The train was a rickety old beast – a string of tin cans joined together, rattling through the night. Inside it was warm and comfortable, with spongy, dated décor. I had joined the train at 11 o’clock in the evening and the seat beneath me was to be my bed for the night.
Across the aisle were a group of chattering students, a mixed bag of Germans, English, Mexicans and Belgians. There were on an international exchange programme and seemed rather unenthusiastic about Sweden. They bemoaned the lack of nightlife in the town in which they were studying and seemed resigned to a wasted year in the wilderness.
The students were travelling to Kiruna in the far north of Sweden, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. This is pretty much the only reason to visit Kiruna, a grimy mining town with little in the way of sights. My destination was a couple of stops further down the line – Abisko, a tiny hamlet on the edge of a national park.
We were riding the train to Swedish Lapland, a route that stretches from Gothenburg in the south of the country all the way to Narvik on the Norwegian coast, some 1,300km away. I had boarded in Ljusdal, a small town in central Sweden, and another 15 hours of travel lay ahead of me.
As the train rumbled on, the carriage sank into a fitful sleep. By morning, a vast chunk of Sweden had slid by. We were into the heart of Norrbotten (Swedish Lapland), a region the size of England which occupies almost a quarter of Sweden’s land mass – yet is home to just 250,000 people.
The enthusiastic driver switched on the speakers to direct our attention to reindeer on the snowy plains outside. A short time later, he blew the whistle to mark our passage across the Arctic Circle. The moment felt oddly profound. We were now at the top of the world, in that portion of the planet where the sun dips out of sight completely in winter.
Outside the train, bleak white tundra stretched to the horizon. This far north, the forests that carpet most of Sweden fall away, leaving stubby little trees and plants. Tiny hamlets of red and white houses speckled the landscape. At Boden, the train turned left onto the Malmbana, Europe’s most northerly railway line, which stretches from Lulea on the Gulf of Bothnia to Narvik.
The Malmbana, opened in 1888, was built to carry iron ore from the mountains along the Sweden-Norway border to the ports on either coast. It winds its way through some of the harshest and remotest terrain in Europe – a route so challenging that no one in their right mind would consider building a railway there unless the financial rewards were indeed great. In fact, the English company that built the line went bankrupt in the process. The happy legacy, however, is that today both passengers and freight are able to shuttle through this distant land with surprising ease.
Around midday, the train slid into Kiruna and the students departed. Rolling onwards, we passed a huge gash in the earth where the mines had taken a bite out of the land. Leaving Kiruna behind, the train wended its way through valleys and along a large, frozen lake.
Snowbound villages huddled on the slopes of the mountains which began to crease up the landscape. The largest structures in these hamlets were the train depots, great brick buildings that once loaded and unloaded tons of ore. Living in these out-of-the-way places seemed to me impossibly wilful. It must take a particularly stubborn and determined person to put up with life in this desert.
A handful of people descended from the train at Abisko. The village consisted of little more than a youth hostel perched on the edge of a gorge. The Abisko Turiststation was a surprisingly large complex, comprising rooms, chalets and huts. With no other amenities in the area, the hostel provides everything, including a restaurant, shop, saunas and ski wear.
The Turiststation sits on the fringe of the Abisko National Park, 77 square kilometres of valleys, lakes and mountains. It also serves as the start (or end) of the King’s Trail, a 425km-long hiking route that follows the mountains along Sweden’s spine. A ski-lift to the top of the 500m-high Mount Nuojla lies a short distance from the hostel, offering terrific views of the area.
I was more interested in tramping around on foot, so I set off into the trees, occasionally passing half-submerged shacks and crossing the snowmobile runs that carve up the area. The whine of the vehicles’ engines could be heard some distance away. After a short walk, I came across a reconstruction of a wooden Lapp or Sami camp, with separate huts for food and shelter. Moving further into the countryside, I was rewarded with a stunning vista of Lapporten, a famous bowl-shaped curve between two mountains, once used by the Sami to guide their herds.
The land populated by the Sami – known as Sapmi – in fact stretches across the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Thanks to the train line, Swedish Lapland is by far the most accessible part. The total Sami population in Sweden is around 25,000 – meaning they are considerably outnumbered in their own land.
The history of the Sami has been one of continual tension between their interests and the various governments that have tried to control them. The Swedish government, so progressive in many areas, only recognised them as an indigenous people in 1978 and still imposes strict definitions on what it means to be ‘Sami’.
By now I was knee-deep in snow and thinking that snowshoes might have been a good idea. Walking became hard, and although I was less than half a mile from the hostel, I felt truly lost in the wild. I decided to cut back towards the main road, eventually dashing across the railway tracks and retracing my steps to the hostel.
There was no sign of the Northern Lights that night. The next day I planned to ride the Malmbana to the end of the line – Narvik. Once Abisko was behind us, the landscape began to flex and bulge with mountainous biceps. The train dived through tunnels and teetered on the edge of vast chasms as flat Sweden became fjord-crinkled Norway.
Just before the border we reached Riksgränsen, a busy Alpine ski resort, somewhat incongruous in its remote location. The Swedes are keen skiers, somewhat hampered by the fact that most of their country is unremittingly flat. Neighbouring Norway seems to hog most of the region’s mountains. As a result, the slightest hill or mound in Sweden usually plays host to a ski slope.
Rolling across the frontier, I drew myself close to the window and watched the folds of the valleys twist away beneath us. The Malmbana had reserved the most spectacular scenery for last. And then – just when it seemed we were about to drop off the planet altogether – we emerged from the mountains and arrived in the pleasant town of Narvik.
The back shoulder of the Scandinavian Mountains frowns down on the town, providing a ski slope that stops almost in people’s back gardens. Narvik is surrounded by water, and its route to the sea is picked through a series of fjords and islands. I wandered down the main street and took a picture of the signpost that proudly advertises the vast distances which separate the town from pretty much everywhere else.
Nearby was the town’s war museum, which commemorates Narvik’s eventful history in World War II. In April 1940, the town was the focal point of a fierce battle between invading German forces and a British flotilla, both sides having recognised its strategic importance as a source of iron ore. Nowadays the area around Narvik attracts people for the plentiful outdoor activities, from winter sports to hiking, diving, whale watching and rock climbing.
I moved on to the town museum, an empty, unloved place housed in the old railway administration building. Its chief exhibit was an attractive, if somewhat quaint, diorama of the Malmbana line – emphasising once again the railway’s importance to the region. I then trudged out of the modern centre of town towards an attractive district of wooden houses, rendered even more charming by the falling snow.
Having seen most of the sights, I left Narvik feeling satisfied. Its stunning location, attractive houses and pristine streets amounted to a little gem of a town. It was comforting to think that such a flourishing place could exist in such remote surroundings.
Back in Abisko, I celebrated my last day with a walk through the national park, this time sticking to the trails. But on my final night, the Aurora Borealis once again failed to show, and it was too cold to hang around outside, gaping at the sky.
The last evening was a case of killing time until the train arrived at around 11 o’clock. Sapmi had sunk into a perfect darkness and I didn’t even notice when the train pulled into Kiruna. A crash of rucksacks signified the arrival of some familiar faces – the students I had met on the way up. “Did you see the northern lights?” they asked me. I had to say no, but I could sense their response before they said it. “Oh, we did!” That may be so, but I was happy with all that I’d seen at the top of the world, Aurora Borealis or no.