Observations on Norway's Infrastructure from an Economic Student's viewpoint
Throughout my trip I was studying for a diploma in Economics, which I somehow managed to complete and am waiting to find out my final project mark.
From the point of view of an economics student, travelling through Norway was fascinating. Taken by GDP per person it is one of the richest countries in the world, well above the UK, US, Japan or Germany. The only countries that might be richer are very small ones like Qatar and Monaco that don't have anything like the level of self-sufficiency Norway has. Norway's economy follows what is known as the Scandinavian Model, which means it has a large public sector and high taxes and a fairly egalitarian distribution of wealth. Much of Norway's wealth comes from oil and gas yet the profits from this seem to disperse throughout society as incomes are far more equal than in the UK. While the extent of Norway's oil wealth certainly contributes to its prosperity it is worth bearing in mind that all Scandinavian nations are among the world's most prosperous so clearly their economic model is a successful one, with or without large oil reserves. What is more the financial crisis seems to have had little impact on Norway. It has decent growth and still runs a budget surplus, despite a very high level of public spending compared to the UK. The currency is so strong it doesn't have much of an export industry (apart from the oil) so is largely insulated from the Euro crisis.
More on Norway's economy:
What I find so amazing about Norway is that it's possibly the most prosperous country in the world, with living standards well above those in the UK, and virtually no poverty or unemployment, and yet the landscape is extremely harsh and inhospitable. Cycling the length of the country I was constantly amazed that people could exist at all in many places, let alone with some of the best services anywhere in the world. The infrastructure is extraordinary. Perhaps the most astonishing fact is that, despite having large oil reserves, Norway gains all of its electricity from renewable sources - virtually 100% is from hydroelectric plants.
I often encounter people in the UK as Telecoms an example of successful privatisation of infrastructure, particularly with regard to mobile networks. Leaving aside that the the mobile networks were never state-owned, mobile telecoms in the UK is held by many to be a success story for private infrastructure.
I use the O2 network and while it is generally ok in cities, in rural areas it is rare to get a signal and almost anywhere in the Highlands you can forget it. For most of the trip through England I probably only got a useable signal 50% of the time and had difficulty sending a text in Rippon, a fairly large town.
In Norway I was using the state-owned Telenor's network. Norway is essentialy a large mountain range with very few flat areas so one might imagine mobile reach would be poorer than that in England. Yet on only two occasions did the network signal drop below full strength on my phone's meter and even then I could send a text no problem. Even in remote valleys and fjords, with mountains towering all around I always got an excellent mobile signal. I uploaded a university assignment, in an extremely remote mountain location, using faster mobile broadband than I had ever received in the centre of Edinburgh.
A farmhouse in southern Norway
Houses in Norway are made of wood. I'm not entirely clear why this is the case, perhaps simply because there are so many trees, or perhaps wood is better in cold weather, or perhaps there is a shortage of good stone. Whatever the reason I rather liked seeing the big, red, wooden houses as I really felt I was in a foreign country. Throughout much of the tour the landscape and urban areas looked little different to much of the UK. The same can't be said for Norway. The larger cities have a curious style of apartment block, which somehow seems out of place in northern latitudes.
Apartments in Oslo
Outside large urban areas nearly all the houses are large detached houses, well spaced out with plenty of garden space. I saw very few terraced houses. Of course, this is partly because there is so much land - Norway has the second lowest population density in Europe after Iceland. Curiously though, apart from the Finmark region in the very far north, it didn't feel particularly sparse. Because Norway is so mountainous most of the population resides along the coast, which is largely developed in some way. There are vast areas inland that are devoid of people but they are generally extremely mountainous with no road access. And even in the mountains there are many tourist villages, often situated at 1000 m altitude or more. Cycling the length of Norway I was seldom more than a few miles from a village or a few hundred metres from a house. Farms are relatively small scale so there are lots of them. The Highlands of Scotland actually feel much sparser and more remote.
Although most of the houses in rural areas are large there are few extremely large houses and I saw no vast mansions like in the UK - although they may have been hidden in the vast forests. I think such extravagant displays of wealth are frowned upon in Norway. A newspaper headline I saw expressed shock at a 20,000,000 krone house (about £2million).
The roads in Norway varied greatly in quality, some being well maintained highways, others unsurfaced and little more than dirt tracks. There are many toll roads. This is often quite nice for cycling as toll roads tend to be very quiet but they can lead into quite remote places with few aids to navigation.
A lot of the roads, particularly inland, are in very poor condition, probably on account of the weather. Further north there are very few roads, but considering the landscape it's often amazing there are any roads at all. Some of the roads are incredible, and almost surpass the natural surroundings as tourist attractions, e.g. Trollstigen.
Then there are the tunnels ...
Norway has thousands of tunnels spread all over the country. They go through cliffs, mountains and under the sea. Many are several kilometers long and the longest is about 25 kilometers. They're a real pain for cyclists as you're not allowed to cycle in many of them and if cycle touring you'll need a special map to tell you which ones and this map isn't easy to come by - try and locate it before you go. It's probably not a good idea to cycle in the off-limit tunnels as they are off-limits due to carbon monoxide buildup. Cycling through the tunnels is nerve-wracking; they are narrow, winding, dark and very loud. The tunnel walls act as an echo chamber so if a vehicle passes the sound is amplified almost beyond endurance and seems to come from everywhere which is disorientating. When a truck comes up behind it feels like being on a runway with a 747 behind. You do get used to the tunnels though and I even found myself quite enjoying them towards the end. The Nordkapp tunnel is a real experience. For some reason there is a mad flying saucer sound at the entrance which makes entering even scarier. The tunnel is seven km long and 212 m under sea level; it actually goes under the sea. 212 m doesn't sound all that much but somehow in the dark with your senses heightened it seems like an enormous descent, speeding steeply downhill for over 3 km, overhead lights flashing past like a strobe, tunnel stretching as far as can be seen. All the time you're keenly aware that at the other end you have to climb it all back. It's roughly u-shaped so when you climb it gets constantly steeper. The bottom is filled with freezing fog and my hands were near frostbitten on the way down but by the time I'd pedalled the 3.5 km and 212 m back up I was pouring with sweat. There are bigger climbs in Norway but few so relentless and bereft of any distractions to take your mind off the climb. And there's the knowledge that you've got to do it all over again on the return. It's an experience though, as all ordeals are, and really makes the last push towards Nordkapp feel like a real achievement. The dozens of other cyclists you encounter rather lessens that effect however, though no one I met had come from as far as Scotland.
Nordkapp tunnel entrance
Nordkapp tunnel inside
A good judge of a country, I feel, is the quality of its libraries. While I can't judge the extensiveness of their catalogues the libraries I visited in Norway were spacious with immaculate modern furnishings. All had excellent computer facilities and high speed wifi access that worked flawlessly without any hassle, in marked contrast to most of the libraries in the UK I've used. They even seemed to have a good stock of English books. The library in Harstad even had a number of computer game consoles, which I think is going a bit far but perhaps the idea is to get kids in the door and maybe they'll pick up a book after slaying Zheffra or whatever it is kids do on computer game consoles these days.
Considering the maritime history of both nations it's a scandal there are no ferries running between the UK and Norway. Ferries between different parts of Norway are subsidised and are quite cheap for cyclists, which is just as well as there are a lot of ferry trips. They are regular, punctual and hassle free and generally a pleasure to use.
I can't really comment on the rail infrastructure, not having used it. It only goes as far north as Bodo. There are small domestic airports all over the country though, which was handy for getting home. However domestic flights in the north of the country aren't awfully cheap. If you're cycling to Nordkapp and don't want to cycle back I'd advise booking a flight fairly well in advance.