Weekend journey to the Arctic
On my first trip to Finland I hadn't seen anything of Tampere beyond the train station. Arriving back there three years later was like a bizarre and intense déjà vu experience. As I had last time, I struggled for a while with ticket machines that unfortunately only display Swedish and Finnish text. I thought I could work out how to buy a ticket in Swedish, but was not quite confident enough to actually put my card in the machine and so I decided to buy a ticket on the train instead.
With a couple of hours to kill, I went for a walk around Tampere. It was late on a Friday night and things were pretty raucous. My guide book described Tampere as 'the Manchester of Finland', and just like northern girls back home, Finnish girls were wearing amazingly few clothes given the near-freezing temperatures. I walked up the main street beyond the centre, through a park, down to the river and then back into town, found a take-away pizza shop and took a giant vegetarian pizza back to the station.
My train arrived just after 1am. I got on board and sought out a conductor, but none seemed to be around. The train pulled out of the station and set off on its amazing journey north, and after a while a conductor appeared and sold me a sleeper ticket. I was sharing a compartment with a fisherman called Mikko, who kept on cursing himself for speaking terrible English though we were having a perfectly good conversation. He was quite drunk, and offered me some of his Finnish vodka, which he said was the best in the world. But I had to leave him to it, and I went to the restaurant car for a late night snack. When I came back, Mikko was snoring heavily.
I slept pretty well, and when I woke up at 9am we were in the far north of Finland, in an endless scene of forests and lakes, under a dark blue sky with just a hint of daylight in it. There was a bit of snow on the ground but barely any cover. Mikko said that in 20 years he had only known such good December weather a couple of times before. I got up and went for a coffee in the restaurant car, and spent the next couple of hours watching the sunrise set the sky on fire. Twilight seemed to last for ever and the Sun didn't actually rise until well past 10am. In full daylight the boggy landscape looked a little bit more prosaic, and before long we were in the grim industrial outskirts of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lappland. It was 11am and I was three miles south of the Arctic Circle.
I found my way from the train station to the bus station. It was only a short walk but a thick layer of ice covered the streets and I slid wildly along, probably causing much amusement for the few Finns who were out and about. They seemed to have no trouble keeping their balance and leaving the streets icy seemed to me like a cruel way to spot outsiders.
It took me a while to work out the bus timetables at the station - I thought I'd cracked it but a couple of buses that should have turned up didn't. The mystery was solved when I found out the Finnish words for 'arrivals' and 'departures'. I got the right timetable, found a bus going to Kemijärvi, bought a snack and headed north.
It was 1.30pm, and the sun had just set. The small but comfortable bus rolled out of Rovaniemi and headed north. Snow was beginning to fall and before long we'd left the city behind and were in thick forest. The 'official' home of Santa Claus is a major tourist attraction here, and his home lies right on the Arctic Circle, so there was no mistaking the moment we crossed the line. Signs had been counting down about every 100 metres, and a giant garish shopping complex and an arch across the road marked our entry to the polar regions.
It was slowly getting dark. We left Santa behind and the road narrowed. The scenery was nothing but endless snow-covered pine-trees, fading into a wintry mist. The uniformity was soporific, and I was beginning to doze off when we slowed sharply. A herd of reindeer had emerged from the gloomy forest and was crossing the road. We waited for a few minutes as a column of bulky bodies and towering antlers trotted across, then as they disappeared into the forest on the other side of the road, we drove on.
By 2.30pm it was night, and another half an hour saw us reach Kemijärvi. I was the only passenger left on the bus by now, and the town was empty as I set out to explore. I wanted to go to an idyllic-sounding hostel, on the shores of the lake, with a sauna, and my dream was that I would be able to spent a couple of days in the sauna, watching the northern lights. But after a lengthy walk along the shores of the frozen lake to the hostel, it turned out to be closed. The only other accommodation in Kemijärvi was far too expensive for me, so I had to reconsider my plans. In the end I decided I'd have to get the evening train back to Rovaniemi and hope to find a sauna there.
With the rest of the day to spend in Kemijärvi I went for a long walk, out of town to the shores of the Kemi river, frozen solid and stretching away into invisible inky blackness. I walked back into town and along the shores of the lake, enjoying the strangeness of 6pm feeling like the middle of an endless night.
At 8pm, a bit upset that I wasn't going to manage to have a sauna in the Arctic, I headed for the station and got the train back to Rovaniemi. The train was about half full, and I looked at all the other passengers, wondering if they thought it was at all amazing that their normal day's routine involved getting a train across frozen wastelands where the Sun barely rises for several weeks in the middle of winter. They probably didn't, but I did.
I got back to Rovaniemi at about 10pm and picked my way slowly through the icy streets to the centre of town. The youth hostel was supposed to have a sauna so I got myself a room there. Weirdly, the hostel itself was unstaffed and I had to get keys and things from a hotel about 10 minutes walk away. That just made it an even greater disappointment when, after I'd pulled yet more muscles in avoiding falling over during the walk to the hostel, there turned out not to be a sauna. Not only that but there appeared to be no-one else in the hostel at all.
So, short of things to do, I went for a walk around town. If I couldn't have a sauna I was at least hoping I might see the northern lights, for the first time since I was in Iceland seven years ago. There were some breaks in the cloud and the moon was appearing occasionally so I thought I might have a chance. But it wasn't to be and I couldn't see anything that looked like even a hint of aurora. As I walked slowly back to the hostel, holding onto walls, trees and street signs and still only barely keeping my balance, groups of girls in high heels strode past me on their way out for Saturday night.
The next day I woke up at 9am to find it still almost dark. Once the sun had risen I got up and set out to explore. Rovaniemi is no beauty, but then it was completely destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War Two, as they retreated across northern Scandinavia. Apparently almost every town in northern Norway and Finland was razed to the ground, and it's incredible that anyone even returned to rebuild their homes, so I didn't mind the concrete wasteland too much.
I walked down to the Kemi River, not frozen here like it had been at Kemijärvi. Even at midday it was gloomy. A cold wind was blowing and it was beginning to drizzle. If it had been nicer I might have gone for a walk in the forest but it seemed more prudent to return to town and get a coffee. I spent a while warming up with a few espressos, chatting to friendly Finns and thinking I'd really like to come back here in the summer.
It was a Sunday and everything closed at about 4pm. My train back to Tampere wasn't leaving until 10pm, and it was now that I realised that finding something to do for six hours in a small town on the Arctic Circle on a Sunday evening in the middle of winter is basically impossible. I saw as much of Rovaniemi in the dark as anyone would ever want to, then had a long slow evening meal, then spent an hour walking back to the station.
Finally it was time to leave. I got the train back to Tampere, arriving at 6am. I had slept terribly on the train and got a bit more terrible sleep in the waiting room on Tampere station, waiting for the coffee shop to open. It began to rain heavily as I got the bus to the airport, and much as I'd enjoyed the trip I decided I was not going to come back to Finland before June at the earliest.