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A night in an ice museum

In a frigid spot beyond the Arctic Circle, guests sleep among art that melts into the river each summer

Entrance to the IceHotel against the backdrop of the northern lights. Asaf Kliger/Icehotel
Entrance to the IceHotel against the backdrop of the northern lights. Asaf Kliger/Icehotel

The possibility of being frozen in time holds the promise of a fairytale. In reality, however, the prospect can give you the chills.

So when I was invited to spend a night on an ice bed, in an ice room, inside an ice chamber, the goosebumps were justified. Yet that didn’t stop me from taking an overnight train from Stockholm one cold October evening and heading 150km beyond the Arctic Circle. My stop is Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. From there a 20-minute drive takes me to Jukkasjärvi, on the banks of the crystal-clear Torne river. Jukkasjärvi is derived from Čohkkirasjávri, which in the indigenous Sami language means a meeting place by the river. It is here that the IceHotel is built afresh each winter, only to melt back into the river with the change of season.

Guests plunge into icy cold water, followed by a stint in the sauna. Asaf Kliger/Icehotel

For Christophe Risenius, CEO of IceHotel, the excitement of creating something new every year is what attracted him to Jukkasjärvi. Each year a team of over 50 international architects and artists create a new design for the hotel and work begins nine months before the hotel is reopened for winter. Since 2016, a part of the IceHotel has been made permanent, so that guests can experience “that winter feeling" even in summer.

“Every year the hotel has a different design, with different artists. Even the hotel itself changes shape. If a guest is sleeping in one of these rooms, it is going to be for those moments only, and then it is gone because that room, with its art, won’t exist when they return," Risenius says with childlike enthusiasm, as we walk along a white corridor towards the suites that house the art collection.

The temperature inside is -5 degrees Celsius. “How many hours a day can people work in this ice chamber?" I ask, as I am given an extra thermal cloak before we make our way in. “The artists work inside the ice rooms for 7-8 hours every day. You know we have a saying in Sweden; there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. So as long as you have good equipment, you are absolutely fine," says Risenius, perhaps sensing my tropical conditioning that earmarks 20 degrees Celsius as cold weather.

Four thousand tonnes of ice are harvested from the Torne river in spring, and kept in a cold warehouse which runs on solar power. This is when the ice is at its strongest. The construction begins in November and takes about a month to complete.

The Dragon Residence suite by Bazarsad Bayarsaikhan. Paulina Holmgren/Icehotel

Along the ice corridor, workers are putting the final touches to the wall using snice, a mixture of snow and ice to ensure strength. The interiors of each room are strikingly different from the other, reflecting the creator’s style and technique. Some rooms are ornate, with frozen sculptures reminiscent of the baroque age. Others reflect Scandinavian minimalism. Some themes are abstract and still others are straight out of a children’s storybook.

The play of light through the ice adds another dimension. And the fact that the artwork is both transient yet permanent gives it a surreal appeal.

The art suites turn into a museum by day. By night, they double as bedrooms. Apart from the ice sculptures, each suite has a bed made from a block of ice, layered over with a specially designed mattress and reindeer hide to retain warmth. Reindeer hide is commonly used in subzero Arctic regions for clothing and in homes, especially among the Sami people, many of whom are reindeer herders.

The Victorian Room, with a bookcase made of ice, two ice lounge chairs and an ice bed, catches my eye. Next door, a woman is carefully measuring and chiselling an 8ft-high column of ice into what is beginning to resemble a human figure.

“These are going to be sculptures of mature women," says the artist Nina Hedman, describing her theme “Invisible, Invincible Women". “It takes about two days to finish one sculpture," she adds.

Fellow artist Lena Kriström, who works with ice and stone, is perched on a ladder within earshot. “I have a big marble sculpture in Pune of a person cupping his chin in his hands and looking up at the sky," she says when she hears I am from India. “I made a similar one here at Jukkasjärvi. Perhaps their sight will meet somewhere up in the sky," she adds. Perhaps that is what brought me here, I think.

Cross-country skiing in Jukkasjärvi. Markus Alatalo/Icehotel

“It is a very special and a unique experience since you are seeing one of the largest exhibitions by artists. It is not only about the room but also about the art. That is something which was from the beginning important for us—to combine an art experience with sleeping in an Arctic atmosphere," says Risenius, as I prepare to spend the night in one of the art suites. There are a total of around 65 ice rooms, including deluxe suites, art suites, and ice rooms.

A decadent five-course Nordic dinner served on ice platters eases me into a food coma and lulls the nerves brought on by the thought of sleeping on ice. Dinner is followed by a sauna and I am ready for the night. I am staying in a room named The Blue Houses, created by artists Nina and Johan Kauppi. The room represents a little village with sloping roofs. The play of light and darkness through the ice walls make the two dimensional dwellings appear three dimensional. In the middle of the room is my bed.

Dressed in a base layer, I leave my belongings in a warm chamber but for my mobile phone that becomes an extension of my hand as I tuck myself into the sleeping bag. I am assured the sleeping bag is designed to withstand cold up to -25 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, I take no chances. Leaving no part exposed except half my face, I close my eyes and count backward to hundred. Then I open my eyes. The fear seems to have gone. My heart is racing no more and my breath is calm. I am warm in an ice blue chamber surrounded by the silence of snow. The feeling is unimaginably surreal.

I must have slept well. For it takes more than a single “good morning" call from a chirpy staff member carrying a a cup of hot lingonberry tea, to wake me. Still wrapped in my sleeping bag, I sip the tea and look around. The past 7 hours feel like a dream. But sometimes reality is more surreal than fiction.

An ice room for two per night (including breakfast) starts at 18,000 in autumn; the suites can go up to 65,000. In winter, the price ranges from 45,000-90,000.

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