Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It is a town built on ancient permafrost, 100 metres thick at it’s very least, an artist’s pallet of primary colours, wooden buildings painted deep red, sunshine yellow, navy blue.
These houses huddle together, perched on stilts and uniform against a grey and primal landscape, and offer injections of colour, a cheerful contrast, and much needed reprieve, from the Arctic conditions and deep silence of the surrounding uninhabited wild that is Spitsbergen, which even with the happy chatter of a bustling high street, full of excited tourists, permeates the minuscule town. After all, Svalbard is populated by more polar bears than people, and Longyearbyen still feels like a frontier town, staring out into an endless unknowable Arctic, a town at the edge of the world.
We pedaled our way uphill, to Svalbard Kirke, the world’s northernmost church, which was to be our first stop in Longyearbyen. We had heard tell of waffles, and hot drinks, and this was more than enough to eagerly draw us in. The road was steep, and the sharp air left us feeling a little breathless, as we propelled our bodies up the gravel road, and parked up our bicycles against a wooden post on a verge overlooking the town below us. We took off our coats, thoroughly warmed up now, and our shoes, as is customary in most establishments in the town, and stepped into the gentle glow of the church.
Svalbard church was built in 1921, and is the only church on the island, serving people of all religious denominations. The church is a cosy, welcoming building, with a wooden beam ceiling, and during the summer, light floods in through stained glass windows. There is a huge fireplace at the end of the building, and an overriding sense of calm; protection from the harsh environment, and the swirling winds or snowstorms outside. Weekly, there is a waffle and coffee night. Unfortunately, however, we had arrived on the wrong day, and far too early, too.
We explored the church for a few minutes, and then began our journey cycling downhill towards the centre of the town, towards the fjord. Longyearbyen town centre is a bustling place, thriving with numerous tourist shops, stuffed to bursting with polar bear memorabilia, postcards, cuddly animals and fluffy coats. A great deal of the shops are adorned with signs hanging over their entrances, asking people to leave their weapons at the door. In Longyearbyen, a rifle is not a rare site; most inhabitants will not travel without one.
Together with it’s plethora of shops catered towards tourists, Longyearbyen’s main street has a supermarket, surprisingly well stocked for somewhere so far from anywhere that could grow food, and complete even with the most expensive watermelon you’ll ever buy, a post office, an ATM, a library (with free wi-fi), a Thai restaurant, and a shopping complex.
We found ourselves visiting this shopping complex often – inside is a magical cafe, named Fruene, which offers delicious, affordable, and most importantly, wholesome meals, perfect for staving off the cold and for satisfying even the most voracious of appetites, ravenous after a long day biking, or kayaking.
We shared huge portions of quiche and salad, steaming bowls of velvety cauliflower soup, and enjoyed huge mugs of hot chocolate, grasped with frozen fingers and gulped down hastily. Cafe Fruene, it seemed, was a central point of life in Longyearbyen, everybody seemed to know each other, and we had an interesting conversation with the editor of Longyearbyen’s alternative newspaper, Icepeople, who had moved to the island several years ago, from California. It takes a special kind of person to call Longyearbyen home, and it was fascinating to watch people go about their daily lives in such an extreme environment.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can find the headquarters of various tour companies operating out of Longyearbyen, whom you can visit, if you are looking to book a boat exploration, or perhaps go icewalking or hiking. We opted for kayaking, but as we were on a budget, decided to go about arranging a kayak ourselves. You can also visit the museum, which is found next to the University Centre, where you can speak to a tourist information guide, or use their computer system to book any trips you might have planned.
After spending some time exploring Longyearbyen, and running some errands, we decided that we would take the road out of the town, even further now away from the camp-site, and towards Mine 7. The road east now followed the fjord’s muddy banks, snaking alongside glacial scrapings, brown mud and shallow still water parting the two sides of the valley and the improbable mountains that loomed either side, cutting into the sky at wild, almost unbelievable, angles. We were the only people on the road, and we cycled away from the town eagerly, unsure as to what we might find ahead.
Eventually, we came across a Husky Kennel, where we decided to pause, and were treated to hot chocolates and cinnamon pancakes, sprinkled with sugar, crispy, hot, and sweet. This would be as far as we would travel, today, we decided, as we watched the huskies play in their kennels, boisterous and far better equipped for the climate than either of us could ever be, exhausted from cycling against raw wind. The road ahead felt just a little too distant, just a little too removed from civilization, to carry on. We would return, though, later, without a doubt, and better prepared this time, once we had found either a gun, or a car.