August 15, 2020: The Strangest Little Town I’ve Ever Seen
The internal Greenland flight from Ilulissat was easy. I checked in 1 hour before the flight. There was no security so I hung out in the check-in area. Plane ended up leaving 30 minutes early because all the passengers had arrived and the pilots were ready to go.
Kangerlussuaq is a unique place. It was built as an American air base during World War II to help transport supplies across the Atlantic. Today it serves as the main international airport in Greenland for two very important reasons. 1. It has the only runway large enough to handle large plane coming from Copenhagen. 2. Because it is inland in the arctic desert, it has consistently sunny weather. In fact it has the second fewest weather delays/cancellations of any international airport on earth (first is my home Los Angeles International Airport).
Today 540 people live in Kangerlussuaq. 70% of those people works for the airport or Air Greenland. That leaves 30%…160 people to do other things such as being children, working at the one private restaurant in town or run the hostel or are a professional hunter.
Almost everyone who goes to Kangerlussuaq is transiting through, but I decided to spend two days. This is due to Air Greenland’s flight schedule. In order to make it on the flight Copenhagen, I had the choice of a 1-hour or 2-day layover. I really didn’t want to be stranded in Greenland so I chose the 2 days.
Spending time here also allowed me to see two very different sides of Greenland.
The flight to Kangerlussuaq took 45 minutes. Almost everyone- actually, everyone on the plane except me- was continuing on to a different city in Greenland. When I got to the baggage claim, only my bag came out. I laughed very hard.
I then walked to my hostel. The town is divided into two sides: one on each side of the airport. The side with the passenger terminal used to be the civilian side. The other side of the airport was the military side when the town was an American base. My hostel was on the military side- about a 25 minute walk.
All the buildings on the military side of town were built by the US Army and definitely look it.
While this is no longer an official US base, the Greenlandic government allows the US Air Force to come and train at Kangerlussuaq during the summer. Normally they arrive in May but this year due to COVID they came in early August. The agreement this year was that they cannot interact with any Greenlanders to avoid any risk of COVID transmission. They occupied a building and had 3 C130 Hercules from the New York Air Guard.
The street signs in town are all American names but Greenlandicized (not sure if this is a word). My hostel is on Kyle-ip Aqq or Kyle Avenue.
Right around 3, I checked into my hostel. A big sign warned me to unbolt my rifle to enter. The sign was an omen, this was without a doubt going to be the second strangest hostel I have ever stayed at (weirdest is the hostel/brothel on Majuro in the Marhsall Islands).
The owner of the hostel is a Danish lady who moved to Kangerlussuaq 20 years ago to be in nature. Her husband is a professional hunter and sells his meat to hostel guests.
I was not the only guest. There were also 7 Danish construction workers building a road and 2 French hikers in the middle of a 5 week expedition around Greenland.
The hostel was surprisingly spacious. There was a huge living room with a TV, multiple picnic benches, and 4 bathrooms. A PS4 video game system belonged to the construction workers and I was explicitly told not to use it. WiFi was the Greenlandic standard 50 kroner ($8)/hour.
There were quite a few oddities of the hostel. The biggest one was the check in hours. The owner has very specific hours where she is at the desk: 12-14 and 15-20. If you want to talk to her outside those hours you have to pay 500 kroner ($75 USD).
Now that I figured out the hostel, it was now time to figure out what to do. The whole trip to Greenland was done so last minute, I didn’t plan or really research anything (not totally true, I always to research, but I did far less than I typically would). Based on posters at the airport, I realized that the main attraction in town was the ice cap. I was determined to get there somehow.
Next door to my hostel was a market that also doubled as a tour company. The guy inside said he would take me for 2400 kroner ($380) but I could split that up 4 ways. That price seemed outrageous so I went back to the hostel and asked about walking it. The owner said it was 50 kilometers roundtrip so probably too far for one day. It just so happened that the hikers arrived at the hostel. They had just hiked from the ice cap and said that there was another company called Albatross that could take me for 650 kroner ($100) with no minimum number of passengers. This seemed like my best option. Their office was in a hotel on the civilian side…uggh. I ran over only to discover that the tour office was closed. While annoying, a poster indicated that their WiFi paywall was down so I could use it for free (throwback to that ice cream shop in Congo). But actually if they found me, that would actually be a good thing because then I could book the tour!
Disappointed, I headed back to the hostel and asked about places to hike. The owner gave me a few options. I opted to walk along a dirt road towards a lake 7 kilometers away.
I crossed a mighty river and headed along the lonely road out of town. About halfway to the lake, a blue van passed by me. It was an Albatross van!!! By the time I read and recognized the name it was too far away for me to flag it down. I hoped to follow it to wherever it was going and confront the driver.
Eventually I found the van, but it was parked at what looked like a small hotel (later I learned it was a fancy restaurant). The driver was not there and I didn’t have the courage to go inside since the place looked kind of private.
5 minutes after I kept on walking, I saw the driver leave the building and head into the van to drive off. Arrrgh!
The lake was beautiful but the road didn’t provide any stellar vantage points. So the pictures are not great, but know that it is an amazing place.
By the time I got back to town I had walked for 2.5 hours and saw exactly 2 cars.
There was only one restaurant on the military side of town, the Grillhouse. The sign indicates that it has American food, pizza, Turkish durum, and Thai food. I suppose when you’re in a town of 500 people you have to cover multiple genres. The Thai menu happened to be just one dish: a Panang curry. The owner/cook/waiter/guy-at-the-counter was Thai so I ordered the Panang curry. How are Thai restaurants everywhere!??!
I asked how someone from Thailand ends up in Greenland- probably the furthest place on earth from Thailand. He seemed upset that I asked the question and curtly responded “for work”. It seemed like a fair question because Greenland isn’t really an obvious location for someone to land a job. Who knows maybe the Thai government pulls up a map of all the Thai restaurants and deploys people to open restaurants where they see gaps as some strange form of diplomacy. Have you ever met anyone with a negative opinion of Thailand? Just saying.
We chatted about Thailand and he agreed to make it extra spicy for me. He had to close the restaurant at 8 but said to come back at 10 when they reopen as a bar. The bar stays open until 4am. He said that afterwards, Greenlanders will stay out and drink until noon. Holy mackerel! Who would have guessed that a town of 540 people has such a wild nightlife scene? Seriously, Greenland has some of the best nightlife in the world. There must be a dark side to this- since Native people in the United States have a genetic disposition towards alcoholism.
I then ate my curry and passed out. After not having slept well for the last 8 nights in Copenhagen and Ilulissat, I needed the rest.
August 16, 2020: The Big Ice
After having slept 10 hours, I walked over to the tour company’s hotel on the civilian side. The first tour listed in their pre-COVID brochure starts at 9AM so I got there at 8:30 AM. Lo and behold the office was open. A very nice lady told me that there was a tour to the ice today and it starts at noon. I paid the money and was good to go!
Now I had 3 hours to kill before the tour. Besides the airport cafeteria, the only restaurant on the civilian side is a hotel restaurant and opens at 11. So realistically I had 2 hours. I looked up at the mountain above town and decided to climb it. I really couldn’t think of anything better to do. There are no trails in Greenland, so I picked my way up to the TV antennae at the top. That turned out to be a false summit so then I climbed to the next summit. Beyond that summit, I was suddenly on a large plateau. Quite unexpected!
It was now time to head down and I made it back just in time for the restaurant to open. This was an all-you-can-eat buffet. The price was 198 kroner ($30). The waitress said the price so slowly that I was both pleased with the 100 and then displeased with the extra 98 kroner I knew I had to fork over. The food was Danish and was quite good. The food in Kangerlussuaq is actually more expensive than the rest of Greenland. Other than the arctic meats, most food in Greenland comes by boat every 2 months. That boat goes to all the main cities on the coast…which doesn’t include Kangerlussuaq. Everything in Kangerlussuaq has to get flown in by Air Greenland…and Air Greenland is perhaps the world’s most expensive airline.
After eating, I walked over to the tour office and met my guide Tony. He said it was going to be a private tour!
We took off in his Toyota 4-runner and headed up the road. The road turns out to be Greenland’s longest road. Greenland doesn’t have very long roads because no two towns are connected. This particular road was built half-way by the US military and half-way by Volkswagen to test out a car in complete secrecy.
The dirt road went on for 20 minutes or so. Along we the way we passed a plane wreck from the 1960’s. Interestingly, the metal was not rusted at all due to the dry climate of the arctic desert.
We got off the road and headed on a narrow jeep trail for 20 more minutes of insane driving. Eventually we reached a patch of dirt big enough to park the car. Then we hiked 10 minutes to the base of the Russell Glacier.
The Russell Glacier is enormous- a 200 ft tall wall of blue ice. And it’s cold.
Glaciers are one of those things that are difficult to capture their true grandeur in photographs. They always look smaller than they are since you have to stand so far away. But dang it was impressive!!! My guide said that the glacier has been retreating very fast. 100 years ago, the glacier was twice the height!! Wow.
The glacier didn’t calve when we were there but there was a humongous arch that looked ready to collapse.
We walked to a few other viewpoints before heading back to the car. After a brief drive through a desert area, we traversed a small mountain pass and emerged in a pristine valley with an enormous lake.
At the far end of the lake was another outpost of the glacier. My guide said that the lake is called “The Lake That Never Unfreezes” in the Inuit language. Except that it is unfrozen…awkward.
This valley is also part of a new UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses an enormous area going all the way to the coast. The site is a historic Inuit hunting ground.
It was then time to head back to town. My guide mentioned that the old American gym complex has been given to the town and operates as a recreation center. I went in there and got a tour. It looked just like an American high school gym.
They also had sauna facilities and a pool. This is an amazing amenity for such a small town.
I had now run out of things to do. The restaurant was closed since it was a Sunday. Instead I got a frozen red curry from the market and did nothing interesting for the rest of the day. I could have walked a bit more but felt like I had seen enough.
The next day, I walked over to the airport and caught the flight back to Copenhagen.
I definitely enjoyed Ilulissat more than Kangerlussuaq. That said, I was good to have seen two very different sides of Greenland. I would recommend spending time here to get a true feeling for the remoteness of the island.
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