Rabu, 02 Desember 2009

Norway in a nutshell

Aurlandsfjord: (JP/Arief Suhardiman)
"You're so lucky!" a fellow traveler from Bergen, Norway, told me moments before the train that was to take me and my companion entered the station of Myrdal to start my "Norway in a nutshell" adventure.
"The weather was really bad yesterday. There was a rainstorm so we couldn't go anywhere. But now the sun is shining and the sky so clear," said the woman, pointing at the panorama over the railcar window pane.
Upon hearing that, I couldn't help but smile. Jokingly, I responded to her and her two friends, "Our presence makes the sun shine." My comment set them off laughing. "Yes, yes... now you can see our beautiful landscape. I hope you'll enjoy it. Have a nice trip!" she remarked.
Our chat had to be cut short, as we were rushing for another train that would carry us to Flam, a town famous for its picturesque railway line. Out in the sunny, yet brisk pre-winter day, we sought information about our next train.
After being notified by station officers that the Flam-bound train was departing within 15 minutes, we hurriedly boarded one of the dark green carriages.
Not long after that, the series of coaches began to move ahead. Around a hundred passengers, mostly comprising tourists, were in high spirits despite the fact that some of them, like us, had just done the five-hours train journey from Oslo.
Over the train's loudspeaker, a woman began describing the stunning landscape along the trip from Myrdal to Flam. Sadly, much of what was said was indiscernible among the steady rumble of train engines.
In no more than five minutes, the passengers leapt from their bright red seats to line the carriage windows. All eyes gazed down from the height of 886 meters above sea level, onto a magnificent vista of steep valleys, snowcapped mountains and rocky waterfalls.
Some of the phalanx of amateur photographers opened their windows to get a better picture, without those annoying pane reflections. The clickity-clack of the train's wheels over the tracks created a distinctive ambience adding to my enjoyment of the awe-inspiring natural beauty.
The train slowed several times as we passed particularly gorgeous scenes. It was then, it seemed, that one side of the carriage was standing room only as camera shutters whirred and clicked, forever capturing the remarkable scenery.
As the train crept along near the Kjosfossen falls at the height of 93 meters, it was announced that we were allowed to get off and feel the cool spray that rose from the base of the falls as a fine mist, and settled on our faces.

Kjosfossen waterfall: (JP/Arief Suhardiman)
The journey passes through a number of tunnels, and each time the train would burst into the light, revealing amazing views to be relished by the travelers who had been kept in darkened suspense.
After an hour, the 20-kilometer Myrdal - Flam scenic route was over. Once in Flam, we were guided to the conveniently located (adjacent) port and onto a waiting ship to cruise along Norway's famous fjords.
Aurlandsfjord & Naerofjord
Most of the passengers chose the outdoor seats aboard the vessel, Skagastol, to watch the marine panoramas as we cruised through the fjords. Some struggled to secure their best places for the rare spectacle.
The ship soon left Flam for Gudvangen. On its way, this boat was coasting along Aurlandsfjord and Naerofjord, which are the pride of Norwegian people. They constitute a conservation zone and have been on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 2005.
A fjord is formed when a glacier retreats after carving its typical U-shaped valley allowing the sea to fill the valley floor. This forms a narrow, steep sided inlet (sometimes deeper than 1,300 meters) connected to the sea.
Slicing through the turquoise seawater, the cold wind numbed our faces. Protected by my thick wind breaker I managed two hours out on the deck, snapping the splendid features of marine beauty comparable to the ice kingdoms of fairy tales, my mind began to wander back to the days of Vikings and the Ice Age.
The fjord, at times, soared to dizzying heights either side of us, dwarfing our ship and making me feel rather insignificant. The coral mountains, hundreds of meters high, were colored a mottled gray, and partially covered by greenery.
At certain places snow was trapped in crevices. Waterfalls carved into the sides of the fjords over thousands of years gushed down spectacularly. I began to wonder where the water pouring through steep coral mountain slopes had come from.
Away from the fjords, I noticed very neatly arranged housing units of simple architecture, reflecting harmony between rural settlements and their natural environment. But in the several villages we sailed past, I could hardly see any people around.
At Aurlandsfjord port with hundreds of houses in its vicinity, I only spotted three people: a boat passenger and two port officers. Probably due to Norway's small population of 4.5 million, coupled with the approaching winter, keeping people indoors.
The fascinating scenery stretching throughout the journey along the fjords, where the Vikings once roamed, ended in Gudvangen.
A view from Stalheimskleiva: (JP/Arief Suhardiman) 
A view from Stalheimskleiva
Stalheimskleiva Road
Voss was our final destination, and we took the bus. Pressed by time, we had to hurry.
Punctual is the most appropriate word to describe the public transport here. It's praiseworthy although the interval is short, no more than 15 minutes, forcing visitors to rush before it's too late. I chose to sit on the front seat.
Full to capacity, the bus began the trip to Voss. It plied the route via the valley of Naeroydalen. The sightseeing tour gave a heart-pounding experience as the bus was passing Stalheimskleiva, known for its extremely steep road (as if it was sloping by almost 40 degrees!) with 13 hairpin bends.
Unsurprisingly, this is lauded as one of the steepest stretches of road in Northern Europe.
"Wooowww...!" was the humming cry of several passengers. Nearly all those on the bus were looking ahead with their hands gripping the seats in front. I just smiled at their reflex movements, squeezing the seats as if trying to apply the brakes.
It requires a lot of skill and prime vehicle conditions to pass the road. It's scary to think what would have happened if any of the requirements were not met, but I managed to shunt that thought out of my mind.
The bus crept slowly along the narrow asphalt road. In spite of the strong heartbeats induced, the surrounding landscape was too wonderful to miss. The bus also paused for a while before Sivlefossen and Stalheimsfossen waterfalls, allowing us to steady our hearts.
This is only open from May to September. During the winter months buses between Gudvangen and Voss have to take another way.
I was reminded of what the woman from Bergen said in the beginning of this journey. I was lucky to be able to make the trip by mid-October so I could experience the sensation of this well known road.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived at Voss railway station. And we only had about 15 minutes to board the train that would take us back to Oslo.
I spent the little time left to go to a restaurant where I bought a salmon sandwich to relieve my hunger.
After everything was ready we all got on the train bound for the capital of the country boasting its slogan "See this small, but great country!"

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