Thursday, August 31, 2017

Norway the Natural Beauty Queen



  • Have a US quarter, one Euro or 50 UK P. to get the luggage carts.  You put the money in the slot to release the cart and will get the money back when you park it back.
  • Get a window seat to get the peak at the hundreds of small islands/island community just before landing at Bergen
  • Car rental is pretty easy and if you could book in advance (with pre-paid), it is less expensive if you feel comfortable driving and you have a group of more than 2 people.  With the extensive driving that I did for six days, the tolls came at about $90.
  • If you are planning to take the ferry from Gudvangen to Flam and also to take the Flam Train, look at the schedules because it involves return trip in a bus
    and the bus service stops at certain time in the evening. 
    Look at the ferry schedules to get the maximum out of your trip.  For example, we spent a lot of time before going to Gudvangen in the Tvindefossen waterfalls and when we reached there we found out that there is no return ferry/bus available to get back to the car.  So we decided to drive to Flam instead of taking the ferry.
  • If you have a car and have a couple of hours in Flam, drive up to Stegastein platform.  It is a very narrow road but the views are pretty awesome.  In summer months, you could drive past that platform and heard that it is very scenic.  We were
    there in the shoulder season and the road was closed.
  • Renting a car and driving around is really fun, there are number of speed traps and the speeding fines are pretty high.  Read about the camera speeding tickets before going.  You will notice them all over the place.
  • If you are traveling alone, it may be more expensive driving
    around.  But gives you a lot of flexibility.
  • Pack a good winter jacket(s) and good hiking boots if you enjoy outdoors. 
  • Bergen is very beautiful and everything is in a walk-able distance.  We stayed in the hostels in Norway most of the time and the overall experience was good.
  • If you happen to go during the shoulder season to hike up Trolltunga, don’t pay for the guided hike ’till you find out
    how the trail is.  Or keep checking the TA forum to see the trail conditions.  We went to the trailhead and a lot of people were hiking by themselves, so we decided to do the same.  As long as the trail is well walked and you can follow the path, there is no need for the guide (as long as the weather is good and you have hiked before with some serious hikes).  The problem is when the hiking trail is not clear because of the heavy snowfall in the previous days, in that case you should go with the guide &
    don’t want to get lost.
      You will see the mile markers all the way and see a lot of people hiking.
  • In my opinion, it is better to go to Norway for hiking during the shoulder season to avoid the crowds.  Especially in Trolltunga, less than 20 people were there when we reached but it took a while to take our pictures there.  There are a bunch of guys taking nude pictures there.  You need good waterproof hiking boots,
    jackets, sunscreen and sunglasses to have a safe hike.
  • Take an extra pair of socks when you go to the Trolltunga hike and on the way you’d surely get your feet wet and it’s not fun hiking with wet socks.
  • The ferry system and the
    road system are all well connected and you have to drive to experience and enjoy how organized Norwegians are.
  • Being a vegetarian will be difficult in small towns, so pack something that you could eat to survive if there is no vegetarian food.  In big towns, you can always find, Italian or Chinese food.
  • It is cheaper to book the breakfast with your hostel stay instead of paying for it on the day.

My Journey

Renting the car and driving off to Gudvangen is easy and we stopped on the way to have lunch but couldn’t find anyone selling vegetarian food and we finally found a pizza place that was run by
a Sri Lankan family where we could have some food.  Our plan is to take the ferry from Gudvangen and take the train from Flam before heading out to somewhere to stay that night.  We didn’t make any reservations.  The drive from the airport to Gudvangen was so scenic, we stopped in a number of places including Tvindefossen waterfalls before reaching Gudvangen for our ferry.  Because of the ferry and connecting (returning) bus timings, we couldn’t take the ferry, so we decided to have the experience of driving through the world’s longest road tunnel (Aurland tunnel) and staying in Balestrand to visit the St
Olavs Church, and make the return back to Gudvangen via the town Vik.  Before headed out to Aurland tunnel, we drove to Stegastein platform and the views are spectacular.  The length of the tunnel (25km) prompted engineers to include various features like different color lights in the tunnel, areas where you can pull over the car to take a break, etc., to alleviate claustrophobia and tiredness.  We drove through a number of small towns and had to take ferries twice before reaching Balestrand.  There’re beautiful roadside falls so good worth stopping for.

When we reached Balestrand, it was getting dark, so we just walked around the town before going to sleep.  The scenery is very
really breathtaking around the town.  Stayed at the Sjøtun Camping, and it is pretty decent.  You can read the blog and it talks a lot about Balestrand.  The next morning we drove around the town and having our breakfast in the harbor enjoying the view.  The St. Olaf’s church is really worth the visit if you are in that area.  After spending a few hours in the town, we left to
come back to Gudvangen, and it involves road trip to Dragsvik, ferry to Vangsnes and road trip Gudvangen and driving through a high mountainpass, all of them with amazing views. 

The road from Vangsnes to Gudvangen is one of the scenic roads and we stopped at the Hopperstad Stave church.  This church
was built sometime around year 1130 and the surrounding scenery is also really amazing.  This is a good stop to enjoy the church as well as the scenery in the small town.

The ferry ride is really scenic and well worth the time.  There were a lot of Chinese tourists in the boat and almost all of them were more interested in feeding the seagulls, having pictures taken with them than enjoying the scenery
around them.  There are a lot of nice little towns on the mountains as well as beautiful waterfalls.  Once we reached Flam, we walked around and had lunch there before returning by bus.  Since we took the ferry and driving by ourselves, we decided not to spend time or money on the Flam train because we talked to someone who was driving and also went on the train mentioned that the scenery is almost the same.  Please check where to board the bus to return to Gudvangen, we didn’t do it and were looking for the bust at the minute and we almost missed it.

We wanted to hike Trolltunga, so decided to drive to Odda for the overnight stay so that we could start our hike early in the morning the next day.  It is hard to describe the beauty that you will witness
in Norway and you have to experience it.  We stopped in a number of places on the way and went though a number of tunnels that are more than a couple of miles long.  I booked a room in the Trolltunga Hotel with a shared bathroom.  Since it was a shoulder season, there’re not many people either in the town or in the hotel, and it worked out pretty good for us.  The breakfast at the hotel was good.

Getting to the trailhead was pretty easy and got some guidance from the hotel, and the drive took about 30 minutes.  There were few people parked their cars and started the hike around 8am and, right at the trail parking place there was shop from where the guided tours start.  The guy at the shop was recommending guide but we saw a bunch of people going for the hike and upon checking, the guy at the store indicated that if we are experienced hikers, we should be able to do it by ourselves.  So we started our hike around 8am.   For the first one mile, it was uphill in a tree cover and after that we had to cross a bunch of streams that were pretty shallow.  After 3km, we ended up hiking on the snow all the
way for the next 8km.  Since a lot of people hiked on the trail, there was a clear path and in every mile there’s a signpost to indicate how far we had come, which is nice.  Once it got sunny, walking in the snow was tiring but the scenery was amazing.  We had our lunch at the 7km point and took some rest before continuing the hike.  When we reached the Trolltunga, there were about 15 people and a couple of them were taking naked pictured on the rock.  We waited for about 20 minutes before taking
pictures there and stayed there for more an hour enjoying the views.  Hike back was hard and the streams that were shallow when we crossed in the morning had a lot of water going and we had to find spots to cross without getting our shoes wet, but there’re few streams we had to cross walking on the water.  We got back around 9pm tired and hungry, a Chinese restaurant appeared to be a god sent gift at that time :-)

Initial plan was to drive to Pulpit rock before heading to Bergen but looking at the distance and time to drive, we decided to skip the
Pulpit for this time and decide to head to Bergen stopping on the way in Utne which is a nice small town.  The drive to Bergen is so scenic all the way with so many waterfalls and beautiful scenery.  I thought that driving in Bergen would be a nightmare because I was driving in an European city for the second time after the nightmarish experience in Spain, and it was smooth sailing.  I booked the Youth Hostel right close to the
Fish Market and found a parking lot little further.  So we parked the car in the parking lot and took the bus to get to the hostel, which is pretty easy and simple.  After putting our stuff in the hostel, we ventured out and walked around the fish market and the city.  The city is very walker friendly and there are very nice neighborhoods we walked around.  The fish market area is very lively and good to hang around in the late evenings. 

We took the walking tour of Bergen, went around different areas of
the city.  We didn’t visit any museums or didn’t take any tours but simply enjoy watching the life that passed by.  Bergen is a beautiful city with very colorful buildings and nice cafes.  Everything is almost walk able distance and we didn’t take any transit other than to get to the car parking lot.


If you enjoy outdoors, the one country that you must visit is Norway.  The natural beauty of this place is mesmerizing and you may ask whether I had been to Switzerland, yes we were there two years back.  But I really enjoy the beauty of Norway and hiking/driving in Norway.  We spent 2 days and one night in Bergen, I think that that should be enough time to spend here..and you should get out of the city to enjoy the nature if you are in Norway.  We’ll surely comeback to explore more.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Katmai National Park - July 2017 Solo Camping Trip


  • The float planes take off from a different location from the airport and you can make arrangements with the float plane operators to pick you up from wherever you are staying.  
  • If you are planning to bring alcohol to have it in the camping site, pack it from home because it costs a lot in King Salmon.  The alcohol prices in the Brooks lodge are reasonable.  Pint of beer $8.
  • The flight to King Salmon cost a lot so think about using your airline miles to fly here (only Alaskan).
  • Take the tour or do it yourself (if you are brave enough) - wading the river and have close encounters with the grizzlies.  Once you do this, you may not want to go to the platform to watch the bears.
  • Go early in the morning, @8am, to rent the waders and they get rented off pretty quick to different tour groups.  It depends on the water level at the river at that year.  We are lucky this year and water level is low.
  • Evenings could be chilly, so always carry light weight jacket and a winter jacket.
  • You can get the white gas or propane gas in the Brooks Lodge store and if you are not planning to camp/cook be prepared to pay expensive buffet style meal.
  • You are not allowed to carry any food items in the trail so don’t go crazy on carrying too much snacks to take for hiking.  You can still leave some in the food storage near the visitor center so that you don’t have to go to the camp site if you are hungry (it is about 0.3miles from the visitor center).
  • If you are coming here with the small children, please please try to find a way to keep them close to you during your time here, you don’t want to be surprising  the grizzles.
  • The Brooks lodge itself is very nice and very conveniently located.  But getting a place here is pretty difficult, so plan in advance. Also, it is expense for solo travelers to stay in the lodge.
  • You are not allowed to take pictures from the co-pilot seat in the float plane, but view from the co-pilot seat is really good.  So decide whether u want to enjoy the view or take pictures.

My Experience

I was originally planned to camp out in King Salmon in one of the hotel properties and but as I landed in King Salmon, looking at the place I was wondering whether it would be safe to campout because of the grizzlies.  Soon after landing, I checked for hotels in town but not that many and expensive, so I decided to have an early encounter with the grizzlies if it had to be :-)  So walked to Antlers Inn where I was planning to campout and it was not bad.  Flora, the hotel manager at the time, was really nice and told me all of the disclaimers about grizzlies attacking me and how the Inn is not responsible.  Agreed to all, pitched a tent little further away from in the Inn and left to have dinner.  If you are not planning to campout like me, the Antlers Inn is a very nice property located very close to the airport and close to the only pub in town.

After having dinner and beer in the pub, not many vegetarian options, returned to my palace around
9pm.  The tent was still there so felt safe (what a stupid logic …you may think :-) ).  Had very nice sleep even though it was windy and raining.  Flora, had shown me the restroom that I could use in the Inn properties which is very nice of her.  Took shower and left the Inn around 7 to thank her for accommodating me in the properties.  When I told her about me taking the float plane, she offered to give me ride to the floatplane docking place because I didn’t make arrangements for them to pick me up.
Most of the people who were traveling to Brooking lodge were day travelers who are going to see the bears or to see the geological wonder - Valley of 10000 smokes (there is no smoke now only the valley remains). 

After going through 20 minutes bear orientation in the visitor center and I was ready to claim my camping spot.  But I was the only one who was going for the camping site at that time.  And the almost half mile walk was eerie and me wondering when the grizzly going to show up next to me or on me :-)  Just when we were attending the bear orientation, there was a mama bear outside very close to the visitor center and seeing that bear that close increased my excitement walking in the wooded trail to the camping site.  The campsite is supposedly fenced with the electric fence but I am not sure about it..touching it didn’t give me electric shock (yes...I touched it).  The campsite is really well maintained.  After storing my food and pack in their rooms, 
left to explore the wilderness.  Again, walking back alone didn’t make me feel any better but me singing songs and shouting along the way made me feel stronger :-)

You will come across grizzlies anytime in the park, I meant the Katmai National Park.  The main attraction for most of the people is the viewing platforms from where you can watch the grizzlies catching salmon and the problem is that there is only one bridge to get to the trail head of the platform  from the visitor center or Brooks lodge.  If there are any grizzlies closer to the bridge or closer to the trail getting to the bridge, all need to wait ’till the bear moves 50 yards away from the trail or the bridge.  Sometimes it takes more than 3 hrs for the bears to move if they are sleeping or chilling.  It is called, the bear jam that you will come to hate.  Walking in the trails to and from the platforms is an experience by itself because you don’t know when you may encounter a bear.  Watching the grizzlies catching the salmon at the falls is a great experience.  There’s a pager system like in restaurants to get to the upper falls if it is crowed.  While waiting for your chance to go to the upper falls, you could visit the lower falls to watch the grizzlies.  You are allowed to stay in the upper falls for only an hour if there are others waiting.  On my way back from the platform, I barely missed a grizzly by a min on the trail from the falls platform to the main road.  A group of people who were following me had to step off from the trail to give way to the grizzly and I didn’t even know about it :-)  

I met an Indian couple, Aditya and his wife, Prashali, from Seattle on the way back from the platform and we went together back to the camp to have lunch.  After having lunch, we got stuck near the Brooks Lodge for more than hour because of the bear jam.  On the way to platform in the evening to watch the bears, we encountered a bear near the main road just 15 feet away and we moved fast before it made it to the main road.  We could spot at least 23 (yes..twenty three) grizzlies near the top and bottom falls at a time when we visited in the evening.  There was a lot more bear and salmon activity in the evening.  We returned to our camp around 10pm and it was still bright at that time.  I singed up to go to the valley of 10000 smokes the next day.

After some delays in the trailhead due to the bear jam, made it to the bus for the valley trip.  If you are staying in Katmai for more than two days, you can do something different than watching the bears, it is a good trip.  The scenery is good and the hike down is well worth it.  There’s nothing smoking in the valley but the landscape is beautiful.  There were two quick stops on the way to enjoy the views and for the bathroom breaks.  The hike is moderate to strenuous depending on your hiking level.  There is no wild life in the trip because all of the bears are where the Salmon is and we didn’t spot any wild animals.  In my mind, if you are not very much interested in geology or not bored watching the bears all day, this tour is NOT a MUST do.

During the hike in the 10000 valley of smokes, met a like minded hiker, Ruth, and we decided to do
the Dumpling Mt. trail near the campgrounds.  She attempted that trail the previous day but turned back because her friends didn’t want to go further.  We decided to give it a try today.  I am glad that I met Ruth, otherwise I won’t have attempted that trail at all.  The trail is very bushy and there’s no way to spot a grizzly in that trail.  We were making noises while hiking and it is a beautiful with great views of the park.  If you have time and someone to go with you, you should hike to the Dumpling Mt..  On way back from the hike, just before reaching the campgrounds, Ruth mentioned that she had seen a grizzly closer to the gate and as we approached the gate, she 
said there’s a grizzly.  I thought that she’s joking and when looked at on my right side there’s a grizzly just 30 feet away coming towards us.  Quickly opened the gate and went in to campground to see the grizzly moving just 15 feet away from us.  We were laughing about how close we came to meeting our brown friend.

We decided to eat dinner before heading out to the platform to watch the bears.  Aditya joined for dinner at the campground and they were telling about their experience of walking in the river coming face to face with the grizzlies in a guided tour.  A few other people joined us for dinner and they were talking about their experience wading the river without anything between them and the grizzlies.  So Ruth and I decided to do that next day without the guide but by ourselves.  But the wadders are in great demand and we couldn’t reserve one the previous night. After dinner, we all left to the platform for more bear watching and we got stuck near the bridge for more than hour because of the bear jam.  There was lot more salmon activity in the falls near the platform and the bears near the falls were having a feast.  The bears avoid humans as much as they could, they could easily hop over the small 3 feet gate to come to the platform where we all stand to watch the bears.  
But the bears never bother to cross the gate and it is the same with the “electric” fence in the campground, they never cross the electric fence which is not electric.

The next morning, packed the tent and had breakfast before headed to the Brooks trading post, at 8am, to get the wadders for the today’s adventure.  Ruth left early to get the waders before anyone else shows up to collect them.  We wish that we had at least one or more people joined us for this adventure.  Two people didn’t look like a gang to scare the grizzlies.  But when we left to the river, we didn’t find anyone on the trail or in the river.  It was a scary feeling walking through the tall trees in the trail to reach the river.  We encountered a mamma bear and her two cubs just when entered the trail and we came close 10 feet to a grizzly that was in the river bank as the trail started going closer to the river, so we walked off the trail and walked in the bushes to avoid the bear.  Once we reached the river, we felt relieved because of the more open space and more visibility.  There were not many people fishing or wadding in the river, only we and the grizzlies :-)  We saw a grizzly about 50 yards away, suddenly it started charging towards our direction and I was close to peeing in my pants :-) but the grizzly stopped about 45 yards away catching a salmon.  We realized that it was just charging to catch its food and relieved to know that we were not its food.

We had to move around a lot in the river to avoid bears.  We had to guess whether we were in their path or not and move away, and while moving away we had to make sure that there’re no other grizzlies wherever we were moving to.  At one point, we were surrounded by 7 grizzlies in the four directions when we were on one side of the river.  We walked around the river for about two hours before returning back to the Brooks lodge.  I don’t think I will stand in the platform and watch the bears when I visit this place next time.  Watching the bears standing among them and moving around them is more exciting than standing in a platform.  It is quite amazing how these grizzlies don’t care about the humans as long as we stay away from them.  The rangers mentioned that the grizzlies in this park behave differently than any other parks because of the way they managed here as well as the amble availability of the food.

After celebrating the guide-less trip to wade among the bears, with beer, we went to the other side of the bridge to catch the shuttle to get to the flight.  The flights on that day were taking off from the Brooks lake, so we get to see the Brooks lake also in the trip.  The flight out of Katmai was very scenic and the pilot flew the flight over the Brooks lodge and Dumpling mountains.

People I Met

There are people come to King Salmon during the summer just for ten weeks to work in the fishing industry and one of them mentioned that they normally catch about 100,000 tons of fish in that 10 weeks period.  Since it is almost end of the season, some of them were taking day trips to the Valley 10000 smokes from King Salmon.  Met a elderly couple (70+) from Virginia, who drove from Richmond visiting all of the national parks on the way and canoed from a the river inlet (forgot the name) for about 8 hours to Katmai NP.  They were talking about going to Wrangell before heading out to Oregon to watch the solar eclipse.  Met a number of photographers who visit the national park year after year, no wonder it is hard to get camping permit
here :-0  There were three 80 year old lady friends traveling together the national parks in Alaska, who made the trip to the Valley of 10000 smokes.  One of them was telling me that she's into Buddhism and went to Bhutan for a month for meditation.  Asked her why Bhutan, she had said that it's the happiest place of earth.   Ruth moved to Washington state and decided to spend summer in Anchorage working in the hospital, spending her weekends camping and hiking around the area.  Aditya camped in the Brooks lodge without any camping stove and they were trying to cook food in the camp fire, they reminded me of me trying to camp in the Hurricane Ridge first time with Walmart sleeping bag and almost frozen at night.   


This is one of the best outdoor experiences I have ever had.  I am glad that we hiked Dumpling mountain trail as well as walked among the grizzlies in the river.  This year is one of the best years to visit Katmai because the water level is low, we could walk along the river as well as see the bears snorkel to catch the fish.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Overnight Stopover in Taipei - 2017


  • The airport metro is pretty awesome and we were able to reach the main station within 30 minutes.  It is far better than taking bus ore taxi for 3 of us.
  • Not many people speak English in the street side shops, so please get some common helpful phrases written down in Taiwanese from you hotel or hostel before you head out.
  • Booked the stay in Flip Flap Hostel which is very close to the train station as well as the bus station (5 minutes walk).  Also, a lot of street food around that area.  It is a nice,
    clean and well maintained. 
     Getting an accommodation for 3 of us under $50 in a central place was tough and FFHostel worked out very well.  There is a small box provided with key to store your personal stuff for free and I could put my 29L backpack in that.
  • Unless you are planning to spend a couple of days in Taipei and going around Taipei in metro a lot, the metro pass doesn’t make sense.  If you plan to travel in metro, enquire when the last train is to avoid walking or taking taxi at late night.
  • Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall closes at 6pm and on every hour there’s a change of guard.  Even though the memorial hall closes, if you arrive late, you will be able to spend time in the Liberty square which is very impressive too.
  • Find out about the famous food corners that you want to try in Taipei before reaching there or ask the hotel or hostel front desk.  There are a lot of nice places, knowing before going will be very helpful.
  • The security line may be incredibly long sometimes, if one security line is long, take a few minutes to check the length of the other security line, you may be lucky to find one may be shorter than the other.
  • Download the translation apps if you have a smart phone which will be very handy here.

My Journey

After dropping off our bags in hostel, we started walking towards Chiang Kal Shek’s memorial and on the way we walked through the National Museum as well as the Peace Park.  Since we didn’t have enough time (because we were in Taipei for
only for 6 hours), we decided to skip the museum but spend some time in the Peace Park.  We walked out of the Peace Park to the Chiang Kai Shek memorial and we were surprised to see the number of motor cycles on the road.  Chiang Kai Shek memorial was pretty impressive and it is surrounded by Liberty square.  We were totally impressed with the area dedicated to this in the middle of the city.  

We wanted to get some good vegetarian food, so my daughter found a place about 1.5 miles away from the memorial hall and we just kept following the Google maps to reach the place while stopping on the way in different restaurants for vegetarian food but we could not find any.  When we reach the destination of the
vegetarian restaurant as indicated by Google Maps, we couldn’t find any restaurant.  After going back and forth on the road for about five minutes, we were comparing the name boards shown in the Google image to the signs on the buildings, we found out that the restaurant was on the third floor of the building where we originally reached.  We were surprised to find the size of the vegetarian restaurant and great number of people dining there when we get in there.  But excitement vanished as soon as we found out that it was a buffet dinner and it cost about $25/person.  After a quick committee meeting, we decided to find some other place to eat, because we wanted to taste the street food and don’t spend $25 as well.  So we walked out.

We marched back towards the memorial hall to a square where we initially a found a lot of shops.  We found a place where we could get some vegetarian food and after suppressing our hunger temporarily, we enquired about where we could find scallion pancake and the lady at the restaurant directed us to a place a block away where we found about 30 people standing in line on the roadside to get the scallion pancake, which looked almost like Indian Paratha.  We stood in the line to get the amazing pancake.  Right across from that place, there’s a huge queue for shaved ice cream that made
us to get the shaved ice cream.  We got one huge bowel of that with mangos, and we three couldn’t finish it.  Someone dining the shaved ice cream told us about the original Din Tai Fung dumpling place close by, so we decided to try that too.  By the time we reached Din Tai Fung place, it was after 9pm, so no much crowd outside even though the restaurant was almost full.  They were able to seat us inside where we enjoyed dumplings and steamed buns.  It is really worth the visit.  

By the time, we finished eating in Din Tai Fung, it was 10pm, so we rushed to visit the Longshan Temple.  It is very close to the metro station and we spent about 30 minutes inside the temple before decided to explore the night market.  With the amount of food that we already had, no one was hungry or even appetite to try anything.  We walked
around looking at what we could have eaten if we didn’t find any vegetarian food :-)  Then suddenly it dawned on us that the metro may not available after mid-night because we didn’t bother to check on the time of the last train.  Luckily, we were able to catch the metro to get back to the hostel.


Taipei street food is pretty awesome if you eat meat and if you are vegetarian, you need to develop some patience and you will be rewarded.  The prices are same as that of US in the restaurants.  We wanted to try some pancakes on the street but we were surprised to find none of the shops or street food were available on a Monday morning at 730.  We’ll surely come back to Taiwan to explore beyond Taipei next time.