Arctic

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Workmen x Snow x Airport

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I ended up getting sent to the Tromsø airport by a workman.

My short journey to the bus stop was timed so all I had to do was to wait for bus no. 42 to come. A slew of heavy vehicles salting the road and clearing the snow however, meant that a diversion was put up just at the junction I was waiting just about a minute later. To my horror, the bus I was supposed to be taking went merrily on its way in another direction as the workmen waved the vehicles to the left instead of straight.

Panicking, I considered walking back to the hotel – any hotel! – to ask for a cab, until I ran into a workman standing at that same junction. He didn’t know English too well, but we spoke the universal language of gestures and a flurry of hand signals later, my luggage was loaded into the back seat of his work car (complete with an orange siren) and off we went to the airport.

During the short journey, I learned that his shift lasts 14 hours today because of the snow storms of the past few days – a storm into which I had actually flown directly when I arrived.

I wish I could have told him just how grateful I was for that impromptu ride, but all I could say was a multitude of ‘thank-yous’, to which he simply replied, “It’s my fault you’re stranded. It’s the least I could do.”

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ArcticDestinationsEuropeNorwayScandinavia

Snowmobiling – Redux

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The weather chaos of yesterday meant that many tour operators had to cancel their trips into the Lyngen Alps. At their meeting point at the Rica Ishavs Hotel at 8.45 a.m., the driver was still trying to convince people that the dogsled tour was cancelled because of the bad snow. But the skies finally cleared and the first light hit the corona of peaks in the Troms region as the Lyngsfjord Adventure bus hit the road – with me on it.

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Camp Tamok is approximately 90 minutes away from Tromsø and the heart of the Lyngsfjord Adventure tour. I met Mike, my snowmobile guide who trained as a helicopter technician in college. With another Italian couple who proclaim to hate TV but love the internet with the little English they speak, we took off into the highlands over fresh, deep snow.

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“The trail will be hard today,” Mike said, “because of the storm yesterday. I woke up at 5 a.m. today to make a trail and I tipped over in my snowmobile. In all my 20 years driving a snowmobile this has never happened.”

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We stopped halfway at a quaint little hut in midst of the mountains and breathed the suffocating smell of firewood cackling in the air. Like caricatures of the stereotypical Italian, the Italian tourists spoke about pasta and spaghetti when Mike told them he was going to Rome in March 2014. At our return, there was reindeer stew (makes me wonder if they just felled one of those that took the tourists for a sleighride) and Lefsa, a traditional Norwegian dessert cake that had me beating myself for not finding these little treasures earlier. The Lavvu (a huge Sami tent that can easily sit up to eighty) was our own holding pen against the chill, filled with smoke from damp wood that didn’t burn clean and crisp.

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Darkness overtook whatever little light there was by about 2 p.m.. Just as people herded reindeer earlier, they were themselves herded into the bus that unerringly took them back to Tromsø, a reminder that for the experience of life up north, this is after all, a tourist-run event.

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ArcticDestinationsEuropeNorwayScandinavia

Storm in a snow cup

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I find myself missing Svalbard already, a day after leaving it.

In contrast to Svalbard’s winter silence, Tromsø is vibrant, noisy and teeming with life – even at the odd hours of the night as students and yuppies roam the streets after partying and hard drinking. Still, this place lies almost 400km north of the Arctic Circle (70 degrees North), but the climate is more humid, mitigated by Gulf stream that trickles to a halt here. The Polar Night here is a pale imitation of the one on Longyearbyen: a greyish-blue tinge of light blankets the city at around 10am till about 2 or 3pm, giving it a surrealistic, winter-wonderland feel that’s gone down the rabbit hole.

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Snow blew in furious gusts the moment I came out of the airport, blanketing the streets in silence by about 7pm – and out went the hope of seeing the Northern lights. The forecast is for rain, snow and gale for exactly the time period I’m going to be here and my next snowmobile trip to camp Tamok with Lyngsfjord Adventures is hopefully not going to ruined by poor weather. 3 days in Longyearbyen seems to be sufficient time to prep the body for more extreme weather and Tromso’s sub-zero temperatures are still way easier to tolerate after landing in a snow storm. Schadenfreude dictated that I giggled at a plane load of Brit tourists who complained immediately about the freezing cold as the wind flung icicles hard in everyone’s faces.

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The main part of town forms part of the eastern shores of Tromsøya along the Tromsø Sound, linked to the mainland by a kilometre-long (thereabout) arched-bridge that’s as iconic of the city as its surroundings of snow-capped peaks where many tour operators conduct winter activities. Visiting Prestvannet (a lake that’s now frozen) and the cable car across the Sound were on the plans today. I accomplished only the former but not the latter which was closed because of the danger of avalanches. The storm rolled in by the time I reached the long bridge and I got up halfway before making my way down again.

I’ve already slipped a few times, hauled up once by my rucksack by a complete stranger and pretty much announced to the world that I’m a tourist from the hesitant way I walk across the ice mounds at the side of the road.

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Snowmobiling in Svalbard

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A dummy in a snowmobile suit (complete with a Soviet-era-style helmet) sits in a lonesome chair in the corner, like a WWII relic that Svalbard had forgotten. In reality, it was exactly how we were supposed to dress, with no skin exposed to the elements. I for one, was dancing with joy to learn that the snowmobile had heating in the handlebars for the hands.

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With Christian (out German guide of Svalbard Scooterutleie) and two other Dutch tourists, we took off into Adventdalen once again, going further than the dogsleds could and up into the Pingo, an Inuvialuktun word that refers to a hill with a core of ice. Pingos, as they are known in English, are formed in areas of permafrost when ponds or lakes are drained. When the wet lake bed freezes, the ice below expands and is forced upwards. With the roar of the engine in my ears and illuminating beams of light from the other snowmobiles, we cut a path slightly upwards around the Pingo and stopped shy of a cabin up in the hills. It’s there that we stopped for coffee and blackcurrant drinks (ribena) deep in the valleys and for random conversations that flitted from the constellations in the sky to Chris’s 1-year long survival training course in the Arctic.

Whatever I had expected of snowmobiling, it wasn’t one that involved shooting straight into the snow at the slightest squeeze of the throttle. As responsive as the snowmobile is to acceleration, steering took more effort than I thought, helping to give my underworked biceps a good push at the same time.

As reticent as the Norwegians are about their successes, bragging rights here, as it seems, come in the form of latitudes that measure how far past the arctic circle you’ve gone as well as the extremity of the activity in which you’ve participated. One of the Dutch guys asked Christian what the furthest he’d been, to which he sheepishly replied, “83 degrees.” I noted that the dutch tourists’ reaction was one of awe, who then proceeded to talk about scaling a mountain near the Svalbard airport the day before.

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I got back in time for an Advent candle-walk ceremony that apparently involved copious amounts of mulled wine and candles; I saw a small, lopsided Christmas tree instead in the centre of town with lots of people milling about. Instead of standing there cluelessly as I normally do, I wondered what the fuss was all about and took a 30-minute walk out of town where the candle-march was supposed to have started…and inevitably found myself at Huset, the most highly-rated restaurant/cafe in all of Longyearbyen and sat down for a really early dinner. The chef himself said that he’d prepare a dish from the normal menu for me (there was only the Christmas dining option on that day) because I ‘wasn’t from around there’. If I had been Norwegian however, the chef said and trailed off with a murderously forbidding expression on his face, swiping sharply once across the table.

Smoked trout, with salad, pickled mushrooms and beetroots with lemon mayonnaise was what I got while everyone else ate pork belly. And it couldn’t have been better. There’s usually little compulsion for me to step out after dark, but I’m glad that I made this exception.

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Sled run on a ‘fine’ day

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“Dogs have an instinct to follow,” the guide (originally from the Czech Republic) at Svalbard Vilmarkssenter said emphatically as he wheezed out commands in Norwegian which all the huskies obey. “They’re noisy now, but they’ll calm down and get up to a good speed when they set off.”

As continually amazed as I am that many people here don’t actually speak Norwegian as their native tongue, all thoughts of population diversity flew out of my mind the moment we took off across the frozen river towards Adventdalen with the dogs that strained to simply run. There were reindeer grazing along the banks of the frozen river and as the dogs rounded several rough corners, the mining detritus surrounding the place becoming evident as the lights of an abandoned mine came into view.

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The huskies have beautiful names – like Silje, Stina, Biard – and each responds to his/her own as the guide speaks, a beautifully synchronous relationship of man and animal that I witnessed on this cloudy day (night?). They are trained together, a process that involves the older ones training the teenagers through the actual experience of sledding itself. Siblings are kept on the same sled to foster unity.

Preparing the dogs for sledding was hard work. The strength of an excited dog is considerable, amplified by their wild, drunken enthusiasm when they see the doors to their cages open. Like males tanked up on football night at their local pub, they celebrated their temporary freedom in less-than-graceful style.

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A young, Norwegian couple and I were the only ones going sledding through Adventdalen on this very ‘fine’ day, according to the guide from the Czech Republic (shortened to GFCR), whose name I never managed to catch. This is his second season in Svalbard and before that, spent the last 5 years down ‘south’ in Tromsø, but surely nothing can quite get anyone used to this weather? With temperatures hovering at -20 degrees Celsius, GFCR simply said that the weather was nice unlike two days ago when it was freezing. Halfway through the ride, I all but ejected the guide from the driver’s seat, impatient to take the reins myself. With a little sheepishness, I confessed that I love speed in all forms, prompting GFCR to jokingly say that we could simply be drivers with ‘two other tourists far behind us’. I laughed and simply pushed the sled harder as I tried to ignore the smell of the dogs that lingered on my clothes and the spreading numbness of my fingers and toes. We finally stopped to rotate the dogs and having handed the guide my camera earlier, I found myself an unwitting subject of my own camera when he shone a light straight into my face and snapped an awkward portrait of me.

The last twenty minutes were the most tortuous when the winds from the sea blew in, covering the twilight sky with clouds and heavier air. I took my place back in the sled, borrowed the guide’s huge gloves to ward off the cold and prayed that the dogs got us back quickly. My cheeks were long flayed with the cold and later, I discovered that I have torn holes in my gloves as I desperately clenched my fists to keep the numbness from getting worse. Until now, the tingling remains and not in a good way.

It was only later that the Norwegians themselves confessed they had never been so cold in their lives (also during the last 20 minutes) that I felt loads better.

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ArcticDestinationsEuropeNorwayScandinavia

78 Degrees North

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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.

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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.

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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.

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