Arctic Spitsbergen

Arctic Spitsbergen: practical information

The average tourist can’t get any closer to the North Pole – and that’s just one reason to fly to the Svalbard archipelago. There’s plenty of time for sightseeing in summer, because from April 19 to September 23, the sun doesn’t set far north of the Arctic Circle.

The capital of Spitsbergen, administered by Norway, is located about 900 kilometers north of the edge of the continent, about halfway from the edge of the continent to the North Pole. The island lies far above the Arctic Circle, in a place where polar bears outnumber people and where the Soviet Union still exists .

Spitsbergen is an unusual place to vacation – it is remote, cold and very expensive . It is relatively cheap to get there, but the prices on the spot are terrific. Nevertheless, wildlife lovers will love this place – Svalbard has very strict conservation laws, and for good reason.

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Arctic Spitsbergen: practical information

The Svalbard archipelago was discovered in the 16th century by whalers, originally mainly English and Dutch. Later the Norwegians began to build their bases there, and in the early twentieth century began a boom in coal mining – on the largest island of the Spitsbergen archipelago were digging, for example, Americans, Canadians and Norwegians. It was not until 1920 that the status of the islands was settled. Since then they have been governed by Norway, but all parties to the treaty are free to obtain raw materials (coal, fish and possibly oil) in the territory.

From the beginning, two countries, Norway and the Soviet Union, enjoyed this right. Economic benefits were mixed with geopolitical interests, although Spitsbergen is demilitarized, according to the treaty. This mixture of mountainous past, close ties with Russia, unspoiled nature, and strange laws (such as the ban on transferring tax revenues to the mainland and no VAT) still defines the character of the islands to this day .

Landing among the glaciers

Svalbard has only one airport connected to the mainland, which is logical because there is only one real city. The easiest way to get to Longyear Airport (the name means “Longyear City” and comes from an American coal magnate who founded it in the early 20th century) is to fly directly from Oslo. During the summer season up to three flights a day are offered , SAS also connects the archipelago with Tromsø. Finnair was also supposed to fly to the island but so far it has not managed to get permission from Russian representatives.

Already on landing you can admire the pristine and unspoiled beauty of Spitsbergen Island. About 65% of the archipelago is protected as national parks (in which you can enter under strict restrictions) or nature reserves (where you are generally forbidden to be). Planes from Oslo fly first along the southern edge of Spitsbergen (Sør-Spitsbergen Park) and then over the waters of Isfjord between the three national parks. Steep peaks covered in snow all year round, several kilometers of glaciers and crystal clear fjords are the first encounter with Spitsbergen .

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Landing among the glaciers

At the airport, passengers are greeted by inscriptions in Norwegian, English and Russian – the latter due to the fact that Russia still has one working mining village on Spitsbergen, in Barentsburg, and another abandoned one, Pyramida, as a museum town.

In the parking lot in front of the terminal is one of the most famous symbols of Spitsbergen – a road sign warning of polar bears , gjelder hele Svalbard (“spreads throughout Svalbard”). About 3.6 thousand of these dangerous predators inhabit the entire Barents Sea basin, which is more than people. About a thousand of these bears live permanently on Svalbard. Polar bears do not attack people but local laws require that you have a loaded gun outside the town of Longyear.

All cars in the airport parking lot have keys in the ignition, even if the owner has flown to Oslo for a week. Cars are not stolen here .

Longyear – the capital under the coal cars

The only real town on Spitsbergen is a tiny village of less than 2,500 people. It stretches along the Longyear Valley above Advent Fjord and is the northernmost town in the world with a permanent population of more than 1,000 people.

Until 1990s Longyear was a mining town – seven coal mines operated in and around the village. Nowadays only one is open, but coal mining still plays an important role in the townscape and in the minds of its inhabitants.

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Longyear – the capital under the coal cars

A structure that resembles the quarters of a villain from a James Bond movie dominates the city is the headquarters of the coal railroad . The mined coal was transported from the mine to the town by a system of suspended gondolas resembling a primitive ski elevator. The headquarters, located directly above the power plant (it is the only coal-fired power plant in Norway) and next to the port, was where the product was sorted . The wagons have not carried coal since 1987, but the wooden trusses supporting the grid and the headquarters itself have been preserved. The short section leading to the airport still has the wagons hanging.

Next to the coal headquarters is the official district – several buildings crosswise, including the residence and home of the governor of Spitsbergen.

About a dozen meters away is the church – it is open 24 hours a day and is theoretically Protestant, but in practice serves the islanders, regardless of religion. And the island is faithful to many religions, because because of the lack of migration restrictions (Svalbard can visit anyone who can support themselves here, because there are no benefits) in Longyear live representatives of several dozen peoples.

Near the church, the old wooden steps are the remains of the old hospital (the new one is in the center of town). This place is so important to residents that on March 8 here, after four months of polar night, the sun shines for the first time. Unless the sky is covered with clouds, which is rare. Nevertheless, on March 8, the old staircases are full of impatiently waiting children .

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Longyear – the capital under the coal cars

The center of Longyear is located at the bottom of the valley . The main shopping facilities are located along the waterfront – Svalbardbutikken supermarket, bank and post office, as well as cafes (including Fruene), restaurants (Kroa is worth recommending) and bars (KB and Svalbar). And in the middle of the street is a statue of a miner.

On the fjord side, the promenade ends at the luxurious Radisson Blu Hotel, and a little further out to sea is the UNIC campus. The center specializes in polar research and is an increasingly important part of the island’s economy. The UNIC building is home to the interesting and modern Svalbard Museum . It is the best place to buy souvenirs.

A symbol of Longyear are the colorful houses on Street 230, a few steps from the city center. Apart from the main street, named after the tycoon Hilmar Rexten, the other streets of the capital of Svalbard have only rooms. An avalanche in December 2015 demolished 10 century-old wooden huts to the ground.

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Longyear – the capital under the coal cars

In the summer, when the snow melts in the valley, dozens of snowmobiles are parked between the wooden twin houses . There are more of them on the island than cars, but they are useless in the summer – the inhabitants of St. Walbard themselves call them “garden gnomes.”

In Longyear, it is also worth going to the other side of the village, to Nybyen (“new town”). This part is higher up in the valley, about 15 minutes walk from the center – it was built for the miners working nearby, but today it’s mostly inhabited by UNIC students. There’s also an interesting, though small, Svalbard Gallery in Nubien.

Around Longyear.

The capital of Spitsbergen is a cozy town, and it’s a great place to get to know during the day (just enough time to walk down every street). Fortunately, there’s plenty to do in Longyear, too, and hiking in the mountains is most interesting. The several-hour hike to the top of Sukkertoppen is especially popular . Be sure to use the help of a guide – it’s not just that the mountains of Spitsbergen are low and dangerous, the biggest danger is polar bears.

On the other hand, by following the line of coal cars northwest of town, toward the airport, you can get to the safest place on Svalbard, and maybe in the world, in a few dozen minutes. In 2008, the Global Seed Bank was launched – in practice, a seed freezer dug into the permafrost, paid for by the Norwegian government and charities. All countries of the world can store seeds of essential edible plants here free of charge, so that they can be recovered in the event of a nuclear disaster. In 2015, the Bank’s seeds were used for the first time to restore fields in Syria.

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Around Longyear.

On your way to the shore, stop on the slope of Blomsterdalsjögda Mountain and admire the panorama of Isfjord in the unsetting summer sun. A few hundred meters further and higher is the Svalbard satellite station, one of the largest satellite ground bases in the world, used only for non-military purposes.

Remains of the Soviet Union.

On Svalbard, in addition to Norway, Russia is still active – in the village of Barentsburg, about 55 km from Longyear, coal mining employs about 500 people. Tourists can get there in about three hours from Longyear (in winter you can take a snowmobile), but the trip to the pyramid, located a little further north, is much more interesting.

The town was founded in 1910 by the Swedes, and was sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. Until 1998 the Soviets mined coal there – for political rather than economic reasons, because maintaining a base on Spitsbergen was very expensive, and the miners who worked there were paid very high wages for the conditions of the time. In 1998, the giant, unprofitable Pyramid was evacuated, but the territory is still owned by the Russian state conglomerate Trust Arktikugol.

Since 2007, the Russian company has focused on tourism – Pyramid is still a ghost town, but a few people live there in the summer. Pyramid’s residents have no access to cell phone service, Internet, or a steady supply of goods.

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Remains of the Soviet Union.

In Pyramid, it is easy to get the impression that the Soviet Union was here a few days ago. The harsh and dry climate keeps the buildings from deteriorating . Above the center of the abandoned settlement towers a bust of Lenin, the most northern monument in the world.

Tourists accompanied by guide Sasha, dressed in a Russian fur coat, also go to the hotel (there is Russian Standard vodka and Zvezda cigarettes), can buy a postcard with a stamp (still sent from Longyear) and take a walk around the abandoned cultural and sports center.

A day trip to the Pyramid on the shabby ship Langoysund, more than 60 years old, is also an opportunity to see the pristine shores of Spitsbergen and the bay near Nordenskiöld Glacier. Tourists are served whale steak and whiskey on ice from the glacier, which sounds vulgar and trite, but it’s an enjoyable experience and a recap of a stay in Spitsbergen.

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Remains of the Soviet Union.

The average tourist on the archipelago can spend three or four days – enough to visit Longyear , get to the pyramids and do a little hiking in the mountains. Lovers of wildlife, the archipelago will never get bored – it offers virtually limitless opportunities for challenging, multi-day, almost polar expeditions, both in the summer day and in the polar night.

Practical information

Country : Territory governed and under the limited control of Norway.

Language : Norwegian and Russian formally, in practice English for general communication. Large Thai and Polish minorities reside on the islands.

Currency : Norwegian krone. ATM and card payment in Longyearbyen and at the airport.

Accommodation : in hotels Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen and Spitsbergen (medium level, about 18 000 rubles per night), Radisson Blu Polar (luxury), youth hostel Coal Miners ‘Cabins (from about 10 000 rubles per night). Tulip Hotel in Pyramid.

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Practical information

Restaurants : excellent restaurant Kroa in Longyear, lunch and dinner in Svalbara, in the center of Longyear Thai restaurant and hotel bars. The cheapest full meal (e.g. a burger with a drink at Svalbar) costs about 3,000 rubles.

Attractions: in Longyear itself it is worth visiting the Spitsbergen Museum and the Svalbard Gallery. A cruise to the Pyramid costs about 18,000 rubles (Henningsen Transport Office), and multi-hour rides around Longyear from about 6,000 rubles (Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions office).

Habits : take thick socks or slippers – at Longyearbyen, street shoes are left at the entrance. Svalbardians prefer snus to cigarettes – specially prepared tobacco placed under the lips. A favorite snack is waffles with Norwegian sweet brown cheese and jam.

Spitsbergen: A small island in the north, home to Russians and Norwegians

Spitsbergen is a small Arctic island, administratively governed by Norway, but the extraction of local natural resources is allowed by 50 nations.

Today, Norwegians and Russians are the permanent locals here. Why does Spitsbergen have such an unusual economic status? How did the Russians get there and what interesting things does the island have to offer?

A land without a master

The archipelago lies in the waters of the Arctic Ocean and is made up of several dozen small islands. The largest of them is today’s hero – Spitsbergen, a bit inferior in size to it Ezhdeya and Nordaustlandet.

The first mention of the islands dates back to 1596, when the Arctic land was discovered by Willem Barents. For several centuries in a row the islands were used by whalers, they used the islands as a shelter.

Both the Danes and the British laid claims to the islands. But the greatest insistence was shown by the Russians and the Norwegians. The Norwegians argued that this piece of land was discovered by the Vikings in the 9th century. Naturally, the Russians did not like such claims, and they insisted that the land was first discovered by their ancestors.

Soon large deposits of charcoal were discovered on the archipelago, which only added fuel to the dispute between the two peoples. At that time, the mineral deposits in the Far North and Siberia were poorly explored. Consequently, a country that established coal mining would have been able to develop the region well.

The centuries-old dispute was resolved diplomatically. Between 1920 and 1925, the international community adopted two documents that defined the status of the archipelago. According to the first document, Norway received sovereignty over Spitsbergen, according to the second document, the archipelago became a free economic zone.

How did the Russians get to the island?

At the time when the fate of the island, rich in natural resources, was being decided, the Soviet government was rather weak. During the imperial era, the Soviet authorities promoted a rigid position: the island should belong to the Russian Empire.

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This position came to the fore again in the 1930s, when the island began to fill with Soviet mining settlements. Already in the postwar years, in 1947, the Norwegian government recognized the economic interest of the Soviet Union in the region.

Both in past decades and today, the largest island of the archipelago is inhabited. The Soviets were able to establish coal mining and industrial fishing, but after its collapse, the logistics chain was broken. Cash shortages began to take their toll and the inhabitants were left with no choice but to abandon the island and return to the mainland in search of a better life.

To date, two settlements with a population of about 550 inhabitants are considered Russian. The Norwegians have two settlements and two research sites with 2,500 people.

It is interesting that before 1995 the Norwegians were significantly inferior to the Russians. The resumption of Russian presence on the archipelago began in the 21st century. In 2015, the archipelago was even visited by Dmitry Rogozin, who is now the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.

Naturally, the Norwegians are not happy about this activity of the Russian government. They hold regular protests, and make attempts to limit the Russian Federation in the development of the archipelago.

How do the Norwegians and Russians live here?

More than 50% of the land is occupied by glaciers. The island is literally dotted with fjords and mountains. The harsh local climate has contributed to the preservation of pristine nature from the destructive effects of man. The area may be described as wild and cold, but never abandoned.

Norway has built a world seed bank on the island. The bank contains approximately 4,000,000 crop samples. If there is ever an apocalypse on the planet, mankind will have a chance to revive many crops.

Russians on the archipelago

Barentsburg has coal mining and a well-developed tourism industry. It is through tourism and the coal industry that the settlement exists. The coal is exported and provides for the needs of the settlement and its inhabitants. Tourists come to enjoy the nature and admire the Soviet architecture. Every year, visitors to the island are several tens of thousands of tourists.

In Barentsburg there are all conditions for a full life. Here operates a kindergarten, secondary school, clinic, church and port. The local population lives in both private and apartment buildings.

Both in Norwegian and Russian settlements live mostly public servants. Here are very good salaries and government benefits, which allow you to survive in a harsh land. Salaries of local Russians is from 40 to 100 thousand rubles. Norwegians get an order of magnitude more – about 2600 euros.

During the Soviet era, life in the communities was segregated. Today representatives of different peoples have no problem finding a language with each other, participate in joint activities.

But roads between settlements are a problem here – they simply do not exist. To get from one settlement to another is possible only by sea or air transport, as well as by snowmobile.

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