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My flight went quite smoothly, and I was landing in Oslo airport before the clock stroke 8. I got out of the airport, deposited my big bag, and checked into my Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Most of the people on the plane were first-time tourists as well, base on everyone’s excitement that could barely be contained. The plane took off around 10, and we arrived in early afternoon. As the plane approached Longyerbyen airport, I could see nothing but snow, rocks, and ice. There were no trees, no grass, nothing resembling traces of human activities. It felt, desolate. Once the plane parked at the position, everyone leaped out of his or her seat, and started collecting all belongings, eager to get off. I, of course, could not be left behind!
This, is the Norwegian Arctic. It is almost 4 hours of plane north of Oslo, so far north that life resembles closer to a life in outer space than a life on Earth. Upon first glance, this giant piece of nothingness felt depressing; however, after a closer look, everyone will fall in love with this pristine place. 78° North, to most of us, is simply a number, as we cannot even start to imagine what that means. It means 5 months of sunshine nonstop in summer, and inversely, 5 months of eternal darkness in winter. Once the sun made its way up in late March, it would not go down until September, and soon after that, darkness my old friend, comes sweeping in, shadowing the sky for the other half of the year. It means, in summer, it barely is warm enough to melt the snow, despite sun 24 hours a day. It means there are more snow mobiles than cars, more polar bears than men, more rigid snow than flowing water, more glaciers than fjords… It also means this place is closer to North Pole than it is to mainland Norway.
Svalbard’s position in the world (Wikipedia)
I walked out of the airport, and immediately started shivering, despite the sun was shining bright right over my head. It was about 3°C/39°F, but it felt well below freezing. I took a deep breath of the cold Arctic fresh air, and what was right in front of me gave me a chill deeper inside. I stood in front of a large pole, on which were the classic arrows pointing to places around the world with distances on them. This one was special. Not only were the numbers huge since I was so far away from everywhere else, but also a giant signing warning: beware of polar bears.
you know your life is great when you get to see this sign
I took the airport bus to downtown Longyearbyen, the de facto capital of the islands with a stunning population of 2000. It is the northernmost settlement of human kind with population greater than 1000. I hopped off at the last stop, way up the valley that the town is built in, and walked into my hostel. It is the only hostel that I can afford in town, but it still cost me 50 dollars a day just to sleep in it! As I wanted to go for a walk, two unexpected guests showed up right in front of my windowstep!
only here you can see more reindeer than people
Two reindeer grazed right past my window, and I jumped out of my room and approached them. They were not afraid at all! They just continued eating as if I was just another piece of rock. I later heard that was because here in Svalbard they had no natural predators. They were introduced from the mainland as a means of food source, and they had not been hunted by animals in the wild since the beginning, so they really had nothing to fear. The polar bears, you ask? Polar bears are marine mammals, and they eat food from the ocean, so they really are not interested in reindeer. The reindeer here got so used to their carefree life that they all ate too much to sustain a healthy heart, and people needed to hunt them down every year to make sure the population does not explode. However, most of the reindeer here are usually scared to death. It goes like this: reindeer too fat—> bad heart —> guns fired —> heart attack —> scared to death.
selfie with reindeer~!
I was picked up by a pre-booked tour right afterwards. It was a dog-sledding tour, but since it was summer, wheeled carts were used instead of sleds. As usual, I was the only person on that tour. The driver/guide was very friendly, and after a pleasant 5-minute drive, I was on top of a small hill where hundreds and hundreds of Greenland sled dogs were kept. I had to change into clothes that could resist the cold along with the wind, so I was invited into a changing room. It looked more like a death squad dressing room.
Then I went to the dog yard to select my puppies~! ❤ (It was more like the guide selecting for me.) There were at least a hundred dogs eager to join my expedition, and hearing all of them bark at the same time was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The guide dragged off the dogs one by one with force since once they were unhooked, they would like to run in other directions aimlessly. Then they were hooked onto the cart, and I had to stabilize the cart to prevent them from running off with the entire cart! Seven dogs were eventually selected, and all preparation was done!
ready to emBARK on an adventure
I was taught how to maneuver the flamewheel, uh I mean, sled. The dogs only knew running, and they will not stop unless you force them to, and they will literally run until they drop dead. So the cart has a very strong brake system, as well as a manual hard-stop brake, which was basically a large nail into the ground. It is needed because if you stop the cart and do not put down the nail, the dogs would run off with everything!
doggies ready to go!
I carefully stood onto the cart, and all the puppies suddenly looked back and saw me on the wheel. They knew what was about to begin, and were even more excited than I was!!! Some started panting (already?) and others began jumping and wimping, as if they were hurrying me to release the manual brake. I looked up to the road ahead of me, saw my guide in the front, and swallowed a bit of nervousness.
the road ahead, called uncertainty, dirction: future
I reached down to the nail, and slowly lifted it up. The moment I released the brake, with a crisp “clink!” the dogs got their signal to run the hell out of it, and I was instantly dragged along.
run forest run!
The cold wind swept across the valley, punishing for my courage of even being here. I reckoned that we must be running at about 40 km/hr. My hand froze, barely had any capability of holding down the breaks which was crucial for preventing the dogs from running too fast. They could easily overheat and die in this kind of hot weather. Yes, they are more used to weather much colder than freezing, and anything above that is basically a sauna. As a result, we took plenty of breaks, to let the dogs rest and cool down.
passing a weather research station
While I am showing you pictures of me having fun, I also would like to explain some of the strange things here in Svalbard. For example, nobody is not allowed to be born or die there. No, seriously, you are not allowed to die there. If you are dying, they will send you back to mainland Norway. If you are pregnant, you will be sent back to mainland as well.
puppies on break
That is because the Svalbard archipelago, formerly named Spitsbergen, is not technically under complete Norwegian jurisdiction. The land used to belong to mining companies, and later all people signed the Svalbard Treaty to give these land to Norway, with a few conditions: no army allowed, no people allowed to be born here, and no visa requirements. The treaty thus guarantees anyone whose country had signed the treaty visa free travel to Svalbard.
look at the pink tongue~!
Thus, anyone from the 42 countries that signed the treaty can come and work here. I would love to work in this dogsledding company, forever~! Actually, my guide was also from outside Norway. He explained to me it was easy in work, hard in weather, but he was paid nicely, and come on, who doesn’t want to earn money in the Arctic?
How about the “no people dying” part? The treaty only said nobody was allowed to be born since they would be born without a nationality. Nobody is allowed to die here because the earth is permafrost, and that means nobody truly decomposes once buried here, not even the musicians(hahahahaha). Thus, you have to bury them back in mainland since you don’t want Svalbard to turn into a set for the Walking Dead.
rollin’ in the tundra
This treaty actually makes Longyearbyen one of the most diverse places in Norway, since everyone could work here without restrictions. You have people from well over 40 countries working in the town barely big enough as the population of a building in China. Other cool things, for example, are that everyone needs to bring a gun if you venture outside Longyearbyen. It is because polar bears are a very real threat here, and some can be very aggressive if encountered unexpectedly. However, the gun is always a last resort, since the bears are heavily protected.
I simply cannot get enough of these puppies~! can you?
Another right that the treaty grants the countries which signed it was an equal right to exploit the natural resources in Svalbard. Thank god that no petroleum was found here, but a shit load of coal instead. As of now, only Russia and Norway are using this right to mine coal, and Svalbard is the only place in Norway with power still supplied by burning coal, much against Norway’s Nordic image.
okay… maybe you can get tired of them… nah you probably cannot
Let’s talk about history. Svalbard was likely found in early 1200s by Vikings, but the Dutch were the first ones who documented the archipelago in late 1500s, and named it Spitsbergen. Quickly whalers and walrus-hunters from England, Norway, Russia and Netherlands started flooding towards the island. Coal was found at the end of 19th century, and by the beginning of last century, Norwegians had started mining, and Americans quickly followed suit as a businessman established Longyearbyen as a coal mining town. It was an absolute chaos, as all countries and companies tried to take lands, claim their stakes, fight off others, and so on… until the treaty was signed in 1920 and kicked into effect in 1925.
an abandoned coal mine
The last important thing the treaty regulates is that the tax has to be done only sufficiently to govern Svalbard. This means Norwegian government cannot tax as highly as other places since Svalbard doesn’t cost that much to manage. Thus, alcohol here is much cheaper than mainland Norway since the tax was nonexistent. As a matter of fact, it is cheaper than London, despite that fact that you are at the edge of the world.
can we go now~?
Anyways, done with all the lectures and information, now back to the trip! I let the dogs run as fast as they could, though sometimes they just cared about running and nothing else, and they would rear off the road and drag me into the ditch beside the road. The cloudy sky opened up as we went faster, and faster.
me with the puppies~! ❤ ❤ ❤
I never felt so happy before, as if my hearts merged with those of the puppies’, craving to run, run as fast as I could imagine. I wanna run; I wanna run into the night. I wanna run into the future. I wanna run into the hearts of all others, especially those I endear the most. I felt unbridled by any of those social responsibilities, and I only had what was in front of me in my eyes. It was a road in the frozen tundra, or a bright future of carefree life, I could not tell anymore.
wild flowers overgrowing in a floodplain
We passed many abandoned coal-mining sites, and some reindeer grazing as if nothing was happening at all. However, the dogs were more than interested in checking them out, and this was the only time in my life that I could see 7 dogs looking simultaneously towards right while running forward, all with their tongues sticking out and saliva dropping like a broken tap. It was simply too funny to behold.
The two hours on the tour felt like 10 seconds, as I enjoyed myself to the fullest because I yelled into the cold winds on the go, and during stops, I simply pet every single one of those fluffy adorable cuties. I enjoyed the trip; hell, I loved it. We pulled into the station as I begged for more, but the doggies were already exhausted. I had no choice but to let them go back to their houses. I watched the guide dropping each one of them off at their houses with names on it, and to be honest, some of them are quite creative.
there is a glitch in the system, it is ruff
The guide also invited me for a tea and coffee, along with some delicious cookies. I painfully nodded with my semi-frozen neck, as my running nose glowed red. I met his fellow workers, all of them from other countries. They told me they were all thinking about spending 1 year outside the grid, and here they were! I poured my thoughts out and they all were both impressed with my journeys and glad that I was equally impressed with their courage. The little cabin was so warm at that moment, as the little fireplace, coupled with the heated discussion, brought my heart to the boiling point. The feeling of an isolated family was probably the only thing more soothing than the sound of charcoal shifting places as they slowly burnt out in the fireplace… They also suddenly dragged me out, saying that they were gonna show me something. Something awesome.
A full litter of puppies just born last month!!!! Did you hear what I said? DID YOU SEE THAT??? I SAID PUPPIES!!! P.U.P.P.I.E.S!!! PUPPIESSSSS!!!!!
FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK I AM GONNA DIEEEEEEEEEEEE
After all the screaming and petting and playing and loving and caring and dying of cuteness, I was sent back to the town. I asked to be dropped off by the supermarket, and they gladly obliged. All others accompanied me into town, as they were getting their weekly shower. (yes, weekly) I stepped off the truck, and saw the large warehouse in front of me: this, Svalbardbutikken, is likely the northernmost department store/supermarket in the whole world.
Svalbardbutikken, northernmost place offering a selection of birthday cards
The alcohol section was indeed cheaper than what I had seen on mainland, and every other thing that does not rot was pretty much the same price, which was very expensive, but considering that I was 3 hours airplane from any other human settlement, that was very reasonable already. Anything that can expire, though, priced through the fucking roof. Tomatoes cost 15 dollars a pound, and lettuce cost 10 dollars a bunch, and bananas cost about one and a half of my kidneys.
The supermarket also offered anything ranging from detergent to Frozen movie stickers, (ironic, isn’t it?) and as you can see in the picture above, that was basically the life supply of a Longyearbyen citizen. Everything fresh was flown in by a daily cargo flight, and everything else arrived by ships. It was quite a convenient way for living in such isolation. In order to not lose my limbs as a payment for fresh vegetables, I grabbed two packs of instant noodles and started walking home.
Longyearbyen city rush hour
The biggest minority population here was…. guess…. you would never be able to get it, I promise: Thai! So it was not surprising to see a Thai restaurant right next to the supermarket, in the heart of Longyearbyen. The food, according to the folks at the sledding company, was incredibly authentic. However, I knew how much money I had, and did not dare to approach the northernmost Thai restaurant in the world.
I started walking back towards my hostel far up the valley in the neighborhood of Nybyen. (yes, they even have neighborhoods) I passed a library, a church, a school, a gym, a university, a hospital, a fucking Toyota dealership, a youth club, a cinema, a gallery… seriously how many things do they need for 2000 people?
walking past a school
I went back, cooked myself a giant bowl of noodles, and talked to fellow travelers. We all went out of our ways just to experience the polar life, and we were all exhausted yet excited. I was waiting for sundown, and I could be able to wash up and go sleeping.
except there was no sundown. At 11 p.m., I suddenly realized it was as bright as ever, and nothing had changed since I arrived. Time seemed to have stopped here. No days, no nights, just 24 hours of a limbo type of light in the sky. No animals or birds waking you up for the morning, no owls or crickets to put you sleep at night, no rush hour traffic to remind you the daily routines. Just you, open space, some reindeer and polar bears, and time seemed to go on forever, yet appearing to be not moving one bit. This, is the long, lonely polar day. Life is as far from normal as it can be here, so is this heaven, or hell? I closed the curtains as tightly as possible, put on my eyeshade, and dozed into the polar sleep.
I woke up early to catch a bus down to the harbor. The sun was still circling the horizon like me avoiding my responsibilities. The tour group congregated at the dock once we all got off the bus, and we were instructed how to wear a life jacket, how to evacuate the ship, etc. By 8 a.m., we were on our way to Pyramiden. There used to exist a lot of settlements other than Longyearbyen, but many of them were abandoned as the coal mining industry died down, and Pyramiden was one of them. It is now a ghost town, along with thousands of birds and a couple of tour guides.
on the way out (the ship flies Faroe Islands’ flag)
In the beginning, the clouds covered the sky like a grey bed sheet for the sky, but it quickly cleared out and I was offered the most gorgeous view I had ever laid my eyes on.
the calm water, the never setting sun…
Seabirds flocked to follow the ship, and we were treated a giant gala of their acrobatic performances. Petrels, puffins, and terns all made their way from bow to the stern, port side to starboard, up and down, and then disappeared from the view, just to come back again.
The water was calm and the wind was nonexistent, perfect for a boat ride like this. The surface tension of the sea was strengthened by the nutrients within the water, making the water a massive mirror.
facing a cliff full of birds
Half way through the journey, we had to pick up some travelers, and drop off some others who were gonna explore the interior of Svalbard with kayak and hiking sticks. I never thought you are allowed to actually do that, venturing into the vast wilderness in the Arctic. However, next time when I come back (already made up my mind!) I will definitely do that!
zodiac dropped into the ocean
The zodiac, like the one pictured above, is a convenient rubber boat with an engine that can land on almost anywhere. The flexibility and durability are unrivaled by any other. I would have to use zodiacs quite often on my trip to Antarctica, and I finally got a first hand experience of how the zodiacs work.
off he goes!
While the crew were busy picking up the people waving and shouting excitedly onshore, we the casual tourists were almost as excited to document the process. Nobody seemed to be anguished that this “rescue mission” was taking out the standard tour time.
safe and sound
We continued further north into the wilderness. The waterway started to become jagged and treacherous as we entered the large fjord. Many cliffs around hosted millions of birds breeding, just like the seemingly calm water was harboring hundreds of reefs and shallows. The boat slowed down and carefully navigated the tranquil surface.
navigational charts on the bridge
What this meant for us, however, was more time to appreciate the absolute beauty this place was offering. The sky was now completely absent of clouds, and the blue-on-blue type of wonder I had experienced previously in Norway appeared again. This was likely the best of those sceneries yet.
beautifully carved by glaciers
puffins taking off
We dropped off those guys who were adventurous enough to explore in the wilderness. They prepared their kayaks and they were all dropped down into the water. After all humans were on shore, the zodiac dragged the kayaks off the boat, forming an elegant line of color, as they waved goodbye to us from solid ground.
for them, true adventure was just about to begin
The more we entered the fjord, the more stunning the scenery was. The mountains surrounding us were brutally cut open by the melt snow water year after year, exposing deep trenches and valleys like enormous wounds they had incurred. The ruthless mother nature surely has a way to show her power.
looking at a tortured mountain
We then started approaching a glacier at the end of the fjord. It was an enormous sheet of ice, yet so unorganized like my hair every morning. Large pieces stick outside, and deep gaps were wide open everywhere. It felt more like a crushed ice factory than a smooth glacier.
a bird flying towards the glacier
Lots of floating ice were ejected off the edge of the glacier, and what can you do with those pieces of ice? You put them in your whiskey of course! We picked up a giant chunk of ice, likely older than all of us combined, and cracked open a bottle of whiskey. This glass, to the absolute north!
Then something incredible happened. A polar bear! Though we were quite close to the glacier, but we were still unable to find it, and then, a crew pointed to the water. A small piece of ice-like thing was moving, and that was it!? We were eventually still too far to get a good look, for the well-being of both us and the bear I guess.
After such drama, we finally did the most important thing on board: lunch. What could be better than an Arctic barbeque right on deck? There was pork sausage, beef steak, and… whale?! (again?) If you had read my strange food quest, you may have known that whale is not the most delicious kind of meat out there, and definitely of some acquired taste. Hunting whale is still somewhat legal in Norway, and the practice is certainly still questionable, so… gruesome picture warning I guess?
marinated whale steak
After lunch, we finally reached Pyramiden, 50 km direct distance north of Longyerbyen. The entire town appeared to be completely dead looking from the distance, and it was as quiet as the glacier we had just passed. However, waiting at the dock, was one of the guides dressed as a Soviet miner.
the dock filled with abandoned crates
We were then led to the entrance of the town, which was recently renovated. The giant pillar saying “Pyramiden” was still standing, and right underneath the last cart of coal mined from the mountain behind on March 31st, 1998.
welcome to Pyramiden
The guide began to entail us the intriguing history of this godforsaken place. Pyramiden was founded by the Swedes in 1910, thus it has this Swedish name meaning “the pyramid”. The mountain right next to it also had the same name. It was sold to the Soviets in 1927, and the state coal company of Russia still controls it now.
Pyramiden, during its heyday, had over 1000 inhabitants, with fully functional supermarkets, library, entertainment systems, and a hospital that could even perform brain surgery. However, after the fall of Berlin Wall, and the downfall of USSR, coupled with the decrease of need in coal, the town quickly dwindled as the capacity cuts were put into place by mother Russia.
abandoned barracks hosting the hen house and pig barn
The town was abandoned quickly after the last pieces of coal were mined in 1998, and nobody had ever lived in the town ever since. Now an old dormitory was renovated to be the hotel, and only 4 people, all of them hotel staff as well as tour guides, winter over here. All other buildings were no longer suitable for human life, and nature had reclaimed the lost grounds from the Russians.
an old gateway to a supply store
There is still another Russian mining town operational, and it is called Barentsburg, 100km to the southwest. Originally a Dutch mining town, it was sold to Soviets in 1932, and continued to operate today. It has a population of 500, and still has everything that Pyramiden needs. All goods were transported between the two Russian towns by boats, and if any emergency happens, helicopters can easily hop between Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Barentsburg even has a Russian consulate, the northernmost consulate in the world!
little boxes beside the window serve as a natural fridge since the weather is always so cold
The guide took us around the town for a bit, but we were only allowed to enter a handful of the hundreds of buildings around this ghost city. We first entered their community center. It was a huge complex with a gym, a theater, a lot of rooms for different purposes such as music lessons or dancing exercises. Here also lies the northernmost grand piano. It was not in its prime, but it could still be played, though some of the keys needed more than just a little bit tuning. I touched the keyboard, and the crisp sound of the iron knob hitting the string echoed in the hollow corridors in the building, sending a chill down my spine.
northernmost piano in the world, its owner was practicing a Soviet national song
They seemed to have abandoned the place in a hurry, as almost all the things were still left there. The basketball courts still had Soviet banners everywhere, and the posters all announced the weekly activities on each day. In the back rooms of the theatre, I found scripts written for each performer, as if they were still practicing right before they vanished into thin air. The props were still sitting in the preparation rooms, and the drawers were still filled with make up and fake eyelashes. Besides the dust that went flying as I touched anything, it was truly a ghost city, as if the people vanished not 18 years ago, but 18 hours ago, from this town trapped in a time-space standstill.
I took a look into the manager’s office. (I can understand that in Russian, at least.) It was a standard bureaucrat’s room, with a giant bookcase and a swinging chair, except it was long broken. The coffee mug was still sitting on the desk, and I looked through the space with my flashlight. I saw the newspaper on top of the desk, and started reading it. The articles talk about the economic advancement happening in east Asia, as well as the Afghanistan battles. I flipped the crumbly pages that were already dyed yellow by the unrelenting time, and noticed the date of publication: September 11th, 1998.
banners on the wall, announcing a Norway-Russia friendly match
the lobby with weekly programme
The guide suddenly shouted loudly, hurrying us back to the front door, scaring a lot of the girls in the group. I was exploring the dark rooms behind the stages, and they were surely a maze. I almost did not recognize my way back, partly due to the fact that the guide would lock me inside, and partly due to the absolute darkness. Right in front of the community center was the northernmost statue of Lenin. Yes, of course there had to be a Lenin statue for it being a Soviet town. I don’t know why, but I thought I should take a selfie with him.
the northernmost Lenin statue in the world, yay?
From the community center, you have a view over the center of the town. The grass was already way overgrown, and the roads were crumbling as the grass was advancing. From the steps leading to the front door, you would have a clear view of the buildings as well as the giant glaciers on the other side. It was definitely a surreal experience: an abandoned Soviet ghost town, in Norwegian territory, in the middle of nowhere, in the arctic. Even thinking about this makes my heart race.
view down the boulevard
We walked down the boulevard to step inside the dining hall. The Soviets all ate together in the giant dining hall, and that would not come as a surprise if you have ever heard of a thing called Communism, and the dining hall was lavishly decorated, well, it used to be, at least. You walk onto the second floor, where most dined for every single meal, through a beautifully constructed pair of stairs, and the roof was decorated with scenery of mainland Russia as well. I took a look into the enormous cooking area behind, and it was a scene full of madness.
The trays, bowls, cups, spoons and forks were all scattered everywhere, and giant pots and pans were carelessly tossed aside on the walkways. It seemed like they left more than in a hurry: it appeared that they were running away from this place, or running away from something here. Was it a polar bear? The crippling financial crisis? The fear of being alone in this frozen hell? Or something much, much darker? We will never know.
From a backroom in the corner, I found another set of stairs leading down to the ground floor, which was strangely sealed off from the rest of the first floor, and from that room, another flight of stairs down into the basement. I was surprised initially: the guide never told us there was a basement. He told us that this is a 2-floored structure with first and second floor. I turned on my flashlight, and started exploring the rooms. The rooms were cold, as I believe I was within permafrost this deep below ground. If the other places were cleaned at least a little bit by the guides before they opened the town to tourists, then this floor was definitely not part of that cleaning program. It was so messy that I could barely walk around. The dark, dry, yet cold rooms smelled like a dungeon that had never seen light. It smelled like plastic, metal and paper all rot in the same place without air ever ventilating. If aging and time elapsing had a smell, it would be like that. I could sense that darkness was the god here, and nothing in this place had ever seen light ever since that fateful year.
looking at the township sign
It appeared to me that those rooms were used for storage, as the rooms were consistently cold. Lots of old posters indicate how to process food, in Russian of course! And a few rooms looked like some spare rooms for other purposes, as they were completely empty, except they were all completely filled by darkness. I could sense some cold wind blowing slightly in the main hallway of this giant underground maze, indicating that there must be another exit somewhere, or it may lead even deeper, even darker? I could hear my heart accelerating, and my panting was echoed on the walls that had their paint peeling off. I swear I could sense something, something that was moving in the shadows. Maybe it was the one kept blowing air onto my shoulder? I frantically looked front into the front, and turned back every other second just to make sure there was nobody, or nothing, behind me. Quickly, I could hear the guide looking for me, yelling my name loudly in the lobby. I tried to scramble my way back to where I came from, knocking off a lot of pots and cooking utensils, knives and vodka bottles, passing enormous posters of children who seemingly were bleeding from their eyes, except I barely had any memory of where I came from. I finally found the staircase, and re-emerged in the lobby with a thick layer of dust on me.
“Where the hell did you go?” he questioned, one eyebrow slightly raised.
“No, nothing” I dusted off my coat with an awkward laugh, “just looking for my flashlight, haha.” I waved my flashlight, and turned it off as if I lost it somewhere. I don’t know why the guide never told us about the secret level, but who knows? At least I don’t want to know why, or what happened in that godforsaken place. I wiped the sweat off my forehead, as I swear there was something wrong in that dark, sealed-off dungeon, something terribly wrong.
children’s swings, now occupied by arctic gulls
We were invited to the hotel afterwards. It was an old dormitory, now housing all the staff as well as 6 guestrooms. It had a small bar, as well as a museum. The trinkets on sale did not interest me at all, and I walked outside to find the building right behind it had been turned into a giant bird cliff. Thousands of birds now rest on those windows, leaving droppings everywhere, almost painting the entire building white.
well, is it mother nature retaliating?
I avoided the stench by walking upwind, and had the entire suburb in front of me. The generator room supplying power was there, and I took a little peek inside, which I am sure I was definitely not allowed to do. 2 diesel generators power the hotel, with 2 as backups.
the wooden walkway, in desperate need of repair, or… not?
I looked up to the mountain behind, where all the coal supplying the city came from. Two giant walkways lead up the 400m height to where the mine entrance is. Large conveyor belts extended from there all the way down to the town. This was the gruesome climb every miner had to do every day. Of course, the Soviets needed to have a giant mountain writing up. I was surprised it was not a Lenin quote!
miru mir, a play on words in Russian, if you read this bizarre language, you’ll understand
This concluded our tour, and a bus that appeared to be at least 30 years old picked us up and dropped us off at the port. We waved goodbye to the guide, and hopped onto the boat back to Longyearbyen.
on the way back
This was definitely a life-lasting experience for me. I had never explored a ghost town in such a great shape before, nor do I think I would ever get to do that again. (nor do I want to!) I got to flip the pages on a 18-year-old newspaper that was sitting at that desk since day 1. I shuddered to the dark winds down in that basement that I was not even told about. I felt like I had went on a time travel. Everything was in Russian, and everything felt like a Soviet movie set. If time got stuck in Longyearbyen, then time must flows backwards here in Pyramiden. It was more than a bone chilling experience; it was more than just a goose bump inducing tour; it was an adventure in its realest form, and I believe I can never forget it.
now, back to the future!
We arrived back in Longyearbyen just on time for dinner, and I cooked myself even more instant noodles. I could not go to sleep, though, not only because I was so excited after exploring a Soviet relic, but also I was about to do a midnight sun tour, with food!
A giant bus parked right in front of my hostel at close to midnight, and I happily boarded. I was offered a local salad, along with a drink. The bus was modified to have dining tables on it, and I gladly sat beside the window. There were only 2 other fellow travelers on board, and this was definitely a more relaxing journey. I sat in the bus, as the driver, an Italian, explained to us the information about this unique place. The waitress/stweardess, a French, served more food to keep me fed up.
passing a graveyard, but there is actually no body underneath
The tour continued to climb the hills next to the town with the large bus, which almost made me feel bad for the driver. We made it to mine 2a, where the initial production near Longyearbyen began. It had now been long abandoned, and the carts carrying those crates full of coal was the only proof nowadays. The crates here ride trams!
the abandoned mine carts with midnight sun
At around 12, we finally reached the most famous icon of Longyearbyen, and probably Svalbard in general: Svalbard Seed Vault. It is a large room built into the mountain under permafrost, and every country has the right to deposit 3 boxes of seeds into it. In case of an emergency like WW3, which may happen soon, and all of the crops fail in an area, this would be the last ditch effort to regrow those lost plants. The vault had triple layers of weatherproof gates, and the permafrost can keep the entire vault cool for years even after the power fails to provide for the air conditioning. It is well above sea level, so even if global warming rises the Earth’s sea surface for another 100m, (which basically ends human race) it can still be accessed. It can resist magnitude 10 earthquakes, and multiple bombings from lunatics. It is an engineering miracle, and it is also human race’s last line of life.
a snowmobile parking spot in downtown Longyearbyen
Every country has 3 crates of seeds inside, even including North Korea, who had their famous ginseng secured in this place. Unfortunately, if you think this will only be used in the most desperate time possible way into the future, you are wrong. One country had already made a withdrawal: Syria. The war had caused the crops to fail, and they had already put the seeds they deposited just a few years ago into good use. Humanity and its flaws, sigh…
Svalbard Seed Vault
Talking about sad things about humanity, the vault was actually having big troubles. The permafrost was melting too fast, thanks to global warming, for the system to handle inside the vault, so there was actually a pump by the door constantly pumping out water from deep inside the vault, just to prevent the entire place from flooding.
After admiring the Seed Vault, and watching the midnight sun dipping low and rising up again, I got back to my hostel, and slept soundly, with all my eye masks, and thick curtains. I woke up with a strange thought: I am about to leave today, but I have never been to an abandoned coal mine yet! I looked out from the breakfast room window, and saw one right on top of the hill! Fuck it, I have 40 minutes, let’s do this! I definitely DID NOT think this through. There was no way up, and the hill was extremely steep. After scrambling in sliding rocks, I finally made my way up to the mine entrance.
looking down to the town
I looked around this place, and it was in complete shambles like my whole life. They seemed to have abandoned this place more hurriedly than the Soviets. The entire wooden structure had collapsed on itself, leaving only one engine room accessible. Most of the wooden planks simply collapsed once I tried to step on it.
my life in a house form
Inside, it was even filthier than I thought. Many years of rain, snow and strong gusts took away most of the paint inside and replaced it with mold. The machinery appeared to be from 1970s, and covered with a thick layer of rust. Nails and electrical wires were spread everywhere on the mechanical workshops, and the entire place smelled like it had been blessed by the fucking devil’s buttocks.
my heart inside in house form
I could not stay long, as I saw the bus coming from the distance, and I started running down the steep hill as fast as I humanly could. I rushed alongside the bus on the road and told the driver to wait for me, begging him with the last bit of strength left in my body. I passed out once I got onto the bus, sweating all over that my bag even got wet. We arrived in the airport shortly, and got onto the airplane within the hour. I was about to leave this magical place, and I cried a little bit inside.
one last glimpse of Svalbard
Svalbard, Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen, whatever you call it, had left a lasting impression in my heart. It was so different, so charming, and so desolate. I could not have loved it more. The interesting history high in the Arctic, the convenience it offers despite its otherworldly location, and the fact that it is a mini United Nations, all fascinated me to the very core of my soul. Everything here you see is probably the northernmost, from a statue to a piano, or even the supermarket, or the ATM machine; it had become so common that people stopped caring, not to mention taking pride in it. The doggies and their big, fleshy tongues sticking out, which were also used to lick me so vehemently that I think we would all pass out, the abandoned coal-mining Soviet town that apparently got stuck in 1990s, or the Svalbard Seed Vault that is holding the last hope for humanity, all of these things can never been seen in any other place in this whole world. The sun that never sets, the polar bears that constantly roam around the hills, the sheer fact that I was more north than 99.99999% of the human race, they were all simply magical. I usually would say I will come back, but for this place, I can say that I will try my best to spend a good year or two in. Do you have a place that you enjoyed so much that you forgot to even realize that you love it until you are pondering that in retrospect? For me, this place is Svalbard. I would recommend every single person I met to go there. It is simply the harshest heaven on this planet.
the northernmost Toyota dealership in the world, Longyearbyen
I was flying over the snow-capped peaks again, but this time, I was flying southward. I kissed Svalbard goodbye, and started looking ahead. I wanted to forget about the fact that I was leaving this place by thinking about what the future held. I had to keep myself as occupied as possible. After Oslo, I would fly for Copenhagen, and transfer to a plane towards Munich. That means warmer weather, awesome beer, and a sick, sick castle. I knew, there were much more than these that Germany could offer me, and I was excited again.
“Let’s see,” I whispered to myself as the vast ocean took the place of the arctic mountains, “what do you have for me, Germany?”