Guest column: The Soviet Handshake of Norway – Future dreams of an aspiring Arctic adventurer from the East meets past memories from the Kremlin

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(Author’s note: As the raging COVID-19 pandemic forces nations to shut their borders, tourism and employment in this Norwegian archipelago have taken a hard hit. With Norway opening its domestic borders as of June 1, there will be some respite but not enough. Tourism needs to be revived and spirits need to be raised for all those facing the heat in this sub-zero climate. This is where my effort goes: a diary as a native of India visiting the Russian settlement of Barentsburg in March of 2019.) 

“Towering over her, fronting the shores of the Grønfjord, stands the imposing bust of Lenin, a sharp reminder of the Soviet era. Strolling through those powdery white lanes, all she does is ponder over the conflicted status of this Russian town. At a snowmobiling distance of 60 kilometers from Longyearbyen (the administrative center of Svalbard), lies the relatively obscure town of Barentsburg. Having a Norwegian postcode. Russians and Ukrainians make up the majority of the population in this community. Thus, at every corner she turns, she is greeted with that familiar Russian handshake, the ones she distinctly remembers from her past layovers at the Kremlin.”
– Travel journal excerpt. 

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“I had started planning for this trip in 2006.”

It was snowing in full force. Often a group of snowmobile riders would pass by in their dark overalls, their deafening chatter interrupting with the euphoria of the occasionally falling snow. In the far distance, I could see a thick mist enveloping the horizon with the clouds descending into the ocean. Together they managed to camouflage the far-flung Polar sky with an overbearing sense of uncertainty. A foot away, the black waves of the Grønfjord flirted tirelessly with the striking white coastline, silently demonstrating the un-racist temperament of the culturally contrasting landscape. 

On my right the colorful green and red quarters standing tall against the white fauna, shone brilliantly in the approaching twilight; the dusty snow on their roofs mirroring the orange and pink hues of the slowly setting sun. Everything around was heavenly, breathtaking, like a paradise; unreal yet so true. As I stood there trying hard to unblur the lines between illusion and reality, 7,194 kilometres away from my country, it suddenly struck me that I was right in my dream, living it the way I had seen it.

•••••

‘Right in my dream, living it the way I had seen it.’

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“‘Un-racist’ temper of the culturally contrasting landscape.”

Lovingly referred to as the Little Russia of Norway, Barentsburg, with nearly 500 residents, is a remote misfit at its best. Little known, rarely understood. A frozen time capsule, an otherworldly place, it is reflective of Russia’s, or perhaps the world’s, deep nostalgia of the Soviet era. An era now forgotten in the pages of history.

As we stood on the shore, my partner and I, “making” pictures (in the language of my Russian guide), we noticed a huge anchor on the sides, buried deep in snow, perhaps a memorial of some sorts. A little ahead, there was a structure which had space for hanging frames in it, we later got to know that it was the wall of fame for the mine workers, the highest performers found their photos there. It acted like a motivation to them beyond of course, the rubles that they got paid in. What we also couldn’t miss was the nagging contradiction in  the view; an operational coal mine against a retreating glacier. With the Arctic meltdown a not so distant reality, this seemed like an audacious challenge for the town to offer.  By all means, it was a fine tease. Which also made us realise that we were hanging on the edge, whether of the world or of extinction, no one knew on the island. That had been left for us to decide.

•••••

“We were hanging on the edge, whether of the world or of extinction, no one knew on the island. That had been left for us to decide.”
– “78°04’North- A land less known”

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“The ‘wall of fame’ for the mine workers.”

I had started planning for this trip in 2006. I was still a student. The closest I could get to here was through the pages of a travel magazine. Family and friends either had never heard of it, or they would write it off as a place meant only for scientists. All I faced was rejection. By then I had almost lost hope. But my husband hadn’t. It was through Tripadvisor, a global travel forum, that  he discovered the Arctic Travel Company “Grumant” (#goarctica). A Russian state company offering a varied range of safaris in and around this wonderland, all we had to do was choose the right one. Having never snowscootered before in the wild Arctic wilderness, we had a million questions to which they had patient answers, sometimes even to the silly ones. Once we were convinced of being in the best hands, we went ahead and booked with them. That taken care of, everything else just seemed to fall in place. Wading through questions like “Do people really live there?” and “Will you be safe?” we finally managed to make it to the land which was definitely off the grid and unknown to many.

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“Reflection of the old mining culture in a modern setting.”

It was 2 p.m. by the time we reached Barentsburg, chugging along the frigid shoreline in our four-hour journey from Svalbard. There is no road to this place, snowmobiles in winters and boats in summers is the only way to reach. We were staying at the Barentsburg Hotell (yes, with the extra “l”), a sliver of modern upscale Russia in an otherwise orthodox setting. Our room number was 3 and had a spectacular view of Grønfjord Bay. The hotel also has a cute little restaurant offering Russian and European delicacies on the menu. We gorged on quite a few of them, mostly Russian though. We left the European ones for another time.

We wanted to start our walk by first posting a letter. From this side of the world to ours. After all it was  one of the northernmost post offices of its kind. Even if it reached in three months (it actually did in two) it was always  worth the try.

As we reached the building, we spotted a bright red post box on the outside, adding a strong cheer to the ambience. The cute postmistress at the desk warmed us up with her smile, while quickly complying to my request for a picture. As we looked around, we noticed that the cute little place was tastefully decorated with a variety of souvenirs; colorful magnets and clothing from the mines. I bought some – actually many!

Shy but confident, I asked the postmistress for her Instagram handle; I wanted to keep up with the regulars of an Arctic life. Just to be in the known. To my surprise, she obliged, and more than willingly.

•••••

‘And today we are connected, although virtually, but in real time, she with the East and me with the North.’

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“What attracted us most were the walls of the town. Colorful, bright murals painted all over.”

The next in line was the local school. We saw some children running around, their laughter echoing through the corridors. But what attracted us most were the walls of the town. Colorful, bright murals painted all over. The use of dark colors kept the mood light, especially during the 24 hours of darkness that this place experienced during the three-and-a-half-month polar winter. Some of these drawings cited the Soviet propaganda, some polar bears. Some of them even had trees. A reminder of home, it was perhaps the only splash of vegetation around.

At that moment, a reindeer crossed us. We saw him from a distance, as we didn’t want to disturb any wildlife on the island. What was the Arctic’s should remain the Arctic’s; we didn’t want to make our presence felt on the wilderness in any form, like responsible tourists.

Then we took the long flight of stairs leading down to the dock. The reindeer followed our trail close behind. It looked like he wanted to hold on, just like us. But however much we wanted to take him home, some things are best left to the wild.

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“Some things are best left to the wild.”

It was time for the beach. Not the one with pina coladas, but the one with our favourite couple. The only one who could give us those #couplegoals. The snow and the sea in their constant embrace of each other; surreal, spectacular and serene, yet romantic and very intimate. A  rare picture of continuity and commitment, we wanted to frame this one forever. We kept staring, while the lens did its job.

We were startled out of our thoughts with the piercing sound of the gong from the chapel above. Like an outcry of loneliness, the call of the north rang out loud, bellowing to all those who had promised to return, and had dared to dream; the Arctic dream. We sometimes hear it even today; in the midst of this paused life, calling out to us, asking us to come back.

•••••

‘We sometimes hear it even today; in the midst of the paused life, calling out to us.’

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“It was still in use. But for what?”

It was freezing by now. We decided to return to our hotel. As we started our way back, we noticed a massive telephone hanging outside one of the buildings. All stumped in ice, we would have missed it, had we not decided to take a last look around. It looked vintage, and belonged to the dock. As I picked up the receiver for a pose, to my utmost delight, I heard a tone. Meaning it was still in use. But for what? Not sure who to ask , we decided to make up our own stories. Some scary and some hilarious; we have them diaried. To know more, just drop in a line!

•••••

‘A glacier in my glass’

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Salad days in a Russian pub.

As the night dawned, we were invited by our guides to the Red Bear Pub & Brewery for a cozy evening. It was one of the northernmost breweries of the world, where I got to sip a glacier from my glass. Don’t believe me? I promise it’s true. Well, not literally. But figuratively. The locally brewed beer here is made from pure glacial waters. Definitely a pint you wouldn’t want to miss! 

We ended our meal with some Russian schi and buckwheat, topping it up with more beer and some beautifully plated ice cream. It was 11 p.m. when we decided to make a move. Peaceful and silent around; the only sound we could hear was of the snow crunching beneath our boots. The bright light from the street lamps lit up our faces as we walked towards our room, shuttling through our pictures and reminiscing the events of the long and beautiful day.

Next morning, it was time to go back. Time to bid adieu to our favorite trip, a journey well remembered. 

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“Peaceful and silent around; the only sound we could hear was of the snow crunching beneath our boots.”

After some goodbye hugs and kisses, as we left the borders of Barentsburg, it felt like the last two days had been a dream. When we were in it, we couldn’t get enough of it, and now that we were going away, it felt like, “Was this even true?”

We stopped at the polar bear signage on our way out of the town. I had secretly hoped to see the King of the North, real in person, and in its habitat.  But the gun with my guide made me think the better of it. It had three bullets. As they said, the first was to scare the bear, the second to kill it if the former didn’t work and the third to kill your own self if you end up doing the second. Here they had strict laws protecting the bears. After all it was a matter of survival, even for the fittest.

•••••

‘When in the Arctic, do the dab’

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“We did the dab!”

Last but most importantly, as we reached Longyearbyen,we decided our final salutation had to be different; somewhat in style. Therefore, we did the Dab! Raising a toast to the Arctic and to us!

And off we went. Back to home and to reality.

•••••

‘I think she is convinced!’

Today, more than a year later, as I retell my story, my friend asks me when she can go.
I tell her it might not be till early next year.
“Another six months…” she cries in protest.
“Another two seasons,” I interrupt,” is not far from here.”
She keeps quiet. I think she is convinced. 

•••••

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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“Raising a toast to the Arctic.”

Shreya Ganguly is in love with places with unusual histories and unknown futures. The fragility and the unpredictability of the Arctic has forever enchanted her which is why she believes she is in an ongoing relationship with this frozen coastline.  When not travelling, she helps people discover places through her stories. Lovingly called an itinerary artist by her friends, she is happiest when with snow and fed ice-cream. Her Instagram page is https://www.instagram.com/globestalkers/