I just got back from a trip to Murmansk and Teriberka, north of the Arctic Circle. Thursday was February 23rd, Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which used to be Red Army Day, and is roughly the equivalent of men’s day in Russia. Due to the holiday, the archives, as well as much of the country, shut down. The archives were closed Thursday and Friday and had a half-day on Wednesday. The side reading room in GARF also decided to have a half-day on Tuesday. The closures also mean that my document request times are pushed back and the soonest I can see documents again are this upcoming Thursday. Thanks to the holiday, I got to take an amazing trip to the far north reaches of European Russia with a few others. Because what is a better time to head north of the Arctic Circle than in February? Actually, February is a mild time. There is something called the Polar Night up there in December and January that lasts for about 45 days. They get dusk and dawn, but that’s the extent of the daylight, in reality its almost 24 hours of darkness. In the summer, they have the Polar Day where it’s light out 24 hours a day.

Murmansk.

Murmansk.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

On Friday morning I woke up super early to catch a 7:20AM flight to Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. I ended up having to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo as I needed to get to the airport before the Aeroexpress train started to run.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Getting out of the dorm was my first adventure of the day. I’m not quite sure what time they technically open the door to the street, maybe 5:00 or 6:00AM? The night before, I went to speak with the guard. The door guards work in 24 hour shifts, so the guy there in the evening would be there through the next afternoon. He’s friendly and asked where I was going and was excited when I said Murmansk. He was also quite drunk due to the holiday. I told the guard that I had to leave early and asked if I could due to the flight. He said it was fine and then rambled on about the holiday in slightly slurred speech. I congratulated him and walked off. In the morning, I went by the little guard office near the door and noticed he was asleep on the couch. I went and tried the door, which was open, so I didn’t have to wake him. From there, I just waited for my Yandex Taxi to arrive and went off to the airport in about 25 minutes due to the lack of traffic in Moscow in the early morning hours. As I’ve learned flying in and out of JFK over the years, as painful as it is to wake up for the early flight, it generally makes the process of getting to and through the airport much less stressful.

This was my first time flying domestically in Russia, and as such was my first time at the domestic “terminal” at Sheremetyevo. What this really amounts to is going to the far end of the check-in hall. There is a separate security point in the domestic flights terminal past security is just a wing of the overall terminal, which is blocked off by a wall. I quickly killed some time walking around the entire domestic part of the terminal before getting ready to board. As I saw I was at a lower level gate, I immediately knew that I would be getting onto a bus and then getting onto the plane with stairs. Boarding was fine and swift and we departed 10 minutes early from the “gate.” The flight was reasonably full. I had a mother and her 9 year old son next to me. The son was playing GTA San Adreas on his iphone, which was moderately interesting to watch. We got the same breakfast meal that I got on the flight to Tbilisi, a fish, pickle, and spread sandwich with a yoghurt and small chocolate bar. After two hours, we landed smoothly in Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

Murmansk was founded in 1916 as a year-round port on the very northern shores of Russia. Due to the Gulf Stream, the waters remain navigable year round. As I have said, it’s the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and also features the northernmost trolleybus system. I have wanted to go for a while with my pop-cultural influenced love of Russia. The Hunt for Red October essentially features a submarine from nearby naval bases. These bases aren’t actually in the port of Murmansk itself. They’re spread throughout the nearby territory in closed settlements. Neither foreigners nor regular Russians are allowed to go to these places. Sometimes, to travel to nearby areas for hunting or fishing, or overland border crossings to Norway or Finland, special permission has to be received from the local authorities.

I traveled north with three acquaintances. The person who invited me was Vanessa, an Italian whom I had met in the dorm a few times while she was visiting some of my neighbors. She teaches Italian at a few places in Moscow. She casually invited me at dinner one night, and I immediately agreed to join the trip. The third member of our group was Terry, an American who teaches English at a private Russian school on the outskirts of Moscow. Our final travel companion was Alex, a Russian who somehow knows Vanessa through the other Italians. We all had different travel arrangements, more or less, that were facilitated by the February 23rd holiday. Terry arrived Thursday night, I arrived Friday morning, and Vanessa and Alex were supposed to arrive at the hostel around midnight on Friday into Saturday.

From the airport in Murmansk, I quickly grabbed a Yandex Taxi that was waiting in the parking lot. The cab drivers clearly hang out at the airport in the hours near the flight arrivals. It was only 500 rubles to go the 30KM from the airport to the hostel compared to the 1,000 rubles to cover roughly the same distance in Moscow from the dorm to Sheremetyevo.

I got into the hostel on the outskirts of Murmansk around 10:30AM, which was named the Little Mermaid in Russian. I found the reception staff, two nice men of about 40-45, and placed my things in my room before finding Terry. We spoke to the two hostel guys about getting food and then seeing things in the city as well as excursion outwards on either Saturday or Sunday. The guys recommended a food shack that was on the opposite wall of their office. We went there to get food before heading into the center of town to explore the city. The guy running the food shack was named Sasha, and he was super excited to meet two Americans in his little establishment on the edge of Murmansk. We ate some of his grilled wings in the unheated food shack. We wanted to get shashlyk, grilled meat, but he didn’t have any ready yet. He gave us his number and told us to call and come for dinner.

After lunch, Andrei, one of the managers of the hostel, drove us into the city and dropped us off at the main square. Terry and I wandered up and down and around some of the side streets of Prospket Lenina (Lenin’s Prospect) before popping into an Irish pub to grab some drinks and warm up. It was probably about 10F on Friday. In the Irish pub, we were met fondly by the bartender and one other patron who were excited to speak with some Americans. We tried some beers from a local brewer, which were quite tasty. If the option to drink Piligrim’s (Пилигрим) wheat beer is presented to you, go for it.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

A few hours passed in the bar and Terry and I headed back out to wander more in the cold. We walked past the obligatory statue of Lenin off of his street. We also found a monument to Sergei Kirov, a somewhat rival of Stalin and Leningrad Party Boss whose suspicious murder helped kick off the Terror of the 1930s. Getting cold and hungry, we wandered into a different bar that on the outside looked like a German style brew house. The inside was themed as an Irish bar, and they only had two types of beer as well as a weird menu that was a mixture of Russian classics and pub foods. From there, we headed to a supermarket to get something for breakfast before taking a taxi back to the hostel.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

For anyone looking to travel to Murmansk, do not stay in the Rusalochka Guest House (Русалочка). There is a reason why it was dirt cheap. As we were in two person rooms, we each paid 400 rubles a night to stay there, or roughly $7.00. The place was on the edge of the city in an industrial park. There was nowhere to walk to from it, and the bus that the internet said existed didn’t really exist. We had to take taxis to and from the place all the time. There were a few other foreigners there, but the clientele was mostly sketchy Russians.

Murmansk street corner.

Murmansk street corner.

My room was so-so. Coming first, I was a jerk and stole the more real bed. Vanessa got stuck with a folding cot with a decently thick mattress on it. Our room was also a former office. The key even said “Office No. 2” on it. Thus, there was a large desk and some chairs in it as well as an old bookcase. There was only one shower in the whole building of maybe 30 rooms, and there were two other toilets, which were basically unheated. I couldn’t figure out how to work the shower, either. There were no regular knobs. I went into the hall and asked a Russian guy if he knew how to work it. He somewhat laughed at me and came in but couldn’t figure it out. He also asked some other Russian man lingering in the hall outside the kitchen if he could figure it out, which he couldn’t. I found Terry and he showed me that it operated with a push button that had to be hammered in with your hand. It’s basically the same mechanism as those sinks where you push down on the knob and the water runs for about 10 or 15 seconds.

Our next problem with the hostel came from the overnight staff. While Terry and I were out, Vanessa and Alex messaged us that their flight was going to be delayed. They would arrive closer to 4:00AM. When we got back, Terry and I went to inform the staff. The woman working overnight was creepy and unfriendly. I told her about the delay and she told me to tell them to immediately find her so that she could copy their information from their passports. I sent this message along to Vanessa and Alex. In the mean time, Terry and I walked around outside the hotel a few times to see if we could see the Northern Lights, which was a failure. The guy from the food stand came up and asked why we hadn’t come for dinner, and when we went to see if we could walk anywhere along the road, a passing motorist seemed to stop to see if we needed assistance. Eventually we called it quits and went inside to go to bed.

Vanessa's bed.

Vanessa’s bed.

As I was getting ready for bed, the woman working at the guest house knocked on my door and asked if I was going to lock it when I went to sleep. I said I would, but she told me not to as the others were coming in late and it would be a disturbance if they knocked on the door. I said that no matter what, I would wake up when they arrived, so it wasn’t an issue for me. She then left me. At about 4:15AM I got a phone call from Alex asking me to open the door. I got up and went to the main door, which was unlocked. Vanessa and Alex didn’t even try to open it, figuring that the outside door would be locked at that hour of the morning. They had tried to call the posted number for the worker, but got no answer. I told them about the passport, and we knocked on the office of the administrator, but there was no answer. So we went to our rooms and to sleep. We forgot to lock the door to our room, so Vanessa and I were rudely awakened at 5:00AM by the crazy woman. She threw the door open and turned on the light, which scared us to death. She then started to demand the passport from Vanessa. I went back to sleep and then slept poorly and woke anytime I heard someone approach the office doors near our room.

In the morning, we got up and attempted to eat breakfast in the kitchen. The kitchen really served as the smoking room for the Russian clientele, who used a jar and its lid as an ash tray. The Russian men were also having beer for breakfast. We had gotten cereal to eat, but there were no spoons in the hostel. Instead, we just munched on the dry cereal and tried to figure out what to do for the day and when to arrange a trip to a village called Teriberka about 120KM away that was on the Barents Sea. We spoke with Andrei, who told us that he knew a guy and we could arrange a trip for the next day. He then dropped us all off in the center of the city, but this time by a restaurant where we got a second breakfast/early lunch.

Beer for breakfast.

Beer for breakfast.

We ate and then walked along the main road to the train station. From the train station, we crossed a series of tracks on some bridges towards the port, where we went to the museum for the first atomic icebreaker, named the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

It was built in 1959 and served until 1989. The only way to go on it is through a tour that runs certain days at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. We got the 2:00 tour, which seemed to be the most popular. Walking through the ship was pretty cool. As a floating city, there was a very scary looking medical complex featuring a dentist office, an x-ray room, and a surgery.

The stuff of nightmares.

The stuff of nightmares.

The grand staircase of the ship was slightly ornate. However, unlike the famed staircase of the Titanic, which featured a centerpiece carving of Honor and Glory crowning Time, the Lenin had a giant Lenin quote and carving of his head.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

We got to go past the decommissioned nuclear reactor, which had a good display set up in it to see what it looked like while working. There was also a tour of the engine room and the steam turbines that powered the ship with over 144,000HP.

Steam turbine.

Steam turbine.

The best views from the ship were from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

After the tour, we headed back to the center via a stop at an old steam engine by the rail tracks. We climbed up it for some cool photos before getting a taxi to an edge of the city to see the giant war memorial.17021499_10212322263634583_4807174153905822397_n

Murmansk was a major city for Russia during the Second World War. Murmansk is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the former Soviet Union, cities of the most importance to the effort on the Eastern Front. Because of its year round port, Murmansk was a major target for Nazi advances and bombing campaigns. This port is where a lot of the Lend Lease goods came in to supply the Soviet war effort. The Nazis wanted to cut this off, but never managed to take over the city and do so. Murmansk was actually the third most attacked and ruined city of the USSR, and Russia, after Leningrad and Stalingrad due to its immense strategic importance. On a hill overlooking the city is a giant monument to the war effort, called Alyosha, of a Russian soldier that was built in the 1970s.

At the Alyosha monument.

At the Alyosha monument.

The view of the city from the top was absolutely stunning.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

We wandered all around the monument and took in the views of the city before walking down through the park back to the city. We walked the whole way from the monument to the main roads of the city. While heading back to Prospekt Lenina, we stumbled upon a Mexican bar and restaurant called Amigos right on the edge of the main road. We went in and enjoyed having fajitas and enchiladas in the arctic north. I haven’t even had Mexican food in Moscow, yet there is a decent place to eat it in Murmansk. Who would have thought?

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

We wandered more and then took a trolleybus back towards the outskirts of the city in an attempt to find a place to look for the Northern Lights. After wandering around outside for about a hour, we headed into a café next to a park to have some tea and warm up. There was a DJ there playing songs off of his laptop who kept staring and me and Vanessa. If we started to bob along to the music, he would turn it up. If we didn’t, he would skip songs until we did. I ended up seeing a kid eating ice cream and talked about eating it outside. It was a bitterly cold day of -13F that was down to about -20F with the wind-chill. The others somewhat dared me to eat ice cream outside, so I got one and did so. It was wonderful.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

We regained some strength and headed outside through the park to look for the lights again. On the way, we found a slide made of ice. I found a cardboard box on the ground, and we took a few turns going down the slide before heading back into the center on the trolleybus. We grabbed some breakfast foods and then went to bed fairly early after chatting in our room for a while as we had an early start the next day.

We arranged through Andrei to get a driver to take us to the fishing village of Teriberka. I highly recommend going there, but it is very important to go with an experienced guide in the winter. We were lucky that the road was currently open, though it closes sometimes for days at a time due to the snow, and people can be stranded in the village. Our driver Igor was an extreme professional. He had an SUV with studded snow tires. His trunk was filled with shovels, a sleeping bag, and a butane camp stove among other supplies. His day job is with the МЧС, or the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Basically, this means that he works as an emergency first responder. He has his own tour company for other days. I highly recommend his services. The price was 10,000 rubles for the day in which we left at 9:30 and came back at 6:00. Split between us, it was 2,500 rubles each, or roughly $45.00, which is not bad for a whole day with a knowledgeable guide.

His group is called Туры и экскурсии по Кольскому полуострову (Tours and Excursions along the Kola Peninsula)  and he can be reached through his Vkontake page.

As we headed out, the danger of the drive became a little more evident. He kept checking in with someone else on his phone. They try to take the drives in groups of at least two cars in case some sort of problem happens with one. You literally drive across the middle of nowhere with no available help. The road on much of the trip is really just gravel, though in the winter everything is snow. A few times we passed giant trucks that were removing snow from the road. Igor told us that on one recent trip, they had to wait three days for the road to reopen. As we headed farther away from Murmansk, we crossed into the tundra. The weather conditions immediately changed to heavy snow and essentially white out conditions. Both the road and the horizon were white. The only way to see where to go was orange markings on the side of the road, which also told the plow drivers where to plow.

Difficult driving conditions.

Difficult driving conditions.

Along the way to Teriberka, we stopped a few times for photos. At one point, we took photos on a dam. I reveled in living out GoldenEye fantasies of being on a snow covered damn in northern Russia. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of that particular film, the opening shot is at the fictional Arkhangelsk Chemical Weapons facility, which supposedly sits at the base of a dam. James Bond runs across the dam and bungee jumps off of it to enter the base. In reality, the scene was shot at the Contra dam in Switzerland, but I didn’t care. Arkhangelsk is another far north Russian port city with a sizable nuclear fleet base.

View from a Russian dam.

View from a Russian dam.

Another very interesting sight on the way to Teriberka was the presence of a group of para-snowboarders and skiers. These extreme sports junkies head out in convoys to the snow drifts of the tundra. They attach parachutes to themselves and have the wind propel them along the snow as they attempt to do some jumps.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

The road to Teriberka was also dotted with little fishing encampments, or just cars parked along the road for people to head to the many nearby lakes for some ice fishing.

Fishing encampment.

Fishing encampment.

After about three hours of driving including a few photo stops, we reached a fork in the road for Teriberka and New Teriberka. New Teriberka is a settlement that sits a little more inland on the Teriberka Gulf. It has a few buildings, a café, and a sandy beach.

Some of New Teriberka.

Some of New Teriberka.

The real Russia.

The real Russia.

We walked along the beach and took photos of the stunning countryside before heading into the café for a lunch of soup and local crab and scallops. Igor told us that the crabs were not native to these waters. Instead, Soviet scientists took crabs from Kamchatka and brought them to the Barents to see if they would take off, which they did. However, Igor told us that Russia has very strict regulations about the fishing of fish and shellfish to control the population. Apparently, the Norwegians don’t follow the same principles.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Refreshed after having food, we got back in the car to Teriberka via a quick stop at the ship graveyard. They are early steam ships. Igor said that he’s tried to learn the history of them, but hasn’t been able to do so.

Ship graveyard.

Ship graveyard.

There wasn’t actually anything to see or do in Teriberka itself. Instead, we drove to the edge of the settlement before undertaking a 30 minute hike across the snow to the rocky beach on the Barents Sea.

Hiking to the sea.

Hiking to the sea.

The views along the way were also breathtaking. Murmansk is more of a stereotypical northern city near the water that has a few hills and trees. As we headed out of the city, the large pine forests started to surround us. Then we got to the nothingness of the tundra before approaching giant mounts near the sea.

The beach at the Barents was really just a pile of boulders that we had to carefully climb over.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

Vanessa was partially insane and a trooper. She was insistent upon swimming. Igor helped her get to the water and loaned her his second jacket and sleeping bag in place of no towels. She got up to the water, took off the jacket, and got hit by a massive wave before quickly getting dressed again. I took off my shoes and socks and walked up to the water. It was quite painful, but eventually my feet just ignored the pain and went back to feeling normal. Due to the rocks and waves, I couldn’t really get into the water. Instead, I stood in a small puddle near the edge, which kept going up and town with the tide. I my book, it doesn’t count as visiting a body of water unless you at least stick your feet in.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Alex also took off his shoes and socks. After having our water adventures, Igor pulled snacks and tea out of his backpack and we had tea on the rocks of the Barents Sea. It was an unreal once in a lifetime experience.

Picnic at the Barents.

Picnic at the Barents.

The tide was approaching our perch, so we warmed up and then hiked back to the car. Igor drove us back to Murmansk without any issues. Along the way, he started to talk about WWII a bit and I asked him a few questions. I knew that there were about 5 POW camps in the area. He said that the POWs helped to rebuild and that they were largely used in the construction of a hydro-electric plant that the Finns designed. He also mentioned that a lot of the nearby roads to the various fishing spots were first built by the Germans. They paved them with gravel and stones, and they are all apparently still in fantastic condition.

After arriving back at the hostel, we got dinner of grilled meat from the shack, much to the happiness of the owner Sasha. We relaxed and chatted in the room. We had a carton of milk that we hadn’t opened and were wondering what to do with it. Jokingly, we said we should freeze it and turn it into ice cream, so we put it in cups out of the window to do so overnight.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Vanessa and Alex had the 5:00AM flight out of Murmansk so that they could be back in Moscow in time for work on Monday. They left the hostel around 3:00AM. I was dead tired and didn’t hear Vanessa get up. Nor dead I hear or notice her opening the window to try some of the ice cream, of which she took a flash photo. I only woke up when she said my name, goodbye, and walked out of the door. I woke again a few hours later to gather the last of my things, hand Terry the key to my room, and get my taxi. My taxi was at 8:45, and there was seemingly no one working at the time. Terry was OK with taking the key as his flight was at 1:00 or so.

I got into the cab with a nice driver. He first asked if I was from Norway or Finland, and was surprised when I said the USA. On the way to the airport, he insisted on us stopping at a natural spring at the side of the road so that I could try the local spring water. I did, and it was indeed fresh and lovely.

The spring.

The spring.

We got to the airport quickly and easily. I then waited in line to check-in. I wanted to be there early for my 10:50 flight as I couldn’t check-in online. The line moved fairly quickly as the check-in was just for my 180 seat plane. Oddly, there was a group of about 20 Chinese tourists also on my flight.

After a quick and simple security check-point I wound up in the mostly wonderfully Soviet airport terminal. There was a giant socialist realist sculpture on the wall. The layout was also that of a provincial train station. It had the same design and furniture of the train station in Ulyanovsk, for example.

Soviet airport greatness.

Soviet airport greatness.

The gates were also just two doors out to the tarmac. I got some great views of my plane coming in from Moscow as well as an old Antonov An-24 turboprop plane operated by a small regional airline called Pskovavia. The particular model of plane was manufactured from 1959-1979.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

Boarding was just us all massing at the gate door. Our tickets were ripped, and we got onto a bus to take us to the plane. We quickly boarded and left on time. As the airport is tiny, there isn’t much of a taxiway. There’s just a strip from the middle of the runway to the terminal area. We drove up the strip and along the runway. At the edge of the runway, the plane made a u-turn. I didn’t realize that an Airbus could turn around like that. Then we took off and landed in Moscow with a minimal delay caused by the traffic in front of us to land. Lunch on the flight was a simple ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich, a fruit bar, and a mandarin.

We got an actual jetway when we arrived and quickly got off of the plane. I walked to Aeroexpress and was back in the dorm by 3:00PM. And thus ended my adventures to the far north of Russia. I highly recommend taking a similar trip if someone ever gets the chance. It was refreshing to be outside of Moscow in the real Russia.

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