Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Cold and the Beautiful

One more article from my Euro Trip.

I had pretty much seen all of Jonkoping's attractions in the 2 months I had been there - being a sleepy, small town, this primarily consisted of beautiful women, beautiful lakes and beautiful scenery. Having a small break in my academic schedule, I decided to Boldly Go Where Man Has Seen Snow Before. It was October, and being in southern Sweden, the temperature was irritatingly low, but with no hint of snow. Friends in Germany had ridiculed my lack of snow, while displaying numerous photos of them making snowmen. I was even gloomily told that snowfall was predicted in January, by which time I would be back in India. A brief background - Sweden is like the Arunachal Pradesh of Europe - it just tapers on and on. The snowy, extremely cold bits we read so often in the papers are all in the sparsely-populated north.

I opened the Swedish map, and randomly looked at descriptions of places really, really North. The train time table was opened simultaneously; I had to select a place which would enable me to spend a night on the train, reach there in the morning, and leave that night again by train. (I must add that I possessed inarguably the most essential piece of paper any backpacker worth his hiking boots needed - a Eurail pass. Travel by train was mostly free, and most decisions to go places were dependent on the trains to that place.) I narrowed down my choice to a few places, and finally chose Kiruna.

I left that evening, making a note of train timings, and the places to see. It got dark pretty early, and the train journey was livened up by a group of middle-aged women getting up and singing Happy Birthday to You in loud Swedish (Grattis till er! Grattis till er! Grattis till er, dear Whatzisname! Grattis till er)

What I saw the next morning was truly magical. The landscape was pristine white, the forest of leafless pine trees, which had appeared bleak, forlorn and forbidding, now appeared to be shimmering with light, when draped in white blankets of snow. The air was exceedingly clear and this vista stretched on for miles together. Having lived in hot-hotter-hottest Chennai all my life, it was the first time I was seeing snow. Now, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and snug in the train compartment with the outside landscape to gaze at, I could joyously skim through Raskolnikov's debate to
kill himself. ( Long train journeys with nothing else to do are ideal for wanting to read books one has always wanted to read. Depressing books like Crime and Punishment so aptly fell into this category.)

I reached Kiruna at 1000 AM, and ventured straight out of the station. I rushed to the fresh mound of snow outside, made my first snowball, and 'shot the snowball into the air, it fell to the earth, I knew not where.' I was preparing another snowball to follow its predecessor, when I did know where it had fallen. I was caught white-handed in the act, and profusely apologised to an old gentleman for having pelted his dog with snow.

I shfted operations to another area; after hitting a tree, a stationary car, and a baby in a pram, I decided to ease up on the snowball throwing and decided to tramp about in the snow. The sun was shining above, and it felt mildly pleasant at around 2 degrees( I was wearing six layers of winter clothing - basically every sweater and jacket I possessed) After working out the exuberance of twenty four years of Never Having Seen Snow, and feelingly slightly cold in hands ( normal gloves - after all, a shoestring does not extend to your hands) I headed out to the friendly, neighbourhood tourist office to plan my itinerary. The lady at the counter gave me a map and marked out a walking trail that would take a few hours. She regretfully informed me that it was only the beginning of the winter, so everything was closed, so there would be no Reindeer and no Northern Lights. Drat! I had so wanted to see Rudolf prancing about, with a Red Light on his nose, a green light in the skies above and an amber drink in my hand ( the last mentioned just so's traffic conventions are maintained)

I started walking along the path she had marked, when I saw this middle-aged lady, walking in front, with the professional air of a Nordic Walker. I smiled at her, and that broke the ice between us. She agreed to let me join her in her walk, and agreed to show me the sights. As she quite trustingly unbent, she told me she had lived all her life in the town of Kiruna, her husband worked in the mines nearby and found the 2 degree temperature rather warm. ( These Swedes! Tap Tap Tap) The thought of my seeing snow for the first time was immensely humourous to her, and when she learnt I had worked in the software industry, she was quite respectful.( You do our job so much better, she said)

After a brief tramp through a forest, we came to a hillock where we could view the entire town, where she pointed out Kiruna's sights - a large school where her children studied, a church and ugly black hills in the background which provided the mines that served as the backbone of the town's economy. The entire experience seemed extremely surreal - joining an unknown person on a brisk walk through a snow-clad forest in the Arctic Circle, with the sun shining down.

After a while though, it sadly came to an end she regretfully told me that I was not properly dressed for the walk. Was it my unshaven, three-days stubble, the slightly wolfish look that came from eating only fries for breakfast or was it the ugly red backpack filled with clothes, I asked, feeling the brunt of the backpacker's curse on me. Neither, she said, and pointed to my shoes.
Lesson Learnt: Reebok Tennis shoes bought in Chennai are NOT meant to be used for walking through Deep Snow.

I trudged back to the town centre, and after buying a pizza costing as much money as needed to start a pizza joint in Chennai( Goach's Paradox: Why are Scandinavians the most polite people on Earth, when they pay the steepest prices for everything?) I decided to go into the church. Immensely peaceful, with dark wooden panelling, big candles and bright lights that looked quite picturesque. It was around 1400 hours by now, and the town centre was the only place I hadn't been to, so I dutifully went there and learnt quite a bit on the history of Kiruna ( Amazing fact: Due to mining, the entire town is sinking, and they have to transplant it lock, stock, home and school, to another area. Where exactly is still being debated)

Feeling quite confident in my ability to handle a How Well Do You Know Kiruna Quiz on Facebook, I was told to see an icehotel in Jukkasjarvi, a short bus ride away. I took a bus which deposited me near it( It is the same one in Die Another Day). They were still building it, and I could see huge chunks of light blue ice being cut into different pieces and laid on the ground. The water was taken only from certain pure, pristine streams, so any guests who so desired could have the best Ganga snanam possible. Being quite cold now, I made a cursory trip round it and then went inside a brick hotel. The return bus would be back in an hour, and I was advised to go to a church nearby.

I went there, was not surprised to find myself alone and remained inside for quite a while. You might wonder if I had been entranced by the beauty and magnificence of the 18th century church, or captivated by its bright lights and golden candles? Rest assured - I stuck to my tambram roots. It was just that by this time become quite sick of the extremely dark ( at 1630) and the cold ( minus five degrees) and wanted to be somewhere else( Chennai in peak summer looked so inviting) Visions of frost-bite and snowstorms floated in front of me, especially since no one knew where I was. The stupid bus was taking forever, I needed to go to the toilet and desperately wanted a warm drink, and the church was the only shelter around.

The bus finally came, the walk to the station seemed infernally long, especially against the cold wind, and I reached around an hour before the train came. I waited for the train, felt like killing Dostoevsky for rambling on, and resolved never to go to infernally cold places ever again.

When I reached Jonkoping the next day, I banished the thought of cold to the distant recesses of my mind, aided in this process by an expensive Chai Latte. I brought out my Lonely Planet, all eager to plot the next trip...


Anurag Gupta said...

Why! You write like a professional traveller!

Very well written! I would love to read your other experiences while travelling in Europe.

Krishnamurti said...

Thanks Anurag :)
Been meaning to put things up, and will probably do it sometime soon.

Glen said...

Awesome description :)