December 21, 2015
Photos Courtesy Rahul Pagey
The first thing we do when we get off the plane is to get directions to the police station. At this time of the year, only 6 taxi are operational in Longyearbyen, so the shuttle bus agrees to drop us off. RP continues to the hotel with our luggage. The police station has a sign asking us to leave our shoes outside. We see others walking in nonchalantly leaving their coats and boots in a room to the side and follow suit taking care to discreetly hide ours. Inside we find out that the person authorized to give us new visas is out on account of the avalanche . There had been an avalanche just the previous day. The friendly man we spoke to assured us there was that there was nothing to worry, and to come back the next morning.He even called us a taxi. With no other option, we left, after explaining how we were flying back to Oslo the day-after and how critical it was for us to get the visa tomorrow.
On the way to the hotel, knowing how my heart (and his too) was set on seeing a polar bear, the husband asked the taxi driver if any polar bears had been seen in the vicinity. “No.. but if one were to come, the police will be there instantly and take care.” “So, they can be seen here?”, the husband persists. ” They could, on occasion, come down the slope, but the police secure the area immediately. ” ..but they can be seen here?” The taxi driver finally gets the husband’s drift. ” You wouldn’t want to see them here. They are dangerous. “, he says gravely. “They have killed in the past and will kill again.” he continues.” You DON”T want to see them here.”
We reach the Spitsbergen hotel. Here we find out, it’s Svalbardian culture to leave shoes outside. There is a board that says so and an antechamber with cubby holes filled with boots. Inside we sign up for what we think is the Northern Lights tour, but turns out to be a city tour. It’s the same taxi and driver that brought us here. The driver assures us we will be going around the city and to the same place the Northern Lights tour goes. He has an app that shows we have a good chance of spotting the lights. The skies are clear to boot.Our driver points out landmarks and important buildings in the city – the polar bear sign, the Governor’s office, the police station, the church, Santa’s post box…. The avalanche prevents us from going too far out, but we go as far as our driver dared. As we paused to look down at the dog kennels, we looked up to see if we could spot the Lights, but no luck.
We drive further to the Global Seed Vault. The Seed Bank was established in 2008 and is fully funded by the Norwegian government. Also known as the “Doomsday Vault,” this seed bank contains a seed of just about every known crop in the world. It is meant as a backup for crops, against catastrophes. 300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, embedded in the side of a mountain, the vault is considered to be perfectly located. The location is as remote as it can get, yet perfectly accessible. The area is geologically stable and has low humidity. The vault is well above sea level so safe from flooding and the permafrost offers a natural and cost effective fail-safe method to preserve the seeds. Recently, the first significant withdrawal was made from the vault. The conflict in Syria has forced scientists at the Aleppo gene bank to abandon their research there. With the situation in Syria showing no signs of improvement, the scientists have begun recovering their inventory from the vault and resuming their research at new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco.
Svalbard Reindeer (Photo Courtesy Rahul Pagey)
We wait here for a while, hoping the lights would show up, and when they don’t we turn back to the hotel. On the way back we spot Arctic reindeer, a breed that is only found in Svalbard. These reindeer are smaller and tougher than the ones we petted in Tromso. If one we to bring the Tromso reindeer to Svalbard, they wouldn’t survive the harsh climate.
The hotel has a history of its own. Situated on a hill-top at the far end of the town, it commands a spectacular view. It was built in 1947 as a mess for white-collared employees, living quarters for unmarried office personal and official residence of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani als., a mining company. Funktionær is Norwegian for white-collar worker and so the hotel is locally known as ‘Funken’. In 1985, the last employee moved out, and the building became a guest house of sorts for important travellers and guests. In 1989, the Spitsbergen Travel a/s is formed and in 1993 they purchase the building from the Store Norske and in 1994 Funken becomes Funken Hotel. Over the years the hotel has been extended and renovated multiple times and today it is a full service hotel with 88 rooms.