At 19.22 the train pulled out of Stockholm’s Central Station and our 17 hour journey into Swedish Lapland began. Our destination: Porjus, a small village approximately 100km north of the Polar Circle, and our mission: to seek the enigmatic Aurora Borealis. We had booked a ‘sleeping space’ on the train, an area more comfortable than ordinary seating but not as luxurious as the private sleeping cabins with en suite bathroom at the other end of the train. Expecting some kind of hard bench to lie down on I was pleasantly surprised on arriving at our assigned cabin to discover a comfortably sized room with space for 6 bunks, not too dissimilar to trains that I have been on in China and Vietnam—except there they were the 1st class choice. SJ offers the choice of single or mixed sex carriages so we requested a female only cabin which was full before the train pulled out of Stockholm and after some heavy lifting and tugging we finally had all 6 bunks firmly in place. Night time darkness prevented us from appreciating our journey through Sweden so we settled down to the gentle rocking of the train as it lumbered its way northward. The night passed comfortably and uneventfully, well apart from the group of guys who set up camp in the corridor outside our room to drink beer, play loud trance music, and discuss their respective experiences with drugs very loudly outside our room at 2am. They were surprisingly compliant when asked to be quiet however, and before long silence once again reined in the cabin.
Scandinavian sunshine streaming in through the windows awoke me to a dazzling snowy landscape offset by an azure blue sky. This far up north it really is just a sea of snow and fir trees for mile after mile, occasionally broken up by the ubiquitous red and white wooden structures of traditional Swedish houses. The advantage of taking a night train is that they tend to move more slowly than regular trains and so the landscape passes by at a pace in which you are able to take it all in. Early morning we were lucky enough to pass 3 large reindeer sitting serenely in a field close to where the train passed, but we did not spot any elk as I was hoping we might. Many passengers disembarked at Umeå, leaving us in an empty carriage for the remaining 4 hours. Travelling by train is a decent way to see a country, yes, flying is quicker but you miss all the nuances of an ever-changing landscape. Sweden is very flat nearer the south and to watch the rising landscape and dramatically decreasing signs of population as you head into the Arctic Circle is fascinating. The train is run by government subsidised company SJ and generally runs effectively, our journey left punctually and only lost 1 hour along the way but our connection train in Boden was waiting for us when we arrived, despite the arrival time having already passed. The cabins are clean and comfortable and my only complaint is that the water in the wash basins ran out only a few hours into the journey but the flush on the toilet remained working the whole time so things were not as bad as they could have been! The train is expensive in Sweden but the earlier you book the cheaper they get. We booked our seats only days before leaving and paid 780kr for the single journey as we will be flying home. Although this does seem to be pricey, it is a long journey and includes a night’s accommodation—you’d pay more to travel from London to Manchester some days.
We enjoyed breakfast in the train’s dining carriage, beautifully decked out with plush chairs, lamps and elegant pictures, causing it to look like something from an Agatha Christie novel but the breakfast was good value—55kr for a sandwich, hot drink and juice. I was especially pleased to see that hot chocolate was included under the hot drinks category: as a non-tea or coffee drinker I often end up paying extra on this type of deal. Eating breakfast, whilst lazily watching a slowly moving landscape unfold before you is not a bad way to start your day in my opinion.
Eventually the train arrived at Boden where we were to change to a train headed for Gällivare. We would no longer be going north but heading inland towards the west. This journey lasted 2 hours and time passed quickly, before we knew it we were pulling into a very quaint station that was to be our last stop for a while. As we stepped off the train the temperature dropped, a harsh biting wind made us shiver despite the fact that the temperature was a mild (for these parts) -2. We now had to make our way by bus to Porjus, our destination of this journey. Outside the station were three bus stops and an information office so we procured a timetable and discovered that we had 1 hour and 30 minutes until the number 44 was due to depart. We decided to spend this time finding somewhere to eat lunch and looked around for somewhere suitable. Scanning the immediate vicinity revealed a car-hire place, the ever-present newsagent Pressbryan—a common sight in all Swedish train stations—and the Grand Hotel, Lapland. Other than that there was not a lot to see so we thought we’d try our luck at the Grand Hotel where there was a sign that said ‘Pub’ and ‘Steaks’. After skilfully negotiating a rather nasty looking patch of thick, glassy ice that lay right in front of the entrance we walked into the hotel only to be told that food would not be served until 4pm but there was a restaurant around the corner.
Walking around the corner we found signs of Gällivare town life and the first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be rather a lot of hairdressers and opticians for a town so sparsely populated. Opticians maybe, but could there really be such a high demand for hairdressers in these parts? I imagine that up here most people have to wear a hat outdoors from October to April every year, so why bother with a regular cut and colour? In fact the more insulation you have the better! Our first choice of a colourful pizzeria was closed but then we found HusMans, a busy restaurant serving kebab, burgers and various other deep-fried selections. I even saw a man walk past carrying a plate that closely resembled a full English breakfast, I couldn’t see it on the menu however so I opted for meatballs instead and I have to admit that they were the best meatballs I have had so far in Sweden. I was particularly impressed that they were accompanied by fresh mashed potato rather than the usual powdered variety.
The last stage of our journey began at 15.35 when the bus bound for northern town Luleå left Gällivare and headed towards Porjus. Buying a ticket was surprisingly simple for Sweden—instead of dealing with ticket machines, or the even more confusing method of paying for a bus with your mobile phone (which would have been useless for me given that I’d lost all signal about 5 hours ago), we were able to buy the ticket directly from the driver using cash! See how simple that is, Sweden?! As soon as I got on to the bus I dropped my ticket, which was promptly caught up in a draft along the floor, out of the door and within seconds was blown the full length of the car park by a raging blizzard. Sheepishly I tried to explain to the driver what had just happened, when I say explained I mean I said ‘Biljett’ pathetically at him a few times and then gestured what I thought looked like a ticket blowing out of the door. He merely shrugged at me and directed me back to the bus. The bus journey took 40 minutes and led us through mountainous pine forests. The mountains of Swedish Lapland are not as huge as I’d imagined, somehow I had it in my mind that we would be careering along gargantuan precipices and razor-sharp mountain peaks like the Alps but the Swedish slopes are far more gentle. They still have an extraordinary beauty as you pass through the undulating landscape, thickly cloaked in a rich, dark green fir coating. Although we didn’t see any elk, reindeer, wolves or bears, it is easy to imagine them roaming this isolated and frozen countryside. As the road wound through the hills and forests, the wind raged outside blowing swathes of snow across the road that rippled and danced in front of the headlights. And then the driver called our stop. We had travelled 40 minutes away from the last populated town and the bus would travel a further 45 before the next, at speeds unbelievable for a climate so icy—this really is a desolated place.
A few minutes later we were stood with our backpacks by the side of the road looking down at a vast frozen lake, alongside of which were dotted a few wooden cabins and a house that looked very similar to a train station. This is the Northern Lights Apartments and they were to be our home for the next 3 nights.