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

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67 Comments

  1. Italian Notes 18 August 2011 at 0905 - Reply

    What a fascinating, deserted-dangerous place. I’m sure the library must contain a volume of TS Eliot’s Waste Land.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 18 August 2011 at 0910 - Reply

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

  2. jade 18 August 2011 at 0911 - Reply

    ooh, the pump picture is a little scary!!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1219 - Reply

      Looks very desolate, doesn’t it…

  3. Christian 18 August 2011 at 1143 - Reply

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

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1220 - Reply

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

  4. Sensibletraveler 18 August 2011 at 1442 - Reply

    Totally looks like a post-apocalypse movie set…or the real thing!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1523 - Reply

      It does a bit…

  5. Cathy Sweeney 18 August 2011 at 2123 - Reply

    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 at 1523 - Reply

      Thanks, Cathy 🙂

  6. Denise 19 August 2011 at 0803 - Reply

    The mountains are such a beautiful backdrop!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1524 - Reply

      Stark and beautiful up here near the North Pole.

  7. Green Beauty Girl 19 August 2011 at 1445 - Reply

    The mountains and the glaciers are stunning.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1524 - Reply

      🙂

  8. Turkey's For Life 19 August 2011 at 1504 - Reply

    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

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2011 at 1600 - Reply

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

  9. Jody 19 August 2011 at 1635 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1525 - Reply

      Yes, caused by humans, rather than nature…

  10. wandering educators 19 August 2011 at 1827 - Reply

    how eerie!! were you spooked at all? that mural on the wall is incredible.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2011 at 1922 - Reply

      @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 at 2259 - Reply

    A great article! Is there any reason for it being abandoned though?
    James

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 August 2011 at 0012 - Reply

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

  12. Shirlene from Idelish 20 August 2011 at 0342 - Reply

    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 at 1526 - Reply

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

  13. jamie - cloud people adventures 20 August 2011 at 0601 - Reply

    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!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 August 2011 at 0630 - Reply

      @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 at 0706 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1533 - Reply

      Sad, yet interesting.

  15. Dominique 20 August 2011 at 1305 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1527 - Reply

      Would really like to visit Chernobyl.

  16. Abby 20 August 2011 at 2132 - Reply

    That is so cool.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1527 - Reply

      Certainly an unusual place…

  17. latinAbroad 22 August 2011 at 1451 - Reply

    Wow, truly amazing – I am speechless! The pictures tell a story in themselves

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1528 - Reply

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

  18. Christy @ Technosyncratic 24 August 2011 at 1112 - Reply

    Wow, how stark and… eerie.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1528 - Reply

      Eerie, indeed.

  19. Serenity at Fort Lauderdale Beach with number 100 26 August 2011 at 0006 - Reply

    […] 1. Sophie’s World […]

  20. Suzy 11 September 2011 at 1430 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1529 - Reply

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

  21. Dian Emery 12 September 2011 at 1642 - Reply

    I have a fascination for ghost towns. They’re like an abandoned house except even more eerie, spooky and sad.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1530 - Reply

      Yes, me too. Evocative places, ghost towns.

  22. Christina 14 September 2011 at 2348 - Reply

    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!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1530 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Christina.

  23. Mehmet 16 September 2011 at 0323 - Reply

    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 at 1531 - Reply

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

  24. Nancie 16 October 2011 at 0152 - Reply

    Interesting post Sophie. The town looks very eerie; something you might see in a sci-fi movie.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1531 - Reply

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

  25. Andrew 28 October 2011 at 2117 - Reply

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1532 - Reply

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

  26. Lori 30 October 2011 at 1502 - Reply

    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 😉 )

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1217 - Reply

      Thanks, Lori 🙂

  27. Back in Pyramiden, Svalbard – RUIN MEMORIES 25 August 2012 at 0035 - Reply

    […] “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” (https://www.sophiesworld.net/pyramiden-arctic-ghosttown-svalbard/). […]

  28. Travel Tamed 19 October 2012 at 1417 - Reply

    Wow, this is a scary place – i would never visit such place, it reminds me of Tchernobyl :/
    There are also people living this days?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 20 October 2012 at 1215 - Reply

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

  29. Andy 26 November 2012 at 1920 - Reply

    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…

  30. derbaum - auf 1 November 2013 at 1333 - Reply

    […] staatsgebiet gehört. wie viele andere bestimmt auch nicht. beeindruckende bilder gibte es bei sophie zu sehen. und es gibt ein projekt namens “ruin memories” welches sich unter anderem mit […]

  31. auf | derbaum 24 November 2013 at 1629 - Reply

    […] staatsgebiet gehört. wie viele andere bestimmt auch nicht. beeindruckende bilder gibte es bei sophie zu sehen. und es gibt ein projekt namens “ruin memories” welches sich unter anderem mit […]

  32. Pyramiden | 13 April 2014 at 1024 - Reply

    […] Pyramiden – an Arctic ghost town […]

  33. Mirøslav Hristøff 23 May 2015 at 1133 - Reply

    Very interesting and tnx for the photos. The fact they have left behind the cats is so sad. I can’t believe it.

  34. […] The former Russian settlement Pyramiden is now a ghost town. It can be reached by an all-day organised boat trip from Longyearbyen. Not everyone makes it to tell the tale, but others do. […]

  35. Frances 26 October 2017 at 1119 - Reply

    I read about Svalbard a couple of years after it was abandoned in a travel blog written by a woman who was traveling the globe alone. The Soviet authorities gave the people of Svalbard only hours to leave. The people were not allowed to take their cats. A few months later, a ship arrived to take useful things back to Russia. The ship’s crew found a lot of dead cats, so they make the sunflower memorial out of pieces of things they found and buried all the cats. This story makes me so sad.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 26 October 2017 at 1333 - Reply

      I agree. Very sad!

  36. Rodrigo 11 February 2018 at 1015 - Reply

    Hi Anne, that was a great reading.

    We are planning to go to Pyramiden this June. Would you know the most affordable way we can get there? Even if it’s only for a day?

    Thank you so much!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 12 February 2018 at 2321 - Reply

      Hi Rodrigo, such a cool place.

      There really is only one way to get to Pyramiden in summer: daytrip by boat, the m/s PolarGirl: http://www.wildlife.no/activities/summer-activities/day-trips/boat-trip-with-ms-polargirl/

      • Rodrigo 13 February 2018 at 1402 - Reply

        Hi Anne-Sophie. Thank you so much for the response. Would you know if it’s possible to do it independently without a tour?

        Thanks!

        • Anne-Sophie Redisch 13 February 2018 at 1411 - Reply

          It’s possible to rent a boat and crew (remember to bring a gun and other necessary polar bear protection), but it would be much more expensive. You could ask Svalbard Tourist information on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/svalbard.norway

          • Rodrigo 13 February 2018 at 2138

            That’s awesome. Thank you so much!! 🙂

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