Svalbard: The most exotic place I’ve been in a long while
January 08, 2017
Imagine a place where cats are prohibited, as is dying, it’s polar night 24/7 several months a year, the streets have no names, carrying weapons are mandatory and permanent residents are still subject to alcohol rationing.
“Svalbard is almost a different planet.”
Thus said a hotel bartender in the hotel we were staying in in Longyearbyen while on Svalbard late last year, and the sentiment rings true to me.
It must be said that I was only in Longyearbyen for about 48 hours and attending a conference on science communication most of the time while there, so my experience of the place was limited - but it was still the most exotic place I’ve been for a very long time.
I had no idea you could find a place that was so different from the rest of Norway that is still technically a part of Norway, even though the Svalbard treaty limits Norway’s right to collect taxes there and there are other ways in which the archipelago operates under slightly different laws and regulations than the Norwegian mainland.
It’s polar night four months a year on Svalbard, and in contrast to a place like Tromsø, where you still get a few hours of daylight even in the darkest part of the year, it was just pitch dark all the time while I was on Svalbard.
Pitch dark and very quiet – only about 2000 people live in Longyearbyen (2654 at the start of 2016), where I was staying. As you might have heard there are more scooters than cars there, and even at the end of the main street in the middle of the city, where I was staying, it felt rather desolate.
At the same time, I felt I was surrounded by very powerful nature – the silence was not negative, just very different from what I’m used to – and it was a pity that it was so dark while I was there as I would have loved to see more of that nature. As it was, I only caught glimpses of it.
Perhaps because of the quiet and total darkness I slept exceedingly well on Svalbard, in fact I can’t think of any place in the world where I have slept better, but don’t think I’m cut out for living with polar night 24/7. However, I have promised myself to come back at a different time of the year when there is light (though I’m told that as well can be 24/7).
But those laws I mentioned in the intro?
A very unusual thing about Svalbard, at least to me, is how much it’s shaped by its history, and shaped by its unique nature and biodiversity status.
One of the oddest things about Svalbard is its alcohol laws, which I understand is shaped by its past as a mining settlement.
To this day, Svalbard has mandatory alcohol ration cards for permanent residents, a card that also serve as an identification card for permanent residents. Locals must present this card when buying beverages regulated by the quota system (beer, liquor, fortified wine) in shops such as “Nordpolet” (a state monopoly which also sells regular beer). Wine, apparently, was consumed by the governing classes when the quotas were introduced, so is not regulated other than by the vague term “in reasonable amounts”. But alcohol bought in bars and restaurants is exempted from the quotas.
As for producing alcoholic beverages on Svalbard, after substantial lobbying a new law was passed by the Norwegian Parliament as late as July 2014 which enabled Svalbard Bryggeri, the world’s northernmost brewery, to tap its first beer in August 2015 – brewed with glacier water. They make an interesting IPA (a bit too fruity for my taste), a nice Stout and a Lager (Pilsner) I didn’t sample.
Many of Svalbard’s companies had their own currencies until recently . In the old days, workers would get their payment in the companies’ own currency only, a currency they could use only on Svalbard, and the money would only be exchanged to Norwegian kroners when they left Svalbard for good.
Cats are strictly prohibited on Svalbard as the archipelago is home to abundant Arctic bird populations and cats pose a problem for the bird life.
The streets in Longyearbyen truly have no names, they simply go by numbers.
Carrying a firearm is mandatory most everywhere on Svalbard, due to the threat of meeting polar beers, save in the center of Longyearbyen. If, as a tourist, you venture into an area where you may encounter polar beers, you must bring an armed guide.
Wearing outdoor shoes inside is discouraged even in public buildings, so you’d better bring some slippers. This pertains even to hotels, museums and places such as the local university, and I was told this as well has its origin in the days when Svalbard was a mining settlement.
You cannot choose the colour of your house, houses must be painted in colours that compliment Svalbard’s nature and before you paint your house you must obtain a permission.
Dying has been banned in Longyearbyen since 1950 (!) because the bodies do not decompose (due to the permafrost), and pregnant women return to the mainland to give birth.
And this is but a few of the unusual things about Svalbard.
We were lucky enough to get a guided bus tour of Longyearbyen while there, with an excellent guide, and did get to explore a few museums and get the background story on key areas and historic buildings – even if it was pitch dark.
That, by the way, was probably the most exotic sightseeing I’ve experienced in a long time as well, in fact I’ve never done a three-hour sightseeing spent, save in the museums, driving through near complete darkness, but the guide truly was excellent.
So, I just must come back in one of the lighter months, perhaps come summer…