Svalbard has only small towns scattered around the islands. The capital, Longyearbyen, is where more or less all tourists (and locals) start their Svalbard journey when they arrive at the airport. Since the road from Longyearbyen stops after no more than 30-40 minutes drive there is no way to reach any other settlement by car, so it was to be either boat or snowmobile (or if money is not an issue, helicopter). Further up north is a small town of maybe 40 people called Ny-Ålesund. This is, though, not considered a community as Longyearbyen since the people living there are just scientists. Closer to Longyearbyen, but still north, is Pyramiden. This is the world-famous and northernmost ghost town with a population of 4-6 depending on the season. South of Longyearbyen is really the only proper town, the Russian mining town of Barentsburg.
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BARENTSBURG – THE SECOND CITY OF SVALBARD
It was a thick layer of snow on the ground, even though it was mid-May. The air was crisp and cold and I stood in front of a big bust of Lenin (surprisingly not the northernmost). In front of him was something written in Cyrillic and behind was a very rectangular building as if taken directly from the Soviet Union. It felt like another world but I was just a couple of hours away from Longyearbyen and still on the Norwegian archipelago. I had arrived at Barentsburg.
As soon as you enter the pier you are faced with a long wooden staircase that leads up to the town. We all call it a Russian town, even though (much like Pyramiden in the old days) it is mostly populated with Ukrainians. Even before I have ever seen Russia, this place just felt very Russian. The buildings, the people, the surroundings all felt Russian in a way.
Two times a year Longyearbyen and Barentsburg hold a sports exchange where they play on a home and away basis. The sports include football, basketball, volleyball, floorball, table tennis, and chess. This event sometimes is referred to as Arctic Games where Longyearbyen sort of representing Norway and Barentsburg Russia. It is a great event to see the towns, to meet the people. I took part in a lot of these and went to Barentsburg regularly due to this. In Barentsburg the sports complex for which these games take place is just after you walked up the staircase from the pier. The inside of this is old, worn-down but charming in a way. Except for the swimming pools that seems very sketchy. We are always greeted by some babushkas that have prepared Russian sandwiches to be eaten during the events.
FROM LENIN TO VODKA
When the events are over we are all headed to the cantina. Leaving the complex I soon once again faced the bust of Lenin. It stands out and really lights up the town in a way. During one of these events, I followed my Ukrainian friend into the buildings that stand behind Lenin and it really felt like stepping into a Russian apartment. There was also a small convenience store that opens up for tourists sometime during the high season. The workers here, mostly miners, don’t get paid much, and they also get paid in small food vouchers to be used in the grocery store and bars.
Leaving Lenin behind we walk the small and only road towards the cantina seeing a beautiful colored school and close to that the mineshaft. A big red building that really feels out of bounds if you’re not Russian. Just adjacent to that huge building is a smaller cantina/bar where we always took a short pitstop. Here you can buy Baltika beer (sort of the “local” Russian beer) and something in the small souvenir shop. This is the worker’s cantina so here is a great place to meet many locals.
Barentsburg has one hostel and one hotel and they both lie close to the big restaurant (cantina) where we always ended up after those games. Here it was a huge party with a three-course (Russian) dinner. Then the vodka came up. You could see one miner after another slowly brings up a bottle of vodka and the party was on.
PYRAMIDEN – THE GHOST TOWN
Not long after I came to Svalbard I started to hear about the northernmost ghost town in the world, Pyramiden. I was intrigued about this place and couldn’t wait for the boating season to start so that I could go up. The first time I took the ferry we never reached Pyramiden, due to a thick layer of ice covering the fjord. Like Barentsburg, there are really only two ways to get here, either by boat or snowmobile, and since spring was upon us I just had to wait a couple of weeks until the ice was gone so the boat could reach Pyramiden.
Soon I was back on the 7 hours trip north, and this time we were reaching the town. As we are getting closer I can see a lone person standing on the pier waiving us in. He is dressed in traditional Russian clothes with the (for Svalbard) mandatory rifle on his shoulders. He looks like a modern-day Rasputin where he stands in the cold early spring. His name is Aleksandr Romanovsky, also known as Sasha. As the ferry enters the harbor he welcomes us in English with a thick Russian accent. Sasha first arrived at Pyramiden in 2012 and has been one of the key figures in reviving this place, making it a tourist destination. Sasha was synonymous with Pyramiden for a long time (he left a few years back) and was one of the reasons people came here.
FROM A GREAT MINING TO GHOST
The town of Pyramiden was originally a Swedish mining town that was bought by the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s. They then build up this town into a great mining town which, at its peak had a cultural centre, library, theatre, sports complex, and even an ice hockey team. Disaster first struck this place in 1996 when an aeroplane with miners crashed into a nearby mountain which took 141 lives. By late 1998 the town’s mining had come to a complete stop and it was abandoned. When the people left this place they did so in something of a hurry leaving all sorts of things behind as they were in the houses. In some places, even the food was left on the kitchen table. The whole town became a ghost town overnight and remained completely empty until 2007. That year a Russian company started to open up the town, and soon the potential for a tourist attraction grew. After Sasha arrived in 2012 he was joined by a couple of more Russians, and when I arrived at Pyramiden the town had six people living here during high season, maintaining the place.
A BEAUTIFUL CHAOS
Most people that go here do so with a group, to really emerge oneself in the town’s history. Leaving the pier, the first thing to notice is the last barrel of coal ever mined here that stands in front of a huge sign. Although due to the fact that many people have taken a piece of coal as a souvenir it is not the real last coal, it is just coal that serves as a symbol. One of the main attractions here is the sports complex, which was the pride of Pyramiden. They did in fact have the northernmost swimming pool in the world. It is now, obviously empty, but it is a special feeling to walk around there. Inside the building are many relics of a (seemingly) long-lost world. Even though it is just over 20 years ago the people left, they did leave so much behind that it is like walking into a movie set depicting the apocalypse. The complex is next to the northernmost Lenin bust in the world and it is or was a beautiful building to see.
Behind the building is the old cemetery. In fact, it is “illegal” to die in Svalbard nowadays. Due to the permafrost, the bodies can’t be buried because they will eventually pop back up so no one can be buried and thus we say it is illegal to die. I have always been fascinated by the obscure and one of the best things for me to see in Pyramiden (although it is not always allowed to see it) is the hospital. To walk in empty, dusty hospital hallways with all the equipment, medicine, and empty rooms is a sort of beautiful creepiness that just find extremely astonishing.
The tour always ends in the hotel where you get a pickle and a vodka shot before being guided back to the pier and the boat. The hotel itself is marvelous. Together with two friends we once booked a soviet style room and weren’t disappointed in the least. That included a soviet style breakfast which, I must say, was what I expected and very disappointing if you are hungry. In the hotel, there is also a very small museum/shop and then there is a bar. Everything is run by all these six people.
THE GREAT SOVIET PASSAGE
There was a rumour for a long time that somewhere in this town the Soviets built a huge metal port in which there is a long tunnel that goes deep underground. There it is said that the Russians kept a lot of secrets and experiments. It is supposed to be well hidden, and when Pyramiden has left the secrets with this door died with the town. Now, no one knows where it is hidden nor what really lies inside.