It’s oh so quiet
Peaceful, sparsely populated Iceland is an ideal retreat for urban Chinese
Published: Jul 10, 2016 05:38 PM Updated: Jul 12, 2016 08:13 AM

Iceland's underdog performance at the 2016 UEFA Euro Championships, during which the country's team surpassed all expectations by reaching the soccer tournament's quarterfinals, will certainly prove to be a boon for its tourism industry.

Chinese especially love an underdog and are already queuing up to visit this scenic yet small island nation, whose landmass is smaller than the average Chinese province and population less than a quarter of one residential district in Shanghai.

Riding on the icy wave of Iceland's newfound popularity, I recently took a cross-island drive through the geologically active Nordic republic.

Going against the Chinese grain, however, my family and I opted against the typical tour group package that my countrymen seem to favor so that we could cover more of the island's geographically diverse regions.

Upon arrival at Keflavík International Airport outside of the capital city of Reykjavík, we picked up our rental Jeep, which we had pre-booked from China.

Renting a car in Iceland is not necessarily cheap, but it turned out to be quite necessary for off-roading in the highlands. Once behind the wheel, we drove 100 kilometers directly to Gullfoss Falls, located along the Hvítá River in southwest Iceland.

Claiming to be the greatest waterfall in Europe and one of Iceland's most popular scenic sites, at 20 meters in height and speeds up to 140 m³/s, the summer's rainy season is supposed to ensure a glimpse of a rainbow.

But the sun had already passed its optimal position by the time we had arrived, so we bee-lined straight to Geysir hot springs, only 10 kilometers away.

Geysir was the first-known erupting spring in recorded European history and thus the source of the English word, geyser.

We needed only wait 15 minutes to see the geyser erupt spectacularly 50 meters into the sky (pictured above). Duly dampened, we proceeded to drive 60 kilometers southwesterly to Thingvellir National Park.

A vast, verdant valley at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Thingvellir is home to Iceland's largest lake and boasts 90 square kilometers of walking trails that are perfect for a day's end picnic.

Sun in my mouth

We stayed the night in the bustling capital city of Reykjavík, strolled the urban streets the next morning, then departed for the seaside town of Stokkseyri.

Founded in AD900 and with a current population of only 400, less than the average apartment community in Shanghai, this little village isn't on any tourist's sightseeing map, so we were fortunate to get a taste of "real" Iceland.

Considered the largest lava flow of Earth's ice age, in 6700 BC an enormous lava eruption in Iceland's volcanic highlands came running down fast and furious for at least 140 kilometers, stopping only at the icy North Atlantic seawater of Stokkseyri, where the end point is still visible.

Víkí Mýrdal, known to tourists simply as Vik, and the nearby peninsula of Dyrhólaey in southernmost Iceland, are generally regarded as the most recommended tourist attractions of the island.

And rightly so, with multiple beaches, waterfalls and bird-watching observation points, it is an area you'll want to spend at least a day leisurely perusing.

There's a general rule of thumb among independent tourists of Iceland that if you see two cars parked somewhere it is a "locals" scenic spot; if you see five cars, then it is a "famous" scenic spot; if you see 10 vehicles some place, then you have arrived at a "world-famous" place of interest. That would be Vik.

We stayed the night at a hostel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, which locals refer to simply as Klaustur. It is pretty much the only populated place between Vik and the fishing town of Höfn along the island's southeastern coast.

In our hostel's backyard is a 24.8-meter-tall tree, the tallest in all of Iceland, which was planted in 1949, an auspicious date for Chinese nationals.

Photos: Fu Shiyuan

Earth intruders

On our third day we went to Skaftafell, a part of Vatnajökull National Park. Professional hikers draped in climbing equipment can be seen here heading off into the area's numerous routes.

Based on our map, my family and I agreed on a 7.4-kilometer trail that we assumed would take us about 2 hours. Unbeknownst to us, it turned out to be the park's most challenging hike.

Along the way we encountered a rainstorm that our cheap rain ponchos did little to protect us from. After four grueling hours we arrived at the end of the trail completely soaked and exhausted. I don't suggest anyone follow our lead.

Wet as we were, we pushed on to Jökulsárlón Ice Park and hoped that our clothes would not freeze as we took a 45-minute lagoon boat trip around the lake.

Situated at the head of Breiðamerkurjökull, the island's largest and most impressive glacier, Jökulsárlón became a lake after the glacier started melting at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Seeing floating fragments of Breiðamerkurjökull shining in the sun is beyond words and a highlight of our trip. Landmannalaugar at the edge of Laugahraun lava field in the central Iceland highlands is said to be the world's closest spot to the moon.

Bleak and brown, it probably most resembles the moon as well. This is exactly where we needed our 4WD Jeep the most, though we were mentally unprepared for what we were about to experience.

The only vehicle in sight, for several hours we journeyed over unpaved roads, barren moonscape and treacherous, chassis-deep ravines of melted ice water, constantly worried that our truck would give out or our tires pop from the rough lava stones beneath.

Looking back, it was an adventurous way to conclude our otherwise pleasant, oh-so-quiet Icelandic holiday.

Travel tips

  • If you rent a car, be sure to get an off-road vehicle.
  • High-quality rain gear is a must if you will be hiking. Iceland rains 360 days out of the year!
  • Book all your hotels in advance. The island is too small to take chances during peak tourist season. You will also need to book ferry services in advance if you want to visit "off-island" sites like Vestmannaeyjar archipelago.
  •  For meals, try Hangikjöt smoked lamb fillet. Iceland's free-range sheep raised on the island's indigenous herbs have a deliciously distinct flavor. Kjötsúpa meat soup left to simmer for days before eating is also a unique local cuisine. And don't leave without trying Skyr, the nation's famous brand of cheese yogurt.