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Long Man In The Arctic, Pt. 1: Longyearbyen

Struggling to kill time in the northernmost town in the world prior to our epic Arctic cruise

Ever since we traveled to the Galápagos Islands back in 2018 and then went on our Covid-delayed African safari last year, Anna has decided that she wants to try and make a wildlife-based trip each year, particularly to see threatened or endangered species. In fact, I think she started planning this particular journey the day we returned from Africa and now it was finally upon us; we would be going on a cruise into the Arctic Circle on the lookout for polar bears, sailing around Svalbard:

Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen, or Spitzbergen, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. North of mainland Europe, it lies about midway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole. The islands of the group range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The largest island is Spitsbergen, followed in size by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. The largest settlement is Longyearbyen.

Svalbard is also the last remaining place on earth where anyone can live or work indefinitely completely visa-free, however, we’d only be spending a couple of nights. Anyway, we knew it was going to be cold, but fortunately we had planned our cruise for what is technically summer in this part of the world, however, we would still need some very warm clothes over the next two weeks, but let’s for now just focus on the beginning of this journey. And don’t worry, the title will make sense in the next post.

Saturday, July 15, 2023
Our flight was originally supposed to be at 12:30am with a layover in Copenhagen, Denmark, continuing on to Oslo, Norway, and then a connecting flight to Longyearbyen, the town where we would be spending the first two nights in Svalbard, however, we got upgraded to a 1:30am flight with a layover in London. In our typical style we had to mess up the flights somehow, the first error being that there were two flights to London at roughly the same time and with similar flight numbers, just at completely different ends of the airport terminal and naturally we went to wrong gate. Panic kicked in as soon as we realised we were at the wrong gate and that the correct gate was closing, the following 10-minute spike in my heart rate causing my Fitbit to record it as over 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (right)! We moved as quickly as we could while our names were repeatedly called over the airport loudspeaker and before long a buggy that was deployed to collect us arrived and we sped through the crowd to the correct gate to do the walk of shame to our seats as the final two passengers.

We made the connecting flight from London to Oslo hassle-free, but somehow managed to mess up the third flight as well; because Svalbard is Norwegian territory we figured it would just be a domestic flight so we kicked back in the lounge for a bit and when we eventually made our way to the gate we discovered we had to go through immigration again. This time we were met with a surly, female officer who looked at our passports, stared up, and just said “Finally”, followed by a few other sarcastic remarks, but we made the flight and after almost 24 hours in transit we were landing in Longyearbyen:

Longyearbyen (“The Longyear Town”) is the world’s northernmost settlement with a population greater than 1,000 and the largest inhabited area of Svalbard, Norway. It stretches along the foot of the left bank of the Longyear Valley and on the shore of Adventfjorden, the short estuary leading into Isfjorden on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the island’s broadest inlet. As of 2002 Longyearbyen Community Council became an official Norwegian municipality. It is the seat of the Governor of Svalbard.

As of 2020, Longyearbyen had a population of 1,753 people.

There was a person waiting at the airport holding up a sign with our booking company written on it so we joined another guy in the car and by the time we got dropped off at our respective hotels it was around 8:00pm, not a cloud in the sky, just blinding sunlight. We checked into Svalbard Hotell and then went across one of the three roads in town to the hotel restaurant to grab our bite to eat in a while that wasn’t aeroplane food, our dinner of local cuisine including whale heart carpaccio among other dishes, and an hour later when it was time to pay the bill the sun was still blaring in through the windows. We were expecting it to be relatively bright around the clock with a period similar to dusk at some point so Anna asked our waiter what time it would start getting dark. “Usually in August”, he replied. When I looked at the weather app on my phone it confirmed the waiter’s response, with both sunset and sunrise essentially listed as being nowhere in the foreseeable future. It was a good thing we were there in Summer, because to counteract the three straight months of constant daylight, there would also be three months of pitch black in Winter, however, it was still going to be difficult to have no reprieve from the perpetual daylight over the coming fortnight in Svalbard:

We only had two nights in town so we decided to check out the nightlife, but first we’d need to go back to the hotel to grab our sunglasses and apply some sunblock before hitting up the neighbouring drinking hole, Karlsberger Pub, where some of the other patrons dressed in only shorts and T-shirts.
A few images from that first night in Longyearbyen, including some screenshots containing the time to show the bizarre not-so-dark witching hour:

Sunday, July 16, 2023
This was our only day to fully take in Longyearbyen on the first leg of this trip and one day would usually be more than enough to take in the entirety of a town with a population of 1,600, but having grown up in a relatively small town myself, albeit one that is a sprawling metropolis by comparison, I had a feeling there wouldn’t be much open on a Sunday, but fortunately there was a bit more than I was expecting.
There were a lot of sports stores around, but not one of them had a ball in sight, rather hiking pants, boots, gloves, rifles, and pretty much anything required to keep you warm. I had brought a pair of woollen gloves with me that I assumed could handle the task, but since we were there I figured I could get something a little more suitable for the North Pole so I checked out what one store had to offer. There was a bargain bin near the register that among other items had a pair comically large gloves that resembled oven mitts so I tried them on for a laugh, but to the surprise of us both they were a perfect fit, exceptionally warm, and I didn’t have to struggle to get my deformed pinkie finger in them, plus there was another pair of different gloves in the tub that fit Anna fully so we purchased both and continued on our way.
Next was a small shopping mall that had a few stores that mostly sold souvenirs including troll dolls and dream-catchers with local imagery carved into them, but Anna also managed to find a ring in one of the jewellery stores upstairs. By this point we needed coffee and there was a cafe downstairs that also sold a ton of knitting supplies so we pulled up a seat with a latte each, just thinking about how it would be to actually live in a town like this, Anna managing to fit both of her hands into one of my gloves in the process.

It wasn’t even midday at this point and the only other unique store to look at was the supermarket, one that wouldn’t be open for another three hours so we had really no other choice but to stroll around the hills, just taking in the scenery. Although some of the houses were colourful, the rest of the place was pretty grey and dull; not a whole lot really grows in this climate so the ground is just stones and gravel, no grass in people’s yards, but antlers nailed above the door, skiing equipment on the wall at the front, and a snowmobile out the back.
As we continued around the buildings we found the Svalbard Forskningspark, a name we both read incorrectly, piquing our collective interest so we went down to have a look and it actually turned out to be a museum for the local area that was a part of the university, not even remotely what we were expecting a place with a name like that to be. There wasn’t a lot else to do so we did a tour of the museum, taking in the history of whaling in the area, the wars and battles that ensued as a result, as well as examples of the local fauna and what little flora exists in Svalbard as well.
Touring the museum also didn’t take lot of time and we were soon back outside and although the town itself wasn’t much to look at, the surrounding scenery of the fjord and the mountains was beautiful so we walked down to the water and took it all in, terns swooping us the entire time and me somehow getting bitten by mosquitoes.
The start of our real proper look around Longyearbyen:

We completed our walk along the fjord, but it was still to early for the town’s only other attraction, the supermarket, to open, although there was Café Huskies on one of the other streets so we went there for another coffee, passing a large gaggle of geese crossing the road, as well as a woman sitting down and knitting while wearing a bikini on her balcony along the way. The huskies inside the cafe were really cool, albeit extremely lazy, and just like when we were in Sweden several years ago, we saw that one of them had different coloured eyes.
Our coffee was soon finished, the dogs patted, and the world’s northernmost supermarket, Coop, was now open so it was time to hit that dusty road and make the ten-minute trek before they closed again in three hours. Once inside it was just a regular supermarket except for a section of souvenirs and rifles, but we did make an unexpected discovery; people here love tacos! Earlier in the day we had seen a taco van and just figured it catered to those who drunkenly felt like a snack on their way home after the pub had closed, but Coop also had an extensive section of taco wrappers, meat varieties, pre-made taco kits, and a surprisingly large selection of chili sauces. There was almost a whole aisle of this stuff, but we hadn’t traveled to the arctic for Mexican food.

The supermarket was now done and dusted, it was too early for dinner, and unless we just felt like sitting in our hotel room until it was time to leave again, the pub was the only option, but we decided to try one of the other two choices in town, Svalbar, a bar that also specialises in cocktails, much to Anna’s pleasure.
After a few drinks it was time to eat, but we weren’t in the mood for tacos or going to one of the several Thai restaurants that were inexplicably around town. Instead, Anna had found a local restaurant that sounded right up our alley that was about a 20-minute walk out of town, heading toward the mountains. We set out, following a small, dirty stream and soon found ourselves near several abandoned, old coal mines, one with some white graves at the base, and then after encountering two reindeer that were still shedding their winter coats grazing by the side of the road, we had Mine 2B, the home of Santa Claus, beside us:

An abandoned coalmine located on the slope of Mt. Gruvefjellet, above Nybyen in Longyeardalen, Longyearbyen. It was in operation 1913–1964. Today it is a heritage site. It’s popularily called among ther residents as “Julenissegruva” (The Santa Mine); the children in Longyearbyen are told that Santa resides in this mine. Every Christmas they write their wish list for Santa and put them in a mailbox on the road below the mine.
Under the World War 2, on 8. sept 1942, the mine was shot to fire and heavily burned when the battleship Scharnhorst and two German destroyers attacked and bombed Longyearbyen.

Entering the mine is prohibited so we didn’t get to pay old Saint Nick a visit and ask him why I never received my Castle Grayskull 35 years ago, instead we continued along the dusty road and we soon reached our restaurant, but the T-Factor kicked in again — The place was closed for renovations. Fortunately, however, there was another place to eat nearby, Funktionærmessen, on the second floor of the Funken Lodge so we settled in and had some salmon, reindeer, and caviar for dinner.
Looking back on how we killed that afternoon:

We finished dinner, walked for about half an hour back into town and returned to Svalbar for multiple nightcaps while eavesdropping on a young, condescending American man giving life advice to local around the same age, dropping some helpful knowledge, such as:

“If you want to eat healthy, just eat coloured food. Red onions are healthier than white onions.”

“I have ADHD, you know how to prevent it? Cut out caffeine and sugar… but fruits are fine, they are healthy, even though they are sweet.”

“Meditate. Now I’m talking to you and meditating on the last five words I said to you.”

Deep. Then there were the inevitable excuses for not being a professional athlete that 90% of males that age seem to have:

“You know why I’m not an elite athlete of skier? I have the mind, but weak ankles. If my parents were skiers, I’d have stronger ankles, you do what your parents…do.”

The local kid just did the polite thing; smiled and nodded the entire time, dying a little inside as the other guy kept dropping truth bombs. We could’ve sat there and listened all night while chuckling to ourselves, but although it wasn’t getting dark, it was getting late and our cruise was beginning the following day.

Monday, July 17, 2023
The day that our Arctic adventure was upon us, but there was only one problem — We wouldn’t be boarding the ship until 4:00pm, meaning we would have to kill another afternoon in this town. Furthermore, compared to the previous day, Monday was absolutely freezing, but we had to grin and bear it and hit up the same old haunts from the previous day, as well as some that had been closed, but they were just extremely to the few that had been open anyway.

Eventually it was time to visit another tiny shop, this one housing the Swiss consulate upstairs in a room roughly the size of the average bathroom, in order to collect our preordered, rental, industrial gumboots, and before long we on the bus to the pier where we would be boarding our home for the next 10 nights, the Kinfish, our boat that would be taking us around the Arctic in search of seals, whales, walruses, but especially polar bears.

That’s it for our first stay in Longyearbyen, but tune in for the next, infinitely more interesting instalment of this adventure to see the incredible highlights of our cruise and to learn the true origin of “Long Man”.

Long Man disembarks

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