Day 8 The Escape from the Ice hotel and Homeward Bound

Luke warm berry juice to wake us up. Breakfast is at 9. 9!, that’s lunch time, I have issues with waiting for breakfast; usually I pass out. We have brought ginger nuts with us to sustain me while we are waiting. It seems keeping ginger nuts at minus 5 over night makes them more gingery. Fortunately breakfast is available early so I am fine. Then comes the task of persuading the minibus driver, with no English, to take an additional passenger home. First he denies that he IS the minibus driver then no, he had brought two ladies and he wants to take two ladies home. Surely I can’t be the first person to woose out? Even our guide of the previous evening is off sick because of the cold, though the assistant guide, who looks about 14, doesn’t even seem to be wearing a padded coat. The receptionist comes to my rescue and persuades the driver, if his existing passengers have no objection, to take me as well. Result! I collect our diplomas for having survived the night and hurry to the minibus before anyone can change their mind.

145 26 January 2013 Me outside the snow hotel

Back to Levitunturi, where I promise not to complain about the excessive heat in the room again. I make use of our drying cupboard to wash out the clothes in which I have just spent the night. The drying cupboard is what it says on the tin and not really designed for a weekly wash, so I end up with large puddles on the floor. I am very relieved to see Chris arrive back from his return ski-doo trip. The rest of the day is spent in hot showering, warm drinks and catching up on sleep.

We make the most of our last evening meal in the hotel. Chris has a variety of fish and I have pasta. Then we try the beef in red wine and creamed potatoes. This is followed by quark and more chocolate and almond cake. The diet starts next week.

Sunday norning and there has been some real falling snow and for once we do not see a beautiful sunrise. We take a last walk round Levi. We spot a squirrel, a cross between our greys and reds.

We return to the hotel to wait for our transfer coach. I play cards and we chat. Some folk have recognised Chris from one of his television appearances. Being less memorable, I escape incognito.

Six of us debate whether we can have an evening meal. It is rather a grey area as we checked out at lunch time but we are entitled to seven evening meals and we have only had six, leaving a space on our ‘service card’. We decide to send Chris in as a test case. He doesn’t return so he is either eating or has been interned. Feeling a bit like we are about to nick sweets from Woolworths (not that I’ve ever done that) we advance. There appears to be no problem, although we do eat quickly before someone decides we shouldn’t be there. This does mean we can escape the very expensive airline food.

Kittila airport is not famed for its facilities but we take off slightly early. After an uneventful flight we arrive at Gatwick and are through customs before we realise it. One of the few advantages of inter EU travel. A taxi seems preferable to waiting 50 minutes for a shuttle bus, although it does seem extortionate. Finally, we arrive at Gatwick Manor at 11pm, or 1am Lapland time. The receptionist, remembers us from last week and greets us like long lost friends. This is what you get for having a ‘memorable’ travelling companion.

Monday dawns and after the ‘all you can eat’ (well it would be rude not to) breakfast the interminable coach journey starts. Shuttle bus first. This basically means we sit on a bus for 15 minutes and then are back where we started but eventually we arrive at the coach station. Another circuitous journey to Heathrow to transfer to the 502 for Bideford. The coach driver has obviously been to Finland as the coach is ridiculously hot. We sit, this isn’t as easy as it sounds as I still have post horse/ski-doo related injuries. We doze. We endure. It has all been worth it though. More adventures from my historically related home life when I have recovered.

Advertisements

Day 7 part 2 The Snow Hotel – not one of my brighter ideas

Apprehensive, too right I should have been apprehensive. Minus 25 is pretty cold right. It is especially cold when one is spending two hours hurtling across frozen wastes on the back of a ski-doo, or snowmobile to you and me. All I can say is ski-don’t. Two hours, that is 120 minutes and I can tell you how many seconds that is as I counted almost every one of them. It started when I got on the ski-doo and realised that there are certain after effects of spending two hours on a horse when you aren’t used to it. I was soon reminded why I don’t do extreme sports, or indeed any sort of sport much. Oh and what are ironically called ‘amusement’ park rides, I don’t do those either. Even Chris can’t see where he is going and he is driving. He settles for attempting to follow the tail light of the vehicle in front. My frozen arms are locked straight and my hands in a grip shape. At least I think my hands are in a grip shape, I have no sensation in them at all. This is about five minutes in to the journey. I keep telling myself it is an experience, not one I’m planning on repeating but an experience nonetheless. I try shutting my eyes, like that’s going to help – all this means is my eyelashes freeze together. The couple in front are in their seventies and he has a heart condition, if they can cope surely I can. Has anyone ever died doing this? I am wondering how much a taxi back the 46km to the hotel will be. Actually for two hours I don’t care how much it will be, I would sell my nearest and dearest for the fare. Selling my body is not an option with it in its current state. I am being bounced up and down with rigor; rigor is actually a good description for parts of my anatomy. Finally, long after I have decided I can’t cope with any more of this, we arrive at the Snow Hotel at Yllas. When I dismount from the snowmobile my hips are still locked in a seated position. Even the young and fit admit they were hoping to see the hotel lights round every corner. And why have I endured all this? So I can spend the night in temperatures of minus 5; I am certifiable.

138 25 January 2013 Snow Hotel Chapel 1I am given a mug of hot chocolate. My eyes tell me I am holding it but it is five minutes or more before I can feel it. We are currently thawing out in the ‘warm’ room of the snow hotel. Then, just as some sensation is returning, we are whisked off for a tour of the snow and ice sculptures that are built annually, along with the hotel ‘rooms’. These are created by using moulds in some way. It is quite impressive – it needed to be – but why did we not arrive on a nice heated minibus, look round and then leave again, back to the excessive warmth of Levitunturi Spa? There is an ice slide, ice chapel, where some fools get married and ice crazy golf.

DSCF0226

We eat in the ice restaurant. Tables, chairs and glasses are all made of ice. We are given a hot blueberry vodka drink. It might as well have been Ribena. My leaf steak is very tasty. Yes, I had to ask what this was too. The steak is slit horizontally and stuffed with cheese and veg. It has to be eaten at record speed before it gets cold.

A quick trip round the hotel to take photographs then down to the warm basement to get our artic sleeping bags. I could so be tempted to stay here for the night, I have even picked myself out a nice bench. I have also found two ladies who came by minibus, a minibus that is returning tomorrow with spare seats in it. Chris persuades me to adjourn to the igloo like structure that is room 407. The conventional mattress is surrounded by a headboard, footboard and two sides of ice. Who ever built room 407 must have been on the blueberry vodka as the bed is on a distinct slope. This and the slippery sleeping bag means that I spend the whole night sliding down hill and pushing Chris in to the ice bed side. In fact, once I’d stopped trying to decide if I was a) about to have a heart attack or b) going to be sick, I did manage to sleep a bit. It turns out it was a good move foregoing the ice crazy golf tournament, fruitless wait for the Northern Lights and socialising as there were insufficient sleeping bag liners to go round and those who stayed up late missed out.

Day 7 part 1 Horse Riding in temperatures of minus 25

Today it is minus 25. This means that one’s nose hair freezes. I am sorry if this is too much information but it is the weirdest sensation. I am seriously apprehensive about today’s activities – will it all be a bridge too far, especially in these temperatures? I am pacing the floor and feeling sick. Horse riding this morning. My first concern (that every taxi in Levi will be unavailable) is unfounded and we set off for Hethen Ratsutalli. We are, inevitably, half an hour early and the place is deserted. Along comes our guide and we are taken to meet our horses. They are rather larger than I expected – about 15 hands and very sturdy. Can it really be 39 years since I last rode? Actually, my most recent horse riding experiences did not go well. Last time I got motion sickness and the time before the horse bolted and I fell off. Will it be like a bicycle and I’ll remember what to do?

119 25 January 2013 Levitunturi SpaWe are the only two riding this morning. Does this mean everyone else has more sense? Chris’ horse is called Loiste – according to Google translate this means ‘brilliance‘. Mine is called Hiski – not sure what this means but appropriately, if you Google this you get the Genealogical Society of Finland. Apparently Hiski is a loner who really only likes Loiste – great, a horse who needs counselling. I am also a little put off by the poster illustrating how to administer CPR on the stable door. We are expected to groom our horses. Can I look as if I know how to do this? I have read everything ever written by Ruby Ferguson and the Pullen-Thompson sisters, I’ll be fine. We are given a chair to assist with mounting and are told how to say ‘good boy’ in Finnish (which I instantly forget). ‘Good boy‘? Just tell me how to say ‘stop’.

115 25 January 2013 Us on our horsesWe set off through the forest, I am grinning like a Cheshire cat – this is brilliant, quiet, peaceful with that glorious turquoise and pinky-gold Finnish light. I had been meaning to see if I could go riding again at home for a couple of years but haven’t got round to it. I do seem to be able to remember how to steer but I am still a little apprehensive about the lack of brakes. I have a bit more trouble when my glasses freeze over but when given the opportunity to cut the trip short, we decline. The only dodgy part was when we get to a stretch where the horses usually canter. Clearly no one has warned Hiski that a mad English woman who hasn’t ridden for decades is in charge. He’d quite like to do trotting. I am sure that tightening reins is meant to slow horses down so I do this and mutter ‘Whoa’ a bit. Unfortunately a tight rein means ‘trot now’ to these horses – well they might have told me. I am comforted by the thought that snow would be quite soft to fall on but would rather not put this to the test. I arrive back without major incident. I do have a bit of trouble getting off as my leg has gone to sleep, so when I stand on the ground I fall over. Fortunately the thermal boiler suit means am like a roly poly man and I just bounce. Berry juice in the stables follows.

Back in the Taksi to Levitunturi and a hot shower – the dressing gowns that come with the room are unbelievably soft – I could be tempted to walk off with one. Now just trying to keep warm during the two hour night time snowmobile ride and a night in the ice hotel (at minus 5) to worry about.

Day 6 Snowmobiles and Swimming

We decide to see if we can line up some activities to fill the gaps in our timetable at the end of the week. We make our way to Tourist Information and book ourselves in for horse riding. Chris will either have to go on a diet or lie about his weight – actually he comes in just under the limit. I am already panicking about not being in the right place at the right time for this as we have to get ourselves to the venue. Home via the local supermarket to buy milk, which does not feature in the tea making provisions at Levitunturi.

We then investigate where a flight of steps in the forest leads. It leads a very long way and we eventually come out by the top of the gondola. I feel obliged to count the steps on the way down – just the 740.

Snowmobiling in the afternoon. We are kitted out in extra thick gear and given driving instructions. How have I got to the age of fifty something and never ridden anything resembling a motorbike? My youth was obviously misspent in other ways. The handlebars are heated, we are told there are three settings, off, hot and barbequed. In the interests of everyone’s safety and because I’ve read the small print (with difficulty as I am wearing contact lenses not vari-focals) about paying the 850 euro excess in case of an accident, I have decided not to drive. I can’t even drive an electric sewing machine. We therefore set off with Chris driving and me gripping tightly (that would be very tightly) to the hand holds. We have been instructed in various hand signals. If we are in difficulty we are to keep still and cross our arms. Apparently if we can’t cross our arms because we are trapped under the snowmobile, we cross our legs instead – most reassuring.

24 January 2013 Chris on snow mobileChris is enjoying reliving his days as a mod on a Vespa, I am just letting my life flash before my eyes. Actually it is quite fun and we pass through some lovely scenery before stopping for the inevitable hot drink, accompanied by a dohnut this time There is an igloo at our stopping place. We send in the small children of our party to check this out. By the return journey we are getting used to this snowmobiling lark and we reach speeds of 60 kph. My visor has steamed up so I am effectively looking through greaseproof paper – makes predicting the bends a bit tricky. I am also supposed to be taking pictures. Had I been able to see where I was and what was coming up, I would not have elected to let go of the hand holds and take my gloves off, whilst fiddling In my pocket for the camera and juggling the camera case, just at the very fastest (and therefore the very coldest) point in the journey. By the end of the ride the far left hand portion of my visor has demisted so a serious eyes left means I can see where I am – this doesn’t bode well for the security of my contact lenses.

24 January 2013 driving along 3Once back at the hotel, I decide to get my money’s worth out of the spa facility and go for another swim. I am determined to try the outdoor pool, albeit briefly and Chris is charged with the job of being in the right place at the right time to get the photographic evidence of me swimming when it is minus 10. It starts off so well all this, although I do discover I have forgotten my towel. Not wanting to make another trip through the tunnel that connects the spa with Ounas block and then up the stairs to our room, I decide I will drip dry. I have my photograph taken outside then return to the other pools. Much more crowded today; mostly overweight men of senior years – this compulsory Speedos is so not a good idea. I spot an Aqua-jogging pool. The idea is that you get extra fit by swimming against the current. I leap in (well slide in gently – no jumping allowed). Hmm, a little deeper than I anticipated and I can only just touch the bottom. If I try really hard I can maintain a stationary position when swimming against the current. I decide, like most of my fellow aqua-joggers, to go with the flow. Time is up, where are the steps? I am whooshed round the circuit a few times by the current. There are no steps. I have to leaver myself out by my arms in water that is too deep to push off from the bottom, whilst being propelled along by the force of the water. I could be here some time. I wonder, idly, how long it will be before Chris wonders where I am. In the end I launch myself at a passing section of poolside and cling on whale like until I manage to wriggle ashore. Not having a towel will now pale into insignificance.

I sample a little of most of the main courses on offer for the evening meal, passing only on the pickled cucumber. There is chilli fish, veggi burger and a strange vegetable bake topped with Doritos. The million calorie a mouthful ice cream is gorgeous but I manage to pour it over the table when trying to serve it – they should provide larger bowls.

Day 5 Reindeer Safari

A strange sound of hair drying is coming from the bathroom. What IS Chris doing? It turns out that he is hair drying his beard to stop it freezing when we go to breakfast. Probably just as well as it is minus 11 today. Breakfast’s scrambled egg looks like a sponge but Chris says it is nice – he has passed on the meat balls though. I stick to berry compote, yoghurt and toast.

077 23 January 2013 on top of Levi 1A slight problem getting in to my thermal boiler suit today. Chris ‘helps’ by pulling it up for me. This manoeuvre ends with him punching me in the ear. We wait for daylight, about 9.30am this week and walk to get the gondola to the top of Levi Fell. I have trouble coping with the automatic revolving door and am at risk of going round forever. At the top are panoramic early morning views and ‘Samiland’. The latter is part of an international eco-tourism scheme to promote ethnic heritage. The exhibition is both indoor and outdoor and also includes some impressive scenic photography. We learn of the vital importance of the reindeer, of which every part is used. There is even a process to turn the veins into thread. This reminds me of teaching of the value of the buffalo to the American Indians. Sami groups are inherently nomadic. The first written record of reindeer herding dates from 892 AD. There are now only 300 Inari Sami speakers left, although there are other groups. The traditional Sami ‘hat of four winds’ is actually Russian in origin. We see various Sami structures in the outdoor part of the museum. These include a hut on a pole for storing food and a cage like siltasuova, for penning reindeer and allowing space to store their fodder above them. Included in our modest Samiland entrance fee is a hot drink and we sip this slowly, whilst admiring the incredible views as the sun comes up. It is a continual problem adjusting one’s clothing to accommodate both the sub zero outdoor temperatures and the sauna like conditions indoors. We are continually ripping off hats, gloves and layers as we go inside, in order to avoid boiling to death. A bit of a nasty moment when Chris mislays his ticket for the return gondola journey in the many pockets of his thermal boiler suit. He solves this by barging ticketless through a no entry sign. A quick trip round the town on the way home, this time we find a shop assistant who is the antithesis of those already encountered. Very chatty and offering sweets to all on sundry, including the local dog.

074 23 January 2013 Me at Samiland 2Our afternoon activity is a reindeer safari. This takes place next to the husky farm. The sleighs are very low to the ground, similar to a wooden sledge and we wrap up in a blanket as a keen wind is blowing across the frozen lake. After a photo opportunity our reindeer is put in the shafts of our sledge. We have been allocated a reindeer based on the staff’s assessment of our combined weight. The various sledges set off and a game of reindeer dodgems ensues as the reindeer show their personalities and vie for position. The sledges don’t look too sturdy and there is a certain amount of hazard occasioned when being overtaken by heavily antlered reindeer. They normally lose their antlers in winter and ours has just the one but others still have two rather fearsome looking ones. Our reindeer reminds us of certain drivers, always hassling to overtake. In order to accomplish this he ploughs our sledge up the banks and mows down a few saplings in his wake. This is a longer and slower journey than yesterday’s husky safari but equally amazing. We cross the frozen lake and drive through the forest encountering a wonderful sunset again. For some reason, everyone else is sitting up but I have slid down in our sleigh so that I am almost horizontal. My fingers are cold but not as bad as yesterday and for the first time my feet feel less than warm but otherwise I am fine. The cold air eats camera batteries and I have consumed a whole set on this ride.

DSCF0171 After the ride, more hot berry juice and ginger biscuits. We chat to Tim the reindeer herder. He says reindeer are better than huskies as huskies are Siberian – enough said! The traditional, reindeer based, way of life was crushed by the introduction of the snow mobile in the 1970s. There are more reindeer than people in Finnish Lapland, which has a population of 200,000.

23 January 2913 Homeward BoundBack at Levitunturi, I try to sample local cuisine by having a vol au vent like salmon roll with my vegetable lasagne. Chris has pancakes that are more like our crumpets. As ever, we lack the stamina for evening activities. Chris is watching a two year old episode of Emmerdale with Finnish subtitles! I am realising how long it takes to write two blogs and download and edit photographs on a net book with serious memory issues.

Day 4 Huskies

025 22 January 2013 Sunrise by the igloo 2I knew I’d regret consuming so much of the complementary champagne, especially as I rarely drink – only had a glass but it prevented me from sleeping, except of course when I should have been awake Northern Lights spotting! Breakfast in the igloo is a challenge. It is a lovely continental affair with holey cheese, yoghurt, cake etc. First I fling the rock hard butter on the floor, then I squeeze my carton of orange juice a little too tightly and end up with it in my lap. Chris is not impressed with the tea, which looks like chicken soup and is herbal in nature. We step outside to take photos in the beautiful sunrise, then back to Levi. It turns out that the settlement isn’t actually called Levi at all – that is the name of the fell. The town is in fact called Sirkka.

I go for another swim. I’ve not yet braved the outdoor pool – it isn’t so much the pool itself but the walk to it from the indoor pools in what is now minus 9 that is putting me off. The pools have several ‘effects’ – green lights, videos of people walking through snow and something that looks like effluent on the surface but tastes like washing up liquid.

Our afternoon excursion is to the nearby husky farm. We are instructed in ’mushing’. The waiting husky teams are very excitable and noisy and have to be prevented from starting off without us. Chris has first go at driving. It is pretty jolly speedy as our six huskies hurtle us off across the frozen lake into the forest and we are glad of every thermal layer we have. My photography is hampered by a) frozen fingers, b) contact lenses, which mean I can’t actually see what I have taken and c) attempting to not fall off the sledge. Half way round the 25 minute ride we swap over. This is not as easy as it sounds as it is essential that the brake remains on during transfer of drivers and the only way to do this is to stand on a metal bar. I nearly didn’t take the opportunity to drive, I’ve never even ridden a motor bike but I am really glad I did. It is real bucket list stuff, although my fingers are frozen solid. I do have some trouble bending to steer and braking at the same time – one or the other but not both. The sun is setting, the sky is an unbelievable turquoise and pink. I am encouraging Chris, who now has charge of the camera. When the ride stops I feel weirdly dizzy but once back in the warmth of the kota, with hot berry juice and ginger biscuits, I recover quickly. We are also able to toast sausages over the fire. Then we go and see the huskies at close range. Some are Alaskan huskies – leaner than the archetypal husky but more suited to pulling and others are the Alaskan Malamute ‘fluffy’ huskies. There are some 12 week old puppies, which are very sweet. Chris is enjoying talking dog training with the husky lady.044 22 January 2013 husky run 6

 We travel back to the hotel in time to eat. Chris has a range of cold fish and reindeer hot pot. I can’t quite bring myself to try reindeer – I don’t even eat game at home. I stick to vegetable stuffed roasted cabbage leaves – nicer than it sounds, pate on a lovely dark bread, berry compote (they like their berries here) and almond and chocolate cake. I also sample the home brewed ale, which is similar to barley wine.

Day 3 A Night in a Glass Igloo

Chris begins the day by watching a Finnish version of Strictly Come Dancing, followed by the Finnish shopping channel and finally BBC World Service. These Finns certainly like their sauna like conditions, the room temperature is still 26 degrees, despite us turning everything down and leaving the balcony door open. I am boiling without the thermals. It is only minus 3 so not yet as cold as Bideford Quay. We score a fail for producing our service card in exchange for breakfast. This is apparently the piece of cardboard that I nearly threw away and not the plastic card that opens our room. A range of food is available but I am not too sure about Chris’ combination of bacon and chicken nuggets. After breakfast we take the pretty route to collect our thermal boiler suits and boots. We discover the hard way that leaving the compacted tracks means one ends up knee deep in snow.

21 January 2013 Walking Round Levi 2We attend the welcome meeting. This is held in the Dancing Restaurant – a misnomer – the restaurant appears not to be dancing at all. There is a nearby hotel called the Crazy Reindeer – we should probably have stayed there. The man in front’s phone goes off. According to his t-shirt he works for a Welsh animal feed company (large number of people from Wales here), how appropriate that his ring tone sounds like a sheep in labour. We are told that we are 170km above the Arctic Circle and that there is currently 50-60c of snow. Local cuisine consists of reindeer meat, salmon and a ‘long drink’ of gin and grapefruit. Traditional entertainment is karaoke and ballroom dancing (at the same time).

We go for a walk towards the frozen lake – not sure we reached it. We see some captive and very smelly, reindeer. Home via the souvenir shops. It seems to be obligatory that the shop assistants talk incessantly on the phone, not pausing to serve and they acknowledge you not at all when you make your purchase. Next we take the underground tunnel from our accommodation block, which is called Ounas, to the spa water world. Chris, as ‘party leader’ has already had to vouch for my good behaviour in order to get our wristbands to enter the spa. We find our respective changing rooms. This is all very odd. First we have to shower in open showers. To do so we are instructed NOT to wear our swimming costumes. I manage this – the place is deserted anyway. I enter one of the pools and I wait and I wait and I wait. Where is Chris? Has he collapsed or been abducted in the changing rooms? It turns out his swimming trunks are unacceptable. ’For hygiene reasons’ short-like costumes are not allowed. Has anyone seen Chris in Speedoes? Can one even buy these now? I swim alone for a while and we return to our room.

An early evening meal. I indulge in vegetable casserole cake and berry quark – which I thought was something to do with particle physics but turns out to be some sort of soft cheese. We meet up again with the young couple from the next room, who, like us, are to spend the night in a glass igloo. We debate the relative merits and demerits of wearing our thermal boiler suits for this. A minibus collects us and four others, including the couple we met at the airport and we head up out of Levi. I panic slightly. We are left in the middle of nowhere – what will happen if our igloo key doesn’t work?

22 January 2013 Igloo 4 insideFortunately there is no problem with the key. We have igloo number 4 – this is out of this world – a 12 foot diameter glass dome, with kitchen and bathroom, panoramic views over the valley and a centralised bed, whose head raises electronically so we can gaze at the view. There is champagne in the fridge, mood lighting, the inevitable sauna like temperatures and even a glass hand basin that is lit from underneath. The fact that the plug is missing from the latter seems to matter not. We sit in fur covered chairs, sipping our champagne by the window – well everywhere is by the window of course. Somewhere nearby is a communal kota (traditional Sami tepee like structure) where we can light a fire and chat but we don’t want to leave our igloo and can’t actually see where it is anyway. It is noticeably colder up here and very windy. There is a thirty foot pine tree nearby that is swaying ominously but we ignore this. Previous occupants have left a strange variety of food behind, including instant mashed potato and several varieties of sugar. The 75 year old Welshman next door seems to be building a snowman. It turns out that he was trying to block out the light from the light pole – wasted effort as they turned off at midnight on a timer anyway.

The interior door to the bathroom is solid glass. This is most disconcerting in the night – as one leaves the bathroom there appears to be someone else trying to enter. We don’t sleep much but completely fail to see the Northern Lights. We learn next day that our companions have managed to take pictures of green lights in the sky. Nonetheless this is a spectacular experience.