Lapland 2014: Narvik

Another point to Sweden: the lovely light fresh bread I bought at lunchtime yesterday was still lovely and light and fresh at lunchtime today, which is more than I can say for the slice of bread I ended up borrowing from breakfast. I have double windows here, the inner one opens, the outer doesn’t. It’s a fridge for my cheese! And very nice the cheese was with my assorted breads.

Two more points in Sweden’s favour: 1) The town of Gällivare, the last big town before Kiruna, is pronounced Jellyvahray 2) Kiruna is covered in powdery or crunchy snow. Narvik is slightly warmer, so it’s partly melted,leaving a glassy coating of very slippery ice everywhere.

I woke up this morning to blue sky, sunshine and white mountains out of every window. I took the tablet to breakfast so I could update this blog while eating and enjoying the view and then flew straight across the road to the gondola.

I suspected I’d probably want to go up the mountain but I hadn’t realised it was right across the road. The tickets are actually sold at the ski school just up the hill rather than at the station but I could manage that. The gondolas come in trios and I was advised to go in the last one for the best view.

Yes, the view. Narvik sits on the edge of a fjord ringed with white mountains. Dark blue fjord, blue sky, white mountains – definitely up in the Arctic Circle, so much prettier than Kiruna, although to be fair, maybe it’s prettier in the sun too.

I took about a thousand photos of the view. I thought it wasn’t very popular for skiing because Narvik itself is a bit of a utilitarian industrial city rather than a picture-perfect village. It turns out I’d simply got up there half an hour before most of the skiers started to turn up. It still wasn’t Mayrhofen-busy but there were definitely quite a few people up there and a surprising number on foot, just enjoying the view.

After a while I got cold and they’d opened the restaurant so I went in for a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate – getting warm and enjoying the view from massive windows both at the same time!

After two and a half hours of enjoying the view, I decided it was time to descend. I was freezing and I’d seen the view from every angle possible and besides, I planned to come up later to see if the Northern Lights would come out to play over this amazing setting. The only ugly bit of the view was the port – owned and run by LKAB, the Swedish company that owns and runs the mine in Kiruna. That’s no mere coincidence. Narvik is nice and close to Kiruna and provides an ice-free port to export the iron ore. I came here because it’s quickly and easily (in theory) linked to Kiruna which is becuase of the railway bringing the ore to the port.

I spent most of the afternoon eating and sleeping – well, by the time I’d arrived and calmed down and got to bed last night, it was a bit late and I planned to be out in the evening. I sat in reception, using the wifi (it’s a fairly major flaw, as far as I’m concerned, having an entire corridor out of wifi reach), watching the sun set and turn the mountain pink. I’ve never yet managed to get a good photo of a sunsetty snowy mountain.

I happen to be here during the Narvik Winter Festival and according to the website – and the lady at reception agrees – the gondola should be open until 11pm. I don’t plan to stay up there that late, not least for fear of being trapped up there overnight but maybe go up at 9 and see if any lights come out.

There were no lights. My gondola got stuck just outside the top station, so the operator had to force open the doors and let me out onto the snowdrift leading up to the station. It was bitterly cold and there was a breeze round the side of the station. I stuck to the platform out the back, took long-exposure photos of the view and the full moon (I think most of them are very blurry), got utterly frozen and fairly quickly came back down, whereupon it took an.extremely hot shower for me to stop feeling like a human icicle.

Lapland 2014: The E10

Last night, I summarised Saturday in a short Facebook post from the hotel reception. The wifi doesn’t reach as far as my room – I watch endless cycles of connected – obtaining IP address – disabled.

Let’s start from the beginning. I already knew there wasn’t much to see or do in Kiruna. Town’s built on a mine, not tourism. With a train in the afternoon, there wasn’t going to be time for dogsledding or snowmobiling or meeting reindeer, even if those things were available on such short notice. Armed with luggage, I knew it’d be more than.enough simply to get on the train.

I checked out as late as possible, dragged my suitcase through fresh, fluffy snow to the supermarket for bread and cheese and juice and chocolate, stopped at the TIC for a while and then decided to start the epic trek down to the bus station. Even with a detour to an ice sculpture, it took about fifteen minutes. I was an hour early for the shuttlebus and didn’t realise that the vänthall was open, if you just used all your strength on pulling the door.

I got an earlier bus, reasoning that the station at least would have a slightly different view. It did but most of it was behind stuff. I waited for the Luleå train, which was delayed half an hour. My very limited Swedish seemed tp suggest my train was replaced by a bus. This turned out to be true.

A packed bus. I sat wedged in a corner, my bag on my lap, unable to move, hoping it didn’t get too hot because that coat was staying on. There were two young kids opposite me and their bag was wedged against my legs and not going anywhere, no matter how hard I pushed it.

Mercifully, at Abisko, two-thirds of the passengers got off. I moved to the horseshoe of seats around a table at the back, enjoying the freedom. For about five minutes.

Five minutes down the road, we met the tail end of a traffic jam and a glimpse of a neon ! sign in the distance. We detoured up to the station in the village next to it (no one on or off, what a waste) and came back to the jam. It was a little longer by now.

We sat there for two and a half hours. I ate bread and cheese and counted the minutes and got bored. Started to wonder at what point we’d give up and go back to Kiruna or Abisko. I managed to steal a tiny bit of very unreliable wifi to complain on both Facebook and Twitter and look up and translate the news. The train was cancelled because some containers fell off a train at 6.30am and had caused quite a lot of damage to the track between Kiruna and Abisko. Quite why we couldn’t get the train onwards from Abisko, I don’t know. The road was closed because of a storm. I couldn’t see a storm. Yes, it was misty, borderline foggy and there was light snow but no storm. After two hours, I saw traffic coming the other way but still we didn’t move. The driver started the engine and everyone applauded. I muttered impatiently about “Yes, but where are we *going*?!” It turns out my lack of Swedish had led me to miss a whole other drama. The bus had broken down and the company had been phoned for a replacement before the driver managed to get it going. Even better, this bus had refused to start in the morning! Train cancelled, road closed for imaginary storm and unreliable bus! What a brilliant day!

It seemed the road was open one direction at a time. We travelled in convoy, at a crawl, along a snowy (but no.snowier than the Kiruna-Abisko stretch) road for an hour, detoured at the first town to the station where I honestly thought we were either going to hit a lorry or roll down the hill. More crawling. Half an hour standstill at the Norwegian border (at this point, I pulled my hat down over my face and cried a little bit. I’d left Kiruna at 2.45. It was now 8.15 and we’d been stationary longer than we’d been moving. The convoy had taken us 26km and taken an hour and twenty minutes. And now we weren’t moving – again!

We crawled along the Norwegian part of the E10 and then turned onto the E6 and it was like someone had taken the brakes off. We still weren’t moving quickly but it felt like being out of first gear for the first time in three hours.

The final straw was arrival. We were dumped at tge station at 9.25pm. It was dark. It was cold. There were weird people in gowns or strange hats with instruments and candles making weird music around a steam loco. Any other time, I’d have stayed longer and taken photos.

There were no buses. A taxi that drove past me three times without stopping. I had no idea where I was going. I dragged my suitcase up to a petrol station, half-crying, and asked for directions. I was given a map with my route marked on it and off I went.

This was not the best half hour of my life. I panted, dragging this suitcase up the hill, a hill covered in lethally slippery ice, off-balance because of pulling the suitcase, occasionally swearing but mostly crying out loud. It was a horrible day, much too long and now here I was trying to drag a suitcase up a very slippery hill, on my own, in the dark, in a strange place.

And then to find the wifi didn’t work in my room so I couldn’t even tell everyone about it!

405km Kiruna to Narvik took six and three quarter hours. That’s averaging about 26kph. With no internet right now, I can’t convert it to mph.

Sweden is held up as a paragon of ability to deal with snow. Hahaha. No it can’t. Fifty mile standstill on a major road for a minor flurry. I was there, I saw it. This is a myth and a lie.

Sweden’s showers don’t go hot enough. The one here in Norway is wonderfully powerful and will go hot enough to take my skin off if I want. It’s by far the best thing that’s happened to me all day.

Sweden’s fruit juice is watery and almost tasteless.

Kiruna’s website is so unusable, you have no idea what activities it actually has to offer until you get to the TIC. And then it’s too late, usually.

Nothing is pronounced how I think. Kiruna is almost closer to Keerna (sort of half say the u) and Abisko seems somewhere near AAHbshko. I’m still not sure how to pronounce Sámi.

On the positive side, the Swedish word for lift is “hiss” and that’s just beautiful, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that Emilio transported our snowshoes to the cabin in an Ikea bag.

I wish I’d gone to Iceland again instead.

Lapland 2014: Kiruna

I arrived at Gatwick at about midnight and was up for my flight at 4am. The back rows of the plane to Stockholm were empty so I had it to myself until people started to realise they could stretch out in the empty rows.
At Stockholm, I checked that my luggage would sort itself out and then marched from Terminal 5 through to Terminal 4, went through security again, got food & drink in an unexpected WH Smith and went to my gate. Even though the flight was an hour away, it was packed. A few German boys were doing an extremely difficult quiz (sample question: as the crow flies, how many kilometres from London to Tokyo?) so I drank a Yumberry drink and watched the planes.
As we flew north, you could see snow starting to appear. I slept for a while and woke up to a vast white nothing, broken only by the black dots of trees.
Kiruna airport seems to consist of one room, where departures and taxi drivers mingle with arrivals around the baggage carousel. It makes Orkney airport look like a huge place. I got the bus – and saw the huskies waiting to take people to ICEHOTEL. (That’s how they write it)
In Kiruna, not knowing where my hotel was, i decided to get off at the Tourist Information. As the bus pulled in, I spottedy hotel just up the street but I went in anyway, for a map and a flag badge for my blanket.
The hotel is only about 100 yards away bit Kiruna is under a semi-permanent layer of ice ans snow that makes it really difficult to get around. The Bishop’s Arms turns out to be in a small shopping centre. My room is upstairs, bigger than expected, has paintings of very English hunting scenes and the view from the window is of snow. Snow probably an entire storey deep.
Once I’d thrown everything all over the floor, i went back to the TIC to see what I could do tomorrow. Several leaflets later, I found snowshoe Northern Lights tours. The TIC said they could find out availability but Kiruna Guideturs is right across the road. So I went there (and bought a Sámi flag for my blanket). By a miracle, they had snowshoeing available usually, they only have snowmobile tours going. The only trouble is, the other couple are being picked up at ICEHOTEL. I don’t at all mind being taken out to see it for free before we go to the mountains!
I hoped to do a few hours dogsledding in the morning but there was nothing available, so I slid and slithered back to the hotel, had a shower ( it doesn’t go hot enough!) and fell asleep by about 7pm.

Lapland 2014: Kiruna & Snowshoeing

I didn’t really fancy getting up this morning, so the day started slowly.

I put on the Yaktrax and instantly became a person who can walk on this lethal slippery stuff. I marched down to the main road and through the park right down to the big main road at the bottom of the hill, to the station. As I’d suspected, I’d fallen victim to the mine. Kiruna is a town built around a massive iron mine. Unfortunately, the mine is now eating the town and they’re starting the colossal job of moving the entire town away from it before it ends up in it. The station has already moved. I was already a bit grumpy about the station because the word I have to spot on the map is Järnsvägsstation, which is just a random collection of letters, totally unrelated to any word for railway station I’ve ever come across. I was doing ok with the Swedish until then, by translating via German or Icelandic or Danish (tåg = tog = zog = zug = train, not day etc). But as I stomped along Järnsvägsg. I was thinking how the g stands for gata (street) and it suddenly dawned on me that Järnsväg, just like French, translates to iron way and in fact, makes perfect sense! That kept me happy for quite a while.

I came off Station Road and back to the main road. I could see bits of railway, I could even see a goods train but these buildings didn’t look like the station. I sat down on a snowdrift to consult my map and discovered I still wasn’t even halfway there yet. Don’t sit on snowdrifts. They’re cold and wet. Well, I wasn’t walking this distance in the snow with luggage tomorrow. I would investigate buses or even get a taxi. I walked back beside the main road rather than on the “safe walk” through residential streets. It was clear people travelled along this path but the markings weren’t footprints. I puzzled over the tracks for a while and finally it clicked into place, along with the snowmobiles people have parked outside their houses as if they’re normal everyday transportation.

In the meantime, I trekked back up the hill, stopping to look at some truly great snow sculptures and then back to my room to eat and be lazy for a while. But on the way back, I made a wonderful discovery. The little old ladies of Kiruna don’t go out with shopping trollies on wheels, they go out with little sledges! I’ve been seeing them everywhere, locked to bikes racks and lampposts, with their names carved on the back.

I had to go out again. I hadnt seen Kiruna kyrka or found the supermarket – I’d started to think the locals must live out of cafes. It was colder than earlier. The church is just around the corner from my hotel so I went there first, enjoying the Yaktrax as I strode up the hill to the church while people coming down slithered all over the place.
The church was once voted Sweden’s favourite building. It’s pretty – a “bizarre neo-Gothic interpretation of a Sámi tent”, looks wooden inside and out but apparently a lot of the detail inside is wrought iron – there’s that mine again! It’s hard to forget the mine, anyway. There’s not much of Kiruna from which you can’t see the mine.
I came back via the city hall (decorative wrought iron tower on top) and the bus station and then past my hotel to where I believed I might find a supermarket. I was wrong. Up to the petrol station visible uphill from the church. No shop. I thought I’d cut through and into the centre to ask at the TIC and there it was, in the building next to mine. I’d walked past it only an hour or so ago!
I didn’t buy much. Fresh bread, cheddar slices (much tastier than plastic cheese!) and juice. Sweden doesn’t seem to like apple juice so I got pear, orange and strawberry. The pear was good – all gone with the bread and cheese, sadly. The strawberry is so watery it’s almost flavourless and I haven’t tried the orange yet. i thought that little lot would last until Monday. I sense another shopping trip in the morning.
I did stop at the TIC. I found a bus timetable for the new station and asked why so many parked cars seemed to be plugged in. They’re blatantly not electric cars. The boy at the desk didn’t know but he guessed it was some kind of engine preheater device thing.

A little before six, i made my way down to Kiruna Guidetur, where I put on high waterproof boots, fitted a set of blue snowshoes and was given an armful of poles. We drove to Jukkasjärvi to pick up the other two from ICEHOTEL. On the way, I asked Emilio, our guide, about the mysterious plugged-in cars. They’re engine warmers, they come on an hour before you go out, so it starts properly and uses fuel more efficiently. At ICEHOTEL, he let me scamper down to see the thing while he collected the others.

It’s different every year. This year it looks like several arches, each lit in a different shade of blue or green, with a walkway to the msin entrance made of the clearest, smoothest ice I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty big – definitely no mere igloo.

The other couple turned out to be a bit older, so Emilio changed his plans, to do something a bit flatter. We drove up to a campsite on the other side of Kiruna and went into a little cabin with a sloping roof that almost touched the snow, a fireplace in the centre and benches around the outside covered in reindeer skins. Emilio lit the fire (with flint, knife and birch bark and it just went!) and we put on our shoes and went outside.

Snowshoeing is so much harder than I’d expected. You do still sink, usually to at least knee depth. Then you push down on your other leg to try and step out of the hole, that one sinks too and because you’re leaning forwards, you actually fall into the snow at that point. The poles don’t help, they sink too. But even when you don’t fall in, it’s still a massive full-body effort to take each step in the deep bits and it’s exhausting and you get very hot very quickly. It feels like walking on air when you get to bits you don’t sink in. At one point, I fell in and couldn’t get up unassisted three times in a row. I felt like the only hobbit in a company of elves (see Fellowship of the Ring, the scene when they’re trying to cross the mountain in the snow). My foot got so deeply buried Emilio had to dig it out, I slid down one slope rather than fall in it six more times and I lost my right snowshoe. Well,
it was still attached to my ankle but it was flapping along beside me, not strapped to the bottom of my foot. The trouble is that often your foot sinks and slides forward. You can’t just pull it out, you have to unhook it like a cat’s claws, which can be difficult if you’ve already taken a big step with your other foot. Pulling constantly was probably what loosened it.
At last we came off the hill and onto a road. A moose had walked along the road not too much earlier – Emilio said the animals use roads because they’re easier and i can see it.

After the road was a bit more forest and then we were onto the river. It’s fine to walk on – lots of snow, then half a metre of ice. You can snowmobile on it, you can even drive a car on it. We saw a snowmobile. Emilio said there’s a 70kph speed limit and the police do come out onto the river with their speed guns to catch speeding snowmobilers. On busy days, they even have a helicopter checking up on them.
The river was mostly easier. Big deep steps but mostly no falling over. I pretended to fall over for a photo and managed to knock my right snowshoe off again. We walked back into the forest and then we were at the cabin.
I was so tired and so hot. I was already walking in just a t-shirt and thin thermal top with my coat open over the top but the coat and hat and gloves came straight off in the cabin. But within five seconds, I got cold in wet clothes – part sweat, part snow. The fire was lovely. I declined reindeer sandwiches and moose sausage but I had some hot chocolate out of a plastic container that I suspect wasn’t actually designed to be a cup.
We sat by the fire, eating our picnic and warming up – a fika break, as they call it in Swedish. Good times.
Then we were back on the road. The Swiss to ICEHOTEL, me back to Kiruna, once I had my own boots back. Into dry clothes and finally warming up.
No plans for tomorrow except taking the train to Narvik.