A common saying on this island is that people that come here are either looking for something, or running for something.
It was exactly a year since I left when I arrived back in January. After an overnight layover in Oslo on my way from Amsterdam, and a quick customs stop in Tromso the plane took us up, where I would see the last glimpse of sunlight for the next few months as we were flying into the darkness.
If you haven’t read my previous post and are not familiar with this place: Svalbard is an island north of Norway, with two towns - Longyearbyen and Barentsburg - and a research station - Ny alesund. Spread over these three population centers live around 2600 people, most of them in Longyearbyen. Under Norwegian sovereignty because of the Svalbard treaty, this island is the only truly visa free place in the world. Inhabitants are outnumbered by both snowmobiles and polar bears.
As last year, I am staying in Longyearbyen, the main town on this island with around 2300 inhabitants. Despite it’s size, the town has quite a lot of the usual conveniences. There’s a supermarket, a swimming pool, quite a lot of shops, two museums, a bunch of restaurants and even nightlife. But that’s not the reason I came back here.
As you might remember from my post last year, I stayed here for a week back then and already knew that I would come back here this year. But this year I got even more attached to this place. My initial 2 week holiday eventually ended up being followed by another 2 months. And that got extended by another month.
This town used to run on the coal mining industry. In fact a lot of the customs from back then still affect the current day. In the hotels, restaurants and even the hospital it is still required to take of your shoes as it was back in the day to prevent coal being tracked through the buildings. And to prevent over-consumption of alcohol by the miners, a quota and strong liquor and beers is still enacted today with the use of alcohol cards.
With the last mine shutting down and the power plant switching to diesel, the black gold is not the primary source of income on this island anymore. Every year, more than 30.000 people visit this island for wildlife, nature, expeditions or otherwise experiencing the harsh environment on this island. The hotels, bars, restaurants and tour companies that cater to these tourists and locals employ a lot of adventurous people that now make up the main demographic of this town.
And where I was only doing the touristic things last year and spent every day of my stay here out on trips, this year I got embraced by the locals and got to experience the real local live here. The year here started for me in the dark season. As we are far above the arctic circle, in winter time there is no sun here for 3 months. With weeks of snow storms followed by weeks of clear skies January is a very quiet month here. The perpetual darkness that attracted me to this place initially is apparently not that attractive to others. There’s not a lot of other tourists here in the low season, but most of them who do come here are other solo travelers.
Despite the darkness there is a lot of stuff going on here. A bunch of locals are on holidays, but the ones that still are here are enjoying the quietness before the main tourist season. With barely any light, it is not possible to do any of the longer snowmobile trips safely, so a lot of time is spent indoors, in restaurants or in bars. I might have been added to an alcoholics group chat because of the amount of time spent in those bars. And once you walk home from one of these bar nights, you might see some northern lights in front of the stars.
At the end of January there is some faint sign that the light will be back in a few months. Later on in the month and early februari there are some great purple hues on the horizon that light up the mountains you couldn’t even see the months before. The pictures here can’t even really show what these days look like.
Halfway through and at the end of februari the sun finally casts some lights on the mountains around town, even though there is not any sunrise yet. The sun low on the horizon still creates some magnificent effects;
On march 8th the entire town goes up to the place where the old hospital used to be at to celebrate the return of the sun in town. During the second world war the entire town was burned down, but the steps of the old hospital where the solfest was celebrated were rebuilt to preserve this tradition. The kids that live here sing songs and shout for the sun to return. This year, the shouting and singing to the sun couldn’t help agains the bad weather, and we didn’t get a glimpse of the sun.
A few days later though, the weather got better and it stopped snowing, and I was welcomed with this light coming out of my apartment!
During the weeks leading up to the first sun, and all the way to the end of may when the snow melts, it is now also snowmobile season! I actually went on a short trip back in January already towards Tempelfjorden. An almost flat trip with just enough snow to not scratch the snowmobiles sledges and enough light to not drive of a cliff. But with the light coming back there are way more things to see and places to go. Even though there are no trees or bigger vegetation on this island - except for the christmas tree forest at Mary ann’s - and this island mostly consists of mountains, there are actually quite a lot of nice things to see here.
Ice blisters, sea ice, pingo’s, and glaciers like the one pictured above are a very colorful blue in an otherwise blinding white environment.
During these weeks the days keep getting longer and longer. Days of snowstorms are followed by sunny days perfect for snowmobile trips.
With a lot of sea ice around Pyramiden, that town is not reachable yet. But the second town on this island - Barentsburg - is now besides snowmobile also reachable by boat. Henningson provides a full day trip to a glacier by boat where you’ll be provided with barbequeued meat, followed by a visit to this russian town.
My trip here is not over yet, and I’ll write more about this place soon!