Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An Avalanche of Contrasts

Photo: Dag Avango
Today we visited two worlds: the Arctic we have become so familiar with and Pyramiden, the diorama of Soviet life we only just encountered yesterday. It has been an avalanche of contrasts: the coolness of the Arctic against the warmth of the Pyramiden hotel; Norwegian colors and Soviet monotone; the kindness of our Russian guides and the dominating frigidity of Svalbard's dappled peaks.

In Pyramiden, we investigated a power plant, black and rust. We had lunch on the docks, perusing the dead hulks of cranes and thousands of pieces of metal. Farther inland, decrepit mine buildings enticed intrepid explorers, but thoughts of lead paint and asbestos held some of us at bay.

After the exploration, we rendezvoused at the hotel to present our questions to Sasha, an ex-grad student who gave up academia to explore the world. Having hiked China and worked in Antarctica, he made his way to Svalbard to work as a Pyramiden tour guide. He proved exceptionally knowledgable, enlightening us to many aspects of Russian activity on Svalbard. We learned that Pyramiden was considered a miner's dream job and that, although modern Russia is determined to hold the town as a political gesture, any further mining would be uneconomical. Interestingly, tourism has been present ostensibly since the 1950's, according to Sasha. Pyramiden was set up as a model Soviet village of workers, and in that regard, a form of propaganda for the last half century.

Returning back to the base camp with thoughts of a mining life in our minds, the long hike seemed like a trans-national trek. Our camp, once a cold, wet camp with sticky, bland rations seemed to transform into a delightful sanctuary, complete with delicious soups and sandwiches! Such is the wonder of Arctic travel – contrast is illuminated as if by the midnight sun. A sun we are about to see – sleeping bags beckon!
Goodnight from Petunia Bay!

Shanshan Ge, Anton Lindholm, Logan Nagel

This article is one in a series of blog entries written by University of Illinois students who traveled during summer 2013 to Stockholm, Sweden and Svalbard, Norway to participate in the interdisciplinary course, “Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic,” provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and co-organized with KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Course participants from both universities learn about issues related to climate change and the Arctic, capped by an excursion to conduct field research near the Arctic Circle. This program is partially supported by the European Union Center through a European Union Center of Excellence grant, and is an initiative of the Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational Research Exchange (INSPIRE). Student blog entries also appear on the web site of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat

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