A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: beyondbritain

On Returning

Final thoughts on returning to Britain.

The flight home was more painful than I expected. Throughout the cycle tour I had felt healthier than ever before but within ten minutes of being on a plane packed with other people I was snuffling and coughing miserably. It was also a bit dispiriting to cover the same distance in an hour that had taken weeks of cycling. I arrived back in the UK in the middle of a monsoon, and soon learned the fairly wet Norwegian summer had been almost Mediterranean compared to Britain.

To my surprise I managed to get a distinction for my Open University economics course. Studying on the road was often difficult - and was the main reason I didn't manage to update this blog regularly, as any Internet access time was always taken up by study - but it is possible. Studying economics goes well with cycle touring as there are so many unresolved questions to ponder while rolling along the fjords. There are many more questions than answers in fact and I can't help feeling that the 'science' of economics is at a similar level as medicine in the 14th century - even the most basic tenets are patently wrong (and are widely recognised as such) yet the conclusions are followed religiously. It's still a fascinating subject though.

It is commonly said that travel brings a greater understanding, and perhaps appreciation, of your home country. Arriving back in the UK I was quickly aware of how much poorer the UK is than the Scandinavian nations. The most obvious example of this is housing. It's a great irony that people in Britain are so obsessed with housing when much of our stock is of extremely poor quality. I physically cringe every time now I pass through a village in the UK. The houses are so tiny and squashed together despite the huge areas of surrounding countryside, often used only for sheep grazing. It is quite common in the UK to see an entire rural village, with dozens of houses, squashed together into an area smaller than the average Scandinavian plot. The obvious retort to this is that the UK has a much larger population but a smaller land area than the Scandinavian countries. However, the Netherlands has three times the population of Scotland in half the land area, but the housing there has much more in common with that of Scandinavia - large houses in decent sized, well-spaced plots. In Scotland almost the entire population is crammed into a few densely populated areas, while vast areas of land are used only for rough grazing. The surprising thing I discovered on this trip is that the situation is almost exactly the same in England, despite it having ten times the population.

On the plus side the food is better and cheaper in Britain than in Scandinavia, even taking the lower wages here into account, and there is greater variety. Tinned soup, for instance, is virtually impossible to buy in Norway apart from huge tins of fish soup and powdered soup costs about £3 a sachet. If you have a sweet-tooth you really aren't in luck at all as all sweet foods are eye-wateringly expensive. On the other hand, obesity levels in Norway are half those in the UK and people generally look much healthier so perhaps cheap food isn't such a blessing. And something economics, if not common sense, has taught me, is that there is always a cost somewhere. The horse-meat scandal shows the hidden cost of 'cheap' food, and I suspect there are many other hidden costs.

Curiously enough I'm now working for a meat manufacturing company, experiencing the joys of commuting in the UK by train, and saving up for my next trip.

Stats for the Northern Europe tour:

total distance travelled: 6000 miles approx (my cycle computer gave out at about 5500)

journey time: 4 months

highest point cycled to: 1469m at Leirvasbu

lowest point cycled to: 213m below sea level at Nordkapp tunnel

number of punctures: 2 (and one blown valve)

other bike parts replaced: 2 sets of brake pads, one front wheel

Posted by beyondbritain 09:26 Comments (0)

Norway's Infrastructure

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:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Norway

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.

Telecoms

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.

Housing

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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.
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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).

Roads

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.

The descent at Trolligsten

The descent at Trolligsten


Then there are the tunnels ...

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.
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Nordkapp tunnel entrance

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Nordkapp tunnel inside

Libraries

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.

Ferries
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.

Posted by beyondbritain 14:39 Archived in Norway Tagged trains tunnels roads norway housing infrastructure Comments (4)

Norway 1

Norway up to the Arctic Circle

Almost immediately upon entering Norway I noticed a change in the scenery. It was hard to pinpoint but everything just seemed somehow more pretty, in a rugged sort of way. I had been feeling something was lacking from the trip; that it was all a little tame. It wasn't long into my stay in Norway that things got a little wilder.

My first night in Norway was spent wild camping by a waterfall that flowed from under a bridge. It was fairly secluded so I decided to have a wash under the bridge. This led into a large cave the depths of which I could only guess but it made a nice secluded spot to have a wash. I returned to find the tent porch overrun with ants but a few shots of DEET soon saw them off. I cooked some dinner on my wood burning stove and sat outside until it got dark at almost midnight.

The next morning I was feeling quite relaxed and so decided to try some painting with the small box of watercolours my mum had given me. I was reaching that stage of the painting where I could tell it wasn't going to be any good, when I became aware of a hissing sound nearby. I looked up, and there, just a few feet from my face, were the vibrating tongue and staring eyes of a snake. I jumped in fright, as you might imagine, and the snake slithered off, leaving me unharmed but shaken. It was green and about a metre long. I don't know what type. I was under the impression that small snakes only strike in self defence but this one clearly looked like it was about to launch a pre-emptive strike. I think I may have been sitting outside its lair, or whatever a snake's home is called.

The cycling soon became wilder quickly too. Shortly after leaving Oslo the road I was following soon turned into little more than a forest track. This was a private road for which, like many of Norway's roads, car users must pay a toll. Cyclists, however, because of Norway's excellent access rights, can go almost anywhere for free. The man I asked for directions reckoned it would take 10-12 hours to get through the forest, requiring an overnight camp. As there was no other way out of Oslo to the north there wasn't much choice but to continue. The cycling was fairly hard going over rough forest track rising steeply to an altitude of 500-600 m in a few miles, and I got lost a few times before realising the signs I was following were for walkers and cross-country skiers, but luckily the estimate I had been given proved pessimistic and I got through in about four hours. The descent was probably the scariest I'd had up till that point; descending 500m in about a mile round hairpin bends on one of the most poorly surfaced roads I've ever encountered.

It came as an unpleasant surprise to find Norway the least cycle-friendly country of the trip. The towns have a path for pedestrians and cyclists running beside the main road and larger cities like Oslo have a few more. That is roughly the extent of Norway's cycling infrastructure. Outside the towns there is virtually nothing at all. Many roads are of surprisingly poor quality; some are unsurfaced, many are too narrow for the huge juggernauts on them and are often heavily cracked and potholed. They are also busier than I'd been led to believe - not very busy but not quiet either. Then there are the tunnels. The first major one left me severely traumatised. It was six kilometres long, fairly dark and winding so I couldn't see more than about fifty metres ahead. The worst thing was the noise. The whole tunnel was like a giant echo chamber so when a car passed it was unbelievably loud and seemed to come from all directions. The first lorry that passed me was so loud I could barely steer, and as it passed it honked its horn! I barely managed to keep control of the bike and was shaking for the remaining few kilometres. I've never been so relieved to see daylight as at the end of that tunnel, even though it was pouring with rain.

Then of course there are the hills. The highest altitude I cycled to was 1460 m - higher then Ben Nevis - at Leirvasbu but most of that ascent was fairly gentle. The worst climbs are around the fjords, the most notable being at Geiranger and Trollstigen, but a climb from sea level to over 500 m in just a few miles is routine. The descents are seldom much fun due to the winding nature and poor surfaces of the roads - you can generally expect to come zooming round at least one curve and find the road surface has collapsed. The poor road quality is perhaps understandable given the climate but it's often hard to believe you're not in a developing country rather than one of the world's richest. You can seldom really relax and enjoy cycling, unlike in, say, France. While the scenery is stunning you can never take your eyes off the road for long to enjoy it.

However, what Norway does have going for it, in a very big way, is fantastic scenery. The whole country is beautiful. Even the dullest parts are lovely and the best parts are just stunning. Despite the insane roads the cycle through Geiranger and Trollstigen was incredible; nothing else on the trip even remotely compares.
Me at Geiranger

Me at Geiranger


The cycling got better further north on the coastal cycle route to Nordkapp, though there were far too many ferry trips for my liking. Crossing the arctic circle I was disappointed to find no snow or polar bears. It wasn't even cold. For the first few days the temperature was about twenty degrees with pouring rain and no wind. There were lots of midges. In other words it was much like Scotland. I travelled over 3000 miles and felt like I'd arrived back home. The mountains are a bit higher and more jagged than in Scotland and there are a few more trees but other than that the scenery is quite similar to that around the north west coast. However, I found a free campsite with picnic tables, toilet and barbecues for camper vans and - I hope - tents. You don't find that in Scotland. In fact it was so nice and the rain was so awful I stopped for a couple of days.

Much of the route consisted of ferry crossings. The only alternative route north is the main highway which I suspected would carry a lot of heavy traffic. The ferries are subsidised so were quite cheap - but there were often two or three crossings a day which adds up. Money isn't the main issue though. The joy of cycle touring is the sense of freedom - illusory though it may be - the sense that you can go wherever you want at any time. When you're reliant on ferries that sense of freedom is broken. It means you have to cycle at certain times to catch the next ferry and, when no information about times is available, a lot of hanging around waiting for it to arrive.

Posted by beyondbritain 15:13 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

Finland

overcast 16 °C

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My impressions of Finland were limited to a few days cycling in the north of the country. In summary it was generally flat with lots of trees and mosquitoes and very few people. As northern Finland is part of Lapland you might think there are lots of reindeer but curiously I saw only one - and that was in the middle of the largest town I passed through. All the other reindeer had apparently deserted Lapland to commit mass suicide on the E6 towards Nordkapp. I can't say I blame them. There is really no way round it - Lapland in summer is crushingly dull. The terrain becomes more mountainous towards Sweden but most of what I saw was a featureless birch swamp where you can cycle for days with no apparent change in scenery. It is also absolutely swarming with mosquitoes. They're not a problem when cycling (except up long hills but there are few of those in Finland), however, stop even for a few moments and clouds of them descend to torment you. Sitting outside at night wasn't an option and though my inner tent is mosquito proof I have to cook in the porch which soon filled up with six-legged intruders, making cooking a misery. I thought wearing a head net and covering up the rest of my body meant I was well protected, and would nonchalantly set up the tent paying them no head, like an experienced bee-keeper tending a hive. However, I soon discovered they can bite through several layers of clothing and my tight fitting cycling gear offered no protection at all. Changing into loose trousers helped but I had to tuck them into my socks to cycle and the mosquitoes managed to bite me through the trousers and two pairs of thick woolen socks. After that I covered my legs, shoulders and any exposed skin with mosquito repellent and just cycled as fast as I could back towards Norway where they are less numerous.

A typical view when cycling in Finland
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I suspect the mosquitoes are one of the main reasons why Finland is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe. It has 5 million inhabitants in an area the size of Germany (or nearly three times the size of England which has 50 million people). Only Norway and Iceland in Europe have lower population densities. A consequence (or perhaps a cause) of this is that the towns in Finland are absolutely huge. Even a small town of a few hundred people can take twenty minutes to cycle across. A thing I like about much of Scandinavia is that people don't bother to tend their gardens and often don't even bother to fence them off. In Finland this means it's very hard to tell what is private land. However, you have the right to roam just about anywhere, even through private land, and I got the feeling people weren't too bothered about others on their land so long as they weren't disturbed. In Britain we are accustomed to barbed wire throughout the countryside but it is almost never used in Scandinavia; I suspect it might even be illegal. For livestock electric fences are generally used or the livestock are simply allowed to wander over the road. Coming back to Britain, the miles of barbed wire along almost every road seem incredibly violent, almost barbaric. The rarity of fences in Scandinavia seems so natural that you only notice the absence when one is encountered. What is more, I think the lack of barriers between 'mine-and-thine' encourages more, not less, respect for private property - a 'keep off my land!' sign may scare people off but it doesn't encourage respect.

I'd like to return to Finland perhaps in Autumn when it's a bit more colourful and has less mosquitoes. The roads are well maintained, fairly flat and quiet, so excellent for cycling and it's virtually impossible to get lost. In summer though the monotonous scenery and swarms of mosquitoes made it a bit grim and after only two days I abandoned the idea of cycling south and headed back towards Norway, where the scenery is infinitely more spectacular.

Posted by beyondbritain 04:02 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

The Journey Over

Sorry for not updating the blog. I've been too busy with my university project and other stuff.

I'm now back in Scotland having reached the North Cape of Europe and beyond. You can see photos of the trip by following the link that says 'more photos' on the right hand side of this blog. In the next couple of weeks I hope to add a few posts about my experiences in Norway and Finland so check back if you're interested.

Posted by beyondbritain 11:30 Comments (0)

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