The things you find when cleaning out a disk; preparing for re-installation of your laptop on a larger disk once the laptop comes back from repair... I thought I had posted this in early January, but apparently not. As it would be a shame to just throw this away, here goes:
I am sitting in the Oslo airport, waiting for boarding back home to start. Seeing the sun after a week of darkness still feels strange.
It's been a very interesting week, starting with our trip to Oslo in the other direction. We spent New Year's Eve in Oslo, timing our forced overnight stay before reaching Svalbard to coincide with something interesting. The close timing of our travel meant that there was exactly one flight to Oslo we could take. Never having heard of Air Baltic before and finding out that they are a discount airline, my gut feeling told me to be be wary. I refuse to fly with those airlines on principle, not wanting to support their business model while hurting airlines with decent treatment of customers. Unfortunately, I was forced to book with them in this case. As it turns out, my gut was right. More on that below.
Our plane was late in landing and my luggage was lost. As it was New Year's Eve, the staff at Oslo airport understandably wanted to be home, not at work. Still, getting them to file a report was tedious and finding out days later that the report was incomplete was, well, not good. The express train from the airport to Oslo central station had closed early without any advance notice or local signs, presumably because of NYE. The gates were simply closed and that's that. We figured out how the bus system worked, got our tickets from a vending machine, saw the one bus to central station drive away, and proceeded to wait in the outside waiting area; at least we had a front spot in the queue. While we don't get cold easily, it was funny to see Norwegians in thin clothes stand around in the biting wind, apparently being comfortable. A young mother with a baby, who didn't anticipate being forced to wait outside at -15C, as opposed to just sitting down in a train, had no warm clothes for her son; something that was fixed by wrapping him in spare clothes from Ilona's luggage. After waiting for about thirty minutes for the next bus to appear, it parked twenty or thirty meters away from the designated parking spot. The rough queue disintegrated and if not for Ilona's leaving me with luggage and backpacks and storming off to fight the masses, said mother with baby and ourselves would have waited for another thirty minutes. More than hundred people were left stranded at the airport to celebrate there or on the bus. Meh. We hurried, by taxi, from central station to hotel to harbour and arrived about five minutes to twelve.
NYE itself was nice. We stood on top of the opera house and watched a rather impressive show of fireworks through the thickening mists. Norwegian fireworks pack lot more punch than German ones; you actually feel your clothes shake when they go off.
Getting to Longyearbyen
The flight from Tromsø to Longyearbyen had free in-flight Wi-Fi and flying over the edge of satellite coverage demonstrated how far we were from everywhere else rather impressively. Arriving at Longyearbyen, I fixed the lost luggage claim with the help of an extremely nice woman working at the airport. She confirmed that Air Baltic is legally required to reimburse me after an arcane system based on a virtual IMF currency to the tune of about € 1.500. That may sound like a lot, but seeing as I had most of my scuba gear with me, that's not even half of what my luggage was worth. I was forced to get by New Years with what I had on my body and went shopping the next day when I could buy at least a few things. I got by with spending about € 180 by going for non-fitting bargain bin clothes, wanting to reduce impact on Air Baltic. Shortly after that, my luggage arrived, unannounced. Air Baltic refused to reimburse me even though they are legally required to, again the airport staff confirmed this. But unless I sue in the country of destination, Norway, I won't see any money. Long story short: Avoid Air Baltic if possible. They will break the law to cheat you out of money when they have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it. Update: Yep, seems they got away with it unless I take legal measures. You have been warned.
Longyearbyen itself was very nice. We started off with a short, guided taxi tour around the city, seeing literally everything of it as there's not a lot of Longyearbyen to start with.
Next day, as noted earlier, we went shopping and spent the "evening" with dogsledding which turned out to be tons of fun. We helped with harnessing the dogs which is somewhat cumbersome as the dogs are so eager to burn off their energy that they want to run all over the place, not being put into a harness and snapped onto the pull-line. Never having been dogsledding before I was a bit wary, but riding over not too rough terrain is almost trivial once you get the hang of it; listen to what the musher in front of you yells and emulate the same shouts with your own dogs. If the dogs become too fast, step onto the brake pad which simply drives spikes into the snow. If the dogs slow down while going uphill, skate with one foot to help them. That's it for speed. As the dogs are following the musher's sled anyway, steering the dogs was not a concern. Fun fact: The musher used a laser pointer to steer his dogs; simple, efficient, and presumably fun. We learned, by demonstration, that sledding dogs can eat snow, take a leak, and take a dump while running at full speed and pretty much all at the same time. The dogs are left either in cages or on long chains far away from the city as they tend to bark and howl a lot. We were surprised to learn that, even when there are seals left to hang dry as dog food nearby, there are no problems with bear attacks. Apparently even the extremely aggressive and hungry one year old males will not go near dogs. Still, while out in the ice and snow, our guide carefully flooded all crevices and cliff bases to root out female bears with young ones early. They hide their children from the wind and they will attack, dogs and all, if we get too close. That's why our musher carried rifle in his sled and flare gun on his body.
The next "morning", we drove around by snowmobile. This turned out to be extremely boring as it was a curated trip with over half a dozen snowmobiles in our group; a stark contrast to our two-sled tour the day before. The last time I went snowmobiling, we raced each other up and down a two-star black (i.e. steep, bumpy, and curvy) ski slope, jumping several meters when racing over larger bumps and crossing streets, so riding single file at 30 km/h was... anticlimatic. Again, the guide had rifle and flare gun with him.
We spent the afternoon and evening walking around the city.
Ice bears, part I
As the ice caves and the glacier were still closed, we decided to have another walk around the city. Having planned make it a quick tour, we lost track of time due to lack of sun and ended up walking around for seven hours.
A note about that trip.. If you are alone with your wife, unarmed, climbing up a very steep and slippery mountainside over a sheet of ice with deep snow underneath and loose rocks in between, and then start shining around with your flashlight under the stilts of an abandoned mine that looks like in a horror movie, the correct answer to "What are you doing?" is never ever "Looking for ice bears". Even if it's the truth, this is not an acceptable answer.
I crawled up the last part on all fours, camera and tripod in hand while Ilona stayed about two dozen meters below the mines' entrance, refusing to go another step towards the mine. As soon I made it up the creaky and shaky, for a lack of a better word, let's call it ladder, she forced me to come down again. Bleh, but I guess I deserved that.
Next day, we got final confirmation that we would not be allowed to rent snowmobiles to explore the hinterland on our own and that other for some, and I quote, "crazy Russians", no one would even attempt to cross over to Barentsburg. Thus, we ended up renting a car for the ~20 kilometers of total road length. That turned out to be a great idea as it allowed us to get away from the light and take some very nice long exposures. It was then that I got a rental rifle, as well. There is a law against leaving the town unarmed and I was not about to test my luck too much.
Turns out that, as part of Germany's WWII reparations, Norway received our all hand guns and as they still function perfectly when dirty and in cold climate which makes them still popular in Svalbard, today. The Karabiner 98 Kurz which I received is built incredibly well. It's somewhat scary inasmuch every detail is designed to make this weapon ready to fire. If you hurry or are inexperienced, you will end up with an unlocked and loaded rifle after putting in the bolt. Putting the safety in and not chambering a bullet takes conscious effort and knowledge of the weapon. This is in stark contrast to other weapons I had the chance to dissect, which all defaulted to being safe. Even other military weapons such as the AK74 and the M4A1 are inherently more secure, designed to be locked and safe. The Mauser K98... not so much.
As an aside, they didn't bother to remove the Reichsadler and Swastika from the rifle, contending themselves with striking out the German registration number and stamping the rifle with a Norwegian one. I guess Norwegians don't really "care" about these signs as much as we Germans do. In a way, that's a good thing I guess, at least as long as it's an indication of indifference towards the sign, not one of forgetting or ignoring the underlying issues.
Still, I was very glad to have rented the rifle. While Ilona tended to stay in the running car with heat and lights on, I went out and away from the car. Even when standing near a street, a medium snow storm will make you appreciate the four powerful arguments against being eaten by a random bear which are at the ready over your shoulder.
We even went to the shooting range so I could get some practice. The procedure is very trusting, as is anything in Longyearbyen. After accessing the interior of one of the houses in a particular way which I won't specify here, you simply switch on the floodlights, put up the red flag, position a target and write your name into the guest book. Once you're done shooting, toss a few coins into the bowl next to the guest book, remove the targets and flag, turn off the lights, close the door and that's that. Unfortunately, the way in was under a few meters of snow so I couldn't get in any practice shots.
Ice bears, part II
Later, as I was standing on a wind-polished slate of ice taking pictures of the Seed Vault (located here), I heard an ice bear roar behind (i.e. to the north of) me. I consciously remember hearing the bear, I consciously remember facing the other way around, half-crouched, rifle raised in the direction of the roar. I also consciously remember smacking the safety off and chambering a bullet after having regained control of my body. I do not remember spinning around on a wind-polished slate of ice, so treacherous I hand to balance with my arms and didn't even lift my feet when walking over it, without losing balance or footing, nor do I remember crouching and raising the gun. Evolution really is amazing; no matter what primal chord that roar struck, it certainly saved a ton of people over the years. In my case, thankfully, there was no bear to be seen down the slope. There may be no sun or anything, but the snow reflects the starlight so you tend to see surprisingly far and as I was on on the mountainside and the roar came from down from the coast, and as I had my rifle, I decided to finish the photo session while keeping the slope in close view. In hindsight, I am still glad I decided to do that as the shots came out rather nice.
Next day, we drove out to Mine 12, the farthest you can away from Longyearbyen. The dump truck transporting coal alternated between driving a full load of coal back to the city and being its own snowplow. One quick trip to get coal, one slow and empty trip to plow away snow, rinse, repeat. If not for that, our 4WD would never have made it all the way up to the mine. Neither snow storms in North America nor around the Alps prepared me for what people on Longyearbyen consider normal wind in their backyard. This is where the word wind-swept was invented. The main reason that Svalbard is inhabited at all, other than the Gulf Stream, is coal. We have been told that the coal up there is of extremely high quality and while I can't say much about that, I can say that it's hard as stone. This is nice as it does not smear when you get coal all over yourself. Just shake out your jacket and pants and you are good as new.
On our way back, we met two locals who had just prepared the glacier and ice caves for tourists. Had I known that in advance, I would have tried to go with them to take pictures completely away from all artificial light. Oh well, can't have everything.
Speaking of not being able to have everything, the outdoor hot tub in our hotel which integrated ice bar and BBQ grill was still under several meters of snow so we couldn't use that, either.
Finally, the few divers who are in Longyearbyen didn't have time to take me onto a trip while I was there. As I already missed my opportunity to dive the Arctic circle when the one diver on Grímsey happened to be on the mainland and barely missing it by diving Strýtan instead, this was kind of a bummer. On the plus side, this has given me a goal to pursue and achieve.
For the rest of my notes, I will resort to a largely unsorted list of bullet points as there's just too much to talk about in prose.
- There are a lot of things in Norway that are similar to the
Iceland (where we spent our honeymoon over June, experiencing
- Norway uses Torx screws everywhere and for everything. This makes sense and I can't understand why Germany is lagging behind so severely.
- There is free coffee everywhere.
- The coffee is horrible.
- Roads are built onto an artificial ridge, increasing wind speed. This ensures that sand, snow, and debris are always swept off the road and can't pile up too much.
- As easy as it is to lose track of time when the sun is always up (in Iceland, we come down from a mountain after an extended walk at 01:30 in the morning and never realizing how late it was until we wanted to drive a few more kilometers), it's just as easy to lose track of time when it's always dark. We went for a "short" walk to take a few pictures and, on coming back to the hotel, realized that it had taken us seven hours.
- You start to realize where sagas, trolls, little people and other folklore is coming from when exposed to raw nature. Especially once vision becomes bad and you see shadows dance in the snow (and sand, in Iceland's case) storm.
- The concept of Common Land is pervasive. Just walk anywhere, no one cares.
- No one has ever heard of OpenStreetMap, which is weird as people up there rely on GPS a lot.
- Locals tend to keep all lights on 24/7. I guess that's understandable.
- There is an eerie shine all over the land as the snow reflects and re-reflects the little light given off by the moon and stars.
- Almost all houses are built from wood. Drift-wood in the early days, imported wood today. The few concrete cause massive problems when the cold makes their floors and walls crack. Also, concrete is very hard to heat when it's sitting right on the perma-frost.
- Houses are not built on the ground, but on stilts. Drill a few holes into the ground, put long trunks into them, wait a few months for the perma-frost to freeze them into place and build your house on that. This insulates your house and gives you storage space below. Simple and efficient.
- Winter is so cold that people in Longyearbyen are forced to build water, sewage, and electricity infrastructure over ground, on stilts, and put in active heating. Else, it would burst or rupture.
- Our hotel had the taps running 24/7 as they already had a pipe burst a week before we arrived.
- The air is incredibly dry even though Longyearbyen is a coastal city. This is great as snow does not stick to anything, including clothes and camera lenses during long exposures against the wall in a snowstorm. Not so much when you suddenly realize that this means all rocks will be loose, scraping your shin open quite thoroughly.
- It's very hard to judge distances in permanent darkness; you will usually underestimate distances by a lot.
- This also means that you should not trust people when they tell you that Mine 2 is "not far away".
- Ice bear danger is real.
- Locals will not tell you about hiking trails unless you assure them that you are armed.
- Snow storms are amazing, impressive, and frightening. They will also make distances appear a lot farther, all of a sudden.
- While Longyearbyen does not have any sales or alcohol taxes and alcohol is still more expensive than in Germany.
- Stating that you won't drink before the sun goes down is a neat trick.
- Coldness and dryness mean your lips will burst open within seconds after holding a flashlight in your mouth as I usually do. As it's dark all the time, I tended to do that a lot. I learned quickly not to, though.
- I saw an arctic fox run through Longyearbyen, we saw two reindeer and we saw what we think are ice bear tracks behind our hotel.
- Timing your travel to catch the Quadrantids is useless when there are several independently moving layers of clouds for a full week.
- The Aurora Borealisis an elusive thing. We have a few long exposures with it showing, but we didn't see anything with our bare eyes.
- The few minutes when we saw stars, meteors, the moon, Jupiter, and Venus all at once were worth it and more.
- Survival is no joke up there. They keep a coal mine running just to power their local plant.
- That plant has its own storage facility for coal in case the mine shuts down.
- There are several independent "fire houses" that can provide energy and heat in case the power plant shuts down.
- The seed vault is somewhat boring on the outside, but it's one of the most important sites on Earth and visiting it was nice.
All in all, it was well worth it.
PS: If you know anyone working with Google Maps, ask them to consider improving their coverage of the Arctic. This is a real pity. As is the rest of the Arctic and the fact that Google Earth cheats you out of the North and South Pole by stretching adjacent tiles into and over them.