Like the Equator or the 17th parallel in Vietnam or the Greenwich Meridian, Kirkenes is one of those places a tourist goes just to satisfy some vague cartographical urge of having been there. Where a place importance than what's there once you arrive.
Kirkenes lies 160 miles above the Artic Circle, or 1,400 miles south of the North Pole as the snow goose flies. It is as far north as Prudhoe Bay, start of the Alaska pipeline. The distance between Kirkenes and Oslo is as great as between Oslo and Milan. It's the last stop on the Norwegian air steamer and bus lines - the train doesn't go that far north.
The eastern extremity of Norway, Kirkenes is on the same longitude as Istanbul. More significant, this mining town of 5,000 inhabitants lies nine miles from the Soviet Union.
The border has become a prime tourist attraction for Scandinavians - plus a few adventuresome Europeans and Americans - who like to gape at the fences, guard houses and watch-towers. Unfortunately, the armed Russian soldiers in fur hats aren't as cooperative about being photographed as the guards outside Buckingham Palace. Since Norway understands this, film is subject to confiscation by the Norwegian guards if pictures are taken.
To those familiar with the drama of the East-West Berlin border, this one proves something of a letdown. No-man's land between the two countries is not a mine field. There is some one-way traffic into the U.S.S.R. at Storskog, the official checkpoint. A few years back an American tourist "wandered" across the border, despite repeated warnings, and subsequently died in a Soviet prison. But there have been no sensational escapes to the West.
Virtually the only illegal border crossings are made by reindeer. For some reason, reindeer, which are domesticated solely on the Norwegian side, tend to think the grass is greener on the Soviet side. As the beasts are a delicacy in these parts, their Norwegian owners are anxious to get them back. The two countries have been working on a reindeer extradition treaty for five years.
The road along the 90-mile border ends in the north at the Barents Sea. On the Norwegian side are found a solitary house, a fisherman's shack and a few small boats drawn up on the rocky coast. Across the bay lies the Soviet Union. Great orange guideposts, visible from far out at sea, warn the fisherman of the dividing line.
The road south to the Finnish border winds along fjords and through sparse birch forests still spotted with snow in June. The salmon and mosquito season begins in July. Even on a sunny Sunday afternoon, fewer than a half dozen cars are seen.
Forty miles south of Kirkenes, border-watching reaches its height on Hill 96. For across the Pasvik River lies the only Soviet border city, Nikel. The billowing smokestacks of the smelters partially obscure the few cars and long, white apartment blocks. (Norwegians proudly point out their own houses - costing up to $60,000 even in this desolate outpost - which are colorfully painted).
Several times a year Russian and Norwegian student athletes and musicians cross to each others cities to compete. A Norwegian sighed. "I wonder what it would be like if there were free access again. Kirkenes would never be the same on a Saturday night if the Russians started coming over."
As it is, the primary social activity for visitors and some townspeople is centered in the Turishotell, a relatively new, somewhat spartan hostelry overlooking the harbor. A double room cost $50 a night. Dinner, served until 11 p.m., includes specialties like reindeer filet ($14), gravet laks (cured salmon with sweet mustard sauce), shrimp, pungent cheese and cloud berries, a rare wild (and seedy) treat its detractors call anemic raspberries. Beer and imported wines are plentiful though expensive. A single Scotch costs $4.
In Kirkenes at least part of the sun always remains above the horizon from May 12 to Aug. 1. Farther south in Bodo, the Midnight Sun is visible from June 3 to July 8. In the extreme north the sun does not appear for two months during winter. At that time the aurora borealis, or northern lights, can be seen. There is only twilight at midday.
If the weather - which can range from 35 degrees to 52 degrees Celsius - is clear on a summer evening, tourists forsake their dancing to go outside for the midnight show. There is no fanfare, not even a dimming of the house lights for the North's greatest attraction. In truth, the visitor may not even be aware when the sun has reached its lowest point on the horizon and has begun its upward climb.
At midnight the sun in Kirkenes is as bright as it is in Washington's late afternoon. Its fiery brightness makes sunglasses and lens filters obligatory. From a showbiz viewpoint, the midnight sun is actually much better in Tromso or Bodo, farther south but still above the Arctic Circle.
There the sky dramatically darkens to a royal blue as the golden orb sinks slowly into the sea about 11:30 p.m., only to rise again an hour or so later. In penthouse bars camera buffs, tripods deployed, eagerly capture the spectacle. Applause, accompanied by excited cries in German, Swedish or Japanese of "There it is!" greet the sun's reappearance like the film star it is.
Kirkenes can be reached by road through Sweden and Finland, a journey of about three days. Driving along the twisting Norwegian coast takes more than twice as long and is recommended for only the most hardy. The inland steamer makes the most picturesque voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes in 5 1/2 days. The fare is about $300 one way. SAS, Braathens Safe and charter airlines fly from Oslo and Bergen to towns in the north. Flight time from Oslo to Kirkenes is about 5 1/2 hours. One way fare is $143.