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Greenland (Part 1) by Søren Rasmussen - article courtesy of Greenland Tourism

Mountain peaks protrude through the ice sheet, which glides slowly towards the sea in a fascinating pattern of frozen forces. After a four-hour flight from Copenhagen, we have crossed the east coast of Greenland with its rugged mountains and icy sea. Below us is an ice sheet up to three kilometres thick, which keeps 85 per cent of Greenland inaccessible, holding the country in the grip of a dazzlingly white coldness.

The air is clear and dry and visibility seemingly endless when, three-quarters of an hour later, we have passed over the ice and land at Kangerlussuaq Airport, Greenland's international hub, formerly an American military base. At first glance a dreary provincial airport, but an hour-long excursion in the local sightseeing bus soon changes that impression: the mountains surrounding the airport are home to thousands of musk ox and reindeer, and they are not particularly shy. On the one side we can just make out the white ice sheet, reachable within an hour in an off-road vehicle; on the other side is the narrow, 170-kilometre-long Kangerlussuaq fjord. This is the starting point for Arctic expeditions and research projects, and small helicopters fly geologists, biologists and glaciologists out to remote camps.

In an elderly Greenlandair Dash-7 four-propeller plane, we continue our journey northwards to the town of Ilulissat in Disko bay. Greenland has no railways and no roads between the towns. All transport is by means of plane and helicopter, or by ship during the short period of the year when the sea is not frozen over. Hundreds of desolate kilometres separate the small towns and villages - rugged mountain landscapes, lakes and glacier tongues with no trace of human civilisation glide by beneath the plane.

The pilot takes the plane down and outside the windows the Ilulissat ice fjord comes into view. This is the northern hemisphere's most productive glacier, moving 30 metres a day over its 7-kilometre-wide front. Colossal ice masses break off and float out through the 40-kilometre-long fjord, ultimately coming to a halt just outside the town of Ilulissat at a depth of 300 metres. Here the large icebergs, standing over 100 metres above sea level, form a tremendous sculpture park until, with the spring tide, they are lifted free or pressed down by new icebergs from the fjord.

The proportions are quite different in this country. The distances and the scenery on the world's largest island are as immense as the figures for human activity are tiny. With just over 4,000 inhabitants, the town of Ilulissat is Greenland's third-largest town - in total only around 55,000 people live in the country as a whole, 7,000 of them Danes. The public transport network, which links the 18 towns and 60 villages together, basically comprises five 50-seater propeller-driven aircraft, a corresponding number of helicopters and three passenger ships. The alternative is dog-sleighs and dinghies with outboard motors.

Sleigh dogs can be seen everywhere on the mountain among the coloured timber houses. Fish and skins are hung out to dry on high wooden frames out of the dogs' reach. The town's Greenlandic name, Ilulissat, means "icebergs", which makes sense, as there are views of the white giants all around. The Danish name for the town is Jakobshavn, and it was the birthplace of the Polar researcher Knud Rasmussen, whose home is now a museum. The roads are asphalted, and hundreds of cars populate the small town, whose road network in all directions ends at the last house. Here there are supermarkets, cafes, clothes shops - and "brættet" [the board], which is a local market for fish, birds, seal meat and whale meat caught by local fishermen, sealers and whalers. Mattak - raw whale skin - is the ultimate delicacy.

The living resources - fish, birds and animals - have always formed the basis of existence for the Greenlanders. For centuries they lived completely cut off from the rest of the world until the first foreigners, Dutch and Spanish whalers, arrived in the 17th century. 1721 saw the arrival of the priest Hans Egede and the start of Danish colonisation of the country. Hans Egede's mission was actually to resume contact with the Norse settlers descended from those who had settled in South Greenland in 985, led by Erik the Red, and lived there in a community of several thousand until the 15th century. However, the Norse settlers had disappeared without trace - nobody really knows how - and Hans Egede continued up to Greenland's west coast, where he founded the colony of Godthåb and established contact with the local Eskimo population, who were heathens. Godthåb is now Greenland's capital and is called Nuuk, and the inhabitants are Christians.

Several colonies were formed, and Denmark gradually established a proper system of administration via Kongelige Grønlandske Handel [Royal Greenland Trade], which had a monopoly on both the purchase of products caught and the sale of basic goods. At the end of the Second World War, Greenland was still a colony with an economy based on natural products, but in the years that followed, change came fast. Major construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s brought electricity, harbour facilities, fish factories, hospitals, schools and blocks of flats to the small Greenland towns, while smaller villages were deserted in large numbers.


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