Islands on the top of the world – the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is the most northerly inhabited spot on Earth. And, as David Lloyd discovers, the wine list’s not bad, either.
Like laundry on a final spin I’m thrown around inside a four-by-four with tyres the size of Hampshire. I bite my lip, bang my head, and try to focus on the horizon as I shudder along roads that can only be described as ‘off’.
I’m in a land about halfway between Norway and the top of the world. And my journey’s just begun.
This is Svalbard, a rocky scatter of islands lost in the high Arctic. I’m travelling from Longyearbyen, its prosperous Norwegian capital, to the mining community of Barentsburg, Russia’s forgotten frontier.
Without warning, the track sinks beneath a fresh drift of snow and I’m forced to swap the heated saloon of the truck with its cargo: a muscular red snowmobile.
Occasionally, due to the shift and tumble of the pack ice a glassy smooth hump breaks the surface, like the back of some huge, crystallised whale. While, punctuating the frozen desert’s surface, seals loll by blowholes, deer nuzzle for scraps of lichen and, somewhere, polar bears are watching.
The animals provide all the food the 700 residents need to see them through winter until the first shops arrive from the Motherland
It’s evening by the time I cross the only Russian border on the globe where visas are not required. I only know I’ve arrived because a windburned sign reads: ‘Баренцбург ферма участок’ – ‘Barentsburg farm zone’ – a suburb of long, low barns housing chickens, cattle and pigs. The animals provide all the food the 700 residents need to see them through eight months of winter until, with the breaking of the pack ice, the first ships arrive from the Motherland. Barentsburg has no airport and, save for four months of the year is cut off from civilisation. No one in Barentsburg can afford a snowmobile.
At the centre of town an oversized bust of Lenin casts its frozen stare over the monumental Soviet buildings. A klaxon sounds signalling dinner is about to be served in the communal canteen, and families shuffle out into the snow.
The Ferrari red livery of my snowmobile blows my cover. A man approaches.
“Can I help you?”
Alexei’s a miner from the Ukrainian town of Berdychiv, his thick moustache decorated with ice crystal baubles. He removes a glove to shake my hand.
Alexei insists on giving me a tour of his town. “I’m not hungry,” he says, his face smeared with the evidence of another gruelling shift.
Mining, the sole reason for the community’s existence, is heavily subsidised. The remnants of old shafts and pit railways give a Klondike air to the huddled settlement. Alexei tells me the miners haven’t been paid since last summer but, when the Rubles do arrive, they’ll earn 12,000 a month (about £300). Until then, families are granted food credit – there’s little else here to spend their money on.
With every season, the amount of low-grade coal coaxed from the town’s crumbling mountains reduces. “These mines would have been closed years ago,” Alexei says, “but Moscow hopes that, one day, other minerals will be found. Maybe oil.” Svalbard may be administered by Norway but, according to a treaty signed in 1920, 11 nations have mineral rights. Russia’s gamble – that it’s cheaper to keep this brittle community alive than cryogenically freeze it until oil is found – is currently under review. Until then, a matrix of over ground heating pipes piled high above the permafrost keeps the Arctic just about at arm’s length.
What little coal that makes it to the town’s dirty wharf usually ends its journey here, at the shore of the Greenland Sea. Russia doesn’t need it, and the mining company have only secured one sale in the past year. A scree of coal blackens the frozen bay.
“Compared to Ukraine, Barentsburg pays well. There are no coal mines where we come from. Putin made it so that they all closed,” Alexei says.
In summer’s endless sunlight, Alexei’s two daughters, with the rest of Barentsburg’s 50 children, play basketball at midnight. But they need to be vigilant. Last year, an eight year old was mauled to death by a hungry young polar bear. Bears outnumber humans three to one. They’re not great odds, we suggest.
“No, but mostly, they keep their distance,” Alexei says. “It’s the cruise ships. Tourists come, leave sandwiches around, chocolates. The bears can smell them 30 kilometres away.”
As we talk, Alexei proudly points out an Olympic sized heated swimming pool complex and huge, five-storied hotel. It could never hope to fill a single floor. The town’s only human-scale development is a memorial for the 140 miners who perished when their plane exploded in the mountains behind Longyearbyen airport ten years ago.
We decide to take lunch after all – sinewy chicken and vivid red tomatoes, pickled since the last of last year’s sun dipped below the horizon, over into Norwegian territory. But the bread is robust, dark and chewy: meatier than the chickens who’ve been incarcerated for all of their eight miserable weeks.
We head back to Longyearbyen, our mobiles fizzing over phosphorescent, shimmering lakes of ice, the milky way’s reflection frozen in their depths. I can’t help but hear Let It Go well up, somewhere inside me.
We make it back in time for dinner at Huset – the oldest building in town, whose cellars hide more wines than at the George V hotel in Paris. Our waiter, Gorm, is here to avoid military service. “I’m Aspergic,” he says, by way of explanation, while pouring us a glass of their second cheapest Pinot Noir. “Perfect to pair with elk,” he says. He was right. It was. And there was us thinking elk needed a spicy Shiraz.
At the hotel bar we meet Tomas, a salesman for the Pernod-Ricard drinks company.
We order a round of vodkas. Tomas insists on paying.
A high Arctic wind picks up, rattling the windows of the hotel, launching javelins of icicles into the air. As the vodka delivers its instant spike of heat, Tomas raises his glass.
“People thought I was mad coming to Svalbard to get business. But you should see how much these people drink.” he says.
Where To Stay
Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen’s straggling, pocket-sized capital, is hunkered in a deep valley, beneath towering white peaks. Its brightly coloured houses a striking counterpoint to the shimmering ice. Its clutch of hotels offer surprisingly comfortable accommodation, its bars offering that discombobulating experience of drinking all night long, yet still leaving when the sun’s up (at least in winter). Try the Radisson – radissonblu.com/hotel-spitsbergen for rooms with a view over the Longyearbyen Fjord.
Where To Eat
The Huset Restaurant. The Arctic Special buffet features succulent elk steaks and smoked Arctic char. Delicious.
How To Get Here
Try Discover The World – Artic specialists, based in Cumbria. They offer tailor-made expeditions or group tours.