Tuesday, August 12, 2008

White nights and hospitality in the Russian north

I started my journey towards the Russian Arctic with an overnight train to Petrozavodsk. This city, which literally means 'Peter's Factory', was build at the same time as Saint Petersburg and contributed to Peter the Great's army by producing weapons during the Northern war against Sweden. Today, Petrozavodsk is the capital of the republic of Karelia. And with its location on the shore of Lake Onega (Europe's second largest lake) and with its lovely parks, Petrozavodsk is quite a nice town.
After my early arrival in the city, I walked around the parks and along the lake shore, stopping for some breakfast on the way. Around noon I hopped on a hydrofoil, named 'Krasnaya Kometa' (Red comet), to an island in the lake called Kizhi Island.
This island is famous for its world-heritage listed wooden church, which is said to be built without a single nail. Although there are quite some (mostly Russian) tourists, Kizhi is really beautiful and I enjoyed wandering around on the island. Besides the amazing Transfiguration Church (the big one on the picture), there are lots of other wooden buildings and the setting within the lake made it a highly rewarding destination.
Back in Petrozavodsk I went to a restroom on the train station (Komnata otdykha), which basically is the cheapest form of accommodation in Russia. I shared a room with two other men. With one of them, Leonid, I talked for quite some time, discussing life in Karelia and his job as woodcarver. Leonid is a tattooed guy with golden teeth, who used to be a car mechanic in Orsha (Belarus), but moved to Karelia after he lost his job in the rough 1990s.
On my second day in Petrozavodsk I just wandered around a bit. And when I walked on Lenin street (every Russian town has a Lenin street), I stopped in front of the university as there was a huge crowd of people and lots of police men standing there. When I asked someone what was going on, the guy told me that president Medvedev visited the university. And when I looked towards the entrance of the building I actually saw him standing there, in the company of some other important looking people. I was just 30 meters or so away of Dmitry Medvedev......
From Petrozavodsk I continued traveling north and I bought a ticket to another Karelian town called Kem'. On the train, I talked for some time with a girl named Yulya, who is a rocket science student from Moscow on her way to a catamaran holiday on Kola peninsula. Also I had some conversations with the young conductor (provodnik), who forgot to wake me up when the train stopped in Kem', which caused that I had to continue further north. I managed to get a big discount for the continuing journey to Murmansk and on the way I enjoyed a beautiful Arctic landscape, full of lakes, forest and tundra.
Arriving in Murmansk, I went to an expensive hotel to use their internet and I called Sergey, who I met through hospitalityclub. Soon after, I met him and his friend Aleksander and they brought me to a town called Abram Mys, where they offered me accomodation in the apartment of one of their friends, Vlaclav. The following three days I spended hanging around with Vlaclav, Sergey, Aleksander and a lot of their friends. They showed me Murmansk, its surroundings and the meaning of warm Russian hospitality.
To tell something about the city of Murmansk; it is the largest town above the Arctic circle in the world and one of Russia's most important ports. This is due to its location on the Barentzsea, which is ice-free all year (because of the warm current). The city itself is quite industrial (because of the harbor activities) and rather grey. However, the surrounding area is very beautiful, with Arctic forest, some hills, lakes and the wide Kolskiy Bay (see the video). But besides the Arctic nature, perhaps the most special natural phenomenon is the white polar night. In summer, the sun doesn't set for a couple of months and I witnessed 24 hours of daylight.
As I am writing this story by the time I already left Russia, I can conclude that out of all places I stayed in Russia, I enjoyed my visit to Murmansk most of all. Because of its Arctic nature, the white nights and the incredible hospitality of the people I met here. Sergey, Aleksander and Vlaclav drove me around, showed me the nice spots and we had lots of talks and drinks in the night. They also took me to an open air festival, which basically is a gathering of young people on a location a bit out of the city.
When I told Sergey that I planned to stay in the Khibiny mountains, we contacted Olga, one of his friends who stays by herself in the mountains. Also they offered to bring me by car to Apatity, which is a mining town in the mountains. The ride to Apatity was really beautiful and went very fast as Aleksander was driving a constant 140 km/h over a terrible road. We passed the industrial town Monchegorsk and we arrived in Apatity quite late. Finding Olga however, turned out to be a very difficult task. First, we had to contact friends of Olga in Apatity, Ksenya and Roman, who had to draw a map for me with the walking route to Olga's camp. Afterwards, we went to a huge industrial complex, from where I started my hike uphill into the mountains. Without Ksenya's map, I would have been completely lost, and luckily I found Olga. She stayed for about three weeks by her own in a small tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The only day I stayed in her camp was really terrible. There was only some instant food, I had to drink water from a river and I was cutting woods for 4 hours. Right in front of the tent was a pile of animal shit. And when I asked Olga what kind of animal had been shitting in front of our tent, she told me it was of a bear.... The nature however was very beautiful and after a short hike I enjoyed an amazing view over Apatity (see the video). I haven't seen any bears though, but I was a bit scared of seeing them.
After the day I stayed in the mountains, I was happy to make the hike back down. I walked through the forest back to the factory, from where I managed to hitchhike with a police man back to Apatity. I bought some food in a supermarket and made my way to the trainstation, where I catched a train to Kem' (the town I missed before). The reason I went to Kem' was to hop on a boat to the Solovetsky Islands, which I did right after my arrival the next morning. The boat ride however was very shaky and I got a bit seasick during the 3 hour journey on the White Sea.
The Solovetskiy Islands are famous for its World Heritage listed Solovetskiy monastery, situated in the middle of the island. The Orthodox monastary was founding in the 15th century and has been an important religious centre in northern Russia. However, during the Soviet period, Stalin turned the monastery into a labor camp (Gulag) and prison for 'political opponents'. In 1974 the Gulag was closed and it became a museum and monastery again.
When I arrived there, I was wandering a bit around in the search for cheap accomodation. On the way I met a woman, Lyudmila, who tried to help me finding the places I was looking for. When all the cheap places turned out to be full, she offered me to stay in the apartment she was staying. Lyudmila is a university professor on Belgorod univeristy (in the south of Russia, close to Ukraine) and she went to Solovetskiy for holiday. She travels together with a colleague, also named Lyudmila, and the two days I spended on the island were mostly with them. We walked a bit on the beautiful islands and they teached me some of the monastery's turbolent history. The monastery is for a large part still in reconstruction (after communists burned it down in 1922), but the revival of religion was clearly visible. Lots of bearded priests wandered around and women had to wear headscarfs in order to get inside. The churches are highly decorated and the richness of the Russian Orthodox church is showed with great pride. I was very thankful to Lyudmila and Lyudmila, who helped me a lot on the islands and I enjoyed the conversations we had. After two days however, I went back to Kem' to continue my journey more southwards.