As you may guess, I did not go to the north pole, of course. Where I went is an island, Svalbard, which is located 1,200km away from the north pole, is the closest point to the pole and is a permanent human settlement. Svalbard is an archipelago attached to Norway, subjected to Norway Law but having its own regulations. Any countries which have signed the regulations can establish a settlement, a business or a research center. So far, 47 countries have signed the agreement.
The most interesting one among those 47 countries is the North Korea which has signed the agreement latest. The island is not recognized as Schengen Area due to its special status and you have to pass through the customs when you enter or leave Svalbard over Norway. On the island, there are Russian, Norwegian, Ukrainian and Thai settlers. Russia has established settlements on the island for coal mining. It has two separate cities; one of them is Barentsburg and the other is Pyramiden. The city where Svalbard is governed is Longyearbyden where mostly Norwegians and Thais live.
Svalbard or Spitsbergen?
For some reason, no one gives a clear answer for the difference between these two names before one goes to the place. Let me put it this way. Svalbard is the name of the archipelago, and Spitsbergen is one island of the archipelago, and settlements are established on this island. Spitsbergen means sharp mountains. It is a name given by the first sailors who went there.
So, what are Thais doing at the north pole?
Just like other stories of this kind, it is a love story. In 1980, a Norwegian man, in Bangkok, meets a woman named Sompong Haug. They get married and move to Spitsbergen. Later on, Sompong provides her relatives and friends to come to this island. As far as I understand, all of the janitors and kitchen employees were mostly Thai people.
For the ones who wonder how that amount of Thai people got work permit: Due to special status of Svalbard, you do not need to get any kind of permit from Norway in order to work or reside there; you just go, settle and start working. Of course, they warn you immediately. “You are here on your own, the government does not look after you and medical, educational and any other of your needs are on your expense. When we heard that, our first reaction was “What’s wrong with that?”. However, we later understood that it was an extraordinary situation for people from strong socialist countries like Norway.
Why someone goes, to the far end of the World, to Svalbard which is almost located at the north pole? There are two clear answer for this question from my point of view: First reason is just so as to go and the other is to shoot photos of Polar bears and seals. These two were my reasons to go. As I have overheard from a group while I was flying to Langybeardyn from Oslo, and then as I have seen and learned at the town, Svalbard is one of the most favorite places of adventurers. They have been going on the top of the mountains by helicopters or snow mobiles and then skiing.
Furthermore, it’s been the favorite thing for adventurers, who go there, to do camping, and trekking on glaciers. Its calmness, friendly people and strange geographical features make Svalbard a place really worth-going. Unfortunately, I was not able to shoot a photo of a polar bear since we have never encountered one. I had to settle with a couple of seal photos.
There are one-day cruise tours to go glaciers and places where there are no settlements and to see marine mammals. If you are lucky, you can see polar bears or seals. The chances to see polar bears during these tours have been around 50%. I could not see this time but I hope I can next time.
Rules of love and respect for polar bears in Svalbard: At the moment you land on Svalbard, the first and non-stop story that guides tell you is always about polar bear rules and their stories. Beginning from the first moment, you already feel how greatly polar bears are valued by people of Svalbard. In Svalbard, polar bears are always mentioned as “individuals” of the town and always with a happy expression. Svalbard people, who see polar bears numbering nearly 3,000 as treasure of both the world and the island, have rules and laws described very clearly in order to protect polar bears.
What I remember:
- It is forbidden to shoot and kill polar bears for no reason. There are fines, deportation from Svalbard forever and even prison sentence.
- It is forbidden to travel around unarmed from the moment when you see official polar bear traffic signs.
- When you see polar bears, it is forbidden to approach them and it is definitely forbidden to anger them. If they come towards you, you should first fire into the air and try to scare them off.
- If the polar bear runs towards you and you have nowhere to run, then you may shoot.
- If you are going to set a camp, you should install early-warnings and alarm systems. At night, you should keep watch in turn and if a polar bear approaches to the camp, you first try to scare it off by firing the flare gun into the air.
Let’s say that you shoot a polar bear. What then? First thing to do is to notify Svalbard governorship via radio. You do not touch anything and do not leave the area. They come by helicopter. They inspect the area just like a crime scene, and if they decide that you had no fault, you are released; but if they decide that you did not follow the rules or shoot the polar bear for pleasure, then legal procedure is started.
Second day of the tour: On our second day at Spistbergen, we had a full-day glacier tour by ship. We set off with the hope of seeing a polar bear while watching the wonderful scenes. There was nothing much until noon. After the lunch, we have approached to the fjords where glaciers are located. We have seen many seals but, unfortunately, no polar bears. At about three o’clock afternoon, we have reached to the Pyramiden town which looks like a pyramid located on the foothill of a mountain.
Abandoned town; Pyramiden
When we arrived at Pyramiden, Sasha who is one of the seven people living there has met us. Sasha is a cheery person dressed like a Russian soldier and holding a rifle. She immediately warms up the atmosphere with her coziness and talking, and starts to tell us the story of Pyramiden. Pyramiden is a town that has been established in 1910 by Norwegians for coal mining and then sold to Russians in 1927. It was named after the mountain which is right next to it and is in shape of a pyramid.
The population of the town had once reached up to 1200 people. Right now, 7 people are living there (only seven). The last coal was mined on 31 March 1998. Due to financial crises that Russia had, the town has been shut down. There is a general hospital, a school, a sports center, dorms and family houses in the town. The only thing that there is not is a church. Its space is ready but they had never time to build the church. While I travel around Pyramiden, I thought by myself what a functional and beautiful town that Russians have established.
The owner of the town is a firm named Arktikugol which is a Russian state-run company and operating coal mines. At the moment, the firm had opened and operates a hotel in the town. To Pyramiden, it is available to access by ship cruises or snow bikes in the winter. To go and to travel around the town is free. The only prohibition is to collect souvenirs, especially from the museum.
The town is located at 78 degrees north. So, it is the northernmost permanent human settlement of the earth. Because of this feature, the northernmost Lenin statue is at this town. There is Gagarin gym and swimming pool complex right next to Lenin statue in town. I thought by myself that how nice of them to care for their own heroes and how beautiful is their will to keep their names remembered, compared to us. And then I said “ah, you are on a holiday, let go the national matters” and started to shoot photos of Sasha.
An artifact for the humanity made by Norwegian people: Global Seed Vault
It means “Küresel tohum deposu” in Turkish. Norwegian government has established a seed vault at Spitsbergen spending 10 million dollars. The vault has been opened in 2008 and all operating costs are on Norwegian government. The purpose of the vault is to store the seeds of useful plants gathered from all over the world for the humanity in order for the life to start over for people in case of global disasters or man-made catastrophes like nuclear wars. At the moment, there are 4000 species and 840,000 samples of seeds. They have constructed the building under 120 meters just like coal mines. Its architectural shape underground has been designed as it would not be damaged by any sorts of explosions.
There are two reasons why this vault had been built at Spitsbergen. First, there are no tectonic movements under the island and the cold weather is capable of naturally maintaining -18 degrees for a long time in case of any blackouts. 128 countries have stored seeds in this vault. The figure of nobility, Norwegian government does not claim any rights on any seeds stored. No countries have access to other seeds stored except for the ones that were stored by themselves. Syria was the first and only country withdrawing the seeds that they stored in the vault in order to reestablish the agricultural sector which was collapsed due to the civil war.
Things you must know about Svalbard:
There are two middle-sized 4 star and newly built smaller 4 star hotels and guest houses. Price-quality balance is not at desired level but considering all materials are being transported to the island by air or sea, it is understandable for the prices being more expensive compared to mainland. To the island, there are daily flights of either Norwegian or Scandinavian Airlines. As I mentioned in the article, entrances and exits of the island are just like traveling to any countries out of Schengen area. You should definitely have multiple entry visa or you it may not be possible for you to return. There are excellent restaurants on the island. Their menus mostly consist of pizza and burgers. Unfortunately, not many local foods on the menus. Prices are not cheap.
The weather is -16 in winter and around -1 and +5 in summer. Namely, it is always cold. In summer, the sun does not set for 24 hours and your metabolism might get a little confused. In winter, it is always dark as you know. They said that the sun starts to appear in March and full darkness starts in November. Whichever building you enter in Spitzbergen, including the hotels you stay, they ask you to take off your shoes. There is something looking like cloakroom at doors of each building and you leave your shoes there. You either use the slipper they give or you enter the building in barefoot. It is a tradition from times of mining.