Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Murmansk: Day One

[photos to come]

And so we step off the train.

Law enforcement is Russia is either unapologetically inconsistent, or bewilderingly complex; I haven't yet decided which label to apply. A good illustration of this complex inconsistency, which, I'll note, fits into the chronology of this story without coincidence, is the fact that we were met by a law-enforcing greeting party no later than immediately after stepping off the train. Five foreigners traveling into the Arctic Circle in January attracts attention, it would seem. The promptness of the greeting party -- indeed, the fact that they didn't come down to the platform to meet us but, rather, were already there -- illustrates the unusualness of what we were doing.

"Hey," said the conductor on the phone to the police in Murmansk. "There's a group of five foreigners on the train, heading your way."

"What?" came the reply. "Really? Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"Are you sure they're on the right train?"

"Yes. I checked their tickets myself."

"Do they know what their tickets say?" Asked the police officer.

"It's hard to tell, maybe. But, in either case, they're arriving this afternoon."

"Oh wow, foreigners in Murmansk. I have to see this."

In contrast to what we might have expected from three police officers waiting for us at the platform, our welcoming committee was literally that: welcoming. There was no stoic, our-side-of-the-iron-curtain hostility; instead, what met us was a group of three friendly, smiling (mono-linguistically) chatty men. They seemed intrigued as much as anything as to why a Brit, an Australian, an French-Canadian, a Slovak and some guy from a place they had never heard of would come this far from, well, anywhere, for a holiday. Especially considering that we went past Saint Petersburg to get there. (I'm unfairly speculating as to their thoughts, but they certainly gave us the impression that we were a novelty. I'm also being unfair regarding an average Russian's knowledge of geography: most people here do know of New Zealand. When I tell people where I'm from, a typical response is an expression, not of confusion, but one that couldn't be all that much different from the expression they would give if I had told them that I was from Narnia. That lasts a few seconds, before they say something equivalent to "Hang on. You left there to move to Moscow? What the hell is wrong with you?" And, as much as I like Moscow, I still can't provide a satisfactory answer.)

Every time a foreigner enters a new city in Russia, he must register himself, a little piece of bureaucracy that none of us were familiar with. We were lead to an office in the train station, and Redim, with his serviceable command of Russian, was voted most likely to deal with this well, and sent into the office with a pile of passports in hand. With nothing to do but wait, the rest of us busied ourselves with taking photos of falling snow and saying hello to passers-by in our best Russian.

Had things taken that long in any other country, I might have been inclined to think that something had gone wrong. But this is Russia, and pain-in-the-arse bureaucracy is to be expected, so the only thing I felt was cold.

Redim emerged at last, bleary eyed, passports in hand, and we finally had the all clear to leave the train station. Mike, the Australian contingent on this trip, had with him directions to the nearest appropriate bus stop, a bus number, and a description of the bus stop at which to disembark. The rest of us followed him.

Murmansk buses adhere to all of the premises underlying the basic definition of a bus as I understand it to be. I'm sorry if you were expecting another example of my being made to feel like a foreigner in a far-away land, but it was a pretty ordinary bus.

We got off the bus. There to greet us was Vadim, a local resident and our host for the next three days. We -- we being an extension of the organisational prowess of Mike -- met Vadim on a website called The basic manifesto of CouchSurfing is to facilitate a meeting between two types of people: those who are traveling, and would therefore like a couch to sleep on for a night or two, and those who aren't traveling, and would like a complete stranger to sleep on their couch for a night or two. Based on this first impression of the organisation, I joined later that week.

Vadim lead us the short distance to his flat -- like the apotheosis of Russian flats, it was a translationally symmetrical rectangular prism, which appears to have been dropped from the sky at random. The stairwell was equally typical: dark, dank and unadorned concrete. Inside the flat was a different mater. It seemed to have been recent redecorated, with something a real-estate agent might call "easy flow" from the front door, around the corner into the spacious living room and through into the bachelor-sized kitchen. It turns out that Vadim had recently removed the wall between the front hall-way and the living room to open up what was, deceptively, a Russian-sized flat. I didn't ask the question, but I imagine his answer would have been "What the heck is building consent?"

We showered, changed, and headed out into Murmansk, following the lead of our host/guide.

The city is not exactly what I would have called Paris of the North. Granted, I have limited travel experience (I haven't even been to Paris) -- and my choice of wording plays up my level of experience -- but Murmansk was what I would have expected from the USSR's main northern port.

Aesthetically, I was struck by how different Murmansk was from central Moscow. Moscow, with almost 1000 years of dynamic history to shape it, is something of a chronological crucible; on a walk through the city one can encounter Orthodox churches of Tsarist Russia resplendent with onion domes and triple-crossed crucifixes, standing beside New York-style high-rise offices that look as though they were glass-blown rather than built; or narrow stairways and alleys -- of the kind you could never hope to find by simply reading a map -- leading around corners and through passages bereft of lighting or paint and humming with the sound of mechanical devices that seem to have been imported directly from a not-too-distant-future science fiction film -- into a snow-covered courtyard or another alley, painted in grey, white and pastels, surrounded by doors, most without any identifying labels. In short, Moscow is an amalgam of three worlds: a monarchy and a democracy framing a period of 74 years, during which time the country was both and neither.

Murmansk does not benefit from this historical tripartite. Founded in 1916, 4 short months (or perhaps, 4 short-day months) before the Russian Revolution, it missed out on the decedent architecture of pre-soviet Russia; yet, being a predominantly industrial town, never experienced the benefits of the transition away from communism, either. Because of this, there was little reason for the city to adapt itself to fit the dramatic change that Russia underwent 18 years ago.

With no major fledgling tourist industry or exponentiating commercial sector as imputes, Murmansk has remained quaintly Soviet in outward appearance. From the explicit -- such as painted stone reliefs reading CCCP or Lenin -- to the stylistic -- pastel boxes in lieu of architecture -- this is a time-capsule of a city. (My favourite landmark was a life-size +20% statue commemorating a Russian soldier who, when surrounded by Germans, let of a grenade in his hand, annihilating himself and his would be captors. Never would I have imagined seeing a statue commemorating a person who held a grenade for too long. A
Darwin Award, yes, but never a statue.)

We strolled thorough the streets in afternoon twilight. It wasn't as bighting cold as it might have been -- the city is know to have, in the past, reached an amputating -39.4 degrees, but, during our visit it can't have been less than - 15 degrees, and as such we didn't have to take too many not outside breaks.

I have been considering for days the best way to describe Murmansk. It is not a tourist town -- that much is clear. It seems to me that any charm possessed by the city must therefore lurk deeper; beneath the surface, as it were, beneath the facade of a city so unvisited by tourists that there has never been the overwhelming need to appeal, beneath any lack of ostentation, beneath the city's unpolished shoes, scruffy, product-free hair and priortively functional wardrobe -- beneath all of this, there must be something that brought us here.

As I have already mentioned, Murmansk benefited from neither the pre- not post-Soviet worlds. But perhaps benefit is a poorly chosen word. I dare-say that Murmansk is a stylistic time-capsule: a display of what Russia once was. Statues commemorating The Great Patriotic War among buildings built in International Modern Style Architecture (featureless concrete cubes), babushkas selling fish from tables set up on street corners, intermittent examples of Soviet Realism art, buildings adorned with images of Lenin, and the Hammer-and-Sickle; and all in a city that could justify its existence, even in the new world of market capitalism. Murmansk is a city that never had any need to cease looking Soviet, and this didn't. It is a town that captured the interest of this someone who is too young to appreciate first hand the immense significance of the USSR upon the 20th centaury.

Later on that day we reached the reason for Murmansk. One might assume that the north coast of Russia would be an ill-advised place to found a port. No. In fact, if I were ever to found a port inside the Arctic Circle, this would be one of my first choices of location. The famous Gulf Stream, which brings warm water east across the Atlantic, arrives at the west coast of Ireland with indefatigable zeal. In doing so it cleaves -- the majority of the warm water travels south, toward and beyond Spain, the rest north, journeying past Scotland, Norway and Finland, to warm the waters of Murmansk and the White Sea. In over 30 years of living in Murmansk, Vadim had seen this Artic bay frozen over a total of twice.

Looking out over the bay, only a membrane of ice floating upon it, my impression that this was an example of nature denying its own power began to concede to the impression that this was an it was an industrial port at night. Time for a drink in a bar that's at least 40 degrees warmer.

Our first day in the frozen north is drawing to a close. We spend the next few hours in a bar, drinking vodka and discussing things that none of us would expend the effort to commit to memory, before moving on to a restaurant just up the road. Before we left the bar, though, we met a group of Malysaian students who were studying medicine in Moscow. And, if you would you believe it, Mike knew one of them. We came as far from the equator as civilisation goes, and Mike still managed to bump into someone. I was impressed.

Our day hadn't finished yet. Before turning in for the night, we visited a Banya, or traditional Russian sauna house.
But that might best be left for another post. . .

Friday, May 15, 2009


You may have noticed that I haven't updated my blog in almost a month. If you hadn't noticed, then allow me to be the first to point this out to you.

If I had updated during that time, then you could assume that I would have post something that could be described as either:

A brief anecdote in which I describe a failure to carry out a basic task or rudimentary social interaction, due to my lack of linguistic or cultural knowledge.


A rant about an observation or fact of trivial importance, discussed with more neuroticism than evidence.


An example of intellectually semi-permeable self-gratification, posited as a benevolent act of open edification.

More of the same to come.