David Lloyd Travel Writer Guest Posting

Posted by admin | Posted in Guest Articles | Posted on 14-10-2010

Our guest posting this week is from Liverpool based writer David Lloyd who’s writing covers travel, culture, food and music, runs Liverpool-centred arts and ents site, www.sevenstreets.com, holidays anywhere north of Inverness. Probably eats too much cheese, and watches too much reality TV than is medically safe and is a thoroughly lovely chap!

BLACK ICE

Like laundry on a final spin I’m thrown around inside a four-by-four with tyres the size of Hampshire. I bite my lip, bang my head, and try to focus on the horizon as I shudder along roads that can only be described as ‘off’.

I’m in a land about halfway between Norway and the top of the world. And my journey’s just begun.

This is Svalbard, a rocky scatter of islands lost in the high Arctic. I’m travelling from Longyearbyen, its prosperous Norwegian capital, to the mining community of Barentsburg, Russia’s forgotten frontier.

Without warning, the track sinks beneath a fresh drift of snow and I’m forced to swap the heated saloon of the truck with its cargo: a muscular red snowmobile.

Occasionally, due to the shift and tumble of the pack ice a glassy smooth hump breaks the surface, like the back of some huge, crystallised whale. While, punctuating the frozen desert’s surface, seals loll by blowholes, deer nuzzle for scraps of lichen and, somewhere, polar bears are watching.

It’s evening by the time I cross the only Russian border on the globe where visas are not required. I only know I’ve arrived because a windburned sign reads: ‘Баренцбург ферма участок’ -‘Barentsburg farm zone’ – a suburb of long, low barns housing chickens, cattle and pigs. The animals provide all the food the 700 residents need to see them through eight months of winter until, with the breaking of the pack ice, the first ships arrive from the Motherland. Barentsburg has no airport and, save for four months of the year is cut off from civilisation. No one in Barentsburg can afford a snowmobile.

At the centre of town an oversized bust of Lenin casts its frozen stare over the monumental Soviet buildings. A claxon sounds signalling dinner is about to be served in the communal canteen, and families shuffle out into the snow.

The Ferrari red livery of my snowmobile blows my cover. A man approaches.

“Can I help you?”

Alexei’s a miner from the Ukrainian town of Berdychiv, his thick moustache decorated with ice crystal baubles. He removes a glove to shake my hand.

Alexei insists on giving me a tour of his town. “I’m not hungry,” he says, his face smeared with the evidence of another gruelling shift.

Mining, the sole reason for the community’s existence, is heavily subsidised.

The remnants of old shafts and pit railways give a Klondike air to the huddled settlement. Alexei tells me the miners haven’t been paid since last summer but, when the Rubles do arrive, they’ll earn 12,000 a month (about £300).

Until then, families are granted food credit – there’s little else here to spendtheir money on.

With every season, the amount of low-grade coal coaxed from the town’s crumbling mountains reduces. “These mines would have been closed years ago,” Alexei says, “but Moscow hopes that, one day, other minerals will be found. Maybe oil.” Svalbard may be administered by Norway but, according to a treaty signed in 1920, 11 nations have mineral rights. Russia’s gamble – that it’s cheaper to keep this brittle community alive than cryogenically freeze it until oil is found – is currently under review. Until then, a matrix of over ground heating pipes piled high above the permafrost keeps the Arctic just about at arm’s length.

What little coal that makes it to the town’s dirty wharf usually ends its journey here, at the shore of the Greenland Sea. Russia doesn’t need it, and the mining company have only secured one sale in the past year. A scree of coal blackens the frozen bay.

“Compared to Ukraine, Barentsburg pays well. There are no coalmines where we come from. Russia closed them all,” Alexei says.

In summer’s endless sunlight, Alexei’s two daughters, with the rest of Barentsburg’s 50 children, can play basketball at midnight. But they need to be vigilant. Last year, an eight year old was mauled to death by a hungry young polar bear.

As we talk, Alexei proudly points out an Olympic sized heated swimming pool complex and huge, five-storied hotel. It could never hope to fill a single floor. The town’s only human-scale development is a memorial for the 140 miners who perished when their plane exploded in the mountains behind Longyearbyen airport ten years ago.

At the hotel bar we meet Tomas, a salesman for the Pernod-Ricard drinks company. “People thought I was mad coming to Svalbard to get business. But you should see how much these people drink.” he says.

We order a round of vodkas. Alexei insists on paying.

A high Arctic wind picks up, rattling the windows of the hotel, and launching javelins of icicles into the air. As the vodka delivers its instant spike of heat, Alexei raises his glass.

“To Barentsburg!” he says.