Flam Rail & Fjord Cruise in Norway (2000)
(The photos here are scanned version of print pictures)
The automatic currency changing machine at Oslo Central does not like my dollar bills. It spits it out everytime I feed it into the slot. I try various denominations, but without any success. It is a Sunday evening and the adjacent Forex Counter had just closed. I need Norwegian Kroners for the tram ride to my hotel. I had been to told it was about five kilometers away. Earlier in the evening, as soon as I arrived from Stockholm I had off-loaded my luggage at one of those yawning lockers to take an unencumbered stroll around the town while there was still daylight. Now I need a twen ty kroner coin to retrieve my suitcase. I am stuck and outside, there is steady rain. It is also getting dark. I curse the machine which I suspect of being racist otherwise, why should it spit out my perfectly legal greenbacks? After a few more attempts, I give up and head into the streets.
I go out in the sleet to Karl Johans Gate (The Swedish Gata had become the Norwegian Gate), the hight street in Oslo. The street stretches for about a mile with glittering shops on both sides enticing you to buy, buy and buy. I look for Forex counters of which there are four, but each one of them is closed. There are ATMs every few yards though, but unfortunately, I have forgotten my secret code for drawing cash it is in my suitcase which is stuck in the station locker.
Tram number five trundles to a halt in front of me and I stroll in confidently and pull my cap over my forehead and without a word, push my Swedish kroner into the tray. The lady driver doubling as conductor asks me something in Norwegian and I just nod my head. The machine rumbles and spits out a ticket. I hastily pull it out and saunter down the aisle and park myself in front of an old lady with loads of shopping. I nervously keep glancing at the driver through the rearview mirror hanging in front of her, but she’s oblivious of my existence leave alone my minor misdemeanor.
The tram drops me ten stops away –which is where the hotel brochure had asked me to get off. The rain had turned the thawing snow into ugly slush. A long slippery road stretches ahead of me. I gingerly press my foot into the ice and it goes right in. In a moment my toes tingle –through five layers of socks. My throat is parched and the snow makes me disoriented. Every house looks the same and there’s not a soul on the street. I trudge patiently trying to read the map in the brochure. After a good twenty minute walk –about which the brochure had not warned me –I stumble into the hotel, bedraggled, but relieved. Mercifully, my handbag is with me, so are my passport and creditcard. I check in and am glad to find they had room service. I peel off four layers of my thermal wear and sleep in the fifth and last one. Tomorrow morning I have to catch the train to Bergen to take the famous Flam Railway.
The narrow strip of the Norwegian coast forms the back of the tiger which marks the map of Scandinavia. It’s a craggy coast with deep inlets and some spectacular fjords. Everyone including my Lonely Planet guide had advised me to take the multimodal journey through the fjords if I wanted to get a taste of Norway in a nutshell. Since I have only three days in Norway, I decide to give Oslo the royal miss and head straight to Bergen from where the fjord trip begins. Early morning I set out from my hotel after changing a hundred dollar bill at the counter at a terribly discounted rate and head for the railway station.
During my month long wandering in the Nordic countries, never once did Lonely Planet fail me. It had been my constant companion, telling me how not to get ripped off, how to stretch my precious few kroners, how to pack a the best of the sights in a brief period, what not to miss and how to pick up bargains. It had advised me to take the seven hour train ride to Bergen past forests, alpine villages and the starkly beautiful Hardengarvidda plateau, from there a ferry up the spectacular Naeroyfjord to Gudvangen , a bus ride to Voss and a train back to Bergen.
And here I am,doing just that. My Scanrail pass is a good investment. The trains are virtually empty and I have the luxury of an almost entire compartment to myself. Frame after rectangular frame of Norwegian countryside fleets past with wooden cottages which look straight out of a Christmas card. I almost expect to see Santa Claus and his reindeer chariot parked near one of those red-brick chimneys. Except that it’s not December, but April. Yet, the temperature outside is in minus and this is all-year -round ski country through which I am travelling.
At Gello, one of the mid-way stations, you can step out of the train straight in to a cable -car which will lift you up to the ski -slopes. When the train stops at Gello, my suzerainty over the compartment is at an end. The coach is invaded by hordes of modern-day Vikings with longish skis that look as deadly as the Viking spears. In a moment, they have come and colonised my compartment, dumping their luggage everywhere and hanging their flourescent-coloured jackets and windcheaters from the pegs.
From Gello, the train climbs 600 meters through a tundra -like landscape of high lakes and snow-capped mountains to the tiny village of Finse near Hardengerjokulen. Finse, I learn later, has year-round skiing and hiking trails. A four to five day trek from Finse will take you to Aurland, a fjord town with breathtaking scenery, you’re told. I get off at Myrdal, a quiet town swathed in layers of snow to I wonder if Gunnar Myrdal, the Nobel prize-winning economist came from this town.
The Flam train is actually a toy affair. It has just two compartments and exactly eight passengers. It reminds me of the quaint little Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, but lacks the lively charm of the latter. The train wends its way through the mist to begin its steep descent into the Flam Valley. I feel I am in an aircraft because everything around me is misty and the snow looks like clouds of cottonwool. I lurch from side to side as the train takes its twists and turns and seems to plunge into the Flam valley. Alongside are the log houses from which I expect Heidi to emerge anytime now. They are snowed under and there’s not any sign of life there – not even smoke from the chimneys, no flowers hanging out of wooden boxes fixed to the windows.
After a couple of hours we reach the Flam Valley where a wooden railway compartment doubles as a restaurant. The boat for Gudvangen will not sail for another couple of hours and I have enough time to stroll around Flam. I take a walk around the town and find that many houses have rooms to let and there’s even a youth hostel bang in the middle of the town.It’s quiet little town criss-crossed by streams spanned by wooden bridges and surrounded by hills – truly a one -horse town with a single shop, single railway station and a single restaurant catering solely to tourists.
The motorboat shatters the calm of the fjords. The ferry rents the cobalt blue surface leaving a foamy trail on the meandering waters. The hills rise majestically, wearing their powdery white snow robes. There’s hardly any vegetation except for the shrubs and I feel cheated after the grandeur and verdancy of the Himalayas. The brochures had promised strawberry buses so close that you could reach out and help yourself. They had carried pictures of picnicing families on a magnificiently flat fjord –as if someone had neatly sliced the top off the hill -of which I see no sign now. Perhaps I should have come a couple of months later. Even the waterfalls are frozen.
The captain announces that we’re traversing the Naeroyfjord, the most magnificient of all Norwegian fjords. The sun peers through the clouds into his own reflection in the deep blue waters. We pass occasional villages some bereft of any road connections. The waterway is a succession of turns and bends and the scenery, serene. I don’t hear any birds though. I think of similar meandering waterways in Kerala where the backwaters offer some exquisitely picturesque scenery – swaying coconut and arecanut palms laden with fruit, azure skies minus the freezing temperatures. But this one has its own charm. it’s much quieter –there’s absolutely no traffic other than our boat – and the water is hugged by hills on both sides. Fjords were once glaciers which later filled up with sea water when the ice age had ended.
The bus journey to a rain-washed Voss takes me on the other side of the Sorgenfjord, the longest and deepest of the Norwegian fjords. A frozen stream accompanies us all the way but I spy some tantalising glimpses of the deep blue water from time to time. The route is picture -postcard perfect –in fact better than any picture postcard I had seen. The tiny cottages perched on the hillside from which a wisp of snow curled out skywards, the snow-mobiles strewn in the frontyard which in summer
would probably be a lush green lawn on which chubby children would be frolicking, the road winding down the hillside like a serpent almost bereft of any movement, an occasional moose which crossed our path. This is the essence of Scandinavia, I say to myself to stifle the disappointment of not having come in Summer. Maybe I’ll go again.
(Published in The Hindustan Times dated Oct 12, 2003. Link unavailable)