Norway’s northernmost frontier
Walking through Longyearbyen – a cluster of pretty, multicoloured wooden houses buried deep in the drifts – it soon becomes apparent that the word did indeed spread. ‘I was looking for work abroad and it was easier to apply here than anywhere else,’ says Lek, a Thai cleaner who moved from Bangkok to Longyearbyen 10 years ago with her daughter. ‘But I really like it. Last year I married a Norwegian, too.’ Patricia, a Peruvian who runs a sports boutique, doesn’t seem quite so sold on the cold. ‘I didn’t know there would be no flowers,’ she says. ‘And no trees. I’ve been here six years, but it is a nice place to live. Especially in March – that’s my favourite time of year.’ Jayakumar, a Malaysian technician, has no such mixed feelings. ‘It’s so cool,’ he says, with a massive grin. ‘The best part is snowmobiling. And in summer, with the long hours of daylight, it’s a party all the time.’
It isn’t far from Longyearbyen to the Arctic wilderness: in fact, it’s just around the corner. Just 20 minutes from the town by snowmobile, up in the mountains, the sky has clouded over. There is perhaps no landscape on Earth so profoundly changed by the light as the frozen poles. Under flat grey clouds, the landscape looks starkly monochrome, without any hint of colour: nothing but pure white snow and sharp black rocks. Then, when the light glows softly around the clouds, it comes to life.
The flat, endless white is transformed into a fairytale scene of sugared-almond pinks, lilacs and turquoises. When the sun peeks over the horizon, the colours intensify. The edges of the clouds become fiery gold smears. The snow glows peach. At one point, there is a patch of sky visible between slate-grey clouds that is the exact colour of crème de menthe. Then, as the sun sets, the whole landscape is plunged into a deep, moody cobalt blue – the beginning of a long winter night.
Beyond the mountains is another town, so different from Longyearbyen it feels like another world. Back in the early years of the Cold War, Svalbard was the setting for a face-off between the Soviets and the Norwegians, both of whom built settlements here. Though Norway was awarded sovereignty over the archipelago in 1920, Svalbard’s status as a demilitarised and free economic zone allowed the Soviets to maintain a substantial mining operation throughout WWII and the Cold War. From the 1950s through to the 1980s, the Russian population here was about twice the size of its Norwegian counterpart.
The most striking relic of those times is Barentsburg, a Russian mining base that can only be reached from Longyearbyen after several hours on a snowmobile. These days, half of Barentsburg is a ghost town. Deep in the winter snow, it’s hard to tell which half.
Abandoned buildings are painted with peeling murals of well-fed cows, a legacy of Soviet efforts to start farms in this unlikely location. There are monuments dedicated to over-achieving workers. A bust of Lenin glares down over the settlement, his face half-covered in snow. A few hundred people, mostly Ukrainians, still live here, but it feels like the frontier of a disappeared world, frozen in time.