Travels with The Stag - Surrey goes to Sweden By Sheeba Pathak

When asked by the Research Director on what we wish to achieve within our doctoral journey, apart from the doctorate of course- I did say I wish to visit the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. Given expeditions were extremely expensive, and the Arctic is just as close to the UK, I targeted 2024 to go cruising with a budget of £2000.

The Student Union advertised a trip to Sweden on Tixtu and initially I was not too keen on it. However, being an international student, on one of my daily video calls with my family, I happened to mention this and was met with a lot of support and affirmation to go for this trip. Contemplating, I checked the itinerary and was happy to learn that it indeed meant we shall be crossing the Arctic Circle and even be able to witness the Northern Lights at a budget of less than £500. It was a no-brainer, I had to visit it.

Soon, I purchased the ticket from Tixtu and established base with Scott from the Student Union; who began sharing details on the trip and visa requirements. After several calls to the Swedish Embassy: VFS Global (the visa partner), many emails running back and forth as well as drop-in sessions with the International Student Support team I was able to gather all the documents and apply for the visa online. As an Indian citizen in UK, you would need to apply via VFS Global, and the application is indeed very seamless. For a tourist visa you of course need a passport, the BRP, travel itinerary, booking of tour and accommodation booking confirmations, past three months bank statements, a letter of enrolment from the university (either by the Hive or even by the Doctoral College for PGRs is alright-must mention start date of course as well as end date), flight tickets (yes, these need to be booked in advance) and any further supporting documents including a cover letter. Since it was a trip booked by an external agency, naturally the trip was booked in someone else’s name and thus these documents can also be shared. travel and health insurance is also a must which must cover the Schengen region. Scott was able to guide me with the correct insurance option and booking details. Once this was submitted and a payment made, a form is generated and sent to you on the portal. I could not locate it, so I had to check with customer care to email it to me. You need to sign and upload it back and then proceed to book an appointment, which I thankfully could within a couple of days.

I set out on 29th December for my visa interview and reached hours early, thankfully they let me in and to my surprise I was only asked to offer my biometrics with no document check, which was a rather quick process. Within a week I had my visa issued. Incidentally, 29th is the birthday of the present PM of Sweden.

Now the part of preparation for the trip had commenced. Sweden experienced one of its coldest days at -43 degrees Celsius and I now had to purchase woollens that could combat these temperatures. A close watch on the temperature was kept and you can add the weather as a widget to your smartphone too. It appeared that at Arctic temperatures one would have to have 3 layers- the thermal underwear (which can be bought from Amazon and must be sweatproof), a base layer of fleece (again from Amazon- sweatproof), a middle layer (a down jacket- waterproof and sweatproof, I purchased from Decathlon) and an outer layer jacket (again down, snow proof, windproof, waterproof and sweatproof). For the lowers I bought a middle layer from Temu and had the thermals. Woollen socks were bought as well as snow proof shoes. I do not recommend the shoes from Decathlon though- they were not waterproof, and my feet were wet during dogsledding, and I could not completely enjoy it. A good balaclava is useful and so are mittens. Mittens are warmer than gloves-and I bought them from Nordiclife (again do not recommend: did not keep me warm). We were assured of outer gear including snow boots, balaclava, mittens, and an outer coat at the hostel in Abisko.

The itinerary mainly was to reach Stockholm, check in, have dinner (which included reindeer) and then wake up the next morning for a walk around the city. Followed with a few hours to explore the city individually and purchase supplies of food for Abisko, a village in Lapland, prior catching the overnight sleeper train to Abisko where the rest of the activities would take place.

So, I set off early in the morning to Stansted airport and arrived quite early for check-in and security. I was asked to take off my shoes there. Once aboard, I was shocked to notice the tiny trays on Ryanair and soon spotted snow; meaning we were in Stockholm. Stockholm airport is very well organized. You can just walk out of it and catch a bus or walk through it to find the trains. I had a prior booking of a bus and was able to easily locate the bus-stop. Thankfully, the weather was rather tolerable, at 1 degree against the anticipated -20 degrees. Once aboard the bus, I got chatting with a local couple and asked them about the way to the hostel (would say, my general experience is that Swedes do not know how to help with directions much). On reaching the last bus stop, I grabbed my luggage and was happy to meet two more students for the trip. We walked on the gritted road to the hostel where we were to have a briefing. On checking in and dropping the luggage into the dorm, I set out for the briefing and then we headed down for dinner. The restaurant’s ambience was nice and resembled an igloo. Most of us tried reindeer for the first time, however I was not full as the portions were small. We paid our bills and some of us were making plans to head out into the city while others wanted to retire for the night. I asked two girls to wait as I spotted a Burger King to satiate myself. The menu was in Swedish and with some local assistance I placed an order for a halloumi burger. Meanwhile, the group had left, leaving me behind and I then reached out for help. George the tour guide came back to pick me up and, in the snow, he ensured I was in touch with the two girls who I had initially asked to wait for me. We took the train back to the hostel and walked back home. The stations there have different architecture and was a recommended thing to use. Checking it off my list with this little misadventure behind us, I went to sleep after a shower, readying myself for the next day’s walk.

We gathered for the walk and shared stories across the walk by George, crossing a bridge over the river, reaching where the royals lived at one time, and passing a museum. We reached Gamla Stan and even watched the changing of the guard post which we split up to explore the city. I first bought a postcard and sent it to my family. My first stop was to see the Nobel Prize Hall, unfortunately, on getting there, I was not allowed to peek, so instead booked an Uber to the Butterfly House. I also had the chance to witness a shark feeding in the shark aquarium. Its shop had a 3D postcard I bought, and when held in the right direction, it looked like the butterflies on the postcard were fluttering. I booked another Uber and headed out to Ikea to try the meatballs and was pleasantly satisfied by it. I headed back to the hostel where I charged my phone and got out my luggage from the room. We watched a little bit of TV and then were all set to head out to catch our train to Abisko from the station. With a five-minute walk, we had half an hour to spare at the station, leaving some of us to pick up more food for the journey. We finally reached the platform and were split into groups to spend the night on the train. I had an entire section to myself and retired early for the night.

We woke up early and had some breakfast on the train. We were to change trains as there was a construction enroute. After changing trains, we had another four hours to go, as we were running late- we were not sure if we would be on time for the day’s activities. Some of us paid extra for snow sports, as dog sledding and a snow hike were included. Later some of us spotted reindeer from the train. Finally, we reached Abisko, and it was laden with snow. We walked to our hostel and were checked into rooms and soon I was off for dogsledding. Being the tallest amongst the four of us meant I had to sit behind with everyone else in front of me. Lean dogs excitedly ran around us, we had a good couple of hours riding on the sled also amidst the snow. We went over a frozen river and through the forest, returning to play with the pups in the kennels.

An early morning was scheduled for the snow hike, which I skipped as I did not want to be walking in knee-deep snow. We also had, for the night, some hot chocolate, and marshmallows as well as a walk to look for the Northern Lights. Disappointingly, one cannot see it with the naked eye- we need to see it through a phone camera’s picture- but the activity in the sky is visible as a halo akin to the sun’s ray or rainbow in the sky at night. Some of the students even tried the sauna and were shocked to learn that Swedes do not even wear a swimsuit! With a creepy guy looming around asking some girls to spend the night with him, safety became a concern as the hostel did not have locks on the doors of the rooms.

We had to check out the following morning and were told that trains were not working so instead we had to catch a bus. I took the time to build a small snowman and even made snow angels. I even found out that the gear the hostel provided us with was from and the owner happily let me take a free postcard and keychain.

We reached Kiruna and caught our train back for Stockholm

With a lot of adventure and some fun, we returned only to find ourselves stranded at Waterloo station because of a train strike. I Uber’d back to campus and was for the first time in a Tesla.

I would definitely recommend trips organized by the university; of course, one with more safety angles.