At the end of August 2003 we returned from Iceland where we had been cycling for 16 days and resting from suffering for the last five days. Before during and after our trip we were using your perfect guide. However, I would like to add and correct some information in order to help future travelers. My notes are rather chaotic, but maybe you’ll be able to use something in the next edition. See text below.
Sincerely, Helen Bulakhtina, Moscow, RF.
Buying Lonely Planet Guide.
First, I want to tell how to buy a Lonely Planet guide in Russia with minimal damage to your wallet. Maybe it’s not a useful information, because there are not many travelers from Russia who visit Iceland. But you can just throw this peace out if you decide to publish my graphoman’s notes.
If you are rich enough you can go to the central bookshop on Novy Arbat street in Moscow and buy this book for 33$. If you are short of money or just greedy (we are both) you'd better go to Amazon.com and find a used book in the USA (it was convenient for us) for 13.99$, order it (you can borrow credit card from your friends), pay 4$ for delivery from one state to another (where you overseas friends or business partners live) and wait when they send this book to you by somebody. We spent one month for this procedure but saved 15$. We are budget travelers and even this small amount was important for us. As for the maps, it’s cheaper to buy them in Iceland.
One important moment: there are no Russian versions of Lonely Planet guides. And I am very glad, because the Polyglot series, for example, were completely spoiled by Russian translation.
Go to Iceland
I omit all details about receiving a visa to Iceland (It took two months for us). It’s not interesting at all as the citizens of civilized countries don’t need any visa for traveling there.
There are two ways to reach this distant island from Russia: to go by ferry from Denmark or Norway (but you need to arrive at these countries somehow) or to go by plane. We preferred to fly, because we had only 4 weeks for our journey and we carried our bicycles. There are not any direct flights from Russia. You need to change a plane in one of the European capitals. While screening prices for the plane tickets we found out that the cheapest way would be to fly by SAS not from Moscow but from St. Petersburg to Copenhagen and then to Iceland by Iceland Air. Each two-way ticket cost 670$ (It's more than 300$ cheaper than to go directly from Moscow). It is a rather convenient option because there are plenty of night trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The cheapest both-way ticket for a sleeping place costs 20$. And one more moment: on our way back we should spend one day in Copenhagen but we were glad to this opportunity.
Luggage limit for our fly was 25 kg and I asked for a special note that we would go with bikes. This peace of paper helped us on our way back from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg since during registration SAS representative asked us for extra payment for each bike. We showed this sheet, the girl called three times by phone, asked two fellow-workers and her chief and finally allowed us graciously to go without any payment.
We’ve discovered interesting facts about Icelandic language: there are almost none adopted words even for modern inventions such as a computer and a telephone. Before the trip we asked our Icelandic friend Darri: “Is it true that the language hasn't changed much since Viking times?” and received such answer: “Icelandic is indeed basically Old Norwegian. We can, for instance, read old Norwegian manuscripts from 1000 yrs ago!! We have a special committee to create new words for modern machines and ideas. Telephone is "simi" which is derived from the old word for thread. Computer is Tölva which is also an amalgamation of two old words.” We were rather impressed by this and tried to find at least one adopted word. I expected that in medicine field there would be many ones. We visited a hospital by chance (one of us fell down from bike on the gravel road; his speed was 65 km/h) and to my surprise except “Neurologist”, “Surgeon” and so one on the consulting rooms’ doors we saw something strange on Icelandic! Our friend Darri (By the way, he isn’t à native Icelander. He married Iceland girl and migrated from UK to Iceland 10 years ago. Now he considers himself an Icelander, speaks Icelandic very well and his children are bilingual) said that all medical terms had local equivalents. Of course doctors use Latin but prefer Icelandic. Finally I succeeded: visiting Geysir museum I compared microbiological text in English and Icelandic and found a word “DNA” in both! Why didn’t Icelanders change it to “miraculous vivifying helix” I don’t know.
One more interesting moment: most Icelanders don’t have surnames. They use patronymics instead. For example, hypothetical Guntar Eriksson’s son will be Guntarsson as a last name and his daughter will be Guntardottir. A woman doesn’t change her name after marriage. We were told that only snobs have surnames in Iceland. It’s very impolite to call somebody by patronymic, you should use full name. And several years ago a foreigner who migrates to Iceland had to change his or her surname to patronymic. Our friend Darri have done this and became Michaelsson, because his father’s name was Michael. Fortunately, it’s not necessary now.
Currency rate differs from 78 Ikr to 75 Ikr for one USA dollar. You can pay by credit card nearly everywhere, but we noticed that in city and intercity buses only cash was accepted.
It’s the name of a really cool, free, English newspaper about Iceland, which started only in 2003! Unfortunately it’s available only during summer months, from early June till the end of August. You can get everything you want in this paper: what’s going on in the country and in the capital, how to fight with sheep-killer (just throw a couple of hot-dog in its direction), how to entertain yourself in wilderness and so on. Except these amusing subjects there are more serious articles about whaling, Icelandic future army (to be or not to be; in present time they haven’t any), etc. On their website http://www.grapevine.is/ you can read all issues for 2003 year.
You’ll never find thick forests in Iceland (not in two nearest centuries) but in spite of this fact there are plenty of wild edible mushrooms: Leccinum scabrum – brown cap or Birch Bolete, Boletus edulis – The King Bolete, or penny bun mushroom, and different Russula species are the most common ones. We gathered them near Pingvelir lake, near Gulfoss waterfall and somewhere else. Thanks to these gifts of nature we survived in the wilderness (it’s rather hard to find any shop or petrol station in the middle of nowhere). And I would like to introduce you our specialty, delicious and simple: “mushroom ragout in Icelandic stile”.
Hack mushrooms to middle-size pieces, put them into the 3-litter pot, add 2 caps of water. Cook them to boiling, and then add some salt, seasonings and spicery. Boil all this during 10 minutes, after that pour dry potato into the pot and mix everything carefully. When potato dissolves completely, add minced tomatoes. Beautiful mash is ready! Close your eyes and eat quickly. It looks awful but it’s edible and even tasty. We made several pictures of our cooking masterpiece and now we successfully use them as an emetic drug.
Geocaching is the famous entertainment all over the world. The aim of this game is the search for hiding places using given coordinates and GPS device. According to http://www.geocaching.com web site there are 8 caches in Iceland. We took GPS with us but used it very seldom. In good weather we had plenty of enthusiasm in “treasure hunting” but it appeared that all hiding places were within a radius of 200 km. As soon as we were approaching closer, rain, wind and fog killed all our desires in cache searching.
There are several types of roads in Iceland marked with special signs:
Asphalt ones – they fit for all vehicles but they are not interesting for mountain bike (it’s my private opinion).
Gravel roads “for reliable cars” – fit for every kind of cars, even with automatic shift. They are not difficult for a bike.
Gravel roads “for jeeps” – every 4wd will pass them easily. There are some obstacles for bikers: deep sandy areas 5-10 meters long which are easier to cross by foot rather than to try to ride; hills with steep slopes covered with stones which you can surmount with some exertion; and simple fords which you can cross by bike splashing your legs a little bit.
Gravel roads “for specially prepared jeeps” - the most interesting roads in the country. Sometimes it’s just unclear rut in the desert; sometimes there is a mess of huge stones; sometimes road is so rough that teeth are going to jump out of their sockets. Wades are the main specialties of these paths. You’ll enjoy yourself a lot walking across the rivers with you bike and stuff in your hands.
Some advices for bikers:
The most extreme road goes along Tungnafellsjokull glacier (5 km’s piece of F26 and 23 km’s piece of F910). Our Icelandic friend Darry told us about it. You should cross a branch of fords there in early morning before glacier starts melting. If your jeep got stuck in the sand and you couldn’t release it, and nobody could help, and you hadn’t proper winch and so on, save quickly all stuff from your car. Make yourself comfortable on the dry place and watch how sandy streams are covering your vehicle. Next day at dawn hurry up to the river with a spade, find your car by hillock in the sand and dig with all yours might. You should do it relay fast or next day you would never find the car at all. Darry traveled here by bike with his German friend. Of 28 km they went by foot 23 trundling their bikes on sandy mess. It’s possible to shorten this distance to 20 km in rainy whether because it’s easier to ride on wet sand. Don’t forget about water supplies at least for two days as glacier’s rivers consist of sand on 80%.
On the Reykjavik Mountain Bike Club web site thereó are plenty of useful advices about proper bike and accessories for it for traveling about Iceland. Summarizing their knowledge and our personal experience I want to add a little bit from myself.
Fist, if you are going to use gravel roads for “specially prepared jeeps” (and they are the most interesting roads in the country) you need reliable hardtail at least middle class or higher with wide tires (2.1) and aggressive tread, with firm luggage rack (or racks).
You’d better use one big backpack on bike’s rear luggage rack than one dozen small bags fixed all over your bike. I wander why nearly all foreign cyclists decorate their bikes like New Year tree with parcels, bags, sacks and so one instead of using one huge backpack? It’s so easy to carry it on you back like a usual one in a case of necessity especially while crossing rivers.
You must know how to repair your bike and carry all necessary tools and spear parts with you: all possible sets of wrenches, pliers, cranks and cassette removers, two spear tubes and repair kits for them (take enough patches), 10-12 spokes and special wrench for them, a kevlar tire, screws, bolts, etc. We broke 10 spokes for all three bikes and one rack, destroyed one rather old tire and two tubes completely and had several small bugs which have been fixed easily. Forget about bike shops and repairing services, they are out of distance.
We have been cycling on the road 52 from Pingvelir to F338 when Max’s luggage rack went to godlike forefathers. It’s a good road through volcanic desert but it was impossible to find there a piece of wire for repairing. We fixed damaged rack using improvised materials. Fortunately each of us had small 30-litters hiking backpack so Max reloaded heavy things on his back. We reached Geysir and found out that the nearest bike shop (as well as a supermarket) is in Selfoss 60 km from here. And it’s impossible to buy proper food in Geysir: there are some snacks and you can fill your belly wit hot dogs, hamburgers, etc., but there are not proper supplies for a traveler. Of course we missed evening bus (there are only two runs to Selfoss and Reykjavik per day). It was the only choice: Max hitchhiked to Selfoss (there wasn’t very difficult because local people are friendly). He found the bike shop and its owner in the night and bought the only rack which cost 50$ (for that sum you can order a titanium one in Russia). Then Max walked around the city several times and learned everything: buses timetable, supermarkets’ working hours, etc. On his way he found sim-card for our cell phone and couple of gas tanks for our burner in the petrol station’s shop. After finishing shopping for today, our friend went for the night to the local common. Early in the morning he bought food in the only opened supermarket near “Pizza 67” and reached Geysir by morning bus. So after noon we continued our way.
It’s possible to cycle on this mountain, not till the top of course. There is a rather good gravel road for cars and lazy tourists are driven to the middle of the Hekla by jeeps. We left our belongings at Landmannahelir camping and early in the morning returned by bikes to the sign “Hekla” which is about 20 km from the camp. From this place we rode uphill about 6 km passing by the first guestbook on the foot of the mountain. You need some strength for this trip but it’s not very difficult. We climbed at least to the middle then two things happened: the good road was ended and the weather suddenly changed. Wind was so fierce that we decided to go by foot. We left our bikes, put on all warm clothes and continued our way. Heavy mist, wind and rain were not fellow travelers but we have got into the habit of Icelandic climate. Downhill from Hekla is quite dangerous so for the sake of the mind be careful and always wear a helmet!
This famous place is close to Hekla, and besides nice hot springs (you can bath there for free) it’s the only place to buy some food! From 1st of July till 31st of August two old green buses serve as a shop and a small café. Prices are reasonable and credit cards, dollars and euros are accepted. It’s so fine to eat a big sandwich with hot chocolate instead of wild mushrooms! The owners of this place, Smari and Nina, are artists who spent their vacation in such unusual way. They can speak four languages: Icelandic, English, German and even Russian because Nina is Russian originally. She was pleased to meet us, her compatriots, and we spent several hours talking, taking and of course eating. You can visit their web site: http://www.landmannalaugar.info, which is available on three languages.
The prices have changed. Now it costs 700 Ikr per person and includes shower with hot water, kitchen facilities. For using electric oven you should pay 50 Ikr per 20 minutes. But if you have a primus or a camping-gas burner you’ll have no probs! There is a big rack near the reception door with huge amount of camping-gas tanks and cartridges, bottles of petrol and cooking spirit, bags with charcoal, cans with grill liquid etc, etc. We got hold of rather good usable primus, set of outdoor pots and pans (almost new), two very strong and big plastic bags (for packing our backpacks before flight), a novel in German and other several small but useful things. We used free camping-gas tanks for cooking and prepared delicious steaks on charcoals (there is a special place for BBQ with braziers). And don’t forget to visit the kitchen at least two times a day: you can find plenty of good food (instant coffee, soups, cacao, potatoes, etc.; jam, chocolate, rise, noodles, seasonings, spices, ketchup and others). There are not nasty remains! Tourists who return home leave a surplus for the welfare of others. Of course we left some stuff too including Icelandic GSM sim-card. Life in this camping reminds of a commune. Every minute you hear the same speech: “Excuse me, would you like some rise (petrol, gas, bread and so on). We are leaving today”. If you need something just take it.
A big gray building near the camping is a youth hostel. It’s a very helpful place too. There is a cozy resting room with small library (nothing interesting among the books to be honest) but with numbers of magazines and newspapers. It’s so pleasantly to read seating in the soft armchair while it is pouring cats and dogs outside!
On the hostel reception you should write down you name on special flybus list one day before the departure. A ticket to Keflavik costs 1000 Ikr per person.
We used a city bus only once during heavy rain. The ticket was very expensive – 220 Ikr! For this price you can spend as much time as you like in a swimming pool (the best one is near Laugardalur Camping). Bike & hike is the cheapest and the most enjoyable way to explore Icelandic capital.
Icelandic Phallological Museum
The owner complained that this museum would ruin him and he would be glad to sell it. Hurry up before the closing of this unique place! The most remarkable exhibit is walrus penis. It’s about 175 centimeters long. Not the one man but already four guys have donated their “treasures” to the museum: an Icelander, an American, one German guy and an Englishman.
One rainy evening we set out in search of dark beer in local pubs. As we preferred Irish sorts we visited three suitable places:
Nelly’s I don’t like interior of this place but Beamish stout was good and not very expensive – 500 Ikr per 0,5 liter.
Dubliner - The main Irish pub on the island. Rather crowded place, not very impressive design, only 6 sorts of beer, prices are higher than in Nelly’s (600 Ikr for 0,5 liter). Nothing special. I’ve never been yet in a native authentic Irish pub, but I know how real one looks like (thanks to Travel Channel).
Celtic Cross – a miserable parody for The Dubliner: awful design, unreal prices, the same choice as in the previous place. After visiting this place we decided to quit all experiments with local bars and wait till Copenhagen.
Summary: Reykjavik isn’t a beer capital at all.
Ooh! I wander if you managed to finish all this gibberish. I am very sorry that my English is so poor for a while:(. Our next big destination is Chili and I think we’ll find proper guide among your excellent series.