Pyramiden, Spitsbergen

  
  - darkometer rating:  8 -  
  
A ghost town on Spitsbergen, Svalbard, that used to be the remote settlement surrounding the Russian coal mine of the same name. Abandoned in 1998, the place is now a time capsule of "USSR-ness", including the world's northernmost Lenin bust and various other relics of the Soviet era. The location and glacial backdrop are unique too. Independent travel to this remote place is theoretically possible, but adventurous and restricted. However, in the summer season you can go quite comfortably on regular, organized boat excursions from Longyearbyen, which include a guided tour on the ground that takes visitors around this most magical Arctic ghost town for a good two hours or so. An outstanding experience! 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  
More background info: Don't be fooled by the name: Pyramiden (or "Piramida", if transliterated from the Russian) has nothing at all to do with ancient Egyptian architectural monuments, but takes its name simply from the shape of the mountain it is located neaxt to. What's inside this mountain also provided the reason for a settlement to be built here in the first place: coal mining.
 
Pyramiden was one of those Soviet coal mining communities that Norway (under whose sovereignty Svalbard is) allowed the Russians to maintain here, as agreed under the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920. A Swedish company was there first but was soon bought out by the Soviet Union. Unlike the other big Russian mining town Barentsburg (see under Svalbard) Pyramiden escaped destruction by the Germans in WWII, and in the post-war years was further developed into the most important place of its kind in the whole archipelago.
 
During the Cold War, the Soviets turned their outposts on Svalbard into socialist "model villages". Well-funded by the Kremlin, Pyramiden was regarded as the most splendid of them all. During its heyday more than a thousand inhabitants populated this enclave and enjoyed all manner of privileges and wages way above average compared to the Soviet mainland.
 
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, this level of support largely ended too, since the propagandistic value of keeping such an outpost going had diminished as much as the funds had. At the same time, coal mining at Pyramiden became less and less economically viable too so the place was doomed.
 
In 1998, the state-owned ex-Soviet, now Russian coal mining company Arktikugol ('Arctic Coal') gave up Pyramiden for good. The settlement was quickly abandoned, leaving behind the empty ghost town of today. It is still under Russian lease though.
 
Over the decade or so since its closure, empty Pyramiden became an increasingly popular destination for curious tourists, however. And trips to this mysterious ghost town are now a regular fixture amongst the offerings of tour operators in Svalbard.
 
Indeed, travellers' interest in Pyramiden prompted the Russians to consider developing the town more for tourism and for this reason it even has a few permanent residents again. The former hotel of the town is said to be under refurbishment and may reopen at some point. Already you can visit the bar and have a (cheap) Russky vodka in front of a Russian flag and all manner of other Russian-ness.
 
 
What there is to see: The mining ghost town of Pyramiden is without any doubt one of the most intriguing places of this type in Europe. Not only is it an abandoned place, its location is also extremely remote and at the same time incredibly scenic given the glacial backdrop.
 
The mine itself is unusual, by the way, in that the actual coal mine shafts enter the mountain high up on the slope more than halfway towards the summit. This explains the curious structures going up the mountainside diagonally like some kind of covered funicular – which it basically is – to reach the actual mine shaft entrances. The whole set-up looks very surreal, almost sci-fi-like.
 
You can see this iconic diagonal structure on the mountain from afar as you approach the place by boat. As you get closer you can make out houses and the harbour pier. The latter still has the huge coal-loading bridge, now slowly rusting away. Further north stands the former power station for the town and mine, now silent. On the pier there is the first Soviet-style marker spelling out the name of the place in Cyrillic. Also on the pier there are a couple of blue containers with windows – these are for temporary lodging … some hardened adventurers can rent bunk beds here (see below).
 
If you are on an organized tour, like most visitors to this remote place, then you will be met at the pier by a Russian guide and a small bus. The latter is needed to take you into the town itself, which is quite a distance from the pier.
 
The first stop is by the much-photographed memorial stele near the edge of town. This spells the name out in both Cyrillic and Latin script and at its base stands a coal trolley containing what the Russian inscription on the side claims is the very last load of a ton of coal extracted at Pyramiden on 31 March 1998 just before the mine was closed for good.
 
The you are walked into the ghost town proper. The first highlight is that famous Lenin bust in the square in front of the sports and cultural centre. Our guide, too young to possibly have many active memories of the USSR himself, quipped: "I want you to meet my old friend Vladimir!"
 
This no ordinary Lenin bust – it is the world's northernmost … the very furthest outpost of Marxist-Leninist communism, at least symbolically speaking. In the vicinity of the great old man's head are also some more examples of old-style Soviet symbolism, hammer and sickle and all. And one big "Arktikugol Spitsbergen" sign with a polar bear on top proudly proclaims the location as 79 degrees north (well, it's nearly correct, just not quite).
 
The next – and in my memory the best – highlight is entering the former cultural centre. This is an urban-explorer-cum-Soviet-relic-hunter's paradise. I loved it. There were old socialist realist propaganda posters, garish but now crumbling 1970s style decorations, balalaikas on the wood-panelled walls, as well as photos from the glory days, when theatre and concert performances were a regular treat for the inhabitants. Now the grand piano on the stage of the main auditorium stands silent and forlorn on the empty stage in front of empty seats. You will have guessed it: this is the world's northernmost grand piano!
 
Poking around in the deserted rooms upstairs more relics from the olden days could be found amongst the dead plants and general rubble. For instance I found some photos and magazines celebrating the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (after whom the centre was named). Very endearing was also an old sign praising the good neighbourly relations of the USSR with the Norwegians.
 
I could have spent hours in this building alone. But after only ca. 20 minutes or so, we were hastily ushered outside again by the guide to continue the tour. Now walking back along the main square/street towards the sea we passed several old-style buildings of decidedly Russian character … these could have been in Siberia, or indeed anywhere in Russia. Other buildings, in contrast, could have been just anywhere in the world. These are the more modern three- or four-storey former residential apartment blocks. And these are pretty faceless – except for the odd feature that all the four corners of the outside walls are rounded. That's because of the frequent high winds in these parts, so it was explained to us.
 
The exteriors of most of the buildings of the former settlement look remarkably intact, by the way. This is probably due to the fact that decay is slow in these Arctic climatic conditions. You also notice that all the houses are built on stilts, i.e. they do not otherwise touch the ground. This is because of the permafrost: if the buildings were built straight on the ground rather than on these stilts that are driven deep into it, then the heating coming from the houses would slowly melt the frozen soil below and they would slowly disappear into the ground  …
 
The residential apartment blocks are as empty as almost all other buildings here too – but the windows have new occupants: hundreds of seagulls who use the windowsills for nesting. At the time of my visit (1 August 2012) many of the chicks were just about ready to start flying, flapping their wings in preparatory practice … younger ones just poked their head out of the nest or were being fed by their parents. Avian family life in an otherwise lifeless place.
 
What would have been a centre of social life for the human inhabitants of Pyramiden in its active days is the former canteen, which was the next port of call on the guided tour. Again, the place was full of wonderful discoveries to be made: from the large Arctic-themed mosaic in the central staircase to the empty food counters or the huge abandoned ex-kitchen.
 
Finally the group is led to the only place where there still is life in Pyramiden: the former hotel, which is where the current few residents looking after the place live. It also functions as a post office – tourists can send postcards with Russian stamps from here.
 
On the ground floor is also the bar – which is possibly the liveliest, no: the only lively spot in Pyramiden today. You can buy relatively cheap drinks here (compared to Norwegian price-levels everything here was certainly a bargain) such as Russian vodka or international-brand beers etc. and also a few snacks and sweets. Some typically Russian souvenirs were on offer too, including the unavoidable matryoshka dolls. The national flag of Russia was flying at the bar as well!
 
In the rooms behind the bar area is a stuffy old museum of sorts that visitors can freely wander around in. It mostly contains collages of faded photos from the great old Soviet glory days of the mine, but also a few stuffed animals, including, predictably, a polar bear.
 
Far less predictable was something that was actually still alive – it was pointed out to me by one of the Russians who was standing at the bar when we got there. He took me to a secluded corner-window of the room and there it was: surely the world's northernmost tomato plant. It was bearing exactly one red ripe tomato fruit. Like some last beacon of the communist endeavour in this forlorn outpost … – holding up the Soviet colour against the stream of history …
 
Then it was time to leave, and we went outside again with cheeks still glowing from all this endearing weirdness … or maybe just from the heating indoors being cranked up so high. Russians do like it overheated!
 
The bus then took the visitor group back to the pier and soon we were sailing off again leaving Pyramiden behind as we headed towards Nordenskjøld glacier (see below).
 
All in all: in my memory Pyramiden ranks as one of the coolest places I have ever been to – a definite highlight of all the travels I undertook that year (and there were some serious contenders in that year such as Uyuni, Chacabuco or the Titan Missile silo!). No doubt, it is quite an extreme destination and not at all cheap to get to. But I found it was worth every penny.
 
 
Location: a good 30 miles (50 km) up the Isfjorden and Billefjorden bay north of Longyearbyen, at roughly 79 degrees north (!), on Spitsbergen, Svalbard.

Google maps locator:[78.67,16.42]
  
 
Access and costs: very remote indeed, but regular boat tours to the place are offered during the summer season from Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Otherwise it's an adventure getting there overland. Either way not cheap.
 
Details: There are tour operators on Spitsbergen that regularly offer excursions to Pyramiden, even ones including overnight stays in the place, but that's much more the exception than the rule.
 
Otherwise, and most comfortably, you can go on a day return excursion by boat from Longyearbyen in the summer season (see Svalbard). The ca. ten-hour trip also takes in the bluish icy glacier front of the Nordenskjøldbreen. When I went in August 2012, I did so with the MS "Polar Girl" operated by Polar Charter – and booked through Spitsbergen Travel. The cost for the trip is currently (as of 2012) 1450 NOK per person, including pick-up and drop-off at your hotel/guest house, the English-language guided tour in Pyramiden, plus another Russian but English-speaking guide accompanying the group on the boat pointing out various things to look out for on the way … oh, and also included is a warm lunch on board. There's also a bar in the saloon on the boat, but drinks are not included in the price. You don't have to buy anything, though, and can use this indoor seating area simply for warming up. By the way: you'll need warm and preferably waterproof clothing, a warm hat and good boots, not just for being on deck but also for Pyramiden itself!
   
Note also that these trips take place only on about three days of the week, so check ahead to co-ordinate it with other activities and excursions while in Svalbard.
 
Incidentally: if for an alternate day you book the boat tour to Barentsburg (see Svalbard) with the same company, then you may qualify for a discount – we got 300 NOK off the second trip per person. In any case it is advisable to book well in advance especially if you do not have much flexibility with your time. Tours may be booked up early – or not run at all because there aren't enough takers (12 is officially the minimum number) or if the weather doesn't allow it.
 
Longer trips to Pyramiden can also be made by snowmobile when snow and ice conditions allow for it (i.e. not in summer). Basic bunk-bed accommodation is provided for by those blue containers by the pier and places can be booked as part of such overnighting trips. While the bunks as such may be comparatively affordable (400 to 900 NOK per person), the whole package including transport and guiding is anything but cheap. Prices I found quoted included a 1250 EUR per person package for a three-day excursion to Pyramiden from Longyearbyen … (that is: on top of the significant travel and accommodation costs incurred there).
 
In theory there's nothing to stop you making your own way to Pyramiden – provided you have the means (most likely a boat, or, in winter, snowmobile) and the prescribed armament: for any independent excursion beyond Longyearbyen you need to have a suitable large-calibre rifle that you know how to use, and you have to have this officially approved by the governor's office.
 
However, such an individual adventure is hardly advisable. Polar bears are a much greater danger in the built-up environs of such a ghost town where they cannot necessarily be spotted from a distance (and they have been reported to occasionally poke around inside Pyramiden's buildings too). Many of the decaying buildings themselves also pose risks as they may be structurally unsafe – and there is apparently no liability insurance to cover you, neither on the part of the Arktikugol company nor the Russian or Norwegian governments, if you simply go on your own.
  
You are not allowed to enter any buildings of your own accord anyway. And some vandalism that has occurred in recent years further underscores why that has to be so. So unless you are a) an experienced Arctic explorer with a big gun and no fear of polar bears, and b) are willing to poke around on your own and thus go against the wishes of the Russian owners (and the few residents there), then you will have to go on one of those organized tours described above. Most tourists will anyway. These last few paragraphs are just meant as a word of caution for the more adventurously minded.
 
 
Time required: The regular boat tours last ca. ten hours, with ca. two to three hours spent actually in Pyramiden town. Overland trips by snowmobile take significantly longer, of course, and even require overnight stopovers. But that way you may be able to explore this fantastic place in more detail than on the regular guided tour by boat.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: the other large Russian mining town on Svalbard is Barentsburg, and the same companies offering Pyramiden tours also go there as part of a different excursion. You can also get there independently, in theory, and even stay over in its hotel/guest house. Unlike Pyramiden, Barentsburg is not (yet) a ghost town, although its population is also drastically down from what it used to be and continues to shrink. The place too features a Lenin bust and various relics of socialist realism propaganda from the Soviet days – though it can't quite compete with Pyramiden for atmosphere. For more see under Svalbard.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see under Svalbard – the regular boat trips to Pyramiden also include a dip further north still, namely to the front of the Nordenskjøld glacier, which is a cool sight as well … cool in more than one way, in fact! Not only is the blue wall of ice a mesmerizing sight to behold. At almost 80 degrees north this is also probably the northernmost that any regular tourist will ever be able to go … beyond lies truly Arctic expedition territory, out of the reach of tourism proper (other than those extreme Arctic "cruises", one of which even goes to the North Pole itself – see under Murmansk!)
 
In the fjord's northern end, in and around the waters by the glacier, you also get a good chance to spot some wildlife – we saw bearded seals (the largest in the northern hemisphere), spotted seals, and plenty of birds … but neither killer whales nor polar bears.
 
Speaking of polar bears … many people wish they might see one or two of these mighty beasts of the Arctic on such a trip. Don't! The guides carry guns for a reason! No close encounter with a polar bear is ever a good thing, for either side – see under Svalbard! In fact, it absolutely has to be avoided. When I was in Pyramiden, they said that two polar bears had been sighted only a few miles away the day before, and that was just about deemed safe enough. However, the manager of the boat charter company that I got talking to on the way back said that there had recently been a tour that couldn't even land in Pyramiden, because two polar bears paraded up and down the very road that tourist groups have to take to get from the harbour pier to the town. And the operators wouldn't take the risk. So the boat had to return.
 
So – if you're after seeing Pyramiden, then wish for the absence of polar bears. And if you really want to see polar bears in the wild, then rather travel to Canada instead – there are special polar bear safaris offered from Churchill on the Hudson Bay.
    
    

 

  • Pyramiden 01 - seen from the fjordPyramiden 01 - seen from the fjord
  • Pyramiden 02 - arrival at the pierPyramiden 02 - arrival at the pier
  • Pyramiden 03 - mapPyramiden 03 - map
  • Pyramiden 04 - first sign by the pierPyramiden 04 - first sign by the pier
  • Pyramiden 05 - main markerPyramiden 05 - main marker
  • Pyramiden 06 - the last batch of coal minedPyramiden 06 - the last batch of coal mined
  • Pyramiden 07 - the coal minePyramiden 07 - the coal mine
  • Pyramiden 08 - near the top of the hillPyramiden 08 - near the top of the hill
  • Pyramiden 09 - derelictPyramiden 09 - derelict
  • Pyramiden 10 - old mine entrancePyramiden 10 - old mine entrance
  • Pyramiden 11 - fitting for a ghost townPyramiden 11 - fitting for a ghost town
  • Pyramiden 12 - the northernmost Lenin bust in the worldPyramiden 12 - the northernmost Lenin bust in the world
  • Pyramiden 13 - armed guard looking out for polar bearsPyramiden 13 - armed guard looking out for polar bears
  • Pyramiden 14 - in the old cultural centrePyramiden 14 - in the old cultural centre
  • Pyramiden 15 - glory daysPyramiden 15 - glory days
  • Pyramiden 16 - abandoned most northern grand pianoPyramiden 16 - abandoned most northern grand piano
  • Pyramiden 17 - good old neigh-bear-ly relationsPyramiden 17 - good old neigh-bear-ly relations
  • Pyramiden 18 - past glories of the Soviet eraPyramiden 18 - past glories of the Soviet era
  • Pyramiden 19 - this plant has not been watered in a long whilePyramiden 19 - this plant has not been watered in a long while
  • Pyramiden 20 - empty buildings, derelict minePyramiden 20 - empty buildings, derelict mine
  • Pyramiden 21 - bear territory at 79 degrees northPyramiden 21 - bear territory at 79 degrees north
  • Pyramiden 22 - glacial backdropPyramiden 22 - glacial backdrop
  • Pyramiden 23 - old apartment blocks only inhabited by seagulls these daysPyramiden 23 - old apartment blocks only inhabited by seagulls these days
  • Pyramiden 24 - nesting seagullsPyramiden 24 - nesting seagulls
  • Pyramiden 25 - crumblingPyramiden 25 - crumbling
  • Pyramiden 26 - former canteenPyramiden 26 - former canteen
  • Pyramiden 27 - no more foodPyramiden 27 - no more food
  • Pyramiden 28 - the kitchen remains coldPyramiden 28 - the kitchen remains cold
  • Pyramiden 29 - but the bar is open and operationalPyramiden 29 - but the bar is open and operational
  • Pyramiden 30 - a pocket of Russia with cheap boozePyramiden 30 - a pocket of Russia with cheap booze
  • Pyramiden 31 - the northernmost tomato plant in the worldPyramiden 31 - the northernmost tomato plant in the world
  • Pyramiden 32 - old museum next to the barPyramiden 32 - old museum next to the bar
  • Pyramiden 33 - back at the pierPyramiden 33 - back at the pier
  • Pyramiden 34 - departurePyramiden 34 - departure

    

    

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.
More information Ok Decline