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Svalbard, the City in the Ice

Nobody is ever born in Svalbard.

A former mining town with less than a thousand inhabitants crammed into an icy valley between a fjord and a mountain, with a hospital too small to house a maternity ward. Or a morgue, for that matter.

Nobody is ever born in Svalbard. And nobody ever dies.

At least that’s what the stories say.

But the truth is, you can’t decide when a baby will come. And the Svalbard hospital is staffed with both a paediatrician and a midwife, as all hospitals are. But a fully stocked medical staff doesn’t make for a good story, and even though many expectant mothers decide to travel to Norway, for all the comfort of the mainland, there is no law against letting your water break in the frozen city.

Likewise, whereas terminally ill inhabitants of Svalbard often opt to return to the continent, or even further south where the weather is warm, there is no law, as the story goes, that says you will be forcibly removed, as soon as the doctor gives a diagnosis. If your time comes, it comes, and death pays no mind to maps. There have been deaths in Svalbard, countless deaths since the time of the whalers, the poachers, the skinners, the tanners, and countless more among the miners. And yet somehow the tales evolved of a town where it is illegal to be born, and illegal to die, as if either such laws could ever be enforced.

One thing, however, is true. Nobody is ever buried in Svalbard.

The way the glacial plates in that part of the world move with constant imperceptible upheaval, nothing ever stays buried for long. And the frozen earth preserves a corpse better than the Pharos of Egypt ever could. As funerals go, cremation is the key, for protection against permafrost. And when deaths occur in Svalbard, as deaths inevitably do, the bodies are rendered into ash, and scattered on the icy winds. This is how the residents of Svalbard typically meet their end

But Svalbard, along with the people in it, is anything but typical

I flew into Oslo, the capital of Norway, and then boarded a light plane for the three additional hours it would take to get to the island of Spitz bergen, the largest and only permanently inhabited island in the Norwegian archipelago known as Svalbard, the frozen coast, as its name translates.

And frozen, it is.

Stepping off the plane, I noticed two things. One was the radiant glow that the arctic sun shone over the horizon, illuminating the town in a purple hue. While it’s not unusual to see colours in the sky during a sunset, it was the time of day that made it so: it was just after midnight. All-day sun made clocks redundant, as day bled into day.

And the other was the ice.

I’d been to snowfields before, I’d seen winters, I’d felt that unmistakable chill in the air just before snow fell. But I’d never before seen a glacier, or a fjord so icy you could drive across it, or a waterfall that somehow froze in place as it cascaded over a cliff face.

Svalbard is a frozen city, and worthy of its name.

Next to the North Pole

I waited outside the airport for my ride. Next to me stood a sign post with branches pointing in all directions, indicating equidistance to cities on all continents. I really was at the very top of the world. London, Milan, Tokyo, and, of course, the North Pole.

Ah, that ever-moving, non-land-based compass coordinate, elusive to explorers for so many centuries. It was the North Pole that was to be my ultimate destination. For months, ever since I first heard about the possibility of joining an expedition as a media representative, I had become obsessed. A place I had barely given any thought to in all my life before was suddenly my primary focus. I bought maps of the Arctic and hung them in my study. I read books and journals by the pioneers who had travelled there in the past. I visited cryo-labs in order to condition my body for the intense climatic change—the polar opposite, as it were, of what I’m accustomed to: living in the tropics.

For most people, Svalbard is a stepping stone. Sitting at 78°N (go ahead, check on a globe or a map), it is the closest accessible landmass to the Pole. It therefore operates like a border town, a last post for travellers and explorers on their way to gain an arctic experience. Most of the locals have never been to the pole. But the tourists are here for only one thing: to touch down in the last international airport before the only way forward, by private chartered plane, to sleep and recuperate before the last leg of the journey. To have one last good hot meal before eating only frozen camping rations. To re-stock, re-supply, replace the gear you brought with you—the gear that the cashier in the outdoorsman shop had told you would be suitable for any condition but that now you find utterly falling short. To buy a stuffed polar bear for your kids, or your dog, along with a t-shirt that says Svalbard; Next To The North Pole.

Everyone comes from somewhere else

My cab driver was Filipino.

I was shocked. I’d travelled all this way, to the north of Europe, to the very heart of Scandinavia, and I expected to see only Nordic faces. And yet here was face, a manner, an accent which I easily identified. She was surprised I’d picked it up, after I’d impolitely stuttered, “Are you Filipina?” But she told me not to be surprised to find people like her up there. She told me not to be surprised to see anyone. She reminded me that I was just as far away from home as she was, and that no one was truly native up here, that everyone had come from somewhere else. After all, no one was ever born in Svalbard.

The first thing she did was scrutinize me and my travel companion. She proceeded to critique our appearance, and to ascertain our likelihood to survive up here. “You,” she said to me, “You will need to buy better boots.” “And you,” she turned to my camera man, “You will need to grow a beard.”

The city is less than a minute from the airport, if you can even say the airport is outside of the city. You see it the moment you pull out of the parking lot: a strip of multicolored houses stacked neatly the way a child would stack wooden blocks. It becomes evident that there is only one contractor in this place, one artist with a singular vision for what his city would look like. The consistency and order of it all appeals to my undiagnosed OCD. I take the opportunity to ask her:

“Is it true nobody ever dies in Svalbard?”

“True,” she told me, “and not only that. It’s illegal to die in Svalbard.” Clearly the myth was shared by all those in the town. “How do they enforce that?” I asked provocatively. “They don’t, as least not as far as I know. But it’s understood. If you’re going to die you have to leave.”

I took a strange comfort in this. I don’t consider myself a lawbreaker, and the fact that dead was against the law put me at ease. In a place that obviously presented opportunity for unique perils, death was simply not an option. Death may have been vacant, but life, I was to discover, was everywhere: Sea birds, arctic foxes, seals, and an animal I’d only ever heard associated with Christmas stories–reindeer.

A moral dilemma on a plate

It was this last one that we stopped the car for, letting it cross the street in front of us. I was surprised by its appearance. It was not slender and beautiful with grand impressive antlers, like a stag. It was short, squat, and horned. It grazed, although I couldn’t readily see its meal. “They eat grass,” my driver told me. “The grass trapped below the ice. They break the surface with their teeth. This gives them food and water at the same time. The tragedy is when their teeth eventually break. Then they starve to death. It’s common to see a reindeer die of hunger with a full belly.”

Reindeer, I found, was also the most plentiful food source in Svalbard, and was served in almost every way. From stew, to steak, to Chinese-style dumplings, reindeer replaced the cow, the chicken, the pig, and all other animals I was accustomed to eating. But this Christmas icon was far from being the most exotic of the animals that made their way onto my plate during my arctic stay. It was when I was served whale meat that it finally dawned on me: I was so far from home.

All I could think of were the dozens of protests I’d witnessed criticising the hunting and sourcing of whale meat. But I needed to remind myself that this wasn’t Japan, and alternatives were simply not in abundance. The people of Svalbard eat what food sources are available to them, and my prejudice was in fact a judgement on them. Politely, and without protest, I ate my whale.

The long wait

“We can’t get to the pole, not today, maybe not this week.” We sat in the town hall as our guide and organiser sheepishly confessed that he had mishandled the logistics.

The North Pole is a true no man’s land, in as much as it is land at all, which means that its borders are open to any sovereign nation that cares to set up the infrastructure.

The airstrip, we learned, was Russian. The pilots our guide had hired were Ukrainian. It didn’t take a genius to ascertain why, in the current global political climate, that was an oversight. And it would be a week, we learned, before there was even a chance of getting a replacement plane, most likely from Canada.

A week, it turned out, was an optimistic estimate. It would be over a week before we would gather for the next town hall meeting, where we would ultimately learn the status of our expedition. An additional week of waiting in that frozen city. Our stepping stone had suddenly become our prison. And slowly, we all went a little mad.

The same two restaurants day after day, night after night. More reindeer. More whale. The same faces in the bar each evening, and by the end, each morning too. The same conversations.

For most people, visiting The North Pole was prohibitively expensive, and so my companions for my week of house-arrest were a motley crew of eccentric millionaires, adventurers with passive and expendable incomes, people with friends in high places. They talked about other places they’ve been, or plan to go, trekking the deserts of Africa, deep sea diving in the Red Sea, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flights into low Earth orbit. They had been everywhere, and done everything. Only one thing, one place, eluded them: that vast elusive tundra of sea ice at 90°N.

But they wouldn’t reach their destination. Not this time. Not this week. And neither would I.

“A North Pole expedition is something worth waiting for, no matter how long the wait.” Our guide attempted to sugar-coat the news, but we all knew what he meant. There would be no trip to the North Pole. The town of Svalbard, at 78°N, was as far north as any of us would get.

No one is ever born in Svalbard, and no one ever dies. There’s a certain poetry to that. No birth, no death, a place that exists outside of time, outside of space. A place for lost and lonely souls.

To come this far and not make it to true north, to stand, literally, on top of the world, it was almost heartbreaking. As we prepared to leave, I wondered if I would ever return. And as I touched down back in Southeast Asia, as I felt the hot air envelop me, as I walked down busy streets lined with palm trees, as I smelled the spices in the air, the memories of that place began to fade. That place seemed more like something out of a dream, rather than something on a map—a place where no one is born, and no one ever dies.