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Shangri-la

Flam Travel Blog

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It is. Truly.

I hope that I have few enough readers that this post doesn't create another fabled quaint town lost to throngs of tourists and fake merchandising. That said, Flåm boarders on Shangri-la of the North.

Many people might disagree with me, if they've been to Flåm. But here's my story.

I left Finse on Friday to head towards Myrdal. Myrdal is located in the middle of the country, and acts as the southern terminus for the steepest regular-gauge railroad in the world -  the Flåmsbana. This heavily-ridden, tourism-centric transit line is one of the pride and joys of the Norwegian tourism portfolio, and for good reason.

The train line follows an incredible 20 km valley/gorge down to the end of the second largest Fjord in the world.

When I arrived at Myrdal, my intention was to camp in the area and wait for my train to Flåm (the northern terminus). There's not much to the area, just the station and a few small houses. I started walking down into the gorge to find a place to camp. Before I knew it, I had gotten lost in walking and seeing the steep walls surrounding this sapphire blue river carving its way through the trees. I had walked 10 km when I realized it was completely pointless to turn around, that day or any other day, to reach my train at Myrdal. So I walked.

I set up camp on the river in the middle of the gorge, and started a small camp fire. Unfortunately, this being a ravine, there isnt a single square meter of flat terrain.

My tent was slanted down to the river. This in combination with a rather frictionally-challenged relationship between my sleeping bag and my pad found me waking up every 30 minutes throughout the night scrunched in a ball at the lower end of my tent.

The next morning, I woke and finished my walk. I passed by some houses and eventually reached the port of Flåm. This consisted of 5 buildings touting knick-knacks and restaurants and about 2000 tourists. The importance of Flåm is that it is a link between the last stop (really theres only two stops - Myrdal and Flåm) of the Flamsbana and the cruise ships which dock at the end of the Fjord. Ninety-nine percent of the visitors spend an hour or two in the town and then hop on a train or boat to keep moving.

Great.

Now I'm stuck in an empty tourist output (not even really a town) for two days to sit here and look at fat Tommy cry to his fat mom because she's trying to clean the ice cream off his fat face. If I wanted this I would have went to Six Flags. This isn't Norway.

So after I elimated the possibility of drowning myself, I refueled and committed to finding something fun to do. I walked up to a booth called 'Fjord Safari' and asked them what the trip entails. $105 dollars later, I had secured 3 hours of touristic activities.

This cruise was - incredible. I couldn't believe that I even considered sitting around doing nothing. It wasn't even a cruise. They take you out on a 20 foot inflatable and beam through the Fjords at 40 mph. This was fun.

And beautiful. The Fjords remain relatively untouched, there were maybe 5 boats in the entire 3 hours I was out there. The houses that remain (sparingly) on the coast are all geniune Norwegian villages which have been there for a thousand (or more) years. They aren't touristed out, they are just families. Some villages were as small as 18 people.

I got some great photos and got to stop at one of these small villages and try some goat cheese and other local foods.

To take it back a step -  When I had inquired about the cruise, I started talking to the girl who works there - Gjestrud. She is from Flam and her family has been there for god knows how many hundreds of years.

We chatted casually about where I was from, etc. And when I explained that I will have to find a place to set up my tent for the night, she recommended I set it up in her lawn. Right. But she insisted I would not be imposing, and so I aquiesced.

When I got back from the cruise, Gjestrud was gone. But she has been thoughtful enough to draw me a map of Flam and how I could get to her house. And so I walked. 

Her house was about a kilometer from the port area, but it's like a whole other world. Somehow this village has maintained is sovereignty amidst a hostile takeover of their harbor. No tourists ever visit the town and it has remained a jem. I approached her door with that all-too-familiar ''oh jesus, I hope I have the right house, and I don't even know how to pronounce her name so I hope she answers the door'' feeling.

 Her father answered. In what must have been one of the most offensive and nausea-inducing mispronounciations of a name ever to cross humanity, I asked ''Hello...I met Geeyyestaruuud. She said I could camp on your lawn''. With great excitement, I was directed to my own little patch of perfectly kept lawn.

After I set up my tent, I made my way to the port again to get some internet and beer. Internet is outrageously expensive - 5 dollars for 30 minutes. When you normally pay 30 dollars a month, that seems a bit excessive.

While I was typing away, a Polish girl (Agatha) next to me asked if I could help her read the Norwegian text on her screen. I paused for half a second and thought that I might be able to have some fun with this, and inform her that her train ticket was for Stockholm and doesn't leave until next week.

 However, I thought better of this.  We got to talking and eventually she informed me that she is working on a ship here in Flåm. A few minutes later, she introduced me to the captain (Johann) of the ship and another shipmate (Evelynn).

The four of us went out for beers and had a great night comparing Norwegian and American politics, and discussing some of the more interesting culinary aspects of the Norwegian diet. (To add a small socio-political sidenote: every person I've talked to who comes from a country with socialized healthcare invariably starts with touting how spectacular it is, and then two hours later ending with how much it sucks to wait 6 months to get into the hospital because it is too crowded and beaurocratic...but he-anyway).

After the night was over, all of the ship's crew returned to their bunks, and I returned to my tent. Pretty drunk. I should have eaten earlier.

In the morning at 5 AM, I woke to a rooster. A really fucking loud rooster. Gjestrud's family has a chicken coop, but this is ok because she warned me. I put in my headphones and hoped they'd dull the sound enough to allow for a few more hours of reprieve from my pounding head.

At 9 o'clock I was awoken to Gjestrud's mother saying ''Hellloo??? Gud Morning! I have breakfast''. Her mother had brought me a full layout. More food than I could eat. Coffee, meat and cheese, and even a lit candle to garnish. I immediately thought of the sign sewed into my tent that I had read a dozen times over. ''DO NOT LIGHT ANY FLAMMABLE MATERIALS INSIDE TENT''. I thanked her for this unexpected generosity and when she turned around I quickly blew out of the flame. She was going for a walk in the waterfalls and would be back in a few hours. This sounds nice.

I ate my breakfast, but not without a full on offensive from the local rooster population. Because the only reasonable way to eat this meal in my tent was to leave the door unzipped and eat it under the rainfly, I was completely exposed at all flanks. And roosters like bread. They knew what I had. I knew what they wanted. And for the next half hour, I fought them off while trying to eat in between. These are Norwegian chickens, so they obviously didn't understand me when I said ''go away'' in English. I had to keep throwing little bits of bread a few yards away to distract them. But invariably they always came back. Inside the rain fly, beaks within inches of my plate.

Finally I was done and I decided to bring the tray into the house. The door was left wide open. I guess in a town of 350 people, where you know everyone and their shoe size, that's alright. However, I couldn't be sure that no one was there, and I certainly didn't want to startle anyone. Well, of course that's what happened. But not until after I'd been in the house for a solid 5 minutes.

I cleaned my dishes, feeling terribly awkward in another family's house - having only met three of them. I headed for the bathroom to clean up a bit and relieve myself of the remnants of last night's beers. And when I walked out the door, there was a child I'd never met before (safe to assume Gjestrud's little sister).

In my infinite awkwardness, I just rambled hoping something useful would come out. I must have sounded like an auctioneer.

''Hi.MynameisChris.Iamcampingoutside. I know.....Gyyeeesstrrroood.Uh.Ah.Ok. I'll go back outside now''

She looked at me with that ''Who the hell is this rambling foreigner in my bathroom, and why is he talking to me?''. If she responded to my babble, I didn't hear it. I had walked straight for the door in avoidance of any more awkwardness.

So after I gave a small give of gratitude to the mother, and formally met the rest of the family (tried not to ramble this time), they sent me off with some fresh baked buns, and lots ''farewell!''s.

The people in this town are incredibly nice and accomodating, and the terrain is awe-inspiring. When I walked through the streets of the village, many of the kids stopped playing and their faces lit up at the sight of a person they hadn't seen before. They waved. They ran around picking wild raspberries. I can't make this stuff up. It's an awesome little valley town. 

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photo by: mountaingirl