I spent Christmas Day with some friends in Moscow.
Designed and built after the first series of nuclear tests by the Soviet Union, these tests revealed that the optimum depth for the bunker’s silo must be no higher than 165 feet beneath ground in order to survive nuclear fallout intact. The task for the builders was enormous: construct a gigantic structure beneath the city streets without damaging Moscow’s existing infrastructure of streets and communication pathways. To do so would alert the public and innumerable unknown spies to the existence of the bunker, thereby rendering the entire (read: top-secret) thing useless.
Strategically located inside a hill in the Tagansky district due to its proximity to the Kremlin, allowing quick access to the bunker for Stalin and the premier tier of government officials within the USSR, Bunker-42 wasn’t completed until 1956 and was thankfully never put into use in its full capacity. Rather, it spent the subsequent three decades as an airstrike command base, communicating with aircraft transporting strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons until the political climate began to shift in 1986.
Today, the space exists as a historical monument that is equal parts museum to what life was like on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era and tour of the previously top-secret bunker itself, bringing visitors below ground to a time when the world lived on the constant brink of nuclear annihilation. A variety of tour packages are available at all hours of the day, catering to a range of ages, some of which focus more on the historical aspects of the space, while other take a nearly comic angle on the tangible threat of nuclear annihilation for all humankind.
I didn’t plan this. It kinda just unfurled as I flowed through the small decisions I was making. But three things happened to me on Christmas Day 2014 that made it absolutely magical:
I visited the Real Santa in his village under the Arctic Circle in Finland
I had a highway encounter with a white reindeer
I saw the Northern Lights for the very first time!
I was in Cape Town in South Africa when I decided I wanted to go to Finland. It was summer time in Cape Town and I walked into an adventure store selling flip-flops and beachwear and asked “Do you have a thick down jacket for extreme winter?” The attendant looked at me puzzled, but then went inside and brought out a black down jacket with a red inner lining. I asked “Do you have a different style?”, the answer “No”. “Do you have another size?” “No”. Easy, $135.50 and I was out of the store in 10mins.
The flight from Cape Town was uneventful but it was dark and freezing when I landed in Helsinki. It was Christmas Eve and my car rental office had already closed for the day. I had prepaid for the car but here I was, stranded at the airport without it. And there were no hotels available. I got on the phone and paid $100 as after-hours fee for the guy to come out and give me the key. And then right in the parking lot, I somehow locked myself out of the car. I paid another $100 for him to come back and give me a spare key. He was like, “Sameer, I am leaving now. You are on your own. No one is going to show up and help you once you leave Helsinki. Please be careful, and please don’t get locked out of the car”.
In December, Finland only gets 3–5hrs of daylight, mainly an extended morning and evening and the rest of the 20 or so hours is just dark. It was cold. Very cold. I started driving up North, hoping to get high enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights minus the light pollution. I drove all night and at about 3am I reached a spot that I thought could be good. But there were too many clouds and I couldn’t see a thing.
So on Dec 25 at 6am, I was somewhere in Northern Finland, sleeping in my car with the engine and heat running so I don’t freeze to death. Two days ago I was in Cape Town in summer weather. I hadn’t slept much in this time. And I hadn’t showered. I decided I needed to freshen up a little. I realized that I was very close to Rovaniemi, the place that had Santa’s Village. The real Santa Claus lives in Finland. Under the Arctic Circle, in Rovaniemi!
I drove down to the village. Parked the car. Paid the entrance fee, walked in. I was in Santa’s home. It was all underground. It was huge. There were reindeer, and elves and things. It was very festive. There were a lot of people. Lot of kids. A non-trivial number of people were Asians. I am Asian too. India is in Asia. I first headed for the restroom. I wet a towel and gave myself a warm, moist towel bath. Changed my underwear. Brushed my teeth. Put on some deoderant. And this hobo brown man emerged from Santa’s restroom feeling fresh and ready for the next day.
I stood in line to visit Santa. Before long it was my turn. He asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?”. I said “I really want to see the Northern Lights. I have come a long way!”. He said “I can’t really help you with that, but I do wish you luck!”. He didn’t let me sit on his lap. I didn’t expect to but it was fun to ask :D. I sat next to him and got a selfie. I then headed to the Snow Queen’s home. She was in a seasonal castle built entirely out of ice. I had to put on a thick heavy down jacket before I could go in. Everything inside was ice. Her throne. The tables and chairs. There was a bar where she offered to serve me a special icy cocktail. I paid $10 for it. And it froze before I was even halfway through it. I wasn’t too happy about that. I talked with other visitors. Many were international students in Finland who hadn’t gone home for the holidays. And had decided to come to Santa instead. I then sat next to the Snow Queen and got a selfie.
Then I decided to grab some lunch. They had a buffet in the middle of the “cave”. It was right next to the main stage. Meatballs and potatoes and fish and cranberry sauce. It was delicious. I saw some elves dance and perform on the main stage while I ate. Then I went to the post office. It had a mechanical arm that would sort all the mail and route it. I could send a letter from this place to have it delivered next Christmas Day. I thought that was sweet. So I started texting my family and extended family for their addresses. And got to work writing postcards. It was quite awesome.
I walked around and took in the sights and sounds. Then I headed out and fetched my drone. I tried flying it to get a nice view of Santa’s village from the sky. However, it was really really cold and the Lithium batteries were only showing a 3 minute flight-time even on a full charge. I was unable to get good footage. But I got something.
I left Santa’s village. It was cold and dark and freezing. The perfect conditions to see the Northern Lights. It was 1pm. I continued driving North. I wasn’t driving aimlessly. I was actually very well informed about what I was doing. I was accessing real time weather reports, cloud cover maps, aurora watch webcam feeds, aurora forecasts and was also actively communicating with a bunch of complete strangers on active Facebook groups of Finnish aurora spotters. This was my last night. If I didn’t see the Northern Lights, it would have to be some other day. I had only rented the car for two days. It was expensive and I couldn’t afford to keep it for another day. Especially given the extra expense I had already incurred in just getting out of the airport. I decided I was going to go all the way to Inari which was another 5 hrs away. It’s way up in the North, almost close to the Northern Norweigian border. But it had the best chances based on all the forecasts I was seeing.
It was very foggy when I was driving on the one lane highway, the only car for miles and miles. It was Christmas day after all. Most were home with their families. Not doing a crazy road trip by themselves. The fog and the cloud cover meant no visibility for the Northern Lights. But that didn’t dissuade me at all. I was hopeful there would be a break. And I needed to be at the right place by the right time and wait. But the fog was so thick at times, I could only do 10 mph. Yes, basically just rolling slowly with zero visibility. I was so slow at one point that my car just stopped. It had hit something. It was a soft nudge that I had felt. It was a reindeer. Not just any reindeer. The most magnificent, most whitest reindeer I could’ve ever imagined. He had been chilling on the middle of the highway. I only saw it when it was 5 feet in front of me. It turned it’s head and looked at me. Full eye contact. He wasn’t scared or worried or hassled. Just owning his space. I was an outsider. I stared back. Then I backed up my car. And drove around him. He didn’t move. He was exactly where he wanted to be. I stopped and watched him in the rear view mirror. I wanted to take a picture. But I was already running late in reaching Ivalu. Every minute mattered and the fog had already thrown me off my schedule. So I just kept going.
When I reached Inari, the Northern Lights suddenly came into view. I could see them. While I was driving. Right out of the windshield. It was amazing! So beautiful. Reflecting off all the completely white snow! I wanted to pull over. But I realized I couldn’t. The highway had been paved, but there were no paved turnouts. There were no businesses or parking lots here. The only ones were too close to the light pollution. There was nowhere to park if I wanted to get out of the car to view the Northern Light. That didn’t make sense. So I did something very stupid. I decided to pull over into a turnout that was covered in deep snow. My car was an AWD with snow tires. But that doesn’t help when you end up with snow under the car. And that’s exactly what happened.
I was stuck. My wheels were spinning in air. The snow had raised the body of the car and it was all compacted under the main chassis. I couldn’t move. I had a choice to make. I had maybe 2hrs left before I had to turn around to get back to Helsinki in time. Should I go take pictures first and deal with the car later? But I was worried that if I did that, the snow would freeze the car into place even further. So I put on my thickest goretex gloves and my thick down jacket and got out. Went on all fours and got under the car. Started to dig. It was cold. I started shaking. I went back into the car to warm up. Then crawled under again and kept digging. I eventually displaced all the snow from under the body of the car until I saw the tires were load bearing again. My hands had no sensation left. I got back in. And was able to get the car unstuck. The traction felt great. I had no cell network. There was no one in sight. I didn’t have too much gas left. I didn’t want to think what would’ve happened if I had been unable to get out of that snowbank.
I continued searching for a parking lot or safe turnout. It wasn’t easy. I was in the hills and most of the panoramic sections of the highway didn’t have any place to pull over. I finally drove past a particularly interesting section of the highway and saw a school bus turnout right next to it. A properly plowed section, way better than where I had just attempted to park. That’s where I stopped. I got back into warm clothes. Grabbed my tripod and walked the 200m back up to the scenic section of the highway. It was a nice hair pin bend on the highway, overlooking a lake. I went over the guard rail and was on the edge of the road, overlooking the lake. Every 3–5 minutes a car would pass by and see me standing right next to the guard rail and get confused. I would try and turn off my headlamp and look away when I would see a car approaching so as to not startle them. But I am sure I turned a lot of heads.
I had never shot photos of the Northern Lights before. I didn’t know what settings to use. What white balance to set. I took a few test shots. But I was already feeling super cold. So I walked back to the car. Warmed up for 5 mins then walked back to the tripod and camera. Took some more test shots. And decided I was happy with what I had. And so then I set up my camera for a time lapse and then left the stuff unattended and walked back to my car. It had been 30hrs with only 6 hrs of sleep. And I had a 13 hr drive back to Helsinki. I decided it would be wise to take a nap. So I napped on and off watching the Northern Lights from the warmth of my car while my camera was timelapsing for a couple of hours. I transferred some pictures over WiFi and posted them online. Then I fetched my stuff and started driving south, back to Helsinki.
The drive back down was gorgeous. There was fresh white snow everyhere and no dirt. And a glowing orange sun lingering on the horizon for most of it. With a few stops in between, I was eventually I was back in Helsinki. Back at the airport. Returned the car. It was a Christmas adventure to remember, all in 48hrs!