In the Arctic blizzard, there is nothing but white. White above, white below, white in every direction. It is impossible to know whether the view ahead stretches for 10 yards or 10 miles. Into this void, undeterred, run the six huskies pulling the little wooden sled, tongues lolling and tails flailing wildly. No glimpse can be seen of the sled in front, but the dogs are following the scent of their pack. In this strange and unknowable land, they are not afraid.
The sled bumps and
skids over an undulating sheet of ice, frozen thick over the waters of a fjord.
The blizzard slows and, for the first time in hours, the distant outlines of
mountain ridges can be made out: just a suggestion, like the first few sketches
of charcoal on an artist’s blank canvas. Then, suddenly, out of the white,
there is a mast. Two masts. It’s a lone sailing ship, frozen in the middle of a
vast sea of ice, which promises warmth, comfort and the best hot chocolate
north of Murmansk.
Travelling on a
dogsled to a ship frozen in the ice is a journey with resonance. It echoes the
beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which an Arctic sea explorer gets
stuck in pack ice near the North Pole and finds the exhausted Dr Victor
Frankenstein pursuing his escaped monster. In real life, too, the great
19thcentury explorer Fridtjof Nansen found his way to these seas in his
specially designed ship, the Fram. Expeditions would sail as far as possible
towards the poles in the summer, then let the waters freeze around them,
creating a supply base. Nansen later gave the Fram to Roald Amundsen, who used
it to set out for the South Pole.
There is only one
place in the world where it is possible to stay on an icebound ship now. That’s
the Noorderlicht (Northern Light), frozen for winter in Tempelfjorden on the
island of Spitsbergen, in the high Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
In the cosy wooden
interior of the Noorderlicht, thick thermal suits are peeled off and the
dogsledders’ extremities slowly defrosted with hot chocolate. Ted, the laconic
Dutch captain, appears briefly. ‘I planned to retire on a yacht in the
Caribbean,’ he says with a wry smile, gesturing at the iced-up porthole. A
hearty dinner is served, with spinach pastries, meatloaf and deliciously moist
apple cake. Then, at last, the sled team collapse into their bunks inside and
the huskies collapse into their kennels outside for a night of much-needed
sleep. Poor Dr Frankenstein could be hammering on the cabin doors all night and
nobody on board would wake up to let him in.
When morning comes,
the storm has gone. The sun will not rise over the horizon for several hours –
but, in the first violet glow of morning, it is finally possible to see the
whole sweeping expanse of Tempelfjorden itself. This is why people come to the
poles: a 360-degree sight of bizarre, ethereal beauty like nothing else on
Earth. It’s a landscape on the sweeping scale of the African savannahs or the
deserts of Asia, but rendered in cut crystal. The ship is in the middle of an
enormous winter plain created by the rippled ice, which is frozen solid across
the seawater. A pale, hazy mist clings close. For a second, a black spot
appears in the distance: a seal, popping its head up through a hole to take a
look around. Barren mountains sheer up from the faraway edges of the fjord,
their black crags softened by thick drifts of pristine white snow. And it is,
of course, silent; silent in a way that only a windless place with no trees,
grasses or insects can ever be. That is, until the huskies wake up and start
barking for breakfast.
In the days of
Norwegian explorers Nansen and Amundsen, ships and dogs were the only way to
travel in the polar regions. A century on, snowmobiles are a faster option –
and, though they do break down occasionally, they usually need less maintenance
than six dogs. And it’s a relatively easy matter to climb a glacier on a
snowmobile. The snow fills the mountain passes in meringue-like heaps, light
sparkling on its smooth crust. Occasionally that crust crumbles under the
snowmobile’s tread, and both driver and vehicle tip over and are buried.
Beneath the crust, though, the snow is soft and powdery – making falling into
it oddly enjoyable. It’s like tumbling into a pile of marshmallows.
The air is a brisk
-28˚C today and tears freeze solid on eyelashes. Even so, zipped up in a
hi-tech thermal suit, it is possible to be plunged into a snowdrift and feel no
more than refreshingly cool. The snowmobile is soon dug out and back on track.
Skimming over the drifts once more at 50mph, it would be easy to assume that
this wilderness has been conquered.
It has not. Our guide,
Martin, calls for a break by an abandoned mine, an eerie collection of deserted
buildings on the side of a deep valley. Parents in Spitsbergen tell their
children that this place is home to Yule Nisse, a gnome from Norwegian folklore
and local variation of Father Christmas. Martin takes out a large, high-calibre
rifle. He loads it carefully – it’s not magical Christmas gnomes that have him
worried. ‘I like to keep the gun ready,’ Martin explains, ‘because often you don’t
see a polar bear until it’s too late.’ Tragically, Svalbard made the news in
August 2011 for exactly that reason. A polar bear attacked an expedition camp,
wounding four people and killing 17-year-old British student Horatio Chapple.
was named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, legend has it, attempted to hunt a
polar bear in Svalbard in 1773. Nelson, then a 14-year-old midshipman, was
armed only with a rusty musket. He fired at the bear, but the gunpowder flashed
and the bullet stuck in the barrel. ‘Never mind,’ he cried, ‘do but let me get
a blow at this devil with the butt-end of my musket, and we shall have him.’
The ship’s captain fired a shot into the sky, one version of the story goes,
and the bear fled.
As the awful events of
August proved, the danger of bear attacks has not gone away: as long as there
are bears, they will never be completely avoidable. Yet Svalbard’s guides are
never blasé about the risks – like Martin, they are all armed. Despite its
breathtaking beauty, the Svalbard winter is hostile. Aside from the bears –
which outnumber humans by three to two – residents and visitors must contend
with enormous distances, poor means of communication, strong winds, frozen
seas, ice storms and, of course, the extreme cold. The temperature in the
largest settlement, Longyearbyen (the world’s northernmost town), falls as low
as -46˚C, and only remains steadily above freezing between June and September.
Nonetheless, a couple of thousand people choose to call this archipelago home.
You do not need a visa or even a passport to live here and, as a result, the
human population is diverse, comprising 26 different nationalities – from
Russians to Indians, Swedes to Chinese. There was an Iranian here until last
year, too – a refugee from political persecution in his own country. After
Norwegians, the biggest group is Thai. ‘Thirty years ago, a Norwegian from
Svalbard fell in love with a Thai woman,’ explains Lisa, a guide in
Longyearbyen. ‘I guess word got around.’
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
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.
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).
The article 'Norway’s northernmost frontier' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.