• Mon. Sep 27th, 2021

THE LAND OF GLACIERS AND VOLCANOES ATTRACTS ME EVEN WHEN THE PANDEMIC IS NOT OVER

ByGeorge Bao

Sep 3, 2021
Jokulsarlon Lagoon

LOS ANGELES – To go or not to go, that remained a question that had been haunting me for some time. But Iceland, a land with both glaciers and volcanoes, a land so close to the Arctic Circle, is so attractive to me that I finally made up my mind to go for an 11-day tour in August even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had issued a Level 4 warning.

Volcano erupting

What if we could not pass the Covid test before we go? What if we tested positive at the end of the trip and before we return to the United States? When the group of 21 tourists met at a hotel in Reykjavik, capital of Iceland, from different parts of the United States, I found most of us shared the same concern.

However, the concern disappeared on the last day when everyone of us was tested negative and happily boarded on our flights back to the U.S.

It is where the American and European plates meet.

Most of us shared the opinion: it is worthwhile to pay the visit. We really enjoyed the fantastic scenes, well arranged trip plans and the friendship we have forged with the group members.

In June and July, the pandemic, which had plagued the whole world for over a year and half, seemed to be under control or partially curbed, with more people receiving vaccination. The restriction for Americans to tour Iceland and other European countries had been lifted. My daughter Helen suggested my wife Rosa and I to visit Iceland, since the country is less populated, thus not so many people we could meet, and the summer there is cool and comfortable. Helen arranged us to join the tour with Signet Tours, a travel agency headquartered in Taiwan but has a regional office in Los Angeles.

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However, CDC placed Iceland on Level 4 alert on July 27 and starting on that day, Americans going to Iceland should be tested Covid negative. It was that warning that had made us hard to decide whether we should go as planned.

Rosa and I was met at Reykjavik airport by Amanda Liu, a tourist guide sent directly from Taiwan by Signet Tours. She told me that 21 tourists decided to go with the plan and would meet to spend 11 days together in Iceland.

When we first met in the tour bus, I found them brave but also cautious – everyone wore a mask, and some of them even wore double masks for double protection!

Gullfoss waterfalls

To most people, Iceland is a remote country which is hard to reach, not like other European countries bordering each other like close neighbors. To me, the unique geographical condition with both live volcanoes and glaciers – fire and ice – is the main reason I should pay a visit someday in my life.

But there is another reason that has made me curious about this country, that is the Reykjavik Summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. As a journalist covering international affairs, I was so impressed by the summit meeting that finally led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, thus avoiding the danger of a possible nuclear war. I also covered the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting held in Washing DC the same year.

Gullfoss waterfalls

Political events sometimes have some connections with a specific geographical location, and the ice and fire in Iceland symbolize leaders from the two totally different social systems can sit and talk, just like the ice and fire in Iceland.

With those memories in mind, I started my circling the island tour.

Horse riding

In Reykjavik, what impressed me is Thingvellir, a rift valley east of Reykjavik where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. It was here that early settlers in Iceland held a national assembly, called the Althingi, to govern the island in 930. For two weeks every summer, chieftains from across Iceland convened in an outdoor assembly there, and that place became home to the world’s oldest parliament.

While walking through the valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, I seemed to see the events of history unfolding before me. I admire the talent of Iceland’s early settlers to hold Althingi in this particular place.

Blue Lagoon is the product of volcano with hot springs coming from underground. Thanks to Signet Tours, we had a chance to stay in the hotel for two nights to enjoy the hot springs in the world famous lagoon. While bathing in the hot springs, the distant hills were looming in the mist, and if not in the summer, people could see ice and snow through the mist from the hot water.

The Geldingadair Volcano site hiking was attractive, but since Rosa could not walk for two to three hours on the lava hills, we gave up the chance. However, our group was lucky that they saw the eruption of volcanoes on that day. Later I learned that was the only day that the volcanoes were erupting in the 10 days we stayed in the capital.

The black beach, the Reynisfjara Beach, impressed me with its black sands, spectacular hill tops looming above the distant sea, and the rocks shaped by lava. Walking on the black beach, the water and waves seemed black too.

We missed the Vatnajokull National Park Glacier walk also because Rosa could not walk on the glacier, but both Rosa and I went with the tour bus to the foot of the glacier to send our group members off to the icy hills. We had photos with the glacier as the background where several Hollywood movies were shot.

We got compensated the next day at the Jokulsarion lagoon, where the melting ice from the glacier formed a lake, a scene so symbolic of Iceland. The cruise took us to go by several ice hills (floating glacier) in the lake, some of them crystal, some of them like marbles formed during the process that volcanoes erupted and the dust left a layer of black mark on the ice.

Iceland is rich in waterfalls – we toured six of them on the trip. The first waterfalls we visited was Gullfoss, the largest volume falls in Europe, with the average flow being 1400 m³/s in the summertime and 80 m³/s in the wintertime. It is actually a two stage falls, and that has made the falls more spectacular.

The Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall that can be fully encircled, situated on the South Coast of Iceland with a drop of 60 metres (200 feet).

it is one of the country’s most famous and visited falls. Majestic and picturesque, it is one of the most photographed features in all of Iceland. Travelers can walk under the falls because it formed a cave behind the falls.

Skogafoss is not far away from the Seljalandsfoss. Amanda told us it is usually called by many tourists as the Rainbow Falls because on the sunny days a rainbow could be seen above the falls. However, when we visited the falls, the rainbow failed to show up.

Falling 45 m with a width of 100 m, Dettifoss is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The thunderous sound produced by the waterfalls falling 45 meters makes the falls more magnificent. Since the river flows through the black rocks formed by lava, the water is not as clear as other falls.

Besides the waterfalls, an hour walk in the Vidgelmir Cave left me an unforgettable memory. Vidgelmir is a lava tube cave. It’s located beneath Hallmundarhraun Lava Field in West Iceland.  The cave was created by a massive volcanic eruption in 930 CE. The eruption lasted several years and spread lava over a 78 sq-mi (200km2) area. 

Walk through the black beach to look for puffin.

A lava tube cave is formed when the outer layer of a lava river cools. This creates a solid shell around the molten lava. The liquid lava then flows out of the solid shell, leaving behind a tube-shaped cave. Iceland has more than 500 lava tube caves. But this one is unique and well prepared for tourists.

Lava tube cave

I asked the tourist guide if the cave had ever been flooded, the answer was no, never. The explanation is that the cave is underground, but the whole area is higher so that underground water or water from the ground can flow away through the lava rocks.

The horse ride in Akureyri is another experience. The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse developed in Iceland. Amanda told us those horses are small but hard working. She said there is a Chinese proverb which says that you can not own a good horse but wish it does not eat grass. However, the Icelandic horse are both good and do not eat grass – actually they eat grass but very easy to be raised.

Riding on a horse

Those horses are well trained for tourists to ride. We rode the horses for over one hour and enjoyed both the beautiful scenes around the farm and the kindness of the horses.

The 11-day trip to circle Iceland ended before we realized it. As we started the trip, there were worries and concerns since the country was still on the Level 4 alert. But as the trip drew to the end, we felt much relaxed and many sweet memories came to our minds. The glacier, the eruption of the volcano, the warm water in the Blue Lagoon, the ice in the lake and on the beach, waterfalls of different sizes and shapes, the lava tube cave, the national park where the American and European plates meet, the hardworking horses that made our ride more enjoyable, the Geysir and strokkur, the birthday cake for five group members including me who happened to have birthdays in August, and what’s more, the delicious meals and so on.

Rainbow waterfalls

Honestly, I prefer to travel by my own so I can have more control of the places I want to see and the time I want to see. I hate to be “herding” around by the tourist guide. But the Iceland trip changed me. I did not feel the rush everyday, the group started the day at 9 am instead of 6 am as most of the tourist agencies do. If I could not go with the group like the volcano trip, I could do what I wanted to do. The food was well selected. If I travel on my own, I would miss many of the beautiful scenic sites and delicious meals.

When our plane was flying over Greenland and Iceland, I saw more ice and snow white mountains over Greenland than Iceland. When I asked Amanda why, she said the legend says early settlers to Iceland found the place was more suitable to live than Greenland, but since the island was small, they did not wish to see too many new comers, so they purposedly named the island as Iceland, which means it is ice cold and not habitable, and named the neighboring island as Greenland, which means it is green and more habitable.

Legend is a legend, but what I want to say after my trip to Iceland is that Iceland is not as icy as people thought of, and the place is warm and the people here are warm to welcome all the visitors.

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