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
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
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 next 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
, 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 two decades 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. [UPDATE: the hotel has meanwhile indeed opened, so you can now stay overnight if you so wish, though I presume you will be either bound to stay indoors, due to the risk of encountering polar bears outside, or, as in the rest of Svalbard, will have to have your own bear-grade gun and proof that you know how to use it!]
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 day return 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.
Then 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 is 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 eventually 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 this ghost town: the Pyramiden 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
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.
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 2019) 1800 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!