You can find the northernmost iteration of many things in Longyearbyen, the 3000-strong Norwegian settlement on Svalbard just 1000 kilometres from the North Pole. That's true for its supermarket, church and cash machine. However, thanks to the strange Russian settlement of Pyramiden, which lies 100 kilometres north, not all the records belong to the Norwegians.
This too is on Svalbard, but while its permanent residents now only number a few Russians and Ukrainians who man the Pyramiden Hotel, it retains a few important records of its own. The bar inside the accommodation is the world's northernmost, while nearby in the old Cultural Centre, you can find the world's northernmost grand pianos. The hotel itself is of course a record breaker, too.
A one-time mining town, Pyramiden was abandoned suddenly, and some say mysteriously, in 1998 when the coal company folded and everyone was forced to leave in a hurry. Today, it's an international free zone administered by Norway, but stands as a strange kind of time capsule, an insight into the last throes of the Soviet Empire.
While most of Pyramiden has a peculiar feel of slow decay, the hotel is an isolated beacon in the tundra. As the only building open in town, it receives guests from March to October, all of whom arrive by boat from Longyearbyen. However, for those with requisite spirit of adventure who visit in winter, the town can be reached via an epic snowmobile ride.
If you're not used to sub-zero temperatures, then even visiting in the height of summer may feel like a bitter winter. In July and August, snow is not uncommon – neither is freezing fog. Polar bears are at their most active then, too, and no matter the time of year, Svalbardian law states that no one can wander around the island without being armed.
If that sounds chilly and uncomfortable, then know that in winter this far north the sun does not rise for seven weeks. During Arctic storms the winds can be gale force and the temperature -30C, not allowing for wind-chill. To experience those conditions is to wonder why humans ever bothered to wander so far north in the first place.
The flipside of those harsh conditions is that on calm nights, when the air itself feels as though it may freeze, the snowmobile ride to Pyramiden may well be illuminated by the northern lights. Bears are more likely to be asleep then, too.
There's no hope of seeing the aurora in summer, but seven weeks of permanent daylight does make exploring Pyramiden a little easier. Most guided tours last for only a day, visiting one or two of the larger buildings, such as the cultural centre or the former canteen.
To make the most of a trip to the outpost's outpost, it's better to spend at least one night in the hotel and have a local guide take you to some of the smaller, messier buildings. Pyramiden today can seem like a silent, lonely place but it was once home to 1000 people, including children who had a school, a gym and a music hall. Elsewhere, there's what was once the world's northernmost swimming pool. It all lies silent now, but if you can de-tune your ears from listening for approaching polar bears, you can still hear the laughter inside.
Grumant Arctic Travel Company has a closer relationship with Pyramiden than any other. It offers everything from day trips to multi-day adventures, as well as a choice of accommodation. It's also simplest to book the Pyramiden Hotel through the Grumant site. See goarctica.com
Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Grumant.