It was 2:00 am when we landed. Climbing down the stairs from the aircraft we could see that the tarmac had freshly been washed. Small puddles bore traces of the rain shower that we had missed. The rugged mountains around us and the glaciers visible in the distance made us zip up our jackets – it was cool outside. Pleasant, but not cold. It was the middle of July. We were at Longyearbyen Airport, Svalbard – the northernmost inhabited city in the world. And at 2:00 am it was daylight outside. A little cloudy, but bright. We had always wondered what it would be like to visit a place that had 24 hours of daylight. We were there!
The van that took us to the hotel had picked up a few other passengers besides us and meandered around the “city” dropping people off at what appeared to be crude, container-like cabins. So this is how people live in this part of the world? I remembered reading that Longyearbyen was a mining town. The metal cabins looked the part. Construction and mining equipment seemed to be everywhere. Apart from the main road from the airport, all the side roads were more like dirt tracks with pebbles. There were hardly any cars around – I gathered that commuting would be an issue here.
The van finally stopped near a grey army barracks kindof place and the driver announced that we had reached the Radisson Longyearbyen. After driving around dirt tracks and stopping by portakabin sheds, this hotel did not look very appealing. We had landed in a mining town so we might as well rough it out.
We entered the hotel to be greeted by a sign that requested us to take our shoes off! My Sperry Topsiders were not soiled. Why do they want us to take our shoes off? Do they have white carpets inside? A pile of heavy looking hiking boots and other foot armour – you couldn’t call this footwear! – in a corner near the entrance revealed the kindof shoes and their trail of hard-to-scrub icky stuff which had resulted in the hotel management’s desire to disallow footwear indoors. But we ignored the sign.
The small foyer with an equally small gift shop beside it and a counter which served as a reception-concierge-giftshop checkout counter all rolled into one was our first port of call. We had booked our rooms online and had called in to let the hotel know that we would be reaching at 3 a.m. and wanted a room right away. We had paid for the extra night. A family of six with four teenage children waiting in a lounge for eight hours before checking into a hotel room was not my idea of a holiday. If you want to cut corners stay at home!
One of the reasons for selecting this hotel apart from the fact that it was the world’s northernmost full service hotel was the fact that it was a Radisson – a hotel chain which was one of the first to promote their free internet services. All Radisson hotels around the world offer free broadband internet – and this has tempted me to stay at their hotels in places as diverse as Jeddah, London, Cairo, Reykjavik and now the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen. While many hotel chains continue to rip off their guests with exorbitant internet connectivity charges, a large number of them have now started to offer free internet facilities.
The rooms were spacious. The beds looked inviting. I set my alarm clock for Fajr prayers – we were following Makkah timings as perpetual daylight and no sunrise or sunset called for innovative approaches to something as mundane as the timings of a Muslim’s five obligatory prayers – and dropped off to sleep.
The breakfast buffet was in a room with sloping wooden ceilings and large windows which looked out into the blue waters of Isfjord and the glaciers beyond. Coming out of the restaurant you were greeted by a large stuffed polar bear. The soft, smooth fur and its pristine whiteness did not hide its sheer size and menacing yet innocent face. This was an animal you did not mess with.
We wandered outside and walked up to a shop that had a variety of woolen clothing on offer. Besides the usual collection of ski jackets and anoraks and face masks and caps and gloves, the store had a collection of guns on display. Hunting rifles and shotguns and all manner of small arms were displayed alongside the hiking boots and berets and hunting knives. You could just casually go and pick up one of the dozens of guns that lined one of the aisles of the store. Fancy walking up to the cash counter with a pair of gloves, a woolen scarf, a Winchester rifle and a box of bullets. It all seemed so casual. And unreal.
The Governor of Svalbard who is responsible for overseeing the 2,565 residents of Longyearbyen (2009 population) had decreed that anyone who ventured beyond the designated residential areas of the city had to carry a rifle for protection against polar bears. Although it is a crime to kill and hunt bears, it is mandatory to carry a rifle for self defence.
We did not need a rifle to hunt for our lunch but walked over to the Longyearbyen city centre which consists of a handful of shops, a large supermarket and a cluster of restaurants. The restaurant we found ourselves in after browsing the 78 degrees North caps and T-shirts – yes, Longyearbyen is 78 degrees North of the equator – looked more like a bookstore than a restaurant. Pictures of dogsled adorned the walls of the rustic looking room which served as a dining room as well as a reservation office for dogsled tours of the city.
The chef was a person who said he was from the south Asian island of Ceylon. He did not seem to appreciate my comments when I asked if he was from Sri Lanka. He was probably one of those who had fled from persecution in the Jaffna peninsula and left the island when it was still called Ceylon. When we explained to him that we were muslims and would not eat meat, he put together some delicious seafood soup and fish and a garlic and lemon smothered crab. While in the midst of preparing the food he came to us to ask if we were ok about milk being added in the preparation of the fish – apparently he must have had some Jewish visitors who did not want fish and milk together.
Satiated, we set off to explore the city some more. We walked in the direction of snow covered hills, past the city’s high school and power plant. Wooden houses with chocolate colored roofs and snow scooters in the front yard made us wonder how life would be in winter when perpetual darkness engulfed the city and snow covered the pebbled roads: people whizzing around in their snowmobiles, darkness all around – something out of space like the Jetsons! Most of the scooters were draped with plastic covers for the summer. What was peculiar was that there were no cars in the driveway. It was a city where people walked or drove snowmobiles.
We had now reached the edge of the city and in front of us a rugged path led towards the snow covered hills. There were no more houses. A small rivulet of icy cold water was flowing by the roadside. Out of nowhere a small SUV drove past and stopped a few hundred meters from us at the foot of the hills. We looked at the snow and the rugged climb ahead and decided that we were not the hiking type. Give us a marble floored shopping mall and we will walk for hours but uneven slopes and blustery cold winds made us turn around and head back to the hotel. The SUV also drove back. Apparently someone had noticed that a group of visitors without rifles were heading towards the wilderness and the city’s alert officials had sent someone to ensure that we did not wander off too far without weapons.
We had given the dog sled a pass as the children were not too keen on going in a wheeled cart pulled by dogs – a horse driven chariot may have elicited a favorable response – but we had opted for the more adventurous trip by ship the next morning to the icebergs and glaciers further north to go look for seals and polar bears.
A van came to our hotel in the morning to take us to the port where SS Polar Girl was waiting for us. The 50 passenger ship had only a couple from Oslo besides us that day so it seemed like a private excursion. Our guide showed us the map where we were going and warned us that the water turns icy at times and may freeze behind us and we could get stuck on the boat. Once we set off, all around us were glaciers and snow covered mountains. A few sea gulls flirted around and swooped to the water’s surface to catch fish. The wind was cold and icy. We could not stay outdoors for too long and went into the ship’s cabin.
We were invited to see the captain’s room. A large monitor showed us where we were. A small blackboard on the wall had a chalk inscription showing the number “1.” We asked what that was for. The guide informed us that there had been one polar bear sighting so far. And the season had just started a week back. Soon we were sailing in water with ice cubes around us. We avoided the larger pieces of floating ice and ploughed on towards the glaciers ahead.
A large iceberg appeared in front of us. We sailed close to it and noticed puffins were sitting on it. The tip of the iceberg that was visible above the water’s surface did not reveal how big it really was. The captain let the side of the ship graze the iceberg, carefully avoiding a direct hit. We did not want to run aground in this wilderness. The puffins flew away.
I checked to see if my Blackberry was connected to any network and was surprised that Telenor signals were still being received. I quickly Tweeted that we were on Polar Girl and heading towards the glaciers – just in case we had a Titanic experience someone following my tweets would alert rescuers.
We peered through binoculars to try to spot polar bears in the distant glaciers but could not spot any. Our guide directed us to look at a piece of floating ice in the distance. It had a dark blob on it. On closer inspection it turned out to be a walrus. We sailed on towards the distant icy shore but a sheet of ice restricted our advance. Our boat was not an ice-breaker and although the captain made a few attempts to go forward, the ice cracked and broke but did not give way for us to sail ahead.
The frozen sea ahead of us meant that we would have to turn back. This would be one of those sailings when there was no polar bear sighting. The captain’s slate would remain with just one mark.
Seafood chowder with bread rolls and butter were offered to us for lunch and how warm it all felt! No lavish spread. We could have as many helpings as we liked of the delicious broth. And we indulged. The icy wind that whistled around us seemed to have turned warm. We dipped the bread and licked our fingers. Sometimes a simple meal can make you feel so satisfied. Alhamdolillah!
The next morning we woke up to hear raindrops falling on our window panes. Living in Dubai, we are not used to rain. It seemed so cool and refreshing. But to our disappointment, very soon the rain disappeared and instead we saw the sun shining through. After breakfast we went out and were greeted by snow. A slushy kind of snow mixed with rain and sleet. And then just pure fluffy snow flakes began to fall. It was the middle of July. And it was snowing. We walked around outside for a while but it was getting cold so we went back to the hotel. The sign again stared at us – we took our shoes off!
Later that day we were driven to the airport to catch our flight out from Longyearbyen.
It was 3:00pm when we landed. Oslo was sweltering in 30 degrees C. Global warming …