Iceland ~ Land of fire & ice, northern lights, elves, trolls and tons of fun

9 06 2013

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One of my favourite past time when I was young was to look at world maps. I know this seems like a strange past time for a young girl but I was really interested to know what are the countries in the world and where they are located (even though it may not make too much sense to me lol). “The land far far away” (aka Antartica, Iceland and Greenland) somehow caught my interest, God knows why, and I dreamt of the day that I may step foot on them and prayed also for the chance to see the northern lights (aurora borealis). Luckily for me, an opportunity to visit Iceland came, with Icelandair offering great deals with return flights from London and hotel accomodation costing only 299 pounds, with the opportunity to see the northern lights (since it’s winter months)! How can anyone resist such temptation? Surely not me 🙂

On the flight from London to Reykjavik, I was so excited that I will soon be stepping foot on Iceland, the land of ice (and fire). Surprisingly, throughout my trip, there was not much of ice in the country that is named ICE-land. I found out later that Iceland is also known as the land of fire and ice as it has lots of geo-thermal activities (the “fire”) and glaciers (the “ice”). But nevertheless, the trip was really an amazing one.

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, of which majority of the country’s 320,000 population resides in this city. But even as a capital, the city has a rather tranquil and chill feel. It was a nice walk from the top of the city centre (where the Rekjavik Church is) to the waterfront, lined with nice little houses that has colourful roottop. Even though the streets are filled with many souvenier shops selling Icelandic wool sweaters, winter wear, souveniers, etc, they were not swarmed with tourists unlike in other major cities. Icelanders believe in the existence of elves, trolls, gnomes and hidden beings and so you may want to bring some of these “little friends” back home as a souvenier 🙂

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One of the classic sightseeing route out of Rekjavik is the “Golden Circle” which includes some of Iceland’s most stunning sights. About an hour drive from Rekjavik, I reached Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park which is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the geological wonders of the world. Having studied Geography in high school, it amazed me to see the cracks caused by the tectonic plate movements as this is the place where the North American and Eurasian plates meet. I was pretty much excited to be able to walk from “Europe” (the Eurasian plate) to “America” (the North American plate). So despite the rain which caused parts of the bridge linking the 2 plates to be flooded, I still decided to do the 20 minutes walk which enables me to get up close to see (and touch) part of the plates. Interesting, this place is also where the Icelandic Parliament was founded in the 10th century.

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From Thingvellir, it was another hour drive to the magnificent Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall. This waterfall is created where the river Hvítá tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep. There is short trail out to the falls (very manageable walk) and I will recommend that you take it as the view is spectacular. Here’s also a good stop to break for lunch as it has a nice caferia where you can get free-flow of soup and bread.

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Another interesting sight along the Golden Circle route is the geysir Strokkur which shoots up into the air a column of water (up to 30 metres) every 4-8 minutes. A word of warning though – keep a close watch of the wind direction and avoid standing at the area where the wind in blowing or else be prepared to get wet!

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Before heading back to Rekjavik, I stopped by the Skálholt cathedral which, unlike the Rekjavik church, has a “simple feel”.

If you have more days to spend in Iceland, I would highly recommend a drive to the south coast of Iceland which is known as one of the country’s most scenic region. I love the Seljalandsfoss waterfall the most out of all the waterfalls that I have seen in Iceland. It is unique in that you can walk behind it and through to the other side (or more correctly climbing up rocks, walking on muddy paths behind the falls and then climbing down the rocks). It is not tedious but just that you have to be careful especially when coming down from the other side but I will say that it is well worth it and pretty fun 🙂

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The majestic and much-photographed Skógafoss waterfall, with its 60m drop is also a nice stop along the south coast drive. Here, I literally risked my life climbing up to the side of the cliff to get a nice photo shoot of the waterfall but well, it wouldn’t be fun without such little adventure right?

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I also stopped by the famous volcanic glacier Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in the summer 2010. It was amazing to see blue ice from the glacier but yet kind of sad to hear that people were buried under the glacier when the volcano erupted.

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The charming village of Vik rested at the most southern tip of Iceland. It is surrounded by beautiful high bird cliffs, beautiful black sand coastline caused by the volcanic eruption and impressive Reynisdrangar rock formations.

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Oh yes, many people has asked me why I chose the winter season to visit Iceland and my answer is the northern lights. There are many other places in the northern hemisphere that can see the northern lights but I would say that Iceland is an ideal location for those who wants to see/do other stuff on top of just seeing the lights. The Icelandair promotion came with a free northern lights tour. However, I was almost losing hope that I would see the lights due to the poor weather condition (it was unexpectedly rainy and cloudy for 2 weeks with no sightings at all), which locals said it was abnormal at this point of the year and likely a result of global warming… I prayed really hard but each evening, I was met with disappointment when I saw the sign “Northern lights tours are NOT on tonight”. Thank God, I managed to witness what I will say is an amazing natural phenomenon on my last night in Iceland! I shouted out so loudly with joy when I saw the sign at the hotel stating “Northern lights tours are ON tonight”. Even though the solar activity was not really at the best level for great sighting, I would say that seeing the lights is really the climax of my whole Iceland trip and I know surely I will be back to this wonderful country someday!

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Food:

– In Rekjavik, just opposite the Rekjavik church, there is this traditional Icelandic cafe called “Cafe Loki”. You can try a couple of Icelandic food there, such as Hakarl (cured shark which I would say is an acquired taste – a little of an ammonia ), skyr ice cream (which is said to be pretty healthy), rugbrauo (which is a sweet bread that is traditionally baked by burying it in the ground near a hot spring and it is really yummy).

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– “Sea Baron” at Reykjavik waterfront is a nice little restaurant where I will highly recommend their lobster soup! You can also try their Minke whale on a stick which is a popular Icelandic dish (as well as other seafood/meat on a stick). Everyone was telling me that I should try the whale meat but seriously I felt so guilty after tasting a small piece of the whale meat! It tastes pretty much like beef but much tougher so I really don’t see why we need to kill those whales for their meat….

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– Lamb is almost like a staple in Iceland and everywhere you go, you will see lamb soup (which if you like lamb, you will find that the soup is pretty nice).

– I highly recommend “Icelandic Tapas Bar” in Rekjavik city centre, which is a tapas place that has an Icelandic twist. This is much better than the Tapashouse. I tried their platter which includes a couple of meat and smoked puffin. I have to admit that although puffin is cute, their meat is pretty nice (taste like duck – see the top right hand dish in the picture below)… guilt level increase though…

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– Once you get out of Rekjavik, it is harder to find eateries. For the Golden Circle route, there’re a couple of eateries at the few stops (eg Gulfoss, Geysir) and the drive is pretty short so I won’t worry too much. For the south coast drive, I recommend that you plan your itinerary in a way that you arrive in Vik at lunch time as there is a nice caferia just beside the duty free shop. Do try the Icelandic burger at Vik which is really yummy 🙂

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Tips:

– Getting to/from airport and city centre: There’s a transfer service operated by Flybus which is the cheapest way to get from the airport to the city centre. There’s free wifi on the bus.

– If you prefer not to drive, there are day tours operated by Rekjavik Excursions, Gray Line and other small operators that take you out of the city to the scenic part of Iceland. Rekjavik Excursion seems to be the most popular as the coaches offer free wifi but it is also slightly more expensive than the others.

– The currency in Iceland is Icelandic Krona and the best way (and best rates) to get it is from the ATM machine at the airport. Iceland is pretty cool in a sense that almost every shop accepts credit card so if you prefer, you can choose not to change any currency and just charge everything to your card, even for a coffee at the petrol kiosk!

– Iceland is well-known for its hot spring and spa and there’s a famous one (the Blue Lagoon) which is pretty near to Keflavik Airport. Unlike hot spring in Japan, the Blue Lagoon requires patrons to put on swim wear. If you want to save cost, you can bring along your own towels and bath robes, otherwise you can just pay to rent them at the Blue Lagoon. You can request for your hotel to arrange for shuttle service for you from the hotel to Blue Lagoon and then straight to the airport (or back to the city).

– Northern lights can generally be seen from October to early April. By end February, you get around 8 hours of day light a day which is pretty decent for sightseeing (sunrise around 9 plus in the morning and sets around 6 plus in the evening). The darkest time of the year will be winter solace which is around Christmas where you get less than 4 hours of daylight, while in summer, you get long daylight hours. So end February to March may be a good time to see the lights and yet have sufficient daylight hours for sightseeing.

Accomodation

– I stayed at Icelandair Hotel Natura which is beside the domestic airport. It is a 4 star hotel and the only hotel in Rekjavik that has an indoor pool (and spa/sauna/steamroom). The hotel provides free bus card which allows you to take buses in Rekjavik for free. It is more convenient to stay in the city centre but Hotel Natura is not that inconvenient (just have to take a bus which is around 2 stops to the city centre and I love the indoor pool and spa). If you are staying in Rekjavik city centre, everywhere is pretty much walkable.

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Shanxi – In search of Duke of Mt Deer

14 10 2007

Since watching the Duke of Mount Deer, I always wish that one day I could visit the infamous Wutaishan where it was rumoured that the Qing Dynasty Emperor Shun Zi (Emperor Kang Xi’s father) went to become a monk. So, mid of April this year, I decided to fulfil my long time wish and planned my own trip to Shanxi province in China (where Wutaishan is situated).

There is no direct flight to Shanxi so I have to fly to Beijing and took a domestic flight to Datong, a city in Shanxi. As the domestic flight is early the next morning, I took the opportunity to walk around Beijing, a place where I have not visited for the last 10 years. I revisited the Temple of Heaven, the venue for worshipping the heaven and pray for good harvest in the Ming and Qing dynasty. Other places that I went included a pleasant walk along Wangfujing Street, Tiananmen Square, Main Stadium and Olympic Village for Beijing Olympic 2008, the Hutongs and local old Siheyuan Houses.

Datong

Very early the next morning (I have to woke up at 4 am!!!), I went to the airport to catch my early 7 am flight to Datong, the northern city in Shanxi. It is one of the 24 historical and cultural cities in China, neighboring Hebei Province to the east and Inner Mongolian to the north. This place used to be considered as the barbarian place and part of Mongolia as it was located outside the Great Wall beyond the Yanmen Pass.

The Yungang Grottoes (Cloud Ridge Caves) in the outskirts of Datong is a treasure trove of Buddhist carvings unrivaled in the world with a variety of more than 51,000 statues. Yungang Grottoes, together with Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Dunhuang Grottoes and Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu, are considered as the Four Greatest Buddha Grottoes in China.

I also visited the original Jiulongbi (Nine-dragon sacreen) built in Ming Dynasty in front of the mansion of Ming Emperor Taizu. The Qing royalties loved it so much that a relica of the masterpiece was erected in the Imperial Palace and Beihai in Beijing. Other famous structural buildings of the Liao Dynasty include the Huayen Temple and Shan Hua Temple.

The next day, on my way to Wutaishan, I dropped by Xuankong Si (Hanging Monastery) at Mt.Hengshan. Built precariously on sheer cliffs above Jinlong Canyon, the monastery dates back more than 1400 years. Its halls and pavilions were built along the contours of the cliff face using the natural hollows and outcrops. It is really a great architecture work and I wonder how the workers managed to build such a temple hanging on Mt Hengshan in ancient times where technology is not that advance. Before reaching Wutaishan, I made one last stop at Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, the biggest wooden pagoda in China. It was built by Empress Xiao of the Liao Dynasty (the Liao Empress in the show “The Yang Warriors”).

Wutaishan

The scenic ride to Wutaishan (Five-terrace Mountain) from Yingxian took around 3 hours. When I almost reach Wutaishan, the driver suddenly asked me to see the snow. I initially thought he was joking, but no, it was really snowing!!! The other name of Wutaishan is called Qing Liang Shan meaning Cool Mountain, where the temperature at the mid of summer is no more than 20 degree Celsius. The mountain is said to be the most beautiful during winter season as it would be covered wholly in white snow. But few people have the guts to visit it in winter due to the extremely cold temperature and also the roads up and down the mountain would be block by snow. Hence, I was overjoyed at the sight of snow falling. I have expected the mountain to be cooling at this time, but I have not expected to see snow as this is coming to the end of spring!

Centered on the beautiful monastic village of Taihuai, it is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist Mountains. It lies deep in an alpine valley enclosed by the five peaks. I visited a number of temples in Mt Wutai, including Xiantong Temple, Tayuan Temple, and Fo Mu Cave. However, the most scenic view was at the peak of southern terrace, as well as the Dailuo Peak. At the top of these 2 places, I really feel like I am at the top of the world (but there’s a price to pay, which is the freezing sensation!)

Taiyuan & Hongdong

After spending a couple of days climbing up and down in Wutaishan, I left the place and went to other parts of Shanxi. I visited the Jinci Temple in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. Jinci Temple is a combination of historical cultural relics (the place where the Zhou Dynasty Emperor commemorate his mother) and beautiful landscapes and is known as a little Jiangnan in Shanxi.

About 2 hour drive from Taiyuan is the Qiao Family Compound. Built in 1755 (Qing Dynasty), this well-preserved and exquisite structure used to be the residence of Qiao Zhiyong, who was a famous businessman during the Qing dynasty. Now it is reputed as a bright pearl of North China’s residential architecture. It was used to film the popular movie “Dahong Denglong Gao Gao Kua” (Hang the Red Lanterns High).

In Hongdong, I visited the Big Chinese Sholar tree (the place where it was believed that our ancestors came from) and Susan Prison, a Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) construction and the earliest surviving prison still in China.

Yuncheng

Yuncheng, located at the most southern part of Shanxi, was the place where Guangong (the famous red face character in the romance of the 3 kingdoms) was born. I have visited the Guangong Temple in Luoyang, where Guangong’s head was buried. That’s why when the driver suddenly asked me if I was interested to make a trip to Yuncheng, I immediately said yes. I would say the long 4 plus hours of journey from Linfen is worth it as the temple, being in his hometown, is the most respected Guangong Temple in China.

Linfen

After the visit, I went back to Linfen and visted the Yao Temple, an important cultural relic with more than 1400 years history. It has been the place for people to offer sacrifice to Emperor Yao in different dynasties.

The journey to the Hukou Waterfall from Linfen is a tiring journey along winding mountain roads and bumpy roads. I almost felt as if I am back in India when I travelled on this kind of road!!! But when I see the Hukou Waterfall, all my grievances about the journey were gone. The sight was spectacular. I understand from a local guide that when the Yellow River runs all the way from Qinghai Province to the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, zigzagging to Jixian in Shanxi Province and Yichuan in Shaanxi Province, it suddenly finds it way through a narrow valley guarded by flocks of flourishing forests on both sides. The riverbed of the Yellow River narrows from 300m to 50m, turning the tranquil river into a turbulent one. It is this narrow path that makes Hukou Waterfall popularity unequalled in China. The tremendous water splashes on the rocks, causing countless waterbeads and foam, then water funs from which visitors may notice a colourful rainbow by chance. The water fumes curl upwards, turning from yellow to grey, grey to blue, which people call “smoke from the river”. I went down to the bottom of the waterfall also which is called Long Gong (or the dragon palace) and got myself all wet from the Yellow River water rushing down the waterfall!!! It was really a fun experience :=P

Pingyao

My last stop at Shanxi was at Pingyao Ancient City. It was built in 1370 AD during the Ming dynasty. Though it had been repaired in Ming and Qing dynasty, it has kept the original look of the early Ming dynasty. I visited the Rishengchang Financial House Museum, the Ancient Qing and Ming Street, and the Gu Xian Ya (Yamen in Old China).

I transferred from Taiyuan back to Beijing to catch my flight back to Singapore. While waiting for my flight in Beijing (which is at midnight), I spent my time visiting the Ming Tombs and the Summer Palace, also known as Yiheyuan, and enjoyed the Beijing roast duck at Chuan Ju De, the famous roast duck store in Beijing. Apart from the incident in Pingyao, I would say that my whole Shanxi/Beijing trip is really fun and enjoyable. I got a taste of what a Ke Zhang (a shop in ancient days that people slept overnight) living is and experience sleeping on a Kang in the Ke Zhang in Pingyao. Anyone interested to go there again? I can pass to you my itinerary.

Tips:

– One important thing about Shanxi is that the hotels might not have currency exchange counter and it is rather difficult to change Chinese Yuan in this province. So, if you intend to buy things, remember to bring more Yuan there, as a lot of places don’t accept VISA or Mastercard.

– Caution for travellers to Pingyao: the local guide is not very honest and conned us into entering a building where we are forced to see our fortune. And the worst part is that they refuse to let people leave if you don’t pay up for their “service”. So beware!

– The road to Hukou waterfall from Shanxi is rough, but much much better than Shaanxi (if you are travelling from Xian). Hence, I will suggest that you visit the waterfall with Shanxi trip (and it’s nicer over this side).