Fascinating East Greenland

Upon arriving in Tasiilaq, East Greenland, I kept on hearing these two words: Piteraq and Tupilaq.  These two words are strongly associated with Greenland by visitors or anyone who has read about visiting Greenland (I did zero reading for the trip.  I came with zero expectations and whatever happened, I would have the best time of my life).

Piteraq is a sudden icy-cold, strong wind that sweeps through the Greenlandic Ice Cap to the coastal areas.  It is known to have taken one life in 2013.  The strongest recorded wind was apparently in Thule (Northwestern Greenland) with 333 km/h speed.  Piteraq means ambush in the Greenlandic Inuit language.

Tupilaq is grotesque in appearance, but in its true, original form can be as deadly as the piteraq.  The authentic tupilaqs are Inuit mythical animal figurines made of biodegradable animal parts. Tupilaqs were originally created by shamans or powerful people to kill their enemies. The tupilaqs one see these days are souvenirs and are the artists’ imagination and interpretation of what tupilaqs should look like.

Learning about piteraq right before our 5-day dog-sledding expedition to the wilderness of East Greenland is not exactly reassuring, but we were going with locals who know what they are doing to survive in Greenlandic wilderness.  And the tupilaq story is just the icing on the cake when it comes to learning about the Inuit cultures, although much has probably been lost or left unwritten.  I was filled with deep curiosity to learn more about the Inuit ancient and current culture. Armed with these two knowledge, we set off on our dog-sledding expedition under heavy snowfalls.

For this supported dog-sledding expedition, we were based in Tasiilaq, which has no airport. We flew into Kulusuk from Reykjavik, then we took a helicopter to Tasiilaq.  We had amazing weather on both departure and arrival days.  Our trip is the last one of the season (March-April) and we had the best sledding weather and conditions.  Everyone arrived on time.  Tasiilaq is the largest settlement in East Greenland with 2,000 plus inhabitants.  There are five other settlements (Kulusuk being one of them) around Tasiilaq and the total inhabitants add up to 1,000 plus in total.  We visited one other settlement during our dog-sledding trip: Tiniteqilaaq.   There were five participants in our expedition (myself included) and three mushers who are also skilled hunters (Mikael, Julius, and Enok).  There were two guests and a musher per sled. Gunilla, our guide, joined us on the third sled, to make the team complete with nine people.

This is our East Greenland adventure.

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US!

Vastness of the Landscape and Its Impact on the People of East Greenland

Since the flight into Kulusuk, helicopter ride to Tasiilaq, and during the dog-sledding trip, one can observe the vastness and wilderness of East Greendland. We traversed lakes, rivers, mountains, and glaciers to our destinations. Greenland is a true wilderness.  On our last day, we wanted to hike around Tasiilaq.  We had been told that outside the settlement, there was a chance to encounter polar bears hunting.  So I asked for a guide to take us around, and we ended up with a rifle instead 🙂

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East Greenland from the helicopter. This fjord is full of ice floes.

There is a lack of infrastructure in Greenland. There is only 55,000 inhabitants in all of Greenland and the land size is vast (2.1 million square kilometers).  When I refer to Greenlanders, it could mean a full 100% Inuit person or it could mean a person of mixed origins (due to relationship with Denmark, there are many people with Inuit and Danish mix).  There is not much sense (or return in investments) in building roads.  Transports are usually done by boats, helicopters, snowmobiles, and dogsleds.  Most of the settlements are by the coasts. In Singapore, when we were growing up, everyone aimed to achieve the 5Cs (Cash, Condominium, Car, Club Membership, and Career). In Greenland, a sign of prosperity is the ownership of a house, hunting/holiday hut, snowmobile, boat, and dogsleds.

Hunting is a necessary business, and four of these ownership facilitate hunting and survival. If Greenlanders must buy 100% of their food consumption from the supermarkets, most people would not be able to afford it.    Almost everything is imported from outside of Greenland. In the West Greenland, Nuuk, specifically there is a seafood and fish processing factory. I saw the frozen seafood product in the supermarkets in Tasiilaq.  And we found in tourism office honey from South Greenland. In the summer, South Greenland produces strawberries. Otherwise, most products are from Continental Europe (Denmark specifically).  As with progress and exposure to the outside world, alcohol, sodas, and junk foods have become real problems for Greenlanders in the large settlements, such as Tasiilaq. We were in Greenland for eight days and five of those, we were in the wilderness where we barely had interactions with the locals. I doubt of what we saw, we fully understood.  I came from a totally different world from these guys.  I could only observe and listen, but to understand completely, ….. an impossibility in a week.  What I understood is this: East Greenland is treated like the stepchild by the main government’s policies. There has been not much investment into East Greenland.  There has been talks of fish processing factories, but it is just that..talks so far.  East Greenland is in transition from traditional societies of hunting and gathering to a progressive societies, however, there is not enough jobs for its populations.

Life is not easy. Alcoholism is a big issue in East Greenland.  When we got to the bar at 10pm, we saw a few people who passed out by our table. One drunk guy decided to join us and was so drunk, he was talking nonsense.  There was already a language barrier in the first place. It was an interesting night to say the least.  We also heard a high percentage of men have been imprisoned for committing crimes of passions under the influence of alcohol. We heard there has been 3-4 suicides in Jan-Feb 2016 alone. The future is tough for most youngsters in East Greenland.  Talking to a resident, in his view, East Greenland   needs three industries to survive: tourism, fishery, and mining.  The thought of mining in Greenland scares me. It is such pristine place. I hate the thoughts of seeing it ruined.  Is there even a way to do it responsibly? Most importantly, will the riches be distributed to those who work? Or it will only go to the pockets of a few?

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Tasiilaq – This scene of colorful wooden buildings on the hill is what I always imagine of Greenland.

Dogsledding Expedition and The Hut Life

It is so easy to fall in love with the dogs! Until today I still miss them: Bamsee, Hanqara, Apaca, Kataru….As a group we got along so well, and we always joked around.  After day 2, we decided to adopt the name of our favorite dogs.  I became Bamsee (teddy bear). Katrin became Kataru (raven for its black beautiful fur).  Eoin was given the name Nanooqi (small polar bear) by Katrin and me.

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From top left, clockwise: Kataru, Hanqara and me, Bamsee who thinks it is human (always trying to get on the sled). I miss them all.

The Greenlandic dogs are adorable and loving, but they are precious for their running and transport abilities. They originally migrated from Siberia 4,000-5,000 years ago.  Mushers must exert authorities over the dogs.  Our sled was pulled by 14 dogs. Many are still puppies in training.  It is so easy to grow attached to them. They are so lovely and playful, which also means that if I ever try to mush them, they would never listen to me and they would never respect me. I do not validate animal abuse, but one does have to have control over the dogs and be firm.  If not, one day, these dogs may just become unruly and drive one off a cliff.  (They managed to get us to a precarious position over the rocks one afternoon!).

Playing cards dominate how we spent our down times.  We had two and a half whiteout days in the beginning, so that was how we got to know one another so well so fast.  Everyone was happy to stay in and stay warm.  When we arrived, we were told that spring has come to Greenland two months early (I was secretly disappointed).  That very evening though, it started snowing for two and a half days.  Our first day of sledding was done under the falling snow.  On the second day, we took a short trip to Ukilverajik iceberg beach under an almost whiteout condition.  I sat in the sled with Katrin, and Enok, our master musher.  Nothing could describe the silence and peace when we sled under all this snow and most of the time, no one spoke.  You could hear the snow falling, accompanied by the breathing of the dogs. It was romantic scene, that was broken the moment we did a snowball fight.

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Icebergs on Ukilverajik Beach

After we arrive at the destination hut, we would play with the dogs after they were fed and they settled down. On the second last day, I helped with removing the dogs from the sled ropes onto their chains where they would stay the night.  After that Katrin and I fed the dogs.  On expeditions, the dogs are fed dry food.  However, they would also eat leftover food, seal meat, and other meat when they are home.  The dogs love to run and they need the cold weather to be able to run well.  I saw that sometimes, they grabbed snow with their snout while running or while resting. We are not supposed to cuddle them until we get to our destination.  The dogs are the cutest when they were playing with one another or when they curled up under  the snow.

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Curling up to stay warm.

As a trip went, I would not say we really rough it.  There were no tents involved. We stayed in three cozy huts in the five days.  It was warm and intimate.  There was not much privacy. After a while, I gave up and I would just change in front of everyone – as modest as possible of course. I also seemed to be the only one drinking enough and having to attend to call of nature no. 1 everywhere we went (behind a rock, behind the sled, in the freezing cold!).  I wrote a sentence in my journal about this (something along the line “I peed on the snow and it wassss freezing!”), and the group laughed at me. It did sound stupid when taken out of context and I did leave my journal opened on the table. I could not help but laugh with them.  So much of getting my degree with honors 🙂  My motto as a traveler has been “the world is my playground”, on this trip, it should have been “the world is my lavatory”.

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Behind these three huts was my first restroom, and when they told you “do not go to the right because the ice was thin and you might fall into the water”, it really upped the ante, and made going to the loo an adventure in itself.

As a self-proclaimed OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I gracefully survived not showering for 4-days (even I shocked myself!), except for rolling around in the snow for a few seconds one morning for a quick snow bath (thank God for wet naps for the rest of the trip).  Katrin is just an inspiration and she can really stand the cold!  I joined her for a snow bath one morning (she did it four days in a row!). We walked out only in our towels. I walked out barefoot and walking on cold snow for about 5 minutes was painful.  My feet were in pain for the next half hour after, while warming up.  I cannot imagine how those amazing mountaineers survived frostbites.  The pain they have gone through would be immense a thousand times over.

Another way to spend the time is snow-shoeing. I am so happy  I got to try it.  Coming from Singapore with no snow, I had yet have the chance to do this, until this trip.  We could not go far, as the white-out condition made it hard to see the edge of the cliff.

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Thijs & I showing off our snow-shoes.
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The almost white-out condition near our hut in Qaattu. If we were not careful snow-shoeing, we could have fallen off to the frozen fjord below.

On this trip, food was never an issue.  We were never hungry. Maybe that was why we were all always very happy 🙂

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Our expedition food box.

The first night we had a chili con carne dinner with rice. On the second night, Mikael cooked us a typical hunter’s meal: boiled fish, rice, with curry sauce. On the third dinner, we ate at a local’s home in Tiniteqilaaq.  We had seal, fish, rice, and potatoes for dinner.  It was a feast!  The seal meat was quite dense and it has texture of chicken liver (although the rest of the team disagreed with my assessment).

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Homecooked seal dinner in Tinitetilaaq

Different species of seals have different meat texture and flavors, and have different uses: clothing, rope/whip, food, etc.  When we were in Tiniteqilaaq, there was a hunter who shot a bearded seal, which is very large.  Our mushers got a portion, which they boiled as snacks for the following day. I managed to try a bite or two from Enok. The texture was different that the one we had for dinner. It was fibrous like beef.

On our last evening, our dinner was supposed to be musk ox ragout cooked by Chef Alan in Tasiilaq, delivered by snowmobile to us.  However, we hung out with a group doing ice fishing over the fjord that afternoon, we got lucky!  We got a large spotted wolfish.  We ended up having that for dinner with mashed potatoes.  It was the freshest seafood I have ever had.  The fish are all deep water fish (200-300m under water).  Even pulling the fishing line took almost 10 minutes.  The Inuits use simple methods to fish. A fishing line tied over a stick with another reference stick next to it, so that it is easy to observe when a fish bites that bait. Simple and effective.

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Traditional, simple, and effective fishing line by the local hunters (who are also our mushers).

This same afternoon, the hunters spotted a seal, so they sent Julius to hunt it down.  He had to wear the white suit as camouflage.  He did not manage to get the seal though, due to a glitch of the rifle.  He took our good-natured teasing on his empty-handed return quite well 🙂

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Julius posing in his white suit before setting off on a seal hunt.

Our dog-sledding trip maybe short, but it was very memorable. On the last day, as we approached Tasiilaq, we kept asking Enok to stop and turn back. Unfortunately, he refused and here I am, back at home writing this blog.   Poor Enok, I think we traumatized him.  I always made so much noise on the fun, exhilarating descent, but I was not supposed to. The dogs are trained with voice and noise.  With all the rackets I was making, the dogs would run faster and it made Enok’s job trying to brake and deliver us safely much harder.  The speed down was great though.

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I call this lake the East Greenland super highway with all the sled and snowmobile tracks. Heading to Tasiilaq on our last day. The good times were over too fast!

More scenery photos, videos of the sledding, and photos of our boat cruise on the Sermilik Fjord under the most perfect windless weather will be progressively posted on @roaminjuliet (instagram) and “roaminjuliet travels” (youtube) .

Other Highlights of Inuit Culture

Another participant on our trip, Al, is a journalist who was tasked to write about the trip.  He managed to get the Director of the Ammassalik Museum to meet with us and specially open the museum during a public holiday and during his day off (Thank you so much, Carl and Al!)

Al himself is an experienced traveler and is very experienced about Greenland.  From talking to him, I learned a lot about Greenland. For example, the colorful wooden houses that I always identified with Greenland settlement turns out to be pre-fabricated in Denmark.  I never knew!

From Carl, I found out that there was an old ruin of an old Inuit house near the heliport.  Someone was still living there up to 1969 (this fact was confirmed and documented).  I enjoyed the small museum a lot. I really enjoyed the exhibits of the wooden boxes decorated with animals’ bones and teeth.  We only saw those boxes in the museum (not in any souvenir shop), which made me wonder if it is now a lost art.  The museum also has a collection of tupilaqs from well-known East Greenlandic artists.

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Tupilaq’s exhibits in Ammassalik Museum

The museum is small and compact. We actually spent more time chatting than poring over every single item.  I learned about a Greenlandic myth of how the sun and the moon were created. To me, that was more interesting that looking at each exhibit.

The fun part of the museum visit was trying the Inuit kayak simulation.  I failed so terribly.  Were I kayaking at sea, I would have been the Orcas’ dinner.

The biggest cultural highlight is of course the drum dancing performance by Simujoq Vilhelm Kunnitse, who came from a family of drum dancers (his great grandfather was a shaman and his grandmother was honored by having her statue erected in Kulusuk for her contribution to drum dancing).  There is only twenty drum-dancer left in Greenland. He and his daughter fight to keep the tradition alive.  The drum is usually made from polar bear stomach lining.  However, someone broke his and he had to replace it with the material for the weather balloon to achieve similar sound (as it is difficult to get polar bear stomach lining these days).  He did a few performances which highlighted a couple of the four main uses of drum dancing (self expression, sharing a story, duel shaming, and entertainment).  He opened the show with a sad love story of a raven who fell in love with a goose. He also wrote a song dedicated to his daughter who died at sea, to deal with his grief.

Reflections

I realized that I had an amazing trip not only because of the dog-sledding, fantastic amount of snow, and the amazing Greenland landscape.  The people I was with made the trip at the end of the day. We were five people who did not know one another prior to the trip, and yet we all had an amazing trip together and laughed a lot together.  The beautiful memories will definitely stay with me forever.

I will end with this:  be honest to yourself and evaluate these truthfully.  If you have egoistic tendencies, like to  complain (especially when things do not go as planned or your expectation – we are always at the mercy of the weather and the Higher Power), have a narrow-mind, cannot stand the idea of sharing and roughing it, please do not join this trip.  You could ruin it for everybody else on your expedition team.  Five days are an eternity to share with a grumbling someone.  If you are going to Greenland to merely tick a box without the real passion and appreciation of the wilderness, you are not doing Greenland justice and there are other trips that might be more suitable for you.

My Greenland trip is an  experience which has changed my life and my being as a person. It made me appreciate nature even more. Humans are nothing in this wilderness.  And it made me realized not having access to my mobile phone and internet for 8 days gave me a sense of peace (periodic digital detox is definitely necessary for everyone!).  Something that I never knew I needed. I slept well every night. As a matter of fact, the first night back in Reykjavik, the moment I saw I had hundreds of Whatsapp messages, I could feel the serenity went away in a blink of an eye. So a return trip to Greenland is already overdue even before we left!

Acknowledgement:

Thank you Lars for making the trip happen!  And Ditte and team at Icelandic Mountain Guides for “convincing” me to go by being super helpful and proactive.

Author’s Note:

Many have asked me why I decided to go to Greenland. Simple, really. I got hooked dogsledding in Tromsø, Norway.  And I discovered Greenland as another amazing place to dogsledding again.

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