Svalbard 2015: Longyearbyen

I didn’t have any adventures planned for today.

I got up at a relatively leisurely pace and went into town. Nothing in Longyearbyen opens until 11, so I wandered down the hill towards the Polar Institute and watched the sky behind the mountains to the south east. No, the sun doesn’t rise but yes, the sky does change colour and by the time I was going home for lunch, it was quite an astonishing pale blue – almost a sunrise. The path down the hill is tricky to get down, a bit icy and slippery until you get a quarter of the way down and realise that while you’ve been clinging to the edge, the middle is pure gravel and about as slippery as sandpaper. Coming back up is much easier.

I stopped in the shopping centre. There was a shop inside selling jewellery that I wanted to look at and very quickly established it wasn’t to my taste (I’ve not quite got the hang of currency conversion but I suspect it wasn’t to my taste in pennies either) but they did have some wonderful badges for my camp blanket and that was the one and only important souvenir I desperately wanted. As Svalbard doesn’t have a flag (it’s sufficiently not-Norway to not be part of Schengen but it is sufficiently part of Norway to use their flag. That doesn’t entirely make sense) I had no idea what kind of blanket badge I could get but a badge I indeed have.

Next stop was Svalbardbuttiken – the supermarket-vínbúð-department store-junk shop. I had run out of anything to drink and was getting low on bread, plus my face was starting to freeze. But the trouble with leaving -9 outside and wandering around a heated supermarket for a while, while still wearing the outdoors clothes is that you reach a point where you just overheat and that came as I was waiting to be served, when I could have yelled “forget them, serve me before I die of heatstroke!” (I didn’t. I am good. Sweaty, but quiet). I found the real drinks, hiding away right at the back, next to the baby food, nowhere near the fridges full of cans and juice and 800 types of milk. I knew there was some kind of blackcurrant syrup somewhere on the island because I was given some yesterday out on the snow scooters and told that they drink a lot of it but I hadn’t spotted it before.

The last stop, after I’d paused on the road behind the shop to behold the really light blue sky, was one of the outdoors shops. The majority of Longyearbyen’s shops sell the sort of warm clothes you need to survive this climate and since I already have those clothes, I haven’t been in them thus far. I don’t really know why I did today but as I prowled and contemplated buying a Svalbard woolly hat, I spied water bottles and flasks, an entire rack of them, all stamped with a little map of Svalbard and I couldn’t resist. It’s come in handy for drinking that blackcurrant syrup, although I was getting on fine with the mugs provided in the room when I was drinking the apple and mango juice.

Actually, the last last stop I made was the tourist information centre next door, and finally I found one of these mythical places where you take your shoes off when you come in. I acquired a map of the town at long last and a glimpse of the airport bus timetable. When you look more closely at the map, you see that Longyearbyen is highlighted in pale pink and you don’t think much of it at first – emphasis that here is the only town on the archipelago but no, the pink is to show this is a polar bear-safe zone, this is where you don’t need to carry a rifle. Incidentally, because it’s dark, you can see right into any window where the lights are on inside and I have observed stuffed polar bears in a lot of windows. They’re protected now and although you can shoot them in self-defence, it’ll still result in an enquiry by the governor but I suspect in less careful times, they’d kill them and then find themselves with a huge body to deal with – the answer seeming to be “just stuff it and give it to someone”. I don’t know. I’m guessing, based on what I’ve spotted.

In the afternoon, I ambled up to the swimming pool (followed the “main road” rather than the footpath through town and decided that’s not the best way to do it – no visible pavement under the snow and I’m not wearing anything reflective. All the kids here wear hi-viz vests and all the adults wear either reflective sashes, armbands, or my favourite, the blue flashing LED armbands) only to find that the pool doesn’t open until 5. At least, I was fairly sure of that. I was certain that reception wasn’t open and I attempted to interpret the Norwegian sign up next to it. But my Norwegian isn’t even as good as my Icelandic and the two languages don’t look as closely related as they’re said to be. I like to think I would have been able to understand much better if it had been in Icelandic. I came home and I didn’t do very much until quarter to five.

The pool was open and the Shower Ordeal is alive and well here too. The pool is upstairs, which is weird, and a third of it is a five-metre deep diving pool. I’m not a huge fan of swimming over deep water, even if it’s only in an indoor swimming pool, even though I know two metres, five metres, makes no difference, so I stuck to the shallow end and played in the water like a child. There were quite a lot of people there – not “quite a lot” like at home, but quite a lot considering there are only 2000 people on this archipelago. 20 or so people in the pool means 1% of everyone. Imagine 65,000 people in one swimming pool at home.

On the way back, the five or ten minute walk back through the town, across the bridge, daydreaming about what would happen if a polar bear strolled across the street, my hair froze. Of course it did. It had been -9 at lunchtime. I have no idea what it would be by evening but probably colder and I had wet hair which I had deliberately not put inside my hat because it would get my hat wet. It froze! It went solid and I could bend it as if it was made of pipecleaners! It didn’t freeze so badly that it just snapped off but frozen hair!

Of course, after that, there was only one thing left to do with the last of a very cold dark evening. I had a bath.

Tomorrow I’m doing the local sightseeing tour in the morning (the Global Seedbank, the mines etc) and in the afternoon, I’m going looking for the Northern Lights. The website hasn’t mentioned snow scooters so I’m assuming a bus of some kind. I’ve definitely had my fill of snow scooters. It was cloudy for the first couple of days but the cloud has lifted today and I’ve seen stars and actual blue-ish sky so that’s promising for seeing the lights.

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