Impressions of Svalbard: part 1

When we booked flights to Longyearbyen in Svalbard some six months ago, I hadn’t expected to be half as blown away by the place as I am now that I am back. Our short travel to this unique destination wasn’t a typical mini-vacation, but it was still full of surprises, adventures and unforgettable memories.

Where is Svalbard?

Svalbard is an archipelago that belongs to the kingdom of Norway. It is located entirely on Arctic circle, on the north of mainland Europe. It is considered a good base for scientists who want to explore North Pole as it’s located only 1316 km south from North Pole. Besides being a spectacularly gorgeous region, it is also a region of world’s many nothernmosts and some of the most unusual laws: for example, how it is not allowed to venture out of settlements without a rifle due to high number of polar bears who are known to be aggressive and extremely powerful carnivores, Or how you can’t give birth or get buried in Svalbard due to the permafrost in the soil preventing the body from decaying.

Our short trip to Svalbard

As soon we got off the plane at 1:55 in the morning at Svalbard airport (world’s northernmost airport with regular flights all year round), I experienced a gust of cold wind sweep through my face. Despite it being summer, the temperatures were at lows of 2 degrees and highs of 7 degrees when we were there. I regretted not bringing my bulky winter boots mainly due to the inconvenience of carrying it around while on a one day stopover in Oslo. Thankfully, I had my warm winter jacket which proved to be very useful for someone like me who is cold 99% of the time. Packing appropriately is something I still can’t perfect, no matter how many trips I take around Europe ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Campsite

Our chosen place of stay was a campsite, also advertised as the northernmost camping in the world, that was right next to the airport. The first minutes of being surrounded by such surreal landscapes was indeed a memorable (and completely new) experience. After we went to the campsite and learned that there had been a mix-up with dates due to our confusing late-night arrival, we actually didn’t have any tent to sleep in the first night/morning! There was however a warm house with facilities that campers used, where we decided to leave bags and go explore the surroundings on foot. Since Svalbard’s location means that there’s almost 24 hours daylight in summer (of course the opposite in winter), the fact that it was 2 AM in the morning didn’t bother us at all.

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Landscapes of Svalbard

The location of campsite was very scenic. Many glaciers could be seen on the distance, and we were surrounded by fjords and sea. Unreal! There was a bird lagoon in front of the campsite where Arctic birds had just bred and were fiercely protecting their young ones. On walking along the path near bird lagoon, we were attacked by the aggressive Arctic Tern! It came as a shock and I was slightly bothered. Stasiek however, as always, was more fascinated than disturbed by the bird’s fierce screeching and attempt to peck our heads.

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Seasonal waterfall on a roadside

Exploring Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital

We continued walking beyond the bird lagoon to the direction of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital and the world’s northern most permanently inhabited city of more than a thousand people. On walking along the empty road, we noticed that the island didn’t have any trees! It was only patches of green grass and small, colorful flowers that bloomed. We also noticed the global seed vault that houses all known seeds of crops and plants from around the world in the event of a natural or nuclear disaster, at the hills near airport. We had binoculars and we made good use of them in this wild environment where everything seemed vast and distant.

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Polar bears are popular in Svalbard

On the first day, we walked to Longyearbyen town, with the majestic views of fjords and Greenland sea stretching before our eyes. It was cloudy the whole time, but it was never dark. Turns out that Svalbard is getting more and more popular with tourists, and that Saturday we saw groups of tourists exiting their cruise ship for what I assume was a one day stopover in Svalbard.

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Summer day in Longyearbyen

It was quite fascinating and strange to walk on the streets of the most populated city on Svalbard that had one supermarket, one shopping center, just a couple of restaurants and so on. You get the idea. The city is surrounded by such jaw-dropping natural beauty that I couldn’t believe where in the world I was. We went to a souvenir shop themed with polar bears and got fridge magnets. The prices were eye-watering and wallet-draining like elsewhere on mainland Norway and it applied to everything, except maybe alcohol due to Svalbard being a tax-free zone.

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Houses built for miners in Longyearbyen

We came across many interesting places in Longyearbyen, like the world’s northernmost car dealer (Toyota), world’s northernmost Lutheran church, world’s northernmost school, northernmost art gallery, northernmost cinema, northernmost sushi restaurant (what ๐Ÿ˜€ ) and the city itself being the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited city. The houses were typical Nordic style, wooden and painted with a monotone of some bright color while the parking spaces near the houses and apartments were filled with snow scooters, reminding us how heavy snow and harsh winters are a permanent affair for its residents.

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World’s northern most church

We finished walking around the entire town in about 2 hours until we reached mountains on one side and what seemed like gateway to the Arctic wilderness on the other side as made aware by this sign which is ubiquitous across Svalbard:

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We didn’t have any rifles on us, so we didn’t go further as polar bears are a serious threat with an extremely high chance of fatality in case it attacks. It was a strange sight to see people walking around with slinging rifles on their bodies.

Biking around the campsite and to the seed vault area

On one day, we rented bikes and went around the campsite and Lonyearbyen. We learned that a way to stop Arctic terns from pecking you on the head (ouch!) is to raise your hand in the air and make a circular motion. Passing what seemed like a tiny, deserted village (was not) set in the most scenic location between mountains and sea is something I’ll never forget. It felt like these people were so far away from the craziness of the world.

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The landscapes reminded me of Iceland, which has been my dream destination for almost 10 years now. The sea looked fantastic and I never knew that a beach at an Arctic location (!!!) could look so pretty and have its own appeal.

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Serene and absolutely out-of-world pretty

It wasn’t an easy task riding a bicycle uphill towards the global seed vault. Every time I looked around however, I had to pinch myself to remind that the natural beauty around was real.

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It was a freeing ย and humbling experience, to be surrounded by such vast nature and virtually no people. We enjoyed panoramic views of the sea and the fjords from the location of seed vault. Global seed vault is not open to anyone (obviously) except authorized people and its gray concrete structure is nowhere near pretty, however it’s the symbolism that is truly iconic.

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Thanks for reading! Stay tuned to read part two of the series on Svalbard. Update: Click here for part two.ย 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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52 thoughts on “Impressions of Svalbard: part 1

  1. Wow, what a blog. I’m so glad you posted that. I was really curious. I’ll be ekdum looking forward to part 2, Pooja. What are you doing there this evening ?

    1. Good morning Dai. Glad you enjoyed this blog post. ๐Ÿ™‚ I organized a little bbq evening yesterday with friends. Today morning back at work, but I am in a good mood because it’s soon weekend! What are your plans for the day and weekend Dai?

      1. Hi Pooja and good morning to you. Well I was planning to go to the nearest shopping mall later this morning but I’ve just been advised that the printer is being delivered this afternoon. So possibly I’ll be able to go to Jumbo tomorrow. Pooja, are you dreaming of polar bears since you’ve been back ?

      2. Dai you read my mind. I’ve been fascinated by polar bears since Svalbard. I managed to read their entire wikipedia page on flight back and also other articles on fun facts about them on the internet. Need to watch some documentaries now. They are such fascinating creatures, aren’t they..

      3. I love to watch bears. I remember one time when I’d finished walking on the Great Wall, I became fascinated by some bears in an enclosure. They had learned to beg for tidbits from tourists and they really worked hard at begging. That was strange but I stood there for well over an hour, just watching their behaviour. Polar bears are beautiful but I sure wouldn’t want one for a pet.

      4. Well I’ve never heard about that, Pooja. I’ve not yet seen a polar bear like me. Update for you:- the printer delivery has now been rescheduled to 10 am so I might be able to go to that shopping mall (YUCK). I need to get some fitted sheets that actually fit the beds here. Have a pleasant day, Pooja. I’ve just realised that its Friday today. I bet you love that.

    1. Your wife doesn’t enjoy cold places? ๐Ÿ˜€ I didn’t even mind the weather that much due to the incredible natural beauty around me.. I realized there that cold weather might be actually better than hot weather for walking around, exploring etc. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Your photos are very beautiful, Pooja. Interestingly, only last week I heard an interview on National Public Radio with one of the scientists who masterminded the seed vault. What an amazing project. And what a stunning location to store all these seeds! I look forward to part 2.

  3. Wow such a peculiar place to visit! You really inspired me for another trip! It seems Svalbard has a lot of “most northern something” aahah the capital – who looks more like a small village to me – is very cute and the landscapes are breathtaking ๐Ÿ˜ but I guess for people living there is quite boring, they just have a few restaurants and nothing more ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I guess they travel much ahah

    1. Hi Fede. Thanks for your comment. You’re right, Svalbard has so many northernmosts! I couldn’t list them all in this blog post heheh. I would too personally find it difficult to live in such an isolated place at the end of the world.. But for visiting and experiencing vast Arctic nature, it’s great! The locals from Svalbard regularly travel to mainland Norway for studies, work etc..

  4. Ok, question. I understand why you can’t bury people in the ground there. Makes sense. But why can’t you give birth? Was there any reason they gave?
    Ok, sorry, I am just very fixated on that one detail!

    1. I was also curious about that and it turns out that it’s because they don’t have sophisticated health facilities available in case of complications, so the women are recommended to go to mainland Norway for giving birth for their own safety! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yes you’re right! It does require a lot of planning because your mobility is limited due to the gun regulations, extremely high prices and harsh weather. It was actually not cold inside the tents, we had insulated mattresses and warm sleeping bags, I slept quite well! ๐Ÿ™‚ Besides, we went to the tent only for sleeping. Otherwise we were mostly in this warm common room which had a kitchen, bathroom and books on Svalbard and of course other people from the campsite you could socialize with. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Insulated mattresses sound good. We have so far camped using regular sleeping bags and foam mats beneath those. It sounds wonderful – the books and bonding sessions. Though how do gun regulations get in the way of mobility? Excuse me if that is a daft question!

      2. Oh not at all ๐Ÿ™‚ Since it’s not allowed to go outside of settlements (which are so small anyway) without a gun, renting a rifle with a valid gun license (if not, a temporary permit) might not be so easy for everyone – and besides that, I think there’s no guarantee of safety against ferocious polar bears even with a rifle(if you’re not too experienced) as they’re known to be very fast and powerful. Due to all these things, most tourists just opt for guided tours instead of traveling independently within the islands.

      3. Oh my! Of course, I forgot about the polar bears. I have to contend with a bear hugger. However many documentaries we watch, my husband is determined that he shall tap one, say hello and demand a hug.

  5. Wow! Stunning photos! The bears might pose a risk but the beautiful nature is so alluring ๐Ÿ™‚ One question: how can they prevent the bears go into the city or the camping site? I did not see any wire or protective wall.

    1. Apparently chances of polar bears coming into town are still there but low, so people rely on good visibility and many buildings where a person could enter in case of a polar bear spotting in town area. Therefore they include that area in no-shooting zone map:) Luckily we didn’t see any, I think it’s quite rare!

    1. On my research and talking with some people in Svalbard, late spring is a good time for going on long snow-mobile and dog-sledding trips while summers are the best for other outdoor activities like kayaking around fjords, camping, bird spotting, ferry rides to the natural attractions, midnight sun etc. Of course winter is the best time for experiencing polar nights, seeing northern lights etc. Depends on what interests you the most ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Wow!!! I didn’t even know that such a place exists.. Rules like not being able to go out without a riffle sounds crazy.. And this place looks extremely beautiful.. Keep exploring and sharing beautiful stories from around Europe.

  7. For you Iceland is a dream destination and you have been to Svalbard. For me, Svalbard is a dream destination and I have been to iceland. And to be honest, looking at your photos, I thought a lot about my time in Iceland! That photo of the beach with the sunlight shining on the distant slope – it is just glorious! I don’t think I will ever get there so it is very nice to read about it through your eyes! Thanks so much Pooja.

    1. Wow I didn’t know you had been to Iceland already, Amanda. Do you have blog posts on that? I should check it out. I actually met an Aussie couple in Svalbard ferry, they were doing Scandinavia trip all the way from Sydney. It is quite easy to get to Svalbard from Oslo and Tromso, Amanda. Maybe you will get there one day, the next time you’re in Norway ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve read that Iceland has become so touristic since the last five years or so, but I can’t wait to finally go there (hopefully next year)!

      1. I haven’t blogged directly about Iceland, Pooja. But that is a great idea to do a post about my time there. If you make it to Akureyri I can put you in touch with a good friend of mine who can show you around.

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