Arctic Svalbard: "Scooter" Trip to the Russian Village of Barentsburg

April 26, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Svalbard is a small group of islands in the Norwegian Arctic, whose northernmost point is 80 degrees north, about 600 miles from the north pole.  I went there for 2 weeks in early April of 2022, mostly to do an 9-day photographic tour on the ice-hardened ship MS Freya with Josh Holko.

After we went out on the ship, I took a really fun 144 kilometer (90 mile) "scooter" trip (we North Americans know them as snowmobiles or snow-machines!) starting at Longyearbyen (the major town there) and traveling through the Svalbardian interior to the Russian Village of Barentsburg.

... a Russian Village on the Norwegian High Arctic Island of Spitsbergen you ask?? ... Why, yes!!  Svalbard operates under the auspices of the Svalbard Treaty which recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard, but also grants the signatories, including Russia, rights to engage in commercial activities (mainly coal mining) on the islands.

Barentsburg has about 450 residents currently, both Ukrainian and Russian nationals, most engaged in coal-mining and related support/ families.  The population has shrunk from about 1000 in prior years.

We took this route to Barentsburg and back from Longyearbyen.

The "Scooter" Route from Longyearbyen to BarentsburgThe "Scooter" Route from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg

Getting ready to start the trip at Svalbard Adventures in Longyearbyen - a bright and sunny day!

Getting ready to leaveGetting ready to leave Stopping along the way in the interior atop a snow-covered glacier.

Stopping in the interior - bright and sunny!Stopping in the interior - bright and sunny! An old hunting camp, built in 1943, along the way.  Quite a few folks have "get away" cabins on the route immediately outside Longyearbyen.

Hunting Cabin (1943), Spitsbergen Interior, 10:49Hunting Cabin (1943), Spitsbergen Interior, 10:49 Hunting Cabin (1943), Spitsbergen Interior, 10:49Hunting Cabin (1943), Spitsbergen Interior, 10:49 At one of our stops I was able to photograph the spectacularly beautiful Svalbard Reindeer with a long telephoto lens.  The reindeer are supremely adapted to Arctic life, and were numerous on our route.  They seemed used to the scooters and humans, but would run away if the scooters stopped.  Our guides said there are 20,000 - 30,000 reindeer in Svalbard, and a few limited permits to hunt them.

Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22 Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22 Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:22 Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:29Svalbard Reindeer, Spitsbergen Interior, 11:29

The first thing one sees upon finally approaching Barentsburg is the black, bleching smokestack of a coal-burning power plant and a series of bombed-out-looking concrete buildings like the one below.  One's first thought is kinda "yeah, looks very Soviet-era Russia" ... modern Moscow and modern other Russian cities not withstanding!  It strikes one as very different from Longyearbyen which, though also burning coal for power currently, has no black, belching smokestack.  Though, to be fair, one can see coal dust on the mountain sides around some of the mines in the Longyearbyen area.

The abandoned generator station just outside of BarentsburgThe abandoned generator station just outside of Barentsburg

This is the main street looking back towards the power plant.

The main street, with the power plant in backgroundThe main street, with the power plant in background

One of our two tour guides, Ida, arriving outside the hotel.  The town encourages tourists/ guests of all kinds for another source of revenue.

Our guide Ida arriving in BarentsburgOur guide Ida arriving in Barentsburg

The hotel has a restaurant & bar ...  and a sandwich-board outside in English, advertising the menu of the day!

The HotelThe Hotel

A map of the town greets arriving tourists and new residents.  It's not a big place.  One can walk the whole village in a short while.

Map of TownMap of Town

Our two guides, Ida and Ryan, gave us a town intro and then a walking tour.  The town is up on a hill overlooking a giant fjord.

Guides overview of the town

The hospital is across the street from the hotel.  I've seen some older pictures of Barentsburg that lead me to believe that many of the buildings are brick and, later, they added these colorful façades.

The HospitalThe Hospital

The Red Bear is a restaurant and micro-brewery near the hotel and hospital.  Funny story: our guides gave us 10 minutes to ourselves to walk around town.  As I was walking back I noticed a group of folks with black "Svalbard Adventures" snowmobile suits on, walking into the Red Bear for lunch.  Not having heard the lunch plan for our group, I followed the folks into the Red Bear, walked upstairs to a locker-room like area, went through the laborious process of removing all my heavy/ warm gear, and sat down at a table with other Svalbard Adventures folks.  Looked at the menu - borscht among other things - yum, just what I wanted!  My wife is of Prussian heritage and often cooks Polish food and some Russian - had borscht a number of times and really like it.  Was salivating.  Even ordered a coke ...

... it was then that I realized our whole group wasn't coming in.  I asked at the table "Are you a family group?" to which they all replied "... uh, yeah" with a "what are you doing here" look on their faces.  Not knowing there was a second group from Svalbard Adventures, I'd been fooled!  I jumped up, raced to put on all my gear and get back out to the meeting area for our group.  Much to my chagrin, I was the last guy there and the whole group was staring me down - Ida had gone off to look for me on my own scooter.  Geez... what could I do to recover?  Worse yet... no borscht today.

The inside of the Red Bear was modern and attractive - unexpectedly so given the weathered condition of the outside of the building and the general appearance of the town.  Too bad I had to race out and didn't get a chance for a quick iPhone snapshot... especially of the restaurant's icon - the Red Bear statue.  But a quick internet search will yield some images for you if you want to see it.

The Red Bear Brewery and RestaurantThe Red Bear Brewery and Restaurant

The Red Bear Brewery and RestaurantThe Red Bear Brewery and Restaurant

Shortly after the Red Bear, you come to this building, which I believe is the Hostel.

The hostel, apparentlyThe hostel, apparently

Then you reach the Mine Administration Building which, among other things, houses the entrance to the mine itself.

The new Mine Administration BuildingThe new Mine Administration Building Entrance to the mineEntrance to the mine Mine Logo on top!Mine Logo on top!

Our guides, Ida and Ryan, gave a short talk about the mine outside the Admin Building.  We learned that the mine used to be mostly up under the mountain... but now, it's under the fjord!  It takes the miners about 1 hour to get to their actual working location under the fjord, and it's cold in the mine from ventilation air that has to be pushed in because the mine cannot, obviously, be vented into the fjord.  Working conditions must be ... well, less than appealing!

Guides overview of the mine - tough job!

Then you reach the School, with it's colorful mural paintings on the outside.

The School buildingThe School building

Arctic animals painted on the School:

Arctic Animals painted on the SchoolArctic Animals painted on the School Arctic Animals painted on the SchoolArctic Animals painted on the School

Moscow's Cathedrals and Longyearbyen's colorful houses, painted on the School:

Images of Moscow's Cathedrals & Longyearbyen's Colorful Houses painted on the SchoolImages of Moscow's Cathedrals & Longyearbyen's Colorful Houses painted on the School

More Russian artwork painted on the School:

More artwork painted on the SchoolMore artwork painted on the School

Next is the old Mine Administration Building and mine entrance - now abandoned as I understand it.

The old Mine Entrance BuildingThe old Mine Entrance Building

The mine workers are mostly (if not all?) men.  Many of the women in town are engaged in making crafts, including those for sale.  You can see the Arts and Crafts Building in the background of this image.  I would like to have seen what types of crafts they are making, but time did not allow and the Souvenir Shop (a different building) was closed.

Arts & Crafts Building in the backgroundArts & Crafts Building in the background

Here's a sign on an abandoned building at the harbor.  No idea what it says!  (Workers of the Arctic World, Unite! ... maybe??)  I'll have to figure it out later...

A sign at the harbor ... I wonder what it saysA sign at the harbor ... I wonder what it says

The Russian Consulate Building and a Residence Building.

The Russian Consulate Building and a Residence BuildingThe Russian Consulate Building and a Residence Building

Another Residence Building with the requisite statue of Vladimir Lenin and a "Communism is our Goal" sign out front (not visible in this image).

Residence Building with requisite statue of Lenin out frontResidence Building with requisite statue of Lenin out front

The Concert Hall.  (This might also contain some sport facilities - not sure.)

The Concert Hall (& some sporting facilities?)The Concert Hall (& some sporting facilities?)

The Concert Hall (& some sporting facilities?)The Concert Hall (& some sporting facilities?)

A church that was constructed after a terrible plane crash - so mourners had a place to grieve.

The ChurchThe Church

The Souvenir Shop.

The Souvenir ShopThe Souvenir Shop

The road out of town, with a very old-Russian looking truck carrying a load of coal and coal dust on the road.

The road out of townThe road out of town

A very Russian-looking coal truckA very Russian-looking coal truck

On the way out of town, we stopped for lunch at the bombed-out-looking old generator building.  Had a freezed-dried lunch ... a BIG step-down from the borscht lunch I had hoped for at the Red Bear!

The abandoned generator station outside townThe abandoned generator station outside town

The building used to house two generators.  You can still see where the generators were housed, a crane for generator maintenance, and all sorts of old electrical relay panels with Cyrillic Lettering.  Very surreal!

Lunch! ... inside the old generator stationLunch! ... inside the old generator station The crane for lifting the 2 generators for maintenanceThe crane for lifting the 2 generators for maintenance Old electrical panel with Cyrillic writingOld electrical panel with Cyrillic writing

On the way back, the weather turned snowy with near-white-out conditions at times.  Having lived in upstate NY with decades of white-out driving experience, I wasn't bothered.

Return trip - blowing snow and low visibilityReturn trip - blowing snow and low visibility

On the way, we visited an Ice Cave.

Another Ice Cave on the way backAnother Ice Cave on the way back

Our very-good Guide, Ryan, did a closing briefing at the end of the trip.  The trip had taken us up & down hills, through valleys, across frozen lakes, up a glacier, over smooth terrain & bumpy terrain, fast straight-aways at 45 miles per hour, closed-in tight turns at slow speeds, and in all kinds of weather ... all through fantastically beautiful landscape in the short space of a few hours.  Not a bad way to spend a day in Svalbard - highly recommended!

Closing briefing by our Guide, RyanClosing briefing by our Guide, Ryan

I hope you enjoyed this rather-long virtual tour of Barentsburg and coverage of my Red Bear mishap!  As they used to say on Monty Python "... and NOW ... for something completely different!"

Cheers!

Jerry


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