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In the Arctic

Saturday, December 2nd 2006

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.

« To The North | Finland 2006 | Rovaniemi »