The wild, desolate expanse of Sweden’s remote north beyond the Arctic Circle was my final destination in Scandinavia. After the completion of exams in Stockholm, I caught a seventeen hour train journey to Abisko in the northernmost corner of the country to commence a five day exploration of Swedish Lapland. Although I travelled during the darkness of night (which lasted virtually the entire seventeen hours), it was noticeable at each station that the snow gradually became thicker and the temperature lower; a foreboding sign of what was to be expected in Lapland. When I arrived in Abisko, I encountered a temperature twelve degrees lower than anything I had experienced previously and a landscape totally covered in snow; a proper WOW factor moment. I spent three days in Abisko enjoying the sublime natural beauty of its unblemished environment and two days in Kiruna, one of Europe’s northernmost and coldest towns.
Abisko is located within the World Heritage listed Laponian Wilderness, a vast collection of protected areas considered one of Europe’s last great natural environments. Abisko is a tiny community situated on the outskirts of its namesake national park. The dramatic approach into Abisko circumvents a vast, partially frozen lake and enters a valley of snow covered mountains (not particularly high). Abisko is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and the starting point of the famed King’s Trail, an epic 440 kilometre trail through the central spine of Sweden. Consequently, the community’s existence is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The village is composed of spacious timber red-and-white houses encircling a train station that looks somewhat like a gigantic barn. The constituent forms of transport during the long winters are snowmobiling and skiing, which compact the snow on the paths and make them easy to walk on. However, stepping off the paths results in submerging your knees below snow; which came as quite a shock the first time!
I stayed at an excellent hostel in Abisko that was managed by a mixture of quirky locals and seasonal workers. The hostel consisted of several timber buildings scattered around a large property. The dormitories were located in a building that essentially functioned like a house, creating a communal and homely vibe. I shared a dormitory with English Mark, Danish Christian, German Sylvia and a bunch of unrelated Chinese tourists, who were all coincidentally studying in France. Abisko seemed to be a particularly popular (and slightly random) destination for Chinese tourists, who dominated the foreign presence in town. Snowsuits were provided by the hostel, which made exploring the Lapland wilderness comfortable and warm. By wearing the snowsuit over my existing layers, I was able wander outside easily for hours. In addition to the snowsuit, I also wore snow boots, thermal socks, thick woollen socks, long johns, skins, jeans (supposedly an unsuitable garment for the Arctic, but I had no issues!), a thermal top, a T-shirt, a skivvy, a woollen jumper, a light jacket, a thick jacket, a scarf, a beanie, cotton gloves and leather mittens simultaneously, depending on how cold it was..
Dogsledding was not an activity I expected to excel at, but I proved to be an utter natural. I joined a group of fifteen for a two hour (became three hour) dogsledding tour of the landscape surrounding Abisko Hostel. Each person commanded their own sleigh, with four huskies assigned to the most talented (or just heaviest) members of the contingent. Before our departure from the mounting yard (?), our Czech leader bombarded us with a slew of instructions that I was certain I would either forget or fail to master. She explained how to break (by stepping on a metal bar that would grate the snow) and that when ascending slopes, we would need to aid the huskies by pushing off from the ground with one leg (with the other firmly rooted to the sleigh). We assisted the guides in assembling the sleighs, which was a rather intimidating ordeal as the huskies barked manically, attempted to bolt off and even attacked each other. We were to sleigh in single-file but were supposed to stay together as a group. Unfortunately I was positioned at number thirteen in order, which condemned me to long waits behind slow-pokes and duds. Indeed, there was an elderly American couple who both annoyingly and amusingly served that role.
Once we commenced sleighing, I quickly found it very easy. The huskies simply followed the pack, so the only responsibility I had was to control their speed and stopping/starting. I also needed to ensure I moved correctly with the sleigh to avoid stacking, though this was quite natural. Controlling the huskies was hardest when the group stopped as they were eager to charge off. When we could move, the huskies would bolt away suddenly, which were the most difficult moments to stay on the sleigh. However, throughout most of the tour my four dogs were very lazy, preferring to dawdle and smell other dogs’ shit. Consequently, I was required to aid the huskies for roughly a third of the trip, which was incredibly exhausting with a snow suit and a dozen other garments on. Meanwhile, other participants claimed they didn’t need to aid their dogs whatsoever. At least half the members of the group crashed at some point from momentary lapses in control. One lady however was completely unable to handle her huskies, resulting in numerous crashes and long delays. Eventually, the guides ceded to her overtures of giving up and allowed her to ride in the back of a snow-mobile trailer. After the tour, we had the opportunity to enter the husky pens to pat these wonderful, semi-wild creatures. The dogsledding tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to a Lapland, an exhilarating and somewhat authentic way to see the landscape.
The wilderness surrounding Abisko was one of the most enthralling areas for hiking that I have ever visited. Perhaps not so much for mesmerising vistas (although they were quite impressive) but for the sheer exoticism of trampling through an environment completely smothered in remarkably thick snow. Trails lead in all directions from Abisko, discernible from the boot marks and ski tracks in the snow. Following the trails into the desolate, inhospitable winter landscape was both exceptionally eerie and exhilarating, because of the interminable silence, stillness and lack of people. I went hiking for five hours on each of my final two days at Abisko and found it surprisingly exhausting, due to the clothing and occasional off-path wandering through knee-high snow. I vigilantly kept note of the time, to ensure I wasn’t caught out in pitch black darkness. I hiked through birch forests of grey skeletal trees spiking through the snow. I hiked across flat, open spaces that were probably frozen waterways, but I was often not sure. On one occasion, I encountered what was definitely a frozen lake and eventually mustered the courage to cross it (with a couple cracking sounds underfoot on the way!). I also encountered a frozen river that the trail evidently crossed and debated whether to also. Fortunately I decided not to, because I later noticed a couple hundreds metres upstream gaping holes in the ice sheet covering the river! I hiked mostly within shallow valleys surrounded by placid mountains of black rock and snow and enjoyed panoramic views of the perpetually white scenery.
The opportunity to see the Northern lights is the constituent reason why people travel to Abisko; supposedly the best place in the world to view them. Witnessing an Aurora Borealis spectacle though is inherently unpredictable and not guaranteed. Consequently, there was an unofficial understanding among everyone staying at the hostel that if the lights were spotted, the alert was to be raised; regardless of the time. During the first (20 hour) night at Abisko, everyone in my dormitory was over-excited about the prospects of seeing the lights, after glowing reports from the previous days. In turns, we wandered outside hunting for the lights, until giving up completely by 2am: no lights. At around 6pm the next evening with everyone defrosting in bed, we suddenly heard a random hunter cry, “Lights! Lights!”. Within a nanosecond, we all jumped out of our comfortable perches and in a desperate hurry began the excruciatingly long and tedious process of gearing up for the external elements. Our fears of missing the lights were abated when we dashed outside and saw… grey cloud-like formations. I won’t lie, it was probably the single greatest anticlimax of my entire life, narrowly eclipsing my homemade roast chicken gravy for Christmas 2014. I was rather shocked by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses I was hearing from other light-gazers and wondered what I was missing. While I only just detected a tinge of colour, I was surprised to discover that photographs taken with very specific settings depicted the lights as vividly green. The phenomenon only lasted for twenty minutes, prompting our quick return to the warmth of bed. At around 9:30pm, lights were again spotted. On this occasion, the lights were substantially more impressive; though my fantasy of brilliant green light dancing across the night’s sky still hadn’t materialised. It was nevertheless a dynamic spectacle of formations that were obviously not clouds, with strands of feint green light gracefully folding through the sky. Mark and I braved the numbingly cold conditions for about one hour until we were satisfied the lights were not going to become any more enthralling; and returned to the warm refuge of the hostel.
While I experienced bitterly cold temperatures in Abisko, it was even colder in nearby Kiruna. Abisko’s weather is relatively “temperate”, due to its location within a protective valley. Kiruna, however, is more exposed and can therefore experience much lower temperatures. When I visited Kiruna, the temperature hovered between -17 and -25 degrees. Since I was without a snow suit in Kiruna and depending purely on clothes bought from Primark, this temperature difference was certainly palpable. I had no issue walking outside in -17 degrees for hours, but exposure to -25 degrees for more than forty minutes was completely intolerable. My body’s reaction to conditions of -25 degrees was quite intriguing, because I found that for thirty minutes I would just be “aware” of the temperature, but then suddenly and rapidly I would feel very cold and need to find heated shelter. If you ever thought there’s nothing quite like an air-conditioned room on a hot summer day, wait until you travel to the Arctic!
Kiruna is the largest Swedish settlement north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s transportation hub. The town exists in this incredibly inhospitable environment because of a gargantuan iron ore mine, the largest in Europe. The mine’s continual expansion will literally swallow Kiruna, which has resulted in the construction of a new town five kilometres away. However, the scheduled relocation to the new town has been delayed because of China’s economic slow down and therefore the lower demand for iron ore. The inevitable destruction of Kiruna will be rather saddening, because aside from the sterile concrete centre, its actually quite a pleasant town. Kiruna’s most attractive structure is the town’s main Lutheran church; a hulking, triangular wooden building that is often voted Sweden’s most beautiful. Kiruna’s neighbourhoods are composed of quaint timbers houses sporting a variety of colours (though mostly the maroon-red typical in Sweden); the vividness of which are accentuated by the unblemished white snow carpeting roofs, gardens, roads, cars and trees. Although the snow coverage was probably just slightly higher than in Abisko (nearly waist height, off the pavement), it seemed significantly deeper because of the surreal context of being inside a town rather than wilderness. I stayed at a lovely “hostel” in Kiruna, which was basically just an elderly woman’s very cozy house with guests sharing the bottom level.
The internationally famous Ice Hotel is situated in the unassuming village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna (where it gets even lower). Unwilling to fork out $500 to freeze to death in my sleep, I opted to merely peruse through the hotel during the day (though for a still rather hefty $45) when all the rooms are accessible for public visitation. The Ice Hotel is constructed every November and melts away completely in May. Artists from throughout the world are invited to sculpt the hotel’s furniture and ornamentation from ice. The one-storey hotel only partially looks like an artificial structure; it certainly doesn’t feature a typical façade. But that’s because the focus is on the internal space, where jutting from a grand foyer are six corridors that lead to dozens of dazzling ice bedrooms. All of the rooms consist of an ice double bed covered in animal hides, with guests sleeping inside advanced sleeping bags to survive the night. The larger and more expensive rooms boast elaborate and distinctive designs, while the cheaper rooms are bare and generic. Some of the most impressive spectacles included a huge peacock in a wall replete with neon lights, elephant sculptures, a room full of quirky sheep and a creepy room full of human heads. While I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this remarkable building, I was also pleased to drive back to Kiruna for a warm night at the hostel!
My typically high culinary standards changed completely in Swedish Lapland. Rather than attempting to sample traditional cuisine, my constituent objective was to counteract the extreme cold by achieving maximal calorie intake for minimal expenditure. I suspect the local population share this motive, because surprisingly affordable carb-and-meat-heavy food was readily available. The “dagens lunch” special offered by the only restaurant in Abisko was a buffet of two main dishes, potatoes, bread, pasta and salad bar. I chose strategically to attend the buffet at 2:30pm each day to avoid wasting precious daylight and to cover my lunch and dinner. My voracious appetite, which was exacerbated by the temperatures, was on full display. I also attended a brunch buffet in Kiruna that featured all the traditional Swedish favourites, including smoked salmon, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar and salt), pickled herring, potato salad, egg salad and roasted moose (quite delicious, richer than beef). Also in Kiruna, I sampled the Lapland version of (apparently) Sweden’s most traditional style of pizza, which features thin crust pastry, tomato, onion, cheese, slices of doner kebab (not exactly Swedish) and spicy garlic sauce. Perhaps for the novelty factor rather than improving the taste, the doner kebab was replaced by smoked reindeer.
Swedish Lapland was definitely one of the highlights of my nine month journey, a fitting (and cold) way to conclude my time in Europe. The five day trip was loaded with surreal experiences, including dogsledding, hiking through knee-high snow, walking across frozen lakes, observing the northern lights and enduring extremely low temperatures. The incredibly short days were also rather exotic and the only time I sighted the sun was when I was awaiting my flight at Kiruna Airport...
That’s all for now,