Last year I started a new “tradition” (or what I hope to turn into a tradition over time anyways) of going to to winter-y destinations in December, close to Christmas, to get into the Christmas spirit. Last year my choice fell upon the swedish capital, Stockholm, as I wanted a nice christmas market and christmas lights, along with some snow (and had never been to my neighbouring country before!). I figured Stockholm would have snow in mid-late December, but as it turned out it was raining during my entire stay with no sight of snow anywhere. That was when I decided that this year I would need to head further north – a lot further north, for a proper snow trip.
My decision ended up being between the Spitsbergen archipelago, otherwise known as Svalbard or Tromsø, both in Norway, beyond the arctic circle, and excellent northern light spotting destinations. I ended up deciding to go to Svalbard, because it is a much more unique destination, being a group of frozen islands deep inside the arctic ocean, being ravaged by ice winds, and also having the distinction of having the northern most proper city in the world – the city of Longyearbyen with a population of 2000.
The flight to Longyearbyen was surprisingly cheap, with a transfer in Oslo. Just to put it into perspective, the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, going straight north takes 3 hours and covers some 2000 kms. Svalbard is FAR north. More precisely, it is 1300 km north of the arctic circle, and just a mere 1000 km from the north pole. This of course also means that Svalbard has polar nights – a few months where the sun never rises and the place is plunged into darkness. In Longyearbyen the polar night is on from October 26 to February 16. Equally, during summer the place has midnight sun, where the sun doesn’t go down for months on end. It truly is a place of extremes.
Svalbard is a territory under Norwegian jurisdiction, but thanks to the Svalbard treaty it is also a special region, in which everybody capable are allowed to settle down freely, and you don’t need any visa to enter (but since the only feasible entry point is flying from Norway, you will still need a Norwegian visa just to get to take the flight). Because of this, Longyearbyen with it’s 2000 population hosts more than 50 nationalities, but the majority being norwegians, and many of the others beings researchers of various kinds.
The flight took off from Oslo around 11am, and before 12:30am we had entered the polar night, and would not be seeing daylight again for the next almost 72 hours in my case. We arrived in Longyearbyen around 2pm, still absolutely dark. Quite the experience.
Touching down in Longyearbyen airport was an experience in itself, the landing strip essentially being a patch of frozen tarmac, but also uncomfortably short. But with skilled pilots, we got down safely. As you leave the airport, there’s a reliable public bus transport to take you into town, and it goes past all the various hotels and guesthouses. The bus schedule is made to fit with all arrivals, but also departures, picking people up from the various hotels as well. So in this way you don’t have to deal with haggling taxis, or worrying about being stuck in the arctic cold. It is a really nice service. A single-way ticket costs 70 NOK while a return ticket costs 120 NOK.
I stayed at Gjestehuset 102, which is located in the area called Nybyen (new city), which is deep inside the Longyear valley at the edge of the city, and it is also the last stop on the bus route. One thing to know is that accommodation in Svalbard is limited, and is not really cost efficient. Gjestehuset 102 offers nice basic rooms, and great surroundings. You see, Longyearbyen is located inside a valley with huge mountains on both sides, making it awe-inspiring to wander around. The valley ends in yet another stand alone mountain, and its with a view of all this that Gjestehuset is located. It also provides some dark spots for better northern light watching, which can be harder inside the city where light pollution is still an issue.
The only issue with Gjestehuset 102 is that it is located far from the city center, where the only shop is located. You can buy drinks and basic food at the hotel, but it’s very overpriced. The walk down to the city center is however splendid, offering stunning views of the mountains and landscape. But if it gets really cold or stormy, then it can be tedious. On this first day however, the temperature hovered around 0 degrees. Not exactly the arctic temperatures I had dreaded.
After arriving at the hotel and checking in, some hotel staff enters the reception and says that the northern lights are on outside! Something that was really unexpected, since all the weatherforecasts had predicted thick cloudcover during my entire stay, making it impossible to spot the lights. Granted upon arrival, I had noticed that the sky was indeed clear at that time, with a great view of the stars. So upon hearing this, I grabbed my camera and stormed outside to catch a glimpse.
I had no idea what to expect, and kinda thought i would be seeing the same as you usually see on pictures of the lights – very clear and impressive green waves dancing across the sky. But as it turns out, these are rare to see with the naked eye. What I saw was what I can best describe as white small patches of fog or cloud dancing across the sky. If nobody had told me that these were northern lights, I wouldn’t have noticed it. But the camera with a long shutter time revealed the true beauty of the lights, producing pictures like the usual ones with clear waves of green dancing over the sky and mountains.
Even the white waves I saw with the naked eyes were very pretty, especially the casual movements of the lights across the sky is amazing to witness.
The lights were on for about 10 minutes total and then slowly faded away.
I was exhilarated to have seen the northern lights at all after having pretty much come to terms with not going to see them on this trip. It is a life goal that came true for sure! This would also be the only time I got to see them during this trip sadly, despite the sky being clear on Sunday – my last day there.
A wonderful way to be welcomed to Svalbard!
There was no time to waste though, and soon afterwards I had my first trip – a guided city tour by minibus. We drove around and saw the main sights of the city, including the university, school, harbor area and more. Then we drove out of the city a bit to Coal Mine number 7, one of the old coal mines which is now shut down. It is located higher up and thus provides a good view of Longyearbyen and surrounding mountains.
We also had a stop at the infamous polar bear warning sign, which warns against the danger of polar bears all over Svalbard. Actually, the danger is so real that if you go even slightly out of town you are required to either bring an armed guide, or carry your own weapon.
The last stop of the trip was at the Global Seed Vault, or rather what has now turned into a construction site. Previously, only the entrance hall – a big metal construction going into the mountain side – was visible, and they didn’t have any tourist facilities. They’re now building this, as well as reinforcing the actual vault, as it has gotten flooded as the permafrost melted. The construction also meant the infamous entrance was obscured and barely visible. The Seed vault was built as a global storage facility for various plant seeds from all the countries in the world (even North Korea stores seeds here!). The vault is located far into a mountain and kept constantly at -20 degrees to preserve all the seeds. Each country can supply any seeds they want to store, and can also withdraw them at will. It is meant to work as a backup in case of emergencies in which crops goes extinct.
After the tour ended, I would have 2 hours until my next tour – a hike up the Plateau mountain for a view of Longyearbyen from above. I had some dinner, a portion of outdoors survival dried food, as there wasn’t time to walk to the store and back. This was the first time I’ve ever had this kind of food, and it was actually surprisingly good!
The Plateau mountain is one of the mountains forming the Longyear valley, and it is called Plateau mountain because the top is flat and forms a huge plateau, with a steep cliff-face going down. The hike up follows a fairly steep slope, and being covered in knee-deep snow, it made for an interesting hike.
On the hike I was joined by an american friend from the hotel, and our guide. The guide was naturally armed with a hunting rifle. Ready to fight off any stray polar bears. It wasn’t needed luckily. The weather had turned more unclear as it started to snow and sleet, and as we ascended the 350 meters up to the top of the mountain the view of the city below worsened, eventually we couldn’t see the mountains on the other side of the valley, but at least the town itself lit up by street lights was still visible. At the top we had a nice warm drink while taking in the views and celebrating having bested the horrible slope, slipping and sliding multiple times on the way. Even though we were wearing snow-spikes on our shoes to get a better grip, it didn’t help much.
The trip down was a whole lot easier and less exhaustive for sure!
The starting point for the hike is located right behind the local church – you guessed it, the northern most church in the world! – and so we peeped inside to check it out. The church is open 24/7, which is really nice, to seek refuge from the cold, or when needing a toilet. Something I would take advantage of a couple times later.
Afterwards we returned to the hotel and I just crashed in bed after a crazy first day, in the arctic waste lands. Impressed, but exhausted.