This week I thought I’d revisit a time when we were still allowed to go on holiday and cover day 4 of my trip to Svalbard in June 2018. I was meant to be in Yorkshire walking some of the Pennine Way this last weekend but that’s not allowed any more, which did give me time to sort through the photos from this trip.
This was my last full day of my trip here and today I’d planned to visit the 2nd most populous settlement on Svalbard, Barentsburg (population 471). Svalbard was primarily populated initially by Norwegian and Russian settlers. Although the archipelago is now administered by Norway, Barentsburg is a Russian town with the majority of the population of the town being Russian or Ukrainian.
The town was established I believe originally by the Dutch but in a different location, just across Isfjord from Longyearbyen for the purpose of mining coal. The Dutch abandoned and sold their concession to Russia in 1932 who set up a new town with the same name, which is now around 55km from Longyearbyen. It is still a coal mining town, that being the primary employment in the town.
This was once one of several Russian towns on the archipelago but now it is the only remaining. The town of Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998 though it is also possible to visit the abandoned town and stay in the hotel which is staffed at least during the summer months. I knew I didn’t have time to visit both so I had to choose between them and opted for Barentsburg thinking it would be more interesting to visit a still working town than an abandoned one. Others that went to both told me they found Pyramiden more interesting, but not having been there I can’t comment. But it will give me a good reason to go back to Svalbard, which I’d certainly love to do.
Barentsburg is not connected to any other settlement by road (though there are roads, of a sort in the town). So this means, as with my previous day visit to Ny-Ålesund, we’d be travelling there by boat.
There are a couple of companies that operate trips to Barentsburg. I opted to go with Henningsen. So once more I got up, had breakfast at the hotel and waited outside the hotel for whatever transport would arrive to start the tour. This time a Henningsen bus arrived at the hotel to take us down to the port. The bus was being used for those going to both Barentsburg and Pyramiden as this company has two boats, one going to each destination each day. Although the bus was full it turned out the vast majority on board were going to Pyramiden. For Barentsburg, there were only 6 passengers, myself included!
The guide later explained that they advertise that the trip requires a minimum of 8 to go ahead, as less than that doesn’t cover the costs. However they generally do still try to run trips with fewer than that because they know that many people spend a lot of money coming here and don’t want to find trips they’ve booked on cancelled at the last minute, especially as by then everything else may be booked up. I think he also mentioned of course that they get negative feedback online for cancelling trips, which I’m sure is also a factor. However I suspect the numbers going to Pyramiden that day meant overall the company would still make a profit from the days excursions, even if not the trip to Barentsburg. So we were fortunate that the trip was going ahead, despite fewer than 8 people being on-board
The boat for this trip was way bigger than that for our trip to Ny-Ålesund, called the MS Langøysund she is a former ice-breaker, built in the 1950s and I believe has a passenger capacity of around 70. That meant for the 6 of us, there was plenty of room to spread out! The ship is also considerably slower than the one we went on to Ny-Ålesund because the distance we are going is less. That also means there is more time to sight-see on the way and because the speed is lower it is more comfortable to be out on deck during the journey.
Having been through the usual safety-briefing stuff we were soon sailing out of Longyearbyen once more, back into the cold waters of Isfjord.
Funnily enough another company, Polar Charter were also running largely the same trip as us to Barentsburg that day using their ship, Polar Girl, that had left the harbour about 10 minutes earlier and we would be following for most of the day. I noticed that ship was far more crowded so I think I probably made a good choice!
Longyearbyen is quite spread out and as we left the harbour I could see the few scattered buildings (and the airport) at the edge of the town.
The cliffs on this side of Isfjord were mostly only snow covered at the tops, but those on the other side of the fjord were still almost entirely covered by snow (the difference is presumably due to how much sunshine they get at this time of year).
The landscape is absolutely stunning and the deck of a boat is a very good place from which to observe it. Our guide was pleasant giving us some information about the places we were passing, though I sensed he was a little less knowledgeable than the guide we had the previous day to Ny-Ålesund (and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his name, too).
The water in the fjord was pretty calm today and a much larger boat meant the motion of the boat was much less noticeable (and less sea-sick inducing!). The only thing to be wary of is that both the open decks had a substantial amount of equipment on them which you had to carefully step around to get to the edge of the deck to overlook the water. It was after all originally built and designed for a role as an ice-breaker not a passenger ship.
As we headed further from Longyearbyen you could see further up the various valleys to the impressive snow-capped mountains beyond. There are so many places here I’d love to get to, but sadly I didn’t have the funds to stay any longer!
It was fun to watch some of the sea birds flying “with” the boat, it does seem they enjoy flying just in front of boat or alongside. Perhaps it is in the hope it is a fishing boat and they will be able to take some fish from it, perhaps because they can get some slip-stream or perhaps just because they enjoy it.
As we headed further out into the Fjord, the weather improved too and the sun was now beginning to break through the clouds.
It is just astonishingly beautiful and standing on the deck you could watch the scenery gradually change and the large amount of bird life flying past. So I’ll let the photos do the talking for this bit.
As we neared the open sea another glacier was visible on the other side of the fjord, forming another impressive ice wall, whilst several groups of puffins flew past.
On reaching the mouth of the fjord something rather unexpected happened. A helicopter appeared with a person hanging from it! Our guide assured us it was an exercise, but it was slightly surreal!
Now we were approaching the glacier, the Esmark glacier and it was incredibly beautiful and impressive.
As we neared the sea became icier, with chunks of the glacier floating in the water and clunking under the boat as we got closer (our guide was keen to point out this was quite normal and the boat was formerly an ice breaker so it was no problem).
You can see the Polar Girl ship we had been following has gone right up to the glacier face now, which gives you an idea of the scale of it (near the right hand edge of the glacier, it’s red and white).
The wildlife to was a treat, we spotted this seal lying on a piece of ice floating from the glacier.
Unlike the glacier we visited on the previous day this one had a fairly large cave forming at it’s base though of course to attempt to get close to this was too dangerous because of the risk of the ice collapsing at any moment.
Whilst we were at the glacier face, the crew had a unexpected (by me anyway) treat for us all. They served Whiskey on the Rocks, served Svalbard-style with the ice taken directly from a chunk of the glacier floating in the sea. It was a lovely treat to be sipping a warming whiskey looking at the amazing scene in front of us.
Having gone up close to the glacier face we pulled back a bit and now stopped for lunch, which was also included. We were soon called into the cabin where a large amount of food had been prepared by the crew.
On the menu was Whale meat (a local speciality apparently) and baked salmon served with a salad, pasta, rice and home-made local bread. Now I can’t pretend I was thrilled to be served whale meat, I’d want to see them swimming in the sea, not served up for lunch. But thinking that wasn’t going to bring it back, I don’t like salmon and it would be even worse to let it go to waste, so the whale it was. It was quite nice actually but still this was my only negative of the trip, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be serving up some of the wildlife for lunch that the people on the tour would be hoping to see!
With only 6 of us on board there was no chance of going hungry so it turned out to be quite a big lunch, or at least it did, for me.
Once lunch was over we were on the move again and rounding the corner we were now approaching our destination of Barentsburg. As I suspected, it was not pretty!
Colourful yes but the architecture was very much in the style of functional rather than beautiful!
Still whilst the town may not be pretty, it’s location certainly was.
We were told that the port was low down and the only access to the town was up lots of stairs. For an extra charge there was the offer of a mini bus but I figured I’d have no problem coping with the stairs and it would save waiting for the bus to depart.
Everyone on our boat opted to do the same and at the harbour we were met by our tour guide. Herself a resident of Barentsburg and Russian I’m afraid I’ve forgotten her name now (but with no knowledge of Russian and no Russian keyboard I’d never be able to spell/write it anyway!).
The port area was not pretty and indeed there were a number of wooden stairs to negotiate, taking us past a landscape of brown-green grass (tundra) dotted with various buildings, most of which were wooden and derelict.
On reaching the top of the stairs we passed a large warehouse style building our guide told us had just been restored and was currently disused but soon to be used for something.
On it was a rather odd looking mural in a very Soviet style, that I think it was supposed to be the “happy miner” or something and provide motivation for the workers.
It felt like tourism was a recent thing here and the town was adapting to tap into this new source of income, with the opening of a “Handicraft” centre and small souvenir shop.
The infrastructure here was very different from Longyearbyen. Whilst Longyearbyen had mostly tarmac roads here in Barentsburg many roads were dirt and the “main” roads were surfaced with a load of concrete blocks joined together, but with quite large gaps between them. This meant you had to be careful walking and vehicles made quite a noise going over them (and got a very bumpy ride too, by the look of it).
Now it’s fair to say our guide was giving a bit of what I felt was Russian propaganda about how good the town was or at least that was my impression. One of the first buildings we saw, but only the outside of is a large swimming pool.
Our guide was very proud that they should have a swimming pool in such a remote place – and I can understand why actually. However she told us it was currently closed for “improvement”. Our guide (on the boat) later told us a different story – when it opened they pumped water into the pool from the fjord. Unfortunately at this point the Fjord is saline and the salt water had corroded all the pipes of the filtration system and this was the real reason the pool was closed. It was not improvement it was repair!
When we passed the post office again our guide was very proud there was a post office and that it also sold souvenirs. Originally the service was provided by the Russian postal system. Our guide then commented that “after the fall of communism the post comes, errr … not so much” and that the Norwegian post office had later stepped in to “help”. (Again our tour guide corrected that the post had simply stopped and the Norwegian postal system had stepped in to provide the service instead). Interestingly the currency here in Barentsburg is the rouble, not the Norwegian kroner (though the latter is accepted) so it might well be the only Norwegian post office mostly dealing in roubles!
Outside the post office was another of these soviet “motivational” murals.
Some of the older buildings dating from the 1950s were more attractive, such as this one, but even then they were not in the best state of repair (note the missing planks and wobbly railings at the entrance).
The town also had a brewery and bar. Here we were told the tradition in Russia is that the Vodka is distilled to the same percentage alcohol content as the latitude at which it is produced. Here we were at (approximately) 78 degrees north and so the vodka was indeed produced to that percentage (and you could buy some)!
The other side of the road was the towns hotel. I’m not sure what it was like on the inside but the outside was not that appealing (though to be fair to the same is true of many in Britain).
Then we passed the office of the mining company. I forget exactly how many miners there were that worked here but they were currently underground digging out coal as they were most days as mining is the primary industry.
Above the buildings were old wooden walkways and chutes through which the coal once travelled from now abandoned parts of the mine.
Pretty it wasn’t but it was certainly interesting since I’d never actually seen a working mine before (whilst we have many old mines in Britain I don’t think there are any still in use).
We also passed the town school but at the moment it was not term time so the school was closed. It had been rather nicely decorated.
This marked the end of our tour and I think we had about 40 minutes to explore on our own before returning to the boat.
I have to say the town definitely had a “down-at-heel” feel to it. I can appreciate that the harsh climate makes it hard to maintain buildings but even then there seemed a lack of care really. This was the towns main square. It was very bleak I thought. Even the lights were missing all the bulbs!
Another square a little nearer the fjord had been decorated by “art work” of up-turned logs and such like which looked a bit more like someone had simply tried to tidy up some of the stuff dumped there and called it art.
One thing that was very pretty was the little wooden church. It was quite beautifully decorated inside too.
Some of the older residential buildings looked almost derelict but you did see families coming and going so clearly they weren’t. In fact I suspect they were probably quite cosy inside.
Behind this square were too ugly blocks of flats. These had recently been clad in panels in varying shades of blue and white on the left and orange and white on the right and our guide was excited to tell us a new shop was soon to open in one of them.
In front of these however is perhaps the most famous sight of Barentsburg – a statue of Lenin. Most such statues across Russia were removed at the fall of communism, but the one here survives.
Though again the square in which it sits has certainly seen better days!
Heading up to the flats was another artwork with a motivational message (that I’ve forgotten) but on it the plaque mentioned it was marking the commissioning of the blocks of flats in 1974 that made them the “worlds northernmost skyscraper”. Hmm more Russian propaganda I felt! I’m not sure I’d call a 4-storey building a “skyscraper”!
On the hill behind could be seen a star which our guide told us was used to celebrate the arrival of summer, when the snow on the hills melted sufficiently the star could be seen again. (Look closely below it’s just above the top left corner of the right most block of flats).
Another perhaps surprising building is a Russian embassy.
I didn’t go in as it looked rather fearsome behind high iron fences, numerous security cameras and a buzzer to request entry. I had been told by both our local guide and guide on the boat that anyone could simply arrive here and request a Russian visa (which I believe is free here). However I wasn’t brave enough to try this (in hindsight maybe I should have, since I’ve since learned gaining such a visa is otherwise, costly, time consuming and bureaucratic). However I didn’t want to waste the time I had in Barentsburg filling in forms!
Now really my time here was nearly at an end and in fact all the other visitors seemed to have left.
The other ship (Polar Girl) had already left (which had brought in most of the visitors) and all the other (5) passengers on the boat I was on had disappeared too. I had a quick stop at the shop and I knew I wasn’t late and indeed still had a few minutes before I was due back but I felt I had seen the town now anyway so headed back to the boat. I was the last back but the guide saw me hurrying and did indeed confirm that I wasn’t late so I didn’t need to hurry!
Now back on board we headed on our way back to Longyearbyen discussing the visit with the other passengers all of whom had enjoyed it but like me found it a rather odd sort of place.
As we left the town a large seal was swimming alongside the boat for a while.
On the way back our guide pointed out a couple of other abandoned former mining settlements along the banks of the fjord, the buildings slowly disintegrating.
Once such town was the former minding town of Grumant. It was abandoned in 1965. Given the time that has passed since then and the harsh weather and climate here it looked in better condition than I had expected.
Beyond Grumant we hugged the cliffs the rest of the way back to Longyearbyen. These cliffs often simply called the “bird cliffs” are I believe the highest in Svalbard and as you might expect home to a huge number of birds that nest in the crags of the cliff.
However this too once had some industry, as an old mine entrance could be seen in part of the cliff face, along with the waste from the mine strewn underneath it.
These cliffs are really beautiful and with some of the only green vegetation to be seen on the archipelago. (Though this is partly the result of bird droppings!).
The cliffs were stunning and again with some very interesting geology on show, with the various channels cut into the rock formed from the melting ice cutting away part of the rock face and then the water getting into the rock, freezing and breaking parts off over the cycle of many years.
Soon the first buildings of Longyearbyen came into view again, sadly our trip nearly at an end.
On the other side of the Fjord could be seen a beautiful sailing boat with masts, though currently the sails were down and we could see several people on deck, perhaps learning how to sail the boat. It was a lovely sight.
Nearing Longyearbyen again we passed the location of the campsite. It did not look the nicest and rather exposed. Whilst I’m happy to camp in many places I think so far north I’d appreciate the comfort of a nice hotel, especially as it does not get dark at all at this time of year, which would make it harder to sleep in a tent. (The tents are the orange and white structures near the centre of the photo below).
We were now arriving back at the harbour.
You might notice the flag been flown on the back of our ship is actually that of the Faroe Islands (as in fact the boat I went to Ny-Ålesund the previous day was too). The captain of the boat the previous day had explained why this is common in Svalbard. If they operated under the Norwegian flag (as they used to) they were required to employ a minimum percentage of Norwegian staff. That was very difficult to do here when such a large proportion of the population in Svalbard are not Norwegian. So in the end they opted to operated under the flag of the Faroe Islands who don’t have such rules and according to our guide “they don’t give us any bother and we don’t give them any bother”. (As an aside I visited the Faroe Islands last year, 2019, perhaps I will write some special posts about that some time).
Now back at the harbour that was the end of our tour and we were taken by bus back to our respective hotels (mine was the first stop).
It had been another truly wonderful day with some stunning scenery and an interesting visit to the town of Barentsburg. It wasn’t pretty but it was interesting to visit somewhere so different – and my first time visiting anywhere Russian speaking. The glacier and the wildlife too was another big highlight of this day and it was nice today to be able to take things a bit slower, not having to travel so far.
Back at Longyearbyen I had dinner at the hotel and then wandered around some other parts of the town I’d not yet explored, as this was my last night in the town.
This is the main mine in the town. Now disused, I believe it is possible to take a tour of it – even the buckets are still in place!
This last photo is actually the dining room of the hotel I was staying at.
A couple of companies operate boat trips from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg (it is also possible to visit by snow-mobile in winter):-