Experiencing Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg

Experiencing Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg

Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg are popular places to visit at Svalbard. I had actually been to both by snowmobile on my first visit to Svalbard a few years ago, but wanted to experience them in the summer as well.

Basecamp Explorer offer two day trips by boat to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg during the summer season, including accommodation at the former radio station at Cape Linné.

Dressed in woolen layers and the water and wind proof suit, we all found a seat in the open rib boat. Leaving the sheltered harbor in Longyearbyen, the wind picked up. Even though the waves did not look big, we were in for a bumpy ride. My previous rib boat trips came in handy, by knowing to ride the seat like a horse in the waves.

The fog is hanging low down the mountainside. Svalbard, Norway.

The fog was hanging heavily down the mountainside, while the sunbeams managed to break through the clouds further out in the ocean. Birds were speeding alongside the boat, and the peaceful puffins escaped under the surface when we approached. By the time we reached the tip of the peninsular near Barentsburg, I wished I had put on an extra layer of clothes. Luckily, we only had 30 more minutes until we docked at Isfjord Radio.

Being greeted with hot mulled wine with cava sure helped. Along with the struggle to get out of the large survival suit. “Welcome to Isfjord Radio! Your room is upstairs in the main building. And do you see the white spot over there?», the guide asked, pointing a finger to the shore on the other side of the house. “That is a polar bear”. We had heard rumors that polar bears had been observed in the area, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be able to see one right away, with the naked eye! Just as a white dot in the distance, but still!

Nice to warm up by hot mulled wine with cava. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Armed with rifles, the guides walked us the short distance from the quay to the house. Safe inside, we took turns in using the binoculars to get a closer look at the large male polar bear, resting by the ocean. At the same time, one of the others spotted a female polar bear with her two cubs!

Polar bear mother with two cubs. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Hand-held binoculars flourished and exchanged hands so everyone could see. And through the telescope, patient souls could get mobile images of the mighty animals. The polar bears moved slowly along the shoreline. Towards us. The binoculars were rapidly exchanged, and the clicks from the shooting SLR cameras were increasing. Thrilled, we watched the baby bears play. Rolling over and play fighting, while the mother waited patiently.

Playing polar bear cubs. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

At the closest, they were only 300 meters away from the house, before they disappeared behind a cliff.

The polar bear show was over for a while, but from the large windows, both from our room and downstairs in the living room, we could witness plenty of other wildlife. Birds flying around, reindeer grassing outside, and a fox that suddenly appeared running around. And the sleeping polar bear we had spotted in the beginning, was still enjoying his peace.

Seaview at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway. Nice view at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Dinner was served, a delicious 3-course meal mixing local ingredients both from the land and the ocean. I was just about to have a bite of the reindeer, when the polar bear and the cute cubs made their appearance for a second time. Everybody gathered by the windows to watch them as they walked along the beach, before sitting down again, enjoying the food with a polar bear view.

Delicious reindeer for dinner at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Delicious reindeer for dinner.

Satisfied by both food and impressions, I sat down in the windowsill, silently looking out. A rain shower passed, leaving behind a rainbow. Yet another magic moment before the time hit midnight.

Papa bear is waking up. Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Papa bear is waking up!

Rainbow at midnight at Isfjord Radio, Svalbard, Norway.

Rainbow at midnight at Isfjord Radio.

A new day, new adventures

My planned morning swim was called off, as the polar bears were last spotted close to the beach (some would call that luck…). After a delicious breakfast, we packed our bags and did our morning gymnastics battling the survival suits.

Heading towards Barentsburg, a few Minke Whales all of a sudden appeared from the surface of the ocean. We stopped for a while to watch the majestic mammals as they graciously slid up and down in the water.

Beautiful scenery as we go by RIB boat from Isfjord Radio to Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway. Spotted some Minke whales on the way from Isfjord Radio to Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway.

Arriving at the quay in Barentsburg, we again fought the survival suits to avoid walking around like penguins.

Climbing up the stairs felt like stepping back in time. Many of the houses looked quite abandoned, while others had gone through massive changes since I visited 5 years ago. Some houses had been demolished, while the two large apartment buildings had been modernized. Lenin was still watching over the community.

Stairs from the harbor to the settlemet in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway. The old canteen in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway. Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

The Lenin statue outside the apartment buildings in Barentsburg. With the sign - Communism is the way of life. Svalbard, Norway.

The Lenin statue outside the apartment buildings in Barentsburg. With the sign – Communism is the way of life.

Lenin's view in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Lenin’s view in Barentsburg.

Walking through town felt like walking around in a ghost city. It was completely silent, and we did not see a single person. Unlike the abandoned settlement Pyramiden, this Russian settlement houses 3-400 persons, including 50 children. Non of the children were out playing. Not even the cat was out. Eh, sorry, the arctic fox. One of many fun facts about Svalbard is that as cats are not allowed on the archipelago, so the one they have in Barentsburg is registered as an arctic fox!

While the parents work in the mines underground, the children attend school in a colorful decorated building. Paintings of wildlife, Russian sailing vessel and a Norwegian Viking ship stands side by side with iconic buildings as the Empire state building in NY, Kreml in Moscow and Bryggen in Bergen.

The decorated school in Barentsburg. Svalbard, Norway. The coal mine in Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Barentsburg rely only on themselves and Russia. The heating and electricity comes from the coal in the mines, drinking water from the lake at the other side of the fjord, and the food and other goods are imported from Murmansk.

The food at the hotel is typical Russian and the drinks in the bar as well. I of course had to taste it all; the pickled vegetables, the cured meat, the salty white fish mixed with potatoes and peas, the cabbage soup with sour cream, and last but not least – chunks of potato and meat mixed with vegetables and baked in the oven inside small ceramic bowls. The meat was so tender, and the potatoes and vegetables were soaked in the meaty sauce. Even though I was quite stuffed, I just could not stop eating. Good thing they had strong liquor to help digest afterwards. I did not go for the strongest one, though. The Russians apparently have a tradition to consume drinks with the same level of alcohol as the present latitude. Barentsburg is situated 78° N…

Walking back towards the harbor, I stopped by the characteristic wooden church. The Orthodox Church was built in 1996, after the fatal air crash that left 141 Russians and Ukrainians dead.

The Orthodox Church was built in 1996, after the fatal air crash that left 141 Russians and Ukrainians dead. Barentsburg, Svalbard, Norway.

Our time in Barentsburg was up, but on our way back to Longyearbyen we stopped shortly by Grumant. This former Russian settlement was abandoned in 1960’s. At its peak it had 1200 inhabitants, but as they worked shift, the settlement only had beds for half of the population.

The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg was an amazing combination of majestic nature, interesting settlements and history, tasty food, and lots of wildlife. It was absolutely a great way to experience some of what Svalbard has to offer, and I highly recommend it.

What to pack for Svalbard in summer:
Even if you visit Svalbard in the summer, keep in mind that it is far north, and the temperature is low. Dressing in woolen layers is the key to success, and if you are uncertain, it is always better to bring a little bit too much clothes, than to end up being cold. On the boat trip to Isfjord Radio, I was wearing a woolen singlet, a thin woolen sweater, another thin woolen sweater (but more loose to allow air between the layers) and a thick woolen sweater (instead of jacket). On my legs, I wore woolen johns and normal hiking trousers. A slightly loose pant is an advantage. Two pairs of woolen socks, the second being the large (and loose) kind that my grandmother knitted. I finished off with a hat, gloves and scarf. All in wool, of course. In addition, you get a survival suit to wear on top. This is windproof, but other than that, it does not give much isolation.

The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg can be booked directly with Basecamp Explorer.
Are you visiting Svalbard in the winter? Do not despair; they have two-day trips to Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg by snowmobile as well.

See more information about Svalbard, and additional things to explore.

Fun facts about Svalbard

Svalbard from the air around midnight in July. Svalbard, Norway.

Svalbard seen from the air while flying in around midnight in July.

The Svalbard archipelago, situated between the mainland on Norway and the North Pole, is a very fascinating place. In many ways. There are more polar bears than people, and four months a year, you experience 24 hours daylight.

The Svalbard Treaty from 1920 recognized Norwegian sovereignty in 1925, but there are more than 40 nationalities living there, including larger Russian communities.

The nature and wildlife is stunning, and no matter what season you visit, there are many nice experiences.

Here are some fun facts about Svalbard:

  1. Nobody is allowed to be born here. Pregnant women are send to the mainland to give birth.
  2. On the other hand, nobody is allowed to die here either. If you are seriously ill, or simply getting old, you have to move back to the mainland.
  3. People do not wear shoes inside, including at restaurants. This rule was made after having problems with workers dragging in dust from the coal mines.
  4. There are more polar bears in Svalbard than people.
  5. Due to the risk of meeting polar bears, nobody are allowed to walk around outside the settlement of Longyearbyen without being able to scare them away. It is also advised to bring firearms. You can therefore see people wandering around with riffles. But, when they go inside for example the grocery shop or a restaurant, they have to put them in designated lockers.
  6. From around 19 April to around 26 August you will experience the Midnight Sun, meaning that the sun will never set below the horizon in that period.
  7. From around 26 October to around 14 February, on the other hand, they have polar nights, meaning that the sun will never rise above the horizon, leaving it to be pitch dark all day and night. But, the good thing is that you will have much more chance to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), as it can be visible any time of day.
  8. For beer lovers, Svalbard is home to the northernmost brewery in the world, Svalbard Bryggeri.
  9. And the northernmost bar, post office, university, grocery shop, museum, ATM and Lenin statue, to name a few.
  10. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in an abandoned coal mine, contains seeds from all over the world in order to preserve them. The countries can get back seeds to regrow after for example crises.
  11. You are not allowed to pick flowers.
  12. There are only four Icelandic horses in Svalbard. One of them is 33 years and retired.
  13. Cats are not allowed. There is however a cat in the Russian settlement Barentsburg, but it is registered as an Arctic fox…
  14. The hotel in Barentsburg offer free parking. The problem is that there are no roads connecting Barentsburg with other settlements.
  15. The Russians apparently have a tradition to consume alcoholic drinks containing the same level of alcohol content as the latitude they are at. The former Russian settlement Pyramiden, is situated at 79°…

Have you been to Svalbard, and know some other fun facts?

Day trip to Pyramiden

Day trip to Pyramiden

Visiting the ghost town Pyramiden was high on the list for my visit to Svalbard. Exploring these kinds of unusual sights are intriguing, and the guide gave insight to the way of life in this former Russian settlement.

After a nice lunch in Longyearbyen, I was ready for my afternoon trip to Pyramiden. Heading north with the mountains on one side, and the partly snow-caped mountains and glacier at the other side of the fjord, I was excited for this trip combining nature and the mystic ghost town.

Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden, is known for the rich bird life and the former gypsum mine, and we could easily witness both from the boat. The mining for gypsum was not a success, so after two attempts, the mine was abandoned. We could still see the traces of the mining and the trappers hut at the beach, but the main attraction now is the birds. My personal favorite among them are the cute puffins!

Skansbukta bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Skansbukta, a bay in the outer part of Billefjorden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A cute little puffin! Billefjorden, Pyramiden, Svalbard, Norway

A cute little puffin!

Grey clouds hanging down the mountains. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Heading on, I could see the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen in the distance. I ignored the fact that I was quite cold, and stayed out on the deck to enjoy the beautiful, yet grey, scenery. As the boat approached the majestic glacier, the wind silenced and the sun came out, warming up my frozen butt… I did bring more warm clothes, and they even have some thermic overall suites on board, but I was just too lazy to put them on. And I actually did not realize how cold I was until I felt the heat.

The grey clouds that had followed us all day cracked up, and gave way for the blue sky. This combined with the white clouds, and the white and blue glacier, made it picture perfect! Everyone on board came out to enjoy this powerful natural sight, and it felt like time stood still for a moment.

Arriving at Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Blue ice at the massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The massive glacier Nordenskiöldbreen up close. Near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Nordenskiöldbreen glacier near Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

But Pyramiden (and the guide) was waiting, so we had to continue our journey.

Due to the risk of polar bears in the area, you are not allowed to walk around on your own without a gun or rifle, so we had to stay close to the guide at all times.

The Pyramiden area was originally Swedish territory, but they sold it to the Russians in 1927. They built the settlement at the foot of the Pyramiden mountain, hence the name of the town, and started mining for coal in 1956. It was considered a very lucrative job, both being very well paid, and also included free housing, food and entertainment. At the glory days, there were about 1800 people living in Pyramiden. Some workers came with their family, others came alone. In one of the apartment buildings, the top floor was for single women and the bottom floor was for single men. The floors between were for couples and families. Very few left Pyramiden still single…

Welcome to Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

An apartment building in Pyramiden.

The workers were not allowed to stay for more than two years, both to prevent depression during polar nights, but also to give the opportunity to others to work and save money to start a new life back at the mainland.

The houses in the town were modern, the culture center had a concert hall and a sports room, they had a nice swimming pool, a large cantina and a hotel. And even imported grass from the Soviet Union!

The decline started with the fall of the Soviet Union, and combined with the tragic plane crash in 1996, where most of the deceased were workers at Pyramiden, it was the beginning of the end for the settlement. In 1998 most of the workers left the town, and left everything behind. Maybe they thought things would get better and they would move back some day, or maybe it was just too expensive to move everything. The theories are many.

After being deserted for 10 years, some Russians started to inhabit Pyramiden again in 2008 to attract tourists. Today there are only two buildings that has electricity, and most of the houses are locked up. No one are allowed to enter the buildings without permission, but the guided tour takes you inside some of them to witness the grandness of the glory days. Today there are 3-4 persons living in Pyramiden all year around to maintain the buildings, while there are about 10 extra people during the season.

It is a very special experience walking around a ghost town like Pyramiden. It seemed dead quiet, but all of a sudden a fox came sneaking around a corner, curiously following the group at safe distance.

The mines behind Pyramiden. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway A fox sneaking around. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Arriving at the cultural center, we were allowed to walk freely inside. The house is pretty run down, but if you look closely, you can still see some of the fine details; such as the engraved polar bear on the floor downstairs.

Lenin in front of the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The world's northernmost statue of Lenin. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

A polar bear engraved in the floor.

Several music instruments were scattered around in different rooms, once used to play music in the concert hall. Pyramiden was a haven where they could listen to music that was banned elsewhere in the Soviet Union, like for instance jazz.

One of the many instruments left in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The entertainment room in thge cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The sports hall had a thick layer of dust on the floor, and reminded me of the sports room in another former Soviet area; the cultural center in Pripyat in Chernobyl

The sport hall in the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The stairs inside the cultural center. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Standing at the porch of the cultural center, you can look out at the whole city of Pyramiden, with the glacier and the mountains as a beautiful backdrop. And the back head of the northernmost statue of Lenin, that enjoy the same view.

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Lenin looking out over Pyramiden and Nordenskiöldbreen.

Pyramiden and the glacier. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Pyramiden town. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

The large cantina looked like a nice ballroom, with wooden floor, large windows, flowery wallpaper, and a large mosaic art piece above the staircase. Back at the kitchen the relics of the state-of-the-art equipment from that time remains.

The cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Care for some ice cream?

The main staircase in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Mosaic art in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The main room in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway Inside the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The kitchen in the cantina. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Our last stop was at the hotel. Originally built in 1989, it still has the Soviet style even though part has been renovated to be more modern. The room where the bar is situated still has the original walls and ceilings, but the bar is new. And rich. Not in the sense of money, as the prices are quite cheap, but the selection is wide. They have their own beer and vodka as well. I of course had to try them both. Apparently, Russians have a tradition to drink alcoholic beverages containing the same % of alcohol as the latitude they are at, so if you feel adventurous, you can get a strong shot. Being at 79°, I did not feel the need to act like a local. Regular vodka was enough.

The hotel bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway The local vodka in the bar. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

Leaving Pyramiden, I wish I had more time and could stay overnight. You are not allowed to walk freely around without a gun or rifle though, but if you are licensed you can go for hikes up the mountain. Or just enjoy the scenery. And send a postcard from this unusual outpost.

Stamps at the post office. Pyramiden. Svalbard. Spitsbergen. Norway

As the boat headed back towards Longyearbyen, I caught a last glimpse of the white and blue glacier, while puffins were flying by the window.

Practical information: 
Book online in advance. 
The catamaran leaves at 13.30, but pickup at the hotels are earlier.
Bring warm woolen clothes, including scarf, gloves and a hat, so you can stay outdoor and enjoy the scenery.
You can only pay by cash at Pyramiden, as they do not have signal for the card machines to be online.