Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I've seen fire and I've seen reindeer

The night's "warm accommodation" proved to be too warm for comfortable sleep - one of the perils of colder climates is over-airconditioned rooms without the benefit of open windows.

So it was a restless, sweaty night and then I woke at 2.30 to find I'd hardly begun. However, at some point I must have dozed off as Chris' alarm woke us at 7am.

After breakfast, we signed up for some additional activities for the coming days, none of them exactly cheap, but that's the way it is up here. We checked out of our warm room, and left our bags for storage, and then congregated near the meeting point for the day's excursion. The sun is bright but not much over the horizon, and the temperature -29C. At that point, I quickly became aware of each and every nostril-hair, so slid my zub up over my nose. In days to come I would find that a sure sign that the temperature was below -25C.

I quickly poked my head inside some of the spaces of the ice structure we'd be sleeping in tonight, such as the chapel and reception area shown above.

Today we had an excursion to learn about Sami (the indigenous Lapp) culture, and how they work with reindeer. Our Sami guide, Stefan, met us and took us on snowmobile-propelled sleighs to a small encampment a few km away. Inside a large "teepee", sitting on reindeer skins upon birch twigs around a small fire, we warmed up as he told us some of Sami history and tradition.

Initially a hunting people spread over the northern parts of Scandinavia where the reindeer roam, steady encroachments* of the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns meant that they have had to adapt to new economic conditions. (* such as the Kiruna iron mine which is the largest underground iron ore mine in the world, and extremely profitable to Sweden) Leaving their villages, they became nomadic herdsmen. In present times, economies of scale for ownership mean that less than 25% of Sami peoples are actively involved in reindeer farming.

We went outside for a while to learn how to lasso (tame) reindeer with lengths of plastic rope, and then had the opportunity for solo sleigh rides around a kilometre-length circuit, loudly hee-heeing the animal ahead. Chris' unique perspective on the same events recounted here.

Mine seemed fairly speedy and easy to control, catching up to the sleigh ahead, and the reindeers raced abreast for a short time before mine passed it.

Back in the tent, Stefan prepared some smoked reindeer meat, which we had on bread with the inevitable lingonberry jam. I wonder if reindeer are solely linginvores. Anyway, it's all delingious.

A final comment: it's wonderful to see a Sami reindeer herder sitting in a tent (lavvu? probably depends on which Sami dialect is used) above the Arctic Circle, talking better English than many people in Britain, even though this must be at least his third or fourth language.

At 3.30 we had our "Ice Hotel Survival Lecture" which explained the procedure for obtaining our sleeping bags and arranging ourselves in them for the night. Our room was sparsely furnished - an ice platform covered in reindeer skins, and an ice relief on the ice shelf of the ice wall next to the hole-in-the-ice door. It's a bit like a big tent that has let allowed in everything you'd normally expect to try to keep out.

There's also about 20 suites which have been uniquely decorated by different teams, with sculptured walls, bed-bases and furniture. I guess we spent about an hour inspecting those, before heading for the bar - daylight time having run out by now.

Since the bar under the Ice Hotel Restaurant had a pre-6pm menu, we ordered some gameburgers to ameliorate the huge costs of our restaurant meals on alternate nights. Without a real room to hang out in, the options left to us were this bar, the hotel reception area, the luggage room and the Absolut Ice Bar. I was hoping to find a local bar with a haze of dry ice and Sami Davis Jr singing "Mr Kriskringle" but the night life eluded me.

None of actual options was exactly buzzing, as the few patrons in each of these were respectively watching a European carpet bowls championship, checking email, shuffling luggage, or paying about £7 for a shot of vodka in an ice glass. By about 9pm we felt we'd exhausted these opportunities and headed for our ice-room.

We shed everything bar thermal underwear and boots, grabbed our sleeping bags and a sheet, and then headed to the room. I settled in fairly quickly, leaving Chris to figure out the comic possibilities for being a gigantic blue pillow-eating caterpillar. I don't know whether I was relieved or disappointed when he abstained from visiting other guests' rooms. Maybe I should have taken him up on his suggestion to stage a bag-race through the Absolut Ice Bar.

I slept pretty well, and didn't really notice any chill till about an hour before our 8am wake-up call, delivered with a small cup of hot lingonberry juice.

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