Under the snow falling like shattered glass lies a small town with the unpronounceable name Jukkasjärvi. So much snow has accumulated over the winter that the road, the pavement and the frozen river next to the town have all blended into each other to form a white expanse. Apart from a few hours of respite around midday, the town sleeps in almost perpetual darkness during the winter months. It feels as isolated as any village in northern Sweden can be, but among the humble houses stands an ethereal building of ice, the magnificent Ice Hotel.
The Ice Hotel was born 22 years ago, entirely unintentionally. The site originally held an ice sculpture exhibition, housed in a simple igloo. The exhibition was not famous being only two years old. No one would have thought that the modest village of Jukkasjärvi could have had any of interest for tourists, so naturally there was no adequate accommodation for the visiting artists. They were forced to sleep in the ice house they built themselves. That was the birth of the world’s first ice hotel. Ever since then, many have copied the idea and built their own ice hotels around the world, but none of them retain the authentic artistic feel that accompanies the Swedish original, by virtue of its previous existence as a place for art. The designs of every room are unique creations of artists from around the world. Exploring the depths of each individual chamber is a delight much alike that of admiring life-size sculptures in an art museum.
Walking into the building, I was immediately surrounded and mesmerised by an icy blue glow. The lighting was so ingeniously designed that the snow and ice seemed to be giving out their own light. The ceiling of the reception area had patterns of intersecting lines which extended down the curved walls to the ground, like a network of branches heavy with snow obscuring the sky. Of course, it was a reception area with no receptionist. If there had been one, it would have been impossible to imagine how cold they would feel to sit there all day.
Further in was the main hall with its imposing ice columns. Much of the surface of the columns was opaque with a thin layer of ice, but where tourists had melted the layer and left a mark of their hands, I could see through the perfect transparency of the ice blocks, which were cut out of the frozen river nearby earlier in the year.
Parts of the hall and the chapel were still under construction, but fortunately, most of the rooms, the true gems of the hotel, were finished. The most delightful room resembled a cave of stalactites. On first entering the room, I only noticed that the sleeping area (I wouldn’t call it a bed) was elevated, but when another tourist suddenly emerged shooting out by my feet, I realized that the designer’s surprise was the ice slide by the bed. Probably he thought that if he put some fun into the impossible quotidian feat of getting up, it would serve as a good motivation. It seemed fun to try the slide. Its surface is of the kind of slippery ice formed on the pavement after repeated thawing and freezing, uneven and gleaming. And so down I went on a bumpy but pleasant ride.
Another room I liked was the penguin room. Adorable and docile penguins greeted me as I stepped into the Antarctic world. A huge egg-shaped bed was in the middle of the room, and elsewhere several smaller eggs served as stools or bedside tables, all under the tender gaze of the penguin parents.
If only sleeping here would feel as warm and safe as a baby penguin in an incubated egg, but the cold was beginning to hit me already. You might be wondering, this sounds dazzlingly beautiful to look at, but after all, the Ice Hotel is a hotel, so what of the staff and guests? Yes, there are ice sofas, ice curtains, ice chandeliers, even ice cups for the ice bar (and maybe even ice rings for the ice chapel for those who get married there), but apart from the cups, none of those are intended for real use. It may seem wonderful to live like a fairytale snow queen, but the truth is if you sit on the sofa, your clothes will soon be soaked wet with freezing water in a few seconds.
Comfort is not to be had in the Ice Hotel. Recognizing the importance to attract sane customers, the Ice Hotel has built a warm reception hall, restaurant and rows of well-heated cabins. Most who choose to stay in the Ice Hotel itself do this for only one night, and often they regret it and wish that they had saved the money for more pleasurable experiences. I asked an American couple how it was to sleep in the cold the night before. Although their sleeping bags kept them from freezing to death in the subzero temperatures, their faces were not covered and they had to bear the strange sensation of an ice-cold face but a warm body. It was, as they described, “the most expensive bad night’s sleep”.
The saddest fact about the Ice Hotel, though, is its inevitable melting as spring sets in. Nature is the most powerful demolisher. As immaculate snow turns into muddy slush on the roadsides, the ice palace, left to its own, disintegrates. The water runs back into the river, starting the cycle again. The artists who create the rooms are conscious of the evanescence of their work. Unlike artwork immortalised in museums, their efforts last no more than several months and become nothing more than water in the end.
Like the imperial palaces which now house modern monarchs, some forms of architecture are never really meant to be used, but only to be viewed and admired. The Ice Hotel should be appreciated for its transient beauty. After experiencing the splendor and amazement, what need is there to stay the night, grumble about the cold and destroy the magic?