The Guardian

travel feature

AS THE TRAIN reaches the borders of Lapland it slows, eventually coming to an unscheduled halt. The passenger's eye is caught by people wearing masks and hiding in bushes by the track. Minutes later these marauders are striding through the carriages in mock ambush and offering ladles of foul-smelling Hemkört, an illegal alcoholic brew famed more for strength than flavour

For those who have already spent several days riding the Inlandsbanan (Swedish Inland Railway) from Kristinehamn in the south toward Gällivare in the north, such an event comes as little surprise. The fiddler and accordionist who boarded the train, also unannounced, to entertain us a few kilometres back in Dorotea, are unmoved.

Those connected with the line – the guides whose voices crackle over an antique PA system, kids in baseball caps who stamp the souvenir passports, the fanatics who enthuse for hours in broken English about its delights – all seem intent on wresting every last amusement from the regions it crosses.

The route's first sleepers were laid just before the turn of the century, but it was not until 1937 that the Inlandsbanan was completed. Supporters of the line fought vigorously for its survival during the financial uncertainties of the Seventies. Nowadays the money lost servicing local communities is being recouped through expanding tourist traffic. The Inlandsbanan serves as the only link between numerous activity holidays.

One can, for example, go mineral hunting, with pickaxe and bucket provided, at Langan where 300 kinds of mineral have been located (and keep the results). In Europe's largest bear park at Gronklitt one can watch the beasts roam about their 80,000 square metres and, a little perversely perhaps, eat one of the species at the adjacent hotel restaurant.

From Östersund one can venture on to the waters of Lake Storsjön searching for the monster said to frequent it. The lake, locals say, is connected by tunnel to Loch Ness. Or one might hire a horse and wagon and trot off into the mosquito-infested wilderness for two weeks.

For me the real pleasure is simply stretching out and enjoying the scenery and the informal atmosphere of the train, which becomes festive just south of Jokkmokk, where it crosses the Arctic Circle and stops for about 20 minutes, giving travellers time to scramble out and take photos of themselves beside the tri-lingual marker signs. It was at this point on my journey that, somehow inevitably, some passenger gave the driver a bottle of Scotch, so on the final leg to Gällivare many a sober traveller was reaching out for the Hemkört.



© mick sinclair

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