Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Western Norway: Fjord Country

Sorry this has taken so long to post, I'm having trouble finding any time to do much blogging because I'm busy exploring each city! I'm pretty sure most of these posts will be very picture-heavy, especially this one. I took an absurd number of pictures during this part of my trip, and I still haven't fully sorted through them. Honestly though, it's impossible to capture the natural beauty in a picture. Before this past week, I thought all the pictures of various fjords must have been taken by professional photographers on a perfectly clear day, but having visited these fjords, this could not be further from the truth... Even with my camera that fits into my pocket I managed some great pictures, and the landscape really is as amazing as it looks in some of the pictures. I took a number of videos as well, although I don't know if I will include as many of those.

Through Oslo, I had not spent more than a single night at a hotel. Even in Copenhagen where I was for two nights, I split my time between two places, and otherwise I have spent one night in each place I visited. It is exhausting doing all one-night stays, and I really wouldn't recommend it for very long... It's not practical to unpack anything, and doing laundry is borderline impossible. Even spending two nights in Oslo felt like a luxury: I had to restrain myself from taking over the entire dorm room while unpacking my stuff!

Anyhow, I'll pick up around where I left off: Leaving Snasa

Getting to Alesund

I started in Snasa, and by the end of the day (after 11 hours of trains and buses), I made it to Alesund. My journey began with the train back to Trondheim, which was scenic, but familiar. After 30 minutes in Trondheim, I boarded my train to Dombas. The beginning of the ride was nothing special, but the scenery toward the end was fantastic. Once in Dombas, I had an hour or so before my next train, so I wandered down into the small town. There wasn't much to see or do, but it was nice to walk around for a little while, especially since I was spending so much time sitting on buses and trains.

Dombas Hotel -- No, I did not stay there
I headed back to the station a few minutes before my train to Andalsnes. The train ran alongside the Rauma River going through various fjords, and the hour-long ride flew by.

When it arrived, I transferred to a waiting bus to get to Alesund (after having my passport checked by a policeman -- apparently I look sketchy. I even shaved before I left!). At this point, pretty much everything could be called "scenic"... The bus went through fjords and plenty of other landscapes before dropping me off across the street from my hotel.

Ugh, that smudge on my camera is pissing me off
Since I was the last person on the bus (riding it from terminus to terminus), the driver asked where I was staying and simply dropped me off there. By that time it was around 10:30pm, and after I checked in, I set off in search of dinner, finding a bar/restaurant that seemed adequate enough. I walked around the city for a while after dinner while it was still light outside (around 11:30pm), exploring most of the center within a relatively short walk. I wandered down the ferry pier for an unobstructed view of the water and surrounding area at dusk, and found a few nice canals to relax on for a few minutes. About half past midnight I headed back to my hotel, the First Hotel Atlantica (booked via Hotwire -- Very central, good breakfast, and adequate WiFi) and went to bed.


I woke up early, left my bags at the hotel's reception, and met the bus to Hellesylt at the bus station across from my hotel. After an hour in Hellesylt, I'd board the ferry which cruises through Geirangerfjord, eventually dropping me in the small town of Geiranger at the end of the fjord. I was one of about 6 people going to Geiranger, and there were far more Norwegians using the bus than members of the "tour".

Now, "tours" in Norway are a misnomer. When you book a tour on a Norwegian website, it is not a tour. It is a series of public transit tickets. I actually enjoyed this, since I am allergic to being herded like a giant flock of sheep, but it was a bit unexpected at first: There is no tour guide, and especially no signs. The no signs part would later lead to all sorts of fun. 

The public buses are far more glamorous than they sound. They are essentially coaches with air conditioning and comfortable seats. Some of them even have power ports at each seat. As before, all of the ride was beautiful, except for the part where I stared at the walls of an 8km-long tunnel. Only in Norway would there be roundabouts in tunnels. Anyhow, part of the bus ride was on a 10-minute ferry (considered part of the bus route!) where we could get off and take a few pictures. God only knows I needed even more excuses to take pictures... My poor Dropbox can't handle all of this!

After the ferry ride, the bus dropped us at Hellesylt, where it was windy and raining quite heavily. In my never-ending brilliance, I left my rain-jacket in the room and had brought sunglasses instead. I was cold and wet, but I'd sooner be dead than let my eyes get blinded by the super-bright rainclouds. I think I deserve a Darwin award.

I wasn't going to let any rain or wind or sunglasses stop me though, so I wandered around for a few minutes, then found a warm and dry place to eat. Such an adventurer I am. Hey, at least the restaurant had bright lighting, so I put my sunglasses to use. After lunch, I boarded the next ferry which made the spectacular cruise up Geirangerfjord. The ride lasted about 80 minutes, and it flew by. There were waterfalls everywhere dotting the mountains, along with crazy farmhouses built way above steep cliffs, hundreds of thousands of trees, giant fjords, and snowcapped mountains. It's rather difficult to do it justice in a picture, so I'll try 3.

Eventually the cruise had to end though, and we were dropped in the small town of Geiranger at the end of the fjord, where we had about 3 hours to visit. The "Fjord Center" with a small exhibition was somewhere up the hill, but it seemed silly to stare at pictures of fjords while standing at the end of one of the most beautiful ones. Google can tell me the rest later. I followed some signs to a small trail that led to a large waterfall, and I climbed the stairs to the top. Apparently I was actually very close to the Fjord Center, but I had no idea. The waterfall was nice, especially framed by the mountains and fjord.

Afterwards, I wandered back into the town and perused one of the tourist shops selling cheesy T-shirts for $50-$80. Instead I did my usual and picked up a small rock alongside the fjord. $0, and one more rock for my (small) collection from various neat places I have visited. After all of this, I still had over an hour to kill, so I walked along the main road leading into the town, giving fantastic views of both the fjord and the town.

After my walk, I returned to the city where I met the bus back to Alesund. The bus drove up the Eagle Road, a series of 11 switchbacks climbing up one of the mountains. At the top, we made a brief photo stop overlooking both Geiranger and the fjord.

Geiranger at the end of the Fjord

Notice the tiny boat going through the fjord for perspective
After the photo stop, the bus dropped me back in Alesund around 7pm.

Hurtigruten: Alesund to Bergen

Back in Alesund, I had dinner, walked around the city a bit more, and went back to my hotel to get some work done before the ferry departure at 1am. Around 11pm, the Australian gentleman, John, who was on the Geirangerfjord tour with me happened to walk by the hotel, so we chatted for an hour or so (turns out he is a travel agent and tour operator in Australia -- he has led some pretty awesome tours!) before heading toward the ferry docks. Docks. Plural. DOCKS. Maybe you see where this is going?

See, there were no signs. He asked the reception at his hotel and was told one place, and the reception at my hotel told me a different place. A site online mentioned a third place on the opposite side of the town (this is why islands and peninsulas can be annoying). Google was no help, so we figured we'd try one dock and if that didn't work, we hoped we'd either find other people going on the same ferry or we'd be able to spot the ferry arriving around 12:30am. I was very glad not to be doing this alone, and when we reached the first dock, it was completely dark and practically closed down. A short distance away, however, there were a few people: A young Russian couple and a Norwegian couple. The Russians were just as confused as us, and the Norwegians were not very confident that we were in the right place. The Norwegians had a car they were bringing on the ferry, which turned out to be very useful.

... Around 12:30am, we finally spotted the ferry coming into our side of the harbor, which was encouraging. We were, however, rather discouraged when it sped right past the dock we were waiting at and eventually docked further into the harbor. Of course the direct pathway to that dock was blocked by several gates, so we had to go back out to the street and find a way to reach the other dock. Remember, no signs anywhere. The Norwegians went ahead to hold the ferry for us while we tried to find a path that would lead us to the right dock. Eventually we found a dark alleyway that connected, and we met the ferry about 5 minutes before departure. At one point the Russians said that it was worse than Russian transit... At least there they had a sign or two.

The ferry is basically a cruise ship, and it runs up and down the Western Norwegian coastline. Being a cruise ship, it had cabins with beds and stuff... Not that I'd know: Getting a cabin was over 3 times as expensive as traveling without one, and for a 12-hour trip, I figured I'd survive. Relieved to finally be onboard the ferry, I spent a short while on my laptop in the lounge, then found a small bench/couch to lay down on. Using my jacket as a pillow with one of the sleeves as a blindfold (it got bright outside before 4am and there were no shades in the lounge!), I went to sleep. I actually slept for over 7 hours, waking up after 9am as the ship was going through a narrow strait. As usual the scenery was great, and I spent most of the remainder of the trip reading Stanford stuff and watching various islands and small houses go by.

My moderately uncomfortable bed

Very overcast in the mid-morning

One of the many islands we passed by

When we docked in Bergen there was some problem with the disembarking process, and, along with about 150 other people, I waited to leave the ship. After an hour (and the room becoming hotter than Florida), we were finally let off. While I had originally planned to have a half-day in the city, by the time I got to my hostel, it was after 4pm... Leaving me very little time to actually go inside any tourist attractions. I walked around the town for a while, eventually returning to the hostel after some Thai food (what a surprise).

One of the alleyways off of Bergen's main street

Sunset! I guess I was finally far enough South.

Eventually I got to talking with a few people at the hostel, and one of the people was an Australian street musician... Later that evening a few other people and I went to watch him perform (and chase off hoardes of angry Polish and Romanian immigrants trying to steal his audience). It was an offbeat but fun way to spend my evening in Bergen, and it seemed to fit with the strange sequence of events over the past day and a half. I went to bed before midnight, trying to get in a few hours of sleep before my extremely full day traveling to Oslo.

Norway in a Nutshell: Hardangerfjord, NoSleepEverfjord, and getting to Oslo

Okay, maybe not the second one, but my sleep schedule definitely left a lot to be desired. I woke up at 6am to go to the bus station to meet my "tour" which would eventually take me to Oslo: The Hardangerfjord in the Nutshell. The first bus left at 7:45am, and I eventually reached Oslo around 11pm. Essentially the day was a daytrip to Hardangerfjord which would connect me to the Bergen Railway reaching Oslo.

Like the other daytrip, the scenery was incredible. I have seriously given up on trying to describe it because there's simply no way I could do so. This time the boat trip was over 2 hours, which offered even longer to absorb the surroundings (and take enough pictures to overload my Dropbox account). Onboard the ferry I met a group of students from Texas who were finishing up studying abroad, and I spent a lot of time during the trip talking with them.

We got off the ferry and boarded a bus to Eidfjord, where we stopped at the visitor's center for a dizzying presentation of flying over the fjords (a neat idea that was poorly executed), and a stop at a very high lookout point over a waterfall and the surrounding area before heading back to meet the ferry.

Almost everyone on the trip was returning to Bergen the same way they came, but since I was going to Oslo after the roundtrip bus tour of Eidfjord and the surrounding area, I only took the ferry back one stop, where I met a bus to take me to Voss, where I'd meet a train. I had to carry my bags around with me the whole time, but fortunately I was able to leave them sometimes during a short part of the trip. I probably could have left them in the middle of the street and thrown all of my cash on the street around them and they still would have been safe, but I digress.

After an hour in Voss (where I was starving and left with no option but a gas station for lunch), I returned to the station to meet my train to Oslo on the Bergen Railway, one of the most scenic rail routes in the country which reaches its highest elevation at over 4000 feet. A few stops before that though, the Australian guy, John, happened to board the train. Not only was he on the same train (which we originally thought was the case), but he was also assigned to the same coach. He had an empty seat next to him, so I switched over for most of the ride. A few hours in, we went to the dining car and each tried the Reindeer stew. It didn't look great, but had a nice gamey flavor. Eating Santa's transportation never tasted so good.

The train was delayed a few minutes due to construction work, and eventually I arrived in Oslo at 11pm, meaning I spent roughly 15 hours traveling. I went to my hostel and slept VERY well.

I'll try to write a short post on my time in Oslo, as well as a much longer one on Reykjavik so I am caught up on my travels. I am currently writing this from my train from Inverness to Edinburgh, where the weather is extremely warm compared to Reykjavik and Norway!

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