A Travellerspoint blog

Horn of Africa

Greetings from Addis Ababa, the self styled ‘Capital of Africa’ as it’s the home of the African Union and the UN has their continental HQ here. Whilst like virtually all African cities it has a very rough edge to it (awfully polluted, aggressive beggars, chaotic etc.) it also has a more attractive side to it with good restaurants and nightlife and a very pleasing climate. The sort of place (assuming you had a bit of money) you really wouldn’t mind living in.

That’s where we ended the trip, but you would probably say the opposite about where we started the trip in Djibouti. A ‘hot hell’ as one local described it, Djibouti city offers virtually nothing for the visitor except debilitating heat and one of the worst value for money cities to visit in the world. An ordinary restaurant meal costs upwards of $30 and a hotel room costs in excess of $100 a night for fairly poor quality. The reason for it is the huge number of Western military that are based there as Djibouti has emerged as a key ally in the very unstable Southern Red Sea area; with the extra foreigners on expenses accounts brings inflation for any visitors.

That said there is a bit do to in the country as a whole; located in an area called the Afar Triangle, it sits on no less than 3 tectonic plates moving away from each other and this creates an amazing landscape to look at with hot springs, volcanoes, depressions and rift lakes all around you. Highlights of this were the hypersaline Lac Assal, at -156m the lowest point in Africa and the amazing fumaroles at Lac Abbe. From a distance they look like a city skyline but up close they reveal themselves as chimney like vents that offer an outlet for the thermal activity below. Millions of years ago when sea levels were higher they were submarine volcanoes that slowly got built up over time but now just stick eerily out of the landscape on the lakeshore as flamingos and other birds fly around them.

Financially Djibouti seemed to survive on 3 things; remittances from overseas workers, payment from Western countries to allow their military bases and tax revenues to allow Ethiopian companies to use the port. However, this money didn’t seem to spread at all outside of the capital city and I can scarcely remember such extreme poverty as we saw in rural Djibouti. When people think about poverty you tend to think about shanty towns in urban areas and the danger and dirt that goes with that. However, in the country side it takes a different form and in a country as hot as Djibouti (the temperature was about 40 degrees every day) very, very little can get done.
In most villages we passed people seem to be doing almost nothing at all for most of the day with only a sprinkle of activity at dawn/dusk. Visually the men seemed to get through their days by doing nothing but chewing qat; qat is a plant from East Africa that can act as a mild stimulant if you chew its leaves. It will almost certainly never catch on in the West as it is disgustingly bitter to chew and takes ages to have an effect unlike most recreational drugs that are used. However, in this part of the world it’s incredibly popular despite often dreadful consequences on both the environment and society as a whole. In Djibouti, the standard day for a shockingly high percentage of men is to get up, go to the local qat den then spend pretty much all day in a zoned out state, sat in the dark chewing qat and chatting nonsense to their friends or just staring into space. There are obvious consequences of mental health problems, lack of economic activity and an appalling sense of inertia as things just don’t get done.

There’s no move to cut down on it as it’s such an ingrained part of the culture but travelling through the country I could kind of understand why they do it so much. Similar to Russians/Mongolians drinking so much vodka to help get them through the challenges of their climate/environment, East Africans treat qat in the same way as it helps get them through the many boring hours they pass daily in a brutal heat. I kind of grew semi sympathetic to the idea of doing it so much as there are so few other ways to pass the time there; it’s a difficult, difficult place to live in. Indeed the only people who seemed to have it worse were the women who culturally aren’t allowed to even chew qat to waste time.

From Djibouti we had a real adventure and did an 18hr journey across the coastal desert to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. When I told people I was going there I got a lot of “Are you nuts?” type of comments but Somaliland isn’t quite what most people think it is. When Mohamed Siad Barre’s government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, most of the country became a lawless dystopia run by a combination of local warlords, Islamic extremists and in Puntland, little more than modern day pirate kings as the country imploded and anyone who could, fled.

Somalian culture is subdivided into a very complex system of different clans and subclans with all the rivalries, alliances and disputes that go with it; but not all areas shattered in the same way. Somalia is shaped like a 7 and in the horizontal part in the North, Somaliland, they have actually been very stable. Immediately civil war broke out in the 1990’s the people worked together to retain their security and way of life away from the problems of the South. They have security through their own army and police, control of their borders and even things like their own currency and functioning democracy.

In short, it’s a real success story in a very unstable area but has become one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries of the world. They have been pushing for independence since the 1960’s and I think it’s to the international community’s shame that they are unwilling to listen to their wishes. The logic is similar to the safe Kurdish area of Iraq; if the West were to support independence it would remove a stable part of a very unstable country and this would be bad for the future of the country as a whole. I don’t think this is a very positive attitude to take for the people in Somaliland who have achieved so much despite what’s going on elsewhere in the country.

I was slightly wary that it would be a very conservative and slightly dangerous place to be but the people were much more easy going than I feared and happy to see foreigners there. That said we still had to take an armed soldier to travel around the country as a precaution but it never felt that dangerous. Thanks to investments from the large Somali diaspora around the world, the economy is also doing well and you can’t help but feel they really deserve their independence.

After an awful journey to the border we then hit the main focus of the trip in Ethiopia.
We actually started in the Muslim East of the country and the historical city of Harar. It was great going round the walled city via the narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards and even got to see the famous hyena feeding ceremony. It started off as a way of stopping them eating livestock during drought but now feels a bit contrived as a tourist show. However, it’s still pretty cool seeing them emerge from the darkness and wrench the hunks of meat from the hands and even mouth of the feeder.

From Harar we did the long trip West and realised that probably the worst aspect of travelling in Ethiopia is the travelling itself; journeys are long and whilst tickets are cheap you aren’t allowed to travel at night so often entire days are spent ‘in transit’. That said the scenery is wonderful and as you travel across the country you really start to appreciate the huge variety of landscapes and environments that make up the country from the parched lowlands up through coffee plantations to the highlands which act as something of a roof of East Africa as many of the rivers and lakes are formed there.

Our next destination was the so called Historical circuit that Ethiopians themselves are so proud of. Ethiopia’s place in human history goes back further than anywhere of course as it’s here that the 3.6m year old Lucy skeleton was found right up to the brutal Derg regime in the 1970-1990’s backed by the Soviets who murdered some 500,000 civilians during the so called Red Terror period.

Between those two events it arguably contains the richest history of any sub Saharan African country. From the various pre-Christian legends that are said to emerge from here such as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to a variety of powerful empires that ruled vast areas before collapsing such as Axum. Rastafarians site their spiritual home in Ethiopia after they saw the 2nd coming of Christ in the former Emperor Haile Selassie’s (whose original name was Ras Tafari) coronation and there were also a lost tribe of Jerusalem who have moved to Israel with limited success. However, when Christianity did arrive it became just the second country in the world to adopt it as the state religion (after Armenia) and religion is still a key part of daily life all over the country.

From the remote and intriguing monasteries on Lake Tana to the famous rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia is one of the best places in the world to see Christianity in a purer, more devout form. The most extreme example of this was in the rock hewn churches in Tigray, where you may remember the wonderful (in my opinion) Exorcist 2 is set. In a landscape very similar to Monuments valley in Utah you climb up steep slopes towards churches hidden up in the cliffs. However, in order to show their devotion to God (and find a quiet place to pray) early Christians would put them in places where you have no choice but to climb vertically for some 20m using just natural foot and handholds in the rock. You can now wimp out and use a rope but we wanted the authentic pilgrim experience (or copying Richard Burton/Max von Sydow in the film) and did the terrifying climbs up to the amazing churches cut into caves. Early monks would paint beautiful frescoes on the walls and surrounded by 200m+ precipes on both sides they really are an amazing sight and experience to behold. Whilst the climbing was amazing I was absolutely delighted to get back to the bottom of them and it did beg the question of why? Could you not have found a quiet place that was easier to get to?!!

Ethiopia is somewhere that has been high on my list for a while; however it’s a country that a lot of people have a very limited understanding of and that included some of the fellow Westerners we met. One Australian executive of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world was visiting on business and said “This really isn’t what I was expecting; I think I just thought I’d see starvation and poverty based on that Band Aid song”.

I actually teach a lesson about the song and how a) inaccurate it is and b) how it has completely fixed even educated Westerners minds onto the idea that all human life in Ethiopia (and indeed Africa in general) is in grinding poverty and completely dependent on the weather.
Actually the situation is very, very different, particularly at this time of year. In a land where “No rain nor rivers flow” during the Summer is actually in rainy season and can be extremely wet, indeed the capital Addis Ababa receives twice as much rain as London and large parts of the country flood every year. On the plus side we saw the source of the Blue Nile and its wonderful falls at full volume but the Simien Mountains were the biggest disappointment of the trip. A World Heritage site famous for its wildlife and views out over the Rift Valley, our time there was ruined by rain and our proposed 5 day hike got reduced to 3 soggy ones as locals said the rivers were too high to cross. We did however get a silver lining on our final day as we go to see the wonderful 500m Jinba waterfall descend from the clouds.

Aside from its historical attractions, Ethiopia offers an incredible array of landscapes. Whilst we spent most of our time in the cooler highlands I also fulfilled an ambition of mine by visiting the Danakil Depression. The road from Makele momentously dropped more than 2000m down to -100m in the Depression. As you descended the temperature on the dashboard in the car increased a degree every few minutes before eventually stopping at about 45 degrees. It has the claim to fame as the highest average temperature of anywhere in the world and as in Djibouti life is extremely hard with salt mining using the ubiquitous camels to help you pretty much the only economic activity. There are however things to see with the undoubted highlight being the incredible Irta Ale volcano. It reminded me of the Gateway to Hell in Turkmenistan as you walk several hours uphill towards an orange glow in the darkness. I drank 4 litres of water on the way up in the scorching temperatures but oh my it was worth it to see two of only 6 lava crater lakes in the world. Bizarrely it strongly reminded me of playing in Super Mario Bros as most of it was covered in black lava that has solidified at 700 degrees, however a lot of it is molten hot magma at 1500 degrees and this is constantly bubbling away and having mini eruptions. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful sight and whilst at times it is too dangerous to go near, at the moment it’s safe enough that you can go to within a few metres for a near unique experience. Wonderful.

Indeed in many ways Ethiopia is one of the most unique countries in the world and really does do it’s own thing. Famously it’s one of a very small number of countries that were never colonised by Europeans during the Age of Empires as they humiliatingly defeated Italy towards the end of the 19th century using little more than medieval weapons. This lack of ‘contamination’ of European practices can be seen in a variety of very basic ways of how society is organised. For example it’s 2008 as they go by a different calendar, which also has 13 rather than 12 months and bizarrely the time is told differently as their day starts at 6am rather than 12 so they’re always 6 hours behind (or ahead). Their version of Christianity is unique with many of the stories having Ethiopia at the core e.g. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly buried in Axum, no one outside of Ethiopia believes this is true but every Ethiopian takes it as fact.

All this means that they don’t “Know it’s Christmas time at all” as they celebrate it on January 6/7th like other Orthodox believers. Even the culture isn’t like anything else as they shun everything but Ethiopian music and the dancing is done almost entirely with the upper body as just your neck, head and shoulders move in time to the rhythm as your legs stay static. Eating is done differently too as you eat communally with your right hand from a big slab of injera and its toppings which acts as a kind of edible plate. Delicious. It all takes a while to get your head round but definitely adds to the charm of visiting this unique country

Band Aid also described it as a land “Where nothing ever grows” which must have been a surprise for the 100m or so inhabitants of the huge country. Amartya Sen won the Nobel prize for Economics by using Ethiopia’s disastrous Derg regime as an example to demonstrate how famines rarely have to do with the weather but the governing system that creates the conditions for it. Droughts may always happen but if you have a reasonable government, famines shouldn’t as steps would be taken to prevent that happening.

Despite the impression it created amongst Westerners, amongst lots of other things coffee, flowers and various cereals grow in abundance and this has in part led to a booming economy over the last 20 years. Whilst corruption is still a big issue unlike many African countries Ethiopia has generally been led very well and has become a bit of a darling of Western aid economists due to its steady and consistent leadership. It’s also built up a reputation as a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and certainly does better in areas like manufacturing than most of its African neighbours. In Addis in particular there is a real feeling of positive change as new buildings are being built apace and major structural changes such as a metro and Chinese built highways are also being constructed.

However, claims of being ‘Africa’s China’ are fanciful and gives an indication of how far Africa has fallen behind Asia economically. Whilst new roads and factories have been constructed as well as the burgeoning tourist industry they often mask many of the big problems Ethiopia still faces. Aside from the ongoing ‘Cold War’ with Eritrea and sporadic clashes between the different ethnic groups, some 83% of the population still live in the countryside and a GDP per capita of little more than $500 per year gives a good indication of how hard life is for most people.

Aside from the beggars and homeless I strangely thought that showed itself most in the children of the country; the constant cries of “Gimme money” from them got irksome and sad very quickly and for all the talk of the economy and infrastructure projects the biggest problem by far is the sheer size of the population. The country’s economy has grown a whopping 10% a year for the last decade or so to be one of the highest in the world but the benefits of this have been somewhat lost as the population has also grown by 20million. The average woman still has 4.6 children and they are absolutely everywhere in Ethiopia running around as their poor parents struggle to feed them all and encourage them to beg.

However, the country really does feel like it’s moving in the right direction rather than the sense of stagnation which you feel travelling in many African countries. If it can keep its massive multi-ethnic and multi-lingual population content and under control then they can continue to make progress as one of Africa’s success stories in the early 21st century.

Overall Ethiopia is a wonderful place to travel in due to its unique yet varied culture and landscapes and its friendly and interesting population; 1 month simply didn’t feel like enough and having not even had a chance to see the South it’s definitely somewhere I intend to visit again in the future.
From Addis Ababa,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 09:16 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

Canada

A greeting from Montreal, North America’s only bilingual city and it definitely feels a bit different from elsewhere in the country. Whilst you still have the same companies and food options etc. the people are a little bit ‘different’. As a German woman at my hostel summed up better than I could: “On the West coast Canadians are amazingly welcoming, they really go out of their way to make you feel comfortable even in quite small ways. But when I got to Quebec… it was like being in France”.
Canadians are awesomely friendly and agreeably laid back but I guess I have quite enjoyed not having to deal with 10-15 “How are you doing today?” conversations per day which don’t go anywhere and can get a bit trying!

However, that’s one of the very few things I could say about Canada which isn’t overwhelmingly positive as it joins my recent trips to Iceland and Norway as one of the ‘best’ countries in the world to live in and it’s not bad looking too. My flight in would have to rank as the best long haul one I’ve ever done as after flying over the Icelandic desert we continued over the iceberg covered Greenland coast before reaching Canada. 2 hours over Northern Canada revealed the harsh landscape of treeless tundra and thousands upon thousands of lakes. We then hit the snow-capped Rockies before the clouds cleared above the Pacific and the beautiful city of Vancouver. I knew it was going to be good.

After taking the ferry from the mainland my first activity was hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The top rated hike in the world for the last 17 years on Besthike.com, they only let a limited number of people do it and after I’d missed the booking date online I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. However, after meeting a Swiss army vet in my hostel in Victoria (capital of British Columbia) we decided to take a risk and serendipitously we found a ride to the start of the trail and the park rangers let us start the next day. It’s 75km long but takes around a week due to the nature of the terrain you hike through. It was originally founded for shipwreck victims and the trail veers between the fog covered coastline and one of the few areas of temperate rainforest in the world. There are signs up everywhere saying it’s only for experienced hikers and you have to sign a disclaimer as you have to battle huge tree roots and logs, deep mud, car sized boulders on the beach, hand pulled cable cars, scary suspension bridges and nearly 100 ladder sections which being afraid of heights I did not enjoy much. The unique beauty of the landscape coupled with the nightly whale watching and camping on the beach will not be forgotten any time soon.

My biggest fear about the outdoors in Canada was the threat of bears and predictably I saw one within 25 minutes of hiking! It was a couple of hundred metres away but later on one came within about 30m of us on the beach and despite making as much noise as we could to scare it off it really didn’t seem to care, taking a couple of minutes to slowly make its way back into the forest. I always made sure I hiked with other people and put food in bear lockers or hanging from a tree. There are certain things you’re advised to do if you meet a bear like make noise but as when a wasp is buzzing around you and might sting you, you’re acutely conscious that if a bear wants to break you in 2 pieces there’s not much you can do about it. A guy got eaten in Yellowstone this Summer and whilst I somewhat got used to it there is a definite air of tension when you’re in the countryside which I’ve never experienced before.

That said, conquering that fear was definitely worth it as I continued the adventure in the Alberta Rockies. I did several day hikes around Jasper and climbed the awesome 3000m Cascade mountain near Banff which gave out incredible views of nearly 100km and was quite scary as there’s no path just a 7hr scramble up the mountainside. However, the undoubted highlight was cycling The Icefield Parkway or the much prettier French version of Le Promenade des Glaciers. A certain entry in the 10 Greatest Driving Roads, 1001 Things to Do Before You Die etc. lists on the internet it’s a 250km route in the Rockies so named because the road weaves between the glaciers in the high Rockies. Geographically it’s an amazing area as it’s one of the few places in the world where water drains to 3 different oceans called an Hydrological Apex and the glaciers have formed huge U shaped valleys and incredible rock layering to admire. There are campsites dotted en route in the pine forests by the bright blue glacial lakes and streams and with jaw dropping scenery the entire way I found myself stopping all the time for photo breaks. Well, that and the fact it was very tough physically, with a fully loaded bike, going over two 2000m passes and the scary descents down the other side meant I got a real felling of achievement when I finished.

If the first half of the trip was quite physically intense the 2nd half was MUCH easier. After meeting up with an old friend in Calgary I flew East to Ontario and pushed past the thousands of tourists to admire the voluminous yet graceful Niagara Falls as they flow from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The popularity of the Falls amongst Mid Western tourists has led to the town becoming quite an odd place composed of rubbish motels and tacky wax museums/haunted houses but nearby Niagara on the Lake is a gorgeous alternative and a lovely introduction to the East of the country.

From Niagara I headed on to the country’s biggest city in Toronto; it’s home of the CN Tower, Drake and the Blue Jays and has an impressive lakeside setting. With approximately 150 languages spoken there it vies with London and New York as the most multicultural city in the world and my favourite aspect was just wandering the different neighbourhoods seeing all the different cultures and people. Finding strength in its diversity people do just seem to get along and to date they’ve largely avoided the domestic terrorism that Europe and the US has suffered from.
Canada has been one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world and it’s easy to see why so many people from around the world want to move there. Thanks to their huge reserves of natural resources the economy has boomed and it’s fairly easy to find work there. Arguably a more welcoming population than America and better public services too means that even with the long hard Winters it’s become a land of opportunity that few countries can match.
That said Canada definitely has social problems too; on arrival in Ontario I was warned by a couple of cops to look after myself as petty crime and the gang problems in America have crossed the border into the big cities. However, by far the most visible issue is drug addiction and homelessness. All major cities have big problems but similar to Seattle/San Francisco on America’s the troubled and homeless tend to drift to the West coast in Vancouver and Victoria. Largely this is due to the weather (no snow and much milder Winters) but also better public services and a slightly more tolerant population. In Vancouver they’ve taken over an 8x8 block area just outside the city centre and the sheer number of street people in certain areas is almost unbelievable, as in thousands in a small area. I’ve not quite seen poverty like it in the developed world and it left me feeling quite sad at how so many people have lost their way and we don’t have the means to help them find it again.

My final area to visit was French speaking Quebec and as alluded to earlier it does feel like being in a different country. Whenever I told a Canadian I had Quebec on my itinerary I was greeted with a roll of the eyes and a none too positive comment. The people have a reputation not a million miles from the French in Europe i.e. a bit superior to those around them. They’ve had a couple of independence referendums and in the mid ‘90’s came within 50,000 votes of seceding from the rest of the country. I went to see Didier Drogba make his debut for the Montreal Impact (MLS team) and it was quite noticeable how differently the anthem was respected vs at the Blue Jays game I went to. In Toronto it was similar to America with everyone putting their hands on heart and belting the anthem out with no sense of irony. In contrast in Montreal, everyone around me just ignored it and continued their conversations. The Quebecois flag is more visible than the Maple Leaf and their ambivalent view of being part of the country doesn’t go down well with the rest of the country.
That said there are lots of nice aspects of being in a more European cultural area with a much stronger sense of history and a slightly more refined arts and culinary scene compared to the rest of the country. In short, any culture which provides poutine to the world must be celebrated.

Having spent my last two Summers and the first half of this one cycling, hiking and camping outdoors the second half of the trip felt very easy, almost to the point where I felt a bit lazy. The quality of life felt very high in the glorious sunshine as I’d have leisurely mornings drinking coffee and reading then spending lots of money on good food in very comfortable surroundings before finishing the day drinking excellent microbrews whilst watching baseball. It felt very strange, almost like I was on holiday.

Despite spending 6 weeks in Canada looking at a map of the country I realised I only visited maybe only 2% of it and wondered if that was enough to get a decent view of the country. However, 75% of the population live within 150km of the US border for weather/agricultural reasons and getting around is either prohibitively expensive (up to £1000+ for flights in the Northern Territories) or simply wilderness and I did come to realise that you can only get a snapshot of Canada regardless of your trip length and ultimately I took nearly 800 photos so I think the ‘snapshot’ of this beautiful country came out pretty well.

From Montreal,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 05:25 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Norway

It’s now 2014 and after enjoying cycling around Iceland so much last year I thought I’d repeat the trip format and spend my Summer days wondering when the current climb is gonna ‘top out’ and my Summer nights in a tent being terrified by animals. This time though I swapped the volcanoes and glaciers of Iceland for the forests and fjords of another pristine piece of Scandinavia in wonderful Norway.

In the days leading up to departure I was beginning to regret booking the flights; trying to set up for a cycling trip in another country is a darn sight harder than an ordinary holiday. Rather foolishly I’d booked my flight for the morning after I finished work and the final couple of weeks were much busier than I’d have wanted. Trying to make sure the bike was in working condition and that I had the myriad bits and pieces needed to set up a nightly camp and repair the bike if anything (simple at least) went wrong left me with an overly stressful last few days- quite different to how you’d want to feel when embarking on holiday.

I then had a pretty dreadful first few days as despite getting up at 5am to be on time for my Gatwick departure, the plane left an hour and a half late. This meant I missed my Oslo to Tromso connection til the next morning, and as the Norwegian Airlines customer service rep told me “As your connection time was under 2hrs you’re not entitled to a complimentary hotel”. So in an unwanted introduction to Norwegian prices I had to spend £70 on a dingy hotel room at Oslo airport with no food as I had no cash. After getting up at 6am the next morning to catch my flight I again wasn’t delighted with the news that there was a 3hr delay to my flight. Eventually I arrived in Tromso 24hrs late and not massively happy.

As I learnt in Iceland however, probably the worst parts of a cycling holiday are the beginning and ending of the trip- once I got off the plane into gorgeous sunshine and got the bike rebuilt I started feeling much, much better about things.

I started in Tromso, visiting the Arctic Circle for the first time; I was worried the weather would be overly inclement for cycling but I arrived in a record breaking Norwegian Summer. In the land of the midnight sun the first week was in perma sunshine and 25 degrees as I found myself sunburnt daily in shorts and a t-shirt. Tromso is by far the biggest city in the North and in the 24hr sun and fjordside location has something of an ‘end of the world’ feel to it, like a Northern version of Ushuaia in Argentina. In the Summer it felt very quiet but reading about the heroic exploits of Amundsen and Nansen in the Arctic museum felt a bit surreal in the languid sunshine.

After a couple of days there I took a night boat to Harstad with incredible views of the coastline in the midnight sun and then started the cycling odyssey in the Vesteralen islands.
It wasn’t a bad place to start. As the memorable character Slartibartfast states in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: "Look at me - I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway... I've been doing fjords all my life...for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award”.
And indeed whilst a few other countries like Thailand, Croatia and Vietnam would be in the hunt, Norway would I suspect be the bookies favourite for most beautiful coastline in the world award. TheVesteralen and Lofoten islands are the bits poking out off the Western Norwegian coast in the North and I covered the 300km to the succinctly named Southern tip of Å in about 3 days. Lofoten means ‘floating’ in Norwegian and whilst Norwegian mountains are generally of the more rounded variety, the vast grey rocks of the islands shoot very steeply up giving the impression from afar of giant granite sails ‘floating’ on the sea. The mountains are so steep that at times it was hard to see where the people could live but there was always just enough space on the coast for small fishing villages to settle. The coastal roads wind along these narrow strips and gave my first sight of the awesomeness of Norwegian engineering.

I was kind of left thinking that Norwegian boys have posters of tunnel engineers and bridge builders rather than the fighter pilots and footballers that they might in the rest of the world. Maybe only Japan ranks alongside Norway in terms of the ingenuity they’ve showed in managing to tame their wild Geography and connect up the entire country. To get between the islands there are a series of spectacular cantilever bridges which could be several kilometres long and have to be steep enough to allow oceangoing boats to be able to pass through. On a bike they could be ‘very challenging’ to climb up and then get down the other side but they afforded wonderful views and added a strangely uplifting human element to the wild natural landscape. Perhaps more spectacular still were the road tunnels that were particularly plentiful in the Southern fjords. For longer ones bikes aren’t allowed but on shorter ones I’d have to ‘tunnel up’ (put lights and reflectors on) and grind through them- annoying and a bit scary but definitely a better option than climbing the mountain it bored through. Amongst the more memorable ones I went in was one near Stavanger which had four different routes meet at a roundabout all underground and the 24.5km world record long Laerdal tunnel which is so long they’ve had to include special pale blue lighting and rest areas every 6km in order to stop drivers becoming disorientated! Amazing achievement.

After a few days hiking and relaxing in the fishing villages on Lofoten I got a boat back to the mainland then a night train took me to the lovely third city of Trondheim. I found that whilst cycling and camping in the middle of nowhere you have only a limited ability to interact with people and see how the majority of the population live. I managed to visit the 5 biggest cities in the country however, and spending a bit of time in them definitely led me to the (deliberately sweeping) conclusion that Norway is ‘the best country in the world’.

From an outsider’s point of view, literally the only bad thing I could say about Norway is the price of things… but then that’s because I don’t earn Norwegian average wages of 45k Euros per annum. It is deeply ironic that the country’s most famous painting, Munch’s The Scream has come to symbolise the agony of modern man better than virtually any artwork.
A more accurate representation of the country would have a healthy, toned, attractive person heartily smiling whilst expostulating on how great life is.

Norway has been top of the world Human Development Index since the turn of the century and has won the UN’s ‘best country in the world to live in’ award for the last fourteen years. With an almost perfectly functioning democracy and welfare state, virtually no rich poor gap to speak off and world class public services it’s difficult to see almost any problems at all within the country. In a country where bus drivers and doctors earn remarkably similar salaries, I’ve certainly never been anywhere where even in low level jobs people seem genuinely content with their lot. They’ve successfully cultivated a healthy, well educated, easygoing, positive (and, it must be said very beautiful) population and it’s no surprise that they’re ranked only behind Denmark in the UN global Happiness rating. Throw into the mix theworld’s lowest rating on the ‘Glass Ceiling Index’ (by law Norwegian boards must be 40% female) and in short, Norway sets the standard the rest of the world should be aiming towards.

This would be is the tricky part however; much of the reason Norway is in the privileged position it finds itself in is due to its huge oil reserves. When oil was discovered in the 1960’s the government rather intelligently and with a sagacious degree of foresight started putting the money earned into a sovereign wealth fund. The money was used wisely to build the welfare state (but well within their income so they were saving) and in a country of only 5million the fund has grown so successfully (now worth about $800bn) that they’re in the enviable and quite remarkable position of living off the interest on it. Whilst not every country is going to have huge oil reserves or has a much larger population to share the wealth amongst, the commitment to erasing a rich poor gap through a strong welfare state and the subsequent effect on people’s mental health is surely something other countries can aspire to. As when visiting other Scandinavian countries and even somewhere like Japan, Norway (and Norwegians) reconfirmed my belief in a ‘managed capitalist system’ as the way countries should be run…

After a bit of socio-political analysis I then headed South to some national parks in the centre of the country where the biking got just a bit harder than the coastal roads of the Lofoten islands. Central Norway is very much the heart of the Scandinavian mountain range and it’s here that much of the Norse folklore and mythology comes from with tales of evil and heroism from Loki and Thor and a creeping fear of the untamed upland home of the trolls and giants. I had the single hardest day of the trip in the Rondane national park; after starting the day by climbing 400m in about 4km (roughly 10% average gradient) via a series of switchbacks I carried on climbing up into the park for another 20km. When I got there I then spent 5 hours climbing the highest mountain in the park before the scary descent back down left me so tired to have a nap in a park before going back to my tent. Whilst the highest mountain is under 3000m, hiking in Norway is harder than it sounds as the rock type tends to be granite or other harder rock types. Well above the treeline the rock is so hard that erosion is limited and even in the busier national parks ‘paths’ don’t really get formed, you simply scramble over and up the rocks. This gets very hard on your feet and means you rarely get ‘easier sections’ as you’re constantly having to watch your feet. It’s all worth it though, as like in Iceland last year, the views from the various summits I did across the country were incredible with the fjords, lakes, glaciers, waterfalls and rock formations below creating a veritable smorgasbord of geographical features to feast your eyes on.

After the Rondane and the wonderful Jotunheim I hit my highest point on the road of 1389m after a gruelling 12km climb into a headwind before an epic and unbelievably fun 70km long descent to the mighty Sognefjord the next day. At over 200km long it ranks as the longest fjord in the world and it took me 3 days to cycle along it to the sea. The cycling here was near idyllic as whilst it was overcast rather than sunny the rain stayed away too and the quiet, flat roads meant finding a place to set up camp was extremely easy. This plan went well ‘til the last night by which time I’d reached the North Sea and took a ferry across the fjord for the last time. I cycled 5km out of the ferry port without seeing a single house then set up camp off road basically in the middle of nowhere, I had dinner etc. then got into my tent until about 10.30pm in the dusk….
At which point I had one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

Basically out of the utter silence I suddenly heard branches breaking and something obviously quite big running away. It then moved back and started, if not quite roaring, then barking or braying very loudly in a circular motion maybe 10-20m around my tent for about 5 minutes. My initial petrified reaction was “Oh my God is that a bear?!!!” After a bit of reflection I thought it more likely a deer or moose but that would still be not much fun. Being alone in a tent (so you can’t see anything) several km from any potential help was utterly terrifying and eventually I couldn’t take the fear anymore and jumped out naked armed only with my Chinese made penknife ready to just leg it. Somehow it did the trick and ‘it’ shuffled off, although it did come back the next morning and bark a few more times it stayed for only a couple of mins this time. Checking up on the internet later it was indeed a moose call and not something I wanna experience again. Ever.

2 days later I then had another pretty atrocious night camping just outside the rather lovely 2nd city of Bergen; about 5pm the wind really started picking up and by 9pm was into gale force or 9-10 on the Beaufort scale. I was in a relatively sheltered position (i.e. 3 sides blocked off) but I would describe it as being about as bad as can be tolerated in a tent. For about 6-7hours I used my weight to hold the tent down and spent a sleepless night hoping it wouldn’t fly away or poles break etc. Thankfully about 4am it died down but cycling into town the next day I saw lots of branches and even a few trees down all over the city and I felt I’d had a relatively lucky escape.

After all this excitement I was very pleased to have my Bavarian friend come out to join me for the next couple of weeks. I don’t think I’d be able to do a cycling trip for much longer than a couple of months as one of the things that defines it as a mode of travelling is how ‘moody’ the experience is and I’d struggle with this over longer periods by myself. When things are ‘good’ there is almost literally nothing else I’d be happier doing. When the weather is good, the road is quiet and fairly flat and the scenery is attractive, I don’t think there is a better way of seeing the world and the gradual absorption of the landscape has an almost cathartic quality to it. In contrast when things are ‘bad’ it really isn’t enjoyable and you wondered why you came in the first place.

I’d been very lucky in the opening couple of weeks, only experiencing rain twice and generally just not having any issues with either bike or body. Unfortunately for my Bavarian friend he did not have that luck. After the first day we hit an almighty rain band which seemed to track us as it rained on and off (but mostly on) for the following 2 days and it continued to rain fairly frequently over the fortnight. Quite quickly we developed a theory of ‘degrees of rain’; when you’re on a tight time budget you have to cycle through light rain if you want to make any progress but if it gets heavier you simply have to stop as if you can’t see properly then it’s dangerous. Over the following weeks we spent a few too many hours stuck in bus shelters or spending nights in barns discussing whether it was too heavy to cycle in, trying to use humour to laugh the situation off as best we could but largely just getting bored.

Throw in a couple of mechanical problems and cycling 40km to catch a ferry that no longer runs and cycling doesn’t seem such a fun holiday idea. One 24hr period perfectly captured our fluctuating mood as a beautiful ride along the Hardangerfjord was ruined by rain all morning only for an agreeably long lunch to be followed by the rest of the fjord being bathed in sun for the afternoon. After reaching our destination my Bavarian friend took a masochistic dip in a glacial lake and we set up a truly spectacular camp on the beach as the mountains rose all around us. An amazing evening was followed by having to face Mr. Hyde again the next morning, as having to catch a bus up to the plateau above us meant we had to pack up again in the pouring rain. Not so good.

I found on a day to day basis the worst period of the day was having to pack up after breakfast but then once I got on the bike I felt much better and it was the same that day as we did a pretty memorable cycle across the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest mountain plateau. The road started off looking down the county’s highest waterfall and in swirling mists of as little as 20m or so visibility we slowly inched across the treeless, eerie landscape. Having got up to the plateau we then had to get down and did so by completing the famous Rallarvegen (Navvy Road). The trainline from Flam at sea level up to the plateau is one of the steepest in the world but in order to transport the materials there needed to be a road to transport materials, which you can now cycle. Most people rent mountain bikes and do about 2/3 of the distance but we had a cold night camping at the base of a glacier near the beginning, then the following day cycled the 80km long unpaved route with our fully loaded bikes. Neither of us had mountain tyres and the extra weight on the bikes makes them much harder to steer and balance than a normal mountain bike; whilst we kept going as much as we could we frequently had to simply get off the bikes and push as the road deteriorated. Whilst over the course of the ride you descend over 1300m, about 400m of this were done in one 1.5km or stretch by the side of a waterfall. My God I was scared, as bringing back memories of the Death Road in Bolivia, you squeeze your brakes as hard as possible and hope you make the series of hairpin turns OK as the waterfall crashes down beside you. Not a day for them to fail, I was truly delighted to get to the bottom and complete the 11hr day with a lovely gradual descent to the stunning fjordside village of Flam. We celebrated by a hearty handshake (in true British style) followed by a couple of cans of the local cider. Happy, happy day.

Drinking was definitely not something we did a lot of though; in a bar the cheapest pint would be £7.50 up to £12 and even in the supermarkets were at least £2.50 a can. The costs were definitely the worst thing about travelling in Norway- it may be the ‘best country in the world’ but it’s also one of if not the most expensive. Whilst everything is pretty expensive it was probably food and drink where you notice it most- the cheapest sandwich would cost about a fiver and the supermarkets just don’t really offer many deals or discounts. You kind of get used to it but we certainly didn’t feel the urge or desire to splash out on big nights in Norway which was a bit of a shame.

Thankfully the last week afforded us much better weather and after saying goodbye to my German pal in the lovely ski resort of Voss I took the train to my final destination of Oslo. I had four days there and thought it might be a day too many but it turned out to be about right as I spent a couple of days sightseeing and a couple of days happily lounging around pretty wooded islets of the Oslofjord. It has the reputation of one of Europe’s most amenable capitals and I couldn’t disagree with that as the locals enjoy such a high standard of living either on the surprisingly peaceful waterfront along the fjord or the wooded hills above.

I felt visiting the museums also gave quite a useful insight into how Norwegians see the country too. For such an old culture, Norway is actually a very young country; Norway tended to get the worst of centuries of near interminable wars with their neighbours in Denmark and Sweden throughout the middle ages and left them as something of a vassal state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries before they finally got independence in 1905. Similar to Britain’s treatment of Ireland, their Danish and Swedish masters operated little more than a feudal system forcing Norwegians to fish and farm the country only to remove all profits back to Copenhagen or Stockholm. Living in near penury, when the opportunity arose most of the population fled to the New World as soon as they could- there are actually more Norwegian Americans than Norwegians. The country’s economic situation didn’t drastically improve ‘til well after WWII and the discovery of oil but I got the impression the country is well aware of its change in circumstances. Dotted around central Oslo are several huge murals including some by Munch and are reminiscent of Rivera’s works in Mexico City. They show the agricultural and fishing heritage of the country morphing into the developed, cosmopolitan 21st century Norway and this seems to be a key part of their identity. The people are happy and know they’re affluent but it’s with the knowledge that the country and their ancestors have been through much tougher times. The consciousness of this change in circumstances is what keeps the belief in hard work and humility quite visible but also one of the things which makes Norwegians so likable as individuals and as a society. Rather than the flashy, ostentatious displays of wealth in some of the Gulf countries, showing off and splashing money around is not viewed upon positively in Norway. They could quite easily have fallen into the Wildean trap of Barbarism to Decadence almost overnight but the value system in the society has ensured they turned into and remained one of if not the most civilized country in the world.

Like Iceland, the country is so consistently beautiful you could stick a pin anywhere into the map and land somewhere interesting and this makes it a fantastic place to visit for a few weeks. However, when you ally that with the quality of its society and the individuals that it produces and the realisation slowly creeps in at this point in time that in many ways Norway is maybe as good as it gets on this planet.

Posted by carlswall 15:02 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

Iceland

Since returning from Asia in 2011, Iceland has been top of my ‘To Visit’ list and after managing to talk my sister into cycling round it, it turned into one of the most exhausting but rewarding holidays’ (as opposed to longer travelling stints) I’ve ever had in one of the most visually spectacular country’s’ in the world.

The trip began in slightly challenging circumstances- and that was just trying to get our bikes to Gatwick! Once we did touch down in Iceland and got to Reykjavik we quickly realised transport would be an issue. The plan was to take the bus to Lake Myvatn in the North and spend a week in the North before beginning our cycling odyssey; therefore we bought a load of food shopping then went to the bus station only to find that there’s essentially no public transport in Iceland, only private buses for tourists. They only run during the Summer months, normally only once a day and they aren’t cheap. That 6 hour journey cost over £100 and the first week or so proved to be very expensive as the several short (i.e. half an hour) journeys cost between- £15-£20 on the limited routes. Bus fares aside though, the first week was a wonderful introduction to this incredible land.
We began on a scorchingly hot day which proved to be a huge false dawn (more on that later) whilst cycling round beautiful Lake Myvatn. It lies on the Mid Atlantic ridge which runs through the centre of the country and is a rift lake which basically means it has formed in the hollow between the two continental (North American and Eurasian) plates that are moving away from each other. It’s surrounded by lava fields, a couple of cracking volcanoes and one of the main geothermal plants which supply 90% of the heating/electricity in the country. Walking around the steaming vents of Namafjall and looking out over the lava fields which stretched to the horizon gave an awe inspiring introduction to this land of fire and ice.

After a couple of days on the lake we headed North to the lovely coastal village of Husavik where we both fulfilled something on our wish list by going whale watching. Certainly since the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970’s, whaling is probably the single issue Iceland attracts any international criticism from. When the global moratorium on whaling was established in 1986 Iceland fought it against it briefly before stopping whaling in 1989. However, in 2003 they recommenced the practice and currently kill about 200 whales a year- largely for food. Icelanders are fiercely protective of their independence (they rejected joining the EU in May this year) and bitterly resent being told what to do by other countries. In the past a beached whale was considered the height of luck in Iceland as sales of the ambergris could support entire coastal villages for years at a time and most Icelanders now take the view that as long as whaling is done sustainably the practice should continue. I fundamentally disagree with this for lots of reasons but during my time in Iceland I realised that tourists are much of the problem; whale meat is sold as a ‘delicacy’ in all of the top restaurants in Reykjavik. Apparently it really isn’t that tasty but the novelty factor means tourists do consume it in large numbers and this is helping to sustain the market and keep whaling commercially viable.

At the same time whale watching is one of if not the most popular tourist activity in Iceland as in the plankton rich waters of the North you have a 95%+ chance of seeing humpbacks. It was a pretty memorable (albeit nippy) trip as we were happily given a 3hour break from the rain to look round the beautiful Skjalfandi Bay. After around an hour and a half we’d seen plenty of dolphins but no whales so it was a wonderful relief when we finally spotted a couple in the frigid waters. Their sheer size is amazing to behold up close and certainly seeing them breaching (leaping out the water) would have to go down as one of the most impressive wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. It left me with a warm feeling for a few days afterwards and it did puzzle me why the country would want to jeopardise such a wonderful natural sight (and such a big tourist earner).

From Husavik we then proceeded to Asbyrgi where we did a soggy 2 day hike along the stunning canyon formed by the raging Jokulsa river. It was actually fairly flat for most of the way but was punctuated by incredible basalt rock formations, a terrifying section on a cliff edge and a memorable rope aided climb up a cliff to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It’s used at the beginning of the Alien prequel Prometheus (far and away the best scene in the film!) and really is something up close as 193 cubic meters of water pound down the 45m high cataract every second. After 2 days hiking in the rain we were both delighted to have a relaxing evening in the northern blue lagoon at the end of it as we went our separate ways the following morning.

The core of the trip was the cycling and it began the next day in ‘challenging’ conditions.
When meeting people from around the world on my travels my two biggest annoying questions to answer in in conversations is them (presumably influenced by Sherlock Holmes films/novels) saying “Aaah you’re from London, you get lots of fogs don’t you?” and “It rains a lot there doesn’t it”?
To the first statement the short answer is not since 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed.
To the second question my answer tends to be not really, it’s just grey/overcast much of the time. Indeed London only gets 106 days of rain a year and when you bear in mind that most of them will involve short, non-day ruining showers and London just isn’t that wet a place- the Atlantic rains have largely emptied out over Wales/the West country by the time they reach the ‘Big Smoke’.
In Iceland, in contrast, being located in the middle of the Atlantic water cycle, on any given day there’s a 70-80% chance of rain depending on the time of year. And it would be one of the most memorable/challenging things about spending a month on this incredible island cycling/hiking and sleeping every night in a tent.

I had 4 dry days out of 32 and at times it threatened to be if not quite trip ruining, then it seriously damaged my enjoyment of being there! Iceland has virtually no trees and is 90% empty so there are no bus stops or buildings to shelter under. Peddling away for up to 11 hours a day in the rain can get you down and since I was camping I had no means of drying my clothes so I found at times it was a real challenge to keep myself motivated to keep going.

By far the hardest cycling section was in the first few days as I spent around a week cycling through the notorious interior. The roads are through the volcanic sands which make up the Icelandic desert in the centre of the country and are only open for around 3 months a year. Despite being the driest part of the country I had a terribly wet run of weather when for 6 days it rained pretty solidly and keeping peddling on the slow, painful washboard roads was a real challenge. After an epic first day of 110km (60 of them on the dirt) I arrived at Heroubreidir, the beautiful, crown shaped national mountain. I camped a cold night at its base then tried to climb it the next day only to be gutted by having to turn back only a few hundred meters from the summit. As in the UK it had been a particularly cold winter and the snows still hadn’t melted. It was the first time I’ve ever ‘failed to summit’ a mountain but on a near vertical cliff I knew I had no other option.
Somewhat disgruntled I then cycled on to the amazing Askja stratovolcano. It covers a huge area and has several massive calderas formed by the last big eruption in 1875, despite the rain, hiking around through the snow to the different crater lakes with views out over the desert below triggers up some pretty powerful emotions- as I would feel many times. My final stop in the interior was to a place called Kverkfjoll which is where the desert meets the gigantic Vatnajokull ice sheet above and is famous for geothermal vents melting parts of the glacier forming ice caves. Seeing nobody for hours at a time I was again reminded just how empty this country is and how immense its open spaces are. Ahead of me I had a 160km ride North East out to the ring road but after having already made several repairs on the rocky interior roads eventually my back tyre gave up for the final time.I found myself in quite a lot of trouble around 80km from the nearest town with only about 3 hours of light left. I had no choice but to push the bike for 20km where my road joined another and having not seen a car for so long miraculously one turned up and saved me by giving me a lift into town. A week in the interior had left me shattered so after getting my bike fixed I spent 5 hours the next day doing nothing, just sitting in the variety of hot tubs offered at the local swimming pool!

The next day I cycled South up and over the Oxi pass which in places was a terrifying descent as the incline reached 17% and my loaded bike was much harder to steer but I made it to reach the 20km long Berufjordur. The following days were spent gliding along the South coast zipping round the fjords and just generally loving riding on the empty tarmac ring road which circles the island after struggling through the interior. Whilst the rain was generally tough I was much luckier with the wind as I only had one genuinely bad day with a headwind when it took me over 4 hours to cycle 60km, I then took a left turn and covered 14km in half an hour!

I had a couple of long days of about 130Km and on both days I had calm weather; having calmer weather or even a slight tailwind really does make almost all the difference mentally when cycle touring. Iceland is an amazing place to cycle largely because of the scenery, of the 1000km or so I covered I’d say only around 50 of them were fairly dull as you’re constantly rewarded with fjords, lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, and beaches to name just a few of the features you see as you travel. When you’re having to fight the wind however and having to constantly pedal just to keep any momentum going the enjoyment factor drops rapidly, throw in the rain and uphill gradients and cycling becomes quite a depressing experience. It influences your mood so much that I don’t think I’d want to do it for more than a few weeks at a stretch and can’t really understand how people can do it for years on end.

After a couple of hundred km along the fjords I finally made it to the infamous South coast sandurs where the road wasn’t built until as late as 1974 due to the landscape. In Iceland many of the volcanoes are covered under icecaps, when there is an increase in tectonic activity the ice caps can start to melt from the heat causing lakes to form under the ice. If this process continues, eventually the lake will burst out and the water can start moving downhill very rapidly in an outburst flood called a jokulhlaup. Major floods such as in 1996 where everything in the flood’s path was destroyed can leave huge areas with no communications and the glacial melt water flows cause plains to form en route, called sandurs. They’re not really found anywhere else in the world and they’re pretty spectacular as they stretch up to 70km wide and are dead flat. Whilst you can see Vatnajokull above you, on the other 3 sides you can’t see anything but the sands stretching out into the distance and in head winds must be terrible to tackle- I had calm weather and zipped through them!

En route I stopped off to do some hiking at the gorgeous Skafatell national park and the otherworldly and incredibly photogenic ice lagoon. Essentially huge chunks of ice break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier as it reaches the sea, however many of the chunks are too big to fit through the narrow entrance to the sea so end up floating in the lagoon that’s formed for months on end. The icebergs come in a variety of colours from dirty grey to beautiful azures and in the middle of a 10 hour day on the bike felt like probably the best photo stop I’ll ever make!
After visiting one of the ‘world’s best beaches’ at Vik (volcanic black ash sands) I took the ferry to the Westmann islands which counts Surtsey amongst its members. I was staying on the amazing island of Heimaey which aside from being the Icelandic fishing capital has a series of lovely maroon coloured volcanoes to climb. One of which was home to probably the most memorable campsite I’ve ever stayed in, you could climb the sides of the crater to look out over cliffs full of puffins and the lava fields from a big eruption in 1973 which increased the size of the island by a full 20%.

I then started moving inland to the ‘Golden circle’, an area about 60km East of Reykjavik and home to many of Iceland’s most famous sights including (the original) Geyser. It hasn’t erupted properly since the 1950’s but thankfully Strokkur is right next to it and is probably the most reliable geyser in the world, ejaculating steam and water every few minutes. About 30km down the road is the world heritage site of Pingvellir; aside from being home to the world’s first national parliament (the Althing from 930AD, just 64 years after Iceland was first settled by Norwegian farmers) it’s an 8km rift on the mid- Atlantic ridge and one of the few places in the world where you can actually walk ‘between tectonic plates’. Obviously a pretty significant place but many tourists complain at the fact there are so many other tourists in the area.

In the past Iceland was actually somewhat off the beaten track as a tourist destination as thanks to limited international connections and one of the strongest currencies in the world it was simply too expensive for most people to visit. However, in 2008 the global financial crash hit Iceland harder than almost anywhere as thanks to reckless gambling on global capital markets by the so called ‘Vikings’ (nickname given to aggressive bankers) which led to the collapse of its banking system and many companies around the world (including Woolworths) that were purchased by them. Almost overnight Iceland became around 1/3 cheaper to visit and spurred on by EasyJet/WOW air starting cheaper international flights the tourist sector has rapidly expanded from under 300,000 in 2002 to an estimated 750,000 and contribute 6% of GDP this year. When you consider that most people stay for under a week and don’t venture out past the Golden Circle, at the honeypot sights it can feel the ‘wild nature’ charm of the country, which is why people came in the first place, is lost a bit.

In Iceland the financial crash famously led to around 25,000 or 10% of the country rioting in the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ (protestors banged pots and pans) as this nation with no army struggled to maintain the peace. Since independence from Denmark in 1944 virtually no country in the world has had a smoother existence with virtually no problems of note to speak of and extremely high social and economic indicators across the whole of society.
Controversially the government elected to preserve its massive welfare state rather than pay back foreign debtors (such as Barnet council) and as the country has rebounded strongly since, some suggest it offers an alternative to the austerity programmes followed by most of Europe since 2008. From my own point of view whilst there is much to admire about the social welfare system in the country, I think it's ultimately too small/isolated to try to extrapolate too much from their experiences and if bigger countries started ignoring their debts then global trade would decline considerably and that would probably lead us to be worse off ultimately.

After 56 straight hours of spirit crushing rain in the Golden Circle it finally stopped on my way back Reykjavik and the endorphins started to kick in as I realised I’d completed the cycling part of the trip. However, I wasn’t done there as after resting up for a night I headed back out the next day to hike Icelands most famous trek, the 90km from Landmannalaugur in the interior to Skogar on the coast.

For such a short trek the variety of landscape we passed through was out of this world; in Landmannalaugur the landscape began amidst geothermal pools and lava fields. The various gases and chemicals being emitted from the Earth gave the mountainous landscape a beautiful polychromatic sheen with orange, dark blue and red cliffs being topped off with lime green heads of grass which would grow on the tops of the mountain peaks. For the first night I had to dig a trench to set my tent in to prevent it being blown away by the wind but with the long hours of daylight I was able to get out of the cold quite early and visit a couple of glacial caves before continuing gradually onwards. As we continued through the lava fields by far the biggest hazard was having to ford the streams. Whilst I had to do plenty over the course of the month in Iceland the hardest overall were on the second day of the trek as the already brown water was raised thigh high thanks to a storm 2 hours earlier making them genuinely quite scary. The knowledge that you’re balancing pretty precariously in freezing cold water in your socks whilst carrying all your important documents with no idea what you’re stepping on is not a great feeling! But I got through them and an atrocious third day of constant rain to the oasis of Porsmork just before the final stretch of the hike. Whilst my luck generally with rain wasn’t great I found myself saying a short prayer of thanks to Freyr- the Norse God of Weather when I woke up the next day. Grey rain was replaced by beautiful blue skies and I gleefully took advantage on the 1000m climb up to the pass between 2 glaciers, which coincidentally happened to be the eruption site of the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption. It wasn’t the easiest of climbs but after having eaten most of my food by this stage and buoyed by the outstanding weather I was a happy boy when I reached the top.
The eruption site is just a bit amazing- like a giant ashtray. Much of the landscape is still smouldering away and is still (memorably) very black. You can’t pick up many of the rocks as they’re still too hot and 2 of the worlds newest mountains, Modi and Magni have been created which you can climb giving incredible views out over the landscape as well as indescribable feelings of a)this is an unbelievably cool experience and b) nature is just amazing. After enjoying but having to fight through some aspects of the adventurous trip it really did feel like I’d been rewarded…and the rewards kept coming as I finally saw the sea and took ‘the route of the waterfalls’ down to it. I passed no less than 26 smaller falls as I descended before finally reaching the 60m high Skogarfoss just before the sea. A cracking ending to an exhausting, but stunning trek.

Iceland was the first country I’ve been to which I can categorically say is more expensive than England and unfortunately this did limit my activities in the last few days a little bit. The Blue Lagoon cost 40Euros to go to and even things like museums cost a tenner so the last few days in Reykjavik were somewhat quiet. I had planned to run the marathon on the final day but various injuries picked up hiking/cycling put an end to that plan and I’m not sure I would have had the energy anyway as the month had left me fairly drained. Instead I found myself enjoying the coffee shops, pubs and swimming pools of the small city quietly although I was lucky enough to be there for the national day at the end of August so there were lots of free concerts and cultural performances to enjoy.
Somewhat surprisingly Iceland is a global arts centre with a thriving arts and music scene but it in it's literature where Iceland can claim to be one of the world's leaders. Home to some of medieval Europes finest writing- the sagas from the 13th century through Nobel winning Halldor Laxness to the situation today where no less than 1/10 of the population are published authors! All over Rejkjavik are statues are rocks and statues which read out poetry to you and having spent 95% of my time on the country’s natural attractions it was quite nice to get a bit more of a feel for the human side to country.

All in all an exhausting but unforgettable month, I left feeling a) I would definitely like to come back in the Winter and b) this travelling lark never gets boring…..

Posted by carlswall 15:34 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Eastern Europe


View Eastern Europe on carlswall's travel map.

When I traveled overland through Central Asia (or ‘The Stans’) last year I realized I’d been to all but 4 of the former SSRs and so this trip was very much about visiting the last few and getting a sense of closure from not so much ‘that part of the world’ but the general Soviet cultural legacy in its different locations. The area I’m traveling from Moldova to Lithuania is very much Eastern Europe but I think the general phrase Eastern Europe needs a bit of clarification. Since the beginning of the Cold War it’s meant anything East of the Iron curtain but the term is now surely out of date for many of the countries that were ‘behind the curtain’. In literal terms geographically the likes of Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia are Central Europe and culturally they’ve moved on a long way from Soviet times- maybe a phrase like Danubian Europe would better connect them to their cultural near neighbors such as Austria. For the countries of the former Soviet Union though the accuracy in applying the term is much harder to call and viewing the cultural positionings of the four countries I visited was definitely one of the core features of the trip.

My trip began in one of Europe’s ‘lesser known’ and one of its least visited countries- Moldova. I’d wanted to visit there ever since reading Tony Hawks amusingly offbeat and very British adventure Playing the Moldovans at Tennis in the late ‘90s but my experiences were slightly less bleak than the way the book portrayed the country. There was glorious sunshine every day and temperatures were consistently in the mid 30s, it’s the most rural country in Europe with the landscape vastly different to the Soviet stereotype of belching chimneys and blackened miners- i.e. no hammers but plenty of sickles.

Whilst it’s quietly pleasant for a few days, as with most countries that have few tourists there’s not a huge amount to do there although the undoubted tourist highlight was going on a woozy tour of a vineyard- the country is sometimes described as having the best value wines in the world and certainly being asked to pay just over a Euro for a lovely bottle of red is definitely a fond memory.

In many ways it almost doesn’t feel like a full country, and with the Transnistrian issue it almost literally isn’t. Moldovans speak Romanian and the national identity is very weak being largely invented by the Russians during Communist times; with no real industrial economy it felt more like an agricultural region of a bigger country (e.g. the Soviet Union) and its future looks uncertain to say the least. In the last few years Albania has overtaken it to leave it as the poorest country in Europe and more than a quarter of the population have left to find work elsewhere in Europe since independence. What’s hampering the country even further was my next stop of the breakaway republic of Transnistria.

It’s a de jure part of Moldova but is one of the group of 10 or so breakaway countries (like Kosovo, Abkhazia etc.) in the world which run themselves totally independently with their own government, army etc. I was quite nervous crossing the border as it’s notorious for foreigners to get hit for bribes by the police but things went agreeably smoothly on both entering and leaving the country. The region is on the East bank of the Dniestr river and refused to join Moldova at independence in 1991; as with elsewhere in the USSR ethnic Russians had been moved into the region en masse and despite being part of the Moldovan SSR, with pictures of Vladimir Putin up everywhere their loyalty is clearly to the Great Bear rather than independent Moldova. Again there’s almost nothing to do in terms of activities and culturally it felt very much like an agricultural region of Russia. It’s famously corrupt and in recent years arguably its main claim to fame has been the success of its football team FC Sheriff who play in an incredible stadium… but is essentially a front for a mafia mogul who runs virtually every business of note in the tiny country. The dispute does neither the very poor Moldovans nor Transnistrians any favours, they fight now and again but there’s plenty of Russian troops to keep the peace and it’s the constant bickering between the two sides which is really halting their development. The vast majority of the power supply is produced in Transnistria but they ask Moldovans such high prices that Moldova retaliates by blocking other trade and with their aging populations, relatively isolated locations and limited economic activity it’s difficult to see how either side can move forward. Furthermore because of the dispute it means the EU is unwilling to open negotiations for Moldovan membership or supply much aid and ultimately the poverty (certainly by European standards) of the area and the lack of upward mobility meant I was pretty pleased to get to Ukraine- where things are very different.

The BBC previews of Ukraine before the European Championships were little short of disgraceful, rather than making any attempt to describe the country’s history, culture or even tourist attractions it focused on nothing else but its football hooligans with a hyperbolic commentary from Sol Campbell over the top. Despite the undoubted problems the country has with its football fans this is clearly a minority and its only one small aspect of this large country; quite what the BBCs motivations were in doing this I don’t know. In conversations with me a couple of Ukrainians lambasted the BBC over it, angrily questioning the negativity towards them and highlighting the hypocrisy of the British media as they cogently pointed out it was the England captain who was in court over a racism charge and England has a more famous hooliganism reputation than any other country in Europe. Parts of the Ukrainian media blamed the fewer than expected visitors for the tournament on this negative publicity but I think hosting half the games in the remote Eastern and non-tourist friendly cities Kharkiv and Donetsk probably had more to do with it. So, based on those documentaries and reports people could have a negative view of Ukraine, which considering the Euros were their big chance to sell themselves to the world doesn’t seem remotely fair.

(Definitely not ‘The’) Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (discounting Russia) and one of the pleasures of traveling around is seeing the differences in landscapes and cultures of the different regions. To begin with I spent my time on the Black Sea in the gorgeous city of Odessa, scene of the Potemkin incident and great beaches. Aside from the boulevards full of ex-sailors playing chess and gorgeous coastal setting probably the most memorable part of the city are the inhabitants themselves; an extroverted, cosmopolitan lot who are utterly self-assured in their status as the chicest city in the USSR. Whilst the raffish mafia types add an air of menace, the city’s legendarily beautiful women lighten the tone massively and it was no surprise to find it’s the centre of Ukraines massive bridal mail order business. It’s been going on a long time, predominantly with American men and from their point of view you can easily see what they’re getting with the image obsessed Ukrainian women (Mila Kunis is their current standard bearer) but I couldn’t work out why the trade still goes on now. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the government changed Ukraine has been doing very well economically. For several years it was posting annual growth of 6%+ and whilst that’s slowed down recently, the quality of life in the big cities at least is catching up with its Central European neighbors so I’m not sure how marrying a bloke twice their age from Indianapolis will see a massive improvement in their quality of life.

The Ukrainian flag is a blue half symbolizing the sky above a yellow half symbolizing the corn fields that are a constant feature of the landscape for much of the country, but my next area to visit was the Crimean peninsula way down on the Black Sea which has a very different landscape to the rest of the country and is also heavily contested between Ukraine and Russia. The coastline is utterly stunning, composed of sheer mountain cliffs rising 1500m straight up from the sea, bizarre rock formations and plateaus covered in Cypress and Juniper trees create an environment not dissimilar to the Mediterranean. There are some fantastic national parks to hike in and explore and on top of that it has a rich history from various eras: the old Tartar khanate, the Crimean war and more recently the Yalta conference. It forms the Western part of the old Russian Riviera which stretched all the way round to Abkhazia and Georgia and even now at this time of year is rammed with lower middle class Russian holidaymakers.

One of the things I was curious to see in Ukraine was how the Euros had affected traveling there as a tourist and the answer came in extremes. In Kiev and Lviv where games were hosted, the government has clearly spent a lot of money on new signs and information booths, all in English and incredibly easy to use- getting around and doing things was effortless. In contrast I actually found the Crimean tourist attractions immensely disappointing due to the lack of facilities/information for non-Russian speakers. Aside from Russians there are few overseas visitors to the area and they tend to do things on guided tours, consequently the museums at the Livadia Palace in Yalta where the conference took place and the Crimean war museum near Balaclava are poor to say the very least with minimal information offered with no background, context or analysis of the very important events that had taken place. The Valley of Death where the Charge of the Light Brigade (now a vineyard) took place in particular had absolutely nothing to indicate this with the viewpoint overlooking it now home to a WWII diorama for no apparent reason. Much better was the nuclear submarine factory in Balaclava near Sevastopol which is fascinating to walk round the endless gloomy corridors and the super sized bits of machinery tunneled underneath a mountain right on the coast. This area has only been opened to the outside world for about 15 years (you needed a special permit previously) as it was here that the Soviet navy had its headquarters but in post-independence Ukraine is proving to be one of the biggest problems for the fledgling state.

In many ways Ukraine was the ‘poster boy’ of the USSR, the propaganda images of hearty farmers in the cornfields and stakhonovite miners from the East of the country smilingly working for the common good was the image Stalin et al liked to portray but it masked the reality on the ground. Much of the country is covered in a loam soil which makes it one of the most fertile parts of Europe and it’s no surprise that it became known as the breadbasket of the USSR. However, whilst Ukrainian products were sold in Paris and Rome to demonstrate the strength of the Soviet economy, during the early 1930s none of the food was being released to locals as Stalin ordered the deliberate starvation of the population in order to head off any nationalist intentions to break free of the Soviet yoke. An estimated 3-5million died of starvation between 1932-33 and all over the country there are memorials to the dead in Europes ‘forgotten genocide’. Vladimir Putin recently refused to accept any accusations of genocide from Ukraine and unsurprisingly it’s a contentious issue between the 2 countries. The other major way Stalin tried to head off Ukrainian nationalism (or indeed any other independence movements across the USSR) was to move large numbers of Russian immigrants into the country and it’s this that is causing problems now. There’s currently an election campaign underway and the 2 main parties are loosely based round ethnicity; the main ‘Ukrainian party’ is led by the glamorous hero of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoschenko and looks defiantly West wanting to join the EU and NATO and have much greater integration with the rest of Europe based around a Ukrainian identity. However, Russian is marginally the most widely spoken language and where Russians form a majority in the East of the country and in the Crimea, political tensions are highest. Backed by Moscow, several times the Crimea has threatened to secede and the governments response was to kick out the Russian navy. Russia responded by hiking up gas prices 500%, this left Ukraine temporarily paralyzed as gas is its main source of power so a deal was agreed to allow the Russians to stay until 2042 though it’s quite clearly only a stop gap solution. As the biggest ‘other SSR’ and a split population, Ukraine is clearly the biggest prize in the ongoing proxy war between Russia and the West for influence in former Soviet states The current leader is the Russian speaking but neutral leaning Viktor Yanukovych and whilst he’s been something of a stabilizing force for the country he’s also put Tymoschenko in jail for a contentious corruption charge (which meant virtually all top European politicians boycotted the Euros) and until a more harmonious relationship between the 2 communities is worked out its future economic and political ambitions will continue to be argued about.

The idea that Soviet cities are grey, unpleasant places full of concrete has largely been untrue in my experience and the capital Kiev was no exception. Aside from the lovely riverside setting it boasts an underground cave system that is eerily lit up to reveal the mummified remains of dozens of monks in glass coffins, you don’t see anything more than hands and feet but it’s still an odd sight in the middle of the city. Elsewhere underground it has one of the deepest metros in the world (it doubled as an A-bomb shelter), escalators are much faster than usual but journeys still take up to 8 minutes and people just sit down and wait.

However, also nuclear fusion related by far the most memorable thing I did in Kiev or the entire trip for that matter was a tour of Chernobyl; the Lonely Planet lists it as ‘the worlds weirdest day trip’ though I don’t think that’s been true for a while as it’s been opened up in the last few years and whilst expensive at $160 for the day it’s nonetheless an incredible experience. You have to apply in advance to get security clearance and have to wear full sleeves and closed shoes to stop your skin touching any affected material, they even give you a protective mask when you arrive. However, over 25 years since the accident the risks are pretty small, even 50m away from reactor No. 4 where the reaction happened the guides Geiger counter only gave a reading of about 4 or 5 millirems per hour (14 and up is harmful to humans) although in the forest we did see 25+ ratings as soil retains the radiation better. There are 2 exclusion zones of 10km and 30km and there are far more people around both of them than you might think. Chernobyl itself now has around 4,000 people living there and thanks to a massive grant from the EU a French company are building several sarcophagi over the spent reactors. There’s also a big firefighters unit, probably the most dangerous legacy of the disaster left is the risk of a massive forest fire spreading contaminated air around and having seen a massive one in Crimea which they were fighting for 3 days I can see why they’re quite paranoid about it in this part of the world. Workers work 15 days on, then spend 2 weeks out but there are plans to repopulate the 30km zone in the next 5 years or so. Whilst there were more people kicking around the site than I was hoping I still got a bit of a feel of the recent ‘classic film’ Chernobyl Diaries; whilst looking round the ruined city of Pripyat nearest to the reactors you can see the cinema and town hall etc. but best of all was the abandoned blocks of flats. I was in a very strange group of people in that no one else said a word for 7 hours so left them by climbing up to the higher floors. Everything of any value has long been looted and the buildings are now slowly falling apart, even in broad daylight entering the ruined apartments with the wind howling to find who knows what was still near terrifying and definitely the memory I’ll remember strongest from this strange and sad environment.

Whilst the accident happened in Ukraine due to the winds blowing the radiation North the country most affected by Chernobyl was my next stop Belarus. Getting the visa for Belarus brought back unpleasant memories of traveling in Central Asia as aside from the extortionate cost, you have to do needless paperwork and it takes a week. A lot of the guidebooks describe it like taking step back in time or as a Soviet time capsule but that’s definitely an exaggeration with the usual McDonalds et al on show. However, Belarus is most definitely an outlier within Europe- or perhaps that should be the pariah of the continent. Like all the ex-Soviet ‘Stans it’s run by a nasty dictator named Edward Lukashenko who’s run the country since 1994 with dire results. He imprisons thousands and tortures or executes almost anyone who disagrees with him; whilst the police presence is visibly nothing like as strong as Uzbekistan for example, it’s perhaps symbolic that the most high profile building in the capital Minsk is the giant KGB headquarters bang in the centre of town.

Even ignoring the human rights abuses the country is in economic trouble with its currency in near freefall dropping 100% in value in less than a year as Lukashenko has effectively turned his back on Europe and developed almost total dependence on Russia. As the name suggests (Belarus means white Russia) the two countries have a very similar heritage with Russian the dominant tongue and I can remember only a few pairs of countries with such similar cultures. Indeed in many ways it did feel essentially like a Russian satellite and everyone I spoke to was certain that a reunification with Russia is more likely than a democratic revolution, possibly within the next 5 years, they really don’t have a bright future with Lukashenko in charge.

There aren’t many sights to see and most of them revolve around World War II or the Great Patriotic War as it’s known around there. Towards the end of my GCSEs I lost interest in history as aside from the endless preaching (sorry ‘teaching’) about the Holocaust we just seemed to do loads of stuff about how Britain ‘won’ the war- traveling round this part of the world shows you who really did. Four times as many people died on the Eastern front than in the rest of the world combined with an area like Belarus perfectly illustrating that with over a quarter of the population dying and most of its major cities completely destroyed. As part of the Soviet legacy there’s no doubt they go overboard with huge memorials everywhere to the glorious dead, seemingly half the Russian language films and TV programs are set during the war yet at the same time they almost deliberately ignore the following 45 years of Communist rule. Nonetheless it’s an important part of the historical culture of the area and it’s interesting to see.

Despite the somewhat bleak view of the country I’ve painted I actually had a great time staying with a DJ and partying till the small hours every night enjoying the vodka and I left the country feeling a bit annoyed I couldn’t stay for longer as I was running out of time.

And I continued the partying in my final stop of Lithuania; I had my birthday weekend before I caught my flight and thanks to an old French friend and some very friendly locals absolutely smashed it up on the yummy microbrews. In contrast to Ukraine and especially Belarus, the atmosphere in Lithuania feels different as soon as you cross the border. Unlike most of the former Soviet republics the Russians didn’t move people into Lithuania so it’s ethnically homogeneous and doesn’t have any of the cultural and political issues that come with residual Russians. As the occupation museum housed in a former KGB prison in the capital Vilnius shows the Soviets committed some terrible atrocities in the country and the constant booing of the Russian basketball team in the Olympic match between the 2 sides reflected the lack of love felt towards Russians. The country became the first of the SSRs to declare independence in 1991 and since being admitted in 2004 the people appear to be avowedly pro EU with the young country looking determinedly westward for its future.

Like most Eastern bloc countries it initially struggled after independence but especially since joining the EU and the trade benefits it brings Lithuania economy has been booming to produce one of the best economic growth rates in Europe. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be making them happy though. Before I went there I knew Lithuanian people were famous for 2 things; one was the average height of the people- the reason why a 3.5m strong country is consistently ranked top 5 in the world basketball rankings, it’s also one of only a small number of places where I would regularly see women let alone men who were a couple of inches taller than me, but then the second one was the suicide rate. The world leader of that unwanted record it’s perhaps notable that many of the other higher placed countries are former Soviet states. Whilst to some extent that can be put down to the usual financial pressures and the like I think the widespread alcoholism is also a key contributor. I think traveling in former Soviet states is the only time I’ve felt somewhat guilty about drinking so much; I found it very easy to literally get into the spirit and join the locals in dropping shots of vodka at crazy times e.g. 10am and then carrying on with the rest of the day. However, I did this with the knowledge that it would only be for a short time whereas for men especially that really is their life. Aside from just how cheap it is (a bottle of vodka normally costs about $1-3) one of the main causes is the lack of mobility in large parts of the country. For example if you live in rural Russia, Ukraine or Belarus and do a normal job (and that can include things like doctors) you’ve little hope of earning more than maybe $200 a month with scant opportunity for increasing that. It’s a far cry from the flashy money of Moscow or Kiev and the social and financial gaps between core and periphery regions is one of the biggest problems the region faces. Aside from the suicide rates it brings other social problems such as a surplus of women (the men drink themselves to death by their mid to late-50s on average) and a generally unpleasant/unsafe feel to places as you weave in and out of the drunks. Whilst the likes of Belarus and Lithuania have banned drinking in public I think they may need a more aggressive taxation policy to curb the (male) populations addiction- hopefully leading to improvements in wellbeing indicators and also providing more state income.

Aside from the partying the end of the trip was agreeably relaxing, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius has the largest ‘old town’ in Europe and with its manageable size and interesting architecture it’s a very pleasant place to spend a few days. Although my highlight in Lithuania was definitely the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea, it’s the world’s 2nd longest at 100km and its ownership is split in half between Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kalingrad. I rented a bike there and did the 50km ride from the mainland to the border and back again and it was a wonderful way to enjoy this part of the world. Whilst the word Baltic has become used as an adjective for cold weather the sun came out for me and cycling on the flat spit protected by the 60m high sand dunes was a cracking experience. There were various beaches to stop and swim at too and once again I realised quite how much fun cycling can be and what a great way it is to explore the world. It does feel good to have seen so much of the USSR and whilst I’m not going to be able to travel for a while now the heavens were kind to me and on my final bus to the airport provided a double rainbow to light up the sky- traveling is great.

Barney

Posted by carlswall 03:48 Archived in Moldova Tagged landscapes mountains churches buildings people ukraine belarus lithuania moldova transnistria Comments (0)

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