“This is your captain here. If you look outside of your window, it is highly likely that you will catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights” – was announced over the intercom as I was on my way to the airplane bathroom. In the minute or two it took me to rush back to my seat in the now dimmed plane, the lights were gone. This is how my trip to Kiruna began. Luckily, a second ‘window of opportunity’ presented itself just the next evening. Our hostel landlady interrupted our gourmet dinner of pasta and tomato sauce in the communal kitchen to inform us that she could see the lights from her bedroom window at that very moment. We immediately ran out towards the darkened camp ground, my friend lugging a ‘borrowed’ hostel bedside table in lieu of a tripod. The lights guided us the whole way, disappearing and reappearing. They danced for us. At one point, a helicopter appeared and the lights seemed to pursue it action-movie style. This exceptional display made our night…our month….our year, in the space of a few minutes!
This marked only the beginning of what was to be a trip of dazzling ‘firsts’. It was the first time I’d been so up north, the first time I’d driven (and nearly crashed) a snowmobile, the first time I’d gone dog sledding and the first time I’d ever tasted smoked reindeer….Here are some of the highlights.
The sinking town of Kiruna.
Kiruna is sinking. The iron ore mining has left a hole and it’s getting bigger. The mining town will be moved 3 km to the East. The town hall and church will be dismantled and reassembled, ‘IKEA style’, at the new location. I wonder if they will recreate a perfectly identical city, a little to the East, or if the peaceful town we witnessed will disappear in a few years. This aside, it is, for the moment, a lovely snowy town to walk around in and admire the many iron and ice sculptures, which echo the town’s two sources of income: mining and tourism. An essential promenade stop is the city’s church. It was constructed 200 years ago and it is one of Sweden’s largest wooden buildings. The most important stop, though historically and artistically irrelevant, is the ice park. Yes, they have an ice park! It has ice toboggans, igloos and snow labyrinths. I know I sound like an excited child. And I was. I dare anyone not to be.
Lapland modes of locomotion: are you ‘husky’ or ‘snowmobile’?
There is nothing like hearing the cacophony produced by the howling of 30 or more dogs come to a sudden and absolute silence as you are launched forward into the Lapland wilderness.
There is also nothing more thrilling than driving your own snowmobile through the narrow forest paths of Lapland, or onto the frozen lakes. You will feel like James Bond as you negotiate the terrain, get a little too confident and almost flip the vehicle over (come on, I’m pretty sure James Bond has damaged some pretty valuable technology)! Being guided by a dreadlocked Viking, standing up on his snowmobile as he dashes past you, just added more authenticity to the experience.
Hiking in the Abisko National Park.
The Abisko National Park can be reached by train from Kiruna. The stop is Abisko turiststation. Do not get off at Östra Station, unless you want to start your hike early :p. Also, go to the actual tourist station, near the hostel, for a map and some trail recommendations. And rent snow shoes. Only one hour into our Kungsleden (The king’s trail) trek, we were sporadically sinking knee-deep into the snow, sometimes even thigh-deep if we took a particularly heavy step. Whilst the forest trails were fairy-tale worthy, it is the eerie intensely monochrome clearings that etched the deeper mark on my mind (see picture below). There is something unsettling about the quiet intensity of white on white on white as snow shadows battle gracefully in the wind. You also happen to be hiking on top of meters of snow, the defeated treetops barely reaching your waist. It is an exciting but unnerving sight. Two other must-sees in the area are the Sami camp, a display of how the Sami lived in the 19th century, and the frozen waterfalls. The hostel receptionist warned us the waterfalls would be frozen, and therefore not worthwhile. I don’t think she understood that was exactly what us ‘southerners’ were seeking.
The ice hotel
What’s the coolest thing about the ice hotel? It’s ephemerality. The rooms we visited, each meticulously sculpted by a different artist, will melt when the Kiruna spring settles in. Next year, completely new rooms will be built from the ice blocks. I saw things you could never imagine (ok that’s not true, there are pictures below). In truth, if you go, you will see things that I will never get to witness due to the unique quality of each season’s construction. The second coolest thing? Drinking a delicious cocktail from glass-shaped ice blocks in The Ice Bar and shattering it afterwards. The glasses, imprinted by our frosty lips, cannot be reused. Therefore, one may politely indulge in raucous bar behaviour. The ice hotel is like stepping into Elsa’s castle…if it were a furnished igloo with avant-garde art. So, it is actually better than Elsa’s castle. It’s real.