Dirty mining town one day, perfect the next

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Kiruna, Sweden

26-28 January 2013

The window seat of my Boeing 737-600 had no window, which was very frustrating, given of all flights, the one from Stockholm to Kiruna, located just inside the Arctic Circle at 67.5°N, would have been one of the more spectacular ones. Walking down the stairs onto what should have been the tarmac but was instead a sea of beautiful white snow served only to confirm this.

More artistic value than air-conditioning ducts

More artistic value than air-conditioning ducts

This was also the part of the holiday that stubbornly refused to work out. Air Berlin rearranged my onward flights from Stockholm to unacceptable times threatening to throw the whole arrangement out, the Aurora Sky Station cancelled my planned overnight tour on me with one day of notice and failed to properly communicate the alternatives, and the town was very close to booked out, in part due to a planeload of Japanese package tourists who arrived on a special flight half an hour after I did direct from Tokyo, one of four that run each winter.

Here, the days are short at this time of year. For a couple of weeks a year, the sun does not rise at all. But I had the luxury of 9:15 sunrises, so for the first time in quite a while, I got to witness it an incredible golden sunrise in all its glory. Midday also pretty much looked like sunset, with the solar altitude peaking barely 4° above the horizon. But the long nights were excellent for the reason I travelled to this faraway place, was to see the Aurora Borealis, and I wasn’t going to let that slip by.

Rental car jackpot

Rental car jackpot

Given the Sky Station threw my train trip and overnight plans into disarray, I was forced to hire a car and go there myself. I booked a compact car through Avis (nominally a Volkswagon Polo), but was instead given a brand new Mercedes E220, with less than 500km on the clock. Oh, if only the operational upgrades with the work hire cars were that luxurious.

Things were finally looking up, as was I, as I sat in a chairlift at Abisko, 90km north-west of Kiruna, making my way on a twenty minute long chairlift ride up the mountain in darkness and extraordinary silence to the Sky Station which claimed to have unusually cloud-free weather for the region, and some of the best Auroras around, being perched on a mountain and away from light pollution. I stayed for dinner, and ate some roast moose, and afterwards spent a couple of hours lying in the snow looking upwards, seeing nothing but clouds that stubbornly refused to disappear. Midway through the evening, it began to lightly snow – I frowned. I could tell that the Aurora was happening, very occasionally I would see green glowing through the clouds, or a quick streak in the minute gaps between clouds, I was simply not lucky enough to get to see Aurora Borealis in all it’s glory. Disappointingly, I made my way back down the hill just before midnight, and made the 70 minute journey back to Kiruna for the night.

Intricately crafted rooms at the Icehotel

Intricately crafted rooms at the Icehotel

The next morning, I met up with a person from the internet, and went to visit the Icehotel. This place is painfully reconstructed every winter, and never has the same room designs twice. The suites all have incredibly unique themes carved out of the ice by local and international sculptures. The rooms are impressive and works of art in their own right, and it is lucky that they are open for viewing during the day while the guests are not there. The walkabout ended with a stop at the bar for a lingonberry juice served from a glass fashioned from ice, of course. Believe me, it tastes much better here than the concoction spewed from the soft drink fountains at Ikea. There is one slight issue with the practicality of the Icehotel, which is that the rooms lack toilets.

Skål!

Skål!

Visiting the loo in the night requires putting on boots, and going for a reasonably long walk to another building to do this. Not so good when the biting cold serves only to increase bladder activity.

Afterwards, we took ourselves on a bit of a walking tour of the city. Behind all of the tourism façade, Kiruna is a mining town at heart, with iron ore the commodity at the government owned mine just a couple of kilometres from the township. Thankfully though, Kiruna is no Moranbah or Port Hedland. Wages are high, but not ridiculously so, neither are prices. The hotels are not total rubbish, but functional and pleasant. It’s not a dirty place, or if it is, the snow and beautiful wilderness did an excellent job at masking that. Most importantly, it still has a family atmosphere that the FIFO communities lack.

Winter wonderland in Kiruna complemented by the exhaust towers of the iron ore mine

Winter wonderland in Kiruna complemented by the exhaust towers of the iron ore mine

But the underground mine is getting old, and interestingly, plans are afoot by mining company LKAB to move the entire city centre further east to allow them to dig until around 2035. An international design competition is currently underway with the designs of six firms on display at the City Hall, where residents can vote for their favourite design.

Kiruna, still shares the same Swedish oddities I’m told are experienced all over the country, for one, any alcohol above 3.5% alcohol content can only be sold unchilled from Systembolaget, a government run liquor chain with high prices and limited opening hours. Another is that to work around Sweden’s minimum driving age of 18, youth buy and sell ordinary cars registered as tractors, speed limited to 30km/h but otherwise perfectly legal for operators over 15.

Finally, I ended the trip by enlisting myself on a snowmobile safari, in search of the Aurora. In contrast to the previous night, this night was completely cloudless, but this also made it bitingly cold, the car had -29°C on the dash when we left it to fetch our vehicles, and I was assured it was going to be much colder at our destination as it is a lake, and also after taking into account the effect of wind chill. On this holiday, I have conquered my fear of cold and learned how to dress comfortably down to about -10°C without feeling cold at all, but the negative thirties were certainly testing the friendship.

After getting a quick tutorial on how to operate the snowmobile, we climbed aboard and headed off in search of the northern lights. However, the opposite of the previous night occurred. The clouds were gone, but the action in the sky was simply not happening. I should have been sad, but strangely, I wasn’t.

Snowmobiling

Snowmobiling

When you are driving a snowmobile at 70km/h across a frozen lake, or the beautiful Arctic wilderness on a relatively still, cloudless and moonlit night, nothing else really matters. Everything about the experience was magical, from feeling the cool air across my face as I powered across the landscape, to the millions of stars glowing brightly in the sky, to the way the snow sparkled like glitter in the headlights.

In both the emotional and physical sense, it was the coolest thing ever.

My time in Kiruna has represented many extremes. It was my first time in the Arctic Circle, and indeed the furthest north I have ever been, the coldest I have ever experienced, and the first time I have ridden a snowmobile. It was an absolutely unforgettable time, and I do not regret coming one bit.

Midday sun

Midday sun

Midnight moon

Midnight moon

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