It has been a LONG time since I last wrote, and a lot has happened between now and then. However, I am now back in the land of cheap internet cafes, and will try to catch up somewhat on what has happened to Hitomi and I.
The last time I wrote, we were just entering Scandinavia (in early July!!!). As we left our hotel in Berlin, our German host mentioned that he had stayed at the hotel we reserved in Copenhagen many times. He roared out in laughter when we told him about it, and wouldn't tell us why but just said that we would be very surprised when we got there.
Our images of Denmark were those of cute houses, pastry shops, fairy tales, and windmills. When we stepped out of the train station, we were a little unprepared for what waited for us. The train station seemed to separate the "nice" neighbourhood from the seedy one, and we were clearly on the wrong side of the tracks. As we read over our guidebook looking at the maps, we were surrounded by homeless and apparent drug addicts, one of which decided to "run me over" and shove me out of the way as I stood all alone on a very wide sidewalk. As we walked around the corner to our hotel, we were shown up four flights of stairs to a seedy room on a floor where all rooms shared the same grotty bathroom. While I have stayed at worse places in my travels around Asia, they generally cost on the order of $2 per night. Our room was for the bargain price of $70!!!
A little shocked from our welcome, we quickly washed up and headed back onto the right side of the tracks. There, we wandered around a very cute pedestrian downtown with lots of shops and street buskers. As we continued all of the way to the water, we found a pleasant waterfront with pastel colored houses, beautiful sailing boats, and lots of young people enjoying the unseasonably hot weather by enjoying beers in the many bars and cafes, or even from their own cases of beer while hanging out on the sidewalks.
Our main destination in Scandinavia was the fjords of Norway, so our stay in Copenhagen was a short one. We spent three days wandering around the medieval center, checking out the statue of Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, and visiting a castle in the surrounding countryside. The countryside of Denmark was filled with rolling hills, trees, and cute villages, and if we had more time in Denmark, it would have definitely been spent in more rural areas. The castle of Frederiksborg Slot was well worth a visit, but even more we enjoyed the cute surrounding village of Hillerod and watching the locals feed the swans and ducks that swam around the nearby lake.
As we headed north in Europe, the food generally became less tasty and more expensive. We had been looking forward to Danish pastries (a "danish"), and they were good but it was surprisingly hard to find a bakery. As a sign of the times, there seemed to be about three times as many tattoo parlors and body piercing salons as there were bakeries. The other bit of local cuisine that we sampled in Copenhagen was a "herring buffet". There were 9 different kinds of herring including baked ones, roasted ones, and an assortment of various pickled ones (many of which I believe were raw). The baked and roasted ones were pretty good, and while the pickled ones were edible, they appeared to be an acquired taste.
From Denmark, we took a train direct to Oslo via Sweden. As I mentioned earlier, food decreased in quality and increased in price as we headed north. The climax of this trend was definitely in Norway where the price of restaurants were astronomical and quality so-so. Even fast food joints charged $10 US for a burger and fries. While standing outside one of the tourist attractions, Hitomi eavesdropped on a group of Japanese tourists who were shocked at how expensive things were ... compared to Tokyo! Already spending a lot on our accomodation, we balked at the restaurants and ended up eating a lot of yoghurt, bread, and cheese.
As I mentioned in my last letter, we decided to ship our laptops home from Norway, and a lot of our time in Oslo was spent wrapping things up and preparing to post them home. Despite all of our paranoia, we almost screwed up in a big way as we realized as the clerk was carrying the box away that we forgot to write "Japan" on the box. Given that the address was all in Japanese characters and there was no clue as to the destination, who knows where it might have ended up.
There were a few nice museums in Oslo that we made it to, and the first was the Folk Museum. It consisted of a bunch of traditional Norwegian buildings in a nice forest setting on the outskirts of Oslo. The most interesting to me were the numerous houses that had a roof of living grass. We wondered how they managed to get the lawn mower up onto the roof. The highlight, however, was an intact "Stave Church". These churches were made by the Vikings after converting to Christianity, and are made completely out of wood. The architecture is unique amongst any churches I have ever seen, and was complete with dragon heads on the outside and Christian icons on the inside.
Another very worthwhile museum was the Viking Ship museum. The Vikings (like many cultures) buried people with things they might need in their afterlife. For the kings, this meant that they were buried with intact viking ships. Several of these have been discovered that were buried in oxygen deficient soil and remained almost intact over 1000 years later. These have been restored and are on display in the museum, and were impressive in both their size as well as their elegant curved lines.
The last museum was the one we were looking forward to the most ... the National Museum. It contains many of Eduard Munch's most famous paintings including "The Scream". We left it for our last day which was a Tuesday, and kicked ourselves when we showed up at the doors on the only day in the week that it was closed.
From Oslo, our plans were to spend about a week in the fjords before heading to the coastal town of Alesund. From there, we had booked a trip on the "Coastal Steamer" or "Hurtigruten". Our Scandinavia guidebook was a little terse in its description of getting around the fjords, and we relied on calling the various youth hostels directly to find out if it was indeed possible to get from place to place. Answers were always a little vague, but it seemed like our itinerary was indeed possible.
We had booked our hostels more than a month in advance, and on July 17th we left Oslo on a very early morning train to the Fjords. Oslo is above 60 degrees latitude (the farthest north I had ever been), and as the train left Oslo we entered into pine forests that slowly gave way to a barren treeless alpine landscape as we climbed onto a high plateau. Hitomi even managed to spot a couple of moose early in the morning. Despite the fact that it was the middle of July, the small local peaks still had snow on them and it almost looked like it was recent snow.
From this plateau, we changed trains to a small local train that descended to the fjord town of Flam. This particular train ride travels through some very mountainous country with lots of tunnels and waterfalls. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Norway. Unfortunately, the train didn't have reserved seats. When the train pulled up, 90% of the train's cars were completely booked by travel groups and the remaining cars were filled with "round-trippers" ... people who started in Flam, rode up to the top of the plateau, and just stayed in their seats for the return journey. This left us crammed in a standing room only car for most of the 1-hour trip. We were disappointed at first, although at the most beautiful spots the train would stop to allow passengers to get out and take photos.
The highlights of the fjords are not so much the villages but the surrounding nature. As a result, we didn't even visit Flam but instead headed right to the port where we hopped on a ferry that would take us through the "narrow fjord" and to the town of Gudvangen. The ferry ride was even more beautiful than the train ride. The fjords of Norway are very narrow salt water bodies of water that are surrounded by mountains on all sides with more waterfalls than I have ever seen in my life. Some of the scenery reminded me of the Canadian Rockies, although it was weird to be watching the mountains and at the same time inhaling the salt and seaweed smells of the ocean.
From Gudvangen we took an easy 1-hour bus away from the fjord and to the winter resort town of Voss where we would be spending our first night. As I mentioned earlier, everything in Norway is expensive. We had to book a double room at the hostel if we wanted to sleep in the same room, and the youth hostel room which didn't even include bed sheets, set us back $80 US per night.
Our next destination was Balestrand, and this is one of the trips that I had confirmed with the local tourist office. When we visited the tourist office to find out find out the exact busses that we would need to take, the woman spent five minutes poring over documents and saying to herself "this can't be possible". Since the population is relatively sparse in the fjords and tourists only visit during a less than 2-month period, the public transportation leaves a lot to be desired.
It turns out that we could take a 3-hour bus to a town called Vik which was right across from Balestrand. That bus would just miss the boat that sailed from Vik to Balestrand which left us having to wait for an hour to take another half hour bus to a village that basically consisted of a few houses and a ferry station. From that ferry station, we could catch a frequent ferry across the fjord which would leave us only 10km from our destination. However, despite being so close, we would have to wait over three hours for a bus that would take us the rest of the way.
We decided that we had no choice and decided to give it a shot. The first 3-hour bus ride passed through spectacular mountain scenery with more waterfalls, forests, alpine meadows, and many windy switch-backed roads that left Hitomi feeling a little nauseous. Everything went as described, but as we arrived at the ferry point near Balestrand, we decided we would rather walk than wait for three hours. As we walked, we stuck out our thumbs, and within five minutes an elderly local man loaded us into his station wagon. He spoke no English, but seemed more than happy to help us out and drove us right into the center of Balestrand.
There is a lot of local hiking around Balestrand, so we had planned on spending two nights there. However, after a visit to the tourist office, we again ran into transportation headaches. You can go from Balestrand to Hellesylt on any day of the week except Saturday which was when we had planned to leave. We were extremely frustrated as we had to change our plans again. We had planned on two nights in Balestrand, one night in Hellesylt, and one night in Geiranger. Instead, we decided to make this one night in Balestrand, one night in Hellesylt, and two in Geiranger which was also supposed to be a nice spot for hiking.
We rushed back to our youth hostel to cancel our second night and get our money back, and then proceeded to call around to see if we could still find accommodation in the other cities. We had no troubles moving our Hellesylt reservation up a night, so all we needed to do was to add a second night to our stay in Geiranger and everything would be settled. When we called the Geiranger hostel, the woman said she had broken her leg and the hostel was closed down completely. We were happy that we called ahead and didn't find out upon arrival in Geiranger.
The Geiranger tourist office and they managed to help us find a reasonably priced homestay with the only catch that it was 3km out of town. Now that we had the accommodation under control, we were a little more relaxed and set out on one of the hikes around Balestrand. We didn't need to bring any food along on the hikes as there were wild raspberries everywhere and we had great fun doing a little foraging.
Our trip the next day started with another fjord ferry trip to the town of Fjaerland. As we set off, we began to notice what looked like large fish surfacing on the fjord. We started to pay a little more attention and it was clear that they were some sort of marine mammal. We assumed they were dolphins, but were later told that they were a type of small whale that was common in the fjords.
In Fjaerland, we had a three hour wait for the bus and killed time by having a nice picnic in the middle of a big field surrounded by snow capped peaks and a visit to a nearby glacier. Our supposedly simple three hour journey to Hellesylt was complicated by rude drivers and two unexpected changes of bus, but we eventually made and our last bus driver was kind enough to drop us off right in front of the Hellesylt youth hostel.
Hellesylt is on the west end of the Geiranger fjord which has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful in Norway. Early the next morning we hopped on a ferry to get to Geiranger and see the fjord. It is a narrow fjord filled with high mountains, sharp cliffs, and lots of waterfalls. One of the most famous of the waterfalls is called the seven sisters because of the seven streams of water that pour down right next to each other. Across the fjord from the sisters is another spectacular waterfall called the "woo-er". Apparently the "woo-er" is in love with the sisters who want nothing to do with him. This drove him to drink, and you can see an obvious shape of a large bottle in the middle of the waterfall.
In Geiranger, we were a little distraught when we first figured out where our homestay was. Not only was it 3km out of town but it was straight up the side of the fjord and involved a 300m (1000ft) climb. However, we had no choice and hopped on the only bus of the day that made the trip. Once we were up at the homestay, however, we immediately fell in love with the place. We had booked the nicest room (still much cheaper than youth hostels), and our room had a large window that looked straight down onto the fjord. It also turned out that our homestay was less inconvenient than we expected. The best thing to do in Geiranger is hiking, and all of the hiking trails started around the corner from our room.
Our first hike was on a trail that took you behind a very large waterfall. The waterfall shot out from the cliff with such force that there was plenty of room between the water and cliff to build a trail. Another hike took us to the top of a small summit with beautiful fjord views.
The stay in Geiranger was one of our highlights of Norway, and it was a little sad to leave. However, we got up at 6am to hike down into town and catch the bus that would take us to the coastal town of Alesund. The fjords are infamous for the amount of rainfall that they receive (hence the copious waterfalls), but we lucked out and had no rain for our five days. However, as we left Geiranger we started to receive our first rain in the form of a little drizzle.
Alesund was not a terribly interesting town, but we were very excited about getting on the coastal steamer for what would be our first "cruise". We stocked up on groceries (more bread, cheese, and yoghurt) and at 9am the next morning the boat showed up and we checked ourselves in. When we had booked our room two months previously, all of the more expensive rooms with windows were already booked, and we were forced to book a class that was called "interior or limited visibility". We were happy to see that at least we had a window for some natural light, even if the window was blocked by the life-boats.
The room was small but surprisingly comfortable. One of the beds folded up into the wall during the day and the other folded into a couch. We had a private bathroom complete with a very nice hot shower.
The first stage of our cruise was actually a trip back into the fjords and back to the town of Geiranger. This meant seeing the Geiranger Fjord twice, although it was so beautiful that it was fine with us. We headed to the observation lounge and camped out on a nice table in a non-smoking section in front of the window, and spent the rest of the day enjoying spectacular views, eating bread and cheese, and reading books.
The next few days were spent enjoying beautiful coastal scenery, visiting small Norwegian fishing towns, beautiful islands, and more picnics at window-side tables. Some of the towns we visited were more industrial, while others were more charming and clearly depended on the Coastal Steamer for tourism business. The stops ranged from 15 minutes at small stops to 4-6 hours at the more interesting towns.
On our third day, we crossed the Arctic Circle at around 7am. However, as it was July, we still hadn't reached the "midnight sun". Later that morning we passed a puffin colony. While we weren't close enough to see them on land, there were a lot of them floating on the waves. They were very cute and were definitely awkward fliers. As the boat approached, they would try to flap away but mostly ended up just skipping along the surface of the water. Sometimes they would eventually get airborne, while at other times they would give up and dive under the water.
Later on that day, we reached the Loften Islands. The trip through the Loften islands was definitely one of the highlights of the cruise. The group of islands have high mountains that rise straight out of the ocean and we visited a few pretty fishing villages at their base. At around 11pm we were invited onto the deck for a special visit into a fjord called the "Trollfjord". It was a narrow fjord (not much wider than the boat in places), and it was lined with sharp cliffs and snow capped mountains. As we entered the fjord, we were served "Troll soup" which was a delicious hot vegetable soup. As we hadn't had any hot food for weeks, we devoured about 4 bowls of soup each.
After a half hour stop at the end of the fjord for photos, the boat somehow managed to turn around and we were on our way again. At this point it was about 12:30 and the skies were still very bright. We were tempted to stay up to watch the sunset and sunrise (not that far apart), but it was cold and we were tired so we headed to bed.
The next day brought surprisingly warm weather despite the fact that we were now far above the arctic circle. The landscaped changed, however, and there were now very few trees and the coastal mountains were smaller and rounder. The ocean color also changed and was almost a turquoise blue like that of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.
On our fifth and last day on the boat, the weather became colder again, and we finally reached the "midnight sun". We watched more puffins flop around and then pulled into Honningsvag which is a small port on an cold dismal island that contains the northernmost point in Europe. This was where we disembarked and spent our one night of midnight sun. Honningsvag is a bit of a dreary place and even in July it is very cold and windy. The main tourist destination on the island is called "Nordkapp" which is advertised as being the northernmost spot in Europe. Hitomi's Japanese guidebook, however, pointed out that the real northernmost point is actually a few kilometers to the east, but at a far less scenic location.
We considered a trip to Nordkapp, but the 30km bus ride and entrance fees would have set us back more than $100. From the guide books, it didn't sound like there was much to do there other than to say that you were there, so we instead opted for a 2km hike that took us above 71 degrees latitude ... also just so we could say we were there, but much cheaper.
We spent one night in a very expensive hotel, and then the following day we began our journey back southwards. The first part of the journey was a 6 hour bus ride that left at 5:30 am and took us to the Finnish Lapland town of Inari. The trip along the way was beautiful with many herds of domestic reindeer and pretty islands, forests, and fields. We arrived in Inari at 12:30, and headed to our chosen hotel.
It was a bit of a relief leaving Norway as our Finland hotel was well within our budget and restaurants were also cheap. The town, however, was not exactly what I had expected and reminded me of an old western town and our hotel was something like a saloon. The main sport in town seemed to be fishing and hunting, and there were a lot of locals taking advantage of the long daylight hours. Our host, at the hotel said that for him the summer months were the worst as he hated trying to go to sleep when it was still bright and sunny outside ... especially when camping.
Our main attractions were hiking and a highly recommended Sami Museum. The Sami are the native people of northern Europe who live in tee-pees and make there living primarily off of their domestic reindeer. We also tackled a 14km hike to a wilderness church. The hike through the forest passed many pretty lakes (and mosquitos) before we eventually made it to our destination. The church was established in 1840 and was in use for about 40 years before a church was built in the booming town of Inari and made the wilderness church redundant.
We also continued our tradition of eating muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. We bought some local yoghurt and were a bit shocked when we tried to eat it. When you tried to scoop up a spoonful, the yoghurt had a life of its own and would snap back into the bowl like a rubber band. You almost needed to have scissors to cut off a piece. In addition to the strange texture, the taste was a bit weird for us and we decided that plain muesli was good enough for that morning. Apparently this type of yoghurt is a Scandinavian specialty.
From Inari, it was another 6-hour bus ride down to Rovaniemi - famous for being the northernmost point on the Finnish train line as well as for sitting right on the Arctic Circle. It is also famous for a great marketing ploy. It is the "official" home of Santa Claus's village. The village gets huge volumes of mail from people all over the world, although we were surprised to see that the greatest volume of mail comes from non-Christian Japan. If you send mail from the post office it comes complete with very cute Santa stamps as well as a Santa post-mark.
Our guidebook described Santa's village as being very kitsch, although we couldn't resist a visit just to have our picture taken with one foot on either side of the Arctic Circle whose path through Santa's village is well marked. A couple of Swedes were also visiting especially for the kitsch. They were freelance photographers and wanted to write a story about tacky places. As they hoped to sell their stories to Asian magazines as well, they recruited Hitomi to be one of their models.
We took a very comfortable and reasonably priced night train down to Helsinki where we would prepare for our journey into Russia. Helsinki was a very pleasant town, although mostly Russia was on our mind. We had organized our trip to Russia two months before in England, but our hotel/train vouchers hadn't been ready and needed to be mailed to us. American Express provides client mail service for customers, and the Norway American Express office had provided us with the address in Helsinki.
Getting these vouchers were the highest priority item on our mind, so the first thing we did on arrival in Helsinki was to try and find the office. The office wasn't located at the address we were given in Norway and when we eventually tracked down the office, we found out the address we had been given had been closed down several years earlier. Needless to say I was not pleased at American Express. To make things worse, I wanted to buy some traveller's checks. I was pointed to the Amex authorized agent and bought $1000 in traveller's checks. With my Optima card, I am supposed to be able to buy traveller's checks for free and with no finance charges. I have done this many times in the past. However, the "authorized agent" didn't honour this and instead just took a cash advance off of my card. By the time I got done paying everything off, I ended up paying $100 in fees. Needless to say, I will be avoiding using any Amex products at all costs in the future.
We still needed to get our Russian vouchers, and our only hope was to find a way to print out the fax that I had received (my fax service sends faxes to me via email). The problem with Helsinki is that there are no internet cafes. Many places around Helsinki provide free internet access (such as all libraries), so it is impossible for an internet cafe to make any money. We needed internet access with an attached printer, and tracking one down wasn't easy. We eventually found a travel agent that had a free computer with printer and printed out all 23 pages of our vouchers.
The main attractions to us in Helsinki were the varied and reasonably pricedrestaurants, and we enjoyed some delicious Indian and Thai dinners. One night when walking home from dinner at about 10:00, we were shocked that it was already starting to get dark. It had been a long time since we had seen any darkness at all, and we saw our first star in about a month.
From Helsinki, we would travel to St. Petersburg by train. As it was peak season and the trains to Russia are supposedly very busy, we had worried about how we were going to get tickets. About a month before, we had tracked down the Finnish train company's web site, sent an email, and after a bit of correspondence we secured a reservation electronically. All we needed to do was pick up the tickets at least three days prior to departure.
As this report is already getting a bit long, I'll cut it off here and send it off now. Note that we left Helsinki in early August, and since then have travelled through Russia, Mongolia, China, and are now in Tibet. From Kathmandu, I will try and get more up to date and send out a few more reports.
I hope that all is well with everyone, and if you get a chance, send me an email and let me know how you are doing.
Ron & Hitomi
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