Day 8

Monday, 24 August 2015
Start: Ivalo (FIN) 10:00
Arrival: Murmansk (RUS) 16:00
Total: 299 km

The day started out quiet and somewhat sleepy. We had coffee with the family and a couple of other tourists, but most of them seemed to be dozing over their mugs. We met a girl from Germany on vacation at the Husky farm and watched the kids of the house waiting for their taxi to school. Usually they went by bicycle, but I could understand that they didn't feel like braving that dusty gravel lane every day. After the children had left for school, we talked with the landlady about our impending drive to Murmansk. She hadn't been there yet (was there anyone who had ever driven from Ivalo to Murmansk? We started to doubt it) but apparently there were a lot of Russians visiting Ivalo on the weekend, so the road could not be that bad, could it? In hindsight, it's strange that the people of Murmansk would drive all the way to this little town just to go shopping, seeing that they had plenty of large shopping malls at home. But be that as it may, at 10 o'clock, we were ready to set out on our big adventure.


At the Finnish-Russian border

We rumbled over the dirt track, then hit the main road and made for the border at Raja Jooseppi. The road was in good condition, but not a single car was coming our way or going in the same direction as us.
After about 50 kilometers, we came to a checkpoint. No village, no gas station, just a functional building and a closed boom barrier. Good thing we had filled up on gas yesterday. As we were the only people wanting to cross the border, I parked the car in front of the gate and we walked into the building. Inside, there were two Finnish border guards who had a quick look at our passports and waved us through. So far, so easy.
The barrier went up, unfortunately not the one I was parked at, but the one to our left. Odd. I suppose they were so bored that every little joke helped to brighten the day. So I backed up, waved a thank you to the Finns and we slowly drove on, through the no man's land between Finland and Russia.
After a minute or so, we passed a post with a woman inside. She waved us through. Could it be that easy to get into Russia? But no, soon another gate house appeared. So this must be the official Russian border. Again, we were all alone, parked the car at the barrier, got out and entered the building. We were getting good at this. The guy behind the counter looked very smart and no nonsense. Hoping that my Russian was up to the task, I handed him my passport, my car documents, the car insurance, our medical insurance and just about any other paper that he might want. Deadpan, he handed everything back except for my passport and motioned for my sister to keep a distance. Duely chastised, I awaited his verdict. He browsed through the document, curiously deciphering the various stamps, then read through my application visa, obviously not in a hurry. I suppose they don't see too many tourists up here.
Satisfied that I was indeed who I claimed to be, he explained that I would have to fill in an entrance form. While I did this, Sonia stepped up to his counter, but no, he wanted to finish my application first, so she had to wait. I'm not very fast at filling in forms, I always check twice or three times that I really got it right. But finally all was in order and I was allowed to walk past his window into the next room. Ah, a body scan. Confident that I was carrying neither a gun nor an AK47, nay, not even the most innocent jewellery that could give off a beep, I confidently ran through the scan, smiling at the young officer waiting on the other side. I expected the same laid-back friendly treatment we had received on a similiar occasion in Sankt Petersburg barely a month ago.
But what was that? He shouted at me to get back behind the scan. Had I beeped? No. My ears strained to make sense of his fast Russian. He wanted me to fill out a form. Done that, got the go ahead. Grinning, I waved the paper at his nose. He just shook his head and motioned at a tray with empty forms. Oh no, yet another one? His waterfall Russian was making me nervous, didn't he realize that I couldn't understand him? "Извините, может буть вы понимаете по-английски?" I asked meekly. No, it seemed he did not talk angliski. "You understand Russian," he stated matter-of-factly in his mother tongue. I did? Well, yes, I did (sort of) but not if he spoke that fast. I sat down and reached for the form. It was displayed in Russian and in English. Defiantly, I took the English one. The officer gave some more instructions. This time I understood. "Два?" I asked. A nod. Right, Sonia would need to fill one in, too. Should have guessed it.
He patiently remained by my side while I wrote down yet again my name and address. How many pieces of luggage did I bring? Hm, did my little vanity bag count as a piece of luggage? I briefly considered asking him, but decided better not to. I put down "2", so that my sister could declare two bags as well. She had just passed the passport check and joined me. "Better start filling in your form as well," I said and handed her one. Demurely, she put down her name. This simple act seemed to exasperate the young officer. "No, no", he said, "just one." Odd. I must have misunderstood him then. Good thing I had a pen with an eraser. I erased "2 baggages" and put down "4". Next question: Would we import any money? I wracked my brain. How precise did he want me to be? "200 euros?" I ventured. And what about the credit cards, did that count as money, too? He motioned for me to proceed to the next question. 200 euros apparently wasn't worth mentioning. When did I buy the car? I rummaged through my papers. 2006? No, 2008?
After a while, I got the hang of this: Read the question, think hard about how to answer it, then be waved on as the answer often is "not really important". Finally, we were done and I headed once more for the scan. "Нет, два", the officer repeated exasperated. What now? Oh, he wanted me to fill in everything once more? Why didn't he simply make a copy? Not trying to understand his unfathomable ways, I filled in a second form in record time and we were finally allowed through the scanner.
Stepping behind his counter, our young officer now requested my driver's licence and read through it. "You are from Luxembourg?" he suddenly asked in English. "Yes," I confirmed the obvious. "Why are you driving a Latvian car, then?" he wanted to know, in English. A Latvian car? We explained that the L stands for Luxembourg, and not for Latvia at all. I pointed to my car papers. "Benelux", he said to his colleague. Ah, a man who knows his geography. As long as he didn't add "Jean-Claude Juncker", as most people on the Balkans had done on our last trip. Now that he understood that we were not their former Baltic confederates at all, his English was improving by the minute. While his colleague made a copy of our papers, we chatted about the road to Murmansk, which apparently was in quite a bad shape, and about the many reindeer we had seen on our way to the border. Then he and two of his colleagues followed us outside to check the car. We were allowed to bring our banana and chips into Russia, because unlike some other countries of this world, the Russians did not seem to be paranoid about germs, espionage and whatnot. They just wondered about the many books we had on the back seat. We explained the concept of bookcrossing to them and assured them that they were simple crime novels and not some sort of religious propaganda material, as they seem to have feared. Then, after a solid three-quarter of an hour, they let us drive on. With a smile, we were waved off toward Murmansk.


On the road to Murmansk

And what would we see just a minute or so into Russia? A gas station, much cheaper than in Finland. Naturally, Gazprom is Russian after all. So we need not have worried on that account. Also, contrary to what we had feared, the road was well marked, there was no way we could have mistaken the occasional side street for the main road to Murmansk, ending up in the wild Russian taiga (those bears, remember?). Every kilometer, there was a sign at the kerb, telling you how far you had travelled from the border, so we always knew how far it would be to our destination. There was very little oncoming traffic and we enjoyed the quiet ride through the beautiful landscape.
For the first half hour, the road was in remarkably good condition. Apart from the odd pothole every kilometer or so, there was not a single impediment to our speedy progress. Unfortunately, we didn't get a phone or internet connection, but that's part of the fun travelling to far-off places. More annoying was the notable lack of roadside facilities. When nature called, that's where you had to go.
After about a hundred kilometers, the road deteriorated remarkably. Sometimes, there were so many potholes, that they basically were the road. But it was the small parts in-between, where the street was in excellent condition, that you had to be especially careful about: they gave you a false sense of security, making you speed up and often realize too late that you had hit the next bad stretch. But to be fair, the government was willing to improve things: in a lot of places, there were roadworks going on. Though that would be a boon for future travellers, for us it meant no road surface at all, just gritty gravel and trucks and workers to manoeuvre around.
Sadly the weather wasn't as good as the days before: grey clouds hung over us and there was a nasty cold wind blowing. Every now and again, we were even treated to a spell of rain. Just before Murmansk, there was another gas station (the third on this short trip, even though from afar the one in-between had a closed-down air about it). And we had cellphone reception again, too! A sure sign that we were getting closer to civilisation. We didn't use the internet too much in Russia, as it was rather expensive with a foreign provider, but we just about always found a free WiFi spot when we needed one.



Our first impression of Murmansk was: grey, cold, windy and rainy. Of which, to be fair, at least the last three were not the city's fault. The main architectural theme was big grey blocks of concrete in front of a backdrop of grey sky and mountains. The latter ones appearing mostly, well, grey too.
The main thoroughfare of Murmansk is called Prospekt Lenin, a comfortably large street which you sort of ease into as soon as you enter the town. As our hotel was located on Prospekt Lenin as well, we would not have any trouble finding it. But first, we saw another highlight: a large, modern shopping mall, the perfect place for a pit stop. We parked our car in the large parking lot and entered a world of large glass elevators, clothing boutiques, electronics stores and knick-knack shops. It did not look any different than the shopping malls in LA or Berlin. Why on earth would the people from Murmansk want to drive to a village like Ivalo to shop? The woman must have been mistaken.
We headed for the food court on the upper floor. No sign of an embargo here, either. Baskin Robbins rubbed shoulders with McDonald's, and all seemed well in the world. The girl behind the counter was friendly and seemed to understand my Russian just fine. Perfect. While we recharged our batteries, we curiously eyed the other customers. All of them were sitting, alone or in pairs, staring at their smartphones and tablets. Except for one guy, who was busy typing into his laptop. Which reminded me that I should be texting my friends that we arrived safely in Murmansk. Which I promptly did. When in Rome...
Shortly before 4 o'clock, we were back on the road looking for our hotel. Prospekt Lenin was a long street, leading for kilometers into the heart of the city. The traffic was moderately dense and rather civil. A peculiarity of Russian driving is that they will stop for pedestrians. Always. Or so it seemed to me. Which is certainly nice for the pedestrians, but not so nice for the car behind that has to react to the abrupt break. In the days to come, I tried to remember to let people pass. Wouldn't want the Russians to think me uncivilized.
At last there it was, towering over the main square of Murmansk: Hotel Arktika, the tallest building north of the Polar Circle, 17 or so storeys up. Impressive. The main square itself, called Five Corners, was less impressive. It was a sad affair of trampled mud and grey concrete. Even though, looking back at the pictures, I think I might have been a bit uncharitable. And, to be fair, it's probably not easy to have flowering baskets and lush green lawns at 68° Northern latitude.
The hotel itself belonged to the Russian Azimut Hotel chain. In the lobby, there were some pleasant bars and shops and the hotel reception was located, oddly enough, on the second floor. The receptionist was rather frosty. Not rude, strictly speaking, but not friendly or welcoming either. We tried in vain to elicit a smile from her stern face. So the adage that Russians were always serious and drawn-back was true? Over the next days, we would decide that it was not. Many, many Russians were very friendly and smiling. For some unfathomable reason, it was often the young girls working in services that seemed grumpy and unhelpful. Not only to us, as foreigners and fellow women, but to male Russian customers as well. Maybe they thought blasé was chic. Then again, we encountered loads of very helpful ladies out there as well.
But back to the scene at the reception. After we had paid for our stay (the credit card was indeed the first thing she asked for, even before she handed us the forms for check-in), she informed us that our room would be on the 17th floor. Eek, that high up? Not good. When I had made the reservation, I had explicitly stated that I wanted a room on a lower level. They hadn't answered my mail, but I had just assumed that most people wanted a fashionably high room anyway, so that the rooms below would be free. What I had failed to consider was the fact that Hotel Arktika's rooms only started on floor 14. Below, there seemed to be offices or some such things. Defeated, I asked for a room on floor 14 then. No such luck, floor 16 was the lowest she could make it. That's what you get when you're afraid of heights but want to stay in the highest building in the Arctic.
Our room was large and comfortable, very modern too, and afforded an expansive view over the main square with a shopping mall, government buildings on Prospekt Lenin, the hills to our left and the port to the right. Just outside our room, there was a water fountain, which was handy too. The only downside was that the room was hopelessly overheated. I like my rooms airy and cool, so this was rather unfortunate. The floor heating couldn't be individually regulated and in order to make up for this, a sort of ineffectual air conditioning or ventilation was blasting and couldn't be turned off either. The end result was a room that was both stuffy and drafty. What a waste of energy.
Not wanting to waste even more energy complaining about this, we decided to head out and explore the surroundings. First we went to a Sberbank ATM to get some local money. Sberbank seems to be the main bank in this part of Russia, there were a lot of branches around. We withdrew the equivalent of 50 euros in roubles. This was more than enough cash for the five days in Russia, because everywhere our credit card was accepted, even for the smallest amounts. Even the old lady in the forlorn little guesthouse on the Kola Peninsula charged our credit card before I could think of offering to pay in cash. Very tourist friendly and efficient.
At first, we explored the area around the hotel. There was a shopping mall called Волнa, meaning Wave, with the inevitable McDo. Then there were little side streets accessed through passages in the large block buildings. A bit like the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin, only more delapidated. They sometimes sported interesting little shops though.
At first glance, Murmansk did make a rather run-down impression. The facades of the buildings were all crumbling, steel supports were rusting everywhere and the once beautiful balconies looked ready to fall off. In fact some had fallen off, with only a broken beam where the balcony used to be. The place looked in need of a serious overhaul. Until you looked deeper. Behind the doors, the stores, eating places and galleries were cosy, chic or functional, but nearly always modern and inviting. After a while, we didn't mind the grey outside so much. The decrepit exterior did remind me a bit of LA, which is always a good thing. Minus the weather, of course.
The people in the street looked ordinary enough, neither needy nor done up, just your average town population. Over the next few days, we noticed that Russians were generally a quiet, friendly and civilized bunch. Not once did we witness loud and boisterous shouting or running. The atmosphere in bars and restaurants was always classy and calm, relaxed. Quite a relief from the bawling cheeriness you might encounter elsewhere.
Later at night, we found an excellent little restaurant, Лето, meaning Summer, on Prospekt Lenin. The food was excellent and the waiter very nice. His English was probably better than my Russian, but I insisted on govoriting po-russki. The bathrooms were a particular highlight as well: recorded sounds of birds chirping in all tones and fashion while you did what needed to be done. Made you feel like in the Amazon Forest rather than the Russian tundra. Oh, and their chocolates were delicious, too. In short, it was a wonderful end to a long and eventful day.


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