Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

The spectacular northern lights are just one of the attractions on a trip to a little-known Norwegian archipelago.
Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

The magnificent northern lights. 

When I was looking for travel notes on Svalbard, only a few visits were showcased. This little-known Norwegian archipelago was seemingly a secluded nook on the planet and waiting for further explorations.

Located midway between Norway and the North Pole, there is only one way to get there: getting a connecting flight from Oslo or Tromso.

That gave me an idea. Why not a trip to Svalbard and then return to see the aurora from Tromso? That sounded great!

Since Svalbard isn’t part of the Schengen Area, visitors should get multi-wvisits when applying for a visa. Otherwise, they will be declined entry to the Norwegian mainland on their return. Tourists are recommended to visit Svalbard from March to October, avoiding the long nights of winter.

Flights land at Longyearbyen, the largest settlement and administrative center of Svalbard.

Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

The Arctic Cathedral in Tromso features a huge triangle. 

Local tourism agencies offer outdoor activities varying according to the season, including hiking, kayaking, walking through glacier caves, snowmobiles, cruises and dog-sled safaris. All are available at

Cruise ships generate a significant portion of local traffic, including offshore vessels and expeditionary cruises. For Chinese tourists, the Arctic Yellow River Station in Ny-Alesund, China’s first Arctic scientific research base, is an attraction. However, expeditionary boats bound for the station are only available during summertime. Most maritime traffic is closed in winter due to blizzard and ice floes.

I took a one-day voyage to Pyramiden, which ranks high up on the list of the world’s best-known ghost towns, and the Monacobreen Glacier.

The trip took about 12 hours. Part of the journey was along a fjord. Mountains flanked the watercourse and sometimes we saw wild reindeers looking for something to eat. It is possible to see polar bears with cubs if you get lucky.

Storms were raging on the rolling sea and our ship was like a leaf floating on the choppy ocean, constantly swinging from left to right.

Taking a seasick pill is strongly recommended, especially in stormy weather. Don’t worry, the tourism agency can provide. It always evaluates weather conditions before departure, and trips are canceled if there are any safety concerns.

Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

The night view of Svalbard is enchanting.

Pyramiden was formerly a Russian coal-mining community which was closed in 1998. It has since remained largely abandoned with most of its infrastructure and buildings still in place. Since 2007 there have been efforts to make it a tourist attraction.

Visitors are not allowed to enter any building without permission even if they are open. Everybody should follow the guide, who took us through the abandoned town, and gave us a glimpse back into the history.

The town was built in Soviet Union style, differentiating from the Nordic style in Svalbard. A statue of Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) still stands there, reminding us of its history. Although the miners have long gone, they have left their mark.

We didn’t stay too long in Pyramiden, because all of us were eager to see the Monacobreen Glacier.

I had only seen glaciers in photographs before. In reality, it is breathtaking when an enormous glacier lies in front of you. No words can accurately describe its majestic look. Holding my breath, I heard the sound of ice floes breaking up.

My guide told me she had discovered three polar bears on ice floes the day before we arrived. It is said the number of polar bears exceeds the population in Svalbard. Though I didn’t see any, I did find some of their tracks in a muddy field.

In Longyearbye, people are forbidden to go out of town without taking a weapon because of the potential danger from polar bears.

On another day, I joined an activity to see the Global Seed Vault, which preserves a wide variety of plant seeds. It was built in an attempt to ensure against the loss of seeds during large-scale regional or global crises.

The vault is 120 meters inside a sandstone mountain. Seeds are packaged in special three-ply foil packets and heat-sealed to exclude moisture.

When I arrived, I saw the vault was under renovation. According to media reports, it had experienced water invasion due to higher-than-average temperatures and heavy rainfall.

Finishing my trip in Svalbard, I flew to Tromso. It is warmer than most other places at the same latitude due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. Thus, the city is ideal to watch aurora during chilly winters.

People can join local sightseeing groups to chase aurora. They would take you to spots with picturesque landscapes and ideal environment to view the northern lights. Sometimes warm drinks and snacks are provided.

Instead of joining a group, staying in a hotel with good location is an option, especially when you need to save money. I stayed at Sydspissen Hotel, which faces the sea and is far away from light pollution. There is a waterfront promenade in front of the hotel. Just pick an ideal spot and prepare your camera. There is always a good chance to see northern lights on a fine, clear night.

Other highlights during my stay in Tromso were the Arctic Cathedral and the impressive panorama from the mountaintop.

Unlike traditional churches, the cathedral features a huge triangle shape and a terraced roof. The shape of the pipe organ in it reminded me of sailboats and ice floes.

The organ comprises 2,940 pipes, the longest of which measures 9.6 meters and the shortest just 5 millimeters. Much of the woodwork is solid pine and the bellows are made of reindeer hide.

The cathedral is not only a Tromso landmark, but also a popular concert venue. The brilliant acoustics make it ideal for music. Visitors can check concert information out at

After visiting the cathedral, I walked for a few minutes to the cable car station. When the chamber was ascending, visitors all took out their smartphones and cameras to take snaps.

The view on the mountaintop enchanted everyone as snowcapped mountains glowed at the sunset and the city began to shine when the lights went on.

There was a cafe at the mountaintop, providing aromatic coffees and desserts. Sipping a warm drink in front of the French windows overlooking such a magnificent panorama was impressive.

Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

The view of the majestic Monacobreen Glacier is breathtaking.

Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

A wild reindeer grazes on the grassland at Svalbard. Reindeer are commonly seen in the area.

Little-known archipelago awaits intrepid explorers

Pyramiden ranks high up on the list of the world’s best known ghost towns. 

Special Reports