The notion wasn’t entirely novel. My mother had embarked on a similar adventure in 1989, traversing the captivating landscapes of Europe to Lofoten with an Interrail ticket. A question lingered: could such an expedition still unfold three decades later?
Chapter I : The longest night train of North Europe
As January envelops North Europe in darkness by 4 pm, I find myself aboard the longest night train, a Snowpercier, bound for the land of dreams. Because of my small budget, I paid a cheap seat for this -very- long journey. The seats are spacious, the wagon silent. Outside, the darkness is deep, regularly lighted up by cities, road, and cars along the railway.
I bought a small water bottle for few Krona and started to find the best position to sleep. Spoiler alert: sleeping in a seat is far from comfortable. Nevertheless, I’m on the train of my dreams, a Snowpercier carrying me toward the northern realms.
As the journey progresses, the initially tranquil train comes to life with periodic stops at Uppsala, Umeå, Boden – names once confined to books. My sleep intermittently interrupted, I traverse through Luleå, only to discover that some wagons have been left behind. The dwindling passenger count dictates the train’s composition, revealing the reality of a journey northward.
While the sun timidly attempts to rise, its rays never quite reach the horizon. The landscape outside the window transforms, unveiling the impressive Kiruna mountains, home to Europe’s largest iron mine. The spectacle is awe-inspiring as we traverse this industrial giant.
Soon after, the train carries me past the surreal beauty of the Abisko village, the starting point of the legendary Kungsleden trail. Beyond lies Norway, a land of promises illuminated by the glow of the yet-to-rise sun.
Chapter II: Finland
After a week spent working on ad footage with a travel agency, I embarked on a bus heading south, destination: Finland. Since my arrival, the sun hasn’t peeked above the mountain, signalling the onset of the polar night. Craving sunlight, I found myself at the quiet harbour at 7:00, ready to catch the only bus running between Tromsø and Rovaniemi. However, with just 10 minutes left before departure, there was no sign of it – neither at the brand-new bus station nor at the harbour. I’m doubting on my information.
A bus approached, not the blue one I was expecting, but red. It was the only bus in the neighbourhood, so I decided to question about my route. Good move! It turned out to be my bus, and today, we were only three passengers. The 8-hour journey to Äkäslompolo could finally begin!
After a week of perpetual night, the sun finally made its appearance. I pressed my cheek against the window, unable to feel its warmth, but the light was a welcome change. Crossing the border, the first reindeer interrupted our path. The driver made a few stops, offering coffee. The days were still remarkably short as we arrived in the unfamiliar village of Äkäslompolo. But will, in few years, become a significant part of my life.
My host, a French hotel worker, not only offered advice but also provided me with skis. Me, a boy from the Poitou countryside in France, was introduced to the cold and the challenges of skiing.
I quickly realized how unprepared I was. So I tried and tried again. After a day on the flat slopes, as I walked back to the little cabin, tired, at 5 pm with a clear sky full of stars, something caught my eye upon leaving the city lights – and it wasn’t a cloud.
After running to the house and getting my camera, I could already see the green lights invading the sky. It felt surreal, as if the green hues were seeping into the house. Despite the -20 °C temperature, I ran out without my down jacket, completely overwhelmed. After getting properly dressed and securing some hot water, I was ready to spend the next few hours outside. This marked my first encounter with the breathtaking northern lights.
Next story: Episode 2, When frustration fuels determination.