(P1) A man in a hat and black coat, RIFLE slung over a shoulder, IDLES on the PONTOON as a group of tourists sail in to visit an Arctic ODDITY, Pyramiden, a Soviet-era GHOST TOWN.

(P2) Alexander Romanovskiy, better known as Sasha, is the GUARDIAN of the mining town abandoned in 1998 but still owned by a Russian firm, Arktikugol, though it is located on a FJORD on Norway’s Spitzbergen Island in the heart of the Svalbard Islands halfway between CONTINENTAL Norway and the North Pole.

(P3) “Svalbard is Norwegian but had a special status ENABLING other people to live or work there,” tour guide Kristin Jaeger-Wexsahl tells the group of several dozen tourists who sailed from the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, some 50 kilometres away.

(P4) But as they step off to visit the former COAL centre named after a pyramid-shaped mountain in the background, Sasha takes over.

(P5) Why is he armed? In case of POLAR BEARS, until recently the town’s only INHABITANTS, he tells the group. “We haven’t seen one since May but YOU NEVER KNOW,” says the 33-year-old.

(P6) The Soviets bought the then-small coalmine in 1927 from Swedes.

(P7) “The first settlers came in 1936 but were EVACUATED by British forces at the beginning of the Second World War … so mining really began IN EARNEST in 1956,” he added.

(P8) The rails used by the FUNICULAR to FERRY miners up to the entrance on the mountain face, and by trailers to HAUL the coal down, are still visible, while the WHARF remains LITTERED with aging PILES of bricks, gravel, and rusted metal parts.

(P9) Sasha, working his fourth season here hundreds of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, says the residents THRIVED in the 70s and 80s before the situation in USSR began to UNRAVEL.

(P10) Some 1,200 Russians then lived in Pyramiden, which BOASTED several four-storey buildings, a hospital, schools, a football ground, and even a farm with cows and chickens.

(P12) Black-and-white photos of football and hockey MATCHES and chess TOURNAMENTS hang in the entrance hall, taking visitors back in time. The 300-seat cinema almost looks as if it were used yesterday, as does the basketball court.

(P13) Upstairs a few children’s books have been left in the library while in another smaller room a piano, DRUM KIT, and ACCORDION are GATHERING DUST.

(P14) But the 90s were bad years for Pyramiden with the Soviet Union starting to COME APART AT THE SEAMS, the mine becoming less profitable, and the government unable at times to pay the WAGES.

(P15) In 1998, the company announced its CLOSURE and the city was ABANDONED by its residents.

(P16) Now in the HARSH winter months when the sun fails to rise, even Sasha leaves.

(P17) But in March he happily returns. With more and more tourists visiting Spitzbergen over the last few years, Pyramiden has become a popular CURIOSITY in the Arctic Circle world of mountains, fjords, and GLACIERS.

(P18) In 2007, one of the empty buildings was CONVERTED into a 24-room hotel.

(P19) This summer eight Russians were employed at Pyramiden to look after the hotel, as well as two guides.

(P20) Pavel Arkharov, the 26-year-old photography student who helps Sasha welcome the tourists when they DISEMBARK, says he doesn’t find the DESERTED town depressing. “It’s a very peaceful, HARMONIOUS place,” he says.

WORDS: 536



If you found the passage difficult to read or had problems understanding specific words or idiomatic expressions, please discuss them with your tutor. The following discussion questions should be answered in your own words and with your own arguments.

  1. Briefly summarize the content of the article in your own words.
  2. Do you think you could live in a very cold environment all year?
  3. Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs. Would you work at a dangerous job if the pay was high?
  4. Do you find REMOTE, empty places peaceful or depressing?
  5. Many tour boats now travel into the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. Would that kind of trip interest you?


What do the following expressions mean? Practice using each expression in a sentence; extra points if you can use it in conversation.

  • Ghost town
  • You never know
  • In earnest
  • Gather dust
  • Come apart at the seams

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