An adventure frozen in thrilling memories
Not many people feel the need to cut short their shoulder-length hair before going on holiday, but then again, not everyone thinks of the Arctic as a perfect getaway destination.
Zhang Li, 41, minister of publicity in the Minhang town of Zhuangqiao, said she cut her hair to save water when shampooing aboard the Arctic cruise ship that took her on the adventure of her life.
“The journey to the Arctic was a lastminute decision,” she said. “I had to hurry out the night before I left to buy some waterproof trousers.”
Her family nickname – Ballsy Zhang – may go some way to explaining why she chose to visit the Arctic.
“I’m the adventurous type, while my husband prefers to stay in the safe zone,” she said. “That’s partly the reason I picked the trip to the Arctic. It had the vibes of adventure and exploration.”
In her mind’s eye before the trip, the Arctic was nothing more than flat whiteness out to the horizon. She said she really had no idea what else to expect.
“I knew nothing about the landscape or the natural environment of the Arctic,” Zhang said. “And the moment our ship stopped at Scoresby Sound, a large fjord system in the Greenland Sea, I realized how wrong I had been about what the Arctic is.”
Every day of the 11-day trip brought new surprises, from frozen waterfalls to aqua blue glaciers. She saw mud geysers in a yellow-sulphured landscape and red sandstone dating back 300 million years, when the Greenland Continental Plate was located about where the Sahara sits today.
She woke up to see floating icebergs from the deck and sweated through day treks on snow fields. Lectures on the Arctic were held by the ship’s crew every night.
“We were warned not to bring any alien species to the land and to take nothing out of the Arctic either,” she said.
The cruise, led by ship Captain Jan Belgens and his staff, included 26 Chinese who were setting foot in the Arctic for the first time. Zhang said her most striking memory was the Iceberg Tomb at latitude 41° 18.
“They are icebergs melted and detached from the second-biggest glacier in Greenland, which got stuck on land,” she said. “Some were smooth and round, like the shape of the Shanghai Indoor Stadium. I was struck by their enormous size. Photos can hardly capture what they looked like and how I felt viewing them.”
What would the Arctic be without polar bears? Zhang said the first one she saw from the ship was resting on a distant ice floe.
“The second time was more brutal,” Zhang recalled. “There were rumors about a polar bear wandering in the village a month before we arrived. Villagers shot the bear. Since it is an endangered species, they burned the carcass to avoid anyone selling its fur or organs illegally.”
Zhang spent at least three hours out on snowfields in day trips.
“The snow was knee-high,” she said. “Captain Belgens led our team, and we all walked along the narrow path he created by dragging his feet.”
On the seventh day, the cruise docked at an Inuit village called Ittoqqortoormiit Fjord, one of the most remote settlements in Greenland.
“Sled dogs outnumbered villagers,” said Zhang. “They wagged their tails like mad when we approached.”
Belgens told the tour that some 1,000 travelers visit the village of 300-400 residents every year.
Zhang’s group was the last to visit before the onset of winter, when the weather prevents all access to the village.
The sea in the area is frozen for half a year.
“Villagers stock up on essentials that are stored in large containers outside each house,” Zhang said. “Their lives depend on imports, so they stock up for the long winter.”
During their stay, however, the Arctic was mostly bathed in bright sunshine.
“I realized that beauty shouldn’t be taken for granted,” she said. “We have to give and get well as. We were lucky to see polar bears and enjoy the weather, maybe because we obeyed the rules. We respected nature, so nature rewarded us.”
However the weather changed suddenly before their departure.
“I couldn’t read the weather satellite images, but I could tell from long faces of the crew that something wasn’t good,” Zhang said.
In the end, the ship had to head back a day earlier than planned to avoid getting caught up in a storm in dangerous waterways. It was a rough escape.
“I lay in bed for 40 hours and couldn’t tell if it was day or night,” Zhang said. “I worried that a powerful wave would come and knock me out of bed, so I didn’t sleep well.”
The crew handed out 100 seasick bags and only a few empty ones were returned.
“There was no WiFi or phone signal at sea,” Zhang said. “That gave me time to reflect on the relationship between man and nature, and how to keep it balanced. That’s the biggest gift I took away from the trip.”