There’s something magical about a night train at the best of times; conjuring up visions of the Orient Express (with or without a murder). The reality of course rarely lives up to the romance – one of the last night trains I rode was from Shanghai to Beijing, where the toilet consisted of a hole onto the tracks and what appeared to be a drinking fountain was in fact a boiling water tap for rehydrating pot noodles. The third degree burns are only just healing now.
But this Finnish train was at the very opposite end of the temperature scale: known as the Joulupukki Express (Santa Claus to the rest of us). It leaves from Helsinki and makes its way overnight to Rovaniemi, just within the Arctic Circle. This is home to the Santa Claus Village, where every day is Christmas and big kids from all over the world come to meet the big man. He’s got a slickly commercial set-up, with his own post office, hotel, gift shop and other businesses that specialise in husky dog rides and reindeer sledging experiences.
That’s why this train service is much in demand – and certainly not restricted to winter months either. When I went last month, it was a bracing minus 14. Not too bad, given that my only previous visit to Rovaniemi about 10 years ago featured temperatures of minus 32.
Waiting on the platform I thought my face was going to freeze off: a regular occupational hazard when riding the Finnish railroad. One way to ward off the chill is salmiakki koskenkorva: a liquorice-flavoured vodka-type spirit that looks like fresh asphalt but tastes even worse. I mentioned this to a man wanting to make conversation on the platform. “So you are a real Finn, if you like this!” he beamed. I didn’t have the heart to point out that at no point had I mentioned anything at all about liking it…
But the experience became even more Finnish once I got on the train, as there’s perhaps the only buffet car in the world that serves reindeer stew. And very delicious it is too, accompanied by mashed potatoes and lingonberries. It tastes a bit like a milder version of venison, and neatly answers the question of what happens to Joulupukki’s steeds when the sledging season is over. This was washed down with Karhu beer, which means ‘bear’ in English – and yes, the Finns eat that too. It’s a delicacy in Lapland, with hunters charging around €10,000 per bear. This wasn’t available on the train, but for the sake of complete research I tried it on arrival in Rovaniemi – and it wasn’t at all bad, albeit a little stringy. But this was probably an old bear, as it obviously hadn’t been very good at running away.
One of my big interests is watches, and I thought long and hard about which watch to take with me on the trip. An outdoorsy watch could have been a good choice, but then I got the chance to wear something that I hadn’t reckoned on: a Finnish watch.
Galvin is a new watch company founded by Susan Galvin: a Finn based in Melbourne, Australia. And that heritage is evident in the Finnish colours on the dial of the Alku collection: blue and white, with an accent on quasi-minimalistic simplicity. The movement – the beating heart of any watch – is Japanese, and it proved to be reliable enough to withstand minus 19 degrees one day: tested the hard way. With a tanned suede strap, it also had a distinct affinity with those reindeer that were very much a highlight of the whole trip, both dead and alive. It comes in a number of dial colours, but the simple white is for me the one to have: visit www.galvinwatchcompany.com.au for more information. In any case, its elegant clarity made it the perfect travelling companion on the slow night train to Rovaniemi.
Reindeer and bear beer digested, it was time to settle into the snug cabin, which – while not quite at the level of the Orient Express (more melamine than mahogany) – provided a surprising comfortable night’s sleep; perhaps because of the unhurried motion of the train, which plodded its way up the west side of Finland with only a few stops.
You get two bunks, a fresh-smelling duvet, a clean basin tucked away in a cupboard and an array of phone plugs and sockets that befits the nation that gave us Nokia. For breakfast, you get salty porridge with yet more berries to give it an intriguing sweet and sour taste.
But nothing wakes you up faster than the slap of polar air when you step out onto the platform at Rovaniemi, just over nine hours after leaving Helsinki.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs by Antony Peacock