Author Archives: Ahimsa

Scandinavian Midsummer

On June 23, the summer solstice,  I was lucky enough to sail Oslo Fjord with my friend Hanne and her parents on their boat.

Midsummer Night's Theme

Midsummer Night’s Theme

Midsummer is a big deal in Scandinavia, and has been since the days of Odin and Heimdal.  Originally it was seen as a supernatural struggle between light and dark, heat and cold. These days it is perhaps nowhere more celebrated than in Sweden, where it’s a national holiday (as I understand it, no one has to work) but Denmark and Norway have their own celebrations too.  In Norway and Denmark it’s called  Sankthansaften (Saint Hans Dayor  Jonsok (John’s wake.)  Though now largely a secular holiday, until the mid 19th century midsummer festivities included a pilgrimage to one of the stave churches in southwest Norway to visit a magical crucifix.

I witnessed several bonfires along the Oslo Fjord, though they were hard to see in the eternal glow of July.  I was hoping to see–but didn’t–some effigies of witches.  The bonfires predate the witch effigies (they predate Christianity too while we’re counting up predates) but since the late 19th century they’ve been adding witches to the fires (speculated to be an ugly German witch that corresponds with fears about Otto Van Bismark and Prussian expansion.)

Instead of witches and burnings and witnessing the eternal struggle of day vs night, we drank coffee and ate strawberries (Norwegian strawberries are by far the best I’ve ever had) dusted in powdered sugar (which they call flour sugar) and slowly floated down the Fjord on the boat of my friend Hanne’s parents. Some brave kids jumped into the chilly waters of the fjord.  Neighbors floating by waved and stopped for friendly chats.  Hanne’s mother told me about how they iceskate across the fjord in the winter.

On the way back, we stopped by a tower that has existed in the oldest town of Scandinavia for at least 800 years and even though it was approaching midnight we had enough light to explore like it was early evening.

It’s hard to imagine a more interesting place to celebrate midsummer.  Even without the burnt witches and magical crucifixes, it’s a rather spectacular place.

Urban Yeti : The Outstanding (yet overpriced) City of Oslo

Old Oslo

Oslo has a reputation as an expensive, rather boring city.  Even travelers I met in Stockholm and Copenhagen (hardly cheap places themselves!) were largely avoiding the place.When I mentioned I was traveling to Norway to other travelers in Asia I would get wide eyes and sympathetic head shakes.  And it’s true that Oslo is the world’s most expensive place to live so it’s not exactly foolish to avoid.  A pint of beer starts at 11 euros (over 14 USD).  An hour train ride to the airport (which cost, for instance 2.5 USD in Portland) costs 45 USD in Norway.  Hell, even the Prime Minister thinks it’s too expensive.

Old Oslo

Thus I was very fortunate to be staying with my friend Eldar, an Azerbaijani Russian I met in Australia who has lived in Norway for half his life.  He lived very close to the city center and met me at the bus stop as I returned to civilization after visiting the Land of the Giants.  That night was the World Cup Final, and we both went to support Argentina in the outdoor Kontrasjæret.

Old Oslo

The next day was our big Oslo day.  While it doesn’t have the historic buildings of Stockholm or the charming energy of Copenhagen, Oslo has a stately grandeur.  Not to mention that fearsomely bearded Vikings once lived here in great numbers.  The city center is small and construction with oil money does mean a lot of new buildings, but it’s still Europe.  The refined buildings of yesteryear adorn the city.

The coolest part of Oslo has to be Frogner Park–the most popular tourist attraction in Norway, with between 1 and 2 million visitors a year.  It’s not everywhere you can statues of men kicking babies or women suckling goats, but the 80 acre Vigeland Sculpture park, located inside Frogner Park has 212 sculptures with just such illustrations.

The sculptures were designed by sculptor Gustav Vigeland from the 1920s until the early 1940s.   He was actually given a home in the park (now a museum) and he created the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist.  You could spend hours and hours here.  We didn’t, however, as we still had more of Oslo to see.  We did have time for this, however!

There are quite a few museums in Oslo but A) they’re expensive and B)they are closed on strange days.   We made our way out to the Kon-Tiki museum–of which I only knew the bare facts.  The story of Thor Heyerdahl is fascinating, and it’s worth watching some of their footage for those interested in exploration and amateur sociology.

We then headed to the marina and the Opera House–a semi-ugly building built on a bloated budget but in a rapidly expanding part of the city.  The so-called lego buildings are not popular with Oslonians, but I thought they looked kinda neat.

Ibsen and the National Theatre

We stopped at the greatest part of Oslo–Grønland.  As a multicultural melting pot, the area has kind of a bad reputation amongst Norwegians (crime rates are higher here) but it’s close to the T-Bane station and has some of the most affordable prices in town (beers are down to about 8 dollars a pint, for instance.) Grønland is one of the most multicultural places I’ve ever seen–more so than New York even. Citizens from all countries are united here by their love of budget blueberries, cheap celery and affordable avocados.

I left Oslo that night, sure I was coming back and eager to see more.  Because of the snafu with British Immigration, that did not work out.  But I’ll be back to see the rest of the beautiful city, sooner hopefully rather than later.  There’s more to see, including swimmable fjords and the Munch museum.  I just have to figure out how to get more money.  Now I know why those Vikings kept going to raid other countries so often!

Yeti Hikes: Jotunheimen

A view to a fjord

A view to a fjord

The weekend of camping and hiking and biking and climbing at Trolltunga was hard to beat, but if anything could beat it 4 days of free camping in the Jotunheimen wilderness would be close. The Jotunheimen Mountain Area lies between 1,800 and 2,400 metres above sea level. Most of the valleys lie above the treeline, at an altitude of 1,000-1,400 metres above sea level.

Everyday I'm on the bus

Everyday I’m on the bus

I left my friend Hanne’s house in Drammen and bussed into Oslo. From here it was easy to find a bus up to Gjendesheim, gateway to the land of the giants. Buses in Norway are nice, rarely full, equipped with free wifi, and devastatingly expensive.

Lake Gjende

Lake Gjende

The ride up into the mountains was not quite as nice as the drive out to Odda (gateway to Trolltunga) but it was ridiculously photogenic. We had a brief stop but only 5 or 6 hours later we pulled up next to the not ugly Lake Gjende. The lake is long and narrow, 18 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide at its widest and it is located 984 meters above sea level.

In tents camping

In tents camping

Norway is cool because you can camp for free anywhere on public land. Cato had loaned me his tent and I wandered around for a little while, staking out the possible sites. It was a wednesday so there were plenty of options and I got a nice area. I put up the tent, threw my bag in and then walked around the lake and read some Brent Weeks. The sunset, around 11:30 pm, had nice pink clouds and it was one of those nights that I felt truly lucky to be where I was.

Lake Gjende at 10:30 pm

Lake Gjende at 10:30 pm

The next day I got up and wandered up in the hills for hours, following signs that sounded like they were from Middle Earth. Places like Styggebreen Glacier and the dramatic mountain formations of Hurrungane, the Raudalen Valley and the distant peak of Glitterheim, the Fairytale Ice Glacier and Dimrill Dale. (Okay, that last one is from Lord of the Rings, but it fits, right?)

Aragorn wishes he'd had these

Aragorn wishes he’d had these

Normally I hike with music or audio books, but something about the stark wilderness just captivated me, and I was totally in the moment. I also had the trail to myself 95 percent of the time, which was unexpected and quite grand. Puffy clouds wandered the sky like lost sheep, and in a nice bit of symmetry, twice I bumped into random sheep wandering the ground like lone clouds.

Staged selfie

Staged selfie

Mountain Lake

Mountain Lake

Field with troll flowers

Field with troll flowers

I got back to my tent some hours later, ate some peanut butter and knekkebrød and read more of the Brent Weeks book. It was hot and I had a swim in the frigid Lake Gjende. My buddies Cato and Hanne, on their massive Norway summer tour, arrived that evening. We walked a bit around the lake before Hanne flagged down a young guy on a boat and got us a ride back. Funnily enough, this kid of 12 was in such an isolated valley that neither of my Norwegian friends could really understand him, and the words they did pick up were archaic and out of use.

Pining for the fjords

Pining for the fjords

We watched the sunset again before retiring. We had to get up early to catch the ferry to start our hike, and I was out of my tent by 6:30 am. We were aiming to join the 30 thousand people who hike to Besseggen each year. It’s Norway’s second most popular hike, behind only the redoubtable Preikestolen.

Beginning of Besseggen

Beginning of Besseggen

Thunderstorms were forecast for the day so we made decent time. The Besseggen hike has some climbing but it’s very easy if you don’t go too quickly. We had a few stops to eat trail mix or fill up our bottles from the streams, but for the most part we walked through the crazy cool, alpine nature. The thing about Besseggen that is so cool is that you walk between two different colored bodies of water.

Money shot!

Money shot!

We easily beat the storm, and got back to the camp in time to drink some wine and play Cards Against Humanity. They were off the next day, pitting themselves like the nine walkers against the mighty Mt. Glitterheim. And I bussed back to Oslo, meeting some cool Norwegians on the way (including one who had hiked from Oslo to Gjendesheim, a hike of 8 days! Sadly, he reported that most of the hike was boring and had only had one night in the Jutenheimen park.)

A celebration drink

A celebration drink

It was a bummer to say goodbye to the fjords and mountains and sheepy clouds, but at the same time I hadn’t seen anything of Oslo and urban tours are always exciting. And I had the perfect tour guide, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

City of the Month: København

When I told a friend I was going to Copenhagen he smiled and said “4 words: Beautiful women on bikes.”

That was an understatement. The women are quite pretty (you know, if “beautiful” is your thing) and also quite often on bikes. But the men are just as happy and (presumably) good looking (especially if hipster is your thing.) I’ve never seen so many smiling happy people riding bikes. Something like 40000 people ride bikes every day. Denmark consistently ranks as the happiest country on earth, and sure that’s not something that is at all quantifiable but the eye test does reveal a lot of happy-looking people.

Walking around the city, I felt I could best describe the vibe as Edinburgh meets Melbourne. These are two of my favorite places, so that’s high praise from me. I saw a man walking a great dane and tried not to snigger too much. Some Koreans found me by a fountain and asked me to take a picture with them. I blew their minds by saying “hana dul set” as they took the photo. I visited Christiana (it’s much smaller than I expected and felt more like hippy towns in Southern Oregon than I would have guessed) and read a Dickens book on a bridge.

Like most European cities, Copenhagen has a dedicated pedestrian walkway, buskers galore, lots of parks, and gothic architecture. There are funky areas, especially in the Norebro area, and some good vegan restaurants. Microbrews and craft beers are readily available in the supermarkets. And, being Europe, history is everywhere. Copenhagen is the city of Hans Christian Anderson and the Little Mermaid, the city where Neils Bohr and his family are buried, the city where Søren Kierkegaard strode in thought as he wrote Fear and Trembling.

Sweden is minutes away, as are the two oldest functioning theme parks in the world (Bakken is free to get into–Tivoli, more centrally located, costs a chunk just to enter) and lots of fantastic museums. You can rent a bike (old-fashioned or crazy new electronic bikes) and there’s a beach for those rare hot summer days. And the Danish have such a virtue of comfort that they’ve co-opted the word hygge from the rest of Scandinavia to specifically mean a very cozy place.

Unlike Sweden and Norway, prices are a little more under control and you don’t have to take out a loan in order to get a beer (though don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite expensive by Yeti standards. You can find American craft beers like Widmer and Lagunitas on tap for about 12 bucks a pint, and Danish beer can be close to that.) With affordable beer (at the supermarkets), good food, and lots to do, I can see why the Danes are the happiest folks around (though I didn’t have the nerve to tell them that Norway is much prettier)!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yeti Raves: The Roskilde Festival

The Roskilde festival in Denmark–8 days of camping with 130,000 people– is one of those life events where what everyone says is true but you can’t understand the magnitude of the truth until you go through it yourself.

You Start Me Up

You Start Me Up

Things like:

The music doesn’t even matter.
It’s the best week of your life.
You’ll meet lifetime friends.
When you see a fence, pee on it.

We were an international Mashup camp of nearly 50 people–very few of us had ever met previous to the festival. We had people from 11 countries including Lithuania, Canada, Germany, Norway, Australia, Hungary, Denmark, the US, and the Netherlands.

Setting Up Camp

Somehow we all got along, wandering the grounds and making up games and drinking warm beers and blasting tunes and learning to twerk and swimming in the pond and just generally having the time of our lives. This was Monday through Wednesday.

Big Orange Tent

Big Orange Tent

Thursday the music began, with Outkast opening for the Rolling Stones. An amazing night, to be sure. One of our camp was so drunk that she’s still not even sure if she managed to see the Stones. Outkast was great as well. Back at camp we talked about how good the Stones sounded and drank Tuborg until the early hours of Friday morning.

The next day I saw Les Claypool and Damon Albarn, who brought out De La Soul for the encore to sing Feel Good Inc. Before the shows started we would hang out, wander around, play beersby (a frisby beer based game, where you try to knock off the opposing team’s beer can and protect your own). By saturday, people were leaving, with tents and sleeping bags and pads all just left behind. Tents were still full of food and beer and alcohol and it was fun raiding abandoned camp sites. I saw Major Lazer and Interpol and many other bands besides.

Beersby

Beersby

The headliner the last night was supposed to be Drake, but he dropped out and Jack White was added. For me, this is like running out of something smelly like olives and replacing them with something tasty like craisins. Seven Nation Army was about the best possible song to end the festival on. Before that, though, was Stevie Wonder and he was even better than I expected. He even covered the Beatles!

Random Waldo Debauchery

Random Waldo Debauchery

Some of my friends who live close to Roskilde told me that they live for the yearly week of the festival. Everything between festivals is just filler, just time to be passed before that too brief week of reality, just like Burning Man or even Dead shows. And after experiencing 8 days of friendship and music and madness, I fully agree.

Team Mashup Camp Flag

Team Mashup Camp Flag

Safe to say that whenever possible I will do all I can to return every year. The Roskilde Festival is even better than you think!

Yeti Hikes: Trolltunga

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the things I really wanted to see in Norway was Troll Tongue. A long sliver of rock in the fjords that is both beautiful and troll related, it was a must see. With that it mind, my friend Hanne planned out a trip there my first weekend.

20140620_200229

I set out with Hanne and her buddy Cato on a Friday afternoon. With bikes and tents and blankets and pillows and books and board games, we were a full Audi. And yet somehow we managed to pick up a German hitchhiker (wearing an inverted Friar Tuck haircut) and driving through ridiculously pretty scenery.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was jetlagged and tired but the views were absolutely captivating and I couldn’t look away. We drove through fjords, stopped at a stavkirke and a waterfall.

20140620_210955

We set up camp on the side of the road–it was still well light even after 11 pm. Our tents went up and we had a quick dinner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had bought a small jar of “taco sauce” salsa and corn chips in a small town for only about 7 dollars–good deal in Norway!. I had some for dinner, where I noticed the salsa improbably decent–better than anything in Korea, for instance.

When I commented on the quality, Cato nodded. “Yes. We do Mexican food well here. In fact, every Friday is Mexican food night here.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “That’s cool. Though I guess Tuesday would make more sense.”

Cato just looked at me in incomprehension.

“Taco Tuesday?” I prompted. Cato just shook his head.

Hanne, who lived in the US for some years, shook her head and said “No one ever understands me when I say this either.”

Two more friends showed up and we all got some sleep. The next morning we woke up, and after packing our tents, hopped on mountain bikes and then rode for 10 K or so on an awesome trail. Then we hopped off and hiked up for 10k more up loose boulders and past verdant green pools of snowmelt water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then the fun began. Himmelsteigen, the stairway to heaven; a via ferrata that goes up sheer wall for 200 meters. I was actually quite nervous about this part as I’d never used climbing gear before, not to mention that lots of this part included hanging off a sheer rock wall.

20140621_112645

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

None of it was too hard though and we made our way to the top. Here we joined a small queue of jolly Norwegians to take our photos on the Troll tongue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And then it was a chilly wait on the top of the Stairway to Heaven while others finished climbing up, and a reverse via ferrata, hike, bike ride back to our tents, with a quick dip in one of the frozen pools.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stores stop selling beer at 6 pm on Saturday. Post hike, we raced down to get some. Everyone not driving shared a beer in the car as we drive to the cabin for the night. It’s quite common in Norway to have a winter cabin by a ski slope, and Hanne and Cato’s co-worker had invited us to stay the night. We were treated with the warmest of hospitality.

Our arrival was toasted with shots of Jaegermeister, followed somewhat later by a Danish version that is more bitter and even more like cough syrup. At dinner, the owner of the cabin brought out some local microbrews, including an IPA that was incredible. We stayed up way too late in the light of the midnight sun before crashing in a cozy bunkhouse.

Of everywhere I’ve been in the world, Trolltunga ranks really high as one of the best places I’ve ever been.

A Yeti Lands in Norway

Even though–or perhaps because–Norway feels closer to Oregon than anywhere I’ve been since New Zealand–it makes me feel uneasy. It’s the first place that feels new in a long time. It’s to walk on the mostly empty sidewalk past occasional people walking their dogs to the giant grocery store, even though it’s much more like walking to shopsmart than, say, crossing the street in Bangkok.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Everything feels different. The air is so clean. I can drink really good water right out of the tap! People are walking dogs, but there are no strays anywhere. Some of the dogs are really big. The streets are clean and only the occasional car goes by. The houses often have grass roofs. Street names aren’t much easier to pronounce than in Thailand or Myanmar. It’s mid-June and it never gets close to dark. I look close enough to Norwegian that people speak to me as though I’m a local–and, jet-lagged as I am, it always takes me a couple of awkward seconds to realize they’re not speaking English.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The grocery store isn’t as expensive as I thought. The prices are about the same as New Zealand prices without the sales. The personalized cokes have great names like Bjorn and Inga. Bread comes unsliced but there is a slicer in every store. Turnips are a popular snack here.

The greatest thing since ....   itself?

The greatest thing since …. itself?

I’m only in the suburb of Drammen for 1 day before we leave for the weekend to visit Trolltunga! But that’s the subject of the next post.