Forty nationalities call this town of approximately 2,000 home (Longbearyen and Barentsburg have a total combined population of 2,400). The northernmost town in the world, a town so far north that the sun never sets for several months during the summer, and never appears during the Polar Night – from October to February. A town which occupies a swathe of land on a windswept moonscape, where the other ‘tall’ residents just happen to be Polar Bears – approximately 3,000, or just over one bear per person.
A town where you can find the northernmost church in the world, as well as a hospital, university, school, museum, research institute, theatre, cinema, restaurants, cafes, supermarket, shopping mall, hotel (yes, Radisson has a property there, too!), at least one skidoo per inhabitant, and even Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (as one of my fellow passengers spotted during their ice cream reconnaisance exercise).
This town? It’s name is Longbearyen, named after John Longbearyen, an American who founded the town in 1906 because of the area’s rich mines. The town is located on the archipelago of Svalbard, but it is the name of the island which will be most familiar, and that is Spitsbergen. It was a Dutch explorer, Willems Barentsz, who discovered the archipelago and in 1596 named it Spitsbergen. Today, its main industries are research, tourism and mining. It is a place protected by treaty, overseen by Norway and benefits from tax free shopping. Just over 30,000 tourists visit Longbearyen each year, with an equal number arriving by cruise ships – a sea change from earlier times when a visit to Svalbard was reserved for the absolute elite who could afford to charter a vessel appropriate for the Arctic waters.
Places like Longbearyen fascinate me. Organised towns arising from permafrost at best, deep snow and darkness for much of the year. Brightly coloured houses and buildings exude a warmth about the town, even before you encounter the extremely warm and welcoming residents. While most of the buildings in the town are modern, the town’s mining past is never far away.
From the ship, we could see the coal cableway clinging to the mountain, and beneath the town’s cemetery is the town’s oldest coal mine. It is not difficult to make an analogy with the research ‘towns’ in Antarctica, except that we could walk around Longbearyen, buy stuff, enjoy its restaurant and café culture and visit its museums. (And, it was about 3C warmer in Longbearyen than it was during our Antarctic venture 8 years ago.) Perhaps the closer analogy is Stanley in the Falkland Islands, also with its hearty residents, warm welcome, familiar products in shops and barren, windswept landscape.
Svalbard is well-connected to the world around it with year-round air service to the mainland from Svalbard Airport, a parade of cruise ships in the summer, and cargo ships supplying the town’s amazingly well-stocked shops. In fact, in Longbearyen’s supermarket, we discovered that one of our favourite cheeses is actually cheaper in Longbearyen – as is New Zealand lamb. It was also surprising to see that the Australian and New Zealand wines available in the wine department of the supermarket were only a few dollars more than back home, all because of the town’s tax free shopping concession. There are some limitations, though, as the wine sales assistant told us. Locals receive tax free coupons for a certain amount of alcohol, wine and beer each month. However, not all goods are, well, priced on a par with the same items back home….it is Norway, and there were still some eyewatering price labels staring us in the face.
After a walk through the town, we headed to the fabulous Svalbard Museum, located in an architecturally interesting modern building at the foot of the town. Once inside, we were invited to put operating theatre booties over our own shoes to protect the wood parquet floor.
Kitted out with our blue paper shoes, we entered history, a well-organised collection documenting the archipelago’s natural, human and industrial history. Displays describing Svalbard’s ecology gave way to exhibits about the discovery of this barren place, to the era of European whaling, to the arrival of the Russian Pomors, to life in the Arctic….hunting, trapping, geology, mining, birdlife….up to modern times including Svalbard’s polar research institutes. The biggest surprise in the museum was a display case containing one of Alan Turing’s Enigma machines, used to decipher German code during WW2.
It was eventually time to head back to the ship, something done with a little sadness because I would have liked to explore more. Svalbard has touched an explorer nerve, just as Antarctica did. Now I have two polar, windswept places to dream about.