From the top of Platåberget, Longyearbyen looks small. In the late summer evening fog, a few lights are on, but the sun won’t “set” for at least a few more hours. The bare, greenish hills and mountains close in around the village, and we can hear the ships horns and a helicopter somewhere, but the only vehicles we can spot are a few trucks and beater cars far below us.
I can’t hear much over my racing heart and heavy breathing. “Going for a hike” means something different to Norwegians. We’ve just scrambled up 1,000 feet of loose rock, mud, and sparse grass to reach our vantage point. It’s 8pm, mere hours after our arrival in Longyearbyen on the arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Our guide, a Svalbard resident by way of Sweden by way of Romania, Adrian, has broken out the hot drinks and cookies to celebrate our successful hike, setting down the old rifle he’s carrying as polar bear protection.
Except for the snow-tipped mountains and the glacier peeking around the corner, it hardly seems like the type of place a polar bear would frequent. The hillside still shows the signs of summer: translucent white poppies, sunny saxifrage, and sprawling bell heather bow their heads to the arctic wind. We keep a look-out for ptarmigans, the arctic “rock chickens” as Adrian calls them. Though their chicks are not young anymore, he says he saw some among the rocks just a few days ago. He’s hoping to scare one up – they are best viewed in flight with their winter feathers putting on a show. But for now we are the only living creatures in sight.
Adrian is the best kind of guide: filled with all manner of information that you will not find in the travel brochure. The rickety wooden structures that form a line along the hillsides of Longyearbyen are relics of the coal mines that used to operate here. They held up the lines that transported the swaying carts of coal up the valley.
“Do you see that nice house down there?” Adrian asks us, pointing to a big green house at the edge of town.
“That’s the governor’s mansion. The people of Svalbard were not happy to have a governor appointed to them, so they built this nice big house for him — right under the coal carts. He’d be sleeping, and there’d be big loads of coal banging onto his roof. He couldn’t have his windows open because of all the coal dust.”
One night, the story goes, one of the coal carts came crashing down onto the house, crushing the governor’s bedroom. The townspeople immediately started celebrating, before they realized that he was (luckily for him) in the bathroom and not sleeping in his bed.
Apparently Longyearbyen’s tricky relationship with its governor hasn’t changed too much since 1925. Because of the isolated location of Svalbard, the governor has almost dictator-like power over certain areas of the government, and it’s not uncommon for them to turn a blind eye or take part in corruption.
“It’s the Svalbard mafia,” says Adrian. “There’s a monopoly on shipping, on groceries, on IT work, you name it.” One time, he says, “they” tried to raise the price of beer from 9- to 15- in one day.
“That’s the closest people in Longyearbyen would come to riot,” he says.
By this time we’re most of the way down the hillside again. It’s around 10pm, but it’s not very dark. Longyearbyen has grown back to its rightful size, the colorful houses stark against the darkening hillside. The Svalbar is open and we can hear laughing all the way down the street. Sunrise is at 3am, so we close the blinds and crawl into bed. A long end to a long day.