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Russia trip part 3: Kandalaksja & Rovaniemi

Russia trip part 3: Kandalaksja & Rovaniemi

A bit delayed, but here is the final part of our Russia trip!

After our visit to Murmansk, we drove south to Kandalaksja. We stopped in Monchegorsk for lunch – quite a nice looking town actually! The map below shows our route, plus a little road trip we went on the next day, following the coast to just passed Umba – but more about that later.

After checking in to our hotel (where nobody spoke English!) we went for a walk to explore Kandalaksja. A much smaller town than Murmansk, with wide streets, trees, and wooden houses. Some parts of it looked quite nice 🙂

Some of the wooden buildings were very brightly painted! In the photo on the right (below) you can see that Kandalaksja does also have its share of concrete apartment blocks. This photo is taken (by Steve) from the frozen White Sea.

We walked to the shore to watch the sunset, and to our surprise found an icebreaker! This one is called Kapitan Nikolaev. We tried to walk over to it, but there was too much water/slush on top of the ice to continue.

When we walked to the shore, we noticed a building that looked like it might be a restaurant. On the way back, it was all lit up in blue Christmas lights, a LOT of them! We decided to try and have dinner there. As in all Russian restaurants, somebody takes your coat at the door before you go in. Inside everything looked very new, and very empty. There was only one other table occupied. Nobody spoke English except for the cook, so in the end he came to our table to take our order 😀 He was really friendly and suggested some meal options. The meal was wonderful!

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel, and amused some passers-by by taking a photo in front of the hotel 🙂 Stephen also took a photo of his very pink room! The hotel was quite special, the hotel rooms were all on the same floor, and all other floors had all kinds of things. A bar and night club, a dentist, a door & shower cubicle shop (which was extremely popular!) – we had fun exploring the building!

The next day we explored a bit more. Here too, lots of trains full of coal – the nice building in the background is the station. And I had to get a photo of this Lada 4 wheel drive 🙂

In Russia, you find many kiosks where you can buy all sorts of things. Often with a tiny window to do business through. The second one was an unusual shape and was a bread shop.

The street signs are quite colourful! We also found some abandoned buildings near the station.

After our walk, we went for a drive along the coast of the White Sea (see the map above). Watching the view in the photo above, we understood why the White Sea is called White 🙂

Umba looked like a pleasant small town, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to stop there. Umba is closed to foreigners, and to visit you need special permission. So we drove around the town and continued a bit further. We came across a village of what we assume are all dacha’s (summer houses). The village is called Kuzreka. The clouds were incredible, showing a pretty wave-like pattern. We went for a walk around the village.

Luckily someone had driven a car through it recently, it was nice walking in the car tracks – the snow was very deep! Most houses looked locked up for the winter, with snow piling up as high as half the front door! There didn’t seem to be anybody around. This house had quite a creative solution for a gutter 🙂

Some of the houses looked like they might collapse if you leaned against it, while others looked quite sturdy and pretty.

There were many colourful houses, it was really nice walking around the deserted village looking at all the houses! In the end we did find out that one person was present, and he didn’t seem to like us very much. Well I guess we must have looked very strange to him, walking around the abandoned village taking lots of photos.

That evening we tried to find a different restaurant to eat, but we couldn’t find any! Kandalaksja is a lot smaller than Murmansk, and we were quite an attraction for the local people. Most would just stare at us, some were brave enough to yell “Hello America!” :D. In the end we had dinner in a tiny cafeteria, where the food was paid by weight (even the potato chips – which they microwaved…).

The next day was our last day in Russia, so we started with some shopping to spend the remainder of our money. I was quite attracted by the sweets section in the supermarket – it all looked so good! And it’s so cheap! (Also, it’s almost all pure sugar 😉 ) Paul almost got in trouble for taking that picture in the supermarket, they don’t like that. The photo on the right shows what we brought home – lots and lots of chocolate, sweets and (of course) vodka!

We had a look at this bridge crossing the river behind our hotel. As you can see, it was a very misty morning. There was some well on the other side of the bridge, we saw lots of people with jerrycans walking in that direction, like this woman coming back with a full jerrycan.

And here too, we found the lucky locks attached to the bridge…

After our shopping spree, we left Kandalaksja and headed west to the border. We didn’t take the same route back, as we were heading for Rovaniemi in Finland so we used the border crossing near Salla. We tried to buy some lunch on the way, but we got the car very stuck in the snow in a place we were not sure we were even allowed to stop – luckily a friendly guy helped us dig the car out! After that we thought it best to continue to the border. Easy as it was to come into Russia, it wasn’t as easy to leave! We spent more than an hour at the border crossing, answering lots of questions, and they even went through all the photos on our cameras. But fortunately in the end we were allowed to leave 🙂 The Finnish border crossing was a lot easier (“You live in Tromsø? Do you work in a fish factory?”).

We were on the way to Rovaniemi to visit Mats, but first we visited the cabin that he just built. It looks really nice! It’s not completely finished yet, but it will have electricity and (of course!) a sauna.

We spent that night in a very nice hotel in the centre of Rovaniemi. The next day, we visited the Arktikum museum. The building is quite impressive, it has a large glass tunnel in the middle. Half of the museum is popular science aimed at kids, where you can try a bear suit for example 😉 The other half was more about the local area and the Sami, and much more interesting.

Mats was determined to take us to Santa Claus, the huge attraction in Rovaniemi. And I thought Santa Claus came from North Pole in Alaska, how confusing 😉 It’s crazy how Santa Claus became “big business” here – it’s like a huge theme park. Talking to Santa Claus is free, but having a photo taken with him will cost you 25 euro. We arrived at the site too late to meet Santa, so we just walked around the shops and looked at the giant snowmen.

In the evening we had dinner at Nili – what an amazing restaurant! I think that was the best meal I’ve ever had! It was all Lapland specialities and you could even order bear… I had salmon as a starter, a vegetarian main of vegetables and grilled goat’s cheese, and a dessert of a special Finnish cheese called Leipäjuusto with cloud berries. Hmmmm 🙂 The perfect way to end our trip!

The next day we drove back to Tromsø – nearly 600 km. It had been a great trip!!

(Link to Part I: Tromsø to Kirkenes and to Part II: Murmansk)

Russia trip part 2: Murmansk

Russia trip part 2: Murmansk

It took a while, but finally part 2 of our trip to Russia – with LOTS of photos!

From Kirkenes we drove to the Russian border. Nobody asked us any questions at the border, Steve had to fill in some forms as the owner of the car, but otherwise it wasn’t much of a hassle. After about 20 minutes, we were in Russia! Here is a map of our route to Murmansk. The normal route from Kirkenes to Murmansk follows the road further north, and passes through several towns. Some of those are closed, but we were hoping to visit some others. However, we ended up on a different route, for mysterious reasons and to our own confusion. But more about that later…

The first part of the drive is through the border zone, where you are not allowed to take photos or even stop the car except in an emergency. After a while, we reached Nikel. You pass a huge sign with the name of the town when you enter, something every Russian town seems to have. The main reason for existence of Nikel is a big nickel smelter (which makes it quite a polluted town). The photo on the right is part of this smelter.

We got some money out of an ATM in Nikel and walked around for a bit. The town looks like it was once quite nice, but now all the paint is peeling off and the buildings look like they could use some maintenance 😉

I found this music video that was filmed in Nikel quite recently. I love the song, and the video is beautifully made!

After leaving Nickel, we followed signs to Murmansk. We had to go through a passport control at the start of this road, but then we were on our way. I had my gps on and started to wonder what was going on, as we kept driving south instead of east. Somehow we ended up on a different road to Murmansk, one that didn’t get much traffic at all – and from the condition of the road it looked like not many snowploughs had passed either! We started to worry a bit, until we saw a snowplough coming from the opposite direction. We flagged him down and asked if the road was going to Murmansk, which he confirmed. So we decided to keep going. The road was really going through the middle of nowhere, we hardly saw any buildings or other cars. We had to drive quite slowly because of the bad conditions, so it took a long time before we reached a bigger road which took us east to Murmansk. In total it was about 300 km from Kirkenes to Murmansk. Below is an example of the road we took, if it wasn’t for the trees you wouldn’t know where the road was! The other photo is our hotel in Murmansk.

We arrived quite late, and only had time to go for dinner. The next day it was time to explore! This is the logo for Murmansk; northern lights, a ship and an exceptionally big fish :D. You also find signs of the USSR and Lenin everywhere.

From the hotel, we walked to the train station, the mint coloured building in the picture below. It was quite busy there, lots of people carrying skis were just getting off a train. The other photo is taken by Steve, it’s a decorated pedestrian tunnel near the station. Paul was amazed that the people in Russia actually do wear fur hats quite a lot!

We crossed the railway tracks using a pedestrian bridge, which gave a good view of all the trains parked there. So many! Lots of them filled with coal.

At the waterside, we found a ship called NS Lenin – it’s the first nuclear icebreaker ever built. It’s big! Paul and Steve walked up to the guard and managed to understand that the ship was not open for visitors today, but would be tomorrow at 12. We decided to come back the next day, as it would be great to see the ship from the inside!

Near the ship were fences full of locks… it is apparently a tradition to come to a place like this on your wedding day and attach a lock to the fence. Most have names and dates written on them, either just with nail polish or something, or inscribed. Quite impressive to see so many!

This photo is taken at the same place, the building is a kind of harbour office I believe.

We tried to follow the waterfront, but often were stopped by a barrier. There was lots of industry there and lots of these areas were closed off unless you worked there. In the end we did what seemed quite normal here: we walked along the train tracks. In this area we also found some colourful wooden buildings. And this mural at a petrol station 😀

There is a very large statue of a soldier on a hill overlooking Murmansk, and we thought we might be able to climb this hill from the waterfront, even though the main access is from the other side. We found some stairs going up the hill and walked up, passing a group of people who were using a well to fill up jerry cans with water. A bit further up we saw many wooden buildings which looked quite nice. When passing one of them, a guy called out to us. Apparently the road we were following was going nowhere. W
hen he found out we were foreign, he invited us inside for a coffee. It was quite an interesting visit! It turned out to be a dacha – a kind of summer house. He didn’t live there permanently (he said he lived only 500 m away, in the city) and was still renovating it. He was there with 2 young children. He showed us lots of photos of his family and friends. He had worked on a fishing boat in Norway for a while and learnt some English. When we left, we had to take some photos as he wanted a souvenir 🙂

We decided to walk back to the hotel and drive to the soldier instead. There were lots of dachas in this area, they looked quite nice. I don’t really understand why people don’t live there permanently instead of in the large apartment blocks but I guess there is a reason for that. We also found this abandoned van. These vans are common in Russia – they look like a Russian version of the VW camper van 🙂

Just a picture of some art on a building wall. Most of the art you find is related to ships. I love the aurora in this one!

On the main square, there was a big heart made out of ice. It looks like some people attached scarves to the bottom of it, no idea why. Two giggly girls kept jumping up, reaching for something… turns out there were coins frozen into the ice, and they were trying to get one out 😀

By mid afternoon, we had done a lot of walking – time for a break! We passed this huge bakery/cafe, with lots of choice. Lots of cakes 🙂 I chose a banana chocolate one (no surprise there) and ordered a hot chocolate to go with it. The hot chocolate was more like chocolate sauce, very thick – but very nice 🙂

After walking back to the hotel, we drove to the soldier up on the hill. He’s called Alosha and symbolises the unknown soldier. The statue is more than 30 m high and really quite impressive. You can see how small the people are next to him…

It seems quite a popular place for people to visit. There is a flame in front of it, and people try to throw coins into the flame…

The soldier is placed on top of a hill overlooking the city, so the view from there is quite good. Very impressive to see the city and all the industry from up there, while hearing all the sounds from the trains and the cranes.

Here is a panorama of the view…

LOTS and LOTS of cranes in the harbour…

On the way back we stopped at a nice church. There was a service going on, so we didn’t stay very long. Next to the church is this memorial to people who died at sea in the Arctic.

In the evening we went for dinner at a place recommended by the girl behind the reception at our hotel. It was quite a funky and modern restaurant. Most restaurants we went to in Russia seem to serve everything from sushi to pasta to pizza to meat dishes, whatever you prefer. The deserts in this place were really nice, I had a fruit spring roll and it was GOOD. Pity we didn’t get a photo of the hostess of the restaurant – she was wearing a pink silk catsuit and very high heels…

Afterwards we went to a cafe for some coffee/tea. Pity I had eaten so much, cause here they had even more amazing cakes and deserts!

Back at the hotel, Paul took some photos of the apartment block behind it. The first one was taken earlier in the day when it was still light. This photo is inspired by a photo we saw in an exhibition about Murmansk in a museum in Tromsø which in turn inspired us to come there!

The next day we checked out of the hotel and drove to the ship. There were lots of people around now, and even a few touring buses! At 12, a tour started and we joined. It was all in Russian and we didn’t understand any of it, but it was nice to walk around the ship anyway. This ship was used between 1959 and 1989 as this mural was showing…

Of course Lenin was everywhere…

We got to see the engine room and the control room:

With a lot of buttons 😉 the second photo is the nuclear reactor, which you could see through a very small window.

Then we visited the bridge, which had very small windows, and lots of phones!

This map shows some of the routes the ship took.

Steve as captain of the ship 🙂 Notice how the captain did not have a chair, just something to lean against.

After our tour of the ship, we left Murmansk and drove south to our next destination: Kandalaksja. But that will have to wait until next time!

(Link to Part I: Tromsø to Kirkenes and to Part 3: Kandalaksja & Rovaniemi)