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
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
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
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.
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill