According to reviews on Tripadvisor, the train ride between Bergen and Oslo is worth spending half of your day doing. And, I totally agree. I loved the scenery during the entire 6.5 hour ride.
Britta (from the hiking trip) was also in town so, we decided to explore the city on bikes, which I registered for at the tourist office by the central train station. A 24 hour bike card cost kr 100 and needs to be returned to the office at the end for your kr 250 deposit to be credited back. Unlike the Citi Bikes in NYC, you can take out a bike for 3 hours at a time. I must say though, the Oslo bikes are way shittier than the Citi Bikes.
We set off towards our first stop, the Norsk Folkemuseum. The bike paths were clearly marked and nicely paved until we made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up merging onto the highway with cars furiously honking behind us. We carefully turned our bikes around and rode back on the sliver of curb until we realized where we went wrong. I would say that this was an interesting experience. Yea.
The museum had a cool exhibit featuring Anders Beer Wilse, a Norwegian photographer whose photographs of the country helped bring attention to its beautiful landscapes. Even in black & white and sepia, Norway is unbelievably gorgeous.
The rest of the museum was “open air,” including a replica of a past Norwegian village, complete with houses, a pharmacy, a gas station and an old stave church.
Since we didn’t get to visit the old stave church on our hiking trip, this one satisfied our touristy needs.
Next stop: The Fram Museum, as if I didn’t get educated enough about polar explorations, particularly those of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. The exhibit is built around the Fram, a ship designed according to Nansen’s specifications and the inside of which you can explore.
Separate from the ship was a simulation room “not for pregnant women.” It was supposed to simulate what it was like being a passenger on the ship while it was in sub-zero temperatures and navigating through icebergs. What it really was…was a heavily air-conditioned room which vibrated slightly as it “hit an iceberg,” with mannequins plastered with terrified facial expressions. I laughed during the entire thing.
Britta had to go meet up with other friends for dinner before we were all to meet up for drinks later that night. I was happy to end our museum tour because after the Fram Museum, I was all knowledged out and needed some scenery. After we parted ways, I got lost another 2-3 times, almost got hit by a BMW and detoured to find another bike rack with a space to dock but, luckily, I made it to Frogner Park in one piece.
The park itself is filled with Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures which, at first, seem erotic but are really meant to portray the stages of life, from angry babies to children developing friendships, to love relationships that either end well or badly, to growing families and old age. It’s an awesome place to people watch, both in real and sculpted forms. Ha, ha.
I got lost a few more times on my way back. By then, I was yelling expletives in my head for not getting a SIM card for my Verizon phone or switching to T-Mobile earlier. But hey, at least I found my way back to the train station with a quick visit to the Oslo Opera House using paper maps and ended the night with fantastic beers at the microbrewery Kråka Bryggeri. Win.
I skipped the Royal Palace and other museums and quickly went for City Hall and the National Museum of Art, all so that I could have enough time to grab a burger at a recommended place before flying out. When I got to the burger joint after salivating the entire walk there, I found that it was closed, either for renovation or permanently. Disappointment does not accurately describe what I felt at that moment.
The Oslo City Hall doesn’t look like much on the outside but, once inside, you’re surrounded by vibrantly colored murals. People get awarded the Nobel Peace Prize here annually. And then, there’s me.
Our second day of hiking in the Fossasete Valley was a rainy, puddly, slippery mess. But, regardless of the weather, Norway is always beautiful. A part of me wanted to go into that red cottage, start a little fire and huddle around it with a flannel blanket and cup of hot chocolate. The blanket has to be flannel or it wouldn’t be complete.
We passed by a pulley system or, I guess more like a mini chair lift system that is used to transport sheep easily up and down the mountain. The sheep are tied to the cable wire by their legs and, therefore, hung upside down which sounds really inhumane but, apparently, this freezes them up and helps to keep them calm during the transport. After this particular hike, I’m sure a few of us would’ve tried this out if we could’ve.
Phil, having done this particular hike several times with different groups, placed a troll in a random spot towards the beginning of the trail in hopes that the next person would pick it up and place it somewhere else further along. I remember when these trolls were the “in” thing back in the 90s. I practically had to beg my mom, get a few 100’s on math/spelling exams and practice piano for hours to finally convince her to buy one for me. In retrospect, I should’ve begged her for a Power Wheels convertible instead.
With the sound of one wrapper crinkling, this horse was suddenly next to us with its face all up in our business. We fed it a couple of apples, a banana and a carrot which was a mistake because, instead of being satisfied, the horse kept expecting us to pull out a feast from our bags. When we would attempt to hide our food, the horse would continue chewing on the grass “nonchalantly” while maintaining its peripheral vision and heightened senses. With one hand movement into a bag, the horse’s face would be back up in our business within seconds. So, with half-eaten lunches, we decided to just complete the remainder of our 5 hr hike.
Later that night, Katie, Jo, Phil and I were, per usual, the last ones standing after dinner. We got onto the topic of flexibility and double-jointedness and Jo, who was on her way to becoming a doctor, listed out several indicators of being double-jointed:
1) Placing hands flat on the floor while keeping your legs straight. Check.
2) Bending knees and elbows backwards. Sort of check.
3) Touching thumbs to forearms. Nope.
At this point, I joked, “Imagine the waitress walked in on us doing all of this weird shit?” and we all chuckled.
4) Bending pinky fingers backwards past 90 degrees. I feel like we got it into our heads to prove that we’re at least somewhat double-jointed and struggled to bend our pinkies backwards with looks of intensity.
Defeated, we all looked up. The waitress was standing there, as if deciding whether to continue walking in or turn back around, only to have been caught on the brink of deciding to turn back around. We all looked at each other in awkwardness until one of us managed to start explaining what was going on.
“You don’t have to explain,” she quickly replied.
Our third day of hiking was the most brutal and the most rewarding. We took a bus to Skjeggedal and began our hike to Trolltunga (the Troll’s Tongue), about 1,200m uphill and 1,200m back down for a total roundtrip of 22km. The estimated time for the hike was said to be about 8-10 hours, averaging around 9 hours for most groups.
The hike began with 1,000 stone steps of hell, all of which had been laid down by Sherpas from Nepal. How they managed to construct this is still amazing to me but, what sucked was that, after climbing the thousand steps and experiencing the utmost butt burn, we had only covered about 1-2km of the 11km. Yep.
Due to rain and warming temperatures, anyone hiking here was advised not to stray off the path. One hiker had recently ventured near a boulder and fallen through the snow bordering the rock into an icy river deep in the crevice, underneath the snowy ground. The expanse of uninterrupted snow is really deceiving as there are patches that are made weak by the layers of melted snow underneath that you are completely unaware of, layers that have become strong currents of glacial water. Nature, as usual, is no joke. Respect it!
Phil’s previous group completed this hike in about 8+ hours and our goal was to beat that. With that in mind, we powered through.
This view over the Ringedalsvatnet lake and surrounding fjord made the long hike worthwhile. After a quick lunch, we all ran to stand on the growing line of people waiting to take a photo on the “tongue.”
This isn’t as scary as it looks. On the other hand, there were 2 girls doing precarious yoga poses at the edge for that “perfect” photo opportunity which made everyone else feel nervous. So, my advice is just don’t be stupid.
If the camera lens was moved slightly more to the left, the photo would’ve included the long line of people impatiently waiting for their chance on the edge. This may look like a peaceful place to sit and contemplate (well, it can be if you get there early enough) but, it’s also very much a tourist attraction. After our individual shots, the 10 of us waited in the increasingly cold winds to get a group shot. And, group shot we did take, on a GoPro that inadvertently deleted it after it was taken.
On the way back, I really had to pee and being in nature, well, I had to get creative with obscurity. I found the perfect spot in front of luckily napping hikers and stood up only to hear, “Hey, Christine! Over here!” as this picture was taken. I’m not sure if the hikers budged an eyelid.
Finally, we began making our way down and due to the snow melt and previous day’s rain, we literally grabbed onto rope railings to avoid slipping down the entire way and ending with muddy butts. After that jungle gym adventure came the 1,000 steps of hell. For some reason, the way down felt like double the amount of steps and there’s a running joke that a Sherpa comes out of hiding and adds more steps while we’re not looking. But, we finished the entire 22km hike in 7.5 hours, beating the previous group’s time. Aw, hell yea! This called for some beers. Trolltunga beers.
Literally, Trolltunga-branded beers. The best tasting beer to have ever graced my taste buds, said the July 7, 2015 version of Christine. Oh, and bags of Sørlands Chips which we progressively became obsessed with. This day, for whatever reason, became etched in our memories as Trolltunga Tuesday.
And, to continue our apparent dinnertime tradition of proving random physical feats, we competed to see who can plank the longest. The drizzle cut our competition short but, as clearly seen from the rain-spattered outline of a body above, Jo did not win.
For our last full day, we had the option of visiting Røldal and the old stave church, doing another small hike or, kayaking. Most of us wanted to be active but, the thought of hiking after Trolltunga made us literally weak in the knees. It was time to work out our other set of limbs. (That would be our arms in case you were still wondering.)
We took a bus ride toward Eidfjord where we were going to kayak and passed by a magical layer of mist hovering above the water. I was seriously mesmerized by it and couldn’t stop staring. You could’ve whispered subliminal messages into my ear during this time and had me act upon them without realizing why.
Then, we passed through tunnels in the mountainside all lit up in neon lights. We circled a roundabout inside the tunnel which further made it feel like a rave. We were just missing some electronic beats. I think all of us were too confused to even think about taking a photo.
I was paired up with a well-built guy.
“You’re lucky that you’re paired up with him! You won’t have to do much work.”
“Yessss!” I thought.
Yea, well, I don’t know what he was doing back there but, I was paddling my heart out to the point of veins popping out of my forehead. It didn’t help to realize that our kayak was named “Atlantis.” As we were falling way behind the rest of the group, someone exclaimed to him,
“Hey! You need to follow what Christine’s doing! Since she’s in the front, she’s the navigator.”
He didn’t improve much after that. I cursed like a maniac inside my head but, put on a smile and continued to paddle, using my growing anger as motivation. In this case, size did not matter.
Phil had been dropping hints for the past couple of days that he was planning a surprise for our last night. Nearby Trolltunga Hotel is a cute little red cabin, a really cute arts & crafts shop run by the couple (Keitel and Britta) living in the adjacent house. They had refurbished the basement to welcome guests and as a surprise, they had invited us in to talk about the history of Norway, the town and their family. They lit the entire place up with candles and set up a table full of snacks, then served us a locally made cider – Hardanger Sider, 9.0% alcoholic volume. I was drunk by dinnertime. We were so touched by their hospitality that we gave them multiple hugs before leaving.
The next day was departure day (sad face). And, replaying for the millionth time in the dining room’s speakers was the same playlist that’s been blasting since we arrived, a collection which included Sam Smith’s current hits and the very appropriate (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing, which I made sure to sing as we all parted ways from the bus station in Bergen.
Travel tip: To get back to Bergen, we walked to the main bus station in Odda’s city center (right by the Smeltehuset) and caught the 9:40am (on a Thursday) bus to Bergen. I believe we took bus #760 and had to switch buses around 10:30am to #740, eventually arriving in Bergen at 1:05pm. Note: These buses boarded ferries, in case you get surprised by it. When in doubt, just ask the bus driver. Total cost was kr 302.
You might be thinking, “So, you went from Scotland to Norway, then back to Scotland, then back to Norway…only to end up back in Scotland?”
Yes, yes I did. That’s just the way the tour group dates worked. Bite me.
Before meeting my G Adventures group, I headed for the Ulriken cable car with the intention of hiking back down or possibly doing one of the trails towards Mount Fløyen. This was the visibility.
Travel tip: There’s a great tourist information office in the city center. To get to the Ulriken cable car, take bus #2 or 3 (kr 50 each way; ticket machines at bus stop) and get off at the Haukeland Sjukehus stop. From there, cross the street and look for the signs to the cable car. If you’re walking uphill on a winding road, then you’re likely going in the right direction (the signs weren’t too clear).
So, instead, I came back into town and walked around Bryggen…
…with its awesome alleyways stuffed with more small shops and restaurants.
After the group introductory meeting, we headed towards Håkon’s Hall, a king’s banqueting hall from the 1200s, to check it out before dinner. But, on approach, there were huge lines blocking the sidewalks and all of us looked on in confusion. It was an Elton John concert. I had no idea this man had such a following in Norway…or that he still put on concerts.
So, we went off to eat dinner in one of these alleyways and bumped into a group of drunk Norwegian men, native to Bergen.
Drunk Norwegian: “So, what are you planning on doing here in Bergen?” Phil, the CEO*: “We’re actually heading out to Odda tomorrow.” Drunk Norwegian: “WHAT?! Why the fock do you want to go to Oh-dah??!!” Phil: “Oh, we’re going to be doing some hikes from there.” Drunk Norwegian: “You should just stay in Bergen and hike from here! No one goes to focking Oh-dah! They have many stoats. When you see one, you just (makes stomping motions with his leg) smash them like this!”
(turns to his less drunk friends)
“Beers???” he asked enthusiastically, while shrugging his shoulders upwards, arms and hands out.
I thought, “Oh, great. We’re probably going to a shitty remote town in the middle of nowhere.”
*CEO stands for Chief Experience Officer, which is the title given to G Adventures tour group leaders.
The day was golden the next morning, and with 2 of the girls from the group, I hiked up Mount Fløyen (about 45 min) and took the cable car (kr 43 one way) back down into the city center in time to grab breakfast and head out on a ferry towards Odda with the rest of the group.
We bid farewell to Bergen and boarded the ferry for a 2-3 hour journey in Hardangerfjord. Even after 2 weeks of being on a ship and seeing fjords pretty much everyday, I was still amazed by the views. It’s just that gorgeous.
Once we docked at our destination, we then boarded a privately booked van and headed towards our home base for the remainder of the trip, Trolltunga Hotel.
You know, just passing by an extremely massive waterfall by the side of the road. No big deal. Just carry on. I can’t imagine what it’s like on a stormy day. Probably torrential and definitely hazardous.
When learning that Odda was a town built around smelters and had only a handful of restaurants and shops that all closed early, I pictured it to look like a dismal place colored only with different shades of gray, isolated from the rest of the country. Then, I saw this and was surprised.
We dropped off our things at the hotel and trekked into town (maybe around a 20 min walk) to go buy some snacks for our hikes in the coming days and packs of beer since the hotel charged several limbs for their drinks. Phil convinced us to eat dinner in town at the Smeltehuset, since it was likely that we’d eat dinner at the hotel for the remaining nights and he’d eaten their 4-5 dishes on rotation for the past few weeks and needed change.
The hotel had a strict no-outside-alcohol policy due to the liquor license laws so, we scrambled outside with our cans and situated ourselves at this one random picnic table by the lake. By then, our beers had lost its chill and in collective group geniusness, we gathered our cans into a large plastic bag, which we tied up with one end of a travel clothesline, then tied the other end of the clothesline to a large rock on the ground before lowering the bag into the cold lake. Refrigeration achieved. And, with that, we had our first real group bonding experience. Verdict? I had lucked out once again with an awesome group of people.
I had bought a 4-pack of Guinness, expecting it to last me for the next 2 days. It didn’t make it past the first night.
Breakfast was provided at the hotel and it was simple and delicious. Every morning, they put out freshly baked loaves of bread and left out a waffle maker and a bowl of batter for anyone to make fresh. There were boiled eggs, selected meats and cheeses, veggies, yogurt and cereal. I usually don’t describe my meals but, for some reason, I just really liked it here. We also packed our own sandwiches (using the above ingredients) for lunch during our hikes. We didn’t find out until later that we were supposed to pay for the lunch bags that they left out on the table. And, we didn’t find out until the very last day, after all our sandwiches had been made and devoured. Heh. heh.
Each day’s hike was at Phil’s discretion since Norway’s weather, particularly in this area, tends to be whatever the hell it wants and usually involves rain. So, we hiked to Buarbreen (a glacier) for our first hike and, due to a large degree of ice melt, we couldn’t hike towards it in the valley below. Instead, we took a longer route up into the hill of Reinanuten for a panoramic view of the glacier, led by Phil and Bruno, a Dutch guy who served as our main guide for the day.
We began our ascent on dirt paths, passing through forestry. At some point, the paths became covered in deep snow and we had to put on our crampons to continue the ascent safely. We could see the glacial lakes nestled into the hills and mountains from above. We decided to stop here for lunch and with this amazing view ahead of us, a few of us began to sing…Baby Got Back. I’m not quite sure why.
Our lovely group photo: Britta, Casey, Will, me, Jo, Laura, Phil (maturely giving me the horns), Robbie, Katie, Veronica and Steph. In a nutshell, a German, 4 Australians, 5 Americans and a Canadian. I had heard of Katie through my friend Flo (who I had traveled with on 2 occasions) since they had both hiked together in Iceland with G Adventures. Small world! On top of that, we later found out that Casey, Steph and I all shared the same birthday. I could say that fate brought us all together but I’m not a cheesy person. For the most part.
It was Will’s birthday and Phil managed to carry a flan cake all the way up to the glacier still intact. We lay the cake down on a large rock with a birthday card proudly showing “William” and gathered in front of it while Will became preoccupied with taking photos. We loudly began to sing Happy Birthday and it took a few seconds for Will to finally register what was going on, turn around and display a very big smile on his face.
Will: “I love you guys!” Me: “Dude, it’s only been 2 days.”
Sorry, I had to.
We already got a glimpse of the glacier but hiked a bit further to get an even better view. Some of the paths became snowy again and even steeper. Calves were burning for everyone.
Buarbreen. Holy. Freakin. Shmoly.
We took a break, sat down on the rocks and just stared at this beauty. Life contemplation? Check.
Some of the girls were uncomfortable with the idea of climbing down the steep snowy hills and so, a bunch of us decided to have some fun and slide down the hillside on our butts. SO. MUCH. FUN. And, a real time saver. The guys, on the other hand, decided to just run down. I ended with a run/slide combo, the best of both worlds.
Towards the end of our hike, we were back on dirt paths and Jo kept slipping in front of me which only increased her frustration. On her last slip, I watched her fall in slow motion as she stopped trying to break her fall and just let gravity slowly roll her into a cozy nook in the ground. She didn’t even react except to just further curl into a fetal position in the nook. She clearly had just given up. We couldn’t stop laughing because it was the slowest motion we’ve ever seen anyone fall into the coziest spot to ever exist in the soft ground with no resulting attempt to even get up. About 7 hours of total hiking on slippery ground can do that to you.
“So, what are you doing next?” “I’m staying in Longyearbyen for 3 nights,” I replied. “What?! Why? There’s nothing to do here!”
He was wrong. There were 3 days’ worth of stuff to do, including catching up on social media like a sad individual. There was no wifi for the past week on the ship unless you paid for it but, even then, it was via satellite and we were so far off the grid most days, we couldn’t even get a signal. It was actually liberating in some ways but, still. Wifi.
Since Norway is expensive, I wanted to book 3 nights at the cheapest accommodation but, most places had been booked up and I ended up in a nice hotel the first night and a hostel the next 2 nights. Sylvia and Roy were staying the night so, we agreed to meet for lunch at Kroa, a restaurant recommended by the ship’s crew. Everything was delicious there – the burgers, the smoked salmon sandwich and the gigantic soups.
So, in an attempt to lose some ship weight and to finally do some really active stuff, I booked a mountain biking trip with FatBike Spitsbergen to ride along the coast during low tide. It was only me and the tour guide which always feels a bit awkward no matter how nice the guide is. The overall trip was fun but, there were times when we would ride over huge rocks (larger than the ones shown in the photo) and I was worried about my imminent death. I fell maybe 2 or 3 times and was sporting a nice black and blue on my knee but, thank you Diana Ross, I survived! One gross thing though was that the tour guide would ride in front of me and when the winds rendered our noses runny, the guide would blow his nose into the air by blocking one nostril and letting things go from the other. Well, after being spritzed in the face and trying not to freak out and swerve off the road, I quickly learned to ride slightly to the side of him. Vigorous face washing most definitely occurred that night.
I went to Pyramiden (via boat cruise) the next day which is an old abandoned Russian mining town. The eeriness was definitely magnified by the fact that everything was left as is – cards in the Dewey decimal box, dishes on tables, instruments leaning against the walls. It felt almost like a movie set for a horror film. (Note: Pyramiden is only accessible during the summer months when the surrounding waters have no sea ice.)
Our guide for the day was Sasha, an awesome Russian guy in full Soviet garb and one of Pyramiden’s very few residents. He lives and breathes Pyramiden and his passion clearly showed as he talked about the town’s history.
We passed by the only functioning hotel, with one first floor window boarded up with red wood. Apparently, a polar bear tried to break into the hotel on more than one occasion through this one window. Other than those few times, polar bears are usually a rare scene.
The bust of Lenin, situated in front of the Cultural Palace (the town’s recreation center), looking over the ghost town.
Coal mining in Pyramiden wasn’t profitable but, it remains a bit of a mystery that this town was shut down while the nearby Barentsburg (another coal mining town) was left operational.
(back to…) Longyearbyen
I woke up the next morning in the more basic lodging, Coal Miners’ Cabins. Part of the building was still being renovated, and the door that had been installed for my room was slightly too big for the doorframe. I was already a little annoyed that this accommodation was a 30 min walk from the center of town and basically in the middle of nowhere. I became even more frustrated when I literally had to run my body weight into the door to open and shut the door. My frustration met its limit when I got ready this morning and attempted to get breakfast before being picked up for a snowmobile trip an hour later.
As I yanked on the door knob with full body weight force, the entire knob detached from its socket, leaving the door completely un-budged. I momentarily stared at the door knob in my hand with some disbelief before declaring, “shit.” I quickly reattached the knob to the door but, with each subsequent yank, it became detached yet again. A few tries later, the “shit” declaration escalated to full-on “fuck” status. I then tried to look up a phone number using the wifi but, no contact information was listed for whatever reason. I went back to booking.com and tried emailing the lodging through its system, and after vigorous refreshing and seeing no response, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and started to reattach the knob at different angles to prevent it from falling back out.
A good 30-40 minutes later, I successfully yanked the door open. Despite the overall frustration, I had a brief proud moment when all the world seemed good and pure. That quickly dissipated.
Oh yea, and I finally got a response later that day. From a different lodging:
“I’m sorry to hear that you’re locked in! However, I think you have contacted the wrong accommodation as we do not have that room number. If you’d like, you can send us their phone number and we can call for you!”
I fail at life in many ways and this is just one example.
On the positive side, I made it out in time to be picked up for my 4 hr summer snowmobiling trip with Better Moments AS. After picking up all the passengers, our guide drove us to their office where we were given snow boots, helmets and goggles to use. Sandwiches were also provided for lunch. Upon seeing the sandwiches, one Asian guy (I believe he’s a Chinese guy currently living in Japan) took his deluxe bowl of instant noodles out of his backpack so that he didn’t have to carry it. I had to laugh.
We were then driven to the start of our hike to the snowmobiles. The hike was great, although hiking through snow, especially slushy snow, can be a pain in the ass sometimes. The guide led us to a roaring river which was a stream just days before. In a moment of improvisation, she threw large rocks into the river to create a path. Lucky for her, there was a strong guy in our group of mostly females who lent his arm as we hopped across the river. More than an hour later, we finally made it to the snowmobiles!
Snowmobiling is so much fun. Especially when you have very little obstacles in the way (yea, I don’t drive cars). My only complaint about the trip is that we probably only snowmobiled for 30-40 minutes. The trip probably consisted of about 2.5 hours total hiking, 30-40 min snowmobiling, 30 min eating lunch, and another 30 min or so looking for fossils.
Fossils of plants past. Pretty damn cool, no?
Last activity of my stay – dogsledding on wheels! The aforementioned Asian guy and I were the only ones booked for this at the specific time. We were given jumpsuits to wear to protect our clothes from the dirt and then helped out with strapping in the dogs to the sled. I had a legit fear of losing a dog. Even with a firm grip on their collars, the dogs had enough energy to almost knock me over several times. One dog jumped high enough to knock me in the eye with his snout. In a moment of pessimism, I automatically assumed that I had caught pink eye. Hey, if you saw where the dogs put their faces, you would have similar assumptions!
After a briefing on how to operate the sled, we were on the road, the Asian guy and I taking turns driving and riding the sled. Every so often, we would stop to give the dogs some water. Riding the sled was incredible fun. Driving it was a bit tiring because the brake handles were way too large for my small hands to operate.
At the end, the guide drove us into town. The Asian guy, to save some money, checked out of his hotel a night earlier and planned on staying overnight in some 24 hour (or late closing) bar, then wheeling his luggage 40 min to the airport in the wee hours of the morning to catch the 4:40am flight (the same flight as mine). There was a time in my life when I probably would’ve done the same. That time had long gone.
(Other things to see: Svalbard Museum; Svalbard Church)
Around 30 of the 130 people from the Norwegian Fjords trip stayed for the next trip which involved semi-circling around Svalbard in search of wildlife, particularly the polar bear. I had already read reviews that seeing a polar bear wasn’t guaranteed. They are wild animals after all. So, I came with no expectations and would’ve left happy with just seeing the bergy bits. Anyone who complains/ed should realize that the human impact on our planet is accelerating the melting of sea ice and reducing the polar bears’ hunting territory. So, quit your whining.
Sylvia and I headed back to the ship, this time with her husband Roy joining the voyage. You know that feeling you had when you were a senior in high school and you felt like you owned the place? Well, I had exactly that feeling on the ship. The crew knew who I was and I knew how the ship was run. I even eyed the new people with complete judgment. YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US! Oh wait, you can. Sorry, momentary Mean Girls lapse.
I tried keeping an open mind with the 90 or so new passengers. But, towards the end of this trip, I compared notes with the other seasoned passengers and we all agreed that the new people weren’t as fun. Again, there were only 5 of us in the 20-35 age bracket and although they were nice, that’s all they were – nice. I tried cracking some jokes and I only got a laugh out of 2 of them and subsequent silence. No real conversation to follow. I gave myself a quota to try once per day to become friends with them. After each failed attempt, I just retreated back to the “high school seniors” because, yea, we owned the place. Duh.
Towards the end of the Norwegian Fjords trip, Rachel tried to get the crew to agree to a polar plunge for me, Hayden and Miles. We couldn’t get approval for one reason or another but, the opportunity came a few days later, here, off an island that now houses the burial grounds for various whalers. During one of the briefings, only I and a couple others rose our hands when asked who wanted to take the plunge. By the time of the actual plunge, the total increased to around 15 people.
The second I stripped off my clothes, my toes were already ice cubes. Yea, I suppose it’s pretty damn cold in the Arctic. The 15 of us were supposed to dunk in together but, one of the Austrians became impatient, stripped to his barenaked skin and walked casually in and out of the water by himself. Sure enough, he freed Willy, although the polar plunge is said to be “the neutralizer”…
Sylvia, Alan and I ran in together. Sylvia only went in to her ankles. I ran in until I was almost waist deep and dunked myself in to my shoulders. I must say, the water wasn’t as cold as expected. I still ran back out screaming obscenities though. Polar plunge – COMPLETE!
Sylvia had the idea of spelling out “G Expedition” on our stomachs for a group photo. Since we didn’t all go in together, we were missing some letters and even misspelled a bit. You can’t even see the letter on mine.
I was nice and toasty in my bed when the announcement came on of a blue whale sighting. It was 6:30am. I almost didn’t get up but, the smarter side of me kicked my ass out of bed and got me dressed and running to the bow. Wow, A BLUE WHALE! It’s apparently rare to spot one and we actually had a few swimming about and one right next to the ship.
At some point, we also reached 80 degrees north which is the closest to the North Pole I’ll ever get. All that kept me from getting closer was massive acreage of ice. SO COOL.
Most people went to bed shortly after dinner, leaving me, Sylvia and Roy standing at the bar late at night with the crew, specifically Scobie, Guy and Julia. Around 1:30 or 2am, Sylvia and I were about to retreat to bed when the announcement came on of a polar bear sighting. Guess who were one of the first ones at the bow? That’s right. US. It pays to drink heavily at night. I think.
Ship shadow selfie. Alliteration – ACHIEVED!
We had another polar bear sighting the next day. The ship garaged itself onto the fast ice (the ship basically runs into the fast ice until it gets wedged in to a full stop without anchoring) and we just stood there waiting for the polar bear to come closer. It never did. Can you spot the cute little speck?
We were given the challenge of determining whether the polar bear was a male or female, Paul A. Bear or Paula Bear. Earlier on, a presentation was given on the main differences between the two but, the only one I can remember is that the females have dirtier butts due to the way they urinate. With enough squinting through binoculars, it was determined that the bear was a girl. Just so you know, this difference does not apply to humans.
We took a zodiac ride around one of the most massive glaciers I’ve ever seen. It was actually a group of glaciers lined up side by side in an expansive area. It was gorgeous.
On one of the nights, the crew put on a documentary film called Chasing Ice in which the photographer James Balog and his team set out to measure the impact climate change had on glaciers. They set up time-lapse cameras near various glaciers in different countries and were able to document the accelerating pace at which the glaciers were disappearing. Pretty alarming stuff.
This was an old marble mining site run by an English company led by Ernest Mansfield. Upon the discovering of marble here, a small community was built to prepare for its mass production. However, once these slabs of marble reached other countries, the warmer temperatures resulted in the crumbling of the material. The marble’s composition had mainly been permafrost. It was speculated that Mansfield knew of this beforehand but failed to stop production, leading some to label him as a swindler.
The site was then dismantled and abandoned.
Nearby, there was a pair of red throated divers resting by a lake but, with our arrival, they became startled and flew away, occasionally coming back to circle around us before flying away again. This apparently disappointed a lot of the people on the ship.
Staff: “So, how did you like the area?” Me: “It’s really nice! Apparently, we scared away the birds but, the area itself is beautiful.” Staff: “Thank goodness, you’re normal! Everyone else was so disappointed about the birds, that’s all they were mumbling about. I was like, ‘what about everything else here?!'”
Do you smell what The Rock is cookin’? Yes, yes you do. A life metaphor! Stop concentrating on the small inconveniences and look at the beauty in the larger landscape of life!
Afterwards, we spotted a reindeer. One of the things we learned in one of the ship presentations was how to not startle an animal. Whether you just want to observe wildlife or take photos, never stare or point directly at them. Instead, act as if you’re distracted by something else. One method was the “dropped wallet” method. Pretend you dropped your wallet somewhere and are searching the ground for it, thereby tricking the animal into thinking you’re minding your own business.
So, upon spotting this reindeer, I accidentally said, “Look! Cool!” before slapping my hand over my mouth and mouthing “Sorry!” to everyone else. Immediately, a line of us began executing the dropped wallet method and the reindeer, after briefly looking at us, went back to grazing on lichen. We were able to get really close to it which was pretty damn cool. Crisis averted.
Prins Karls Forland
On this trip, we had another Arctic BBQ and White Nights event which lost its novelty the second time around, although the winning costume was funnier this time – a woman wearing a white flat sheet over her entire body, also known as dense fog. Instead of Arctic Bingo, though, we played a round of Arctic Bluff through which 3 crew members (Scobie, Wayne and Sarah) each gave their own definition for certain phrases used in the field. The passengers were split up into several groups and each group had to guess which person was telling the truth. I can honestly say that each crew member can successfully bullshit their way through life with the way they delivered their bluffs.
Later that night, Sylvia and I were at the bar per usual and after I had pointed out a moth that was flying around, Kevin (one of the crew) claimed that it was an Arctic moth, which takes about 14 years to develop from a caterpillar. After the Arctic Bluff, there was no way that we were going to believe him. We weren’t that dumb. Right? Well, after calling out what seemed like his bluff, he proceeded to go downstairs to the library and find an excerpt on the lifecycle of an Arctic moth which he gladly brought up to the bar to read to us. Okay, so, it actually exists. Big whoop 😛
Towards the end of the trip, we made our way back to Prins Karls Forland to see the walruses back in action. This time, we were able to get even closer and also saw a few hanging out in the water, gyrating back and forth with the waves and making some serious grunting and farting noises. I still envy their lives.
The crew spotted walruses at Poolepynten in the morning and anchored nearby to prepare for our zodiac rides to the shore. YAY!
The clouds created some awesome lighting and, so, we took an awesome group photo. Me, Hayden, Rachel and Miles. In sum, the Norwegian Fjord Crew.
The life of a walrus is definitely something to be envied. You swim, you eat, you sleep on a beach and you fart. The farting noise could’ve been grunting or, a combination of the two. Either way, they have the life.
Not too far away was a walrus of the Miles variety. This particular subspecies lacks the tusks that you commonly see in walruses which, in turn, is causing its quick extinction. Only one remains in the world today.
By the afternoon, we had reached Barentsburg, a Russian mining town that looks as creepy as it is drabby. With only 600 residents, this town apparently has a hotel and is open to visitors. Their buildings were randomly colored with oranges, blues, reds, etc. which I can only assume was their attempt at making it look a little more inviting.
By dinner, we had reached our final destination. The captain and crew came out for a champagne toast and a final farewell.
The ship anchored and we spent our last night drinking past midnight at the bar and sitting on the stern until 2 or 3 in the morning, staring out at the blue sky and the port. We huddled together to keep each other warm and I remember feeling so thankful and sad at the same time. Thankful because the trip surpassed my expectations and sad to leave it all behind.
Back inside, we realized that the band’s mic was left on and Miles went to town with it.
Miles: “Price check in aisle 3 for the Vagisil. Price check in aisle 3.”
“The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup!”
This went on for at least a half hour.
Rachel, Miles, Hayden and I spent our last hours together onshore in Longyearbyen. After milking the free cafe wifi like a hungry newborn, we all walked together to the sign that pretty much signified the ending boundary of the polar bear free zone. We added in Paula Bear, the mighty soft toy, for extra ferociousness. Miles had already done this walk with Flo in the morning but, we forced him to do it again with us. He whined the whole way there.
It was getting close to the time to catch the airport shuttle and, as we were leisurely walking towards the stop, Miles realized that he was the only one who hadn’t gotten his passport stamped at the post office (there is none at the airport). After much debate, he began to run towards the hotel to grab his passport from his luggage then to the post office to get it stamped. This was probably the most physical activity that I’ve witnessed from him. Hayden and I bet that he would give up and stop running but, he actually kept going. He must’ve realllllly wanted it. Luckily, he made it back just in time to catch the shuttle.
Since I was continuing on to the next trip on the MS Expedition, I stayed behind and said my goodbyes. Before the shuttle even left the lot, I already started missing them.
We anchored around one of the last whaling sites in Spitsbergen and took the zodiacs to the shore. It’s definitely an eerie place with all the abandoned piles of beluga whale bones littering the shoreline. On one hand, it seems atrocious but, on the other, whaling was the livelihood of these men and, how is this different from the other sea life that we capture for food? Despite the much smaller size, fish, oysters, clams et al. are still living beings. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer whaling to be banned. I guess, in the end, the real problem is that we overdo things by killing animals to near extinction and lack the appreciation to give back to the earth. Humans can seriously suck.
We walked further in towards a cliff and, yippy-ki-yay motherfrackers, we came upon beluga whales swimming back and forth in the waters! One popped its head out briefly and I caught a glimpse of its eternal smile. My camera, on the other hand, only caught glimpses of white lines moving about underneath the surface. Either way, it was shelf loads of awesome sauce.
Others who were quick at signing up got the chance to go on longer zodiac rides. But, guess what, we got a better view of the belugas from the cliff so, HA!
Further in, we ran into Guy, one of the crew on patrol for polar bears. Apparently, he had seen arctic foxes which were on top of my “animals to see” list. In the end, I never got to see one. I expressed my desire to hug one until Guy informed me that it was highly likely to get rabies and end up dying later that night looking like a cappuccino. You know, foaming white stuff from the mouth.
We then walked toward the shore again and walked along the shoreline to the other side. There was a hut named Bamsebu which was still in use but, shut for the time being. The shut windows were lined with nails jutting out and, after seeing polar bear pawprints all over the door, I realized the nails were there to prevent the polar bears from breaking and entering. Scary bizznazz. Outside the main entrance was a smaller house with a red heart on its door. I assumed it was the outhouse. The meaning of the red heart remains a mystery.
It was yet another gorgeous day to sit and stare out into the abyss. Yep, that would be me and Hayden doing just that. As we were sitting there, Miles slowly crept up behind us like a bear in an attempt to scare us. He ended up scaring no one but, the video clip of his anticlimactic crawl to our backsides was definitely hee-larious. (Photo credit: Alan)
Later in the afternoon, we took the zodiacs to the Fridjofbreen glacier and wedged ourselves onto the fast ice. There were a couple of seals swimming around and I leaned toward the edge to give them a kiss by a rose on the gray. The latter part is a lie…and a shameless plug for Seal lyrics.
The crew told us that we could get off and walk around which I thought was them trying to play an obvious cruel joke but, lo and behold, the fast ice was dense enough for us to stand on. Probably not dense enough for House of Pain’s Jump Around…
On our way back to the ship, we spotted a reindeer and went camera happy. As you can see in the photo, this one clearly wasn’t Rudolph.
By lunchtime, it really felt like we were in the Arctic, with the ship breaking through the pack ice (masses of ice floating in the water) and fast ice (sea ice still attached to the coastline). Truly breathtaking. I usually stood outside on the bow just staring out into the snowy wonderland ahead. Until I lost feeling in some part of my body.
At some point, we spotted a mother polar bear and her cub pacing around on the fast ice in the distance…so distant that even with binoculars, they looked itty bitty.
Rachel: “Oh, you’re so cuuuute, you cute little white dot, you!”
Side travel tip: When embarking on such adventures, ones involving spotting wildlife and all, please make sure to bring binoculars. Lucky for me, one of the crew members kept lending me his. They also sold some in the gift shop in the ship but, for a pretty hefty price. Or, as others would say, they were quite spendy.
We explored the icebergs in our zodiacs and passed by one that was making the same sounds as a bowl of Rice Krispies in milk. Snap, crackle, pop. It was the sound of air pockets being released from the slowly melting iceberg.
No matter how many times we went zodiac riding around ice, I never got tired of it. I was equally in awe each and every time. Nature, you are seriously incredible.
Back on the ship, we anchored in this amazing scenery for an Arctic BBQ on the stern (back of the ship). Rack of lamb, hamburgers, sausages, ribs, grilled fish. You name it, it was probably there, sitting on my plate. There was even a dessert section with tubs of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream next to bowls of rainbow and chocolate sprinkles and, of course, warm pie. The dessert was so good, Rachel’s innermost descriptive side emerged and she went into a monologue that gave an ode to the dessert.
Rachel: “The sweetness of the cold vanilla ice cream and the tartness of the cozily warm pie just mesh so well together that they create a synergy of flavor!!” (as she pursed her lips and kissed the tips of her right hand fingers and then interlocked both of her hands to demonstrate well-meshing.)
Arctic Bingo came after dinner and, I didn’t realize how serious people were about bingo until we started playing this game. With each turn, Kevin (one of the naturalists/ornithologists) would explain the history and significance of each word, all pertaining to the Arctic, until a lady eventually shouted out annoyed, “Can you just give us the word [without the explanations]?” I believe she didn’t win anything in the end. Suck it.
So, as expected, this day was hangover recovery day. Luckily, we had no scheduled stops and had the entire day to just…be. We did get into some serious Scrabble matches during which, without a proper Scrabble dictionary on hand, some questionable words were used.
The bow was THE place to be and as we were hanging out and chillin’ like true Arctic gangsters, dolphins appeared in the distance, jumping out and diving back into the water. A short while later, a few of them were racing with the ship, swimming alongside the bow. Amazing. What’s not amazing is the sucky picture that I ended up taking (shown above). At least you can tell it’s a dolphin. Right?
I don’t remember which day it was exactly but, it most likely was this one. Some of us went back in for a cup of tea then eventually went up for lunch. Hayden remained on his perch at the tip of the bow, not realizing that it was lunchtime, and, while I was stuffing my face with unnecessary food, a humpback whale appeared and apparently swam on its back, revealing its underside. Hayden got to witness it all, and I…just got indigestion. Dammit! Some fin whales appeared later on but, I don’t think I ever got another opportunity to see a humpback.
Before dinner, we had a “White Nights” event where the passengers were told to “embrace the bizarre” and show up in their wackiest outfits. Bedsheets and other random items found on the ship were used. One German trio dressed up as mountain peaks while others came as water spouts, Greek goddesses, etc. Miles came into the room with a small white towel on his head, made into a sort of crown. When asked what he was dressed as, he responded, “1/10th of an iceberg.” Or, in Miles’ attempt to make fun of Hayden’s Kiwi accent, “1/10th of an assbag.”
The winner ended up being Spitzy, the Knitting Walrus. Yea, it is exactly as it sounds – nonsensical and bizarre. I hope to one day have it erased from memory. In particular, the Macarena that was performed by all the participants while the judges determined the winner.
Bear Island (Bjørnøya), Norway
We eventually reached Bear Island, the southern most island in the Svalbard archipelago. Back during World War II, a small group of German soldiers were sent here to operate a weather station only to be abandoned after losing radio contact. I believe they escaped combat altogether but, I don’t know what’s worse – fighting in the war or being stuck on an uninhabitable frozen island. It looked ominous just passing by it. I almost heard it beckon, “I dare you to try to make me habitable. I DARE YOU! MUAHAHA. Yea, thought so. Keep sailing along.”
I’m pretty sure I took this photo at night after everyone else pretty much went to bed. Who can even tell anymore in the constant daylight? You can see how serious these Scrabble games became, although I suppose they were more like bonding moments. Miles would preface his next words by incorporating it into the conversation that was being had at the time.
Flo, spelling out the word “chip”: “Oops, it wasn’t my turn! I thought it was!” Miles: “Yea, well, it’s my turn and that was R-U-D-E rude,” as he lay down the 4 letters.
His words were usually low-scoring ones but, I think he found the satisfaction in his randomness alone. Either way, I think my, Miles’ and Rachel’s common goal was to beat Hayden. In one game, I wasn’t the winner but, my score was higher than Hayden’s and I still felt like a winner. On our very last game of the week, we were so sure that he wasn’t going to win with his remaining 3 shitty letters. After his turn had passed using only 1 of the letters, Miles pointed out a spot where he could’ve used all 3, then proceeded to use that spot. The 3 of us all high-fived each other as if in victory but, even with all of our turns, Hayden still ended up winning. I mean, come on. Seriously?!
Once on land, we took a cable car up Mt. Storsteinen for a panoramic view of the city. From there, we had the option of climbing up further on foot which Flo, Hayden and I gladly did. At a certain point, the paths were completely covered in deep snow and the trek burned my calves and thighs with the fires of hell but, once on top, I was like HELLZ YEA. Despite the cloudy day, it was awesome.
The way back down, on the other hand, was easy, breezy, beautiful (Cover Girl). The most effective way to climb down deep snowy paths is to make a run for it. My leg, at one point, dug in so deep that the snow almost reached my knees. We then had lunch at the cable car station’s restaurant, Fjellstua. They laid out large plates full of open-faced sandwiches (called smørrebrød) with smoked salmon (raw and cooked), reindeer meat and others. I was surprised to find out that reindeer meat has the consistency of raw smoked salmon. All of it was #yummo.
On the line for the cable car back down, Hayden and I began talking to this guy behind us. He was either from the U.S. or Canada and was in town for some rocket and balloon symposium. Who knew such a thing existed? This is when I realized that I’m a mere simpleton and that there are nerdier nerds out there in this world. Phew.
Next was the Polar Museum (or Polarmuseet) which went into the history of hunting seals and whales, as well as the polar flights of Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen. Some of the dioramas portrayed hunting scenes so realistic that the panicked look in the eyes of the taxidermy seals made me sad.
The Arctic Cathedral was unique in that it looked like an iceberg or a giant piece of vanilla cake in the middle of the city. The stained glass inside was even more illuminated by the white surroundings and gave the church a nice focal point. As the others continued to walk around, I went outside to enjoy the warm sun that had finally appeared and, in the corner somewhere on a comfortable patch of grass lay Miles.
Our visit ended at the Arctic-Alpine Botanical Garden which was only in partial bloom due to the uncharacteristically cold weather. Part of the garden was an exhibition of rocks consisting of steel beams with different large rocks bolted down to them. I imagined that some sucker geology intern was commissioned to do this project for school credit. Hey, we all gotta start somewhere.
Back on the ship, the crew had stocked up on local Norwegian beer, the Mack Arctic beer. The bartender, Garnet, told me, “Hey, there’s a polar bear on top of your beer can.” I thought he was joking and did a har-har laugh even though I didn’t get the joke at all. Well, there really was a polar bear on top of my beer can. How about that.
Earlier in the trip, Hayden challenged me to a Guinness challenge. I honestly don’t remember how the idea came up. Given that Guinness is my favorite beer, I confidently accepted the challenge fully believing that I could beat him. We decided to save it for this night since the next day would be spent at sea with no scheduled stops…meaning we had all day to get over our hangovers. On top of that, the ship’s crew band Jo-Jo and The Monkey Eating Eagles was performing this night at the Polar Bear Bar and the bar would be packed with people, some who would bear witness to my proposed victory. I talked up a big game up until this point, preaching how Koreans can seriously drink and that I could drink Guinness all day. I was ready. (Cue in Rocky theme song.)
Despite the pressure of the challenge, the night ended up being a lot of fun and even included a congo line where a bunch of us danced from the bar to the stern outside then back inside to the bar. Garnet was the lead singer and totally got the crowd going. I even got to witness more of Miles’ unique dance moves. He had given us a preview earlier in the trip, including a move where he bounces his knee and pins it down and another where he’s a coin-operated robot. I didn’t think he had it in him but, the guy can really jiggle around.
As the night simmered down, Hayden and I were at pint #7 when my head began to swirl. The challenge ended with me trying to maintain stability while Hayden then proceeded to order scotch for his next drink. Disappointment? That’s an understatement.