Day 9

Tuesday, 25 August 2015
Start: Hotel Arktika (Murmansk) 11:00
Arrival: back at the hotel 15:30
Total: ca 10 km on foot

We didn't sleep too well because the room was just too hot. Even leaving the windows half open didn't help much. Fancy getting heatstroke in Murmansk.
The breakfast room was large, but there were very few guests present, considering what a large hotel this was. And there really should be no free room on the two floors below ours?
There was a large TV screen above us. In the news there was talk of Wikipedia, apparently something about the Russian government banning it because of a page inciting youths to consume hashish? As the volume was very low and the newsspeaker obviously talking in Russian, we didn't understand everything. But "no Wikipedia in Russia", that much was clear. Naturally, I had to flip out my phone and check. The main page of Wikipedia.com loaded without a problem. As did their page about hashish. Hm, maybe they were referring to the Russian Wikipedia? I tried that as well and it worked just fine. So what was the fuss about? Google News was all abuzz with the mean Russian government censoring free speech. That left us indeed speechless. To this day, we don't know what was really going on. Maybe Wikipedia had been taken down for an hour or so, but that morning, when all the news were still flaming Putin, it worked again just fine. Storm in a teacup.
Meanwhile, my sister was drawing us a map to the main landmark in Murmansk, a huge monument to Soviet World War II soldiers, fondly called Alyosha. You couldn't stay in Murmansk and NOT visit Alyosha. The statue was visible from all over the town, so it shouldn't be difficult to find even without a good map. But better safe than sorry. Google Maps estimated that it was less than four kilometers on foot. That should be feasible.


Exploring Murmansk on foot

At 11 o'clock, we donned our raincoats and caps and set out. The sky was cloudy, but as yet there was no rain. Luckily, except for a little drizzle here or there, it stayed that way. A bit windy, but with 17°, it was perfect weather for a walk around town.
There was a lot of traffic on the main road to the north, so it was quite noisy on the sidewalk. They had impressive flat, digital traffic lights that told you how long it was until the lights changed. A pity we don't have those back home. Once or twice, we were passed by a bus going to Severomorsk. That's the closed city where they store their derelict atomic ships and other radioactive waste. Apparently you need a special visa to go there. We wondered what would happen if we just got on that bus. Would the driver have to check our passport? We never tried it, as we wanted to go see Alyosha and not the Russian Yucca Mountain slash Gorleben. Incidentally, talking of passport checking: there is this big fuss that the police in Russia often check people's papers. We were never once asked for our documents on the road or in a city. We saw some traffic police on the way, and I guess there was the odd local policeman around, but none of them ever stopped us, not even when I made an illegal left turn (shame on me, I know) right in front of an officer. But more of that later.
Right now, we were steadily walking uphill along Chelyuskintsev Street. To our right, there was a park with a church on top. Eager to get off the main road for a while, we turned into the park and walked up the steps to a monument in the shape of an anchor. Behind it stood a real-life white-and-red lighthouse. Perfect picture material. We were not the only ones thinking so, as the anchor was already occupied by three middle aged men, Russian tourists by the look of it. One of them asked me to please take a picture of them. I was happy to oblige. Would I please take two shots? he then asked. Naturally, no problem at all. I handed the camera back to him, when his friend offered me his. Ah, he wanted me to take a group picture for him as well. Wondering slightly why his friend would not simply send him the pic, I snapped two shots for him as well. And number three stepped forward, with a camera and a hopeful look. Wasn't I nice.
"Ask them to take a picture of us as well," Sonia said. But it was already too late. They had quickly thanked me and taken off. Odd, usually people stick around to ask where we are from. But never mind, we now had the anchor for ourselves. And promptly took a pic. :)
Oddly enough, at the time we were not even wondering what kind of memorial this was. Anchor equals sea equals sailors, so it probably was some naval war memorial, as these kinds of things happen to get put up after a state-sanctioned squirmish. Kill your citizens, then reward them with a nice hero statue. It's the same everywhere in the world. Well, in this case it wasn't, but we would only find this out later.
Walking past the lighthouse, we climbed some more steps until we stood next to the chapel at the very top of the hill. Inside, there were quite a few people, most of them elderly ladies dressed in shawls. I profited from the occasion to drape my scarf around the head as well. I love the feeling of a warm, cosy scarf over my ears and it looks very fashionable, too. The inside of the chapel was quite small, just one entrance room, where they sold religious keep-sakes, leading onto a prayer room with an altar. The walls were decorated with lots and lots of icons and pictures of the last tsar's family.
This was clearly an active place of worship. We didn't feel too comfortable intruding and soon were back outside in the frest air. From this high up, you had an amazing view over Murmansk. Down in the valley, there was the main street with a sign proclaiming that Murmansk celebrated its 100th birthday (actually, it was founded in 1916) and right on the other side lay the hill with the Alyosha statue. Not far at all, as the bird flies.
Unfortuntely we were not birds, so we first had to find our way back down. Some time ago, Sonia had read a story of a cat called Semyon, who had gone on holiday with his owners. While in Moscow, the humans had lost Semyon and returned to Murmansk without him. After several years, the cat had finally made his way back on foot and was reunited with his overjoyed family. Apparently, there was a monument to Semyon in a children's fun park here in the north of Murmansk, and we wanted to find that now. The lake next to the hill we were standing on was called Semyonovskoye Lake, and for some reason we had deduced from this that the park with the cat monument had to be close by. And we really did find an amusement park of sorts right behind the hill. I say "of sorts", because the grounds did not look too inspiring. Rusting steelworks, crumbling walls, children's rides overgrown with weed and covered in dust. This clearly used to be a playground, but we doubted that the rides had been used much in the last decade or two. When a quick run around the place did not turn up any feline statues either, we abandoned the search and headed on north, in search of a pedestrian crossing over the main street. Which, frustratingly, did not materialize. After about a kilometer or so, we realized that this would only lead us ever further away from the Alyosha statue. We cut our losses and headed back south, only to stand once more next to the hill with the chapel. Quite a detour, but here at least we could cross the street.



Strangely enough, the way to the statue of Alyosha was nowhere pointed out. The City of Murmansk probably considers the towering monument a signpost in its own right. So we dapperly climbed uphill, searching for a path that led more or less in the right direction. This vast expanse of scraggy heather and moss overlooking the busy port of Murmansk seemed to be a popular hiking ground. We met people with their dogs, a father playing with his little son and even a couple that looked like tourists. The way uphill seemed endless, especially because it was hard to assess the right direction. More than once we ended up in a dead-end and had to turn around.
At long last we got to the top, with the huge statue almost within reach. Looking to the right, we noticed a large fairground with a moving ferris wheel all the way on the other side of the lake. The funfair with the cat, this must be it! If only we had walked on for a little while before, we would have seen it. Too bad, because now the playground was way too far away. My poor feet were hurting and I just wanted to rest.
"Let's go see Alyosha and head back home," I decided. Easier said than done. A fence with radio masts blocked our progress. So back down the path, and up another one.
And then, at long last, we reached the World War II memorial. The statue stood 35.5 meters tall, and there was the usual eternal flame and flower wreaths that accompany such sites. On the other side of the statue, an enormous staircase lead downhill. This would probably have been an easier access route. But then, ours had been more fun.
There was no museum attached to the site, not even a souvenir shop or information booth. They really don't know how (or don't care) to make tourists happy up here in Murmansk. Compared to the Atatürk Memorial in Ankara, where you can learn each and every little bit about the leader's life and times. Of course Alyosha does not commemorate an iconic president, but merely the many unsung heroes that died defending their state. This should warrant at least a coffee shop with postcards, I dare say.
Walking all the way around the site, we found another large road leading down. It seemed we really chose the only unmarked way up. Here, we were suddenly rewarded with a splendid view over the river, all the way up to the Barents Sea. Well, not really all the way, but my imagination sped along the watercourse. If you stood right here in the middle of the river, you were carried straight into the Barents Sea. From there, the next stop would be an ice floe on the North Pole. Exalting, somehow. Inspired by these sublime thoughts, the trip down to the fun park suddenly didn't seem so daunting anymore. Refreshed in body and spirit, we ambled down the street. The houses here were all very old and, yes, you guessed it, grey. Bleak blocks of cement, one tall apartment house looking exactly like the other, and all of them not really looking inhabited. But again, maybe the tenants cosied things up for themselves inside their homes. Never judge a house by its front door.


Semyon the Cat

After a while, we reached a football field. My right foot was giving me hell, protesting loud and clear that it really did not want to go on. "Out-time." I slumped down on a block of concrete. My sister was unstoppable. "Ok, I'll go check out the grounds and come and get you later." I weakly nodded my acquiescence as she took off.
I sat there a while, happily wriggling my aching toes. An elderly lady was sitting on a bench not far away, smiling at me when I massaged my foot and pulled a face. She probably knew all about aching limbs, too. She said something to me in Russian which I didn't understand. When I just smiled apologetically, she repeated her question. Not wanting to appear rude, I put on my shoes and walked over. When she heard that I was a tourist, there was nothing to be done: I had to sit down and tell her all about where I came from and what I was doing in Murmansk. It turned out that she was a retired school teacher. Except for Russian, she only spoke a little bit of German, which was all the better as it gave me a welcome opportunity to test my Russian language skills in a real conversation. She was very talkative too, telling me all about her youth as a school teacher and how she had enjoyed travelling to the four corners of the Soviet Union. She had been to the Black Sea, so we had something in common there, and she had stayed in Georgia, which I really wanted to see too.
When my sister came back, the lady was overjoyed to meet two such fine djevushki iz Luxemburga, as she said. We told her that we were looking for the statue of the cat Semyon, and she immediately took my arm, delighted to show it to us. Along the way, she greeted just about anyone that passed by name and told them of us. I think we were a bit of an attraction in this quiet suburb. Thus we walked to the fun fair, where we indeed found the statue of the brave little cat that found its way home to Murmansk. He turned out more well-fed than we would have thought after eight years of travelling.
Finally, we said our good-byes from this warm and chatty lady and, quite literally, followed our nose. It had been a long day and I was famished. In such a situation, who could have resisted the delicious smell of shashlik on an open-fire barbecue? We certainly couldn't. The grill was tended by another chatty lady and her grown-up son. While she prepared our food, she wanted to know where we were from. "Iz Luxemburga," I declared, and before I could add anything more, her son answered, knowingly, "Ah, near Belgium." And fired off the question that comes naturally to mind when you meet a person from a far-off country: "Are cars more expensive in Luxembourg than in Russia?" Good question. No idea. I barely knew what cars cost back home. The young man, eager to try out his English on a foreigner, was undeterred. "What car do you have and what does it cost?" I supplied the requested information, hoping that it was at least marginally correct. I was clearly not the right person to ask this. He seemed satisfied enough though and checked something on Wikipedia. Probably was looking up my hybrid. At last he declared: "They cost about the same here." So now we know. :)
Meanwhile, his mother handed us a huge plate laden with shashlik. We retired to a table nearby and tucked in. At the grill, the mother (actually, we just assumed she was the mother, she had this universal I'll-tell-my-boy-what-to-do tone of voice) was incessantly talking to her son who seemed to grow more defensive by the minute. She was saying her sentences really fast and low, so we wouldn't make out the conversation. "They're talking about us," Sonia stated the obvious. After a while, the young man made a curt, but very sharp remark. His mother laughed, the embarassed "ah but I still think it would be a good idea" sort of laugh. But she didn't press the point anymore. "She is trying to get him to talk to us," I ventured. Mhm. Sonia nodded and munched on. In retrospect, I wish we had talked some more. It would have been nice to speak English with a Russian. My conversations in Russian tend to be a bit sterile, I just have to think too hard to find the right words. And he was young and could have given us some tips about what else to do in Murmansk. Ah well, it wasn't to be.
The way back to the hotel seemed endless. My feet were killing me. Halfway home, Sonia and I traded shoes. Her old, beaten-out sneakers were so much more comfortable than my rather new sports shoes. I hate so-called support in items of clothing. My body doesn't need support, it needs freedom of movement. When we finally arrived in our room around half past three, I didn't care that it was on the 16th floor anymore. All I wanted was a bed, no matter how high up.



After a few hours, my feet had stopped protesting and we headed back out, with the declared aim to go shopping. I would really have liked to have some clothes where I could say "I bought this in Murmansk". Unfortunately, the shopping spree ran into the same problem as back home: tons of stuff to choose from, and nothing that really struck my fancy.
Meanwhile, my sister had another worry: there were no postcards on sale anywhere. Could it be that this city did not cater at all to tourists? We feared a repeat from the Serbian town of Niš, where we didn't find any cards, either. After much running around, we finally located a bunch of washed-out picture postcards in the stationary section of a book shop. The girl behind the counter couldn't care less about our quest for writing material. With a look of utter boredom, she counted out our purchase in slow motion. Which gave me time enough to think my next question through in my head. "Are you selling stamps as well?" I asked, in perfect Russian. A sigh, then she just shook her head. I wasn't about to give up. "Would you know where there is a post office around here?" A vague hand wave in the direction of our hotel. Perfect, we would check that out later. We collected our cards, said our good-byes and left the shop.
By now it was getting dark outside. Maybe the girl just wanted to get off work. Most shops seemed to be open until 9 o'clock, which must mean a long day's work for the staff. To round the day off, we treated ourselves to yummy pasta and chocolate cake and then headed back to our hotel. Tomorrow, we would see the world's first nuclear-powered icebreaker. With that happy thought, we were soon fast asleep.


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