Day 11

Thursday, 27 August 2015
Start: Kandalaksha (RUS) 09:00
Arrival: Petrozavodsk (RUS) 18:30
Total: 705 km


Still on the M18

We woke up early after a good night's sleep. Breakfast was not included in the price, so we made do with the crackers, grapes and yoghurt we'd bought yesterday. After this very refreshing meal, we loaded our baggage back into the car and took our leave from the landlady. To our surprise, she had already charged our credit card and didn't even need a signature. Now that's what I call tech savvy and efficient. We left her a crime novel from our bookcrossing stash for their small hotel library. Who knew, some of the guests might appreciate a book in English.
Today, we crossed into Karelia, the formerly Finnish region famous for its large forests and lakes. The region of Russian Karelia seems to attract mostly nature lovers and amateur fishers. But I'm neither a dedicated camper nor an avid fisher and, unfortunately, the weather was rather unclement. It poured and poured, the sky was grey with clouds and traffic was just as heavy and slow as the day before.
About 300 kilometers before Belomorsk, we passed the Polar Circle once again, leaving the Arctic behind us. Contrary to the Santa Claus Village in Finland, the Russian Polar Circle was only announced by a large blue sign on the roadside. Locals or tourists had decorated the place with plenty of stickers and colourful bands ... or was that rubbish lying about? We couldn't really tell, and in any case, the place didn't look too inviting. So we drove on.
We wanted to make it all the way to Petrozavodsk on the White Sea today. One might argue that Karelia deserves a more leisurely journey. Sadly, we were on a schedule, as we both had to be back to work in six days. If we could have visited the icebreaker Lenin a day earlier and departed from Murmansk in the morning, we would have made it to Belomorsk on the White Sea before. Belomorsk is home to numerous old petroglyphs, which we probably would have visited. As it was, I didn't feel like driving a detour of 80 kilometers in the pouring rain, in search of some graffitied rocks. So we passed the exit for Belomorsk and drove on south.
The M18 highway was still a two- or three-lane affair, with many road works along the way. For some strange reason, the road surface was very uneven and undulating in some places. Was this due to the permafrost thawing underneath? We made slow progress. There were very few gas stations in between Kandalaksha and Petrozavodsk and no inviting rest areas with eating and bathroom facilities. So we picknicked in our car, lunching on yummy Russian marble cake. Contrary to the Russian family in the picture, we didn't feel like eating outside in the pouring rain, though.
Back on the road, we ended up behind a Russian Lada Niva 1600, a real oldtimer from Soviet times, coughing its way up the hill. Before I could make up my mind whether I could risk passing it, both our cars were overtaken by a brand new BMW, speeding past us and disappearing over the hilltop.
At a small petrol station along the way, we made a pit stop. I ordered a coffee to go and stepped outside to stretch my legs. As I opened the door, a tall Russian parked his car and strode towards the building. When he saw me, his eyes lit up. "Ah, kofe yest?" he asked, with the hopeful grin of the dedicated coffee addict. Whether there was coffee to be had inside? I beamed back at him. "Da, yest." Was it just me, or did at this moment the sky really light up? We nodded at each other, and the man hurried inside. I nursed my coffee and smiled to myself. Fresh wind in your face, a strong brew in your cup and a complicit smile from a stranger. Life was good.



Around 6 o'clock in the evening, we reached the outskirts of Petrozavodsk, the main town of Karelia, picturesquely located on Lake Onega. Sonia turned our GPS on to search for our hotel. To our dismay, we realised that it had given up the ghost. Ok, so it was more than 10 years old and we had never bothered to update the maps or even get a detailed map of Eastern Europe, but it had been an invaluable navigation tool to see whether we were going in approximately the right direction. How would we find our hotel in a town the size of Düsseldorf? Sonia whipped out a piece of paper. "Luckily, I've printed out a map of the main streets." I threw a look at her "map": three or four streets with names, an X marking our hotel and the outline of the lake. We would never find this! Sonia was unfazed. "So, what road are we on?" she asked, peering into the pouring rain. My sister, ever the practical co-pilot. The fact that it is fast getting dark didn't real help matters. The traffic jam we were finding ourselves in on the other hand, did. All the cars slowed to a crawl and we screwed our eyes to read the street signs.
"I think you need to make a left here," my sister said, just as I was about to pass an intersection. "Are you sure!?" No, she wasn't, obviously, but I spun the car around anyway, veering into the side street. The car behind us honked. Oh, we weren't allowed to make a left here? The young police officer on the curb eyed us curiously. Praying that he didn't mistake us for Latvians, or at least didn't harbour any resentful feelings against fellow comrades from the former Soviet Union, I quickly drove on. A glance in the rear view mirror reassured me that he hadn't taken up our pursuit. "What now?" I asked Sonia. "No idea. On second thoughts, maybe this isn't the right street after all."
To make a long story short: against all odds, my sister did manage to guide us to the hotel, a cosy little place not far from the lake. Although it was raining cats and dogs outside, we were determined to get a decent meal today. So we donned our rain coats again, grabbed the umbrella and braved the unclement weather. We didn't make it further than the tall hotel on the promenade. A place like this must have a restaurant, mustn't it? Soaked to the bone, we entered the lobby, only to find out that the large restaurant on the second floor was fully booked by a private party. The buffet looked delicious, but unfortunately we weren't invited. Luckily, there was another restaurant on the top floor. Relieved, we entered. One of the waitresses didn't even care to acknowledge us, but the other was friendly and even spoke a bit of English. The decor did look well past its prime, but it was quiet and the food was beyond reproach. Except for the middle-aged couple at the next table, we were the only patrons in this large restaurant. Looking out the window, we saw the pier and, far on the other side of the lake, a misty landmass that we took for the island of Kizhi with its famous wooden churches. Later we found out that Kizhi was much further to east, what we were seeing was simply a peninsula a kilometer or so away. In any case, Kizhi was certainly worth a trip, but it wasn't on our agenda. Tomorrow evening, we would already be in Saint Petersburg. For the first time, we realised that we were now well and truly on our way back home. We had booked a room in a hotel at the airport, so as not to waste any time finding our way around the metropolis. Little did we know...


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