25 February 2008

Svalbard Mario Carts

For centuries, Tromso has been the starting port for many polar expeditions into the Arctic and to the North Pole. Stocks are replenished here and ships receive final preparations for the harsh conditions to come. Half way to the pole lies the archipel of Svalbard, which was discovered by the Dutch cartographer Barents in the 16th century. Svalbard is better known as Spitsbergen which is the name of its main island.

The only resources that could be found in and around Svalbard for hundreds of years were whales, seals, foxes and polar bears and the archipel was mainly inhabited by trappers and fishermen.

In the late 19th century very high quality coal was discovered and attracted many adventurers and investors. Soon the archipel was divided into claims from different nations. Today Svalbard is considered international territory under Norwegian administration. Its main town Longyearbyen was founded in 1906 by the American miner John Munroe Longyear.

My brother Jan worked up there a couple of years ago but back then I didn't have the chance to visit. Now that I live in Tromso - only 800km away - I decided to go and have a look at this mystic, deep frozen place.

Together with my mother I take the world's most northern scheduled flight: SK4412 from Tromso to Longyearbyen. Stepping down from the plane at 78 degrees north, the temperatures are chilly. Everbody is dressed in fluffy down jackets and high tech outdoor gear - much different from the way the first people arrived more than 400 years ago. Today the mining activities in Longyearbyen have stopped. But a law protects all human traces from before 1945. And so the town is dominated by massive wooden skeletons which were once supports for the cable cars that brought the coal from mines in the ajacent valleys to the centre of Longyearbyen.
Everything here is covered by a thick layer of snow. At the roadside abandoned cars and snow scooters seem to drown in the white ocean of snow whose waves are blown through the valley by the never ceasing wind. Lanterns with flood lights are scattered all over the valley and create a spooky science-fiction like atmosphere. There isn't a single tree in the entire valley.

The road network on Svalbard is limited to the few inhabited areas of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Svea. There is not even a connecting road network between them. Svalbard is only accessible by ski, dog-sledge or snow-mobile. The archipel hosts a population of Polar Bears so the authorities highly recommend taking a big rifle and a skilled shooter on every trip outside town. There have been deadly accidents just a couple of hundred meters outside of town. Just a week before our arrival a Bear had been spotted at the bay outside Longyearbyen.

We decide to expore the island by snow-scooter. A scooter is a loud high powered monster that looks like the result of crossing a tank with a motorbike. And better than that: it races just like one. A scooter has just two handles: gas and brake. No shifting. It looks dead simple. But if you speed up too fast or brake to hard the scooter starts to glide and sway and you start loosing control. Thus, driver and passenger both have to shift their bodyweight according to speed and terrain.
Wow! This is the closest you can get in real life to playing Nintendo's famous "Super Mario Carts"!!!

Packed into several layers of woolen underwear and a special warming suit (...man sieht ja aus wie 'n Erbsenkopf... ) we take off with our Italian guide Stephano who operates tours in Svalbard since more than ten years. He carries a big revolver and has a massive hunting rifle strapped to his scooter. It makes me feel like being in the wild west (there is a sign outside the bank of Svalbard saying: no guns and rifles allowed inside).

The trip takes us inland into the Longyearbyen valley up the glacier and across a moon-like landscape. At times we ride with more than 60km/h. The outside temperature is just about minus 13 Celsius. But the strong wind that's bashing into our faces from the front makes it feel like 50 below zero.
Svalbard is so far north that even at noon the sun still doesn't rise above the horizon. The sky is mostly pale cyan blue but some northern spots are intensely dark ultramarine. The clouds all have a yellow and pink touch. The whole day feels like an eternal sunrise and sunset all at once.
In the early afternoon we reach the Russian settlement Barentsburg. Typical Russian monuments like a statue of Lenin, Soviet wall paintings and the total absensce of tourism create an entirely different atmosphere than in Longyearbyen.
The Russian mine is still in use but the city looks deserted now that only 500 of the once 1800 inhabitants live here.
In the only hotel I find Baltika 3, the Russian beer that I used to drink when travelling the Transibirian Railroad from Berlin to Beijing eight years ago. In a beautiful moment of nostalgia I buy a can to take home to Tromso.

On the way back to Longyearbyen, one of the scooters breaks down. The fuel pipe froze shut and the desperatly thirsty engine choked on an icy vakuum. After half an hour the sky becomes dark and our guide Stephano is desperate enough to pour the remaining contents of our thermos-bottles onto the engine. Hurray - it works! The fuel in the pipe defreezes and after a couple of rough coughs the scooter is up and running again.
After 10 hours in today's freezing chamber we glide back over the last ridge and see the foggy lights of Longyearbyen in the distance. Luckily the only animals that our group encountered were reindeer, huskies and a couple of seagulls.

Then in the very center of Longyearbyen I finally happen to see a polar bear. Kazem, an Iranian stranded on Svalbard operates the "Rode Isbjorn" (Red Polar Bear), a red delivery truck in which he fries delicious Kebabs. Kazem studied Mechanical Engineering in Wuppertal, Germany where he lived for 12 years. He speaks fluent German. After problems with the visa regulations of the Schengen countries he made his way via Norway to the international territory of Svalbard. Here he can stay as long as he has employment to sustain his living. His son lives and studies in Norway but Kazem cannot visit him without risking to be deported.

Kazem's kebab tastes real good and immediately fills me with warm thoughts about Bagdad - the best kebab shop in the world (Schlesisches Tor, Berlin). This one here is probably the most northern Kebab to be found in the world!!!

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