A seven-hour flight from Delhi and you’re in Lapland, home of Santa Claus. Bharati Motwani relives a return to innocence.
There are still places on earth, far far north where the ice freezes nine feet thick, 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 mysterious, wild and beautiful. Barely populated, where reindeer outnumber people by a hundred, trees outnumber them by a thousand, and the landscape looks as if it hasn’t changed since the last Ice Age. But 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.
Deep winter in Lapland, or Lappi as it is locally called, is a white-on-white world, and so cold that if you breathe too deep it hurts. At the tail of the cold season, the land is still in its winter fur coat, but temperatures have risen to a comfortable -6 degrees centigrade and locals call it spring. This is the time to book yourself onto that incredibly short flight to this land of Hans Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’.
The first thing that strikes you is how easy it is to negotiate the climate, if you’re wearing the right gear when outdoors. 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 tied up with their lakes, forests and fens.
When Jari of the sapphire eyes describes to me 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. Virtually every second Finn owns a stretch of forest land 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-mobile 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 at first, I get the hang of it and am soon zig-zagging through the Taiga firs like I was born to it!
We cuddle huskies — big, powerful Siberian dogs with jaws that could snap a limb like a breadstick, but as affectionate as puppies.
Marech, a handsome Pole, introduces us to his considerable family of wolves — Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes — and then takes us ‘mushing’, a ride on a husky-drawn sled with the passenger swaddled in reindeer skin, with the musher standing behind, driving the dogs. The huskies are bored by the sedate speed, they’d rather be off at 30 km an hour 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 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. I survey my companions — Jari the poetic, blue-eyed Finn; Marech, the Polish adventurer; Ronaldo, the curly-topped Brazilian heartbreaker; Papori, the Assamese tigress — an unlikely bunch under an Arctic night-sky, bound together by one unspoken feeling: this moment, there’s no other place in the world any of us would rather be.
The Arctic makes you do things you’d never dreamt you would. 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. And there’s quite a spread — salmon soup mopped up with hard rye bread slathered in butter, smoked reindeer, roast elk and Lapp berries, washed down with quarts of beer. And to then drop like a stone onto a wooden bunk and sleep the dreamless sleep of the innocent.
The Arctic is a return to innocence in other ways too. At Rovaneimi, the unofficial capital of these parts, I meet Santa Claus! Yes, he’s real; he looks exactly like he’s supposed to; he’s got elves who 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 and asked me if I’d been naughty lately! Then he stuck a pin on my chest that said Santa’s Little Helper. Well, clearly not quite a return to innocence, but still…
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 reindeers 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. Great jaywalkers, 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 his person.
For all the sharpened knives in these parts, however, there is no crime. The Northern Lights, they say, irradiate the soul with the calm of a yogi.
Getting there: Finnair flies from Delhi to Helsinki. You can also fly via European cities. Take the overnight train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. Book online at www.vr.fi/eng
Airfare: Begin at around Rs 50,000
Getting around: You can hire a car online at Europcar Finland (www.europcar.fi). A La Carte Lapland (www.alacartelapland.com) and Lapland Safaris (www.lapinsafarit.fi) organise customised self-drive packages that include accommodation and activities (www.vr.fi/eng)
Accommodation: A good place to stay in Helsinki is the Sokos Hotel Vaakuna (www.sokoshotels.fi). It is conveniently located in the centre of town. In Rovaniemi, stay at Hotel Bear’s Lodge (www.laplandhotels.com)
For more information, log on to www.visitfinland.com
(Bharati Motwani is a Delhi-based freelance writer)