Longyearbyen Svalbard: A Taste of Artic’s Wilderness
Note: This is a new post but the travel took place in 2015
To start a journey from Kuala Lumpur to Longyearbyen, Svalbard is just the same as the travel to the land of unknown. Not only because the Svalbard archipelago is approximately 10,000 km away from our hometown, but also one of the most mysterious places in the world, all of that has never stopped me, my better half and my buddy to begin the adventure we will surely remember for a lifetime. An adventure that we candidly named “#KeHujungDunia with the motivation to probably be the few Malaysians that step foot at this “northernmost settlement”.
Svalbard is a group of islands under the majestic polar sky, located 900 km north of the Norwegian coast. There are several small settlements on the biggest island of Spitsbergen and the largest town with around 1,200 inhabitants is called Longyearbyen, situated at 78° North. As we have found out, between 30 and 40 thousand tourists visit Svalbard annually. It’s a really grand number if we take into account distance from the destination to the mainland. Interesting fact is that Svalbard is halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. And, it is as close as you can get to the North Pole without being in a real expedition.
Our “Arctic Adventure” could finally start when we arrived to Longyearbyen in the late afternoon when we stepped out on a small airport in Longyearbyen (northernmost airport in the world). The harsh climate has definitely surprised us.
For us Malaysians who are so used to having summer all year long with an average temperature of 30 degrees Celcius, experiencing sub-zero temperature is definitely a new experience. At that point I remember my other half asking me “why did we choose to spend our holiday in this temperature again?” I just smiled.
Longyearbyen is the northernmost settlement in the world. Uniqueness and excitement of Longyearbyen is reflected in many things. For Example. Just like Malaysia, in Longyearbyen is also customary to take your shoes off when you go to someone’s house (or our hotel) for a visit. It’s a sign of affection. For a few months it is completely dark, and for a few months during the year it is bright. For the local population it is quite normal to carry guns with them in case they were attacked by a polar bear.
While Svalbard has a list of unique attractions, its most popular tourist activities are mainly beyond the comfort zone of Longyearbyen. Snow mobile adventure, ice caving, hiking in snow, dog sledding and Aurora Borealis hunting are some of the “must-try” activities in Svalbard.
We used the first hours of arrival to take a sled dog ride, pulled by Siberian and Alaskan huskies, the usual means of transportation there. The experience, being pulled by a group of powerful Alaskan huskies while heavy snow falling straight to our face in total darkness of night is simply an amazing one. Visibility was limited, but the feeling of being away from the modern world even for only a couple of hours of the ride is very exciting. Just us, the dogs and nature.
The second day was reserved for snow hike and ice cave exploration, after a rich Norwegian breakfast, which included fresh fish, of course…
After breakfast we decided to embark on a snowy adventure. For us it was all completely new and mystical, like everything is when you do it for the first time. Our snowy adventure consisted practically of two parts. One part included climbing the Lars Glacier and the other exploring ice caves beneath Lars Glacier. Adventure lasted over seven hours and I can tell that it was one of the most memorable hikes that I ever experienced.
As we increasingly climbed uphill, our gadgets stopped working due too cold. Was it a sign that we have engaged in something unknown and known? Should we perhaps give up? However, we did not.
And, after a little more than two hours we reached the entrance to the cave. By that time our electronics such as my cameras, phones and music players were all frozen and can’t be operated normally. Even the water that I brought with me, completely froze. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as our guide showed us the trick of drinking straight from a fresh pile of clean snow.
The entrance to the ice cave was more than spectacular. It was like an entrance to another dimension or a whole new world. Inside, it was full of surprises. Stalactites, stalagmites and other ‘ice jewelry’. For us, it all left strong impression, for all time.
As mentioned earlier, Longyearbyen is also a nice place for touristy sightseeing activities. For those who loves sending post cards, why not send one from the northernmost post office in the world. or withdraw money from the northernmost ATM machine!
There is also a small church in the city, behind it even smaller school and brownish hills covered with snow in the background. The church is always open so you’re free to help yourself with coffee and cakes, postcards and other interesting tidbits for visitors, just leave the money in the container for this purpose. We‘ve got an impression that people here live like a big family.
It is interested to note that, for example. in Longyearbyen you are prohibited to die. Yes, you heard right. Small cemetery located next to the church was suspended all burials more than 70 years ago.
While we walked the snowy streets, I often wondered: what these people actually do here? Have those kids always been here? Or some of the people simply stopped by never to leave this place?
It is interesting that everything in Longyearbyen is “northernmost” in the world: from supermarket, bakeries and pharmacy.
A few of museums and galleries will give you an excellent insight to the life of people in this isolated territory, where reindeers are usual and free to wonder around the place. Polar foxes and some bird species have found their habitat on the island, too.
Santa’s alternate office, I guess.
Just before we left, we visited another famous Svalbard’s icon. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault or known to some as the “Doomsday Vault”. You guessed it right. This is the backup centre for seeds from all around the world. This unique vault is a joint-project between governments of countries of northern Europe with contributions from all over the world. Longyearbyen was chosen simply because of its remoteness and the cold temperature that would naturally store the crops in good condition. And, there is now about 860 000, seeds of different crops. An interesting concept in a very interesting place.
While we were packing to return home, we commented with the melancholy that four days was too short of a stay to experience the spirit of Longyearbyen to the fullest. Nevertheless, we achieved what we aimed for and we are around to say that#KehujungDunia was a success! As we continued our journey to Paris, we promised ourselves that we will return to Svalbard one day and dedicate it as much attention as that magical place deserves.