Kiruna is Sweden’s northernmost town in Lapland, around 150km past the Arctic Circle.
On 25 February 2013, together with my ex-colleague from the Malaysian Investment Development Authority office in Stockholm, Nik Faizal, we crossed the Arctic circle when we visited Kiruna. The flying time from Stockholm to Kiruna is around 90 minutes.
Upon arrival at Kiruna airport, a certificate is given to each passenger, certifying that he or she had crossed the Arctic circle. The temperature in Kiruna fell below freezing point every day of our stay, but it was a memorable and unique experience for both of us.
Before attending an official meeting, I slipped and rolled downhill but luckily, I was not hurt. In some parts of the town, the snow was about a foot deep and we needed warm attire to endure the harsh wintry conditions.
By then I was in my third year of my tour of duty in Stockholm, and my visits to all the Nordic countries had helped me acclimatise to the harsh winters. I actually relished the winters, as it was a novel experience for someone from the tropics – even though the inclement weather had taken its toll on me.
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Kiruna is famed for the Ice Hotel and LKAB, the world’s largest, most modern underground iron ore mine. We were lucky to have visited both places as it was part of our official duties.
The Ice Hotel in Kiruna is one of Sweden’s most prominent tourist landmarks. Come every year in winter, the unspoiled waters of the Torne River are frozen into ice.
One winter day in 1989 the first ever Ice Hotel was hand-sculpted out of these colossal chunks of ice and the first ever ice hotel was built. A visit to the Ice Hotel is an incomparable experience: the designs of the structure can spellbind domestic and international tourists.
During our visit to the Ice Hotel, we were informed that every year around a thousand designs are received for the construction of the Ice Hotel, but only 50 are selected after careful scrutiny.
The hotel official who took me on a conducted tour asked me to spend a night in the hotel, but I politely declined as I had an eerie feeling about staying in the hotel.
World’s largest iron ore mine
Kiruna is home to the largest and most modern underground iron ore mine in the world, owned by Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB), a large Swedish mining company. Again, we were fortunate to visit this mine.
The impressive underground iron ore mine has an ore body 4km-long, 80m-thick, reaching a depth of 2km.
We were shown the way the iron ore is mined deep below the surface using tenuously worked machinery and driverless trains. The mine is one of Sweden’s best attractions: the Lonely Planet’s international guide book awarded it its highest rating. At the visitors’ centre, we were given a briefing on the mine’s operations and taken on a conducted tour.
A distinctive feature of this iron mine is that mining is carried out both above ground and beneath the surface. A good deal of the mining takes place a few hundred metres underground, such as in Kiirunavaara (Kiruna) and Malmberget (Gaalivare), while the ore mined on the surface is at Leveaniemi.
Indigenous Sami community
The Sami are the indigenous peoples living in several countries in northern Europe, particularly in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
In Sweden, Kiruna is home to the indigenous Sami community, and they have a different lifestyle compared to other Swedes. Despite changes to their way of life over the years, the Sami community ensure their traditions and culture are maintained.
If you call someone on the phone or mobile here, the conversation will most likely be in the Sami language, not Swedish. In fact, the Swedish name Kiruna is derived from the Sami word giron, which means grouse.
Sami people are proud of their cultural heritage and ensure that their traditions are sustained. The practice of reindeer herding is a strong legacy of the Sami cultural heritage but not all Samis practise it as their main occupation. It is more common to help out at larger events such as the calf branding.
The Sami people used to live as hunters and fisherfolk in nomadic communities, where they moved with the reindeer. Nowadays Samis live in many places in villages and cities and work in all kinds of professions. Even though the Sámi way of life has developed along with the rest of society, their culture and traditions are still dominant among them.
Kiruna is well positioned to offer visitors the chance to see the northern lights (Aurora) from September to March. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, the Aurora occurs even in April.
The northern lights are created by an amalgamation of the sun, the atmosphere and magnetic fields. The magnetosphere seizes and transmits fragments of energy from the sun, which then creates colours of the northern lights when the interaction occurs with oxygen and nitrogen.
The timeframe of the Aurora can vary from 10 minutes to the entire night. But even if it is for 10 minutes, it is a memorable experience.
Unfortunately for both of us, we were unable to see the Aurora during our stay but we were fortunate to see it in Iceland.
Kiruna offers a unique way to relish wintry conditions. Skiing enthusiasts can go downstream on the Torne River. The Ice Hotel, the LKAB, the scenic ambience and snow-covered forests will forever be etched in the memory of visitors like Nik Faizal and me.