The Island at the Edge of the World

The Island at the Edge of the World
Svalbard is like an illusion near the North Pole, popping up miraculously in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, Photo Credit: Shreya Ganguly

A passport is all you need to visit this Arctic anomaly.

Shreya Ganguly
September 01 , 2021
13 Min Read

I woke up to deafening applause and a tap on my head with a copy of the Scandinavian Traveller magazine that I had been reading all along. The pilot had just welcomed us to Svalbard, stating that the outside temperature was -15 degree Celsius. His little speech introducing the island while asking us to cosy up set the ball rolling for in-flight celebrations. People started blowing kisses in the air and bobbing up and down in their seats. Eager to be unleashed, to be let out  into this Narnia-like land of their dreams. 

The dusky twilight fading into the night

There was euphoria in the air, with the legendary 70s number Top of the World by The Carpenters playing in the background, and the entire plane singing along. It was an emotion that felt collectively overwhelming, yet singularly tranquil and ecstatic, unreal yet so real. All of us from different cultures, races and countries were together in this moment on this last piece of land before the North Pole).

As we flew low, the ethereal white mist started thinning out. I pressed my face close to the window for a clearer view of the topography. From up in the clouds, Svalbard looked like a vast canvas of black and white, with a spatter of reds and oranges dotting the shores.

Like an illusion near the North Pole, it popped up miraculously in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, camouflaged between the white snow-covered peaks and the restless dark waters of the frozen sea.

It is one of the only few homes left intact for polar bears (around 3,000 of them outnumber our race here). It felt like I was entering a time capsule, revisiting the pages of an era, quite forgotten in time.

During the dark Polar nights, these colorful houses add cheer to the sad and hopeless mood of the islanders

The freezing fjords, raw wilderness, surrounding white fauna, and the rugged terrain slowly started taking shape. Staring out, I found I was repeatedly braving myself for the adventure that lay ahead.

It was almost the end of the polar winter, when the sun doesn’t rise for almost four months, making it possible to witness the Northern Lights even during the day. The other half of the year often called the days of the midnight sun or of the missing sunsets, witnesses the sun tirelessly patrolling the skies, even at 3am in the morning.

While both seasons bring in their very own perspective and dimensionality to the Arctic landscape, it becomes quite difficult to pick one as a favourite.

For me, it was about experiencing this forbidding landscape at its bleakest best. Therefore, after a long debate with my tropical self, I chose a month (early March) when winter was steadily receding and light was surely returning. This way, the uninterrupted fusion of an early darkness with a somewhat lenient daylight made for a fine marriage between both the contrasts. It paved the way for not only a perfect palette, but also the best pictures.

I felt a sudden jolt. The plane was skirting the runway. We had finally landed. It was time to unbuckle, both fears and belts!

It was around 2pm in the afternoon. The sky still mildly dark, the mood sombre and the streets half empty. It was my first day of exploring the high Arctic. My local friend from the hotel was by my side, he had promised to show me around. When I met him last night, his first question to me was if I had come to settle in with them. I was pleasantly surprised, happy at having been considered, secretly wishing his words were true. 

“What makes you say that?” I asked him curiously.

“Well, lots of people stay back. We make home for all. You don’t need visa to visit or live here.” he revealed.

“Then what do you need?” 

“A job with pay and a home to stay,” he smiled at my inquisitiveness.

A little embarrassed, with great difficulty, I refused his invitation. He felt my disappointment. Hence, to compensate, he agreed to accompany me for a hike. I had already booked a sightseeing and snowmobiling tour for the next day, hence today I was at leisure and could spend time getting to know the High North.

It walked away with pride. Refusing to let us in, in his surreal world

As together we strolled the shores, he decided to delve into the history of the island. I heard that Svalbard, also called Spitsbergen, was discovered by a certain William Barentz in the late 1500s, although this theory is disputed. The city which has a governor and over 2,000 residents is known as Longyearbyen.

One of his most intriguing stories was about Operation Gauntlet. Launched in 1941, during the Second World War by the Canadian, British and Free Norwegian forces, this operation was aimed at repatriating the local population and destroying all mining infrastructure on the island to prevent the Germans from taking over. The objective was also to suppress the wireless stations so that the Germans failed to get any weather reports, thus handicapping their ships, and stopping them from reaching the shores. It was a success as the raiders faced zero casualties, the locals were successfully evacuated and a German warship was sunk during the journey. Everything ended well, thus etching an iconic milestone in the island’s history.

The pink colors of the approaching dawn made for a perfect shot against the pure landscape

We took a turn, and a reindeer stopped us in our tracks. Its antlers reminded me of all those pictures I had seen in exotic travel magazines. It looked straight into my eyes, fearless and exultant, nudging memories of Christmas and the Rudolf song in my head.

An anatomy perfectly equipped for the frozen tundra, there are more than ten thousand of them on the island, all of them wild.

My companion also told me that tourists were not allowed to disturb animals in the Arctic, hence love should be displayed only from a distance. I obliged and smiled at the animal. He walked away, trotting carefully on the snow. This was his home and we were visitors, invading his life, threatening his presence while he hung perilously on the craggy edge of extinction. A thought so dreadful and scary in itself, I let it go.

I came to know of a rather startling fact from my friend. Of all the things I could do in this Arctic town, I could not die here. The idea though comforting had a story behind it. This is due to the permafrost which prevents bodies from decomposing. Scientists fear the local graveyard still holds traits of the 1918 Spanish flu virus, therefore the authorities banned any kind of dying in the 1950s! With dying being strongly disapproved of, giving birth here is also fictional. A woman, when left with three weeks of her pregnancy, has to go to the mainland to deliver.

“What if there are complications?” I ask.

“No one knows.” his face is expressionless, I see.

Next we hiked up to the Svalbard Seed Vault, the only seed bank which houses seeds of countries from all across the world. With restricted access, we couldn’t enter its premises but the thought that in apocalyptic times, this structure here was the last hope for humanity, gave me faith. I know now that we won’t starve to death. A ridiculous realisation though.

Crab Cakes with Norwegian brown at Restaurant Nansen, dinner overlooking beautiful fjords and glaciers

After the long hike, we started walking back to town. On our way, we saw in the far distance that the mist had completely enveloped the horizon blurring the clouds which were gradually descending into the ocean. Our rest point was the sign bordering the town which had a polar bear silhouette in a red bordered triangle inscribed with the words ‘Gjelder hele Svalbard’, meaning the warning of polar bears goes for the entire island of Svalbard. We stopped for some breath, hot coffee and dark chocolate.

It was almost dusk by now. We reached town. The evening, unequivocally brilliant and phosphorescent, hosted our uneven silhouettes against the glittering ocean. To break the silence of the falling snow, I asked him about the threat of global warming. How true was its impact on the island? He said it's been much warmer over the years. It's just a matter of time, he adds.

Shocked by this acceptance, I ask “How long do we have?”

He looks up, his hands trembling with the weight of my question.

With a choked voice, he replies, “Another fifty years is the furthest we imagine.”

One look at his eyes and it felt real.

The threat.

Like it was mine to own, unlike everything around.

“I shall keep coming back”, I tried offering some cheer.

Lips quivering, eyes misty, hopes broken.

He smiled.

“ God Natt!” (goodnight in Norwegian) 

That was the last I saw of him.


Visa requirements from India:

From India, since we had to cross the Schengen area to reach the island, we did need a double-entry Schengen visa, as it would mean exiting and re-entering the zone again for our flights back home. This was easy to get at the Norwegian embassy once we submitted our documents.

Getting There:
There  is only one commercial airport called the Svalbard Lufthavn, Longyear with daily flights from Oslo and Tromsø. Both Scandinavian and Norwegian airlines fly to this island and tickets can be booked from their websites and from Skyscanner. 

Where to Stay:
We stayed in Coal Miners’ Cabin, which was one of the last establishments on the borders of the town, towards the craggy end of the island. Hotels and lodges being limited in number, are quite expensive here. However, we later discovered through our tour operators that they also provide affordable beds in their guesthouse called Russkiy Dom. One can directly reach out to them for enquiries. Other recommendations are the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen, a luxurious property and the Basecamp Hotel. More options can be looked up here.

Where to Eat:

  • Coal Miners’ Bar and Grill for the best burgers in town. We tried our hands on the Spare Ribs and CMC burger.

  • Kroa-Steakers Svalbard for fish lovers like us we loved the smoked whale and smoked Arctic char that they had on the diverse menu

  • Svalbar Pub is one of the northernmost pubs of the world. They serve scintillating pizzas and chilled beer in these sub-zero temparatures

  • Restaurant Nansen, Radisson Blu Polar Hotel has Asian fusion at its best. One can enjoy the best Crab Cakes with Norwegian brown while enjoying the view of the surrounding mountains and fjords

  • At the Barentz Gastropub Bar, the Barentz Arctic Pale Ale by Svalbard Brewery is the best offering in the drinks menu, a must try along with their unique range of beers from northern Norway

What To See & Do:

  • As there are limited airlines, the airport bus runs regular routes to the airport, timed with departures and arrivals. The route and timings can be checked out here: airport bus 

  • Take a tour around the island with an English-speaking guide, book in advance at Svalbard Busservice. It is a two-hour tour (pick and drop provided). You can choose to get off at the local souvenir shop to buy some gifts

  • To witness the life of a coal miner, you can book a tour to the Gruve 3 (Mine 3) 

  • For tours to nearby villages of Pyramiden,Grønfjord, Isfjord Radio and others, book a tour with Grumant Arctic Travel Company, Russian tour company with affordable prices. They offer adventures like Svalbard in a Nutshell,  Next to the North Pole, Pyramiden, Back to USSR and much more. You can also look up more options here

  • Dog sledding and ice cave visits are some of the most exciting and adrenaline-driven activities that are possible in winters

  • Summers in Svalbard are the perfect time for boat tours and kayaking. Spotting marine life like walruses, whales, seals and rare birds can be done only in summers when the ocean melts. You can look for more details of popular boat trips in summer. Kayaking is also an excellent way to watch the Arctic wildlife up close. You can look up all options here.

  • Also visit the Svalbard Museum, also known as Norway’s Arctic Museum, which has artefacts from Svalbard’s 400-year-old history, presenting a fine blend of culture, nature and the surrounding fauna

This article is a submission by one of our readers, and part of our new series #OTReadersWrite. 

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