-Co-authored with Vidish Mantri
The northern lights have always fascinated me and I with my nephew decided to travel to Norway this winter (Jan 2020) for the experience. To increase our chances of viewing the northern lights, we decided to keep enough days in Tromso (4 days) and added Svalbard (3 days). Svalbard archipelago fascinated us purely because of its remoteness (Google maps does not go any more north than it). The trip was largely unplanned and we had a flexible itinerary.
Why is Svalbard a crazy destination – geographically ?
Longyearbyen is the largest town in Svalbard archipelago with a population of ~2000. Given its location the region has polar night and midnight sun for ~90 days. Svalbard was used as a whaling station in 15-16th century and in 20th century for coal mining owing to its high-quality coal deposits. However, now its economy is largely dependent on tourism and research.
The Svalbard treaty of 1920 gave full Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago. While, it’s owned by Norway, Svalbard is still on its own in many ways. Norway is part of Schengen – Svalbard is not. Svalbard does not have any restriction on foreigners visiting / migrating and therefore NO Visa. Anybody can work and live in Svalbard indefinitely regardless of citizenship.
Now comes the tricky part on Visa Norms
While, Norway is part of Schengen, Svalbard despite being part of Norway, is not part of Schengen. So, once we travelled to Svalbard, we exited the Schengen area rendering our visas invalid because it counted as an exit from the Schengen Area(Something we did not know). We had gone to Norway with a single-entry Visa. Partly it was our fault for not indicating our travel plans to Svalbard while obtaining the visa and partly the authorities at Oslo airport were also at fault for allowing us to travel to Svalbard on a single-entry visa. When we arrived in Tromso, our passports were confiscated and we were asked to visit the police station and we were asked to cancel our tickets.
To give an Indian Analogy, its like someone telling you that you have exhausted your Indian Visa because you travelled to Anadaman and Nicobar islands.
Panic and Help poured in from all corners
The Police were very co-operative and understood the genuineness of our mistakes, they had to follow the guidelines. While, we were relaxed after we visited the police station, we were read out guidelines of deportation which were the same for wilful criminal or ignorant tourists. We decided to seek help.
While caught by Police and being deported sounds very traumatic so did not want family members to panic back at home. Hene decided to shoot a WhatsApp to my batchmates group 200+ of them. Within a few hours, I had support from all corners of the globe, trying to help us in the situation. One friend reached out to Norway consulate in Kolkata and another in ministry of external affairs. A friend in US, helped us get in touch with immigration Lawyers and assured us the best of guidance. Another close friend, helped in local contacts in Oslo, who could be reached out for help. We decided to call the Indian embassy in Oslo, the personnel over there to our utter dismay had no clue of the situation or norms of Svalbard. However, this did not deter the him from scolding me for travelling to Svalbard like a typical indian parent. One of my friends got us in touch with travel rep from Thomas cook, who had seen similar circumstances and was extremely helpful in convincing us that it was not a major issue. After talking to local lawyer, arranged by a friend from Paris, we were convinced that what the police was doing was normal and should not be worried.
Norwegian Police – The Friendliest
The two police personnel who were in charge of our case were extremely cooperative and understood the anxiety and panic we were in. They ensured we could continue our local sight-seeing as they did not see us as a threat and in fact guided us on weather and activities. Also, our prime concern was that it would affect our future travel and will be a remark on our passports. The Police convinced us that this mistake was something that tourists regularly do, and this was to be seen as more of a “Refused to Entry” rather than deportation and will not impact our travel.
Our Travel Itinerary : The 3 Phases
Phase 1 – Road Trip
Day 1 – Oslo: Landed at Oslo early evening. Rented a station wagon at the airport – Plenty of options available, though recommend booking in advance. First thing you notice in Norway is the brilliant infrastructure in terms of roads connectivity, keeping your car below 100kmph is a challenge!
(Tip: Car parking charges for a day are super expensive throughout the country, look for free parking while booking as most hotels don’t have their own parking space).
Day 2 – On way to Bergen: Started early morning on our 500km long road trip to Bergen along the west coast of Norway. Took Detour to see a meteorite landing site (Gardnos Crater) resulted in a dead end, as site was cordoned off. Midway crossed small town of Geilo, well known for its ski resort. The landscape changed drastically and almost immediately we were thrust into a sea of white. For the next 30-40 odd kms, all other colours except white ceased to exist. Occasionally, we saw tiny specs of color at some distance (turned out to be people para-skiing). Reached Bergen late evening passing along tunnel after tunnel, winding past lakes and bridges.
On Road to Bergen; Ski – Town of Gelio
Day 3 Bergen – Funicular Train and Fjords Cruise: Took the funicular railway line Floibanen to Mount Floyen – a higher vantage point for a bird’s eye view of the city followed by a cruise which took us deep into the majestic fjords. It was a very chilly day and the strong winds at sea only allows you so much time as to stand on the deck and get that quick photograph in if you are brave enough. A very interesting observation in Norway is the multi coloured houses you see anywhere you go. Another tip for vegetarians, Burger King has surprisingly good options.
View from Mount FLoyen, Fjord cruise view
Day 4 -On way to Flam: Our trip back was delayed by a visit from the crown prince of Norway as the day marked the 950 years of the city’s foundation. We left by afternoon and reached Flam, a sleepy little town which was completely deserted at 6 PM in the evening.
Day 5- Most beautiful train journey: We take the iconic Flamsbana – the world most beautiful train journey. The mini train route that takes you through a passage carved in the mountains, giving you unparalleled views of deep ravines and gorges, leaving you completely in awe of your surroundings. After our 1-hour train journey, we landed back in Flam and started our return to Oslo. Enroute, we passed the longest tunnel of the country, 24 kms in length (Yes, that’s right!!). Norway has one of the most sophisticated system of tunnels cutting through the mountains all across the country.
Phase 2 – There is no further North
Day 6 – Travel to Svalbard: Took our flight to Longyearbyen, the northernmost town of the world located in the Svalbard archipelago. Average temperatures in Svalbard was between -20 to -30 degrees during our stay. It’s one of the few places in the world which is home to Polar Bears. Its climate alternates between polar nights (no sunlight for months) in winters to midnight sun during summers.
We reached our cosy little hotel, Mary Ann’s Polarigg and decided to hit the town straight without wasting any time. A 5 min walk to the market, turned out to be a daunting task and took half an hour instead given the extreme conditions.
Our primary aim to visit Svalbard was to get a glimpse of the famous Aurora Borealis or commonly referred to as the Northern Lights. At Night, we went for Northern lights chasing but with no success.
Compulsory to carry a gun out of Town limits of Lonyearbyen; Gun shopping
Day 7 – Local sightseeing and Husky Sledding: We took a 2-hour city tour which a gave perspective of the city and the history. Visited, the active coal mine, the Global seed vault, University and the Brewery. Second activity of the day was Husky Sledding, a trip to Husky farm in order to ride a dog sled along the snowy terrain. On our way to Husky farm, we were greeted with a glimpse of the Northern Lights. During our entire sledding activity, we could see faint traces of the lights in the sky. It was a surreal experience, which cannot be put down in words. At Night, again went for Aurora chasing, but were unlucky.
Global seed vault; Husky Fram
Day 8 – Aurora Lights up the skies: We made our customary visit to the town visiting the art gallery along the way. Got a call from Taxi driver, that Aurora was visible right above our hotel. A quick dash outside and we were greeted with the most spectacular dance of the auroras, filling the night sky. We watched this phenomena for over an hour, as long as the cold allowed us to stay outside. Our primary objective of this trip was fulfilled.
Day 9 – Blizzard and Cancelled flight: Flight got cancelled due to a technical glitch as the town was engulfed in a snow blizzard. We were to stay in Longyearbyen for an additional day.
PHASE 3 – Sir, your visa is invalid!!
Day 10 – Landed at Tromso: We caught an early morning flight to our next destination Tromso, another city in the Northern part which is famous for viewing the Aurora. After landing in Tromso, we headed for the immigration, only to find out a shocking news that we have exhausted our entry. Our passports were confiscated and we were asked to visit the police station after checking in to the hotel in order to get an update on our situation.
Now, here is another twist in the tale. We landed on a Friday afternoon. Due to the police staff unavailability over the weekend, our deportation could not be processed till Monday. Unknowingly, that cancelled flight had become a boon for us, else we would have been deported immediately. The police allowed us to continue with our travel plans in the city till Monday after making another appearance at the station the following afternoon.
Day 11 – Cable car and Police station visit: We took the cable car – Fjellheisen to the highest spot in the city giving us breath taking views of entire Tromso. Our worries were drowned in the beauty of our surroundings as we sipped hot chocolate on an extremely chilly morning in a restaurant on the hillside overlooking the entire city. We then visited the Architectural beauty the Arctic Cathedral. Quick visit to police station resulted in some good news finally. Our deportation could only be processed by Tuesday, giving us an additional day to enjoy the city. At Night, we decided to go for another Aurora hunting tour, although we could only manage to catch faint glimpses despite clear skies.
Day 12 – Whale Watching: We embarked on another exciting activity, Whale watching. We boarded a Catamaran, which sailed across the open arctic seas in extremely cold conditions, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Orcas. Half an hour into the journey, we were lucky to spot a group of dolphins swimming in parallel to the ship. However, due to this being the end of the whale watching season, we were not lucky enough to spot a whale during our trip. We were, however, lucky enough to catch a glimpse of our first sun in over 11 days, although only for a few seconds (Yes, you heard that right!!). After coming back, Watched the movie 1917, as the city is near deserted by 6 Pm on Sunday and there was little else to do.
Day 13 – Ice Dome Hotel and Snowmobiling: Deciding to make full use of our additional day, we took a bus to a camp Tamok outside the city for our last adventure, snowmobiling. The site comprises of a spectacular Ice dome hotel – built only by Ice. This hotel is erected every year and functions only for 4 months in winters after which it’s taken down as ice starts to melt away. After a wonderful tour of this brilliant feat of engineering, we proceeded to ride the snow mobiles. An hour later, after being back at the camp site, we fed the reindeers that they had kept in an enclosed area.
Day 14 – Back to India Via Bangkok !!!: We reached Airport at the designated time as asked by the police. Only, saddened by the information that we would be travelling Via Bangkok to Mumbai. We were given the absolute last seats in the airplane and we were given priority entry in a Car to the plane (Felt VIPish and criminal at the same time). Landed in Mumbai, but Indian ground staff were not cooperative. They failed to understand the nature of our Deportation – A silly mistake at best and made us wait for 2 hours as they figured out the protocol.