|Longyearbyen: 78 degrees North|
By Irfan Ahmad
20 February 2010
It was 2:00 am when we landed. Climbing down the stairs from the aircraft we could see that the tarmac had freshly been washed. Small puddles bore traces of the rain shower that we had missed. The rugged mountains around us and the glaciers visible in the distance made us zip up our jackets – it was cool outside. Pleasant, but not cold. It was the middle of July. We were at Longyearbyen Airport, Svalbard – the northernmost inhabited city in the world. And at 2:00 am it was daylight outside. A little cloudy, but bright. We had always wondered what it would be like to visit a place that had 24 hours of daylight. We were there!
The van that took us to the hotel had picked up a few other passengers besides us and meandered around the “city” dropping people off at what appeared to be crude, container-like cabins. So this is how people live in this part of the world? I remembered reading that Longyearbyen was a mining town. The metal cabins looked the part. Construction and mining equipment seemed to be everywhere. Apart from the main road from the airport, all the side roads were more like dirt tracks with pebbles. There were hardly any cars around - I gathered that commuting would be an issue here.
The van finally stopped near a grey army barracks kindof place and the driver announced that we had reached the Radisson Longyearbyen. After driving around dirt tracks and stopping by portakabin sheds, this hotel did not look very appealing. We had landed in a mining town so we might as well rough it out.
We entered the hotel to be greeted by a sign that requested us to take our shoes off! My Sperry Topsiders were not soiled. Why do they want us to take our shoes off? Do they have white carpets inside? A pile of heavy looking hiking boots and other foot armour – you couldn’t call this footwear! – in a corner near the entrance revealed the kindof shoes and their trail of hard-to-scrub icky stuff which had resulted in the hotel management’s desire to disallow footwear indoors. But we ignored the sign.
The small foyer with an equally small gift shop beside it and a counter which served as a reception-concierge-giftshop checkout counter all rolled into one was our first port of call. We had booked our rooms online and had called in to let the hotel know that we would be reaching at 3 a.m. and wanted a room right away. We had paid for the extra night. A family of six with four teenage children waiting in a lounge for eight hours before checking into a hotel room was not my idea of a holiday. If you want to cut corners stay at home!
One of the reasons for selecting this hotel apart from the fact that it was the world’s northernmost full service hotel was the fact that it was a Radisson - a hotel chain which was one of the first to promote their free internet services. All Radisson hotels around the world offer free broadband internet – and this has tempted me to stay at their hotels in places as diverse as Jeddah, London, Cairo, Reykjavik and now the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen. While many hotel chains continue to rip off their guests with exorbitant internet connectivity charges, a large number of them have now started to offer free internet facilities.
The rooms were spacious. The beds looked inviting. I set my alarm clock for Fajr prayers – we were following Makkah timings as perpetual daylight and no sunrise or sunset called for innovative approaches to something as mundane as the timings of a Muslim’s five obligatory prayers – and dropped off to sleep.