Aurora Borealis aka The Northern Lights

Sure. You’ve heard of the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, but have you seen it? If you have a bucket list make sure this one is on it. It’s that spectacular.

The northern lights are a natural lightshow that occurs in the northern altitudes, the higher the better. Charged solar wind particles floating in the earth’s atmosphere collide with atoms and cause the display of colorful lights that spread through the skies at high altitudes.The exhibit is nothing short of stunning and never fails to take your breath away each and every time it happens. It’s ethereal, other worldly and has the distinct ability to make us realize how very small we are in this big universe.

Northern Lights Tromso
Photo By Moyan Bren – Creative Commons

The best viewing times are from September through March under clear, dark skies from 5 p.m. till 2 a.m.. The further you are from artificial light the better chance you will have of being able to see clearly.  Keep in mind, December through February bring the longest nights. That gives you even more chances to get a good look.

You can see the northern lights from the high altitude places in the world. The very best views are in the auroral oval which sits above the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada are all easily accessible (relatively) destinations in the auroral oval.

There are many hotels, resorts, festivals and tours in these places dedicated to the natural phenomenon and enjoying it to the fullest. Check out any of the destinations below to see the northern lights in style.

Northern Lights In Sweden

The Swedish provinces near the Norwegian border are some of the very best destinations in the world to view the northern lights. Abisko National Park is a Swedish treasure that was preserved in order to keep a percentage of the unscathed Nordic territories in pristine condition for research and study. Hence, the Abisko Scientific Research Station was developed and it is here, at the world-renowned Abisko Sky Station, that one of the best sightings of the northern lights in the world happens.

Abisko is smack dab in the middle of the auroral oval. There is just no missing the northern lights here. It also helps that the air is so fresh and clear and there is hardly ever a cloud in the sky. These conditions make it possible to see some action out of the aurora borealis practically every night.

The sky station also uses amplifiers during the evening. Strange sounds occur during the aurora borealis which are hard to determine but these “voices from space” make the show that much cooler. Inside the sky station you’ll find special exhibits and displays to help you better understand how the northern lights happen and what they are. Many northern lights vacationers watch the amazing eruptions turn to the calmer, pulsating shimmers and then enjoy a stay at the Ice Hotel; the world’s largest hotel made of ice and snow.

The Ice Hotel offers guided tours each night to various spots to witness the show.

Northern Lights In Iceland

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland is a perfect spot to see the northern lights in all their splendor. It is a popular travel destination in itself because of the amazing landscape. Mother Nature pulled out all the stops in this place, and that’s before you see the northern lights each night. There are volcanoes and lava fields near glaciers, waterfalls and cascades. The area is startlingly full of nature’s most amazing details.

Aurora Borealis Northern Lights
Photo by Image Editor – Creative Commons

The nearby fishing village of Budir has a secluded hotel with a vantage point to clearly see the northern lights each night. Hotel Budir has daytime activities like snowmobiling, 4-wheeling and skiing but if you plan to take advantage of those get there before solstice, when the polar lights occur, the sun doesn’t rise till 11.40am and is gone again by 3.15pm.

Imagine how amazing it is to watch the aurora borealis from your own private room each night. That would be a vacation worth waiting for.

Northern Lights In Norway

There is never any guarantee of seeing the northern lights anywhere, your best bet of seeing them in Iceland is between December and April when the days are longer but the nights are dry and cloudless. Earlier in the winter season brings a lot of wet weather and a lesser chance of active aurora borealis occurrences. Technically, you can see the northern lights all over Norway. However, even here some places are better than others. Lofoten, Norway and all the way up the coastal North Cape is the best place in Norway to see them.

Another really cool option in Norway is to check out the lights from aboard the cruise ship, Hurtigruten, which travels the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes. Not only are you able to check out an unobstructed view of the magnificent north lights but you can also enjoy all the other shipboard activities.

Northern Lights In Finland

Lapland, known as The North of Finland, has long been held as a perfect spot to see the northern lights. It’s also a great place to check out the phenomenon of the polar lights, or twilight, as its also called. It happens in the Arctic Circle during the winter months when the sun doesn’t cross the horizon. The barely filtering sunlight in those few hours seems magical.

While you’re waiting for night to bring the northern lights in Lapland there are lots of other things to do. Rent a log cabin or a heated glass igloo. Private saunas are available to heat up those chilled bones after aurora watching in the deep, cold night.

Northern Lights In Canada

Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada is an excellent viewing option on this side of the Arctic Circle. Canada is at the southernmost tip of the oval and some say gets the least clear view. It is easier and cheaper to get to than the northern destinations.

The amazing array of colors still ribbon across the sky. You get the same wide-eyed amazement of seeing something so brilliantly breath taking appear before you. You lose a little detail and the sightings are a tad farther between but for many that is a small price to pay.

There are several tours and many hotels and restaurants. There are local attractions and activities for fun during the daylight hours.

The northern lights are something too few of us get to see. An opportunity to see this spectacle is an opportunity to witness the wonders of nature and observe a miracle of the universe. This vacation will make memories unlike any other.

Tiger’s Nest – Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan

If you’re looking for James Hilton’s elusive Lost Horizon, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, still somewhat isolated from the modern world, might momentarily transport you to a mystical Shangri-La.

Located in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Tiger’s Nest is a truly awe-inspiring place that awakens legends and even the greatest skeptic’s sense of wonder.  Perched in the lush green mountains of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a place of striking beauty and cultural significance.  The monastery is surrounded by the stunningly green, fertile Paro valley, which is a site to see in itself for its pristine environmental conservation.

According to Bhutan’s tour operators website, 72% of Bhutan still remains under forest cover, and is home to unusual and endangered flora and fauna, such as blue pine and the fabled blue poppy.

The temple sits precariously on the edge of a vertical rock cliff, and can be reached only by foot or mule, at an elevation of 3120 meters, about 700 meters (2000) above the Paro valley.

Once geographically isolated from the rest of world, Tiger’s Nest is regarded as a unique spiritual place, and is the site of many Buddhist pilgrimages.  According to Bhutan’s tourism counsel website, Taktsang Palphug Monastery locally referred to as Paro Taktsang, or in the Tibetan language, stag tshang “tiger’s lair”, is a scared Himalayan Buddhist site.

The history of Bhutan is largely intertwined with that of the figure, Guru Padmasambhava, as he is venerated as Bhutan’s tutelary or protective deity.  He is said to have meditated in the thirteen caves surrounding the temple for three months.  In 1692, a temple was completed under the direction of a monk near the scared caves to honor Padmasambhava, also known locally as Guru Rinpoche. Rinpoche was responsible for bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet, Bhutan and surrounding countries in the 8th century.

Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan
Photo by Douglas J. McLaughlin (Photograph edited by Vassil) from Wikipedia commons.

According to legend, the great Guru Rinpoche flew from Tibet to these Cliffs on a flying tigress to subdue the demons and evil deities.  These local deities were said to oppose Buddhism.  Guru Rinpoche is known as Padum in Tibet, and followers of the Nyringma school, refer to him as the second Buddha.

The guru transformed himself into a tiger to fight the demons and emerged in 8 incarnations representing eight forms of his being to bless the sacred place.  More about the symbolism of each incarnation can be learned from a visit to Tiger’s Nest, as you will find several frescos dedicated to this story.  A Buddhist monk later built the temple, an act that united Bhutan and spread Buddhism to the valley.   It is a bit reminiscent of a Catholic counterpart in Europe, a cathedral located in the mountains of Asturias, Spain dedicated to where the protective Virgin Covadonga was said to have appeared in local caves to Don Pelayo in the battles of the Crusades.

Statue of Padmasambhava

Statue of Padmasambhava 123 ft. (37.5 m) high in mist overlooking Rewalsar Lake, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Image by John Hill from Wikipedia Commons

According to the National Geographic Book, 500 Most Scared Places of a Lifetime, Tiger’s Nest is one of the most powerful places you will ever visit. You may find the complete silence of nature positively haunting or meditate with the tantric chanting of Mahayana monks, who practice in solitude for up to seven years.

According to travelers, seeing the site in person is more moving than they had anticipated, perhaps due to the cliff’s sheer danger and high altitude. The temple, perched in a seemingly impossible location, seems to achieve unity with nature. It may awaken spirituality or a profound admiration of the majesty of nature, appreciation of culture, or splendor of art and architecture.

Once at the monastery, you might explore the surrounding forest trails or quietly mediate inside the temple.  On the way, you will find prayer wheels, which are said to spread blessings.

In a secular manner, Tiger’s nest stands a firm testament to the power of human ingenuity and is a worthwhile study of the greatness of nature.  In fact, according to Artists for Conversation, in “An Artist’s Journey through the Land of the Thunderdragon”, Bhutan, which is the most remote of Himalayan countries, is revered for the preservation of biodiversity, with 26% of the country as protected wilderness and accounts for 50% of the earth’s terrestrial diversity.

Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery


Painting of Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery, The Tiger’s Nest

Lama G’s Cafe, Fremont, Seattle, Washington, USA   Image by Wonderlane

If you plan on visiting Tiger’s Nest be sure to arrange a special permit through a guide with the National Commission for Cultural Affairs.  On your trek, you may notice uniform local dress: Bhutanese women must wear Kira, and men, the Gho dress.  The national attire is required under law in government buildings.   Bhutan’s Prime Minister proposed a measure to value Gross National Happiness or GNH, which surpasses the nation’s GDP in importance and places an emphasis on spiritual development and cultural preservation, such as through dress.   GNH is taken seriously, for example, environmental conservation is central to the country’s philosophy.  In 1998, a fire nearly destroyed the main monastery but it was later restored completely in 2005 by the Bhutan government.  Bhutan’s leadership has recently opened its doors to investments and democracy.

Here a few tips if you decide to arrange a holiday to Bhutan:

•       The official tourism board of Bhutan is the best source of information.

•       Travel must be arranged by a local tour operator or international partner.  You may visit the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators.

•       Druk Air is the only airline operating into Bhutan.  However, plans are to add one additional airline in 2012.  Bhutan is accessible by connecting flights from Bangkok (Thailand), New Delhi, Kolkata, Gaya, Mumbai, (India) Kathmandu (Nepal), Singapore, and Bangladesh.

•       There is a government policy that all visitors pay a daily fee of approximately USD $200-$250.  The daily fee includes all internal transportation, accommodations, organized meals, camping gear for treks, all taxes and fees, and a licensed tour guide.  Full payment via wire transfer is required before obtaining visas.

•       Individuals and couples pay an additional surcharge of $30-$40.

•       Bhutan was once only accessible via foot through the high passes of Tibet and Plains of Indian.  Travel to Bhutan opened in the 1970’s, largely due to the construction of a road on the Indian border and an international airport in Paro.

•       A guide is required and independent travel is not permitted through Bhutan.  However, tourism is largely supported by the government and visas are easy to obtain.

Whatever you reason for visiting, you will surely find a once in a lifetime experience at Tiger’s Nest.  While attending Cornell University, I explored Eastern religions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism.  I attended a traditional Tibetan meditation, which awakened my interest in the history of Buddhism.  Tiger’s Nest is a place that I would love to visit, as it is central to the history of the proliferation of Buddhism.  I believe Buddhism provides a distinct door into understanding many of life’s mysteries.  One experience I remember vividly was Tibetan monks creating a large, intricate sand painting, to later (to my complete disarray) completely destroy it.  I asked why they had done this and they explained it was to show the transient nature of life and inability to achieve permanence.  Similarly, this remarkable place will probably pose many questions and perhaps provide some answers for you too.

 About the Author

Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching with Honors from City University of Seattle.  She completed her Bachelor in Science at Cornell University and majored in Human Biology, Health, and Society. She loves to travel and is passionate about education.  She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening.

Azerbaijan’s Rare Geologic Prize: Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

Think about a volcanic event and one might envision the fiery red lava spewing from a Hawaiian eruption at Kilauea or a Strombolian hotspot like Mr. Etna in Sicily; or perhaps even a more massive pyroclastic flow that devastated the northern flank of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or lopped almost a thousand feet off Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

But volcanic activity emerges on the surface of the Earth’s crust in a variety of forms that don’t necessarily make the front page news, and which often look more similar to a 7th grade science project—such as the mud volcanoes that lie within Azerbaijan, a Central Asian nation that lies near the heart of the Caucasus. Known for its status as an oil-producing nation, Azerbaijan put itself on the map in 2012 when it played surprising host to the 2012 Eurovision contest.

However, it’s country’s remarkable cultural history and natural beauty that are attracting the eyes of intrepid travelers who want to be among the vanguard of explorers to an often forgotten region of the world.

What Exactly is a Mud Volcano?

Formed by liquids and gases found in shallow pockets or vents just below the earth’s surface, mud volcanoes, or mud domes, are simply geologic formations in which hot water mixes with surface deposits such as loess or ground soil.

Mud Volcano
Photo by peretzp – Creative commons

Mud volcanoes are commonly associated with deposits of hydrocarbons such as oil, natural gas, and methane. In fact, over 85% of the gas released from mud volcanoes is methane, followed by carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Unlike the intense heat we associate with other eruptions known as igneous volcanoes, these mud structures emit slurry that is actually cool—sometimes only degrees warmer than the ambient surface temperature.

Why Are Azerbaijan’s Mud Volcanoes Unique?

Gobustan, a region in Azerbaijan that sits near the Caspian Sea, is home to between 300 and 400 different mud volcanoes, which make up approximately half of the world’s total. Needless to say, Azerbaijan holds the market on mud volcano activity. As a result, the country has gently pushed tourism to this area (mainly because of these geologic sites, but for other reasons we’ll explain below) with visitors observing these quiet, bubbling pools of mud by the carload.

Visitors to these volcanoes can also try and take advantage of the alleged mud’s therapeutic properties. As it oozes from the earth, the mud can form pools in which individuals can immerse themselves in, much like a mudbath you might find at a local spa. The relative calm of these pools, along with the comfortable temperature of the mud, make the area a veritable natural paradise for people seeking natural healing properties, or perhaps for those who just want to take a relaxing dip in the mud.

Of course, this isn’t entirely always the case. In 2001, a mud volcano a mere 9 miles from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku started to erupt violently, ejecting flames and spewing gas up to 50 feet in the air, and depositing tons of mud throughout the area. Geologists believe these mud explosions occur once every 20 years or so—allowing visitors to hedge their bets if they feel like they want to explore the area up-close.

Is There More to Azerbaijan than Just Cool Vents of Mud?

Aside from the region’s unique geologic activity, Gobustan is even more well known for thousands of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, depicting ancient scenes of the area’s rich culture, some of which date back over 10,000 years. The carvings offer insight into the lives of a thriving population in vast scenes that show rituals, battles, trade and commerce, astronomy, and the daily lives of a population that has since disappeared.

Both the volcanoes and the petroglyphs are protected by the Azeri government within the Gobustan National Park, which lies close to the western side of the Caspian Sea and approximately 40 miles from the Azerbaijan capital, Baku. Because of its historical and nature value, Gobustan National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Photo Credit , by Peretzp – Creative Commons