Friday, May 28, 2010

Iceland Adventure: Day 2

Oh wow, I thought I had published this about three weeks ago. That goes to show how much fun I've been having in London! Well, enjoy. I'll write more soon. This entry is for Tuesday, May 4th.

Today I woke up at 4am starving. Dawn is very early in Iceland - I don't really know when the sun rises, but I sleep next to the window in my hostel. I sleep in a room with 9 other people (10 total), mostly men. I met an American chap who happens to be LDS - pretty neat coincidence. But there's no breakfast until 7am. So I laid in bed and read the New York Times until I got up and washed my face at 6 am.

Breakfast was muesli and toast downstairs. The lobby was also a cafe where people hang out - it's pretty cool. I had no plans when I woke up, so I spoke with the attendant and he hooked me up with a Golden Circle tour starting at 8 am for 8000 isk (about $60). When the tour arrived it was just a nine passenger van with three other passengers and the tour guide - pretty cool!

First stop was Iceland's newest geothermal power plant - the Hellisheidi power plant outside of Reykjavik. This powerplant is built right on the volcanic zone centered over the mid-Atlantic ridge. It taps high-pressure steam from 2 km below the surface and generates 213 MW. Hot water separated pre-energy production is sent through pipes to Reykjavik for space heating and domestic hot water use. This means that none of the buildings have chimneys on them because they heat everything with geothermal water! 97% of the city is heated this way. Also there are almost no water heaters because hot tap water comes from low-temperature geothermal wells.

Reykjavik has so much excess geothermal energy that they've begun to heat their roads, parking lots, soccer fields, and even a golf course! Not to mention greenhouses out the wazoo and five public outdoor heated swimming pools in the city. That is SO COOL. Iceland uses 99% renewable energy for electricity production (mostly hydroelectric with the remainder geothermal). This country is awesome, too bad geothermal and hydroelectric energy aren't as readily available in the rest of the world. :(

Next stop was an extinct volcanic crater filled with beautiful blue/green water. The country is covered with treacherous lava fields that came from volcanoes like this within the last 1500 years.

We stopped by a "small" waterfall that anywhere else would be the pride and joy of the country. Here, there are so many gorgeous waterfalls that this one is practically ignored. I didn't even catch the name.
It turns out that the only Icelandic word to become entrenched in world vocabulary is 'geyser,' which is taken from the original geyser, Geysir (GAY-seer). [location] For awhile "they" thought this was the only such object of its kind in the world. It wasn't until geyers were discovered in America that they realized that half-a-dozen or so exist in the world.

Within the last fifty years earthquakes have mostly deactivated Geysir, but the nearby geyer Strokkur erupts every five minutes or so. It's really neat because you can stand quite close as it erupts.

Watch the video I took of a double eruption - way cool.

Geysir is located in a hotsprings area with a bunch of adjacent hot pools and boiling pots. Enjoy the pictures - the fluorescent blue one actually took my breath away! The one with the cave was tricky to take a picture of because of the steam, but I mostly succeeded.

Next we visited the Gulfoss waterfall [location] - neither the largest volume nor the highest waterfall in Iceland, but probably the most famous. It has three levels facing different directions, the last gushing down into a very narrow canyon - far to narrow for a waterfall this big! That just goes to show how geologically young the country is. Iceland = waterfall heaven.
Gulfoss falls. Note the people on the edge of the cliff for scale.
Last stop on the golden circle tour was Þingvellir National Park (pronounced THING-vuh-leer NA-shun-uhl Park). It is a Unesco world heritage site and the location of the first European parliament in 930 AD. Vikings would gather here yearly to work out government things and drown witches and such (see picture at right). Þingvellir is located in the rift valley of the mid-Atlantic ridge. This rift valley is formed as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge by about 2 cm a year. Huge chasms open in the earth and fill with glacial water forming some of the most beautiful fresh-water diving destinations in the world (top 5, apparently). The edge of the North American plate can be seen behind the ancient parliament location in the picture below. You can also see a beautiful little waterfall placed by the vikings so they could have a waterfall in the vicinity of their meeting place. That's my kind of logic!

After the tour I talked to folks in the hostel for a couple of hours, then took a nap which ended up being all night. A good day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Iceland Adventure: Day 1

Today, or yesterday, I'm not quite sure which, I flew into Iceland. I slept most of the seven hour flight from Seattle to Reykjavik, Iceland, but woke up to see the sunrise over Greenland :D

Notice in the picture the interesting "triple sun" phenomenon - you can see a bright blob about 15 degrees to the left of the sun (and there's another one to the right not pictured). I've never heard of it or seen it before, any ideas about the cause? The second picture is of my location during the sunrise.

As we landed in the Keflavik airport about 20 minutes southwest of the capital, Reykjavik, I saw a cute little church just off of a black beach on the Atlantic. The terrain was incredibly flat - a perfect place for an airport! Customs took awhile - mostly because they had to re-screen all the passengers - ugh.

After retrieving my luggage I bought a round-trip bus ticket to Reykjavik for 3,500 isk (about $30 USD). Last week I scheduled a bus trip to the Blue Lagoon and I found out in the airport that during peak season (June - August) buses go directly from the airport to the Blue Lagoon only 20 minutes away and store your luggage for you! Note to self: Next time I have a layover in Iceland for a few hours, definitely hit up the Blue Lagoon. (You can rent swimsuits and towels and take a shower afterward to be back in the airport in about 2 hours!)

Once I got to Reykjavik I made my way to the Downtown Hostel (part of the HI hostel network) where I had previously made reservations. I thought they would just store my luggage, but they let me move in right away because it wasn't full the night before (the time was 9 am Iceland time - but about a million pm Nick time!). I put my valuables in a locker in the (very nice!) dorm room and the stored my luggage in their secure luggage room. I had breakfast (Muesli, toast with jams, and orange juice - mmmmm) and then caught the bus to the Blue Lagoon at 10:30 am.

So far I've noticed that Icelanders love sweaters and jackets. They pretty much wear them year-round from what I can tell. All the models pictured in store windows or airport advertisements are dressed very warmly. Public Immodesty is not a problem in Iceland!

The capital, Reykjavik, looks generally clean with very low traffic. The roads downtown are incredibly narrow - the bus drivers are very brave. Everyone seems to speak English well-enough, but they sure do love the Icelandic language. Apparently the language is such a pure remnant of the Viking language that most Icelanders can read the ancient Viking texts. They also love compound words. Looking out the window of the bookstore right now I see Islandspostur (Iceland post), Ausurstraeti (I have no idea), and vioskiptavinir (again, no idea). Long words! Sometimes it even sounds like they're speaking Russian...

11 am Iceland time, 5 am Utah time, ugh. Pushing through - time for adventures! Check out these awesome pictures of the Blue Lagoon!

You're not seeing things - the water really is blue! It's apparently caused by the perfect balance of minerals and blue-green algae - all natural of course. They've built a resort out of it, but this place has been around a lot longer than anyone ever cared enough to get to it. This has to be the most rugged terrain I've ever seen. Getting to the Blue Lagoon without roads would be a nightmare. These lava fields make talus slopes look like fairways. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to try to move any pack animals or even people across it without taking an enormous amount of time to blast out a road. The Vikings named it the "Evil Lava." It was formed about 300 years after settlement began - it must have been a huge eruption lasting months.

The Blue Lagoon is a large hot springs resort. In the pools where people swim the water is a very pale green but where it's undisturbed it's a milky blue that's out of this world! There are warm and warmer spots all around the extensive pool which visitors can swim in. The almost-freezing-rain at whipping through the lagoon produced copious amounts of steam rising from the hot water. Visibility in the air was only a few feet at times:
The water itself was cloudy - visibility drops off after a couple inches. The water was very salty, but not really ocean salty - it wasn't quite as traumatic in your mouth as the ocean. Floating was easy because of the extra buoyancy provided by the high salinity. The water over time has deposited thick layers of white minerals over the lava rocks making the pool bottom smooth and white.
The whole experience was eerily quiet. There were a few dozen other visitors exploring the pools of different temperatures and covering themselves with the white "therapeutic" sand. The pools were surrounded by dramatic lava rocks completely covered in moss and lichen.

Despite the perfect combination of driving rain and gloriously warm water - I was definitely overheated when I finally got out about 90 minutes later. In Japan, where they've perfected the public bath, I would then get in very cold bath for a few minutes to bring my body temperature back down before I shower. Somehow standing in the cold wind isn't the same - it stings all the time instead of just the beginning! So in this respect, Europeans have a lot to learn. I couldn't even get the shower to give cold water.

So after dressing (which isn't fun when you're really hot) I started looking for a water fountain. Oh yeah, I'm in Europe. They don't believe in drinking fountains here! (Or so I've heard.) So I had to settle with buying a soda for 200 isk. But wait, Europeans don't believe in ice either! Nooooo! So here I was standing in the driving Icelandic rain drinking a warm soda trying desperately to cool down. Iceland: Plus 10 points for the beautiful warm water, minus 1 for no ice! So much for the name.