Hunting Northern Lights at the edge of the earth

Bui Thi Hong Ngoc takes a fairytale trip in search of the Aurora in Teriberka, a town poised on the shores of the Barents Sea in the Arctic, which is literally on the edge of the mainland from where it's only water all the way to the North Pole.


This Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, I took a vacation to visit Russia again. If you read an article of mine two years ago, “Adventure to the Coldest Inhabited Place on Earth”, then you might remember me.

Hunting Northern Lights at the edge of the earth
Bui Hong Ngoc (right) spends the night observing the Aurora phenomenon with one of her Russian friends. VNS Photo Alex Okylovskyi

Ever since I was a kid, the Northern Lights have been an unknown to me, only existing in movies and my imagination. Travelling to the Arctic Circle gave me the opportunity to make my dream of seeing the Northern Lights come true. However, visiting the Arctic presents an extreme set of challenges, especially to a person from a tropical country.

Hunting Northern Lights at the edge of the earth
COLD TREK: It takes 31 hours to get to Teriberka from Saint Petersburg by car and train. VNS Photo Alex Okylovskyi

I took a train and car to get to Teriberka from Saint Petersburg. The total journey took 31 hours. Teriberka, which is in Murmansk Oblast, is a town poised on the shores of the Barents Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean, and is literally on the edge of the mainland from where it’s only water all the way to the North Pole.

The town appeared behind two mountain ranges. The sun was shining upon an infinity snowy steppe, where I ended up in a small hostel named “At The Edge Of The Earth”.

Garages filled with snowmobiles lined the roads, but the heavy snow had blocked them in. The vehicles are not only the villagers’ main means of transportation, instead of deer or sled dogs, but also their main income source because they’re used to transport tourists between sites.

That night I had to walk to the meeting point alone which was an hour from my hostel. Being used to lights and noise of the city, I felt nervous by the total darkness that was surrounding me at that moment. I didn’t meet any villagers or tourists along the way. All I could hear was howling and barking somewhere in the distance as strong winds from the Arctic Ocean whipped in.

Snow drifts were everywhere and more than a metre deep, which made every step heavier. Surrounding me was total darkness. On one side of the road were old abandoned buildings already half sinking into the snow, while the other side appeared to be an infinite snowfield.

There was only moonlight illuminating the path ahead, and at that moment I felt like I was stepping into Terra Nullius, or No-Mans Land.

Not knowing how much time had passed, I kept walking in the freezing weather until I saw two small figures in the distance waving at me. There were my friends Andrej Nauman and Kristina Poroshina. I was so happy to see them.

In accordance with Russian tradition, despite being in the middle of nowhere, they pulled out a big flask of tea and cookies from their backpacks to show their hospitality. We chilled in an open snow field, talking about the magic we were hoping to see.

The Aurora, or Northern Lights, is the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar winds, but as Kostya said “you only see it if you deserve to” because it depends on luck. If the sky is cloudy, there’s not much of a chance.

Suddenly, a small part of the sky turned green… not so clearly, I was still not sure what it was. Then, minute by minute, it was glowing brighter, becoming bigger and appearing longer with its moving trail winding like a magical green river. This green river was actually moving further to the North. We literally started to chase it and we even climbed the mountain to have better a better view before the Aurora disappeared about an hour after casting its magic upon Earth.

Hunting Northern Lights at the edge of the earth
MAGICAL: The Aurora appears in the skies above the Arctic. VNS Photo Alex Okylovskyi

 “If you make a wish when you reach the North to see the Aurora, your wish will come true,” some of the old folks told me. But at that moment, when the lights of that green spiritual river were cast upon me, it purified my heart and soul and filled me with a feeling of peace and fulfilment. After 25 years on this planet, I believed magic truly does exist, and as Kostya said, for those who deserve it through their belief and pursuit of their dreams.

In the following nights I encountered “Gala” or “Circular Halo” – two big circles of light around the bright moon which are an optical phenomenon produced by light (typically from the Sun or Moon) interacting with ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.

Another phenomenon I should mention due to its danger are the blizzards we encountered. Within two minutes, we could only see two to five metres in front of us due to mist and heavy snow.

The most important thing was to locate north and south. What direction was the village in? Phone signals or Google map were definitely unavailable while my phone battery drained in this bone-chilling cold, with stars and mountains all swallowed by the snowstorm.

I was lucky enough to have a paper map and was instructed how to use a compass by Alex Okyloveskyi – my boyfriend. This knowledge was crucial to getting out alive instead of drowning in the might of nature. Once you fall or faint, the snow will quickly cover you and people will not be able to hear or find you. You would be gone without a trace and your corpse would only be found in the summer when the snow melts.

However, Andrej taught me how to locate the North star. I appreciated it so much and was happy to learn so many basic but new skills. It felt like I was being taught ancient knowledge passed down from ancestors who also looked up at the same Teriberka sky, telling stories from thousands of years ago. Their spirit joined the Aurora river and gave us hope, purifying our souls and making our hearts rest at peace.

Hunting Northern Lights at the edge of the earth
 Barents Sea of the Arctic Ocean. VNS Photo Alex Okylovskyi

The journey ended in tears when Andrej and Kristina took me to the train station where we had to part. Our communication was simple but it was sincere from heart to heart. There was a good feeling rekindled in my soul again. Tears fell because it was time to say goodbye but I felt happy at the same time to bring all the beautiful seeds rekindled from this land from the sincere Russian people I met back to my real world.

When you first encounter a Russian on the street anywhere on the planet, none of them will smile at you. They hide behind an armour of suspicion and lack of trust. But when you make friends with them you can see how sentimental, loyal and open they are. They seem to be saving their feelings for the people they truly care for, and yes, I’m lucky to count them as true friends. I will remember and appreciate all these moments and the relationships with my Russian friends for all my life. VNS

Bui Thi Hong Ngoc