Travel

Singing for ghosts in Svalbard

Pyramiden is an unlikely tourist destination — an abandoned Soviet mining town in a remote corner of the Svalbard archipelago. But visitors are being drawn here in increasing numbers by the eerie desolation and stunning glacial landscapes Monday, 8 April 2019

By Jamie Lafferty
Photographs By Jamie Lafferty

The ‘governor’ is a man of few words but many jobs. Sitting opposite me in his permanently oil-stained orange overalls, he looks past me out of a window in the Pyramiden Hotel at the empty buildings outside. He has the look of a concerned parent. Out there, on the decaying streets of Pyramiden, Petr Petrovich is caretaker, driver, gardener, janitor and, unofficially, governor. At the hotel (the only inhabitable building in town), he’s the de facto manager. “Sometimes the tourists ask us to make it warmer in here,” he says through my guide and translator, Sergey Chernikov, “and sometimes they ask about phone connection.”

The lack of phone signal and internet only underlines the sense of it being a place that exists in a very different era. This former mining town on the Svalbard archipelago in the High Arctic has become a strange tourist draw at the very edge of humanity. Founded in 1910 by Sweden, it was bought by the USSR in 1927, although large-scale coal extraction didn’t begin here until 1940, after which it continued until the settlement was abandoned in 1998. Today, this remote corner of Svalbard — now part of Norway — marks the starting point for a series of treks in summer and the end point for winter snowmobile trips. At all times of the year, it has an otherworldliness to it; a frozen Soviet time capsule that is, by turns, photogenic and ugly, eerie and endearing.

When the mine and settlement was shut down in 1998, the townspeople all lost their livelihoods and homes. Pyramiden lay empty for around a decade before the Russian government started to send people — including Ukrainians like Petr — back north, not to repopulate the settlement, nor to restart the mine, but to develop what’s left of the town as a destination for a niche type of tourism.

The town’s name comes from the 3,074ft mountain that looms over it like a sentinel. It looks almost man-made: eight concentric layers of rock, appearing like huge sculpture or, indeed, a pyramid. This remarkable piece of geology starts sunny days tinged a pale gold and finishes them blood orange. Many visitors who come to Pyramiden don’t see these colour fluctuations, partly because the majority don’t stay overnight, and partly because, at almost 79 degrees north, the sun doesn’t breach the horizon at all for three months in winter. Conversely, for three months of summer it doesn’t drop below it. However, the main reason most visitors don’t get to see the pyramid peak in sunlight is quite simply because its often hidden from view by the volatile weather.

The temperature hovers around freezing most days during my summer stay but there’s a cold sun constantly shining. “It can look amazing in the fog,” says Sergey, “but I don’t think we’ll be getting that.”

Instead, sunbeams pierce through cracked glass in the former canteen, illuminating skeletons of long-dead houseplants. It also shows there was no single cataclysm here — the remaining wall clocks have all stopped, but they did so at different times. 

Once in a while, there are those who curse the good weather. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t local. During my visit, a 16-strong film crew arrives to shoot a movie, Civil Twilight. A sci-fi thriller, it will lean on Pyramiden’s desolation and inclement weather to tell its story. The idea came when the director, Darren Mann, visited to shoot a documentary a few years earlier; apparently, the isolation and a seeming guarantee of gloom he experienced were big factors in the development of the project. Glorious sunshine isn’t in the film script, though, and for the first few days of the shoot, the crew finds itself wishing conditions were a little less kind.

“The location was really the spark for this whole project,” says producer Grant Myers. “Looking around at how things are perfectly preserved — it really looks like people just stood up one day and walked away.”

Until he arrived by boat — passing the mighty Nordenskiöld Glacier at the top of Billefjorden — Myers had only seen photographs of Pyramiden. The reality of being here is quite different. “My first impression was ‘what an unforgiving place’. It just feels dangerous, surrounded by things that could destroy you in seconds,” he says. “I was so impressed with the absolute will of these people to create what they did here, in an environment that’s so hostile.” 

The durability of the Soviet design has allowed the shells of the buildings to endure 20 wild Arctic winters without much maintenance, and experts say that if the climate remains reasonably stable, they may stand for another 500 years.

Sergey takes me on a tour of the settlement, slinging a rifle over his shoulder and lighting a cigarette as we head out into the cold, bright morning. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Pyramiden was home to over 1,000 people, around 100 of whom were children. There was a school and a cinema. There were plays and concerts. There was happiness. “They had a pure kind of communism up here,” Sergey says. “Everyone had a job, everyone had a home. The wages were better up here, too.”

Much still appears to be in reasonable order: huge mineshafts still run up the side of the town like blackened arteries; the chemical plant looks like it could withstand a direct missile hit. But inside, we find former dorms and kitchens in a sorry state. Sergey explains that when the mine closed in 1998 and everyone left, it wasn’t long before the settlement started to attract uninvited guests — vandals, party people and, it’s claimed, vengeful former workers (Sergey repeatedly insists the perpetrators weren’t residents — why would those living here have scuttled their own homes, he asks, incredulously?).They arrived by snowmobile and boat and left behind an unholy mess. Filing cabinets were ransacked, bookshelves overturned, wires torn from walls, and windows smashed, ushering in icy gales that blew through the empty ruins.

A yomp up Yggdrasilkampen

Although the relationship between the Russian and Norwegian communities on Svalbard has remained amicable for almost 100 years, there’s a lot of gossip — as is the case in most small communities around the world. When I visit Longyearbyen, the de facto capital of Svalbard, I’m told that Arktikugol, the mining company that operated Pyramiden, went to great lengths to keep its employees in the dark about the imminent closure of the mine; laying on a free two-week holiday in Moscow that was anything but the act of generosity it seemed. Once the workers were back on the mainland, the mine was closed, and no one was allowed to return, although Sergey insists this isn’t true as we leave Pyramiden, rattling along in the governor’s bus.

On the dashboard there’s a flare gun and a box of shotgun cartridges; a detuned radio crackles insistently. The bus will take us to the end of the road, after which we’ll be heading on foot to the top of the vowel-deprived Yggdrasilkampen, a large table mountain opposite the settlement. “They say that once you’ve been up there, you’re truly a local,” says Sergey, who’s from Moscow but spends most of the year in Svalbard’s second-largest community, Barentsburg, home to around 500 people, almost all Russian or Ukrainian. 

As we march uphill over loose rock, past a semi-frozen lake, we approach a rickety wooden hut, loosely resembling a Scottish bothy. Sergey goes in first, whistling. “The problem with this place is that the door opens inwards,” he says. “If a polar bear wants to come in while you’re inside, there’s no way to stop them.”

Polar bears are a constant worry for the people of Pyramiden, where the rule of thumb is: no wandering without at least one gun. To that end, every time we go outside, Sergey brings a loaded, Soviet-era rifle with a wooden stock. After a while, the novelty of seeing him load the bullets while smoking wears off.

“I really love it,” says Sergey. 

“What?” I ask. “Being armed?”

“No,” he says, cigarette flapping with each syllable. “Smoking.” 

Life up here exists within fine margins. In a place as cold and isolated as this, small problems can quickly become large; a problem as large as a polar bear can become colossal. But perhaps sensing the lifelessness of Pyramiden, the bears tend not to visit town much these days, although out here nothing is certain. In spring, when icebergs calving from the glacier make optimal platforms for hunting seals, they’re spotted more frequently, but for the rest of the year bears are only seen about once a month.

Of bigger concern are the Arctic foxes — not the tame family that’s taken up residence under the Pyramiden Hotel but wilder members of the species — 10 of which were found to have rabies in 2017; some reindeer tested positive, too. But for Sergey and I, the animals aren’t an issue right now. Unlike our footing. After the hut, the trek rises sharply and even though our goal is only around 1,600ft above sea level, it’s exhausting. Every step over the scree requires planning and a dexterity of foot that doesn’t come naturally to me. Compounding our problems is a fine dusting of snow that makes spotting loose stones almost impossible.

After almost two hours of scrabbling, we emerge onto the plateau and, of course, the effort immediately feels worth it. There are grand views in every direction, and in this frigid sunshine, it’s possible to see more than 100 miles. The baby blues of the glacier glow above the fjord, while in the distance, peaks named after Norse gods stand implacable against the azure sky. Aside from the biting wind, I hadn’t been sure what to expect before coming up here, but I certainly hadn’t envisaged the landscape being so endlessly beautiful.

For its part, Pyramiden looks strange: a settlement wedged into a valley floor, with those huge mineshafts running up towards its eponymous peak. The Swedes were the first to mine here, but the Soviets — and, in particular, Ukrainians — were the ones who perfected the subterranean art. The coal here has been carbon dated to almost 350 million years old, making it some of the most ancient anywhere on the planet; considerably older than that dug from the mines in Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. 

Bright lights, big city

It can often feel as though mining is the only thing that Pyramiden has in common with Svalbard’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen. These days there aren’t enough people in the Russian outpost for there to be any kind of rivalry, and there’s an acceptance that in order to get on and off of Svalbard — and, so, in and out of Pyramiden — you must travel through Longyearbyen.

Growing year on year, the Norwegian town is at once part of the mainland and something other. For one thing, Svalbard has far more flexible immigration rules — you don’t need a visa to live there, only the means to support yourself, or a solid job offer. This has gathered a remarkably diverse community at the top of the world: there’s an American growing herbs in a biodome; a Brazilian making nature documentaries; a thriving Thai community, who until recently had their own restaurant. That building has since been bought by Steve Torgensen, who’s transformed it into Stationen, a trendy gastropub that’s the latest addition to his growing culinary empire. Next to his new place, he has Karlsberger Pub — perhaps the most popular bar in town — while at the far end of Longyearbyen, he also runs Gruvelageret, a fine-dining restaurant themed around Svalbard’s mining heritage. Such is the quality of this and other restaurants in Longyearbyen today that people are tentatively starting to wonder if the Michelin Guide may even come calling. 

Throughout the summer months, Torgensen’s establishments and others around town are packed with cruise ship passengers, but despite the endless dark, winter is perhaps the busiest season, when tourists come in their droves to glimpse the Northern Lights or take snowmobile safaris across the tundra. If all of this feels remote, then Pyramiden is even more far-flung — the outpost’s outpost, only accessible in summer by boat.

The thriving commerce in Svalbard’s cosmopolitan capital would’ve been quite at odds with the communist ethos that built Pyramiden. Perhaps its silencing in 1998 could be seen as the final vibrations of the Soviet Union, its death throes more protracted here at its Arctic extremity.

On our final morning, Sergey and I decide to take one last walk in Pyramiden, this time out to the shrinking Bertil Glacier. On the way, we make a quick stop at the Cultural Centre, which must have been a lively, noisy place in its heyday. It’s now being partially restored for the benefit of visitors (there are no plans to repopulate the town). It’s hoped concerts can be held here, and films shown, providing the old projectors can be revived.

Elsewhere in the building there’s a dilapidated gym hall and a battered weights room. Upstairs, in a music room, we find a drum kit with the skins kicked out, cymbals, a grand piano. What sounds there must have been. “Is this the famous ‘northernmost piano in the world’?” I ask Sergey, pressing a detuned key. “Yes, this is the one,” he replies, before correcting himself. “Actually, there’s another one downstairs that’s been moved. Maybe that’s the one now.”

We head back out, past what was the world’s northernmost swimming pool, being careful not to tread on its northernmost lawn. Before coming here I’d expected Pyramiden to feel lonely and intimidating, but instead it’s been beautiful, fun even.

Clearly, there’s been no shortage of fun in Pyramiden. On the way out of town, we pass the ‘bottle house’, a strange structure that was built almost entirely from empty beer bottles in 1983. This bizarre, psychedelic hut is now used occasionally for picnics. We push on for another hour or so, along the treeless valley towards the edge of Bertil; the peak of Mount Pyramiden still soaking up rays above us.

I’m glad of the chance to feel the warmth of the Pyramiden Hotel for one last time before leaving. Glad too that Dina Balkarova is on hand to serve me a bowl of hearty soup as we shrug off Bertil’s lingering chill. The 26-year-old was drafted up here from Barentsburg to help with the Civil Twilight shoot, but when she’s not pouring drinks and serving meals, she finds time to explore the town. This is partly out of curiosity, but also because she likes to sample the acoustics, she explains. “My real profession isn’t a bartender,” she says with a nervous laugh. “I love to sing opera.” Dina tells me she’d recently spent time down at the harbour’s oil tanks, testing her powerful voice’s interaction with the old metal. 

When I finally leave Pyramiden, my boat passes those same rusty containers. Of all the strange things in this strange town, the one that sticks with me longest is one I hadn’t even witnessed — it’s the echoing voice of Dina, the lone soprano, singing for ghosts at the top of the world. 

Essentials

Getting there
Norwegian and SAS both fly from the UK to Longyearbyen via Oslo.
Average flight time: 6h.
From Longyearbyen, Arctic Explorer runs regular cruises to Pyramiden, either for day trips or overnight stays.

When to go
To take advantage of the excellent hikes around Pyramiden, and to increase the chance of seeing a polar bear, visit between April and the end of September. Winter is the best time for a snowmobile safari and the chance to see the Northern Lights.

Further information
visitnorway.com
visitsvalbard.com

How to do it
Grumant Arctic Travel Company, based in Barentsburg, offers everything from day trips, to multi-day adventures in and around Pyramiden with a choice of accommodation including the Pyramiden Hotel, where a Soviet-style room costs from £73 per person, per night. A guided trek to the top of Yggdrasilkampen costs from £44 per person. Alternatively a two-day snowmobile tour in winter starts from £254.

In Longyearbyen, stay at the newly-renovated Funken Lodge, where doubles cost from £150 per night.

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Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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