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Day 3: Helsinki to Äkäslompolo

I woke up around 8am and found the train still speeding through the darkness. Tim was already awake and had discovered that the train had a dining car where we were able to go and buy coffee. We'd already brought food with us to eat for breakfast but if we hadn't there were also all sorts of breakfasty things you could buy. It was all far more civilised than the previous time we'd taken an overnight train and we were pleasantly surprised!

As we sat drinking coffee in the dining car, it gradually began to get a bit brighter outside and we could start to make out huge expanses of snow-covered forests on either side of the track. It looked very cold and very exciting.

The train arrived in Kolari just after 11am. Kolari is a small town near the Finnish border with Sweden and boasts the northernmost railway station in Finland. The main thing which struck us as we pulled into the station was the enormous piles of logs to the side of the track. There were tree trunks piled as high as our house back home and some very serious-looking freight carriages which looked like they might be used to transport them. Logging must be a big industry here.

The train was actually a few minutes late, but happily the buses which meet the train to transport passengers to the nearby ski resorts of Levi, Ylläs and Äkäslompolo were still sitting there waiting for it. This was a marked contrast to England, where either the buses would have departed at the time scheduled regardless of the fact that they had no passengers, or the bus would have been scheduled to run at a time that bore no relation to the train's arrival.


The journey from Kolari to Äkäslompolo took around 45 minutes and cost €12.60 on the bus. It seemed expensive, but then we were getting a bus from one very remote place to another very remote place, so we were just glad there was a bus at all :) We arrived in Äkäslompolo just after midday. It's a small village with just a few hundred inhabitants, situated next to a little lake. The buildings are quite strung out along the main road so it was difficult to know the best place to get off the bus, but when we caught sight of the local supermarket, that seemed like as good a place as any. We were relieved to find that the ground was properly covered in snow, so nowhere near as slippy as it had been in Helsinki, and there was actually a reasonable amount of daylight.

We weren't able to get into our apartment until 4pm, so our first priority was to find somewhere warm to sit. Luckily there was a large restaurant next to the supermarket where I had an enormous pizza and they didn't seem to mind us sitting and very slowly sipping coffee after our meal. We managed to kill the best part of two hours there, then headed to the supermarket to stock up on some provisions. Next to the supermarket was a small outlet of Alko, the government-owned company with a monopoly on selling strong alcohol in Finland, so we took the opportunity to buy a few bottles of wine in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the very sober new year we experienced in Oslo a few years ago :) To be fair, the opening hours of Alko seem to be a bit more reasonable than those of Vinmonpolet, which appeared to have a policy of being closed at any time of day a person might conceivably want to buy alcohol!

By the time we emerged from the shops (just after 3pm) it was almost completely dark outside. It was a walk of about 1km through the snow to our apartment. We found the correct building without much difficulty, recognising the distinctive white and blue panelling from the pictures on booking.com. There were actually two similar-looking apartment blocks though, both with flats on two different levels, and we had no way of knowing which apartment might be ours. The check-in instructions we had been sent told us that we needed to enter a key code into a black box by the side of the apartment door, but it failed to mention the number of the apartment. Oh dear.

Tim took charge and made a phone call to the offices of the rental company. They said they would call us back, so we stood outside in the snow for a while hoping for the best. When they didn't call us back as promised, Tim phoned again and this time they told us the number of our apartment. Phew!

We got in without any further problems and happily the apartment was as we expected: basic, but comfortable. There is a nice living and dining area...


...a small bedroom...


...and a functional kitchen.


We settled in and had to overcome some teething problems with the Wi-Fi (a couple of phone calls and a house visit later we had a new router!). Later in the evening we decided to head out for a walk to explore the village a litle more without our suitcases weighing us down. We walked back along the main road and in the direction of the supermarket. There was a sign in English outside the supermarket, marking the direction of a track towards the lake. We had read that the lake was a good place to go at night to try and see the northern lights, away from the lights of the village, so we decided to go and explore. It was quite cloudy last night so we weren't expecting to see anything exciting, but it would be good to know where the lake was for future reference.

Armed with our headtorches, we followed the path behind the supermarket, which led through a slightly wooded area and then down towards what appeared to be a large playing field. There was a path leading straight across the field and we could see some other people ahead of us, so we began walking across it, following their tracks. We eventually passed them, emerged at the far side of the field, then proceeded to climb up into another forested area. We'd been walking for about 30 minutes at this point and we were really confused because we couldn't see any sign of the lake. We decided we'd better turn back and try again in the daylight when we had a map.

We were just on our way back down the main road towards the apartment, when I caught sight of a strange green glow in the sky. The sky was still partially clouded, so it was like a cloudy green rainbow from one side of the sky to the other, which faded into and then out of focus over the course of five minutes. Other people stopped in the street to stare up at it too. Within a few minutes it had gone and the sky was just grey again. How exciting - we had just got our first glimpse of the northern lights :)

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