A game called “Far and wide I want to travel the world”.
A couple of years ago I touched the south coasts of Argentina, visiting Ushuaia, the most southern city. I’ve always played with the geographical map and in this childish game with it, this year I decided to push myself toward the opposite edge of the world, looking for the northernmost village.
Planning our trip, my travel mates felt a mixture of fear and excitment: “What’s there? Isn’t it too cold? Is it worth a visit?”
We landed at the end of April in the small airport of this 60.000 square kilometres territory, with temperature floating between five degrees celsius in summer and minus forty in winter.
Not further than five km from the airfield, a small settlement arises in a valley between two mountains dug by glaciers through the centuries. Our guesthouse, an old miners’ accomodation, is located at the extreme side of the town, where the road ends.
There’s only a few meters of paved road here; there’s such a few that they do not have a name. People here recall them by numbers. The streets begin next to the airport, pass through the small village and end up at the Eiscat Radars, 30 meters in diameter metal giants that study the ionosphere from the silent peaks.
The first of our four days here, we take part to a snowmobile expedition toward the west side. The 150 km trail among the ice, reveals a pristine environment: endless valleys surrounded by high snowy peaks. There’s enough snow not to show a single piece of a black rock out of the surface. Hundreds of acres of wild lands, where the only variations in the skyline are some wooden huts, a broken down snowmobile abandoned on the path or tame arctic reindeers looking for food underneath the snowy surface.
Sometimes we stop by in the middle of the arctic desert and when the engines switch off, the only sound to break the silence is our whispering.
Our guides show us faraway lands at the horizons, surmounted by high immeasurable ridges.
Under this sky, sometimes cloudy, sometimes sunny, we reach one of the last Russian mines still active over here. Every rare, small settlement in this archipelago is curiously selfsufficient: there’s not just a few accomodations or small markets. There are indoor sport buildings, tiny theatres and schools. Where we stay, there’s also an important university research center.
Timo, a finnish guy who’s one of our guides, claims that once a week the Norwegian guys from the main “city” come over here to challenge the Russian miners in a football match. Then the following week the Russians ride their snowmobiles throughout the snowy valleys to reach the city and compete with the Norwegians. It looks like a small indoor football championship in between two teams that last all year long.
The other guide seems to be a tough girl. She claims she comes from this very region, but actually was born on the mainland, because there’s no hospital with adequate facilities to give birth to a baby here. To tell the truth, there’s no chance to be buried neither, so when your time comes, your body is to be sent back to the mainlands to rest in peace.
In other words, it’s illicit to be born or to die over here.
On the guides snowmobiles’ sides there are two huge guns. It’s strictly mandatory to move around with them as you may easily encounter a polar bear, the biggest and most fascinating predator on earth.
I asked her if she ever needed to use that gun. She answers she almost did just once, when a mother with a couple of cubs met an expedition she was leading and, feeling threatened, the bear faced the snowmobiles fiercely. Fortune wanted the noise of the engines was enough to make the animals run away.
At least that time.
On the second day, a small bus pick us up on the square next to the guesthouse, in front of that mounts’ horizon we used to see every morning. We’re sailing from the village harbor on an old fishing boat today toward another Russian mining site, abandoned back in 1998. It’s a ghost town, a pearl of the soviet era that used to count over two hundred people but now counts only two. When the sea let the travellers sail to the town’s harbor, these guardians, like a couple of ice desert Bedouins, welcome the visitors with a shapka.
We’re not that lucky unfortunately as the weather is still too cold. The fjord we’re sailing through is covered with a thick, mammoth ice sheet. It’s probably more than a hundred square km vast and it stops us about four km away from the ghost town.
Where the sea ends, there begins the ice; where the ice ends, there the sea begins again.
The matt blue surface suddenly meets the white one on a straight border line.
In a couple of weeks the flat sheet will melt completely until it will reveal the original form of the fjord.
Our guide step off the ship, down on the thick ice. She has a gun on her back and a hatchet in her hand by which she needs to make sure the surface is enough resistant to let us jump down on the “land”. After a few minutes she send us a positive sign and while a convoy of snowmobiles run toward the abandoned mine far away on the horizon, through the desert made of ice, she catch a piece of the ground and gives it to me smiling: “Did you ever taste salty sea ice?”
The boat turns around and start navigating back towards the village we came from, sailing along the coast of the fjord, letting us watch a couple of lazy walrus resting on drift ice and a polar bear huge footsteps. We continuously move back and forth from the deck to the inside of the ship to watch the mountains beside the sea, but it’s too freezing cold to stay outside more than a couple of minutes. Our hands are freezing despite the many layers of gloves we’re wearing.
Fabio is the only one of us who makes it out on the deck for a little longer. He keeps taking hundreds of pictures with his camera.
Sometimes the ship clashes against some ice drift, shaking everything on board. Some other times it starts digging a way through a thinner ice sheet, cutting it like the slice of a cake. Its sound it’s the only noise spreading from the bow of the boat.
Once back at the hostel, we call a taxi as we wish to visit the Global Seed Vault. Our driver looks pretty excited as she just moved to the island and it’s gonna be the first time there for her as well. She moved here to join her fiancé who works as a snowmobile mechanic. They’re both from Oslo and when I ask her what does she think of living here, she answers with regret that even though Norway’s capital is pretty cold at winter, it surely doesn’t reach minus forty degrees Celsius. Never.
We arrive at the Global Seed Vault after a short time. It’s a bunker on the side of the mountain which contains the seeds of every tree in the world. If it’ll ever happen that one extinguish itself, the freezing climate conditions of this place allow the kernels to survive intact to be replanted somewhere else.
It’s another bizarre thing from this place, such as the fact that you cannot use an umbrella here or own a cat or that on this island, every year takes place the northernmost jazz festival in the world: the Polarjazz fest.
Many musical videos have been shot and even a tv series (Fortitude) is fictionally set here.
While our taxi driver takes us back to the hostel, outside the window an arctic fox plays on the ice all alone. She likes wandering around this place as it’s easy to hunt its preys here.
After dinner we wear our gloves and snow shoes again to have a walk to the village center. In this period we can attend the unusual phenomenon of the perennial light and the midnight sun. if you ever wake up at three in the morning to go to the bathroom, you won’t need to switch on any light…
It’s just me, Francesco and Jacopo on the side of the road. Giorgia and Diletta chose to stay in their room as it’s freezing cold outside. Marco and Fabio fell asleep. It was a tough day for the bodies.
We watch our star slowly setting over the sea horizon like an eternal dusk that suddenly interrupts. Time “jumps forward” unusually and the sun start rising again toward an unexpected dawn.
Looks like someone stole the night.
We try to keep as motionless as possible to respect this silence we’ll probably won’t experience again. Sound of silence and snow, nothing else in the atmosphere.
We start walking back to the guesthouse with difficulty, when a solitary car crosses our path: it’s the girl who took us to the Global Seed Vault, still in service. She invites us to jump on board, otherwise we will freeze. We’ve been pretty lucky to meet her.
There it comes, our last day here; an exuberant Australian woman pick us up with a van to transfer us at the lonely valley below the Eiscat Radars. There’s an isolated hut where she, Lara, and a few others trainers, take care of their sled dogs. Meticulously she choose the huskies for our sleds. She knows them one by one, like they were all sons or daughters of her: she knows which is more experienced, which is too young too lead a group, which can be put in the first row or behind. She also knows which dogs can be put together as a few of them can’t stand each other.
While Lara speaks with her huskies I have to ask her what brings an Australian to one of the remotest settlements on earth.
She smiles and replies she was just looking for a place far from big cities rhythm. “If you think things are so different here, you’re wrong. I have my timetables, my ordinary activities as well: I do go to supermarket, do you know what I mean? I just don’t spend my day in front of a laptop computer, but with a bunch of wild dogs. In the morning I don’t catch the bus to go to work, but this mini van that may get stuck in the ice at any moment when I climb up to the hut”.
After our dogsled excursion, Lara take us back to the airport; we’re going to leave this cold, unfriendly archipelago. I watch the mounts’ silhouette on the horizon for the last time while I take my luggage downstairs at the hostel. I feel I’d shall tattoo that profile on my skin as it’s too early to go away and I’m afraid I could forget it.
We’re heading back to Tromso, in the Nordlands, where we will continue our trip down to the Lofoten Islands. Outside the aircraft window I watch this extreme fragment of earth, I realize it is magnificent, I enjoy its peaks rising from the bottom of the snowy valleys like thorns from the smooth stem of a rose. It’s pure Nature; a forbidden nature, that’s for sure, but the covenant with her it’s clear: I’m an unfriendly mate, she seems to tell, I won’t offer you warmth, neither a good company; I cannot even promise to be merciful as my lands and who inhabits them may be fatal to yourself. But if you pay a little attention, I will return Silence, the one you’ll never ear again anywhere else, I’ll return Time away, a special present for you with no uninvited cumbersome guest. I swear you’ll get to know me in a way nowhere else could be done.
Here, this is Earth as it was before mankind comes.
Planning our trip, my travel mates felt a mixture of fear and excitment: “What’s there? Is it worth a visit?”
“Isn’t it too cold?” kept asking me Diletta until we got onboard our small aircraft.
While flying back home I asked all of my mates which was the best part of this trip and none of them hesitated: those four days in the deep north.
A few weeks later, a friend working in a bar in front of the warm sea in Rome asked me: “I’ve seen some pictures from your last trip. Tell me, why have you gone up there? Is’t it too cold? Underneath 18 degrees Celsius you cannot even call it a vacation!”
We smile together. It’s true though, it’s pretty freezing, there are no discos or classy restaurants, there are no cultural sites worth visiting or paradise beaches. Never mind, don’t come over here, outside the small town of Longyearbyen, where you can only move by snowmobile or dogsled. Where there is no roads and those few streets have no name. Outside the village you have to bring your gun to protect yourself from the most dangerous predators that also outnumber humans on the island (3.000 bears vs 2.000 people). Here you are not allowed to be born and you are not allowed to die, by law.
Here nature is wild and undisturbed. This is an endless desert of snowy mountains and silent valleys. Over here, when it’s too cloudy, you become a small black dot in the middle of nowhere, unable to distinguish the sky from the ground.
Are we in Iceland? No.
In Alaska maybe? Not really.
So, are we in Siberia? Almost there…
Actually we’re 78 degrees north. A thousand km from the north pole, in the northernmost permanently inhabited human settlement on the planet.
Welcome to Spitsbergen.
Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard and Jan Mayen.