John the Shoemaker

(names altered for anonymity)
I dedicate this blog post to the person who, above all, made my trip to Aurland not only enjoyable, but also connected me emotionally to the “spirit” of the Fjords. The grandeur of the place inspires awe and demands humbleness, leaving space for only a certain small group of people to inhabit the area year round. I would describe John in appearance and personality as the most harmless pirate you’d ever meet – he corrected me – “ah but a land pirate…,” as he owns a van and no ship. I had to restrain myself, but always wanted to say that he should dress up like Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean.
I met him Thursday night while relaxing with a glass of wine on my AirBnb ship. The night was one I will remember, and absolutely not what I was expecting when I booked the AirBnb. In short, I was at one point in the night in a taxi, sitting between one very drunk and one lesser inebriated Norwegian man, on the way to a pub that wasn’t actually open as we found out. Later on when the sun was coming back up, John essentially saved me from having to take care of the first drunk man, which of course I wouldn’t have minded too much (in fact, I was laughing about the situation more than being annoyed), but I did want to get some sleep in before the day began (the day of Sport till you Drop – see previous blog post).
Friday night, John was keeping watch over Mads’ ship; it is then when I met Mary, who is his coworker. In a shoe factory. That is so cool! So on Saturday, John showed me the factory (I got a private tour), explaining all the steps to make the AurlandSkoen shoe. It was absolutely fascinating to me, all the machines and materials needed to start from a rolled sheet of leather to a finished shoe. He even glued my personal shoes – the soles were separating a bit – and it is still firmly glued to this day.

After this very special experience, we picked up Mary who had been taking a bit of a nap, and drove to the town next to Flam called Gudvangen for the local Viking Festival.

Although the historical Vikings are no more, the festival and its setting was probably the closest I could get to the Vikings. They had a little village set up and were selling quality items like bows and arrows, wooden spoons carved by hand, the most creamy honey I have ever tasted, metal encased wooden boxes, among many other things. The atmosphere was also very much as if I had been transported back into the middle ages – there were guys wrestling in the grass, girls playing jump rope. The only point amiss was the row of toi-toi potties along the side of the site. At one point, I realized that it was actually quite difficult for me to make out the “vikings” from the visiting Norwegians. Under a larger shed, there was a viking band playing the most interesting instruments… which then brought the village to dance just as we were leaving. Looking up around the valley, the memory of tumbling waterfalls over jagged wild peaks hidden partially by floating blanket-like clouds, is still etched vibrantly in my mind.

On the way back to Aurland, which involved going back through over 14 km of tunnels and maybe 4km of open road, we stopped in Flam to eat a delicious soup at a familial restaurant, then bought food to make a salad for the second course.
Sunday morning, as I was looking out at Aurlandsfjord through my porthole one last time, I wondered what I would do before the 3pm ferry. I was already feeling a bit sad to leave the town, the ship, and most of all the people in this town. John had said we should rent kayaks, but as it was getting late and he wanted to make one last trip to Undrethal, he instead borrowed the fishing boat of the neighbors for an hour.

The trip to the next town over took over 20 minutes. We were laughing a bit – there’s no way we would have made it over there kayaking in time to get back, even if we were Olympian kayakers. Once on shore, he showed me into a grocery store. I was a bit confused… why not take a walk around the town or something instead. But then he ferried me to the back of the store where there was a little goat cheese station set up – goat cheese made locally in the town. We sampled through the 2 month old, the 4 month old, 6 month old and 2 year old cheese. I am no cheese expert, but this cheese was good. And then the shopkeeper pulled out THE cheese. It was brown like caramel; he explained it had a special process that produced this color and resulted in a slightly sweeter tasting cheese, specially made here in this little village. It was the most interesting cheese I’ve ever tasted; I didn’t hesitate buying a little bit with the thought to gift it to someone back home.
On the way back, I inhaled the fresh air once again, deeply, while surveying the walls towering over me; it had been four days, but this mighty nature never ceased to impress me. It was only a large wave that threatened to throw me out of the boat that interrupted my meditation. Looking towards John, his lips curled up in a smile sharing my emotions. I cannot describe fully the gentle kindness and caring these people showed me throughout my stay. It was like I had known them for ages. They just had this calm, nurturing, positive vibe, souls of real warm people wanting to share their culture with me.
As I boarded my ferry to Bergen Sunday afternoon, I stared out at Aurland and the valley I had known to call “home” for five days, including the only small cruise ship sitting in the harbor. I just had this feeling that I could only look, but take no pictures, like it would be disrespectful; the valley demanded attention, and really made me feel vulnerable and small in comparison. Cold wind in my hair, causing goosebumps on my arms, I just breathed it all in, vowing to myself to return one day.

Sweat till you Drop

Friday started out really sunny… finally! It was perfect because I had booked a Kayak tour in Flam. So, I got a ride with the French couple staying on the ship. We were in kayaks of two; I was paired with a Swedish guy. The group was really international from South Korea, Sweden, USA, Australia, and Germany. During the tour (which was sadly not long enough to fully enjoy the sun and amazing scenery), I learned of many things, including that an enemy ship found its way into the Fjords during WWII and the people of Flam got them to abandon their ship by hosting a big party, thus allowing the national guard to put dynamite into the hull and blow up the ship. The shipwreck is still underwater thus making it a prime place for scuba diving. Even though the Fjords are directly connected to the sea, the water was not salty due to all the glacial water pour off the mountains.

After this kayak trip (from which I was sore for a good number of days!), I decided to rent a bike – except that I forgot my ID. So – they gave me the bike in exchange for my credit card. With the bike, I went back 7km all the way to Aurland to get the ID, biked back to Flam, then told myself that I’ll go part of the way up to Myrdal which is 20km long, over 1000 m elevation gain trip one way. But of course, me being me, I push myself all the way to the top, where there were still large snowy patches. This trip is one I feel silly describing by words, since even the pictures don’t do justice to the beauty of nature. It is like biking up the road to some water-queen heaven. At one point I told myself I won’t stop at every waterfall to take a picture, only every other one, which then had to be switched to every third one. After all, I had a deadline of 10pm to return the bike. It took around 3 hours to get to the top, partially biking, partially pushing the bike (especially at the top “death path” of 180 degree hairpin turns of insane steepness – I lost count how many there were after about 7 or 8). And of course, taking tons of pictures.

I passed no other biker going up, and neither did anyone else pass me going up. There were others biking down, presumably from the train station at the top, but it seemed no one else was crazy enough to do the uphill journey.

Well I was. And I’m glad I did it. Even though I ate dirt on the way down, getting a bit carried away with my ability to navigate hairpin turns at high-ish speeds. My right knee paid for it in blood, and left thigh in bruises. Something also happened to my left ankle as I couldn’t move it for about 30 seconds, but I must have sent some insane healing energy towards it because after a few minutes of resting it up on a rock, I couldn’t feel any pain anymore and could move it no problem.

By the end of the day, I had biked over 55km, with 2000+ m elevation change, and kayaked for 2 hours. As soon as I returned the bike, I sat down right there, and ordered a nice wild caught salmon with potatoes and salad from this “Green norWay” food cart. I must have worked off like 4000 calories that day. Then it started drizzling, but I was still 7km from my ship-cupboard room… and I was pretty sure the last bus was gone. So I either hobble back on foot, or… hitchhike. Thankfully after standing in the misty bog by the side of the road for about 15 mins, a Polish-Norwegian couple picked me up and dropped me real close to the port. On the ship, I found out that a new couple had joined us, from Portland, OR. What a small world, and… Ahhh… what a Friday 🙂

The Cruise Ship

When I arrived, I realized Flam was more of a tourist village that accommodated a lot of Chinese tourists and older people, aside from the hostel that had no more space. So I’m very glad to have booked a room in a ship in the neighboring town. When I arrived to Aurlandsvagen, it took very little time to find this ship. But it was much more amazing than I expected. I still can’t believe I was the inhabitant of this max-100 person cruise ship. They usually take it to the north on 2-3 month adventures. The owner, Mads is a quirky Norwegian man who has seen much of this world, I found out later. He even has been part of a reality show that follows extreme and professional athletes when they jump out of airplanes and off of ski jumps, fly parachutes and squirrel suits.
So I was assigned to the room called “The Post Office”, probably the size of a small walk-in closet. But it was exactly what I needed – little bed, sink, mini table and enough space to change. I even had a small porthole to view the Fjords! So worth the $90/night 🙂

In the end of the day, I took a hike which kind of turned into me getting lost, then un-lost, finding some random sheep (they always seem to come in threes), a cascading waterfall and incredible views. My original plan was to try to hike to the top, but I hadn’t really checked the topography and I ended up on a slope that was around 35-40 degrees, full of rocks and impassable areas. I had to turn around, but I did manage to get about halfway up. On the way back, I could feel myself just turn into a sort of marshmallow, barely able to put one foot in front of the other.

Hanging out with some of the other inhabitants of the ship – similarly booking this lodging on Airbnb – I was once again able to practice speaking French since both families on board were from France. Thursday we go on a cruise to Sogndal and back in the same day. I offered to help, and I was put in charge of making soup and pasta for the tourists coming over from Sogndal to Flam – approx 16 Spaniards. Should be fun!!

Train Ride to Flam

The transition from the weather in Oslo to what I found in the largest Fjord of Norway – Sognefjord. In the morning I was a bit of a zombie as I hadn’t slept much, butbecame more alert as soon as we started passing through the higher elevations; the vegetation went from tall pine trees to snow patches, and smaller shrubbery then more open rocky areas. As we climbed towards Myrdal, the landscape really began to get completely snowy, like it was winter! At Myrdal, I stepped out of the train to wait for the transfer Flamsbana, and really had to put on my coat; It was barely 7 degrees C!

The Flamsbana train is one of engineering miracle – the track descends over 1000 m in elevation in just 20km. In some parts of the track, the declination is 55deg! The valley we passed through was incredibly magical, full of many waterfalls and windy roads. The train was full of tourists; at one stop we stopped literally between two tunnels, each end of the train in either, and a huge waterfall to the right of the train. Everyone had their cameras, go-pros out documenting this incredible view, amongst a bit of shower from the effect of the waterfall. A couple minutes later a Norwegian mystical character came out of a small castle in a red dress and “sang” and danced to music. It was very strange; apparently she’s the goddess of the waterfalls who lures men with her beauty and they never return.