The wild north

Serenity in snow

The wild north

Land of the Santa Claus, the reindeer and the Northern Lights, Lapland has a lot to offer. Bharati Motwani gets the ideal Finnish experience with snowmobile rides, snow baths and a hearty rustic meal for the soul.

There are still places on earth, far far North, where the ice freezes nine feet thick, places yet unmarked by the Indian hoof-print. Where the Gujarati has not unpacked his farsaan and there is nary a butter chicken to be had.

Lapland, the northernmost province of Finland, deep inside the Arctic Circle, is a place mysterious, wild and beautiful. Barely populated, where reindeer outnumber people by a hundred, and trees outnumber them by a thousand, and the landscape looks like it hasn’t changed since the last Ice Age — perhaps the most amazing thing about Lapland is that it is barely seven hours from Delhi. The sort of thing that makes you realise how tiny our planet really is, how fragile and how miraculous.

Deep winter in Lapland, or Lappi as it is locally called, is a white-on-white world, and so cold that sometimes it’s wise not to breathe too deep because it hurts. But at the tail of the cold season, when the land is still in its winter fur-coat, but temperatures have risen to a comfortable -6 degrees  and locals call it spring — that’s the time to book yourself onto that incredibly short  flight to this land of Hans Anderson’s Snow Queen.
Warmth in snow

The first thing that strikes you is how easy it is to negotiate the climate, outdoors, if you’re wearing the right gear. Indoors, rooms are heated to T-shirt temperatures. The second thing that strikes you is how strongly the Finns derive their sense of identity from their landscape. Their economic and foreign policies, their model of development, their Finnishness, their nationhood, are all inextricably wound up with their lakes, forests and fens. When Jari — he of the sapphire eyes, describes the lingering twilight of the polar nights, and the oblique radiance of the midnight sun, it’s clear as day that this land is in his DNA at a cellular level. Virtually every second Finn owns a plot of forest beside a lake — a hideout that he hightails off to, when the swift green renaissance of spring happens, or when he needs to “take the sun” in summer.

We snow-mobiled over frozen lakes — snowmobiles are pretty much motor-cycles on skis and a much-loved sport in these parts. They’re fairly simple to drive, and after almost taking mine up a tree, I got the hang of it and was soon zig-zagging through the Taiga firs like I was born to it! ‘Exhilarating’ about describes it, though ‘transcendent’ would not be too off the mark. Unlike a lot of  western countries, the Finns are not paranoid about safety, figuring, quite sensibly, that the worst that could happen is probably nothing very much anyway.

We cuddled huskies — big, powerful Siberian dogs, with jaws that could snap a limb like a breadstick, but as affectionate as puppies. Marech, handsome and Polish, introduced us to his considerable family of wolves — Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, and then took us mushing. That’s a ride on a husky-drawn sled with the passenger reclining swaddled in reindeer skin, while the musher standing behind drives the dogs. The huskies are bored by the sedate speed, they’d rather be off at  30 km/hr in the general direction of the North Pole. At dusk, a blue tone brushes the snowscape, like a luxurious mink unfurled over the earth. The stars are out and an even deeper hush shrouds an already silent world. The shiver you feel on your skin is not the cold. It’s the experience of  a beauty beyond comprehension. 

I am taken to a little shelter where we skewer sausages on a stick and roast them over embers, while coffee brews in a sooty kettle over the wood-fire. I squeeze a thick trail of mustard over my split and charred sausage, and shut my eyes for that first delicious, hot, smoky bite. A swig of strong coffee from a paper cup, and it’s the finest dining in all Europe.

The Arctic makes you do things you’d never dreamed you’ll do. Like racing out of a stone-heated sauna to roll naked in the snow before rushing back in. That’s the way it’s done in these parts, and you have to do it to know what it feels like. All this gives you an appetite you never suspected. For salmon soup mopped up with hard rye bread slathered in butter, smoked reindeer, roast elk and Lapp berries — all this washed down with quarts of beer. And to then drop like a stone onto a wooden bunk bed and sleep the dreamless sleep of the innocent.

Visiting Father Christmas

The Arctic is a return to innocence in other ways too. At Rovaneimi, the unofficial capital of these parts, I met Santa Claus! Yes, he’s real, he looks exactly like he’s supposed to; he’s got elves that help him and he’ll reply to your letters if you put in a return address.
Though he did say he generally doesn’t approve of “begging letters from greedy children”.

He sat me on his lap, winked at me and asked me if I’d been naughty lately! Then he stuck a pin on my chest that said Santa’s Little Helper. Well, perhaps not quite a return to innocence. Santa, I learn, is Finland’s biggest tourist draw and there is much politicking on the Scandinavian peninsula about where the real Santa lives (but I throw in my lot with this silver-bearded old rake). And going by the number of tourists, the Rovaneimi Santa leaves the Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and other Santas out in the cold, so to speak.

Rudolph, Donder, Blitzen and the whole caboodle of reindeer reign in these parts. They roam the Tundra protected by law. They are known to push open doors of pubs and amble up to the bar; or wander into your living-room if you leave your porch door unlatched; or stroll into grocery stores to munch on the broccoli. Reindeer are incorrigible jaywalkers and crashing your car into one will attract a stiff fine. And if you do, the law says you must pull out a hunting knife and slit its throat — the most merciful thing to do — before calling the police. So every Lapp, including women, carries a big knife on a leather thong on their person. For all the sharpened knives in these parts, there is no crime. The Northern Lights they say, irradiates the soul with the calm of a yogi.

The world’s interconnectedness is clearer than ever before. If the fluttering butterfly wing of  mortgage defaulters in the United States all but brought the global economy to its knees, and a coughing volcano in Iceland brought travel in Europe to a halt, it is reasonable to suppose that the earth’s tranquil, frigid latitudes keep our turbulent world from collapsing under the weight of human hubris.

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