Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murmansk, The End

Almost a year after I was there, I now offer you the fourth-and-final instalment of our 5-day trip to the Arctic city of Murmansk.

Let us start shortly after where we left off – upon waking on the morning after our trip to the banya – and continue until my return to Moscow.

We woke up: a good start to any day, and had breakfast, just to make the start complete. We bundled up in our cold-defying garb and struck out into the Arctic for another day of exploring the city of Murmansk.

Our goal for this day was the Alyosha statue, a war memorial on the summit overlooking the bay. The crow-flying route was across a frozen lake, up a hill, then up a much bigger hill to the towering statue behind. If there is a lesson to be learnt from this, it’s that crows have a distinct advantage over humans when making a direct route towards something.

The snow covering the lake was shin deep, but luckily for us there was a well-cut track across the entire width of it, giving the impression that there would be an easy route to lead us directly to where we wanted to be.

The lake came to an end, indistinctly beneath the thick snow. The two strongest indicators of this were the tall, leafless bushes clawing up through the snow, and the sudden cessation of the walking track. In retrospect it would have been sensible not to listen to a certain member of our party (who I shall not name; although I will do myself the service of pointing out that it wasn’t me), who described the idea of pushing on as “fine”. In retrospect it would have been far more sensible to sit in a café and discuss how cold and grey Murmansk is in the winter.

Retrospect is almost always discussed in the context of bad ideas.

We took turns cutting a path through the snow, carving a way up the first hill. It was, as my father might call it, “a tough slog,” the snow always at least calf-height, and approaching our knees in some areas. This meant that each step forward had to be accompanied by a step up to lift the foot clear of the snow. In a warmer time or place I wouldn’t be able to say that we were dressed for the conditions – instead of over-trousers, as I would normally want to wear when trudging through snow, we were all wearing jeans. Jeans have a justifiably bad reputation regarding the outdoors. They are pretty heavy to begin with, but they have a large saturation potential – they absorb a lot of water – and are incredibly slow to dry. This can lead to fatigue and, if not dealt with well, hypothermia.

In warmer conditions, that is. Where we were, in the frozen north, our jeans didn’t absorb a single drop of water. Paradoxical? Consider the fact that it was, at best, 10 degrees below zero. Our body heat wasn’t capable of melting even a flake of snow. Instead, the snow simply caked onto our jeans in a thick, cracking layer. No problem.

We surmounted the first hill with no issue, giving us the sense that things would remain that way. After all, it had only taken us about half an hour to get this far. We pushed on.

At that point in any trip where it is no longer smarter to turn around, we realised that, up until now, we had been sheltered from the wind by the very peak we were now ascending. With the wind now coming at us from the North Pole, we were feeling even colder than before. Plus, Radim kept stopping to take photos.

He had fair reason to, though. Beautiful is never a word I would use to describe Murmansk; we were looking down into a long, deep bay – a canyon beneath the sea – that lead directly to the Arctic Ocean. Across the bay were moving huge transport ships, lumbering tugs and nuclear-powered ice-breakers; from the shore projected long, wide concrete piers, being lapped at by a thin membrane of ice, loading cranes that looked like they could lift the ship as well as the cargo, and an entire city grown up the valley beside and because of that. Beautiful, no; but, beneath the halo of a grey twilight, illuminated from itself far more than from the sun, I will call the view “striking”.

That being said, it wasn’t warm enough for me to stop for the sake of any more than two photos. We had a hill to climb, a statue to visit, and a here to get the hell out of.

After almost a two-hour push uphill, through snow and wind, we surmounted the hill. What we found on top was a massive statue of a Soviet soldier: a 35 metre-tall tribute to the role of Murmansk in The Second World War. It was looking down over the bay, seemingly ready to step down from its 7-metre base to defend the city if ever called forth. With the famous exceptions of Stalingrad and Leningrad (now Volgograd and Saint Petersburg), Murmansk suffered more destruction than any other Soviet city during World War Two. As the USSR’s only year-round arctic port, it drew an attack from a combined German/Finnish force, in an attempt to cut off the Karelian supply route that ran south into the heart of European Russia. Precedent prevailed, however, and operation Silver Fox was brought to a grinding halt by the winter of 1941.

At the feet of the statue was an eternal flame burning from the ground and surrounded by a perfect circle of snowless marble. If it hadn’t been for the twisting winds around us, I would have tried to warm myself near it; but I was wearing a down jacket, and feeling especially combustible, so decided to view it from a safe, cold distance.

The entire journey, from the edge of the lake to this point, had taken almost two hours, and I was beginning to notice something alarming.

Not every part of my body was warm (for a reviewed definition of warm). My arms and torso were OK – under four layers, including the down jacket; my head, with two beanies and a hood, was actually a little uncomfortably warm. I was wearing sturdy gloves, merino socks (thanks Mum) and in spite of the relatively little covering them, my legs were benefiting from having gotten me this far in the first place. But there was still something that I had overlooked.

Above my legs, but not off them, it wasn’t getting any warming exercise; below my torso but not of it, it wasn’t under four layers of insulation; and unable to wilt to the extent demanded, my penis was becoming painfully cold (my testicles were fine though, having retreated to somewhere near my diaphragm). With disturbing notions of frostbite taking root in my mind, I quickly became leader of the Leave Now faction of our group, and we were soon on our way down hill, this time following the paved road that rounded down the hill.

25 minutes later we were back at the head of the lake from where we had started – climbing into a bus – then a café, to sit for much of the remanent of the afternoon, discussing films, Murmansk, and our new-found appreciation for asphalt.


While Mike, Radim and I had arranged to stay here for one more day, it was time for Peter and Pascale to return to Moscow. Extremities warmed, we set of for the train station to see them off.

When we returned to Vadim’s house, we found that he was accommodating another couch surfer, a young Tunisian woman by the name of Sondes, who was studying air-conditioning engineering at The University of Saint Petersburg. If anyone had ever told me that I would one day meet a Tunisian student of air-conditioning engineering while on holiday the world’s largest Arctic city, I would probably have replied “that’s very, specific, of you to say…”

And thus was our second day in Murmansk.


Our party now at minus two plus one, and we were looking for something new and interesting to do. Vadim told us that there was a snowmobiling place in Murmansk, where you can rent the vehicles, and drive around a specially designed circuit. So the four of us piled into a taxi, and headed off to try our hands at snowmobiling.

A little something about Russian taxis, if you’re interested. Or, even if you’re not interested.

They don’t have a fare-metre. That is, the fee isn’t $X per minute, plus $Y flagfall as it is in New Zealand; instead, prices are decided upon in advance. In the case of a so-called gypsy cab, which is just some guy driving around in a 1970s Lada hoping to make a bit of extra cash on the side, the price is negotiable, and bartered over before you even get in the cab. In the case of registered taxis, there is a fixed zone-price, a little like a bus or a train plan, which is non-negotiable.

We took a 45-minute (registered) taxi ride into the range of hills behind the city. Once at the snowmobile place, we arranged to have the taxi driver wait for us (for which the driver had to radio in to central office to establish what the non-negotiable price for sitting around was), while we did our snowmobiling, calculating that it would be cheaper and more convenient than having another taxi come up the hill to collect us once we were done.

First, we dressed up in windproof overalls that were so bulky that they offset the bulbous helmets we were wearing; leaving us looking like the front cover of a 1940s pulp-fiction sci-fi. Then we got a brief instructional talk, climbed onto the snowmobiles, and were following our guide into the forest.

I have an admission to make. I have never learnt to drive. Going beyond this, I have never, in fact, driven anything larger than a go-cart – and that was over 10 years ago. I was put off doing it again after I confused the accelerator and brake pedals while free-wheeling down a hill towards a wall.

Between then and now, though, I had accrued hundreds of hours of driving practice on my Playstation, and was thus able to hold my own driving a snowmobile. If I had had that much experience in a plane, I would probably have received a pilot’s licence long ago. As it was, I didn’t crash into anything, which shows that playing Gran Turismo isn’t an absolute waste of time.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the appeal of the internal combustion engine. It doesn’t seem to me to be about the power that comes from however many horsepower I had sitting beneath me. Here I was, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of winter, in Northern Russia, travelling through the snow at upwards of 40 kilometres an hour. Had we been on foot, this wouldn’t have been so much a fun experience as character building. I suppose what I’m getting at is that the appeal wasn’t coming so much from the vehicle itself, but from the sense of control that it offered: I, a fairly fragile creature when all is tolled, not only moving faster than any human could do on his own, but doing it through falling snow, across fallen snow, at temperatures that should, by rights, have left us dead in short measure. Despite where we were, we still had complete control over the situation – or at least the sense of. Perhaps this is the appeal of cars that I have always missed: the ability to be nothing but human, at yet do super-human things at a whim – to be one thing and do another.


We arrived at the train station. Mike and Radim’s 15 hour train to Saint Petersburg was due to leave only a few hours after my train, a 37 hour journey directly to Moscow.

“It’s not too late to change your mind and come with us to St. Pete’s,” said Mike.

“Nah,” I replied. “I’m planning on going there in the spring with my brother. I’ll save it until then.”

(As it happened, I didn’t make it to St. Pete’s in the spring. Alex decided not to come to Russia, on the grounds that Russia’s visa policy is, quote: really confusing. In fact, I haven’t made it there at all. Which is OK, because there is still time, and where there is still time, there is still time to procrastinate.)

On the return trip I was in a kupe berth, which is four beds in a lockable room, rather than the open ploshkart bunks we had on the way up. I boarded the train, alone this time, and, would you have guessed? I misread my ticket. Instead of going to bed number 8, I went and started to set myself up in cabin number 8. Thankfully, the nice family of four who turned up at the door moments later were more than happy to help the idiot foreigner work out where he was supposed to be.

When I arrived in cabin number 2, home of berth number 8, I found that the occupants of the bottom two bunks had already arrived. They were two friendly middle-aged women, who, between them, didn’t speak a word of English. As the train pulled away, they invited me to sit with them as they had dinner. Having conveyed that I’m a teacher from New Zealand, that I have just been on holiday in Murmansk and now returning to Moscow, and subsequently learned the corresponding information from the women, I found that I had completely exhausted my supply of Russian.

The conversation came to an anti-climactic halt. There was one of those periods of silence in which no-one is quite sure what to say or do next – the kind of silence that follows a comment like “this one time I had to have a parsnip surgically from my rectum. Did that put an end to a great night, or what?!” We suffered a few moments of this, following which the women began conversing in full-speed Russian. I sat where I was for a few minutes, unsure what to do, glancing between the two of them. Eventually I stood up, clambered up onto my bunk, and opened my book.

Lesson of the day: if you’re going to be trapped on a train for a day and a half, functionally alone, carrying only one piece of reading material, make sure that the book isn’t Moby Dick. Don’t take this as negative review of Herman Melville’s classic tale of pacifists stabbing whales; but when faced with the dilemma of reading a 50 page discussion of the philosophical implications of the colour white, and doing completely nothing, one can find oneself entertaining fantasies of being stabbed in the eye with a knitting needle.

The following morning, after a night of travel, a man boarded the train to occupy the remaining bed in the cabin. He was a smiling, stocky man of middle age. (It seems that my idea of middle aged is something like a real adult, with responsibilities that extend beyond showering regularly, and decisions more complex than which brand of frozen pizza to invest in. People like that make me feel a little like an impostor, as though I’m only faking it as an adult, and, one day soon, someone or something will find me and issue a test of my adult-hood; a test which I will fail so amazingly that I will be issued with the two-way choice of either getting married, or going back to live with my parents until I have mastered the art of separating my colours from my whites. And let’s be honest, from a practical perspective it isn’t really a choice. I would have to go back to my parents.) Once again I exchanged life stories for as long as my Russian held out, there was an uncomfortable period of silence, then the real conversation kicked off without me, and I went back to reading, in great detail, about the 19th century process of removing and melting the blubber of a sperm whale while on the open ocean.

At last the train pulled into Moscow. I subsequently discovered that it had been colder in Moscow than in Murmansk while we were gone, which made me feel a little bit cheated. In spite of everything that happened in Murmansk, I felt that the warmth of it detracted from the legitimate of the experience. I had travelled half way to the North Pole, gone into the Arctic, for a certain, boundary exploring adventure, only to discover that, regarding the temperature, it would have been a more legitimate Arctic experience to have just stayed at home. My balmy arctic winter holiday. On the other hand, if I had stayed in Moscow, then I would have just written 8,000 words of book reviews, or more likely, just not.

I leave for Siberia tomorrow. Maybe (hopefully?) it will be properly cold there.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Oliver lives! Alright!

Cool story, too. I liked the bit about your penis.