A night in the Snow Hotel

When you go on holiday to a place like Lapland in December, where temperatures can fall below -30°C, you’d think that your reward for a day out in the Arctic conditions would be a nice warm hotel room to sleep in. But some choose to then spend the night surrounded by ice and snow too. Of the five nights we spent in the area we slept for three of them in an airbnb apartment in the town of Rovaniemi, but then for the last two nights we headed 30km north west to the site of the Arctic Snow Hotel.

This small resort offers two types of accommodation: the snow hotel and glass igloos, and we spent one night in each. There are also a few ancillary buildings: a large reception/restaurant in a normal, heated building, another restaurant in a large yurt-type structure, and some sauna facilities. The snow hotel from the outside is nothing much to look at: a one-storey white oblong with no windows and only two doors. They build it every year, starting in November, and it takes about six weeks to complete. The entrance is fairly unassuming, although I did like the furry doors.

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Inside most of the corridors look like this, but the layout is fairly simple so getting lost isn’t a problem.

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There are individual rooms, family rooms, and suites. Here’s our family room, with two double beds and one single. The beds are blocks of ice but inside them are proper mattresses covered with reindeer hide. The LEDs in the base are the only lighting in the room.

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Adjoined to the snow structure are a couple of temporary wooden structures housing toilets/showers and a locker room/changing room. As the snow rooms are pretty small and dark, the idea is that you put all your stuff in a locker, get changed into a couple of thin layers you’ll wear in bed (for most people this means pyjamas with thermals underneath), and then take a pillow and sleeping bag back to your room. The bunks you see here are then available to sleep on if you decide during the night that you really can’t stand sleeping surrounded by snow.

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You are free to wander around the rest of the structure and even visit other people’s rooms, which is safe since no one leaves anything valuable in there anyway. There are no doors as such on the rooms, but you can draw a curtain and hang a “do not disturb” sign outside. There are a lot of LEDs to add some colour to the surroundings.

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The suites are a lot more elaborately decorated, and probably have a price tag to match. You don’t get any extra facilities or services, but a bit more space and light, and something to look at.

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You can also just visit the hotel and look around the rooms even if you’re not staying there.

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If the cold gets too much you can always warm yourself by the fire. The ICE FIRE, ha ha.

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There’s a small chapel where you can get married. Or pray, or whatever.

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There’s a restaurant where we ate dinner one night, and a bar where you can, er, chill out.

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My shot of cloudberry liqueur in an ice glass was very pleasant, and we bought a bottle in the airport on the way home.

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But of course what you want to know is, what was it like to sleep in? Well that depends who you ask. The rest of my party slept just fine. I barely slept a wink. Maybe it was because I found the sleeping bag uncomfortable and restrictive (I haven’t used one since scout camp over 30 years ago). The hood part of the bag came right up over and covered everything except a small area of my face. At a minimum my eyes were exposed, and I tried a couple of times just covering my head completely but that got too stuffy and claustrophobic, so I had to put up with my eyes and/or nose feeling chilly. Either way I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to drop off, although I think I eventually managed to get about an hour of sleep towards the morning. Staff members come and wake you up at 7:30am, but I was already up and dressed and keen to get out for breakfast by then, much to my family’s sleepy-eyed bemusement.

On the second night we slept in a “glass igloo”, which was much more to my liking. Essentially they’re individual cabins with domed glass roofs to allow you to see the Northern Lights if and when they appear (there’s also an alarm in the igloo which rings to let you know when the lights could be seen).

We’d been to Lapland once before in 2001 and seen nothing due to overcast skies, and by the last night of this trip I was resigned to having missed them again, in spite of having paid for an aurora notification app during our nights in Rovaniemi. And then, on our way back to the igloo from the restaurant on our final evening, just before 8pm, something started to happen in the sky. Nothing like as bright or spectacular as the images we saw every day on postcards in the gift shops, but it was there nonetheless. For about 20 minutes we saw several wavering bands and shimmering blobs of green. The photos don’t do them justice; I should have had a tripod for starters, but they should give you some idea.

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The next morning we woke at our leisure after a good night’s sleep, and saw our igloos in the daylight for the first time.

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Prompted by seeing the Japanese tourists from the next igloo doing it, we boiled a kettle of water and threw it into the air outside to see how it reacted to the chill morning air which was getting below -30°C (-25° Fahrenheit).

And finally, the aurora borealis wasn’t the only unusual atmospheric phenomenon we saw in Lapland. One morning while on a husky safari we saw these strangely coloured blobs on the horizon. They’re nacreous clouds, whose mother of pearl colours are caused by the light being diffracted by ice crystals. They’re also bad for the ozone layer.

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Mellow fruitfulness

We spent Sunday morning picking fresh vegetables on a farm just east of the edge of Brussels. La Finca runs a farm specialising in local organic vegetables. They have a shop and a small restaurant and run activity weeks for kids. Once a year they open to the public and let you pick your own produce and watch demonstrations of apple-pressing and the manufacture of woollen goods.

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Even though summer is lingering, Indian-style, the gourds were already out on display:

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We brought home a basketful of tasty veggie goodies, but I was more interested in the visual aspect of many of the plants. The swirl and bulge and violet hue of these leaves.

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These alien purple tubers.

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Basically anything with a hint of purple in it caught my eye.

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Later in the day we visited a see-through church in Flanders, and on the way passed by fields of corn…

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…and orchards bursting with ripening apples.

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The hedgerows nearby were also full of less familiar seeds, berries and blooms.

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These seed pods were probably my favourite:

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Although these were a close second:

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Backwash

I like going to the beach, but rarely feel the desire to swim in the sea. When I do go in the water, I’m often happier just standing at the water’s edge, letting the waves lap at my feet and lower legs. If I do go in for a full immersion the water has to be pretty warm and even then I take it slowly, wading out and waiting a minute before ducking under.

But the area where the waves spill, plunge, collapse and surge is more fun. Like many people I can stand there and watch them for a good long while. Allowing them to swirl and pull at my lower extremities while I do so adds a sensual element. On the beach near San Vincenzo in Tuscany this summer I took to standing at the edge where the waves would slide up the gently shelving sand. They would crash up to around the middle of my shins and then wash backwards, creating gurgling vortices around my ankles.

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As they did so they also pulled at the sand under my feet, and with each passing wave I would be sucked a little deeper into the surface of the beach, heel first, which made it increasingly difficult to keep my balance.

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The power of the water was surprising, given that it was only a few inches deep.

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The glassy smooth surface of sand freshly washed by the sea is probably my favourite part of the beach, and I love walking along it and seeing it change tone and dry out under the pressure of my feet.

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Moss and Moonscapes

Iceland has a lot of dramatic scenery. That’s kind of the point of Iceland. Glaciers, volcanoes, cliffs and waterfalls; all lovely.

But I actually found myself enjoying more some of the quieter, more subtle landscapes.

For example at one point driving through the hills near Möðrudalur we stopped for a breather in a relatively featureless, desolate spot.
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The view across the plains, in the direction of our accommodation for that night.

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Barely any life to be seen.

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A verdant moss haze filled nooks and crannies.

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Another favourite spot was Mýrdalssandur, on the south coast. Miles of flat plains; we had been warned by a friend that this was likely to be the most boring part of our tour. I loved it.

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Immense lava fields covered with sparse vegetation. Mossy hummocks as far as the eye could see.

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This was the bit of Iceland I’ll remember. Not so dramatic perhaps, but unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

More photos on flickr.

Thin ice

A change to the lunchtime routine today. A social event in the lobby provided a free lunch, so my half an hour break was available to be used for something other than eating. Usually that would mean reading, but I wanted some fresh air and exercise and it was a bright, sunny day, so I wandered outside and found a park I’d never visited before, only a few hundred metres from the office.
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Don’t walk on the grass ice.

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Rebellious ducks.

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Frozen feather. The black blob stuck to the twig is a snail. I like how the ice creases and folds around the shell. Still, poor snaily.

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An awful lot of leaves in this pond.

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I was fascinated by the way tiny bubbles under the surface of the ice outline the objects below them; rocks and branches.

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Maybe I should get out more often.

Antici-pain-tion

Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).

A visual medium

I just finished reading Helen Keller’s autobiography. I love two kinds of books: those which explore new worlds; and those which explore our own world from a viewpoint substantially different to my own. This book certainly qualifies for the latter category. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads.

This autobiography is split into two sections. The first, evidently written while she was still quite young, covers the first twenty or so years of her life. What comes through strongest is her love of life and her determination not to let her blindness and deafness hold her back. The effort and patience involved (both for her and her teacher Mrs Sullivan) in not only learning to read, write and speak, but to do so in several languages (she learnt French, German, Latin and Greek) and to attend a “normal” university alongside seeing, hearing women is amazing.
The second is a series of articles covering different aspects of her perception of the world, and this for me was more interesting, as it was the main thing I really wanted to know about her. She has a sharp and perceptive mind and is adroit at using metaphors and analogies both to describe her own situation and to try to comprehend ours (seeing and hearing, as she understands them).
Her prose can sometimes be a little purple and effusive, which may be either a product of her time or a reflection of her literary preferences. Occasionally I found it distracting, but mostly it was just a case of getting used to it. I wasn’t too keen on her poetry, though.
I’d be interested to read something else, maybe more contemporary, on the topic.

The advantage of books like this is that after reading them you see the world around you a little differently. I started thinking about the nature of books themselves, and how my experience of reading isn’t all that different than Helen Keller’s. After all, books aren’t really a visual medium, are they?

Leaving aside the obvious exception of illustrated books my point is that, for all their visual and tactile pleasures, books don’t communicate their ideas through their visual aspect. Although the experience differs in some ways, listening to someone read the text out to you will have pretty much the same result as looking at it with your own eyes. The printed text is a delivery format, a way of transmitting ideas from the writer’s mind into that of the reader.

Compare it to the other arts: you can’t remove the audio component from music, or the visual component from painting, or the sense of taste or touch from gastronomy (if we consider that to be an art, for the sake of argument). The reader of a book is deaf, blind, cannot taste or smell or feel the world the writer creates and must have it laboriously spelled out by the author as they lead us by the hand through their creation. When we read a book, we are all Helen Keller.