Inside Norilsk: The Northernmost city in the World

You’d be forgiven for saying you’ve never heard of Norilsk, the northernmost city in the world is located within the Arctic Circle in Russia. The city was closed to foreigners during the Soviet period and remains difficult to visit today. This is partly due to requiring special permission to visit and also due to the lack of connections to ‘mainland’ Russia.NorilskNorilsk is considered to be an ‘island’ by many Russians as it is located so far from Moscow – approximately 1800 miles and the only way to get there is by plane. There is a ferry which sails during the summer, but it has no road or rail connections to any other major cities. If you do manage to visit Norilsk, that makes you a member of a very exclusive club, with around only 200 foreigners visiting each year.Hearing all of this, you may be wondering why on earth I would want to visit Norilsk? Especially in November when the temperatures drop and the city prepares for Polar Nights: when the sun never fully rises.I was invited by FusionNow, to learn more about the Ethnic Groups of Taimyr Peninsula and we were using Norilsk as our base for the Bolshoi Argish Festival. I will be sharing my impressions and what I learned from that experience shortly, but I felt compelled to give a glimpse inside life in Norilsk. A place where resilience and community are key to survival and a place that many foreigners will never see.

The City of Norilsk

The city’s existence is a remarkable feat of human resilience. Built by prisoners in 1935, they had to endure incredibly harsh conditions including polar nights and temperatures that would make you shiver even thinking about it. It’s sadly no surprise to hear that many lives were lost in the process of building Norilsk.Norilsk is now home to around 170,000 residents, which accounts for 2% of the GDP of the entire country! The residents of Norilsk lead their lives as normal, despite enduring winter for nine months of the year and not seeing sunlight for several months at a time.The city itself is rather unique in that it is located on permafrost. Therefore, it has been designed to endure the severe winters – the buildings are on stilts and the entrances are high to ensure residents are not blocked in by snow. Additionally, the city offers protection from the bone-chilling winds by building houses close to each other to create an anti-wind ‘wall’ of sorts.With all of that said, I bet you’re picturing a very grey and dismal city – but reality could not be further from that. As we were walking around on an evening, I felt as though I could be in Saint Petersburg, not thousands of miles away in the Arctic! The architecture of the main city is very beautiful and the use of colour on the buildings adds a much needed vibrancy.The residential buildings also have large colourful numbers painted on them – interestingly, this is because when it is super snowy, all of the buildings look the same. Therefore, residents require these bright numbers to identify where they live. There is also a theory that painting the buildings with different colours gives the eyes a rest from the bright white of the snow! 

Nornickel

It would be remiss of me to write about Norilsk without mentioning Nornickel. Nornickel is the world’s leading producer of nickel and palladium and ranked in the top ten copper producers. Norilsk is home to Nornickel’s Polar Division and is a key asset in Taimyr Peninsula.  A significant number of the residents in Norilsk are employed by Nornickel. Interestingly, the company runs their plants 24/7, as it would be difficult and expensive to stop and restart production. Therefore, no matter what time of day it is, there will always be people wandering around the city. They will either be starting their shift at work or heading home.The FusionNow programme is built in partnership with Nornickel and we were very fortunate to visit the Nornickel building to enjoy the views from the roof. It truly has the best views of the city at night. 

What to Do

Visit Nurdi Kamal Mosque

This is the world’s northernmost mosque, which was opened in 2000. We visited to learn more about the local community and it was a very welcoming environment. 

Attend the Polar Drama Theatre

The Norilsk Polar Drama Theatre is the northernmost theatre in the world (do you see a trend here? Everything is the most northern in the world!) The theatre is considered to be the cultural centre of the city, with creative teams travelling from all over Russia to perform there. 

We were fortunate enough to watch a performance of ‘Dreams of the White Land’ at the theatre. It was an evocative piece about the lives of nomadic people in the region. The message was how Shaman were the link between three worlds and this was portrayed through music and dance.  

The First House of Norilsk 

Whilst Norilsk was established in 1935, the first house was actually built in 1921 by geologist Nikolai Urvantsev. He was creating a geological map of the area at the time and he became the first true resident of Norilsk. The house is still in Norilsk and you can visit it, as it’s now a museum. It’s interesting to think that all they had to keep themselves warm were fires and furs. 

Visit The Museum of Norilsk 

The Museum of Norilsk is a contemporary exhibition space, used to showcase creative endeavours, art and showcasing the history of Norilsk.We attended a public talk with Alexandra Kaloshina titled ‘Global Trends and Local Brands. Russian Design as a Global Fashion Trendsetter’. Alexandra spoke passionately about her business Radical Chic, sharing how she has grown her brand. It was great to see a buzzing atmosphere with a lot of interest from locals. There was a Q&A session that was very engaging.

Try Local delicacies

I’ve spoken about my love for Russian food previously, however there are some Northern dishes that are incredibly unique. One such dish is Sugoodai, they use fresh frozen fish which has never been heat treated. The fish is sliced into thin pieces which is then mixed with salt, pepper and lemon juice. It is said to be a delicacy, I don’t eat fish, but everyone in the group seemed to enjoy it. Another norther favourite is reindeer, they eat the meat in salads and in smoked or dried forms. 

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Hotel Polar Star on Leninsky Prospect. The hotel is a redevelopment of a beautiful building which was originally built in 1945, it looks incredibly imposing from the outside.The interior is cozy and warming, which should come as no surprise. Russian’s take the cold very seriously and heat the buildings to a practically tropical level!

The hotel offers all of the modern amenities you could require, including a restaurant, bar and gym on site.Located in the heart of Norilsk, you’re able to walk to the downtown area in around 5 minutes and you have views of the nearby mountains from your room – the best of both worlds.

My Impressions

I found Norilsk to be an intriguing city! On the surface it’s a regular city with some lovely architecture in the centre, however I can’t help but marvel at how the people who live there, are able to cope with some of the harshest conditions on the planet and continue daily life as normal.It’s as though they have resilience hard-wired into their DNA and yet, they are still warm and welcoming with a real sense of community.Despite the distance from the ‘mainland’ of Russia, the fact that goods can cost double the normal price, people here seem very content with their way of life.

There are many cultural activities to enjoy in the city itself including performances in the Polar Drama Theatre which are available year round.When summer arrives, it has been known for the temperature to soar to 30c and this gives residents access to some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. The Putorana Plateau is a UNESCO world heritage site, located in Taimyr Peninsula and I’m sure the people of Norilsk are of the few that have visited this remote and pristine region, home to canyons, lakes and the highest waterfalls in Russia. I hope to return one day to explore this myself.

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26 Comments

  1. Maya
    January 18, 2020 / 9:10 am

    Ok, Let me start by saying I hate cold weather, nevertheless, this place looks really unique. I can’t believe only 200 tourists visit it each year, it must make it one of the least touristy spots on earth. Visiting such a secluded community seems so interesting to me and loved the colorful buildings and the picture of the feast you had. What an interesting city to visit!

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:31 pm

      I used to feel the same, but cold weather often leads to beautiful places! Norilsk is next level cold, though haha. It’s a really interesting city šŸ™‚

  2. January 18, 2020 / 9:35 am

    Such stunning photos, this looks like such a special, unique place to visit!

  3. January 18, 2020 / 9:38 am

    Wow I can’t believe how colourful it is! And it looks so magical covered in snow! I’d never considered visiting this part of the world before but I am now thank you!

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:33 pm

      Right? It’s so colourful! I highly recommend Siberia – perhaps Altai rather than Norilsk.

  4. Sarah
    January 18, 2020 / 11:13 am

    Iā€™m so intrigued! Iā€™d honestly never heard of this city, and oh my gosh the cold, but it looks incredibly interesting.

  5. January 18, 2020 / 1:54 pm

    What a fascinating read! And what an incredible experience it must have been to visit. Sounds so intriguing, winter for 9 months! Thank you for introducing me to Norilsk.

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:33 pm

      Yes, I definitely couldn’t survive winter for 9 months!!

  6. January 18, 2020 / 3:20 pm

    Omg this place looks awesome!!! I bet it was super cold but amazing šŸ™‚

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:34 pm

      It was beyond cold haha, my eyelashes literally froze!

  7. Michelle
    January 18, 2020 / 3:27 pm

    Wow! This looks so amazing and COLD! I find it so interesting when cities don’t have any road or rails connecting them. I don’t think I could live in a place like that. LOL!

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:35 pm

      Yeah, I think living somewhere so secluded has it’s perks, but it’s probably a bit much for me too.

  8. January 18, 2020 / 4:34 pm

    Norilsk sounds like such a cool place to visit, so different than anywhere else I’ve been! Although I have enough cold weather back home, I don’t know how keen I am on going somewhere even colder on vacation šŸ˜›

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:36 pm

      I get that haha, it was REALLY cold, but so so beautiful. The tundra is unreal šŸ™‚

  9. January 18, 2020 / 5:23 pm

    What a unique and fascinating place to visit. I love all the colorful buildings, and how interesting, that they have numbers painted on them to help tell them apart in super snowy conditions.

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:50 pm

      Yes, I thought that was so unique that they have the huge numbers – it makes sense, though.

  10. January 18, 2020 / 7:49 pm

    As a seeker of off the beaten path destinations, I would love to visit Norilsk. It looks so intriguing and even if it is so hard to get there, I can see that there are things to do in the city, once you reach it. I have been to Siberia before but never so far North.

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:49 pm

      Ah, where did you go in Siberia? I think you’d love Putorana Plateau, I’m hopeful to visit one day.

  11. January 18, 2020 / 11:50 pm

    Wow, what a fascinating place! I love that somewhere even that remote in Russia has such ornate buildings. Really interesting insight into somewhere I had never heard of!

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:53 pm

      They have such beautiful buildings everywhere in Russia šŸ™‚

  12. January 20, 2020 / 3:07 pm

    This is such a cool post. I guess I always thought the northern most city in the World was in Alaska. Silly me! Fascinating and beautiful place.

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:55 pm

      I think most people assume it’s in Norway, but it’s Norilsk!

  13. January 22, 2020 / 12:56 am

    It looks so intriguing and beautiful! I have never heard of this city.

    • January 23, 2020 / 9:55 pm

      I had also never heard of it, but it’s an interesting place!

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