66° 34′ North: On Music, Crossing the Arctic Circle

Norwegian Fjords

Music often provides a soundtrack to my travels. The heavy opening baseline of Bjork’s Army of Me instantly transports me back to the first bus journey I took in Nepal. It was a nine hour trek from Gorakpur in India to Pokhara, crossing the border at Sunauli.

It was my first major trip abroad. I sat in the tiny, hard window seat and allowed the repetitive synth rythmn to wash over me as I watched the landscape unfold. The bus made its way through the Gangetic plains and began its ascent into the euphemistically described hill region which reached elevations of 1000m plus.

The track charged the journey with an intensity that complimented the view. My seat was on the side of the bus closest to the edge of the road and as we climbed higher, it became more and more difficult to see the bottom from the edge of the road.

As the bus swung around hairpin bends, the driver would hug a little too close to the edge of the road for comfort. There was no guardrail, just a sheer drop, sometimes shrouded in vegetation, sometimes just a huge big bottomless drop. I recoiled every time into the centre of the bus as though my weight just might make the difference between careering over the edge and staying planted on the rough grit road. But the track energised me too; the scene outside the bus window energised me. This was adventure. The journey was perilous. Many buses have crashed on these roads and unexpected landslides are regular during the rainy season. This track charged the journey and made me feel like I was some kind of intrepid explorer. It helped that I was young and had no real sense of my own mortality.

I remember, too, the bus stopping to pick up passengers, usually at some unmarked spot on the road where at least a dozen people would appear from out of nowhere. As the wheels screeched to a halt, the mass of humanity flooded to the door, trammelling each other to get on and find seats where there appeared at first sight to be none. A few veteran bus travellers came equipped with their own beautifully woven Mudha stools and planted themselves in the centre aisle. Occasionally too, a goat joined the throng, carefully stashed under an armpit. Boarding a bus in Nepal was a mission, but it was always good natured. When the bus stopped for rest breaks and everyone piled off and back on again as it started to move off, even in the midst of all the pushing and shoving to get on or you were going native and joining in the hustle, people were always smiling. Still now in London if I’m trying to board a tube in rush hour, I get into a ‘Nepalese bus zone’ in my mind and Army of Me strikes up in my head as I prepare to hustle.

Travelling in Norway holds none of this chaos. I boarded an early train at Trondheim airport on a late August morning. Destination Bodø - ten hours on the Norland line, the longest railway line in Norway. The air was crisp, but the rising sun provided some welcome warmth. The platform was scattered with a handful of passengers who looked as groggy as me, some with luggage trolleys groaning under the weight of their many suitcases. As the train pulled in, everyone made towards the doors in a calm, almost serene manner. These passengers, probably like me, were clutching a booking reference and didn’t need to fight their way onto the train as they had a seat waiting for them.

My 729 kilometre, train journey was to take me across the Arctic Circle. Almost half of Norway sits north of the Arctic Circle. In what couldn’t be more of a contrast to my first experience of overland travel in an unfamiliar country, I was in NSB Komfort Class, travelling in a spacious, airy coach with comfortable, clean upholstered seats. I could extend my legs – straight out, at full length and still have a foot of space before I hit the back of the seat in front of me. And there were few people in the carriage. I’m aware that only about five million people live in Norway, but I expected a few more people on the train, since there are only two a day. I had a four seat section to myself. I wasn’t complaining. As we left urban Trondheim, the sky was a warm ice blue, sheltering the sporadic white wooden farmhouses and ubiquitous Norwegian red wooden barns which nestle in golden fields and fields of wheat.

After passing Steinkjer the line skirted the edges of Snåsavatnet lake until Snåsa where it began its ascent towards Majavatn, cutting a path northwards through the centre of Norway. The landscape was a study in green, gashed occasionally with the clear white froth of gushing mountain streams. There is something about the light here that electrifies the landscape, making the colours sing. Back down again at sea level from Mosjøen, the line moved towards the coast and we followed the fjords until Moi i Rana. This was what I had come to Norway for and this view exceeded my expectations. I guess everyone has their impressions of a place. For some, Norway is about the midnight sun, or the northern lights. For me it’s the fjords. For years I’ve seen images of the Norwegian fjords, usually a photo accompanying an advert for a cruise, and I’ve yearned to experience them at first hand.

Norwegian Fjords

We moved through an unfolding drama played on out on the mountains, directed by the changing light. It painted them in light, open shades of lilac and blue greys until the clouds covered the sun and they darkened, flocked in deep greens and blacks, brooding intensively against the gunmetal sky and magnifying their reflection in the glassy black water. There is something utterly majestic and humbling about the force of nature that left behind such beauty in its wake. Being in this environment, even if it’s on a fast moving train speeding through it, demands introspection. I found James Blake’s The Colour In Anything on Spotify. The impressionistic melancholy of the album seemed to capture the mood of the terrain I was passing through, or maybe the landscape stirred something and the music was reflecting it. The haunting synth rhythms complimenting Blake’s soulful vocal layers became the soundtrack to my Norway trip.

After Moi i Rana, we begin another ascent. You could feel the train heave against the gradient, slowly climbing to its summit of 680 metres above sea level. As we climbed, the landscape began to transform. Here clouds stroked the mountains and nestled amongst the thinning bands of trees as the verdant terrain gave way to swathes of rock carpeted occasionally with patches of moss and heather. The landscape was almost otherworldly in this weather - wild and windswept, barren and unwelcoming. As we reached the summit, all vegetation disappeared, gravelly pistes emerging through and patches of snow glistening against the gunmetal sky. It is easy to see, even in late summer how the landscape can make such an impact on the lives and psyche of Norwegians.

Crossing the Arctic Circle was something of an anticlimax. A small monument marks the spot, easily missed and I would have been oblivious to it had the train conductor not made an announcement in English and Norwegian as we approached. A stone plinth topped with a metal globe camouflaged against the rocky terrain served as a marker. Subtle. Like everything in Norway – understated, humble.

The train made its way back down to sea level through tunnels that had been blasted through the mountains after the war. The warm early evening light turned the sea into a glistening surface, illuminating lonely little fishing boats anchored just past the shoreline, waves gently lapping the shore. My journey came to an end in Bodø. As I stepped off the train, the early evening sun lit the bay in a warm yellow ochre glow.