Day 12: Barentsburg/Pyramiden
Good news! The midnight sun did not keep us from falling asleep. After our alarms rang at 7am, we had a quick Coal Miner’s breakfast and were soon thereafter picked up for a day of exploring Svalbard on an Arctic Explorer cruise.
We opted for the full-day Explorer tour which took us all over the Isfjorden region, punctuated by amazing scenery, a glacier, various wildlife sightings, and a double-header of Russian mining towns in various degrees of operation — Barentsburg to the south, and Pyramiden to the north.
The catamaran left Longyearbyen at 9am, heading south to Barentsburg. Seeing as it is the Arctic, and the boat was going upwards of 20 knots, it got pretty chilly in the wind. Good thing they offered us those snazzy warm jump suits! It was also cloudy and overcast, but not rainy, so we’ll take it!
Once we arrived in Barentsburg, we disembarked and explored the town, starting with a guided tour. While legally controlled by Norway, Barentsburg is basically Russia. I mean, there is a bust of Lenin in the town square.
As a currently active mining town of 400 people owned by Russia, it is not surprising the place has a lot of old Russian influences. There is a school (which, by the way, looks WAY bigger than necessary for the 70 kids who live there), a brewery (no longer the northernmost, thanks to Longyearbyen), and a hospital. The hospital only has four doctors — whom our guide says don’t even know how to use all the fancy equipment — but that’s OK because no one is allowed to give birth or die anywhere on Svalbard.
After Barentsburg, we boarded the boat and headed back to Longyearbyen, sailing along the coast to check out the mining “ghost” town of Grumant and the nearby Green Mountains.
We used the rest of the time time to eat some lunch, drink some hot beverages, and start on the blog. Some people were left back in Barentsburg (on purpose, presumably, because they were trekking back), and nearly everybody else from the small group of passengers ended their trip back in Longyearbyen.
But, a handful of people stayed on the boat with us for the day’s second tour — a trip north to see the NordenskiÃƒÂ¶ld Glacier up close and the now-defunct (and mostly abandoned) Russian mining town Pyramiden.
Plenty of new people showed up as well (about 70) because a mathematics conference of some sort is in town (really?) and apparently, they all had this afternoon free to go on an excursion.
Unlike Barentsburg, which is still functioning, Pyramiden was closed and abandoned in 1996. Last-owned by Russia (yep, they also have a Lenin bust and all the Communist fixins’), the city features buildings that are still standing and open for tours, but otherwise forgotten by time and left to the elements.
Pyramiden is probably one of the strangest places you can visit, considering it was a self-sufficient, company-run town (in the ARCTIC!) that was trying to “prove” the value of Socialst government. Coal miners would willingly work here for a hearty salary on a two-year contract, bringing their wives and families to live and work in the town. Housing, food, sports, and everything else was included (although sometime doled out based on class and/or mining effort).
Since its closing, the same coal mining company that owned the town has kept it open for tours. There is even a hotel that somehow attracts enough visitors to stay open. A grand total of ten people live here during the summer season, and only two residents stay all year to maintain the hotel — a very “The Shinning-esque” job.
The last fun fact about Pyramiden is that it is — by a matter of degrees — the farthest north we’ll be on this trip. The exact latitude is 78-something (40, maybe?), but it looks like they just rounded that up to 79 degrees for the official landmark in the town square.
As we finished up the tour in Pyramiden and sailed away, the sun started to come out, allowing us to see the tops of the mountains that were partially hidden earlier.
The wildlife seemed the appreciate the sunshine as well, as we spotted a variety of critters on the way back to Longyearbyen. First, some polar bears on a rocky outcrop, then a breaching whale amid some birds feedeing. Just as we were about to pull into the dock in Longyearbyen, we saw pods of beluga whales as well!
By the time the trip ended at 8:45pm (but daylight that felt more like 5pm), we were driven via bus back to our lodging at the Coal Miner’s Cabins — which now feels much more appropriate! We headed straight to the lounge and ordered up the delicious looking ribs and chicken.
Afterwards, we kicked back with another round of Spitsbergen brews (trying the IPA tonight), relaxed in the comfy chairs, and enjoyed the excellent musical taste they have at this establishment. Tomorrow, we’ll spend a little more time in Svalbard in the morning, but in the afternoon, we’ll be exiting the land of the midnight sun.