EUROPE (M-Z) NORWAY

PYRAMIDEN, SVALBARD

Hear about the deserted town of Pyramiden situated in the middle of arctic wilderness.

JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH PETRUKHINA MARINA FROM PYRAMIDEN, SVALBARD !

Petrukhina Marina is a 23 year old Russian who graduated from University as a sociologist. She loves nature and open spaces and always desired to go live and work in the North. She came to Svalbard when she found a vacancy in her company. She currently works for Grumant Arctic Travel Company, a part of Trust Arktikugol which also runs the hotels at Pyramiden and Barentsburg.

PYRAMIDEN

Located 800 km away from Norway, is the archipelago of Svalbard (initially called Spitsbergen). During World War I, the ungoverned Spitsbergen came under the sovereignty of Norway, however, Russia is still allowed to exercise mining rights. According to the Spitsbergen Treaty, no nation is allowed to permanently station military personnel or equipment on Spitsbergen, including Norway.

This visa-free archipelago with its capital, Longyearbyen, is home to people from more than 50 countries. Owing to the permafrost, Svalbard is where the Global Seed Vault is situated, storing 980,000 seeds from across the globe.

In the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, there are two Russian coal mining towns – Barentsburg and Pyramiden. While Barentsburg is still an active coal mine, the Pyramid was abandoned in 1998. Named for the pyramid-shaped mountain looming over the valley settlement, now attracts tourist for the well preserved but uninhabited ghost town and the Nordenskiold glacier. 

Pyramiden’s Main Square with the bust of Lenin at the centre as the world’s northernmost statue

What brings you to Pyramiden, an entirely uninhabited town of Svalbard?

Before coming to the island, I did not know about the existence of this village at all. I didn’t know anything about the island in general. I lived first in Barentsburg “the Russian capital on Svalbard” and on a business trip went to the Pyramiden. This is where you can find “commander” trips – on the Greenland sea in an open Polar circle (special local boats), cold splashes of salt water in the face, playing catch-up birds along the way and whales overboard. 

Marina in Pyramiden

At first, I went to the Pyramiden for a couple of days to help at the pyramid day festival, then it was delayed, and I had to stay there for 3 months. It’s my second time now and my 7th month in the Pyramiden. 

Yes, we can say that this is a hard-to-reach locality – in summer you can only get by sea, and in winter by snowmobile. But there is a lot of life here, a lot of guests from all over the world, so you do not notice that we are only 30 people living here.

Black-legged kittiwake resting in the recess. It is one of the 227 bird species which can be found in Svalbard.

Svalbard is one of the most northerly island groups on Earth but is surprisingly accessible. How difficult would you say it is to live there?

I would generally say that life here is the same as on the mainland. We have everything for everyday life, so that we do not deny ourselves of anything. There are, of course, some unusual moments, but they only make life more interesting here. For example, on a polar night, there may be a strong wind with snowstorm that it can blow you into a nearby snow bank. You can not go outside the village (in fact outside the house) without a gun because the owners of the island are bears, and we merely their guests. They can walk anywhere. In large villages, such as Longyearbyen or Barentsburg, they are difficult to spot but on the Pyramid, they come straight to the village, especially in the spring (March-May).

At first, it was very unusual when the sun shone all day in summer, and in winter it did not appear on the horizon at all. My father had told me how he worked in the North of Russia, where on a polar night the sun shone for two hours a day. I had no idea that in Pyramiden it might not rise at all. In the polar night, you want to constantly sleep, and it is very difficult to wake up and go to work, but gradually you get used to it. 

Pyramiden during Polar nights (photo brighter than reality)

On a polar day, the opposite is true. You can sit too long and not pay attention to the fact that it is already 3 am, because the sun just goes around the window and does not set.

In all other respects, we have modern apartments with all the equipment, fresh vegetables and fruits, and in general a large range of products. If you need clothing it can be ordered on the Internet. So it is very interesting to live here.

According to National Geography, Pyramiden is considered as one of the ten ghost towns in the world. How would you describe living in this post-apocalyptic arctic town?

I work here as a guide and conduct tours of the village. To be honest, the village is very much alive, with animals to give us company – herds of deer in the fields, clouds of gulls, bears sometimes. There is a modern hotel and a restaurant with great food. The distance does not affect the service and conditions. Many things are restored, such as movie projectors – you can come and watch a movie in a film theatre. We are often visited by our neighbors from Longyearbyen

Frozen Tundra of Pyramiden flocked by freely moving reindeers

It might feel like a ghost town to you on a polar night, when most of the employees leave for the mainland. The tourists can’t get here as the Bay is already ice, and there isn’t enough snow for snowmobiles yet. So if you walk at night through a village lit only by the moon (since electricity is only provided in three buildings), with deserted buildings around, you get scared at every rustle, fearing that a bear may be walking somewhere nearby. In some houses you might notice glimpses of light from the hotel which reminds you of the stories you have heard about Pyramiden being a ghost town  But during the tourist season, life here is bustling.

Coal loading crane in the port of Pyramiden with a backdrop of Billfjorden

Can you tell us the real story of Pyramiden? Is it true that this Russian coal mining settlement was abandoned hastily?

There were several reasons Pyramiden was abandoned – political, economic and geological. 

Trust Arktikugol, owned by the Government of Russia, is the coal mining company which has been operating mining on the islands of Spitsbergen from 1931. After World War II, the Soviets allocated more money to the town and constructed a hospital, a recreation center called the Cultural Palace and a large cafeteria, complete with a giant mosaic depicting the Svalbard landscape populated by heroes of Norse legends in the typical Soviet block-style fashion, and with rounded edges to lessen the impact of the bitter winter wind.

When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Russia had no money left for two mining villages – Pyramiden and Barentsburg, and besides, there were fires in the Pyramid mine and part of the mine was filled with water.

In 1996, tragedy struck, when Vnukovo Airlines flight 2801an Arktikugol chartered flight carrying 141 passengers heading from Moscow to Pyramid crashed near Longyearbyen, killing all of them. Lawsuits were filed against Arktikugol by families of victims, adding misery to the functioning of Pyramiden coal mines. 

Pyramiden’s coal mines, were never profitable. In 1998, it was decided to close the mine in the Pyramid and to preserve the village. Last time coal was extracted from the mines on 31st March, 1998. Residents left by the boat and helicopters, which ferried them to Barentsburg to continue working for Arktikugol while the rest left for Russia.  

The Cultural Palace of Pyramiden is where performances took place. It had a library, a weight-lifting room, a basketball court and a large auditorium.

Now we can say for sure, based on the documents, that the village was preserved gradually. Some of the workers were transported to Barentsburg to continue working in the mine, while others went to the mainland (women and children were sent first). About a hundred people were left to close the buildings, clean the heating systems, and in general carry out conservation work in the village, thanks to which the return to the village was possible. Many of the systems were preserved in good condition.

Well preserved side piano at the Cultural centre of Pyramiden

Not only in 1998, but there was an urgent evacuation of the village even when the Second World war began. Then there were about 100 people living here, and they had only three hours to get ready.

How do you keep yourself busy in a town only inhabited by wildlife?

If you are introvert this is the perfect place for you! If you are used to spending your free time scrolling through the social media feed, it is worth leaving this habit in the past as until last summer, there was no communication on the Pyramid and to call for work in the office or home, local people went to a special point on the road near the port, where the Norwegian cameraman caught (they even installed a telephone to mark this place). Employees who went on business trips from Barentsburg to the Pyramid left a message “I’m in the Pyramid, I’ll be out of touch”, and disappeared from the network for a week or several months. 

The wild Arctic Foxes have reclaimed streets of Pyramiden since residents abandoned the town

Now we have internet here, mainly in order to be able to accept bank cards. And, of course, the Internet has appeared for local residents, but it is very limited – we can use messengers, no videos or online cinemas, but it helps a lot at work, and families are calmer that we can keep in touch with them. 

So, what do we do here in our free time? I learned how to run movie projectors and show films in the local cinema. This is the perfect place to read all those books that were put off for later. Of course, we watch movies, sometimes we all get together and watch on a big TV. Here everyone knows each other, we live in a small community – only about 30 people in the summer and 15 in the winter. In summer, we ride bicycles and go hiking in the mountains. Just sitting and admiring the view of the Nordenskiöld Glacier from the village is also a great pastime.

Nordenskioldbreen glacier is a massive glacier seen from Pyramiden. Experience Ice calving if you haven’t before.

How safe is it to venture out alone at 79 degrees North?

It depends on the time of year. In the winter season (from January to the end of May), when the bay is still ice, we are periodically visited by bears. On the Pyramiden, I saw a bear for the first time in a year of living on the island. However, they walk around the village here like full-fledged owners, because we do not have many people living here. Bears are just curious – they go to inspect abandoned buildings, sometimes squeeze into windows with their inquisitive noses.

We have rules on how to behave when bears enter the village. At first we try to scare them off with a car signal, then we use signal and noise missiles, if this does not help we shoot a firearm in the air. 

Marina works as a guide for Grumant Arctic Travel Company and carries a rifle for polar bear encounters

If the bear has settled in the village and does not want to leave, we call Sysselmannen and they send a helicopter, from which the bear will definitely run away. They don’t come very often, and if they are here, we try to stay in buildings. Except for bears, there are almost no dangers here. We come prepared for severe weather conditions – strong winds and snowstormsso that’s not a problem too.

Pyramiden inhabited by Polar bears. A signpost in Norwegian mentioning “applies to all of Svalbard”

When do you suggest visiting this hidden jewel for a unique experience?

By the way, the king of Norway called the Pyramid the pearl of Svalbard! You know, winter and summer are completely different times here. And having lived here both in winter and summer, I can say for sure that it is worth seeing this place in both seasons. Each period is beautiful in its own way. 

Pyramiden located in Billefjorden, an appendix fjord in the innermost part of Isfjorden

In winter, you can enjoy trips through the valleys and mountains on snowmobiles, in summer, you can take a fascinating boat ride on the Greenland sea. Even the approaches to the glaciers in winter and summer are different, but always interesting. In summer you can go hiking to the waterfalls, in winter you can see the Aurora Borealis (in February).

Which are the best features of the town that undoubtedly shouldn’t be missed ?

The village of Pyramid was a planned project, so the buildings here are not located randomly. And after living here, I can say that it is very convenient to get from one place to another. The chosen colors are impressive – they are both colorful and restrained, which is combined with the surrounding nature. 

Soviet style giant mosaic art depicting Svalbard landscape made on the walls of the canteen

Sometimes there is not enough paint in the Arctic, but the colors of local buildings are well chosen. Being in the village, you can notice the contrast between the wild nature and the village – almost lifeless fields and a blooming residential island.

Pyramiden’s heated indoor pool was the best in Svalbard and is the northernmost swimming pool in the world

Any recommendation on which boat/snowmobile tour to reach Pyramiden ?

In Longyearbyen, you can undoubtedly find trips to the Pyramid. The easiest way to reach Pyramiden is by boat, on a day tour. 

Boat tours to Pyramiden operate from about mid-May to the beginning of October, depending on sea ice. Arctic Grumant, Polar Charter, Spitsbergen Travel and several other companies organize the eight- to ten-hour boat tours. For overnight stay in Pyramiden you can also choose Terra Polaris. However, Arctic travel company Grumant, knows more about the Pyramiden than anyone else – since our company constantly supplements knowledge, study documents, communicate with those who were in the Pyramid before. It’s a part of Trust Arktikugol which owns the Pyramiden settlement too.

In winter you can take overnight trips to Pyramiden through snowmobiles. 

So, make no mistake – do not come here for a couple of hours, you need to stay here for at least one day to learn a little about this place. We, the locals, will be happy to serve you and show you this hidden paradise built here in the Soviet Union.

THINGS TO KNOW :

Visa : Spitsbergen (Svalbard) is not a part of the Schengen treaty system. Foreigners do not need a visa or work and residence permits from the Norwegian authorities to travel to Svalbard, but you must have a visa if you travel via Norway/the Schengen Area on your way to or from Svalbard. It’s important to ensure that you get a double-entry visa so you can return to the Schengen area (mainland Norway) after your stay in Svalbard.

Capital : The city of Longyearbyen. Read our interview with Ragnhild Utne from Longyearbyen.

From Mainland to Capital : SAS flies to Longyearbyen several times per week from Oslo in summer and operates year-round daily flights from Tromso.

From Capital to Pyramiden : The distance from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden is 50 km as the crow flies, but the distance over land is well over 100 km. General Route By boat – Adventfjorden – Sanskbukta (in an hour) -Nordenskioldbreen glacier – Pyramiden. General Route By snowmobile – Longyearbyen — Adventdalen Valley — Tempelfjord — Tunabreen Glacier — Nordenskiöldbreen — Petunia Bay — Pyramiden.

What to Pack : The layer principle is necessary for Polar Regions.

For Summers – Woolen underwear, Thicker mid layer, one thin and one thick pair of socks, an extra layer – wool, fleece or down, thinner gloves, windproof hat, hiking boots, sunglasses and sun cream for sun radiation in high latitudes. Camera equipments.

For Winters –  Woolen underwear, Thicker mid layer,One thin and one thick pair of socks, an extra layer – wool, fleece or down, windproof mask, thinner gloves, windproof hat, warm winter boots, windproof outer jacket, sunglasses and sun cream for sun radiation in high latitudes. Camera equipments.

Emergency : Telephone – 79 02 43 00, Email – firmapost@sysselmannen.no

IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING TO PYRAMIDEN OR WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT  MARINA’S TRAVEL EXPERIENCES THEN BE SURE TO FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM

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To know more about Norway, check our interviews with locals of AurlandBodoOsloTromsoLofoten Islands and Longyearbyen.