Thursday, January 14, 2016

20151021 Iceland with its Golden Circle Tour and Kjotsupa

Good morning Reykjavik! (Guess how long it took me to learn how to spell pronounce this? I'm not even sure if I'm doing it correctly!)
The sun rise from the balcony was really something.

When you research on things to do in Iceland, you will inevitably find mentions about waterfalls after sieving through the photoshopped aurora images. :P

One of the most famous waterfalls is Gullfoss which we visited on Day 5.

Day tours are not cheap in Iceland. For the Golden Circle Tour, it cost us S$100 each. We chose Grayline because it's one of the most famous ones and we wanted reliability. I had been on Grayline tours before but I wouldn't say they are the best. The group is usually rather big and that can lead to issues with punctuality, space and noise. As with most big companies, there can also be an impersonal touch to the whole experience. By the way, if you're booking Grayline, the promo code "SEE5' seems to work. No harm trying ya!

Here's our not bad breakfast in Iceland.
Salad, buns, ham with honey mustard & coffee, Nomstable!

Clothes you need for Iceland? Let's see. We were there in October. the weather forecast was 0°C to 7°C.  My gear:

  • Thermal crew neck top, S$24.90 (Heattech Extra Warm from Uniqlo)
  • Thermal leggings, S$19.90 (Heattech Extra Warm from Uniqlo)
  • Heattech socks, $14.90 (from Uniqlo)
  • Heattech gloves, $24.90 (from Uniqlo)
  • Woolen sweater (from Target
  • Jeggings (from Mango)
  • Padded parka (from Bellfield via Zalora)
  • Woolen hat (from Zara
  • Non-slip shoes (from Ecco

Just think about putting these on. Tiring right?

Yes, it was but it was super necessary too. My torso was very well-protected throughout the trip. Can't say the same for bottom though. Shins got a bit cold, not to mention the extremities. Peiying wore thick, furry tights and she said she felt ok. You can get them from Qoo10.

Remember me mentioning that we chose the apartment based on its description? No? Haha. Never mind, now you know.

So yeah, the house was near Hotel Klettur, which is one of the pick-up points for the tour. Grayline does pick up at most hotels and inns around town and it seems like they can pick you up from other locations so long as you leave the details in the comments when booking.
A beautiful day!

They will pick you up in a mini bus and you will be transferred to a bigger coach at the terminal. You usually need to exchange your voucher for tickets at the terminal and it's good to walk a bit faster to get a better seat on the coach. Not asking you to push and shove but it was common to see other tourists running to get their seats. Not cool, dude, not cool. If,  like me, you're travelling with someone who needs to clear bladder frequently, get your partner to head to toilet while you take the queue to validate the voucher.

For the Golden Circle Tour, the estimated duration was 8.5hours. How come 8.5hours at work doesn't seem to end while 8.5hours of tour seems short? :P

We weren't quite prepared for the exposure to the big, open space of Iceland. Not because of the space itself but because of the wind.

They're not kidding with this sign. Slippery when wet.

You see the rings I was wearing in the photo? Don't bother to wear any for hiao sake. After this initial stupidity, I learnt that rings and gloves do not mix and it was more important to prevent frostbite than try to look chio.

First stop: Þingvellir National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Said to be one of the earliest parliaments in the world,the Alþingi is part of the national park. It was founded in 930 and our tour guide gave us a very vivid description of how it used to be. People from all over Iceland would congregate here after travelling for days and weeks on horseback and on foot. It was a time for laws and public policies to be set and social ties to be renewed. Merchants and common folks also gathered there to trade their wares and young people would mingle for an opportunity to find partners. Sounds positively festive, doesn't it?

The coach dropped us at the park and picked us up at the end of the walk. It was only a 20-minute walk.

It felt waaaaaaaay longer. And I blame it on the wind.

It is imperative to eat before you start the tour. Or you should have food with you. Even though we had a "bunwich" for breakfast, the hunger pangs started mid-way through the walk. Don't worry, if you don't feel up to it, you don't have start the trek.

You'll just miss sights like these:
See the humans for scale.

There's a church.

I love the emptiness.

An autumny view

No one around. Simply awesome.

This looks pretty but it has a sinister past.

From the name Þingvellir Drowning Pool, you can guess that this was a drowning site. These women were apparently executed by drowning. Þingvellir was not just the site where laws were passed; it was also the site where punishment were meted out. 

Stunning, isn't it? 

As the river flows,

To the sea, to the sea. No wait, this is still a river.

It was barely 10am but we were already hungry. So we ate this funny pie. 
Not sure what we ate.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing one of the most gorgeous views.
With a toilet in the foreground. 

This is what you can expect in Iceland. It is a place of rugged beauty everywhere you turn. Or it might be me imagining the beauty where there is none.

You might have seen the legendary images of Gullfoss waterfall online. You know, the big one that falls into a crack in the ground and occasionally spits out a rainbow? Like the image from Wikipedia here:
Just waiting for the unicorn to appear.

This was our view:
Contrary to my strong beliefs, it was overcast.

Can you imagine the sheer power of this waterfall? How tonnes and tonnes of water seems to be plunging into a crevice that appeared in the ground out of nowhere? Think about the sounds, the sights, the spray?

Ok, no need to think. Here's a video:

Too bad I cannot convey the freshness of the air. Or the cold.

This was the sight that greeted us at the top of the stairs. Yes, there's walking involved at every stop and most of them are on wet terrain. At this particular stop, the spray from mighty Gullfoss made sure of that.

The view before we walked down the stairs.

Don't you just love how tiny you feel against the force of nature? It's important to feel insignificant sometimes because our worries and problems also appear much more trivial.

Spot the humans in my artsy macro shot.

The steps before it all starts going straight down.

It just... disappeared.

The plunge.

Down, down, down...

I cannot reiterate this enough. Good, sturdy, non-slip shoes please. This is the kind of ground you will be walking on.
Wet and wet and wet. Track shoes may not cut it.

On to the next topic of the day: Kjotsupa.

Unless there are some dietary restrictions or preferences, I don't understand why some people want to eat food from back home when travelling. The older I get, the less things are new to me. I enjoy trying new tastes but then I am a pig. I do draw the line at eating bloody stuff though. OMG! I do have dietary preferences. Can't be a hipster who tries everything once now. *sad*

Anyway, we were recommended to try Icelandic soup, which Google says is known as "Kjotsupa". Essentially, it is a lamb soup made with Icelandic herbs. Lamb is a common meat in Iceland, as is fish.
I have no idea what else is in it besides carrots and potatoes.

It was comforting to drink this in the cold weather. I think all hot soups will be comforting in the Icelandic cold.

This was our first real meal, outside, in Iceland at Gullfoss Cafe:
A soup each and a chicken sandwich to share

Hello, soup is not an entree here. We thought we would still be hungry if we only drank the soup. Boy, were we wrong! No wonder the aunty from the next table kept turning back and staring at our portion. The bread rolls were unlimited. They had more usual food if lamb is not your thing. The meal set us back about S$50.

We needed the filling meal because we were going to take a huge risk at the next stop.
The nearest hospital is 62km away.

Most of these natural sights do not have people guarding them. Don't be an arse and pray pray ah! These natural wonders are way to powerful for humans to handle. Check out one right now:
Seems empty doesn't it? It wasn't.

This geyser erupts every few minutes. Did you know that geysers are named after The Great Geysir in Iceland? This is not the granddaddy though, The Great Geysir doesn't erupt as often after some earthquakes.

Here's Strokkur in action.
Choose a good spot to catch the action.

The area around the Geysir Parks is beautiful too. The wide, open spaces in Iceland are
Iceland, the land of fire and ice.

No one, empty, deserted, nada.

If you love doing jumping and floating shots, cold countries are the best places to do it. You don't get sweaty.
Take a shot from bottom up to make it look like you can jump higher.

Try to leave nature unspoiled ok? You're not supposed to throw anything into the pool. Just admire it and leave only footprint behind. A donation for the upkeep of the park would be welcomed too.

This would be so much prettier without the fugly coins in it. It's not a wishing well or a crap fountain.

The 2nd last stop of the day trip was the Skalholt area. This is where the first official school was founded and it's where you'll find this:

Skaholt cathedral 

You can go into the building and the simplicity of its interior made me go back in time. Quite beautiful really.

The dog came to admire the view too. 

When you round to the back of the church, the expansive Icelandic landscape will greet you again. This time, we go to share it with a friendly dog.

There is a larger cathedral next to the old one.
The white building at the back is the new build

The interior of Skaholt cathedral 

The final stop of the day was Fákasel, the Icelandic Horse Park. If you're keen you can watch a short 5-minute show of skilled jockeys demonstrating the different gaits of the Icelandic Horse.

Watch, the Flying Pace:

If you're not keen on watching the show, you can wander round the small shop which sells a good variety of Icelandic products.

We headed back to town, all excited about the next event on our itinerary - chasing the Northern Lights! The mysterious Aurora is surely the top reason for visiting Iceland for many.

Then, disaster struck.

The tour was cancelled because the likelihood of seeing them was low that night.

WHY, OH WHY?! :~~~~~~(

Two very disappointed people then booked the tour for the next day and went back to do laundry and nua in the apartment. At least we had a digital media library to entertain us for a bit.

And this cute rubbish chute:
The extremely small chute is a good way to remind you to recycle your plastic, paper and glass bottles.

For our first full day in Iceland, we learnt these lessons:

  1. The cold in Iceland wilderness is no joke. Forget your rings and fanciful accessories. 
  2. Remember to wear gloves.
  3. Non-slip shoes. Shoes that don't slip. Slip proof soles. Cannot stress enough.
  4. Many of the natural sights are very powerful. Not the kind of place you want to monkey around.
  5. Aurora do not turn up when you want them to. Don't build yourselves up for disappointment.
It wasn't all that bad though. The next day, we had a pretty good one at the Blue Lagoon. :)

Saturday, January 09, 2016

20151020 Iceland with its brutal cold and series of unwelcoming events

I'm not sure how we decided to go to Iceland. Iceland is one of the countries I wanted to visit since young. The reason? I wanted to see if it's all ice there. So you can guess why I was keen to go to Greenland too.

We booked our flight for Singapore-Amsterdam-Singapore because Singapore Airlines was having a promotion. When it came to planning our itinerary, we toyed with including these countries:
  1. Germany
  2. Paris
  3. London
  4. Spain
  5. Greece
  6. Norway
  7. Sweden
  8. Scotland 
  9. Switzerland 
You can tell that our geography is not very good. >_<

We ruled them out, very systematically:
  1. Didn't feel like it.
  2. I went there before.
  3. I went there before. Twice. 
  4. Far from Amsterdam.
  5. Far from Amsterdam.
  6. Mac meal costs SGD17.
  7. The only Swedish things we know are IKEA and meatballs. Not really. It was expensive too.
  8. Not sure what we need to get around.
  9. Expensive.
We figured that since we were going to one of the cities in the northern part of Europe, we might as well visit Iceland. Who would reject the chance to see the aurora or pretend to be Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?  

So Iceland it was.

We considered, very briefly, to do a self-drive. The gravel protection insurance made us drop the idea. And the fact that I am a driver on paper only. :P

We were fixated with airbnb. We didn't even consider staying in hotels or inns for the trip. I think we thought we would cook a lot. It wasn't that hard to choose our accommodation in Reykjavik because of its description.

Let's go back to Day 4, the day we flew from Amsterdam to Reykjavik.

A few airlines offered flights and we chose Icelandair. Remember to verify the check-in baggage the flight includes to avoid getting rude shocks and exorbitant surcharges when you reach the airport. Icelandair allows 23kg check-in and a handcarry. It costs around SGD600 for the round trip, which is not cheap.

We bade Amsterdam goodbye. As usual, when the two of us travel together, we reach places way too early. We checked in with more than enough time for a meal and a kopi and repeat.
Caffeine fix.

Burger with fab chips.

Chicken sandwich with yummy mayonnaise. 

Actually, our timing was just nice. Do not underestimate the time needed to cross customs. Besides bag scans and body scans, they also pat you down. Give yourself ample time. Ditch the jewellery and boots if you don't want to be holding up the line at the customs.

If you are on Instagram, you would likely have seen many cool things Icelandair posted. It's destination marketing at its finest.

Sadly, the flight is not the best. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing terribly bad about it. It was just underwhelming. The 3-hour flight included free drinks which is not very clearly stated in the menu. We thought we had to pay so we dished out some cash. The stewardess gave us a "huh" look when we passed her the money and a curt "you don't need to pay", Nary a smile in sight. It wasn't very clean. Comfort level was so-so. I guess they tried to make you excited with aurora wannabes emitting from the roof:
Excited much? 

Hello Iceland, I brought rain!

To clarify, Iceland is a pretty rainy place. "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes" is something we see on a lot of their souvenirs.

What's your usual sequence after you have disembarked from the flight? You go to the loo, whip out your passport, head for the customs, pray you still look like the photo in your passport, grab your luggage and clear security, no?

Well, in Iceland, no. You can completely bypass the steps from whipping out passport to clearing customs/security. Coming from clean and proper Singapore, we were bewildered by this and sought out an airport staff.

"Nobody gets stamped here." she said.

Ogaaayyy... So, that's that.

The most convenient to travel into town is via Flybus. We booked prior to the trip and you can find the counter at the airport, located near the exit. Customer service in Iceland is not unlike Singapore, efficient and generally unsmiling. Most Icelanders we encountered spoke perfect English but Icelandic is still very much alive here. No need to fear communication problems at least.

Up next, SIM card.
Síminn provided us with very reliable services

The Starter Package cost around S$20 and included voice and data. A very pleasant surprise we discovered about Iceland is that it's a very well-connected country. This seems to contrast with the fact that the wilderness is the main draw of Iceland. Imagine trekking on lava fields, taking a selfie and uploading it onto Facebook in seconds. I went for walk at MacRitchie Reservoir once and could hardly get 2G. Gah!

The ride into town took 45 minutes and for the first few minutes, we saw nothing but lava fields. It was a very surreal feeling to be inside a bus with free WIFI and travelling along a road that is flanked by miles and miles of lava fields. No houses, no buildings and generally, no cars. The sun was going down and the only lights we saw was from our coach. I think there were street lights but they were not as densely placed as what we city kids are used to.

Then, the series of unwelcoming events started. We booked an apartment, not a hotel and the drop-off point was a hotel. After alighting, we were "welcomed" by the howling wind and it started raining. Not a mist, but real rain drops.

Luckily, our host posted lots of photos of the apartment's surroundings and I am not completely hopeless with navigation.

Sadly, the walk was down a steep slope.

Steep considering that the burger and sandwich from lunch were well-digested and that we were lugging our 20kg luggage. Oh yes, please do get a 4-wheel luggage if you are planning a free and easy trip. No porters or tour guides to help you with them.

Hoods on, heads down, luggage firmly in hand, we braved the rain. Half way down, a loud whistle pierced through the howling wind. Come on, already miserable enough. Don't ga jiao, ga jiao leh.

Opps, it was our very nice host, Bjorn, who had been waiting for us at the drop-off point. Sort of in the rain too. x:

It's apparent that Bjorn is a honest man. The apartment looks exactly like the pictures on his airbnb listing.

The beautiful living room where we spent more time than expected.

The huge telly with an extensive media library that perked up some of our sad nights. (You'll see why in subsequent posts.)

More than enough room for 2.

Nice, cosy bedroom. 

Simple, functional kitchen and dining area with a very important piece of equipment: Nescafe Dolce Gusto (comes with capsules)

Bathroom the size of a bedroom here in Singapore. At least the size of my 2nd bedroom anyway.

Unless you have no nose, you would smell the sulphur every time you run the hot water. And it's completely normal. Not the most pleasant, but normal. Rotten eggs shower. 

By then, the afternoon's burger and sandwich had completed disappeared from our guts and we needed to refuel asap. Knowing not to expect shops in Reykjavik to open as late as the ones back home, we geared ourselves to brave the rain and wind and off we went on our little trip to Kronan. Although we were in a city, this city is a lot darker when it gets dark.
The white building is a church and the supermarket is about the 4th lamp post from there. (Taken from the apartment's balcony.)

By the way, here's a good article that breaks down the supermarkets in Iceland

The wind hit us as soon as we left the safety of the building. It was around 4°C but the wind and rain made it feel much colder. Actually, I wouldn't know since this is the coldest place I've visited. Heh. 

They drive on the left side in Iceland so many of the road directions seemed 'off' to us. To adapt on an empty stomach is hard. To do it in the howling wind and rain with the hood blocking your vision is harder. 

We planned to pretty much eat all our breakfast and dinner at the apartment and here's the total:
That's about S$90 worth of groceries for 2. Oh, and beer is about S$1. 

They charge if you need plastic bag so bring your own if you have them. I always travel with my trusty Environsax and it has never failed me although it is getting old (about 5 years now). I do have other recycling bags but their quality and size cannot make it. I can't find Environsax in Singapore now so please, please let me know if you know where I can find them at around S$15. I know they're available via Qoo10 at S$26 but they used to sell for around S$10 and I am a cheapskate. =_=

Why did I say that we experience a series of unwelcoming events? 
  1. Strong wind and real rain when we alighted = cold
  2. Haven't eaten since 1pm = hungry
  3. Braved the wind and rain to the supermarket = colder and wet
  4. Carried the groceries back to the apartment = tired
  5. Couldn't open the door = &*QBj(&!#@
Yes, the door was jammed. We turned the key this way and that. We used brute strength, we whispered pleas. We inserted the key partially, we jammed it in forcefully. Nothing worked. After calling Bjorn, we were advised to jimmy the lock a.k.a. wiggle the keys a lot. 


Although Day 2 was the worst day of the trip, I had something good out of it. 

Instant noodles.

When you're cold, hungry, wet and tired, pipping hot and spicy instant noodles are a godsend. That and

John Wick.

We learnt a few things from Day 4:

  1. Allocate more time to clearing customs at Amsterdam.
  2. Pour over the photos of your accommodation surroundings prior to your trip so you can run towards it in the event you arrive during adverse weather.
  3. Bring along a recycling bag when grocery shopping in Iceland or prepare to fork out some moolah for bags. I recommend Environsax.
  4. Get ready for the sulphurous smell from hot water in Iceland.
  5. Make sure you have wet weather gear, a padded jacket with a hood, non-slip shoes when packing for Iceland.
Before I conclude the day, I would like to share an image of Icelandic Krona. Just because.
We changed our money at Schiphol airport. I doubt you can find many money changers in Singapore that carry Icelandic Krona.

On Day 4, we finally took a break from self-navigating and left it all up to the tour guide. At last, the famous Golden Circle Tour of Iceland!