NORWAY: The Land of the Midnight Sun

What comes to your mind when you think of Norway?

Northern Lights? Mountains? Polar Bears? Salmon? Black Metal? Vikings?

Wait, I got it. You were thinking about Thor, right? I know you were. The most badass Norwegian ever. Well, in any case, you’re right all the way. It is all the above and so much more!

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting what I believe to be one of the most breathtaking countries in the world a couple of years back during our Scandinavian sojourn along with my family. In fact, my fascination with Scandinavia began much earlier since some of my favorite bands in the world hailed from there and it got me thinking, “There must be something in the air, the environment, the landscape that surely plays a part in composing such melancholic and mind-numbing music?” Once I was there, I realized everything I thought about Scandinavia turned out to be true.

No other country that I have been to can even compare to the absolute joy of being in nature, the way that Norway did. It has left an enduring and indelible mark on my brain.

If you haven’t visited, here are some of my experiences that may help you add them to your bucket list.

The Mountains

View of the mountain range in Molden

Norway is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries, dominated from north to south by a series of Scandinavian Mountain ranges. Over two-thirds of Norway’s landscape is made up of mountains. There are 300 peaks that climb more than 6,500 feet above sea level in these vast, deserted regions. The sheer remoteness of this rocky country will appeal to anyone who has been bit by the wanderlust bug. Grandiose is the only word that comes close to describing the splendor. And the most important thing, they are accessible to all. Non-Scandinavians may not realize it, but in Norway, the “every man’s right of access” (allemannsretten) is fully implemented when it comes to the outdoors. That means you can roam and explore any location, climb any mountain, hike, trek, forage, hunt, and camp anywhere you like. What more could one ask for?

The Fjords

A Fjord is a long, narrow inlet of water with steep cliffs on either side, created by a glacier. Norway has 1200 of them. But the most beautiful and majestic one of them is the King of the Fjords, Sognefjord.

Panorama of Lustrafjord

Located in the heart of Vestland County, and as the country’s longest fjord, it stretches more than 200 kilometers into the country and reaches a depth of 1,308 meters at its deepest point. You have to see it to believe it. I’ve never felt as insignificant as I did when I was standing on Molden Mountain.

It reminded me of what Carl Sagan said when he spoke about Earth as seen from Voyager 1, some 3.7 billion miles from the Sun. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” It was truly a humbling and character-building experience for me. Whoever said nature has all the answers knew what they were talking about. Simply spectacular.

The Weather

As someone who hails from the tropical part of the world, cold weather almost seems like a blessing. I know of many who might think otherwise, but I would take snow over the desert any day. Usually, people visit Norway in the summer months – June to September. But the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are best seen between late September and late March when the sky is dark from early afternoon until late morning. So, we decided to make the trip to Norway. In November. In Winter.

Let me tell you something about a normal person’s definition of Winter in India. Anything south of 20°C is cold and anything below 10°C is madness. In Norway, the average temperatures across the year vary from 0°C to 10°C. “Hmm… that doesn’t seem too bad, we have our winter gear in place. Should be doable.” Well, we would be all be millionaires if our predictions about the weather came true even half the time. So, even with all the winter gear, there was a simple factor that we missed. Our adaptability. 

Take Tromso, for instance.

Tromso by Night

If you Google Tromso weather, the adjectives you would most likely get are short, cool, mostly cloudy in the summers, and long, freezing, snowy, windy, and overcast in winter. Temperatures during our visit were around 3°C to -3°C. “Well, anything for the Northern Lights,” I said to myself.

Northern Lights at Tromso

And it was 100% worth it!

It was like a celestial ballet of light, with a color palette of green, blue, and occasionally pink and violet, moving across the night sky.

Even if the lights can’t be taken for granted — they are, after all, a natural occurrence like the weather – Tromso was magical that polar night. Apparently in the day, the sunset colors in the south are stunning, while the sky in the north is a deep midnight blue. The snowy landscape was drenched in a crystalline, deep blue color during “the blue hour” at nightfall. Even if the Auroras aren’t dancing, just gazing up into the endless sky can help you reconnect with the universe. Remember Carl Sagan’s quote?  I had the same feeling here as well and throughout the entire trip.

Unfortunately, half of Norway’s view of the universe has been obstructed by light pollution. You may often see much of the Milky Way with your naked eye if you manage to leave the city lights behind.

And it was freezing. Or so I thought. Till we visited one of the farthest human settlements in the world.

Svalbard

Previously known as Spitsbergen, Svalbard is a cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole.

It’s tough to imagine a more distant location than Svalbard’s Arctic wilderness. It’s the farthest north you can fly on a commercial aircraft, and it’s a vast, white stretch of frozen emptiness, apart from the adjacent town of Longyearbyen, where we were stationed.

Polar Bear Territory – Applies to all of Svalbard

Yes, they have a signboard letting you know that you are encroaching polar bear territory.

Longyearbyen, with a population of just over 1000 people, is the World’s Northernmost Permanent Settlement and the largest inhabited area of Svalbard. Other settlements in Svalbard like Ny-Alesund and Barentsburg are populated only by researchers and can only be accessed by snowmobiles and boats. How cool is that?

I don’t even know what prompted us to include Svalbard in our itinerary. I read that it was just a desolate place, empty, dark, bleak, and freezing. Oh, and the temperature was -18°C. I couldn’t feel my face, my skin was as hard as stone, and my fingers felt like they would break any minute if I wanted to form a fist. Remember what I said about what cold weather means to an Indian? Well, I felt that this must be what it feels like if Hell froze over. They even have a place named Hell for Heaven’s sake, and it freezes over more often than you would think. Ok, I’m done digressing.

In hindsight, I can tell you right now that it was the best spur-of-the-moment traveling decisions my family and I have ever made in our lives. Being in one of the most isolated places in the world, where the climate and polar bears decide what you can or cannot do on a normal day, forgetting what body warmth means, learning to walk on slabs of ice, and being perpetually surrounded by night not knowing when you would see the sun next, shows how dependent we are on technology and machines. But then, it also shows us how we as humans have overcome almost every conceivable hardship to get to where we are today. To the point that we are messing it up all over again.

Ever heard of the Doomsday Vault?

The Doomsday Vault – Much cooler sounding than “Svalbard Global Seed Vault”

A resource of essential importance for the future of humanity is hidden deep below the bowels of an icy mountain in Longyearbyen, which will be used in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe. That resource is seeds. Not coal, minerals, or oil. Seeds.

Officially named the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it has millions of these small brown specks from more than 930,000 different varieties of food crops. It’s effectively a massive vault containing the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity. There’s 13,000 years of agricultural history inside this edifice.

Map showing the location of The Doomsday Vault

The Doomsday Vault is a remarkable and optimistic exercise in international cooperation for the welfare of humanity in an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty. There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day and genetic material is being lost all over the globe on a massive scale. While crop yields have increased in the last 50 years, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. This monoculture nature of agriculture leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought.

Any group or country can transfer seeds to it, with no constraints imposed by politics or diplomatic needs. North Korean red wooden boxes sit next to American black wooden boxes. On the next aisle, boxes of Ukrainian seeds are stacked atop Russian seeds. It doesn’t matter to the seeds that Indian and Pakistani seeds are in the same aisle. All that really counts is that they’re temperature-controlled and safe up there. This is the sole purpose of The Doomsday Vault. To save humanity for when it cannot save itself.

I would never have guessed that such an inhospitable, non-descript, non-commercial location would one day provide for the world that is slowly but surely decaying due to commercialism and avarice.

Ok after that exceedingly bleak interlude, I give you huskies!

Dog Sledding in Svalbard

Huskies are the heart and soul of Svalbard (along with the Polar Bears, of course). They are bred as watchdogs as well as for dog sledding/mushing. We had an entire day of dog sledding and ice caving where you can soak in the Arctic landscape along with these magnificent and lovable furballs. The experience reminded me of The Great Serum Run of Nome, Alaska in 1925 where 150 sled dogs traversed the harsh landscape of interior Alaska with the Diptheria Antitoxin to prevent the epidemic from spreading. Such a heroic story of perseverance and doggedness. Pun intended.

However, the best part of the trip for me personally was when we came back to the Dog Yard only to be greeted by 80 or so more huskies! The Dog Yard has over 100 active huskies along with puppies and retired heroes. They are unbelievably sociable and think of humans as their pets. They were almost evenly divided into sections of 50 (males on one side and females on the other. I don’t remember why though). The huskies were a ray of sunshine in an otherwise barren land. I’ve never seen any animal more excited to see humans as much as dogs are after returning from a day’s work. Even humans aren’t that excited to see humans ever (sic).

Svalbard is by far the most ambitious and adventurous place I have been to in my life. I long to go back again as soon as I possibly can.

In conclusion

Norway is Epic. Grand. Imposing. There are so many things that I haven’t spoken about. From the World’s Longest Road Tunnel to one of the best welfare systems in the world, from introducing Salmon Sushi to Japan to having the World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Fund, from featuring in the Top 5 of World’s Happiest Countries regularly to meeting more than 95% of its energy requirements through hydroelectric power (more than any other country), and some the best metal bands ever, Norway is everything you would expect from a country. As a Norwegian friend told us nonchalantly, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

If you do happen to visit and see the Midnight Sun, do let me know all about it 😊 Ha Det.

P.S. – All images belong to the respective owners and are only used for representational purposes.

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