Many years ago an astute and educated young woman named Liv Balstad wrote a gripping account of her tenure on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard as the wife of the islands' new governor. Her book was entitled North of the Desolate Sea. If Balstad seems the least bit pejorative in her use of "desolate" in the title, we should forgive her: after all, leaving Oslo and a glamorous life as a socialite and politician's wife for one of the most remote, cold, and least populated of places in the world probably colored her impression of her new home slightly. In any event, Balstad produced a mesmerizing piece of travel literature that reads like a Lonely Planet guide written seventy years ago in the past. Svalbard has not changed so greatly that Balstad would fail to recognize it today, certainly.
I share something with Balstad: I went to Svalbard, although I was not compelled by marriage to do so. Nor did I even meet the sysselmann, or resident governor, though had I desired such, it probably would not have been impossible to arrange. Indeed, in places like Svalbard and Greenland, the local high politicos thrive on entertaining any out of country guests when such occasions arise. Parties and dinners stretching far into the night are a mark of Nordic hospitality albeit one that the pressures and pace of modern life often discourage. In a place like Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the pace of life isn't so hurried.
My trip to Svalbard was one of subtle adventure and an unexplainable sense of need to travel to some of the remote outposts of the Arctic. I am a native of the Faroes--what are known in English unfortunately as the "Faroe Islands" which is rather poor given that "Faroes" in our language (Føroyskt) means "sheep islands" so it's a bit repetitive to also say "islands". The climate of the Faroes is rather like that of northern Scotland so it's not as horrid as some might imagine. Indeed, walking about our capital of Tórshavn is much like being in a Danish or Norwegian town . . . or even a Scottish one. Many people forget that the Orkney and Shetland Isles of Scotland were, for quite a long time, under Dano-Norwegian rule just like Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroes. Of these, Iceland only gained its independence in full in 1944 after years of being under Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish rule. The Faroes and Greenland, though having hjemmestyre (home-rule), are still under the Danish crown. While neither Iceland, the Faroes, Svalbard, or even mammoth and icy Greenland are as desolate and empty as people may imagine, the remoteness of these places from mainland Europe has fostered a sense of community amongst us even though we are in fact quite far apart geographically. Guidebooks tend to group Iceland, the Faroes, and Greenland all together and I've yet to see one that even bothers much with Svalbard. Growing up in the Faroes, you gain a sense about these other places: a sense of odd Nordic brotherhood in geography.
It bears to mention that even Svalbard isn't the most remote of the Nordic lands. Greenland's massive spread notwithstanding, that title might go to tiny Jan Mayen which is also under the Norwegian crown. Jan Mayen has only a small weather and LORAN-C station with a mainly military crew to man these but still, it occasionally receives visitors from Arctic tour cruises. That is to say, where there's a will there seems to be a way when it comes to getting around the Arctic--at least if there is somewhere you want to see badly enough. In my case, I wanted to see all I could without making a regional airline extremely wealthy in the process. Jan Mayen, though desired, was ruled out due to cost and Russia's large and remote Novaya Zemlya seemed nearly impossible to visit--if not for its location, for the red-tape involved. Novaya Zemlya has been the site of a number of nuclear tests during the Cold War so it might not be the nicest place to wander about anyway.
I decided after some time that I would visit Svalbard and Greenland, but somehow felt a little let down. Surely, there were other places I could go? I wanted, predictably, to say I'd been where none of my friends had but Nordic youth are a hardy and adventurous lot and I had already met several who'd been everywhere, it seemed. In a bookstore in Odense I was looking at a book on Greenland and a guy around my age came up and asked if I'd been. He, of course, already had. His girlfriend, moreover, had been to eastern Greenland which was a bit more rare yet and her brother had gone to Svalbard two summers ago. My only real coolness factor with this bunch was that I was from the Faroes--but certainly not the only Faroese boy in Odense. Sitting at a coffeeshop reading the newspaper Politiken one day I overheard five teenagers from Tórshavn chattering noisily in my native Faroese behind me. More than ever, I wanted to find somewhere really remote.
I decided to visit Scoresbysund, which is a village on the eastern coast of Greenland: While closer to the Faroes and also Europe, Greenland's eastern coast is much less developed and suffers more hostile weather than the western coast which faces towards Canada. Scoresbysund is a place few visit, a community of about 500 people who are descendants of the original settlers of the area who themselves relocated from elsewhere in Greenland. From there, I wanted to go to Svalbard but would do so passing back through Copenhagen, Oslo and then Tromsø. It would be a paper-chain of flights, a daisy-chain of flights, a chariot-race of planes. As REM said in that old song, you can't get there from here . . . that is, you can, but with great effort. Years ago, when in another very remote locale--Mongolia--someone told me that the four letters of name of the national airline, MIAT, stood for "maybe I'll arrive today". Quite possibly--albeit with the dependable services of SAS, Mærsk and Star Air--I would still be facing the same question now. Ice, rain, and even in the latter portion of the Summer all manner of inclement weather could cause delays. The whole process of such dawdling travels takes you back to another time when travel by definition was a slow process.
When I boarded my flight to Scoresbysund I found myself in the pleasant company of two Danes, three Greenlanders returning home, and a young woman from Wales who, like myself, just wanted to go somewhere different. She was an anthropology student at the University of London and had spent a year in Oslo two years prior--an experience that fueled her interest in all things Nordic, apparently. The Danes had business in Scoresbysund and had flown the route before. One kindly gave me a play-by-play of the waters we flew over: apparently the lagan of shipwrecks dotted our path though none were apparent from our altitude. He talked of the icebreakers he'd been on, including an American Coast Guard one where he'd served as a science officer--it seems the U.S. Coast Guard invited scientists to sail with it on occasion. The color of the water below our wings reminded me of sea off my home island of Vágar. Indeed, the same sea, really. But it brought a sense of the familiar I found most welcome. The whole affair of the flight--a propeller-driven plane, the dark ocean colors, the Danish oceanographer's narrative--seemed from another time: It seemed belonging of the age of steamships and such travel. Once again, not of our own time.
Landing at Scoresbysund was unlike landing anywhere else. Greenlandic airports are basic, at best, but also sturdy. Moreover, in the Summer coastal Greenland is neither white with snow nor green, but brown. The dusty brown of the Grand Canyon, of every desert. The brown of rich sheer cliffs. The brown of plain dust. This is quiet a contrast to the colors of the sea but what was even more striking, according to the Welsh lady, was the bright yellow, teal, and brick-red wooden buildings of the town itself. She was astounded by this, a situation that surprised me until I remembered that her contact with Scandinavia was limited to metropolitan Oslo: In Tórshavn and all Faroese towns you find this sort of timber-frame architecture and accompanying bright paint-jobs. You will find the same in rural Jutland, Norway, and of course, Greenland. I already expected them in Svalbard, too. In Scoresbysund, even some of the airport structures and the local GPS station building were painted a lurid red despite being pre-fabricated steel and plastic in construction.
From the landscape of Scoresbysund, I understood immediately why Danish geologists favor Greenland as a site for their explorations: there is little vegetation to speak of save lichens and the brash geological world is laid naked before the eye. I knew that Scoresbysund had been settled by pioneers who believed there would be better hunting and fishing here, but it was hard to imagine they would have found their quarry. Still, their settlement had survived and in recent years, provisions had been made to convey seal and whale meat to Greenland's more populous western coast where it would fetch a good price. Tourism was starting to be explored as an enterprise here, also, and the inroads that Greenland had made in this regard had surprised a lot of Danes: many, especially ones who had lived in Greenland for their jobs or with the Danish Defense Command, could not see people paying good money to visit the place. But they were perhaps a different breed than those who came as tourists. Even the oceanographer on my flight expressed this feeling: "Really? I can't see that [visiting for pleasure] myself, I mean, I'd rather go to London or somewhere where there is something to see, you know?"
My cabin in Scoresbysund was humble, but extremely neat and clean. I shared it with a Danish student who was visiting and had arrived on the plane previous my own: in Scoresbysund, flights come and go over the span of days, not hours as we are accustomed to in large airports. Sometimes, these flights (back to the MIAT saying) don't come or go when they are expected to, either. Anders, my room-mate, was from Copenhagen and like myself had just wanted to see some place different. A friend was supposed to have come with him but decided against it due to the cost at the last possible minute. If you think rising oil prices had made your daily commute more expensive, try running a fleet of sturdy planes all the way to Greenland. Anders was pleased with his trip, nonetheless: he loved hiking and implored me to join him (I enjoy it too, and he didn't need to twist my arm much) in exploring around Scoresbysund. Two bonuses were found in hiking with Anders: first, because he is a botany student he was able to tell me a fair amount about the local flora (such as it is) and second, we discovered we liked each other rather much. I wasn't expecting a cute, blond, Dane in bed with me in Greenland but I wasn't complaining about it either . . . not in the least. In fact, Ander's presence transformed my visit from a very solitary experience focused on the beauty of the Arctic to a reflection on the human aspect in such a remote and cold place. Sex can perhaps be at times overvalued, but it's a central human experience and one that really made my trip something to remember beyond the majesty of the surroundings.
The idea of a village like Scoresbysund is unique: in the Winter, the entire place will be very much covered in snow. Like anywhere, people will clear their walks and the streets but there are not yards as you have in many Western cultures. Nor, until rather recently, were there stores and other places of business as such. These are a Danish concept as opposed to a Greenlandic one because Greenlanders traditionally would be engaged in fishing, hunting, and other activities that involved the entire family. When men returned with their spoils, the women would gather in a house and clean and dress the animals. To this day, it's not at all uncommon to see women cleaning fish or even a larger animal right in the living room of her family home--and these foods are not necessarily being prepared just for her family but as part of her and her husband's business. Since the 1970s, there has been a strong movement in Greenland to acknowledge and celebrate the native Greenlandic culture and not replace it with Danish or other Western overtones. Indeed, the town of Scoresbysund is now also known by its Greenlandic name of Ittoqortoormiut and both Greenlandic and Danish are accepted as official languages in Greenland. While Scoresbysund is far behind towns in western Greenland such as Qeqertarsuaq in the number of tourists it draws, it is clear that tourism is working here and the retention of traditional Greenlandic aspects will certainly appeal to the tourists who come from Denmark and elsewhere. Contrary to the oceanographer's comments, there is a lot to see and many of us want to see things we can't see in Copenhagen or London.
The cliffs and seascape around Scoresbysund you wouldn't see in London, certainly. Nowhere on the River Thames would you find such barren fissures as these--the erosion is from both water (in the form of melting snow) and wind. While hiking Anders and I met a young woman from England (not the same person as the Welsh anthropologist) who had returned from Indonesia where she was completing her thesis on the slow Loris, which I gathered to be some kind of monkey without a tail. Deborah, the woman seeking monkeys without tails, was in Scoresbysund like Anders and myself because she simply wanted to see a place few ever venture to, and Scoresbysund fit that bill. Her ex-boyfriend, it seems, was in the Danish Defense Command and had been stationed at Nord, which is a military and scientific base at the northernmost point on the eastern Greenlandic coast. As Nord is not so accessible (even compared to the rest of Greenland) Deborah had reasoned that Scoresbysund would do for her purposes. Over dinner Anders, Deborah, and I talked about the rumors of crashed World War II bombers still preserved in the glacial ice, the American military base at Thule in the west, and scientific drilling expeditions to the formidable interior of Greenland. Dinner was prepared by the same family that ran Anders' and my lodgings and consisted of fish and tinned beans, beets, and bread from Denmark. One of the greatest issues that has always faced Greenland was that of how to import enough essential foodstuffs at a decent price. At the commissary in Scoresbysund, everything cost more than it would have in Denmark's major cities or even in the Faroes. In my hometown of Miðvágur, imported food was not cheap but not this bad, either.
The next day--the day before I was to leave--Anders and I spent exploring more of Scoresbysund, hiking the hills around the village, mainly. Because the settlement itself is small, it is not difficult to wander out into what is beyond Scoresbysund because the village just trails off into the rocky expanse past its limits. A village like Scoresbysund makes you rethink how you conceptualize a town: it brings you back to nearly medieval ideals of a self-contained towns where other settlements would be far away and not to be relied upon. In the most literal sense, this is exactly the situation in Scoresbysund. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, near Scoresbysund. Were something to go wrong, you would fly somewhere else: Such is a very remote concept for most of us in this modern life of ours.
Saying goodbye to Anders was tough: he still had several more days in Scoresbysund that he would have to spend hiking alone. Of course, that's what he expected when he came there but after having a companion for a few of those days it wasn't the most pleasant thing. Nor for I, knowing the chances of finding someone like him (read: who would sleep with me, be all over my body, and hike with me) in Svalbard would be a rare chance indeed.
Tromsø to Longyearbyen
The day after, I did fly somewhere else: to Copenhagen then to Oslo then Tromsø. Tromsø is the most northern major city in Norway so it has all manner of sundry claims about being northernly such as the "most northern orchestra" and the like. It's a lovely town, though, civic pride aside. After the food we had in Greenland (the company at dinner far overshadowed the food) the fresh, typically Nordic fair of Tromsø was most welcome to me. After spending the night, I flew on to Svalbard. Something that was interesting about Tromsø was how silent it was at night save odd noises like bells: yes, bells. Churchbells, bells on ships and boats--windchimes also perhaps. Everywhere, seemingly, bells. The only time I didn't seem to hear these bells was when I had Rammstein blaring on my iPod. It was like the old English nursery song, "Oranges and Lemons":
"Pancakes and fritters" say the bells of St. Peter's.
"Two sticks and an apple" say the bells of Whitechapel.
"Pokers and tongs" say the bells of St. John's.
"Kettles and pans" say the bells of St. Ann's.
Ringing bells aside, the flight to Longyearbyen was much like that to Scoresbysund with the notable exception that you could see the arching coast of Norway part of the way--strong fjords looks like mere places where rainwater had washed the rest of the soil away. You could see all this until you came to the chillingly blue waters of the northern seas--the desolate sea that Liv Balstad wrote about. Then it was just dark blue of ocean and nothing else. I was the only tourist, oddly, on this flight: the remaining passengers were three Norwegians employed in Longyearbyen and two Polish researchers. It's funny what people do on airplanes: some talk, some sleep, some like myself listen to "Weisses Fleisch" on their iPods and just smile. I felt beauty from the scene of sea below but less awe and wonderment compared to what many tourists have described to me of their flights around the Arctic. Probably because I grew up with a somewhat subdued version of this ruggedness--it's nothing new to me.
Longyearbyen, like Scoresbysund, is a place that must be immensely beautiful when covered with Winter's snows but in Summer it was just a Pantone palate of browns and grays, sand and gravel. The one striking feature to make the town even show up as such from the air was the brilliantly painted little houses. Again, all red, yellow and sometimes an odd teal color. And one poor building was the most homely pea-green you might imagine. Longyearbyen looked like a smaller Tórshavn with a lot more land still free. It would be an American developer's dream, that land: Were there any reason to greatly develop past what was already done, at least. Longyearbyen, incidentally, was named for an American named Longyear who came to Svalbard to seek his fortune in mining and other enterprises: "byen" is the Norwegian word for "city". The legal situation of Svalbard, courtesy of an odd treaty, is such that while a Norwegian territory, it is open to any person who wants to come and live there and not subject to the strict regulations of immigration to Norway. This treaty also allows international interests to set up mining and other industrial operations here, which lead during Soviet times to a large Russian presence (one that on a smaller scale continues to this day) engaged in coal mining. At one time, it is said more Russians than Norwegians lived on the isle of Spitsbergen--the largest of the islands of Svalbard.
The Polish scientists who flew in on my flight were a botanist and a wildlife ecologist. Svalbard, surprisingly for its isolated Arctic location, hosts a wide variety of different plant species. They have but a scant season of brilliant light to bloom and flourish. There are animals, also: the Arctic fox, polar bears, and even a subspecies of mouse native to Svalbard. Like Scoresbysund, there's plenty to interest geologists here, too.
Beyond flora and fauna, the question begs to be asked: What do people who live here do for fun? How boring is it really? As stated before, dinner parties are a big deal. You start dinner around eight and watch it extend to the wee hours of the morning along with the best vodka you can imagine. As soon as I had met a few people at the airport I found myself with invitations to two dinner parties: If you're outgoing and speak Norwegian and/or Russian and especially if you come from somewhere interesting (anywhere other than Norway, it seems) you'll be invited. You're special because you're from elsewhere and bring news and views with you. Despite the old prohibition against discussing politics and religion at dinner parties, the former was the leading topic at the first party I attended: a party given by a Russian geologist and his wife, mainly for older scientists in Longyearbyen and the visiting Poles. I learned more about the current corruption in Moscow though than about Svalbard: when you're in a very isolated place you speak of everywhere else than where you are.
The second dinner party was hosted by a young physician in honor of a pilot friend's birthday. As the friend was Danish, they felt apt to invite me, also. And as the friend was Danish, good food was also a given (not that the Russians did poorly in that regard in the least). It turned out that out of fourteen guests, five of us played piano including our host so much music filled the night--everything from show tunes to my improvised version of Nightwish's "She is my Sin". Loreena McKennitt, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a local favorite as well. Scandinavians have, to me, always had a fine appreciation of music but in a remote location you come to value it even more because it's your iPod or CD player which accompanies you around town and breaks up the monotony of a small and cloistered environment. Of the islands of Svalbard, only three are actually inhabited and that's even stretching the truth a bit because two of those three only have small scientific station staffs on them while Spitsbergen has genuine towns with decent (albeit still tiny) populations. When you get into places like Spitsbergen you become generous with what you term a "town" and a "population". A gathering of five houses would be enough up here to qualify as a village--and probably enough reason for a dinner party.
My hotel, the Basecamp Spitsbergen deserves some mention: The concept of this hotel is to recreate a hunter's lodge replete with stuffed trophy animals and rugged timber-frame construction. It's advertised as "cozy", which indeed it is but the real charm is the unintended kitsch of the place. If Disney ever were to add a Svalbard pavilion to EPCOT, I fear it would resemble Basecamp Spitsbergen very much. Sitting in my room at night, reading Jean Genet's Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs was a surreal, stirring experience though: one of not being sure where you were and feeling like various times and geographies were passing through the air.
I met one American in Longyearbyen--another geologist (where do they all come from?). He was one of those Firefox users who seem to travel the world to preach the gospel of the browser and therefore was delighted that I was running the Danish-language beta of Firefox on my beat-up Mac G3 PowerBook. From such he learned that "bogmærker" in Danish means "bookmarks" and asked "what then would you call a marker in a bog?". Not being someone who normally has to survey marshes I could not reply, although "mærskmærker" sounds about right. In strange places, you do get asked strange questions.
With this gentleman, I went to Barentsburg--the surviving Russian settlement on Spitsbergen. Another Russian town, Pyramiden exists but its coal mining operation was closed in 2000 and it sits as a ghost town more or less today, although Russian mining interests plan to resume operations there possibly as early as 2006. Barentsburg is named for the Dutch explorer Willem Barentz, but is thoroughly Russian and you will hear Russian and not Norwegian spoken. Because I had lived in the former Soviet Union briefly, my Russian is near-fluent although I am oft ridiculed for my mispronunciations which apparently resemble nothing so much as a drunken Belarusian. Pyramiden and Barentsburg both have statues of Lenin, making for an odd reminder of Soviet times not so long ago. Barentsburg also has a small, Soviet-style museum called the Pomor Museum. For those who have never had the pleasure of a small, regional, Russian museum, you're missing an odd treat. These museums--which you'll find in every small city in Russia, but especially in the Russian far east--tend to have a collection of stuffed animals (taxidermy--not plushies!), dried plants, and rocks (the latter perhaps a high draw in Barentsburg given the number of geologists about). In theory, one can lodge in Barentsburg though since I already had my room rented at the Basecamp Spitsbergen in Longyearbyen, I wasn't about to stay the night here. Boats and helicopters are the main means of transport about Svalbard with the latter being much more expensive (but much faster) than the former. Due to arrangements that I won't go through the tiresome bother of explaining, I had a helicopter flight back to Longyearbyen which, for its astronomical price, at least offered a stunning view of Spitsbergen's countryside.
The next day a trip to Pyramiden was arranged (thankfully not via overpriced rotary aircraft!). Because Pyramiden is not in operation now, it's your one and only chance to explore a recently-functioning Russian mining town (one and only unless you go to the Russian city of Nikel and prowl around things you shouldn't). Indeed, they have a statue of Lenin here--one rightfully claimed to be the northernmost Lenin in the world. They also have a lot of old mining buildings and equipment and the whole place looks like many former industrial sites across Russia. Why the Russians simply leave things out to rust (because in this environment rust they will) instead of bringing their costly devices under some manner of shelter I do not understand. I have seen this from Nikel to Angarsk in Russia and saw it again in Pyramiden. Apparently the Russian thing to do with expensive mining hardware is to leave it out where it will receive as much damage as possible. Probably a tax write-off for someone, somewhere.
You are supposed not venture into the buildings at Pyramiden at all, unless on official business, but the complex of aging mining buildings certainly make for a tempting site of urban exploration. The situation on Spitsbergen is such that you can pretty much venture around with minimal guidance or restriction so standing rules and orders are left often at good faith to be followed. As more and more tourists visit, this situation may indeed change but for now, it's very much unlike anywhere else in the world (except Greenland) in this regard.
After my visit to Pyramiden, I returned to Longyearbyen and saw the city's museum and other sites I had not yet visited prior to my flight back to Tromsø. Leaving, we had worse weather: it had been rather balmy my whole stay in Svalbard but now storms were on the ocean and the flight was rough, at best. After Svalbard, Tromsø seemed downright huge and ever-busy, while it had seemed very staid and sedate after Oslo on the flight up. I didn't notice the bells so much this time around, however.
There were moments of great scenic beauty in my travels to Greenland and Svalbard, the sort of moments that an increasing number of tourists pay very good money to experience. Beyond that, there was the sublime discovery of the rugged nature of the land and the desolate (there is no better word in English for it) feeling of these forlorn outposts of livelihood and industry. Then there was the joy of meeting people like Anders and Deborah, finding the commonality of life in places where life seems rare and distinct. For someone from the northern lands, it was a reaffirming of the commonality of a culture that outside of northern Scandinavia, Greenland, the Faroes, and Iceland one hardly encounters. It was also an experience that makes one appreciate technology and communication: the Internet is available in Longyearbyen, even in Greenland. You can look at any website you could anywhere else. Despite this, visitors are still invited to dinner parties with eager expectations of their tales from afar. Some things just don't change very much.
Liv Balstad's book, North of the Desolate Sea (London: Souvenir Press, 1958) can sometimes still be found, in its English translation, in used bookstores.
The Faroe Island's official tourist information site (in English).
Greenland Guide is Greenland's offical tourist site.
Longyearbyen.net contains news and information about that city and Svalbard in general in Norwegian (bokmål).
The Svalbard Pages has extensive information on Svalbard in both Norwegian and English.