A few months ago, I decided on a whim that I had to visit the Arctic during winter and thought Svalbard came the closest to it without getting close to the North Pole. Little did I realise that I was going to travel during a Polar Night weekend where hoards of merry-making Norwegians piled onto the plane from Oslo/Tromsø and onto the island, making the small airport like a bus stop gathering of neighbours. Everyone seemed to know everyone and bus after bus stopped at the front door of the Radisson Polar Blu hotel until there was a queue that stretched outside for check-in in minus 16-degree weather. The result of the tourist hoard taking off their shoes en masse coupled with huge winter coats and large baggage is a bovine, clueless lot that’s been suddenly turned into shark bait.
To say I was gobsmacked would be mildly putting it. If they were here for dog-sledding and snowmobiling, I saw little evidence of that given many of them cut the straightest and fastest path to the bar soon after dumping their bags in their rooms.
Longyearbyen is Svalbard’s only town of about 2000 inhabitants and if the name sounds funny, that’s because it combines the American name (American industrialist John Munroe Longyear) and the Norwegian word for ‘city’ (‘byen’). It’s colder than a witch’s arse. But such is the scale of this place that everything is dwarfed by nature, at least, that’s the little I can see during the Polar night. Despite being sheltered from the arctic winds by surrounding mountains, Longyearbyen still gets the biting winds that fling snow onto everything, including my face and eyes. It’s enough to instill a healthy respect for the harsh environment.
There are other weird quirks about this place: carrying a gun outside the ‘protected bear’ area is mandatory but shooting one will precipitate a very thorough investigation; dying is forbidden here because of a human corpse’s inability to decompose in the permafrost; houses are built on stilts to counter the varying depth of the permafrost during the different seasons; the custom of taking shoes off happens on a grand scale; cats are prohibited here because they pose a problem for bird life.
There’s a lot of talk about bears here and rightfully so. It’s difficult to get the image of a cuddly soft-toy out of most people’s heads – and perhaps therein lies the danger: the complacency that it would behave as such in reality. Here in Longyear city, residents live in healthy fear of it (university students are taught how to shoot one); the hotel’s WIFI password uses this magic word; the map shows the ‘polar bear’ safe area.
In this extreme weather, it’s easy to lose any sense of perception and a short trek up and down the main street of tiny Longyearbyen can feel like you’ve trundled for miles. There’s little to do in the town itself apart from trudging down the snow-covered street, greeting a random husky and possibly drinking oneself into oblivion thanks to the tax-free alcohol here. Yet life goes on – children go to school and working adults cram the town’s only supermarket at 5pm – and this normality is astounding from where I stand.