Clouds are hanging low over Isfjorden when we cross over to the north side to sail past the Esmarkbreen glacier on our way to Barentsburg. From a distance, it is already clear that we are sailing right into a different world: a chimney is spewing smoke into the clouds, dark, rectangular buildings stand surrounded by snow, and a Russian guide is waiting to take us up the stairs after we dock. For the others, this is a day tour and they have a little over an hour here; I have decided to stay for the night to have more time to explore. I install myself in one of the two hotels in this 450-inhabitant settlement, and walk the streets where the melting snow makes my shoes wet. I walk up to the tourist information, where I am greeted with my name. It turns out that those working with visitors have a chat group, and share all the information. It feels like a small world indeed. When I walk past the bust of Lenin on the main square, and enter the only mini-market shop, I am sure: this is Russia. Or the Ukraine, as many inhabitants come from there. Locals can pay in rubles, but I have to use Norwegian kronor. The only hint that this may not be Russia.
The main square not only has a bust of a somber-looking Lenin, but also a slogan under the first skyscraper of the Arctic, praising communism. I follow the muddy black track that circles the town, with pipes running everywhere. An orthodox cross is erected closer to the coastline of Grønfjorden, and not far from the cross, I find the tiny wooden Russian orthodox church which is open 24/7, where I light a few candles for beloved ones. Again, this could not be more Russian. I walk the main street again, and study the disproportionally large school building again. It has murals of various churches, mosques, typical Russian houses and Arctic animals in red, blue, green, yellow, brown, and white. I end the day with a tasty Russian meal.
The next morning, I start off with a guided tour of the coal mine which is the only reason for the existence of Barentsburg. Even after the mine will be closed in the future (its deposits will run out in a few decades), Russia will surely maintain its presence here, if only for political reasons. I get a safety briefing, leave my camera and bag behind, and we walk through a wooden tunnel to the entrance of the mine system. It has 38 km of tunnels, and the workers need one hour to get to the actual place where the mining is done. We will not go there, but walking the underground system is fascinating enough. The ramshackle lorries and locomotive, the outdated phones, the draft running through the tunnels like a constant cold wind. Yes - contrary to my imagination of sweaty miners, it is cold in here. Every step I take in this unpleasant, dark environment, my admiration for the miners grows. We come back safe (questions about incidents and accidents are vaguely answered), and directly head to the museum. It is housed in the former Soviet embassy, a square, mint-green building that could well have been taken straight from Saint Petersburg. It has not been visited recently, judging from the untouched snow on its wooden stairs. Yulia, my Russian guide, opens the door for me, and gives me a personal tour of the museum. It turns out to offer all kinds of objects. Soviet posters of the first nuclear icebreakers, film posters, items of the Pomor (the Russian fishermen from the north coast), modern art, objects from the house and ship of the Barents expedition (after all, the town was named after him after the Dutch who initiated mining here sold it to the Soviets in 1932). It is a pity our time is limited, as I would have loved to spend more time here. But another Russian guide, with a rifle, is waiting to take me for a walk to Finneset. We walk over a black dirt road, under and alongside pipes, until we finally walk in deep snow. A Barentsburg sign in the snow makes for a perfect stop. We then descend to Finneset, a small promontory jutting out into Grønfjorden. Until the beginning of the 20th century, this was the location of a whaling station, and it was subsequently used as a communication station until the radio station was transferred to the entrance of Isfjorden further west. Now, only ruined buildings remain. In the distance: the smoky chimney of Barentsburg. This is a monochromatic world and it is only fitting that dark clouds slowly sail low over our heads.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Barentsburg (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Barentsburg.
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