Off to Murmansk
A Visit to the Murmansk Rotary Club
Murmansk has a Rotary Club. In association with Appleby Rotary Club we decided to visit them in 2012. Sitting high above the Arctic Circle on Russia’s northern coast the city of Murmansk is not on any tourist trail. It is 29 hours by train from St Petersburg and up to 5 hours by minibus from Norway’s far northern frontier. Getting there by public transport was fun and a brilliant reception was provided by our hosts.
At the tail of the Gulf Stream and with ice free access to the Barents Sea all the year round it was the destination for the hazardous arctic supply convoys of the Second World War. Travel is restricted in this area of strategic importance. It is the home of Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet and the surrounding Kola Peninsula is rich in valuable mineral ores.
Our adventure began the moment we decided to visit the local Rotary Club. The four of us, Roger Frank and Arthur Littlefair from the Rotary Club of Upper Eden and John Taylor and Alan McViety from the Rotary Club of Appleby had travelled together on the Mali Aid project to Africa. This time we were heading very much in the opposite direction and by public transport all the way. How would we fare on our 12 day mission? We promised to blog our progress on the Upper Eden club website (see below). It contains our thanks to the Murmansk Club for so splendid a reception. They were outstanding. This is our blog, our story...
With the arrival of our visas earlier this week all is in place for the off. We leave home at 3.00 am tomorrow being Monday morning. There's more than a little of "last of the summer wine" about the manner in which our rucksacks are being packed... don't forget your mug, spoon and cuppa-soups... it's going to be 29 hours on the train north. At least we're flying our first leg to St. Petersburg.
25.06.12 MondayCurrently sitting having coffee at Schipol airport waiting for our connection via Riga to St Petersburg.
A bit on the dour side was our first impression as we landed late last night in a very wet, very grey heavily overcast St Petersburg. Leningrad for many years. We were met by his statue - arm raised aloft defying the rain as we passed by at speed in our ancient Lada taxi. My first attempt at Russian,” spaseeba – thankyou”, brings a smile from our hotel receptionist. She needs to be patient. A touch of sun this morning holds the prospect of improvement. We've a day here before taking the night train north. In the meantime the Winter Palace will catch our attention.
As the return of the sun brought us to shirt sleeve order central St. Petersburg turned out to be an absolute delight of 19th century architecture. A rival to Vienna... and then the rain came. As they say with the weather we can expect the outlook to change as we make our way up to the Kola peninsula. Word of our presence on the train spreads amongst the staff. The barman makes a trek to invite us along. We go. It comes as a relief from the sauna that is our compartment.
Wet again. Large puddles and road gutters running full greet us on our early morning arrival in Petrozavodsk. A dank basement cafe provides coffee and toasties for breakfast. John takes his exercise running hard to retrieve his passport left on the train. 400 metres in record time. A personal best. Originally established in the 18th century to support a cannon foundry this is a utilitarian place boasting 3 statues. We photographed that of the ubiquitous Lenin who was well in charge of a plinth once occupied by a czar. "Do you speak English?" brings flustered smiles and shrugs from all we meet save two young ice cream sellers who blush with delight at their achievement. A call from Mark at Lakeland Laser, as we wait for our next train, informs us that the stainless steel disc for the Rotary Diamond Jubilee Cairn has been sent for polishing. Not a lot of people in England know that. Now if it's trees that claim your interest we've passed a million, rather a lot and more, since catching the "Artika" train that will deposit us in Murmansk some 19 hours hence. They effectively block any view... and then there's the lakes.
28.06.12 ThursdayBonsai on a vast scale, has reduced the trees in height and the vegetation to scrub as we crossed the Arctic Circle during the night. We can now see further than the line-side. It rains here too. Just after noon and we step from the "Artika" on time and into the focus of our endeavours - Murmansk. It has to be said the train was good, very good, indeed praiseworthy... but there's only so much conversation one can make about trees. A swift transfer in an elderly taxi drops us in another world. The Radisson Park Hill will provide a shower and change of clothes. After more than two days without it's clear we need both. The rain overfills the puddles in the broken tarmac.
28.06.12 Thursday evening
Roger discovered, after tickets were confirmed, that Murmansk Rotary don't meet in late June and during July but they nevertheless turned out in force to meet us. Our evening has gone well and international relations have not, so far as we can tell, suffered. General good crack, caviar and toasts all round. Their executive secretary Valentina has declared herself "at your disposal for two days". The cause of ladies in Rotary has just taken a pace... or two... forward. Pole dancing in the back bar is off tonight... Alan leads us away back for more Beluga vodka and the Germany-Italy match on tv... Roger and John trip in his wake... my job is to tell it as it is... tomorrow's another 24 hour day. It will rain.
30.06.12 Thursday midnight
Alan "line 'em up lads" McViety organises our drinks. His word a little later with the barman brings in the muscle necessary to pin down the man who downed Roger's drink and lifted his phone. I pick up the bar stools. We'll call by the cash point in the morning. I've drawn the short straw and am bunking with Roger who entertains by missing his bed at his first attempt. His second succeeds. I agree to tell nobody... he'll never remember asking. 24 hour daylight.
30.06.12 Friday morning
For some breakfast is a slow affair. Valentina our excellent guide tactfully takes us quietly through the memorial museum of the "Navy of the North". Later over coffee, in a place we could not have found by ourselves, we ask "do many English come here?" "I think, in this district, English people don't come at all" was her considered reply. One up on Micheal Palin. A tour of the nuclear icebreaker Lenin gives a restored Roger the opportunity to ask technical questions.
As Upper Eden club assemble for their change-over dinner we assemble with members of Murmansk club, stark naked save for a strange felt hat. They call their sauna "banya", beat us with birch twigs and feed us dried fish pieces. Tremendous. Some call it fellowship. It rained not and the sun does not set... things are looking up.
Rested after last night's exertions we begin our day with, and some will think it sad, a personal tour of a fish processing plant. Well we did ask to see something of the local industry and the docks are closed to us. Our trip we are advised does rather intrude into the restricted zone... just don't flash your cameras. Yuri, a director, is our guide proving to be an engaging host as we are shown the most modern of plants turning out high quality products. No ethnic cottage industry this.
This place Murmansk has history that provides just cause and reason for commemoration and we pause a while at another impressive memorial site before paying our respects at the British and foreign military cemeteries. We discover the floorboards of the Cultural Museum creak in unison. John's knees are no match. Gold leafed icons everywhere glisten in the candlelight provided by penitent worshipers at mass in the small Orthodox cathedral overlooking the Kursk submarine memorial. Valentina kindly invites us to meet her friends at the "Red Pub" this evening... we are pleased to accept the challenge of their conversational English. She has been absolutely splendid. We've remained fully clothed and but for a beer and something to eat our day is concluded. Tomorrow the "Sputnik" service bus to northern Norway will be our next adventure.
Rum stuff this Russian cuisine. It is, this morning, evident that the half-dozen or so pickled onions I ate last night were in fact garlic. A queue of cars before our minibus catches our attention as they weave a pattern, dance, through the string of potholes that is the road ahead. We vibrate behind them. Everywhere memorials of the 1941- 1944 "Great Patriotic War" along our route attest to the ferocity of the fighting on the front line against the Axis forces. The line held and Murmansk port remained open. But for the hill-tops capped with radar domes and pierced with communication masts there's little evidence of permanent habitation anywhere until, over an hour later, the guard at our first checkpoint wordlessly extends his hand seeking sight of our visas. This region is rich in valuable mineral ores. We have entered a zone of significant strategic importance. Here a major miltary facility, there a vast mining complex and then again the same.
Penal colonies spring to mind as we take in our first impressions of the industry undertaken here. The pollution, the smog produced, blocks our view as we pass through it. It can be seen at 30 miles distance. Patches of old snow are coated brown with grime and working mines look derelict. This is indeed a hell of sorts on earth... but all of us are the beneficiaries of the nickel produced. All serves to emphasise the contrast not 20 miles down the road as we pass at official pace into Norway. Kirkenes is a haven.
02.07.12 Monday morning. Kirkenes (From Roger)
As our Blog Master Arthur takes a well deserved interlude the faux pas imbalance needs to be readdressed. The trail is long... from him trailing copious quantities of mud across the hotel floor following one of many photo walkabouts - often after straying into illegal territories, the attempt at conversation from behind heavily frozen glasses, the ever ongoing rucksack wear, the multi daily unpacking, packing and repacking and regular technology glitches. The sufferance continues for the third day of our Blog Masters insistent argument that "if you knock two flats into one it will be no bigger !!! And so it goes on and on ----
Noon and we are embarked. The HertiGruten ferry, MS Polarlys, has absorbed us on board and it's a lads delight to watch the handling of the thing. We've begun our voyage north then south to Trondheim via mainland Europe's most northerly point. With this plate flat sea our passage ought to be most pleasant. The survivors of the arctic winter convoys would have a different tale to tell of these deceptive waters at the tail of the Gulf Stream.
We've time now to reflect on our passage through Russia and the welcome offered by the Murmansk Rotary Club. Contacted by Roger with the expectation they might perhaps meet us and offer a little local advice and guidance they have hosted us in manner far and beyond anything we could have anticipated. Our constant guide, their executive secretary Valentina, was outstandingly good. She well deserves praise for her preparation and presentation. We can speak as we have found and tell it as it is. For us Russia has been a splendid experience. Perhaps in an idle moment it may be that they discover our blog and take pride in what they did for us. We thank them for it. Were this a meeting it would merit a prolonged round of applause. This now is Viking territory, a place a place made familiar by the Sunday supplement travelogues. Our amateur offering can thus add but little to that already on record. We shall see.
03.07.12 Tuesday noon
I'm wakened... It's 3.00am and still full daylight. "This is good... I'm going outside." says Alan. "It'll make a good shot". He’s away out to deck 5. Awake now, I trog along a minute or two later with only sleep to lose. From the deserted deck the settlement of Kjollefjord is postcard perfect. A single fork truck loads blue barrels of fish oil onto the boat. Not even the sea stirs. As everywhere hereabouts there's harmony as these pristine, clapboard buildings settle, neatly grouped, into the landscape - their Sadolinesque colours just so. The moment's of more value than sleep... but then again we were up at 2.00 and yet again at 5.00, this time ready to set foot on Nordkapp - North Cape.
Location, location, location is everything as the forbidding cliffs of this Nordic Lands End draw us to its panoramic view of the Barents Sea coast. Today it is our turn to see it on wide screen film... The whole place is clagged in dense grey fog... oh what a bugger! The short film was a good one.
We've discovered a room gremlin, a house elf, Alan and I. Our loo rolls have been hidden and our clothes swapped. His room key passed into the possession of one of our number for a brief, unguarded moment seems to hold the clue. If Roger fails to return home you will all, we trust, understand. With the wind picking up and the swell rising those rolls may be handy.
04.07.12 Wednesday. A little before midnight
We're heading home, south, but still in the Arctic Circle.
The midnight sun is beginning not to set over the Lofoten Islands.
A drop or two of bootleg scotch completes the day in fine style.
A spectacular end to our adventure.
Happy days and thanks for reading.
We are logging off.....................................................The Murmansk Four