I have to say that Sarah officially wins the most badass Fulbrighter award. While I really enjoyed my visit to Svalbard, I couldn’t imagine living there for more than a few months, much less the two years that Sarah intends on living there for. That being said, Longyearbyen is located in a truly beautiful area and I’m happy that I made time for the trip. Here are my tips and tricks:
- Bring your passport with you to Svalbard, even if you are taking a domestic flight from Norway.
- Svalbard is not a budget location and I wouldn’t consider it a place that people should visit in a flight of fancy. Svalbard is a very dangerous place, even though those dangers are atypical.* Be aware that Lonyearbyen is little more than a one street town and that leaving town requires going with someone who is quite knowledgeable about the area and the risks. This pretty much means that you can only leave town if you book a tour (which tends to be expensive) or if you happen to know someone who can show you around.
- If you are going in winter definitely keep an eye on the sort of daylight that you will be encountering. I was lucky that my trip coincided with twilight, meaning that I didn’t need a headlamp when I went hiking.
- Keep an eye on the weather and pack accordingly. Keep in mind that Svalbard can be VERY windy so bring a few things that are windproof.
- Public transportation doesn’t exist in Longyearbyen so your only options are walking or a taxi.
- I would highly recommend exploring the area around Longyearbyen since it’s beautiful. I would also recommend the Svalbard Gallery, Svalbard Museum, and polar bear sign.
- Many places will have an area for you to store your coat and boots during the winter. If you have space in your bag, I would recommend bringing a pair of slippers that you can wear whenever you are indoors.
- If you go in winter and go outdoors I would recommend bringing hiking boots and some sort of waterproof pants/ski pants that are designed to help keep the snow out of your shoes
*In terms of typical crime Svalbard is very safe. Most people leave their cars unlocked and keep car keys and snowmobile keys in the ignition. Apparently the crime of the decade occurred when someone had their photography equipment stolen out of their unlocked car, but that was highly unusual and something that the community found really shocking (it was also assumed that the perpetrator was a tourist as opposed to a resident). I found I had no problem leaving my very expensive camera at a table when I went to the front of a coffee shop to order something, and lost items are easily returned to their owners on the island.
My last day in Svalbard was really only a half day. My flight left in the afternoon so there wasn’t too much time to do anything; however, one thing that I did want to do before I left was to go to Svalbard’s famous polar bear sign. The sign itself lies on the outskirts of town so it required a bit of a walk. Although I wasn’t overjoyed to step outside of the university’s warm halls and into the bitter cold, things looked up when we serendipitously we saw a reindeer along the way.
The reindeer in Svalbard are slightly different from the reindeer on the mainland. The first thing that I noticed is that they are much shorter than mainland reindeer, and they also have thicker winter coats. Additionally, unlike other reindeer, I’ve been told that they tend to live alone or in groups of 2-6. Reindeer can still graze on Svalbard during winter, as this one was doing, but it’s much more difficult for them to find food in the midst of all of the ice. Because the winter conditions are so tough, Svalbard reindeer put on about 10 kg (22 lb) of fat during the summer in order to keep warm in winter. On the plus side, the reindeer don’t have any predators on Svalbard so their greatest risk of death is through starvation.
After snapping a few pictures, we continued on our way to the sign. It was about a twenty minute walk away from the university, but before too long we reached the sign. The only problem? Just as we completed our walk, a taxi full of tourists stopped right in front of us. This means that we had to wait for eight or so tourists to take their pictures before we could finally go and take our own. Apparently you can take taxi tours of Svalbard, and considering the prices of the more expensive tours, the taxi tours seem quite cheap.
For those of you wondering what “Gjelder hele Svalbard” means I’ve been told that it translates to “Valid for all of Svalbard.” In other words, you should watch out for polar bears throughout the islands.
After that all that was really left to do was to buy a few more souvenirs (I bought a Svalbard hat that is apparently 30% possum—who knew that possum was a clothing material?) before heading to the airport.
The airport itself was pretty cosy. It’s so small that there aren’t even gates, though I suppose you could make the argument that the airport technically contains two gates—they just aren’t numbered. I caught my flight out of Svalbard without a too much of a hassle and eventually made my way back to Trondheim. I have to admit that compared to Longyearbyen Trondheim seems like a major metropolitan area. While I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah for hosting me, I’m definitely glad to be snuggled back in Trondheim and to have the (limited) sun for company.