Show + Tell: Gig at an Arctic Communist Ghost Town, Svalbard

Svalbard mountains

By Isabel Clift

Show + Tell is a new series where we interview people who’ve been on extraordinary travels. Today we’re chatting polar bears and ghost towns with Flora Yin Wong, who got the chance to visit every Northern Lights fan’s dream destination, Svalbard…

Isabel: How did going to Svalbard come about?

Flora: This band Frost were playing a gig in this place called Pyramiden. The singer’s grandmother used to take pictures there, which was quite rare at the time – they didn’t allow access, she was Norwegian but it’s a Russian settlement. So they decided to go back there and put on a gig in this abandoned auditorium.

Did the grandma live in Pyramiden?

No, the grandmother lived in Svalbard but Frost are from Tromsø, Norway. So they got loads of people to go [to the gig] – well I say loads, but it was like 80 people, all locals from Svalbard. There’s only one settlement, Longyearbyen, and only like 1000 people live there – but there are 3000 polar bears. So there are more polar bears than people.

Pyramiden town sign

Did you have a drill on what to do if a polar bear showed up?

No, but they said we couldn’t leave the guide, because the guide had a rifle. So if we weren’t with them we had to be with someone who did have a rifle. Before, it was illegal to walk outside the settlements without a rifle yourself, but now they’ve got stricter gun laws. They didn’t want everyone shooting all the polar bears.

Polar bears have become so symbolic of people screwing up the environment, too…

What’s quite sad is we didn’t see any polar bears. They’re supposed to be just, like, roaming around and in that place, so they were like “yeah be careful, don’t wander around, there are polar bears.” We drove up in our boat to go to this place because a dead whale had washed up and they thought that there’d be loads there. But apparently this year there’s less and less because of the ice melting. You have to go further north. It’s happened really dramatically as well, it’s really scary.

Were you disappointed not to see the polar bears?

I was disappointed, yeah. We saw puffins and really weird birds, stuff like that. I didn’t see any reindeer, they’ve got reindeer up there; and whales, and seals. But I met an explorer when I was in the hotel. There are only three hotels in Svalbard; we were staying in one of them. The explorer had just sailed from the North Pole, and was saying he was going to sail to the South Pole. He was showing me pictures of all these penguins. Are penguins in the Arctic or the Antarctic?

I think you get polar bears on the top [of the world], and penguins on the bottom, and you don’t ever get them together. Somebody should introduce penguins into the Arctic…

…They’d probably get eaten.

Oh yeah. That’s probably a real reason why! How long did it take you to get to Svalbard?

We flew to Oslo, and from Oslo we flew to Longyearbyen. That was ages. The whole journey to Pyramiden was 18 hours. We got a boat. The way back was even longer because we stopped at a really big glacier. That was incredible, a huge, huge, block of ice, miles and miles wide. That was terrifying. It looked like a giant ice cube, I’ve never seen anything like it. There were several points where I thought I was going to die because it was so cold.

Glacier, Svalbard

Did they tell you what weather gear to bring?

No! When we got there, there was this giant sign saying “you are now entering a rabies zone.”

Tucking in your hands…

…Like, “don’t touch me!” It was really weird because we were landing at 11.30pm, but it was getting brighter. When we got there it was sunny again, because its 24 hours of daylight. It’s not super bright, but like a weird twilight. So it’s like that for half the year. And you can see the moon at the same time [as the sun]. We were flying in when it was a blue moon, so it was massive.

Were you flying in one of those tiny planes? Or a commercial flight?

No, it was a normal one. Below us, when we were approaching the island, there was nothing – just huge black mountains, and big clouds that hung really low, and just nothing. Nothing there.

So who else was on your flight? Is it a tourist route that people do?

I think it was tourists, people do stay there, and you can do arctic tours. But there’s no roads between the settlements, you have to get a snowmobile.

Do you drive the snowmobile? Or do locals take you?

I think it’s both. And there’s huskies and shit like that. You’re not allowed to wander off on your own anywhere. Well, you can, but you’ll die.

So how did you know the band?

Well their PR contacted Dazed, the print side, and said “do you want to go to this ghost town?” I was like, yes.

Was that something that immediately appealed to you, going to a ghost town?

Yep. Pyramiden was really incredible, because there used to be 1000 people who lived there, and then they were all evacuated on one day.

Abandoned town Pyramiden, Svalbard

Why were they evacuated?

They couldn’t afford to fund the town anymore, it was a coalmining place. It’s so remote, tucked away in these mountains in the middle of nowhere. When we went there was no electricity or anything. There was one hotel. There’s this Russian guy there who’s trying to get tourists to come. It’s called Pyramiden because there’s a mountain there with a top that looks like a pyramid. It’s got these weird ridges on it – it’s just the way it’s formed.

Pyramiden mountain

So there’s this guy, just in this hotel in an abandoned ghost town, and he’s waiting for people to come?

Yes. Four people live there now. They live in one building that still has heating and everything, that we stayed in. Another thing was why the band returned there. This sounds totally made up, but they got sent a cassette tape. It was Russian radio signals, and apparently those radio signals were picked up in Pyramiden after it was abandoned. So they don’t know what was being transmitted from there, and how, after everyone had left, so that’s why they decided to go there. They tried to take us on a tour, but we went to like two buildings – there was just nothing there.

Was everything left as it was?

Yeah. There’s a gym, and everything’s really dusty in there. Because everything’s really cold, apparently the rate of decay is really slow.

Sports Hall at Pyramiden

So it’s kind of like people have just walked out of the room…

Everyone ran out. There’s books left on the floor, trays left in the canteen, glasses left on the bar.

Do you know how long the city had been around, before then?

It was supposed to be a communist paradise. It was really family-orientated. The pictures taken by the bandmate’s grandmother were from the ‘60s, and it was 1998 that they left.

So there’s fifty years of stuff piled up there. It’s interesting, there’s such a lot of tourism for urban exploration. Like there’s a whole island in Japan that’s a city that’s been abandoned…

That sounds cool. I’d never heard of Pyramiden before I went there, but I did look it up and National Geographic had called it one of the world’s foremost ghost towns.

There’s a blog called Artificial Owl that’s a guy who goes round ghost towns, abandoned farms. You don’t realise how big the world is until you see abandoned stuff.

Yeah. Pyramiden was the most remote place I’ve ever been to in my life. Walking through the town, I kept thinking that if I turned a corner there’d be stuff there, there’d be people there. I couldn’t fathom that there was nobody. And you can actually see the glacier across the ocean from that town, and there’s a big bust of Lenin in the middle of the square. So we were outside the hall, smoking cigarettes, with Lenin looking out to the sea and this huge glacier.

What was the feeling of that?

It was awesome. I really thought I’d never be in a place like that again. It was hard because it was freezing, I didn’t know it would be that cold. When we were standing watching the band play in this old auditorium, that was awesome as well, they were projecting old images in the background, and their child was running around in the hallway so you could hear screaming through the performance. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, I thought I was going to die at one point, thought I was going to pass out because it was really cold and I didn’t know what was going on any more.

The world's most northernmost piano, Pyramiden, Svalbard

It’s one of those things that afterwards you think “oh my God, I was there.” When that feeling of freezingness goes and it’s like “woah, that was what it was”.

Yeah, I actually really want to go back. Even though I’ve been there once, I think that you could really do something with it. There’s actually another band that’s recorded stuff there, they’re called Efterklang. It’s called Pyramida, their album, I think they were running around in the gravel, stuff like that, just trying to record noises from there.

What would you do if you went back?

Um…. try and find a polar bear, give it a hug?

I’d probably try and find a polar bear too. One with cubs.

Play badminton with it. That would be good.

Thanks for speaking with us, Flora…

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Top three images c. Flora Yin Wong. All other images from Kitty Terwolbeck on Flickr. Please note, all images from Flickr were held under the Creative Commons licence at the time of publication.

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