Sunday, 12 July 2015

Putin on our walking shoes and heading to northern Russia

Ha, see what I did there in the title? Just because this blog doesn't get updated as much as I'd like these days, doesn't mean the pun gun's got rusty.

It was to be ten days of northern Russia. Starting and ending the trip in St Petersburg, we hiked through a forest in Priozersk; camped on the shores of Lake Ladoga; explored the island of Valaam; wandered through Petrozavodsk; walked, cycled and rowed our way around the Solovetsky Islands for four days and met a lot of lovely people.

I don't know about the rest of the world, but in the UK we get a pretty negative impression of Russia. It's very Putin-centric and the media defines Russia as a nation by the actions of one man. Just imagine if the UK was defined as a nation by the actions of David Cameron? The man is a robotic Etonian sh*t who should be fired out of a cannon into shark infested waters.

The Russia we saw is full of beautiful landscapes, friendly and welcoming folk who love the great outdoors, immense historic monasteries, St Petersburg with as much culture and as many hipsters as any other European city and long summer days in the north where darkness never arrives.

And the banya. Lets talk about the banya. It's a bit like a sauna, but you pour warm water onto hot rocks, which creates very hot steam and increases the temperature of the room to, in our case, about 80 degrees centigrade. When it gets too hot, you get out and take a cold shower or jump in a lake or some snow if such a thing is nearby. But that's not even the best bit. You get to whip each other with birch tree branches. After an hour of hot banya, cold shower, hot banya, cold shower, and a bit of birch branch flagellation I was so relaxed I could hardly move. It was amazing. (A lot of people have remarked that the whipping sounds a bit homoerotic, but take from it what you will...)

Who was I whipping with birch branches? Nick, who I have seen many countries with mentioned on this very blog and Alastair, aka the International Gentleman Traveller or IGT. Some say he's forgotten more about backpacking than you or I will ever know, some say he speaks all the languages of the world including the ancient tongue of the lost city of Atlantis. All I know is, we would have been utterly screwed in the northern reaches of Russia without a Russian speaker. Not to mention the fact that he had an entire travel itinerary lined up for us and an extra tent. Me and Nick owe him big-time for an amazing adventure. 

The pictures below start at day two because day one was mostly just us getting to Russia with a three hour detour to Riga, Latvia caused by the incompetence of Polish Airlines. Although we did have some incredible Georgian food in a St Petersburg cafe. 

Day two: Getting a fire going on the shores of Lake Ladoga after a hard afternoon's walk through the forest.

A view through the trees of Lake Ladoga by night. Taken around midnight but still not dark. More of a tranquil blue-purple dusk. FACT: Ladoga is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and 15th largest in the world.

Day three: Our first campsite on Valaam. We were later evicted from this campsite by a man who pulled up on a dinghy to tell us we weren't allowed to camp there. But he gave us a lift to another site where we met some friendly Armenians who gave us food and vodka. Every cloud and all that.

This van is known as the bread loaf, because of its shape. Its nickname is much catchier than it's real name UAZ-452. It's pretty much the Soviet equivalent of the iconic Volkswagen camper van.

Wooden monastery on the island of Valaam. Main religion of Russia is Orthodox Christian and they don't seem short of cash, judging by some of the building work we saw them carrying out.

After midnight on Valaam. This is a silhouette of Nick and Alastair. It makes Alastair look like a hobbit, but he is a normal sized human being.

Day four: Our campsite and our Armenian friends. I think one was Russian actually, but either way, they were very hospitable to three English guys who were escorted to the campsite late at night by a man in military gear.

We took a taxi from the campsite back to the port and this was our driver Vyacheslav from Ukraine with his well-worn Lada. A surprisingly sturdy vehicle and it needs to be on the bumpy tracks.

Valaam Monastery. Built some time between the 11th and 14th centuries (records are very hazy, according to Wikipedia and that's as far as my research went). A bit over-painted in my opinion, giving it an Orthodox Christianity does Disneyland feel. Impressive inside though, all gold and full of your religious imagery.

Outside Valaam monastery a kitten eats a sausage. He/she is being guarded by an old Russian lady who keeps shooing away a large seagull that is also after the sausage. Or maybe the kitten if it's a particularly hungry seagull. (NO KITTENS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS PHOTOGRAPH.)

An evening in Petrozavodsk and we walked by the world's most ridiculous KFC. You'd think they would put something of cultural or historical interest in such a building but maverick Russia don't play by the rules.

As close as we got to seeing a bear really, apart from a bear pelt hanging from a wall in a restaurant. This one had a moving arm that waved back and forth so it gave you a good idea of what a bear might look like if it stood up and waved at you before charging straight at you and eating you.

Just under the big white writing you can see the translation 'before I die, I want to...' and this board was full of people finishing that sentence with their hopes, dreams and ambitions.

A long time after sunset on the shores of Lake Onega

Day five: Order tea on a train in Russia and it will be served in one of these amazing cups. This train took us from Petrozavodsk to Kem', the gateway to the Slovetsky Islands.

One of the corner towers of Solovetsky Monastery. Built out of bloody massive rocks. FACT: In 1855, the English turned up with three ships and shelled the monastery for nine hours. They did very little damage, gave up and sailed away.

Solovetsky Monastery has seen a lot in its time, including the Soviet government designating the Solovetsky Islands as the site of the first ever gulag (forced labour camp) in 1921. It was hard to reconcile the natural beauty of the islands with the horrors that took place there through the 1920s and 1930s.

The monastery by night. Well, not night in the normal sense of the word but the light at 1.30am type of night that we experienced that far north. We were on the same latitude as Iceland at this point and this was as dark as it got. You can see the moon there and some mist.

Day six: A bit of cycling over roads that get flooded very easily but don't dry out very easily. So we put on some wellies provided by the best-equipped bike shop ever and waded through some swampy puddles. We were heading to the smaller island of Muksalma, which is linked to the main island by a big stone causeway built by monks.

And this is said stone causeway, linking Muksalma to Bolshoi Solovetsky. FACT: Bolshoi in Russian means big so Bolshoi Solovetsky is the big Solovestky island. (The Bolshoi Ballet is the big ballet.)

Band photo #1. After half a day cycling through bogs and over bumpy tracks, Nick and Alastair take a break in the sun.

Later that day, round the campfire with Alastair and Olga (part of team Olga, Olga and Margarita who were three Russian girls we met on a bus.) We were all politely evicted together from Solovetsky Monastery for exploring a part of it that was supposed to be closed. (Eviction number two.)

Day seven: We rented bikes again and embarked on a day which included about 30km of cycling over tricky roads and some rowing through Lake Krasnoye and its canals. The canals were built by monks 500 years ago. The water in the canal was so still it was like a mirror to the surrounding forest.

Nick puts his back into it during his shift between the oars on Lake Krasnoye. You've got to get some work out of him when you can.

This was a monument to all who were imprisoned and died on Solovetsky Islands when it was a gulag under Soviet rule. This hill was absolutely swarming with mosquitoes and midges. So many that prison guards could punish prisoners by tying them naked to a tree and leaving them to be bitten by mosquitoes until they passed out from the pain or blood loss.

It's banya time! Weird hats and swimming shorts on. Russian men usually go naked into the banya but we had to draw the line somewhere. So hot n' steamy in there that it was hard to take photos, as you can see.

This photo doesn't really do justice to how relaxed I felt afterwards although it does suggest how relaxed Nick was. We had done a lot of cycling during the day so a hot banya felt absolutely amazing.

Day eight: Artfully shot (I think you'll agree) Orthodox Christian cross on the very small island of Bolshoi Zayatsky which felt completely exposed to the elements and contained some ancient stone labyrinths.

This day was rather wet and cold so we thought it would be an ideal opportunity for a trip to a small exposed island covered in tundra that used to be used for isolation punishment back in the gulag days. No one said a holiday has to be all sunshine and t-shirts...

A cross in memory of the victims of the gulag on Bolshoi Zayatsky.

This dog was awesome. He chased anything on wheels if it dared to go past the bike rental hut and then skidded to a stop at the end of the road by splaying his legs as if he were on skis.

Took me ages to get this shot because he would never stay still long enough.

Seagulls follow our ferry from the Solovetsky Islands back to Kem', where we got an overnight train back to St Petersburg.

Day nine: An underground station in St Petersburg. Some of them are pretty swish.

This blue sign was painted during the 900-day German siege of St Petersburg/Leningrad in WW2. It advises people to stand on the other side of the road when artillery shelling begins, because this side was where the bombs would most likely land.

Me and Nick in front of the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Imagine the British Museum crossed with a ridiculously opulent palace. It's no wonder the Russians killed most of their aristocracy when they were building palaces like this (there are more) while the rest of the country could barely put food on the table. If they had a table.

A view of the Hermitage without two prancing fools stood in front of it.

One of the most bling rooms in the Hermitage. Lots of gold, lots of red. If MTV Cribs had existed in during the height of the Russian aristocracy it would have taken about four hours to get through one episode.

Band photo #2. Nick and Alastair in a big hall full of portraits of Russian officers who did battles and stuff during the Napoleonic wars.

Managed to snap this picture quickly as we were being led out of the Hermitage for at least our third polite eviction of the trip. They were about to close but officials in Russia do love being extra officious and led us to the exit door.

The Rostral Columns by the river in St Petersburg. FACT: Those are the prows of captured ships attached to the column.

 The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg. Very dramatic name, and an impressive exterior.

While walking around the city centre on our penultimate day in St Petersburg, we stumbled on a street festival celebrating Dostoyevsky day. Cue opportunity for hilarious photo.

A doughnut shop called Bolshaya Konushennaya that has been around since 1958 serving doughnuts, coffee and not much else. The doughnuts were great and the coffee was very sweet and milky.

A selection of t-shirts being sold on the streets of St Petersburg. The red writing above and below Putin delivering a knockout blow to Obama says 'the answer to economic sanctions'. They're not best pleased about the economic sanctions in Russia but as Putin controls most of the media they don't tend to get the impression that he brought it on them by kicking off in Ukraine.

A rogues gallery of busts for the St Petersburg souvenir hunter, including Putin, Lenin and Chairman Mao. It was hard to tell how ironic they were being with the Putin paraphernalia, if at all.

Want to read more about the trip from Nick's perspective? He even made a film of our trip which will probably appear soon here:

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