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“Watch out for polar bears!” friends said when they heard I was going to Svalbard. And there I was, less than five minutes after landing at Longyearbyen airport, face to face with a huge male bear, frozen in a hunting pose, eyes fixed in a deathly stare.
OK, it was standing in the middle of the luggage carousel and it hadn’t hunted anything in a long time, aside from suitcases, given that it was stuffed. But, still — it was like Jurassic Park International having a giant model of a T-Rex in arrivals.
Many tourists travelling to this Norwegian archipelago, three hours’ flying time due north from Oslo and just 1,300km from the North Pole, come to see the islands’ 3,000 bears. Most are disappointed. The bears largely live on the pack ice, in areas fiercely protected by the Norwegian government, hundreds of kilometres north of the capital, Longyearbyen. Sightings do occur near to the city — there was the tragic case of the British schoolboy killed by a bear 40km from Longyearbyen in 2011 — but they are rare. For most visitors — 97 per cent, in fact — our friend at the airport is the closest they’ll come. Just as well, then, that a visit to Svalbard is about much more than bears.
On the drive into Longyearbyen (five minutes, on a 5km stretch of the archipelago’s 46km of roads), the driver explained a little of Svalbard’s history. Dutchman Willem Barentsz had first sighted the islands in 1596 and christened them Spitsbergen (Dutch for “sharp-peaked mountains”). From the 17th to the early 19th centuries it had been a hunting free-for-all, as the British, Dutch and Danish slaughtered the whales for oil, the polar bears for their pelts and walruses for their ivory, almost to the point of extinction. In the early 20th century an American, John Munro Longyear, discovered coal. The second free-for-all followed as mines opened up along the fiords — there was no national claim to the islands until the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. It gave Norway sovereignty, but also allowed the 13 other original signatories (now grown to 42, including Afghanistan, North Korea and Russia) the rights for their citizens to reside in Svalbard and for their nations to engage in mining there.
A global collapse in coal prices, from around $120 a tonne in 2011 to $45 a tonne today, and the costs of mining at this latitude, mean that today only three mines remain. Of those, the largest, at Sveagruva, 44km as the crow flies from the capital, is due to close later this year.
So Svalbard needs a sustainable future. And it is hoped that my busload of visitors, along with the 135,000 other tourists who will journey here this year, are a large part of it.
We arrived in Longyearbyen, population 2,100 (of the archipelago’s 2,500 total) and, at 78 degrees, the world’s northernmost town (only a couple of military and research bases are closer to the pole). We dropped our bags at the Radisson Blu Polar, the world’s northernmost serviced hotel, by now realising that the prefix “world’s northernmost” would feature a lot during our visit. (For reasons of space, it will henceforth be denoted with an asterisk.)
We headed out on a walking tour, starting at the Svalbard Brewery*, down by the Adventfjord on which Longyearbyen sits. It is owned by Robert Johansen, 57, a former miner who fought for years to overturn a 1928 brewing ban on Svalbard (authorities thought that a combination of alcohol and miners stuck in a tiny settlement might not be such a great one). In 2014 he succeeded. Today, he produces 250,000 litres a year, made mostly with water from a nearby glacier. “I thought it would be nice to have something of our own here,” he told me. “Before, we only had coal.”
We headed into town, no rough frontier place these days but full of bright buildings: schools*, restaurants*, even a Thai supermarket* (the Thai, numbering some 200, form the second-largest ethnic group on Svalbard; lovesick miners went to Thailand on holiday in the 1980s and brought back more than photographs). As we walked, our guide, Anika Paust, explained about the polar night — from roughly December 10 until mid-January Svalbard is in total darkness. From then on, each day brings 20 minutes more daylight until April 19, when the sun rises and doesn’t set again until August 23. In early March, when we were there, the sun rises high enough above the mountains to finally hit Longyearbyen. No surprise, then, that most people in the town had a look of startled wonder on their faces, as if they’d just had sacks removed from their heads.
Above us on the bleak, snow-covered valley walls stood long-abandoned coal mines, everywhere the wooden pylons of the old cableways that once brought down the coal, silent now but once filling the valley 24 hours a day with fearsome clanking and squealing.
We passed a lonely graveyard* marked with simple crosses. They stopped burials here in the 1950s, as bodies started popping up out of the permafrost in a thaw. These days you are not allowed to be born, grow old or die in Svalbard because, respectively, Norway doesn’t want to grant citizenship to any children of the 43 different nationalities who call Svalbard home, there are no elderly care facilities (when you are no longer economically productive, you must leave, a bit like Logan’s Run without the euthanasia), and there’s nowhere to bury people.
We passed the university* and former miners’ barracks, now turned into student accommodation — Svalbard, Paust explained, is now one of the world’s leading centres for climate studies — and arrived at Huset, once the miners’ community hall, now a restaurant. We removed our shoes — strict protocol in Longyearbyen, a legacy of the mining days, when not only the entire landscape was coated in coal dust but carpets, too. There we ate a seven-course tasting menu including Arctic char, Svalbard reindeer sausages and king crab, each dish accompanied by different wines from Huset’s 20,000-strong cellar. It felt weird to be eating so fabulously in a place so far from the rest of the world; like finding a good gastropub on Mars.
The next day, after a delay — one of our party was trapped in his hotel room for an hour after the shifting permafrost had jammed his door shut — we headed out on snowmobiles, destination Barentsburg, a Russian mining town some 70km away. The guides both carried rifles in case of bear encounters, a compulsory requirement for anybody leaving the city limits of Longyearbyen.
We rode inland alongside a frozen river and then climbed, cutting between peaks on high passes, and then dipped down again, barrelling along deep, twisting troughs like a bobsleigh run, and then out on to a boundless plain, the sky and the land utterly indistinguishable, a bleached-out world of total whiteness. Flying across the ice, the only way you could tell you were moving was by looking at the speedometer.
We stopped to photograph some Svalbard reindeer. Their ancestors are thought to have walked across from the mainland during the last ice age and they are, along with the Arctic fox, the only land mammals in Svalbard. With their stumpy legs and thick pelts, they’ve adapted superbly to conditions here, using their ice-pick-like hooves to cut through the permafrost to find the vegetation beneath. Without any natural predators (polar bears can’t chase them because they’d overheat), the reindeer are very tame. And, like the recovering numbers of whales and bears, since commercial bans on hunting them were imposed (there were thought to be fewer than 1,000 left in 1920), their numbers have recovered to around 12,000 today.
Soon after, we passed a graveyard of rusting old Soviet-era trucks and machinery and then entered Barentsburg, all signs now in Cyrillic. Next to the coal-fired power station that keeps the settlement alive, we met our guide, Evgeniy Brylkinm, a twenty-something from the Urals who’d pitched up in Barentsburg a few months earlier in search of adventure and now looked as if he wished he hadn’t. Brylkinm took us on the tour, past the kindergarten, on its walls a giant mural featuring the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral, a Russian consulate*, the world’s second-most northerly brewery, a brutalist monument to Soviet miners*, an Orthodox chapel* and a statue of Comrade Lenin. “Our hero,” said Brylkinm. (There is another Russian settlement further north, Pyramiden, abandoned in 1998, with a Lenin statue*.)
Brylkinm told us that there are 350 miners in Barentsburg, down from 1,300 in the Soviet heyday, many of them Ukrainians. “On Soviet Army Day 10 years ago, there was big fight; knives, smashed faces,” Brylkinm said.
After a lunch of borscht and pickles and solyanka (pork stew) in the Barentsburg Hotel, we visited the gift shop, where we perused the Lenin caps and packs of old roubles wrapped in cellophane. Even now, I can’t help thinking I might have imagined Barentsburg.
The next afternoon, kitted out with snowshoes, we headed for the glacier behind Longyearbyen. At the city limits, Signe Dahlberg, 25, and Karl Schönning, 32, our guides, stopped to load their rifles (live rounds are not allowed in town), and then we were off, climbing steeply, the only sounds our snowshoes crunching into the soft snow and our heavy breathing. After three hours in the dark, we arrived at our accommodation: a snowcave, about six metres across. As Karl cooked up a lamb stew, Signe told us a little more about Svalbard (from the Norse “cold rim”), how of its 62,500 sq km land mass, 60 per cent is sheathed in glacial ice, 30 per cent is barren ground (scree, rock, moraines) and only 10 per cent is vegetated. Its seven national parks and 23 nature reserves now cover two-thirds of the islands. She told us how a 2015 ban on cruise ships using heavy marine oil — similar to the one enforced in Antarctica in 2011 — means that only small expedition ships can now access the remote parts (where the bears live). Svalbard, she said, is now one of the most well-protected ecosystems on earth.
After dinner, we got into our down bags and, in the tight circular space, arranged ourselves like spokes on a wheel, plumes of frozen breath rising, nobody daring to go outside for fear of becoming the world’s northernmost toilet-related polar-bear incident.
In the morning, we clambered down a ladder in a hole in the corner of the cave, and then walked along narrow, twisting corridors of 1,000-year-old ice, corkscrewing down inside the glacier. This was a meltwater channel through which, come the thaw, millions of gallons of water would rage. Above our heads, huge paving-slabs of rock dangled precariously from the ice. Signe showed us how the ice is layered, like the rings of a tree, so that you can tell its age. Tiny blobs of air bubbles trapped in the pellucid walls looked like strings of pearls. Down and down we walked, squeezing along the narrow tube, until we were deep inside the glacier. Signe asked us to turn off our headtorches. For a minute we stood in Stygian silence, utterly lost to the world.
On my last day, I went to visit Mine No 3, a working mine until 1996, but now open to tourists. My guide, Kristen Jaeger Wexsahl, 25, showed me around the former pithead, where ID cards, overalls and newspapers from the day it closed lay around, as if the miners were just on a tea break. I asked her what it was like to live here, especially through the winters. “People really like the mørketid [dark time],” she said. “It is so dark and cold that nature forces you to stop. You effectively hibernate. No matter how much we try and impose ourselves on nature, our bodies are more or less Stone Age. Living in Svalbard puts you back in your rightful place in the animal kingdom.”
Back outside, we looked out over Adventfjorden to Isfjorden beyond. “This is the first winter ever that there’s been no sea ice in the outer fiords,” Wexsahl said, referring to the year’s record high sea temperatures.
As we drove back to town, we passed a giant concrete door in the side of the mountain. “What’s that?” I asked. “ The Global Seed Vault,” Wexsahl replied. “Since 2008, scientists have been depositing seeds here from the world’s most important crops. If a disaster happens, it would be like a Noah’s Ark, a way to rebuild.”
It seemed ironic that Svalbard, plundered for so long, struggling to survive against the climactic odds, could yet hold salvation for the rest of us.
Cutting-edge architecture at Europe’s furthest fringe
A remote fishing village in Norway’s Lofoten Islands is to be the unlikely site for a spectacular new luxury hotel. The Lofoten Opera hotel (pictured above, as an artist’s impression) has been designed by Snøhetta, an architectural practice known for the Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Norwegian National Opera house in Oslo and the entry pavilion at the 9/11 memorial in New York. Groundwork is nearing completion and the hotel is due to open within three years. It will sit on a rocky promontory just outside Sørvågen, a fishing community with fewer than 500 residents, close to where the road runs out at the far western end of the Lofoten chain. Despite its isolation, the property will have a spa, swimming pool and restaurant, with between 40 and 65 rooms. Dag Møller, the Oslo financier behind the project, says he was responding to a need for jobs in the area, and a lack of upmarket accommodation for visitors eager to see the Northern Lights, as well as to hike, ski, fish and kayak.
Mike Carter was a guest of the Norwegian and Svalbard tourist boards; see visitnorway.com, northernnorway.com and visitsvalbard.com. SAS (flysas.com) flies daily from Oslo to Longyearbyen (return flights from London via Oslo to Longyearbyen cost from around £240). The Radisson Blu Polar hotel (radissonblu.com) has doubles from NKr1,890 (£150). For details of snowmobile trips to Barentsburg, hikes to the Global Seed Vault and ice-cave camping, see spitsbergentravel.com and wildlife.no
Photographs: Renato Granieri