The Icelandic Yule Lads

As today’s the day, I wanted to share how Icelandic people count down to Christmas. I found a book about this during my first trip to Iceland. Since then, I’ve loved this story about the 13 little fellas who keep excitable Children in check as Christmas approaches.

They reputedly come from the lava fields of Dimmuborgir, so of course I visited there when I was chilling on the north side of iceland two years ago.

Me and the lads

This is their natural habitat, and playground:

Dimmuborgir: look closely and you may see one of the Yule Lads hiding in the lava field

Keep an eye on your sausages, and look forward to the day when you can gobble Skyr, safe in the knowledge that you are only copying the example of another.

Here’s someone else’s (much better, and more knowledgeable than mine) explanation:
Icelandic Jólasveinar – Santa Clauses in Iceland

From Furugrund

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7 Super Shots

I am taking part in Hostelbookers 7 super shots thread, because they’ve started lots of travel bloggers scouring their digital photo archives on dark winter evenings (if you live in the northern hemisphere, that is) with this winning idea to inspire those with itchy feet.

Here’s my two penn’orth:

1) A photo that…takes my breath away
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland. It was an October afternoon, a couple of degrees above zero and blowing in a force 4-5 gale off the sea. But still it’s so beautiful that a couple of friends and I spent nearly two hours here taking photos. Just as we though we’d captured the sunset, someone set the sky on fire…

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland

 

2) A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
A baby Orangutan flicking a crafty ‘v’ sign on his cheek at me. This youngster and his parents oozed character, and make for some fabulous photos.

Baby organutan, Lok Kawi zoo, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

 

3) A photo that…makes me dream
Back to dear, lovely Iceland again. This time to Grundarfjörður, on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. Out hiking in a rainstorm west of the Kirkjufell, a small glacier-carved mountain now forming a peninsula at the edge of the fjord, I stumbled upon some lovely wooden cottages. Maybe one day I will own my own cabin around here…

Wooden cabins, Kirkjufell, Grundarfjörður, Iceland

 

4) A photo that…makes me think
My trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau remains one of the most moving days of my life. I spent most of the day in tears at the awful things that humans can do to other humans, and the sheer scale of the loss of life. These small stones, lovingly inscribed with names and dates of those lost by their dependents and placed on the railway tracks at Birkenau, stun me every time I look back at the photo.

Memorial stones on the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

 

5) A photo that…makes my mouth water
In stark contrast to the above, a very simple shot of my friend Jamie thinking just how much he would love a Pieminister pie at that moment in time. The added bonus is that this was taken at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, one of my favourite places in the world, at the stall next to the also-legendary Brothers Cider Bar in the West Holts.

Do you know what...? I love Pieminister!

 

6) A photo that…tells a story
These two young novice monks, at Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan, look all sweetness and light. But until about three seconds before I took this photo, they were having the most violent and un-monklike fight in the monastery’s courtyard!

Novice monks, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

A secondary story is that this was one of my Grandma’s favourite photos from my travels. I spent several hours at her house with the laptop talking her through my photos, but she was captivated by these monks above almost anything else (even the Great Wall Of China, which she had always wanted to visit but never did). I hear she told my Dad and many friends who visited her about “those two little lads who were growing up to be monks”.

 

7) A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
This ‘accolade’ simply has to go to my photo of the stunning Yamdrok-tso lake, in Tibet. I often have this photo as my desktop background on my work computer, and people cannot believe it was taken with a compact camera, and has not been digitally enhanced (or even cropped) in any way. I was just lucky, and in a supremely beautiful place.

Yamdrok-tso, Tibet

 

This photo tag game has been going for a couple of weeks now, so I’m going to nominate 5 posts I’ve seen that I really like (and that inspired me to blog my own – thank you!):

  1. Cam & Nicole at Travelling Canucks and their 7 super shots
  2. Alex at Virtual Wayfarer and his 7 super shots
  3. Erin at De La Pura Vida and her 7 super shots (particularly love that baby sloth!)
  4. Cathy at Traveling With Sweeney and her 7 super shots
  5. Anja at Hitting The Road and her 7 super shots

Toilets of the world

Inspired by this week’s #TTOT (that’s Travel Talk On Twitter… I’ll let Melvin explain), I thought I’d blog the answers to questions about travel toilets. And a few more besides (you can scroll down… no gruesome pictures!)

Q1. Coolest/most awesome bathroom you have seen? The cute, hobbit-like eco-friendly compost toilet at my friend’s parents’ summerhouse in the Finnish lakes.

Q2. What is the most disgusting bathroom you’ve encountered abroad? A toilet behind a restaurant in Damxung (aka. the “big plate of chicken place” for those who travelled with me!), Tibet. You could see  (and most certainly smell!) what people had had for dinner 2 days before heaped under the slit in the floor.


Q3. What is the best “Loo View” you have ever had?. The view over the Finnish lake (frozen when I visited one December) from the top photo was stunning. Also: Hongchungping monastery, Mount Emei, China. There was a beautiful view over a misty valley….

The window view…

…but sadly it was still a hideous hole in the floor, which did not encourage me to linger!

 

Q4. What was your most embarrasing travel bathroom experience? (I remembered a better one) It simply involves a train toilet with one of those “automatic locking doors” that doesn’t really seem to lock properly, and opens at the most inopportune moment…!

No-one uses Western toilets in rural China

Another contender for A3. A compost toilet in a shed at the foot of this Icelandic glacier.

And finally, a message from our Chinglish friends!

Iceland South Shore Day 3: Jökulsárlón to Vik

The day started with a trip to the tiniest petrol station (particularly one on the busiest road of an entire country!) to fill up.

I decided to go a little further east before heading back west, so my first port of call (sorry!)  was the south Höfn (pronounced somewhere between “hep” and “hup”, with a glottal stop) and pick up a picnic.

There was very little to see beyond the harbour and tiny museum, but it could easily be a good base for an explore of the south east corner if you were that way inclined. I always am of the exploring inclination so soon decide to head back west, stopping off for a bit of rally driving practice (left foot braking and drifting the corners!) on the dirt tracks towards another glacier, which I think is called Hoffelsjokull (it was too remote for signage!).

As I had to drive back past Jökulsárlón (which, along with the Breidarmerkurlon glacier which flows into it, were locations for ‘A View To A Kill’ and ‘Die Another Day’, Bond fans), it seemed rude not to stop and take more photos in the glorious late morning sunshine:

I stopped off at most glaciers and smaller glacier lagoons along the road, taking lots of walks and having immense fun doing ice scrambling (hey, you can’t do this sitting at your desk in central London!). The longest walk of the day was to and on the Skaftafellsjökull:

It was about halfway across the remote expanse of the Skeiðarársandur when I realise that, despite filling up that morning, I was running very low. Running out somewhere across Skeiðará as Katla and Grimsvotn erupted simultaneously and the resulting flood swept me out to sea in the tiny Hyundai crossed my mind, but made it back to Klaustur on fumes.

Driving across the lava fields back across to Vik it was clear to see where the troll rumours come from… just screw your eyes up a bit and look at this:

I spent the late afternoon taking photos of waves crashing onto the rocks at Dyrhólaey:

…followed by some more rock scrambling, a beautiful sunset and wave chasing (with a busload of tourists who turned up out of nowhere) on the Reynisfjara peninsular just west of Vik.

Iceland South Shore Day 2: Vik to Jökulsárlón

There was beautiful early morning sunshine whilst I had breakfast, but the weather turned nasty approximately two minutes after I started a walk on the beach in Vik, and stayed ridiculously (Icelandically!) changeable all day.

I received an element-battering whilst I took a few photos of the Reynisdrangar rock stacks   (legend has it that three trolls out causing mischief one night were turned to stone once dawn broke), before continuing my drive east across the Mýrdalssandur (below).

The next stop on my journey along the south shore was the 120-person village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (meaning something like ‘church farm cloister’, but more commonly known as “Klaustur” to its friends!). I walked up the steep path on the west side of Systrafoss waterfall (seen below from the top, looking over the glacial run-off plain below), around the Systravatn (Sisters’ Lake) that it flows from, and round the rest of a steep and boggy loop back down into the village.

Continuing east, I took a quick stop at Foss á Siðu, as it looked like a great waterfall for a scramble over rocks at the left hand side. Of course, the combination of wet rocks and a clumsy ginger kid led to the clumsy ginger kid almost falling in, but it was fun!

The Skeiðarársandur glacial outwash plain is much larger and more spectacular than the Myrdalssandur (apparently covering a massive 320,000 acres), with long, narrow bridges to carry Route 1 across the many drainage channels.

Halfway across I stopped to look at the photo boards of the worst flooding, caused by the  jökulhlaup after the 1996 eruption of Grímsvötn (the volcano which caused the smaller ash cloud in May 2011). There’s also a twisted girder of the Skeiðará old bridge by the information signs, giving just a little indication of the destructive power of nature.

Further east, beyond the Skaftafell National Park visitor centre, I decided to go it alone on a glacier hike (I’ve done organised ones on past trips), and spent a merry hour sliding and scrambling around in the moraine at the end of the Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue.

The last big driving stretch of the day – from Svínafellsjökull to Jökulsárlón – was the best of an amazing amount of beautiful scenery.  I had phenomenal views of glaciers and mountains both in front of me and behind, and felt extremely lucky both to be there and that the road was almost deserted so I could keep stopping for photos.

Jökulsárlón (the glacier lagoon) is simply as stunning as I was expecting it to be, and a whole lot more. Despite the bitter cold my friends and I spent a good couple of hours taking photos and watching the seals

…also looking for the Great Skua (not the British Sea Power record!). And then someone set the sky on fire.

I can cram a lot into these days.

After I’d found my hostel and had dinner it got even better, as the clear night and open skies, I finally got to see some bright flashing greens and purples of the northern lights. Only a little “show”, but absolutely stunning and leaving me wanting to make another trip to see the Aurora in its wider beauty again soon.

Iceland South Shore Day 1: Keflavik to Vik

My plane was only delayed for a few minutes at Heathrow, but I admit I checked to see if Katla had done it at the worst possible time for me (see below). Thankfully not.
Anyway I picked up my hire car at Keflavik, did a few manoeuvres to re-acquaint myself with a left hand drive, then got on my way (OK I might have “changed” the driver’s door pocket a couple of times before Hveragerði, but we’ll keep that to ourselves, eh?!).

Time and daylight hours were against me, so it was foot down towards Vik. But I still managed a couple of detours off Route 1 once past Selfoss and well on my way:
1) Bakki, where the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) ferry leaves from, has beautiful black lava beaches. In a Force 4 gale after dark it was a true ginger kid seaside paradise!

2) Seljalandsfoss, where the waterfall was heavily backlit and looked beautiful. Of course, just after I arrived a couple of the bulbs blew and it got creepy, but there you go.

A slightly spooky place to be alone after dark

The stops meant I had to drive the last few miles into Vik in extreme dark (not many street lights here), heavy winds and driving rain. Fun. It was only when I parked in Vik that I discovered the handbrake in the Hyundai I3 was a little “traumatised” by a summer of American rental drivers, and could no longer hold the car’s own weight in a Force 4 gale (NB. if anyone finds the CCTV footage from the Vindbudin car park you may see me running after the car Keystone Cops-style!).

Vik is the southernmost village in Iceland, and currently preparing itself as the volcano Katla is tipped to erupt “soon” (that’s geographically soon, not necessarily next week).

Looking down into Vik from the HI Hostel on the hillside

Home to a population of c. 300 people, on Saturday the population of Vik increased by a temporary impromptu Yorkshire convention (Elly and Jamie had found others from ‘God’s Own County’ in the HI hostel on arrival). Further excitement was provided by the local cultural festival, “headlined” by an ageing covers band providing a disco in the bar adjoining the local petrol station (and still people were going outside to smoke?!) featuring ALL of the village and, possibly, me attempting to samba dance in hiking boots. Erm… skilz!

A pick-up AND an SUV? Damn, we got visitors... best start ourselves a party!

 

Iceland Airwaves 2010

I don’t want to fill my travel blog with gig reviews and pictures, but the larger reason for my trip to Iceland was my first visit to the amazing that is Iceland Airwaves.

If you’re interested in music, links to listen to some of the artists I (re)discovered, and my “if you only listen to one track listen to this one” recommendation, please have a read of my blog posts over on my littlegingerkid blog .

Day One       Day Two       Day Three       Day Four       Day Five

Prins Polo playing at Venue on Day One of Airwaves

Should you want to learn a few words of Icelandic, I can point you in the direction of this lovely blog