A trip to Murmansk – trip home

This article is part of the series “2018-02: A trip to Murmansk”.

Day 24 of my winter journey 2018

After two days of visiting Murmansk we were prepared for our trip back. The bus arrived shortly after 7 o’clock local time (5 o’clock CET) and we started our trip home.

We left town and crossed the Kola Bay. It was still dark.

Then I fell asleep. I woke up shortly before our rest at the small shop, that seems to be located in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile it was as bright as day. We followed the E105 that would bring us first to the Russian-Norwegian border and then back to Kirkenes. Some images taken from the bus:

Finally we came to the border. We had to leave the bus with all our luggage. I bought huge winter rubber boots in Murmansk and some books and was curious what I would have to do at the customs, but since I stood in the queue “nothing to declare” no one cared.

Next station: showing the passports. Chris, Ørjan and Annika had already went through, now it was my turn. I gave the passport to the border official, trying not to smile – no one seems to smile when communicating to strangers. The man looked at my passport for several minutes, typed things into the computer, looked at the passport again, stood up and left. He came back with a woman discussing something in Russian. The woman left again, the man continued working. Again he left, again he came back with the woman. I didn’t understand a single word and started wondering what the problem could be, I guess it was computer problems. It took round 15 minutes until I got my passport back with some Russian words, probably an apology or an explanation about what went wrong.

I climbed into the bus and we were driven to the Norwegian customs. What a difference! The handling was not only much faster, but much more friendly. The Norwegian border officials smiled, made some friendly small talk and hardly a minute later we were through the customs and again in the Schengen Area where you can move between countries without needing a visa.

Some very brief observations from Murmansk:

  • The difference between poor and rich, cared and ruined is quite visible
  • People won’t smile at you, especially the officials and salespersons
  • The food in the restaurants we visited was extraordinary good
  • Many people don’t speak any English. Exceptions found in our hotels and restaurants
  • I felt like 4 year old when I tried to decipher the Cyrillic letters.
  • I didn’t feel welcome every second, but safe all the time

Travelling to Murmansk was a very interesting experience and I would love to see more of Russia. Next time I would like to use internet services as e.g. couchsurfing to get into contact with the locals. I guess I would get another view of Russia.

 

 

A trip to Murmansk – day two

This article is part of the series “2018-02: A trip to Murmansk”.

Day 23 of my winter journey 2018

When we came home from our dinner last night it started to get quite foggy und it became colder. The fog intensified and the city started to smell smoggy.

This morning however was clear and some millimetres of snow dust had fallen over night making everything looking white and fresh. It was much colder than the day before (Murmansk airport reported -29 °C) but the hotel doesn’t have a thermometer so I don’t know how cold it was in town.

After breakfast we went through the Park Zhertv Interventsii (Парк Жертв Интервенции), a small park directly at the hotel.

Then we continued through the streets and across the railway to the port.

We wanted to visit the atomic icebreaker Lenin (Ленин) and check if we already could buy tickets. Lenin was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship and launched in 1957. She was decommissioned 1989 and subsequently converted into a museum.

Two big ships lay at the pier: Lenin and Vladivostok (Владивосток). Parts of the water surface were covered with ice but most of the water was open and steaming in the cold. The other side of the Kola Bay was hardly visible in the fog although only one kilometre away. The small ice particles in the air made the air feel quite cold.

A man left the icebreaker to meet a french couple at the pier, that had booked a tour. Unfortunately we couldn’t follow with them since this tour was privately booked. The man could speak a bit of German and we learned that the outside temperature was round -22 °C and that we had to wait for the first public tour at 12 o’clock.

So we went back to town, this time crossing the railway by a pedestrian bridge. Large chains of good wagons, some empty, some filled with charcoal were seen on almost all tracks.

While Chris and Ørjan went their own ways Annika and I went to the center to find a book shop. We knew that we had to follow the Lenin Alley (Проспект Ленина) and we found several book stores where I among others bought a pictured children dictionary English—Russian.

We continued the alley and finally came to Murmansk Mall (Мурманск Молл), a large shopping mall. Here both local stores and many international shops as e.g. H&M were found. The mall was extremely tidy and a huge contrast to the many rundown concrete buildings.

We’ve been in another mall the day before where you mostly could find Russian fashion for women. And that means mostly fur coats, partly in very fancy colours, high heeled boots and a lot of accessories in pink, silver and glitter. Some of them looked like plastic toys made for four-year-old girls, but in adult sizes. A fashion quite different from the informal one in Germany or Sweden.

I was really irritated when I entered some shops. People in Murmansk don’t smile or even laugh in public unless they know each other quite well. When you enter a shop the salesperson will stand up and observe you and even follow you through the shop. They won’t take contact with you, they won’t smile but will instead look stonily at you. I felt treated completely unwelcome and more like a thief than a customer. Strange and irritating!

Annika and I went back to the hotel and passed a Lenin figure and a house painted in bright turquoise, a colour that seems to be quite popular in Murmansk, as some other houses were painted the same.

We met Chris and Ørjan at the hotel and continued to the port together. Although it had become warmer it was still quite cold and some of the water that was open in the morning had frozen over in the last hours.

We arrived at the port at half past eleven and were the first one’s for the guided tour through the icebreaker Lenin. Shortly before twelve Annika and I could go aboard but most other tourist pushed to the front so that Chris and Ørjan were left behind. Later we realised that they attended another tour just some minutes later.

The following hour was one of the most boring experiences for long and made me remember some of the dullest school lessons. We were guided in a crowd of people by a Russian guide that loved to speak in a monotonic language without a split second of resting. Since he was so eager to talk another group behind us fenced us in so that we could hardly move and we were really glad to be able to sneak from the icebreaker before the guided tour was over. I guess, that most tourists are Russians too and so are able to understand the guide but even then I consider this kind of guiding as extremely boring and almost narcotic. My personal advise: Look at the boat from the pier but avoid the tour.

Some pictures from the inside anyway.

After this experience we needed fresh air and a café. We went to the Café Yunost (Кафе Юность), took some sweet cakes and after that we returned to the hotel to rest for a while.

In the evening we went to Terrasa (Терраса), another restaurant, though not to the White Rabbit (Белый кролик), our preferred choice. First it was Friday and then it was a holiday: Defence of the Fatherland Day. Therefore many restaurants had been fully booked. We enjoyed the food, went home to the hotel to take a short drink. Then we went to bed early. Next morning the alarm clock would ring at 6:15 local time, that’s 4:15 Swedish time.

When being in the hotel I took pictures from above. Here you could spot almost all places and attractions we visited the last two days, among others Alyosha, the Church of the Savior on Waters and the icebreaker Lenin. A good summary of the last two days.

A trip to Murmansk – day one

This article is part of the series “2018-02: A trip to Murmansk”.

Day 22 of my winter journey 2018

tl;dr Alyosha monument · old concrete buildings · Church of the Savior on Waters · view over Murmansk · restaurant Tundra · nocturnal Murmansk

Alyosha (Алёша)When we arrived in Murmansk the day before it was already dark and we were tired. Today after breakfast we were eager to explore. We ordered a taxi to our first tourist attraction: The Alyosha Monument.

“Defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War” (Защитникам Советского Заполярья в годы Великой Отечественной войны), commonly called Alyosha (Алёша) is a monument to Soviet soldiers, sailors, and airmen of WW2.

It was build in 1974 and it’s the second-tallest statue in Russia. The 70th aesthetics and the communistic concrete appeal didn’t help to make me like this statue, but I always have difficulties with war memorials. I’m a pacifist.

I enjoyed however the view over Murmansk. It was visible, that it’s a large town (it has 300,000 inhabitants) with a large port and many concrete high-rise buildings.

After we visited Alyosha we started to walk back into the center of Murmansk, where our hotel Azimut was located. We turned right into the street Ulitsa Aleksandrova. To the left there were old concrete buildings. They were extremely rundown and I was shocked to see these building and imagine people living here. Maybe the inside would look nicer, but the outside was horrifying.

In many directions you could see these high-rise estates with rectangular concrete buildings. But we could see something else: a Ferris wheel. We went on and came to a permanent amusement park, located beside the lake Semyonovskoye (Семеновское озеро). Of course the lake is covered with ice and snow in wintertime and some locals used the ski tracks going round the lake.

From that place the next destination was quite near: the Church of the Savior on Waters (Спас на Водах), a small Russian orthodox church, built 2002.

When we came to the church I could see some people leaving, going backwards and making the sign of the cross again and again. It is allowed to enter the small church but not to take pictures. I’ve never been in an orthodox church before and I was stunned. The walls were covered with icons of saints and incense was burned. Some elderly women were lighting candles and immersed into deep prayers and almost seeking physical contact to the icons and other objects. I felt deeply touched by this lived religiosity although I’m not religious by myself. On a table some food was placed. Bread and fruit, among others a bag with three lemons. Sacrifices or donations to the priests?

I have to admit that I felt like an intruder and completely at the wrong place. I have to read more about this religion and a bit about how to behave.

We continued our promenade back and passed the Memorial Complex to the Soldiers and Seamen Who Died in Peaceful Time.

We left the memorial behind and entered the streets of the center. We walked back to our hotel and took a short rest. We passed an old theatre, painted in bright indigo but more a ruin than a building. A pity, I think it must have been beautiful in former times.

Then the hotel. I had twisted my ankle one week ago and was glad to rest the foot a bit. Time for shooting some photos from the 16th floor.

Some hours later. We decided to eat dinner and Annika and I found the restaurant Tundra (Тундра) that got excellent reviews in the internet. And excellent it was. The restaurant was fully booked but we were allowed to sit in the bar. In Russia the food is quite cheap compared to Scandinavia even in really good restaurants. The dishes are not as huge as in many places in Europe. I like that because it gave me the opportunity to taste different things: borscht and caviar with seaweed. Both very tasty!

After a nice evening at this great location with fantastic food we went back to the hotel. Murmansk is definitely not the most beautiful town in daylight but it wins a lot when it gets dark because many places, streets, parks and buildings are illuminated with lights of all colours.

We have seen a lot that day, both the beautiful and less beautiful facets of this arctic Russian town and I was as exhausted as I use to be when strolling through a big town for a whole day.

We were glad however to have another day to explore a bit more.

Some other random pictures of the day:

A trip to Murmansk – prelude

This article is part of the series “2018-02: A trip to Murmansk”.

Day 21 of my winter journey 2018

I think, I know northern Europe quite well, especially when it comes to Sweden and Norway. There are many gaps to fill as for example Iceland, the Faroe Islands or Greenland, but thats all island only reachable by plane or by ship.

There is however a huge arctic area that is reachable by land, although with minor difficulties. I’m talking about Russia.

The journey started two months ago with an idea. When Annika and I planned to visit Chris and Ørjan in Kirkenes, why shouldn’t we cross the Norwegian-Russian border and visit Murmansk, the world largest town north from the polar circle. Chris and Ørjan were as interested as us, so that we were four people on that short trip to Russia.

Unlike the other countries we use to visit we would need a valid visa to cross the border and travel to Russia. Even though we used the help of a travel agency in Kirkenes that helped us with the visa application it took some efforts until the visa were ready.

Two month later – or four days ago – we started our journey. At 2 o’clock we entered a small bus in Kirkenes and drove to the border, which is only 15 km away. First stop: the Norwegian side. We showed our passports and entered the small bus again. Next stop: the Russian border. Here things started to take more time.

We had to fill out a form in two copies, that was as small as the passport. Therefore some lines were so tiny that the letters hardly were three millimetres high. Even with instructions it took much concentration to fill out these forms and since we only had one ball pen it took a long time till we were ready with the form completion. After that we had to show our passports and the forms to the frontier guard. Motto: don’t smile! That took time, too, but after this accurate border check we were ready to enter the bus again.

I’ve never been in Russia before and I was really curious to see this country that is near in geography but remote in my mind. The first part of the bus tour however didn’t reveal anything new. Mostly we could see snow, hills and birch trees – the very same landscape as on the other side of the border. Even the street signs seemed to be alike beside of some Cyrillic letters.

But when we came to towns like Zapolyarny (Заполя́рный) or Pechenga (Печенга) it was quite visible that we had left Scandinavia. No wooden houses painted in red and other colours were visible, but large rectangular concrete buildings.

After some time it begun to get dark and it started snowing. The snowfall quickly intensified and the bus driver who was very cautious slowed down. When we reached Sputnik (Спутник), the buildings were hardly visible anymore in the snowy dusk.

Soon after Sputnik we took a ten minute break. I would have loved to go to the toilet but they took (a) 25 Rubel and (b) only cash. We hadn’t any Russian cash and therefore couldn’t use the toilet, but at least Annika succeeded to buy some kind of pizza with credit card.

It became dark and I started to get tired. I love to travel by train but I consider it exhausting to sit in a bus. Soon I started to doze off. But finally Murmansk (Мурманск) on the other side of the Kola Bay (Кольский залив) came into view. We left the E 105, crossed the bay and drove through the outskirts of the town.

Two other passengers were brought to another hotel, then we four to our hotel Azimut. Internet reviews taught us, that you have a good view from the upper floors and were lucky to get our hotel rooms in floor 16, the floor right under the “Sky Bar”. The internet was right, the view was great:

Next day we would meet at 8 o’clock local time (Moscow Time) which is 6 o’clock Norwegian time. Two whole days of exploring Murmansk lay before us, but before that we had to sleep and rest.

Crossing and not crossing borders

This article is part of the series “2017-02: Northern Norway”.

Hardly believable that Annika and I started our holiday trip just three days ago when we looked at the arctic landscape today.

On Tuesday we started in Skelleftehamn, Sweden and crossed the first border to Köngäs, Finland. 481 km.

On Friday we continued in Köngäs, Finland and crossed the second border to Kirkenes, Norge, where we’re visiting Christine and Ørjan. Another 387 km.

Yesterday on Saturday we took it easy and relaxed after the two day road trip.

Last night I got sick. (That’s another story but the reason, why we cancelled our ski tour today.) Instead of that we took a short road trip to the Russian border, a border that we cannot cross without a valid visa.

The only border checkpoint between Norway and Russia is at the E105, the road to Murmansk. This checkpoint is only 10 km away from Kirkenes. I’ve been there two years ago.

In Elvenes there’s another small road to Skafferhullet. This place lies at the Russian border, too. There’s no checkpoint, the small road just ends and a fence with some signs marks the border to Russia and warns of crossing it. Here I really had the impression, that the world – as known to me – had come to its end and another kind of secret part of our planet begins right after that wire mesh fence.

Only wild animals can cross borders without any harm. They don’t share my memories of the inner German border, they don’t know anything about the cold war, they don’t have to care borders at all. Lucky them!

Perhaps I’ll witness the day, when the border to Russia is as open as many inner European borders today. Who knows …?

Just before the border checkpoint on the E105 there’s the road 886 to Grense Jakobselv – another place located at the Russian border. Most of the road is closed in winter time, but the first part is open. And this way is quite beautiful. We followed it until the barrier, where only snowmobiles are able to continue. There we took the minor road to Lanabukt located at the Jarfjorden.

Some photos:

What a great day with fantastic winter weather and temperatures round -17 °C. On the way back we stopped at the petrol station to buy me salted sticks and a Coke because unlike in Sweden super markets are closed in Norway on Sundays.

A first day in Kirkenes

What a beautiful morning! -6 °C and blue sky. I was accommodated near the Kirkenes Snow Hotel where my friend I’m staying with works. I had a look into the Snow Hotel first, It has an impressive lobby with tables and a bar and round about 20 rooms where tourists can stay over night.

After looking around I drove into the centre of Kirkenes and had a walk at the port. First I discovered the commercial fishing part: Big piles of traps for the big King crabs and fisher boats lettered with latin and cyrillic letters. But not far away you could see the touristic part: The Hurtigruten ship Kong Harald that landed nearby.

I walked at the shore a bit and tried to make photos of the big ice floes that lay ashore but clouds had approached and the light was a bit dull. So I took the car and took the road E105 to Му́рманск (Murmansk). No, I didn’t plan to travel to Russia but I wanted at least to see the Russian border. It’s not far away and soon I parked my car just in front of the border.

I’m child of the cold war. It was great to see, that there is a normal border now (even if you need a visa for travelling to Russia) and that you are allowed to take pictures. On the other side this border seemed to be more the “end of the world” to me than the North Cape. On the right-hand side there is the lake that is marked with orange warning signs. This is part of the Norwegian–Russian border that crosses this lake. You shouldn’t set foot on the lake, but at least I went to the shore to take a picture of the Russian custom.

Maybe I will cross this border one day and take the car or the bus to Murmansk, who knows …

It already started snowing on the way to the Russian border but on the way back the snow fall intensified. It was still easy to follow the road but hills that very a bit farer away where hardly visible.

Back at the snow hotel it was still snowing a lot and quite windy but warm as well: +1 to +2 degrees. Some of the 140 huskies were still out on tour while the rest of the dogs could take it easy.

The forecast for the next day promised sunny weather. We’ll see …