A sign warning of polar bears, seen from Longyearbyen with Longyearbyen airport in the distance.
It’s been a few months since I made this trip - last January to be exact - but I still think about it a lot, so I had to write down my experience! Especially since not a lot of people travel during the polar night, and there is not a lot of info regarding travelling here during these months.
The journey to the town on a remote island starts for me in Amsterdam airport. As I was travelling at the tail of Covid, there were still strict entry requirements for both Norway and Svalbard, so I planned the journey in stages. As this is my most expensive trip so far and everything was booked in advance I didn’t want to get stuck midway through the journey waiting for paperwork, so I made sure that I had some extra time at each transfer city.
First up was Oslo. I had booked two nights in a hotel here, as one of the requirements for entry besides proof of vaccination was to be tested within 24 hours of arrival. Lucky for me, everyone got tested before we even were allowed to exit the airport, so I had an extra day to go sledding just outside the city.
The next stop was Tromsø. The plane that took me from Oslo to Tromsø was actually continuing to Longyearbyen and so the exact plane that I would take the next day. On the plane there was an announcement about a test requirement before arrival at Svalbard, which I knew nothing about. Lucky for me, I could get another Covid test in Tromsø. This ended up being the most expensive test I ever paid for at 180 euros, but as I was this close to the island that had been a dream destination since I was 12 I was not going to let that stop me.
During my trip up north, first at Oslo and then at Tromsø, the nights got longer and longer. At Oslo the difference was a bit noticable, but in Tromsø there was already no official daylight, only civil twilight during these months. When I arrived it was already very dark, so getting some sleep was no issue at all.
The next morning I finally got on the plane for the last leg of the journey. After some de-icing we were ready to go, and flew into the night.
As we departed in the morning, the 2-hour journey would take place during the lightest hours of the day. But as we were this far up north, every minute everything got darker and darker. I chose a window seat on the right side of the plane, to be directed away from the final sunset in the hopes of seeing northern lights from the window, but that sadly didn’t happen.
The descent into Longyearbyen airport was quite exciting. Because of very heavy crosswinds it was unclear whether we would be able to land or have to return to Tromsø. Seeing the runway ahead through the window because we were crabbing was a unique experience, and luckily we did manage to land safely.
I’ve been at small airports before, like the one in Rovaniemi or Siem Reap, but the airport terminal at Longyearbyen is much smaller and more local. It seemed like everyone knew eachother and most people on my half empty flight were locals. That was made much more clear when everyone walked out of the terminal to their car or snowmobile, and I was one of the few waiting for the bus.
There is only one bus service here, running before flights leave or after they arrive. With three others that were all students at the university here, we drove the tiny stretch from the airport to the town of Longyearbyen. Walking the stretch without a gun and flare is not an option here because of the dangers of polar bears.
My accommodation for the week I’ll be staying here was “Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg”. As this was once a sprawling mining town, this hotel is made from miner barracks. Besides that, there is a boat and a miners bus converted to a smoking area.
I was greeted by the nicest hotel staff I have encountered. As I am travelling far outside the tourist season which starts in March for winter sports and lasts until the end of the summer, not a lot of people are staying here. There are some students that study at the university here, but besides them and an Argentinian couple the hotel is empty.
After the snowstorm that was going on when I arrived had settled, I decided to go on a little exploring trip. The town is built in a valley, with a river bed in the middle. Crossing the riverbed from the side with the docks, the Sysselmesteren (Governor building) and the church to the other side over a narrow walking bridge gets you to the side with the small shopping center and some more hotels and restaurants. This riverbed is also the darkest place in town, and as you’re not allowed outside the town without a guide and gun, this is the ideal place to watch the northern lights here.
The shopping center - Lompen Senteret - is quite big for a town this size. And surprisingly a lot of people get here by car, even though there is only 40kms of road on the entire island. You can see Stationen on the left of the picture - where you can have delicious dinner, with next to it “Svalbardbutikken”, a store of “Coop” that sells almost no fruits and vegetables but still has a very big assortment of food to buy.
The stores here have a surprising sticker on them. Because of the prevalence of guns on this island, it is made explicitly clear that they are not allowed inside the shopping center and supermarket.
The main road here that connects the museum all the way to the back of the valley and has the shopping center, most hotels and restaurants and a hospital is nicely lit.
As we are very far north here, so this place is not that good of a place to see the northern lights. If you want to see them more brightly, it is better to spend some extra few days in Tromsø, which I also did on the way back home. But still, during several nights it was possible to see very nice displays of the enchanting spectacle.
The picture above was taken from the riverbed. The towers were used for transporting coal once, and the pipelines over the riverbed transport hot water to the other side of town. The steps next to them is also the best way to walk from one side of town to the other.
On my second day we went husky sledding! With 5 people in total including our guide, we took a trip into the next valley. As I was lucky to be in the front with our guide, we also had the loaded gun with us. With a bright moon it was very easy to navigate, but we had to stop several times to check if a shadow moving in the distance was a dear or a polar bear. The pictures on my new Google Pixel 6 make it seem much lighter than it really was;
Even though tours are very expensive here as you have to rent a guide for literally every experience here, it is so worth it. After recovering from the muscle ache from strapping up the husky’s and navigating the sled, my next trip here would be a hike to the Larsbreen glacier. But as there had been many snowstorms the days before, and there was a high avalanche risk in the valley we went to a glacier west of it, “Longyearbreen”. Both glaciers lie at the back of the valley the town Longyearbyen is in. After getting a helmet, a headlamp and some spikes we drove to the edge of town and our tour guide loaded the gun.
Our hike started nice, but soon turned into walking up steep hills in knee-deep snow.
With the lit-up town and full moon behind us, we started to experience more fall winds, which would blow up snow and make visibility very bad.
This was honestly one of the more difficult things I have done in my life. After the trip, one of the other guys that was visiting shared this picture of me, where you can - besides my ridiculous outfit - really see me contemplating what I’m doing with my life. But this really was one hell of an experience!
During the climb up, my phone eventually said it had 0 percent battery because of the extreme cold (-20C) and died, but I luckily managed to get it hot enough to work again.
We had to search a bit, because the original glacier we would visit had a marked entrance but this one hadn’t been visited yet since the fresh layer of snow. So we had to rely on the experience of our guide to locate it, and after randomly digging a hole somewhere we got to the correct location on the first try!
And what a wonderful experience to walk in and below a glacier!
After walking around and crawling below a narrow passageway, we followed the path the glacier melt follows in summer. As this town was made popular because of the coal mines, it was really cool to see coal and plant fossils lying around.
The walk back was very interesting, because we got a lot of information about avalanches from our guide, where we even caused some shifting snow on smaller hills. Sadly, my phone died again when we went back outside the glacier, so I don’t have any pictures from that point on for the day.
The next day I joined a group that was here to open a pop-up restaurant to go snow mobiling.
Even though we got a special suit from the tour company, it was still a very cold day, so thankfully we ended up in a cabin just outside of town with some Toddy and reindeer heart.
On my last day here I once again did a hike with the same people, but this time up to “Plateau” next to town. This was a more friendly hike, and even though there was a very strong wind causing the day to be really cold, we had great views from the top of the hill and from the WWII bunker.
I have lots more to tell. The stories about the weird alcohol laws to prevent alcoholism, the shoe culture, sleep rhythms…
But you will have to wait for the next time I’m in this town. I will be working remotely from this place next winter if everything goes according to plan. I’ll hopefully write a lot more then!