Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Rodger Linn

We had come up on Spitzbergen sometime during the night and the islands rose over the horizon like the Swiss Alps would if Europe were suddenly flooded. 
Fortunately, I had attended the lecture on Spitzbergen and I had learnt that the snow-covered shark teeth reach up to 5,000 feet and give Spitzbergen its name.  In direct translation it means Pointed Mountains which, if not inventive, is certainly accurate.  The Norwegians, emphasizing their gift for the obvious, also refer to the area as Svalbard, which means Cold Edge.  The islands cover an area about the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined and glaciers cover 60% of the land. 
This is a place of extremes. 
The inhabitants experience a hundred and ten days of Polar night, when the sun never appears above the horizon and a hundred and twenty three days when it never sets. Unsurprisingly, suicide used to be a popular winter activity, but hardly anybody does it today because the advent of an all-weather airstrip and satellite telephone communications have relieved the sense of isolation that was the root cause of the problem.  Now, anybody developing an unhealthy interest in the hereafter can either call his mum, or slip over to Tromso for a couple of stiff shots of reality and some pickled herring. 
In the summer, the Polar ice cap still grips the northeast islands, but the west coast of Svalbard is usually ice-free, thanks to the Gulf Stream current which brings warm water up from the Atlantic.  In the winter however, the frozen land and the frozen sea unite.  Spitzbergen is sealed like a fly in cold, white amber and shrouded in total darkness.
This was extremely hard to imagine as we drew nearer to the coast.
The day’s programme was to cruise past the Russian coal-mining settlement of Barentsburg, (in a non-triumphalist sort of way I hoped) before going on up the fjord to Longyearbyen, the only ‘town’ in the archipelago.  This would form a useful oasis for passengers suffering from shopping withdrawal.
We ghosted in to within a hundred yards of the shore, to find that Barentsburg looked as though it had never heard of Glasnost, let alone the break-up of the Soviet Union.  It was a clutter of four storey barrack blocks and squat industrial installations which were spread over perhaps half a mile.  At its centre was a massive coal dump, from which a covered conveyer belt snaked down to the loading pier.  We could see no sign of the coal mines.  The community was set beside the fjord, under the lee of a steep hill on which snow still lay.  Some cows wandered aimlessly on the slopes above the settlement and Liz opined that they were probably Friesians.  It was such a poor joke that I ignored it, but the cows are the only inhabitants of Barentsburg who prefer the winter, because in the dark time, they live in heated indoor accommodation with artificial days and nights.  Cows have little interest in picnics, or the novelty of being able to see other cows a hundred yards away, or in eating the sparse tundra grass.  They much prefer the warmth and mateyness of custom-built living quarters with en-suite toilet facilities and room service.
They were the only signs of life in the whole establishment and the complete absence of human activity was slightly sinister.  There may be an ordinance which forbids the residents from gathering on the seashore and waving at decadent cruise ship passengers – an activity which seems to be compulsory everywhere else.
Until the thaw in Soviet relations, the inhabitants of this Gulag-On-Sea were forbidden to communicate with any other settlement on Spitzbergen, even though Longyearbyen, the nearest, is only thirty miles away and both of them exist in one of the most hostile environments on earth.  I imagine this is pretty high up on the scale of human absurdity.  Since Barentsburg was founded in 1921, it has run on Moscow time, but this is no great inconvenience because if each day is completely indistinguishable from any other and you cannot talk to outsiders, then you could choose to set your clock to any arbitrary time zone that took your fancy – although it would be important that everybody in your group agreed to adopt the same one, if only for the sake of mealtimes.
A white star had been painted on the hillside and along the side of one of the waterfront buildings was a legend reading ‘Barentsburg Coal Collective 1921 – 1991’.  Actually the sign was in Russian, so I have no idea what it said, but I hope it was something uplifting, intended for the edification of passing ships.  ‘Come on you Reds’ perhaps.
The sky had clouded over and what little wind there was, spiraled down through the snow-filled corries above us.  It chased across the black, still surface of the fjord in broad arrows that seemed to inconvenience the little auks in their somewhat haphazard fishing and mating activities.  The ship was moving silently at what must have been her slowest manoeuvring speed when, suddenly, I shivered in the way my mother used to describe as ‘somebody walking over your grave’.  My discomfort was caused by a growing awareness of the emptiness and profound quiet of these islands, as much as by the wind that brought just the lightest touch of winter’s tongue to the cheek. 
For a few seconds, I felt as though I understood how it must be to live in Barentsburg and I did not much care for it. 
Something of my mood seemed to have been caught by the other spectators and as the ship commenced her sweeping turn to leave the inlet and rejoin the main fjord, there was a general movement towards the dining room for a late breakfast. 
Somewhere behind us, I thought I could hear a man saying “OK you lot, back down the mine.  They’ve gone now.”