RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #6

North Cape 16-August-2004


After having travelled over 17,000km we have finally exited Russia and are now in Norway. What an adventure it has been. Our last newsletter was from Kazan, 1000km east of Moscow.

From Kazan we drove on the M7 highway to Nizhny Novgorod. This is a sprawling city of over 2 million people, the third largest city in Russia. We drove into the city and stayed at the Voltsky Ohsk Hotel which overlooks the Volga River, the longest river in Europe with a length of 3,700km. This is a busy river with barges, ships and passenger ferries plying up and down the river. In the past this was a closed city due to the presence of many industries related to the Soviet Military. In fact this city builds many of the Russian submarines. The Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin is today a tourist attraction with beautiful parks, a collection of military hardware on display and a lovely cathedral. There is also a concert hall but unfortunately there were no performances on the nights we were in town. We really enjoyed strolling through the pedestrian mall which is over 1km in length. The buildings have all been restored and the shops are all up market. We had a lovely Georgian meal at the Café Bochka.

Our next destination was Suzdal. This city itself is a museum piece. This small historic town has well preserved monasteries, convents and churches dotted throughout the town. There are many wooden cottages with intricately carved designs. We visited the Monastery of Saint Euthymius which housed a number of different museums. It was interesting to see old art works being restored.  While we were there the monks played a concert of bells from the bell tower. There was also an exhibition of 12th to 20th century Russian art work.

On our way to Moscow we stopped at Arkhangelskoe, an estate just west of Moscow, labelled as one of the grandest in the region. This estate was developed by Prince Nikolai Yusupov who filled the palace with his private art collection. The grounds and gardens are quite extensive with 18th century classical stone statues. Running through the estate is the Moscow River. Unfortunately the palace was closed for renovations but we were able to see a lovely collection of stained glass art works in another building. While we were there, a nasty thunderstorm developed sending everyone running for cover. It was the heaviest rain we had seen in Russia. When the rain finally eased we were able to make a quick dash back to the car. Just down the road we saw the aftermath of the thunderstorm. For a few kilometres there was a scene of destruction with trees uprooted, cracked in half and branches everywhere. The road had obviously been closed but had been cleared by the time we passed through. This is the first night that we had problems finding a camp site off the side of the road. Being only 22km from Moscow there were new housing estates everywhere. We eventually found what we thought was a quiet place to camp. During the middle of the night, many cars kept coming and going. We think we camped in lovers’ lane. Fortunately, they weren’t too interested in us and we were left alone.

The next morning we drove into downtown Moscow. Once again the GPS was invaluable in helping us navigate this city of 9 million people. Having camped for most of the trip Geoff had surprised Kienny by booking a few nights at the Sheraton Hotel. In actual fact, Geoff had used a couple of Sheraton vouchers so these nights were free. Kienny really enjoyed the hot shower and comfortable bed. What a contrast between Moscow and the other Russian cities we have visited. Moscow has smooth bitumen roads, six lane highways and even the man holes had covers over them.  This city is a hive of traffic, people, tourists, wealth, McDonalds and expensive top model luxury cars. We used the very efficient subway to get around. This is the first city where we have seen lots of western tourists. We strolled around Red Square, walked past Lenin’s tomb, looked inside Saint Basil’s Cathedral and wandered through the very trendy GUM Store. We took a tour of The Kremlin, visited the excellent Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and went on a boat tour of the Moscow River.  Kienny also enjoyed the craft market at Ismaylovsky Park.  On one evening while we were walking in the gardens outside the Kremlin we were entertained by a Military Brass Band playing favourite western hits of the sixties. In front of the band, people in their 50’s and 60’s danced to the tunes of Hello Dolly, Tie a Yellow Ribbon and La Cucaracha. It was a very jolly atmosphere. Who would have thought we were in Russia! We tried to book a show at the Bolshoi Theatre but it was closed for the summer. However the National Youth Theatre next door had a summer season of ballet. We enjoyed watching Swan Lake so much the first night that we went back a second time to the Nutcracker Ballet.

After five delightful days in Moscow we headed north to Rostov which is a small town of around 40,000 people. The Monastery of St. Jacobs is in a quiet rural setting with beautiful country gardens. We also visited the Kremlin which is home to a few cathedrals. Once again, as was the case in Moscow, foreigners pay up to 20 times more than Russian citizens for tourist attractions.  The cathedral is home to many frescoes, murals and paintings of Russia Orthodox icons. There are also exhibits of Russian art works, ceramics, beads, embroidery and monastic robes.

Having seen enough “Onion-Domed” Cathedrals, we back tracked a little and headed for St. Petersburg. Along the way we went through Klin. This was where Tchaikovsky lived for eight years before he died in 1893. It was here that he wrote The Nutcracker Suite, Sleeping Beauty and the Pathetique Sixth Symphony.

We thought Moscow was a great city but we were even more impressed when we got to St. Petersburg! This city of 4.6 million people was established by Peter the Great and was once the cultural and economic capital of Russia. Again we drove into the heart of the city and stayed in an apartment just off Netsky Avenue, the main street of St. Petersburg. What a great place this was. It was very comfortably furnished right down to a washing machine which we had not seen for the last two months. It even had secure parking and from here we were able to walk to many of the tourist attractions. Alex and Okhsana (http://www.spbapt.com) manage 32 rental apartments, all centrally located in down town St. Petersburg and are very friendly and helpful people and speak very good English.

St. Petersburg is a city of canals. It is hard to imagine that St. Petersburg was a giant swamp less than 300 years ago. Peter the Great is credited to have transformed this insignificant swamp land into a charming and glorious city in the early 1700's. The ensuing years saw St. Petersburg rivalling Moscow as the capital city of Russia. Succeeding monarchs followed in Peter the Great's footsteps, continuing to build many grand palaces, government buildings and cathedrals with architects and skilled craftsman from all over Europe. Hence today, we are privileged to behold the beautiful architecture and sculpture of the Hermitage, Peterhof, St. Isaacs Cathedral, the Church on Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum, and Peter and Paul Fortress along with the pristine canal waterways and other historical buildings. Water ways take up 10% of the city which has 40 rivers and 20 canals, with a total of 42 islands on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Finland. We could not stop admiring the beautiful buildings and historical palaces and churches. St. Petersburg is  home to the world renowned Hermitage Museum. This is one of the world's most monumental arts collection housing around three million pieces of treasure. The arts collection spans five buildings. The buildings themselves are a museum piece. Each room is lavishly and ornately decorated from floor to ceiling with chandeliers, gold trimmings, angelic wall friezes and parquetry floors. When one gets tired of looking at the Rembrandts and Picassos, one can always look up and admire the room itself.

One’s visit to St. Petersburg would not be complete without going to see the Opera or Ballet at the world famous Mariinsky Theatre. It is one of the world’s oldest theatres, a symbol of Russian culture and is home to a number of opera and ballet stars. There we enjoyed an opera called the Golden Cockerel which is a colourful comic folk opera based on one of Pushkin’s fairy tales. We bought one of their cheapest tickets for AUD$15 each. We were seated five floors up and had a grand view of the chandelier and the theatre itself.  The opera was sung in the Russian language but the tourists in the audience were able to follow the storyline with the help of English subtitles hung high up above the stage. The downside was that when the cockerel was perched on its stand at the back of the stage, we could only see its legs. Apart from this, the opera was magnificent.  We enjoyed it so much that we went back on our last night and saw the Manon, a ballet by Jules Massenet. This is a more contemporary ballet charged with emotion and drama. We particularly enjoyed the music. Since our apartment was right behind the Pushkin Theatre, we also decided to go and see the ballet, Sleeping Beauty. Once again another excellent performance! The Russians certainly know how to put on a good show.

On a lovely sunny day, we took the hydrofoil to the Peterhof Estate. This estate contains a number of palaces and parks of architectural importance and is world renowned as the capital of fountains. There are a total of three cascades and 144 fountains. Most impressive and most opulent is the group of fountains and golden statues and cascade at Peter’s Palace. No words could adequately describe the splendour of this fountain! Peterhof was destroyed in World War II by Stalin to prevent the Germans celebrating their victory there. It was reconstructed from photographs and maps in the 1950’s. Today it is very popular with both local and overseas tourists.

We also really enjoyed visiting Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is the world’s third largest domed church after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Its interior is decorated with columns of marble, malachite, lapis lazuli, porphyry, jasper and other granites. It is very grand and very impressive with beautiful mosaics and paintings finished off with lots of gold trimmings.

Another St. Petersburg attraction is the Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood. This church apparently got its name because it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881. During Soviet times, it was used to store potatoes. It was renovated in the 1990’s and was re-opened as a museum in 1987. The exterior of the building is ornately decorated with multi coloured Onion Shaped Domes with gold-coloured frescoes on the sides of the building.

Our last day in St. Petersburg saw us taking in another museum, the Russian State Museum. This museum houses a large collection of artwork by Russian artists, past and present. Fortunately, there are many comfortable cushioned seats for one to sit and contemplate the story behind the picture. Kienny thinks it’s a great opportunity to rest one’s weary legs! Visiting museums can be hard work!

Despite St. Petersburg having the reputation of being pick pocket capital, we did not encounter any problems. We read in the English newspaper that the police have increased their presence on the streets in an attempt to reduce petty crime, so hopefully this is paying off. There is certainly a lot of wealth in these two cities. One of things that struck us  the most was the disparity in wealth between European Russia and Eastern Russia.

In the Siberian East, the atmosphere feels more rural. The infrastructure is far less developed due in part to the harsh Siberian winter and impenetrable forests,  swamps and rivers. Residents in rural Siberia do not have the luxury of running water. They draw water from communal taps or wells. Many are subsistence farmers, a few work the cafe's, Magazines and garages. People in the rural East live simple lives and are warm, friendly and very giving despite having very little. As wild as it is, Siberia has quite an attractive charm to it. By contrast, there is a vast amount of wealth concentrated in Western European Russia. The big cities with millions of people are abuzz with commerce, up market hotels and restaurants. The infrastructure, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, is well developed and extensive. There are many entrepreneurial city folk and yuppies who drive Volvos, Mercedes, Audi and BMW's. McDonalds and other up market department stores occupy prime real estate in the business centre, while the humble Magazines are relegated to the city outskirts. Life seems much more sophisticated. As tourists, we are no longer a novelty. Gone are the bear hugs and gifts of watermelons and chocolates. Instead we have to keep an eye out for pick-pockets and thugs.

In Russia there are regular police check points on the outskirts of most towns. We had heard from other travellers that the police check points are more aggressive in the Moscow, St. Petersburg area. Fortunately we did not have any problems. In fact after leaving Moscow we were only stopped once by the police. The young police man was just inquisitive about our travels and did not even ask to see our passports or vehicle papers.

From St. Petersburg we headed north to Murmansk which is a sea port on the Barent Sea. This 1300km stretch of road was the best we have travelled on in Russia. I guess our expectations have changed. By Western standards the road was not good, but considering the roads that we have driven through in Russia, this road was a super highway. There were the usual police check points but as has been the case since leaving Moscow we were not stopped.  Along the way, we stopped at a roadside parking bay which had a tall vehicle ramp. Geoff took the opportunity to remove the grass that had collected between the fuel tank and bash plate. This had to be done before customs would allow Troopy to be brought back into Australia. The countryside to Murmansk was one lake or river after the next. It was here that we crossed into the Artic Circle for the very first time. We passed through the town of Moncherovsk which looked like a disaster zone. There was hardly a living thing to be seen. The trees that once covered the area were nothing but small stumps and there was not even a blade of grass to be seen. At first we thought there must have been a massive bush fire. We asked the locals what had happened and they pointed to the factories with tall chimneys. We have since read that the destruction is due to environmental pollution from the plant that makes materials for catalytic converters which ironically reduces pollution from western cars! Later we saw another similar environmental disaster at Nikel, just near the Russian/Norwegian border.

After a two day drive, we reached Murmansk which is situated mid- way between Moscow and the North Pole and is the largest city in the world north of the Artic Circle. We visited the Museum of the North Fleet. We had an interesting time looking at the history of the Russian Navy. We saw exhibits of old naval uniforms, naval hardware, rations, maps, metal detectors, leaflets, posters, flags and medals of decorated navy officers.  Many of the displays were focused on WWII however there was also an exhibit in memory of the recent sinking of the Kursk submarine which was based here. The port of Murmansk is a very hilly city with lots of high rise apartment blocks, many painted in bright colours to contrast the bleak chilly weather.  We started our journey through Russia in Vladivostok, home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, and have finished our travels through Russia in Murmansk, home of the Russian North Fleet.

From here it was a short drive to the Russian border town of Borisoglebsk where we crossed into Norway. Border formalities at this small but modern border crossing are straightforward and friendly. It took us around 30 minutes to exit Russia and about 5 minutes to enter Norway. Having been through a country where the seal of a rubber stamp was all important, we were somewhat surprised when the Norwegian immigration official asked if we would like an entry stamp in our passport as a souvenir of our visit!  A short drive from the border, we stopped in Kirkenes to get money from an ATM. We went to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing and were shocked when the cars stopped. In Russia cars never give way to pedestrians even at pedestrian crossings. So for a short time nothing moved until we realized what was happening. The cars had stopped to let us cross the road. We felt silly but this illustrates how accustomed we had become to Russian ways. Diesel in Russia cost us around AUD$0.60 while diesel in Norway costs AUD$1.86 cents per litre, three times more! Fortunately we had filled up on the Russian side with 330 litres of diesel so this should last us over 2600km. We are dreading the cost of filling Troopy up in Europe. Everything is Norway is VERY expensive.

Another thing that struck us in Norway was how clean and tidy everything is. The roads are unbelievably smooth and there are road side stops with public toilets, picnic tables and chairs and rubbish bins everywhere. Norway is very picturesque. Our destination is North Cape, the most northerly point in Europe, is 300km further north than Murmansk in Russia and 100km further north than Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. The road takes us through a number of tunnels, the longest being 7km under the sea linking the mainland to the island of Mageroya. This crossing cost us an amazing AUD$80 for the return trip. The entrance to North Cape cost us an additional AUD$80. North Cape sits at Latitude 71°10.2". One of the first things we noticed as we look north towards the North Pole was that we could see the distinctive curvature of the earth. Having paid so much in entrance fees we decided we may as well camp on top of the world. Troopy certainly looked out of place dwarfed by over 50 other luxury campervans. It was interesting that here in Northern Norway, we have not seen a dark sky at “night”. One would wake up during the “night” thinking that it was daytime and should be getting out of bed. In reality, it was only 3 am in the morning.

On leaving North Cape, we came to a stop because a stretch of the road had been blocked by a land slide. This had only recently happened but yet there were already over 20 cars, 4wd’s and campervans stopped ahead of us. Some people were on their mobile phones trying to call for help. We walked to have a look at the land slide and decided that the road conditions were much better than many of the roads in Russia and Mongolia. So, much to the amazement of everyone Troopy took the challenge in its stride and climbed over the land slide. We had to laugh as here were all these expensive 4wd’s waiting for the road to be cleared. With care, they could have easily climbed over the land slide just like us.

We have had an amazing journey travelling through Russia and Mongolia. We have driven through some really spectacular countryside. We learnt a lot and experienced much. The thing we will remember the most is the friendliness, generosity, warmth and hospitality of the people. We have achieved everything we set out to do. From here, we plan to see friends in Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and the UK before putting Troopy on a ship and flying home to Australia.

For those people who are interested in the nuts and bolts of the trip we will add a ‘How To’ practicalities page to our WEB site when we get home. We hope you have enjoyed reading about our travels. I guess it is now time for us to go back to work and dream about our next adventure.

You can see pictures for this part of our journey by clicking here. Our WEB site containing our travels in Africa and Russia is http://overland.dreamers1.com.

Best wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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