Norway’s northernmost frontier
The Soviet town runs along the edge of a wide fjord and we set off across it in a convoy. We speed up through a mountain pass, bouncing over heaps of powdery snow. The glow is fading from the sky. As the convoy heads west into the dying light, an ice storm descends. In the headlamps, the shower of ice sparkles like millions of falling diamonds. It is a captivating sight. The red taillights of the snowmobiles in front are all that can be seen. However, the ice is falling fast, and even these lights soon disappear behind a crystalline veil. Now all the drivers can do is follow the tracks, hoping that in the middle of this endless, whirling torrent they are heading in the right direction. Soon enough, three yellow lights glimmer through the veil. This is Isfjord Radio, a former radio station that was once the only way people on Svalbard could communicate with mainland Norway. Enormous satellite dishes relayed signals and Norwegian television was recorded and replayed 24 hours later for the local population – who were, therefore, consigned to live perpetually in the past.
Technology has moved on since then and the radio station is no longer in use. Instead, it has become a hotel – complete with a library, a long-wave radio receiver in every room and a menu of Svalbard delicacies, such as Arctic cod, reindeer and whale.
Just four people live on this side of Spitsbergen, and they all work at the hotel. Fredrik and Lena are the cheerful young couple in charge. They were offered a three-year contract to live in this otherworldly place on the shore of a frozen sea, with nothing for miles around. Why did they take it?
‘First of all, because this place is amazing,’ says Fredrik. ‘There’s a lot of history. Isfjord has a small place in the heart of everyone in Svalbard.’ It is the uniqueness of Isfjord that made it so irresistible, Lena adds. ‘There was nothing to think about. Of course we would take the job.’
Their great passions are hunting and fishing. ‘A reindeer provides a lot of food for us and for our dogs,’ Fredrik explains. ‘But the rules are very strict on hunting here. It’s not like the Wild West.’
In the warm, cosy lounge, sipping red wine and reading a book while the Arctic storm swirls outside, it’s not hard to see why Fredrik and Lena look so contented. ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ Fredrik remarks. A visit to Svalbard is just that: an unforgettable encounter with a strange, beautiful and alien world.
Alex von Tunzelmann is a British author and historian. Her latest novel is Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean (£25; Simon & Schuster).