Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Serbia, Montenegro, Albania - May 2018

Another quick side trip on my way back to the USA from the UK.  I flew from Gatwick on Tuesday morning, 8 May, first to Amsterdam and then on to Belgrade in Serbia.  I arrived in the mid-afternoon and took a taxi into the city and my hotel, the Belgrade City Hotel. Since this was a quick trip and I was leaving the next day I immediately set off to explore the city, or at least that part of the city I could walk to from my hotel.  
The city is a little shabby, there are some quite modern buildings but there are a lot of older buildings some quite grand but some of them are in a state of disrepair.  Also the graffiti taggers have been at work and the town is peppered tags, most of them quite crude. I do appreciate and seek out good graffiti but this stuff is just a blight on the city.
Tesla's High Voltage Discharge
The Nikola Tesla Museum was close by so I went in and joined a tour.  It is not a particularly good museum and the exhibits are rather poor but the Serbs are obviously quite proud of their most famous scientist even though he did most of his work in the USA.  Apparently he only spent 31 hours in Belgrade during his life.  There were some fun demonstrations of high voltage spark discharges and the illumination of neon bulbs.  His suit and hat and other artifacts were on show too but not too impressive. I didn’t know but he was quite obsessive about germs and didn’t like to shake hands without gloves.   He was also obsessive about the number three - he liked to walk around buildings three times, he counted steps and liked to finish on a multiple of three, he only took hotel rooms that were a factor of three.
Orthodox Church
Continuing on there as a nice park with a statue of some unknown past hero and a nice Orthodox Church.  Shame I didn't have a guide book at this point. What was quite noticeable was the number of people in the parks. Parks were full of parents with their children.  You would never see such a thing in the US or even the UK.

Joe Strummer Mural
I continued my walk around Skadarlija, the so-called Bohemian district.  It was a little funky with lots of bars and restaurants perhaps Bohemian.  There were a few better quality grafitis or wall art. A fine portrait of Joe Strummer and similar ones of people I do not know.  
Sava River (left), Danube (top and right)
Continuing further on I reached the medieval fort area of Kalamegdanska.  The extensive walls and fortifications to the fort sit in a park area above the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.  Again there were lots of people sitting around enjoying the evening and of course lots of children playing in the parks. There was a collection of armaments in the grounds all the way from early cannons, to WWI and WWII field guns, up to SAM missiles.  The latter really looked scary and out of place in such an old historical area.

I headed back towards my hotel and the nearby train station.  I had to pick up my train ticket at the station’s Western Union office.  As promised the lady in the office had an envelope with my ticket and the schedule for the next morning’s train.  As I walked through the quite dilapidated station I recognized it immediately. I had been there in 1971 on my way to Istanbul.  It hardly looked any different. I think perhaps I spent the night on a bench there. What a tremendous feeling of nostalgia. I was traveling with two ladies from Edinburgh University - I can’t even remember their names.
Belgrade Train Station
The next morning my train to Podgorica was scheduled to leave at 09:10.  It was the only train on the station, a shabby and graffiti plastered thing.  An old electric locomotive and 5 coaches one of which was a restaurant car. My coach was quite comfortable and I selected a seat with the cleanest windows though really all the windows were pretty filthy.  My seat had a top window that was one so at least I could get a clear view from that. The train left a couple of minutes early and we were on our way with only about 10 other folks in my carriage. Not a money maker for Serbian Railways.
The Belgrade to Bar Train
The train passed through the suburbs of Belgrade along a disheveled track - overgrown and every concrete surface emblazoned with graffiti.  A few miles out of the city we passed the train shed for what was Tito’s personal train. The three engines looked impressive but even they were covered in graffiti.
Tito's Private Train
The line was started in the 1950’s but it wasn’t completed all the way to Bar on the coast until 1976.  It is 296 miles long and has 254 tunnels and 435 bridges. In the early days it took 7 hours for the trip but now because of speed safety restrictions on the track it takes 11 hours.  Various parts of the track were bombed by NATO during the war.
Serbian Countryside
As we passed into more rural areas the landscape changed to grassy agricultural land and lush forested areas.  Somewhere on the way we cut across a corner of Bosnia-Herzegovina but there was no recognition of it and the train does not stop there.  As we left Serbia customs officers passed through the train to check documents and stamp passports. Similarly Montenegran officials checked us on arriving in Bijelo Polje the first Montenegran town.  A pretty straightforward border and efficient border crossing.


The final stretch of the line in Montenegro was the most spectacular section.  We crossed the Mala Rijeka viaduct, the highest and longest on the line, just after Bijelo Polje.  Then the track followed a steep 25% downgrade from high up on the side of the valley. What an amazing construction feat this must have been.  We started way up high on the side of a deep valley cut into the limestone mountains and descended with squeaking brakes through a series of tunnels and bridges down to the same level as the road as it entered Podgorica.
Station in Podgorica
We were some 5 minutes late which is not bad for an 11 hour trip.  At the station in Podgorica most of the passengers left the train. On the platform, exactly as expected, was my driver holding a sign with my name.  I had pre-arranged a car to take me to Tirana that evening. As we left Podgorica darkness was falling and it started to rain.

I didn’t notice much about the drive other than the driver was very careful to observe the speed limit.  Perhaps the police were really strict in that area. The other noticeable thing was the frequency of roundabouts, it was continuous, one after the other, it seemed like there was not a continuous stretch of road for more than a mile.  We arrived at the border with Albania in the rain. There was a short wait and a brief check on the passports on the Montenegran side, then another short wait to enter Albania. The once closed country is now quite open and welcoming.

The road into the capital, Tirana, was not particularly impressive - not a major highway.  My driver used his GPS to deliver me to my hotel - the Hotel Austria. A modern hotel in a backstreet area near the center of town.  We arrived around 11:00 and I was tired after 11 hours in the train and 3 hours in the car.
Skanderbeg Square, Tirana
Next morning I was up reasonably early and set off to explore the city.  It isn’t a very big city and the major sites in the center can be walked quite easily.  There was the Skanderbeg Square with its statue of Skanderbeg the Albanian national hero on horseback, the National Museum facing the square, the oldest mosque in town - Et-hem Bey Mosque, a clock tower, a Catholic Church, a huge modern Orthodox Church, an even larger mosque in the process of being built and then the infamous pyramid of Tirana.  The latter is a monument to the now much despised dictator Enver Hoxha designed by his daughter and which was once the most expensive building project in Tirana. It is now in disrepair and is covered with ugly graffiti. Apparently they can’t decide what to do with it - destroy it or keep it as a reminder of those desperate days.
Skanderbeg Statue

The Tirana Pyramid
I covered all those sites in a couple of hours before breakfast.  After breakfast I took a taxi out to the Bunk’Art museum. This is an old bunker complex out of town built in the 1970’s as a site to protect Hoxha and his government if someone attacked Albania with nuclear weapons.  It is an immense complex with hundreds of rooms, an auditorium, protective air locks, explosion proof doors. While in the 70’s, we, in the rest of the world, were not thinking much about that nuclear attacks, in Albania they were preparing for the worst.  I had the the place to myself - there aren’t many tourists here. Nevertheless the museum provided a most informative history of what happened during the period from just before WWII up to the end of the Communist era. And fortunately there was an English translation for most of the displays.  The best museum
Bunk'Art entrance

Bunk'Art Bunker Corridor
Walking back towards town I got another taxi to the second Bunk’Art museum which is close to the main square.  This one Bunk’Art 2 deals with the police and security forces, the Sigurimi, in Albania from WWI up to the terrifying period of the Hoxha regime.  The Sigurimi were not a force to be trifled with. This museum is also housed in a bunker complex below the city streets.

At that point it was nearing 1:00 pm and I was feeling like I had walked enough.  My flight was at 3:30 so I took a taxi to the airport, Mother Theresa Airport (she was Albanian). Taxis do seem quite reasonable here.  At the airport all was smooth for my WizzAir departure for Budapest. Interestingly my ticket for the flight was 27 Euros.  If I hadn’t have printed my boarding pass at the hotel that morning, I would have been charged 35 Euros to get a boarding pass at the airport.
Mother Theresa Airport
EasyJet from Budapest to Gatwick and an overnight stay at the very fine Bloc Hotel before my Norwegian flight to Oakland and home.

There are more photos of the trip here.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Three Peaks Challenge - May 2018

It all started when I paid a visit to my friend Peter Kirton in London.  He suggested that I join him and his three sons on a “Three Peaks Challenge” that his son Akira was arranging.  The idea is to climb the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales in one weekend. Starting in Edinburgh, we would drive to Fort William for Ben Nevis the highest peak in Scotland (4,413 ft), then drive to the Lake District to climb Scafell Pike (3,209 ft), the highest in England, and finally finish up with Snowdon (3,560 ft), the highest in Wales.

It sounded like a nice thing to do so I agreed.  Over the next few weeks however I felt more and more unsure of things, Ben Nevis is the highest of the three and it is cold up there and there is snow.  

On the Friday afternoon I flew from Gatwick to Edinburgh to meet up with everyone and we all set off in a couple of rented vans.  There were 22 of us, mainly friends of Akira’s, predominantly fellow parents from his children’s school. We drove north from Edinburgh into the highlands, stopping for a bite of food on the way in Doune (totally overwhelming the staff at the pub who were not set up for an onslaught of 22 people in one go).  

At Fort William we had rooms at the Nevis Bank Inn.  The arrangements were a bit loose and we all shared rooms and most people had to share a bed.  I was fortunate as I shared a 2 bed room with Peter and son Hugh and I got my own bed.

In the morning after herding everyone out after breakfast (not an easy task) we set off for the mountain.  Since conditions on Ben Nevis can vary rapidly and the forecast was not good, Akira had arranged for a guide.  Not something I would generally do but in retrospect with 22 people many of whom had little prior mountain experience it was a good idea.
The Group before Ben Nevis
The trail from the Ben Nevis Inn is a well maintained route along the side of the mountain but it is up all the way.  It is built to last with huge boulder steps for most of the way up the lower slopes. Whoever built and maintains the trail did a fine job.  
Lower Slopes of Ben Nevis
On the lower slopes we were below cloud level and we could not see the top - it was shrouded in clouds.  It was pleasantly cool but not cold walking up the lower slopes and the fine rain that had been with us at the start fortunately stopped as we got higher.  There was some nice scenery with a couple of lakes and a view of the loch at Fort William below (Loch Linnhe). As we moved into the clouds we started up a series of long and steep switchbacks.  At the top of these we had reached snow level. There was a bit of a tough scramble in the snow up the last steep rise before the trail leveled out and sloped more gently towards the top. I used my crampons on this last bit since I had carried them all the way up but you could certainly manage without them.

This top section is where things could have gotten tricky without a guide, the clouds were low, the visibility poor, and the wind was fierce and somewhere out there there was a drop off down the steep side of the mountain.  
We finally reached the summit - a concrete trig point, a stone shelter and a weather station.  Of course we weren’t the only ones up there. It was terribly crowded with over a hundred people milling around taking photos and congratulating each other.  We did the obligatory summit team photo and munched on Hob-Nobs before starting our descent.
The Group on the Summit

Yours Truly on Summit of Ben Nevis
On the way down we did get a clearer look at the drop off down the steep side and it was very near to the summit trail.  That is definitely where things could have gotten nasty.

The way down was much easier for me.  When I am not limited by my breathing and gravity I find I can move a lot more quickly.  In fact I like to jog down a bit, it seems to be easier on the knees and quads.

At the bottom there was a pub where we all had snacks and beer while we waited for everyone to get down.  Then it was in the vans for the long drive south.

We drove through much of the same route that we had taken in the dark the previous night and we got the chance to see how beautiful it really was.  It was my first time in the highlands and they didn’t disappoint.

We picked up a couple of more people in Glasgow who were joining us for the last two peaks and then continued south to Lockerbie where we were staying for the night.  We finally arrived at the hotel around 9:00 pm and got the last orders in for a meal in the restaurant. For whatever reason I lucked out on the rooms and got one to myself.  It was a very small double bed with one side against the wall, not the sort of room to share a bed with another person.

Next morning our friends John and Gabrielle, who live an hour away in Kirkcudbright, joined us for breakfast.  I had seen them in Idaho for the eclipse the previous year but it had been many years since Peter had seen them.

Moving on south we drove into England and around the west side of the Lake District to the trailhead for Scafell Pike in Wasdale.  The weather was much better - sunny, warm, blue skies. A perfect day for a hike.
Wastwater from bottom of Scafell Pike Trail
My legs were certainly sore from the previous day’s efforts but I eventually got adjusted to climbing again.  The route from Wasdale is the shortest way up the mountain, being only 2.5 miles each way. Of course that makes it the steepest and it was a relentless slog up the side of the hill.  The lower 75% was a well maintained trail but at the top it became more of a slog through boulders and scree. Not easy going at all.
The Group on Scafell Pike
There were lots of people on the summit - a Bank Holiday weekend and the promise of good weather really brings everyone out.  Again after summit photos and celebrations we started down the hill. The downhills were becoming more painful now and my quads were really burning.
View from Summit of Scafell Pike

Wastwater from Scafell Pike Trail
At the bottom of the trail was a pub in Wasdale and a refreshing pint of shandy was just what I needed.  Then it was onwards for the long 4 or 5 hours drive into Wales to Snowdon. Again we drove through some stunning countryside a lot of it new to me.  Along the west and southern edges of the Lake District then as it got darker we were on the north coast of Wales (the Dee estuary, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay) before we turned down towards Caernarfon.

Since we were so late the restaurant we had planned to eat at declined to wait for us we had to find another place to eat.  We settled on an Indian in Caernarfon. It got a bit boisterous after the long drive and the consumption of alcohol but our Indian hosts did a great job of putting up with us and serving us some fine Indian food.

We arrived quite late at our hotel, the Saracen’s Head in Beddgelert.  After two nights of my own bed, I finally had to share a bed with Peter.  It was large enough and fortunately his snoring wasn’t too bad.

The next morning I wasn’t moving very well at all.  The stairs in the hotel were difficult and left me out of breath, how was I going to climb Snowdon?
View of Snowdon from Trailhead
There are many routes up Snowdon but we chose the Pyg trail out of the Pen-y-Pass car park on the way up, with a return on the more gentle but longer Miner’s trail.  The trail as usual was very well maintained for the most part. Lots of big boulder steps that tested you going up and going down.
Snowdon Summit
Snowdon is perhaps the most spectacular of the three mountains given that Ben Nevis was in the clouds.  It is a real mountain and you can clearly see the peak as you ascend. The views as you ascend are simply wonderful and the day was perfect, blue cloudless skies and quite warn.  As you climb out onto the summit ridge you join the railway track of the cog railway from Llanberis. There can’t be many mountains where you summit to a railway station and a cafe.
The Snowdon Cog Railway

Snowdon Summit Photo
After the obligatory summit photos we adjourned to the cafe for huge Welsh Pasties and cold Coca Colas.  Perfect.

The descent down followed the same route as we took going up and then the Miner’s Trail turned off downhill on a very steep section for about ¼ mile before leveling out for a gentle walk along the side of a lake and then down to the parking lot.  I took a most refreshing paddle in the icy waters of the lake. Just what the feet and calves needed. Some hardier folk like Akira and Ken took a swim in the lake. That would have been too cold for me.
Down Miner's Trail, Snowdon
The final mile back to the trailhead is a most pleasant walk. Nothing steep, just a gentle descent with a well placed pub at the bottom provided the necessary refreshments.
Lower section of Miner's Trail, Snowdon
So there it was, three peaks in three days.  That was quite an achievement and I don't know if I need to do that again.  Everyone was calling it the “Three Peaks Challenge” but I later learned the true Challenge was doing what we did in 24 hours.  That seems a little extreme, but lots of people do it apparently.

It was then a 5 hour drive back to London where we distributed people around Windsor and Heathrow and said our goodbyes.  I caught the bus from Heathrow to Gatwick where I had a hotel for the night.

There are more photos here.

Sheffield - April 2018

During my recent visit to Staveley, I took time to rediscover a few sites in Sheffield, the nearest big city to my home. Here are some notes and photos.

Kelham Island
This area is not really an island though it is surrounded by the River Don and a cut that creates the ‘island’ and provides water power to the surrounding small factories and workshops.  The area has received considerable attention and many Victorian factories and structures have been restored. There has also been a significant amount of new development with apartments, townhouses, restaurants and pubs.  It’s impressive to see Sheffield going through all this growth and redevelopment. It is turning into a first rate city.
Kelham Island
Kelham Island Museum
The museum at Kelham Island is housed in an old power station.  It is a wonderful museum depicting all aspects of the steel industry in Sheffield.  From the blister steel making in the early days through to the more sophisticated steels that can be made today.  There is an impressive Bessemer Converter sitting outside the museum and inside the museum the most impressive exhibit is a mighty steam engine.  This engine built by Davy Brothers of Sheffield in 1905 is a 400 ton, 12,000 horsepower engine built to power the steel rolling mills that produced armor plating which of course was in high demand during the First World War. The ground shakes when it starts moving. What is impressive is the speed at which it can reverse its motion. Since rolling steel was repeated many times for the same piece of steel the engine can roll in one direction and then within a couple of seconds reverse its motion to go the other way.
Bessemer Converter

12,000 Horsepower Steam Engine

Also in the museum is a small collection of automobiles from Sheffield companies.  A very impressive and luxurious example from the Simplex Company that operated in Tinsley from 1907 to 1922 when it closed down.  An impressive car from a company that I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently Tsar Nicholas of Russia owned several.
The Simplex Car
Cementation Furnace
In the early days of steel production wrought iron and carbon were basically cooked together for few days.  The process was invented in Germany in the 1600’s and later imported to England. The process was developed into what is known as a the Cementation Process whereby wrought iron was stacked in stone chests along with charcoal in a furnace which, once lit, was allowed to “cook” for 7 to 10 days.  At the end of the period you had low grade steel, known as blister steel because of the blistered surface to the steel in the chests.

Cementation furnaces were all over Sheffield once upon a time, but alas now only one exists.
Cementation Furnace
Paternoster Lift
In the Arts Building at Sheffield University there is an unusual lift (elevator to my American friends), a Paternoster Lift.  Basically it is a continuously moving lift with with cars that go up one side swing over the top and down the other side on a continuous loop.  There are also no doors. It doesn’t stop so there’s no time to allow doors to open and close. You just wait till a car reaches your level and then you step on or off.   Once you get the timing right it works well, but as you can imagine, there are plenty of opportunities for accidents.

Royal Exchange Buildings
This group of unusual, for Sheffield, buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Amsterdam are next to the River Don, adjacent to the Lady’s Bridge, the oldest bridge in Sheffield.
Royal Exchange Building
Golden Post Box
This post box near the City Hall was painted gold to commemorate local girl, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s Olympic Gold Medal in the Heptathlon in the London Games.
Jessica's Gold Post Box
Redmires Military Camp/POW Camp
In a forested area next to the Sportsman’s Pub on Redmires Road at Lodge Moor are the remains of a First World War military training camp.  It was set up to train the volunteers for the Sheffield City Battalion at the start of the war. Towards the end of the war it was used as an Internment Camp for German POWs.  Apparently Admiral Doenitz, the successor to Adolf Hitler, for a brief period after Hitler’s suicide, was interned here at the end of the First World War.

All that is left now are the cement slabs and brick foundations to the camp huts. The area is quite extensive but is now overgrown with trees.
Redmires Camp Foundations
Portland Works
This cobbled courtyard and its surrounding buildings once housed a group of metal workers that performed all stages of the manufacture of cutlery.  It was built around 1870 and the original chimney is still intact though it now sprouts a tree on its top. The complex has been purchased with the intent of preserving the site.

Portland Works

Portland Works
Police Box
Once a common site when Bobbies patrolled the streets of Sheffield but now only one exists.  A green Police Box sits alongside the Town Hall. A place for the policemen to shelter, perhaps to temporarily lock up a miscreant, to place for a phone to call for assistance.  All things from a time gone by.

Sewage Gas Destructor Lamp
Sewer gas was a problem in the late 1800’s, it was foul smelling and there was always the risk of an explosion.This ingenious gas lamp was developed by Joseph Webb at the end of the 19th century.  Basically it sits on top of a sewer vent in an area like the top of a hill where sewer gas might accumulate. The heat of the gas lamp, hotter than an ordinary gas lamp of the time, draws up the gas from the sewer below and safely dissipates it into the atmosphere above street level.   

This one, on Brincliffe Edge Road, is still functioning as a gas light, though I gather sewer gas is not such an issue these days.

The Sewage Gas Destructor Lamp

The Cutting Edge
In front of the railway station there is a steel sculpture curving down the length of the square from the road to the station.  It is made of Sheffield Stainless Steel and is known as the "Cutting Edge".  Water flows from the top over the sides of the sculpture.  Quite impressive.

The Cutting Edge

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Finland and Sweden - February 2018

Before heading straight back to the US from England, I decided to make a quick trip to Scandinavia in an attempt to see the Aurora Borealis in Northern Sweden. I didn't want to just fly to the north of Sweden for the Aurora so I decided to fly to Helsinki and then make my way north in Finland and then head to Kiruna in Sweden where I hopefully would see the lights before going down to Stockholm where I could get a cheap direct flight back to Oakland, California.

I put together my itinerary that included two flights, two overnight train trips, two bus trips and an Aurora Tour all occuring within a 4 day period. I was going to fly to Helsinki, catch an overnight train north to Kemi, catch a bus to the Swedish border at Haparanda, transfer to a bus to Kiruna, see the Aurora and then catch a train to Stockholm and my flight to the US. There was very little room for delays in the schedule so I was a bit apprehensive as to whether it would work as planned.
Helsinki Central Station
The first leg was fine - an uneventful flight from Gatwick to Helsinki where I arrived in the early afternoon. I then took the train from the airport into the main station in Helsinki to spend the afternoon and evening exploring before my late night train north. Helsinki station itself is quite a wonderful building, designed by Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero Saarinen who later designed the Gateway Arch in St Louis among other things) it has some nice touches both inside and outside. There is a skating rink outside the station and everyone is having a great time gliding around on the ice. The thermometer on one of the buildings says it is -5 C. That is pretty cold.
Helsinki Street, not too cold for accordion playing.
I wander off in what looks like the most interesting direction. I don’t have a guide so I can’t really tell where I am going or what I might see. One or two nice buildings and some big old department store. A government building looking very stern and official. A few statues of folks that I do not know. A modern concert hall with interesting sculpture outside causes me to look in. I find out there is a free concert that night. That provides me with something to do as it would be too cold to keep walking around.
Unknown Statue, Helsinki
Retracing my steps a little I find a nice old church and then a design museum with an exhibition on California design. I didn’t go in but I wonder what they had in their exhibit. I find a nice looking Konditorei and get a bite to eat and a chance to warm up.
I then make my way to the concert hall for the concert. It is a flamenco concert. There are a lot of people and I only just get in, and I have to sit on the floor. It was surprisingly good. The musical support of piano, cello, flute and percussion were quite jazzy. The dancing ladies were good too and the main singer herself was terrific. A short concert but a good one that opened my eyes to flamenco more than they had been before.
The night train north from Helsinki
It was now really cold so I go to a coffee shop to keep warm until my train arrives. At 11:30 I board the train. I have a compartment to myself and it is really quite comfortable. There is even WiFi onboard.
I get a reasonable nights sleep and I awake to a beautiful blue sky as we travel through a winter wonderland with lots of fir trees and lots of snow. We arrive in Kemi, my stop, about 9:50. Just enough time for me to walk up through town to the bus station and catch the 10:05 bus to Haparanda/Tornio. Like I said not much room for error.
Haparanda, Sweden
It is a short 40 minute ride to Haparanda/Tornio. There is not much sign of the border here - one minute you are in Finland (Tornio) and the next in Sweden (Haparanda) with no real physical sign of any transition that I saw (other than the one hour time change as you cross). This is the border that Lenin crossed over to Finland in 1917 on his way to stir up the Bolsheviks and start the Russian Revolution. Imagine if he were not allowed to cross. Not everyone wanted him to. The world might be a different place if that had not happened. Now in modern times Haparanda is famous for housing the most northerly IKEA store.
The most northerly IKEA, Haparanda, Sweden
I have time for a quick 30 minute walk around Haparanda and then I am on the bus again; this time for Kiruna. It is a 6 hr ride through the snow covered landscape. At first we headed north just west of the Torne River through the town of Pajala and up to Karesuvanto before dropping down towards Kiruna. 
En Route to Kiruna
The bus stops frequently along the way and we change drivers every couple of hours. Time passes quickly and just after sunset we arrive in Kiruna. I am staying at a hostel at a conference center and I walk the 15 or 20 minutes to my lodging. There’s a larger hotel next door with a restaurant and I have a lovely meal of reindeer steak, Very tender but a rich meat - with lingonberries too - just like the meatballs in IKEA.
I return to get kitted up for my late night Aurora Tour. It is going to be cold out there so I put on multiple layers of thermals, my down jacket and my boots. As expected right on 9:00 I am picked up by Stefan the owner/operator of the tour company. He is an expat German who has had a lot of experience in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic well as here in Sweden. There are a group of 4 Aussies in the van from Brisbane and Western Victoria - all nice folk.

We head south from Kiruna towards Nikkaluotka. Stefan claims it is much less traveled down there as opposed to the busy roads around Abisko to the north where most people go and he is right, after we get out of town, we do not see another vehicle all evening. For a good ways we don’t see any aurora activity either and then after an hour or so we see a faint glow. We stop and observe and as we do it becomes more well formed - faint wisps of bluish greenish white cloud like forms. A little further on it seems to be getting stronger and we stop again to take photos. It is a great surprise to me to see how the camera behaves - accumulating all that light for a 12+ second exposure, the resulting picture shows a very bright and colorful image. All those long exposure photos are all overly vivid and bright.
Aurora Borealis near Nikkaluotka
It is colder out of town and it becomes very difficult to operate the delicate controls of my little camera. I fumbled around in the cold and dark until my fingers were quite painful. I should have practiced more and memorized some of the settings. What seems to work best is an 800 ISO, f2.8, for 10 or 12 seconds with a manual focus on infinity and a 2 second shutter delay. Too many little adjustments to make with cold fingers.

We drive on in the middle of the icy road often with our lights out (apparently he has had many tickets for driving without lights). The lights out really help with keeping your eyes adjusted to the dark and for spotting the changes in the aurora - which are quite frequent. Sometimes it is almost non-existent and then sometimes it blossoms into ribbons and curtains of bluish green light across the northern sky.

We continue on until we reach Nikkaluotka some 75 km from Kiruna stopping every now and again to observe and photograph until we are too cold to bear it any more. Stefan reckons it is -38 Deg C. My feet start to feel the cold and I realize how dangerous it would be to be stuck out there with a breakdown or whatever. You wouldn’t last too long in that kind of cold. Strangely when I was in Alaska I didn’t seem to worry about such conditions but now in my maturity it is a different matter.

We turn around and make the return trip, again stopping every now and again to observe the lights. We take some coffee and biscuits but the coffee doesn’t stay warm long enough. We only saw one moose walking in the trees next to the road - he watched us, we watched him. We get back to Kiruna about 2:00 am after a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding trip. Well worth the 2100 kroner. 
Church in Kiruna
Next morning I am a little late getting moving but I have breakfast at the hostel and then leave my bags there while I walk around town. There is not a lot to see in Kiruna, a nice wooden church, a local government building, a Saami culture museum and that’s about it. Still with all the snow it is a pleasant enough town to walk in. I walk out to the railway station where I am supposed to catch the train in the evening. It isn’t much of a station - unmanned, just a little waiting room and a lot of tracks. The modern electrified line takes a lot of traffic from the iron ore mine over to the coast in Norway but apparently passenger traffic is not that frequent.

Back in town I sign up for the iron ore mine tour. The mine in Kiruna is the largest underground iron ore mine in the world and a tour is high on the list of things to do. I am waitlisted but they managed to squeeze me on the bus. It was a full size bus full of people and we drove off to the mine and then actually drove into the mine. There is a highway down into the mine and for several kilometers we drove down to the 500 m level. At this level there are old workings and a visitor area where we were given the spiel about the company, its history, the mine and the high grade magnetite that they produce. It was most interesting - it started in the early 20th century, it grew to the largest underground iron ore mine. They are now mining down towards the 1500m level and every night around 1:00 am they detonate the days drilling and apparently you can feel these detonations in Kiruna.
The LKAB Mine in Kiruna
Unfortunately they have removed so much material that the ground in Kiruna is collapsing and they have plans to move half the town of Kiruna to another more stable area in the next few years. A thoroughly interesting tour.

Hard Hats for everyone, LKAB Mine
I went back to pick up the bags and then out to the station. At the station there are quite a few buses and quite a few people. It is announced that our train is on time but then it never arrives and after 45 mins or so the train disappears from the station’s display. As I learned later the train was cancelled and one of the buses was supposed to take everyone to Bodum to catch another train. All the Swedes got texts about the change and no announcement was made in English in the waiting room. There was just myself and a Chinese couple from Hong Kong left waiting around in the unmanned station. What a disaster. We are both in the same boat with flights out of Stockholm the next day. Fortunately we have internet so we book tickets on the early morning SAS flight (expensive) book a hotel in town and call for a taxi back to town.

Not a very satisfactory end to the day and we are all furious with the train company. Still KK Pang and his wife, Cheri, both teachers from Honk Kong become fast friends.
KK and Cheri, en route to Stockholm from Kiruna
After a short stay in the hotel, we have a 4:30 taxi to the airport for the early flight to Stockholm. Everything else goes smoothly. In retrospect, if I had known about the bus to Bodum then I would have taken it, but the likely outcome would have been that it would take a long time and I would have been late arriving in Stockholm for my flight to the US. That would have been more of a disaster so it turned out well in the end.