Tours begin with a humorous quip about the only thing it’s OK to steal.
Standing under Pyramiden’s iconic entrance sign next to a cart containing supposedly the last ton of coal mined in the settlement, the famous guide known as Sasha delivers his usual spiel in a voice and clothing directly from central casting of the stereotypical Soviet era.
“Sometimes tourists like to take coal from there so we have to refill it,” he said. “It’s OK though. If you want some coal, that’s OK.”
The subtle intonation by Sasha (whose real name is Alexander Romanovskiy) letting the audience know they’re in on the joke is a witting way of delivering an increasingly necessary admonition as eight years of efforts to revamp tourism in the settlement are taking full hold.
“If I see someone breaking in I have the right to call police,” he said in an interview later, although normally he just tells people not to and/or put things back.
As a result all of the buildings, except for the recreation hall and the refurbished hotel – now housing employees and overnight guests – are closed to general tours.
The pool hall, for example, is filled with winding maze.like passages, many shrouded in darkness and with uneven surfaces. The school is filled with children’s drawings, math books, sheet music and all the other usual materials – sometimes neatly on walls and shelves, sometimes strewn about on the floor.
“There are too many artifacts people can take for souvenirs and it’s messy,” Romanovskiy said.
What the visitors are missing: a drawing of Mickey Mouse from the 1990s that’s a sign of “the first influences of western culture,” a globe where Svalbard has literally been wiped off the map by lots of tiny fingers and how children has to learn the rules of traffic despite the lack of it in the settlement because “when they went back to the mainland they had to know the rules,” according to Romanovskiy.
But modern visitors – who typically spend five to eight hours on a round-trip boat trip from Longyearbyen to tour the Russian settlement for a couple of hours – certainly don’t seem to be missing what they don’t know about. The settlement remains a mystique in different ways for different visitors, whether it’s the mere existence of such a large city so far north, how it came to be known as the “ideal” of Soviet life in its heyday, the sudden abandoning of the town in a couple of months and its current status as the world’s northernmost ghost town.
“I thought it was much more starving,” said Nicole Sandt, an architectural student from Brunswick visiting the settlement as part of her studies about settlements where mining has or is ending. “It’s still standing. Maybe it’s because of us tourists. Now my view on this is my thoughts on this topic are much more positive.”
Her brief impressions from the long-ago mining town are influencing her opinion about Longyearbyen as it faces a similar future.
“My first thought was when coal is gone Longyearbyen is gone,” she said. “Now I think it’s utopia, so maybe it will be a new era.”
All of the visitors constantly took pictures with smartphones and various digital cameras. But Stuart Klipper, a resident of Minneapolis, Minn., captured his impressions on an entirely different level with six cameras – five using film designed for different types of shots and one digital camera as a backup (although it was the latter that proved faulty during the tour). While it might be easy to mistake him as a typical retiree taking in the wonders of the Arctic for the first time, he’s actually a professional photographer who for decades has documented every polar region of the world on film.
But despite all that experience, his impressions were the same as others when it came to seeing Pyramiden as a unique experience.
“It would be nice to see this and stay here for several days,” he said. “It’s different than the other places I’ve encountered.”