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It took me a week to figure out where I was even going in the arctic, and once I was there, four days to differentiate how Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, and Svalbard were related.
I had originally planned a trip to
Norway to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø, but when someone suggested going even further North, to an Arctic archipelago that’s known as the “Northermost inhabited place in the world”, I obviously couldn’t say no.
The people there refer to it as “Next to the North Pole” or the “North Polet”, because it’s the closest location that commercial flights operate to, and well, because it’s right next to the North Pole. It’s peculiar in general that people are eager to travel there, but what I found even more interesting is the way of life there. With only 2,100 official residents, 3,000 native polar bears, and a rapidly increasing amount of global visitors, Longyearbyen, the small town in the area of Spitsbergen, that’s on the archipelago of Svalbard, has quite the adventure to offer. Here’s the peculiar things I found during my visit with Spitsbergen Travel, to the Northernmost town in the world:
Some people will argue that there are places further north than Svalbard that you can go to, and they’re right; but it’s mostly ice and maybe a few research stations. Svalbard has an actual town (called Longyearbyen) that is inhabited by about 2,100 residents who live there somewhat permanently, as opposed to being there for research. It also has several restaurants, two schools, a university, a movie theater, a shopping center, and a grocery store.
Everyone who lives in Longyearbyen has moved there from somewhere else. Although there are a few multi-generation families there, the majority of people do not stay for their entire lives. The earliest inhabitants were the coal miners and their superiors, but all of them came from other countries as well.
Now it might be slightly higher since it’s easy for the average age of a 2,100 person population to shift drastically, but I thought this was interesting because it shows how many young people and new families are living in the Arctic. As I mentioned there are two schools, which means a lot of kids are growing up in the Arctic!
Yep. That’s right. You’ll see people walking and riding snowmobiles with rifles slung around their shoulders, and all of your tour guides will have them too. Although there haven’t been any actual polar bear attacks, and the only sighting I heard of involved a big bear getting into a lot of dog food, the people in Longyearbyen are still extremely cautious. There’s even a polar bear guard that patrols the fence around the school where the kids play.
At first I thought the blinding neon yellow reflective vests were some other sort of polar bear protection, and was a little reluctant to put one on for one of my walking tours. But, I quickly realized that since the winters are dark for the majority of the day, the reflective vests are more for helping motorists see pedestrians that may be walking around.
When someone told me that the old cole mine nestled in the snow covered mountainside near the school was where the kids believed Santa’s workshop was, I 100% believed it too. I mean, it makes sense, since it’s right next to the North Pole, and it even looks like it does in the movies! They told me that during Christmas the town lights the old mine up with lights and a tree, and puts a mailbox at the bottom of the mountain for the kids to put their letters to Santa in. Aww.
Apparently this is an old tradition which started to avoid people tracking ice inside and getting everything wet. I can also see why it may have been started around when Longyearbyen was a mining town, in order to avoid black soot everywhere! But yes, in hotels and restaurants, even the fancy ones, you have to take your shoes off at the door. Kind of fun dining in socks!
Considering how many countries in the world produce and love wine, not to mention, how many wine enthusiasts there are all over the world, it was a little surprising when I heard that the largest wine collection was on this Arctic archipelago. This wine collection is located in Huset, a restaurant/wine cellar/cafe/night club, and holds over 30,000 different types of wine from all over the world!
Clearly some people think (or know) that eventually hell is going to freeze over, because they’ve taken copies of seeds from every important plant in the world, and stored them in an indestructible “World Seed Vault” in none other than the Arctic archipelago, Svalbard. So now you know where to head if the world is ending, even though it’s too cold to grow any plants there!
There’s a few cars here and there, but since Longyearbyen is such a small town, and since you can’t drive most cars over ice or snow, the majority of people there use snowmobiles. Snowmobiles are also used in many of the tours, not to mention, are really fun to drive!
That’s right, Svalbard is not a country, nor does it belong to one. It’s technically under Norway’s rule, but it’s open game for anyone to come live and work there if they can afford to sustain themselves. It has several nicknames such as “No Man’s Land”, “Next to the North Pole”, and the “North Polet”.
No wonder why there’s no natives, no one is allowed to give birth in Svalbard! It’s not because they don’t want anyone to claim being a native though, it’s because their main hospital isn’t equipped for an emergency in case something were to go wrong with child birth. Instead, a person must fly to either Norway or their home country to deliver. You can definitely die there (hopefully you won’t), but you can’t be buried in Svalbard, because the majority of the archipelago is made of permafrost, which means after a while, your perfectly preserved body would rise up to the surface.
This is another old tradition that they created in order to keep the coal miners, uh, tame. You can only order certain amounts of hard liquor and beer in Svalbard, but wine is open game for drinking and buying as much as you want. As a wino, I very much appreciated this rule.
Since there’s no plant or animal crops in Svalbard, all plant or animal products must be mostly imported. Since they are harder to import, especially since they’re perishable, things like milk and juice are drastically more expensive than alcohol!
Again, since plant products are difficult and expensive to import to Svalbard, the amount of vegetables is limited. Although I’m a vegetarian, I don’t really like vegetables, so this was perfectly fine with me, just funny to see the types of portions I’d get at the restaurants!
When I was in Svalbard in the beginning of February, the sun had just started to come out again after a winter of darkness. It would only come out a little bit for an hour or so, but would gradually increase by 20 minutes each day. The only time I ever knew what time it was, was when it was light out, but before and after that I had to set alarms for certain times I had to do things. In the summer when it’s 24 hours of sunlight, the town uses mood lighting to let people know when it’s “night time” even when it’s still light out.
As one of the only animals that live in Svalbard and are actually edible, it’s normal to see dishes like Reindeer soup. It’s actually more common in mainland Norway, where Reindeer meat is still a typical food item and a main business trade for the native Sami people. As a vegetarian, I did not actually eat the Reindeer meat, but I used a piece of bread to taste the broth of the soup, which pretty much tasted like your typical beef stew. Sorry Rudolph.
Technically I hadn’t met them before, but as soon as I got to Svalbard I received an email from someone saying their mother saw that I posted on social media that I was going to Svalbard (that’s awesome). Turns out that he’s the drummer for a popular Norwegian musician named Sondre Lerche, who was performing in a music event called the Polarjazz Festival, which, is also peculiar to see happening on an Arctic archipelago next to the North Pole!