The Golden Circle, Iceland

In Reykjavík I spent a day on the “Golden Circle” bus tour, which goes to some of the main sights near the city. I’m not sure why it’s golden except that it’s what every tourist spends their money on (along with the Blue Lagoon, which I decided to skip due to some disturbing stories I heard involving Germans and Speedos). We went to a cool volcanic crater lake, and a geothermal greenhouse, and a little church that was important for some reason, but the main attractions were Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir.

Gullfoss is a huge waterfall in the middle of a high volcanic plain. Very picturesque, beautiful waterfall, with the river running away from it through this great grand-canyon-in-miniature type gorge. One of the coolest things about Gullfoss, though, was that from the top of the falls, in the distance, you can see five different glaciers. This was actually the closest you can get to any of them since the road to the interior beyond Gullfoss is still closed due to snow at this time of the year (in early June!). I cant remember if I’ve ever seen a glacier before. I feel like I must have, but I’m not sure. In any case, I’ve always pictured glaciers as big rivers of ice running through a valley. Like, with mountains rising on either side. But these glaciers were actually big rounded caps of ice sitting on top of a bunch of mountain, which actually rose above the mountain tops. Like somebody dropped a bunch of ice onto a mountain range. Really cool-looking, and not what I expected at all. The Icelandic glaciers are retreating about 1 meter a year on average due to global warming. I’ve heard it estimated that at the current rate they’ll be all gone in 300 years. So come here soon. stupid global warming.

Geysir is the geothermal area from which we get the word ‘geyser’. I learned all about geysers. It’s this awesome little desolate landscape with steam rising from the ground all over, warm bubbling pools of incredibly blue mineral water, and the smell of sulfur everywhere. Cool place.. its like something from another planet. But the coolest thing is that Geysir is home to two of the world’s five spouting hot springs. I didnt realise there were only five in the world… Old Faithful and Steamboat in Yellowstone, some little one in New Zealand, and then two in Geysir. The ‘Great Geysir’ is the larger of the two but erupts very infrequently and only after earthquakes. However ‘Strokkur’ (which, obviously, means ‘butter churn’), is the most regular geyser in the world. It spouts every six mintues or so. I’ve never been to Yellowstone or New Zealand, so I had never seen a geyser before. It’s just a hole in the ground, filled with water, and surrounded by a little shallow pool. When it goes, the water in the pool rises up in a little hump for a couple seconds, just long enough to seem impossible, then the main spout shoots up about 25-35 meters. Pretty impressive, and Strokkur is the 4th-smallest of the five. Steamboat apparently can get up to 120 meters high, which must be amazing. The main thing that surprised me about the geyser is how quiet it is. I had imagined that a geyser spouting would be preceeded by a lot of rumbly goings-on underground, but it’s really silent. There’s only the sound of the water splashing back to the ground, and kinda mistyish noises. The main sound was hundreds of old Japanese people cheering and screaming every time it went. There was a japanese cruise ship in Reykjavik’s harbor that day. Pretty funny scene, me and the japanese tourists, standing silently with our cameras out, staring at a hole in the ground, then going crazy every six minutes. It was definitely a cool place. Now I want to go to Yellowstone.

From Geysir we went to Þingvellir, the birthplace of the Icelandic nation. It is the valley where the Parliament (the Alþing) used to meet. Another UNESCO place. If you’re wondering, the ‘þ’ letter is the ‘th’ sound, like in ‘thin’ (which is different from ‘ð’ (capital: ‘Ð’), which is like the ‘th’ in ‘leather’). So the parliament was the ‘Þing’, or the ‘Thing’. Anyway, it’s a pretty little valley, with not much left of the original parliament. The really cool thing about the place is its geology. In a lot of ways (culturally, geographically etc) Iceland really seems to be halfway between Europe and America. And Þingvellir is like a symbollic representation of that.. it lies exactly on the midatlantic ridge, where the Eurasian continental plate is drifting away from the North American plate at a rate of about two cm a year. Here’s what the USGS has to say about it. The valley is actually the space between the continents, and it’s really apparent just from looking at it. There are parallel cliffs and ridges a couple miles apart, on opposite side of the valley, which literally are the edges of the continents. Fittingly, the European edge is old and weathered, with lots of sedate, elegant little ridges, while the American edge is a big and brazen, a huge cliffside dramatically declaring its continentness. The valley has sunk like 20 meters since it was the parliament place, and now it’s almost underwater. So it’s a neat place, if you like that kind of stuff. In the distance is the Shield volcano, which produced all the lava in the area. The vikings thought it was shaped like a shield, and it’s what all other shield volcanoes are named after (like Hawaii, or whatever). So now that’s two English words that I’ve learned come from Icelandic.

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