Impressions of Svalbard: part 2

As I mentioned in my previous article about our trip to Svalbard how guided tours are the way to go for most tourists, we were excited about a full-day guided cruise tour in Svalbard on our final day there.

A boat tour was the easiest guided tour that I found on the long list of summer activities in Svalbard as most of them involved hiking, trekking and kayaking and thus required good physical strength. We just wanted to enjoy ourselves so a comfortable boat tour was the obvious choice. Our tour started with an early morning pick-up at the campsite after which we proceeded to pick up other guests from the few hotels scattered in Longyearbyen. Shortly after, we were led to the large and comfortable tour boat docked at Longyearbyen harbor. I liked how it had heated indoor seating as well as a small, cozy bar as the thought of being exposed to the cold wind outdoors all day was just not possible to me.

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Longyearbyen town

Our boat tour was mainly about an abandoned Soviet mining town called Pyramiden that’s located on the shores of a fjord called Billefjorden, on the northeast shore of which an impressive glacier called Nordenskiöldglacier is found. Along with those two major stops, we were also scheduled for photo stops at a picturesque bay and a bird cliff.

Our guide was very informative as well as fun, and throughout the tour, he told us about the history and titbits of the places we could see from the boat. The journey through the wilderness of Svalbard was very pleasing to the eyes and mind. We saw seals and many kinds of Arctic birds playing in the sea, among them I thought puffins looked the cutest with their brightly colored beaks.

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The kind of scenery from boat

Skansen Bay

I couldn’t believe my eyes when our boat approached Skansen bay as the area was so serene and beautiful. The sight of barren cliffs hugging the shoreline were unlike anything I had seen before. Through our binoculars, we saw a wild reindeer chilling at the beach, some lone cabins that looked abandoned and remnants of a boat.

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Through the binoculars

I wish we could have docked at the bay and explored for a little while, as the area looked interesting with few traces of human activities that once went on here. The water looked shallow and calm, almost like I could take a dip in it!

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Skansen bay

Pyramiden , the abandoned Soviet mine town

Pyramiden was the biggest highlight of our trip. As we approached the port of Pyramiden in the cloudy weather after sailing for about 3.5 hours, we could see Soviet style buildings set in the most unbelievable landscapes. We also spotted a polar fox running around as we were approaching the town’s port. On exiting the ship, we were met by a friendly Russian guide who was to show us around the whole abandoned town. Right at the beginning, she warned us that a polar bear had been seen walking along the beach at Pyramiden just a few days prior , so she told us to stay in a group at all times.

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Pyramiden town from the boat

Pyramiden is owned by a Russian mining company but since it is on Norwegian territory,  Norwegian laws apply.

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Pyramiden is named after a pyramid shaped mountain on the area

Everything else however, including the few people here who stay throughout the year for infrastructure maintenance, is Russian or Ukrainian. The guided tour of Pyramiden, that lasted about 2 hours, was fascinating. It was surreal walking on the streets of a ghost town that was so far off from the rest of the world. The abandoned town was actually quite big and we were told that at its peak, about 1000 people lived there.

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Ghost town of Pyramiden

When the mine was running, workers from Soviet Union came on 2 year contracts and were paid very good salaries. They didn’t have to pay for food, school for their kids, rent etc. Everything was provided by the company and was available at the settlement, including a kindergarten, school, hospital and city hall for sports and culture activities. While the men worked at the mines, their wives worked at the school, hospital and culture centers in the town. We were told that the settlement was almost self-sufficient and at the time, it was a coveted job as two years of work without any expenses allowed the workers to go back and buy apartments and other luxuries.

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What used to be the town center. Overlooking is the Lenin statue at northernmost location in world

The mining activity stopped and was abandoned around 1998 when the town lost many of its workers in a tragic plane crash near Longyearbyen, coupled with the time when Soviet Union had already broken up with Russia going through many political changes. When it was decided that the company no longer had sufficient funds to keep the mine running and had to shut it down, its inhabitants took only their personal belongings and everything else was left as it was, which we saw in the tour of city hall. Furniture, musical instruments, an eerily quiet theater, movie equipment – everything stays intact in Pyramiden.

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Polar bears are a symbol in Svalbard

At the end of the tour, we were taken to the only inhabitable building in the town where the guide and few other people stay throughout the year for maintenance and tourism in summer. We bought some Russian beers at the small restaurant, bought some souvenirs and were on our way back to the boat. I was intrigued by the colorful Russian decorations in the interiors and after the tour of Pyramiden, I have a new strong interest in visiting Russia.

I loved the guided tour and learned a lot about this unique settlement that once thrived in the isolation of Svalbard archipelago.

Nordenskiöldglacier

After we said our goodbyes to our lovely Russian guide and entered the boat, we were served a warm lunch on board which included grilled whale meat! I found the texture and taste to be that of beef, and I didn’t like it that much.

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Our lunch for the day

Nordenskiöldglacier was actually visible from Pyramiden town and as we continued sailing towards the beautiful glacier, we got more and more excited.

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Glacier view from Pyramiden

I assume everyone was so stunned by the beauty of the glacier that the entire tour boat went quiet for a few minutes as the boat stopped in front of the glacier. It was my first time seeing a glacier from up close and it was such an unforgettable moment.

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Nordenskiöldglacier, very impressive in real life

The blue ice blocks in the glacier, the waterfall in one of its crevices, the enormous size of it, few icebergs still floating around the water that time of the year, the vastness of the nature around me – it made me totally stunned.  I had never thought that glaciers looked so majestic and beautiful in real life.

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Majestic glacier

Sailing back towards Longyearbyen

As we were returning from the glacier, someone shouted that they saw polar bears through their binoculars. Everyone got excited and rushed to the deck – when we tried the binoculars we could see two tiny specks of whites moving on the barren mountains in a distance. Everything around you is just so huge and vast in the Arctic. Our boat got as close as it could (about 300 meters from the beach) and all we could see were just the white specks. I assume it was a mama polar bear with her cub walking inland perhaps in search of food that comes by hard in summers.

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Where we saw polar bears. They were in the mountains but not too far from the water

Soon after, we saw a fin whale breathing through its blowhole on the water surface and it was actually pretty close to our boat. That was a nice surprise too – just on a day trip we had seen reindeer, an arctic fox, polar bears, whale and seals. Granted it wasn’t from so close, but nothing is too close in the Arctic! 🙂 I was very satisfied with what we got to see.

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Comfortable warmth indoors with a view

Our last stop was a bird cliff but unfortunately the guide told us that it seemed the birds had already started migrating down south. He seemed very surprised as he said there were hundreds of them just few days before! But it looked like they had already started working on their winter escape plan even though it was first week of August when we visited 😀

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Sailing in the cold waters of Svalbard

After sailing for about 3 hours, we finally arrived back to Longyearbyen. I loved everything about the boat tour – the mighty Arctic nature, the spotting of lone cabins in the most dramatic and isolated landscapes and wondering what kind of lives those trappers led, the wildlife happy in their natural habitat,  and of course the tour of Pyramiden town. It was a perfect last day of our short trip in Svalbard and ever since I’ve been back, I have been thinking about its landscapes and my experience there constantly.

Thanks for reading! Click here to read part  one of the series on Svalbard if you haven’t already. 

 


38 thoughts on “Impressions of Svalbard: part 2

  1. Wow, that must be the best blog I’ve ever read. Superb reading, Pooja Greetings from Lisbon, Pooja. I’ve been having an easy morning but I need to go out soon. It’s 30c right now at 11:51 am and rising fast. What are you doing right now, Pooja ? Best wishes from Dai

    1. Hello Dai. Thanks for your encouraging words. I just finished my lunch at office desk (chicken salad). It’s been hot here since last week as well, but it’s actually quite pleasant to see sunshine everyday 😀 Best wishes from Lodz, Pooja

      1. I wish, Dai! Russia would need more planning with its visa regulations and all 😦 I am going to Sicily on the first week of October and India (Delhi etc + Andaman Islands) coming Feb. That’s all for now 🙂

      2. Wow you really have a full programme, Pooja. I admire your will to travel. I agree that the Russian visa rules are plain ridiculous in this modern age. I’m sure they could do far better than that.

  2. Gorgeous photos! I’m not usually drawn to such cold places but you’re making me change my mind 🙂

  3. What an incredible trip, Pooja. Thank you for sharing your photos and impressions. The beautiful bays, mysterious atmosphere, and amazing wildlife encounters would gladden every traveler’s heart.

  4. Absolute awesome photo story with great reading from Svalbard, Pooja! I’d like to travel in yours (and Klausbernd’s) footsteps one day.
    The presentation of the grilled whale meat doesn’t look like too appetising, but I actually love whale meat being prepared like a steak, with a little gravy and onions and lingonberry sauce. 🙂
    Wishing you a great weekend,
    The Fab Four of Cley x

  5. Well, I did some expeditions to the North of Svalbard, the Sjuöjane and Smeerenburg (mentioned in “Moby Dick” as the big whaling station) on the way up to NE Greenland. I liked Sjuöjane, the seven islands, the real end of Europe really much. If you are interested have a look here
    https://kbvollmarblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/heroes/
    https://kbvollmarblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-hollow-earth/
    https://kbvollmarblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/the-hell/
    On my old blog kbvollmarblog.wordpress.com and on our new blog you will find more posts about the Arctic: Bear Island, Jan Mayen, NE Greenland and more about Svalbard.
    By the way, I have never been to Pyramiden but I just read a crime novel playing there. Interesting!
    Thanks for showing your pics.
    All the best
    Klausbernd 🙂

    1. Wow sounds like you had some great adventures in Svalbard! I will definitely check out your blog posts on those places. Pyramiden is the ideal setting for a crime novel – it has an element of spookiness to it I think. Thanks for reading and commenting, Klausbernd! 🙂

    1. Thank you! 🙂 That whale steak wasn’t that good – I just tried it out of curiosity. After all there aren’t that many places in the world where whale meat is a delicacy hehe. Yes, glacier was the most fascinating part! Mind-blowing.

    1. I forgot to answer your question about polar bears around campsite. I think it is just assumed that polar bears won’t come near big settlements. Although I am sure the camp staff has a rifle or two in handy in case it ever happened.

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