To the Home of Christmas After three weeks, seven towns and hundreds of hours on a train, it was time to leave Russia. Despite our excitement about the next leg of our journey, this was a day we had been dreading- also known as ‘the day of three flights.’
Sense of dread aside, it turned out to be a piece of cake. St Petersburg public transport to the airport- conquered. Plate of deep fried mozzarella sticks for morning tea at the airport to use up the last of the roubles- don’t mind if I do. Easy 50 minute flight to Estonia on a pocket sized plane- no problems.
I would stop here and point out that the Tallin airport officially markets itself as the cosiest airport in the world- and it is. It is so cosy that it makes you want to change your plans and go out and explore Estonia with the expectation that it will be just as cute and cosy.
Our second flight began with the announcement that the expected flight time to Helsinki would be 20 minutes. This was an unexpected surprise as we’d failed to notice the miniscule flying time due to the time differences.
Arrival in Helsinki and the onward flight to Rovaniemi were a breeze. It was exciting to be somewhere where customer service involves making eye contact and smiling!
The best word to describe Rovaniemi is adorable… if we were going to two, I would preface that with absolutely.
Our accommodation, Santa’s Hotel Santa Clause is in the middle of the Rovaniemi (the 15th largest city in Europe officially but this is based on technical geographical size not population or infrastructure!). The hotel is the home of Christmas within the home of Christmas and if you can believe it, there has been a surprising lack of tackiness.
Puppies!! We arranged to spend our first full day in Rovaniemi dogsledding.
After a trip to the tour office to be kitted out in a quilted snow proof onesie, serious boots, face warmers and hats, we were driven out to a husky farm in the forest (about an hour and a half out of the city). Our sled guide was Natalie, accompanied by her husband Stefan for support on a snowmobile.
Dogsledding is not for the unfit or feint hearted. At the beginning of the trip, Stefan advised that you could help the dogs by scooting skateboard style occasionally. It turns out, that for my team, this was a requirement if you wanted to get up any kind of incline; otherwise they would just stop, turn and look at you. There was one hill where I almost pushed the sled past the dogs.
I had a team of four dogs; the first two were near identical and were paired across and will, for now, be called the Twins, followed by Nervy, and Anton (his actual name).
The Twins slowed down for a bit of a kiss every now and then and Nervy had the unhelpful habit of laying down mid run every time the snowmobile went past.
Team quirks aside, this was a magnificent experience. The trail was through snow covered birch, pine and spruce trees and had a magical ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ feel about it. In Rovaniemi it doesn’t get light until about 10:00am and is dark by 3:30pm. As such, the entire day has a sunrise/sunset quality about it which casts and incredible pearlescent sheen over the entire landscape. For about half an hour in the middle of the day the peach and pink disappears from the edge of the sky as the sun reaches its peak but it soon returns.
After riding for a couple of hours, we arrived at a huge frozen lake. It was 4 kilometres long and deserted. Riding over this was an incredible spectacle. Apart from our sled tracks, the ice was smooth white velvet stretching out in all directions.
We took a break at a campfire site for lunch. The fire felt cosy and warm but I think it may have been more of a mental comfort as the snow inside the fire pit had still not melted around the edges when we left an hour later.
Lunch was roasted in alfoil on the fire- fish and capsicum; a spiced juice drink called Gloggi and sliced cheese. Stefan placed several bananas on sticks into the fire. I thought this was to roast them but when they came of half an hour later it turned out that the purpose was merely to defrost them and return them to ‘room temperature’!
You get quite warm on the sleds however to give you an idea of how cold -22 is;
1) My eyelashes were freezing together. I had to stretch my eyes open as wide as possible regularly to stop them freezing shut and I arrived at lunch with a thick dusting of ice on them
2) I yawned at one point and as my eyes teared up I could feel the tears turn cold against my eyeballs… cold eyeballs!!
3) We poured some water into paper cups when we arrived at the camp fire and forgot about one. Despite sitting in the ‘warm’ fire shelter, it had frozen solid by the time we found it 45 minutes later.
Team gone bad The dogs spent the break resting, recovering from the morning and in preparation of the small mountain we were going to tackle after lunch- all of the dogs except for my fourth dog, Anton, who despite being tethered, spent the hour trying to pull the sleigh by himself and razz up the other dogs. Stop wasting your energy Anton!
This was a sign of the ‘haywire’ to come. After lunch the Twins’ friendly nuzzling stepped up a notch. They will henceforth be known as Humpy and the Tramp.
In delicate summary, Humpy thought it was appropriate to break mid run and embark upon intimate relations with the Tramp… this was obviously counterproductive to pulling the sled. After several such ‘interruptions’, Stefan reordered the dogs and put Humpy back in paired second position with Nervy and left the Tramp to set the pace.
I thought this might prove motivational for Humpy and result in some extra speed but it was pretty short lived. I spent the next hour doing a lot of sled pushing while four dogs strolled in front of me.
With undoubtedly the laziest team, the guides decided to give me one of the dogs from the lead team to try and speed things up. Enter Rusty the Rocket. It was incredible after that… speedy sailing.
We stopped briefly to put head torches on as 2:30 saw the sun begin to set quite seriously, otherwise, the trip home was spectacular and mostly without interruption. My team did have a couple of small tangles as Nervy did his stop-drop and roll away from the snowmobile- on one occasion Rusty thought this was an excellent opportunity to warm his face in Nervy’s crotch until Stefan came and detangled them all again.
We finished up at 3:30 in the pitch black, frozen, very happy and with time for a quick Finnish beer before we headed back to town.
Next: Father Christmas & Helsinki