Wednesday 14 October 2015

Sleeping on the ice

The entrance to the Ice Hotel

After Northern Lights, now that cold winter mood is set, let me write about my Ice Hotel experience. It was all part of the Northern Lights trip that I had organised and in fact my Northern Lights trip to Abisko was the last thing that I did on this trip.
The Flight
Originally it was only me who was going but eventually I had two more friends (Chris and Vipul) joining in. We managed to get on a charter flight from London Heathrow terminal which was fantastic and saved a lot of time, otherwise you have to fly to Stockholm first and then take a train/bus or drive from Stockholm to Kiruna. Because we managed to get a direct flight it saved us considerable amount of time, we got there in about 3 hours.
Fun on the flight
My friend Vipul as usual added bit of unintentional fun element to the trip. You will read a lot about him soon, however to begin with he very nearly missed the flight. He arrived late for the check in and realised his name wasn't on the check in manifest, we later found out that his name was taken off the list as he got there after check in cut off time and it is a safety procedure on the flight to take the name off. Eventually after showing all his documents and some persuasion he was eventually allowed. Obviously we didn't know until we saw him boarding the plane at the very last minute. He had allocated seating between myself and Chris but then since he was taken off the manifest his allocated seating didn't show up either, being a chartered flight he was asked to pick any empty seat. We were at the back, he managed to find one empty seat at the front, we were relived to know he was on the flight. When the meals were served the stewardess asked us if there was any special meal request - Both me and Chris said no as we didn't make any special requests. After a while the stewardess got back and said I have a spare veggie meal that was requested which you guys can have. We were more than happy to have another free meal which we shared. 
After an hour or so the flight attendant came back asking if there was supposed to be a friend of ours sitting next to us? I said we didn't know what seats we were allocated until we got our boarding passes and we had all booked separate therefore we were not sure. She then said it was supposed to be your friend who is now in the front and very upset that someone ate his veggie meal :). Oh well, what can be done!!!
Landing in Kiruna
As we were about 30 minutes from landing, the pilot announced to look out of the window. We were above the arctic circle. The scenery was breath-taking. Big mountains, trees all covered with white stuff. It was a total whiteout. As we got lower I could see the runway at one point covered in blanket of ice. I am not a nervous flier, I have been on flights to India during heavy monsoon, I have been on flight to the Patagonian region in Argentina which is always very windy and flights landing in between mountain terrains making it really turbulent, my flight to Iguazu made a landing in the middle of thunderstorms and during the process also got hit by lightning, but in this case seeing that we were literally going to land on ice at such high speed did make me bit nervous. But then it was very smooth landing and I couldn't help myself and asked one of the flight attendant if they ever had skidded off the runway. She said they never have, these are normal weather conditions for us in the arctic, business as usual :).
Finding Vipul
Finally for the first time we meet Vipul. When we ask him the reason for delay, the answer was - It took a lot of time layering up. We are still trying to figure out why layer up in London, it wasn't -20 in London, you can always do that on flight if required before landing. But still does it take that long to wear layers? Never mind at least he was there with us.
More about Kiruna
We got on a coach from Kiruna airport that took us to Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi a small village just outside Kiruna, it takes about 20 minutes to get from Kiruna airport to the ice hotel. Kiruna itself is a small mining town, most people who live there are miners and the population is about 18,000. One interesting fact about Kiruna is that the entire town is actually getting relocated over next two decades. They found more mines and to facilitate it's extraction the entire town will be demolished and relocated few kilometres away. The only attraction within the town is the famous church.
Arrival at the Ice hotel (Jukkasjärvi)
The Ice Hotel
Finally we got to the famous Ice Hotel in the afternoon. The hotel was first built in 1989. The hotel is entirely made from ice and snow from the wild rivers in the arctic region. The walls, floors and ceilings of the hotel are the canvases of designers from all creative disciplines. The artists and art work vary from year to year. There are lots of ice sculptures on display, and each room is designed to various themes. 
The Ice Sculptures
The bed, the chair, the table, the chandelier literally everything that you need in a hotel and could think of is made up of ice. The lamps have very small low power led lights fitted in them which hardly generates any heat but at the same time is bright enough for you to see where you are going.  Of course there are no toilets within the ice hotel itself. You have to walk outside the hotel where the changing rooms, bathrooms and toilets are and thankfully all heated and not made of ice :). You only get your room after 7PM. From around 10AM to 7PM it is open to public for viewing.
The Ice Bed with Reindeer skin on top
The nature takes its course around spring when the hotel starts melting and it is rebuilt from scratch every winter.
The day we got there I had booked warm Kamos rooms. Didn't want to get there and check in to the ice rooms straightaway, I thought it would be good to relax in small, warm wooden rooms first and acclimatise to the conditions there and mentally prepare myself for the cold ice room the day after. We therefore decided to use our afternoon looking at the ice hotel from inside. The total area is 5,500 square meters and this never changes. We were checking out every room taking lots of photos, each room was designed to different themes. There was one built like London underground station. There were lots of ice sculptures in the hallway and the artwork that had gone into it was simply breath-taking.
At around 7PM there is a ice hotel survival session that takes place. As funny it may sound I would thoroughly recommend attending the session if you are planning to spend a night in the ice room. We got some really handy tips. The bed itself is made of ice but there is reindeer skin on top to keep it slightly warm. You are supposed to collect your sleeping bag before you get into the room. As a couple you have a choice of having a double sleeping bag that sleeps two or get two single sleeping bags. With double bag, as romantic as it may sound, remember that once you are inside the bag there is not much tossing and turning you could do at your own will. If one has to turn right and other wants to turn left, its not possible, therefore unless you know that you are happy to sleep still and almost in each others arms for the whole night don't go for double. One advantage is the fact that it will keep you warm ;). Some start of with double bag but then after few hours go back to the reception and get two single bags instead, I think that's a better idea. In terms of dressing for the room, you go to this warm changing area where you have lockers, bathrooms, toilets etc. DON'T wrap yourself warm. It is recommended you wear a single layer of thermal under armour. The scientific principle behind this is, it allows your body heat to warm the air inside the sleeping bag which keeps you warm. If you wear too many layers the air inside the bag remains cold at -5 and it will make it really difficult for you to sleep. To be honest no one really sleeps much anyway, the excitement keeps you half awake most of the time, at least that's what happened to me (and no I was not sharing my sleeping bag with anyone). Since we had booked 3 separate rooms for ourselves and each room is triple room as standard there was plenty of room inside. Coming back to changing rooms, you dress yourself in single layer of thermals, wear special snow boots they give you, I would recommend you store your boots in locker and use their boots, and then literally run to your room. It's important that you run, it will be really difficult to survive the walk to your room wearing a single layer at those temperatures. Also don't drink too many fluids on the day. Make sure you make use of toilets before to go to your rooms, again this might sound funny but there are no toilets in the ice rooms or at the ice hotel. You have to walk few hundred meters to where the changing rooms are and expose yourself to the -20 degree cold on the way to the toilets.
There is also Sauna facilities near the changing room areas. This is something I would recommend you do during the day. Don't use it before going to your ice rooms. The extreme change in temperature can make you very uncomfortable or worse it could make you feel unwell. If you do decide to use sauna or have a hot shower then wait in the reception room for at least couple of hours to get your body temperature back to normal before heading to your arctic rooms.
The Famous Arctic Dinner
We had booked our table prior to our departure from London. I will strongly advice you to do so. There is this Ice Hotel restaurant and the other one bit further down the road called The Homestead and that's about it. The restaurant we booked was by far the most expensive meal we have had. We were expecting that, Scandinavia is expensive anyway but this place was so remote and part of unique ice hotel you have to pay the premium to enjoy the meal. The Homestead on the other hand is slightly less expensive, if you are there for few days I would recommend you try this one as well. Anyway on our first night we decided to treat our selves to the posh Ice hotel restaurant. Chris and I ordered reindeer steak for mains and Vipul ordered the only vegetarian option that was on menu. The steak cost us about £60 each and it was no bigger than a cheese slice and almost as think as 4 cheese slices put together. What Vipul got was half butternut squash boiled with no seasoning or anything on the side whatsoever.  No doubt he couldn't finish that. Our steak was delicious but the portion was even smaller than a starter. We were still starving after the meal. So we decided to go on this famous walk looking for any other not so posh restaurants.
The Walk
It was about just after 9PM, it was snowing a lot and we went in search of more food. It was dark, it was cold, and it was just us 3 walking on the path hoping we will find something. Of course we were wrong, on the way we went past a beautiful church, took some photos. We could hear huskies (Husky Dogs) in the distance. We were worried in case we get attacked by them. We then saw a figure in the distance, we were already worried about the huskies and kept imagining it was a husky dog. We didn't want to walk any further in case we get attacked. Chris who really wanted to eat something said lets try it anyway, he said if it was a husky dog it should move, it hasn't moved for last 5 minutes while we have been staring at it. So we decided to go further and investigate. During the entire walk Chris had already slipped about 5 times and fallen on the cold snow blaming his boots. As we went further we started getting more and more apprehensive. Finally we could see that the alleged husky was in fact a post-box. So that problem solved. We could then see a light in the distance and that is how we discovered the Homestead restaurant. Still part of Ice hotel but bit further. It was bit too late to order food but the pretty lady there booked us for dinner for the next day. So we headed back to our hotel, and we never got attacked my any dogs or reindeers or moose.
The Dessert
Once at the Hotel we went to a small snack restaurant in the reception area and treated ourselves to some muffins. We stayed there for a while playing chess until midnight and then around midnight went to our warm Kamos rooms for a well deserved rest.
The Ice Bar

The next day we got up and went for our day activities outside Kiruna. More about that in my next post. We got back in the evening and checked into our ice rooms. We got our room numbers, didn't actually go inside the room yet as you have to get changed etc. before you finally go into your room. We decided to spend few hours at the ice bar. We had few drinks (Mocktails for me) which were served in ice glass. Nice music playing, I got two left feet anyway but even if you are a good dancer you really can't dance on the slippery ice surfaces there. For those who were getting pissed it was a good excuse to blame it on the icy surface if they ended up on the floor.
The night at the Icehotel
We got changed, stripped down to single layer of clothing and did a runner to the ice room. It was dimly lit. The room was beautiful with a double bed and a single bed and an ice chair. I went to the terrace for a bit. Chirs and Vipul followed me to the terrace. There were few breaks in the clouds and we thought it might give us a good chance to see the auroras if they are out. We thought we saw some that night but were not entirely convinced if those were the Auroras. Close to mid night we went to our rooms. I got into my sleeping bag and enjoyed the fantastic experience of sleeping on the ice. Since your face is exposed you could feel icicles forming around your nostrils from breathing out warm air. Anyway, we all survived and the next day were given a certificate for surviving the whole night in the ice room. There are some who book warm room in addition in case they are not able to last in the cold room.

Icehotel FAQs
How many rooms does ICEHOTEL have?
This varies from year to year. Usually around 65 rooms divided into deluxe suits, art suites, ice rooms, snow rooms and group rooms.
How much snow and ice is used to build ICEHOTEL?
About 30,000 m3 of snice and about 1,000 tonnes of ice.
What is snice?
Snice (snow and ice) has two components: Calculated amount of water from the Torne River, and air. The snice is used to build ICEHOTEL. It reflects the sun rays and protects the ice inside the hotel from melting. The snice has a higher density than natural snow and therefore insulates better and melts slower.
How many people are involved in building ICEHOTEL?
More than 50 people are involved in the construction of ICEHOTEL. At the end of November the artists arrive from all over the world. This means a total of about 100 people.
When does the Torne River begin to freeze and when does the ICEHOTEL ice harvesting begin?
The river freezes over in the middle or end of October and grows thick up until the end of March. During the winter months, the area where the ice is harvested is maintained, regularly clearing away the snow.
Is there an Ice Church at ICEHOTEL and can couples get married there?
Yes, the Ice Church next to the ICEHOTEL opens every year on 25 December. On this day it is formally handed over to the Swedish Church. Couples from all over the world come to Jukkasjärvi to get married. Children from near and far are baptized here. Couples that are already married can renew their vows in the church.
How many weddings are held in the ice chapel each year?
More than 100 wedding ceremonies are held every year.
What is the temperature inside the IceHotel?
It never gets cooler than -8. Irrespective of outside temperatures which can get to as low as -40, the temperature inside the hotel is constant -5 to -8. This is because of the insulation that ice provides. 

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