Let’s face it, Longyearbyen -the largest settlement and the administrative centre of Svalbard, Norway – is a small place in an isolated part of the world. After a couple of days, I had seen everything that the town had to offer and yearned to see something different. One of the most popular ways of doing this is to get a boat to either of the mining towns of Barentsburg or Pyramiden. I chose Barentsburg – the second-largest settlement on Svalbard which is sparsely but entirely populated by Russians and Ukrainians – for my trip but from speaking to locals, both are worth a visit. As you may have guessed from the names, both towns are Russian. Barentsburg is a mining town and I was told that visiting was like stepping back into the USSR. All in all, this sounded like a great little adventure so we headed off early the next morning.
As with all great trips, the journey is as much a part of the experience as the destination. This is definitely true for the boat ride to Barentsburg and it’s a good thing too because the whole trip takes around 10 hours. As you pass through freezing arctic waters it’s likely that you’ll see whales, birds, stunning glaciers and possibly polar bears. Alternatively, you can just sit inside and sleep, as several of the people did during my trip. Perhaps someone forgot to tell them that they were on an Arctic adventure through frozen waters to a strange Russian outpost – or maybe they just didn’t have black out curtains in their hotel.
The boat was a sturdy looking and I think it had been a fishing vessel in a previous life. As long as it kept me separated from the freezing water I was happy. We were blessed with a calm, almost sunny day and as we set off the water was glassy and smooth, reflecting the patches of blue sky above us.
I headed straight to the top deck to see what the view was like and instantly put on every piece of clothing I had. The combination of the movement of the boat and the cold water had dropped the temperature by about 5 degrees, and it was only 1 degrees to start with. I was so thankful that I had bought a hat, gloves and other pieces of cold weather paraphernalia that are required in these parts.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the front of the boat and I arrived just in time to see a pair of Beluga Whales gently gliding off the port bow. I think that was the first time I’d ever seen a whale, what a place to do it. Eyes firmly peeled for more Whales and buoyed by reports of a Blue Whale sighting only days earlier I didn’t move for the next hour. Eventually, I resigned to the fact that they may have been the only whales spotted on this trip and went inside to thaw out a little.
After what seemed like a few hours we started heading closer to land. I noticed small chunks of ice starting to appear around the boat, then larger pieces, then I could hear them clunking off the bow. I went to the front and we had arrived at Esmarkbreen Glacier where we would be having lunch. We motored in close to the glacier and there was a quick talk from the tour guide about how far it had receded in the last few years. Global warming has no more convincing argument than witnessing the decline of an arctic glacier first hand. Every few minutes there was a thunderous roar as the ice moved and cracked, occasionally breaking off into the water. It was more spectacular than I could have imagined and I stood, jaw gaping open, along with the other passengers trying to capture the majesty of this huge icy beast through my camera lens. I did it very little justice.
The smell of meat cooking on the BBQ had eluded me until this point but suddenly I was starving after all of this excitement. A simple spread of salads and rice would accompany some anonymous meat in a bread roll. Warm and fed we reluctantly moved off and headed towards Barentsburg.
Back in the USSR
Old black wooden buildings grew larger in the windows as we approached the small dock and everyone was ushered off the boat, all a little bleary eyed after lunch. A wooden staircase leads up to the town past old abandoned-looking shacks and buildings. This place already felt different to Longyearbyen. We were met by an hilarious local who would be our tour guide for a quick walk around the town. As it turned out he was a real character and confidently mixed fact with fiction to the point that I’m not confident enough to state many of the things he told us about Barentsburg in this blog. He told us that curtains were illegal in the old days because the KGB wanted to be able to see what everyone was doing. They also have a secret cat the lives in barentsburg (cats are illegal in Svalbard) and a japanese film crew flew out to make a documentary about it. What I am confident in saying is that this town is like nowhere else that I have been before. It’s a company town, where the coal mining company controls everything. Residents use their company cards to pay for food and other basic items and then their salary is paid onto these cards meaning that cash isn’t required. It was like a small piece of Russia has been picked up and transported onto the island. A large terrace, with a view of the land on the other side of the strait, stood above the dock and locals called it the TV. There was only ever one channel but it was a pretty spectacular.
Soviet propaganda adorned the walls of some buildings and a statue of Lenin (the second most northern in the world) stood in the centre of town. Some buildings were newer and some were very old. The town was bombed in the second world war so many of the original buildings were lost. Barentsburg was hands down the most bizarre place I had ever been. I just wandered around aimlessly, with a huge “where the hell am I” look on my face, as oblivious locals went about their business.
Returning to Longyearbyen
Time had run out and we descended the stairs back to our trusty vessel. I pondered what I had just seen and revelled in that fantastic feeling you get when you’ve experience something truly new and different to the norm. During the journey back that excitement was tempered by an uncomfortable realisation that I had just seen a coal mining town that ships coal that will be burned, that then contributes to global warming, that causes the glaciers like the one I had visited earlier to melt. In one day we had joined the dots on a global problem and nobody seemed to be bothered about it.
This was definitely a boat ride to remember with so many interesting parts to it. It is expensive but almost everything is in Svalbard. I would gladly spend the same again and recommend to anyone that visits to book a trip like it.