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Russia in Ten Days – Part One

Nick Says: Greetings! How is everyone? Unlike Bee, I haven’t been climbing many mountains in not much time recently, but I have been off adventuring to far off destinations. Northern Russia to be precise. And what did I think? Well it was one of the friendliest, ruggedly beautiful, and enjoyable trips I’ve ever been on. I met incredible people, journeyed to remote destinations (via many, many types of transport), and saw some sights which will remain with me forever, both spectacular and haunting.

I’ve been planning to go to Russia for years, specifically to see my good friend Alastair, aka the International Gentleman Traveller, aka the IGT. A friend of me and my brothers, we first met in Albania back in 2009, and bonded over jumping into an icy waterfall more times than was sensible, down more shots of rakia than was sensible, and singing about beards more than was… well you get the picture. Since then we’ve met up in Luxembourg and Switzerland (plus shhh, the UK), and he’s lived in Oman. But he always seems drawn back to Russia and the city of St Petersburg, and it is there that our journey would begin.

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But first I needed a travel buddy – I always like sharing an adventure with someone. With Bee busy with important business (more on that later), there was only one man to call. Mr Mark Williams, writer of the brilliant Inane Babble of a Backpacker blog, and my fellow backpacker on a 9 month trip round Australia and South-East Asia, rumpled adventurer on a road-trip around Western Europe with me, my brothers and the IGT, and fortuitous companion on a lovely day out in Florence when we happened to bump into each other at the train station, and got to eat overpriced gelato.

Anyway, I digress. With Mark joining me we were ready to go to St Petersburg. And go we did, although on a somewhat delayed route which led us to Warsaw, then Riga, then finally St Petersburg, and taught us not to fly with Polish Airlines again anytime soon. Although Riga looks absolutely lovely.

DAY ONE: Somewhat relieved to have made St Petersburg the same day we set out, Alastair wasted no time in ferrying us into the city, and then walking into town to find a feed. It seemed to me to be basically daylight despite the clock reading 11pm (although in later days I would recall this light at almost pitch black compared to what we would see), and the streets if not exactly buzzing for a Friday night, then definitely busy with a wider group of people than the drunks you would normally get at a similar time in England. Although of course, this being Russia we did enjoy a few drunken treats. First there was the old man in the airport who shouted at me for not having a good enough beard, then there was the fat topless man who wandered out of a park as we were walking into town, then there was the guy passed out ON the bar when we went to get a drink. But he didn’t seem to be doing anyone any harm, so he was left there. I just collected my change over his gently snoring body.

But it wasn’t just to soak up the smells of drunk men that we had ventured out for. No, we were being led to some food. Alastair took us to a Georgian cafe, a cuisine I had never tried before. And now I want to eat it for the rest of my life. In particular khachapuri, a cheese stuffed bread. I’m drooling just writing about it.

DAY TWO: We would be back in a week or so to look at St Petersburg properly, but this wasn’t a city trip. I had come to Russia to answer the call of the wild, test myself against the elements, and prove to myself I had what it takes to survive a wilderness trip. I woke up ready for it, roared my challenge to the day, and promptly went to a really nice cafe in a old bread factory now turned into a delightful arts centre where I had a delicious mocha and some lovely pancakes.

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Then it was on! We went to Finland Station (where Lenin arrived to lead the Russian Revolution, and where they still have the locomotive that transported him) and caught a three hour local train north to Priozersk. It was there that any notion I had of this being an easy trip was stripped away. With our full backpacks on, it was time to march to the shores of Lake Ladoga (largest lake in Europe, and 15th largest in the world. That translates to the fact it was bloody massive and basically an inland sea). But what I didn’t expect was for this to be a three hour sweaty hike through the forest, in which we sometimes followed a track which barely lived up to that description, wandered into a swamp, were attacked by mosquitoes, and relied on a compass to get us to where we going.For such a massive lake, it was difficult to find. But find it we did, at around midnight! I may have hated lugging the beer around, but now I couldn’t imagine tasting anything sweeter as we grilled chicken on a fire, and toasted the day. The light was ethereal, the camping truly wild, and I felt a million miles from anywhere, let alone London and work. I had arrived in Russia, and it looked glorious.

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DAY THREE: We woke with a boat to catch. Cue another forced march with full backpacks through a forest, which ended with us stumbling into port via a restricted zone, and being questioned by a concerned but polite security man as to how we got there. Now myself and Mark speak about two sentences of Russian between us (namely, ‘I don’t speak Russian’, and ‘I am English’), which could easily prove a problem if you’re considering this journey yourself. But luckily we had the IGT, who’s language skills are legendary, and he was able to help us in every situation. Which in this case meant pacifying the security guy, then making a deal with a captain to let us on his boat and take us to the island of Valaam. In what would become a pattern, we never actually got a ticket whenever we paid someone money to travel with them. I’m not saying it wasn’t legitimate, just that we seemed to pay the driver/captain/random official directly (and quietly) whenever we had to travel and there wasn’t much room for us…

11379183_389117104617236_1225572720_nOnce ensconced aboard the hydrofoil (or meteor in Russian) all we had to was kick back and enjoy the crossing for two hours. Before we knew it, we were pulling up alongside beautiful religious buildings perched on a shoreline. We had arrived at Valaam, home of a legendary monastery and our home for the couple of days. It really was a magical place to arrive at, and as Alastair pointed out, if this had been located anywhere in Western Europe, it would have been swamped with tourists. But this being Russia, I bet most people don’t even know it exists. I know I didn’t before the trip. It would be a recurring theme of the journey, realising how little I knew about the world’s largest country. From its geography, to its people, and its culture, Russia was a mystery.

But one thing I was learning quickly, is that everything is bloody massive here. What I thought would be a quick jaunt across the island to find a campsite turned into an epic trek (I was beginning to notice another pattern here too. Alastair was trying to break us, weak London metropolitans that we were, and reforge into Russian outdoors men. It was doomed to failure). We crossed fields, rivers, and hiked through forests, until we came to the wild eastern side of the island. Once again, the sweaty toil was worth it as we gazed out across the water. Granite cliffs steeply rose from the lake, the sky seemed endless, and the sun shone down upon it all. I don’t know whether your image of Russia was of snow and vast stretches of emptiness, but spend a day on Valaam and you’ll never view Russia the same way again.

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We found what we thought was a great spot to camp, pitched the tents, and then set off for an evening stroll to look at what we called the mini-monasteries on the island, the small hermitages that the monks retreat to in order to ponder spiritual matters away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘crowded’ main monastery. We also discovered a bombed out Finnish military base from the 1930s, a fishery, beautiful lakes, and a vehicle known as a ‘loaf’, the Soviet answer to the VW camper-van. It is a thing of beauty, and I must possess one.

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We returned to our camp, got a great fire going (me and Mark were inordinately proud of it) and were just about to cook up some food, when we noticed a small motor dinghy seemingly approaching us in the water. At first we took no notice, as we laughingly dismissed the notion that they would bother to send patrols around the island. Turns out that they do, and we were camped illegally. Cue us being politely evacuated onto the boat, and given a swift trip around the headland to an official campsite. Which actually turned out to be brilliant.

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This campsite already had  a fire going, and sat around it were Anya, Boris, and Oleg. Anya was Russian, while the guys were Armenian, and they had met as students in the 80s during a Soveit exchange programme. Now they meet up every year to have adventures. It was a glimpse into the good the Soviet Union accomplished when it was true to its ideals. They were quick to welcome us to camp, share their food, and pour us vodka, which we drank out of old, ornate shot glasses that looked like egg cups. My first vodka in Russia! And of course every shot was preceded by long and verbose toasts to friendship and the like. It was an incredible evening.

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DAY FOUR: Lake Ladoga is a very, very cold lake. I know this because we decided to go for a swim and a wash in it. Well I say ‘we’. Myself and Alastair managed ok, while Mark kind of sat down, made a weird gorilla noise, screwed up his face, and quickly got out. I’m not sure he enjoyed his dip.

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After camp breakfast, we staged a coup against Alastair and refused to walk back to the main monastery. So we walked a little bit and found a taxi to go in instead. An old beaten up Lada driven by Captain Vyacheslav from Ukraine (may not have been an actual captain), he expertly navigated pot holes and expressed his sadness about the fighting in his homeland. While not explicitly in your face, Ukraine was never far away from the agenda, but officially referred to as ‘the situation’ and the like. I found people’s opinions divided on the matter. Some would wear patriotic t-shirts supporting the Russian annexation of the Crimea, while others would roll their eyes at the mention of Putin.

We then toured the monastery, which was the usual restrained religious affair. For those who think Catholics get a bit carried away sometimes, they don’t have anything on the Orthodox church. They love gold. They also love cats, as there were loads of them running about. One woman had decided to give them all sausages too, which resulted in loads of feline running about the place with sausages in their mouths, while gulls looked on enviously.

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Then, as ever, it was time to move on. Valaam had been an unexpected and picturesque joy, and a great starter for the rest of the trip. We hopped aboard another hydrofoil to the town of Sortavala, where we picked up a bus to the city of Petrozavodsk. We also picked up some new Russian friends, Olga, Olga, and Margarita. They were heading in the same direction as us, and spoke English. They were also a little bemused to discover two English guys who spoke no Russian heading up to the far north of their country. It was a common reaction.

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We arrived at Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, around 11pm. With a train to Kem to catch at 3am, we had a few hours to explore. And of course with it still being daylight at this time, we could have a good look at this city. What seemed to be a starkly Soviet place revealed itself to be an interesting city perched on a spectacular lakeside setting with a penchant for modern art. Statues littered the promenade, and a chalkboard on one of the streets invited passers-by to grab a piece of chalk and answer the question, ‘what do you want to do before you die?’. But Petrozavodsk’s finest accomplishment was a reversal of art. In what seemed to be a former theatre, is the world’s most ornate KFC. I leave it below with no further comment.

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Then it was time to jump on our night train further north, as we made our way to the shores of the White Sea, and readied ourselves to journey to the Solovetsky Islands, home to a giant fortified monastery, ancient stone labyrinths, and one of the original gulags.

To save this becoming too much of an epic, I’ll save the Solovetsky Islands for part two. In which I have a day involving rowing, wild swimming, mountain biking, and being whipped with a birch branch in the Russian equivalent of a sauna.

Bee Says: How can I possibly follow this? Nick is right; after my Three Peaks Challenge I was happy to hand over the Bear Grylls baton to Nick, Mark and Alastair whilst I spent my week doing two things i) My Bee Do and… ii) recovering from my Bee Do! My Bee Do (most definitely not a hen do, but the same pre-wedding party concept!) was probably one of the best weekends of my life. I was whisked off to a country manor in the Peak District to spend 3 days with my favourite 18 people in a haze of prosecco, cupcake decorating, rambling in the sunshine, Wes Anderson movie marathoning, garden lazing, bare foot dancing in my own private disco (bucket list item – tick!) and endless surprises! I was absolutely spoilt rotten and cannot believe how much effort my maid of honour (made of honour) Lol had put into getting every tiny aspect spot on! I still look through the photos every morning and relive it in intricate detail. I am so, so very lucky. Not even the slight worry about Nick’s wellbeing in Russia could take away from the weekend. I was a little concerned he might try to live-out his number one dream of fighting a bear (I know right?) but luckily he is back in one piece with all digits in-tact for our big day!