Reindeers, snow-bound landscape and huskies — Lapland is endearing in its ethereal if harsh beauty…
Silent Night… I am reminded of the Christmas carol when I see a snowy wilderness as magical as Narnia... There are only 0.5 humans per square kilometre here... Sculptured trees laden with snow look like animals and glow blue and gold with luminescence…. Lapland is a vast region, spanning a northern swathe of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway. A 90-minute plane ride from Helsinki takes us to a snowy runaway, surrounded by desolate pine trees and a tiny airport at Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Rovaniemi lies where two rivers, Kemijoki and Ounasjoki, meet and used to be a gathering place for lumberjacks, traders and other locals. The Second World War almost destroyed this city when the Germans razed it to the ground as part of their ‘scorched earth' policy. When it was time to re-build the city, they chose Alvar Aalto, the modern design guru of Finland. Rovaniemi looks austere and stark today with its modern blocks of houses, but our guide tells us that this city looks from the air like a reindeer's head as intended by Aalto. The nose is where the rivers meet, and the rivers stretch like its antlers!
Feel like a penguin
An ancient saying says, ‘There is no wrong weather, only wrong preparation!' Our local tour company, A la Carte Lapland and the handsome Jari, a Finnish Clint Eastwood, tog us up in no time in Arctic survival gear — a humorously oversized, heavy-duty, zip-up overalls, thick socks, sturdy snow boots, balaclava, muffler and padded gloves which make us feel like penguins!
Our first outing is to a Poro (the Finnish name for a reindeer) farm with a reindeer sleigh ride thrown in. We meet a traditional Sami, resplendent in his red and royal blue tunic called Gatki, with embroidered designs. He wears a many-pointed hat with streamers, a leather sheath with a deadly looking knife and reindeer boots. Until the early 1900s, the Samis, the indigenous people of Lapland, were migratory, following herds of reindeers. The Sami people believe that once you have visited Lapland, you'll return in another life as a reindeer.
Our host takes us inside a traditional tepee, called the Kota, with a fire to keep us snug and tells us about Sami customs and beliefs. We are given two black charcoal marks on our foreheads as guiding spots for antlers to grow when we return! We are surprised to hear that all reindeers are domesticated and the names of their owners are indicated by notches on their ears. The government controls the size of the herds and half the reindeer are culled for meat every year. A reindeer sleigh ride is on the cards and we sit cosseted on fur pelts in sleighs pulled by two reindeer. Our controls are a single piece of rope to hit the reindeer's flanks or pull it in to slow down the gentle creatures. The reindeers are frisky, maybe because they have been tethered for long hours and every now and then bend down for a mouth of snow! They speed ahead in a great loop through the frozen forest (Think “Ben Hur”) in weather that freezes our noses into icicles and makes our camera batteries dead! Ride done, we gather in a cozy cottage decorated with traditional Lappi dolls, tools and stuffed birds, over hot berry juice and ginger cookies.
It's time for my ‘Jack London moment' here…We visit a husky farm where a handsome Pole called Marek introduces us to these social dogs with steely grey eyes who, tugging at their chains, greet us with a raucous chorus of yelping! Marek came to Lapland on a holiday and was so enchanted by it that he is here now for keeps! We can see the deep bond between him and the dogs. Huskies live to run and they have tremendous energy and can survive the toughest conditions. I am not surprised when I hear that they eat a kilo of food every day. I choose the easy option (at least that's what I believe) to sit cradled with pelts and my partner has to stand behind balancing on runners, controlling all the dog power with instructions to lean into the bends, keep the line taut and stand on the brake going downhill so as to avoid crashing into a tree! What a journey it is! We swish through the great Lappish emptiness at breakneck speed as if driven by the devil, sometimes careening dangerously in an ethereal twilight. My view is restricted by the creamy posteriors of the three huskies that are determined to stop every few yards for a call of nature! There is only the silence, the clinking of the dog leads and the panting of the huskies to keep us company.
We learn to walk with snow shoes which look like tennis racquets strapped to our boots and distribute our weight evenly so that we don't sink into the deep snow. We are given poles so that we have some stability over the uneven terrain. The best thing about these shoes, we discover, is the freedom that it gives us to go anywhere on the newly fallen snow. We sink in a little but after some time become more confident and agile as we walk across to a frozen lake in search of a self-caught supper. Jussi, our guide, teaches us to drill holes into the three feet of ice with a bore and then dangle the bait at the edge of a fishing rod and wait patiently. After an hour of no nibble, we call it quits and promise ourselves that we'll try this in the summer! We end our day making snow angels, lying on the snow and flapping our hands to make wing-like patterns, for luck. The cold doesn't bother us now...The landscape is harsh but exquisitely beautiful and I can understand why winter is a way of life for the Lappi people.
Getting there: Finnair flies directly to Helsinki from Delhi. From there Rovaniemi is a 90-minute flight.
Places to stay: In Rovaniemi, stay at the Clarion Hotel Santa Claus. You can alternatively stay at the resort town Luosto in log cabins or apartments.
Things to do: Try your hand at winter activities like snowmobiles, tobogganing, snow walking, skiing. Also visit a Husky and reindeer farm.
What to eat: Reindeer meat, different fish like salmon and perch. Different local berries like cloud berry and lingonberry.
Things to buy: Traditional cups made from birch wood, fleece throws, stuffed toys and berry jelly.
The writer is a Japanese Language specialist and travel writer.
Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2010