In the sparsely populated areas of Northern Finland, regular bus lines provide an invaluable transport service for inhabitants, tourists and businesses alike.
At the Rovaniemi bus station, shortly before noon, the red and yellow coach is slowly filling up. There are a dozen tourists, mostly Asian, and the same number of locals commuting to work or heading home. Some seats are vacant – the busiest season is over. In December or January, there would not have been a single place left free.
Eskelisen Lapin linjat coach company has been taking tourists and local residents to their destinations promptly and safely for 90 years. They run a fleet of 40 buses, with scheduled routes around Lapland as well as charter buses. Our bus is bound for Karasjok in Northern Norway, 452 kilometres further north.
The journey starts. Driver Sami Uimaniemi wishes everyone a nice trip. The first passengers step out after just a few kilometres at the Santa Claus Village, and new passengers get on the bus - European tourists with full winter paraphernalia. The route continues towards Sodankylä, after a detour at the airport to pick up one more passenger.
Jaakko Kylämies and Mari Jylhä are experienced bus users, and long-time lovers of the Lapland nature. They boarded a bus in Oulu in the morning, and are now making their way to Saariselkä for a holiday of snowmobiling and other outdoor activities.
“We travel up here in summer and in winter to fish, to hike and to spend time in the cabin”, Mari Jylhä says.
“Bus is a comfortable way of travelling, and with a student ticket, it is definitely less expensive than driving your own car”, Jaakko Kylämies observes.
Jaakko Kylämies and Mari Jylhä are ready for their holiday adventures.
At the Sodankylä bus station the passengers get a coffee break while driver Sami unloads dozens of packages of different sizes. Freight takes up a large part of the luggage space under the bus – clothing, gadgets, tyres and wine arriving from the U.S., China and Europe. In remote areas, online shopping may be the only way of getting certain items, as local specialist services have closed down.
Three London-based tourists explain that they are going north to see Aurora Borealis. Even if they would not get to see the Northern Lights, they are happy with their trip, as they already met Santa Claus.
“He was just like in the stories”, exclaims Chanxi.
As the journey continues, most passengers put on their earphones and watch series or films, listen to music or browse social media. There is free Wi-Fi on the bus, and under each seat, there are power sockets, so you can charge your mobile devices.
National road 4 is part of the European route E75. Up here in the north, the road is anything but busy. We encounter log trucks, the occasional car, and a school bus. Every once in a while, the driver has to slow down as reindeer are passing.
It is quiet on the bus. Outside, the scenery is peaceful.
We approach the ski resorts. The Japanese contingent gets off at the Kakslauttanen stop. A group of sunglass-clad tourists with skis and bag packs replaces them.
Maritta Riestola folds her newspaper. She is returning to Ivalo from a visit to her children and grandchildren in Oulu.
“This is an excellent means of transport. 600 kilometres is a long distance, but on this coach, it goes fast. In summer, I drive myself, but in winter, I enjoy taking the bus. Usually I read and take naps”, she explains.
In Ivalo, the bus empties, only a few passengers remain. The driver gets a statutory break and celebrates it with a doughnut and a cup of coffee at the bus station café.
The sun is still high up. The route continues past Inari and Karigasniemi. Shortly before seven Finnish time, Sami Uimaniemi parks his coach in Karasjok, Norway and heads for his lodgings. He will start the trip back to Rovaniemi in the morning.
Top photo: The Saariselkä Resort attracts tourists from around the world. Many of them arrive by bus. Photo (c) Arto Vitikka.
Below: The amount of bus freight is constantly growing. Driver Sami Uimaniemi loads and unloads parcels during the stops. Photo (c) Juha Kauppinen.