Saariselka: More Walking, Less Getting Lost

The next night was to be at Saariselka. Since I like a bit of flexibility in my travel plans, I hadn’t booked a bus to get there. There was a bus and it went several times a day; which makes me wonder why it couldn’t have dropped me to Inari in the first place. I mean, the airport is on the way from Saariselka to Inari, so why not just pick me up on the way, the bus has to get to Inari anyway, why go empty?

Anyway. I opted for the 7:05 bus. The next one was at noon and that left me nowhere. Not enough time to do stuff here, not enough time to do stuff there. Of course, 7 a.m. is kind of early in a cold place. And I had almost 1 km to walk to get to the bus stop in the heart of town. And my backpack seems to mysteriously get heavier each time I hoist it.

As I checked out of the hotel the evening before – I mean, of course, that I just paid the bill; I could continue to stay in the room overnight – I mentioned to the guy at reception that I would take the early morning bus. Oh, he said, in that case I will call the bus. It will come here.

I was astounded, to say the least, at the concept of calling a bus as if it were a well trained dog, or a taxi. Since when are buses amenable to being called? In India, if a bus comes when it’s supposed to, and where it’s supposed to, you can count yourself lucky, especially if you happen to be in the middle of nowhere at the time. There’s no question of calling a bus.

I went up to my room wondering if this was such a good idea. Of course, nothing terrible would happen if I missed the bus, it would just be annoying and a waste of money. But the concept of calling a bus seemed so improbable and alien that I just felt I shouldn’t trust it. Before I could debate the matter much, there was a knock at the door. The receptionist chap was there to inform me that he had spoken to the bus (as he put it; he never mentioned a driver in any of this, just the bus) and the bus had asked me to be waiting downstairs at 6.50 a.m.

Sure enough, at 6.53 I saw the bus come around the corner of the road and by 6.55, I was aboard and on my way. Such are the wonders of travel – it opens your mind to possibilities you never knew existed.

The drive was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I love bus travel. You sit by the window, eyes glued to the world passing by, mouth agape, mind all at sea. Just for the moment, you are where you’re supposed to be and you don’t have to worry about a thing. What you’ve left behind is gone, what’s going to come has not yet come and you can hang on to each moment wholeheartedly, immerse yourself in it, draw it out for as long as humanly possible.

One hour was definitely too short.

The bus dropped me off right outside my hotel, which was good because at a little past 8 a.m., Saariselka was freezing. Literally. The temperature was a nice round number, zero. This was a big, bustling hotel of the kind I’m so not used to staying at when I travel on vacation. They obviously didn’t have my room ready at 8 a.m. Large numbers of people were just leaving. The women at reception pointed me to the luggage room, the rest room, and told me to come back later. Preferably much later. Like, at 4 p.m.

So off I went looking for my next adventure, or, as the case may be, misadventure.

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I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after falling and floundering so dramatically in the Pielpajäärvi hike, I was noticeably reluctant to go and get stuck on another remote, lonely, snowed-in trail. But it was 8.30 a.m. It was freezing outside, many of the shops and establishments hadn’t yet opened, and there was nowhere to sit and nothing to do. Nothing, except to get back on the trail, some trail, any trail.

The maps and signs in Finland are just amazing. It was quite difficult for me to get lost. Not to say that I didn’t get lost, just that it wasn’t as easy as it usually is, so it didn’t happen so often and not for such worryingly long stretches of time. And of course I had Mr Google on my phone, but some of the trails were too far off-road for him. And it wasn’t the sort of terrain where you could just cut across the open land and head for the nearest town.

Anyway, with minimal input from one of the locals, I found myself on yet another trail heading through the woods with pristine snowy tee-covered slopes on either side. I was on the way to Iisaakippa, which is a fell, which is like a hilltop. It was a very long 7 km, beautiful at every step. By the time I’d rounded the far end of the hilltop and started the long, slow ascent, I’d almost forgotten to be worried about sinking into the snow. There were more people around in this area, with skiing tracks nearby. There were also, unbelievably, some locals walking their dogs. At the top of the fell, there was a man with a dog just chilling out there – and I do mean that literally as well.

The fell itself was indescribable. It seemed to me to be like he surface of the moon, from photos you see from NASA. Vast, smooth, lifeless, featureless but arbitrarily pitted, gently curving, silvery white, utterly alien. Another similar lunar landscape dominated the scene behind me, as I climbed up the flank of this hill. It was surreal, like something out of a sci-fi novel.

There were absolutely no misadventures on this trail, which went some way to restoring my confidence.

The next day, I tried I short variant of this trail and also a long cycling path down to Laanila. This cycling path was broad and well maintained, the snow having been cleared by a machine. It was well away from the main road, so you couldn’t hear or see any traffic. Every so often a few homes would appear, sometimes with people sitting outside, or children cycling, or someone trying to clean the snow off their roof. It provided a fleeting, surreptitious peek into the lives of the locals.

There wasn’t much to do at Laanila, once I’d reached. There was a museum. I opened the door tentatively, wondering if I really wanted another museum, only to be greeted by a blast of warmth, aromas, conversation and general Bon homie. Apparently I’d come upon the most happening bistro this side of the Arctic Circle. This was the sole excuse for dozens of crazy skiers to slide 4km on icy trails from Saariselka – just to sit around the wood stove, drinking coffee and eating Danish pastries. Of course I joined the party. They even had a gluten free item; I’m not sure what it was, something between an apple strudel and something else, but it went down very nicely with a cup of hot chocolate.

And thus fortified, I started the long walk back.

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