Barentsburg: A step into the high Arctic past, as the past steps into the future.

For some time now, I had been hoping to make the hike from Longyearbyen, the most northern town in the world, to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg, about 50 km away. Unfortunately, because of the dangerous and remote terrain, the threat of polar bears and the difficulty of communication, doing the trip alone would not be safe at all. Since finding a partner for such a hike is not very easy, I opted for the easy solution, a day trip by boat.

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Leaving Longyearbyen in the morning: it took a couple of hours to reach the first site.

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I spent part of the time watching the local birds, who would glide extremely close to the water, I presume to try and catch a fish by surprise (something I did not witness).

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Approaching the Esmark glacier, we found the bay quite full of floating ice.

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The guys who run the tours go several times a week and mentioned that the glacier have been cracking and falling in the ocean very fast in the past week.

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If you have ever taken a boat tour to see a glacier, you know what comes next. The same thing happened to me in Iceland. The crew hauled up some ice. What for?

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For drinks, of course!

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Whiskey on the rocks. The whiskey was made during Obama’s first term in office. The water in that ice was last in liquid form approximately 8,000 years before the first term in office of Julius Caesar. Continue reading

1,318 km from the North Pole: my visit to the northernmost town on Earth!

The amazement of a visit to the northernmost town on the planet begins well before landing.

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Flying 3h straight north from Oslo, in July one sees the early signs of the midnight sun, as it begins to rise around 23:30, as you move further and further north. Down below, mysterious peaks of northern Norway break through the low clouds.

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Two hours later, any sign of a red horizon are gone, as the sun never gets low enough to produce that effect in the summer. Below, the barren, isolated and remote mountains of southern Svalbard. I couldn’t help but think that this was certainly not the best place to contemplate an emergency landing.

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You know you are in an unusual place when the flight attendants on a return flight bother to get out of the airport to take “me in front of” pictures!

So, why do people live here? In the first few centuries, people didn’t really “live” here; they trapped furry animals, harvested whales and eventually, extracted coal. Nowadays, coal is the main industry, along with tourism and Arctic scientific research of all kinds. There is also a political reason which I will get into later. But first, coal. Continue reading

Dublin: the most crack I ever had in a single day.

Because of its difficult history, Ireland has been for many centuries a land of emigrants. My home province of Quebec has had three Premiers of Irish descent, a father and his two sons. Perhaps indicative of Irish character, they were elected as leader of three different parties!

Every time a dignitary visits Ireland, the government looks up their ancestry to see if they can find them an Irish ancestor.

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“Barack Obama meets Irish cousin in Moneygall” by Pete Souza (Executive Office of the President of the United States) – WhiteHouse.gov. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

They even did it to Obama, finding him a maternal great-great-great grandfather, who immigrated to New York City in 1850!

Ireland also has a history of political oppression, still visible in some of Dublin’s architecture.

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The statue is quite different than most justice statues, indicating that it is not blind to prejudice and that the accused are presumed guilty. It has no blindfold, the sword is drawn and the balance is not quite level. Also, instead of facing the people in the city, it faces the palace. This led Dubliners to compose this little poem in her honour:

“The Statue of Justice, mark well her station, her face to the castle and her arse to the nation!”

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The Castle she is looking at. While it was established in the 12th century, most structures date back to the 18th century.

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Today everything is predominantly indicated in Gaelic.

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And Christ Church Cathedral is used to celebrate mass. For centuries, Catholic mass was forbidden and the church was used as a distillery and brothel. It is known for its mummified animals. When restoration began, they found the organ out of tune. Inspection of one of the tube revealed the presence of a cat which had become wedged inside. Finding the tube still out of tune, they inspected further, and found the rat the cat was chasing when it got caught! Continue reading

Rare travel complaints: possibly my worst Atlantic crossing ever!

I like to write about things that make people want to travel, so I rarely ramble about problems and difficulties. But today, I’ll make an exception, because it’s so ridiculous, it’s funny. Only read if you want to share my pain.

Tuesday, 11:00. I get a text message in Quebec’s Eastern Townships saying my 19:11 Burlington-New York flight is cancelled due to air traffic control. No other option exists to fly me to Dublin that night. I call United, but they tell me that since I booked a Star Alliance reward flight through Air Canada, I have to talk to them. Air Canada says this is ridiculous; in case of same-day irregular operation, the carrier is responsible, but in any case, I have to call not the airline, but the reward program, Aeroplan. Aeroplan also says United should deal with it. When I call United back, the second person I talk to says that of course, it is their responsibility to re-route me. Each call involves 10-30 minutes on hold, including 20 minutes on hold with United, because the lady is on hold herself with US Airways! After 2 hours on the phone, and me saying I can drive to Montreal if options exist there, I get booked on a 19:15 Montreal-Washington-Dublin itinerary, arriving only 5 minutes later than planned. I drive to Montreal through thunderstorms.

Tuesday, 19:30. 15 minutes after the flight should have taken off, we are still in the terminal and they announce that the flight is cancelled, because they don’t have a pilot. No more flights that day. I’m the first at the connections counter, thinking I will likely get a flight tomorrow and a hotel voucher. Nevertheless, I suggest the Montreal-Paris on Air Canada, or anything else that will at least get me across the pond. I get in with no time to spare, as the manager calls the “supreme powers” and re-opens the closed flight for a minute so they can take my luggage. The nice manager offers to escort me through security. I decline, saying I am a member of the Nexus program (a US-Canada “trusted traveller” program). A minute later, I run after him, because for some reason, the Nexus line is closed! The worst part of the day happened on the flight, when I watched the remake of Robocop, but that was self-inflicted.

Wednesday, 09:30 (Paris time). As I am about to land in Paris (on time), I realize I have only 40 minutes to connect (really, 25 minutes to get to the gate), and I’m at the back of a Boeing 777. Tight, but possible. Finally out, I cover about a kilometre to the flight board, look for my gate, and realize it’s not in the same terminal! I have to go through security, take a shuttle bus, etc. I attempt it, just in case of boarding delays, but unsurprisingly, I miss the flight.

They try to book me on the next flight. Full. The next one. Full. The next one. Yes. So I will only have to wait 8 hours at the airport. Noticing I am in seat 6F, I look up the flight on Seatguru, thinking that if Air France operates this flight with say, an Airbus 320, 6F could be a business class seat. A small measure of comforting.

138---02Seatguru informs me the Air France flight is in fact operated by CityJet on a tiny Avro RJ-85, and 6F is the only window seat on the plane without a window. A french giant sits next to me and I have uninterrupted shoulder contact with his shoulder and the non window for the entire flight.

Unlike my luggage, I eventually arrive in Dublin. Turns out that in their haste, the people in Montreal only sent my luggage to Paris, where it sat for 8 hours, waiting to be picked up, while I also waited in the same airport.

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I got a convenience kit which included this ridiculously small tube of deodorant. Applying it took several minutes and felt like repainting a piece of furniture using liquid paper. Also a self-inflicted wound: as I get off the airport shuttle, the bus driver points to a street a block from my hotel and says: “You see that street? Don’t go there!”. I settled in my hotel room, quite possibly the worst I have ever had in Europe. The unventilated room has a window I can open, but it opens fully on an exterior staircase used to access this extension of the hotel, at the back of an interior courtyard. In other words, if the screen-less window is open, anyone can simply step into my room. In theory, this could mean my belongings are not safe but luckily, they are all in Paris.

Friday, 09:44. I visited the luggage people at the Dublin airport to inform them I was leaving for Norway. My luggage is now located, but is still in Paris. Hopefully it will eventually feel like joining me in Oslo.

All that complaining being done; I write this from the Copenhagen airport and I had a FANTASTIC day in Ireland yesterday, only sorry that the mishaps cut my already too short stopover in half. I will tell you all about it tomorrow. Well, all I remember anyway.

“Blog Prequel” #2: another nowadays unsafe destination, Mali (2006)

In 2006, I went to Mali a couple of times, to help organize an event involving the Government of Canada. I don’t have a single picture of the capital, Bamako, as I was way too busy to do any tourism or take any pictures. However, the transportation logistics of going north to the town of Djenne were sufficiently slow to allow me to take a few shots along the way (with a little pocket camera, so excuse the terrible quality). Since few people travel to this now unstable country, I thought I would make it my second “blog prequel”, before I resume my travels next week.

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The voyage north started with a flight on this  retrofitted DC-3  operated by the Malian Air Force. I’m not an aviation expert, but I know that big wheels in the front, small wheel in the rear = really, really old plane.

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Although I would love to take a ride in a fighter jet one day, I was glad this was not the day.

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While I have since travelled to more isolated places, back in 2006 Northern Mali was the most “middle of nowhere” place I had ever been to.

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Which is part of the reason why I didn’t really enjoy looking at the popped rivets at the front of the wing. Again: not an expert, but I have looked at hundreds of wings as a passenger and I don’t remember noticing popped and missing rivets! Continue reading

My first blog “prequel”: visiting Syria during the war of 2006.

In early 2012, I read a report about fighting in the Syrian city of Homs. I caught myself wondering if I had been there. I thought I had, but couldn’t really remember for sure. This made me wonder if in my old age, I would even remember wether or not I had been to Syria! This was one of the reasons that led me to start writing these travel stories. Less than two years after starting, I already enjoy reading about anecdotes I had almost forgotten.

As I spend a few weeks relaxing in Canada, I thought I might write about my trip to Syria in 2006, right in the middle of the Lebanon – Israel conflict. I picked Syria because very few people travel there since the onset of their civil war, and also because I found some travel notes I had written at the time. In fact, it was supposed to be a Syria-Lebanon-Jordan trip, but one country was obviously dropped from the itinerary. I only have some limited pictures I took at the time with a little point-and-shoot camera, but this will have to do until I resume my travels in 10 days.

The war broke out when I was in London, a day before my planned departure. I witnessed the effect firsthand, running into a Palestinian demonstration blasting the Saudi Government (they had condemned Hezbollah’s actions), and a Lebanese demonstration, with 8 year old boys waving Hezbollah flags. I then walked through a gay pride event!

I flew into Aleppo at night and stood in front of the immigration agent, as he asked me a long series of questions with his very limited English. I answered when I could, but often said I didn’t understand. Amusingly, he didn’t seem to care and would just move on to the next question, while puffing away at his cigarette! My travel buddy picked me up at the airport, having arrived from a different destination the day before. He had found the city’s hotels packed full of Lebanese refugees and somehow managed to find a room in a place the average traveller could never have identified as being a hotel!

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This resulted in perhaps my greatest accommodation contrast in a 24h period, as I went from my suite at the Savoy in London.

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To this room, much smaller than the bathroom at the previous hotel. Notice the powder on the floor; I had never seen this before, or since. Of course, the price was also quite different, $6 a night vs over $1,000 a night. In fact, the hotel in Aleppo, the taxi from the airport and all my meals the next day cost less, combined, than I had paid for a gin and tonic at the Savoy’s famed American Bar! (Note: of course I didn’t pay $1,000 for a hotel room. Because of work, I was a very frequent guest in Fairmont hotels at the time, so I used a free night and a suite upgrade voucher).

I don’t know about now, but at the time Syria could be a very inexpensive destination. Hungry and unsure what Syrians ate for breakfast, we went into a bakery and pointed at some sweets. I handed the man a small bill and he sighted, annoyed at having to give me back so much change. As I counted the bills and coins he had given me back, I realized the plate of sweet had cost 15 cents! A one hour bus ride cost me 60 cents.

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The most impressive sight in Aleppo, the Citadel, renovated at great cost by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

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I took this picture of downtown Aleppo from inside the Citadel. To put some perspective on history, the Citadel protecting Aleppo was about 2,000 years old when Rome was founded. Continue reading

So I went to Beauvais. No, not Paris, Beauvais. And I liked it a lot!

For those who have never heard of Beauvais, it is a small town of 55,000, about an hour and a half north of Paris by car. It is probably best known for its small airport, which exploded in popularity with the arrival of low-cost carriers. In 1996, the airport served 60,000 passengers and last year, nearly 4 million. I flew there from Vilnius and wanted to get to a hotel near Charles-de-Gaulle airport, in order to catch a morning flight to Canada. Not wanting to go into Paris and then get back out to CDG, which is also north of the city, I looked for a direct route and found a twice daily shuttle to EuroDisney, which can drop you off at CDG airport on the way. The trouble is, I would have to wait six hours.

Really not wanting to do the back and forth in and out of Paris, I figured I would go to Beauvais itself, have lunch and possibly go to the cinema.

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As soon as I walked past City Hall, I realized it was not the village I had thought it to be. I went to the tourist office and they recommended I visit the cathedral and a little museum. Nothing sounded very interesting, but was I ever in for a surprise!

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The Cathedral of St-Peter of Beauvais is widely considered to be the craziest ever project of Gothic architecture.

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Built in the 13th century, its nave is not the highest in the Oise Department. At 48.5 m, it is the highest in the whole world, a few meters higher than St-Peter of Rome!

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800 years ago, this was absolute madness. It pushed Gothic technology to its absolute limits, and in many ways, beyond the limits. In 1284, part of the nave collapsed, and since then, the building has been in a kind of permanent situation of imminent collapse! Continue reading