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Northernmost City in the World

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Published in the Sunday Navbharat Times on 27 April, 2024

There are 12 policemen in town, and they have absolutely no work to do! We listened in amazement as our coach driver and guide shared trivia about the town. Well, that was not surprising, as the town does not even have a prison. From the moment I set foot in Longyearbyen, arriving at Svalbard Airport, the northernmost commercial airport in the world, I knew I was in for something special. Everywhere I turned, there was a sense of novelty, of being on the edge of the world. It seemed that in Longyearbyen, everything held the title of "northernmost in the world" - the northernmost bank, pizza joint, pub, hotel, restaurant, and the list goes on!

But Longyearbyen is more than just a quirky town; it's a small coal mining community nestled within the icy embrace of Svalbard, a remote archipelago comprising nine main islands. Among these islands, Spitsbergen reigns supreme as the largest, boasting over half of Svalbard's total land area and the only island with a human population. And speaking of ice, Svalbard's remote location places it further north than even the most northerly settlement in Greenland. But here's where it gets interesting: unlike Greenland, where ice grips the land year-round, the waters around the south and west of Svalbard remain relatively ice-free. It's all thanks to the Gulf Stream, that mighty current that sweeps warmer waters up the coast, keeping Svalbard from being permanently locked in by ice.

After a smooth check-in at the hotel, I was ready for the most basic accommodation, but to my surprise, I was greeted with well-appointed heated rooms and a warm ambience throughout the hotel. The hot tub and sauna were an unexpected luxury, especially considering we were just 1300kms from the North Pole! The hotel even boasted the world’s northernmost pub, which seemed to be a favorite hangout spot for the locals. With a population of around 2500 people, most of whom hail from all around the world, Longyearbyen is truly a melting pot of cultures. I had the pleasure of meeting people from London, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, and even India.

The next day, I embarked on a cruise to explore the icy Arctic fjords of Svalbard. The boat, upholding the highest safety standards, cut through the ice as we ventured into the wilderness in search of wildlife. With a polar bear population of around 3000 outnumbering the humans, Svalbard is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world for polar bear viewing. Despite spending a day on the cruise, I realized that one day was not sufficient to fully experience the wonders of Svalbard. To maximize your chances of wildlife viewing, a longer cruise with expeditions on small Zodiac rafts is a must. Even if you don’t spot polar bears, you're guaranteed to see other Arctic wildlife like seals, walruses, and birds such as the Arctic tern, one of the longest-flying birds that migrates from Antarctica to the Arctic. I caught a glimpse of an Arctic fox darting across the frozen sheet of ice, and watched in awe as a walrus and its baby played and cuddled up to each other.

As the cruise came to an end, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of excitement for the 27 guests of Veena World who would embark on a 5-night, 6-day cruise to the Arctic from Svalbard this June. Summer, I learned, is the perfect time for wildlife viewing, and I couldn’t wait for them to experience the golden opportunity that awaited them.

By the second day, I was already well-acclimatized to the region, and after donning layer after layer of thermal wear, I was ready for a long walk in the snow. The weather forecast showing minus fifteen degrees couldn't dampen our spirits. In fact, the sun was shining bright, and with no pollution in sight, we slathered on sunscreen and set off to discover Longyearbyen's attractions.

Our first stop was the beautiful church, where the first rays of sun touch Longyearbyen on 8th March, marking the end of half a year spent in darkness. Roughly centered on 78° north latitude, Longyearben is a very special place, as I realized while witnessing the last sunset of the year on 18th April. From the next day onward, the sun would not set at all for the next 6 months, and I felt like I was part of nature's ritual.

In Longyearben, I fulfilled my wish to zoom off on a snowmobile on a wilderness safari as I spotted reindeer in the distance. I felt like I was part of a Bond movie. The feeling only grew stronger as I realised that Svalbard has been the backdrop of a car chase in a bond movie too. One structure that looks straight out o f a bond movie is the Global Seed Vault, a place where The feeling only grew stronger as I visited the Global Seed Vault which safeguards duplicates of 1,214,827 seed samples from almost every country in the world to backup genebank collections to secure the foundation of our future. The Seed Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s future food supply.

Talking about the future, I learned that Longyearbyen has some very unique laws. For instance, you can't have kids in Longyearbyen, as the facilities are limited, so mothers have to go to mainland Norway to deliver babies. And if that wasn't interesting enough, you also can't die and be buried in Norway. Even more intriguing is the fact that bodies don’t decompose due to the cold weather.

As I reached the souvenir shop and bought my polar bear magnet, I handed the shopkeeper my credit card. He told me they prefer credit cards as there’s no bank in Longyearbyen, and they have to visit the mainland for banking facilities.

Svalbard is home to almost no native inhabitants, with most people coming from across the world to live there and enjoy the joys of small community living. Almost everyone knows everyone, and they leave their house doors open, given that there is hardly any crime here. I met Camilla from Brazil, who said her school-going kid often plays out in the snow. Even as everyone here believes in embracing the elements of nature, they forget their wallets, which are always returned, and they are just not worried about anything. While she looks forward to returning home someday, she is in no hurry to leave Svalbard.

As I looked at the last sunset of the year, with snowy peaks and icy blue fjords stretching out before me, I realized I didn’t want to leave either. Svalbard had captured my heart, and I knew I would carry its spirit with me wherever I went.

April 27, 2024

Author

Sunila Patil
Sunila Patil

Sunila Patil, the founder and Chief Product Officer at Veena World, holds a master's degree in physiotherapy. She proudly served as India's first and only Aussie Specialist Ambassador, bringing her extensive expertise to the realm of travel. With a remarkable journey, she has explored all seven continents, including Antarctica, spanning over 80 countries. Here's sharing the best moments from her extensive travels. Through her insightful writing, she gives readers a fascinating look into her experiences.

More Blogs by Sunila Patil

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