalm, though, is to access its unique lookout points over Stockholm’s cityscape. We tried out our navigation skills to find one of the more accessible viewpoints.

dsc02395

After scaling a number of hills, we reached the lookout.

dsc02402

We stood there for some time taking it all in. Aimee noticed something interesting: all of the buildings you can see in the photo are five or six stories tall. Stockholm certainly doesn’t have many single or double story houses, just small groups of apartments.

From Södermalm we were able to access Gamla stan from the south instead of the north unlike yesterday. We had vowed to come back to the area today to see what it was like in full flight with all of the shops open. It was an enjoyable old town. While not as authentic as a place like Prague, it still had some impressive rows of shops and food stalls where we tracked down some very good ice cream.

After a quick stop at another artsy store which Aim wanted to see, we returned to the hostel to collect our bags and move on to our next destination.

Our $25 ticket for the 20 minute train to the airport got us there in good time, and we soon found ourselves lounging around for the next few hours.

After landing in Helsinki we were lucky enough to witness a couple’s break-up first hand at the baggage carousel, but unfortunately neither of us had popcorn. We made our way straight to Helsinki’s main train station.

It was here that we were catching a train to Rovaniemi, the capital of the Lapland region of Finland. The train would take 13 hours, and as such we booked ourselves a private sleeper carriage for the overnight trip. After a fairly painless wait and a fast-food dinner, our train rolled in and we located our room.

dsc02415

I have always loved overnight trains after many positive experiences in both China and Iran. I had spent some time trying to convince Aimee that she would be getting a good sleep on this trip, and I was relieved to see that the room was cosy and well furnished.

We rested up well. Aimee in particular was happy with her sleep.

Best off all, every time we woke up we saw the snow rise inch by inch. We were getting into serious winter territory.

.

Day 294 (29th of December 2016) – Rovaniemi, Finland

It wasn’t long after we woke up that the train rolled into Rovaniemi.

img_3098

A rush shot through me as soon as we stepped off the train. This region, Lapland, is the part of the trip that I have been most looking forward to. It was the original idea for the holiday, and visiting it has been the top of my bucket list for much of my life.

As an aside, this part of the trip is very difficult for me to write about. I am writing about it retrospectively a few days onwards whilst still in the region, and to cut to the choice, it has been the best travel experience of my life. Lapland means so much to me on an emotional level for reasons that, as cliché as it sounds, are difficult for me to put into words. And as such, I feel like every sentence I write is doing the experience an injustice. Please consider behind everything I write in this region my intense enjoyment behind it.

So, let’s start with an introduction to the place.

Lapland occupies 30% of Finnish territory, at yet it is home to only 3% of the population. In fact, it is the least densely populated part of the whole continent. It is largely made up of vast and awesome wildernesses, ripe for exploring on foot, skis or sledge. The bulk of Lapland exists in the Arctic Circle, meaning that for much of the winter it gets little to no sunlight. But, on the flip-side, it gets little to no darkness in the summer.

Anyone who knows me well knows my love of snow. Perhaps it’s a result of the romanticised image we all get of it as a young child, or maybe my body being more suited to the cold than to the heat. Regardless of what it is, I’ll seek it out wherever I can. In Lapland, the first snowflakes typically hit the ground in late-August, and ground-covering snow exists from October to May. It is one of the few places in the world which are guaranteed an extensive snow-cover every winter.

The reason why I love Lapland so much is because it is the embodiment of the Finnish culture. The image of a Lappish log cabin with a sauna amidst fluffy snow-covered trees tells much about Finnish culture: independence, endurance and a deep love of nature. A capacity for silence and reflection are the traits that best sum up the Finnish character. That being said, Finland is also a lead exporter of metal music and the world’s biggest coffee consumer at 9.6kg of dry coffee per capita (as opposed to 2.6kg in Australia… there’s one for all you Melbourne coffee snobs).

I was eager to sink my teeth into this region which I had such high expectations for, and so we began our journey into the city of Rovaniemi.

img_3101

This is the capital of Lapland. With a population of only 60,000 people, this place largely acts as the tourist gateway to wider Lapland. Aimee and I were only staying here for two nights – long enough to tick off some activities which were exclusive to Rovaniemi, but short enough that we weren’t diminishing our time spent in the more rural parts of the region.

Our time in Rovaniemi is spread over two different forms of accommodation – an AirBnB and an ice hotel (I’ll explain later). This was the street of our AirBnB.

dsc02418

Our host, Jenna, dropped us straight home and showed us around.

Here’s the back yard.

dsc02420

Most notably, though, the house included a sauna.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-5-45-11-pm

This doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact, saunas are considered an essential part of Finnish homes. For centuries, Finns have used it as a place to bathe, meditate, warm up during cold winters and even give birth. According to Jenna and her boyfriend Eoro, most Finns use their saunas at least once a week.

Aimee and I weren’t going to be confined to the house for more than a few minutes, though. At 1:15pm we had a car coming to pick us up for our first outdoor winter activity, and we made sure to use the waiting time to experience the snow for the first time in the holiday.

And you should have seen our faces. Actually no, I’ll show them to you.

dsc02456

The snow was deep.

We were finally getting the European winter we had been waiting for. We threw a few celebratory snowballs.

dsc02433dsc02450

Aimee can’t remember seeing snow outside of Thredbo… you can only imagine how exhilarating this was for her.

Our transfer was a little late, but it didn’t matter. During the ride to the Safartica Office, we befriended the first of what would turn out to be a surprisingly large number of Chinese tourists in Rovaniemi. Alitrip, the travel agency branch of Alibaba, has partnered with Finnair and launched campaigns to deliver tourists to this part of the world. Along with placing their payment system in all of Lapland’s stores, they’ve brought hordes of tourists too.

It was at the Safartica Office that we got suited up for what would be our afternoon’s activity: husky sledding. It was a short bus ride out to the husky farm.

dsc02459

Arriving at the track, we stood outside the musher’s house for our briefing.

The instructions were fairly simple: the dogs know where to go, you’re only responsible for braking and positioning yourself on the path. Perhaps the most interesting part of the briefing, though, was the hysterical mother who made absolutely clear to everyone that she had a phobia of dogs. The obvious questions about why she would come on a husky safari were quickly allayed when her husband and children embarrassingly tried to tell her to be quiet. The tone of fear in her voice would be something which we’d become very familiar with as she screamed throughout the journey.

Aimee and I were keen, though. We’ve always been dog people.

dsc02481dsc02488

We made our way up to the track. Against our initial plans, I would be driving first. We nervously got into position as our team of six dogs began howling and jumping violently, rearing to go.

The second our sled was untethered from the pole, our dogs jumped into action at a far greater speed than we had anticipated. Have a watch of this video. You won’t regret it. Make sure to watch it all to see us zipping over a lake and later through a forest.

Our dogs were so fast and ferocious that at one point during our ride one of our huskies was swapped out for what was little more than a runt.

Halfway through the hour-and-a-half long journey, Aimee and I switched positions. Aim was glad that the dogs had used up some of their energy especially given her lighter weight.

Back at the farm, we were led into a guest area with a warm fireplace, some berry juice and gingerbread to warm up. Not before passing by all of the puppies being trained up, though. These dogs are Alaskan Huskies, crossbred in such a way that they are friendly with guests and able to handle running over 150km per day. They are picked at an early age for their position as either a lead, wheel or point dog.

dsc02523

Back in the Rovaniemi city centre, Aimee and I made our way to a restaurant which had been recommended to us – 大中华 (DaZhongHua). We passed through the main pedestrian street of the city and enjoyed the Christmas tree and ice sculptures along the way.

The restaurant was, simply put, a disaster. After ordering what looked like a superb meal, our starter didn’t come out for 45 minutes and it was less than half of the quantity that we had asked for. To make things worse, it wasn’t even what we ordered. After complaining and getting a lacklustre response, our mains didn’t look promising, so we cut our losses and walked out.

Our next destination was “Roka”, a “street food café”. This place was so popular that we had to wait for some time just to get a seat, but the food looked too good for us to even consider any other place.

Sure enough, the wait was worthwhile. Aimee ordered the best dish she’d had on the trip so far with a tomato risotto and I ate a reindeer burger.

img_3112

Let’s get a close up of that juicy reindeer. Yet another one to add to the list of obscure foods.

img_3113

On the way home we walked via the supermarket and bus station to organise our ticket to our next destination, appreciating some of the more impressive snow structures on the way.

img_3115

The bus station was closed, however, and before we knew it we found ourselves in need of a way to get back home. We ordered a taxi which, of course, is always a luxury car in Finland.

img_3116

.

Day 295 (30th of December 2016) – Rovaniemi, Finland

Yet another stunning day of glistening white.

img_3120

After a supermarket snack breakfast, Aim and I underestimated the time it took to wade through knee-deep snow on the way to the closest bus stop. We ended up sprinting, and we made it to the bus stop with just seconds to spare.

img_3121

The public transport in Rovaniemi isn’t very frequent and exists almost exclusively to service tourists, and it meant that we had no choice but to arrive an hour earlier than we needed to in the city centre. We used the time to return to the bus station and reserve our spots for our trip up north and also to go shopping for the evening’s homemade dinner.

We made it to the Lapland Safaris office with good time.

Today’s activity was snowmobiling. This was the one I had been looking forward to the most. Aimee was getting annoyed at how much I had been mentioning it, and was probably keen to do it simply so that I would stop.

This sport required a lot more serious clothing than the husky sledding.

We were wearing, from top to bottom: helmet, balaclava, beanie, woollen scarf, thermal top, thermal mid-layer, thermal pants, ski pants, two pairs of woollen socks, snow boots and an arctic jumpsuit. This part of the world hits temperatures of below -40℃ each winter, so it makes sense that you would need all of that. But even in the current -15℃ temperatures, they were still a necessity once you were zipping through the wind at speed.

We made our way out to the snowmobiles, passing by Rovaniemi’s famous Kemijoki Lake and Lumberjack’s Candle Bridge.

We were taught all the basic instructions: pull a lever to accelerate, pull a different lever to break, use your weight to assist steering, etc. Then, we boarded our snow-covered machines.

dsc02547

Aim and I were sharing one and I would be taking the wheel for the first half of the 75 minute session.

And we were off.

dsc02551dsc02552

It felt much different to how I had anticipated. The speed was certainly greater than I had expected, but the steering was significantly more rigid and out of my control than I would have liked. I slowly grew more used to the mechanics. The vehicle is effectively a pair of skis with a motor, and so you have to treat your driving like skiing. That means picking your line effectively and shifting your weight around the corners. Once I had harnessed that skill, I felt a lot more in control.

Just like at the husky sledding, Aimee helped gather some video that we could use to make a short clip of the experience.

After reaching top speed along the lake and picking strategic lines around the trees in the forest, we found ourselves in a clearing at the top of one of the hills outside of Rovaniemi.

dsc02584

We were audibly awestruck at how fairytale-like all of the trees looked. If it weren’t for the numbness of our fingers, we would have been snapping a lot more pictures.

A snowball fight was in order.

dsc02580

And then a truce.

dsc02558dsc02559img_3127dsc02574

After witnessing the power of the vehicle, Aimee (probably intelligently) opted out of driving back to the base. I took the wheel for the second half instead. Her hair ended up a little messed up by the time we arrived back, but she looked like a seasoned winter sportsperson.

img_3133

It was complicated organising our action-packed day the night before, but our plan had meant that following the snowmobiles we were in a rush to board a bus back home. After changing the taxi schedule slightly, we made it in time to collect our bags from the AirBnB and head off to the Santa Claus Holiday Village.

Santa Claus Holiday Village is Rovaniemi’s most famous tourist attraction. It is a collection of shops, winter activities and cottage accommodation.

It is situated right on the border of Napapiiri (the Arctic Circle). In fact, it has the circle printed right through the village.

dsc02589

The place was different to how we expected. We expected it to be more of a theme park requiring tickets for entry, but instead it was a genuine little village which earned money from things you bought at each of the shops. We mostly enjoyed just roaming through the more deserted pathways.

There was an igloo, an ice bar, an ice slide, but perhaps most importantly, Santa’s home.

After learning that the line for photos with Santa was 40 minutes long, we resigned to not meeting him in his home village. We decided to take a picture with the snowman outside instead.

dsc02614

There were a few highlights from our visit, namely the reindeer racing track:

dsc02637

Santa’s Post Office, where he receives his letters from kids around the world.

And the bar, where we drank a spiced Christmas berry juice and gingerbread.

At the post office, we were able to read real letters addressed to Santa’s Village from around the world. It became obvious very quickly that Santa favours rich kids (relevant).

From Santa’s Village we had organised our transfer to the evening’s accommodation, which wasn’t the AirBnB. Instead, we wouldn’t be staying in a house at all. In fact, we were sleeping in an igloo. Really.

At the Arctic Snow Hotel, you arrive in a lavish wooden cabin as the lobby.

dsc02662

That’s about all that’s furnished, though. From there, it’s a literal snow hotel and a collection of glass igloos. We were taking the more hardcore route – sleeping on a bed in the Snow Hotel. It’s not so bad, though. The room is kept at a stable temperature of between -5℃ and 0℃.

dsc02649dsc02675

-5℃ and 0℃…

It was on our tour of the hotel that we were first shown to our room. Lying on the bed for us were some reindeer skins to keep us warm.

dsc02674

Our fears that this was all that we would have were quickly allayed when we were showed to the locker room which also had proper arctic sleeping bags.

The tour also showed us to the bar.

dsc02719

The restaurant.

The sculptures.

And the chapel. Five or six weddings are held here per season.

dsc02678dsc02681dsc02693dsc02699

And me forgetting that I can’t point at the camera with mittens on.

dsc02706

Following the tour, we got set up in our room for our homemade dinner. The limited selection of dishes on offer at the hotel meant that there wasn’t anything for Aimee, but opting out of their meals also suited our student budget so it wasn’t all bad.

dsc02667

After dinner, we went out of the surprisingly big snow hotel to see the rest of the resort. Just near our room they kept a white reindeer with impressively large antlers.

Also in the resort was a huge, frozen lake which was snowed over to a good depth. It was out here that we could escape the lights of the hotel and see the truly impressive northern sky for what it really was. The two of us have always been avid stargazers and we both enjoyed the opportunity to see it without any light pollution.

Back in our room, we set up for the cold night ahead. We were to sleep in just one layer of clothing, armed only with an inner sleeping bag and an outer shell. It was the spaces of warm air between each layer, they said, that would best protect us from the cold.

We strapped in, both of us struggling with the initial bout of claustrophobia from the tight sleeping bags. Aimee, as usual, read a little way into the night. She snapped a photo of me for my viewing the next morning.

img_3135

.

Day 296 (31st of December 2016) – Kittilä, Finland

At around 1am this morning, a man burst into our room.

“AURORA” he yelled, acting as the human alarm he was meant to be.

We had opted in to the “Aurora Alarm”, where the night watchman would alert us of any Northern Lights activity.

I couldn’t believe our luck. The sky wasn’t looking as clear earlier in the night, but it must have changed. I quickly woke Aimee up because she seemed unfazed by the alarm.

“Mmm, sorry Xave, maybe not tonight,” she replied in a mumble.

“What! What are you talking about? This is our dream! This is why we’re here!” I said, a little louder this time. I was already putting my boots on – the Northern Lights can last for a few minutes before disappearing.

“No Xave, I’m so tired. Maybe tomorrow?” she suggested, rolling over.

“Aim, this is on both of our bucket lists. I’m not missing this moment, it’s your loss if you do.” I was still in a bit of shock, but I rushed out of the room anyway.

Sure enough, I heard a ruffle behind me. Aimee’s half-asleep state is very convincing.

“Wait, the Northern Lights!? Hurry up!” she nudged me.

We were on our way.

Out on the lake we craned our necks in a northern direction and witnessed the very feint green glow on the horizon.

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a natural light display in the sky. You’d all know about it, but you’re probably wondering how it works. Well, this is Wikipedia’s brief explanation:

“Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere , where their energy is lost. The resulting ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying colour and complexity.”

I didn’t really understand that when I read it, so I ventured on a little task to have someone distill it into a much easier to understand explanation. What I found out was that the sun shoots particles (like electrons) out into space, and some of them hit the Earth. Some bounce back, but some very special ones follow the Earth’s magnetic lines to its poles (the North or South Poles). Those special particles are really energetic and excited, apparently, and they “excite” the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere (typically Nitrogen or Oxygen). This “excitement” is emitted in the form of light, which we see as Aurora Borealis.

According to some others, tonight wasn’t the most spectacular night to view the Lights. We weren’t fussed – we still had many more opportunities.

I managed to get just one horrible, horrible photo of what we saw. The brightness of the glow certainly surpasses the experience in real life. In reality, it appears as more of a feint glowing cloud. Nonetheless, it’s surreal to watch.

dsc02740

***

I woke up earlier than the wake-up call with a serious shiver. It quickly became evident that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep. I was just too cold. Aimee was fine, it turned out. The holiday has gone very differently to how I had anticipated with regards to our tolerance of the weather. Aimee’s been fine, but I’ve definitely struggled at points.

We jogged through the cold to the segregated shower block. I didn’t anticipate having to nude up and hadn’t mentally prepared, but either way I got it over it and rushed to breakfast.

At breakky, our new friend David Ngo from Sydney gave a friendly chuckle at my poor attempt of Aurora photography.

“Here’s a few of my own from last night,” he said.

He’s since sent me all the pictures, so credit to David Ngo for the following.

15817548_1262087407201065_1242144073_o15824037_1262087367201069_529070102_o15857040_1262087410534398_837582829_o

“Here, let me fiddle with your camera so you can get some better ones next time,” he said, taking control.

David was a mid-20’s Sydneysider who we had met in the locker room of the snow hotel the night prior. Our newfound friendship was brief, though. After breakfast we were straight on a hotel transfer to Rovaniemi Bus Station.

At the bus station we had a few hours’ wait before our bus to Kittilä.

The almost two-hour long bus ride served as the perfect time for me to actually research some information about the town. It lies well north of the Arctic Circle, making it the perfect location to experience either the Midnight Sun in the summer or the Northern Lights in the winter. The town has an extremely low population density of just 0.7 people per km2. Kittilä is also famed for being the location of Finland’s lowest-ever recorded temperature of −51.5°C in 1999. That’s about as cold as the Earth gets.

Why was it that I didn’t know anything about the town before arriving? Well, you see, we’re not really here for the town. We’re here for the people.

I found the Ojanperäs originally through AirBnB when they directed me to take a look at the fully-serviced accommodation they had on offer. The website they directed me to is well worth the click.

http://www.mummolatravels.com/

I especially love the video on the website. You don’t need to understand the Finnish to appreciate it.

http://www.mummolatravels.com/#/media/


If you’re lazy, I’ll save you the time and include some of my favourite photos from the site in this blog post.

After finding out about the accommodation halfway through this year, price instantly didn’t become a barrier. We would save up whatever was needed to get there. It looked like it fulfilled both of our travel dreams, and we wouldn’t get another opportunity to be in this region for a very long time.

Mummola Travels isn’t just accommodation – it’s a proper living experience. You stay in your own building on a Finnish family’s property while they cook you traditional Finnish meals and take you out for winter activities. The whole experience seemed very customisable which suited us well.

On arrival in Kaukonen just outside of Kittilä, Kimmo was there to meet us. Kimmo is a 34 year old software developer and the man of the house. After having grown up in Lapland, he decided together with his wife, Paula, to move back to the region and raise their son just a few years ago. They now live on a farm with Kimmo’s parents and grandmother, and there they maintain their property and focus most of their energy on raising their son, Olavi. The family environment seems very similar to the famed Eales household of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

We were welcomed into our new home by Paula, the leader of this superb travel project. She’s the sweetest mother you will ever meet, possibly even sweeter than my own (I joke, you’re the best Tara). She built the anticipation of looking around the property by first serving us a much needed meal for after the bus trip. It, like the rest of the meals for our stay, considered Aimee’s complex diet in its entirety. It definitely took the stress out of mealtime.

img_3144

Lunch was a warm beef soup cooked just how Aimee and I like it – with plenty of chunkiness and substance. It was served with plenty of other side dishes and some milk from the family’s own cows. It was at lunch that we met Olavi, the four year old son of Kimmo and Paula. It is amazing how you don’t need language to comfortably communicate with a child so young. It helps you to realise that we can confidently connect with those born and raised it completely different conditions to us. What a truly beautiful part of being human. Back in Sydney, Aimee works at an after-school care, and as a result she was particularly adept at entertaining Olavi. I, on the other hand, could only do “slow horsey, fast horsey”.

img_3175

After lunch, we had our first opportunity to take a proper look at the house.

dsc02904

Our wing included a huge living area and featured everything you’d dream of in a log cabin – a fireplace, furnace, sauna, kitchen and multiple bedrooms.

dsc02905dsc02768dsc02779dsc02763dsc02771dsc02773

We also got our own little Lapland elf slippers.

Despite our relatively lengthy stay in Kittilä, we were straight into activities as requested – we wanted to be well tired out for the evening when we could try a traditional Finnish sauna and maybe even stay up for the New Year.

We discussed our options with Kimmo, and after realising just how adept he was at reading the conditions, we went with his advice of forest skiing. He and Paula had bought themselves some new forest skis for Christmas. These are equipped with a skin on the bottom for ascending backcountry slopes. The skin was made from an artificial fur which gripped the snow when it rubbed against the grain. Best of all, these snowshoe/ski hybrids could be used with any regular boots.

We set off in the -15℃ weather in the car to find a good location to practice. Before long we pulled up at a clearing which Kimmo said he helped construct with his Dad as a teenager. We were treated to two reindeer munching on the acidic hay where the road ended.

img_3146

It wasn’t only a pleasant coincidence for the view, but also because the reindeer left tracks which would make our ski into the forest easier.

img_3152

Aimee has only skied very briefly as a young child, and so this was a first for her. As it turns out, it was a massive first for me too.

It was nothing like skiing. It required you to unlearn the impulse of leaning forward, and instead to get used to the flimsiness of regular boots and putting your weight flat in your centre. The ability to climb up hills and raise your heels off your skis was welcomed, though. Kimmo followed behind us in his snowshoes as we made our way along the edge of the clearing and into the forest.

The views, especially with the sunset and the mist, were among the best I’ve ever seen in the snow. Kimmo seemed to be enjoying it as much as us. It goes to show that even if you’ve lived amongst it your whole life, snow never gets old. It was 2pm and, naturally, that meant that it was getting dark.

It made for some great silhouette shots, though.

img_3167

The sun had set by the time we were driving home.

img_3173

It was initially scary being in a car on such white and iced roads, but you quickly build trust after realising that these people learned how to drive in these conditions.

As it was New Year’s Eve, Kimmo’s mother joined the festivities in our wing of the house. We watched Kimmo smoke a salmon out in the cold before retreating indoors and getting to know everybody.

The house looked too perfect at night not to go out and get photos. Aimee and I both love the Lapland colour scheme of red and white on houses.

dsc02751dsc02758dsc02790

Dinner took a few hours before it was fully complete, and we all gathered around the table for what was one of the warmest New Year’s environments in memory. That is despite the almost -15℃ outside!

Before we all celebrated the evening with a bottle of sparkling wine, we went outside for the “firework show” before Olavi’s bedtime. Kimmo went behind the house to set up. In the meantime, Olavi, Aimee and I had a snowball fight.

dsc02786

And then, suddenly, we heard some loud cracks. This is what we were treated to.

What a show! Heck, it gave Sydney a run for its money. We were thrilled and couldn’t believe how well we’d been treated by this lovely family. It’s heartwarming how much people who’ve never met before can connect over a significant event.

We talked late into the night over some more food.

dsc02783

After Kimmo left us to wrap up the day, he quickly ran back in to our log house.

“AURORA!” he shouted. That was becoming a familiar phrase…

Armed with my new camera settings, we went out to take a look. Tonight’s aurora borealis made last night’s display seem a dismal excuse for the natural phenomenon. Huge bands of glowing cloud danced in the sky above us, changing location every few minutes. We had a ball challenging each other to see who could take the better photo.

dsc02801dsc02802dsc02803dsc02804dsc02806dsc02808dsc02809dsc02820dsc02823dsc02825dsc02830dsc02832

What a way to see in the new year. With a natural, Finnish fireworks display put on by the sky.

Happy New Year.

We returned indoors for our first experience of a traditional, coal-fired Finnish sauna. It was hot. Really hot. So hot that it was hard to breathe through our noses. But Kimmo knew that as first-timers we would feel this way, and adjusted the temperature appropriately. We followed his instructions of bathing with the heated water, then air-drying yourself, then sweating out all the “bad stuff”, and finally rinsing yourself off in the shower. Aimee and I both agreed that the initial bath was one of the most satisfying experiences we’d had on the trip. Highly recommended.

.

Day 297 (1st of January 2017) – Kittilä, Finland

We woke up for the first day of 2017 in similarly cool temperatures to yesterday. We were treated with a warm breakfast, providing the same feeling of comfort as being indoors during a thunderstorm.

img_3194

But it wasn’t long until we were out on the road again.

This time Kimmo was driving us to Ylläs, one of the ski resorts near Kittilä. Finland doesn’t actually have many steep mountains, so instead they ski in “fells” like this one. Both Aimee and I battled tiredness on the way out to the resort, but we were quickly woken up by our stop at the sports store. Here, Kimmo rented some snowshoes for us so that we could have a try. He would use a pair of the forest skis behind us.

Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a larger area so that your foot does not sink completely into the snow. They’re particularly needed in this sort of environment where sinking down to your waist would be the alternative.

We geared up and set off.

dsc02839

Kimmo showed us through a forest trail where we would end at a publicly accessible log cabin. These are common in the rural parts of Finland, apparently, where hikers and skiers can stay overnight if they should need to.

The forest was more dense than yesterday’s, and it had some older trees which provided a different atmosphere.

We quickly got the hang of the snowshoes. Aimee was particularly fond of them and they worked well with her lighter weight. The crampons fixed on the bottom of the shoe gave good grip once the snowshoe did its job of keeping you afloat. We were given poles, too.

We were all having lots of fun. I can tell already that Aimee will have a knack for skiing. It’s quite relieving, actually. Skiing and snow sports is a compulsory in my life, and I’d struggle if she didn’t enjoy them too.

dsc02841dsc02848dsc02849

It started snowing on the way up the hill. Photo time!

dsc02854

The path involved crossing many bridges and even some unfrozen streams. It was scenic and eventful – one I’d do again any day.

dsc02856

The most satisfying part, however, was definitely reaching the log cabin.

dsc02859dsc02875

It was here that Kimmo used an axe to gather some wood and started a fire.

dsc02872

The room initially seemed colder than the already freezing outdoors, but it quickly warmed up.

dsc02877

It also set the perfect scene for what has become one of my favourite photos of the trip.

dsc02881

Kimmo had hauled up plenty of food supplies in his backpack. We sat together eating salmon and cooking German sausages over the fire.

dsc02885

It’s all the more satisfying when you can see the reflection of the fire in the window showing the cold outdoors.

dsc02898

Dessert was Kimmo’s idea – bananas and chocolate.

First he sliced them open and wedged squares of chocolate in the slits.

dsc02895

Then, we put them over the fire until the skin was black.

dsc02897

The result was far better than we had anticipated. We’ll be repeating this one at home, that’s for sure.

dsc02903

By the time we had returned home, it was dark and we were exhausted. Paula could tell that we were tired and prepared a private and traditional Finnish dinner for the two of us.

img_3199

It was one of the highlight dinners of the trip so far. Aimee has been prevented from eating a lot of the more traditional foods so far because of her restrictions, but this one was made with her in mind. They were like delectable, mini Shepherd’s Pies.

We skipped the sauna tonight and took our tiredness at Ylläs as a sign that we needed an early bedtime. Our bodies definitely appreciated it.

It had been a great start to what was already becoming a contender for my best travel experience ever. As if I hadn’t already had enough “bests” on this trip.

Until next time,
Xavier.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s