Of all the times we’ve been to Turkey, I had never been to a hammam (a Turkish bath). I decided that our spring break trip to Antalya was the time to finally have this experience.
The host led me through a series of rock (marble?) chambers to one in the back. He demonstrated that I was to relax on this heated slab of stone and soon someone would be with me.
I’ve rarely had such an experience for the senses. My cool skin on the smooth, heated stone. No sound except that of a burbling fountain somewhere in the chamber beside me. The rock walls were like a tomb, and my chamber was domed with a sky light (the only light source). It was tomb-like... an echo chamber. The echoes made the experience even more intense. I could have relaxed there in peace for hours, on nothing but a heated slab of stone.
The bath was just as much of an experience. The woman bathing me began to hum while running water in this echo chamber. She dipped warm water and poured it over me, one limb at a time. I was scrubbed pink like a newborn with a loofah and then further scrubbed with a scented salt. There was a massage involved, but not a thorough one. Then I was rinsed in the same way I started off. Next came the bubbles. Some net was stuffed with suds, flapped out to get the bubbles extra big, and then forced out onto my quarters, like a pillow of bubbles being pushed from a case. The sensation was strange but relaxing, as the slippery, fluffy foam sat lightly atop my body. The foam acted as the bath soap, and I felt entirely rejuvenated.
Afterwards I was rinsed, my hair was washed with shampoo, head massaged, and then the woman proceeded to towel me dry like an infant.
The simple act of letting go of all control and letting someone else do everything for you, along with all of the physical and mental stimuli and counteracting sensations…. made the bath experience almost sensual. A first time that will not be a last.
Oman. We chose this destination for our winter break because we'd read that it had a lot to offer in terms of diverse nature, along with easy e-visa entry and nice highways. Plus, this was the only time of year that you can visit, do all the outdoor stuff, and not die of heatstroke. As I did my initial Google image searches trying to see what some of the highlights were, I was surprised to see the contrasts of mountains, sand dune deserts, beautiful oases like you would see in a movie, and sapphire blue waters. Our trip lasted 14 days, but I must admit that 7 nights were spent in Muscat or nearby just relaxing in resorts, so if you want to see the highlights of Oman in a week it's definitely doable. I will attempt an overview of some of the experiences we had and tips we learned on this journey.
My first impression of Oman was that I had arrived in the Middle East that I had envisioned- in a good way! The capital city, Muscat, is practically devoid of large, modern buildings and skyscrapers, instead keeping with more traditional-looking buildings made of (or made to look like they're made of) mud brick with an exterior mud stucco. Buildings are mostly very square in shape with a small square room sitting alone on the roof. I've read that in traditional Palestinian homes this room on the roof was the guest room, but I don't know if that's the same throughout the Middle East or not. In addition to the lack of building eyesores, I was surprised by how traditionally Omani men and women dressed. Men wear the long, white dishdasha as their everyday clothes with a kummah (embroidered hat) and women cover their hair and clothes with the black abaya. There are small differences in embroidery on dishdashas and abayas, but they look generally the same, and make for beautiful contrasts to the surroundings. The traditional with the modern.
Mountains and Forts
All around Oman we saw forts. The ancient towers peek down at you from the tops of so many desert hills and along the rugged coastline. Most of the time the tower is not accompanied by an entire castle-fortress, but on some occasions it is. We were lucky enough to take a look back in time to discover some of the secrets of three different forts; Al Hazm, Al Rustaq, and Nizwa forts. These three forts have all been restored extensively to reflect their near-original state. Among the common features you would find 1) the cannon tower, fitted with 360 degrees of small windows to shoot cannons, 2) some sort of canal water system, usually spring-fed, and 3) a special private prayer room for the highly-cherished imam (sort of like the "priest" of the mosque). Of these forts, our absolute favorite was Al Hazm. Although not as widely known as the other two, it is the most well-kept and includes a free audio-guide that isn't too long-winded. Also, there was a secret tunnel, and who doesn't love a good secret passageway? Most visitors to Oman will make Nizwa one of their stops enroute to the mountains, as we also did, but if you can swing it, Al Hazm fort is the best we saw if you want to really wrap your head around the history, architecture, and everyday life of those living within the fort.
As we hadn't rented a 4wd vehicle, we were limited in the mountains to villages that were easily accessible. The town of Nizwa fit the bill and we spent one lovely night reliving a piece of history at the Nizwa Heritage Inn. This project took six houses in the crumbling, old town of Nizwa and restored them with modern amenities (read: AC, running water, electricity). The room we occupied on our house was composed of a sitting room and a bedroom, plus a bathroom. I was fascinated by the architecture of the reconstruction, as our walls were made of mud-brick, and the ceiling was painted palm beams and fronds. Niches in the walls reflect how the original architecture actually was, as these were used to store all household items, the more fragile ones at a level where small children could not reach. In addition to this historical gem of a hotel, we were steps away from the souks and a few minutes walk to the fort.
The souks (markets) were fun to explore, with new, covered, modern market buildings that included subdivisions for stalls. They seem a sliver of what they once were, though, with few stalls occupying each building (except for the "craft" souk, which housed all the tourist souvenirs). Our favorite find was a small fish restaurant just behind the goat souk (goat market sadly open only on Fridays and we were there on a Wednesday/Thursday). Here you walk up to the counter, choose your fish (we had some sort of white fish and squid), tell them if you want it spicy or not, and sit down outside. For the very large portion of food we ordered, we couldn't believe that the bill totaled only about $10. You can definitely find affordable hidden gems in Oman if you're willing to take risks.
On our way out of Nizwa, we stopped at an overlook to an old, abandoned oasis town called Birkat al Mouz, originally fed by springs and canals (falaj is the Arabic word). Although we took some pictures of the view, we didn't go wander the crumbling alleyways. If I return to this area of Oman it is something I would definitely do. Instead, we were on our way to the desert and wanted to reach our destination in time for sunset, so off we went. In the photo below, notice the extensive date palm trees. Dates are an important food in the Middle East and are traditionally given to guests upon arrival.
We discovered that really the majority of the inner part of Oman is desert, but we were particularly interested in the dunes. Years ago, on a trip in northwestern China, we spent a night camping in the Taklamakan desert. It was magical, and I wanted that again.
Enroute we detoured to another desert oasis, the Wadi bani Khaled. Wadi is a word I'd never heard prior to Oman, but now I see the reference everywhere. In summary, a wadi is a river bed that may or may not have water. The rainy season may bring high water levels, but during the dry season (when we were there) the wadis run dry. Except, of course, those that are spring fed.
Wadi bani Khaled was an easy 30 minute drive in our car from the main highway. You park and follow a falaj to a pool of blue-green water surrounded by palm trees. From there you can continue to follow a rocky path to another set of pools surrounded by white cliffs. We arrived around 2pm and it seemed like a large number of tourists were on their way out, but tourists there were. Swimming was the draw here, especially in the small pools farther back. We hadn't planned on it, but we did dip our feet in the water for a bit. This was our first experience with a water-filled wadi, and it was truly breathtaking. The pool and greenery are a stark contrast to the desert we had spent the day driving through. After a couple of relaxing hours we were back on our way.
Our first night was spend "glamping" at a desert tourist camp called Al Reem. We chose this one because it is in the southern part of the desert and as it was the weekend we didn't want to be too close to Muscat and have to deal with the weekenders. Also, this camp had a hard dirt road allowing our car to drive us there, whereas most desert camps ask you to meet at a pick up point and pay exorbitant fees for them to take you in. This camp was very nice, although we did book a fancy suite (on accident, but alas) so we had a super colorful bedroom with sitting area, patio, and private bathroom. One of my favorite parts of this camp is that there are so many outdoor sitting areas! There are at least 3 or 4 large tents with Bedouin-style seating, along with a billiards tent, a dining tent, and probably some other areas we didn't get to explore. Breakfast and dinner were included and we ate well, tasting lots of curried dishes (there's a big Indian influence in Oman) and roasted chicken. The dunes were at the edge of the camp, but I was disappointed to discover that there were only a few dunes. We still climbed them, watched the sun set, and enjoyed how soft the extra fine sand felt between our fingers and toes.
The next morning we were at a loss. The camp was booked solid for the next week and although we really wanted to set up our tent in the desert somewhere (we had borrowed camping supplies from a friend), we couldn't find a way into the dunes that was passable with our lowly car. With a combined effort of Google Maps satellite view and Maps.me, we managed to find a nearby area that really, really looked to be a paved path into the desert. So we gave it a try. It was perfect.
For anyone reading who wants the perfect camping spot in the desert among the dunes on a paved road, the map is embedded below. Beneath that pinned tree, we set up camp for the night. It was glorious.
*If you zoom out on the map far enough you can see the topography of the desert. The dunes run from north to south in a consistent pattern.
Even though it was the coolest time of year to visit Oman, when there's nothing around you but sand, it gets hot. Thus, setting up the tent beneath a tree at 11:00am was the perfect choice. We made a quick trip into the nearby town for sustenance, then returned and spent the day alternating between reading our books and wandering the dunes. There was a brief windy period around sunset that got the sand all stirred up for about 30 minutes. It was enough time to coat the food I had just prepared with a fine layer of sand, making the consumption immediately necessary and less than enjoyable. Luckily we had only made salads, so it wasn't like some delectable entree was ruined. After roaming the dunes for sunset, gathering stray pieces of firewood (there were a few trees around, and we managed to scrape up enough), Rex got the fire started and we used a little camping kettle to boil some water for tea. Yes, it got chilly at night, but not nearly as cold as the textbooks say. It was just around 15C (60F) and breezy.
Our campsite was almost perfect, except we found that this nothing road that went into the dunes was actually quite popular. There were 2 or 3 desert camps down the road a way, but this produced actual traffic (defined as a car about ever 5 or 10 minutes) on a consistent basis. That doesn't sound like much, but we were hoping for an isolated location so it was a bit annoying. So if you choose this spot, take note that there will be some vehicular disturbance.
I probably could have spent another lazy day and night in the dunes, but our next adventure called us to the dust bowl of a town called Ras al Had. We were drawn here by lore of this being a sea turtle nesting ground, and we were hoping to catch a glimpse. After some research and weighing options between a group tour or trying our luck by just wandering, we decided on the latter. Around 8pm, this was about 2.5 hrs after sunset during December, we drove to the sandy beach on the Ras al Jinz side of town and parked. Google Maps calls this the "Al Hadd beach for turtles" and Maps.me calls it the "turtle watching beach." We were stopped almost immediately by a ranger as soon as we started walking down the beach with our flashlights, telling us the beach was closed because of the turtles. Of course we had just encountered a local taking a couple of French guys down a path behind this beach to go to another area that was also "closed" so we sold them out and all of a sudden the ranger said, "It's okay, you can go. Just don't use the light. Or just use a little bit of light." In hindsight, I wish he would have stuck to his guns and disallowed us (and other tourists) from disturbing these poor mamas just trying to lay their eggs.
As we walked down the beach with our flashlights mostly covered in our hands, we didn't really know what we were looking for. I assumed we'd be looking for tracks, but I had no clue what that meant. Once we passed a strange looking track that to me looked like something a 4-wheeler would leave. About 5 minutes later we came upon something identical, but this time I rationalized a bit more. Have we actually ever seen a 4-wheeler in Oman? Why would it be going straight down to the water? So I began to follow the tracks away from the shore. About 10 steps in I saw what at first appeared to be a huge, black rock. As I approached, I realized the rock was moving. I had found a turtle! It haunts me to this day to remember the sound of surprise she made when I came upon her with the flashlight. So we turned off our lights, stood back a ways, and just watched her scoot along the sand. It didn't take long for her to choose a nesting spot. To us it appeared that she just plopped down hard, and then started kicking sand everywhere! After a few minutes of flying sand, we heard a strange noise which I can only assume to be a clutch of eggs leaving her body. We continued "watching" (more like listening) for about 15 minutes longer before she finished and scooted on to another location. Luckily I read before we went out that Green Sea turtles make two nests, one real one and one fake one to deter predators, so I think this is what she went to do next. Same thing, minus the egg laying sounds. We decided to go find the turtle that the first set of tracks had belonged to, as we'd already seen this lady do her night's work. Walking back down the beach the way we came, we found the tracks and followed them to what was clearly the finished nest, and then onward a bit further. This turtle was in the midst of making her second "fake" next and again, poor thing, made that surprised sound when I came upon her with my light. Hence why I think the rangers should really make a serious effort to keep people off the nesting beach at night. We were the only people on this beach right then, but I'm sure it's a nightly disturbance. We got to watch this turtle make her way... slowly... back towards the water until she was carried off by the waves. So long, mama!
Clearly I'm conflicted about this experience. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing to witness, and the fact that we just strolled down a nesting beach and saw two turtles during off season was pretty incredible. That said, I was upset by how much our presence disturbed the turtles. I think if I had gone on the "tour" with 100 other people I would have been especially angry. I can't imagine a mass of tourists respecting the sanctity of this event.
We spent the night of the sea turtle spotting in a hotel, but already had plans to drive up the coast to find a nice camping spot on a beach for the next night, so the next morning we packed up and headed out. We passed through the town of Sur on our way north which was a gorgeous little town with a couple of old fort towers (shocking!) and a lovely beach nestled against another turquoise body of water. We had briefly visited the previous night for dinner, as there were literally no eateries in Ras al Had, so we'd snapped some shots of the views and watched several groups of men playing football (soccer) in the sand.
Maps.me along with tips from a colleague helped us find our way along some dirt roads to investigate a few potential camping sites. I was really envisioning setting up a tent on a sandy beach, but this was not to be, mainly as the beaches in this area were more rocky and the few sandy spots were within reach of the tide. Eventually we came to a spot that was perfect. There was a flat landing on a cliff overlooking a tiny little beach bay. As we set up our tent and took in the view we couldn't believe how lucky we'd been with this location. This entire area is known for having various campsites along the cliffs and is especially popular with expats... and it was a holiday. Every cliff around us was already taken, but somehow we managed to find the one with the most stunning view.
Cue another perfect afternoon of reading our books, watching the sunset, starting a fire, and sleeping beneath the stars. Almost better was the sound of the waves, lulling us to sleep. We couldn't have had a more perfect location if we had paid $500 for a night at the Shangri-La... which we had looked into, but quickly disregarded due to cost.
The next morning I awoke as the sky was beginning to lighten. Only a few times in my life have I woken up early enough, and in the right location to witness the rainbow colored horizon about a half hour before dawn. I fired up the camp stove to make my coffee and sat mesmerized for the next hour, watching the colors in the sky fade only for new ones to emerge in the blue waters below me.
Below the photos you can find a map to this special location. Access the route from the town of Fins, passing by Fins beach and continuing onward down the road for a few more kilometers.
By 7:30am we were packed up and on our way to Wadi Shab. We had been warned that this wadi is very popular and gets busy so we should go early. Pulling up to the parking area, we were the second car to arrive. This wadi hike begins with a very short boat ride across the mouth of the wadi to get to the trail on the other side. The boatmen were ready to take us upon arrival at 7:45am for 1 rial per person. The trail was a nice, leisurely stroll along the riverbed with massive cliffs reaching up on either side. A few times there were pools of blue water, date palms growing around the edge. At the end of the trail there is a swimming hole where we stopped for a bit to allow ourselves a natural "fish spa" (where the minnows nibble the dead skin off your feet!) A popular thing to do is swim to a small cave in the pool, but we opted not to swim. It was a cool morning and I wasn't excited to get my clothes wet for the rest of the day. I truly enjoyed these oasis hikes, and this one was exceptionally relaxing. On our way back to the car, groups were showing up in droves. This made me thankful for the warnings about arriving early.
On the final stretch back to Muscat we made two more stops. The first was at the Bimmah sinkhole, which may have been impressive had we not just seen the beautiful wadi and also if there weren't so many people swimming. There was also the old fishing port of Quriyat. This was a brief stop to take some photos and have lunch, but the contrast of water backed by mountains was impressive.
Back in Muscat, we knew we hadn't done proper exploring so took some time to delve deeper the last few days of our trip. Highlights include the Grand Mosque named for the great Sultan Qaboos and the old fishing village of Muttrah. The Grand Mosque had a nice grounds to wander, with niches of tilework made to reflect different eras of Islamic architecture around the world. The inside of the mosque itself was impressive with a beautiful dome displaying colorful ceramic tiles and calligraphy, plus the largest purpose-made carpet in the world. Mostly, we just took it easy in Muscat for the last few days, enjoying the beach at Qurum and the pool on the roof of our hotel.
Oman was a delightful peek into a completely different culture, and I enjoyed the time to take that look and reflect. As we boarded our flight back to Beirut I also found myself being thankful that we live in "Middle East light" and not in a true Middle Eastern country. Sure, Oman touts its progressiveness on women's rights, but the country remains very gender segregated, with separate women's and men's everything. We entered a restaurant in the coastal town of Sur only to be informed that we needed to take ourselves out and reenter through the "family" entrance. Looking around we noticed that this area was akin to a "boys' club" and clearly I, as a female, was unwelcome. The constant reminders at the beaches, wadis, and pools, asked women to cover their shoulders and down to their knees while swimming. I understand being respectful of the local culture, but women's bodies were definitely policed to a high degree. Including the end of my pony tail, as I discovered when we were attempting to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque (that sexy hair!) And there's the sultan himself, who is openly gay in his own country where this is illegal. The man who makes the laws. What irony.
A very, very special thanks goes out to my former PSI student, Stefan, and his dad, Peter. They were the ones who set us up so beautifully with the camping gear. Those nights camping were far and away my two favorites, so in essence you both made our trip! Also a shout out to my former colleague, Dave, who will never read this, and to a current one, Joanne, for their fantastic tips and recommendations about exploring Oman.
Pictured above: Our celebratory photo after the Pirate Cave room
This past weekend three of us traveled from Kyiv, Ukraine, for a long weekend of escape questing in Budapest, Hungary. There is a bit of a debate about whether the origin of the escape room is Budapest or Japan, but regardless there is definitely a well-developed escape room culture in the former.
First of all, a shout out to our blogger predecessors, The Logic Escapes Me, whose impressions and reviews we used to plan our weekend. You'll find below our own impressions of the 9 rooms we were able to fit in during our 2 days in Budapest.
Rating system: Fun (F), Difficulty (D), and Puzzles (P) from 1-5
Photos clockwise from top left: Santa Muerte, Enigma, Napuche, White Mission
We hope that someone can find our experiences to be helpful in planning their own escape room getaway in Budapest! There are some great rooms, but we still have yet to find the perfect blend of immersion, puzzles, and fun. If you're looking for another great destination for an escape room weekend, check out my post on Kyiv, Ukraine, and the wonderful undiscovered world of escape rooms that Ukrainians have to offer!
Pictured above: E-Exit Heaven and Hell
Last year we came for a quick weekend trip thanks to cheap flights and the promise of Christmas markets… which were amazing! I loved the atmosphere of Stockholm and couldn’t wait to return to Sweden to see a bit more of the country and also what a real winter looks like. This past February we got our chance.
Our decision to base ourselves for 3 nights in Abisko, Sweden, was based on research. As the park is surrounded by mountains and sees a nearly constant easterly wind coming from Norway, Abisko National Park has a micro-climate which allows for abnormally clear skies for the region during the darkest of the winter months. This was perfect, in our opinion, as our main goal was to see some auroras.
We arrived in Stockholm on Saturday afternoon and headed straight to the central train station to board an overnight train to the very north of the country, nearly 1000km away from Stockholm. We’ve done a few overnight trains before and have never found the shared berth aspect of them to be comfortable (you inevitably get someone with a baby or elderly people who need the bottom bunk), so we booked out a 3-bed berth for just the 2 of us… “first class.” Honestly, I don’t even know how 3 people could have stood together in this space, as the two of us barely could. There was a small sink, which was nice, and I slept really well once that time came, but I just couldn’t believe how tiny it was!
Above: Our 3-person sleeper berth. The lowest bed flips up into a seating area as shown. The middle bed (red and white) folds down, and the highest bed is right above that.
Because we lowered the window shade to sleep, I also didn’t know what we would see outside once we opened it up in the morning. The first glance literally took my breath away. I have never seen snow like what we saw looking out of that window! There were evergreen trees all over and they were just covered with piles of white, fluffy snow! It was like a postcard and I spent the next 5 hours of our ride just staring out that window, not concerning myself with the lack of space… until it was time to get dressed to go out into said snow!
Above: The scenery we woke up to outside of Kiruna, Sweden.
As the train pulled out of the Kiruna station, one stop away from Abisko where we were headed, it was snowing pretty hard and it was gray and completely overcast. I was a bit bummed out leaving Kiruna thinking that all the gray clouds couldn’t possibly clear up within the next 45 minutes or so of our journey into Abisko National Park. About 10 minute outside of Kiruna the sky suddenly turned blue! The heaps of fluffy snow gave way to less deep snow that was shimmering with ice crystals in the bright sunshine. It was like winter had just frosted the landscape white and sprinkled some diamond dust on top. This is how it stayed until we stepped off the train at Abisko Ostra station (in temps around -20C) for the 5 minute walk to our hostel.
Some tips on booking Abisko on the semi-cheap. First off, there are very few accommodations to be found. We stayed in Hostel Haverskog because we read that it was the nicer of the two hostels serviced by the tourist website Abisko.net. It's the kind of hostel room that I personally like, having a private bathroom and only 2 beds (even though it was a bunk). Unfortunately, the showers were communal and towels were not provided in the linen package we purchased at extra cost. Still, our room gave us a gorgeous view out over the town and the frozen lake. If you book with Abisko.net they give you an option to add a package for extra activities at a lower price than booking separately. This is how we ended up adding a night tour for aurora viewing and also a dog sledding adventure!
Abisko is probably the smallest small town I’ve ever been to in my life. Especially when a town considers itself to be a tourist hotspot like this one does. I’ve read that the locals don’t want it to become a Disneyland (can you blame them?) so they have limited the number of accommodations being built. You really don’t see anybody around, tourists included, unless you are on an organized tour or at the local “supermarket” which is not very super.
Above: Abisko is an adorable town but is very, very tiny.
Night 1: Aurora Spotting
We couldn’t wait to go out and try to see the aurora borealis as soon as the sun set! Unfortunately, these northern latitudes allow sunset to linger for hours before total darkness sets in, so even though sunset time was 4:40pm it was nearly 7:30pm before the sky was completely dark. At 6:30pm we could wait no longer and found the road that leads to the bottom of the town and onto the frozen lake. This at least puts the light pollution behind you as you face north and look for the lights.
Rex was the first to see it. At first he thought it was just clouds reflecting the town lights, but it didn’t make sense as the sky was completely clear. So we decided it must be the auroras! We took a few photos and stayed for a bit and then decided to drop our groceries off at home (we’d just been shopping) and come back once the show heated up a bit more.
An app we downloaded alerted us around 8pm to get our butts outside within the next 30 minutes. Predictions had shown that the show would peak at midnight, so we were kind of slow at getting dressed and heading out, but once we got just beyond the lights of our hostel… WOW! You could see them everywhere in the sky! Above us there were at least three large arcs spanning the sky and there was more activity towards the lake. So that’s where we headed. Unfortunately the best part of the show seemed to have been taking place during the 15 minutes it took us to walk to the lake, but we still got a few nice pictures. That sight of the arcs as we walked down our driveway that night is the one that will forever stay in my memory, though. My first real sighting and what an incredible one!
Probably our biggest shocks about seeing the lights were 1) They move verrrrry slowly. Yes, they are constantly changing, but in a very slow fashion. It is almost like when you take a timelapse of the sky and you can see the clouds forming from condensation and then dissipating more slowly than you can judge, yet it’s obviously happening. As go the aurora borealis. 2) We couldn’t see the vibrant green color of the lights by looking with our eyes. Perhaps it was due to the lingering light pollution behind us, but it just looked like the sky was glowing a little. When we took the photos, though, it was very clearly green! This is probably the first time in my life that a photo makes the landscape look better than it does to the naked eye. Unfortunately we messed around with our settings and were just getting them in order when the show died down.
We found out the next day that the show was at its peak around midnight, but at that time I was already fast asleep and Rex didn’t wake me when he got the notification. In hindsight, that would have been some incredible activity to witness and it’s too bad we assumed we’d have more opportunities to see them over the next few days. The activity got up to solar storm levels that night and we never left to go look.
Day 2: Exploring Abisko
There are so many activities we could have opted to partake in while in Abisko, but on our first full day we chose to spend the daylight hours just walking around and seeing the scenery on our own. The day started with a walk up a gradually ascending snowy path through spindly trees covered in rime (crystals of frozen fog). The entire walk could have easily been done in about 20 minutes but I think it took us about 45 due to the number of times I stopped to just stare at the scenery. The contrast of the white, sparkling snow against the blue sky is something I will never forget. The temperature highs while in Abisko were about -17C (about 1F) and this must keep the snow so completely crystalized when it lands that the crunching sound your feet make when walking is so loud… and satisfying! The views from the top were gorgeous, as you looked down the white hillside towards the town with the white lake in the background. Just behind the hill was a smaller lake and we made our way down the trail to check it out. I’m sure that at some point in my life I have been on a frozen lake, but this was the first time that I was able to look through the ice at the layers of trapped bubbles, and even the cracks that formed and fused as the ice solidified. I’m not sure exactly how deep the ice was, but it was probably over a meter thick! Still, we stayed near the edges because it’s just one of those times when all the “what-ifs” keep swirling around your head.
After a food and warm beverage break, we walked towards the national park to see the canyon with a frozen waterfall. I’ve always wanted to see a frozen waterfall and here it was! There were several small waterfalls and a larger one and they were just suspended in time and space, full of shades of blue. Our aurora spotting tour was scheduled for this evening so we headed back for a rest and to get ready. Clouds in Abisko are rare, but unfortunately this day was one that had them. Our guides were hopeful that they would clear, but as we made our way to the isolated site on a sled pulled by a snowmobile and then waited inside a warm tent it soon became clear that we were out of luck for the night. We did get some warm glogg (a hot, spiced cider-like drink) out of it along with some more “professional” information on what mattered to spot good auroras.
So what is necessary to see the best aurora show? First off, it’s best to get away from city lights. Even the moon can add too much light to the sky to allow for the necessary contrasts, and we were lucky that the moon was just a sliver in the sky on our first night, although it was waxing. Obviously you also need a clear sky, or at least very few clouds. On this night we did not have luck. In addition, you can check aurora tracking sites for stats on what is known as the KP, the BZ, the solar wind speed, and the solar density. The KP tells you at which latitude you should be able to spot the phenomenon if it’s there. In northern Sweden we were around a KP of 1.5, and as you go south the KP increases pretty quickly. Stockholm in southern Sweden is already a KP of about 6. From what we saw, the KP frequently goes to about 2 each night but rarely above 5. This is why you must head north if you want to see the auroras. The BZ seemed to be the next most important factor. I don’t completely understand how this one works, but I know that in the north you need to have a BZ in the negative to be able to spot auroras. If the BZ is positive then it’s like all the activity heads to the south pole instead of the north. While we were in viewing territory, the BZ hovered pretty near 0 the entire time, occasionally dipping down to about -2, which was good enough to at least see something. The solar wind speed is best at higher speeds, and we had high speeds on our entire visit. The density determines if you get beautiful colors other than just the typical green, but ours stayed quite low during our time up north. Of course the night we got back down to Stockholm we checked the stats and the density had sky rocketed up to about 12!
On our aurora tour night the stats were pretty favorable… all except for that most important factor of cloud cover. Bummer.
Above: Frozen waterfalls in the national park and a nice glowing tent pic on our failed aurora spotting tour.
Day 3: Dogsledding
Before we set out on our holiday, I asked Rex what he was most looking forward to. He said the dogs. I’m pretty sure he meant the dogsledding, but he kept saying that he wanted to pet dogs. On day 3 he got his chance as we walked next door to an enormous kennel where we got to help them bring the dogs to their spots in line for the sleds that they would pull. There were 3 groups of us from our hostel, totaling about 11 people. We were paired up with a Spanish/French couple and our driver was the guy who owned the entire operation, named Tomas. The dogs were a mix of breeds, and Tomas told us that none are purebred because it’s common knowledge that purebred means inbred and mixed breeds live longer. The dogs get SO excited when they know they are about to run! They start yapping and jumping around and as soon as the driver gives the signal they are focused and quiet. I absolutely loved the entire experience!
The dogs took us on a trail through the forest for about 30 minutes one way before they got a break. The sound of the sled blades on the ice sounded smooth and clean and the snow was sparkling again in the now cloud-free skies. Occasionally a dog would nosedive into the snow and grab a mouthful. I thought this was so funny, but I assume they just got thirsty and needed a quick refreshment! Also, as dogs do, they would sometimes pass a bush that was irresistible and hike a leg. On our way back we had some extra excitement when the sled was pulled over a rather large stick in the path and flipped us out. Everyone was fine… we did land in a pillow of snow, after all… except that I got a knee to my forehead as we all flew through the air. Yes, I was okay, but our driver seemed very shaken by this, stating that in his almost 20 years of driving the dogsleds he has only flipped 3 times. Lucky us, I guess. Still, it was one for the books and something I will never forget. We even got to feed and play with the dogs at the end, just like Rex wanted!
Abisko is not known for its food options. In fact, we had all of two options for eating out… the really pricey and fancy hotel restaurant behind our hostel, or a food trailer selling hot dogs and hamburgers. We opted twice for the hamburgers, and tried both reindeer and moose burgers on separate occasions. Very tasty, I might add! It’s just the issue of receiving your food from a food trailer and then not having anywhere to go to eat it when it’s -20C outside. Luckily, though, our hostel had a kitchen and a refrigerator where we could store cold stuff. We took full advantage of this with cold cuts for sandwiches and on this particular night we purchased some tortellini and pesto and made a tasty pasta meal in the kitchen. Then we were off to the lake for some more waiting in hopes of seeing more auroras. Thankfully it was a clear sky night so we had high hopes.
Our hostel provided snowsuits and boots to those staying with them, and tonight we pulled these on over everything else that we would normally wear to go out in… including our own winter jackets. Looking like marshmallow men, we waited patiently on the lake for about an hour before we decided to to back to our place to warm up and take a break. On our way up the hill coming from the lake (it was about a 20 minute walk uphill) we turned around to see that familiar glow of “clouds” in the sky… except it was a clear night, so it wasn’t clouds at all! At this point we were right next to the highway with all the streetlights so our photos didn’t look amazing, but we took a few more. There was another spot we’d been told to try out just up the mountain from our hostel, so we proceeded to walk up to the helipad viewing area. Definitely a better view, but the auroras were just not very active on this particular night. There was a faint arc in the sky and only a thin line, so we didn’t stay for long. Back to the warmth of our room for a good night’s sleep!
Above: Not a picture we took in Abisko, but we've kept you waiting long enough for the auroras so here's a teaser.
Day 4: Onward to the IceHotel
After a final food trailer burger, we caught the train for just a one hour ride to Kiruna, a bigger town just a bit south of Abisko and famous for being the original site of the IceHotel. We’d booked one night at the IceHotel but planned to stay in a warm room. Yes, it sounded neat to stay in an ice bed, but we weighed the pros and cons and decided that the warm room was for us. I think it was the best decision as we got a great deal on a suite with a kitchenette and could access our room at any time after check in, which people staying in ice rooms could not.
Up until around 8pm they allow you free reign to walk through the ice rooms and appreciate the ice art. It was pretty incredible, to say the least! They have two sections to the ice part of the ice hotel, one ice building that is seasonal and changes each winter and another that is open all year and I assume doesn’t change. There were all sorts of themes for rooms, including a “space” room, Alice and Wonderland, mermaids, creepy clowns (who wants that room?), King Kong, and my favorite was Queen of the North with a white walker theme from Game of Thrones! There were probably about 50 ice rooms we looked at, but these were the ones that stood out. In addition there was an ice chapel where people actually hold weddings (they were preparing for one on this night, in fact). Then there was the IceBar, which serves you a cocktail or shot in an ice glass or ice chalice. We had two of the cocktails of the day and lounged a bit on the furs that they lay out on the ice benches so your tush doesn’t freeze. Considering it was -20C outside, it was balmy in the IceBar at a mere -5C.
The majority of the IceHotel is built from ice cut from the river running just outside the hotel. In the spring when the melts begin, they cut giant pillars from the river and keep them frozen until the next winter. It takes them about 6 weeks to completely build the seasonal hotel, and of course the start of winter is always a factor to consider. Then they bring in sculptors, who apparently have not all worked with ice before! They have a crash course lesson in ice sculpting and off they go to create an ice room.
Above: Some of our favorite ice art from the IceHotel, plus drinks from the IceBar.
In the evening we tried our luck once again with auroras. There was still quite a bit of light pollution out on the river, but it was good enough to see the show, and it was a good one! I only wish that it hadn’t been so cold and we could have enjoyed it longer. At one point we messed up our camera settings accidentally and it was right as the show got extremely vivid! Rex was frantically re-adjusting the settings and I think we missed the most beautiful part of the show, but still came away with some lovely pictures. I’m honestly glad that our camera held out with it being so cold. Extreme cold like that does weird things to electronics. And blood circulation.
We wanted a couple of days in Stockholm so we only stayed one night at the IceHotel and then flew back to the capital city. I was sad to leave the beautiful auroras behind us in the north and continued to refresh the aurora apps and live webcams for several days after. Seriously, what a memorable experience! I read that the sun is winding down from a very active period which occurs about every 11 years. Maybe in 11 years we’ll try this again!
Above: Auroras as seen from the IceHotel.
Two Days in Stockholm
Stockholm is a beautiful city on the water, threaded with canals (possibly more like rivers and lakes) that connect it to the Baltic Sea. The colors, the architecture, the blue skies, and the ease of life are all instantly apparent as you walk the streets of Gamla Stan or stroll along the sidewalks crowning the coast. We wanted to hit upon a few highlights that we’d missed the last time we came to Stockholm for the Christmas markets, so we started our first full day with a trip to the fascinating Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was beautifully, albeit poorly built in the 17th century. At that time, Sweden was not a strong kingdom, but the king at the time, Gustavus Adolphus, had just initiated a war with Poland-Lithuania, and understood that ships were the best platforms for housing guns and mounting an attack. He wanted only the best. Of course this ship was lavishly decorated… seriously insanely carved, painted, and accessorized, because it had to exude power and wealth. Unfortunately, after a morning of festivities, church services, and preparations, the ship made it only 1300 meters from the port before a gust of wind capsized it. Crazy, right? The ship sank mostly intact into a harbor near Stockholm but was not able to be recovered until its rediscovery in the 1950s. Now it sits in a museum in Stockholm in nearly all of its initial glory. You can still see the elaborate carvings all around the ship, the decorative bronze, and most of what you see is the original materials. The only thing missing is the paint, which chemical residue tests have shown to have been very bright and elaborate as well.
One unique experience requires another, so off we went to a nearby traditional Swedish restaurant, called Oaxen Slip, with a proclaimed Michelin star. We were convinced to try a starter of herring which turned out to be delicious, and the salmon was to die for. It was also one of those places where the chef offers complimentary hors d’oeuvres, and the pork belly we got was tasty as well.
Other than the food experience, we walked around the old Gamla Stan area and enjoyed the ability to spend time outdoors without the required snowsuit. It was still below zero, but it felt almost warm after being in the Arctic circle!
Above: Around Stockholm's old center, Gamla Stan. The bottom three show the cute Michelin Starred restaurant and some of the Swedish food we ate at Oaxen Slip.
Pictured above: Shwedegon Temple in Yangon, Myanmar
Myanmar- the name elicits a variety of emotions for the reader; from thoughts of romantic Mandalay to the genocide of the Rohingya in the north, and all the confusion in between ("I've never heard of Myanmar, but I have heard of Burma...") There are few countries in Southeast Asia where we have yet to tread, and up until two weeks ago Myanmar was one of them. Luckily they now have e-visas for US citizens and to be honest the immigration line at the Yangon airport was among the best experiences I've ever had in passport control.
Our first impression was that we were back in a country that smiles! Ah, Southeast Asia, how we missed thee. Our second observation was that most people we encountered who were from Myanmar, both men and women, were wearing sarong-like skirt wraps. Come to find out these are called longi (long-gee) and are mostly hand-woven in traditional fashion, tedious thread by silk thread.
On our drive to our hotel we saw the great, golden (literally plated with gold) Shwedegon pagoda lit up in the distance. This jewel of the city would be populated by tens of thousands of monks over the course of the next few days as the clergy gathered to celebrate the calendar new year and listen to talks from the learned. The following day we entered the grounds of the great golden pagoda and walked her circuit. It is customary in Myanmar to remove your shoes before approaching the grounds of a temple and we learned quickly that wearing sandals would be necessary to keep our sanity.
The Shwedegon pagoda has a long history, lots of riches, and some supposed Buddha relics. Our travels around the world to other Buddhist countries have demonstrated how great many of the Buddha's teeth have been dispersed throughout the realms of the faithful, but at Shwedegon you are also so lucky to be among hair and bone relics. A lot of myth surrounds how these came to be here, but yet here they are.
On this trip I either learned or was reminded that there have been many incarnations of the Buddha. He is not always a human, but has also been a number of animals including elephants, tigers, dogs, and many others. I got conflicting information from tour guides about how the identity of the Buddha is determined along with when the next Buddha is expected. One guide said that there will be no more incarnations and the other gave a different, yet vague, response.
We booked our holiday with One Stop travel, a company highly recommended on Trip Advisor forums. Bless up, because they were fabulous. They booked all of our domestic air travel for us (which is recommended over spending entire days on public buses or in shared taxis) for next to nothing. Rates on hotels were cheaper through them along with our fantastic hot air balloon ride at our next stop in Bagan.
Bagan has been a dream to visit for many years. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is an area comprising thousands of temples and pagodas. Once upon a time there were over 10,000, but now only 2,000 remain. Still it's a sight to behold, looking over the vast expanse of flatness to see the ornate pagoda tops jutting forth from the earth. On our second day after the hot air balloon we rented an e-bike and zipped around the small roads exploring clusters of pagodas. Although there were many tourists with it being peak season, you could easily find yourself in a cluster of temples by the side of the road with no one else about. It felt like we were discovering some of them for the first time in centuries, although they were so well maintained that this was clearly untrue. Bagan is an earthquake zone, unfortunately, and an earthquake in 2016 destroyed a number of the pagodas and severely damaged some of the star attractions. It's incredible that 1/5 of the originals still remain.
Inle Lake was our next stop in Myanmar, and we flew there as well. Upon arrival we were whisked away by car to a nearby, newly discovered (within the past couple of decades anyway) place called Kakku pagodas. Apparently it was buried in the jungle until it was rediscovered and then uncovered a few decades back. We picked up our Pa-oh guide as required by law and were on our way. The Pa-oh is a tribal group related to the Karen tribe of Thailand, and this area was definitely nearing the Thai border with Chiang Rai. The cluster of 2500 pagodas was incredibly beautiful and our Pa-oh guide was full of interesting facts about his people and the area.
Pictured above: Kakku Pagodas
Inle Lake was composed of a unique community of people who had built their lives on the water. Homes were built in the relatively shallow lake on bamboo stilts and the more traditional ones had walls of woven grass and also thatched roofs. We saw a temple, a monastery, and a market, all places of congregation for locals from the many villages that have made this lake a home. In order to grow produce, there was a huge area of floating gardens as well. We saw tomatoes, corn, beans, and peppers being tended as we chugged along in our longtail boat. In conjunction with the rice farming nearby and fishing the lake, this "floating" community is nearly self-sustaining. Definitely a special way to lead life.
Finally we ended our journey through Myanmar in Mandalay, where we met up with Annie, a former science colleague of mine here in Kyiv. She's now living in Bangkok and it's just a 1 hour hop to Mandalay for her. We spent our full day exploring some of the cultural gems of the Mandalay area, starting off with a district known for carving all sorts of Buddha statues. Some leave the faces un-sculpted so that the buyer can choose the Buddha expression on the face. Probably my favorite experience of the day included our early stop in Amarapura at Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery where we watched hundreds of monks, from a few years old to ancient in years, line up to receive their daily meal. After 11am monks (at least in Myanmar) are not supposed to eat solid food, but are allowed to drink anything they want (other than alcohol) or smoke. I imagine they probably take up smoking at a very young age. Another top visit of the day was the place which is known in Mandalay as the "largest book." What this means in reality is there are many tablets carved with Buddhist scriptures, each housed beneath a pagoda. The pagodas were beautiful to walk among as they were painted white and the locals were like little splashes of color among them.
Pictured above: Young monks lining up for their meals in Amarapura near Mandalay
Take-aways from our visit to Myanmar: Asia is such a unique and diverse continent and we miss being able to experience the tastes, culture, and visual stimuli that a walk through an Asian city brings. The people we met in Myanmar were incredibly friendly and helpful. I found myself sick with something flu-like on our very first day and was thus unable to take full advantage of getting out and about to explore, but hotel staff, the doctor at the small clinic we visited, and anyone we encountered on our journey was overly concerned about my health and well-being. This country is not only Buddhist although there is a religious majority. We saw several Christian churches, heard the call for prayer at a nearby mosque, and of course there is the unfortunate fighting (some even say genocide) taking place in the north of the country targeting the Rohingya Muslim group. Why did we travel to a country whose government is engaged in possible genocide at this very moment? First of all, we had already planned the details of the trip months in advance (in true "me" fashion), but also the everyday Burmese people that you come into contact with have nothing to do with the situation that they find their government a part of. Why risk hurting the general population and removing the cultural exchange that takes place when we meet people different than ourselves just because the government has issues?
Of course when people ask what was my favorite part of the trip? Definitely our day exploring Bagan on the e-bike. If you ever get the chance to go then you absolutely should!