Svalbard, land of the Isbjörn

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May 22nd 2008
Published: October 6th 2008
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"Come, watch the tones of changing light
From starlit days to sun-filled nights.
Refreshed from Polar Night's calm sleep,
With gentle sunrays, time I keep!"

So reads the 24-hour sundial in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a land of extremes. Located at 79 degrees north, Longyearbyen is well past the Arctic circle and holds claim to several 'northernmost' records. The town of 2000 formerly was dedicated to coal mining and research but tourism is quickly grabbing hold, with several hotels and restaurants opening the past few years. Svalbard is a Norwegian territory and may also be known by the name of Spitsbergen, Svalbard being the name for the archipelago and Spitsbergen the main island. Located only 900 miles from the North Pole, it is used as a staging point for polar expeditions. Although owned by Norway, there is a Russian settlement here, Barentsburg. There used to be another Russian town here, Pyramiden, but it was abandoned several years ago.

I spent three days in Svalbard as part of a two week trip through Scandinavia. Really the only way to get here is to fly; SAS has several flights a day either from Oslo nonstop or via Tromso, about a 3 hr flight either way. The budget airline Norwegian has also started flights to Longyearbyen. SAS is a member of the Star Alliance and you can use award miles to get to Longyearbyen, at 50,000 miles from the US it is certainly a good use of an award! My routing was San Antonio to Chicago to London to Oslo overnight and finally to Longyearbyen, then returning home from Zurich two weeks later. This required buying a one-way ticket from Svalbard back to Oslo for $175.

Accommodation (and most everything else) on Svalbard is expensive, even for Scandinavia, a dorm room at the guesthouse here is $60+. There is a Radisson here which would cost you over $200/nt. Most of the hotels/hostels here were converted from miners barracks. Very basic but clean.

May 20, 2008
Flight: Oslo to Longyearbyen, SAS 4414, Economy
Hotel: Spitsbergen Guesthouse, 330NOK ($64)

I woke up early this morning at the Anker Hostel around 7AM, still pretty tired from jetlag as I had just arrived into Norway the previous day. It had been awhile since I'd stayed at a hostel. Hotels (and everything else) are very expensive in Scandinavia, especially with the dollar being in the toilet. Even a bunk in a hostel here is close to $45 a night. My flight was at 9:55, but figured I wouldn't need much time as I had done internet checkin the night before. I walked down to the bus/train station, grabbing a muffin and banana along the way for breakfast. I literally just missed the airport bus by seconds, the driver closed the door right as I got to the bus at 7:30 and seemed to ignore my frantic waving through the window! Well they run every 20 minutes so not much a problem. I caught the next Flybussen (120NOK), which seemed to take forever and make infinite number of stops, but really only took about 45 minutes. The train to the airport is 180NOK but only takes 20 minutes, several trains had passed us like we were standing still. After arriving at the airport, I got my bags out of storage where I had left them the previous day, then got my boarding pass using one of the numerous kiosks. My backpack was too big/bulky to checkin at the counter so had to go clear down to the other end of the terminal to drop off my bag. I then joined the security line, getting through around 9:10. The flight to Longyearbyen left from the domestic terminal. I got out another few thousand NOK from the ATM here to cover the next few days in Svalbard.

The SAS 737 flight itself was pretty uneventful; the first segment was to Tromsø, about 1.5hrs. of As we headed further north, the snow cover on the mountains kept getting larger and larger. Finally we approached the town of Tromsø, 69 degrees north and is built on an island and surrounded by snowcovered peaks. This was the furthest north I had been, indeed my first time above the Arctic circle. Everyone had to get off the plane here during the hour layover. There were quite a few tourists onboard, looking kitted out to go on an Arctic expedition. They were planning on going on a cruise around the islands. I grabbed a $13 hotdog for lunch before we all boarded the plane again; I had a bit of a panic as I temporarily couldn't find my boarding pass. They were printed on a flimsy piece of paper like a receipt, not the usual boarding pass stock. An hour or so later we
Ice BearIce BearIce Bear

Unfortunately this is the only Polar bear I saw in Svalbard
arrived over Svalbard in gorgeously clear weather. the vast Arctic landscape spread out below. I had done a sightseeing flight over Antarctica many years ago when I was in Australia, but the landscape here was more jagged and raw. We came lower and lower, flying past a radar dome and the capital of Longyearbyen before landing.

I stepped off the plane and down the stairs into the clear cold Arctic sunlight. The temperature was just below freezing even in late May. The terminal seemed nice and new and there was a stuffed polar bear watching over the luggage belt. The bus into town was 50NOK, it stops at all the hotels. I had already booked a room at the Spitsbergen Guesthouse for 330NOK. I had also been in contact with someone via hospitality club to stay at his place, but had missed emails, so went straight to the Guesthouse. It is customary here to remove your shoes when entering a house or hotel, they usually provide slippers for you to walk around inside. The Spitsbergen Guesthouse was previously a miner barracks, it is located in the town of Nybyen (New Town) about a mile south of Longyearbyen. I had paid for a dorm room, 2 or 3 beds to a room but I was the only one staying in this room. I stashed my stuff then headed out for a walk into town. Longyearbyen is located at the end of a glacial valley, there are two roads on either side of the valley with big steam pipes running down to Nybyen. I headed over to the west side of the valley, past the Huset restaurant and down to the old cemetery. The snow was still quite deep in places, piled up 4'-5' along the side of the road.

Svalbard has a history of coal mining, which continues to this day. Although the area around Longyearbyen has been mined out, many of the old mining structures remain scattered among the valley. Distances are deceiving here, the cold air magnifies far away objects. So the cemetery kept looking like it was getting closer but still took me 20 minutes to get there! The cemetery here was used in the early 20th century, most locals now prefer to be buried back in Norway. Continuing down the road I reached the Longyearbyen church, the worlds northernmost. They serve waffles and coffee here. There is also a sundial nearby, showing all 24 hrs! I next wandered into town to the Svalbard Museum. There were dozens and dozens of snowmobiles outside. The museum has moved recently from its old location, and the new location is quite nice! Quite extensive exhibits on mining, wildlife, German bombing/occupation in WWII, etc. I had gotten there late in the afternoon and they closed at 5, so they kicked me out before I could see everything, I easily could have spent a few more hours there! I asked where the polar bear sign was, it turns out there are two warning signs at either end of town.

I next headed off to the east of town, down the main road to reach the polar bear warning sign. The scenery got increasingly more desolate after leaving town, passing only a scattered house and the dog kennels. Maybe a 20 minute walk from the museum. I get there only to have my camera stop working!! I guess the cold is affecting the electronics. I started the long walk back to the Guesthouse, it taking almost an hour to return. It was maybe 7PM at this point, I was still jetlagged too as I was still on US time; so crashed pretty hard. I woke up at 1AM and it was still bright light outside!

May 21, 2008
Hotel: Spitsbergen Guesthouse, 330NOK ($64)

Today I had reserved a trip at noon to visit one of the coal mines, mine #7, the only mine still operating near Longyearbyen. It mainly produces coal for the power plant in town. There is a larger mine, Svea, but it is located some distance from town and not accessible by road. I had hoped to do a snowmobile tour to the Russian town of Barentsburg, but there had been too much snowmelt to make the trip on snowmobiles. In summer they have a boat to Barentsburg, but I was two weeks to early. So May probably isn't the best time to come. This morning I had breakfast at the guesthouse, they have signs saying don't take stuff from the buffet! You can order a to-go packed lunch for about $8 though. I had gotten a message at the desk from the Hospitality Club member, we had crossed signals again as my SMS message wouldn't work to his phone. I still had some time to kill so I decided to walk back into town again and back to the polar bear sign; having the tour pick me up at the Radisson hotel instead of at the guesthouse. Again a long walk into town (A bicycle would have been nice to rent while here) and luckily my camera worked this time! The snow was melting rapidly here, barren patches of scragglegrass and pools of water had opened up since even yesterday.

I walked back to the Radisson, the world's northernmost hotel to wait for the tour to arrive. The ride out to the mine went out to the east of town then up the side of a hill, the coal dust here had turned the snow a dirty black! We had to change into overalls, boots and hardhat, then changed vehicles into a very battered and dirty minivan for the 4km drive through the shafts to the mine face. The mine was a constant chilly -4C. The mining continues around the clock, with three shifts. We arrived at the side shaft, and got out of the minivan and into a low-lying mining car. There wasn't enough room to fit everyone! One person had to stay back in the minivan, sitting in the cold and pitch dark for a half hour! Hopefully they got a refund. The side shaft was only 1.5m high, really had to lie low in the car to keep my head from hitting the roof of the shaft! We reached another side tunnel where we got out of the low car and crawled on hands and knees over to the mine face where the excavator was digging through. Quite impressive, the machine ate through 20' of rock in just seconds. We hopped back in the lowcar and back to the minivan for the ride out of the mine. We were all covered in coal dust!

The tour dropped me back off at the guesthouse where I had a much needed shower. The guesthouse had shared bathrooms (very clean) and you had to use a squeegee to dry the floor after having a shower. I next headed down to the Spitsbergen Hotel to meet up with the Hospitality Club guy who worked at the restaurant there. I decided to splurge on dinner there, having the seal (ok) and whale (yuck) plate with a glass of wine. After dinner, he got off work and we went down to the Radisson for a couple of beers. Beers were slightly cheaper here (only $8!) instead of $10 in mainland Norway. By this point it was past midnight, yet still sunlight out, as I started the long walk back up to the guesthouse. I'd planned on taking my bags to his apartment tomorrow morning, then spending my last night in Svalbard at his place.

May 22, 2008
Hotel: Hospitality Club

Today was going to be a looong day. I'd booked a 10hr snowmobile trip to the east coast of Svalbard, hopefully looking for polar bears (although it's late in the season now). I walked down to Milan's apartment, dumping my bags then down to the tour office. I was still way early so sat around getting fitted for the snowmobile outfit: huge boots, snowmobile suit, mittens, balaclava and helmet. The wait was even longer as some people thought the tour picked up at the hotel instead of meeting at the office. We setoff soon though, having to drive out of town to where they kept the snowmobiles. We setoff, having to cross the road, then down the valley floor, which was very slushy. Some of us got bogged down and we had to turn around and go back the way we'd come.. at first I was worried it was too slushy and we couldn't go! But luckily the guide found a way through as we started racing along the valley. There were hundreds of scootertracks all along the way here. The weather was gorgeous today with bizzarely shaped lenticular clouds overhead. I'd been lucky and had good weather the whole time I'd been in Svalbard. We raced along for over an hour before pulling up for our first break. The scenery was eerily desolate, just a vast expanse of white everywhere with no signs of civilization. I'd never been on a snowmobile before, but wow what a rush racing along at 50mph over the snow! We set off again, still having several hours to go before reaching the east coast. Along the way we had to go around a gigantic glacial moraine. As we came over the top of the glacier we passed under one of the eerie clouds and it started snowing; drifting snow around us so you couldn't see the ground and it seemed like we were racing along through a swirling mist. We finally came out of the snow and finally could see the east coast in front of us.. it seemed so close yet due to the cold distorting distance it still took us over an hour to reach it! The sky was still clouded over as we pulled up for lunch; cookies, tea and freeze dried stew. yum.

After lunch we drove the snowmobiles out onto the sea ice.. another few miles and we round the bend with a huge glacier in front of us. The sky had cleared as well and made a stunning view. No luck seeing any polar bears today though. We turned around for the long ride back to Longyearbyen. Another guy and I both had the sport snowmobiles, we took turns racing each other at 70+MPH! Probably one of the most awesome things I've ever done. Finally we arrive back where we had left that morning. We had to cross the paved road with the snowmobiles, then up a little ways. Well, unfortunately the snow was all slush on the other side of the road; several people were able to get through but as soon as I came across my snowmobile got bogged down! The guy behind me ended up getting stuck as well. We had to sit around for awhile until they could attach a tow rope to my snowmobile. I had to get off when they towed it, stepping into almost 2' of icy slush water which immediately went into my boots. I'd never felt anything so cold in my life! Brr brr.. quite painful, I kept trying to move my toes to keep them warm and warm up the water a bit. I'd had on thick woolen socks but they were waterlogged so not doing much good. It took awhile to get the both of us unstuck and back into town. Finally I was able to take off the boots and pour 5" of water out of them! My feet were bright pink but luckily not frostbitten. It had been a long day and yet it was only 7PM. I headed back to Milan's place where he and his gf had just prepared dinner. I went to bed early as I'd have to get up at 2:30AM for the ride to the airport the next morning!


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