Sunday, December 22, 2013

Abisko National Park

In my quest for the Northern Lights, I've made trips to Finland and Norway, and on my Norway trip, I made a little excursion to Sweden too. This turned out to be one of the best side trips as I had one of my best aurora sightings there!

Watching the Northern Lights

Abisko National Park lies in the Swedish Lapland region and is a popular hiking and trekking area. In fact, it is part of the popular 425-km trail known as Kungsleden trail. In winter, it is popular for cross-country ski-ing and other winter sports activities. And being 100+km above the Arctic Circle, and with little light population, it is an excellent place for aurora hunting too!

Within the park, there is a village of the same name, and not far from that, a resort/lodge known as Abisko Turiststation. Aside from providing lodging, the park visitor information centre is also here. And the best part? A train station is just 5-min walk away! And the second best part? The lodge also provides hostel dormitories and a self-service kitchen!

Abisko Turiststation

For budget backpackers, this is as good as it gets for a DIY trip for Northern Lights. Just 20-min walk away from the lodge, there is a Torneträsk Lake where one can witness the lights. In fact, it just takes a 5-min walk away from the lodge and you would be in a dark enough place to see the phenomena (if it appears ;) ). On one of the 3 nights I was there, I was lucky that the display was so great that I could enjoy the sighting literally just outside the lodge! 

For those who have quite abit of money to spare, there are professional guiding as well, and there is a ski-lift ride that brings you up the mountain slope for viewing. The views from above would be quite spectacular especially if the aurora turns up! There is a full suite of activities available too, from dog-sledding, snow-shoeing to Sami camp hikes. The restaurant is supposedly very good as well, and all-in-all, it's an excellent tourist spot catered to various budgets!

Walking within the National Park

Frozen lake and surrounding mountains

You can easily get to Abisko Turiststation by train from either Kiruna or Narvik in Norway. The train ride itself is spectacularly scenic as well, and I've written about it here.

For independent travelers who are adverse to signing on expensive tours, Abisko makes an excellent easy option for Northern Lights hunting. Check it out!

Walking at night in the national park

Aurora swirling just outside the lodge
Viewing the Aurora Borealis

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Yazd, Iran

One of my favourite town stays in my trip to Iran has to be Yazd. While Esfahan attracts with its beauty, Yazd attracts with its simple authenticity.

Yazd is a stop in many typical Iran itineraries, although for shorter trips, it seemed to be left out for the more convenient Tehran-Esfahan-Shiraz route. Being one of the oldest towns in the world, it has its fair share of historical and cultural attractions, including quite abit of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion/culture. All these, like the Fire Temple and the Towers of Silence etc is easily found in guidebooks/online etc.

Admiring the interior of the Jame Mosque

For me, the highlight is the old town itself, which of course, is one of the attractions as well. I love wandering in the alleys and discovering unique encounters within the uniform coloured adobe maze. There is a historical air about the place, and everything you see is probably as is since the olden days. Unfortunately, this also means you do see parts or sections that has crumbled and nothing has been done to it. The people in Iran are also among the friendliest in the world, and chatting with the local residents can sometimes be as gratifying as gazing upon an expansive landscape. And capturing the expressions of the kids are also quite a delight!

Yes, you could cycle too!
The wind towers of Yazd

Life within the old town
Joys of travel encounters

Travel portraits!

For those souvenir shopoholic, Yazd's textiles and silk weavings are of good regard and even Marco Polo noted its quality when he visited the town on his journey. And you could get yourself Persian carpets too, and make it fly! (of course, current day carpets gotta fly by plane within some cargo hold or something.... ;) ). And to make any stay complete, alot of the accommodation options in Yazd are converted/renovated from old traditional houses which seemed to retain alot of charm, especially the beautiful courtyards for you to rest after a good day out.

Do include Yazd in your Iran itinerary!

Respite after a hard day's "work"

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Svalbard was one of those places where once I found out where it was, I had thought how cool was it to visit, but in all likelihood, I would not. At that time, I had thought the only way to visit was via expensive cruise ships or be in some scientific expeditions.

But during my research for my Northern Lights trip to Norway, I realized that there are commercial flights from Tromso (one of the cities I'm visiting) to Longyearbyen, the capital city in Svalbard, and that they're reasonably priced (like us$180 for a return tix). And so I found myself in Svalbard!

Svalbard is an archipelago or group of islands situated north of Norway. In fact, it is about halfway between Norway and the North Pole! Spitsbergen is the largest of the islands, and that's where Longyearbyen is. Situated at 78°45'N, it is the northernmost town/city in the world (though there are smaller villages and settlements even further north!). As such, one would be visiting many "northernmost" things in the trip!

Being so far north also means that Longyearbyen experiences polar nights, and for 4+ months, the place is plunged into darkness. On March 8, the sun finally peeks over the horizon, and so a Sun festival is held to celebrate its arrival. I visited in late March, so I missed the festival, but during that time, the sun is always low in the sky and so the lighting is phenomenal for photography! The town itself has a "wild wild west" feel, except that its the wild wild north! :)

But one of the best experience in Svalbard is a trip into the Arctic wilderness. There are no roads in Spitsbergen, and so if one is to get to another settlement by land, the mode of transport is typically snowmobile. Thus, the most common things to do in Longyearbyen for tourists are dog-sledding or snowmobile trips out of the town. I went on a snowmobile expedition to the eastern coast of the island, and the experience was crazy. It was an adventure!

We were given a 15-minute crash course on operating the snowmobile. After which, it was "on-the-job training" which we had plenty of. The whole expedition was almost 10-hours, with most of it on the snowmobile. But the sights were simply amazing, and it was truly a wilderness out there. We were a little too early in the season, else we might be able to catch a glimpse of polar bears too! It was a very tiring trip, but certainly one of my top memorable travel experiences! 

As mentioned earlier, there are cruise ships that sail to Svalbard but the most common way to get to Svalbard is by flying. Svalbard is governed by the Svalbard Treaty, which separates it from normal Norway government, although it is under Norwegian sovereignty. So while Norway is in Schengen, Svalbard is not. Currently, all flights go through Norway, so check your entry requirements to Norway.

So for those in search of adventure in off-the-beaten-path places, Svalbard should be in your bucket lists!