Mar 132019
 


Woke up relatively early after a good night of sleep, and headed down to the restaurant of the Scandic Hotel to see what breakfast was all about. It was absolutely packed with people, mostly Chinese and Russians based on the languages being spoken.

The buffet seemed to be closer to Russian than Norwegian, with caviar, beets, pickles, and lots of smoked fish that could have been at home in either country. Not exactly what I expected, but a delicious wake-up call that we were about to cross the most northern border in the world!

After breakfast, we still had a few hours for a walk. Since our bus to Murmansk wouldn’t depart until 14:00, we asked the hotel about the possibility of a 13:00 or 13:30 checkout, and without even looking the front desk agent rather shortly told us NO. Checkout is 12:00 sharp. I understand the reason, but it could have been delivered in a much friendlier manner…

Off on the walk, we walked by the ice rink, which was being cleared of around 10-12cm of snow overnight. I was majorly bummed out that we would miss the tournament later in the day.

Walking through the very snowy town, I started to get excited for our upcoming border crossing:

Looking north, towards the Barents Sea. Brrrr…. Temp fortunately wasn’t too bad at about -15, but the snow and wind made it a little less than optimal walking conditions.

The Kirkenes Kirke, or the church…

The Soviet Liberation Monument, in memory of the Soviets fighting to free the town from the Nazis:

Picturesque view back onto the city of Kirkenes…yes, this was noon…

We stopped in the one coffeeshop we found after our walk for a warm coffee and sweet, and you could really tell that China was the theme of the big town festival going on. My oreo brownie even had a little Chinese flag in it. Does anyone know what it says? Google translate seems to think “family?” My reputation must have preceded me to Kirkenes….

Back to the sign, but better view of the snow “mountain” in the daylight. Little kids sledding down the other side. You can see the snow falling a bit in this pic.

Back to the hotel to check out and wait for our bus, and we still had about 90 minutes to kill. Kirkenes is famous for its king crab, and there was a tank in the lobby for the restaurant. I can’t decide if this guy looked scary or delicious…

Very snowy exterior of the Scandic Kirkenes.

About 30 minutes before our bus’ departure, we walked outside, and the bus was already full and waiting – with just two seats left for us. Everyone else on the bus was Russian from Murmansk, so we were the last ones and headed off early.

The border was only about 20-25 minutes away, and soon enough we were there. Funny enough, I had entered the Schengen Area on my work passport, which caused quite a lot of confusion exiting Norway, as I imagine they don’t see a lot of official passports at this northernmost Schengen border. Only added a few minutes, and soon we were all stamped out and back into the bus to Russia.

I debated trying to get a few pictures of this northernmost border in the world, but there was really no opportunity, and soon we were at Russian immigration. Immigration itself wasn’t too bad, although the rather junior agent decided to call over the station chief to have a look at my visa and passport. The giant 96 page passport definitely stood out, and I imagine the colourful assortment of visas in it from all corners of the planet didn’t help either. After a very short chat in pretty basic Russian no problem, stamp stamp.

Given the slight bit of extra attention customs decided they wanted to open and go through my bags, which was no problem at all, and it was maybe 15 minutes start to finish and we were through the northernmost border!

Another 15 minutes, and we came to a rest stop for a bathroom break. I think there might have been food for sale too, but we skipped that in favour of a few photos. It was a little snowy…

Russian AND Soviet flags still flying this far north. Love the contrast of the deep blue sky:

Some sort of Soviet memorial. Even zooming in the text is blurry so hard to tell exactly what to.

Fortunately, the minibus (which only held about 12 of us) had no trouble driving 100+ kph the whole way, despite the rather heavy snow, and we all lived to make it to Murmansk after less than four hours on the road. Bus dropped us right at our hotel, where after a quick check-in we were off to find some food. After missing lunch we were pretty hungry, so set off through snowy Murmansk. Snow was still coming down very heavy:

Monument to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Mirliki:

Dinner was at Tundra Restaurant which looked delicious online, but surely this far north in the Arctic the menu would overpromise and under deliver, right?

We started with the salmon caviar and soft cheese on black rice crackers, which was outstanding. Why it’s served on a bunch of stones I don’t know, but…

Next up was the grilled meat platter with venison, marbled roast beef, pork neck, and some sort of arctic berry sauce…again…delicious.

For the main, I went with Kamchatka king crab baked with wasabi sauce. Once again…absolutely delicious and decadent.

Couldn’t resist desert, which was the house specialty of boiled condensed milk served in “wafer tubules.” Extremely sweet and caramelly, but again…delicious.

By this point we were absolutely loving everything about this restaurant, so when in russia…homemade lingonberry vodka.

On the way out after an amazing meal, one last chance to stop and admire the slightly unusual decor:

All that was left was a nice snowy walk back to the hotel, past the monument to the Hero City of Murmansk…complete with Lenin:

After an amazing first day in the Arctic I couldn’t wait to catch up on sleep a little bit, and spend the entire next day exploring this winter weirdness!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Mar 152012
 

Needless to say, the next few months is going to be incredibly busy! Starting this weekend, I have 6 big trips planned in the next three months. Short story is:

Ski and birthday weekend in Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Four days of diving in Grand Cayman, getting SCUBA certified
Then, a few days later, off to Oahu, Hawaii for a welcome home
After that, I’ll actually stay put a few days before it’s off to Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Sudan, and Bulgaria
Work a few days, then off to Ottawa, Ontario to run the Ottawa marathon
…and from there, I fly straight to Longyearbyen, Norway, at 78 degrees north latitude, for the Spitsbergen Marathon 6 days later!

Continue reading »

Jun 232011
 

Unfortunately for the day after a marathon our flight out was at oh-dark-thirty, otherwise known as 8am. There was another one-stop flight via Tromsø that departed around 2pm, but was sold out in lower classes and was over $200 more. For a party of four we value sleep, but not to the tune of $800+. Plus, this would offer a bit of time to relax in Oslo before the long trek home.

Hotel breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7am, but in recognition of all the people with early flights they had a nice light breakfast set out. Breads, cheeses, some meat and fish, etc. Rare that a hotel would go the extra mile like this!

Unfortunately, the SAS bus ran on a set schedule, with a pickup time of 6am for an 8am flight…at an airport with only one departure. We decided sleep was more important and had ordered a taxi. The bus was NOK 50 per person, and the taxi turned out to be about NOK 250…so about a $9 premium for four people to get an extra hour of sleep – well worth it! Continue reading »

Jun 212011
 

When I looked at the Travelers Century Club country list many years ago, there were several “countries” on it that I had no idea where they were. I was more interested in visiting “real” countries, but figured this was an interesting list from a geography geek point of view as well I was trying to figure out where in the world Spitsbergen was…and around the same time realised that there was also a marathon here….the northernmost on Earth. Perfect coincidence, and I knew I wanted to do it one day!

Fast forward a couple of years, and the June race date coincided perfectly with my work and other travelers, so one afternoon in Hawaii with Matt and family we decided we’d all head up there in June to see what it was all about.

Unfortunately, the week after the trip in Hawaii, I woke up one morning with a horrid shooting/stabbing pain in the arch of my right foot. After struggling with it for a week I headed in only to learn it was plantar fasciitis – basically a nasty inflammation of the tendon/fascia under the arch of the foot. Probably the result of spending way too much time wearing flip-flops lately, walking on the beach barefoot, etc.

My plans for finally running a sub-4 hour marathon quickly went out the window, and I was only concerned with getting well enough I could walk/finish this race. I went through two doctors and a variety of failed treatments, before seeing a doctor who was a legend in the local running community. A marathoner himself, he knew I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and would do anything he could to get me to the start line. Continue reading »

Jun 162011
 

So the day had finally arrived….after a night in the land of the midnight sun, we were off to 78 degrees north – several hundred kilometers north of the arctic circle.

There were only about 20 people in the gate area, so we were expecting that the flight would be pretty empty. However, based on the online seat map (available until right before boarding) the flight was packed…what was going on? Soon we realised that the flight was a through flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen with a stop in Tromsø – so that explained it.

Soon the plane pulled up, and over 100 people began to slowly pile into the gate area after clearing immigration to exit the Schengen at Tromsø. I know I had looked into this option when booking, but I felt that a gradual trek north with the chance to spend a couple days each in a couple of other cities would make things more interesting – very glad we did! Continue reading »

Jun 152011
 

We spent a couple of days in Trondheim, and soon it was time to continue the trek north. One note on Trondheim I haven’t posted yet, and that relates to the sun. Sunset in Trondheim was officially around 11-something with sunrise around 4am, however, it really didn’t get dark before 12 or so, and was already pretty light around 230 or 3am. All darkness would disappear after the next segment, however!

Flight SAS 4556
Trondheim (TRD) to Bodø (BOO)
Boeing 737-400
Registration LN-BRI, manufactured 1990
Seats 12A, 12C, 12D, 12F

One of the things that I was excited about (and I only figured out after booking this flight) is that it was one-stop through an airport with a really cool code. Who wouldn’t want to fly to BOO! I’m also working on FUN and DAM… 😀 Plus BOO would enable me to add one more to my total number of airports visited in a lifetime.

So, once again we were in the exit row, hoping the middles would stay free. 12E did, however, 12B ended up occupied from TRD-BOO and then empty for the second segment. This is probably a good time to talk about SAS mobile check-in. All of the tickets for this trip had been purchased on the SAS website, and I had given them my mobile number. At flight time minus 22 hours I got a text, containing a link to a mobile checkin site – which worked like a charm. It enabled me to secure exits or bulkheads on every segment…got to love that! Finally a mobile check-in that works! Continue reading »

Jun 142011
 

So having donated a couple of internal organs to the economy of Oslo, it was time to start the slow and gradual trek northward towards our ultimate destination of Svalbard.

The trip back to OSL was very efficient thanks to the SAS Flybussen. I don’t know all the details, but this bus service operated in all the airports we flew into on this trip, and was a timely and affordable (all things being relative) option all over Norway. I’d highly recommend it, and based on the number of locals on the busses it’s the way to go.

Go to OSL, off to the Star Gold check-in which was quick, friendly, and efficient, and then off to security which was equally so. So far, this is a great economy experience!

Until…we got through security and learned two things about SAS domestic Norwegian flights: (1) there is no lounge…ever and (2) there is only economy on these flights…ever. Continue reading »

Jun 122011
 

So let’s see, where were we. Oh yes, due to customer service issues and dangerous cargo I was stranded at Frankfurt and transferred from my SAS flight to a Lufthansa flight meaning a delay of four hours. There’s only so much time a person can spend in the Senator lounge, plus I’d headed outside immigration and security to actually get booked by someone who cared, so I did what any bleary-eyed redeye survivor would do: camped out at Starbucks. One quad venti lowfat iced latte later, I was feeling nearly human. After about an hour of playing around on the iPhone (thank you AT&T unlimited international data) and fending off a group of cougars from Nebraska who were after my Splenda stash (understandable since they’d been in Europe for two weeks) I headed back through security to the Senator lounge, where I found…

…no würst!!! I mean, come on, that and the beer (ok, and the potato salad) is the only thing that makes the Senator lounges better than Red Carpet Clubs. So faced with that, I decided to take advantage of the only other thing that makes the Lufthansa Lounges nice after a redeye: the showers. Despite being overheated and humid (I’ll never understand the German fear of being chilly) the showers are always welcome, plus they offer one of the few places in Germany where someone whose German is as poor as mine can actually practice since the shower attendants rarely speak more than 2 or 3 phrases of English. Continue reading »