Barentsburg: chilly invite to a land frozen in time

Barentsburg in the Svalbard archipelago is a curious Soviet relic best explored by snowmobile, says Chris Leadbeater

Midway across the frozen Grondalen river, I hit a lump in the ice with such ferocity that I fear I will lose control of my snowmobile. Beneath me, this muscular winter vehicle whines in frustration, and, distracted, I slow down to regain my composure. Perhaps this is the moment when I burst through the fabric of time. Because when I force my way up the sharp bank on the far side of the valley, I am sure that I have tumbled into the 1970s.

The first indication of inter-epoch travel is the charred building at the top of the slope. It is hard to say definitively what it might have been. Perhaps it was a clinic, maybe an office. But the windows have long fallen in, and the drifts piled up inside offer an almost shocking colour contrast to the sooty texture of the fire-damaged walls.

Beyond, the “road” into town is barely any prettier, sneaking past slagheaps of coal and piles of rejected metal. The snow is speckled with dirt – the result of a towering chimney stack that belches black into the air. Finally, there is the sign, and with it, the proof that I have entered another world. “Barentsburg,” it declares, in hard Cyrillic script.

As destinations go, Svalbard is scarcely an oversubscribed holiday favourite. This frosted Norwegian archipelago lurks between the 74th and 81st lines of latitude, shivering where the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean converge – 300 miles north of the Scandinavian mainland.

Life is confined to the largest island, Spitsbergen, where the “capital” Longyearbyen proffers a clutch of bars and restaurants for the mining community, and husky tours for the intrepid tourists who come to combine the mountain scenery with flashes of the Northern Lights. But even this flinty urban pocket seems like a metropolis compared with the Russian outpost that lies 35 miles – and, in spirit, four decades – away to the west.

Barentsburg’s presence on the map dates to the Svalbard treaty of 1920, which asserted Norwegian sovereignty in this distant island cluster, but granted the agreement’s co-signatories a slice of Svalbard’s mineral resources. Forty-one nations are allowed to drill here (Britain included), but only Sweden and Russia currently accept the chilly invitation. Barentsburg began as a Dutch mining outpost, before the concession was sold to the Soviet Union in 1932. Nowadays, the Arktikugol mine sustains 500 resilient inhabitants.

But in many ways, it is a place trapped in the past, more a Soviet sliver than a fragment of modern Russia. A day earlier, in Longyearbyen’s cosy Karls-Berger Pub, two locals catch wind of my plan to cross the mountains in search of this icy ghost. It is an odd place, they say, muttering that it exists not for coal, but so Russia can keep a foot in a realm that, during the Cold War, was of key strategic value.

If such talk is not enough to intrigue the more adventurous traveller, then the necessary journey surely is. During summer, it can be done by boat. But during the winter period of February-May, when the waterways are thickly clotted, a snowmobile is the ideal option.

It is still dark when I find myself pulling on a multilayered survival suit, feeling entirely out of my element.

Thankfully my guide, Martin Molde Eriksen, a chiselled Norwegian, looks rather more the part – a good thing, because our route requires expert knowledge. Our snowmobiles roar westward on the ice of the Longyearbyen glacier, then up the taut torso of Fardalsbakken hill. At the top, the snow falls so unwaveringly that any visual markers are deleted by a blizzard of white. All except for Martin’s tail lights. I keep my eyes on these little red beacons as we slip down – through the thin trench of Fardalen, the wider expanse of Colesdalen, the lonely grooves of Skiferdalen, Semmeldalen and Passdalen – aware that I am on an archipelago where the polar bear outnumbers man.

The proximity of the sea is harshly apparent as we cross Grondalen, the wind raging at our incursion – so loudly that Barentsburg is a shelter from the storm. It is also thrillingly entrenched in the last century. The number etched on to its hospital in grimy brick – 1977 – is the squat structure’s foundation date, but it could just as easily be the year when the clock stopped. On the side of the school, a series of paintings pine for Moscow, red and yellow daubings depicting famous buildings from the motherland (including the Red Square skyline). And the town square is home to an inevitable bust of Lenin, the old revolutionary’s head weathered on the left side where Arctic gusts have gnawed his face.

Some houses are so dilapidated that they are in danger of collapse, their sagging floors evidence of shafts below the surface. But one building stands unbowed. On the façade of the sports centre, a Soviet mural shows the youth of Russia, raising its hands. Within the gym, the same limbs are being deployed in an aggressive game of volleyball. In an adjacent hall, a swimmer performs lengths in a pool caked with rust.

Yet there is warmth too. The greetings from everyone I meet appear friendly and genuine. And the Hotel Barentsburg transcends its outer drabness, a bright gift shop selling Russian dolls with a political bent, Lenin stuffed into Brezhnev, Putin into Khrushchev. The stern, silent cook-waitress in the restaurant might be Mother Russia herself, but the bowls of pork broth served on the formica tables are hot and tasty.

They also provide welcome nutrition ahead of the return expedition over the mountains, the meagre light dying as we crawl east. Four hours later, Longyearbyen comes back into sight, shining in the valley. It can never have looked so closely allied to the 21st century.

Travel essentials

Getting there

  • Scandinavian Airlines (0871 226 7760; flysas.co.uk) flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Oslo, with onward connections to Longyearbyen.
  • Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.no) flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh to Oslo, with onward connections.

Touring there

  • One-day snowmobile expeditions to Barentsburg from Longyearbyen cost 1,950 kroner (£228) per person, including guides, survival clothing and lunch in Barentsburg, through Svalbard Snoscooterutleie (00 47 79 021 666; scooterutleie.net).
  • Discover the World (01737 214250; discover-the-world.co.uk) offers a six-night “Tromso and Svalbard” holiday from £1,198 per person, including flights and breakfast.

Staying there

  •  Doubles at the Spitsbergen Hotel in Longyearbyen cost 1750 kroner (£205) in March (from 835kroner/£98 at other times), including breakfast (00 47 79 026 200; spitsbergentravel.com).

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