Murmansk oblast (Russia), part I
Every journey starts from a dream. One of my greatest dreams has always been of traveling to Siberia, by train and in the winter. Waiting for that dream to come true, I decided to get a little taste of real Russia traveling to the country’s northwest, which lies well above the Arctic circle, rather close to Norway. And yet this trip will show me (and, if you read further, you too) that this part of the world is actually farther from Norway than it seems on a map.
My journey starts in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, few miles from the border, where my Russian driver picks me up. According to the agreements, he was supposed to speak English but the reality is that he only knows few words, and no verbs. The hours spent with him will serve me as good training for the days ahead, when all communication with locals will be based on a mixture of English, Russian, Italian, Norwegian and, most importantly, a great deal of body language.
As soon as we cross the Russian border, the military presence becomes evident: this northwestern region of the Russian Arctic has been strategic since the second world war and is still full of military camps and installations. On our road we meet numerous military vehicles and even have to go through a military check point in addition to the ordinary pass control. I spot several watch towers along the border, which is marked by miles and miles of barbed wired fence. This fence seems to be more meant to keep Russians from illegally leaving their country than to prevent Norwegians from illegally entering Russia in search of a better life.
About 30 – 40 km into Russia lies the first town I’ve come here to see. Nikel, founded in the 1930s around newly discovered occurrences of copper and nickel. A vast area around the city is today heavily contaminated by smoke and fine particles constantly emitted by three tall pipes that stand as the city’s only real landmark. Not much vegetation grows within a 2 – 3 km radius from the pipes. The city itself is a conglomerate of rather depressing, gray, soviet blocks placed worryingly close to the pipes. Not so surprisingly, I read that life expectancy here is well under 60 years, as a result of cancer and other respiratory diseases.
We drive half an hour more to the second city on my program: Zapolyarnyj, established in the 1950s and with just about the same story and characteristics as Nikel. The only difference being that I’m going to stay here for 24 hours. Entering the town feels like a step back in time by some 30 – 40 years. With relatively few exceptions, cars and trucks on the roads are from the 1980s or older. Each passing vehicle leaves behind a trail of exhaust gas that doesn’t seem to disperse in the calm, icy cold air. There is well more than the age of the vehicles to suggest that this is no rich place. My driver explains that both the construction of new buildings and the maintenance of the existing ones stopped at the end of the Gorbatsjov’s period, around 1990, which definitely shows. Saying that the buildings’ facades have seen better days is an euphemism and yet most of these blocks are still inhabited, even when their general state may suggest that they aren’t. Just outside the perimeter of town, in two directions, lie huge areas occupied by low garages, some of which are used as workshops.
The roads and sidewalks finely match the rest of town: poorly maintained, uneven and apparently rarely plowed during the winter. Pedestrians are forced to find their way around thick ice crusts and deep slush or melt water ponds.
Communication with locals proves very challenging, as nearly no one speaks English, but I do perceive quite a lot curiosity around me, a stranger with two cameras going around in a town that certainly doesn’t see many tourists. As I’m desperately trying to order some food in a cafe’, five guys leave their table and approach me. Unfortunately their English is only slightly better than my Russian, which is zero, but surprisingly we do manage to have some kind of communication. These are really funny and sociable guys, who now move to my table and for two hours will strive to recommend things to see in their town. The price to be paid for their help is (not so surprisingly) a couple of rounds of vodka. It’s hard enough to refuse a vodka shot offered by a Russian, and just impossible when the “nazdarovya” is proposed by five of them. The next tradition I learn is that once you’ve toasted, you can’t put your glass back on the table before you’ve emptied it, just to make sure I don’t try to fool my new friends. But hey, why would I? A vodka shot followed by a sip of peach juice is actually fantastic! From now on, I’m going to trust them but, before the night falls, I tell them I want to take a few more pictures outside, with the result that they follow me and show me around: their school, a few other buildings I don’t get the function of and of course the unmissable statue of Lenin, the first of several I’m going to see on my trip.. Andrej, one of the five guys, climbs on Lenin before I can take a second shot. But let’s not mention any shot before it brings about more vodka.. Tomorrow I’m going to head further eastwards, to Murmansk.