Few people have heard of Longyearbyen, a town where the extraordinary is ordinary. Located in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard about 2,000 km north of Oslo, it is the most northerly inhabited town on Earth, a place that gives visitors the palpable feeling that they have reached the end of the world.
Everything in Longbearbyen reminds you of its remoteness. The nearest fast food chain is 1,000 km southeast in the mainland Norwegian city of Tromso. About the same distance away in the other direction is the North Pole. Polar bears outnumber humans three to one. For six months in a year (between October and February), the sun never rises, plunging the town into pitch darkness and bitter cold. When the winds howl, wind chill bites into the bones as temperatures easily plummet to below -30 °C. Longyearbyen’s isolation and permafrost have given rise to a quirky rule: no one is allowed to die here because the soil does not defrost even in summer, which means burials are impossible.
But this end-of-the-world isolation is also the reason for Longyearbyen’s charm. Every first week of March, town folks gather at an old hospital to witness a quirky ritual: the “return of the Sun”. As the first rays of sunlight hit the wooden steps, the town receives the chaplain’s blessings and declares the return of sunlight. Progressively, the days get longer and between late April and August, the sun never sets. It is then that the town’s 2,000 odd inhabitants wear eye shades to sleep. This is a beautiful time to be here. With the return of the midnight sun, flowers bloom and wildlife abounds.
Until the early 1940s, Longyearbyen was a thriving coal mining town but German invasion during World War II put a stop to its mining economy. However, remnants of its mining past remain in the form of miners’ wooden cabins now refurbished into rustic accommodation and restaurants, complete with animal furs, whaling harpoons, animal traps and a quintessential fireplace.
Everywhere in Longyearbyen, the beauty of the deep is evident, in the endless expanse of tundra, ice-age craggy mountains littered with mine shafts, raw glaciers, extreme light changes and avalanche which has become more common in recent years due to climate change.
Despite the harshness of the place, normality prevails. You see a bus driver drop off noisy kids at school and mothers poking at air-freighted greens in the town’s only supermarket. Still, there’s a palpable feeling that these routine activities are at the mercy of Mother Nature. “This isolation is how we connect with nature”, quipped an enthusiastic German tourist I met at a restaurant. “Same here, ” I chimed in. “In this place, I feel the arctic spirit grows on me and it is seductive.”