Day 7

Sunday, 23 August 2015
Start: Rovaniemi (FIN) 10:45
Arrival: Ivalo (FIN) 20:30
Total: 300 km

Over breakfast, we debated what to visit in Rovaniemi before driving on north. The hotel leaflet mentioned a monument to the Finnish rock band Lordi, who won the Eurovision Song Contest a few years back. Were they from Rovaniemi? Apparently, the monument was in the shopping street, so we must have passed it yesterday evening. It wasn't far from the hotel and a little stroll in the morning air could never hurt, so after breakfast we ran back to the street and indeed there it was. A plaque with each band member's hand impression, Hollywood Walk of Fame-like. Naturally, I had to take a pose worthy of the monsters. :)



Shortly before 11 o'clock, we checked out, complete with our new friend, the little polar bear, and drove towards the main attraction in Rovaniemi proper: the Arktikum. This turned out to be an unexpectedly large museum with exhibitions on the history of the area, Arctic wildlife and plants, ecology, geology, the people who settled here and basically all things cold and northern. There was even an ice chamber with a large ice cone in the middle. Curious, we stepped in. At the same moment, a group of East Asian tourists also decided to explore the chamber. They filed in one after another and soon the little room became much too crowded for comfort. But they seemed to feel right at ease, loudly cackling and shouting at each other. Wasn't the Arctic supposed to be vast and lonely? We retreated into the next hall. There was so much to see here, one could spend a whole day at the Arktikum. We saw our very first reindeer, an elk, a bear and all the other cold-loving animals that I had been so afraid of yesterday in the forest. Well, they were just model animals, and thus really harmless.
As usual, we especially liked the hands-on gimmicks. You could build your own pipeline, change the spread of glaciers on a map or lie down and marvel at the aurora borealis. We clambered into the dark, cozy chamber where the northern lights flitted over the domed ceiling. There were still a couple of free spaces, so we lay down on our backs and enjoyed the spectacle. This was so zen. Just then, the entrance/exit hole was obscured by a group of newcomers. The Asian tourists from the ice chamber! One after another, they wriggled into the much too tiny room, pushing the other visitors aside to find room on the floor. Soon I was lying with my shoulder squeezed under a guy's arm, while two giggly women hunkered down at the other side, half crushing my legs in the process. I want out! But this was easier said than done. When everyone wants in, it's hard to get out. On our hands and knees, we scrabbled past the noisy newcomers and eventually reemerged in the hall. Enough of this! We wanted to get into the great wide open for real.


Santa's Village at the Polar Circle

A few minutes north of Rovaniemi, the main road North crosses over the Polar Circle. And who lives at the Polar Circle? Santa of course. Naturally, the kid in us demanded that we made a stop at the Santa Village. Judging from the large parking lot, the village expected a lot of visitors during the holidays. Now the children were back at school, and apart from some foreign tourists, we had the place almost to ourselves. There were numerous large shops where you could buy all things festive and Christmassy. I got a new pair of gloves and Sonia bought several postcards. Outside, there was a large red box indicating that all mail would be shipped to arrive at their destination around Christmas. We sat down in the sun and wrote to our parents and grandparents. Funny to think that they would get the cards only in three months' time.
Then we entered Santa's den. In subdued lighting, a life-like exhibition explained the various forms of Father Christmas in other European and American countries. Some of these Santas looked more like trolls or goblins, quite scary. But at the very end, there sat the man himself, in the flesh. Santa, just the way we know and love him. We waited until the children had talked to him at leisure, and then we approached his seat. As expected, Santa was good-humoured and jolly, he spoke excellent English and we talked a bit about our trip from Luxembourg to the Barents Sea. "But we haven't seen any of your reindeer on the road, yet," I complained to him. "You're driving to Ivalo now, right? You will see them, I promise." How could he promise such a thing? There was a fair chance that we might see them, but there was never a guarantee with these independent, free-roaming animals. "Oh, but I do promise you. And Santa never lies," the man in the red fur coat stated solemnly. We'll see. Somehow, we were lacking the blind faith of our childhood.
After the obligatory picture with Father Christmas, we headed for the Polar Circle. A white line on the ground proclaims that from here on, you are really high up North. We got to talking to a family from Chile whose son is living in Finland. "From one polar circle to the other," the father proudly proclaims. Indeed! What a long journey. Compared to that, Luxembourg seems right next door.
At this time of the year, the Santa Village almost seemed deserted. Most attractions like the snow mobiles and go cart ring were closed. Only three Santas held the fort. And the shop keepers. We did some more Christmas shopping and had an excellent lunch in a nice little bar. For some reason, the place reminded me of the restaurant at Dimmu Borgir in Iceland. Maybe it was the tasty, down-to-earth food, fish and chips and reindeer sandwich.
Back on the main road, we headed due north to Ivalo. And who should we meet, just a minutes into our journey? Our very first reindeer, in the flesh, standing bang in the middle of the road, no hurry whatsoever. With all the time in the world, it slowly walked past, not the least bit interested in our car or the humans inside. Santa never lies! How could we ever have doubted the man.
Here in Finland, the landscape was not all that different from Sweden. One lake after the next, with vast pine forests all the way to the shore. The water in the lakes seemed high, somehow. As if the next downpour would cause them to step out of their beds. We made a stop at one such picturesque waterside. A group of dwarves stood guard over the parking lot. My sister joined them. Can you spot her?
We strolled down through the soft pine forest towards the lake. A man in a jeep was trying to get his boat onto the shore. Other than that, all was quiet and peaceful. After a lounge on the lakeshore, we walked back up to the parking lot. There was a most appetizing smell wafting out of the little roadside café. Pancakes! Of course I had to get one. The café seemed to be an insider tip with the locals, because the tiny cabin was chock full with people waiting to be served. I got in line. Apart from me, they all happily babbled among each other in Finnish. At one point, the young man asked a question and immediately, everybody raised their hand. "What did he ask?" I enquired from the lady next to me. "He wanted to know if we all wanted pancakes. If you just want a drink or a slice of cake, he can serve you first." Nope, pancakes for me too. I settled down for a long wait.
But it was worth it. The pancakes, topped with lingonberry sauce and a scoop of ice cream, were delicious. Meanwhile, Sonia had looked around the adjacent shop. There was no one in the shop to serve you, you just took whatever you wanted and paid for it in the café. How wonderful that they would trust their customers that much. Sonia bought two pairs of warm socks with "Lapland" on it. Then we sat down outside to eat our pancakes. Unfortunately, the Finns and I were not the only ones partial to the food. A horde of flies arrived, busy buzzing around us. They were pretty much the only flies that annoyed us on this trip, so we quickly ate up and drove on.


Tankavara Gold Village

There was only one more place we wanted to visit today: Tankavara Gold Village, a themed holiday resort where you could wash gold in the river and relive the feeling of a 19th century frontier town. Or so I thought. Back home, we had even toyed with the idea of spending the night in the resort. Good thing we didn't, because the village was deserted. There were two elderly people sitting on a bench outside a cabin, but other than that, the place was a ghost town. There was not even a single shopkeeper around. We wandered past the locked-up saloon and stores, took a picture in the town square and drove on.
Again and again, we encountered reindeer on the road. Standing at the wayside, scampering right in front of our car, idly walking right on the street, Rudolph and Co owned the road. There was nothing for it but to slow down and take it easy. After all, we were not in a hurry.
Around 7 pm, we arrived in Ivalo. It was still warm outside, an unbelievable 26°C. We had dinner in a hotel restaurant on the main road, and then went in search of a gas station. Our tank was still half full, but tomorrow we would take a tiny road to the Russian border and who knew whether there was a gas station at the border station of Raja Jooseppi. The Russian outback promised to be interesting enough without having to worry about running out of gas. Just to be reaaally on the safe side, we even filled up a 10-liter-canister as backup. We asked the lady at the gas station whether the road to Murmansk was in good shape. She had never driven on it but guessed it should be ok. In other words, she had no idea. We were starting to get a strange feeling about this road. On our map, it was a tiny white line. Another map even showed it as a dirt track and not an asphalted road at all. Should we have gone for the detour over Kirkenes after all?
Postponing all these worries to tomorrow morning, we paid for the gas and drove on to our husky farm. We found a sign leading us from the main road onto a dirt track. Oh no! Fearing for our tires, we rumbled along, from one pothole into the next. I hit a particularly deep hole and was rewarded with an ugly bang. Now I feared for the underside of my car as well. If this is what "off the main road" meant in efficient Finland, what should we expect to find in Russia? "I wish we had a jeep," I moaned, not for the first time. "Where would be the fun in that?" Sonia quipped back. "Everybody can do a dirt track with a jeep." Right she was.
After about five or six kilometers, we reached two large and comfortable looking log houses. Even though it was already half past eight, it was still very bright outside. We were greeted by a symphony of howls and barks. The family owned 140 huskies and some of them are in a large kennel right outside the house. Apart from the welcome concert, the dogs looked quiet and happy enough. Later, the landlady explained to us that they were not allowed to roam through the woods, because of the reindeer. If a husky or indeed any dog is found running free, people are allowed to shoot them. Sad, really. She showed us around the house, which the family had built all by themselves. It was quite cosy and welcoming and even though we heard the dogs barking from time to time, we had no trouble sleeping through the night.


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