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December 26, 2009

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Savoring the Northern Lights and sipping reindeer stew

Arctic Adventure From the Arctic Circle and blazing Northern Lights to the relaxed and milder southwest coast, Norway beckons travelers with its splendid scenery, engaging people and contrasts. Yang Jian goes with the floe.

The shimmering Northern Lights first appeared east of the Plough (Big Bear) in the dark sky around midnight as our boat sailed north half an hour from Tromso, the Norwegian city above the Arctic Circle.

We were 70 degrees latitude, 350 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle and around 2,000 kilometers from the North Pole.

The light show began as a white cloud bank with a suffused glow from within; then it brightened and began to swirl around an axis. Slowly it extended to the east like a ball of vapor. In 20 minutes it brightened and got longer. Green lights began twinkling in the lower layer, as if a green flashlight light were illuminating the white mist.

The further north our boat sailed, the brighter and clearer the lights became. It took the shape of a white phoenix, its beak to the east, its tail trailing to the west. The green light kept pulsing in the phoenix's "wing," making it seem alive.

The shape kept changing, mostly looking like a white silk ribbon rippling in the wind. After this mesmerizing performance, it gradually grew faint and seemed to be dispersed by the wind.

Our Norwegian guide told us the Northern Lights are also called the aurora borealis, from the name of the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek word for wind, borealis.

The Northern Lights are like a beautiful and mysterious woman: no one knows when she will appear or disappear, said Rasmus Rimestad, a young German fellow from Tromso.

We waved our hands toward the light as Rimestad told us the Northern Lights move close to anyone who waves to her (the goddess). If the light moves too close she could also swallow us, he warned, but were unafraid.

"Being swallowed by the goddess doesn't sound terrible," said a member of our group of Chinese journalists. But she seemed to lose interest in us.

The next day, we again saw the Northern Lights in the mountains on the outskirts of Tromso. We spent the night in a camp of wood huts and tents with five Sami people, the indigenous people of northern Europe, especially northern Scandinavia (also Russia's Kola Peninsula).

The camp in a small flat area was surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The temperature was around minus 10 degrees Celsius and a fierce wind kept flapping the canvas tents. We borrowed thick leather boots and garments and wrapped ourselves like bears.

Apart from the freezing temperature, it was an ideal spot to watch the Northern Lights, as there were no urban lights to interfere with nature's light show, just a bonfire.

Again the lights appeared around midnight. Long strands of bright white "smoke" rose from the mountains and created a fluttering curtain or parallel vertical rays, resembling a huge comb.

Our camp glowed orange because of campfires. The mountains towered above with snowy peaks. Stars spangled the night sky like diamonds on black velvet. The aurora borealis began to glow green -- all creating an ethereal sanctified scene.

We watched in awe. The reindeer raised by the Sami people shook their heads from time to time, ringing their collar bells in the silent air.

A meteor with a bright tail briefly flew through the sky. We cheered, some of us clapped our hands and made wishes.

Though the lights continued to shimmer, we finally succumbed to the cold and returned to camp.

There we warmed up around a fire with a bowl of traditional Sami food, hot reindeer stew with potatoes and carrots. It tasted like mutton.

Roar Nyhaim, one of the Sami people, told us the auroras are the result of collisions of solar wind particles and the Earth's upper atmosphere. In Norway, it appears in winter, especially during the polar night in December.

Nyhaim is among the few Sami people who retains the traditions and makes a living by raising reindeer. He and his family lead a herd of hundred south in the winter and back north in the summer.

They sell some of the reindeer, each fetching around 3,000 Norwegian kroner (US$517) for meat hide and horns. They butcher some food on their months-long journey.

"The deer are pets, friends, food and money to us," Nyhaim said. He introduced us to his two favorites, a white and a black reindeer.

He also teaches Sami traditions and language in college. He has a house in an urban area but prefers the ancient way of life in the mountains.

"I like the quiet environment in the mountains and life close to nature," he said.

The freezing night was unforgettable. Six people slept in a single wood hut, each with a small coal stove in the center.

We wrapped ourselves in sleeping bags made by reindeer leather, but the wind penetrated the cracks in wood hut and then seemed to work its way into our sleeping bags. Some of us managed to sleep for three hours but others kept turning all night.

The next morning I found my bottle of water was frozen next to my pillow.

In our pursuit of the Northern Lights, most of us caught bad colds, but no one regretted the experience of meeting the goddess.

Snow had fallen overnight and the next morning it was up to our ankles. Vehicles couldn't reach us so we had to trudge along to a cleared road. Slogging through the snow was both thrilling but scary -- many of us had never seen heavy snow.

We arrived in Tromso a few days before the two-month-long polar night descended and the sun disappeared. But locals still live by the clock, go to work during the "day," play, go home, go to bed at "night."

Tromso only has around 60,000 residents but it's lively. Its bars, cafes and pubs have room for 30,000 people to relax in the long darkness, said our German friend Rimestad.

Tromso is the economic and financial center in this part of the Arctic Circle and is known as the "Paris of the North" because of its bars and nightlife.

Most Norwegians are fluent in English because it's taught in schools and TV stations broadcast many American series and movies.

Quiet town

Stavanger on the southwest coast is far more comfortable, warmer (it was 10 degrees Celsius) and sunnier than Tromso. It's commonly called the "Petroleum Capital of Norway" because of all the off-shore oil drilling in the North Sea.

But it seems like a quiet fishing town on a beautiful peninsula.

The city is built on a hillside. The residential areas are on higher levels, while most of the businesses and shopping are at sea level. Many people ride bicycles or walk from home or work for exercise.

Life is quite relaxed. Nobody seems in a hurry, even in the Statoil, the world's biggest offshore oil and gas company.

The headquarters looks like a creative park with many unusual pieces of sculpture and numerous nearby bars and cafes.

The city is Norway's third largest, with 300,000 residents, but it seems sparsely populated. Many are easygoing and readily agreed to do interviews and pose for photos.

There are few traffic lights, and many roads have only two lanes. We never saw a traffic jam. Drivers stop for pedestrians and give them the right of way.

The charming old town is known for its 18th and 19th century wooden structures, many fine museums and galleries in a setting of beautiful lakes.

Street violinists wander about on old cobble-stone streets, and so do the pigeons.

It takes about 10 hours to fly from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the Netherlands and another two hours to Oslo, capital of Norway.


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