Nick Says: As you last left me, I was winding my way to the north of Russia towards the White Sea on a night train. Well I say night train, but it was bright light outside at 3am when we got on. For those heading this way at this time of year, a sleeping mask is a must. Travelling on a long distance train in Russia is a must too. Train travel is my favourite method of transport, and I don’t think I could ever get bored of it. Not even when I spent 3 days on the Indian-Pacific in Australia basically looking at a desert… One day we’ll do a post here about great train trips to take, but for now – RUSSIA.
DAY FIVE: After a very hot night sleeping in tiny bunks, we got off the train at Kem looking slightly weary. Kem is not the nicest place in the world. It was a former transit centre for the gulag, and looks a bit like one still. However, it’s the jumping off point for boats to the Solovetsky Islands, so a necessary destination. We went to the supermarket, loaded up on supplies, and jumped in a 4×4 with blacked out windows with a taciturn Russian man who then drove us to the dock. Once there we discovered a slight flaw in our plan, the boat had sold out. Undeterred, we bought the return and waited for everyone else to board. One thing I noted about Russia is that they love officialdom here. Everyone seems to be responsible for something or other here, with about 10 people doing the work of one. There’s even a person who sits in a little glass booth at the bottom of the metro escalators to make sure no-one misbehaves on them! But anyway, this boat was no different, with our official here a seemingly by the book lady. Our hopes at sweet-talking our way on seemed slim, especially when she turned away some latecomers. But then Alastair worked his magic, and we were on-board! But without any tickets. Apparently we were told we could pick some up from the office if we wanted, but seeing as the boat was leaving right now, and the office was a bit of a walk away, it seemed like a good idea to just get on board and let her keep the backhander…
With little room onboard, we found a space for ourselves outside on the deck, wrapped up against the wind, and watched the world go by. We passed uninhabited archipelagos, fed trailing seagulls bits of food (one of the highlights of the boat passage according to our official), and slowly watched the Solvetsky’s come into view. The outline of the monastery was unmistakeable, and it looked massive. We’d learned a great bit of history about the place – in 1855 three British ships sailed into the harbour, made a load of demands to the monks, shelled the place for 9 hours, didn’t do any damage, and agreed to go away. There’s a monument on the island to it, called the Negotiation Stone. I would discover it was a mosquito ridden hell hole later that day.
But first we disembarked on the island. My first impressions of the place were that I could well imagine it as a gulag. The sky was overcast, the wind whipped us, and the bleak wooden buildings looked forbidding. But the sky was beginning to lighten, and the island quickly revealed itself as a truly beautiful location. After several nights of not much sleep, we had decided to go and stay in a guest-house. From his previous visit, Alastair knew a good one. So it was we found ourselves at Vladimir’s. An ex navy captain who had decided to settle on the islands after he retired, we soon realised this gruff outdoorsman had the soul of a poet – he had built all the cabins and carved incredible pieces of furniture, full of intricate designs. We were staying in what seemed to be his own house too, so he would come and sit at the kitchen table with us while we drank tea, and tell Alastair about the island and his life. Sadly my Russian had not advanced enough in four days to understand what he was telling us, although he helpfully did show us a lot pictures on his phone to illustrate the point.
It was then time to understand the history of the islands a bit better. To do that we went to the Gulag museum. One of the first gulags in the Soviet Union, the Solvetsky Islands became a prison camp in 1921. It’s remote nature proved to be the perfect place to house supposed enemies of the state, and escapes were rare and almost always unsuccessful. The museum unflinchingly told the story of the prisoners, through photos and often their own words, supplementing this personal narrative with harsh facts about the labour expected, and the survival rate. It was truly sobering, and an element of Russia that I found hard to reconcile. This was a beautiful place, with so much to offer to tourists, yet with a dark and brutal past, enough for the place to be named ‘Island of Hell’.
After this, Mark went off to rest up his swollen ankle, but duracell bunny Alastair refused give into any sort of weakness like that. So we took a two hour cycling trip around the island, including to the Negotiation Stone where mozzies would attempt to eat my face, before allowing ourselves the sweet embrace of a bed and hot shower for the first time in days.
DAY SIX: The easy times were over. Big Brother (as we had begun to call task-master Alastair) quickly had us out of bed and marching to the islands camping site to pitch up our tents again. Then it was time to get back on our bikes, this time donning wellies, as we set off to cycle to a neighbouring island called Muksalma. Why wellies? Well the track down to Muksalma is a swamp-ridden pot-holed watery mess, which involved carrying your bikes as much as riding them. It was glorious. Pushing through, we eventually emerged to find a stone causeway created by monks hundreds of years earlier to connect the two islands.
Muksalma was home to an abandoned building which served as the female isolator unit for the gulag, so we took a look inside. It had some seriously creepy vibes going on. We then attempted to cycle to the other side of the island, but were turned back by the fact the path became a swamp, and we were attacked by mozzies every time we stopped. I could see the disappointment in Big Brother’s eyes. He does not like to shirk a challenge. Even if the challenge is a silly idea.
On our way back to Big Solvetsky, we were stopped by a Russian woman, who asked us if we were hungry, and then proceeded to give us some sweets called ‘Zephyrs’ a marshmallow like treat. A completely random act of kindness, but one which was totally in keeping with all the people we had met on the trip. Again and again I found the people of Russia (or at least the ones I met anyway) to be amongst the friendliest and generous of folk I’ve encountered around the world. I guess I half expected to find them more guarded and even a bit distrustful of tourists, so it was a pleasant surprise to have that proved a ridiculous notion, and one which probably betrayed my own suspicions of Russia!
Later that evening, as we were pedalling about the main island, we discovered Olga, Olga, and Maragrita, the Russian girls we had befriended on the bus to Petrozavodsk. Together we then went and explored the monastery, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation work, and even got to look in one of the massive towers, before being evicted by a security guard. We had once again strayed where we were not allowed.
That night provided us with a feast fit for kings at one of island’s only restaurants. It was full on traditional Russian fare aimed at the tourists, complete with the wait staff dressed in ‘authentic’ garb, bear pelts on the wall, and bear’s flesh on offer on the menu. It was massively expensive though, so no bear was consumed by us. I wish I could say it was also due to moral reasons too, but I once ate dog in Korea so I’m forever damned.
Then it was time for the Russian girls to show us how to properly camp. They mocked the way we made our fire (although ours actually stayed lit, ha!) and questioned why Alastair was sawing wood with his Swiss Army knife. When he replied ‘it’s Swiss technique’, Margarita took the wooden log, stamped it in half and replied, ‘Russian technique’. A good point well made.
DAY SEVEN: Some days you have just click. This was one of them. We woke up late, and realised that we wouldn’t be able to make the low tide in order to reach an island where you can whale watch. But who needs whales anyway? Especially when the sun had finally decided to shine, and we had a whole island to explore. First off we got on our trusty bikes and made our way to the boat station. In the middle of Big Solovetsky is a series of freshwater lakes, connected by canals (made by those industrious monks again). For the princely sum of 900 rubles, or around £10, you can hire a rowing boat for three hours and paddle around to your hearts content. So that’s exactly what we did. Rowing out across the wide lakes, the steering our way through forest lined canals, with mirror like still water, was a truly beguiling experience. If you want to get away from it all, I couldn’t think of a better place then in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a remote island, which is in the middle of the White Sea, in the middle of the Russian north. As we rowed back, the sun beat down and the water looked far too inviting. So we did the sensible thing and dived off the boat to have a swim. Far warmer then Lake Ladoga, it still took my breath away, so after brief paddle I scrambled back aboard in an undignified manner. But the feeling of leaping off the boat and hitting the water is exactly why I travel. Complete and utter freedom.
After eating fresh fish pies (in the shape of fish no less) which he had bought from the bakery near the monastery, we then embarked on a 30km bike ride to the highest point on the island. To say it was tough would be bit of an understatement, but it was also the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike, and made me realise that you don’t just have to crash one and break your wrist when you ride (see previous trip to Berlin…).
At the top of Sekirnaya Hill was one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen though. The mass graves of prisoners who died in the isolator unit here. The mosquitoes swarmed, and it was easy ti imagine the agonies of prisoners who would be placed naked outside and fed on by the swarm. There was also a steep set of stairs on the other side of the hill – after guards were forbidden from executing prisoners, they would instead arrange for them to have ‘accidents’ and plunge to their death from the top.
But as we cycled off, down hills and tracks, and past shimmering lakes, we were reminded again that the dark past existed alongside some the most beautiful wilderness I’d ever seen. I guess that crudely sums up Russia.
After finally making it back to camp, it was time for a traditional Russian treat. The banya. A cross between a sauna and a steam room, the banya is also much more than that. The banya house consisted of several rooms. Each one was increasingly hotter. The first was were you could sit and chat around a table, drink beers, and hang out. Then there was the changing room. Next came the showers, and then finally the banya itself. You take your beers in with you, put on a banya hat made of hemp, and then pour water over the hot rocks to really get the temperature going. And we really got it going, upwards of 80 degrees Celcius. That coupled with the beer was enough to send you a bit sideways. But then of course as soon as you get too hot, it’s time to rush out and pour cold water over yourself. And that is almost all there is to a banya. Well, apart from the fact you also whip each other with birch branches to ‘stimulate the blood flow’. I meant, seems legit to me right? So there I was, basically naked in a steam room, whipping two of my friends. Thank-you Russia. Sadly I was too busy filming to take a photo, but luckily Mark snapped a steamy effort which you can see right here.
I have never been more relaxed than after an hour of banya time, and the rest of that evening passed in what can only be a daze. I’m not sure it even really registered that we got back to the camp only to find we’d been raided by some sort of beast, and all our supplies eaten…
DAY EIGHT: Today Alastair had arranged for us to go a guided tour of a nearby island. Thinking he had finally taken pity on us, we were looking forward to a relaxing boat trip, and quick stroll about the place. But the beautiful weather of the day before had gone. In its place was icy rain and howling winds. As I stood on an isolated island, looking at a stone labyrinth built in pre-historic times for unknown purposes, and listening to our guide speak Russian, which I couldn’t understand, all the while being pelted by the elements, I wondered what I was doing out here. But I don’t think I was alone, judging by the cheer that went up when the guide announced the end of the tour.
The all too soon it was back on our boat in order to return to the mainland. Once back at Kem, we took the opportunity to visit an abandoned church on the shoreline. If there’s one thing Russia has plenty of, it’s abandoned buildings. But when they all look as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’s not so bad.
Our man in the blacked out 4×4 once again appeared to drive us back to the train. While previously silent as a tomb, he was now the life and soul of the party, explaining pretty much his whole life story, extolling the virtues of fishing, driving incredibly fast, and giving us many, many handshakes. As we surmised, he was either an evening type of guy, or he’d been having a nip of something before driving out…
Then it was back on-board another long distance train, this time for a 15 hour ride all the way back to St Petersburg. We were in a slightly better class of accommodation this time, due to the train being fairly booked up. This meant that we had a four person compartment. Nominally there was also a girl in there sharing it with us, but she was asleep when we got on at 8.30pm, and pretty much remained so until midday the next day. So basically we had the place to ourselves. At the end of every carriage on the trains is a samovar for boiling water. So bring yourself a mug, tea, and coffee, and it’s all good. Although if you do buy a tea, it gets served to you in these amazing ornate mugs which shit all over the paper cups we get in the UK.
Oh, and also bring vodka to drink. I would say it was to help me sleep, but mainly I wanted to drink vodka on a Russian train as it seemed a cool thing to do. As was buying Russian train slippers from our attendant. The same stony faced attendant who while sternly addressing me and Mark, would break into a huge smile every time she saw Alastair and ask him if he wanted to buy ‘biscuits’ from her. The minx.
DAY NINE: We rolled back into St Petersburg at lunchtime. After dropping our gear off, it was time to finally see the sights of this city. But not before we had gone into a pie shop and had a two course pie lunch. Priorities after all.
After feeding, our first port of call was the Winter Palace, which houses most of the Hermitage museum. The Hermitage is so massive, that not even a huge ostentatious palace is enough to contain it. I know it’s on every single must see list, but I really can’t recommend this place highly enough. From the entrance hall, to the state rooms, to the hallways, the extravagant wealth and opulence of Imperial Russia is absolutely incredible to behold. It makes you realise just how vast the power of the Tsars was, and how large the gulf between the nobility and the peasants truly was. Something on this scale is impossible to even imagine in the UK, but in Russia it feels almost natural. A huge palace for a huge country. Nothing is done by halves here.
However, we were unable to see everything we wanted to at the museum, as we were once again politely but firmly evicted while trying to look at Siberian art. I think it was near closing time, and the attendants wanted to go home.
Then it was time for a walking tour of the city. St Petersburg is several islands, connected by canals and the mighty Neva River (which flows from Lake Ladoga). At certain times in the night, the bridges are all raised to allow cargo ships through, meaning if you’re in the wrong part of town from your house, you can be cut off for hours.
Proving it’s still the Russian city of artists, we met up with some of Alastair’s friends at the Dostoyevsky Day celebrations. With a local jazz act playing, giant posters depicting various covers of his books had been put up to honour the man. From there, we headed to a pretty old-school cafe, which housed photos of various Russian leaders past and present, as well as busts of Lenin and Marx, wearing jaunty hats and ties. While the food was questionable, the drinks were not, and we all toasted the trip, watched a group of Russians come in and chant ‘vodka, vodka’, before being replaced by a girl who wept at her table and was consoled by the other patrons. It was like some sort of play, and seemed totally fitting for the place.
DAY TEN: Our final day had dawned. We just had time to go to a old Soviet donut shop (which had opened in the 50s and remained basically the same ever since), and see a couple more St Petersburg sights, before we had to return to the airport and catch our flight home.
So, Russia. I had been constantly surprised at every turn. Yes there is the cult of Putin and the t-shirts with his face on. The politics of the place are a joke. Low level corruption is obviously rife, and I’ve read plenty about industrial scale bribery at the top level. It’s a place which deserves better leadership. But then don’t most places?
Russia is a huge country full of amazing people which constantly defies expectations. I saw so many incredible things I’d never even knew existed before this trip. I started to grasp just how big this place is. I took a train for FIFTEEN hours and barely made a dent in the map. RUSSIA HAS A PACIFIC COASTLINE! I find that fact pretty crazy. I would love to come back and explore more. I can see why Alastair made it his home. But I’m glad I got to see this part of it at least. I hiked, biked, rowed, swam, and was whipped with birch branches. I drank vodka toasts with real Russians in Russia. I went to a remote island in the middle of the White Sea. I stood on the shores of Europe’s largest lake at 1am and it was light. I had the best time.