Trip Start Jul 05, 2005
1Trip End Jul 31, 2005
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Three unusual aspects:
1) it's July, and the sun is setting over snow-capped mountains
2) it's setting directly to the north
3) it's midnight
I must be in Lapland.
I'm in Sweden to update a guidebook about Sweden ('just' the Sweden chapter of a Scandinavia guidebook actually, but it's still 250 pages of dense information), and I've covered more than 3000 kilometres by car from Malmo in the south to get me to Kiruna, nearly the northernmost point of my trip.
I've agreed to give a month of my life (plus some weeks at home writing) to travel around Europe's fifth largest country (the size of England, or California), to check all the information in the guide and add new things where necessary. This entails being apart from my girlfriend Marta for a few weeks, though she was able to join me for the first sunny and hot week of the trip.
In exchange, the publishers have been very good to me - airfares, rental car, insurance, business cards and most nights at one of Scandinavia's nicer business hotel chains all covered. In short, this is my only chance to get to know Sweden well and actually earn some money at the same time - most travellers to Scandinavia experience a dramatic negative cashflow.
Here's a short impression of the first half of the trip (I've already 'done' Stockholm on a previous trip so I'll skip that for now).
People who cheerfully chirp 'Hey!' at you to greet you in shops, bars and hotels.
Lots of blondes - the stereotype is true.
Men with pink shirts and long blond hair.
Identikit Barbie girls with lowstrung trousers and high-fitted handbags strutting to que in front of a club.
Endless forest, a little red house, then endless forest.
Biker types with huge tattoos pushing prams around the parks.
Lots of foreign tongues on the streets and foreign tastes in the restaurants, even in small provincial towns; refugee Libyans, Chileans, Yugoslavs, Kurds, Lebanese.
Neonazis marching against these foreigners - theones who seem to be doing all the real work in this country.
People driving the safest cars in the world, and then *still* only going 75 when you're allowed to go 90km/hr.
Screaming children - quite different from the quiet ones in Prague. It's legally forbidden to slap children in Sweden - a law they should immediately revert to prevent further moral damage.
A little red house, then some more endless forest.
Gasping elderly ladies.
Let me explain that last one. One thing that always strikes me up north is that people often inhale when they say yes or aha. Men as well as women, though the latter do it more often, louder and more annoyingly. Quite possibly this explains the high occurance of allergic illnesses in northern Europe - all those bacteria inhaled while talking instead of filtered through the nose.
This inhaling habit is a useful tool whenever the tricky subject comes up of the definition of 'Scandinavia' (Sweden, Denmark and Norway yes, but certainly not Finland and what about poor Iceland?) or should we just say 'Nordic countries' if we want to incluide Finland. I always suggest naming the whole region 'Scandinhalia'; this covers all gasping countries bungling around the arctic cirle.
Sweden is also a very big country - Gothenburg in the south is closer to Venice than it is to Kiruna, the northernmost city. Swivel Sweden around by it's southernmost point and Lapland would stretch down to Naples. It's that big. Lots of driving.
Starting off with Marta in Malmo, we stayed with Amanda and Timo, old friends from when I lived in Warsaw. Amanda is working on Malmo's amazing new skyscraper (see www.turningtorso.com); Timo is a business consultant working his ass off all over Europe and flying home for weekends.
After drinks on Lilla Torg square and a great harbourside breakfast, Marta and I drove via Lund, Ystad, Kristianstad and Karlskrona to cool Kalmar, site of one of Sweden's best castles; Renaissance but with a medieval core.
We spent an afternoon on Öland, the nearby island with Unesco-protected geological and agricultural landscapes. Marta left back to Prague after a few days, and I hopped on the ferry for a visit to Gotland, the largest Baltic island, nearly halfway Sweden and Latvia.
Gotland is one of my favourites; with the beautiful little Hanseatic town Visby with its city walls and medieval church ruins dotted around the centre, and then rolling fields and forests, quiet beaches and a hundred small villages each with a medieval church. I'll be back here.
UP THE COAST
Back on the mainland things turned industrial; via Vaxjö (of glassblowing fame) via Jonköping (of Husqvarna fame) via Norrköping (of Dutch-initiated paper and textile mill fame) to Falun (of Unesco-listed copper mining fame).
Then came the coast. For this part of the trip, I was joined by my friend and colleague Christina who will soom leave Berlin to go back home to New York, and besides wanting to see as much of Europe as she can before going back, she has an interesting deviation that makes her like travelling with me - I'm honoured!
Sweden has a row of unspectacular cities along the coast, and Gävle, Sundsvall, Umeå, Skellefteå and Luleå were nice enough to pass by; it's the nature that impresses more, and here Unesco-listed (yes, again) High Coast landscape was nice to drive through. Skellefteå and Luleå both were set up around cute parish villages, rows of wooden cottages built near a church so that people living on remote farms and fishing villages up to 30km away still could come to church every few weeks, as prescribed by law in those days - a way to bind this empty and remote region to Sweden and prevent the Russians gaining a foothold here.
GOING ARCTIC - TO LAPLAND
Now it gets interesting - after crossing inland from Luleå, we crossed the Arctic cirle, which is marked by a car park, a big sign, and a cosy cafe cq souvenir shop. This is the first place (coming from the south) where you will see the whole sun poking out above the horizon at midnight on June 21... if you don't count the high trees all around, and the fact that the earth's atmosphere bends light so that this phenomenon can also be seen further south than this.
The arctic circle actually shifts a few metres north every year due to the earth's wobble. Currently the real arctic lies a kilometre north of the car park, sign, cafe and shop, but the sake of stuffed moose would not cover the costs of moving all that stuff north a few metres every year. besides, the arctic circle will stop moving norht and turn back anyway, reaching the current sign in 24000 years. So it seems a wise investment after all.
Anyway, the circle is a silly and completely imaginary construction primarily aimed at selling souvenirs, but still it's a landmark, and crossing it makes you aware of how dawn far away from home you are getting.
Sweden's far north looks different. No more fields, farms or cows. Only fir trees and birch. Less villages. Lots of marsh. Lower trees, and sometimes savannah-type landscapes of grasslands with occasional trees. And chilled-out reindeer strolling around near the road, completely focussed on the juicy weeds growing along the asphalt, indignantly trotting away from the cars and campervans full of grinning tourists and travel writers that so brutally disturbed afternoon tea.
The cities also look different as you go north. Smaller. Less balconies, sturdier building methods. Triple glazing. All to keep out the biting cold in winter, with temperatures often dipping to a chilly -40°C. Some buildings have been especially designed to stop snow falling from the roof onto pedestrians, and are placed so that they aren't too exposed to the wind. The new buildings that went up in the 1950s here did have tiny balconies - to be used as fridges in winter according to the architect (and as seen in student complexes across Eastern Europe).
Gällivare, just north of the Circle, has the biggest open copper mine on the planet and the tour bus took us all the way into the 300m deep pit to see the gigantic machines used to dig away the dirt. One mega-scooper could gobble up the volume of 6 tour buses in one go. The megatrucks use to haul the rubble around have 1200 liter diesel tanks and use amazing amounts of fuel. Many of these monsters are driven by women, who ensure the same production but with less fuel consumption and less wear of tyres and truck parts. They also manage to squeeze 2000 kilos of gold out of the millions of tonnes of rocks they excavate each year.
On the other side of town is a huge iron ore mine, with 350 kilometres of tunnels going down 1050 metres underground (in a few years down to 1250m) to enable access to the 10 veins of iron ore. Many of the tunnels are two-lane roads, and far underground there are the drilling stations (all automatic, with two guys operating a dozen drilling machines at once) as well as restaurants, petrol stations, garages and offices. Makes sense - in winter, down there it's still a cosy +8°C when it's 32 degrees colder on the surface. Going down by tour bus we reached the bottom of the mine at -1050m, where there was the 'swimming pool' (a lake of groundwater that was being be pumped away). Amazingly, there's excellent mobile phone reception even there; antennae installed in the mine enable the staff to use their mobiles in most tunnels.
200km north of the Cirle lies Kiruna, Sweden's last city. It's on a hill directly overlooking a gigantic open mine; a colossal iron ore vein hits the surface here and they're scraping away the mountain to get at it.
Both these cities depend completely on the mining companies and the related industries; they would be mere villages with no railway connections (and possibly even part of Russia) if a Dutchie hadn't started the industrial exploitation of iron, copper, zink and gold in the 17th century. Back in the old days before roads, the ore was transported to the coast by reindeer - a two-month journey; now it's under three hours by train.
Nowadays, Australia, Canada and China can all produce cheaper iron and copper, but the Swedes have rationalised their mines and have concentrated on making the best possible quality iron and steel products, which still can beat the competition.
The best was yet to come; on Christina's last day we headed out an hour northeast towards the Norwegian border, where Sweden's mountains can be found (the rest of the country is flat to rolling only; it's along the border with Norway where it goes up to 2100m). It looks a little like Scotland, with more trees, less Brits and better food.
We visited Abisko National Park, going up to 800m by chairlift and walking to the peak at 1100m, with fabulous views of the mountains all around, the huge deep-blue lake below, Norway just up the road, and the characteristic U-shaped valley framed by two mountains called Lappenporten - Lap Gate. We walked back down to the valley, passing waterfalls, fields of flowers and a birch forest before crossing a fantastic gorge with a wild river.
It's all so magnificent and beautiful.
Just like in the Himalayas, walking around remote, empty places like this makes you feel very lucky and priviledged, and makes you realise that wealth cannot be captured on a bank account, but rather can be smelt, felt, seen and inhaled (as Swedes like to do) when facing the full majesty of nature.