Pyramiden – an Arctic ghost town

I’m in Pyramiden, once a showcase of the Soviet Union, a perfect mining community, set between mountains, glaciers and fjords in the Svalbard archipelago. Today, it’s an Arctic ghost town.

Pyramiden is an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

The decision to abandon the settlement was sudden, its implementation even more so. The inhabitants were given just hours to pack their bags and leave. Remnants of that hasty departure are visible everywhere. The only remaining Russian settlement in Svalbard now is the peculiarly interesting little community of Barentsburg.

As we walk the few metres from the harbour into town, our guide Constance has a rifle casually slung across her shoulder. A necessary precaution, as polar bears often roam the streets of this abandoned outpost. The sun is surprisingly warm and we unzip our fleece and windbreakers. It’s hard to imagine a polar bear in this weather but Constance spotted one only a couple of weeks ago right where we stand.

Sea gulls have taken over Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

A large yellow block of flats, once home of miners and their families, has been taken over by loud predating sea gulls nesting on window sills. Flowers can still be spotted behind a broken window – all dried up now.

Sea gulls have taken over the playground at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

Rusted playground swings and slides are also taken over by incessantly cackling gulls. What nature gives, nature takes back. Nowhere have I seen this better illustrated than here.

An abandoned petrol pump at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

A petrol pump is left standing.

Entrance to Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

The red, star-topped pyramid was erected as the entrance to this Arctic community,

Abandoned mining car at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

Miners’ cars were left behind. The final load of coal was brought out of the mountains on 31 March 1998.

Abandoned school at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

Painted on the wall of the abandoned school, is a scene from a fairy tale. It’s as if I can hear children playing and laughing. Then it fades, like a dream. Fertile ground for the imagination up here.

The public library of this little community counted 50 000 books: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and much more. Not for the first time, I marvel at the literary interest of the average Russian. For a moment, I’m brought back to a cold winter night in St Petersburg, back when it was called Leningrad, discussing Ibsen with a drunk on a street corner. Even though Ibsen was my fellow countryman, he knew more than me.

Pyramiden was a self-sufficient community, including a ranch with pigs and cattle. Cats aren’t normally allowed on Svalbard as they threaten the indigenous wildlife, but Pyramiden had many to combat the rats and mice that naturally come with livestock. In the hurry to leave Pyramiden, the cats were left behind. When a cleaning crew arrived a few weeks later, they found them all dead. A metal sunflower marks the cats’ grave.

Cat grave marker at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.
Cat grave, Pyramiden

It’s a bit surreal, walking along the avenues of this Soviet ghost town with Vladimir Ilyitch Uljanov looking down at me from his pedestal. This is the world’s northernmost statue of Lenin.

World's northernmost statue of Lenin at Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.

But rumour has it, plans are underway to shine it up, reopen the hotel and recreate Pyramiden as a tourist destination. Could be something to that. When we docked at the harbour, three men were there to clean the place up and collect newly introduced docking fees.

Pyramid-shaped mountain - Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway.
Pyramiden was named after the characteristic pyramid-shaped mountain rising above it.

Pyramiden is surrounded with mountains, the bright blue waters of the fjord and the magnificent Nordenskiöld Glacier. Yeah… I can see myself coming back for a bit of hiking.

Nordenskiöld Glacier, Svalbard
Nordenskiöld Glacier

58 Responses to “Pyramiden – an Arctic ghost town”

  1. Italian Notes 18 August 2011 0905 #

    What a fascinating, deserted-dangerous place. I’m sure the library must contain a volume of TS Eliot’s Waste Land.
    Italian Notes recently posted..Me and Amalfi

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 18 August 2011 0910 #

      @ItalianNotes – Mette, that’s a fascinating thought… shanti, shanti, shanti…

  2. jade 18 August 2011 0911 #

    ooh, the pump picture is a little scary!!
    jade recently posted..…The Kids Aren’t Permanently Damaged

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1219 #

      Looks very desolate, doesn’t it…

  3. Christian 18 August 2011 1143 #

    Wow, the places you go to! You’re my hero you know…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1220 #

      Thanks :)
      Though it’s not that far from where I live, you know…

  4. Sensibletraveler 18 August 2011 1442 #

    Totally looks like a post-apocalypse movie set…or the real thing!
    Sensibletraveler recently posted..Photo of the Week: Grand Marais

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1523 #

      It does a bit…

  5. Cathy Sweeney 18 August 2011 2123 #

    Sophie, this is such an interesting story about the kind of place I would love to visit. It seems that there are several surprising places in Russia that are being talked about as tourist destinations lately. Your conversation with the drunk about Ibsen is very intriguing, too. Such experiences you’ve had!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1523 #

      Thanks, Cathy :)

  6. Denise 19 August 2011 0803 #

    The mountains are such a beautiful backdrop!
    Denise recently posted..How do you Slow Travel?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1524 #

      Stark and beautiful up here near the North Pole.

  7. Green Beauty Girl 19 August 2011 1445 #

    The mountains and the glaciers are stunning.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1524 #

      :)

  8. Turkey's For Life 19 August 2011 1504 #

    Wow, you see some interesting places, Sophie. This looks eerily beautiful – almost a shame if they spruce it up, in a funny kind of way.
    Julia
    Turkey’s For Life recently posted..Whirling Dervishes – Ramazan in Fethiye

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2011 1600 #

      @Julia – I think I know what you mean. Sort of a monument to the past best left as is…

  9. Jody 19 August 2011 1635 #

    Wow… Just wow. It’s incredible to me that the town was just abandoned. Usually ghost towns fade away but this one… it’s almost like Pompeii, but without the lava.
    Jody recently posted..The Beauty of the Burren

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1525 #

      Yes, caused by humans, rather than nature…

  10. wandering educators 19 August 2011 1827 #

    how eerie!! were you spooked at all? that mural on the wall is incredible.
    wandering educators recently posted..Khumjung School Golden Jubilee

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2011 1922 #

      @wandering educators – not so much spooky as… well, a feeling of sadness perhaps… the buildings, the town, the playground – obviously built for modern human habitation, yet no one lived there anymore. The abandoned school was the most evocative, I thought. Bit like one of those films where you hear children of the past, voices fading…

  11. James Cook 19 August 2011 2259 #

    A great article! Is there any reason for it being abandoned though?
    James
    James Cook recently posted..Getting To Know Malaysian Food at Lazat

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 August 2011 0012 #

      @James – Yes. Sadly, the Russians couldn’t afford to keep the mine going.

  12. Shirlene from Idelish 20 August 2011 0342 #

    I felt sad but yet intrigued when reading about this place. It’s so full of history and I do hope the “tourist destination” effort does not take away from its original “feel”!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1526 #

      It really is an intriguing place, in so many ways.

  13. loved this post! i think you summed it up with the word ‘surreal’. wow, what a crazy experience! how did all the cats die out of interest? seeing a polar bear just mozy on down a street would be just a whole other level of surreal on top of everything!
    jamie – cloud people adventures recently posted..Rio Dulce, Guatemala – Lomography

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 August 2011 0630 #

      @Jamie – Thanks. The cats were left behind and it’s assumed the poor things starved to death or were killed by polar bears.

  14. Sonja 20 August 2011 0706 #

    I kind of got the creeps looking at the pictures. Just seems so eery and forgotten. But you’re right, it’s really just sad.
    Sonja recently posted..Photo Friday: The Berlin Wall

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1533 #

      Sad, yet interesting.

  15. Dominique 20 August 2011 1305 #

    Fascinating to see how nature takes over after humans vacate a location. Reminds me a bit of a No Reservations episode I saw on television, where Bourdain visited Chernobyl.
    Dominique recently posted..Photo Friday: Traverse City Beach Bums team mascots

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1527 #

      Would really like to visit Chernobyl.

  16. Abby 20 August 2011 2132 #

    That is so cool.
    Abby recently posted..Surreal Sin City Skyline

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1527 #

      Certainly an unusual place…

  17. latinAbroad 22 August 2011 1451 #

    Wow, truly amazing – I am speechless! The pictures tell a story in themselves
    latinAbroad recently posted..Panama adventures: Trip report (hammock and sailboat avail)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1528 #

      Yes, especially the child’s painting, I think…

  18. Christy @ Technosyncratic 24 August 2011 1112 #

    Wow, how stark and… eerie.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..A Canal Ride through Central London

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1528 #

      Eerie, indeed.

  19. Suzy 11 September 2011 1430 #

    It’s pretty remarkable you have experienced an Arctic ghost town. Too bad they are getting ready to turn into into a tourist haven. There is something much more powerful about it abandoned and left, as it were.
    Suzy recently posted..Khiva, Uzbekistan Wishes You Were Here

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1529 #

      It’s still left as it was, so we’ll see about those plans…

  20. Dian Emery 12 September 2011 1642 #

    I have a fascination for ghost towns. They’re like an abandoned house except even more eerie, spooky and sad.
    Dian Emery recently posted..An Insider’s Guide to Shopping in Madrid Spain

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1530 #

      Yes, me too. Evocative places, ghost towns.

  21. Christina 14 September 2011 2348 #

    Wow, how you get to go to all these really extraordinary places! Thanks for sharing your experience in Pyramiden – I guess off the beaten track doesn’t really cut it for this one :) Your photos give me goosebumps!
    Christina recently posted..Campsite review: Cascade Creek DOC campsite, Fjordland

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1530 #

      Thanks for stopping by, Christina.

  22. Mehmet 16 September 2011 0323 #

    Fantastic place. I had never heard about it before. Would love to wander into the buildings, to see what I would come across.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1531 #

      Yes, me too. Would love to see the library, especially.

  23. Nancie 16 October 2011 0152 #

    Interesting post Sophie. The town looks very eerie; something you might see in a sci-fi movie.
    Nancie recently posted..Travel Photo Thursday — October 13, 2011 — Sun and Sand in South East Asia

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1531 #

      It is slightly sci-fi, isn’t it?

  24. Andrew 28 October 2011 2117 #

    What an interesting place. I know Svalbard from the Pullman stories as parts of the Golden Compass take place in his version of the place. Polar bears being featured there as well.
    So are the books then still there? I can’t imagine that given hours and forgetting cats that they would have had time to take the books, but seriously I also can’t think of leaving them either. And that is sad about the cats.
    Andrew recently posted..Typically German, yet little known.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1532 #

      Yes, somehow, that little cat grave was the most moving, I thought.

  25. Lori 30 October 2011 1502 #

    Wow – I had no idea about this city. Interesting, very interesting. And good tips – regarding precaution measures “against” polar bears.

    Interesting facts also – with the public library and so on. Congratulations for this great post! Really liked it (posted also on StumbleUpon ;) )
    Lori recently posted..Photo of the week: Johannesburg, South Africa seen from a car

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1217 #

      Thanks, Lori :)

  26. Travel Tamed 19 October 2012 1417 #

    Wow, this is a scary place – i would never visit such place, it reminds me of Tchernobyl :/
    There are also people living this days?
    Travel Tamed recently posted..UK Travel Guide

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 1215 #

      No, no one lives there now. Everyone was told to pack up and leave abruptly and it has been empty since.

  27. Andy 26 November 2012 1920 #

    Really looking forward to going to Svalbard early next year. Will definitely try to get to Pyramiden. In my ‘proper job’ as a translator I have translated lots of documents related to pollution up there, it was pretty disturbing reading but they are certainly making a real effort to clean it up. Looks fascinating – do have a big thing for ghost towns…
    Andy recently posted..Been there, haven’t done that – 5 things you shouldn’t miss in Rome

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    […] “The decision to abandon the settlement was sudden, its implementation even more so. The inhabitants were given just hours to pack their bags and leave. Remnants of that hasty departure are visible everywhere” (http://www.sophiesworld.net/pyramiden-arctic-ghosttown-svalbard/). […]

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