VOY­AGE LIKE A VIK­ING

NAV­I­GAT­ING THE NORDIC NORTH BY BOAT RE­VEALS SPLEN­DORS.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - writes Sindy Chan. Con­tact the writer at sun­dayed@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

We are at Lon­don Gatwick Air­port again. Fly­ing is not my fa­vorite op­tion but I’ve found a so­lu­tion this time. Stay­ing at the Yo­tel, a small ho­tel of 46 rooms re­sem­bling first-class air­line cab­ins in­side Gatwick Air­port South Ter­mi­nal, is a relief for pre-de­par­ture anx­i­ety. From Lon­don, we fly to Ber­gen for a Nor­we­gian cruise to the Arc­tic. The last sight of Bryggen in Ber­gen is im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able as a row of wooden houses in ma­roon, beige, yel­low and white col­ors stand­ing tena­ciously along­side Ber­gen Har­bor. Sur­viv­ing the vi­cis­si­tudes of burn­ing down and re­build­ing, the old quayside ar­chi­tec­ture clus­ter is now a UNESCO Her­itage-listed site — a time ma­chine tak­ing us back over a pe­riod of 500 years.

Ber­gen to­day is a plank to cruise pas­sen­gers sail­ing the Nor­we­gian coast — as we sail with the Hur­tigruten. The Hur­tigruten’s ship MS Nordnorge (North­ern Nor­way), takes us on a voy­age of 2,400 kilo­me­ters along the Nor­we­gian coast, through per­ilous reefs, small is­lands and nar­row in­lets, from Ber­gen to Kirkenes in the Arc­tic — a sea pas­sage started 120 years ago.

“Hur­tigruten ships have al­ways been work­ing ships,” tour leader Harald Wein­re­ich re­it­er­ates in the first pas­sen­ger meet­ing aboard.

“A taste of Nor­way” is our first ashore ex­cur­sion and it be­gins at Urke, where life is like a poem, as de­scribed in the vil­lage leaflet: “We are ap­prox­i­mately 53 peo­ple in Urke, 10 chil­dren, 31 adults and 12 older Urke-peo­ple. In ad­di­tion we have 20-plus cabin own­ers … There are 14 peo­ple who work here … The mar­ket gar­den gives us fresh toma­toes and veg­eta­bles. The fjord pro­vides fish. In the Urke Val­ley, goats and sheep graze freely. The lo­cal power plant gives us elec­tric­ity. If we need more, we take a trip to Orsta or Ale­sund. But most of all, we like to be self-suf­fi­cient in Urke … En­joy the view and good life in Urke.”

Nes­tled in Nor­way’s nar­row­est val­ley, No­rangs­dalen, in the translu­cent beryl-color wa­ter of Lyn­gstol Lake, we are led to dis­cover some stone struc­tures re­main from an­cient set­tle­ments of the re­gion.

In the cra­dle of the tow­er­ing Sun­n­mor­salpene Moun­tains, we pay a visit to his­toric Ho­tel Union Oye from 1891 and get to taste hearty lo­cal lamb broth in the ho­tel’s au­then­tic rooms.

The Svar­tisen, Nor­way’s sec­ond largest glacier, is another world to me as a vis­i­tor from the sub­trop­ics. With a cup of hot cof­fee, I lose my­self in the glacier’s pu­rity, the ice-blue land­scape and its re­flec­tion on the lake. Our guide ex­plains to us in the sim­plest terms how na­ture’s chisel shaped this enig­matic ice world through mil­lions of years.

“Years ago, the lake was part of the glacier,” our guide says. “Glacier re­ces­sion is one of the ways the earth is talk­ing to us.”

On our re­turn along the coast of Hel­ge­land to the ship at Bodo, we see Europe’s largest preda­tory bird, a sea ea­gle, surf­ing the sky. I re­call I read at Torquay’s Liv­ing Coasts Zoo and Aquar­ium: “The great auk, gone for­ever like the dodo … Ex­tinc­tion is for­ever. En­dan­gered means we still have time.”

In the early morn­ing of Day 4, we cross the Arc­tic Cir­cle. I join the cheer­ing crowd on the open deck the mo­ment we see the globe icon.

My hus­band Troy is over­whelmed when tour leader Wein­re­ich an­nounces there is a great chance to see the north­ern lights that evening.

Our new travel com­pan­ion — the Has­sel­blad Lu­nar cam­era that had given Troy so much fun cap­tur­ing very fine-qual­ity high-def­i­ni­tion pic­tures of the Svar­tisen glacier, or par­tial-red im­ages of a lone light­house in the Nor­we­gian water­way — is put to good use.

Aurora bo­re­alis is the aca­demic name for the north­ern lights. Named af­ter the Ro­man god­dess of the dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, bo­re­alis, it is a nat­u­ral light dis­play in the sky par­tic­u­larly in the high-lat­i­tude (Arc­tic and Antarc­tic) re­gions, caused by the col­li­sion of en­er­getic charged par­ti­cles with atoms in the high- al­ti­tude at­mos­phere.

That night, on the open deck, I lift my head to a very dark sky. It starts with a reg­i­ment of light, and then, from the viewer of the Has­sel­blad Lu­nar cam­era, I see a flu­o­res­cent green­ish glow ex­pand to il­lu­mi­nate the north­ern hori­zon.

The north­ern lights were a ran­dom fea­ture rather than the typ­i­cal cur­tain­like struc­ture. I had read how dif­fer­ent amounts of oxy­gen and ni­tro­gen emis­sions give out dif­fer­ent col­ors, such as green, red or blue, and how the state can change within sec­onds or glow un­chang­ing for hours. Be­cause of that, it has a beau­ti­ful nick­name: Dance of the Spir­its. But I am con­tent with what I saw — and deem it to be a last­ing im­pres­sion.

The ex­cur­sion to the North Cape is very pop­u­lar for the op­por­tu­nity to set foot on the north­ern­most point on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent and meet the in­dige­nous Sami peo­ple of Scan­di­navia.

Our guide de­scribes an idyl­lic pic­ture. In spring, Sami peo­ple bring their herds of rein­deer by boat to the North Cape Plateau. The Sami spend the sum­mer in a small camp called a “lavvo” while rein­deer graze and breed on the is­land. By au­tumn, rein­deer be­come strong enough and swim back to the main­land from the nar­row­est cross­ing.

About half­way up to the North Cape Plateau, one older Sami waits with his sa­cred white rein­deer.

Sami peo­ple are semi- no­madic rein­deer herders in­dige­nous to the Arc­tic area of north­ern Nor­way, Swe­den, Fin­land, the Kola Penin­sula of Rus­sia and the bor­der area be­tween south and mid­dle Swe­den and Nor­way. Ac­cord­ing to Nordic texts, there were two types of Sami — sea Sami lived on fish­ing and moun­tain Sami lived on trap­ping, hunt­ing and herd­ing.

Samis are fish and rein­deer eaters. Their non-wheat diet, plus liv­ing in com­mu­ni­ties de­tached from the Nor­we­gians, helped them sur­vive the Bubonic plague.

At a closer look, a rein­deer’s antlers look del­i­cate yet pow­er­ful. The white rein­deer, be­lieved to be sa­cred to Sami peo­ple, stays calm and obe­di­ent to its herder. No won­der the Chi­nese name for rein­deer is “tamed deer”.

The Sami speak a lan­guage of the Uralic lan­guage fam­ily, and are the only in­dige­nous peo­ple of Scan­di­navia rec­og­nized and pro­tected un­der the in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions of in­dige­nous peo­ples. Sami an­ces­tral lands span an area of about 388,350 sq km, which is about the size of Swe­den.

Hav­ing gone through a bit­ter his­tory, Sami peo­ple now live a peace­ful life. In cer­tain re­gions of the Nordic coun­tries, rein­deer herd­ing is legally re­served only for the Sami.

Fi­nally, we reach the North Cape. The 307-me­ter North Cape Plateau, ris­ing al­most ver­ti­cally from the icecold Arc­tic Ocean, is a breath­tak­ing fea­ture. From here, one can’t get any fur­ther north in main­land Europe.

I spend most of my time aboard watch­ing the beau­ti­ful land­scape of the Nor­we­gian coast move from pane to pane like a movie.

We pass the nar­row sound of Stokksun­det, the Tron­denes Nor­way’s north­ern­most stone church from 1250, and Kje­ungsk­jaer, the old­est light­house of this water­way — scenes never re­peat.

Kirkenes is the north­ern turn­ing point for the Hur­tigruten ship go­ing back to Ber­gen. We say good­bye to fel­low trav­el­ers tak­ing their roundtrip back, es­pe­cially Jenny and Gra­ham, our din­ner com­pan­ions from Eng­land.

“I never imag­ined my­self tak­ing a cruise on a ‘cargo ship’ but it turned out to be won­der­ful,” Gra­ham com­ments.

Good weather, calm seas, un­spoiled na­ture, north­ern lights and new friends — it’s a blessed jour­ney to all of us.

Kirkenes is Nor­way’s clos­est town to the Rus­sian bor­der. Its unique po­si­tion tempts us to spend two days in the small town.

Thomas Hjellestad is gen­eral man­ager of Thon Ho­tel Kirkenes where we stay. I was amazed by his ex­pe­ri­ence as a new­comer to Kirkenes three years ago.

“Due to its strate­gic po­si­tion, Kirkenes has been Nor­way’s most heav­ily armed town since the Cold War, which made me feel a bit ner­vous when I first came here,” Hjellestad says.

It didn’t take long for Hjellestad to re­lax into his job though — man­ag­ing a beau­ti­ful water­front ho­tel in sunny Kirkenes vis­ited mostly by cruise pas­sen­gers.

The Pasvikelva is a river with a rich cul­tural his­tory dat­ing back thou­sands of years. Our guide and boat driver brings us to St. Tri­fon’s cave en­trance to tell us about St. Tri­fon, the an­chorite Rus­sian monk and founder of the Pechenga Monastery who lived an as­cetic life in the cave in the 16th cen­tury. St. Tri­fon be­came pa­tron saint for Rus­sian sea­men and fish­er­men.

At the bor­der, we see the fa­mous bor­der poles — a yel­low one for Nor­way and a red- and- green one for Rus­sia. Cross­ing the bor­der in­curs very stiff fines and ev­ery guide tells the in­ci­dent of a Bri­tish woman be­ing heav­ily fined for step­ping over the line to take a photo as an ex­am­ple.

All in all, it has been a re­mark­able jour­ney and is time to go on a long way back home. We book the Yo­tel again. As soon as we land at Lon­don Gatwick, a comfy room is wait­ing. That makes a travel ex­pe­ri­ence per­fect.

PHO­TOS BY SINDY CHAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

The ex­cur­sion to the North Cape is very pop­u­lar for the op­por­tu­nity to set foot on the north­ern­most point of the Euro­pean con­ti­nent. Pic­tured is the North Cape globe icon.

Trond­heim was the cap­i­tal of Nor­way dur­ing the Vik­ing Age un­til 1217.

North Cape Plateau rein­deer. Their antlers look del­i­cate yet pow­er­ful.

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