A Travellerspoint blog

April 2012

Winter training

Heading home for Christmas on the Trans-Siberian railway

snow -5 °C

I am not a hot weather person. These past ten months of traipsing around Southeast Asia have wrung litres of sweat out of me. My T-shirts are now faded through overwashing, my hiking boots in need of regular blasts of deodorant. My delicate Anglo-Saxon skin has been punished by the strength of the sun. I can't complain about the quality of my non-climate-related experiences in the region, but as the trip comes to an end I'm eagerly awaiting some temperatures below 0 °C rather than above 30 °C.

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Beijing in early November is certainly a step in the right direction, and my every breath is a plume of condensation in the chill. I love that almost painful feeling as cold air finds every corner of my lungs - it seems so clean and pure, even here in this murky, polluted city. I walk everywhere, my activity generating just enough warmth to stay comfortable. There's none of the wallowing in your own perspiration that accompanies even a short stroll in a Cambodian summer. My tan might already be starting to fade, but otherwise I'm revelling in these freezing conditions.

I'm due back in England for Christmas and have opted to return to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Any journey of this distance screams to be broken up along the way, to experience the landscape at first hand rather than merely through a grimy window, so I'll be stopping frequently, first at Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

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It's a chilly afternoon when I depart Beijing but you wouldn't know it inside the train. I could happily wear a T-shirt and shorts, if I hadn't stuffed such clothing inconveniently at the bottom of my rucksack in expectation of not needing it. There's an unheated section at the end of the carriage, in which I find hanging a bag of sausages. The blanket that comes with my bunk remains unused as we rumble northward through the evening and night.

The following morning brings a first sighting of Mongolia - flat terrain stretching to the horizon. The presence of humans is suggested by the odd yurt here and there. An eagle watches our passing from the vantage point of an old telegraph pole. The countryside barely changes right up until Ulan Bator.

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It doesn't take long outside for me to accept the claim that this is the coldest capital city in the world. A refreshing -10 °C during the day becomes a bitter -26 °C at night, and this with the real winter still over a month away. I've been through New York winters where blocks of ice were bobbing in the Hudson river but this is much colder though with not a flake of snow in sight. I stock up on knock-off North Face gear, but even two sets of gloves and two pairs of socks can't keep my hands and feet from slowly going numb.

My nose reacts to the cold by running almost constantly, a situation that leaves it red, cracked, and bleeding from all the blowing. Whenever I eat out, I generate heaps of used tissues that don't make me any friends.

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Just before I leave the capital, I see the first snowfall of the season, though it feels long overdue in these low temperatures. At Gandan monastery, monks dressed in orange and purple trudge through the snow to morning prayers. They are watched by thousands of pigeons huddled together in the trees, feathers puffed.

There's only one other passenger in my compartment as the train departs Ulan Bator - a Russian professor. She thrusts cheese slices on me but declines my offer of chocolate biscuits, saying that only children eat such things. I don't get to hear her thoughts on my stash of instant noodles. My last image of Mongolia is of a group of soldiers standing in the snow, smartly saluting the train as we leave the border.

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The following morning we skirt Lake Baikal, its dark surface extending to the horizon. Fierce breakers are rolling in to hit the lake shore. With a snow covering up to the water's edge and trees standing leafless and spindly under a glum sky, the occasional pockets of wooden houses look uninviting from the warmth of the train.

Once the Russian professor has disembarked, I'm adopted by a Kazakh couple from the next compartment. They give me some chunks of what is described appetisingly on the packet as "horse flesh". We share no language, but a combination of gesturing and leaps of logic leads me to conclude that they are offering me $10,000 to drive a Land Rover from the UK to Kazakhstan (where apparently they're prohibitively expensive). The husband also indicates that his country is well worth a visit, being full of jaw-dropping scenery and curvaceous women constantly on the lookout for sexual favours - his gestures to convey the latter are unambiguous.

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My arrival in Irkutsk immediately tells me that I've crossed a significant ethnic boundary. Though there are still Asian faces, the blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp features of a large proportion of the population speak of Europe. Fur clothing is everywhere.

Irkutsk itself is a promising introduction to Russian cities. The combination of Western European stone architecture and Siberian wooden buildings, offset by some drab Soviet-era blocks, is a pleasing one. With snow falling silently through the glow of the streetlights and gently dusting fur-clad heads and shoulders, the scene is exactly how I'd imagined a Siberian city in winter.

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The next morning, I leave the hostel with my hair still damp from the shower and it soon freezes up. This confirms what my steaming breath has already indicated - that Irkutsk may well be warmer than Ulan Bator but it's still sub-zero. Like on the train, indoor temperatures here are kept bizarrely high. There's a difference of about five layers of clothing between being inside or outside.

Gritting/salting/sanding seem to be unpopular, meaning negotiating the pavements and roads requires caution. I shuffle about as though I am infirm, jealous at how experience has enabled the locals to strut around with poise.

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I'm also surprised by just how little the birdlife seems to care about humans. Blue tits and great tits, which are among the most skittish of the visitors to an English garden, won't budge until you're about to tread on them. I'm not sure if the need to find food in this freezing climate overrides any fear of predators, or if people here feed the birds so much that they've become tame, but their confidence is Hitchcockian.

The local cats are as wary as any I've met in Asia but here they have evolved perfectly for the conditions, with shaggy coats and enough bulk to make a peckish Siberian tiger think twice.

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Heading west to Krasnoyarsk, it is clear we are entering a region that has experienced a fresh snowfall. The wooden houses are thatched in pristine white and the trees' branches, outlined and thickened by the snow, glisten pink in the dawn light. Even the spoiling effect of a dirty window can not conceal the beauty of the countryside.

Krasnoyarsk is nobody's idea of a tourist destination, with major local industries producing aluminium, refrigerators, and tyres, but the snow has blanketed some of its ugliness. The city council is even less of a fan of gritting than their counterparts in Irkutsk so I again slide my way around. Ironically, my hotel room's shower produces only scalding hot water, so I have to wash in the sink.

The city is not entirely charmless, with its churches being bursts of colour rising from the white ground. I visit a museum whose souvenir shop can only be catering to the export market, as their thermometers don't go below 0 °C - Krasnoyarsk often hits -40 °C in winter.

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My compartment-mates to Yekaterinburg are a young couple bound for Azerbaijan. They speak no English, though the husband is able to sing along to "Happy Birthday to you" when it comes on over the carriage radio. We pass the halfway point to Moscow and, somewhat later, leave Siberia entirely.

Magical in the grip of winter, the landscape holds my attention. As we trundle across a bridge straddling the Irtysh river at Omsk, I can see that the water is frozen. The railway runs past coniferous forests that bring Christmas back into my mind. I haven't been home for nearly a year, but it's impossible to share that mounting excitement with people who don't understand a word that comes out of my mouth.

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I generally try to avoid arriving in unfamiliar cities late at night, but the train schedule has forced this on me and the streets of Yekaterinburg are devoid of life as I trudge along them. With the temperature at -7 °C, a park bench is not a viable sleeping option so I'm dismayed when the cheapest room I can find is well over a hundred dollars.

Apart from my hotel bill, the most affecting thing I see in Yekaterinburg is the Afghanistan War Memorial, a sculpture showing a downward-looking soldier with a weary posture. The effect is one of resignation rather than pride, the snow covering adding an extra hint of the discomforts of war.

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The final leg of my Trans-Siberian journey is spent in the company of a dour older couple, whose frosty demeanour lasts for the best part of 1,700 kilometres. Approaching Moscow, we pass through suburbs of dachas, the country retreats that Muscovites use for summer escapes from the city. Though many are painted in bright blues and greens, those vivid colours are muted by the brilliance of the snow.

On my first night in Moscow, the temperature rises ten degrees, causing the snow to melt on the ground (good for walking) but also loosening whatever has been on the rooftops (bad for walking, as chunks of snow and ice plummet down without warning).

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Red Square acquired its name from the Russian word for "beautiful", that morphed over time into "red" due to the colour being an approximation of beauty in the long cold winter, however it's hard to find beauty in the grey and unfriendly sky. In these conditions, even St Basil's Cathedral appears leached of its garishness.

With Christmas so close, there are lights and decorations on the streets and within all the shops, stoking my own anticipation of the celebration to come. I was in Australia last year at about the same time, and was thoroughly disorientated by the southern hemisphere weather in December. For me, one important aspect of Christmas is that it comes at a bleak period, when being inside with vast amounts of food, a heap of presents, and friends and family provides a contrast with the wind and chill of the outdoors. Barbecues on the beach just don't have the same atmosphere.

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I visit St Petersburg and find the river Neva frozen over bar a central clear channel. Great slabs of ice are crushed up against the banks and there's a gusting wind eager to make its presence felt. A masochistic bride and groom struggle to keep their hair and clothing under control as they pose, goose-pimpled, against the backdrop of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

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It's something of a disappointment to then be back in England, where winter is defined by it simply being colder, duller, and rainier than the rest of the year. I can't imagine stumbling across Santa Claus' house here. But whatever the English winter's deficiencies, it's great to be home for Christmas. And I have memories of a proper winter elsewhere - the one I have seen from the Trans-Siberian's path across two continents.

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Posted by mohn 09:57 Archived in Russia Tagged winter railway europe russia trans-siberian mongolia Comments (0)

Adventure is just bad planning

Or, how not to see the Northern Lights

snow -2 °C

Norway might only have a population of about 5 million people, but it is a long and thin country. My flight from Oslo to Tromso covers a distance of well over 1,000km and the landscape becomes increasingly bleak and snowy as we drone on north. As I disembark from the plane, this marks the first time that I have ever set foot within the Arctic Circle. Unlike many other parts of the world at these latitudes, such as Alaska, it's relatively warm courtesy of the effects of the Gulf Stream but we're at the tail end of winter and there is still snow and ice everywhere.

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Even the main streets and pavements of Tromso are still partially frozen over, and away from the well-trodden routes the place is a skating rink. I have a flaky sense of balance at the best of times and I'm soon creeping around like an old man in order to minimise my chances of taking a tumble. Of course the locals are striding around in all kinds of footwear with no issues at all. When I do raise my head from staring at the ground, I can see that the town is in a beautiful setting, clustered beside the serene fjord and with snow-covered mountains along the horizon.

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It takes me a couple of days before I overcome my pride and dig out the overgrips that I bought in the UK precisely for these conditions, and I almost weep with the joy of finally being surefooted.

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Tromso is a tourist destination predominantly because of the Northern Lights. Its location within the aurora zone, its mild climate (by Arctic Circle standards), and its easy access by plane have combined to produce an aurora industry unmatched by anywhere else in the world. And that's why I'm here. With 2012 supposedly marking one of the 11-year peaks in the solar activity that creates the Northern Lights, and with March being one of the supposedly best months for viewing the aurora, I've come at a time that appears to maximise my chances of seeing something magical in the sky.

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The town is next most famous for its nightlife, which is surprising in that the enjoyment of its bars isn't really compatible with seeing the Northern Lights, as they both tend to be best at the same times of the day. I'm getting too old to be hitting bars on my own now but I'm on holiday, and the couple of occasions I do decide I fancy blowing £8 on a small beer, I find some good music and a clientele roughly half my age.

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It's not just the alcohol that's expensive in Norway. Eating out at even a modest establishment, such as a pizza chain, will set you back twice what you'd pay in the UK, more so when you factor in the drinks. My lunch generally consists of a heated-up panini from a corner store, which is still well over a fiver. Looking at vegetable prices in a supermarket, I see carrots at about £5.60 per kg (i.e. about 8 times the cost in the UK). However the hotels that I stay in both here and in Oslo are competitively priced compared with London, and the standard is higher.

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Tromso is by far the largest Norwegian town within the Arctic Circle, despite a population of only 70,000. It somehow became known as "The Paris of the North" during the 19th century, though the only vaguely credible explanation I can find for that is that travellers from further south bestowed the nickname when they found to their surprise that its inhabitants weren't all savages. A more representative comparison can perhaps be seen in the fact that Tromso is twinned with Grimsby.

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Its daytime charms are fairly discreet and it doesn't take me long to experience its main tourist attractions. Of most interest to me are the Amundsen connections. Though he is most renowned for his South Pole exploits, he led the first successful expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage (in the Gjoa), ditto for the Northeast Passage (in the Maud), and he was on the first overflight of the North Pole (in the airship Norge), so he was actually more active in the Arctic Circle than at the other end of the world. Tromso also marks the place where he was last seen alive - he left in a seaplane as part of an attempted rescue mission for an Italian explorer but is assumed to have crashed en route. Most of the wreckage, and all of the bodies, have never been found.

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The Polar Museum contains some informative displays about Amundsen and his compatriot and mentor Nansen, as well as a history of attempts to reach the North Pole by air. However most of the exhibits relate to trapping in northern Norway and Greenland. Whales, seals, reindeer, foxes, walruses, and musk ox have all had the misfortune to be hunted at one time or another, for reasons ranging from economic gain to simple sport. In these anti-fur days, it's strange to see how polar bear trappers such as Henry Rudi - who killed more than 700 of the beasts in the first half of the 20th century - were treated like celebrities. Animal rights aside, it's not like he was wrestling them - he was shooting them with a gun, so hardly a fair fight.

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The Polaria building has a unique design, representing ice floes pressed up against land. Polaria itself is devoted to exhibits related to the Arctic environment including the region's flora and fauna. I watch an excellent short film about Svalbard, a group of islands about half-way between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, which shows some amazing but bleak scenery. The Polaria aquarium contains some underwater tunnels, through which you can wander as bearded seals swim effortlessly around you.

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Possessing a similarly singular architecture is the Arctic Ocean Cathedral, built to resemble the mountains surrounding Tromso. Its enormous stained-glass window apparently lets in the midnight sun during the summer period when there is no night. Reaching the cathedral requires crossing a bridge that is exposed to a bitterly cold gale blowing along the fjord.

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With Tromso being such a magnet for aurora hunters, I'm actually surprised at how untouristy the place is. I see only a few souvenir stores, though I do wonder who on earth would want a troll figure as a memento of their visit. On Saturday night I eat at a cafe that I've seen praised on several travel forums but it's almost empty. And on Sunday evening it's virtually impossible to find an open restaurant. The fire evacuation instructions on the back of my hotel room's door are in enough languages to imply that guests come from all over Europe, though the flag used to represent the English version is some strange hybrid of those of Australia and New Zealand.

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But however untouristy Tromso might seem, there are still at least half a dozen companies going out every single night in search of the aurora. Because of coastal cloud and light pollution, you're best off getting out of Tromso in order to have a chance of good sightings. It's possible to hire a vehicle but, for a solo traveller unused to driving on such wintry roads, the cost isn't much different to going on a tour and the convenience factor of a tour is much higher. Though the most famous guides (e.g. Kjetil "Joanna Lumley" Skogli) are booked up weeks in advance, there are enough available seats overall that you should be able to get on a tour by booking on the morning of the day you want to go out.

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I'm not a fan of organised tours, and I've seen enough good photos of the aurora taken from inside Tromso that I decide to allocate 2 of my 5 nights to tours, with the remaining 3 nights left to my own devices. The day I arrive has the best aurora forecast for 5 years and I've even been texted by friends from the UK asking if I'm aware of this fact, so it's not a tough decision to sign up for a tour in such auspicious circumstances. Having lugged my DSLR and tripod from the UK, I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon acquainting myself with the delights of mirror lock-up and long exposure noise reduction.

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It's cloudy and cold as the 16 tourists in my group huddle and stamp their feet at the pick-up point. The minibus arrives, we all pile in, and the guide heads out of town. She says that the cloud is expected to break up in a couple of hours but she takes us to several places on the off-chance that we may get some clear skies earlier. There's a strong, gusting, keen wind that makes standing around outside quite unpleasant. And, unlike in most of the tour reviews I'd read, the engine is switched off whenever we stop so there is nowhere warm to retreat to if staring at unbroken cloud loses its appeal.

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Time passes but the cloud does not. It's exciting to think that this grey sky could somehow clear and erupt into the wavy green motions that I've seen in videos of the Northern Lights, but at the same time it also seems rather incredible that such a transformation could take place. Eventually the clouds start to tatter and we have sightings of stars and a resplendent nearly-full moon. But there's not even a sniff of the aurora.

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Several hours later, it's time to head back to Tromso. We've seen absolutely nothing and I haven't even taken my camera out of its bag, let alone set it up and used it. I'm also very cold and regretting not wearing my thermal leggings. Obviously, with nature there are no guarantees, but there's still a palpable sense of disappointment in the group, generated by a combination of the promising aurora forecast and the entitlement accrued from spending £80 per person. I get back to my hotel just after 2AM, irrationally disheartened. But the next day I speak to several people who had been on different tours the previous night, and I'm selfishly happy to hear that they too didn't see anything.

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I go my own way the second night, and decide to walk up to the cemetery behind Tromso in the hope of catching a display above the buildings and the fjord - a view I've seen in some of the best Northern Lights photos from the town. It's a steepish uphill walk, enlivened by the icy surface that constantly threatens to send me sliding back down. I'm wearing the maximal number of layers that I have brought from England - 6 on top, 2 on my legs - and the effort soon has me sweating. I would be less worried about falling if I wasn't also carrying some fairly expensive camera equipment.

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I reach a fork in the road and am confused by which direction I need to go in. But then I look skyward and, scattered among the few ragged clouds, I see faint movements. It's not blinding, it's not a deep translucent colour, and it isn't forming any of the otherworldly shapes I've seen in other people's photos, but it is most definitely green and it is most definitely the aurora. I enjoy it for a couple of minutes, breathing heavily through an open-mouthed smile, then hasten in search of the cemetery to set up my camera.

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Unfortunately the cloud is already moving in as I wend my way between the gravestones and by the time I've found a suitable spot and set up my tripod, the aurora has gone, barely 10 minutes after I first saw it. I know that patience is a virtue when it comes to the Northern Lights, so I remain in the cemetery until after midnight. There are a few further breaks in the cloud but nothing behind them, and the evening shows me little else but an overcast sky and the occasional snow flurry. I'm glad of my multiple layers of clothing, though the wind through the cemetery is blessedly minimal. On the way back to the hotel, I drop £9 on a cheeseburger from a kebab stall run by a Moroccan guy.

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The next night I decide to go back to the same place but a little earlier, however a steady snowfall sets in from mid-afternoon and it's soon clear that there'll be no chance of seeing the aurora from within Tromso. I take this opportunity to try a selection of beers from the local Mack brewery.

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The following day is even worse, with the snow starting around lunchtime. I ask the hotel reception guy about the forecast for the evening and he looks at some weather app on his phone with pursed lips. After a few minutes, he shakes his head then looks up and suggests that tomorrow would probably be better. This means that I will be pinning all my hopes of a mind-blowing display on my last night in Tromso.

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My last night will be my second tour, and the forecast for both the Northern Lights and the weather isn't good. However it had been even worse the previous night yet people had seen good displays, so I'm still hopeful, as is the guide. Though the same price, this is a much better-run tour than the first one. We get chocolate cake rather than carrot cake, the guide shows an informative slideshow about the aurora, and the minibus engine is left running constantly when we are parked, meaning that there is always somewhere to go to warm up.

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I speak to several of the other customers and am somewhat dismayed to find that they all saw the Northern Lights on one or more of the nights when I didn't go out on a tour. It's at this moment that I start to get a nasty suspicion that I've really screwed up my aurora-hunting. I should have gone on a tour every single night until such time as I saw the aurora. It was stupid to come all this way to Tromso and then not maximise my chances of seeing good displays. Sure, it is possible to see the aurora within Tromso but it's seen more often away from the town. And even though in my research I came across hardly any instances of people going on more than 2 tours in order to have success, it's careless for me to be on my last night in Norway still nervously crossing my fingers for some Northern Lights luck.

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This point is rammed home when we see little on this tour either, though I do capture the only aurora shots that I am to get on this trip. With the naked eye, I would never have even thought of pointing my camera in the direction that the guide is indicating as it looks simply like faint cloud. But I dutifully do as he says and, with a 30 second exposure, I finally see bright green. That's it, though, as this particular tour has a deadline of midnight to be back in Tromso, and of course we get this sighting sufficiently late on that we only get 10 minutes to observe it before we have to pack up and head for home.

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The one big positive about this experience is that my anticipation of seeing a good showing of the aurora has now been heightened significantly, and I'm already thinking about where and when to make another attempt. But I didn't really accomplish what I came here to do, and it's more than just the usual post-holiday blues that I'm feeling when I step onto the plane for the journey back to London.

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[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]

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[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]

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Posted by mohn 13:23 Archived in Norway Tagged europe norway tromso Comments (0)

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