Norilsk and the Putorana Mountains

In a new attempt to go off the beaten track, I felt thrilled, when I was offered to go above the Arctic Circle to a remote place accessible only by air, and closed to foreigners.

Have you ever heard about Norilsk? Norilsk is an industrial city in Russia, about 400 km north of the Arctic Circle. Norilsk is the world’s northernmost city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Its population reaches 220,000, if you include temporary workers. The administrative center of the region, Krasnoyarsk, is situated 1,600 km far from Norilsk.

The city was founded in the 1930’s in the middle of nowhere and its heavy industry has been thriving since then. The region has the biggest deposits of nickel, copper and palladium in the world, as well as abundant and accessible coal deposits.

As a result, Norilsk metal smelting complex accounts for more than 20 % of the global nickel production and 50 percent for palladium. All the smelting plants are managed by one single company, Norilsk Nickel, which is the city mainstay and makes up more than 2 percent of Russia’s GDP.

The way Norilsk is seen by people greatly depends if you are a visitor or a local inhabitant. Visitors’ first vision of the city are tall chimney stacks and a cloud of smog.


The winter season is lengthy and severe, 9 months of harsh cold and snow. These extreme conditions may result in nervousness and anxiety for many inhabitants. When the glacial artic wind calms down, atmospheric pollution becomes a real issue. Nearly 4 mln tons of lead, cadmium, arsenic, sulphur and other toxic chemicals are released into the air every year.


The cartoon says: “Only infinite emptiness…I would be better on Mars.  City of Norilsk


You get used to everything. For local inhabitants, living in the harsh conditions of the Siberian winter, the city is a shelter and a provider of wages. The city is clean, in a good state, and with billboards praising Norilsk workers for their courage at work.


The soil of the Norilsk plain is permanently frozen at one meter depth. During summertime, molten snow forms marshes and lakes. Without a specialized amphibious vehicule, it is impossible to leave Norilsk by land.


Our MIL-8 at Irkindinskaya River.

The MIL-8 is the preferred option to admire the landscapes of the Norilsk Region from the sky. This twin-turbine helicopter, with an astonishing maximum take-off weight of 12 tons, can carry up to 24 people. The MIL-8 was first built in 1961 and it is still produced today.

As our chopper slowly rose into the skies, we flew to one of the Russian landmarks, the Putorana Mountains.

The Putorana Mountains, also called Putorana Plateau due to its flattened highlands is a territory roughly the size of Great Britain, situated 200 km from the nearest big city, Norilsk.

The Putorana Mountains are almost entirely part of the Putorana National Park, classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Apart from their location cut off from the world, beautiful forests, diverse wildlife, crystal-clear lakes, the Putorana Mountains contain a fascinating energy, due to their volcanic origin.

The local Siberian inhabitants, the Evenks, consider the Putorana Mountains a sacred place – the abode of the God of Fire. This belief could be the remnant from the past eruptions in Putorana that occurred only 4-5 thousands years ago.

The whole of Putorana plateau are the remains of a super volcano that was active 252 mln years ago. There were only two volcanoes of that size in the history of the Earth, the second one being in India. Numerous scientists consider this volcano as the origin of the Perm Massive Extinction, that killed almost all sea animals and two-third of earth creatures, by ejecting fumes and ashes and changing drastically the Earth atmosphere.  This volcanic activity was followed by the Mezozoic era, when the dinosaurs emerged.

The volcanic activity and tectonic plate movement are the causes of the complex geology near Norilsk, that include of the richest deposits of various rare metals on earth.


The picturesque Krasnye Stolby waterfall runs through basaltic pillars. Columnar basalt is typically created when lava cool down slowly, creating regular cracks, just like the mud when it dries out.


The Putorana Mountains are nicknamed «the land of a thousand lakes and a thousand waterfalls». The combined volume of all freshwater in Putorana lakes is second only to that of lake Baikal.


The Keta Lake with the mountains in the background are typical of the Putorana landscape: canyons and tectonic faults filled by narrow and deep lakes.


Tokingda River.

The Tokingda River, in the Putorana Mountains, flows into Lake Keta. A boat is the easiest way to explore the area as the forest is dense and shores are muddy, full of tracks left by bears and wolves.


Being in a northern forest is magical! The floor is covered with moss, lichens and berries. You have the sensation of walking on pillows. The smell of pinewood and mushrooms is so persistent that you want the swallow the air. The only inconvenience are the numerous mosquitoes that attack any naked part of your skin.


Lake Keta is full of pike and Arctic char, a salmon-like fish, known as golets in Russian. Just throw anything glittering with a hook and you can eat fresh sashimi for dinner.


This experience convinced me once again that solitude, wilderness and pristine nature are values that neither come easily and nor are cheap, but there are worth it.


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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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