“Why Greenland may not be for you”. It’s an unconventional pitch, on Greenland’s official tourism site at that. But Greenland is anything but conventional.

The article goes on to explain the need to be flexible as changing weather conditions can thwart even the best-laid plans. Greenland is one of the most remote countries in the world, which also means a digital detox is in the cards, whether you intend it, or not.

Oh, and pack light. Since everything from pets to electronics has to be flown in, the space on planes is precious. Anything over the standard 20kg checked baggage allowance is subject to hefty charges!

An unpopular choice

A signpost at Kangerlussuaq Airport. (Photo: Su-Yen Wong)

Greenland is remote, rugged, and raw. One of the world’s last unexplored destinations, it’s largely inhospitable, and bitterly cold. It is about nine times the size of the UK, with about four-fifths of its land surface covered by a massive ice sheet up to 3km thick.

In the frozen land mass, the mercury can plummet to -50 deg C and the winds are some of the strongest on earth. The world’s largest island is home to one of the world’s smallest populations — just 56,000 people live in Greenland, and roughly 90 per cent are ethnically Inuit.

An off-the-beaten-path destination in the best of times, Greenland welcomed just 100,000 tourists a year pre-Covid. A mere 144 passengers flew from Singapore to Greenland in 2019. In 2020, against the backdrop of the pandemic, this figure plunged to the single digits.

Why visit?

The colonial colour-coding system no longer exists, though many continue to paint their houses in vibrant hues. (Photo Su-Yen Wong)

Of all the possible destinations in the world one could travel to, why Greenland? Travel during a pandemic requires a high tolerance for uncertainty, as well as staying on top of the latest health and travel restrictions.

Fortunately, we enjoy travelling to quirky, undiscovered places and have had a bit of practice with this! As a travel destination, it met our criteria. Greenland was new to us, and features a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites (more about that later), and it seemed an offbeat place to “get away from it all”.

Practically speaking, there were no quarantine requirements for passengers arriving from Singapore at the time, so the logistics worked. We wanted to see the Icefjord from the air, but the weather prevented the helicopter from taking off. Due to inclement weather, our flight from Ilulissat to Kangerlussuaq was also cancelled.

Accommodations are generally simple, and dining options not especially extensive. And when the sun goes down, there isn’t anything that remotely approximates nightlife. Greenland may not be for everyone, but for us, it was an unforgettable experience.

What we did: The Coolest Marathon on Earth

We decided to run across the ice sheet by participating in the Polar Circle Half Marathon. (Photo: Marathon Photos)

As Greenland has no bridges, tunnels, railroads, or ferries that link it to other countries, it is only accessible by air from Denmark or Iceland.

Kangerlussuaq is not much more than an airstrip on the edge of a small settlement. Originally built as an American Air Force base during World War II, it is Greenland’s largest commercial airport, where all flights from Copenhagen arrive and depart.

Lying around 50 km north of the Arctic Circle, Kangerlussuaq (Big Fjord) is one of the farthest inland settlements in Greenland. It is also the only place where you can walk on the ice sheet. A 38km gravel road (the longest on the island!) connects the Kangerlussuaq airport to what is known as Point 660.

From there, it’s a hike across the moraine — basically piles of dirt and rocks left behind by the retreating glacier — to the ice sheet.

The Northern Lights appear year round, but the best season is end September to March. (Photo: 123RF)

We decided to run, rather than walk, across the ice sheet by participating in the Polar Circle Half Marathon. Often referred to as “The Coolest Marathon on Earth”, the 21.097km route takes runners across the ice cap and through the Arctic desert.

On race day, temperatures hovered around -15 deg C at the start. The organisers said it might “warm” to 10 deg C. The route was rocky, snowy, and icy, with blustery winds that whipped the distance marker flags into a frenzy.

Despite wearing spikes, slipping on the ice was par for the course, as was sinking knee-deep into the soft snow. Running this race was both stunning and breathtaking — literally! Towering glacial peaks of pure ice. A pristine snowscape that stretched out as far as the eye could see.

We crossed the finish line carrying the Singapore flag utterly exhausted, making us the first Singaporean couple crazy enough to attempt the Polar Circle Half Marathon together.

What we tried: Icelandic chewing gum

An obligatory food shot (whale blubber not pictured). (Photo: Su-Yen Wong)

The evening after the race, we were treated to a traditional Greenlandic banquet. Caribou and musk ox were on the menu, as were whale steak and blubber, the latter of which is considered a delicacy by Greenlanders.

Eaten raw and known colloquially as Greenlandic chewing gum, we found the blubber soft and oily, while the skin was rubbery and virtually impossible to swallow. Let’s just say it’s not for the faint of heart.

Later that night, we braved the sub-zero temperatures and ventured out into the darkness in search of the Northern Lights. The aurora appears whenever she deems fit — there are never any guarantees.

As luck would have it, we were treated to a spectacular display. Watching the shimmering lights dance across the sky was magical and awe-inspiring.

What we saw: The ice that sank the Titanic

Sailing in Disko Bay near the Ilulissat Icefjord. (Photo: 123RF)

The next day, we travelled north to Ilulissat on the west coast of the island, and 250 km north of the Arctic Circle. With a population of 4,500 inhabitants (and 3,500 sled dogs), Ilulissat is the third-largest city in Greenland. In the picturesque Old Harbour, colourful wooden houses dot the shoreline.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, the Ilulissat Icefjord is majestic. Measuring 6km wide and 55km long, it is a massive collection of icebergs carved from Sermeq Kujalleq, the world’s fastest glacier. Glaciologists suspect the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912 was carved from this glacier.

We sailed through the Icefjord, which allowed us to get up close to the lofty ice sculptures. The pristine silence was broken periodically by the sound of icebergs breaking away with a thunderous crash. It was also frigid, we shuddered at how cold the lone fisherman must have felt in an exposed fishing boat in the middle of the glistening icebergs.

With ice as old as 250,000 years, the Greenland ice cap plays an important role in understanding and monitoring climate change effects. It was humbling to be at climate change ‘ground zero’ and to hear first-hand from local Greenlanders the extent to which the glaciers have retreated.

If Greenland’s ice sheet were to melt completely, global sea levels would rise by 7m. Needless to say, the consequences would be disastrous.

What we love: The sled dog way of life

As there are virtually no roads between towns, transportation in winter has historically been by dog sled. (Photo: 123RF)

The Greenlandic sled dog is a specific breed of husky found only in Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle. As Greenland has virtually no roads between towns, the primary means of transportation has historically been by boat around the coast in summer, and by dog sled overland in winter.

We visited a sled dog centre and learned that sled dog culture is core to the Greenlandic identity. With the introduction of snowmobiles (which do not require feeding when not in use!), the role of sled dogs has gradually decreased.

Over the last 20 years, the population has decreased by around 50 per cent and along with the extinction of this species, Greenland’s sled dog culture is in danger of disappearing.

(Related: 10 remote hotels and resorts to escape from it all)

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