Wednesday, December 21, 2011

North of the Arctic Circle - Abisko, pop. 85

I think I may have arrived at the most beautiful place on earth - Abisko, Sweden. It took slightly less than 21 hours to get here by a combination of train and bus and was worth every hour of the ride. The week leading up to this trip I was kind of nervous about it - I mean, what do you do for two days in a place that's all wilderness and a total population that would be feasible to meet every person within the time that I am here? I did find out that there are no polar bears in Scandinavia so I don't have to worry about them. And I made a friend right away when I arrived which means that I have someone to share the experience of the Northern Lights with!

My trip here was for the most part uneventful. I took an overnight train from Stockholm and had two seats to myself. The train is about a million times more comfortable than a bus for sleeping, so I was actually able to get in some good sleep while riding. We stopped for a while at about 3 in the morning due to some snow/ice that was blocking our path on the train tracks. By the time it was cleared off and we were on our way again, we ended up being just under 2 hours behind schedule. Due to this fact and that the train was scheduled to head back to Stockholm, it was turning around in Kiruna. Although the sun doesn't rise this far north, the "twilight" hours provide a surprising amount of light. I had the chance to enjoy some of the Lappland landscape from the train window as we made our way towards Kiruna. There was snow on the ground and I saw two families of wild reindeer from the train window. Once we arrived in Kiruna, a bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way. I can't complain about the bus ride. There is one road from Kiruna to Abisko - the E10 and it is one of the most scenic roads I have ever been on. The road wound through the snow and trees and towards gorgeous snow-covered mountains. As we neared Abisko, a large lake at the base of the mountains came into view - calm, blue, pristine. 

So, upon my arrival to the Abisko Turiststation, I met another solo female traveller from Indiana who has been studying for the past 1.5 years in Stockholm. We checked in, got settled, and met back up in a cozy lounge with large picture windows overlooking the lake and mountains and a small fireplace. While sitting in the lounge, we met another traveller - a man from Stockholm who was spending about a week here visiting a friend. His friend happens to work in tourism and was that night leading a crew from the Japanese version of the Discovery Channel up to the Aurora Sky Station to hopefully see the Northern Lights. His friend was going to call him when there were lights worth seeing outside so he wouldn't have to stand outside in the cold waiting for them to possibly show up. My new friend Carrie and I benefited from this inside knowledge. Although I was staying up later than I have been in Stockholm, the hours passed quickly with my good company. Between warming up by the fire, we would bundle ourselves up and walk back behind the mountain lodge hostel towards the lake to check out the lights. We were not disappointed. The sky was filled with brilliantly lit stars - I have seen a lot of stars in remote areas of northern Minnesota, but have never seen stars this bright. I think the clean air helps. We also were successful in seeing the lights. Although the northern lights were not as spectacular as they are in some of the pictures I have seen, it was still an incredible and impressive sight. Around midnight, the Northern Lights filled most of the night sky. Thankfully Carrie had a nice camera and was able to capture some of it in photos and was kind enough to share them with me. Finally around 2 am, we decided to call it a night. Carrie was heading back to Stockholm on Sunday and I had big plans to do some hiking on the Kungsleden Trail.

I met up with Carrie Sunday morning and copied her pictures from the Northern Lights to my computer. We said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch and I headed out to the Kungsleden Trail. The trail is 425 km long and it's northernmost point is Abisko. At the start of the trail, there were a few groups of snowshoers and hikers that I quickly passed and soon had the trail to myself. In the summer, it is quite a popular hike, but I guess the crowds are not as prevalent in the longest days of winter. All in all, I hiked about 10 km round trip - I decided to turn around after hiking for about 1.5 hours and when I got to the point that human footprints stopped. There are several small wooden bridges crossing over streams and I really didn't think it was a good idea to form the new path through the snow along those when I was alone. It was so quiet and beautiful with the snow, the trees, the mountains, and the river - half frozen, half running water. I can imagine that it would be stunning in the summer as well, but to be there and have the wilderness to myself was amazing (for lack of a better word). No pictures can really do it justice although I tried (with my very sad toilet-water-logged camera). I guess one good thing about going home so soon is that I can replace it with a new camera that will work a little better.

Sunday afternoon I saw in the lodge by the fire and relaxed and read while I waited for nightfall to possibly see the Northern Lights again. Unfortunately it was a cloudy night and was precipitating a mix of snow and freezing rain so there were no lights visible Sunday night.

Monday I got up and checked out of the hostel. It was a cloudy, dreary, and therefore darker morning. I caught the train from the Abisko Turiststation train "station" (a one-room structure with a few benches) to Kiruna. In Kiruna, I had a few hours before my flight and wandered around the center of town. It was snowing and I enjoyed looking at the lights and shops in center Kiruna. The town isn't very big and so unfortunately I was not able to catch a bus to the airport from town. There are only two flights out to Stockholm per day and only one bus to the airport which left before I even left Abisko. Sadly this meant I ended up paying $50 for a taxi that took me the 10km to the airport. The airport was small but cozy and we had to board the plane walking up a portable staircase outside. Although they didn't provide free beverage service on the plane, they did hand out  a goody bag with travel size bottles of shampoo, lotion, and body wash. I arrived back in Stockholm a little after 7 that night and made my way back to Jägargatan to finish packing up my stuff to head home early Tuesday morning. It was a great trip to end my time in Sweden - seeing snow and the Northern Lights - and although I am a little sad to leave, I am really happy to get home and be with my family and friends for the holidays. So, for the last time from Sweden, one final hej då! I'll be back again once I arrive in India in January.

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