INTELLIGENT TRAVELLER Situated high in the Svalbard Archipelago – some 300 miles above the northernmost tip of Norway – is one of the most northerly human settlements on the planet. Only the hardiest of souls survive in this inhospitable environment: a place where the polar bear population easily outnumbers the 2000 human citizens. No roads connect it with any other community – the only means of transport is by boat, plane or snowmobile. Welcome to the surreal, isolated blue-white world of Longyearbyen.
An intrinsic and fascinating strangeness becomes apparent quite quickly; someone is missing. No-one in Longyearbyen is elderly. Those entering old age inevitably leave for the mainland as do people with long-term illness. Dying isn’t encouraged on Svalbard because bodies won’t decompose in the permafrost; they have the unfortunate habit of popping back out of the earth, zombie-like at a later date.
Even though there’s no room for the dead, Longyearbyen still manages to entice settlers who stick out the intense cold for a few years at a time. A small university attracts international students and coalmining provides challenging industry for some resilient Norwegian workers.
But there’s also a rainbow coalition of thirty-five other nationalities who have decided to make the end of the world their home. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 states that citizens from all nations should enjoy the same right of access to and residence in the region. As a consequence normal immigration rules don’t apply – perhaps it’s the only place on the planet to enjoy such liberal frontiers.
One of Longyearbyen’s itinerant population is Kazem Ariaiwand, a 48 year old Iranian. He has a thriving business selling kebabs to an appreciative clientele of locals and the occasional tourist. Roede Isbjoern or the Red Polar Bear is, by default, the most northerly kebab shop on earth. But Kazem is a master of subterfuge – what appears as inherent optimism masks his real life story and I’m left guessing as to why he has sought to live in this frozen and all but secret society.
For such a small population to be so racially diverse is probably unique, as is Longyearbyen’s status as the smallest capital on earth. But there’s nothing urban about the community; bizarrely there’s a hint of the Wild West to this polar outpost, maybe the busy bars and gun culture have something to do with that. A sign at the post office politely requests that firearms are left in a locker outside. Yet carrying a gun makes good sense and is compulsory if you cross the city limits: everyone needs protection from ravening polar bears.
In this land of extremes, temperatures plunge to forty below zero and the wind chill factor drops as low as minus 75. Daylight vanishes entirely for three months over winter plunging Longyearbyen into a seemingly endless polar night – at the other end of the spectrum the tedium of 24-hour daylight blights the summer. An eternal night uninterrupted by the familiarity of day (or vice versa) warps time for the visitor and resident alike. Constant darkness is unsettling, ominous and confusing.
On my visit, at the end of January, I accidentally witnessed the first glimmer of a polar dawn. At midday twenty minutes of hazy blue light filled the sky and attempted to awaken the frozen landscape and reignite life. The brief moment felt profound but the locals seemed indifferent. I was disappointed there was no ritual to mark the retuning of the sun; my pagan sensibilities would have enjoyed a celebratory pot shot at a passing reindeer or spot of seasonal seal baiting. Instead it was business as usual at the North Pole’s Co-operative supermarket.
Light spilling from shops onto the main street looks cheery and party-like – a forever Christmas scene – and pools of orange fluorescence cast by distant street lamps become polar mirages of golden warmth. A few tourist shops blaze optimistically in the darkness. But they have a long wait before the summer cruise ships return and disgorge passengers eager to snap up souvenir purses, waistcoats and boots fashioned from embroidered sealskin. Stuffed polar bears are available for those with macabre taste and an overly generous baggage allowance.
But wherever you are in this town, you never quite escape from its utilitarian history; the very reason for Longyearbyen’s existence. Remnants of a past industrial heyday punctuate the landscape. Monumental wooden pylons, like impressive sculptures stride from the coal-filled mountains towards the sea port; they’re vaguely soviet, testimony to hard labour and man’s innate belief that he can become a master of nature.
Of course the best humanity can do is to destroy rather than control the natural world. And our insurance against cataclysm, man-made or otherwise, is to be found deep inside one of Longyearbyen’s mountains. An international seed-bank operated by the Global Diversity Trust has been blasted out of the frozen rocks; a doomsday depository impervious to nuclear Armageddon and consistently chilled. But quite who is going to access this impregnable and invaluable cache after we’re all gone is anyone’s guess.
The seed-bank’s illuminated entrance blinks eerily across the lonely primeval landscape. Flurries of snow soften an already abstract environment and mist, appearing from nowhere, weaves its own ethereal magic. The ruinous beauty is diffused when the indigo light fleetingly returns and flattens any sense of depth. It plays painterly, impressionistic tricks with perception, distorting an already indefinable landscape. I was struck while looking at those cerulean mountains and inky black sea by an image that glimpsed back through prehistory and saw the world as it was when time began.
Longyearbyen’s residents and visitors can’t help but be enthralled by nature; survival, health and sanity are symbiotic with it. And of all the natural polar wonders none is as awesome as the aura borealis. The Northern Lights are Mother Nature’s opportunity to pump extraordinary colour back into the barren wastes and dazzle her audience of polar bears and motley humans with the greatest light show on earth.