This a region ruled by the elements. Winter lasts here for nearly six months and the magical Arctic Circle passes through this surreal expanse of snow and birch. Lapland is a vast region spanning northern parts of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway. The landscape here is too flat to be dramatic but it’s a beauteous barren, monochrome tundra expanse. Rovaniemi is the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, 800 km from Helsinki. The Second World War devastated this city as the Germans razed it to the ground as part of their ‘scorched earth’ policy. It was re-built by Alvar Aalto, a famous architect of Finland to resemble a reindeer’s head and antlers. Today Rovaniemi is a cosmopolitan city with modern apartment blocks and the northernmost branch of Mc Donald’s in the world!
In this land there is no need to say minus…it’s a given! Our local tour company, A la carte Lapland and Jari, our local host, dress us up in Arctic gear- thermal zip-up overalls, thick socks, sturdy snow boots, balaclava, muffler and padded gloves which make us feel like a Finnish sauna and look like a cross between man on the moon and a bank robber. But all this gear over my layers of thermal makes me secure that I can now enjoy myself in these sub-zero frigid temperatures. We drive through tree lined roads covered with snow and understand that metal studs on the tyres are common here.
Living in the Arctic regions
The Artikum with its modernistic, arched glass atrium housing a science centre and museum is built into the banks of the Ounasjoli River. Most of this spectacular building is below the ground, perhaps like the way nature here takes cover from the harsh winter! The building looks magical, with its long corridors flooded with precious sunlight as if it were a gargantuan glass walled igloo. Local building materials have been used like granite and pine for the floors and the chairs are made from birch and reindeer hide. We learn a lot about how the early settlers survived in these harsh climates with few amenities, by fishing, building, floating logs on the river, etc. There is a giant stuffed moose and a polar bear as well; we catch a glimpse of local birds and Sami culture too. What I really enjoy is the exhibit where one can hear recorded sounds of birds and animals like the trumpet of a whooper swan and the eerie howl of a wolf! I am particularly impressed by the evocative models showing the history of Rovaniemi from 1939 and 1944, and the damage wrought by the German army. The Arctic in Change is an interesting exhibit, highly interactive, introducing the Arctic Region and telling us how humans, flora and fauna have adapted and survived. We put our hands into a cold room simulating ice and then we lie down on cushions to watch a simulation of the Northern lights on the ceiling. I pick up some interesting facts like how many elks die in a year because of collisions with cars.
In a one horse open sleigh!
Poro is the Finnish name for a reindeer. There are more reindeers than people in Lapland. The Samis are the indigenous people of Lapland who used to be migratory, following herds of reindeers. Now most of them live in modern homes and supplement their income with tourism. The evening is silent except for the crunch of our boots on the freshly fallen snow as we meet a traditional Sami reindeer herder dressed in his red and royal blue tunic called Gatki, with embroidered designs, hat with streamers ( which indicates the marital status!), a leather sheath with knife and reindeer boots. Our host takes us inside a traditional tepee called the Kota, open to the sky, with a fire to keep us snug and tells us about Sami customs and beliefs. Reindeer have the names of their owners indicated by notches on their ears. They are divided into herding co-operatives and a lot of them die in traffic accidents every year. An interesting piece of information- reindeers antlers are powdered and sold as an aphrodisiac, especially in Asian markets! “Never ask a Sami how many reindeer he owns,” says Jari. “Why?” I ask, to which he says,” How would you feel if I ask you how much money you have in your bank account!” Reindeer are much smaller than I expected (my image was from a Christmas card...) and their thick fur come in shades of grey, brown and white. The reindeer ride is not in the sky but over terra firma! We try to vainly control these active creatures as they speed ahead. Post ride we gather in a cozy cottage decorated with traditional Lappi dolls raising a cup of hot berry juice. What do the Lapps do for entertainment, I ask? They have many competitions like wife carrying, mobile phone throwing competition, air guitar (believe it or not, just pretending to strum a guitar!) and hold your breath, a mosquito swatting contest in the summer! We also hear about the ski boot dances held in halls where people in ski gear dance together and have some winter fun!
How do you shake off your winter sloth? Snowmobiling is the answer! These vehicles called squidoos look like lawnmowers on ice with powerful and noisy engines. We get instructions from Ari- a huge, tough looking Finn in a black snow suit,” This is the throttle and this is the brake… be careful...Most people step on the accelerator when they are nervous!” I opt to be Ari’s pillion rider which I think is a smart decision. I live to regret it... As we move forward in a snaking convoy, Ari suddenly increases the speed dramatically and as I hold on for dear life, he whizzes through the barren Lappish emptiness where the trees look like sculptures with snow hanging tenaciously on to every single branch. No fairground ride can equal this! I holler at Ari to cut the speed but he can’t hear through his helmet. I truly feel like a reluctant James Bond. My mind is full of visions of broken arms, cuts and bruises. Luckily Ari slows down, waiting for the others to catch up. The return ride is more sedate through the twilight casting mysterious shadows on the snow.
It’s a dog’s life
A visit to a husky farm is mandatory in Lapland. By their very genetic code, these Malamute huskies (which actually originate in Alaska) with their almond shaped eyes, can live in the harshest environments. To me they look more like wolves from whom they have evolved. We hear from Marek, their trainer that though they are amiable around people, they are quiet aggressive with smaller animals. I am not surprised when I hear that they eat a kilo of food every day! They wag their thick, plumy tails as we embark on a husky driven sled ride. I choose the easy option to sit protected by reindeer pelts, and my partner has to stand behind balancing on runners, controlling all the dog power with instructions to lean into the bends and stand on the brake going downhill. The sky is the texture of broken glass, with only silence and the panting of the huskies to keep us company. We clamber out, in love with these gorgeous dogs, to a hut, for some traditional coffee made in a blackened kettle suspended over a fire...In Lapland these warm interludes after the freezing temperatures are really something to savour!
Well, we all know Santa Claus is coming anyway, but we decide to gently remind him by visiting him at home…The Santa Claus village, 8 km north of Rovaniemi, has tourist arrivals round the year from Britain and other countries and Lapland has played the Santa card well! The Santa Claus Village has a huge building which says on the top,” Santa lives here”. There is a clever buildup to a personal interview with Santa. On the wall are many pictures of Santa meeting celebrities from all over the world. A tall Finnish elf asks us to wait outside the door as it’s our turn next! We are ushered into a picture perfect room where an affable, portly Santa with a twinkle in his eye greets us with a, “Namaste!” He engages us in a conversation about the weather in Delhi and whether we have been good the past year! Santa as it turns out is multi-lingual and can speak about 14 languages! As we gather together, the elf unobtrusively takes a group photograph of us. Once outside you can have a copy of the photograph or the interview on a CD for a fee! The village is also home to the Santa Claus Post office where most of the letters addressed to Santa end up! Kids send these letters to addresses like North Pole, Arctic Circle, etc and they all are directed here. Enthusiastic red and green costumed elves sort out the letters diligently and reply to those with return addresses. We see a blackboard with some statistics saying that about 14 million letters have been received and the top country is the UK followed by Romania! Every postcard or letter mailed from here has the special Arctic Circle postmark.
Rudolph on the menu
To a vegetarian like me, Lapland is kind with the varieties of breads- my favourite is the dark rye bread and the crackers with herbs. We fill ourselves with potato and mushroom soups, luscious beetroot salad and a rich variety of fruits, mainly a variety of berries (even watermelon is grown in greenhouses). We enjoy pirogs; small pies made of puff pastry and filled with vegetables and cheese. Of course Santa’s doe-eyed helper, Rudolph is a staple on the non-vegetarian menu. My meat-eating companions gorge on fried, smoked and sautéed reindeer meat served on a bed of mashed potatoes accompanied by lingonberries, salmon soup and beef and potatoes. Our host explains that this climate necessitates meat eating, especially in the “kaamos” or winter twilight phase.
The Finns invented the sauna (pronounced sowna) and today it’s a vital element of Finnish life. I am told that there are more than two million saunas all over the country. There are communal saunas, electric ones in swanky apartments and they say that even the Parliament House has one. Many international delegations are invited to a sauna before a deal is clinched. They even have the annual Sauna Championships where the person who endures the highest temperatures is crowned the champion! Jari tells us that in earlier times, children were delivered in a sauna and it was customary to lie in state here after death. The traditional log wood smoke sauna experience is what I have- a huge stove with large amounts of burning hot rocks on top where water is sprinkled often to increase the humidity! The scene of action- a 150 year old rustic lumberjack’s cabin in the middle of the wilderness, built completely of logs stacked one on top of another. It’s all about circulation...opening up the pores and sweating out the toxins. We sit in our towels meditatively, glowing with the heat (around 80*C). We follow Finnish protocol for an instant adrenalin high- we run outside to fling ourselves and have an invigorating roll in the snow. My heart races, my skin feels like a thousand electric shocks, and my breath catches. I’m glad to come back into the intense heat of the sauna. The sensory assault makes my nerve endings tingle and I’m glad I stepped outside my comfort zone!
There are a lot of experiences that I have not had the time to try in Lapland, like a ride on the ice breaker ship Sampo and swimming in floatation suits in the frozen seas, staying at the ice igloo hotel, etc. But, this snowy land of affable people has exceeded all my expectations and made many of my childhood dreams come true…
Published in the Jade Magazine, 2010.