A night in the Ice Hotel

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
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7
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Trip End May 13, 2009


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Ice Hotel

Flag of Sweden  ,
Thursday, March 20, 2008

I am on the 2-carriage train from Narvik to Kiruna and have become friendly with 3 students studying in Sweden - a German girl and boy, and a Chinese Australian called Jason. They tell me about a place called Abisko that's on the way and I decide to get off there with them. It's set on a plateau 390 metres high beside the 70km long Tornetrask lake and is supposed to be one of the best areas in the world to see the northern lights because of the clarity of the atmosphere and the lack of light pollution.
The station is this huge affair that's combined with a power generator, and it's a main transhipment point for iron ore. The actual town itself is pretty small, consisting of a couple of lodges, a restaurant, supermarket, caravan park, and lots of wood cabins.
It's the starting point for a large wilderness area and national park, with Sweden's highest mountain, Kebnekaise (2104 metres) 40 kms south - people come here for cross-country-skiing, climbing, walking, fishing on the frozen lakes, etc. There are bears, wolves, lynxes, wolverines and elk in the area.
I am lucky to find accomodation - I get the last bed in the dorm at Fjallturer Lodge, in the same room as my recent travelling companions.
That afternoon I hire some cross-country skis and went out on to the frozen lake. It seems to extend into infinity and blends with the low clouds so it's hard to tell where the horizon is and I see little specks far away, being people skiing, snow-shoeing, or on sledmobiles.
From a distance it looked like there was a layer of snow on the lake but in fact, although there is a little it's all turned hard and it's really hard going and slippery on the ice. I see a little yellow thing in the distance and another dark speck about a 100 metres away and make for them. The yellow speck is a mobile fishing hut on sleds - I see a whole lot of them parked by the lake as I go out. You tow them out on to the lake, chip a hole in the ice, then sit inside the hut fishing (and probably drinking vodka or beer). The other speck was a young Sami (Lapp) boy of about 10, fishing alone.
After all this fairly tiring activity I go to the one restaurant in the town and have smoked reindeer strips and lingonberry sauce. When I go back to the hostel I am part of a group that is booked for the sauna at 9pm. It consists of my room mates, plus people from another dorm - in all we are 6 guys and 2 girls (2 French, 4 Germans, and 2 Australians) all students except me.
There is a funny little old man called Orjan, who seems to manage the place, and he told us when we arrived that they are short of hot water so instead of showers we all need to go in the sauna. So we walk over with him to this old ramshackle wooden hut (I have come out barefoot and with only my towel wrapped around me), and sit in the antechamber, he hands out some tiny towels (for sitting on in the sauna), while he explains the procedure.
I don't whether he's having some fun with we tourists, or this is normal procedure, but he says to copy him - so he strips, goes into the sauna, washes himself in front of the wood-fired stove with a couple of ladlefuls of tepid water, and we all do the same. Then he loads the stove with wood and leaves us to it. A few of the students (mainly the boys) are a bit bashful but within a short we are all sitting squeezed in together in the tiny dark sauna sweating and chatting away happily together unmindful of our nakedness. I am elected fire and water monitor so my job is to keep the fire stoked and splash water over the stove.
After about 15 minutes I suggest we go for a run in the snow and 3 others come out with me. I'm not sure what the temperature outside was but I would guess around a refreshing -15 degrees. We repeat this several times then after about an hour we rinse ourselves off and go inside. Unfortuantely the sky is overcast so there's no chance of seeing the northern lights. I am so hot from the sauna that I sit for an hour before going to bed with just my towel draped over myself, amusing myself by reading the visitor's book. Here's a few entries:
"I have only 1 week left here and the memories of dogsledding, hiking, watching the northern lights and experiencing a Swedish will be everlasting".
"This is a wonderful place to stay for vacancies (sic - I've always wanted to use that - have I used it properly?). I like it! especially when you are stoned all day hiking with snowboots without knowing where you are".
"Gidday mate! Howza going!! Had a bloody bonza time, stone the crows if I don't come back. Sauna growse (their spelling)! But wheres the bloody barbi mate and the bloody sheilas? See you again beyond the black stump. Luv you. Bazza & Shazza from Down Under".
(If any of my non-Australian friends need a translation please let me know :)
After my very short time in the remote wilds of Abisko I'm off the next morning for the original Ice Hotel at Jukkasjarvi, about 60-70 kms away. I take the train to Kiruna, the main town in this area, which is dominated by a huge iron ore mine. The train travels along the snowy stark plateau and 5 minutes out I see a femle elk. Snow sprays thickly past the windows from the train wheels and all I can see is multiple hues of white and grey, with the occasional skier or fisherman.
At Kiruna I am picked up by taxi and am driven to the Ice Hotel. After having travelled and stayed with young backpackers, dragging my suitcase through the snow, and sleeping in dorms for the last few days, etc it's a bit of a shock to the system to be driven in a Mercedes to a place with a luxurious reception, lots of wealthy-looking tourists, and actually, a lot of talking and noise - I hadn't realised it but I have been for the past couple of weeks in very quiet, remote places.
The Ice Hotel was started after a group of visitors to an ice sculpture exhibition in the early 90s asked to sleep in a large igloo that had been built as part of the exhibition. They slept on reindeer hides in their sleeping bags. They raved about the experience and one of the local tourist operators got the idea from this and created the Ice Hotel. There are the so-called warm areas for those who choose - cabins and rooms, etc but the heart of it is a series of rooms completely made of ice - there are 3 levels - normal, art, and designer. I wander around and look through most of the rooms - they are all empty in the day time (not the sort of room you want to lounge around in), the ice church, etc and then prepare myself for the evening ahead with a sauna. This is so different to last night's one in the tiny dark wooden hut - this one is spacious, modern, rather devoid of soul, and there's no-one else in there. Right next to it is the ice sauna and also an area with soft fresh snow that I rub all over myself - it's a bit abrasive and the skin smarts, then back into the sauna and finally a cold shower.
Then it's off to the Ice Bar for an aperitive of vodka with lingonberry juice served in an ice glass - it's -14 outside so the Ice Bar at -5 seems warm. The barmaid tells me to wear gloves as the glass is very slippery.
I have dinner at the Ice restaurant. There is a degustation menu at an astronomical price with things I would like to try on it but there's also things I want to try on the main menu so I have a hard time deciding. In the end I have an entree of vendace (a type of lake fish) roe with Vasterbotten cheese blini and Russian sour cream (accompanied by a glass of Piper-Heidsick - what else?), then poached arctic char with fermented root vegetables, roasted garlic, pink grapefruit hollandaise and almond potato puree (a glass of Ripasso Valpolocella), a platter of 4 Swedish cheeses from fresh to dark yellow aged with accompaniments like confit tomatoes, fig jelly, berry jam, hazlenuts and honey, and finally moose cheese ice-cream with lingonberry consume (sic), with a glass of Swedish ice wine.
The other items I really wanted to try on the menu but were only available as part of the degustation were meadowsweet parfait with almond-fried burbot (I'm not sure if they meant turbot) with cloudberry puree and burbot roe, and lingonberry-twig smoked ptarmigan (this is a local bird called giron, a relative of grouse).
By the end of dinner I'm as full as a goog and happily trudge off through the crunchy snow back to the hotel - the sky is clear and it's -20.
There's a bit of a procedure for going to bed. The Ice Hotel, although horrendously expensive, is in some ways like a camp. You keep your luggage in a locker in the warm wing, the toilets and showers are shared, and everybody gets into their sleeping attire (if any :) in the changing rooms, then you collect your sleeping bag and dash for your room hrough the cold night to the ice bedroom wing.
It's quite hilarious seeing people who have paid a fortune for their room stumbling about in daggy t-shirts, floppy long johns, and big thick fur-lined boots which are also issued to you. I make it to my room not really feeling cold at all - it actually feels almost balmy at -5 compared to -20 outside. I strip off and get into the sleeping bag naked, putting my my t-shirt, long johns (not floppy :) and socks into the sleeping bag too so they will be warm for the morning. You sleep on top of thick reindeer hides on a thin mattress on a wooden base on a block of ice. The room is about 3 x 4 metres and the walls and ceiling are one big curve, like a giant igloo, and glow a pale icy blue. I fall asleep quickly.
The guests are supposed to be woken between 7.30 and 8 and given a cup of warm lingonberry juice - I wake up but have no idea what time it is and it's very quiet so I remain half-asleep for a while longer and then, as no-one has come I decide to get up. A hot shower followed by a cold clears the cobwebs away. Outside it is a beautiful clear sunny crisp morning, -19. I have booked for a dog-sled trip and collect a one-piece thermal suit, thick mittens and a warm beanie from the hotel. There are several teams of drivers and 12 dogs waiting for us. As usual the dogs are frantic to get going and straining and jumping at the harnesses - what is it that impels them?
As soon as we set off they go quiet and lope happily along. Karl, our driver, tells us that the dogs only weigh about 20kgs but can pull up to 7 times their weight and can travel up to 2000kms in a day. The dogs do all sorts of things as they go along - look over their shoulders, bite the snow as they go past, and horror-of-horrors they can even shit as they run - I was in the front of the sled and fortunately didn't get any flicked over me.
The ride is one 1/2 hours and is over all too quickly - we travel over frozen Lake Torne (from which ice is cut for the hotel) and through pine forests and the wind freezes my face. You know how in a sauna your nostrils burn from the heat, well here your nostrils burn from the cold and it feels like your nose hairs will break off if you touch them. After this I visit the oldest wooden church in Lapland (built 1608), then catch the public bus to Kiruna and find lodging in a dorm (it's back to basics for me after the wild over-expenditure at the Ice Hotel). A young English guy shares my room - he is here trying to learn Swedish (without much success, as everybody speaks English well) and get a job. He has just bought a computer and kindly lets me use it to get email and download photos from my camera. I share a bottle of Swedish porter and a packet of potato chips with him.
Next day it's Easter Friday - it's snowed all night and is still snowing and it's covered Kiruna with at least another 30cm of snow. There's absolutely nobody about, I'm walking through a deserted snow town. Eventually I see some other people, travellers like me that don't have a home to go to and tramp around town in the driving snow for something to do.
The only place open at 10am is the Milano Pizza House so I go in there for a coffee and to get out of the snow.
The owners are a couple of dark young men - they ask me if I'm Italian or Spanish and I ask them where they're from - Nablus in the West Bank of Palestine. I ask them how come they're here (knowing full well their reply - to make money and get away from the troubles in their homeland). They look somewhat edgy and forlorn. As we talk I can see in their eyes the desperation that drove them to come here, into this freezing remote town above the Arctic Circle, when they really want to be home in their sunny, dry land with their families. They want to engage me in discussion about the Israel/Palestine situation and I feel their pent-up anger and frustration, and their sensing in me a sympathetic ear - what can you say about such a tragic situation?
The previous day I had briefly visited the Kiruna Lutheran Church and decided to attend the morning Easter service there. It's considered to be the most beautiful public building in Sweden and is built entirely in wood in the shape of a Lappish hut. The interior is also completely dark timber - pannelling, roof trusses and supports, posts carved with Sami designs, and it's well-lit by windows set into the roof structure. Outside there are 12 bright gold statues which contrast strongly with the brown wood and white snow.
Although the service is in Swedish it follows a familiar routine and I even recognise some of the hymns and hum along. The church looks big enough to hold 700-800 people but there's only around 25 of us there, plus the woman pastor and several deacons.
Lunch after church is at a fast-food place called Sybilla, and comprises Kotbullar, mos, sallad, lingon och knokkerbrod (meatballs and gravy, lingonberry sauce, salad, mashed potato).
I catch the train at 2pm for the long trip south to Stockholm (nearly 18 hours, not in a sleeper). I'm sitting talking to a couple of young students from England and Ireland when a pale-skinned young guy with white-blond hair (almost albino) sits down next to me. As is occasionally my wont I start talking to him and very interesting things start coming out thick and fast. I ask him where he's going and he says Gothenburg - a further 5 hours on from me, ie nearly 24 hour trip, to see his girlfriend and meet her parents, and he's expecting there's a fair chance they will kick him out. He asks me to guess his age and I say early 20s but he's 18, and his girlfrind is 13 and he met her through the internet. Last time he went to see her he took her home then slept out overnight. He then mentions he's only been out of Sweden once, at the age of 15 to a wedding in Turku in Finland, where he was invited by a woman he met on the internet. He told me he got so drunk on "witches brew" (all the leftover alcoholic drinks thrown together) that he started "hitting on men", as he put it, without being necessarily able to distinguish them from women. He spoke excellent English and was extremely polite and considered in how he spoke, so what he tells me and his general demeanour don't seem to match.
I manage to grab 2-3 hours of fitful sleep as the train storms down Sweden, from the wintry north with snowbanks of 1-2 metres, to the south where the snow gradually reduces and all but disappears by the time we reach Stockholm around 1,500 kms south.
I fill in time for a few hours then sail on the good ship Mariella at 5pm for Helsinki.
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