Reaching Svalbard

December 21, 2015

svalbard

Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey

Svalbard. I first came across this place while reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the name has stuck in my head since. I came across it again while researching Norway and the Aurora Borealis and I knew I wanted to go there. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. It sits in the  Arctic ocean, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Unless you’re a scientist or a researcher, this is the closest you can get to the North Pole.There’s only one flight a day to and from Oslo, and if that got cancelled for weather or other reasons, all our careful planning would go for a wild toss, but to tell the truth, we were all quite excited about it.

This time we’ve triple checked our tickets and make it to the airport well in time for our flight. Past security, one level down, we join a queue to two doors leading to what we assume is the waiting area at the boarding gate, but is infact the boarding gate. There are two booths before the doors. When it’s our turn, the husband hands over our passports – mine first. The man looks at it and asks me to please step aside, to the other line. My passport is riddled with issues that demand a post or two of their own, so the husband hands me my passport with a look that’s a mix of AGAIN!!!, I am leaving you here and going,  and why don’t you just get the darned thing fixed? Then the man hands him his passport and motions him to step aside too. “Me too?, the husband asks incredulously. I am quite besides myself with glee. By the time he joins the line, I’ve figured out what’s wrong. “Where is your return flight from?” the lady on the other side of the box asks. ” Oslo.” “You’ll need a Schengen  visa to go Oslo.” “It’s right here.” I reach for the passport, but before I can take it she patiently explains,” This is a single entry visa. Svalbard is not part of Schengen.When you go there, you will be leaving the Schengen region and will  need a new Schengen to return to Oslo.”  But wait…”Svalbard is a part of Norway, isn’t it?”We’re not leaving the country, so why do we need a new visa to re-enter. How can we re-enter when we are not leaving? Turns out Svalbard is (as the husband puts it) the Kashmir of Norway -the northern most region, mountainous, gorgeous and has special status.

Unlike the rest of Norway (including Jan Mayen), Svalbard is a free economic zone, a demilitarized zone, and is not part of the Schengen Area nor the European Economic Area. All citizens and all companies of every nation under the Svalbard treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.

Aaha!! By now RP has joined our queue, but when he shows her his EU temporary residence permit, she clears him to go. What about us? “When you reach Svalbard, go to the local police station. They’ll give you a new visa. There won’t be a problem.”

 

 

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Dashing Through the Snow

December 20, 2015

We did get a glimpse at the Aurora Borealis last night, but it was just a glimpse. The clouds parted just enough for us to say we saw it, nothing more. Not ones to give up easily, we’ve booked an evening dog sledding experience with Lyngsfjord Adventures.  I am adamant about choosing a company that allows participants to mush. We are going to be driven to Vass valley, which is an hour and a half or so away from Tromso. If the Northern Lights are to be seen, this is as good a place as any.The husband cannot understand why wouldn’t all companies allow let you do it, if one company does.RP  is desperately trying to reconcile us. What is mushing? I’ll come to that soon.  

IMG_9769We meet the bus at the 5:00 p.m. outside the Ishavshotel.   There’s not a star to be seen in the skies. It is pointless going chasing the lights today. As we take our seats, we silently hope the clouds decide to take a break and we see more action than we’ve paid for.  When we reach Camp Tomak, where we are given thermal suits and boots. Our bus load is split into smaller groups and assigned guides. Our guides lead us past the kennels to the sleds. Here we are given a short briefing on how to mush or drive the dog sleds. Each sled is to pulled by a team of five huskies. Each sled is to have one driver and one passenger, with opportunity to switch places half way. The instructions are very simple, press down on the break to slow or stop and lift the break to go. Sometime when you come to a complete stop, you need to give the sled a slight push or pump the ground like you are on a skateboard or a scooter to let the dogs know it’s time to go. The sled has no reins and there’s no way for us to direct the dogs left or right. Our guide assures us that’s not needed because the dogs are all trained to follow the lead team and she would be guiding that team.

DSC_4559Our guide is assigned us, and a group of six women. It turns out only one of those six wanted to be a musher, the rest were happy to be passengers. Our guide asks if one of us would be willing to mush for one them. The husband gallantly volunteers, leaving RP once again as my partner. Once the ladies have all been found mushers in other teams, we set off. Our guide is in the lead, followed by the husband and we are in the rear. RP is mushing first. I have never been sledding and don’t know anything about sled construction, but a dog sled seems more suited for carrying cargo than passengers. There’s no seat belt or  bar in front to hold on to. I’m nervous at first, but our guide sets a very easy pace and I quickly settle down.

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As we make our way through the valley, the only word that comes to my mind is dilfareb. I don’t know if this word even has an English equivalent. Literally translated it means something that can trick the heart and make you fall in love –  truly, madly, deeply. Alluring, enticing, mesmerizing would all come close enough, but none would completely capture the essence of the word. Mountains rise gracefully from the valley floor and ring it like indulgent big brothers. The white landscape is broken only by sled tracks. Had there been a moon, the light would have transformed this seemingly ordinary scene into something ethereal – pure, unattainable and worthy of worship. The kind of scene that would want make you throw back you head and howl like the lone wolf, perhaps with the lone wolf.

IMG_9799At mid point we take a short break, set off again. This time I am mushing. This is not hard at all. My dogs are rearing to go, but the husband’s team is too slow for us. My dogs are soon at his feet and I’m getting dirty looks.  I keep one foot on the break to keep my team the stipulated three meters behind his. Sometimes we stop. The snow deep and is starting to ice. Breaking is easy enough, but lifting the break pedal out is harder. I get off the sled, to give it a little push. The dogs are quick to pick up the signal and go dashing through the snow.Then next thing, RP is shouting for me to break, “Vidya, break. BREAK!!”The dogs are at the husband’s heels now and he’s yelling too,”STOP! BREAK!!” How could I? They didn’t know it, but I wasn’t even on the sled. The dogs took off without me. Our guide hears the commotion and races to the rescue. She stops her team, topples her sled over and runs towards us through  knee high snow. The lead pair of my team by now are getting into a fight with the rear pair of the husband’s team. She grabs the  dogs  by the mussel and smacks them into obedience.

All mushers have been given headlamps. Later RP tells me, he didn’t realize I was not on the sled, since he could still see the light from the headlamp. Ofcourse he could! I was still behind him, just not no the sled! I’m back on the sled and the remainder our 15 km round trip is smooth. The dogs now look back to me before they start running instead of depending on my signal. What is more, the guide even finds the lens cover we had dropped somewhere in the snow. We end the night with hot chocolate and a hot stew in a  lavvu (Sami  tent). We didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, but we did get more adventure than we signed up for.

 

 

Kaldfjord

December 20,2015

The tour companies don’t seem very optimistic about spotting the lights tonight, due to the cloud cover. Instead, we are going dog sledding this evening. If luck will have it, we may have a good sighting of the Aurora Borealis.

DSC_0136-001This leaves us with an entire day at our disposal to do as we please. We look up a few fjord photography tours and decide to DIY it. There is a bus that will take us to Kvaloya island. From there we need to take another bus to get to Ersfjord. We stop at the visitor’s center for more information on bus timings and directions.”Everyone seems to be headed there today”, the lady at the visitor center informs us. “You’ll are the third set of people asking for the same direction since morning.” They have just opened, so that does say something if not a lot. She proceeds to give us directions to Kaldfjord. We would need to take a bus to Kvaloya island and from the bus stop, we could either walk or hitchhike.” There a a lot of whales this year.” ,she gushes. “It’s a big thing for the locals too. Many of them will be headed that way to see the whales. You can try to hitch a ride.”

DSC_0138We are not sure if we have understood correctly. “Can we see the whales from the shore, or do we have to book a safari at Kaldfjord?” “Oh no no.. you can see them from the shore.” The lenses on our camera are not right for this new plan and the next bus is after 30 mins, so we head back to the hotel and grab our zoom lenses. When we get to Kaldfjord, literally translated as cold fjord, I want to hitchhike, the boys want to walk. By time we resolve our dispute, we’ve reached the waterfront. As we walk along the scenic shoreline, we ask passing joggers about the best spot for spotting the leviathans. One shakes her head regretfully and says usually they can be seen all along the coast but she hasn’t seen them at all today.Just then an Asian couple comes up behind her and says they’ve seen whales five minutes away. It’s amazing how easily distance can be measured in units of time.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

To our absolute delight, we see pair of whales frolicking in the distance. We chase after them up and down the shore. Soon it’s time we head back so that we don’t miss our evening adventure. We walk back to the bus stop. When the bus arrives, it is the same driver who dropped us off.

We were completely prepared to drop whale watching from our itinerary since the tour times were not fitting in with our plans, but this worked out to be much better. Taking public transport and walking around  has made the experience so much more real.

The Chase

December 19, 2015

The sky is a little clearer than it was yesterday. Today’s tour has not been cancelled and we take hope from that. It’s a six hour trip.  Arctic Guide Services is going to be drive an hour and a half or so outside Tromso, and from there we start our chase. Our guide sets all of us to the task of looking out for stars. Our first spot was occupied by a rival tour, so we drive a little further. We get out of the bus and fumble to set our cameras on our tripods and get our settings right in the cold dark night. Our guide is very particular that we use headlamps and torches discreetly and sparingly so as to cause minimum light pollution. Lesson learnt, step into the bus to set up. Ofcourse no one wants to do that and miss even a second of  the celestial spectacle  we were all looking forward to. Alas, there was naught to be seen.  We drive further. There is a tour at our next spot as well, but these are a sister tour so we join them.

DSC_0088This time we have wisely set up our cameras inside the bus. I never took mine off when we got back in at the last stop. The parking lot is slick with ice. Our guide advises us to take penguin steps, so we shuffle along till we reach the snow. As I try to make my way down the little slope, camera, tripod, et all, RP shouts, “I saw it. I saw it. There is is.” I scan the skies but see little more than a hopeless smudge. Everyone starts clicking furiously. Few are lucky enough to capture it. From here we drive further north and stop close to the Finnish border. Our guide leads us down a small path cleared through thigh high snow. It is pitch dark and impossible to see without her headlamp. Her co-guide is leading the way and is a good 50 meters or so ahead of the group. He suddenly stops and hollers out to her. He thinks he’s seen an arctic fox. Before anyone else could catch up, the owner of the eyes he had seen shining in the snow had vanished, preferring to observe us hidden.

DSC_0114We hung around and scanned the skies. We couldn’t see any lights with our naked eyes, but amazingly a smudge showed up in one of my pictures. It wasn’t even a picture I was taking of the sky. I was taking a picture of the husband and RP taking pictures and they got photobombed.

We were the last to get back to the bus. Our guide was handing out cookies and hot chocolate. On realizing he had dropped a glove, the husband and RP went back into the dark to look for it and surprisingly found it. It’s time to head back. It’s heartbreaking to have come all this way and not seeing the Aurora Borealis in all it’s glory. From the little that we could catch, it seems like the lights had put on quite a show but it was not in our luck to see it. Even so, we did get a glimpse and a picture not just of the lights but with the lights. It is an experience to be cherished.

Of Reindeer and Snow Mobiles

December 19, 2015

“We’re late!We’re late!We’re late!”

RP has gone ahead to hold the bus. Much to the husband’s consternation, I’m packing breakfast at the buffet.We walk, run, skid and our to the waiting bus and off we go. Arctic Guide Services is going to be drive an hour and a half or so outside Tromso to a place where we can see and pet reindeer and go snow mobiling. We doze past soaring mountains and icy fjords. Occasionally we open our eyes to marvel the beauty that surrounds us. Each time I open my eyes, I wonder how I can bring myself to shut them but the flesh is weak.

When we reach our destination, we are greeted by our Sami guide. He directs us to a little building where we change into the thermal suits provided by Arctic Adventures. The husband cannot find a helmet that fits so he is asked to ride with the guide, while RP gets me and more adventure than he bargained for.

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The first part of our ride is pretty smooth. We ride out to where the reindeer are. The reindeer are part of a herd that belongs to our Sami guide.  The Sami are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, spread out over four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula. Like most indigenous people, they have suffered discrimination and proselytizing and as a result their numbers have been considerably decimated. Today, to qualify as a Sami, a person must have atleast one Sami grandparent.  There are around 30,000 Sami in Norway , out of which only 2 -3 % of the Sami people still follow their traditional occupation of reindeer herding. In Norway, the Sami now have their own parliament which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities.

DSC_0039It is considered rude to ask a Sami man how many reindeer he owns. Honestly, it never even occurred to me to ask him that. Reindeer are like small donkeys with enormous antlers. After we pet and feed the them, we set off once more on our snow mobiles. When we get to a flat patch of snow, our guide demonstrates what a snow mobile can really do.  Each person gets a turn to sit behind him, while he flies past the rest.

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Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran

Now it’s time to change drivers.  I start the machine and here we go. Okay this is not so hard. Eeeasy. Now turn a little – use your body. “Turn the handle.” Huh! “The handle”, RP shouts in my ear.  I’m trying, but it’s stuck. This is hard. The snow mobile is not a toy. It takes considerable arm strength to turn it. You can’t use your weight, like I do on a motorbike. In fact you need to turn one way and throw your bodyweight the other way, to keep the mobile for toppling. It’s not that hard, but it takes some getting used to and you need to be a little strong. I struggle along, and bump into a tree. Tree, mobile, riders are all unharmed.After this, I somehow get the hang of it. Up, down, right, left and  back to the reindeer  herd. This is the scary part. Anyone with road experience in India knows not to trust cattle. Thankfully, the reindeer decide to keep out of my way and I park.

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We enter the little cabin and find ourselves in a Sami home of the yore. We are offered hot chocolate, cookies and a hot meal. While we munch ans slurp, we are educated on the ways of the Sami. Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a siida.  The menfolk went herding, hunting, trapping, and fishing, while the women stayed back to tend to domestic chores like cooking and stitching.The reindeer-herding Sami were traditionally semi nomadic. They maintained a permanent dwelling in the valley and spent the summer living in tents in the hills.Their permanent homes were either frame buildings or sod huts. The Sami tent or lavvo  is  in conical in shape. It has a circular framework of poles leaning inward  and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur. Both tents and huts are arranged around a central fire. In the days long gone, the Sami followed a shamanistic religion. Now most follow Christianity.  Some Sami still wear the group’s brightly colored traditional clothing with distinctive bands of bright red and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. Their traditional shoes are hand stitched from reindeer hide and fur and most ingenuous.

It’s time to head back. In a few hours, we will set out to see the Aurora Borealis.