Sunday, December 8, 2002

Dressed to chill and stripped for action

Dressed to chill and stripped for action

Having bundled up warm to explore Lapland's cold winter landscape, Jeremy Atiyah finds himself naked in the snow

Published: 08 December 2002

The whole point of Finnish Lapland (I thought) was its purity and innocence and virginity and freedom from human pollution. But flying up from Helsinki to Kittila in the depths of winter, I am alarmed to find the plane packed with hundreds of tourists. Japanese men in the seats behind me are knocking back shots of vodka. Perhaps Lapland will be like Russia, except tiny and weak, rather than huge and menacing.

Anyway, this holiday (I have been told) is for people who like being outdoors in the snow, but who do not want to race down hills with competitive people in designer outfits and sunglasses. That is why we have got sedate-sounding activities such as snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, snow-mobiling, ice- fishing, reindeer-sledging and dog-sledding to get through. And when we have done that, we are going to get naked in saunas, and roll in the snow, and sing karaoke in the hotel bar. That is all. And if after all that I still insist on skiing, then I need not worry: Finnish Lapland does have its mountains.

And unlike the UK, it also has snow. Driving from the airport to the town of Akaslompolo, I notice that every twig and fence-post has created a snow ripple. Snow on a rooftop doubles the height of the house. Pedestrians stepping off the road plunge in up to their crotches. The roads, in fact, resemble bob-sleigh runs: chiselled white cliffs of snow line the route. Fortunately, these roads are not busy. On the one-hour drive from Kittila airport, we encounter two vehicles.

Mind you, I am not hopeful about the alleged purity and innocence of Lapland. In Akaslompolo I was hoping to find a quaint, folksy little village with a close-knit community of housewives in headscarves getting together to discuss the price of reindeer meat. In fact, it is a rather sprawling place. Its population is only 400 but its houses (none of which are quaint) are strung out along the main road. The people who live here tend to be escapees from crowded Helsinki. Tuvo, who runs the hotel and restaurant, tries giving me the impression that his life is an idyllic cycle of wood-chopping and saunas, despite the fact that he seems to be running a big business.

Considering we are in the Arctic, his establishment is surprisingly classy. I see well dressed continentals quaffing Chardonnays and eating reindeer meat and expensive cloudberries. I am told that the best cloudberries are picked in mosquito-infested swamps (their expense originates in the pain of the picker).
But enough on the cultural incongruities of Lapland. The next morning, it is time to hit the snow. Tuvo warns us that we are going on "safari", which means that a strong, brave Finnish man will accompany, guide and entertain us as we go along.

One thing I soon find is that no matter how well dressed I think I am, the Finns want to dress me better. During my visit the weather does not seem particularly cold: daytime temperatures hover between 0 and minus 10. Nonetheless, huge, soft, padded boots and Mika Hakkinen-style overalls are provided to accompany our every activity.

I like these safaris. First is the snowshoeing, which is similar to walking along your local high street, except that the scenery is more picturesque here. Traditional snowshoers looked as though they had tennis rackets on their feet. These days the footwear has elongated itself and acquired an upturned tip. Once suitably clad, we shuffle off into a deep forest, up and down the sides of a steep valley. The activity is barely more strenuous than walking, until I find myself at the bottom of a snow hole looking up at the sky.

Our guide Mika is a little fellow with a pixie face who seems to love snow and trees as other men love houses and pubs. He points out fluffy Siberian jays and elusive snow rabbits and birch trees with tufts of moss hanging from their branches like goats' beards ("nourishment for the reindeer"). Then he causes everyone to stop in their tracks by admitting that his major interest in life is surfing. "It is true," he concedes. "Lapland's surfing community is small and out of touch." Meanwhile, he builds a fire for us and we begin cooking sausages for our tea.

Next it's off on the snowmobiles. These are to Lapland what motor-boats are to Windermere. Noisy, polluting toys which provide pleasure for the user and torment for the non-user in equal measure. It takes me a few exciting minutes to burn through the forest leaving all the hikers in my wake.

Meanwhile, of real reindeer-herding Lapps we see not a sign, except for a man called Hanno with a huge knobbly nose and a comic-book strongman's square chin. According to Mika, he speaks in a strangely accented, peasant-dialect of Finnish. His name card is a piece of engraved fire-wood and he carries a traditional wooden cup and a knife strapped to his belt, next to his mobile phone. But Hanno's business does not involve herding reindeer. His business is giving tourists rides on his reindeer-drawn sledge, as we now prepare to experience for ourselves. It is all over in minutes. Customers sit huddled on the sleigh under a reindeer skin, while the reindeer belts off round a short track through the snow. "Hanno's reindeer is an on-off reindeer," explains Mika. "He runs at top speed, or not at all."

It is the same with the huskies, who we meet the next day. On the husky farm we are greeted by two hulking men in furry waistcoats who (according to Mika) eat, sleep and live with their dogs. The huskies themselves range in appearance from sweet fluffy puppies to wiry wolf-like creatures with fangs and yellow eyes. They are reasonably friendly, except with dogs on other teams, whom they try to maul and kill at the slightest opportunity. And when they feel a ride is in the offing, they set up a barking and a howling to wake the dead.
Driving a husky team is not difficult. The sledges all carry two people: one reclining like royalty, and the other standing behind, ready to jump on to the brake with force at a moment's notice. Once the dogs are unleashed, five to a team, they tear off as fast as their little legs can carry them, hoping to overtake, and perhaps massacre, the team in front. On uphill stretches, the driver is requested to help the dogs by pushing with his feet.

It's all such fun. And to cap it all comes a pre-dinner sauna followed by mandatory naked cavorting in the snow. We won't bother, afterwards, trying to spot the aurora borealis. Instead we'll get drunk and sing karaoke songs. The Finns round here will love us for it.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled with Inntravel (01653 629010, which offers a seven-night holiday from £640 per person, based on two sharing, including return scheduled flights with Finnair from Heathrow to Kittila via Helsinki and half-board accommodation at the Yllashumina Hotel in Western Lapland, Finland. Alternatively, a three-night break costs from £490 on the same basis. There are reductions available for children aged under 16.

Further information
Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512;