Sunday, June 24, 2018

Japan: Tokyo

Tokyo is a mishmash of a number of things. It's pretty with lovely gardens. It's busy at all its train stations. It's futuristic with its neon displays and technology. It's weird with its maid cafes and love hotels. It's cute with its pop and cosplay cult. It's warm with people willing to help you even if they have no idea what you are talking about. It's a bit hard to decide whether I like it or not. Most people I know find it very impressive and overwhelming.

For some reason, I found it slightly underwhelming. Dare I say this to anyone because you are expected to fall in love with Tokyo almost immediately. May be my expectations were clouded by people who visited many years ago. Tokyo apparently hasn't changed much in the last decade or so. I can imagine visiting it 10 years ago when I would be blown out of my mind by the technology or the subculture. But now, the world is fast catching up. Or may be I just kept upping my expectations of the the unexpected when the world has grown smaller and we know a lot more about the country.

The most impressive thing about Japan was the food. Everyone told us that before we went there and we completely dismissed it because we are not foodies. But food in Japan is amazing, and I don't mean Japanese food. Any food is so well made.The handmade sushi outside the Tsukiji fishmarket being awesome is expected, as is the Hida beef in Takayama that is internationally popular. But, a packaged brioche bun with butter and jam purchased from a local 7-11 was by far the best bun I have had. The avocado and shrimp sandwich in a cafe chain called Dontour is so fresh. And the pancakes we had at places we can't even remember were the fluffiest I've seen. They make any food just brilliantly, it is as simple as that.

Shibuya crossing for instance, didn't look as busy as I expected. May be because it's so open. Surely, the number of people there are a lot more objectively than at Canary wharf jubilee line entrance/ any Northern line station in zone 1 at rush hour. But because these places are smallish, everyone seems jam packed while Shibuya seemed open and able to accommodate crowds. We took so many pictures trying to take the perfect picture of a crowded crossing but we just couldn't get one because it wasn't crowded enough. And half the crowd is other tourists trying to create a crowd and take pic, or videoing themselves crossing.

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still impressive in every which way. Harajuku is like a constant cosplay with cute little stores selling you all kinds of hair accessories. It wasn't full of tourists as I expected. Well the streets were, especially Takeshita. But the little stores didn't have so many people and when it did they were all locals who were truly pumped about whatever it is that there browsing to buy, like full-on costumes from actual theatre/shows or Kpop magic.

Talking about pop, Akihabara is a crazy neighbourhood. It was the electronics town with the black market after the WWII. It is supposedly the birthplace of a lot of the electronics global brands that Japan is so famous for. Akihabara now is filled with video game arcades and manga and anime shops as well as some adult themed places like love hotels. Locally, it is probably most famous for the phenomenon that is AKB48. It is some kind of a pop girl band, except it has 130 members (48 originally) and viewer polls get to decide who stays or leaves the group making it a reality show, and they all look and dress alike. They have a theatre where they perform.

I liked the concept of Golden Gai and Omoido Yokocho where you have tiny places, each like a single room with a space for 10-15 people, some tinier with only space for 7. Some are bars and some are restaurants. They don't really have menus and the place we went to, the chef just brought us a basket of all the raw chicken and vegetables and we picked what we wanted grilled. The menu is just that, so they are not full-fledged restaurants. You can go hopping but I am guessing the experience is pretty much the same. Everyone is welcoming and unlike other places to hangout, Japanese here would interact with others (though mostly we only ran into other tourists, that too British or Australian).If there is no English signage however, tourists are so not welcome.

Our most important day around which our entire trip was planned was the traditional wedding reception. Some of our friends chose to don a kimono although I couldn't convince myself to wear it for about 5 hours. They looked lovely and I was indeed envious of their decision in the end. The venue was pretty and it was nice day out with everyone looking their best. The food looked great, let alone taste even though I went for their vegetarian options. The bride and groom were in traditional Japanese clothes and the most gracious hosts.

Japan: Kanazawa to Alps to Matsumoto & Mt Fuji

From Kyoto, we wanted to visit the Japanese Alps in Gifu prefecture. We had booked accommodation for one night in Takayama and the next in Matsumoto using them as connectors.

Now, the fastest way to get to Takayama using JR pass was to take a Shinkansen half way and a JR rail for the rest, reaching in 2.5 hours (timed correctly). Instead we opted for the longer, more scenic bus route. After all, the fun is in the journey and not the destination. And another similar way of travelling to Matsumoto.

Itinerary details:
Kyoto -- (train) --> Kanazawa -- (bus) --> Shirakawago -- (bus) --> Takayama (night stay) -- (bus) --> Shinhotaka Ropeway -- (bus) -- Hirayu Onsen (change) -- (bus) --> Kamikochi -- (bus) --> Matsumoto (night stay) -- (train) --> Kofu (change) -- (bus) --> Kawaguchiko for Mt Fuji -- (bus) -- Ostuki (change) -- (train) --> Tokyo

Having visited so many places in the 3 days, we only saw the highlights in each of these places. In Kanazawa, we immediately headed out to what is usually referred to as the prettiest garden in Japan, Kenroku-en. It was indeed pretty. There were a couple of ponds, some sakura trees, a large pine grove and a plum grove which K really loved. There was an interesting self operating fountain. Being on high ground, the garden also had great view points of the city.

When we reached the bus stop, we felt that the bus to Shirakawago was a bit full so we opted to take the next one. Turns out we were the only two people on the bus! Shirakawago is a meant to be a preserved village with the iconic Gassho-style huts with quaint village life. They say the best way to experience it is to stay in one of those huts for the night. We didn't plan it that way unfortunately. Or fortunately? There were at least 40 tour buses and the village was teaming with tourists taking pics of literally everything. We walked around and finally found an open air museum which contained some of these mud houses that you can actually go into. The museum has a few houses, a mill, a granary, a waterfall and a pond as well as a few Sakura trees. We had the whole place to ourselves apart from a couple of wood-chopping locals.

Takayama had a nice hispter vibe like Haridwar or any smallish place near the Himalayas.  It is often used as a base by hikers/skiers into the Alps. It has some trendy places to eat although we chose to go to a very traditional grill restaurant where you leave your footwear outside, sit on tatami mats and grill your own meat. Even though I only tasted the red meat, I felt that the Hida beef was softer and sweeter than the chicken I was grilling.

From Takayama, we sat on a bus to Hirayu Onsen to go to Kamikochi but as we realised that our bus was going to the Shinhotaka Ropeway, we decided to stay on it. There we took two cable car rides to reach the highest point where the temperature was 2 degrees Celsius. During winter, it is a great place to ski. You could see snow-capped mountains everywhere. We weren't prepared for the weather though, so after a quick photo-stop, we took the next gondola back. Kamikochi is a pretty little village/town in the valley between some of these mountains. There are a lot of hiking trails along the river. We walked for about an hour or so, stopping to soak in nature's paintings.

Matsumoto has a tiny little castle. It is also called the crow castle because it is black in colour. but the most fascinating thing about this castle is it is the oldest original castle. As I mentioned on my post on Kyoto, older buildings in Japan are spoken of in reference to the original constructions even though they are rebuilt many times after being destroyed by fire (sometimes as many as eight times). However, Matsumoto castle did not have to be rebuilt. When we visited, there were some Samurais performing for the crowd in the gardens.

From Matsumoto to Kawaguchiko Five Lakes area was exhausting. And when reached, the station/bus stop area was so confusing with so many people around. We found some cycles for hire but had to return it because of the traffic everywhere and instead just took a taxi to north bank of the lake Kawaguchiko and began walking back to the station hoping to find good views. Finally we found a small cove just under the bridge which had unhindered views of Mt Fuji, right by the lake. It was so serene to just sit there and watch the never-changing view.

Japan: Kyoto

Kyoto at first seems like a beautiful cute little town. It's actually a sprawling city. But for tourists that cute little town is all that we need. It sits snugly in the valley between many hills.

Kyoto is super easy for tourists to navigate as long as you can read and write English. Many restaurants would have menus in many other languages as well. Many tourists rent kimonos and samurai clothes and walk around the city dressed in the gear to make for some nice pictures. For the rest of us, these tourists provide an atmosphere of tradition. The city has an insane number of temples and some shrines and one really needs to decide which ones to visit, otherwise you'll just be lost.
We were in Kyoto for three full days and were not very productive on our first day because of jetlag and continuous rain.

Just a bit of background: Shrines are temples of the Shinto religion which is the traditional religion before Buddhism came into Japan. Japan saw phases of acceptance of Buddhism and rejection as well as outright abolition and finally in today's world, a mixture of Shinto lifestyle with Buddhist beliefs. What this meant was that shrines and temples pretty much exist along each other in the same compound.

First in Kyoto, we went to Ryoan-ji temple which is supposed to house the best Zen garden. Now, this is our first ever Zen garden and we just didn't get it. It made no sense and we were very underwhelmed. (Our understanding improved on visiting Daitokuji.)

On the rainy day we also did a Kyoto Free Walking Tour (check on Facebook) which was pretty good. It gives you a bit of orientation on Kyoto. We walked through the Gion Geisha District (and learnt the difference between Maiko and Geiko Geishas and how it's all different from Memoirs of a Geisha), the pretty area of Higayashima, visited a temple and a shrine. Afterwards, we wandered by ourselves to the 700 year old Nishiki market which has a lot of street food and some nice restaurants.

On the second day, we took a train to Nara. Nara is similar to Kyoto with many temples but the big one is marked out for you - Todai-ji.
Todai-ji hosts a Daibutsu or Vicarana Buddha or simply a massive Great Buddha. It was a mesmerising image. He has a halo of smaller Buddha statues and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas and two guardians. There is a small hole in a pillar that is meant to be the size of a nostril of the giant Buddha and there is a belief that anyone who can pass through it takes good fortune with them. The complex also hosts a 5 level pagoda.

There are many other temples and gardens in Nara and we chose one of each, which were on the way back from Todai-ji to the station. We visited the Yoshikien garden which was as cute as a cupcake and we went to the Kofukuji temple. The Kofukuji temple is smaller and less visited. We went there mostly for the National Treasure Museum which hosts many old statues of Bodhisattvas, guardians (who are Gods from Hindu mythology), a six-handed Ashura and a remarkable 1000-handed standing Buddha (Avilokitesvara) in all his glory. The actual statue may not have a thousand hands but he was as impressive as the Daibutsu. Many of the temples have been rebuilt many times over due to destruction by fire because they are all made of wood, sometimes including the idols. At times when the idols were saved yet could not be used in the new temple, they have now been preserved in the museum. No pictures are allowed in the museum.

On our way back to Kyoto, we got off at the Inari station for the Fushimi Inari shrine. Here we have the iconic image of Kyoto, the innumerable vermilion coloured torii. All shrines have a torii at the entrance where you bow and enter. But at Fushimi Inari, while there is one big torii when you enter, there is a path way of 4kms winding over a hill filled with toriis, not linked to the main shrine. There are however, many smaller shrines along the 4kms. The are also good view points of the city of Kyoto if you persist on the path. This is probably the most visited site in Kyoto and hence almost always busy. Yet because of its length (and the altitude that comes with it) if you walk long enough, you'll find a secluded spot for photographs, only interrupted by a handful of tireless tourists and some pilgrims. A famous scene in Memories of a Geisha was shot here.

From Inari station, we went back to Kyoto station. The station itself has some nice view points. It took us a while to find it but we eventually found an elevator that would take us to the 10th floor from where we could access the sky walk. It has some great views of the city and the Kyoto tower. There are some nice restaurants in that square that follows from it.

The final day in Kyoto, we woke up early, finally with jetlag overcome, because we wanted to visit Arayashima bamboo grove. Another iconic Kyoto spot, we wanted to beat the crowds. It turned out to be a very short stretch of road and hence, going early was a good idea. Turns out, there are also taxi tours later in the day where the taxis drive through the road which can be really annoying.

Midway along the bamboo pathway, there is an entrance to the Tenryu-ji temple. This is the first temple of the day (of the six we saw in the whole day) but it was just the garden that we were able to see and the garden was really pretty and well laid out.
At the end of the bamboo pathway, there is a scenic rail route by the river and through mountains, that takes about 25mins from Torokko Arashiyama station. It's a very nice route and you can sit in the fifth car whose ceiling is made of glass. The ceiling comes in handy during spring due to sakura and autumn. We didn't catch much sakura though. That leaves us at a suburban area from where you can take a 2 hour boat ride back, or just the train. We took the train.

The second temple of the say was Daitokuji. It's a temple complex with many sub-temples which are mostly fully functional. There were some 6 temples open to public when we visited and we went to 3. All three of them (may be all of them ?) had Zen gardens and thankfully, they had English pamphlets. One particular garden helped us understand the meaning of what a Zen garden is. It's usually the sea of life with ripples and the way that the stones are arranged tells us different stories. The most impressive was the tormented sea of life with a turtle for disappointment, a crane for youth and optimism, a door of self doubt, and finally the calm sea of life. We may have appreciated Ryoan-ji better if we had the Zen garden 101 first. In general, Daitokuji had a serene atmosphere to it and left like you were entering a different world.

Our third temple was Kinkakuji which translated to Golden Temple, because it is golden. There is a also a Ginkakuji which is a silver temple, although we did not visit it. Kinkakuji was essentially a photo stop. It was crowded when we entered and we were shepherded to a place where we could click pictures and that was pretty much it.

The fourth temple was Higashi Honganji temple which is a short walk from the Kyoto station. We went there on the recommendation of Lonely Planet guidebook. It was by far the largest in terms of the main temple size and with a remarkable display of wealth that you normally don't associate with a Buddhist temple. Surprisingly, it's not that popular and has few tourists. 

Our fifth temple of the day, my favourite, Sanjusagendo is also a lesser known temple. More importantly, it's a regularly visited temple by devotees and hence, has a calming vibe. This is a unique temple that contains a thousand life-size standing Buddhas, a large Buddha with many hands depicting a 1000-handed Buddha (Avalokitesvara) and 28 guardians of Buddhism among which are the famous Wind God (Vayu) and Thunder God (Varuna). There was pleasant incense in the air and many pilgrims were reciting the 1000 names of Buddha as they slowly made their way from one end to the other end of the temple. I wanted to visit Xian, China to see the Terracotta Army on this trip but it was just not possible. The visit to this temple seemed a lot better due to the intimacy of the display and how tightly they are packed. 

Finally, the sixth temple of the day was Kiyomizudera. Being the only temple open till 6pm, rather than 5pm, you see a lot of tourists aiming to visit it at the end of the day looking rather tired. Unfortunately, the exterior of the main temple was being renovated and hence the wonderful views were slightly impaired by the scaffolding. Having said that, this temple and the shrine next door together create a tranquil setting atop the hill overlooking all of Kyoto.

Japan 101

So many people have so many stories about Japan that we were so excited to go there! Especially, because we were going to a traditional Japanese reception of our dear friend's wedding. When we started to plan our itinerary, we had no idea what we wanted to see. It took us a while just to orient ourselves to the culture and geography of the country. Planning can be daunting so I thought I should begin with some basic information that could be useful to another traveller. Here I also have our itinerary as well as alternatives that some of our friends who were there for the reception planned.

Generic pic to bright up the blog (and really, I took it on my phone):

Travel essentials:

Pocket WiFi: the concept is pretty good. It's a WiFi router you can take with you (like JioFi in India) and it doubles as a power bank. You can rent it at the airport when you arrive and return when you leave. We didn't take one because our Airbnbs had one we could use, apart from the room WiFi. We instead took a data-only prepaid sim in the middle of our trip from a Bic Camera store.

JR pass: This is a travel pass that the train company called JR has which can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. But it can only be purchased by non-residents and from outside the country. Everyone told us that we need it. So we blindly bought it. We later figured that we didn't really need it. In fact, instead of giving us flexibility, it restricted us considerably as there are many trains, buses and routes that are not covered by JR pass. The pass can be really helpful if you don't have a fixed itinerary or take at least 3 bullet trains (shinkansens). Japan official train app can help you plan journeys using JR pass so you know which trains are covered and which are not.

Trash: it's meant to be segregated into 4 units: plastic, glass, metal, burnable. Paper is occasionally recycled. But mostly, I see only burnable vs plastic. It's very hard to find trash cans on the street and you see signs that tell you to take your trash with you. You can find some plastic and metal recycling bins next to vending machines and in stations.

Language and getting around: Google Translate allows you to download a language for offline use. You can also use their camera feature to read street signs or menus. However kanji script is not supportive for this because the same character can mean different things given context. Many people at touristy places understand English and they have maps and directions/signage to help you. Tokyo and Kyoto trains and buses have English language support. Google maps is not perfect.

Sakura season: Sakura season extends for one and half months around March and April, across the country, but at any given place it doesn't last for more than 3 weeks. So it's hard to ensure you catch Sakura if you already have a fixed itinerary. If you stay flexible and take a JR pass, you can easily travel by shinkansen to wherever there is Sakura during the time you visit. Japan guide website has a Sakura forecast for each area. Autumn is also very beautiful and lasts longer and locals prefer the it to the Sakura season given less crowds.

Driving: you need an international driving permit and even then you need to hire from big brands because most local rental companies only accept Japanese license. We couldn't hire because we didn't get an IDP. It could have saved a lot of time and added flexibility when travelling to rural areas. Japan drives the same as India and the UK.

Itinerary (with links to blogposts):
We did Tokyo-Kyoto-Alps-Tokyo
Day 0: Flew into Tokyo and Japan
Day 1-3: Tokyo
Day 3: we were meant to go to Mt Fuji but it was cloudy and we went around Tokyo instead. We reached Kyoto by night
Day 4-6: Kyoto, of which we did a half day trip to Nara
Day 7-8: We were in the Japanese Alps where we went via Kanazawa, stayed the night at Takayama and another night at Matsumoto
Day 9: Kawaguchiko (Five lakes area) to view Mt Fuji
Day 10-11: Tokyo
Day 12: Flew out of Tokyo and Japan

Some of our friends went to Hiroshima through Osaka instead of the Japanese Alps and some went to Hakkaido chasing the sakura. Some went to Hakone to view Mt Fuji instead of the Five lakes area. Most people we knew spent 3-4 days in Tokyo and 3-4 days in Kyoto. Many went to Nara from Kyoto. We don't know anyone who went to Kamakura.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Iceland: Nature's majesty

Iceland reminds us that nature is magnificently fascinating! This blogpost, I shall be writing as I experience it rather than after the trip because I realise that sometimes we need to capture our immediate responses to nature. (After writing the entire blogpost, now I have a word to describe Iceland - otherworldly.)

I always thought of chasing the sun westwards. For example, my London to Seattle flight would only seem 2 hours long due to timezones, or my Amsterdam to London flight may even travel a few mins back in time. But I never even considered that it is possible to chase the sun northwards. Our flight took off around 9.30pm. Ordinarily, my tropical childhood would suggest that 9.30pm is night. But in June, in London, the sun was nearing the horizon with a 30min journey left before darkness descends. It had taken me a few summers to adjust to that. Our flight continued to chase this setting sun, not allowing it to touch the horizon. We landed in Iceland at 11pm (midnight in London) with the sun still another 30mins away from setting.

We reached our airport hotel, which was the only hotel that I booked with not much thought going into it except trying to keep the costs low. After all, we just need a place to crash for the night before we pick up our car. Turns out, our "room" was actually a studio cottage on absolutely flat land. Here is a picture. Taken at midnight, you see the daylight. I imagine the daylight persisted through the night so really there wasn't any night at all.

Day 1: KEF airport to Jökulsárlón and retreated towards Kirkjubæjarklaustur for the night (570km of driving)
We found that our first day in Iceland was bound to be rainy, and very rainy for the plans we had. So a little adjustment meant that we had 400+ km or over 5 hours of driving east to Jökulsárlón which would be the furthest point of our trip. This is an iceberg lagoon. We saw the massive glacier hanging over us and the tongue of the glacier collapsing into this lagoon which is filled with varying sizes of icebergs. These icebergs, most of them powder blue in colour and few black with volcanic ash, float around melting fast under the near constant sun.
We jumped on an amphibious boat which took us around the lagoon passing by some impressive icebergs. Our guide got a piece of the iceberg and we tasted fresh mountain water. After the tour, we walked up a little hill for better views.

So impressed we were by this iceberg lagoon that we went in search of a smaller one on our way back from Jökulsárlón, called Fjallsárlón. This is much smaller hence quieter and pleasant to sit by the pond filled with small icebergs. The glacier tongue was also much closer and almost feels like you can walk up to it.

We were all ready to explore a glacier next but  realised that while the daylight stays all night, restaurants shut at some point and glacier tours are anyway closed for the day. We found a nice sit down restaurant for dinner in the village of
Kirkjubæjarklaustur after which we headed to our Airbnb close by. We had a found a cosy little place by the banks of Tungufljot River, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Day 2: From Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Hvolsvöllur (only 200km of driving but we walked 18km)

Our Airbnb host, a Kiwi who moved to the other end of the world for love, was helpful with suggests on glacier hikes. We called Arctic Adventures in the morning and booked a guided hike and then headed out to Sólheimajökull glacier parking lot. There we met the Arctic Adventures guys who sorted us out with a helmet, harness, icepick and crampons, and additionally hiking boots (for me) and waterproof trousers (we only had jackets). Then, we set out around 11.30 with our guide Jeff up on to Sólheimajökull glacier which sits snugly on top of the Katla volcano. This glacier is much smaller than the one that flows into Jökulsárlón. The volcano underneath is also a smallish one, yet it's bigger than the nearby Eyjafjallajökull which when it erupted in August 2010, caused flights to be cancelled across all of Europe, if you remember.

We were pretty much on the glacier within 15mins, but at the bottom. We began climbing it with the help of our crampons that dig into the ice and our guide who helped us navigate the terrain. He called himself a drill master and we followed him to the t, which meant we could see a lot more. Ice is constantly melting, forming little rivulets and flowing down along some ridges. The glacier, because it sits on a volcano, had volcanic ash mixed with ice. As the ice melts away, it leaves black mounds of volcanic ash. So closer to the tongue (at the glacier lagoon), the terrain is otherworldly, with ice and volcanic mounds.

As make our way up to the plateau, we see more ice and less ash. And finally at the plateau, the terrain is also otherworldly, but in a different way: hard ice everywhere with volcanic mounds in the distance and on either sides in the far distance is the glacial gorge where nothing grows (where the glacier used to be some 20 years ago). The ice up here had been crushed under the weight of all the ice that has melted away before it and so it is very densely packed and without any impurities, even air. Hence, it is blue, clear and hard. After hiking up for about 2 hours, we took some pictures and checked out the ice, and the hike back was only some 30mins.

Having done this exciting thing, we were back to regular sightseeing. The closest sight to the glacier is a plane wreck (famously features in the hindi song, Gerua). We went up to the parking lot and were told that it's about 7kms to get to and back from the wreckage. We went anyway. Bad call? May be. It's a good 50min walk on black gravel with a bleak surrounding of black gravel as far as the eyes can see. One may call it otherworldly too although not in the pretty way. On trip advisor, you see people say it's only about 30mins to get to the wreckage while others say it's an hour. We figured that it's possibly because the location of the parking lot may differ from season to season. In any case, we walked all the way to see a tiny plane with people crawling all over it and names scratched into it. It was just about ok but we lost about 2 hours and exhausted ourselves with the walk (after the glacier hike). This was bad because the next stop was Skogafoss, a beautiful waterfall.

Skogafoss is fed by the Eyjafjallajökull. It's really pretty and you can get quite close to where the water crashes into a lake and then the river Skoga continues. Next to the falls, there are about 400 steps to get to the top of the waterfall for wonderful views of the numerous cascades ahead of the falls and the meandering river after the falls. On any given day we wouldn't have thought twice about 400 steps but we really struggled through it, after our 4.5 hours of hiking for the day. I'm glad we did. The views were definitely worth it. Beyond that there are hiking trails that take to the various other cascades the river goes through before the falls. We only walked for about 10mins but it's the start of a 25km hike if you are willing and able.

The final stop was Seljalandfoss. This waterfall, also fed by the glacier on Eyjafjallajökull, is famous for being able to walk behind it. Even with our rain jackets on, we didn't have rain trousers so we didn't venture all the way in but we did get a peak for how it is from behind. Also for some reason the winds were strong, the water spray was wide and I was freezing. There is a pathway in front of the falls to see two smaller falls, although far less impressive. We then made our way to a lovely little farm with horses and sheep, south of the falls for our night stay.

Day 3: From Hvolsvöllur to Leidarendi and then to Laugarás (2/3 of the golden circle)

We started the day off by driving towards the Rekjadalur thermal river while also debating which activity to do next. In the end, exploring lava tunnels won and since we liked the Arctic Adventures, we called them and booked a tour. They only had a pick up tour operating from Rekjavik but were happy for us to join at the location. We reached the parking lot of the Rekjadalur thermal river only to find out that it takes about an hour's hike to get to the river where people bathe in and we didn't have enough time. Nevertheless, all the little streams around us were warm and we also saw a bubbling mud pool on the way. We then turned around and left to find the lava caves.

Driving towards the GPS coordinates of the lava tunnel, we couldn't see anything anywhere as far as the eye can see, except lava fields. Lava fields are large expanses of land where the lava flowed and now we have rocks the look like bubbles, completely covered in moss. Some of the moss is many inches thick and hence these "rocks" are very soft. They reminded me of Kristoff's troll family in Frozen. Finally, after 11km on a gravel road, near the coordinates, we saw a small flattened area and one car alongside a tiny board that said "Leidarendi". If not for that car, we might have be searching for a while. We had about half hour for some sandwiches before the tour arrived.

We were a small group and our guide had some British humour to him. He got us helmets with tiny flashlights on them, and I also rented hiking boots. He took us to the entrance of the caves which seemed like a pit that had caved in. We navigated large rocks and jumped into the tunnel. I had been to caves before. They usually contain some lighting, smell musty, some have stalactites and stalagmites, and possibly have bats. This was completely different. For starters, it's pitch dark; as in as dark as it can get. It takes some time for the eyes to adjust and when ten tiny flashlights and our guides' handheld beam look into the same direction, we see a lot more. But then you turn around to see where you are coming from and it's nothingness.

The sun has never touched these places. The only thing that grows here is a type of bacteria that gives a silver glow to the rocks (when the flash falls on them). The surface can be uneven but most of the way it's actually pretty flat, where the lava flowed. These tunnels or tubes are formed when as the lava cooled from the surface and solidified as rock while the lava underneath flowed out. Some of the rocks have beautiful colours due to trapped minerals. Mostly it's all greyish basalt but occasionally you see reddish hues from iron, some blues and some greens. 

The most fascinating are the seemingly silver coloured stalactites or stalagmites. Actually, they are just basalt rock that melted and squeezed out of the ceiling or the floor as the lava cooled and expanded into place. The rock also solidified after. So they are actually rock. Everything in the cave was formed in a very short period of time about 2000 years ago and nothing has changed ever since, except for the silver bacteria. The ceiling is fascinating. It looks like it's melting, especially because it was raining for the past few days, so we see the rain water seeping in and dripping. But basically the ceiling is frozen rock that was melting. And it is now the bacteria gives it a beautiful shine. This indeed is truly otherworldly in the truest sense of the word, and as our guide pointed out, looks very much like the egg laying alien in the movie Alien.

The lava tubes are about 900 metres long and are longish with a circular loop at the bottom. We entered through one side of the circle, went up the tube and came back the other side of the circle to exit at the same point. You would think that it should all look the same but all the sections show different aspects. The other side of the circular area, for example, saw some lava flow in few other eruptions in the 1950s. The new lava smoothed out the walls which almost look manmade now, like a proper tunnel. To get into the various sections, you sometimes need to get on all fours and through some tight spaces but only for very short lengths. I've never used a helmet as much, bumping my head to the ceiling many times. We probably spent an hour and a half in total in the lava tubes. Our subterranean adventure would be my highlight of the trip!

After the tour we are back on the tourist circuit to do part of the famous Golden Circle. First, as a starter, we had a pitstop at Kerid to see a smallish volcanic crater that was most likely formed by a collapse rather than an explosion. The water is blueish green but towards the bank you can see yellow and red hues. The inverted cone itself is reddish sand with the green grass in places. The crater is a nice oval shape and looks pretty but I can image it looks really interesting if the sun shines strong and the colours are evident (it was cloudy when we went). Interestingly, on the lee side of the crater, I saw a large grove of trees which would be the most trees I ever saw in Iceland. We walked the rim in some 15mins.

Next, we went to Geysir. It is a geothermal area in Iceland where the biggest geyser is called Geysir and it lends its name to all geysers in the world. However, it's currently inactive. The entire area is just fuming everywhere. Even before entering the park, the little stream on the side was at least 50 deg Celsius. As we were walking in park, the star attraction, a small geyser caused Strokkur that erupts every 5-10mins, erupted. It was a tiny eruption. We were a little underwhelmed but as we continued on our path we saw a really high eruption. Eventually we ended at Strokkur, watching four more before leaving. It was more fun watching the surface to predict when it would erupt. You can spend 20mins here or hours, just watching Strokkur. No pics unfortunately; I only have videos. Here is a picture of Geysir.

Our final stop for the day was Gullfoss or golden falls. It's enormous, pushing out many gallons of water, first in a step and then off an oblique cliff which makes the falls look like a triangle, and then it flows as river Hvita in the gorge. Many say it compares to the Niagara falls. This is really pretty but also not much to do. I believe there are some hikes which take you to different view points but can't be better than the two that you can reach easily. We sat down for dinner soon after and then reached the lovely house of our Airbnb guest which overlooks a river, where we had some homemade bread and fresh tomato jam or breakfast.

Day 4: From Laugarás to the airport, via Þingvellir National park (1/3 of the golden circle)

With our flight in the afternoon, we only had time for one place after breakfast. We thought we should complete the golden circle and headed to Þingvellir National park. This is usually the first stop on the golden circle if you start from Rekjavik. It's a really large park and you can spend hours hiking it. We obviously did not have the time so we picked the highlights.

Þingvellir is most famous for being part of the mid Atlantic fault line between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate. The continental drift can be observed here with many fissures and rifts. The Almannagja fault is more than 7km long and the rift valley could 60m wide. The only other place in the world where you can see continents drifting and walk between them is the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa.

If you, like us, wondered why there are so many flights to North America than to Europe from Iceland, you know now. Iceland is half North American! And so we walked between the two continents. We walked for about 15min from Hakid visitor centre to Silfra. Silfra is a lake of crystal clear water with the fissure in it. The rain water seeps through the volcanic rock for about 2-4 months before it reaches the lake and hence is devoid of any impurities. The clarity of this water lends itself to a wonderful snorkelling and diving experience to observe the fissure between the two continents. There wasn't much for us to see from the surface though.

Back on the track along the North American fissure wall, we come to Lögberg or Law Rock which is the place where Icelandic parliament first met in 930 AD, making it the oldest parliament in the world. However, because the rift is drifting, the exact position is unknown. Continuing along the fissure, we come to Oxararfoss where the river Oxarar falls off the fissure wall creating a waterfall. The wall itself is pretty imposing. 

And soon enough, we had to head back to car and to the airport, bidding adieu to mesmerising Iceland! On the flight I met this lady who works on whale watching tours who tells me winter is equally mesmerising. There is still so much to do, although we are very proud of ourselves having driven 1200km on our first driving trip by ourselves!

Other itinerary suggestions which we didn't do:
There is indeed a lot more to do in Iceland. You can encircle the island if you have a week or more, and the North East has a lot to offer. Even in the South West, we haven't covered a lot many activities. There are many thermal lagoons. The most popular ones are the Blue Lagoon which is right next to Rekjavik (it's really a spa resort) and the Secret Lagoon near Gullfoss on the golden circle.Horse riding on Icelandic horses is also very popular. They are meant to be very very docile but sturdy. Whale watching from Rekjavik or the North East (near Dalvik/Hossuvik) is specially popular in summer. The lady on my flight back who worked in both places and told me that the whale watching opportunities in North East in the summer are excellent compared to Rekjavik at any time. Puffins watching tours are also on offer from Rekjavik or Vik. Some companies offer snowmobile tours where they you on a glacier and give you a snowmobile to drive around. There are some manmade ice caves which are nice to see as the ice which is very hard, clear and densely packed, and hence allows you to see through it for a considerable distance. And of course there are volcano tours.