Travels in the North

Musings on arctic holidays

Tag Archives: Greenland

Taking Stock

Following my recent trip to Greenland I’ve now been to all eight arctic nations (defined as having some territory within the arctic circle – in the case of Iceland only just, half the island of Grímsey just sneaks in) I’m going to attempt to list them out, as much as a way for me to keep track as anything else. Pretty much without exception these were all incredible trips, I won’t write much about them now but hope to fill out the details for at least some of them on this blog at some point.

Norway
Probably the country I’ve been to the most.
January 2005 – Tromsø – my first time in the arctic and first time I saw the Northern lights
April 2010 – Svalbard (also known as Spitsbergen) – the furthest North I’m ever likely to go
Various other trips to Oslo, Bergen and Tromsø.

Sweden
Only been once, went to Stockholm and ran in the midnattsloppet (literally midnight race), a nighttime 10k road race around the island of Södermalm.

Finland
Couple of trips, once to Helsinki and a road trip from Tampere to Karelia.

Russia
Flew to Kirkenes in Norway, then got a mini bus to Murmansk on the Kola peninsula, spent a few days there then got the train down to St Petersburg.

USA (Alaska)
Two week road trip around Alaska, taking in Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and Whitehorse in Yukon.

Canada
Went to the Yukon as part of the trip above.

Denmark (Greenland, Faroe Islands)
Recent trip to Greenland as I’ve written about on here, also a trip to the Faroe Islands in June 2005 as part of a three week trip to Shetland, the Faroes and Iceland.

Iceland
Once as part of the trip above, and a road trip last year around the North West fjords.

I kept a journal on the 2005 trip I did to Shetland, the Faroes and Iceland so I’ll probably write that one up next. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away and confirmed my love for the far North.

There are actually two ways to define the arctic, either anywhere above 66° 33’N, or anywhere North of the 10 degree isotherm, where the average temperature of the warmest month (July) is below 10 degrees. Both of these are depicted on the map below.

Back home

I was again grateful I’d chosen Hotel Nebo in Copenhagen for my overnight stay, as they had a late checkout of 11. Still being on Greenlandic time (is 4 hours enough to get jet lag?) and getting caught up in the bank holiday spirit a bit too much in the pubs last night meant that even getting up for 11 was something of a struggle. Got to the airport in plenty of time for my afternoon SAS flight back to London.

And so my Greenland trip ends – I hope to be back there one day, I’d like to go to the far South and see the fjords, and also the settlements in the East which are meant to be more traditional than life on the West coast. One day.

A day of airports and travel

I’m due to fly to Copenhagen today, via Greenland’s international airport at Kangerlussuaq, but the first leg of my flight has been cancelled. There is an earlier flight to Kanger, so I got up at 6 in order to try and get on it. I didn’t have any more internet access left, my mobile couldn’t register with the Greenlandic network, and there was no landline in the room, so I went down to breakfast as soon as they opened. The very helpful hotelier phoned Air Greenland for me and managed to get me on the earlier flight. She also gave me a lift to the airport which I was very grateful for.

Ilulissat Airport

Ilulissat Airport

Plane at Ilulissat airport

Plane at Ilulissat airport

The earlier flight gives me 3 hours in Kangerlussuaq which is probably a good two and a half hours too many, but I’m just glad I’ll be able to make it to Copenhagen tonight.

There’s not a huge amount to do in Kangerlussuaq, for those staying overnight there are musk ox safaris, and trips up the road that goes to the ice cap, but I won’t have time for either of these. Instead I have a look at the Greenland keyrings and pens in the three gift shops, and have a couple of beers at the airport bar.

Airport Bar Kangerlussuaq

Airport Bar, Kangerlussuaq

The flight from Kangerlussuaq back to Copenhagen is absolutely packed, which is in stark contrast to the three quarters empty flight I experienced on the way here. I later find out it’s a bank holiday in Denmark (and maybe Greenland too?) tomorrow which probably has something to do with it.

Kangerlussuaq Airport

Kangerlussuaq Airport

Because of the time difference (you lose four hours), I’m not back in Copenhagen until 10pm local time. Other transatlantic flights I’ve done West to East have always been overnight, but I guess the flight time is not quite long enough for Air Greenland to do this, the four and a half hour flight time would not be long enough to sleep. I lucked out massively on choosing the Nebo hotel, very reasonable price (for Copenhagen) and a great location right next to the Central station. I go out for a few drinks in town and the bank holiday tomorrow means it’s quite busy out, which is a nice but a bit of a shock to the system after the relative solitude I’ve had in Greenland over the last week and a bit.

Hotel Nebo, Copenhagen

View from bedroom at Hotel Nebo, Copehagen

Cancelled

It’s my last full day in Ilulissat, and indeed my last day in Greenland as I fly back to Copenhagen tomorrow. I’m due to do two walking tours today, one to the old settlement at the ice fjord and also a guided city walk. Not for the first time this trip it turns out I’m the only one booked on both. All credit to the World of Greenland tourist office, I think they felt sorry for me having already cancelled my Monday boat trip, so they did the city walk with me despite me being the only person on it. As I’ve already been to the Ice Fjord I don’t mind missing that one too much really.

Oldest house in Ilulissat

The oldest house in Ilulissat

The city tour was really interesting, we went round the old town and saw the oldest houses in Ilulissat which were built when the Danes first arrived here. Then we went down to the harbour and saw some of the fishing boats. It was amazing to see what were quite traditional fishing vessels, but capable of landing sharks (although they don’t catch many of them, partly due to quotas). Fishing is the main industry here, followed by the council in Ilulissat (which covers everywhere from here to the North coast of Greenland, making it the worlds largest council in terms of area covered, an area 14 times the size of Denmark), then tourism the third biggest sector for employment.

Ilulissat

Ilulissat

My tour guide also talked about the supply ships that come into the harbour here. They’re a bit better at breaking through the ice than the AUL ferry I had caught to get here a few days ago, but even so they have no supply ships for three to four months over the winter. The supermarket shelves get very empty, and the arrival of the first boat of the year is met with a massive shopping spree by the local populace.

I was told by the tour guide that the Icy Cafe did the best coffee in town, so headed here for a coffee and to warm up after the tour.

Ilulissat Icefjord

Ilulissat Icefjord

As I mentioned my guided trip to the Ice Fjord had been cancelled, and although I’d been before I decided to walk back over there to find out if I could “hear” the ice, any cracking sounds or whatever. Unfortunately it was actually quite windy when I got there so all I could hear was the breeze, and a couple of huge crows squawking overhead.

Sled sign Ilulissat

Road sign in Ilulissat

In the evening I headed to Café Iluliaq, where I had a pretty decent stir fry. They had a big screen showing the Manchester United v Manchester City game, which seemed pretty popular with the locals. Murphy’s bar is connected to Café Iluliaq and I had a quick beer there afterwards, there was a huge room with a stage at one end which was closed and just the bar area was open.

I had a look on teletext when I got back to my hotel, and to my horror my Air Greenland flight to Kangerlussuaq tomorrow is cancelled (from where I’m going to catch a connecting flight to Copenhagen) There is an earlier flight so I’m hoping I can get on that, I’ve had a fantastic time here in Ilulissat but don’t really want to be stranded for another day, I’ve got a hotel booked in Copenhagen as well as an onward flight the next day to London and it’d be a massive pain (and expense) if I have to rebook all of that.

Dog Sledding Ilulissat style

Having had my previous two day trips in Greenland cancelled due to a lack of numbers, I’m fairly chuffed to find out both my planned trips for today are going ahead.

Dog Sledding

Dog Sledding

First up in the morning it’s dog sledding. I did this once before on a trip to Tromsø in Northern Norway, but felt like I couldn’t really come to Greenland and not go sledding. Especially in Ilulissat, where there are dog kennels all around the town. The dogs used to have the run of town, but it was decided about twenty years ago that all dogs over six months old need to be chained up when not out sledding. The chains are long and they have a decent space to run around, but understandably when chained up for the first time at six months old wail for days, poor things. But then as I learnt in Norway, these aren’t pets, they are work dogs, almost half way between wolves and domestic pets I guess.

Dog Sledding Ilulissat

Dog Sledding

It’s just me and the sled owner Jens. I don’t think he spoke much English so we didn’t chat much, but I was happy sitting on the back of the sled with him sat on the front shouting at the dogs occasionally. The dogs were amazingly responsive to his calls, turning left or right or just hurrying up, the calls were along the lines of “yip yip yip” and “yo yo yo” rather than the stereotypical “mush”, not sure where this came from.

Dog Sledding Ilulissat

Dog Sledding

There was one particularly steep hill where the dogs where struggling to make it up, Jens got off and was pushing the sled. I offered to get up but he told me to stay put, but felt a bit useless as the dogs and Jens strained up the hill whilst I sat back relaxing.

Dog Sledding Ilulissat

Dog Sledding

It was a slightly different set up to the sledding I did in Norway. The Norwegian dogs were arranged in 4 sets of pairs, with the strongest two dogs being the lead dogs in front. The Greenlandic system seems a bit more basic, where each dog is just attached on a rope to the sled, and they’re all free to move around as they please (left, right, front, back etc). It seems to work well enough, although did require Jens to untangle the ropes every time we stopped.

Dog Sledding Ilulissat

Dog Sledding Ilulissat

I was slightly disappointed not to have a go at driving a sled as I had done in Norway, but it was a fantastic feeling to be sat on a sled travelling through the wilderness and taking in the scenery.

Naleraq Ilulissat Lunch

Lunch in Naleraq

After the sleding I had lunch in Naleraq, which is a bar/restaurant. I can’t remember the Danish (or indeed Greenlandic) name for the lunch I had but I think it transalted as fish plate and was five different types of fish, apparently a traditional dish. Washed down with a Danish lager which seems to be equally as traditional.

Boat trip Disko Bay

Boarding the boat for our trip out into Disko Bay

My second trip of the day was a small boat trip out into the Disko bay to view the icebergs and Ilulissat Glacier. As the ship was quite a bit smaller than the AUL ferry I’d been on a few days before we were able to get really close to the icebergs, which was absolutely incredible, I must’ve taken about 200 photos but none of them could really do it justice. The conditions were absolutely perfect too, the sea was so calm it looked like marble, and the sun was beginning to set.

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

Boat trip in Disko Bay

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.