The on-board instructions at the bottom of the safety pamphlet should have been a clue about what we were getting ourselves in for. I couldn’t see how merely keeping my hopes up were going to work out in water filled with ice floes.
The ship was taking us north-east to the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden, preserved in its Leninist glory by the ice and the fact that polar bears prowl around it, so the ship’s guide keeps close by with a rifle. We’re not on a tour of any kind but doing this under our own steam, which seemed lunatic at the time, but about which my pal Roger was right; it’s the best way to set your own pace. Traveling in extreme temperature is demanding, and hard on the thigh muscles.
I thought -20C was cold. I now realise I had no concept of what cold was. Try -40C. Even wearing four layers of clothes the wind finds ways in and cuts deep. The ship travels first through pancake-ice and then pack-ice until it can’t move any further. We can’t be too long or we’ll be frozen in, and as the on-board cook is – rather incredibly – barbecuing our whale-meat outside I wouldn’t want to be here too long. Minke whale is tasty in small amounts but rich and dark, like steak crossed with liver.
To reach the town we have to cross sea-ice. The ship’s small group must move in blocks of around eight – if it cracks and you go in, it’s not very likely that you’re coming out. The snow makes so many sounds that there are words for it. We’re lucky enough to get sharp blue skies. The polar bears – smudges of muddy yellow against pristine white – have moved to the opposite coast to hunt seal and walrus.
Naturally I manage to fall through a ladder and gash my leg but to be honest it’s so cold I don’t feel a thing. We reach the ‘town’, a collection of soviet blocks frozen in time. How did the community raise its children here, in a land so lethal that merely being outside is dangerous?
Mining coal from permafrost must have been one of the hardest jobs in the world, but Pyramiden endures long after its population has gone. There are now efforts to turn it into a tourist attraction for the hardy, but as yet only a tiny number of people go. Well, there’s no rush. Due to the low rate of decay in a frigid climate, the abandoned town’s buildings will be preserved 500 years from now.
Lenin dominates the town square. The apartments have no kitchens, so all food was eaten communally – it must have felt like the embodiment of idealistic socialist life, but this close to the North Pole it also seems like a doomed living experiment.
It’s a fascinating trip for anyone interesting in experiencing one of the few remaining wildernesses on the planet. A second post today, following this (so much for cutting back) – inside the building where dreams lived.