Itâs midnight in late August and hot and steamy inside the refurbished Leningradsky railway station in Moscow. The ticket office is a bright open plan design and gone are the days of talking to the ticket agent through a gap at the bottom of a window. Gone too is the giant bust of Lenin that dominated the departures hall and seemed to convey an ambience darkly appropriate to a journey to Russiaâs north. Travelers crowd into the waiting room. Some find seats in the cooler air of the departures hall or stand outside on the platform.
The carriage attendants stand in formation alongside the train in their smart grey trim with bright red berets. Most of the passengers trek down to third class or platzkarts carriages. There are 54 bunks in open plan in each. Itâs going to be a long trip for these folk with new acquaintances made, whether desired or not. Train No. 16 to Murmansk, aptly named the Arktika, departs at 01:00 and, like most Russian trains, itâs exactly on time.
We are in first class in a modern and very comfortable coupÃ©. Lunch is included in the ticket and Lyudmila from the dining car arrives to take orders for the following day. The âMenu of diets of the guaranteed food of cars of the increased comfortâ offers âSoup with beefâ followed by a choice of fish, chicken or beef. I play safe and choose the âBraised chicken breast with mushrooms in a sauce with rice and vegetable garnish optional, greensâ. The menu ends with a salutation from the catering contractor, the Trans-Murmansk Company: âBon Appetite (sic)!â They offer a âhot lineâ for comments or complaints.
The first stop is Saint Petersburg at 08:38 in the morning. The conductors disembark to welcome the new passengers. Those in platzkarts will be elbowing their way for a seat for the coming 24 hours to Murmansk.
The railway tracks a line along the bottom of Lake Ladoga. Volkhov (pop. 47,182) is the first of several short stops. The station is vibrant in a new coat of yellow and white paint. The town boasts the first hydroelectric power station built in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, which is still in use.
The line turns north and starts traversing the vast catchment linking Ladoga and Onega, Europeâs two largest lakes. Lyudmila delivers lunch wrapped in plastic. The sauce matches the yellow rice. The âvegetable garnish optional, greensâ consists of two slices of tomato and a curl of cucumber. No sign of mushrooms in the chicken. The food is simple but tasty.
Next stop is Lodeynoye Pole (pop. 20,674) (literally, âfield of boatsâ) on the banks the Svir river and the place where the first ship in the Baltic Fleet was built in 1702. This is also the site of Svirlag, a prison camp built in 1931 on the site of a monastery, where many, predominantly clergy, perished.
In Podporozhye (pop. 18,733) carriages bearing timber indicate what drives the local economy. The town (literally, âunder the rapidsâ) was founded when Peter the Great resettled peasants to organize navigation along the rapids of the Svir linking Onega and Ladoga.
Svirstroy is a thirty-minute stop to change locomotives from the 3kV to the newer 25kV line. Interestingly, the line between Volkhov and Petrozavodsk was a private investment financed by Russian and French banks in 1916. The station offers only rusted railings and concrete now but passengers use the opportunity to get out and stretch. Vendors clamber over the tracks and under a stationary cargo train to offer cold beer, warm pies, smoked fish and buckets of red and black berries. Business is good at the platzkarts end. Smoked fish and cold beer might do a good job of breaking the monotony.
We pass continuous tracts of pine and birch forests and cross several large rivers. There is good phone and internet connectivity in and around most stations and the time passes by quickly. Itâs late afternoon as we reach Petrozavodsk (pop. 262,000), the capital of Karelia. The station is an attractive classical design with its yellow steeple clock tower standing out against the blue sky.
The sun is setting as we start the final leg. Construction of this part of the line was a remarkable feat of engineering; Turkeyâs entry into World War I had blocked access to the Black Sea and hastened the need for access to the ice-free port at Murmansk. The 1,100 kilometers of railway line, traversing countless rivers and swamps, was completed in only two years. Thousands of workers were shipped in from other parts of Russia and German POWs were used extensively too.
Kondopoga (pop. 32,987), on the shore of Lake Onega, offers an unremarkable vista, advertising boards and concrete. The town was occupied by Finnish troops during the Winter War and largely destroyed. Ironically, Red Finns, who arrived in the 1920s after their revolution failed, were prominent in much of the regionâs early development.
Medvezhyegorsk (pop. 13,533) has a spired green wooden railway station. Built in 1916, itâs the most charming station on the route. A long line of fish and berry vendors hustles along the train in the hope of a last sale of the day. The conductors, now in white shirts sans berets, climb back on.
The sun drops below the tree line and the light starts to soften. The colors of the swamps and the sky form a palette of deep greens, golds, browns and blues. Lyudmila reappears with a list to sign to show to management in Murmansk that we ate what she tells them we ate. I forget to ask her about the mushrooms.
The train now moves at a slower pace rocking gently almost like a playground train. There are sporadic glimpses of Lake Onega and the vanishing light casts a ginger tinge to the vegetation, an anticipation of autumn.
Segezha (pop. 29,631) is the last opportunity for the line of berry optimists. The pie sellers have given up and gone home. We journey on passing the silhouette of a distant paper mill. Itâs now the turn of the rising moon to track the train across the water. Occasionally we pass a fisherman in a boat out alone in a personal paradise.
The moon disappears and the trees form a dark sink. Hadvotsy, Idel and Belomorsk come and go with short stops, all worth only a few minutes of the trainâs time. Belomorsk, incidentally, offers a ferry to Solovetsky but itâs a longer sea journey and an infrequent schedule at this time of the year.
We reach our destination of Kem (pop. 13,051) on time at 00.46, some 1,400 kilometers and just short of 24 hours from Moscow. The ferry point is at Rabocheostrovsk, some 12 kilometers away. âItâs 300 roubles to get thereâ, says the taxi driver, a bargain by Moscowâs standards. We check in to the Prichal Hotel for about five hours of sleep. Itâs basic and comfortable.
Rabocheostrovsk is a fishing settlement and the place where detainees were held during winter while they waited for the sea to thaw. Itâs a ten-minute walk from the hotel to the jetty. Most passengers are pilgrims (palomniki) wrapped in anoraks and scarves. The backpackers arrive having spent the night in the waiting room at the station in Kem. The Vasiliy Kosyakov departs promptly at 8 am. Most passengers move out of the cold wind into the cabin below the deck. Thereâs a large plastic shark hanging in the kiosk that sells clothing and âchocolates from Finlandâ. Hot drinks are sold from a window on the rear deck but soon run out.
The sea is calm and the ferry cuts a lone wake across the water. The metallic blue hue of the water and the hazy grey sky merge on the horizon and create an almost mystical aura. We are only about a hundred kilometers south of the Polar Circle. Itâs beluga whale country but none surface during the trip. Most passengers have had an early start and sit and doze and the only conversation comes from seagulls circling the ferry. Itâs a two-hour journey to Bolshoi Solovetsky Island, some 45 kilometers away. The island appears as a strip of vegetation, which peaks to the left. As we get closer the spires of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration and the Solovetsky Kremlin emerge, backlit by the morning sun. The approach is an inspiring sight added to, inescapably, by thoughts of the ancient monks approaching the island over several hundreds of years ago, and, more recently, and ominously, of detainees arriving some 90 years ago. The ferry docks and the palomniki trek off in groups. Locals standing on the quay offer rooms and bicycles for rent. There are a few taxis available but most people walk. One can walk to almost anywhere on the island. The air is crisp and clean and one feels an immediate sense of tranquility. An exhilarating encounter awaits: ancient labyrinths suggestive to some of a link to the souls of the dead; six centuries of Russian Orthodoxy, for which, for many, the Solovki represent the spiritual soul of Russia; and the grim reminders of Soviet repressions. All of this wrapped within the stunning natural beauty of the islands and the White Sea. The captain gives me the thumbs up as we disembark to start what will turn out to be one of the most fascinating and spiritual experiences of my life.
WHAT ARE THE SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS?
The Solovetsky Islands, or the Solovki, are an archipelago located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea. Historically, the islands are the setting of one of the architectural wonders of the Russian North: the 600-year old Orthodox Monastery, located against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty. Founded in the second quarter of the 15th century by two monks it emerged as one of the most influential religious centers in Russia. The existing fortress and its major churches were erected during the early reign of Ivan the Terrible. The Solovki attained notoriety as the site of the first Soviet prison camp, which operated from 1923 to 1939. Following that the islands housed a naval cadet-training base for the Soviet Northern Fleet. In 1992, the Solovetsky Islands were included on the World Heritage List âas an outstanding example of a monastic settlement in the inhospitable environment of northern Europe which admirably illustrates the faith, tenacity, and enterprise of later medieval religious communities.â
Rail tickets can be bought online at Russian Railways (www.rzd.ru). A âluxuryâ ticket to Kem costs 10,024 rubles one-way. The Prichal Hotel in Rabocheostrovsk offers a double room for 2,000 rubles per night. Ferry tickets cost 800 rubles one way and can be reserved through the hotel (advisable in summer months as the ferry fills up quickly). The Solo Hotel offers double rooms at 3,200 rubles per night. Breakfast is extra and served in the hotelâs restaurant. Other hotels include the higher priced Solovki, Solovetsky Sloboda, Priyut, and Prichal, and there is a camping site as well. The only restaurant in town (outside of the hotels) is the Kayut is run by a local cooperative. The menu offers 3 pages of food choices and 6 pages of drink options. Rooms in private homes can be rented from vendors at the ferry dock or the information center (cost about 800 rubles per night). The Solovki Hospitality Center (www.welcome.solovky.ru), and the information office of the Solovki Museum, offer an outstanding selection of excursions to the monastery, gulag museum and other parts of the islands. The guides are top class albeit the guidance is all in Russian. Nobody accepts credit cards and cash is needed to settle bills. MTC has good phone and data reception and there is an internet cafÃ©. There are no ATMs though Sberbank has a branch with limited days of service. Mobile phones can be topped up at a Qiwi terminal in one of the islandâs produkty stores.