The next day we stayed back at Murmansk as the Aurora forecast predicted brilliant possibilities of Northern Lights sighting in peripheries of the city. The news excited us a lot and we found passing the day to be a tedious task. To skip boredom, we skied down the slopes of our hotel, made snowmen, and romped around like snow bunnies, all the while anxiously waiting for the night. Although Aurora is 24/7 phenomenon the bright sunlight does not make it visible from earth and we waited impatiently for nightfall. The night fell and the entire city, along with its Arctic adventure visitors waited with bated breath for the “Dance of the Spirits”. Aurora, however, did not show up and all we saw bright city lights lighting an Arctic cold sky. It a was heartlessly cold night and despite the freezing temperatures, most of us stayed awake until way past two in the morning. Late that night, when a shivering city of Murmansk went to bed disappointed, I stayed awake by my hotel room window, wondering if the trip was even worth the hassles. Most Aurora chasers go to Norway, Iceland, or Sweden to experience this fantastic natural phenomenon and nearly all of them return with breathtaking memories. Russia does not rank anywhere in Aurora chasers dream and it is definitely not the most tourist-friendly country in the world. Starting from the tourist visa, language problem, high travelling expenses, to bureaucratic red-tapism to reach certain areas, visiting Russia is quite of a headache. Add to that long internal flights, vast geographical area, and severe cold, my Aurora Borealis dream in Russia seemed to be crashing down.
This is how my Aurora Borealis arctic adventure started.
Taking an Aurora Borealis break to explore the Sami culture
We decided to leave Murmansk the next morning to go deeper into the countryside, as the darkness of the tundra provided better Aurora Borealis viewing possibilities than a lit up city night sky. A small village called Lovozero was our destination and it was the perfect place to set up camp for Aurora watching. Located around was around two and half hours away from Murmansk by car, Lovozero was a small Sami ( indigenous Arctic nomadic group) village complete with wooden huts, vast tundras, touristy igloos, and reindeer tent accommodation. Perfectly nestled in the Arctic Aurora zone, the Lovozero night sky was dark and distraction-free, and it was a hot spot for Aurora chasers from all over the world. The village also had an interesting museum dedicated mostly to the Sami history and despite being in the middle of nowhere, it had an incredible collection of displays. There were World War photos depicting the contribution of the Samis to the nation, their original lifestyle artefacts, and a haunting trivia about Russia’s reindeer, dolphin, and whale WW troops. The most eye-opening feature was the Sami culture itself which belongs to Europe’s oldest ethnic group.
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Rediscovering the Samis of Lapland
Before visiting Lovozero, I had a brief idea about the Samis and this information was from the anthropologists I worked with on my base station in Siberia. Though they focused on the Chukchis and Nenets (different indigenous groups) more, one of my colleagues was a Sami, who shared grandparent’s tales of a remote tribe with us. Those were times before 1940’s and modern Samis of today lead a contemporary lifestyle similar to ours. Their history, however, is very unique and they were what was traditionally known in English as the Laplanders. Once upon a time, the Samis were the only inhabitants of the region known as Lapland (encompassing parts of modern-day Norway, Finland, Sweden, Murmansk Oblast of Russia) and they were originally fishers and hunters. Over the centuries, they also started domesticating wild reindeer and reindeer herding quickly became the foundation of Sami livelihood. Being animists, the Samis practised a shamanistic spirituality and lead a lifestyle which was respectful, yet harmonious with nature. Like with most indigenous cultures, their land itself was considered sacred, and it was well defined with specific holy sites. Sieidi (stones in natural or human-built formations), álda and sáivu (sacred hills), springs, caves and other natural formations served as altars and Samis offered their prayers, and sacrifices at these places. Praying was rendered in a sing-song chant called the joik and the Samis believed in Noiade, individuals who communicated with the spirits on behalf of the community.
The Samis of today
Modern Samis are divided by international borders and In Russia, they live in Murmansk Oblast, the district (called oblast in Russia) I was visiting. Most of the modern Samis struggle to maintain their traditions and tourism is the most important way of keeping them alive. Thankfully with the influx of Murmansk Northern Lights travellers, Russian Samis are re-discovering new ways of keeping their ancient traditions like singing, chanting, and handicrafts alive. Many sacred Sami customs are being exploited by the tourism industry and the common crossing the Arctic Circle ceremony is one of them. Since this crossing has no spiritual significance in Sami culture, many Samis find this ritual being passed off as one to be very offensive. Unfortunately, for them, keeping their individuality alive came with a price and in most parts of the Scandinavian social system, they are mostly ignored. This information came as a bit of a shock to all of us visiting the Sami Museum, and that is what travel is all about; exploring, discovering, pushing boundaries, and expanding horizons.
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Have you waded through waist-deep snow for lunch?
Lunch happened soon and we headed for a hearty meal at the campsite. All of us had quickly discovered that eating wholesome food was the easiest way to fight the cold and our breakfast was a heavy one. Thankfully, the hotel Ogni Murmansk believed in serving huge portions of buffet breakfast and we had feasted on traditional black bread, butter, salmon, boiled eggs, and tea like no tomorrow. Since the campsite, was a popular place among Northern Lights seekers, it was located forty kilometres outside the village and we waded through a frozen forest of waist-deep snow to reach there. It was colder than Murmansk and the sky was a cloudless expanse of brilliant blue. As far eyes could see, only a dazzling white spread endlessly and the sun made the snow glare brightly. The campsite was hosted by Alexei and his young Sami wife, and both of them ran the place in a friendly, meticulous way. While Alexei took care of the maintenance and their animals, his wife kept the site clean and made huge traditional Sami meals for guests every day. Lunch was served inside a heated dining tent and we warmed our toes next to a blazing wood fire.
A Sami lunch and some Siberian huskies
Platters of salty broiled fish, potato, and celery soup were followed by elk meat with vegetables and the meal was served with freshly baked warm bread. We sat in the big reindeer skin tent, toasted ourselves in front of the roaring fire and enjoyed the goodness of homemade hot food. A fat sooty kettle whistled merrily as we sampled fresh wild berry tartlets for deserts when it started snowing. For once, we did not mind the sudden snowfall and napped a bit under thick warm rugs. The snow stopped after a while and having rested, we eagerly started off with our winter sports fun. Dog sledging, tobogganing, and snowmobile riding were included in our itinerary and we trudged outside to meet the Huskies. We could hear their loud yapping even before we saw them, and the dogs greeted us with excited yelps. The camp had a dozen snow dogs and their huskies were a fuzzy, friendly bunch. They were a beautiful blue-eyed troop with wide smiley faces and just like every other dog, were excited at the prospect of being free. The huskies love to run and are bred to perform in harsh weather conditions. Though smaller in size than their Canadian counterparts, the Siberian huskies have an equal number of Iditarod championship trophies to their credit and all of us, fell in love with Alexei’s pets.
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Mushing and a moody reindeer
Husky sledging is called mushing and although a bit bumpy on the rump, it is a lot of fun. Needless to say, our huskies simply loved running once harnessed, they just bounded over the snow happily. The reindeer sleigh was next and it was not as exciting as mushing. The temperamental female reindeer stubbornly refused to be harnessed alongside her partner and she chose to run behind us the whole way instead. According to Alexei, it was a typical female reindeer tendency and Celia and I bristled at Alexei, Konstantin and Pinit’s sexist jokes on women’s minds. However, they were all good men and the evening passed very pleasantly. It was our second day in Murmansk Oblast and we were still yet to experience an Aurora Borealis, for which we all travelled so far. The sunset was mild that evening and dusk fell over the vast tundra fast. It also became extremely cold and soon we stopped watching the barometer dip lower. After a quick dinner and hasty use of the outhouse, we belly crawled inside our handmade igloos made by Alexei’s assistant and retired for the night. Inside the snow house, it was strangely warm and the three of us took turns to stay awake by a candlelight throughout the night. It was strangely very warm inside our igloo and we took turns by the candlelight to keep a lookout. Our Aurora Watch had officially begun.
Disclaimer: A huge thank you to Nordic Travel for making my Aurora Borealis dream come true. Though all the opinion is strictly mine, the photos of this series are copyrighted to Nordic Travel. Reproduction of this work is permitted only after approval from Nordic Travel.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE