Day 10

Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Start: Murmansk (RUS) 15:30
Arrival: Kandalaksha (RUS) 19:30
Total: 269 km

When I woke up, Sonia was already back from the post office. It seemed they didn't have any "by airmail" stamps. The ones she was offered were really cheap and marked "second class". We wondered how they differentiated. Would they be delivered by truck instead of by plane? We remembered how long the cards from Saint Petersburg had taken to arrive. And those did have airmail stamps on them. Writing this in October 2015, I'm happy to announce that the last cards have just safely arrived at their destinations. The first one was received in early October, a good 6 weeks after it was posted. A stage coach would have been quicker during the 19th century! Even a couple of good relay racers could have done the deed on foot in this time.


Icebreaker Lenin

But back to the Hotel Arktika in Murmansk. After breakfast, we checked out and loaded our luggage in the car. Then we headed down to the port on foot to visit the tourist highlight of Murmansk: the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin, the very first of its kind. Unfortunately, the Lenin was only open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, so we had to squeeze in the visit on our last day in town.
We had already spotted the ship from our vantage point on the 16th floor. It was moored in the wharf, not far at all from the hotel. We headed straight for it, through the little park to the train station, over the old bridge leading across the rail tracks. Once more around a block of buildings, and there it was, in all its glory: Ledokol Lenin. Neat.
We approached the ship. The entrance to the dock was barred by a metal chain. A sign next to it informed us that the first tour would begin at noon and no more than 20 visitors would be let in per visit. So we were almost an hour early. A family of four was already waiting at the ramp, so we got in line behind them. Sadly, it was really cold this morning. The wind was blowing mercilessly from the sea and I wasn't really dressed for a long wait. We tried to strike up a conversation with the people in front of us. The man was chatty, but unfortunately he talked way too fast for me to comprehend. I tried to make him understand that my Russian wasn't all that good, but he was on a roll. On and on he babbled, seemingly long explanations of some kind or other, while I just stared at him with an embarrassed smile. Where was the off button? Help!
Besides, it was still unpleasantly cold and my toes started to tingle with frostbite. "I have to move," I announced to my sister, threw an apologizing smile at the Russian and took a stroll along the quay. There was no coffee shop and souvenir store anywhere, not even a stand offering warm tea or a simple ticket booth. I shook my head. If this had been in the US, some Dibbler would have opened a Coffee Lenin long ago and provided the waiting tourists with Nuclear Doughnuts and Icebreaker Crackers. Cold and thirsty as I was, I was sorely missing the American Way of Life. Greasy sweets, English language and all. "I want a hot chocolate," I whined. "We should be getting back in line," my sister cautioned. I looked around. Apart from the family of four, there were now six other people waiting to get on the ship. Better get back.
At more or less exactly 12 o'clock, an employee came up from his booth next to the ship entrance and took down the chain. By now, a good 50 people were waiting for the tour. Luckily, we were among the first to be let in. I wondered whether the others really had to wait another hour for the next tour. When we came off the icebreaker an hour and a half later, no-one was standing there anymore, so I suppose they had offered another tour in-between.
The employee led us up a ramp into the ship's interior. Inside, it was cosy and warm. We lined up to pay for our tickets. An information panel told us how much an adult, a senior citizen, a student card holder or a foreign visitor had to pay. The "foreign visitor" tariff was noticeably more expensive than the normal fee, but as it was still rather cheap, we didn't see why we should press the issue. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the counter and piped: "Dva biljeta, pojalusta, za vzroslykh," asking for two tickets for grown-ups. My Russian must have fooled the receptionist, because she only asked for the standard Russian fee. Pleasantly surprised, we paid and followed the rest of the group into a large, wood-panelled meeting room.
Here, our guide explained the history of the ship to us. The icebreaker was launched in 1957 as the first civilian nuclear-powered vessel in the world. As we could see for ourselves, the crew and passengers had a comfortable journey. The rooms were large, modern and pleasantly equipped with shiny polished wood surfaces. On and on our guide talked, but sadly he spoke in such a low voice that we could hardly make out what he was saying across the vast room. It didn't help that he was speaking in Russian, either. I thought I understood that he used to be the captain on this ship. Could that be? The icebreaker had been decommissioned in 1989. That was 26 years ago. He didn't really look that old. I clearly wasn't getting most of his explanations. We did understand however that Yuri Gagarin (him of first-man-in-space fame) and Fidel Castro had visited the ship in their time. I'm a huge fan of smiley Gagarin, so that was cool.
Then it was поехали! and we were ushered into the next room, where we were shown a movie of the Lenin slowly moving through a big crust of ice. Here again, we were given lengthy and – to us – quite incomprehensible explanations. Half an hour gone, and we hadn't really seen anything at all.
At last, we were allowed up on the bridge. This was excellent stuff. The sumptuous captain's room, the communication room with old maps and cables and plenty of buttons, the bridge proper with a view over the front of the ship, a real steering wheel, old phones on the wall and large gears to bring the ship up to speed. There was so much to see and everyone could roam pretty much wherever they liked, pick up stuff and pretend to try out the gizmos. Not that any of it worked anymore, but we still appreciated the hands-on approach. The whole thing reminded us of the German submarine we had visited a few weeks back. Only this was much larger, with a lot more gears to explore and stuff to admire.
After the bridge, we descended into the living quarters deep in the bowels of the ship. Here we also visited the machinery room with its impressive turbines. I really liked the fact that everyone could roam where they pleased and the tour guide didn't just hurry us along.
In the narrow corridors, there were large posters explaining the history of the ship, its functions, the technical and scientific details, and the geology and nature of the Arctic. Naturally, there were also computer screens where you could watch movie clips and push buttons to get still more information. It was a splendid museum and definitely worth the long wait outside.
The highlight at the end of the tour was a peek into the heart of the icebreaker, where the nuclear fuel and the control rods used to be located. When the icebreaker had been decommissioned, they had obviously gotten rid of the nuclear material, but the museum staff had understood that this was what the visitors wanted to see. So they had rebuilt the scene, just as it must have looked back in the service days of the Lenin, with rods and life-like puppets manipulating them. The whole thing had an amusement park vibe about it, but it seemed definitely accurate and informative.
All in all, the tour had lasted for well over the promised 60 minutes. We left the icebreaker, elated and – in my case – just a tiny bit wishing I had studied nuclear physics instead of Medieval English literature. The tour had made us hungry, but unfortunately there was no handy chip shop around. We made our way back over the rusty old railway bridge to the main square. Here, a pit stop at our ubiquitous fast-food chain was on the agenda. The restaurant was filled to the brink with people old and young, but the guy behind the counter was very efficient and nice. Munching on our frenchies, we decided on a strategy for the next few days.
Over the next two days, we would be driving a good 1000 kilometers with, maybe, not many service stations in-between. The largest settlement between Murmansk and Petrozavodsk on the White Sea was Kandalaksha with 30,000 inhabitants, but it might be dark before we got there tonight and who knew if they had an eating-place that was to our taste. Spoiler alert: they didn't, or at least we didn't find any. So we would stash up on food in the supermarket next-door. No sooner said than done. Running around the aisles with our caddy, we felt like locals. The store was well-equipped, they had all the usual Western European brands, German jam and chocolate, English cookies and lots of fruit and veggies. We bought drinks, yoghurt, a Russian marble cake, chips and fruit. Everything you need to get by in the Arctic wilderness.


The Kursk monument

Before leaving Murmansk, I wanted to have a drink at the fancy bar in our hotel. Yesterday evening I had been too tired, but I really wanted to see whether a stay at Sakhar was as sweet as the name promised. It wasn't, really. Maybe we were just unlucky, but the tea I ordered was not that great. Just an ordinary little bag full of fake aroma. Sonia's drink wasn't good, either. Way too expensive for what it was. By now it was half past three and time to leave, if we wanted to make it to Kandalaksha before nightfall.
Instead of driving straight down south, we made a little detour to the park we had found yesterday. We had learnt on the internet that the anchor and the lighthouse represented a memorial complex of the soldiers and seamen who died in peaceful times. Right next to it was a monument to the tragic accident of the Kursk. In 2000, a routine exercise on this Russian submarine had gone terribly wrong. An explosion damaged it badly and the Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. Before anyone could come to their rescue, all 118 people on board had died. The submarine was later salvaged and a part of the hull displayed at this memorial complex. Not knowing about it, we had missed it yesterday, so we wanted to visit it today before leaving Murmansk.


On the M18

Then we filled up on gas. At each gas station, I was worried that the gasoline might be leaded. The people working at these stations never seemed to understand what I was talking about. I couldn't tell if this was because none of their gas was leaded, or because they just didn't care about such things. Luckily, most of the gas stations sold 95-octane (though never 98) with a green pump, which we interpreted as "lead free". The fuel was incredibly cheap: 38.55 rouble (ca 0.5 euro) per litre, that's just over a third of the price in Luxembourg!
By now it was half past three. High time to get going. To get back on the main street to the south, we followed the signs for Saint Petersburg. This brought us to a ring road in the eastern hills, where road works were blocking half the street. High up in the mountains, with the city far on our right, we rumbled over gravel and sand. Clearly the bypass wasn't finished yet. They seemed to be building a suburb here. In the chaos and confusion, we somehow made a wrong turn and ended up in a tiny dead-end somewhere down at the port. Turn around, and up again into the hills. Would we ever find our way out of Murmansk?
Eventually we made it to the M18 highway which would take us south along the western part of the Kola Peninsula, into Karelia and, in two days time, all the way to Saint Petersburg. A sign along the street reassured us that we were heading in the right direction: 1300 kilometers to Saint Petersburg, that's as far as Luxembourg is from Warsaw or Rome! Quite a long way.
Sadly, the highway going south was not a four-lane motorway as I had hoped, but a simple overland road like in Sweden and Finland. On the other hand, this area of Russia is much more populated than I had thought. Every few kilometers, there was a bus stop right on the street with a pedestrian crossing, so naturally the cars had to slow down. It was only here, at the pedestrian crossings, that the road was much larger, presumably to allow the bus to get back on the highway more smoothly. This was of course completely counterproductive: it incited cars to speed up and so endangered the pedestrians even more, who also took much longer to cross the large street.
All in all, traffic was unexpectedly dense, with tons of trucks and slow-moving cars. As the oncoming traffic was just as dense and the shoulder too uneven for the slower vehicles to use, it was rather difficult to get past. Not that some of the motorists had a problem with this: they simply drove into the oncoming traffic's lane, trusting in their luck to get out of the way in time. The long, straight road to the south was dotted with hills, all potentially hiding a nutter coming full speed right at me. At first such "more adventurous" driving was fun, but after a while, it got on my nerves. Granted, the Russian police seemed determined to stop these bullies. There were a lot of speeding cameras at pedestrian crossings, and we also encountered several traffic patrols along the way. This didn't change the main problem though: that a two-lane road was hopelessly inadequate to handle such heavy traffic. Considering how long a rich country like Luxembourg takes to build a new, ten-kilometer highway, I doubt that these problems will be solved anytime soon.
After a while, instead of wasting my time desperately trying to pass the car in front of me, I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. The nature looked pretty much the same in Northwestern Russia as in Finland, endless tall pine trees and scraggy, mossy hills. When we passed the town of Monchegorsk, the picture changed for the worse: decades of mining and industrial activity had polluted the ground-water in this region. The dense forests made way for individual, sickly trees and strangely-coloured bare ground and ponds. Unfortunately, it started to rain now. It poured and poured and Kandalaksha was still a long way off. Good thing we had bought the potato chips.



Around 7 o'clock in the evening, we finally see the first houses of Kandalaksha. The guesthouse where we would spend the night lay on the minor road to the settlement Umba on the Kola Peninsula. We doubted that we would find any refreshments in that area, so we decided to drive into Kandalaksha, a town of about 30,000 people, to have dinner.
Driving around in the outskirts of Kandalaksha, we had a hard time finding the town centre. At a bus stop, we asked a woman for directions. She offered to guide us into town. Much faster for her than waiting for the bus. Perfect! She hopped onto the back seat and we stroke up a conversation. Luckily, she realized that she needed to speak slowly and clearly, so we had no problem understanding each other. She told us that she was a scientist on her way to Murmansk, where she would board a ship to Novaya Zemlya. That's a large island in the Middle of the Arctic Ocean, largely uninhabited and mostly used for scientific and military purposes. Just fancy meeting someone who got to work there, here in this unpretentious little town!
We left her to catch the bus at the main square in Kandalaksha and set out on foot to get some grub. The town square was a quiet, sleepy affair, with a post office and some stores, but nothing that looked like a real restaurant, or even a fast food stand. We found a small shopping mall, but no eating place inside. Most of the shops seemed ready to close down for the night. By now I really had to use the bathroom. Looking in vain for the universal man/woman sign, we asked a cleaning lady for directions. She took us to a cubicle filled with cleaning products at the very back to the building. To this day, I'm sure this was the staff's toilet. How very nice of her to let us use it!
Back outside, we walked around the playground. A father was pushing his young daughter on a swing. Even though it was really cold and getting dark, the little girl seemed tireless. We smiled at them, and he looked so very proud. What a wonderful little family.
We resigned ourselves to the fact that dinner, tonight, would mean chips, juice and marble cake. Life could be worse. We found the road to Umba without problems. It's a good little road, asphalted and without potholes. We were half expecting a gravel track, so that was a relief. The guest house was a sturdy woodhouse, new and cosy. It seemed to be mostly used as a ski resort in winter. Apart from us, there were only two Russian men staying the night. The landlady was an elderly Russian lady who was very welcoming. We unloaded our luggage for the night and went back down to explore the surroundings. The door to the lobby was closed. She didn't lock us in for the night, did she? We fiddled with the doorknob, trying to figure out how to open it. The landlady must have heard us, for she suddenly opened the door from the outside and explained the very tricky mechanism to us. Then she made us try it for ourselves, just to make sure we had understood. Like good pupils, we obliged. I only hoped that we didn't have to leave the house in a hurry during the night. I don't think I would have managed the "security lock" in utter darkness. LOL


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