I knew that! I knew I should not have listened to Liz who said I should go to Asia, I knew I should not have listened to my mate Konstantine who suggested India! I did not know that but I am happy I did not go to Siberia but chose to see Sweden, and not just fly to Stockholm for a cup of coffee and a one night stand but see the real Sweden and believe me, you don’t know this country until you’ve not crossed the Arctic circle, met Sami people, almost ran over a reindeer and have sen the sun above the horizon at 1am!
I do not know why the North is so magic to me, maybe because it’s a harsh environment and few people live here, maybe because I simply personally belong here I do not know but I would choose Lapland over the jade waters of the Mediterranean! Don’t get me wrong, a warm sea is nice, here it is 12 degrees in July but it is here… here is where the legends are born, not in the South of France. It is here where massive ice-age stones in the forests sleep and whisper at night telling each other stories of the ice!
Enter Swedish Lapland and the town of Jokkmokk. You’d probably say it’s a tiny town but you’d be wrong because I barely made it after a night-long drive through the midnight sun I almost ran out of fuel! A town at these latitudes does not necessarily have a petrol station… or a supermarket and if it does it’d be closing at 6pm!
Despite seemingly endless days my life has shrunk to just a few active hours a day. The points of interest are open 11 to 6 and this is pretty much the time frame where you can meet people and you can ONLY meet locals at shops because they don’t do cafes! They don’t do bars! And they do not do cocktail bars! I basically don’t know how you can meet someone with this setup. God forbid you turn 20 and are still single because you’d never meet anyone:)
Another problem is that I really find driving during polar night a lot more pleasurable but of course shall you stop somewhere and want to buy something it’d be closed and if you want a cup of coffee.. well, that’s what you need to do:
- Make a fire, this is to keep warm but most importantly keep mosquitoes out
- Go to a nearby river or a lake to get water (keep the bottled water in case you stop somewhere where water isn’t there.
- Make your tea (coffee is too complicated)
- Only takes an hour and a half!
And do not for a minute forget what shall greet you in the Arctics – it’s mosquitoes! Vicious, aggressive war devils that don’t mess about like its little southern cousins – these bad boys know no words of love and there will be no foreplay, no flying ’round you buzzing, giving you a chance to come face to face with the flying vampire, no, these fly straight into you! And it does not land on you as such it pierces your skin straight away! My body is so bitten that I stopped noticing new bites! Anti-mosquito spray? Sure, it will work just fine for the first 10 minutes, I’m not even sure these things are even bothered with that kind of stuff. No, they are certainly not the gay European mosquitoes I used to know!
The Trip Up North.
I knew that the Bothnian coast of Sweden was deceiving, I could see in in their towns, I could feel that something amazing was lurking behind the corner, the next twist of the Swedish gravel road but I could not see it. I knew I had to leave the coast, there was nothing there despite what the guide book was saying.
I filled the tank and started piercing the mainland from the coastline E4 to the mid-country E45 which seemed a just a couple hundred kilometres away… “just”…, the speeds dropped to 80 and I’d still be doing 150 if not for one observation I made a an hour or so into the journey – the “Anti-Elk” fence was gone. All I could see was endless pine forests left and right off the road. And in those forests must have been… Elks. right?
Right! I saw my first elk at 2am that day, he was large, dark, floppy, disproportional and yet so beautiful, he crossed the road to the sound of my car trying to grab on every pebble in the tarmac and everything at the back flying forward… when I finally stopped just meters in front of him, he still stood there looking at me with little interest! I opened the window to take a photo and it’s then when he for some reason decided to run! This encounter like no other road sign made me realise that 80 means 80! This was also a beginning of my Arctic adventure.
I walked around the car having an imaginary cigarette (now I know why people smoke after having had sex) and I saw the irresistible beauty of the nature around me! The bloody sunrise (or the sunset), the ancient and yet thin pine trees of the North all covered in moss, the endless road ahead of me pointing right into where the sun was.
The last drops of fuel brought me to a town called Jokkmokk. The town just North of the Arctic circle and with three petrol stations and two supermarkets that work until 22:00. You know what we call these supermarkets in the UK… they are more like TESCO Metro – the smaller form and they don’t sell sandwiches and condoms, what people really need here are tractor parts, garden tools, water and fuel cans… the really important stuff! (I later realised that those tiny supermarkets were huge with vast selections of food and stuff compared to what I encountered on my way further up North)
A short evening walk through central Jokkmokk revealed the true size of it – a dozen or so pretty buildings, a church, a school and a market where descendants of Sami people sell reindeer skins and antlers.
For the boys.
If you are interested in knives you must have a look at the ones made by Sami people. Forged from high-carbon steel the blade is a basic Scandinavian shape similar to what you can see on a bog standard Mora knife but the handle is a hand-crafted piece of a deer antler. The blade slots into the antler and the rest of the knife is held by snugly-fit leather.
When I first saw a Sami knife I did not understand it. From the central-European perspective they are too strange, the odd shape of the reindeer horn sheath… the odd carving on the knife’s handle. The price… a good piece will cost you North of 500 Euro and in many cases you’d pay 800 but I would highly recommend you get one, you won’t have another chance. Just bite the bullet and buy the knife.
Buy the knife!!!
Ten Days of Quietness – Jokkmokk
Sebastian (My Audi) has broken down just as I was planning to depart towards Sami mountains and believe me having to have your car fixed isn’t something you wanna be struck with at a small place like Jokkmokk although I should feel lucky it happened to me here and not in the middle of a forest in Norway.
I was on my way out of Town just passing the centre and bang – an alarming beeeeeep pierces the cabin air, all hands on the speedo point into nils and I see that there is no voltage in the system, the gearbox goes into what I presume was designed into “safe mode” which is more like the panic mode in reality shaking the body every time a gear changes….
The generator went and as such it isn’t a big deal especially on a diesel car where there are no spark plugs to drive, but it’s a modern car so everything is running off electricity: the gear box, the computer that controls the engine and the gear box, the climate system which immediately started draining the dying battery. I was quick to realise the end of days and drove straight into a local garage where they immediately priced the repair at 1000 Euro+ where the Plus stands for anything goes wrong while we’re unbolting/bolting the thing in place and we will charge you extra. You don’t wanna break down in Sweden.
The absence of a car gave me time to get to know Jokkmokk better. And think about my dream of living in a small town, being married to a local girl having kids and doing gardening…
The Dull Side of Jokkmokk
First things first – small towns are depressingly quiet. People find refuge in being with nature so they have no need for live music or a cocktail bar and as much as I like being out in nature I like socializing too and would very much like to have this opportunity once or twice a week. Things like live music come to Jokkmokk rarely and irregularly. I witnessed a band play for 70+ years olds and that was not cool… sorry folks.
And even if I could go out who would I meet. Single people in Jokkmokk are under 22, you would be running out of chances to meet anyone single passed that age. How they meet each other I don’t know as they seemingly don’t go out at all.
And above all I am not sure there is a way to change things. That’s just how people roll here and I think that maybe it will always be like that.
The Nice Jokkmokk
… and then, I started to like Jokkmokk and its lifestyle, I no longer needed to be anywhere in the vicinity of a cocktail bar to have a good time, I spent my time walking in the forest foraging for mushrooms and missed my rifle each time I saw a deer, I fished and ate fish from a local lake, discovered the endless Sami lands, especially during long walks to Jokkmokk from the camp site (that’s where I found most mushrooms!)
I also absolutely fell in love with rowing boats provided at the camp site! I would take one and spend two hours rowing around the local lake discovering its banks, semi-islands and one day I discovered an island which lead me to something I’ve not ever done in my life.
And sure thing I enjoyed fishing!
At this point I started understand the people of Jokkmokk who arrived there from much bigger places, there were two girls from Stockholm and I was told about a lady who moved there all the way from St Petersburg, Russia. These people arrived not for the money, they arrived in search of something bigger than cash.
What they found here is nature, the last untouched piece of wilderness in the whole of Europe and in my opinion it was probably worth it.
I also met my first Sámi! He was walking around telling stories in Swedish and if not for a lady from Goteborg who re-told them to me I’d never know how much these people struggled against the Swedes constantly loosing their lands, the ability to speak or learn their language. It looks like they’ve been recognised since 1987… but this is only because they have nothing left that Sweden did not take. Their forests are now free sources of timber, harbour steel and silver mines… their rivers have been blocked and lands flooded to make way to power dams. Ah, Jokkmokk provides the whole region with “green” power but this power is not “green” it really is cherry red built on the lands of people the Swedes have pushed into oblivion giving them fake recognition and alcohol in return and now that the Sámis have thing else to give they have been recognised and given a museum or two… so sad!
And if you think Swedes are bad, this is no different to what any other colonial nation has done anywhere else in the world.
End of the Little Urlaub
And came Thursday the 14th of July – the day when my car was ready. I arrived to Meca where Tube gave me the keys back in return for an equivalent of a 1000 Euro bill. But that’s not the biggest issue, the biggest and saddest discovery of the day was that having the car back in an instant destroyed the magic of the commute from the camp site to Jokkmokk.
Do you know that when Columbus discovered Americas the price of Gold in Europe plunged? That happened because all of a sudden they started bringing ships loaded with the yellow metal to Europe and it devolved anything made of Gold to date.
Same happened to me when I received Sebastian back. By this day I remembered every corner of the 30-miute long walk. The walk I planned for each day, I knew why I had to take it, what I needed to buy in the town. I measured my path from camping not by distance but by time and reference points: here is the power line, the horses, the wild meat shop, the village and finally Jokkmokk. I remembered places where I found mushrooms, where I noticed there was fire wood, all these little details have been destroyed in the blink of an eye when I received the car back.
Also, the car is a very unhealthy way to travel. You basically sit in a chair at all times and you only get fatter. I do not know how to mitigate that but I feel like the years when I should have done this road trip are over, I need a new solution, a new way to travel and maybe that requires more money. I thought that it’d be nice to travel the world without a car.
Travelling by bike is amazing and is to much more enlightening than going by car… but that is a sacrifice at a different level, you carry your whole like in 3-4 bags attached to your bike, that is primordial living. I especially liked how they ate – carbohydrates which white collar people would not come close to are the main source of energy, a cycle tourer will mainly be eating pasta with a little protein. They can’t eat enough! The biggest problem of a true bicycle tourer is being able to eat enough food, his biggest issue is that the body can not physically accept enough pasta:)
The day was coming to an end and before I went further up North I had to put the not so carefully engraved dog food bowl onto my newly-claimed island and this is a story for tomorrow.
(Serge Fog, July 4-14 2016)