Monday, August 10, 2015

Svalbard: An Arctic experience - Wild side of Life

I have been putting off writing about Svalbard for a long time now. Not because I don't want to, but because I don't think I can do justice to it. I am not sure if I am capable of expressing what I felt when I was there in Svalbard, a place just 1000 kilometers from the north pole, located 78 degrees north. 

PS: I love to say the word Svalbard, I have realized that and have come in terms with it. So please be prepared to read that word a lot as you go on reading my blog post! :) 

Now coming back to my story about how it came to going to Svalbard of all places...

I was going back to Stockholm in October 2013. We had already decided we would go to Norway this time and hopefully we would get a glimpse of the mystical Aurora Borealis! So as usual the planning phase began the minute I came back from my East European Trip. 

So as nerdy as it might sound, I have a habit of opening Google maps and just scrolling through it, checking out places in this world and mentally pinning them to go to that one day! Svalbard was also one such place. Google Maps shows it as a WHITE piece of land and almost appears as if it is in the middle of no where in the arctic. And I recollected my husband's colleague mentioning this place when talking about places to see when we are in the Scandinavian area. That's how the search began. The more I read about Svalbard, the more tempted I was to go there but at the same time I was fretting it too. Polar Bear attacks and DO NOT TRAVEL without loaded rifles or without a guide caution statements did not make it a very touristy place. But then my reckless side was also getting kindled, what would it be like to go to a place like this? Into the less known world... into the wild arctic region... So every time I discussed about the Norway trip with my husband, I would talk about Svalbard but would make sure that he knows everything about the place. If we are going, it was going to be a decision by both of us! I did not want I told you so's when we get a frost bite or even worse come face to face with a polar bear... not sure how to take it now but neither of it happened :(... yup, I was indeed covering all my bases! After talking about a lot of pros and cons, we decided to go on this trip whatsoever. The entire planning for the trip started rolling, booking flight tickets, stay and what to do in Svalbard.

There is no direct flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, so our itinerary was something like this:
  • Stockholm to Oslo - round trip
  • Oslo to Longyearbyen, via Tromso - round trip
2 days and 1 night in Svalbard and 2 days and 2 nights in Oslo.

Some very interesting facts about Svalbard
  • Because of the Svalbard Treaty, one does not need a visa or a work permit to visit or settle in Svalbard but they would require the appropriate visa to the country via which they are arriving here. So the stop at Tromso was a technical stop and a stop to verify your passports.
  • You cannot give birth in Svalbard, since there is no nationality/citizenship status
  • You cannot die in Svalbard, why... since bodies do not decompose due to the extreme cold
  • There are more polar bears than humans
  • Its the northernmost city in the World
  • There are NO cats there
Guess that was enough talking... at least for the time being... time for some photographs... 
Northern Norway - en route to Svalbard
Taken when we were about to land in Tromso for passport verification
Longyearbyen airport, Svalbard
We landed in Svalbard, me with a terrible chest congestion and cough, stepped into the -4 degree Celsius weather. I really did not want to think about my cold and ensured that I was taking in a lot of hot fluids. I did not want to miss this experience for anything in this world.

We took the bus to our hotel; the bus service is extremely convenient. Longyearbyen is basically a very small town and has a population of about 2000 people. After checking in and freshening up, we decided to go get lunch and maybe some better warm clothes. We had a night trek coming up and we weren't really equipped enough. So after having some brandy with hot water for my cold and vegetarian pizza (yup I went to a place where there was NO VEGETATION and had great vegetarian food!) we bought some nice boots to keep us warm during the trek. Decided against the wind-proof trousers and coat (BIG MISTAKE), we thought regular thermal wear and jeans with multiple layers of woolen tops would be good enough... but nights get crazy, that too if you are going to trek the snowy mountains its better to be prepared!

We met with our guide who was going to take us on the trek and his friend. We started driving towards the mountains, parked our car at the base and started trekking. From my side, it was an EPIC fail. I was constantly skidding on the lose snow and - thanks to the sub-zero temperatures and chest congestion and nose block I was completely breathless. I saw the true strength of my husband that night, he managed to literally drag me almost three-fourth of the mountain, when I decided to give up. Our guide thankfully had some hot beverage, obviously he wasn't impressed by me. But he was kind enough not to voice it.
The mountain we trekked, the path we took was right above the church that you can see near the base of the mountain. Took this photograph the next day on our way to the airport.
View of the town from the top

View from the top

We started talking more over the hot cup of coffee and these conversations were life changing for me. Not just this one with Vladimir (at least that's what I think his name was) but the different people I met during this trip and the conversations we had about their life.

Story 1 - How did Vladimir end up here? 
People you meet in a place where there is sun light only for 4 - 6 months in a year and temperatures are not just cold but frigid; are strong not only physically but also mentally. Imagine wanting to live in a place like this out of free will! You need to understand that these are not ordinary people, there is a something wild in them which makes them feel at home at such a place like Svalbard.

Let me introduce you to Vladimir - he is not just a guide who took us on a mountain trek; he is a geologist from Serbia. Yup, you read right! He had a corporate job and regular life. He went through a difficult phase in life when he started to question everything he was doing. Decided to travel around the world, he spent quite some time in Varanasi, India smoking hash and living the life of a nomad. He loved India, he said it cleared his mind and made him calm. He loves Varanasi and would go there again if he had a chance. He then made a trip to Svalbard, fell in love and decided to stay. He has been living here now for the past 1.5 years.

From where I come from, not even in your deepest dream do you think about leaving your regular job. Entrepreneurs are not encouraged since its a risk and its more important to have a steady income (I would be an hypocrite if I don't accept that I myself would freak out of my mind if my husband decides to quit his regular job and start his own business). But this man did exactly that,  decided that the corporate job is not for him and moved 78 degrees north towards the north pole to live his life. Imagine how insanely wild that would sound to a girl whose wildest dream was that she was traveling in Svalbard.

Back to my story...
By now Vladimir and his friend have become quite close to us after all we did spend a long time talking about our personal lives. After trekking back or rather skidding back all the way down the mountain, they wanted to show us what their life was going to be starting the next week when the Polar nights started. Now that was something!
Handheld shot - was shaking like a leaf, had developed a fever by now and temperatures were dropping since it was the middle of the night. But This was how the next 6 months was going to be in Svalbard - Polar nights
We drove for quite some distance away from the town into "i-have-no-idea-middle-of-no-where" and then he stopped the car in this place. This was taken with with an ISO 1600 and thats why its noisy and blurry since it was hand held. On the other side, we saw this -

Coal mines

Interesting fact: Svalbard has coal mines all over the place. One of the famous place here near Longyearbyen is Barentsburg which is another mining town and a Russian settlement. 

Coal is the major source of energy here and coal mining is the major industry. Because of this, in the middle of Longyearbyen you can find this statue -
Statue of a miner

By the time, we got back from the trip I had high fever and was shaking uncontrollably. The town was asleep and we could not find anything to eat, thankfully there were some cookies in the reception. I took a couple of paracetamol tablets and I zonked out. After all, I had to get better for my next day there.

Svalbard - Day 2 adventures:
The warm room, paracetamol and super deep sleep did the trick and the next day I felt much better. So we got ready and headed towards breakfast. After a food-less night, breakfast was amazing. They had a good spread with boiled eggs (hard and soft), bacon, bread-butter-jam, cornflakes-milk-coffee and omelette etc. Food is brought in from Norway in the regular passenger air freight. As I was stuffing food down my throat, I was thanking the technological advancement which made even this place hospitable; not just hospitable but almost modern with wifi-internet and internal heating system with 24 hours hot water. What more can I ask for?

After a nice breakfast, we were picked up by I-want-to-say "Ben" (since I forgot his name). It was time to do some dog-sledding.

Sanjay - suiting up :) 

Harini (me) - suited up 

Sanjay prepping the sled; part 1 - harness the dogs

The huskies were A.D.O.R.A.B.L.E

Sanjay was quite comfortable with them

As you can see, I am super scared.. from one mile I am trying to pet him...

Men at work, prepping the sled

Huskies get super excited when they know they are being taken out for a run and can get extremely hyper. The best way to control them is to hold them the way Sanjay is holding, this does not hurt them at the same time they are more controlled. The minute they find out, the person handling him/her is not strong enough they can attack. We did have a lose dog on the run, but Ben (our guide) was the alpha in the pack and he was the only one who could control them!  

And off we go... 

Sanjay took command and I decided to enjoy the view and the ride

The huskies started to misbehave. There is a very strict order in the pack and they constant fight in order to raise in rank. One of the huskies got bitten in the fight and we had to stop to take care of it. Ben is breaking the fight and calming them down.

Photo time while huskies decide their ranks in the pack :P

Show off :P

Ben has established himself as the alpha in the pack and so the dogs listen to him when he gives them a command. In order to do so, he actually breaks the fight using the back of his heel so that the boot is thick there and even if they take a bite it wont hurt him and they too wont get hurt. He then falls on top of the husky which is agitated/started the fight and bites its ear until it calms down and understands that its been over powered. That's what he is doing in this photograph.

Notice the missing husky, thats the one which got wounded in a fight and had to be taken back by car

It was a brilliant experience. We took care of our dogs, harnessed them, tied them to the sled, controlled the sled and finally once it was all had to untie them from the sled and back to their doghouse. For a few hours we lived like travellers who take arctic expedition. A once in a lifetime experience for me, even though I am very scared of dogs I managed to fall in love with them and loved every single moment on that sled.

Meet Ben - Story 2:
Ben is an environmental consultant from Manchester. He was working in a white collar job with great pay. But every day after coming into office, after the first hour he could not sit at his desk. He grew restless and bored and would go for tea/coffee every half an hour. He decided that the desk job was not for him and started travelling. When he came to Svalbard, the wild enticed him and he decided to stay back. He applied for a job to take care of these huskies and has been doing so for the past 8 months.

Can you imagine, what's happening in our minds? We are going through an out of this world kind of experience. We are people who come from a society which stereotypes everything and everyone. It is so orthodox that sometimes the rigid rules can suffocate you. We end up 1000 kilometers from north pole and meet people who have had jobs very much like us in a corporate world but have decided to leave all those urban comforts to live in the wild, just because it gives them calm and peace. This transformed us both to a large extent.

After the sledding, we came back to our hotel to freshen up and check out. We had the evening flight to catch to get back to Oslo. On our way back to the airport, we decided to walk around a bit in the main shopping street and take some photographs.

Imagine a 1000 km that direction is the North pole :)

Sun setting

What a view? Right outside the airport... 

@ the airport - ready to get back to a different civilisation; completely transformed
Did we see polar bears?
The interesting fact is that in Svalbard there are more Polar bears than human beings. But fortunately then or unfortunately now, we did not see any. But both Vladimir and Ben always travelled with a loaded gun and adviced us to always be with them and not to wander off. During our mountain trek, Vladimir mentioned about this story how 2 girls decided to trek by themselves and did not carry a gun. They were attacked by a polar bear, one was killed by the bear and the other jumped from the mountain and was in a very critical condition then. At that point, we felt it was better if we did not come face to face with one of them. But now, it is a little disappointing that we did not get a chance to see these Majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

How can I describe the Svalbard experience? 
It took me almost 2 years to write about our trip to Svalbard. It was one of the most magical and mesmerising trip we have ever done and I think words are not enough to really express what it felt like to be there. I haven't been to Iceland or Greenland or Alaska and so can't really compare. But to me this trip is very close to my heart, it changed me as a person and opened up avenues which I did not even think existed for us.

What next??? 
A 900 kms drive all in one day - my next blog post about our trip from Oslo to Bergen and then back. One day, around 14 hours, 900 kms, drive through a 24kms long tunnel with psychedelic lights  (yup you read it right it was indeed 24 kms), a Ferry cruise through the Fjords in Bergen and then drive through a pitch dark night through the mountains. The time to spot another car to cross us was from 3 minutes (best case) to 30 minutes (worst case which was of higher probability). Coming up next!!! :)

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