Saturday, 23 April 2016

Naryan-Mar, a Russian arctic town in the Nenets region by the Pechora river

Most of the Russian arctic ports and towns are industrial nightmares and were only five decades ago in the vicinity of Gulag camps and/or related soviet structures. That scar has marked them, it seems, forever. Building quality is usually quite miserable - traditional wooden houses in ruins, horrid decaying apartment blocks, grand stalinist neo-classic monsters, coal and oil extraction plants bringing pollution and ugliness, zero urban design.

It's hard to find some place different. Naryan-Mar, by the Pechora River in native Nenets territory, is just a bit different: not pretty, nor attractive, but for an arctic harbour on the shores of the Barents Sea, under severe -40º winter, born of coal and oil industry, it does have some colour, some signs of modernity and progress, some evident care in recent buildings and street design.

Not much better or worse than its Alaskan counterparts, Naryan-Mar sits like them in native peoples territory - Nenetsia, the land of the Nenets, a nomadic people of reindeer herders living traditionally in tents. Maybe their luck was not to suffer prisoner work camps on this corner of Siberia - the dreadful Vorkuta in the neighboring Yamalo-Nenets region is 470 km away.

Anyhow, I like to reveal unknown places, had you ever heard about Naryan-Mar ? It has an Asian sounding name, but it is an European town, since we are west of the Ural mountains !

Pechora river, the main watercourse in the region.

Naryan-Mar was founded in 1931 in connection with the opening of the port in the Pechora river. The city is located 110 kilometers from the coast of the Barents Sea in the lower reaches of the Pechora River, one of the largest of the European part of Russia. In summer, the lower section is navigable, so there is a ferry service during the season.

There is no road access - only in winter an "ice road" allows an hazardous driving. No rail connection either - Naryan-Mar's arctic isolation can only be overcome by plane.


Coordinates: 67° 38′ N, 53° 00′ E
Population: 24 000

Main street in winter rush hour. 

Entrance to Naryan-Mar: the cathedral square.

The Cathedral of Epyphany (2004) and the belfry tower (2006) are modern revivals of the traditional orthodox wooden churches.

Looks like a small arctic 'Kremlin'.

The round church reminds of a Nenets tent

Another smaller temple is the church of St. Nicholas (2008) on Pervomayskaya street.

Few examples of older wooden houses remain, like this one from the 1930's when the first settlement was built.

But the city's hallmark is still the Post Office building of 1952:

The uniqueness of the building gives the angle consisting of five volumes of various shapes: prisms and pyramids, triangles...

A look at modern life, now: some people do live well enough.

The main avenue, a little more handsome than others:

And the colourful new Kindergarten.

The Naryan-Mar Library, 2007.

Nenets children in the open Library during the World Book Day.

The Nenets

The Nenets people of the Siberian arctic had to adapt to inevitable changes: most are still nomadic reindeer herders, the last of their kind; but many others live in villages and towns  like ant other Russians.

There is an effort to value Nenets' traditions.

Their life follows the rythm of an yearly event: the migration of over a thousand kilometres, moving gigantic herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle. Their tent camps move accordingly, sometimes unexpectedly.

Today more than 10 000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra.

A reindeer race among the Nenets.

In the Nenets older village of Andeg, 30 km north of Naryan-Mar, on the banks of the Little Pechora River, much of the 9th and early 20th century building is still visible.

Andeg was founded in the XVIII century. In terms of architecture, it is perhaps the most interesting village in the area.


Aerial view of Naryan-Mar, the Pechora river and the port in the background.

The town center at night on a festive day.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Stokmarknes, Vesterålen, Norway - a 68º N wealthy Thule.

The eastern coast of Norway is one of the probable Ultima Thule sites, meaning the farthest place that the Greek sailor Pytheas reached in his northerly (arctic?) journey around 325 BC. From his and other later accounts, he may have gone as far as 65º to 70º N. I wrote several posts here on the subject, but none on Vesterålen, an achipelago north of the famous and outstandig Lofoten Islands. One of the Vesterålen islands is Hadsel (Hadseløya), a small mountainous and rocky island with two towns and a few hamlets on its coastline. Latitude 68ºN - right on the spot !

The most populated is Stokmarknes, also a tourist destination daily visited by the Hurtigruten Express and because of the wonderful nature landscapes nearby. It's not that easy to access, though - on a small island of an arctic archipelago off the northeastern coast of Norway, and known for its raining weather.

The lush vegetation at 68º N (220 km north of the Arctic Circle) comes as a surprise, but in fact the treeline limit barely touches Norway - just a small northerly treeless patch around the North Cape.

Dalsvatnet, a small lake.

High mountains with deep valleys and lakes between make for a much forested but wild alpine hinterland.

On the southwest coast, the best sandy beaches, small jewels completely off the beaten tracks !


Coordinates: 68° 33′ N, 14° 54′ E
Population: ~ 3700

Stokmarknes sits on the northern coast of Hadseløya. It started mainly as one more fishing village, but is now upgraded to "Hurtigruten's birthplace" town: here in 1881 was established the small Vesterålen Steamship Company, predecessor of Hurtigruten. A museum was built dedicated to the History of the coastal express.

Rorbuer cabins, part of the Crystal Hotel, with a view to the Hurtigruten Museum.

Rødbrygga, the pub and pizzeria where people meet for a drink.

Stay 'al fresco' in summer is a must.

Markedsbrygga, previously a wharf.

Markedsbrygga, the Market Wharf, is now an outdoor clothing shop plus convenience store, café and small theater; also, the local Tourist Office.

Markedsgata is the only shopping street.

'Aktuelle', in a green wooden house, clothing.

Trykkeriet sells anything, from mobiles to houseware, teas and cakes.

'Galleri Apotheket', a collective gallery for local artists.

Glass pottery and ceramics, photography, painting, sculpture and small crafts.

The awarded public Library, good architecture.

Another excelent improvement, the new Vesteralen Hospital (Sikehus).

The Hurtigruten coastal express

A Hurtigruten ship passing under the Hadselbrua (1978), the curved bridge.

If one compares a town like Stokmarknes, in wealthy european Norway, to any town at the same latitude at, say, Alaska, Canada or Siberia, the differences are immediatly obvious. Yes, this is 68º N Arctic, but with all the benefits and comfort of civilization and healthy economy, plus daily ship connections. Remoteness is not a burden here. If you search severe arctic harshness, you must search elsewhere, like Inuvik in the previous post, Point Hope in Alaska, Verkhoyansk in wild Siberia.

Part of Stokmarknes developpment as a lucky arctic town is surely due to the Hurtigruten company.

The Hurtigruten Museum

A waterfront view: the Finnmarken ship-museum, Rødbrygge and Markedsbrygga.

The first coastal express, the steamer 'Vesterålen', sailed in 1893; Stokmarknes was its homeport and home to its founder, Richard With.

The Vesterålen steamship.

For more than 100 years, Hurtigruten has been an integral part of life in northern Norway, tying cities and communities together, carrying goods and people over the nations number one highway: the ocean. The town's pride steamer Finnmarken was taken ashore for the Hurtigruten museum in 1999.

The M/S Finmarken on service.

The radio cabin of the Finnmarken.

The M/S Finnmarken served the express route from 1956 to 1993, and after a definitive pane was given as the world's biggest museum artefact.

But the Vesterålen Cultural Centre is larger than the Museu; it has a modern stage for opera, theatre and concert performances.

What eles? A movie theater? Yes, of course, a regular movie theater, the Kino is also part of the Hurtigruten Hus in Markedsgata:

Hadsel Church

The historic Hadsel Church is located about 5 kilometres east of Stokmarknes, perched on a hill overlooking Hadsel fjord.  The wooden octagonal church building was constructed in 1824, but its altarpiece from 1570 came from an older church. This was once an ecclesiastical centre since the Middle Ages.

The polychrome altarpiece is Dutch (16th century).


Maybe Stokmarknes is a bit far off, too small and often under bad climate. But apparently nothing important is missing, the old is counterbalanced by the modern, town city life is surrounded by nature and landscape. For an arctic little town, it is a rich and attractive one.