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June 1st 2011
Published: June 9th 2011
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…as I quickly found to be the case cycling across Arkhangelsk Province which, while suffering sub minus 40C temperatures in winter, is baking hot in summer and plagued by mosquitoes in greater numbers than are found even in the densest jungles on the planet. Any attempt to take a breather, particularly if near one of the many lakes and rivers that interrupted the lush myriad of daffodil-speckled green hues making up the landscape, was soon greeted by the sensation that my skin itself was crawling around all over me.

For much of the 80km between Nyandoma and Kargopol the crumbling, pot-holed, asphalt road dug its way through thick woodland. It was raised about a metre above actual ground level and the reddish-brown waters of the swampy forest floor collected in long, still, murky ditches on either side. In the five minute intervals between vehicles passing, usually lorries piled high with tree trunks, the only unnatural sounds were the spinning of spokes and clicking of my chain, quiet enough to leave the tapping of woodpeckers, hooting of cuckoos and general chirpy chatter of the local birdsong very much audible.

Those villages that were not situated down dirt tracks away from the main road were haphazard clusters of wooden shacks and log cabins, their residents frequently to be seen herding cows in the nearby fields or bent double toiling in a vegetable garden in front of their home. Several such settlements spread out along the road out of Nyandoma but then came a 50km stretch with only one tiny hamlet in the middle before signs of habitation began to reappear shortly before Kargopol.

Having not known there would be such a lack of settlement along the road I had not stocked enough water for the entire day and ran out before halfway. Descending to the river on whose banks the houses of the midway hamlet snuggled, empty bottle in hand, I was dismayed to see that its waters glowed with the same reddish-brown, swampy tint as that in the roadside ditches.

I heard a noise to my left and looked round. A skinny man with a fishing rod in hand was climbing down to the bank next to me.

"Excuse me,," I asked, "do you know if there's a shop here?"

"I don't," he replied, "I'm not local either. But I doubt it - I mean, look at the oplace!"

"You don't happen to have any water?" I tried hopefully. "I'm going to Kargopol by bicycle and my water's run out."

"Sure," he said, putting down his rod, "come to my car with me and I'll fill you up. It's from a spring, I hope you don't mind?"

"No, that's great!" I answered, smiling gratefully, turning to walk back up the sloping river banks with him.

"In principal you can drink the water everywhere here though, even from the swamps. It's all natural."

I cycled on, taking my next break at the bus shelter of a village near Kargopol. Dogs lazed in the sun on its dusty streets and my slightly elevated position at the side of the main road an elderly voice could be heard drifting up from one of the houses in the village below, heatedly asking a younger person to find something quickly. A pair of girls hung around in the centre of the trafficless main road and eventually plucked up courage to ask me for a cigarette. The usual beauty genes passed on from generation to generation of Russian females had somehow missed these two out entirely: tight, faded T-shirts accentuated bulging bellies and eyes squinting against the sun peered out from plane, rural faces. Their conversation as they wandered off down the road, though cheerful, was littered with the vilest swear words Russian has to offer.

I stayed the night in a cheap hotel in Kargopol, a town of 11,000 also made up mostly of wooden homes but with a spattering of brick and concrete thrown in too. First chronicled in 1146 as one of the northernmost Slavic settlements, it later became one of the richest towns in Russia, forming part of the trade route between Moscow and the country's only sea port, Arkhangelsk, on northern coast. Still later, when Peter the Great won access to the Baltic Sea, a much quicker route to Europe, and founded St. Petersburg, Kargopol faded into insignificance. It became, as it is today, a town far away from the nearest railway line and with bus connections that leave only a few times a week.

I spent several hours wandering the tree-lined banks of the Onega River and the town's peaceful streets, dotted with modest but pleasing churches from its 16th and 17th Century heyday. After lunch, keen to make up lost cycling time, I went to the light blue-painted log bus station to ask about transport the following day to Lyadiny, a village 35km further on my planned route.

"There's a bus today at 17:15 or after that... hmm, you'll have to wait three days, the next one's on Friday," the woman behind the counter replied.

"And what about to Saunino?" I asked, This was a village 5km away that I had been keen to visit while here.

"There's a bus at 3pm today."

"What time does it come back to Kargopol?"

"It doesn't today."

I made up my mind to go to Saunino, take a quick look around and hitch hike my way back. I hurried back to the hotel and packed my bags so that I would be ready to get straight on the bus to Lyadiny after I returned.

"Is this one going to Saunino?" I asked people standing in the queue for one of the two tiny, cranky, white buses standing outside the station.

"Saunino? No, definitely not..."

"Saunino? No idea..."

"Saunino? Never heard of it..." came the replies.

"Saunino? Yes, this one," said the first person I asked in the queue for the other bus.

For a few kilometres we bounced and jolted slightly over the ageing asphalt of the road out of Kargopol before turning off and starting to bounce and jolt violently down a dirt track scratching its way in between lush green fields stretching off to the horizon. After a few minuters a dot appeared on the horizon that quickly grew into a brown splodge, in turn separating into individual houses and the wooden spire of a church poking up several metres above their roofs.

I got out and walked through a meadow towards the church and bell tower, built entirely of logs. The sun was shining so brightly that for a moment I was struck by the dazzling intensity and variation of the colours present in my field of vision: the emerald green of the grass, dotted with thousands of daffodils so yellow they seemd almost unnatural, stopped suddenly at the horizon to be replaced by the startlingly deep blue of the sky, entirely cloudless except for one snow white, C-shaped puff that hung just above and to the left of the rustic brown of the church. Off to the right the waters of a small brook gurgled soothingly, a pair of ducks occasionally quacked at one another and all around was the ever-present whine of mosquitoes.

Having photographed the church I walked back out of Saunino and, holding my hand out to a car after ten minutes, caught a ride back to Kargopol.

"What do you do?" the woman driving asked me, her little boy leaning forward from the back, one elbow resting on her seat and the other on mine.

"I teach English in Moscow," I replied.

"Ah, I work in a school too," she said, pleased. "Only in the cloak room, but still..."

"Which school?" I asked. "In Saunino?"

"No, in Kargopol. We don't have a school in Saunino. A bus just goes round the villages every morning picking up children and taking them to Kargopol. Why did you come to Saunino anyway, to look at the church?"

"Yes," I replied, "it's really beautiful. Is it still working?"

"Of course. Did you go inside?" She asked.

"No, it was locked."

"That's just because there are lots of old icons inside. You should have gone into the village shop - the woman there has the keys and can open it for you."

She dropped me off at the hotel in Kargopol, I popped in, had a quick shower and left for the bus station again to make a thorough nuisance of myself with bike and bags on the miniature, overcrowded bus to Lyadiny. The asphalt came to an end completely soon after we left Kargopol and almost the entire 35km ride was spent trying to keep my bike still and not let it hurt the other passengers as the bus' almost non-existent suspension kept us bouncing up and down on our seats, the metallic underside of the bus singing with tho sound of stone after stone being catapaulted into it by the wheels.

"Do you know where Galina is who can organise accommodation?" I asked a group of shaven-headed youths hanging around outside a shop on Lyadiny's dusty main street. The hotel receptionist in Kargopol had advised me to ask this.

"Keep going until the road forks and turn right. She lives in the big, beautiful house just after the fork," one of them replied.

I cycled on a couple of hundred metres, still sweating from the non air-conditioned bus ride, and stopped outside a large, two-storey house built of logs that had been in a multitude of different colours. A man in a blue checkered shirt and beret stood at the top of a ladder near a second floor window fiddling with something I could not see.

"Excuse me!" I called up to him. He turned round. "Is this where Galina lives?"

"Yes," he replied, coming down the ladder. He crossed the tiny lawn in front of the house, exited through a little gate the picket fence that surrounded it and shook my hand.

"I was told she might be able to organise accommodation in this village?" I asked.

He took me inside and introduced me to his wife, Galina, a kindly looking woman around fifty with short auburn pigtails and an enormous smile. It was agreed that for a small price I would stay with one of their friends and have dinner with them. They took me to the house I would be staying in, a hundred metres from two beautiful wooden churches and a bell tower, and I dumped my stuff.

"Is there anyone in the village who can open the church so I can look inside?" I asked as we walked back to Galina's.

"Yes," Galina replied, "go into the cafe. It's just down the road from our house and the woman there has the keys."

"I'm afraid I can't open it now as I'm working," the woman in the log cabin cafe told me. "If you come back tomorrow at 9am I'll be able to."

"OK, great, thank you," I said. "For now could I have a beer?"

I sat down at one of the wooden benches and sipped my drink. The only other customer was eating on his own across the room from me and the woman came out from behind the bar and sat on a stool.

"Feel free to come in here whenever you want while you're in Lyadiny," she said. "Lots of interesting people come in here who you could talk to."

"How many people live here in total?" I asked.

"There used to be two hundred but now only a hundred," she replied.

"And what do they do mostly?" I asked. "Agriculture?"

"No, not really. I mean, people have their own vegetable gardens and animals and so on but not many make a living from it any more since the end of the USSR. Most of the men work felling trees. They do some hunting and fishing too."

"What do they hunt?" I asked.

"Bears, wolverine, moose, all sorts," she replied.

"To eat or sell?" I asked.

"Both," she answered. "But no one really does it to make a living any more. It's more of a hobby. There's a lot more bears these days because there are less full-time hunters."

I finished my beer and strolled back to Galina's where her husband was standing hands in pockets in the garden and looking up at their house, the biggest and most colourful in the village.

"What do you think of my handiwork, Ed?" he asked, pointing at it.

"You built it yourself?" I asked.

"Yes, every last bit of it, including heating and electricity, and those two," he said, pointing at two small huts at the bottom of the back garden.

"Were you born here?" I asked.

"No," he answered. "I'm from Ukraine but I was sent to serve in the army just down the road from here, about 10km away. Anyway, I fell in love, snuck out at night to meet her, married and stayed after I finished my military service. That was 32 years ago."

At dinner the table in one of the small huts was spread with salads, potatoes, fresh fish, cutlets, spaghetti and a large bowl of homemade horseradish. The conversation got onto the subject of agriculture.

"Some rich guy from Moscow has bought up practically the entire village," Galina was saying, "and is practising agriculture pretty much on paper alone but receiving various government loans and subsidies for it. Typical these days under this government - lots of ways for rich people to get richer but if the parents of a baby from a poor family die there's no one to look after it."

The next morning I woke up early due to the 24-hour daylight these northern latitudes were currently experiencing. I had a breakfast of eight pancakes with jam at the cafe before Lyubov, the owner, took me to the church and unlocked the door. She put on a headscarf to cover her hair and we entered. Inside the walls were covered in an array of fading but beautiful icons.

"They're all originals, painted by locals from this village in 1693 when the church was built," she told me. "It was built then but there was a church on this spot for three hundred years before that. You know, Christianity was brought to this region quite late, in the fourteenth century, which is why we still have some Pagan traditions mixed up with the Christian ones."

"What pagan traditions have you kept?" I asked.

"Well in Christian burials God is supposed to give the ground for free to the dead person, but our tradition is to buy the ground by leaving a few coins in the coffin. Also at marriages, when the couple is walking back through the village to their home, we tie lots of shawls together into a rope and hold it across their path. They have to buy their way through with an offering to the earth by throwing some sweets or flowers or whatever on the ground."

"And do you have your own priest?" I asked.

"No," she replied. "Occasionally one gets sent out here but usually we have to make do on our own."

We said goodbye, she insisted that should I ever return I would stay with her and I cycled off down the dusty road on what would prove to be a very long, hot day, my destination, the town of Pudozh, 130km west in the Republic of Karelia. Mosquitoes devoured me every time I tried to rest, the sun burned me almost to a cinder, I ran out of water again and locals in a village looked at me with queer expressions as if I was barking mad when I asked if there was a shop. I began drinking from the numrous lakes and rivers, as Vitaly had recommended, putting everything back into perspective and making the rest of the day much easier. I was treated to the sight of a marten scampering across the road ahead and a golden eagle rising slowly out of the bushes to my right, keeping pace with me for a few seconds before soaring off upwards. I arrived in Pudozh feeling refreshed, exhilarated and ready for a good night's sleep.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Arkhangelskaya Oblast

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


10th June 2011

your lyrical style
i'm pretty sure you could write about the phone book and still make it interesting. as always it's a nice break to be so transported to another land. thanks :) alisa
10th June 2011

Thank you for a nice story! I especially like in your writing style that you actually write down some of dialogues you had - that gives it a better feel.
11th June 2011

Great post, as usual. Your blog jumps out at us and grabs our attention with all the interesting details. Noticed too that your photography is soooo much improved. ;-) New cam?
11th June 2011

Thanks Liliram. Newish camera, since November :)
20th June 2011
Wooden churches and bell tower under restoration in Lyadiny, Arkhangelskaya Oblast

Great picture.
I love the angle and the clouds give it so much character.

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