hornbjarg-cliffs-hornstrandir-1024x683.jpg

Trekking Iceland – Hornbjarg – Hornstrandir

21 June. The longest day of the year. I was almost on the Arctic Circle, and I never saw the Sun 🙁  In true Icelandic fashion we went from perfectly clear skies yesterday to completely overcast today – this being the view after I’d packed up camp and set off towards Hornbjarg along the beach. 

Beach at Hornvík on a very overcast day - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Weather doesn’t look great!

Given it was low tide, I was able to cross the river where it entered the sea rather than hiking up the valley to wade through at its shallowest point.  My first river crossing in Iceland!  And let me tell you – it is no better than a Greenlandic river crossing as far as temperature and pain goes!

Tidal river crossing at Hornvík and my poor suffering from the cold feet - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Looking back at the tidal river that needed to be crossed (top) and my poor cold feet (bottom)

After booting up again on the other side, I stopped to explore a beautiful waterfall

Waterfall with driftwood logs - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Iceland is the land of waterfalls

and started to pick my way through the rocks as the trail stopped and started along the Eastern edge of Hornvík.

Beach with large rocks - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland

Once past the farmhouse where day-trippers arrive, the trail became more obvious and eventually started climbing up to the ridge.

Trail from the ocean to the ridge is just visible - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
You can just see the trail curving up to the ridge. If you look closely, you can also see 2 hikers at the top of the trail

Exploring Hornbjarg

It was steep and tough going carrying a full backpack. But one foot after the next I eventually reached the top, and still ahead of the day-tripping group that started just after me.  Competitive?  Who me?!

Views of the trail and the ocean as I hike the ridge to Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Views from the trail as I climb to the ridge

The trail stopped very, very suddenly at a sheer, several-hundred-metre drop straight into the ocean.  It was a good thing I was paying attention!

Looking straight down at the ocean from the Hornbjarg Cliffs - Hornstrandir - Iceland
It drops straight down!

I had reached the famous bird cliffs of the Hornbjarg.

Here, thousands of Arctic Terns and Black Guillemots nest in the sheer rocky cliff walls – their eggs an important source of food for the people who lived in Hornstrandir over 70 years ago (there have been no permanent residents since the 1950s).  During these times, men and boys would abseil down the cliffs to collect one egg from each nest, leaving the others to hatch in order to maintain the population.

Looking along the Hornbjarg cliffs at the birds nesting there - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Birds nesting in the Hornbjarg cliffs

I spent about 20 minutes lying on my stomach in the wet grass holding tightly to my camera and peering over the edge to watch the birds circle and sit.  Unfortunately, 20 minutes was all I could bear before the cold drizzle that had started about 1/2 way up the ridge forced me to start moving again.  

I let the day-trippers go ahead of me as I constantly wiped water droplets from the front of my camera lens (not always successfully), trying to capture the majesty of this incredible place!

Group of hikers making their way towards the higher portion of Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Next section of the trail

The views of the cliffs became more and more spectacular as I traversed a relatively flat section of the trail

Looking back down on the flat section of trail - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Looking back down on the flat section

before facing the second steep uphill of the day.

The higher cliffs of Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
I love this view!

The muddy trail eventually guided me to a narrow spit of a ridge with panoramic views back down over Hornvík.

Panorama over Hornvik - Hornstrandir-Iceland

move cursor over image to see full panorama

If only it hadn’t been windy and raining (quite a strong wind had also picked up by this stage), this would have been an incredible spot to hang out for quite a while enjoying the view!

A promonotory with views back towards Hornvik - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Amazing view from here!

Looking the other direction was just as dramatic,

Trail on Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Really, incredible views no matter which direction you look

and the view to the next stage of the trail was again – in a word – incredible.  There really aren’t enough superlatives in the English language!

Hornbjarg view including lake - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Yes, those are rain spots on the lens

From there, the trail itself dropped very steeply off the ridge and ran along the edge of the cliff with more great views of the birds (this is not a good hike if heights are a concern), before curving inward and around a small lake. 

Views of Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The trail closely follows the cliff edge (top-left), me taking a break in the rain watching the birds (top-right), the day-trippers near a small lake around which the trail skirts (bottom)

I watched as the day-tripping group headed back down to the farmhouse and their waiting boat, while I headed up another incredibly steep hill in my quest to camp at the lighthouse at Hornbjargsviti. That sharp peak at around the 11km mark in the altitude profile below is not a mistake!

The way to Hornbjargsviti

According to my map (which I was growing to trust less and less), there should have been a high trail off to my left once I reached the top.  I could see a trail going that way, ending in a vertical rock wall about 50m distant.  And while I may have investigated it a little closer had I only had a daypack, there was no way I was going to risk it carrying an 18kg backpack!

So I bush bashed straight down the other side in the hope that I would connect with the lower trail marked on my map. In doing so, I startled one of Hornstrandir’s many Arctic Foxes (they are protected in this area) making him very concerned indeed.  This one started walking straight towards me with intent while making hissing and whooping noises.  Meanwhile, I was wondering whether they carried the rabies virus and what would happen if it bit me!  Yes, I’ve had the full course of rabies shots, but still…  In the end, he approached to about 20 metres and then circled around behind me from that distance. I continued my wet descent through calf-deep vegetation. 

Bush bashing to try to find the trail (top) and a sprinting Arctic Fox (bottom) - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Bush bashing to try to find the trail (top) and a very unhappy (and very blurry) Arctic Fox (bottom)

Eventually I spied what I thought looked suspiciously like a trail heading off in the direction of Hornbjargsviti.  Yes! I had finally found the lower trail.

Glimpse of the lower trail to Hornbjargsviti - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Can you see it?

Which of course meant that I had one more interminable climb before reaching my destination for the night.  I have to admit, I was tired and more than a little over (fed up with) the constant drizzle and stiff wind by this point.  But I’d seen pictures of the lighthouse and I really, really, really wanted to camp there… 

So big girl pants on – off I set.

The lower trail to Hornbjargviti - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Yes, it was the trail I was looking for. I would have preferred the high trail, but no matter. The blurry parts of the images are where I simply can’t keep up with getting rain off my lens anymore

Arctic Fox Research

About 3/4 of the way to the next pass, I came across a bloke sitting on a rock.  Mike ran an ecological charity in the UK and was here volunteering with an Icelandic Institute that monitors the behaviour of Arctic Foxes each Summer.  In particular, they look for changes in behaviour that may have been brought about by contact with humans.  He couldn’t have found a better spot from which to observe, as it was the only place I’d come across in the past several hours that was not subject to the strong, biting wind, and it happened to be located right above a snow drift with a den of foxes in it!  He was telling me that the day before was wonderful as all the cubs were out in the sunshine playing for hours.

Arctic Fox research volunteer monitoring a den of foxes - Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Arctic Fox research volunteer monitoring a den

I ended up chatting with him for about 20 minutes, and then finally made it over the last pass of the day.  I can’t tell you how happy I was to spy the lighthouse, even though it was still quite far away!

View of Hornbjargsviti and its lighthouse from top of the pass from Hornbjarg - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Finally! Hornbjargsviti Lighthouse and my campsite for the night.

Hornbjargsviti

The last few kms were spent watching the lighthouse get closer and closer with each step and, despite being incredibly tired and cursing the wind and the rain, taking more photos.  I know, I know.  I kept telling myself I was an idiot as well.  But it was impossible to predict what the weather would do tomorrow, and it was just so beautiful.

Views around the Hornbjargsviti Lighthouse - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Looking one way, and then the other, as I near the Hornbjargsviti Lighthouse

By the time I’d reached the lighthouse, the winds were up around the 70km/hr mark.  The lighthouse was not open yet for the Summer and I was the only one around, so I dumped my pack and scouted for the best place to pitch my tent out of the wind.  This turned out to be right in front of the door to the toilet – so that’s where I camped 🙂  It was also quite convenient for going to the loo, getting water out of the tap, storing my pack out of the rain, and drying my rain gear as well!

My strategically placed tent at the Hornbjargsviti Lighthouse - Hornstrandir - Iceland
My strategically placed tent at the Hornbjargsviti Lighthouse. The wind was howling a gale!

I made myself dinner, heated up my Coke-hot-water-bottle, and settled in listening to the wind howl outside and the wind gauge spin manically on the top of the lighthouse.  No, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep!

The Hornbjarg as a Day Trip

If you are not keen on hiking alone, or don’t have as much time as I did, Westtours offers a day trip to explore hornbjarg.  This is what the group I saw were doing.  It costs 43,900ISK (USD$416, AUD$564) per person (minimum age = 12).

Trekking Information

Distance = 17.3km

Time taken = 9 hours and 53 minutes.  Several short breaks taken.

Map

Basic map of the route I took to explore The Horn in Hornstrandir from Movescount

Altitude Profile

Altitude profile of the route I took to explore the Horn in Hornstrandir from Strava

Download track as .gpx

Read more about my solo trek in Hornstrandir

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure in Hornstrandir:

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Iceland and around the world.

view-towards-hornvik-from-pass-hornstrandir-1024x683.jpg

Trekking Iceland – Veiðileysufjörður to Hornvík – Hornstrandir

When you are a little nervous about something, it always makes you feel better when the sun is shining 🙂   

boats in Ísafjörður harbour
Glorious morning!

I arrived early at the Borea Adventures dock to catch my boat transfer from Ísafjörður to Veiðileysufjörður and was beginning to think I may have been the only passenger.  However, with 5 minutes to go, 2 guys from the US (Sean and Daniel) and a group of about 15 people on a day tour showed up and we set out on the ~1 hour journey to Hornstrandir.

Views from the Borea Adventures boat transfer from Ísafjörður to Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Great journey, but unfortunately no whales

Boat transfer to Veiðileysufjörður

It was a very calm crossing in glorious weather, so I sat on the back deck enjoying the views and chatting with some of the other passengers.  We dropped the group of day-hikers off as we entered the Veiðileysufjörður inlet, and then continued on to a triangular structure (which turned out to be a pit toilet) that identifies the locations of campgrounds in Hornstrandir.

The crew launched the small zodiac off the back of the boat to deposit myself, Sean and Daniel on dry land, and then headed back to Ísafjörður.  There was no turning back now and I had 8 days to get to my pickup point in Hesteyri.

Images of the zodiac transfer to Veiðileysufjörður campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Lowering the zodiac (top-left), en route to Veiðileysufjörður campsite (top-right), and there is no turning back now! (bottom)

It turns out Sean is an award-winning professional wildlife photographer (a give-away being the enormous lens that was permanently attached to his camera) who had come to Hornstrandir to photograph a personal project on Arctic Foxes.  He and Daniel (also an amazing wildlife photographer) had met the year before in Alaska and were spending the next 5 days in the Hornvík area (my destination for the day) to capture the images.  Given we were heading the same direction and had similar interests we decided to hike together. 

Although there was a sign pointing in the direction of Hornvík, there was no obvious trail to follow.  So we simply set out across country in the general direction of the waterfall that we could see at the end of the inlet – the direction we should head according to the map. 

Veiðileysufjörður campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Veiðileysufjörður campsite. The pyramid-shaped building is the dry toilet

From Veiðileysufjörður to Hafnarskard Pass

After wading through knee-high shrubbery for much of it (very reminiscent of several of the hikes I did in South Greenland last year), we arrived at the waterfall, and found our first marker and the trail.

Views heading from Veiðileysufjörður campsite to the waterfall - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Bush bashing towards the waterfall from Veiðileysufjörður campsite

From there, the route to the Hafnarskard Pass was obvious and marked by large stone cairns stretching off into the distance.  It was also clear to us looking ahead that there was going to be snow in our very near future!

Large stone cairn - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Nice and obvious cairn, finally

As we climbed higher, the views behind us down to the inlet became more and more spectacular

Cairn and view back down to Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland

and indeed, we started to hit patches of snow that we had to cross.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected given how early it was in the season (the boats had only start running a couple of weeks earlier at the beginning of June), and this was one of the things I’d read about online that was adding to my concerns about hiking alone.  However, we weren’t the first people to pass this way and there were boot prints that seemed to be a few days old marking the trail across each of the snowy patches.

Following other people's bootprints in snow drifts - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel leading the way through the snow, following in the boot prints of others

The fun really started towards the top of the pass, where we could see we would have to conquer a very steep snow slope to gain our destination.  

View of bootprints in the snow we would have to conquer leading up to Hafnarskard Pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
A trail of boot prints leads to Hafnarskard Pass – it was going to be quite a climb

It was every bit as steep as it looked and, given I was in the lead, I ended up having to kick snow-stairs into the slope with my boots in order to make progress.  Good thing that I’d seen Maxime do this last year in East Greenland!  It seemed that trekkers coming from the other direction had had much more fun – bum-sliding down the slope rather than hiking it!

bum trail and bootprints in the snow leading to the pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Boot prints and what I took to be the imprint of a bum-slide on the climb to the pass

But I made it eventually

Me at Hafnarskard pass looking back towards Veiðileysufjörður - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Me at Hafnarskard pass looking back towards Veiðileysufjörður

and watched as the others struggled their way up.  I had no idea how Sean was going to manage carrying that enormous lens of his, but he eventually joined us and explained that he basically used it as a trekking pole all the way up!

Trekking companions making their way up to Hafnarskard pass through the snow - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel (top) and Sean (bottom) struggling up the snow towards Hafnarskard pass

The view back to Veiðileysufjörður was amazing of course

View of Veiðileysufjörður from Hafnarskard pass - Hornstrandir-Iceland
Final view of Veiðileysufjörður from Hafnarskard pass

but it was also very exciting to see what lay ahead of us.  No surprises – it was another beautiful vista!

Me looking towards Hornvik from Hafnarsgard Pass - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Looking towards Hornvík, our destination, from Hafnasgard Pass

Hafnarskard Pass to Hornvík

We tucked ourselves behind a rocky ridge out of the wind to eat lunch, relax, soak up the sunshine (after all, it’s not often you get weather like this in Iceland!) and admire the views.  Then it was time to continue on to Hornvík through the snow that lay on the northern side of the pass.

Trekking companions heading across the snow in the direction of Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Daniel and Sean leading the way to Hornvík through the snow

My guess is that we were walking in snow for about 1/4 of the hike from Veiðileysufjörður to Hornvík.  It wasn’t terribly deep for the most part but it was a little slushy, and again I’m very happy with my Lowa boots that kept my feet blissfully dry and warm 🙂

slushy snow and great hiking boots
So happy with my waterproof boots!

We stopped for another rest much further down the slope, though really it was just an excuse to get the packs off and lie in the sun for a while.

Taking a break on the way to Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Taking a break on the way to Hornvík

Not too long after, we reached a steep drop-off that revealed the river valley leading down to Hornvík.

Amazing view of the bright green  river delta at Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Amazingly green!

Wow!  We were not expecting such a verdantly green reveal, made even more so by the bright sunshine and blue skies!  Being photographers, we had a great time here playing with the composition of the river and small lakes as they punctuated this vibrancy.  

Water patterns in the green of the Hornvík river delta - Hornstrandir - Iceland
Nature is an artist

We could also see our home for the night – the Hornvík campsite – which was located just past the yellow house on the edge of the inlet.

View of Hornvík campsite and the Horn - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The campsite is located just past the yellow house

The path became a little boggy as we descended into the valley, but we finally arrived.

Path and signs on the final stretch to Hornvík - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The final stretch…

Hornvík Campsite

Given that Hornvík is the most popular destination in Hornstrandir, the campground is large and really well set up.  There is a bright orange emergency shelter (you don’t want to have to go hunting for it in an emergency), a sink, flush toilets, and a permanent Ranger station. When the Icelandic flag is flying, the Ranger is in 🙂  

Images of infrastructure at Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The rangers station with flush toilets (top), fresh water (bottom-left) and the emergency shelter (bottom-right) at Hornvík campsite

It was here that I met the extremely helpful and lovely Vésteinn Már Rúnarsson and talked him through my hiking plan for the next week.  He gave me updates on the status of the trails (especially pertaining to bogginess) and made several suggestions given I was wearing hiking boots and not gumboots 😀   He also had the latest best guess as to what the weather would do tomorrow…

Ranger at the rangers station at Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
The ranger is in!

Armed with this information, I found a place to pitch my tent with an awesome view (it wasn’t difficult as there were only 7 people camping here this night), and went for a walk along the beach admiring “The Horn” where I would be heading tomorrow on my hike.

view of the horn from my tent - Hornvík campsite - Hornstrandir - Iceland
My view 🙂

Million thanks to Sean and Daniel for hiking with me today!  Loved hanging out with you guys and I hope you have a ton of luck with your Arctic Fox photography!

My trekking companions for the day
Sean (left), Daniel (centre) and myself at Hornvík campsite

Trekking Information

Distance = 9.9km

Time taken = 7 hours and 20 minutes.  But probably 2 hours of that was spent chilling in the sunshine and taking photos 🙂

Map

Basic map of the route from Movescount

Altitude Profile

Altitude profile of the route from Strava

Download track as .gpx

Read more about my solo trek in Hornstrandir

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure in Hornstrandir:

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Iceland and around the world.

Hiking-Hornstrandir-gear-e1530293670646-768x1024.jpg

My first solo multi-day trek – Hornstrandir in Iceland

Although I have now done several long-distance treks

all of them have been guided. 

Trekking group descending towards Karale Fjord with Knud Rasmussen Glacier and mountains in the background
Views over the Knud Rasmussen Glacier in East Greenland as the group descends to the Karale Fjord

My first solo trek

I had never really considered doing a solo, unguided multi-day trek, and 8 months ago when I decided I wanted to hike the Arctic Circle Trail in West Greenland, I was desperate to find trekking companions (turns out Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums are pretty good for that 🙂 )

However, I’ve discovered that a lot can change over the course of half a year, which is how I now find myself about to embark on an 8-day solo hike in the most remote part of Iceland – the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords region.

Map of Iceland showing Hornstrandir location, and map of Hornstrandir
Top: Map of Iceland with Hornstrandir highlighted. Bottom: Map of Hornstrandir with main hiking trails indicated

Could I have chosen an easier place to start?  Most definitely!  But I do tend to dive into these things head first…

Why I’m nervous about Hornstrandir

I had two main concerns going in:

  1. The weather.  Iceland is notorious for its changeable weather (even in Summer) and several of the accounts I’d read online about hiking in Hornstrandir talked of the cold (a constant fear of mine, despite spending most of my time in cold places), rain and fog.  
  2. Whether the trails are well marked.  There is conflicting information online that mentions everything from an obvious track, through to stone cairns (which can often be obscured by fog) through to nothing at all.  What would I find?

In order to address the first concern (of the cold and rain at least), while home in Australia I spent a small fortune upgrading all my camping gear except for my tent.  Given how much camping I’m doing between now and the end of the year (and probably into the future), it was a strategic investment and I now have an Enlightened Equipment -18 degree down sleeping quilt, mittens, hood and booties, the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm sleeping mat, 260gsm thermals, Smartwool socks, plus all the gear I talk about in my summary for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

Almost all the gear I took on my hike in Hornstrandir, Iceland
Almost all the gear that had to fit into my 65L backpack for my 8 day hike in Hornstrandir. Love how small all my down gear from Enlightened Equipment packs (white compression dry-bag) and how small my sleeping mat is (green dry-bag). But even with that, the tent (brown bag) had to be strapped to the outside. I also had a separate chest bag for my camera, with the second lens and other accessories stored in the main pack.

To mitigate the second concern (and for their own sanity as well), my mum and dad bought me the Garmin InReach SE+ personal emergency beacon which, in addition to calling the emergency services if you really get into trouble, allows you to program GPS waypoints, track your route, and send and receive messages (I could check in each day saying I was OK).  I also had my flash new Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch (yes, I have all the gadgets!) which again allows you to set GPS waypoints and track your route, as well as an old fashioned Suunto global compass and map.

Navigation aids - Garmin InReach SE+, Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch, map and Suunto M3 compass
Navigation aids – Garmin InReach SE+, Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch, map and Suunto M3 compass

But it wasn’t just mum and dad that were concerned about safety. 

You need to book boat transfers to and from Hornstrandir in advance (Westtours and Borea Adventure).  In order to do so, you must provide your planned itinerary so that if you are not at your scheduled pickup, emergency services can be alerted and they have some idea of where to start searching for you. You are also strongly encouraged to register your hiking itinerary with Safetravel.is. Iceland really tries to take care of its visitors!

So, with both watch and personal emergency beacon programmed, I am as prepared as I can be!  Let’s see what the reality is like…

Read more about my solo trek in Hornstrandir

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure in Hornstrandir:

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Iceland and around the world.

check-in-notice-Reykjavik-domestic-airport-1024x768.jpg

Flying into Ísafjörður – an amazing approach

Reykjavik domestic airport borders the southern edge of the city’s downtown area.  It is literally a 2km walk to the terminal from City Hall.

Map showing Reykjavik domestic airport compared with downtown
It is an easy walk to the domestic airport from downtown Reykjavik

As you might imagine, only small propeller planes take off from here (the rest depart from Keflavik International Airport, 45km away) and the terminal itself is very small.

Being the eternal early-bird, I arrived for my Air Iceland Connect flight to Ísafjörður about 1.5 hours ahead of time, only to find that I couldn’t get rid of my checked luggage until about ½ hour before the flight. They check each flight in in turn, you can’t jump the queue!

Check-in Notification at Reykjavik domestic airport.
They only check in one flight at a time. You have to wait until yours is displayed here

But eventually it all happened and I was winging my way to Ísafjörður in Iceland’s Westfjords region.

Air Iceland Connect plane to Isafjordur
Small planes for domestic flights within Iceland

The approach to Ísafjörður 

To be honest, there was not much to look at out the window of the Air Iceland Connect Bombardier Q200 propeller plane (clouds!) until we were on our final approach to the airport.  And then I kinda wished I couldn’t see anything! 

At least one aviation website considers Ísafjörður to be one of the most scenic and challenging approaches in the world, and I have to say “I concur!”

Flying up a valley with the right wingtip almost touching the mountain just outside my window, we pulled a hard 180 degree turn within the valley itself before landing on the tarmac runway.  Here is what it looks like from the cockpit of a plane (not my flight) – though I’m not convinced it gives you a good feel for exactly how close you get to that mountain!

Skip the first minute and play at 2x if you are in a hurry 🙂

All I will say is thank goodness we had a calm day!  I would hate to be doing that in rough weather!  

We touched down without incident (thank goodness!), and I spent the rest of the day wandering around town, and sorting final logistics for my week long solo-hike in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.  I really hope the weather remains like this!

move mouse over image to see full panorama

Nuuk-scenic-flight-autumn-sermitsiaq-summit-person-enjoying-1024x683.jpg

Helicopter Summit Flight – Sermitsiaq – Nuuk

Sitting in a helicopter flying towards the iconic Sermitsiaq Mountain at sunset is by far one of the most amazing things you can do in Nuuk. The only thing that could make it better – actually land near the summit and have time to explore!

An interesting fact about Greenland is that flying in a helicopter is a relatively common way of getting around. Greenland has no roads between its towns, which means that the only year-round option to get from place to place is by air (you can’t sail in winter).

Although helicopters provide a vital cog in the transportation infrastructure for Greenland, it is also possible to take some tourism-oriented flights. The main options are in Ilulissat, Kangerlussuaq, Qaqortoq and Nuuk – with the Helicopter Summit Flight being the pinnacle in Greenland’s capital city.

Safety briefing

My 4 fellow passengers and I met our pilot at Nuuk’s small airport at 5pm. Geir led us out to the helicopter, gave us a safety briefing and asked who wanted the front seat. While everyone else was being nice and pausing before putting their hand up – I just jumped right in 🙂

pilot giving safety briefing before we board the helicopter for the Nuuk Summit flight to Sermitsiaq - West Greenland
Geir pointing out all the important bits

With the others squeezed into the back of the helicopter (there’s not much space when you get 4 adults in there) and our headsets on, we took off in the direction of Sermitsiaq.

Taking off in the helicopter for the Nuuk Summit Flight. The runway at Nuuk airport and Sermitsiaq - West Greenland
Taking off towards Sermitsiaq

Flying around Sermitisaq

It is a short flight from Nuuk to Sermitsiaq mountain – but absolutely stunning!

Aerial view as we approach Sermitisiaq on the helicopter summit flight from Nuuk - West Greenland
Love the different perspective on this mountain when seen from the air

On a day like this – the views go on forever – and you really can appreciate the spectacular beauty of the Nuuk Fjord.

Looking beyond Sermitsiaq's peak further into the Nuuk Fjord - West Greenland
Looking over the top of the peak of Sermitsiaq further into the Nuuk Fjord
Other peaks in the Nuuk Fjord that are very close to the city - West Greenland
The Nuuk Fjord is stunningly beautiful. This is the doorstop of Greenland’s capital city

I had actually done this helicopter summit flight earlier in the year during Winter.  Back then, the entire mountain was covered in snow and you couldn’t see any of the details. Those of you who have been following for a while know how much I am in love with rocks in Greenland – and being able to see the rock coming through the dusting of snow on the peak was a highlight for me.

Rock detail of sermitisiaq mountain - Nuuk - West Greenland

As was discovering unexpectedly that there is a large lake between the ridge and the summit!  I had absolutely no idea that was there as it was completely covered in snow and ice the last time I visited.

Hidden lake between the ridge and the peak of Sermitsiaq mountain - Nuuk - West Greenland
I had no idea this was here!

To ensure that everyone ended up with a fantastic view of the mountain, Geir took us on 2 circuits of the summit – first one direction and then the other. Both the amazing views and the slightly disorienting feeling of manoeuvring in a circle in a helicopter brought a massive smile to my face.

Summit landing on Sermitsiaq

After we’d all taken about a million photos of the mountain, Geir bought us in to land on the ridge below the peak of Sermitsiaq.

Really – it doesn’t get any better than this!

helicopter and people on the ridge in front of the summit of Sermitsiaq - Nuuk - West Greenland
Our landing spot. You can see the actual summit of Sermitsiaq in the background

There was not a breath of wind (the wind was coming from directly behind the peak so we were sheltered) and we had the next 25 minutes to explore our incredible surroundings and try to take in where we were and what we were experiencing.

Contemplating the experience on top of Sermitsiaq - Nuuk - West Greenland
Contemplating the experience

I couldn’t get over the existence of the hidden lake! And the fact that there was an almost perfect reflection of the golden peak in its waters was just the icing on the cake.

panorama from the landing site on Sermitsiaq including the hidden lake - West Greenland - Nuuk

move mouse over image to see full panorama

The light was spectacular, and becoming more so by the minute as the sun headed towards the horizon. 

Glimpse of Nuuk Fjord and mountains- West Greenland
The Nuuk Fjord is amazing

It didn’t matter which direction I looked – the view in front of me was one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen.

sun setting behind the helicopter on the summit flight - nuuk - West Greenland
Sun setting behind the helicopter – Nuuk is down below

Yes – I know there are a lot of superlatives in this post – but it really was beyond incredible!

me standing on Sermitsiaq mountain with the Nuuk fjord behind - West Greenland
So happy!

Flight back to Nuuk

I used every second of my 25 minutes exploring the ridge and taking photos in all directions. But eventually we had to leave.  This time I sat in the back of the helicopter – which still offers awesome views as you fly.

looking out the front window between the pilot and passenger on Nuuk helicopter summit flight - West Greenland
Even from the middle-back seat the views are amazing
pastel light view looking out the side window of the helicopter summit flight - Nuuk - West Greenland
Looking out the side window

Our return flight took us past the airport

view of airport and store malene from helicopter summit flight - Nuuk - West Greenland
Nuuk airport with Store Malene in the background

and over the city of Nuuk itself

Passenger taking photo as we circle over Nuuk center on helicopter summit flight - West Greenland

before circling around

view of private harbour, airport and sermitsiaq from helicopter - Nuuk - West Greenland

to land back at Nuuk airport.

Nuuk airport terminal from the tarmac - West Greenland
Nuuk airport terminal

A must-do helicopter scenic flight

If you are looking for something really special to round out your trip to Nuuk, doing a remote helicopter landing on an iconic mountain peak has to be right up there. I highly recommend the Helicopter Summit Flight from Nuuk – and it is even more spectacular if you time it for about an hour before sunset.  You won’t be disappointed!

Discover more about Greenland

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Nuuk is the most comprehensive online guide for planning your vacation to Greenland’s capital. Definitely a must-read for anyone thinking of visiting.

You can read more about my experiences in Greenland both here and on my Greenland-specific blog at Guide to Greenland.

For more information about Greenland, the best websites are Guide to Greenland (which is also a one-stop-shop for many of the tours available), and Visit Greenland, the Government tourism site.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
Nuuk-Nordic-Culture-Festival-2019-sletten-narsarsuaq-relationships-1024x683.jpg

Sletten//Narsarsuaq – Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival 2019

Sletten//Narsarsuaq is the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen. The highlight of the Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival in 2019 for me, I am still deeply affected by these stories and the remarkable performances I experienced.

The Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival (also known as Nuuk Nordisk) is a biannual week-long festival that brings together artists from throughout Nordic countries.  As soon as the early-bird tickets were released back in April, I bought mine – allowing me unlimited access to almost everything that would happen during the festival week.

I had no idea what to expect. But when the program came out several months later, my eyes were immediately drawn to a series of performances that would be held in the “Blocks” – old, run-down apartment buildings that still occupy prime real-estate in central Nuuk.

The official poster for Narsarsuaq // Sletten

Nuuk’s Apartment Blocks

I have a strange fascination with the Blocks. Particularly Block P, which was the largest and has become the most famous of them. It was demolished in 2012, 5 years before I visited Greenland for the first time. But that has not stopped me from seeking out information and pouring over the display about it in Nuutoqaq – the Nuuk Local Museum, which features photographs and other items rescued during the demolition. I even found and bought a book about Block P in the Nuuk Art Museum during the week of the festival!

Part of the exhibition about Block P in Nuutoqaq - Nuuk's local museum
Part of the exhibition about Block P in Nuutoqaq

The Blocks were built in the 1960s/70s as part of the Danish Government’s G60 program to urbanize Greenland and move people from the small settlements into larger towns and cities. The aim was to give the Greenlanders the same standard of living as that which existed in Denmark – an admirable aim to be sure. However, having to transition from an Inuit hunter to an apartment-dwelling city worker essentially overnight was too much for many of the displaced locals, and the social ramifications are still felt throughout Greenland.

Some of the Blocks in downtown Nuuk
Some of the Blocks in downtown Nuuk.

Narsarsuaq//Sletten

This is exactly what the Narsarsuaq//Sletten multi-performance theatre was about. The description of this large production was essentially as follows:

Narsarsuaq//Sletten. The Blocks 1-10. This area tells the newer story of Nuuk, and of Greenland.

In the 70’s the urbanization of Greenland took place and many small settlements were forced to close. Fishermen and hunters came with their families from beautiful areas along the coast, and were suddenly put into small apartments. What happened? How was it. How is it?

Some were happy (they had all the modern conveniences) and were able to build good strong families. Others lost themselves and their identities.

The Narsarsuaq//Sletten today is full of memories and stories – beautiful, hard, fulfilled, unfulfilled, warm and devastating stories. Stories of the lives that have been lived over the past 30 years and continue to be lived.

Nuuk Nordisk Program 2019

Pink handprints adorn one of the walls of an apartment in Block 1 - currently being demolished in Nuuk
Pink hand-prints adorn one of the walls of an apartment in Block 1. This Block is currently being torn down – erasing more stories of the lives that have been lived there.

The 5 performances making up this epic show each touched on different aspects of this urbanization project. A production by Teater FreezeProductions, directed by Hanne Trap Friis and featuring some of Greenland’s best actors, dancers, writers and storytellers, I couldn’t wait until they played in English during the last 3 days of the festival (they were in Greenlandic during the first 3 days).

“The View”

“Out this window I have a view of one of the Blocks. Out my other window, I have a view of another of the Blocks. Where I used to live, my views went on forever…”

The View

So begins the monologue of an old Greenlandic lady sitting at her kitchen table in her apartment in Block 2. Makka Kleist delivered an extraordinary solo performance, drawing us in with her storytelling as she reminisced about her life in the settlement with her beloved Kali. At intervals, these happy memories were interrupted by noises from neighbouring apartments, and both she and the audience would abruptly return to the new reality. That of city life in a small apartment.  

The way she tells it, there certainly were advantages to moving into the Blocks (it was warm, there was running water, everything worked at the press of a button), but it is clear that her heart still longed to be out in the fjord living the harder life.

“Sletten”

This was the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen! Kudos to Kim Leine who wrote it, and Helene Kvint, Karina Møller and Thomas Knuth who performed it.

The story is about a Danish nurse and his wife who come to Greenland for a 2-year stint in the hospital in Nuuk.  It is a no-hold-barred look at the relationship between Greenland and Denmark that is played out in the interpersonal relationships of this couple and a Greenlandic woman who has an affair with the husband.

A scene from Sletten

What made it so powerful were the subjects that it broached and the way in which it broached them – head on, in your face, with no holds barred. But also, the fact that it was performed in such a small space. The audience was sat along the two long walls of what I imagine was the living room/kitchen in one of the apartments. The room was about 6m wide and perhaps 15m long (probably an over-estimation), and most of the action took place in the middle of the room. The actors were so close to the audience that you couldn’t help but feel as if you were in the middle of what was going on. And the fact that the actors actually acknowledged the audience as part of the play when they entered the room for the first time, cemented the fact that we were all in this together.

Scene from "Sletten" showing how close the audience is to the performance - part of Sletten//Narsarsuaq
You can’t help but feel like you are part of the scene when the stage is this small and you are sat in the thick of the action

I have never been so affected by a performance in my entire life!

And I have no connection with the history between Greenland and Denmark.  I cannot imagine what it must have felt like as a Dane or Greenlander to have your relationship portrayed in such a raw manner. Certainly, there were many eyes that glistened with tears (my own included) by the end of the performance, and the standing ovation the actors received could only begin to express how much we had been all been affected.

In Zombieland

This was another powerful experience based on stories from the collection of novels written by Sørine Steenholdt. Through poetry, dance and music, three young people explored the dreams, fears and hopes of Greenland’s youth while raising to the fore many of the social issues that affect them. Amazing performances by all three actors (Amisuna Berthelsen, Hans-Henrik Suersaq Poulsen and Nukakkuluk Kreutzman), touching on suicide (Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world), drunkenness and child abuse. No photographs were allowed during this performance.

Boy meets Concrete

I have to admit, I’m a very literal person and not really into interpretive dance. However, I did go to see this performance which apparently explored how “the soft human soul and flesh meet the challenge of the concrete, of the city”. No photographs were allowed during this performance.

Remembering Lisa

The final performance in the series told the story of “Lisa” – a Greenlandic woman who was murdered in Block 6 back in 1985. How many of the current residents of Nuuk remember that this happened? The answer: not many.

And this was the point of the performance. Showing how we should never forget people’s lives, no matter how “ordinary” they may have been.

"Lisa" serving tea in her kitchen to welcome us to the performance "Remembering Lisa", part of Narsarsuaq//Sletten
Lisa serves us tea as she welcomes us to her kitchen in “Remembering Lisa’

The story was told through a re-enactment of what may have taken place on that fateful day. Amidst the certainty of the football game happening at the stadium, the fact that kids would have been playing outside between the blocks, and the knowledge of the weather on the day and who the Prime Minister of Greenland was at the time, it is still unknown who killed Lisa. Possible scenarios for the 3 suspects were played out, with two of them rooted once again in the social issues that are still found in Greenland. 

A light-hearted moment arises about two-thirds of the way through when Lisa decides that she wants to change the outcome of the story and not end up dead. She forces a re-work of each of the scenarios, interacting with each of the potential suspects in a more generous manner to see if that could make a difference.  In two of the scenarios – the outcome was different. But the third…

Lisa consoling one of her suspected murderers in order to try to effect a different outcome in "Remembering Lisa", part of Sletten//Narsarsuaq
Trying to rewrite history in “Remembering Lisa”

Final thoughts on Narsarsuaq//Sletten

I have no idea whether this amazing epic will ever be shown elsewhere or ever again. I am so thankful I was able to experience it.

Staging it in the Blocks themselves was absolutely inspired, and I heard the director discuss this as a conscious (and necessary) choice at an Artist Talk during the Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival.  The performances would still be amazing in another venue, but to be couped up in the heart of where these stories took place was particularly powerful.

I cannot thank Teater FreezeProductions and all the people involved enough for such an incredible experience. The absolute highlight of Nuuk Nordisk for me.

Recommendation

If you are interested in experiencing a wide range of Nordic culture and art, you should time your visit to Greenland to coincide with the bi-annual Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival. Read more about the festival itself in this article about Nuuk Nordisk, and discover more of what there is to see and do in Greenland’s capital city in the Ultimate Guide to Nuuk.

Discover more about Greenland

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Nuuk provides a complete list of festivals that take place throughout the year in Greenland’s capital. It also has loads of practical information on how to get to Nuuk, how to get around, where to stay, where to eat, and what to do once you arrive.

You can read more about my experiences in Greenland both here and on my Greenland-specific blog at Guide to Greenland.

For more information about Greenland, the best websites are Guide to Greenland (which is also a one-stop-shop for many of the tours available), and Visit Greenland, the Government tourism site.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
Nuuk-Akisuanerit-Festival-2019-concert-Nanook-1024x683.jpg

2019 Akisuanerit Festival – Nuuk

After 2 long years of waiting, I finally got to see my absolute favourite band in all the world – Nanook – play as part of the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk. Featuring both domestic and international artists and a wide range of musical styles, this 3-day music festival is one of the biggest in Greenland and a great place to discover musicians from the world’s largest island.

My favourite band – Nanook

Nanook were one of the first acts to be announced for this year’s festival, and I think I may have been first in line to buy a ticket to the Saturday night when they were released. There was no way I was going to miss them this time! The added bonus was that another of my favourite Greenlandic performers – Kimmernaq – was also scheduled to play the same night, as was the headline performer – Danish artist, MØ.

Akisuanerit Festival – arriving at Katuaq

Months after buying the ticket, the big night finally arrived.  Determined to reclaim “the spot” I had occupied for the Ole Kristiansen concert in the Katuaq Foyer earlier in the year (one of the best places for short people like me), I rushed my friends through dinner and out the door so that we would arrive early.

Lineup poster for the Akisuanerit Festival 2019 in Nuuk, Greenland
Program for Akisuanerit 2019

Unfortunately, I had not read the schedule very closely and we found the doors still firmly locked when we arrived at 8:30pm. I thought the first act was scheduled for 9pm, but it turned out that was when the doors would be opened.

Oops! 

I wasn’t the only one to be making my friends stand out in the cold, however. Elaine – a 68 year old lady from Florida and another enormous Nanook fan – was also stranded outside.  When we were finally let in, I headed straight for “the spot” and claimed it with no worries at all. But I think my friends will double-check anything written in Danish next time before taking my word for it 🙂

Akisuanerit Festival – Kimmernaq and Adam

The first performers of the night were Greenlandic singer Kimmernaq and her brother Adam. I’d come across Kimmernaq about a year ago and immediately fell in love with her amazing voice and many of the songs off her two albums. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given her second album was written by Frederik Elsner from Nanook!

Covers of Kimmernaq's 2 album

I had heard her songs performed by many local musicians in towns and settlements around Greenland, but I was really excited to actually hear her in person. She was fab!

Kimmernaq and her brother Adam playing at the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk 2019
Kimmernaq and Adam

She sang a mixture of songs during her performance, including many of her own as well as a few Radiohead covers that allowed her and her brother to harmonize gloriously. Adam turned out to be an incredible singer in his own right, performing a solo, melancholic folk-style song that aligned exactly with the type of music I love. What an incredible start to the night!

Adam, Kimmernaq and Nathan performing at the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk, 2019
Adam, Kimmernaq and Nathan

Their set culminated in an amazing hip-hop collaboration with several other Greenlandic artists, including Nina Kreutzmann Jørgensen, Pilu Lynge and Da Bartali Crew. Something very different to her usual stuff – and seriously, seriously awesome! Yes, even for someone who is not into hip-hop music.

Adam, Kimmernaq, Nina, Pilu and Da Bartali Crew performing a hip-hop collaboration at the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk, 2019
Adam, Kimmernaq, Da Bartali Crew (back), Nina and Pilu performing their hip-hop collaboration

Buy music from Kimmernaq at: Atlantic Music Shop, iTunes


Akisuanerit Festival – Nanook

Next up was the band I had come to see – Nanook. I discovered their music about 2 years ago when I was living in Ecuador and have listened to almost nothing else ever since! If you’ve been following me for a while, you will have seen my blog posts about them both here and on Guide to Greenland 🙂  I had been trying to see them play live since 2017 (I missed them by less than 12 hours in Sisimiut in 2018) and I finally got the chance here in Nuuk.

Nanook official image

The wait was totally worth it!

They started out with the amazing soundscape of Minguitsuugami – one of my favourite tracks off their latest album, Ataasiusutut Misigissuseq – and played a mixture of old and new songs from their 11-year career.

Greenlandic band - Nanook - performing at the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk, 2019
Nanook

There is something really special about seeing your favourite musicians play live, and it can only be surpassed when they actually give you a shout-out/name-drop in the middle of their performance 🙂  One of the highlights of my year!

I love these guys!

Buy music from Nanook at:  Atlantic Music, Amazon (Pissaaneqaqisut, Ataasiusutut Misigissuseq), iTunes, Spotify


Akisuanerit Festival – Tarrak

A surprise addition to the program was Greenlandic rapper, Tarrak. Performing with KimoJax, they sang his controversial hit “Tupilak” – a song that highlights some of the difficult aspects of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark.

Tarrak and KimoJax performing Tupilak at the Akisuanerit Festival, Nuuk 2019
Tarrak (left) and KimoJax (right) performing “Tupilak”

The linked YouTube clip includes an English translation of the lyrics, and although I am not a fan of rap, I think this song is amazing.

Akisuanerit Festival – Julie

Julie Berthelsen is one of the biggest Greenlandic pop singers, and insanely popular judging by the reaction of the masses who had packed into the foyer of the Katuaq Cultural Center by this time.

Julie singing her very popular songs at Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk, 2019
Julie

Personally, her music is not my cup of tea. But I have to admit to liking the song “League of Light” which she sang with Nina Kreutzmann Jørgensen as Greenland’s entry to the Danish qualifier for Eurovision 2019. Nina joined her on stage again at the Akisuanerit Festival to finish off her set with this number.

Akisuanerit Festival –

The headline act for the 2019 festival was internationally famous Danish singer, . To be honest, I had no idea who MØ was or what her music sounded like (yes, I can be a little behind the times), but given I was there I figured I should stay awake, stick around and give her a go.

She. Was. Amazing!

MØ performing at the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk 2019
MØ was fabulous

She didn’t appear until about 1:20am, but when she did, her energy and stage presence were amazing and her vocals were flawless. I’m now a massive fan!

MØ and her band playing in Katuaq, Nuuk

Summary

For a person who normally goes to bed around 10pm, this was a huge night! MØ finished at 2:30am and I had a 30-minute walk to get home afterwards. Even then, I found it difficult to fall asleep. Between the ringing in my ears and the high of finally seeing Nanook play live – my brain would not let go of the awesome night.

If you are a music lover and also interested in visiting Greenland – perhaps try to plan your trip for end-September/start-October so you can catch the Akisuanerit Festival in Nuuk. Like the festival’s Facebook page to stay up to date with the latest news, and check out the Ultimate Guide to Nuuk to discover what else there is to see and do while you visit Greenland’s capital.

Discover more about Greenland

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Nuuk provides a complete list of festivals that take place throughout the year in Greenland’s capital. It also has loads of practical information on how to get to Nuuk, how to get around, where to stay, where to eat, and what to do once you arrive.

I have a large number of blog posts about Greenland, so feel free to read more about my experiences here on my blog or on my Greenland-specific blog at Guide to Greenland.

For more information about Greenland, the best websites are Guide to Greenland (which is also a one-stop-shop for many of the tours available), and Visit Greenland, the Government tourism site.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
Ala-Too-square-with-the-National-History-Museum-and-the-statue-of-Manas-Bishkek-History-Tour-Kyrgyzstan-1024x683.jpg

History walking tour – Bishkek

Spending a month hanging out in Bishkek has allowed me to do several walking tours with the amazing Rahat of Bishkek Walks. I loved her unusual ideas of building a walking tour about a very specific aspect of Bishkek History (the Interhelpo: The making of industrial Bishkek tour), and exploring the history of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan through artwork (Mosaic Walking tour). So to end my stay I also joined her once more for her History of Bishkek tour.

The amazing and extremely knowledgeable Rahat from Bishkek walking tours - Kyrgyzstan
The amazing and extremely knowledgeable Rahat

Victory Square

The tour began in Victory Square. This location used to be the central market of Bishkek, but has now been turned into a plaza with the Monument of Victory at its centre. The monument itself was finished in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and features a woman waiting for loved ones to return home from battle.

Victory Monument wide view - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Monument of Victory in Victory Square

She is positioned facing North (the direction in which the men went off to fight) under 3 granite half-arches that represent the supports of a yurt (a traditional Kyrgyz nomad tent). The crown (the ring where the supports come together) is in the shape of a wreath with the Soviet star inside. The eternal flame sits at her feet.

Details of the Monument of Victory

The Silk Road

As we gathered in the shade under the arches of the monument, Rahat told us about the ancient history of Kyrgyzstan and its nomadic tribes. She then led us over the Northern branch of the ancient Silk Road heading towards our next stop.

Yes – the Silk Road looks a little less romantic these days…

The ancient Silk Road as it passes through Bishkek in 2019
The ancient Silk Road as it passes through Bishkek in 2019

Blacksmith’s Fortress

We walked along a dirt road between slightly dodgy looking houses to arrive at something you would never find for yourself if you weren’t on a guided tour. The Кузнечная крепость – or Blacksmith’s Fortress.

Drag to see the entire panorama

While there is no longer all that much to see beyond a few mounds indicating foundations of structures (the original buildings were made of mud), Rahat had a wealth of information about the site and its importance in Kyrgyzstan. While the last ruin was that of a Kokhand fortress built in 1825, the site has multiple layers of history, reaching back to ancient times.

Walking towards our next major stop, Rahat talked a lot about the evolution of languages in Kyrgyzstan, the origin of Bishkek’s parks, and we even stopped off to try the traditional drink – Shoro – sold by a street vendor. She really is the most incredibly knowledgeable person and we had a great group that asked loads of questions!

Talking about Bishkek parks - Kyrgyzstan - history walking tour
Rahat explaining about the establishment of Bishkek’s beautiful parks

Mikhail Frunze Museum

Did you know that Bishkek was called Frunze for a period of time?

The story of how this came to be was the next piece to fall into place in the History of Bishkek walking tour.

Exterior of the Mikhail Frunze Museum - Bishkek History Walking tour
Exterior of the Mikhail Frunze Museum

Frunze, it turned out, was a celebrated Bolshevik General and a close associate of Lenin. To honor his death (itself an interesting story), the Soviets renamed his home town of Bishkek to be Frunze – a name that it kept throughout the Russian era. It was only renamed to Bishkek in 1991 when Kyrgyzstan re-gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Although we didn’t go inside the museum, it occupies the building where Frunze’s father provided medical services (the house he grew up in was destroyed) and apparently documents his life and military exploits, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s accomplishments both before and after the Soviet era.

Lenin Memorial

Our next major stop was the Lenin Monument. Originally occupying pride of place in the centre of Ala-Too Square (then called Lenin Square), it was moved around the back of the National History museum to this park in 2003.

The Lenin statue in Bishkek - Bishkek history walking tour
Learning about the Lenin statue in Bishkek

Where many Lenin statues were torn down and/or destroyed after the ex-USSR states achieved their independence from the Soviet Union, Bishkek’s Lenin enjoyed a more generous fate. The Kyrgyz people still recognise the positive aspects of communism and socialism (equality, good health care, free education system, etc) and wanted to preserve that part of their history. This monument is thought to be the last major statue of Lenin standing in all of Central Asia.

Ala-Too Square

The final location of the tour was the impressive Ala-Too Square. This enormous space is backed by the beautiful National History Museum building (which has unfortunately been closed for renovations for the past 3 years!), and is used for all major National events. For example, it was the site of the largest anti-government protest during Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005. 

Ala-Too square with the National History Museum and the statue of Manas - Bishkek History Tour - Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too square with the National History Museum and the statue of Manas

Lenin used to occupy pride of place here, but in 2003 his statue was moved around the back and replaced by the controversial Freedom statue (Erkindik), which in turn was replaced in 2011 by the current statue of Manas – the national hero of Kyrgyzstan and someone universally loved by the Kyrgyz people.

Statue of Manas in Ala-Too square - Bishkek
Statue of Manas

Recommendation

The History of Bishkek walking tour with Bishkek Walks is the absolute best way to learn about the city and Kyrgyzstan in general. I haven’t covered even a fraction of all the things Rahat told us about in the above – she is a truly amazing wealth of stories and information.

If you are interested in learning about the history of Kyrgyzstan, you absolutely must do this tour! You won’t find a better or more knowledgeable guide than Rahat.

Time: 2 – 3 hours

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

Felt-making-workshop-final-products-bishkek-1024x768.jpg

Felt making workshop – Bishkek

One of the things I love to do while travelling is trying my hand at any local handcraft I come across. I still wear the silver ring I made in Nicaragua, travel with the scarf I made for myself in El Salvador, and will forever be in awe of the women who make the beautiful and intricate textiles in Guatemala – just to highlight a few. I was therefore very excited to join Bishkek Walks on another of their amazing experiences – this one to make my own felt product.

Felt making was one of the most important traditional skills in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the technique of Ала кийиз (Ala-kiyiz) – literally “Multi-coloured felt” – was used to create clothing, as well as carpets and other everyday items for the yurts of the nomadic Kyrgyz. This is the technique we would be learning.

Our small group met at one of the many amazing coffee shops in central Bishkek, and Gulmira, a felt artist and our teacher, began by showing us some of the different products she’d made recently.

Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop
Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop. Rahat is translating for us though Gulmira did speak some English

Gulmira actually has a degree in fine arts and, although the use of coloured thread and embroidery in felt work was traditionally used by the nomads, she takes it to another level for modern tastes.

Selection of Gulmira's artistic felts
Selection of Gulmira’s artistic felts

I particularly loved this one where she had incorporated the use of material as well for a very 3-dimensional artwork.

Black and white artistic felt by Gulmira
This is a beautiful piece of art

While she showed us the different pieces, Gulmira also talked about the history of carpets and felting in Kyrgyzstan. It is a big job (as we would soon discover), and she painted a lively picture of how the nomadic people would congregate and work together to assist with the preparation of felts (and other items), given the amount of work involved.

Soon enough, it was time for us to try our hand at making our own piece of felt artwork.

Step 1: Felt making workshop

Choose your base colour. Gulmira had bought a large shopping bag full of wool that had been dyed different colours. I decided to go with a maroon base and blue highlights – two of my favourite colours.

Selecting wool for our felts - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Selecting wool for our felts (top) and the colours I chose to work with (bottom)

Don’t worry – I’ll explain later. I, too, was intrigued as to the purpose of the washing up sponge and the soap!

Step 2: Felt making workshop

Lay a thick base for the felt by pulling the wool apart and layering the stretched fibres over the top of each other.

images of laying the base of the felt mat - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira showing me how it’s done (left) and me trying to replicate (right)

I think a video will work better to explain this step.

Step 3: Felt making workshop

Once you have a full, fluffy base-layer down, turn by 90 degrees and add another layer over the top. This could be another block colour, or you could choose to start bringing other colours in.

Step 4: Felt making workshop

Add a final layer where you finish off the design with more intricate patterns if you wish. I decided not to get too fancy for my first attempt

My final wool mat, ready for felting - Felt Workshop - Bishkek
My final wool mat, ready for felting

but Gulmira’s effort was very impressive! The orange-looking things are actually pomegranates – she has a whole collection of artworks based around these fruits. As you can see, the resulting mat of wool can be several centimeters thick!

Gulmira's final wool mat ready for felting - felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira’s final wool mat is a little more intricate than mine

Step 5: Felt making workshop

Lay fine gauze over the wool mat and wet thoroughly with hot water. The idea is to saturate the wool and compress it into a thin layer while retaining the design.

So this is what the washing up sponge was for…

Step 6: Felt making workshop

Now the soap came into play. To help speed up the process of matting, we took the soap and rubbed it vigorously into the mat through the gauze. Again this helped compress the wool fibres and aid in their transformation into a self-supporting felt.

Soaping and compressing the wool mat to make felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
… and this was the reason for the soap

I have to admit, I couldn’t seem to make mine mat together very well and Gulmira was brilliant at helping me finally get it to work. I suspect my layering of the fibres was not as good as it should have been (I didn’t have enough fibres laid), but we got there in the end.

Step 7: Felt making workshop

The next step was to take the saturated felt, roll it up tightly, and squeeze out much of the excess water.

Rolling is a crucial part of felt making

It was then time to roll it from every side to make it start to shrink. After going one round with the gauze still intact, we removed this layer and went again. After another round of rolling from all sides, we then carefully peeled the felt off the backing material and kept rolling – including diagonally now.

rolling the felt to make it shrink - felt workshop - Bishkek
Roll, roll, roll, roll. From every side, from every corner, until it is the size you want it to be and it is properly matted

We were being quite delicate and precious with our felt when we started this step, but eventually Gulmira stepped in and showed us how vigorous and rough we could get with the material. Traditionally, the felt product would be rolled with hands and trodden on for several hours in order to mat the fibres together. We were being far too gentle it seems!

In the end, my geometric design turned out a bit wonky – but that is the nature of Ala-kiyiz.

my finished felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
It’s a little wonky… perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with straight lines on my first try?

I was very impressed by the designs the others had created (most of which turned out less wonky than mine) and Gulmira’s pomegranates looked amazing!

finished felts of all participants - felt workshop - Bishkek
Final felts from Dina, Rahat, Gulmira and Sjannie (clockwise from top left)

She was actually going to take it home and work on it a lot more – rolling it until it had shrunk down to about 1/4 size so she could make earrings out of it!

detail of Gulmira's pomegranate felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
Now I understand the structure! The pomegranates are mirrored so they can be folded over and gathered together into a dual-sided earring! Clever!

Recommendation

In my opinion, the best souvenirs are either the ones you purchase directly from an artisan, or ones that you make yourself under the instruction of an artisan. The Felt Workshop hosted by Bishkek Walks is a wonderful opportunity to create your own felt product using a traditional Kyrgyz technique, and is a wonderful way to experience first hand the challenges involved in creating these impressive everyday items. I can’t imagine making a whole carpet like this!

Felt workshop group with our finished felts - Bishkek
Our finished felts

Time: ~3hrs or a bit longer, depending on the group.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

Kyrgyzstan-mosaic-walking-tour-path-to-enlightenment-at-university-1024x683.jpg

Mosaic walking tour – Bishkek

Having explored an obscure but interesting part of the history of Kyrgyzstan’s capital on the Interhelpo: The making of industrial Bishkek walking tour with Bishkek Walks, I immediately signed up for Rahat’s Mosaics of Bishkek: Soviet Street Art exploration. I have a particular fascination for street art wherever I go so was very keen to see what Bishkek had to offer.

Detail of one of the mosaics on the Bishkek mosaic walking tour

An added interest for this particular tour was that all of these artworks were created between the 1960s and 1980s to highlight the positive elements of the Soviet system and “inspire citizens with beautiful everyday surroundings”. I was curious to see what this looked like.

Sunny Fish Fountain

We met less than 100m from where I’m staying in central Bishkek (literally around the nearest corner) at a large fountain that I must have walked past at least 10 times but never noticed! 😳

Rahat talking about the Sunny Fish Fountain
How did I manage to miss this?

The Sunny Fish Fountain was built in 1982 by Russian designer Vladimir Krugman as Soviet limitations on artistic freedom were relaxing. It is pretty easy to see how it got its name 🙂

Sun and fish of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Fish and sun anyone?

The tiles are made from melted glass stained with different compounds, some of which had to be transported all the way from Belarus. The artists involved in the project had to travel, create each tile, transport it back to Bishkek and erect the statue themselves – quite an undertaking for a fountain as large as this!

The whole and details of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Sunny Fish Fountain seen in its entirety and in detail

Ala-Too Movie Theatre

Our next stop was a few blocks away at the avant-garde Ala-Too movie theatre. This is the oldest cinema in Bishkek and is recognised as a cultural monument of the Kyrgyz people. Rahat explained a little about the history of social change in Kyrgyzstan during the life of the theatre, before focusing in on the artwork that decorates the upper part of the building.

Walking tour group in front of Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek

It turns out, this is not the original decoration! In 1963, to mark the 100th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia, the original horses were replaced by panels showing the achievements of the Soviet Union, including a man with a dove to symbolise peace, a cosmonaut to represent scientific achievements, and people reading books to symbolise education.

Artwork panels on Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek
A cosmonaut, the Soviet star, education alongside agriculture, the hammer and sickle, and a symbol of peace now adorn the Ala-Too movie theatre

Labor mosaic

After a stop at the Monument of Friendship (another creation to mark 100 years of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia) and a discussion of the Women mosaic and others that visitors are now not able to see because they are located in a privately owned buildings, we walked about 1km west to find our next artwork.

The Labor mosaic by Mihail Bochkarev and Altymysh Usubaliev was created in 1964 and was one of the first mosaics in Krygyzstan. The panel depicts some of the working class of the Soviet Union (farmers and factory workers) and also some of the more intellectual achievements (scientists sending rockets to outer space).

Walking tour group in front of the Labor mosiac - Bishkek
Note how the mural is located on the side of a pretty standard Soviet building

They used river pebbles as a cheap and convenient material to create the artwork, and it is an example of how artists attempted to beautify empty space on the walls of otherwise boring Soviet buildings.

An unusual thing about this mosaic is that it includes a panel with the names of the artists. Since artwork was supposed to be created for the enjoyment of all people, the artists themselves were generally not deemed important and very few include this acknowledgement.

The Path to Enlightenment mosaic

Another kilometre further west (yes, there is a fair bit of walking in this tour), we arrived at one of the campuses of the Kyrgyz National University whose back entrance sports an amazing mosaic called The Path to Enlightenment.

Walking tour group in front of the Path to Enlightenment mosaic - Bishkek
The front entrance is not nearly as beautiful

Created in 1974 by Satar Aitiev, it remains a mystery how this particular mosaic was even allowed! During this period, the Kyrgyz Union of Artists dictated that all artwork had to be accessible and easily understandable to the common person without explanation or interpretation. They had a lot of control over what an artist could create and would intervene in the design of artworks if they did not adhere to their guidelines

The Path of Enlightenment mosaic in Bishkek

Its modernist, painting-like feel was completely at odds with anything that had ever been done in before Kyrgyzstan and definitely requires some interpretation! The passive figures are in stark contrast to the strong and active figures typical of Soviet style art, and although religion was not part of the Soviet era in Kyrgyzstan, the central figure is almost spiritual in nature.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic

Our next stop was Bishkek’s telecommunications office and its very relevant mural of a giant sending out radio waves. Science was a favourite topic for artists during the Soviet time (we’ve already seen scientists depicted in the murals above), and this science-related mosaic was again made from cheap, local pebbles.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic - Bishkek
Note the use of pebbles to make up the mosaic

The Lenin is with us mosaic

The final artwork we visited on the tour, Lenin is with us, turned out to be another vast mural canvas. Created in 1978 by Lidia Ilyina (a rare female artist), it depicts the whole of Soviet society, including soldiers of the Red Army, female and male working class citizens, students, pioneers and, of course, Lenin.

Walking group in front of part of the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Interestingly, all of the men are depicted with some kind of profession while the women play a support role. As a female artist, whether this was her artistic impression of the realities of society at the time and she wanted to send a message within the constraints of the Artist’s Union guidelines, or whether it was simply an order from the state – nobody knows.

Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

We also don’t know whether the fact that Lenin (depicted in his classic posture showing the way to communism) occupies a significant portion of the mural perhaps indicates the artist felt that Lenin was being forgotten. Unfortunately, records were not kept about any of the artworks created at the time and so many remain open to historical interpretation.

Lenin figure in the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Recommendation

If you are interested in the history of a location told through artwork, the Bishkek Mosaics Walking Tour is fantastic.

Rahat had a lot of information about each of the mosaics and wove them together with the story of the Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet era history in a really amazing tour. She covered a lot more than what I’ve summarised above so definitely do the tour to learn more!

Time: 2hrs. Note: it is about 4km of walking and you end in a different place from where you start. Rahat can offer advice on how to get back to where you need to go.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.