Scenery doesn’t usually make me weep. I’ve been to bush camps in Botswana, Cambodian beaches and Ethiopian lakes, and rarely have I found myself reaching for the tissues. But the mauve light that floods Greenland’s snow-drenched landscape in late autumn is so dramatically beautiful that my eyes welled with tears.
Although, it doesn’t pay to be sentimental in the Arctic. On the day we arrived the temperature hit a casual minus -25C, and those tears of joy froze painfully on my cheek. Life is harsh in Ittoqqortoormiit, a town that’s four degrees north of the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s frozen east coast.
Other than the occasional helicopter bringing visitors and piles of Amazon packages from Iceland, the people of Ittoqqortoormiit don’t see many other visitors. That could be about to change.
In this settlement of 450 people – all of whom are Inuits – there is now a single guesthouse with six small bedrooms that can be rented individually or taken over by a group. Visiting somewhere extraordinary without another tourist in sight is modern-day travel nirvana, but in Ittoqqortoormiit it is almost absolutely guaranteed.
Up until now the guesthouse has been occupied by researchers, but at the end of November booking platform Hotels.com added it to its website, giving the rest of us the chance to visit a place we’ve only seen onscreen with a David Attenborough narration. To celebrate the launch of the guesthouse – which is painted Mediterranean orange and glimmers prettily in the thick snow – Hotels.com is offering all rooms free for March 2019, a time when the local polar bears are very active.
The residents of Ittoqqortoormiit live much like they have for the last 100 years, hunting for seals in the rich Arctic waters and for muskox in the frigid tundra that surrounds their pink, blue and green settlement. Even their clothes come from the land – polar bear-skin trousers, seal-skin gloves and moose-hair jackets.
There are no restaurants or pubs, so relaxing means cross-country skiing in the surrounding mountains or sledding with packs of sleek, narrow-eyed Greenland dogs, which have been bred from domestic animals and wolves. Trees can’t grow this far north, so hurtling through the tundra leaves you dangerously exposed to the brutal winds. And for the wildlife, locals always carry a rifle to ward off the aggressive polar bears with which they share their coastline.
“You often don’t know a polar bear is there until it is attacking you,” says Mitte Barselajsen, who runs the guesthouse. “Nowadays, there are more bears than there were when I was small, and we have to warn our children to stay close to town when they play.”
UN reports suggest the reason for this supposed increase in bears is climate change: as ice floes melt, the animals are finding it difficult to hunt for seals and are therefore forced to scavenge for human food. Barselajsen thinks it is down to WWF directives protecting Arctic wildlife. To the north of the town is the vast, forbidding Greenland National Park: the biggest parkland on Earth, and a frozen playground for the bears, that reaches -60C in winter.
Locals like Barselajsen have lived off the land for centuries, but recent WWF restrictions have curtailed the number of animals they are legally allowed to hunt – and, as a result, they need to look elsewhere for a stable income. The solution is tourism.
I visited Ittoqqortoormiit in mid-November, when the sun edges above the horizon for a few hours a day and sends out a light so weak it turns the thick snow a shade of very pale purple – hence all the weeping. This vision of northern beauty presented me with a physically painful conundrum: I was compelled to photograph it, but removing my hand from its padded mitten felt like being gripped by the icy claw of death.
The rumours are true, there are 13 words for snow in Greenlandic, and being really, really cold is an inevitability – although, on the plus side, you’ll snort with derision when you go home and people are whining about -8C. Dog sledding on the tundra was bonechilling, but the terror of negotiating the perilous cliff drop into the Arctic Sea made me forget about my limbs. As I gripped the edge of the wooden sledge in this entirely colourless world, I felt like the White Witch in Narnia, if less glamorous in my scarlet padded snowsuit.
Later that afternoon, I climbed on the back of a snowmobile with one of the local lads – the Arctic version of whizzing around Rome on a scooter, I suppose – and we bombed to an abandoned town on the tip of the fjord. It was the complete silence that struck me, the most desolate place I have ever been, where polar bears sometimes meet to mate and packs of wolves shelter from storms.
At night we ate Arctic char and ox in the warm guesthouse and occasionally darted into the frigid night to check for northern lights. Ittoqqortoormiit is one of the most remote settlements in the world, and judging from the smartphone snaps Barselajsen showed me it is an incredible place to see the lights. Frustratingly it snowed every night I was there, but I had glimpsed some in Iceland earlier that week.
There is something fascinating about the people who live here, happily choosing to stay in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Climate change and hunting quotas are also affecting their lives – as Danish citizens, why not swap the -35C temperatures of an Ittoqqortoormiit January for the relative comfort of Copenhagen?
“Because nowhere else is as beautiful or as quiet,” says Barselajsen. “You turn off the snowmobile and you have complete silence. After Ittoqqortoormiit, the rest of the world would be much too loud.”