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Longyearbyen: 78 degrees North - Page 2

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The breakfast buffet was in a room with sloping wooden ceilings and large windows which looked out into the blue waters of Isfjord and the glaciers beyond. Coming out of the restaurant you were greeted by a large stuffed polar bear. The soft, smooth fur and its pristine whiteness did not hide its sheer size and menacing yet innocent face. This was an animal you did not mess with.alt

 

We wandered outside and walked up to a shop that had a variety of woolen clothing on offer. Besides the usual collection of ski jackets and anoraks and face masks and caps and gloves, the store had a collection of guns on display. Hunting rifles and shotguns and all manner of small arms were displayed alongside the hiking boots and berets and hunting knives. You could just casually go and pick up one of the dozens of guns that lined one of the aisles of the store. Fancy walking up to the cash counter with a pair of gloves, a woolen scarf, a Winchester rifle and a box of bullets. It all seemed so casual. And unreal.


The Governor of Svalbard who is responsible for overseeing the 2,565 residents of Longyearbyen (2009 population) had decreed that anyone who ventured beyond the designated residential areas of the city had to carry a rifle for protection against polar bears. Although it is a crime to kill and hunt bears, it is mandatory to carry a rifle for self defence.


We did not need a rifle to hunt for our lunch but walked over to the Longyearbyen city centre which consists of a handful of shops, a large supermarket and a cluster of restaurants. The restaurant we found ourselves in after browsing the 78 degrees North caps and T-shirts – yes, Longyearbyen is 78 degrees North of the equator – looked more like a bookstore than a restaurant. Pictures of dogsled adorned the walls of the rustic looking room which served as a dining room as well as a reservation office for dogsled tours of the city.

 

altThe chef was a person who said he was from the south Asian island of Ceylon. He did not seem to appreciate my comments when I asked if he was from Sri Lanka. He was probably one of those who hadalt fled from persecution in the Jaffna peninsula and left the island when it was still called Ceylon. When we explained to him that we were muslims and would not eat meat, he put together some delicious seafood soup and fish and a garlic and lemon smothered crab. While in the midst of preparing the food he came to us to ask if we were ok about milk being added in the preparation of the fish – apparently he must have had some Jewish visitors who did not want fish and milk together.


Satiated, we set off to explore the city some more. We walked in the direction of snow covered hills, past the city’s high school and power plant. Wooden houses with chocolate colored roofs and snow scooters in the front yard made us wonder how life would be in winter when perpetual darkness engulfed the city and snow covered the pebbled roads: people whizzing around in their snowmobiles, darkness all around – something out of space like the Jetsons! Most of the scooters were draped with plastic covers for the summer. What was peculiar was that there were no cars in the driveway. It was a city where people walked or drove snowmobiles.

altWe had now reached the edge of the city and in front of us a rugged path led towards the snow covered hills. There were no more houses. A small rivulet of icy cold water was flowing by the roadside. Out of nowhere a small SUV drove past and stopped a few hundred meters from us at the foot of the hills. We looked at the snow and the rugged climb ahead and decided that we were not the hiking type. Give us a marble floored shopping mall and we will walk for hours but uneven slopes and blustery cold winds made us turn around and head back to the hotel. The SUV also drove back. Apparently someone had noticed that a group of visitors without rifles were heading towards the wilderness and the city’s alert officials had sent someone to ensure that we did not wander off too far without weapons.

 



 

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