Travels in the North

Musings on arctic holidays

Monthly Archives: April 2012

Chilling Out by the Icebergs

It’s a bit windy here in Ilulissat today, which unlike Nuuk is unusual here I’m told. It’s warmed up a bit though, must be close to 0 degrees today.

Hotel Avannaa Ilulissat

My hotel, the excellent Hotel Avannaa

My planned boat trip to the old settlement at Oqaatsut was cancelled due to lack of numbers. I was looking forward to it, but knew when I booked it there was a strong chance this would happen. It’s almost May but it’s still very much winter here, and therefore still “off season”. It did give me the chance to look around town and walk down to the Ice Fjord (the Ilulissat ice fjord is about 20 minutes walk from town, and is fed by the most productive glacier outside of Antarctica, so is a must for iceberg fans) There was a group of Greenlandic people down there on a guided walk, but once I got past them it was very quiet, eerily so. It suddenly crossed my mind that now would not be a good time to encounter a polar bear, although I’m not sure they come this far South (despite being at 69° North!)

Ilulissat Icefjord

Ilulissat Icefjord

I walk back into town past some of the vast number of sled dog kennels that are littered around the outskirts of town. My presence starts a wave of barking which you’d think would drive the locals mad, but apparently they’re used to it! I also achieve a first for my trip in that I successfully buy alcohol from a Greenlandic supermarket. Managed to get in before the ridiculous late afternoon curfew.

Ilulissat Icefjord

Ilulissat Icefjord

Also back in town I looked round the Ilulissat museum which is dedicated to the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen who is from here. It’s a fairly small place but very interesting to learn about Rasmussen and a little about the history of Ilulissat.

Icefjord Hike Ilulissat

Hiking back from the Icefjord

I had back to the hotel for a couple of hours and am again horrified at the incredibly expensive internet. In Nuuk I paid 200 Danish Krone for 24 hours wireless access at the Seaman’s Hotel, here it’s 50 Krone for just one hour, although at least this time it doesn’t have to all be used in one go.

Sun over Ilulissat Icefjord

The sun trying to break through the cloud above Ilulissat Icefjord

In the evening I had a beer at the hotel arctic which is the most upmarket hotel in the town. It advertises conference facilities and I was told they have political conferences here as despite the cost of getting everyone here, it works out cheaper than having them in Denmark as the security costs are drastically reduced, such is the isolation up here! Like most hotel bars it’s a bit souless, there are some quite nice views over the Disco Bay but the whole place looks a bit tired, they don’t really make the most of it. It didn’t really feel like a 4* hotel, but then we are miles from anywhere and 69° North I suppose.

Ilulissat Houses

Houses in Ilulisssat

Back at the hotel I watched a bit of Greenlandic TV – there is one national Greenlandic channel (KNR), one Greenlandic “local” channel which only seems to show adverts (Arctic TV up here in Ilulissat, there was a Nuuk equivalent NuukTV) and 3 Danish DR channels. There are a load of other (foreign) satellite channels but either access is blocked or the reception is good enough to receive them.

Disko Bay

Wake up as the ferry pulls into Aasiaat at 8am. This the first AUL ferry of the year to make it this far North, and it’s clear why, the sea is still covered in a layer of ice. I guess they’re used to that here though and sure enough the ice is thin enough for our ferry, the Sarfaq Ittuk, to plough on straight through it.

Aasiaat Harbour

Aasiaat Harbour

We stop for just half an hour at Aasiaat so once again there’s no opportunity to get out and see the town which is a shame. Up until Aasiaat I saw a handful of icebergs, but once we leave and head up through the Disko bay the sea is suddenly chock-a-block with them, the vast majority coming from the Ilulissat Glacier (or Sermeq Kujalleq to give it it’s Greenlandic name) which is the most productive glacier outside of Antarctica.

Iceberg Disko Bay

Iceberg in the Disko Bay

It’s a pretty spectacular few hours sailing through the icebergs, the ship having to constantly change direction to find a way through. It’s absolutely freezing out on deck, so I tend to spend half an hour or so outside taking photos before going back into the warmth of the aft lounge.

Iceberg Disko Bay

Iceberg in the Disko Bay

About 2pm we arrive in Ilulissat, an hour behind schedule but I don’t think many people were complaining, it’s pretty amazing we made it at all given all the ice. I get a lift to my hotel, Hotel Avannaa, from the very friendly Faroese lady who runs it. It’s a really nice hotel with an amazing view over the bay and I’m glad I chose to stay here.

View of sunset over Disko Bay from Hotel Avannaa

View of sunset over Disko Bay from Hotel Avannaa

All At Sea

Last night I boarded the Arctic Umiaq Line ferry, which will take me all the way up the West Coast to Ilulissat, arriving there Sunday lunch time (journey time forty hours). There are no roads between towns in Greenland, the huge distances, mountainous terrain and climate make it economically infeasible, so historically boats have been the main way to get around, and the AUL ferry is a bit of a lifeline for the smaller towns on the West coast. So much so that despite running at a loss, the Danish government subsidise the service by 8 million krone a year to ensure its continued operation.

Leaving Nuuk

We left Nuuk at 9pm, given the gale force winds I’m surprised we even set sail but I guess they’re used to it here. The ferry is nice, there’s a canteen selling meals, snacks and drinks, and a TV lounge at the back of the ship. You can also go out on deck but I think I’ll wait for the weather to improve before checking this out.

I had a couple of beers in the canteen then took a travel sick pill, the combination of the two sent me straight to sleep and I managed to pretty much sleep through the night. I’ve got basic “couchette” accomodation for the two nights I’m on board, you could pay more for a cabin but it’s comfortable enough.

AUL couchette

Couchette on the AUL ferry

In the morning our first stop was Maniitsoq, the sixth largest town in Greenland with a population of 2784. The wind had finally died down a bit by this point, and I was starting to look forward to the journey ahead. We only stopped at Maniitsoq for about twenty minutes, not long enough to get out and have a look around but it was nice to see the town from our approach into the harbour.

AUL ferry

AUL ferry

Some four hours later we arrive in Kangaamiut (population 357), it’s such a small place the harbour can’t accommodate our ferry so a small boat comes up to the ferry to collect the three passengers who are getting off.

Ferry at Kangaamiut

We’ve then got six or seven hours on the ferry until we arrive in Sisimiut. The sun finally comes out and it’s a very relaxing afternoon alternating between going out on deck, and sitting in the canteen or lounge. In the TV lounge they show the Shining, which I’m sure is an 18 certificate in the UK, but things seem very relaxed in Greenland and there are a few Greenlandic children glued to the violent images on the screen the whole way through.

There are a mixture of tourists and locals on the boat. I’m sharing a couchette with a student from Australia currently studying in Iceland, (not putting real names on here but I’ll call him M), then there are an Austrian couple, a British couple (who kept themselves to themselves and I didn’t manage to speak to) and a group of four Australians on the first leg of what sounds like an epic trip around Europe.

Sisimiut

Sisimiut

Just after 6pm we arrive in Sisimiut, the one stop on the journey where we’ve got long enough to get out and see the town. I head into town with M and we have just long enough to be denied the sale of alcohol in the supermarket (it’s a Saturday night, and a time when you might want to buy beer so the law says you can’t 😐 ), then find the town’s pub, Cafe Kukkukooq. It’s a marked contrast to Nuuk, the locals are all keen to chat to us, and were a friendly bunch. I love pubs in small communities like this, they’re real community type affairs where everyone young and old gathers and chats. It’s all things to all people in a way that pubs in big city centres aren’t.

Cafe Kukkukooq Sisimiut

Cafe Kukkukooq

We have to leave the pub just as the party is getting into full swing, as the ferry leaves at 9pm.

AUL ferry Sisimiut Harbour

AUL ferry docked in Sisimiut

Killing time in Nuuk

Well despite a brief let up in the wind last night, it’s firmly back up to “blowing you off your feet if you’re not careful” level. Not quite sure what that equates to on the Beaufort scale, but am a bit concerned about my ferry trip tonight. Can we even sail in this?

Given the wind the hike around Little Marlene is still out of the question so I’ve got a second lazy day to kill in Nuuk waiting for my ferry which departs at 21:00. Probably one day too many in all honesty, I have to check out of the seaman’s hotel by 10 and I kind of feel like I’ve done everything there is to do in town.

The high street in Nuuk is quite small but I had a look round what there was of the shops. There aren’t a great range of shops but if you’re want to buy an iPod or flat screen TV you’re in luck as there are at least three gadget/technology shops.

Nuussuaq

On the walk to Nuussuaq

For lunch I headed over to Nuussuaq, which is a suburb twenty minutes walk east of town centre. On the walk there I go past several more grim housing estates including one which has a completely burnt out flat. There’s a fair amount of graffiti, the usual tags and “Fook the police” written a couple of times. I get absolutely soaked walking over to Nuussuaq, find a reasonable cafe called Isikkivik where I just about dry out before heading back into town.

Nuussuaq

Nuussuaq

All in all it’s quite a dull day killing time in Nuuk again, although I console myself that this does seem to be a feature of travel in the North, flight/ferry/bus timetables being what they are here. I remember once I had to wait two hours at a bus stop in Shetland in the pouring rain for one of the only services of the day, I guess you just have to settle into it and accept it.

With so little to do I feel proud of myself that I managed to stay out of the pub (Takuss again) until 15:10, but the fact it didn’t open until 15:00 had a large part to do with this. Alcohol does seem to be very highly controlled here, you’re not allowed to take any booze whatsoever into the country with you, and once there you can’t buy it in the supermarket in the evenings or at weekends (exactly when you want it surely), and of course it’s very expensive.

Spend a few hours having a couple of beers and watching the tennis, hoping the wind will die down before my ferry. No such luck though and as I walk to the ferry terminal I’m almost blown off my feet again.

Greenlandic Weather

Woke up to the sound of wind howling against my window, it’s blowing an absolute gale out there. I was supposed to be doing a boat trip in the fjord today, but as with all tours in Greenland it’s dependant on a minimum number of people booking, and despite another two hardy souls signing up were were still three short, which given the weather I was slightly relieved about.

Nuuk

Nuuk

I thought this might happen (even before the weather turned) and had a hike planned for today, apparently there’s quite a good one you can do from Circus Lake near the airport around the mountain Little Marlene. Looks like it’d be a good four or five hour trip from the centre of town though, and given the weather and the fact I’d be going out alone I don’t really fancy it, which does give me the chance to have a lazy day and finish looking around town.

Breakfast at the Seaman’s Hotel is a Scandinavian buffet type affair, although disappointingly without any fresh fish or vegetables which I’ve always seen in the other North countries. I do like the canteen at the Seaman’s Home though, it’s kind of a cross between a school canteen and workers /transport greasy spoon, you know where you are with it and for Greenland the prices are pretty reasonable. Judging by the clintele in the canteen most of the other guests here are Danes, and look like they’re here on business.

Hans Egede Statue Nuuk

Hans Egede Statue in Nuuk

So after a leisurely breakfast I brave the elements outside. Now it would be churlish to come to Greenland and moan about the weather, but being English at the very least I have to comment on it. The combination of the strong wind, the cold, and the rain/snow (must be pretty close to 0 degrees as we seem to be experiencing both) makes for a pretty miserable day of sightseeing. I’m also starting to wonder if my planned 40 hour ferry ride up the west coast which leaves tomorrow night is going to be a bit of an ordeal, I don’t have great sea legs at the best of times 😐

Nuuk Old Town

Nuuk Old Town

I wandered round what’s known as the old town, which is probably the nicest part of Nuuk and could almost be a traditional Greenlandic village, no huge ugly tower blocks here. There’s not too much there but the houses are pretty. There is a statue of Hans Egede (the Norwegian Lutheran missionary who founded Nuuk), and a nice looking church although it’s locked so I can’t look around. After about half an hour in the elements I need to warm up so went for a tea in the cafe at the shopping centre. They don’t have milk but have sachets of “coffee whitening powder” – not seen anything like that for a few years but I guess up here you have to make do!

Nuuk Old Town

Nuuk Old Town

Had lunch afterwards at the culture centre, which has an excellent cafe. I had possibly my best meal in Nuuk here which was the fish of the day (cod).

Afterwards I walked past the infamous “Blok P”, probably the worst of the massive estate blocks that were built in Nuuk to house families that were moved here from surrounding villages in the 1960s. This one building used to house 1% of the entire Greenlandic population. It’s now boarded up and graffiti daubed so looks like everyone has been rehoused, which I don’t think many people will be too sad about.

Block Blok P Nuuk

Blok P, 1% of Greenland’s population used to live in this one building

In the evening I went for a drink at the Skyline bar which is on the top floor of the Hans Egede hotel. The Hans Egede hotel is a self proclaimed “international hotel” and looks nice enough, I would probably have stayed here but it was fully booked the nights I’m here. There are quite nice views from the bar but it’s your typical hotel bar really, and by that I mean soulless and over priced. So I moved on to a bar called Takuss which I really liked. There’s a canoe on the one of the walls, and the TV was showing eurosport which had the snooker world championships on (what’s not to like?)

A very drunk Greenlandic woman kept trying to have a conversation with me, she didn’t speak much English and was speaking a mixture of English and Danish (I understand a little bit of Danish as I once learnt some Norwegian which is incredibly similar) From what I could understand she seemed keen to express her disapproval at foreigners taking “her stones” which I understood to be a reference to foreign mining companies who are prospecting a lot in Greenland at the moment. She was also keen to explain that Greenlandic people love to dance and she left to go to Kristinemut to do just that. Takuss was my favourite bar in Nuuk, it seemed to be the only place I went where both Greenlandic and Danish people drink.

What are you doing here?

Air Greenland Copenhagen

Catching my Air Greenland flight at Copenhagen

And so the adventure begins. There are few airports in Greenland with runways long enough to accommodate flights from Denmark, so in order to fly to Nuuk (the capital of Greenland) I first have a four and a half hour flight to Kangerlussuaq. Immediately I realise why the flights to Greenland are so expensive, the plane must have only been about 20% full. I quite liked Air Greenland but they are some way behind other long distance carriers, they still give you a set time when the film starts, and the choice of films was dire (three dreadful rom-coms and three kids films), but there was an hour long documentary about Greenland cuisine which was quite interesting (Musk Ox looks like a particular favourite).

Air Greenland Kangerlussuaq

Kangerlussuaq Airport

Signpost at Kangerlussuaq Airport

Unfortunately I couldn’t see much during the flight over Greenland itself due to cloud, but the arrival in Kangerlussuaq was pretty spectacular, snowy mountains and ice covered fjords as far as the eye could see.

I had about 40 minutes in Kangerlussuaq before my connecting flight to Nuuk. It’s basically an old American air force base, and as such is very “Un Greenlandic” town. There is a road up to the ice cap (which covers a massive 85% of Greenland) which I’d have done if I had more time, but given that I’ll see plenty of snow and ice on this trip I didn’t feel it worth spending a night here. And I’m pretty glad I didn’t, looking round it just feels like a bunch of service buildings for the airport.

Boarding the flight to Nuuk was straightforward – there are no security checks on internal flights in Greenland which is refreshing. Should’ve taken a load of bottles of liquid on with me just for the hell of it. The flight to Nuuk was on an old DASH7 plane, felt like an old cargo plane of the ilk that frequently crashes into the Amazon rainforest in films. This coupled with the landing at Nuuk, which I’d read about on wikipedia “Heavy turbulence frequently occurs and could lead to a crash, with widespread loss of life and property” certainly added a bit of excitement to the journey.

The Seaman’s Home in Nuuk

Once in Nuuk I took a taxi to the Seaman’s Hotel, which is basically a budget hotel in everything but price. Perfectly comfortable though I didn’t exactly expect the Ritz.

Museum of Greenland

I spent the afternoon in the museum of Greenland which was absolutely fascinating. The artefacts themselves weren’t much to write home about, or indeed blog about, (old tools and utensils used by Greenlanders 100 years ago anyone? Or kayaks that are only 10 years old but built in a traditional style?) but the write ups about Greenlandic history were really interesting.

The touchy subject of Danish colonism was only briefly touched on and I couldn’t help but feel it had something of a Danish bias. Basically in an effort to reduce costs of healthcare and education provision the Danish government relocated a lot of families from smaller villages into Nuuk in the 1960s, which has led to quite a few social problems. There’s an apparent sense of helplessness at being caught between traditional and Western cultures, and families used to being self sufficient are now reliant on benefits they didn’t want in the first place. So although Greenland now enjoys the benefits of being a modern society it has come at a price.

At the back of the museum were a couple of inuit corpses which had been perfectly preserved in permafrost – was actually pretty grim not quite sure why there were on display really 😐

On the way to a museum a girl (maybe 12 years old?) said to me “What are you doing here?” in an accusative tone. Was a bit eerie didn’t exactly make me feel welcome – but then whilst Nuuk does get a few tourists it’s not really a tourist destination in the same way the towns in the South or around Disko bay are. I seem to remember from reading Lawrence Millman’s Last Places (an excellent read which I’d highly recommend) that he got rocks thrown at him by some children so I guess as welcomes go I could have fared worse.

Local but expensive beer

In the evening I headed to the Godthåb Bryghus which I’d seen advertised at the airport (Godthåb is the Danish name for Nuuk, and Bryghus means brewery). It’s basically a restaurant/brew pub, and as far as I saw on my trip the only brewery in Greenland. The beer was ok but the food was disappointing and it was expensive too. I’ll try not to continually moan about the cost of everything, Greenland is not a cheap destination and I knew this before I arrived, but I will say that according to http://www.pintprice.com the beer in Greenland is the most expensive in the world. At 70 Danish Krone for 400ml I can believe it (I make that £10.83 a pint, surely the most expensive beer I’ve ever bought and makes Oslo look cheap)

Afterwards I went for a beer in the Kristinemut bar, apparently the oldest pub in Greenland and again mentioned in Millman’s Last Places. I’ve heard it can get quite rough, alcoholism is a big problem in Greenland and specifically in Nuuk. But I figured it couldn’t be any worse than a night out in Reading – and sure enough it was fine, although as I was there quite early it was fairly quiet and no doubt gets a bit more lively later on.

Streets in Nuuk

I’m flying to Greenland tomorrow

Finally. I’ve been fascinated by the place ever since reading about it in the back of a book on Iceland I got years ago. I guess I’m fairly well travelled in the far North with trips to Northern Scandinavia, Svalbard, Murmansk, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Alaska and the Yukon behind me, but Greenland has eluded me for all these years mainly because of the high cost of getting there. Every time I’ve flown over Greenland on transatlantic flights I’ve looked down longingly at the ice cap, and wondered with marvel at the obscure place names like Angmagssalik, Maniitsoq and Ittoqqortoormiit and always said to myself I’d get there one day. And tomorrow is that day, having recently had the good fortune to be made redundant from a job I was about to quit anyway giving me a month off and a bit of money to pay for the trip.

Copenhagen City Hall

Copenhagen City Hall

Flights to Greenland are via Copenhagen or Reykjavik, and the former worked out cheaper for me, which gives me an overnight stop in the Danish capital which I’m quite glad to have as I’ve never been here before. I won’t say too much about Copenhagen here as it’s not really what this blog is about, but I really love the place. I recognise bits of it from the Killing (which I’ve just finished watching on DVD), not so many of the jumpers around though, and hopefully fewer murders.