Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland

Everyone needs to see the Aurora Borealis once in their lives, right? So began the journey to Oulu, the southernmost city of northern Finland. Oulu is located in the subarctic region and it’s pretty close to the geographical centre of the country. That makes it a great city for Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland.

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland – Oulu

My photographer friend and I had started chasing the Aurora Borealis a few days earlier in Helsinki. After spending the day in the Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland, it was time for us to hop on a bus. Roughly two and a half hours later we were in the largest city in the Subarctic region of Finland; Oulu.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Cycling on a Snowed Over Footpath

We had prearranged a host in Oulu who was doing her second Master’s degree at the Oulu University. Our host, Anna, had lived in many different places in the world and had some interesting views on daily life in Finland. We had planned to meet her at the university, so from the bus station we need to get a local bus. We had considered walking, but even though it was only a couple of kilometres, the cold was getting too much for me. Oulu has a super modern fleet of buses. The cost of riding one reflects that. It’s €3.50 for a one zone ticket. That ticket lasts for as many rides as you like within that zone for 60 minutes, or 80 minutes for multiple zones.

Snow Everywhere!

We may have prematurely exited from the bus, but we were still in the general vicinity of the university. This meant we got to walk through some of the winter wonderland that is Oulu in Febrary.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Snowed Over Canal

The snow didn’t just cover the ground, it literally stopped watercourses from running too! Some creative soul had decided to put some lights on what would’ve been the banks of a canal. With all the white everywhere, a little bit of colour was quite a welcome sight.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Lights on Canal Bank

It wasn’t the only place in town where someone had decided to add some coloured lights.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Blue Lights in the City K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Blue Lights in the City Centre

But these ones changed a little bit. There’s nothing I like more than watching lights move. I mean, that is the whole reason I had tormented myself with a trip to Finland in the winter!

Oulu City Centre

We were getting quite used to seeing snow everywhere by this point. So when we encountered a paved area with no snow, we were a little perplexed.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Paved Are With No Snow

How could this small patch of ground between two other patches of ground that were snowed over be snow-free? We were so obviously confused by it that a lady walking past us stopped to tell us that the ground was heated. Well, that makes sense. But then we wondered why it was just that patch and not all the paved areas in the city centre.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Policeman Statue

It really was better not to think too much about that one, so we just kept walking and came across this guy. He is a monument to the Finnish Police. I didn’t see any police the whole time I was in Finland, so I can neither confirm nor deny if they look anything like this portly policeman.

Getting Around Oulu

As I mentioned earlier, the local bus services in Oulu are rather pricey. €3.50 for one zone and €5.80 for two zones. We worked out pretty quickly that things were going to get very expensive. We were staying in Martinniemi, a small village about 40 minutes out of Oulu. That meant we would need to spend €11.60 a day just to get to and from Martinniemi. That’s not including transport within the city.

We opted to get a multiple day ticket, which ended up being much cheaper than buying separate tickets. As you can see on the Oulu transport site. The only problem was, we couldn’t buy these tickets anywhere in Martinniemi. So we ended up having to purchase them through the Oulu Transport App (Oulu Joukkoliikenne).

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland – Day One

We had scoured over our maps for hours to choose a place that wasn’t too far away from where we were staying. It wasn’t that we minded walking but the cold was really affecting us. The place we chose was only 700 metres from where we were located. As we got closer we started to realise that even though the map had indicated there was a path to the spot we’d picked, it actually wasn’t accessible from where we were.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Tree Lined Street in Oulu

We had however, ended up in a huge open area with a perfect view of the sky to the north. A completely cloudy sky. There was no way we were seeing any lights that night, so we headed back home. It was only a minor setback. We still had two nights.

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland – Day Two

We got back to looking at our maps to find a better vantage point. But this time we were smart and decided to check out the suitability and accessibility of the place during the day.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Snowy Road in Martinniemi

On the way we saw an abandoned house. Our curiosity got the better of us and we went inside. As you would imagine, the house had been stripped bare and the inside was pretty much just snow and graffiti.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Snow and Graffiti in Abandoned House

But it did have a nice view of the outside world.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. View Out of Abandoned House

Once we finally made it to a tiny frozen-over marina we knew that we had chosen well this time. It was interesting to see all the small boats that would normally be docked there, dry-docked on stands near the car park. We noticed a few small cabins there too.

Walking on Water

Not long after we got there, a guy drove in and parked his car. He proceeded to get a gas bottle and a box out of the car boot. They were placed on a small plastic thing with a rope attached to it. He started pulling it along the snow covering what would be the water of the bay in the summer.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Man on the Frozen-Over Bay

From what we figured, he had a cabin on a nearby island. As the water was frozen solid, the only way to reach it was by walking.

Second Time Lucky?

When we returned that night there was a bitingly cold wind blowing. I grabbed my phone to check what the time was and saw a warning I had never seen before; a flashing thermometer. Then that was it. My phone that had over 50% charge an hour beforehand just died. Then my friend looked at his two phones and they both had the same problem. That, the wind and the cloud cover were signs for us to leave.

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland – Day 3

This was our final chance to see the lights. The Aurora app we had downloaded informed us that there was a great chance of spotting Auroral activity under clear conditions. This made us hopeful. Given the phone issues of the day before, we made sure to keep our phones out of the cold as much as possible.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Cabin at the Marina

We sheltered in this cabin for a bit after the wind got too much for us. We were surprised to find that it had electricity. It also had some kind of stove in the centre. We surmised that it must be for people to use if they get stuck at the marina due to bad weather.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Inside the Cabin at the Marina

Once we ventured back outside we realised that there was too much cloud cover to see anything. But there was definitely something going on behind that cloud cover.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Lights Behind Clouds

There were no buildings in that area that could be causing such bright lights, so it must have been the Auroras. Damn cloud cover!

Nallikari, the Place for Summer and Winter Activities in Oulu

Just before we made our way back to Helsinki on an overnight bus, we decided to see if we could get some kind of winter activity in before we left Oulu. Nallikari, which is a beach area in the summer, seemed to be the place to go.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Nallikari

According to the internet, they had all types of snow activities happening there. Except of course when we went. All of their normal activities had been halted for one reason or another. They told us we could come back in a few days but that wasn’t really going to work for us.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Nallikari Beach Shacks

We explored the area for a little bit. It was quite amusing to see beach shacks on snow. Although the coolest thing we did that day was stand on the sea. Well, what would have been the sea if it wasn’t frozen over.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Nallikari Beach Frozen Sea

I guess that meant it was time for a selfie with our host while people walked on the ‘sea’ in the background.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finnish Lapland. Selfie at Nallikari Beach

Just in case you’re wondering, that’s a look of pain on my face. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t feel my hand at that point. I’d had to take a glove off to unlock my phone so this picture could be taken.

The End?

We jumped on our night bus back to Helsinki not long after. Then flew out of Helsinki back to London where I was supposed to get a flight home 2 days later. That flight got cancelled and I was stuck in London for an extra two weeks. As if that wasn’t annoying enough, my host Anna messaged me with a picture of the lights just after we left. She’d seen them as she was getting off the bus near her house!

At least I can tick ‘visiting the Subarctic region in winter’ off my list, but the Aurora Borealis will have to wait for another time in another country.

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Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland

If you’ve never heard of Kemi before, it’s way up north in Finnish Lapland. As you would imagine, it is covered in snow for roughly half the year. But there’s something special about this sleepy little Lapland town. It’s famous for constructing the world’s biggest snow fort every year. The Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland draws tourists from all over the world. As I found out when I heard more people speaking Cantonese and Mandarin than English while I was there.

Introduction to Finnish Lapland – Kemi

My photographer friend and I had taken an overnight bus from Helsinki to get to Kemi. The change between the two cities was quite stark. While Helsinki’s sky was perpetually overcast, there was very little snow. Kemi’s sky was still quite overcast, but the ground was white from snow cover. There were no roads and footpaths. Only snow. I suddenly saw an image in my head of me ending up on my butt because I’m totally inept at walking on snow. Luckily, I narrowly avoided hitting the ground by grabbing my friend and nearly making him fall. It just seemed like the right thing to do! As Canada, Kazakhstan and now Finland have taught me, walking on snow sucks.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Snow Everywhere

The snow made everything surprisingly bright, despite the overcast sky. I had always heard that Lapland region was perpetually dark in the winter, so I wasn’t expecting much daylight or brightness. I needed to wear my sunglasses because the glare from the snow was hurting my eyes! We had arrived at 10am and noticed a nearby food place. We thought we could go and grab some breakfast and use the WiFi, but it was closed. Okay, plan B, check at the supermarket across the road. Although the staff were really nice, they seemed quite clueless as to where stuff was in their town. They did advise us that most businesses wouldn’t open for another hour at least. Time for a walk then.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Snowed in Bikes

Walking Through Kemi

As you would expect of somewhere only 90 minutes shy of the Arctic Circle, the town of Kemi on Bothnian Bay near the Swedish border is rather small. Both in area and population. I don’t know if it was because of that or because of the cold, but there was almost no one around. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I saw many cars driving around. I did see quite a few parked cars with a substantial amount of snow on them though. You really couldn’t blame people if they wanted to hibernate at home for the whole winter. Given the daily subzero temperatures the town offered. It was hovering around -4°C when we were there. Yuck!

Lumi Visio/Snow Vision

The people that had ventured out had found an interesting way to keep themselves occupied.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Snow Sculpting in Kemi

We had stumbled upon some kind of snow carving competition in the centre of town. Note I said snow, not ice, carving. To be honest, this was somewhat of a novelty as I’d never seen anyone carving snow before. Given the copious amounts of snow around Kemi, it totally makes sense to turn it into art. But I did wonder how the huge blocks of compacted snow collected from the bay found their way to the centre of Kemi.

The competition, called Lumi Visio or Snow Vision is an annual event in Kemi. During the competition teams race against the clock to build a sculpture to a theme. I’m not entirley sure what the 2020 theme was but if I had to guess, I’d say cartoons.

As much as I wanted to stay and check out the sculptures for a bit longer, I found that, even with winter gloves and shoes, my hands and feet started to hurt after several minutes of no movement. Seriously, how do people live in these temperatures?

Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland

I got some feeling back in my extremities as a walked but wasn’t sure how much more of the cold I could take. That was why I was so happy to this sign. It meant the Snow Castle was near! Lumi Linna is Finnish for Snow Castle.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Snow Castle Sign

A team of architects and engineers spend months planning and building the castle using a different theme each year. Looks like the castle’s 25th year was ‘Igloo Style’. Even though the shape and size of the castle may be different each year, there are some things that are always included in the design. Like the Ice Bar and the chapel.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Kemi Snow Castle Chapel

I was told that people come from as far afield as Hong Kong to get married in that chapel. Being from Hong Kong, this sounds like an absolute crazy concept to me. Considering our winter temperatures rarely fall below 10°C and most Hong Kongers start wearing polar jackets when the temperature gets below 20°C. I guess they do it more for the gimmick factor.

Inside the Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland

After walking through a hallway from the entrance, you’ll find yourself at the Ice Bar. Of course they make the bar the first thing you come across and the lovely bar tender will definitely try to entice to grab a drink to warm up. But maybe the carvings on the wall above you will distract you enough to make you not care about having a drink.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Ice Bar K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Ice Bar Wall Carvings

As we walked further into the castle, there were a few different coloured caves with sculptures you could sit on and pose for photos. Unfortunately my camera just couldn’t deal with the green and blue lighting in those rooms. To be honest, my camera was having issues with the cold by this point. Clearly it’s a warm weather camera! Anyway, walking to the end brings you to what looks like a meeting room.

There was a dining alcove that split off from the main area. The ‘chairs’ were made of ice and covered with reindeer fur. I had to try one out and I didn’t freeze my butt off. So that was nice.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Dining Alcove

Rooms in the Kemi Snow Castle

As we were walking back out, I noticed a hallway off to the left that we hadn’t explored yet.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Hallway

Coming off that hallway were several rooms. Some just for sitting down and hanging out.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Sitting Room K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Shark Room

Then others for sleeping.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Dinosaur Sleeping Room K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Sleeping Room

As warm as that bedding looks, I could never see myself being able to sleep there. Especially seeing as the temperature inside the castle was colder than outside. Which was already bloody cold enough!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland. Snow Castle Temperature

Tourist Centre

Outside the castle there is a permanent building, called SnowCastle365, that acts as the reception for the castle hotel and glass cabins. It’s also the place to book other adventures, like reindeer sledding, snowmobiling and dining in an ice restaurant. I gave all of these a miss, because as you would expect, they were prohibitively expensive. There is also a cafe in that building as well as public amenities and some comfy couches to sit on before you head back out into the cold.

Kemi Snow Castle in Finnish Lapland – On to Oulu

Once we finally got up the courage to brave the cold, we headed back to the bus station to get the bus to Oulu. We were slightly perplexed when the bus hadn’t showed up five minutes past it’s departure time. We spoke to a local lady who was also waiting and she confirmed that we hadn’t missed the bus. She told us not to worry because it often runs late.

The bus ended up being about 15 minutes late and we were surprised that we recognised the driver. He was the same driver who had driven us from Oulu that morning. It was his second run back to Oulu that day.

Will we see the Aurora Borealis in Oulu? Stay tuned for the next installment

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Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi

Just a two and a half hour ferry ride from Tallinn in Estonia is the Finnish capital city of Helsinki. From there it’s easy to access one of the world’s coldest and most isolated regions. I may have mentioned before that I really hate the cold. Why had I spent a couple of weeks heading north into Finland in the middle of winter then? Two words: Aurora Borealis. I’m a sucker for pretty lights. So began a new adventure; chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi.

I wasn’t confident in my camera’s ability to capture scenes very well, so I made a friend who is a photographer take the trip with me. On the off chance that I would be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the spectacle that is the Aurora Borealis. We had gotten the 6 am ferry from Tallinn, which got us into Helsinki bright and early. Actually, not so bright really. It was still pretty dark by the time I got outside the terminal building at 8:30 am.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland Part One - Helsinki to Kemi. Port of Helsinki

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi. Wandering Helsinki

Not far from the port I got the first taste of what would be awaiting me in northern Finland. You know, that white stuff that covers the north for about half the year.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland Part One - Helsinki to Kemi. Snow in Helsinki

Luckily, that was all the snow I saw in Helsinki. In fact, the city seemed to be surprisingly free of it. I don’t know if this means that Helsinki doesn’t get as much snow as I had imagined. Or if they’re just really good at hiding it. Mind you, I’ve been in Canada in the winter and snow isn’t something that can easily be hidden. So I’m going to run with my first thought; Helsinki isn’t the winter wonderland I thought it would be.

Easy to Navigate City

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bloody cold! Almost too much for my warm weather body to handle. But my only choice was to suck it up and walk. Helsinki is an amazingly walkable city. There are wide footpaths and cycle paths everywhere. The signage is also pretty great. I think it would be a pretty difficult city to get lost in.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland Part One - Helsinki to Kemi. Informational Signs in Helsinki

One thing I noticed while wandering around Helsinki, was that the Finns seem to have quite a sense of humour. Whether it’s a sign at the entrance of a fast food joint

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Finnish Humour

Or sculptures like this one, called Naughty Boy

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland Part One - Helsinki to Kemi. Naughty Boy

Speaking of sculptures, there was no shortage of them around the city.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Square near Kampi Bus Station

I guess it was a sign of the season that I saw some temporary ice sculptures too. Or half sculptures. It looked like one of them could’ve been Snoopy, but someone made a mistake while sculpting it. I mean, there’s no way it could’ve melted in that weather!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Ice Sculptures Outside Oodi

Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland – Helsinki to Kemi. Oodi in Kansalaistori Square

A well-known building in Helsinki is its central library or Oodi as it’s known locally. It’s located in Kansalaistori Square, which is right near the city centre. Oodi bills itself as “A meeting place, a house of reading and a diverse urban experience”. It certainly is an experience. It also seemed like the place to be on a dull winter’s day. We thought we’d go there for the warmth and WiFi. Everyone in Helsinki had the same idea, it seemed. It’s the most crowded library I’ve ever seen.

The outside of the building is striking, with a three storey glass facade. Each of the three floors of the building had different areas. The third floor had all the books, along with a children’s play area. We found a terraced area with powerpoints on the second floor. There were loads of people just hanging out there. A wander around the second floor allowed me to watch a 3D printer in action. Oodi had several 3D printers for public use. The geek in me was happy. Yes, this was definitely no ordinary library.

WiFi Everywhere

Oodi also had sewing and embroidery machines, studios and editing rooms, games, music and meeting rooms as well as a restaurant and a cinema! Of course, there was also WiFi available, as there is everywhere in Helsinki. You see, Finland decided back in 2010 that internet access was a right and should, therefore, be available to everyone. That means free WiFi is everywhere. You don’t have to go far to get connected in the city.

Quirks in the City

Helsinki is a beautiful and clean city that’s easy to navigate, but it does have it’s quirks. Firstly, I’m not sure if they get to see the sky in Winter there. It seemed to be perpetually overcast. Or dark. I only managed to get a few photos while it was light. Not because I was wandering around late at night but because it got dark at around 3 pm!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Helsinki Street

As much as they believe internet is a right in Helsinki, they don’t believe that relieving yourself is a right. If you want to use the toilets in many establishments, you have to make a purchase. All the toilets have security codes which are printed on the receipt you get after you pay. You’d wanna hope that you don’t end up in a huge line when you really need to go.

Another interesting concept in Helsinki is night prices at fast food places. If you want to get something to eat after 9 pm, the menu prices increase and the specials disappear. Even if the place is due to close at 10 pm, they’ll switch to night menu prices for their last hour of trading. And those prices will possibly continue for their first hour of trading the next day, depending on their opening time.

Also, it seems that a lot of things are Lactose and Gluten free. I even saw Lactose free sausages!
K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Laktisiton/Lactose Free Product K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Gluteeniton/Gluten Free Product

Crazy Prices

Some Northern European countries are well-known for their exorbitant prices for everyday items. While I was expecting Finland to be more expensive than the Baltic countries I had just come from, I wasn’t quite prepared for how much the prices did jump. Some things were more than twice the price! It was just as well that I’d run under budget in the Baltic countries.

The only other country I’ve come across in my travels that is more expensive is Norway. I figured that prices might get worse the further I headed into the north. With that in mind, I stocked up all the cheap(ish) non-perishable stuff I could get my hands on at the Kamppi Centre.

Interestingly, the Kamppi Centre was one of the biggest redevelopment projects and the largest construction site in Finnish history. It took four years to transform the area in downtown Helsinki into the hub that it is now. It has almost anything you could need, like a huge shopping centre with nightclubs, offices and residences as well as local and long-distance bus terminals.

Overnight Bus to Kemi from Kamppi

The buses that I took in the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), especially in Vilnius were quite luxurious and had complimentary hot drinks. This was not so with the Finnish overnight bus that we were taking to Kemi in Finnish Lapland. It was the least comfortable of all coaches taken thus far, despite being comparatively more expensive. I had mistakenly assumed that things would get more luxurious in Finland. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.

I stared out the window of the mostly empty bus as we made our way out of the city. For the first hour there was no snow to be seen. Then I watched the amount of snow slowly increase on the road, until about 2 hours out of Helsinki where everything as far as the eye could see was covered in several centimetres of snow. Including the road! I thought the bus driver might slow down at that point but he did not. As terrifying as it sounds to me, driving on snow is the only way you get anywhere in the winter in Finland.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis in Finland, Helsinki to Kemi. Snow Covered Road on the Way to Kemi

Arriving in Lapland

I had actually managed to sleep a bit on the way, as the ride had been pretty smooth. We pulled into Oulu, the biggest city in Northern Finland at about 7 am. But that wasn’t the end of the journey. There we had to wait a short while for the bus that would take us onto Kemi in Lapland. That two hour journey continued on snowed over roads until we were finally in Kemi.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Chasing the Aurora Borealis -Helsinki to Kemi. Abandoned bike in Kemi

Follow the continuing adventure in Kemi

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