Norway 2010

Very few of my vacations have been straightforward. Norway was no exception, it being a trip where Hitomi and I were bringing a customized tandem overseas and we were attempting to integrate in both cultural sightseeing, kayaking, and a bit of train travel as well.

I panicked a bit before the trip. Our Bilenky Viewpoint tandem, ordered in January, was (finally) assembled and ready for our use the Wednesday before we were leaving: We weren’t sure it would be ready, given last minute troubles with the paint and other delays. (It was originally supposed to be ready early May!) We also hadn’t secured our final schedule. Hitomi did most of the work getting hotel reservations, but a the bicycling days were dependent on weather and our hope for participating in a kayak trip mid week.

There were three main bicycle route segments we were interested in. The first two segments were from a Norwegian map guide describing a route from west of Oslo, leading into Bergen. The first trip we considered attempting was along the old railway construction road (the popular Navvies’ Route), starting in Haugastol and we would end in Myrdal, cycling down to Flam. Then we would kayak from Flam for a few days, take the train back to Myrdal. The second trip would be a three day (or more) trip from Voss to Bergen along bicycle route 4 in the country.

The final trip was along the North Sea bicycle route, from Bergen down to Stavanger and we’d hike the famous Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock.) We’d take the train back to Olso, pack up, and fly out.

Needless to say, plans didn’t quite work out this way. The early in the week kayak trip we were hoping to join was canceled and we went with a company that started their trip on Saturday, in any case pushing or rearranging dates.

But we did do parts of our original plan. We cycled from Geilo to Myrdal in a day. This actually was quite difficult, especially with a fully loaded tandem. It was pretty friendly gravel–if not steep–in the beginning, turning into basically stream bed chunks of large granite in the end. And it rained and blew heavily and I was cold. And there was trouble with the drive chain popping off due to alignment issues and shifting. And it became so steep or rocky in sections that we had no choice but to push the bicycle uphill.

Though it was beautiful: Cascading pools of rocks, very little trees, and cliffs on either side blanketed in cloud. It was also terribly difficult. At Finse (1221 meters elevation), we stopped for lunch and though I considered bailing there, but we were faced with waiting for a train for 4 hours and I decided given we were near the top, elevation-wise, to continue to Myrdal and catch the 8PM train.

Given the hard rain and cold, we saw only a few hearty mountain bicyclists. Yes, it was mainly downhill from Finse but we were having to get on and off the bicycle depending on the road condition. The road was being actively repaired, in fact, and we had to dismount to get around the machinery or pass over the loose gravel. Mother nature obviously didn’t allow the smooth, small gravel to say for long as mostly what we road on were 4-6″ stones.

The most scenic sections were literally a few meters from rushing water and waterfalls. One perilous section had some railing installed and signs urging caution, since you’d likely end up in some crevasse if you couldn’t control your speed.

The last bit into Myrdal station was too steep and rocky to ride, it was about 1km of pushing the tandem to make the train. I was grateful to finally be off the road and get something warm to eat. Dinner was at one of the few places still open in Voss, which is said to be a resort town.

The next day we planned to immediately head off to Dale (pronounced “da-le”). It was my responsibility to find a place to stay along the way, but I waited until the morning of and it seemed very few places were still available during the beginning of the off season. It was still August! Yet, only a couple of people answered the phone. I headed to the tourist office and found a place in Mo (“Moo”) but it was on the opposite side of a 3.5km tunnel. Hitomi had heard–and it was almost certainly true in this case–that bicyclists were not allowed to pass through the many long tunnels in Norway for safety reasons, though it’s not really feasible, say, to wait around for a bus.

There was a bit of arguing about me not calling a more suitable place earlier, and I admitted to being lackadaisical…

From Voss to Dale is about 100km, if you take Bicycle Route 4 north from Evanger. It’s a beautiful route first down river, then up river to a pass. The pass is about 700m high, and the ascent is about 400m in just a few kilometers which turned out to be quite steep and problematic on the tandem. So it was back to pushing the bicycle uphill, though at least this time on pavement. I tried hard to pedal up the 10% grade, but damn, the bicycle wouldn’t cooperate! Then the rain and wind came and it was a repeat of the previous day.

Once after the pass, it was a steep downhill and straightforward. On a steep section, we heard vibration, followed by an alarming pop, as the innertube was forced out between the tire bead and sidewall: Our tire had failed! I had a tire boot, but it wasn’t enough as the tear was substantial.

Desperate, I asked random people for help. The first house I spotted somebody at, had lent me some thread and needles to secure the tire boot better, but the boot wasn’t large enough for the tear. A few miles later, the tube popped again and I asked some women on a walk for help. They offered a BMX tire off their grown kid’s bicycle, but it soon failed as well. The BMX tire was quite cracked and was on the verge of coming apart.

We managed to make it 10km more. But with the tire acting squirrelly and impossible to steer, I decided it was going to soon burst. Luckily, I spotted a place advertising itself as “cyclist friendly”. It was a place to stay in an area of almost all farms. But it wasn’t officially open. Still, the owner of the home let us spend the night, and later repair the tire.

Thove, who lead bicycle trips, and her business partner (Olav?) who owned the large house which was half residence half bed and breakfast, welcomed us in. We were offered a room as well as a frozen pizza. It was late and I was quite exhaused, so we didn’t talk much. But the following morning over the usual Norwegian toast breakfast, we talked about how the business was run. Thove’s business is “custom made adventures”, mainly supported bicycle tours like we were doing, as well also encompassed pretty much every other outdoor activity in Norway, though she would act as a coordinator. Say, for a kayak tour, she’d arrange transportation to and from the provider.

Mainly what you need to run an outdoor activity company is a nice website that’s locatable through Google, though traditional advertising and partnerships help. Some oversees companies partner with REI, or in the case of cycling, local cycling clubs and we suggested she look into it.

I managed to stitched together the bead to the sidewall and we headed out. An hour or so later, after a beautiful decent back to sea level, the tire failed with a split on the opposite side. We waited for the bus to Dale and took another bus to Voss.

Since the youth hostel in Voss was supposedly full, we got a room instead at the local camp ground. The price of a cabin (no running water or toilet) was about the same as a private hostel room, so I wasn’t too happy about that. I’m guessing the kayak company has some sort of special arrangement with them?

I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about joining a kayak tour, since I knew how to paddle well enough on my own. But I wasn’t about to bring both a bicycle and kayak, and even if I rented a kayak, I did not have all the gear to properly camp. For what it was worth, the tour in total was well run, and we had an experienced guide who actually knew how to cook and manage the group.

The group consisted of people from Australia and England, us, and one German. The guide was from New Zealand. As it turns out, a large number of Australians work overseas at resorts, like Whistler, or as guides like who we had.

The route was from Gudvagen almost to Flam, in the Nærøyfjord, which is a World Heritage site. It was probably the most beautiful location during our trip, enhanced with the mix of rain and sun that we had. We also did a very long hike up to the top of some cliffs almost directly above the water at around 1000 meters. (Hitomi’s Flickr has some pictures…)

Post trip, we ended up getting a ride to Bergen airport–though we were told downtown. Still, the van took our bicycle for free, so I didn’t have grounds to complain. I chatted with the driver, who was (again) from New Zealand and an avid surfer and outdoor enthusiast. I learned a bit more about how outdoor businesses work in Norway: Overseas guides make a lot of money in a short amount of time and guides who work the short season do quite well. The owner of Nordic Adventures is using money from his business to open a new outdoor center in the Philippines, using local builders and guides. I mentioned I was trying to build a sailboat and he mentioned that he knew how to sail since he was a boy.

The place we stayed in Bergen was supposedly cheap, but no lodging in Norway is very cheap. We had a shared bathroom and a spartan room, though the staff was nice enough to let us keep our bicycle inside.

The following day we found the bicycle shop that I called before leaving on the kayak trip, the previous Thursday night, to order the tire. They of course had no idea. But they would have one in, supposedly, on Wednesday. Maybe.

We spent the next day sightseeing and shopping. The famous Bryggen area in Bergen was pretty cool to see: Crooked buildings! There was a fair bit of straightening going on. There weren’t a lot of handmade craft stores like I had heard, but there was at least one nice shop run by a Swedish lady. The cute clothes and designs there appealed to Hitomi. (Most stores sold cheap t-shirts and souvenirs like you see in every other tourist place in the world. Bad taste is universal.)

We also made a stop at the bicycle store. Although I had called and sent an email, the staff didn’t recall what I had asked for, so it was unlikely we’d have the tire. But they called and found out it’d likely arrive Wednesday. It was Monday, so although it’d keep us from our tour down the coast, it’d be better than no working tandem bicycle at all.

Tuesday and some of Wednesday Hitomi and I split up. Hitomi wanted to do some shopping and I wanted to see some museums. There’s always a lot to see in old European towns, Bryggan no exception. We had lunch at the fisherman’s warf, and happened to meet someone from our kayak trip. He was buying coffee before taking the ferry to Stavenger.

We were also planning on being on the same ferry, 4PM Wednesday, but although the shop said we’d have a tire, it did not arrive in time. I did find a suitable tire at another shop which specialized in BMX, though it was quite fat and didn’t allow for our fender it might have been what I should have settled for.

Anyway, we took a bus at 7PM, which with the ferry crossings, took us until after midnight to arrive in Stavenger. It was one of those busses that starts off quite full and we were the only two in the end. Although the driver was kind enough to drop us off at our hotel, he did charge a bit more for the bicycle. (Sometimes we were charged once, two times for the tandem, or not at all.)

Without being able to bicycle the past 5 days, I was eager to ride to Preikestolen: We woke up a bit early and after our buffet, rode to the ferry. The ferry had a lot of walk-on tourists, and buses full of tourists heading to Preikestolen as well. The ride was fairly straightforward, though a bit steep. Once we got on the road to the trailhead, it turned into a bit of a steep climb. Luckily I was used to it. At the trailhead were a number of buildings, including the youth hostel we originally considered booking.

Trails in Norway that I’ve seen, including this one, were always not well maintained, considering the volume. There was a huge amount of trash, predominately cigarrette butts (Europeans sure smoke a lot), tissues and wrappers, some bottles and bags, either accidentally dropped or wedged into hiding places. Tired of all the trash, I did volunteer cleanup. The trail also was heavily eroded: If a trail isn’t taken care of, people sidestep and cut, widening the trail and making a mess of the land. The trail was marked with so many red Ts, that they weren’t terribly useful or attractive.

Despite the condition of the trail, and the huge litter problem, Preikestolen was amazing. And scarey. It’s popular to stick your head out over the edge of the overhanging rock, and look down 2000 feet to the fjord. Hitomi and I took a couple great shots.

Back in Stavenger around 5PM or so, we decided to eat. There was a gourmet Indian place in town which was the choice alternative to eating more Norwegian food. Stavenger was a lot of fun to bicycle around, and maybe because of the sunny weather felt a bit nicer overall than dour Bergen.

The next day in Stavenger, we had half a day. I went to the famous Stavenger Domkirk (church): I began thinking it’d be good for busy tourist places like churches and museums to ban photography, since not only are most people just taking crappy indoor pictures they don’t really need, and they are not really there in the moment to enjoy themselves. It’s also a bit annoying to other visitors, even if they surpress the flash.

Around 2PM, we were on a train to Oslo: We had nice seats and could enjoy the coastal scenery. I played Dragon Quest IX and Hitomi had her Ghost Trick video game. I could see why people bicycle the coast and I wish we had more time to ride from Bergen to Stavenger like we had originally planned. Still, I found out that riding a tandem was quite a lot more work than I had expected, so it was good to break up our cycling days.

We were back in our old hotel in Olso, on a Friday night. Being in a lively part of time (nightclubs, etc.) we were thinking it’d be hard to sleep. Luckily our room wasn’t facing the the road and it was cool enough to keep the windows closed. (Don’t expect air conditioning in Norway!)

Saturday was our last full day in Norway. We left to the Viking museum in the morning. The Vigeland scuplture garden, the National Museum and the Viking Museums are the must see spots in Oslo. I went to see the Kon Tiki museum while Hitomi took a ferry back to the new development area in the harbor.

After buying lunch at a super market (fried rice and chicken wings), eating on the dock in the sun, followed by soft icecream dipped in chocolate, we went to the Nobel Peace Prize Museum. There were two exhibits, one on Apartheid in South Africa, and one on Barack Obama explaining why he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. They haven’t given prizes out to entirely saintly individuals in the past, but I could understand their thinking a bit better: It is notable that President Obama is working towards nuclear disarmament as a priority.

Before heading to dinner, it was time to pack up the tandem bicycle. It was scratched up quite a lot: I was disappointed I hadn’t packed it well. Packing it took about an hour and a half, plus we had to pack our other things.

Dinner was at a restaurant I was interested in since first bicycling by it: The Grand Cafe’, which was allegedly frequented by several Olso intellectuals and luminaries. I was more interested in the food, which was expertly prepared and quite good. I wasn’t sure it was entirely Norwegian or European, still it incorporated local ingredients. The restuarant was in a charming part of town, with large windows and beautiful wood trim. I found it a fitting end to our trip.

It was a pre-dawn rise to the train station, and long trip back to Seattle. Notably, seated behind Hitomi was a rowdy young Indian boy (little prince) who was not controlled at all by his mother. Fortuantely, the good Air France food made up for the discomfort.

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About eliasross

Blogging before the word "blog" was invented.
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