"One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time."
-- Carl Sagan
The last day of our cruise already? I was crest-fallen for multiple reasons: first, a scheduled expedition to Sveabreen, Yoldiabukta, had just been cancelled due to [more] inclement weather. In addition, no one aboard the MS Expedition spotted cetaceans a.k.a. whales/dolphins at the continental shelf’s drop off into the Arctic Ocean last evening due to the suffocating fog. Mostly though, I was sad that our ship was cruising back to Longyearbyen, for each nautical mile closer to the city meant less chances of a polar bear sighting. Physically, my equilibrium craved solid ground & my appetite craved non-fried food. Emotionally, I was not ready to leave the pristine world of Svalbard & the possibility of seeing more megafauna, specifically polar bears.
However, our expedition leader – John Kernan – had one last stop: Pyramiden at roughly 79º N. He prepared us for being underwhelmed by saying “People either really like it or really hate it” and “Once you’ve been here, you’ll get a feeling for Siberia.” Nonetheless, I was giddy at the opportunity to get off the boat & explore! Do you remember the Asian man I met in Spitsbergen Guesthouse’s kitchen before the cruise? He sang praises of Pyramiden & I secretly wished Mom and I were staying longer so that I too could visit the city. Now, as long as Arctic weather cooperated, I no longer had to wish!
For the most part, Pyramiden was a Russian-owned ghost-town, although it was not entirely deserted when we visited. It flourished through the 1990’s due to coal mining & once housed hundreds of Russian families year-round. From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed as viable as nearby Longyearbyen, with its basic buildings, town centre, and schools. It was only once we pierced Pyramiden’s shell that I discovered it was a city lost in time.
The Zodiac slid up the gravel beach near the empty marina. What immediately caught my eye was the town’s namesake: a jet black mountain that was shaped like a pyramid. Much like Hallgrimskirkja in Iceland, the large, looming mountain could be seen from almost any vantage point in the city. I must not have been the only person to admire its presence, as the city erected a landmark that complemented the mountain in the background perfectly.
The MS Expedition’s passengers set out in teams due to the always impending threat of polar bears… and there were lots of places for them to hide here! Mom & I scurried down the lone road from the harbor where remnants of an industrial life were strewn: tracks without carts, collapsed structures, a myriad of empty barrels, and murky, gushing water. I thought I discerned a train to the mine parked at a 45º angle up the mountainside. It sure looked like business in Pyramiden halted immediately; like that conductor had to abandon the train right then & there. The urgency of that scene bothered me the rest of the day.
The factories gave way to residential complexes with birds’ nests on nearly every window sill. Even more Arctic Terns & Gulls roosted on the dormitory’s roof & power lines, but not on other roofs we passed. Why they all congregated at this one building was peculiar & almost ominous. Seriously, this apartment complex was so inundated with fowl it looked straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
For MS Expedition guests only, Sasha offered to open up the city’s civic centre/gymnasium for one hour. Everything in the heart of Pyramiden wreaked Russian: statues, signs, and – especially – the interior décor.
As Mom & I entered the dreary lobby of the gymnasium, it was a step back in time. The air smelled stale. The rooms with functioning electricity were cast in a retro, sallow tint. The elegant, Parquet wood flooring was busted and unglued now. A mirror with ornate brass designs was mounted on the ceiling. Faded Russian posters adorned the dim hallways. What enraptured me the most was the media room. Like something out of old Hollywood, three dusty projectors were stored to the left. I wanted to delve into that archaic room so I shoved the wooden door open but could barely find space to walk since film covered the entire floor.
Upon closer inspection, 35 millimeter film was still woven throughout the projector. I felt like I was rifting someone’s memory as I grabbed the strip to see what Pyramiden’s citizens were watching on that last, fateful day in the civic centre, but it was too dark. What happened here? What was so pressing that the operator could not replace the movie in its canister? That eerie feeling returned. The media room looked ransacked, but the most haunting piece of evidence I found in the adjacent office. A worn journal laid open on the wooden desk buried under more film to my right. On the yellowing pages was some sort of log. I could not decode the month – as I assumed the writing was Russian – only “1997.” It was chilling to read what someone scribed more than a decade ago – the final entry. I wondered, “where was the Russian now?” I doubted he or she knew that the log generated creative scenarios and more questions than answers for me. Oh the irony, as I imagined this person going about his/her daily grind at 79º N in the endless night [perhaps], never knowing that this city & book would become a tourist attraction. To think, this Russian citizen – simply & dutifully completing the journal – affected a Filipina from America 15 years later. We never truly know the extent of our human touches, do we?
Gymnasium vacated & secured with a thick lock, Sasha reiterated staying with our group since a polar bear was seen on the hillside just last night. Through the deteriorated village, a few windows gave off that same tinted light as in the cultural centre & a few workers maneuvered construction equipment, but mostly the city was deserted, save for the animals. A guide identified an Arctic fox with a bushy tail just 20 feet away & I watched him race under & over the raised, wooden walkway. Clearly, the wildlife ran this town.
Ultimately, Pyramiden fell – probably in part from its extreme location & the dwindling natural resources. That cart alongside the city’s monument was significant in that it was the last coal mined, on “31 Mapta 1998.” Clearly, Russia abandoned Pyramiden and forgot about it. Though most structures laid in ruin it evoked a magical, timeless and haunting feeling for both my Mom & me. I could only compare it to the same emotions I felt when I stared at the Aboriginal art in Australia or petroglyphs in Puerto Rico.