Cruise to Pyramiden, Svalbard’s Russian Ghost Town

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Cruise to Pyramiden, Svalbard’s Russian Ghost Town

In the town of Pyramiden in the Svalbard archipelago, between Norway and the North Pole, you’ll see brick and wood apartment buildings, homes and weather-beaten factories – all evidence of a successful mining industry. What you won’t see is people. The now-abandoned town has been given over to sea gulls, arctic foxes and polar bears. Accessible via snowmobile or boat, this far northern, poignant Russian ghost town begs your attention. Here’s what to know about your cruise to Pyramiden in the Arctic Circle.

Where and What Is Pyramiden?
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Pyramiden is at the foot of the Billefjorden on the island of Spitsbergen in the archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. It was founded by Sweden in 1910. In 1927, Pyramiden was sold to the Soviet Union – and for the next seven decades, hearty Soviet miners unearthed the remote area’s coal deposits for Trust Arktikugol. In the 1980s, the community had a population of more than 1,000. That all ended in the late 1990s when the mining operation came to a sudden halt. Within just a few months, there wasn’t a soul left in Pyramiden. With the falling price of coal and well as the difficulty in extracting it from the pyramid shaped mountain – coupled with the air disaster that claimed 141 lives – fate had dealt this remote Russian settlement a losing hand.

What Is It Like to Visit Pyramiden?
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Ghost town, indeed. When you tour Pyramiden, prepare to feel like you’ve stepped into a Arctic Circle time machine. It becomes quickly apparent that when the residents left this Russian settlement, they did so quickly. There are still newspaper clippings hanging on walls, cups on tables and skis left behind. There’s an indoor swimming pool and a cultural center representing Soviet-era architecture. Many of the building are just the way they were in 1998 and 1999 when the town was abandoned. An eerie statue of Lenin watches over the Russian ghost town – and nearby, the Nordenskiold Glacier.

 

You may meet one of the handful of people who now live here to support the tourist industry. They work at the Pyramiden Hotel or as guides. During the winter, even fewer stay on to maintain the building and power generators.

 
There’s a Hotel in Pyramiden? How Can I Stay There?
 

Yes, indeed. You can stay at the Pyramiden Hotel and learn all about the settlement’s storied past, while enjoying hearty borsch and locally brewed beer. Next to the impressive glacier, the hotel offers 28 modern guest rooms and 5 suites, as well as a restaurant and souvenir shop. Breakfast is included and lunch and dinner are both offered a la carte.

 

To delve further into the Svalbard landscape, consider staying at the Nordenskiold Lodge at the foot of its namesake glacier. Hike on the moraine or glacier and even paddle alongside it, looking for wildlife, such as Svalbard reindeer, arctic foxes and perhaps a polar bear. Relax in the sauna and listen for the cracking sounds and loud roars combing off the mighty glacier.

How Do I Get to Pyramiden?
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During the summer, you can arrive at Pyramiden by boat tour. Several operators in the Svalbard area offer day cruises. You can often sail as early as March to Pyramiden, a great time to marvel at the ice edge, wildlife and the Nordenskiold glacier. Many of the boat tour operators take all day to sail roundtrip from Longyearbyen; there is also a “fast” boat tour that gets you there and back in about six hours, with side trips to Skansbutka and Nordenskioldbreen.

 

During the winter, access to Pyramiden is by snowmobile – there are guided tours available. If you’ve chosen a winter visit, you may be fortunate enough to glimpse the Northern Lights (particularly visible between November and February, when there is no daylight in Longyearbyen).

 
What Will I See at Pyramiden?

On your guided tour of Pyramiden you’ll stop at a memorial near the edge of town containing a historic coal trolley – the inscription claims that this trolley held the last ton of coal extracted from the mine in 1998. Move on to see the statue of Lenin – the world’s northernmost! – and a striking example of old-world Soviet symbolism.

 

Visit the cultural center with its authentic Socialist propaganda paper, 1970s-style décor, photos and even a grand piano. The deserted rooms upstairs in the center contain even more relics, photos and magazines.
You’ll walk aback along the main street, past old-Soviet-style buildings and more modern residential apartment buildings. Notice how intact the exteriors look – it is believed that decay is slower in Arctic conditions. You may explore the old restaurant/bar, where you can still see an Arctic-themed mosaic and the huge, abandoned kitchen.

What Else Can I See Near Pyramiden?
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If you’re on a summer boat tour on an expedition vessel bound for Pyramiden, you may take a detour to Nordenskioldbreen on Spitsbergen island. This massive glacier lets out a beautiful flow of icebergs and ice floes, making for dramatic photography. Your cruise here is perhaps the world’s northernmost fjord boat tour. Along the way, look for whales, seals, seabirds and polar bears. Your expert guides will regale you with tales about the history of Longyearbyen, glacier, arctic wildlife and the Pyramiden ghost town.

 

You might also visit Barentsburg, another small mining settlement but one that is most definitely inhabited. About 450 or so miners live and work here for Trust Arctickugol on the shores of the Gronfjord. In addition to mining, the settlement is now benefiting from the tourism industry. Many who are visiting Longyearbyen come here for a fresh dose of Arctic culture, traditional food, Soviet-era architecture and Russian culture.

 

For a surreal, arctic ghost town experience, put Pyramiden on your list. It’s not everyday you get to explore an abandoned village now inhabited by polar bears, and all at the base of a mighty glacier within the Arctic Circle.

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