For a first trip to Russia off the beaten track, we chose to reach by train the northern region of Murmansk, the gateway to the Arctic after spending 2 days in St. Petersburg, This journey, organized by Immersion in Russia, a young start-up concentrating on tailor made tours , requires to be in good physical condition and express interest for Russian culture and language.
Au Fil des Lieux chose to experience this adventure last december for ten days. From Ladozhsky station in Saint Petersburg to Murmansk, we covered about 1,444 km within 24 hours, crossing the Karelia region and large areas of tundra to get to the north of the country. The Murmansk oblast (administrative unit) covers more than 144,902 square kilometers and is located on the Kola Peninsula. This area is surrounded to the west by Finland and Norway, to the north by the Barents Sea, and to the south by the White Sea. Murmansk is thus called the “gateway to the Arctic”.
First stage: Saint-Petersburg
Saint-Petersburg is an outstanding cultural and architectural gem. Plan to be very organized to discover the “essentials” on the run! The key Nevsky prospect is about 5 kilometers long , spanning the Moïka and Griboïdov canals.
Don’t fail to visit the Yusupov Palace (Юсуповский дворец), located along the Moika banks, which housed one of the great aristocratic families of Imperial Russia. Most of the major works of art acquired by Prince Yusupov were confiscated during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and many of them can be seen at the State Ermitage Museum.The tour of the palace can be done freely with an audio guide and lasts about an hour and a half. For those interested in the tragic history of Grigori Rasputin, the illustrious adviser to the Romanovs, the palace offers special guided tours dedicated to this historical event. The palace’s sumptuous decoration built by the French architect Vallin de la Mothe, restitutes the living standards of the Russian court at that time. Our attention was grabbed by a small private baroque theater where Princess Zinaida, last in the line of the Yusupov family, used to perform, as well as the large marble staircase at the entrance of the palace.
The Arctic and Antarctic Museum in Saint-Petersburg
Before heading towards the Barents Sea, in the far north, it is essential to visit the Arctic and Antarctic Museum in Saint-Petersburg. This somewhat outdated place, clustered in the neoclassical Saint Nicholas Church, retraces the journey of the great explorers who set out to discover the Russian polar regions. This place is the true pantheon of the Far North, extremely well documented on everything related to environment, discovery, and history of the Northern Sea Route.
In the museum’s main hall sits an immense polar circular map delimiting on its surface the polar circle line (white) but also the Köppen line (red). For the anecdote, all the places located north of the Köppen line, during the hottest month of the year (generally July), never exceed – or rarely – + 10 ° C. Permafrost allows very good preservation of bones and prehistoric objects. This is a major asset for researchers and archaeologists in the Arctic, making arctic regions historically “legible” spaces, due to the very good quality of the traces left there.Many paintings exhibited in the museum were produced between 1900 and 1960, allowing us to understand the fascination focusing on these regions, at the time considered as hostile and empty .
Therefore, it enlightens us on the conception that men had of Arctic exploration.Alexandre Alexeïevitch Borissov (1866-1934) was the first painter to have immortalized the Arctic landscapes as his main subject. He was also a writer and polar explorer, and had a great interest in the Arctic, having spent his youth on Solovki Island, off the White Sea. He worked at the Solovetsky monastery before becoming a fisherman. The monastery is notably known for having been a Gulag labor camp at the end of the First World War, and for being, today, a major place of pilgrimage in Russia. On the 1st floor, the world of Antarctica displays a restitution of a research center, various equipment for explorers and beautiful paintings made by autochtone artists.The Russian Museum in the Palais MichelThe visit of the permanent collections related to the various Russian pictorial movements is fascinating. Please don’t fail to quote Alexander Volkov (1976-1978), Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) or Alexander Gerasimov (1881-1963). All of these works are a real treasure to understand the Russian soul!
The call from the Far North at the end of the day
We have set an appointment at Ladozhsky station with Igor, who was going to be both our guide and … Russian teacher. This is where our journey with Immersion in Russia really began. My improvement in Russian grammar helped killing time during the 24 hours separating us from Murmansk! I travelled in an overheated compartment including 4 bunk beds, dedicated to the female gender.I must confess (since I am not a very athletic person) ,that I had to do some acrobatics to reach my bed perched under the ceiling !
In the train corridor, I observe many soldiers on leave or people returning to work in Murmansk. The experience of this long journey is unique and imposes a slow pace, conducive to reflection, daydreaming, as well as the discovery of its many wagons. The temperature makes the big difference between compartments overheated at + 20 ° C and getting through from one car to another at -10 °C! In each wagon’s corridor, a large kettle is placed on a wide ledge and everyone can come and fill up their cup to make a tea. Next to the wagon master’s cabin, treats and toiletries are displayed to be sold.
The restaurant car is far away, and in order to reach it I will have to cross several sleeping cars displayed as dormitories where sheets hung to obscure the vision of the other passengers look like ghosts. A few dangling feet protrude from the bunks, accompanied by snoring. Orphan suitcases clutter the central aisle plunged into darkness. One will have to step over them to reach the bar, which will not open before 7:30 a.m. Tania is in charge of the bar, she was born in the Urals and regularly travels between Saint Petersburg and Murmansk. The telephone in the wagon bar rings intermittently; it is the wagon managers who order meals for passengers. Many brown paper bags are prepared on a table and then distributed in each wagon.
Going up north, it will be necessary to wait until 11 am for the day to break. The train will stop overnight at various stations where passengers alight to smoke a cigarette or buy tea from casual vendors. The cold is sharp and biting, mainly because of the wind. Murmansk is not far away …
Second stage: Murmansk
The train arrives at 9:30 p.m. at Murmansk station, exactly 24 hours after our departure from Saint-Petersburg. The cold is striking. Here the 300,000 inhabitants call the Arctic Ocean “the northern ice sea” and work mostly in the coal or nickel mines. Murmansk is also a large fishing port, especially for cod and mackerel, which will be sold in Sweden, Finland and Norway. The city is also part of the international market thanks to the export of its minerals outside Europe.
Dmitry, our new guide, is waiting for us at the foot of the station’s steps. He will take us directly to a place, in the outskirts of the city, to observe the northern lights.
Observing the northern lights
It will take patience, coupled with a bit of luck, to observe the aurora borealis. The track we want to use is too snowy and we will have to do some walking with a headlamp. This natural phenomenon can be expressed in different tones. The most common color of the aurora borealis is green, which appears due to a reaction between solar particles and oxygen within the middle layer of the atmosphere. You can sometimes see red aurora borealis, but the rarest are the pink and purple aurora. They are much less visible to the naked eye. We are talking about the K.P index (Planetary K index) which within the polar circle ranges from 0 to 9. The highest level is very rare, in the Murmansk region the index can go up between 4 and 6. The decisive factor in hunting the northern lights remains the clarity of the sky and the good weather. Certain applications can make it possible to predict the presence of these northern lights observed mainly in winter in the Arctic Circle. The northern lights can be observed until the end of April in the Murmansk region. A legend of the Nenets people (set in the Yamal peninsula) tells the story of a hunter and his dog who were attacked by a wolf but the dog fought, and hunted the wolf, then he disappeared. The hunter’s son left in the night, a torch in his hand to search his beloved dog. He met an eagle which took the flame to light it in the night. Since then, it is said that when we see the aurora borealis in the sky, it means that someone is looking for a missing loved one.
The Port of Murmansk and the Lenin Icebreaker
Russia has the largest maritime coast in the world including that of the north exclusive to the country, which stretches over 9000 km from east to west. The Russians invested the Kola peninsula in 1919. Murmansk will therefore be at the heart of the Second World War in Russia, arousing the interest of the Germans for its strategic location, its military fleet and its deep waters opening onto an ocean connected to the rest of the world.
The story of the Lenin icebreaker
Previously, boats could not travel long distances in the Arctic for more than two months, while the new generation of icebreakers had 3 years of autonomy thanks to the use of plutonium energy. The Lenin icebreaker was built in 1959 during the Cold War. It was very important for the Russians to be competitive with the United States in terms of the price of nuclear energy. The whole country was involved in the construction of Lenine for 3 years and 3 months, more than 200 local factories participated in the manufacturing of electronic systems, spare parts. The idea of building Lenin was to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific by the northern sea route (Severniy morskoy put). The Lenin, weighing around 19,400 tonnes, had a crew of 160 people (including doctors and scientists) and was dedicated to research and exploration of the Arctic. On December 2, 2019 the 60th anniversary of the Lenin icebreaker was celebrated. Today there are 5 active icebreakers and 3 others are under construction because it is impossible to go from Asia to Europe by the Arctic without icebreakers. These boats facilitate economic exchanges , making them faster by the Northern Sea Route. Russia is the only country worldwide that continues to use nuclear icebreakers for research. The Lenin is today a museum that can be visited, showing the splendor of its interior fittings including panels and furniture in precious woods as well as an impressive reactor.
On the way to Teriberka, ancestral land of the Pomors
Between Murmansk and Teriberka it takes 130 km including 70 km of asphalt road while the rest of the track crosses the tundra. We will get there a day late due to a very heavy snowstorm. It is not uncommon to come across broken down cars. On our way back we will rescue a young couple whose car had fallen into a ditch on the side of the road. Dmitry, our guide, will help them up the slope by throwing ropes kept in the trunk of his van. People of the Arctic region demonstrate their spirit of solidarity on a daily basis !
We float on a carpet of white snow where we lose all den of distance and relief. The tundra envelops us and we will meet the only local policeman (a mascot!) dressed in a yellow vest and armed with a sickle … A car tagged with colors lies in a mound of snow a few steps from the mascot. Teriberka, a small fishing village, was not mentioned until the 16th century with the first explorations of the Far North. The village was populated by the Pomors and still lives today from fishing as in the days of its native ancestors. They explored the Barents region of the Kola Peninsula and later discovered the sea route between Arkhangelsk and Siberia. Teriberka became increasingly impoverished with the creation of Murmansk which represents very stiff competition. The local population is decreasing and migrating to Murmansk. We can therefore discover the old village and its old abandoned wooden houses and the “new Teriberka” where we meet a lot of Thai and Chinese tourists. There are no police station or hospital in Teriberka but only a fish factory, a nursery school, a middle school and a high school. 55 students are gathered in the four establishments with less than 5 students per level.
We loved this very cinematic place which is partly accessed by snowmobile. it is here that “Leviathan” was filmed in 1989, the film by George Cosmatos which received an award in 1990 at the international fantasy film festival of Avoriaz. Teriberka offers a breathtaking view of the Barents Sea.
Lovozero reindeer and husky farm
Lovozero is an important geographical point in the culture of the indigenous Samis. The main activities are gathering wild berries, fishing in the lake of the same name, reindeer breeding and hunting. We are welcomed by Alexei who has lived here for 15 years with wife and child. He entirely imagined and built this farm with members of his family to make it a place of attraction around the breeding of reindeer and sled dogs. We will sleep in a magnificent log cabin with a huge bow window directly overlooking the forest. Before hitting the road the next morning to experience the end of our journey, a delicious Russian meal including Kalakeitto soup (Finnish salmon soup), reindeer stew and cranberry pie will be served in our lodge.
Discover Murmansk and the region of the Arctic Circle in Russia with Immersion in Russia. https://www.immersion-in-russia.com
Package from 990 euros per person on half board for a minimum of 4 people for 6 days with 10 hours of Russian lessons and not including the flight Paris / Saint Petersburg.
For visas (We do not recommend e-visas which often contain transcription errors which can be detrimental to the smooth running of the trip): https://www.immersion-in-russia.com/post/visa-russe-mode-d-emploi
The ideal solution is to go through RapidVisa in Paris https://www.rapidevisa.fr/
What to see in St. Petersburg:
Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic Oulitsa Marata 24a Sankt-Peterburg Phone. : +7 812 571-25-49 Price: 450 Rubles
Yusupov Palace Nab.reki Moïki 94 Phone. : +7 812 314-98-83 Price: Self-guided tour with audio guide 700 Rubles Guided tour in Russian for the Rasputin exhibition 350 Rubles