Through the fading autumn forests

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October 3rd 2011
Published: October 6th 2011
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The world is changing. The trees of the endless Russian forest, a few weeks ago alive with a million vibrant emerald hues, are now becoming dull. The ominously brooding greys and blacks of the sky, from which just over a month ago the sun beat down on us at over 30°C, do not allow the leaves to show off their potentially glorious array of autumn colours. Instead they are lifeless shells, drab reminders of the coming winter that one by one fall from the trees and drift slowly to rest on the forest floor. The number of dark, bare, skeletal branches is rising, soon to outnumber those laden with the last real colours this world will see for six months.

A few droplets of rain trickle down the train window through which I am looking, not a good sign since I will be hitch hiking the muddy back roads of Karelia from village to village over the next two days.

I arrive at Petrozavodsk after a 14-hour ride and catch a bus to the very outskirts of town. A hard-faced woman is the only other passenger to get off here. She walks down the forest-lined road and, like me, holds her hand out to passing cars. One car that did not stop for me picks her up.

After twenty minutes someone in a battered old banger stops. He is going to Derevyannoye, about a quarter of the way to my destination for today, to which no trains and only three buses a week run.

"I live in Moscow," he tells me.

"What are you doing here?" I ask.

"I'm giving away warm clothes and winter boots to people in the villages here. They're all so poor, there's no work and they drink a lot of vodka."

"Do you work for some sort of charity?"

"No, I'm just doing it by myself to help them. My neighbour in Moscow had lots of clothes she didn't need so she gave them to me to give away. Some of my wife's relatives live in this area so I knew the people here were poor and never buy this kind of good quality clothing."

"So do young people from Derevyannoe go and work in Petrozavodsk?" I ask.

"No," he replies. "The wages there are so low that it's not worth it, once you include the bus fare from Derevyannoe to Petrozavodsk. All they can do is collect berries and sell them in town, which works out more profitable than getting a job."

We drive into a village and pull up next to the picket fence surrounding a lop-sided log cabin. A young woman in a dressing gown comes out and Vitaly hands her a pair of felt boots. They exchange a few words before he gets back in the car and lights a cigarette.

"Let's have a smoke together before we go on," he says. "When else am I going to have the chance to talk to a genuine Englishman? I love all your English traditions, your Queen, your great country. I really hope you'll keep all those traditions, I can't bear to see so many immimgrants coming to live in England. If you don't stop letting them come, it won't even be England any more. After those terrorist attacks, you know, if I'd been the government I would have put every single Arab in the country onto a boat, taken them out to see and drowned them."

I sit looking straight ahead and say nothing. It is a painful reminder for me of the one side of Russia I can never come to terms with: the widespread racist views so incongruent with all the kindness and hospitality I have been shown by Russians over the years.

"Our government's far worse than yours though," Vitaly continues. "All they do is steal, steal and steal. We're the number one country in the world for corruption. There's nowhere else where people have to endure the conditions we do. We have such a rich country but we're so poor, they just take everything for themselves and the Moscow elite. Under Communism we were all more or less equal but now look - how can you compare these village houses with luxury apartments in Moscow whose owners go on holiday to Thailand and Turkey? All the people who are rich now, all those billionaires, made their money by ripping people off after the collapse of the USSR on such a scale that the nation's wealth and ability to make money from its resources were concentrated into a very few hands while the rest of us rot and freeze. These houses here don't even have heating and some winters can hit -40°C!"

"They use fire wood?" I ask.

"Of course," he replies. "But you know what? They're not allowed to cut it themselves. You can't cut Karelian forests apart from in certain designated areas. The licenses and taxes are so expensive that no ordinary people can afford to do it themselves, only big businesses can. They cut down the trees at those designated places and send it off to Finland where it's processed then sent back here and sold to locals. It works out more profitable for businesses and the government that way."

"So things were better under the USSR?" I ask.

"We had less variety, less choice of products, but you always had work and you always had food. You never had to worry about that. Now it's all stress, money, work, worrying about how to feed your family constantly and, for these guys, about how to get money to stock up enough firewood for the winter."

He drops me off outside Derevyannoye, we say our goodbyes and once again I stand holding my hand out in the road. The same autumn trees line it as did when I began my journey, the same threatening skies hang overhead.

After ten minutes a Lada draws up, a man in camouflage clothing in the driver's seat. Three inches of water are sloshing around on the floor, various tools and containers floating around in it. The driver is in a bad mood and does not seem to want to talk.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," he shouts down the phone to someone. "What? No, he's not here. I left him in Petrozavodsk, he got plastered like a f**king swine. What? No! Like f**k do I need him..."

He drops me off after a few miles and immediately another car stops. The woman driver also does not seem to want to talk but drops me off a few miles down the road in a village where the first car I see stops for me.

The road degenerates to its worst state yet: a muddy dirt track, the majority of its surface taken up by large, water-filled holes so many in number that it is impossible to avoid them. A carpet of autumn leaves stretches out a couple of metres into the track from the trees hemming it in on either side, their colours no brighter than the orangey-brown mud of the road on this dark, overcast day. The bonnet of the car rises and falls in front of us as the wheels exit one pothole and enter the next.

"I bet you don't have roads like this in England," says Mikhail, the driver.

"No we don't," I reply, "certainly not as the only way to access a place where people actually live anyway."

"Your government actually tries to help people," he says, "whereas ours is just interested in making itself rich. They won't spend a penny on this area, they just steal from it, but they're happy to spend $8 billion on the 2014 Winter Olympics because they'll make a lot of money from it."

"Our government isn't exactly ideal either," I say.

"This used to be such a developed area," he sighs, apparently not hearing me. "Before the Communist Revolution my village had a huge church - you'll see its ruins soon - there were two schools, and everyone could make a good living as fishermen. There were so many and such enormous fish in Lake Onega, the fishermen just used to bring back huge catches and give it away free to anyone who needed it."

"So what happened? Why did it change after the Revolution?"

"I don't know. Too many people I guess, the population increased. Now there's not enough work for everyone, which is why the area's so poor. There aren't enough fish left in the lake either, not enough to make a living off anyway. We like to fish as a hobby of course but you can't live off it. If you come back next summer we can go out fishing together in my boat."

We draw up next to a little picket-fenced log cabin in his village, Rybreka.

"Well, thank you very much," I say, unfastening my seat belt, "it's been nice to meet you."

"Wait," he says, "I'll take you all the way to Gimreka . Just let me pop in and get something for you."

He disappears into his home and comes out a minute later carrying something wrapped in a white cloth. He gets back in the car and hands it to me. Three flat, yellowish pies are inside.

"They're kalitki," he tells me, "traditional Karelian pies."

As I hungrily eat the delicious home-made kalitki, two of which are filled with potato and one with porridge, I continously offer them to him but he refuses, saying he has lots at home.

"How do you like Russia, anyway?" he asks.

"I like it a lot," I reply. "I especially like traveling around other parts of Russia. I live in Moscow, which of course..."

"Of course," he interrupts, "Moscow's dirty, crowded, full of rude people. I wouldn't want to live there."

In Gimreka, a village of ramshackle wooden cabins like every other I have passed through today, I see the log-built bell tower and church spire protruding above a line of trees off to the right of the road.

"Well Mikhail," I say, "thank you very much, really."

"No problem," he replies. "Do you want me to find someone here to introduce you to? They can take you and show you the church."

"I'll be fine, thanks," I answer.

"Ok," he smiles, shaking my hand and getting back into his car. He starts turning it around to drive back the way we came then winds down the window and leans out. "And remember, come back in summer and we'll go fishing on the lake!"

A muddy trail leads through a small field between two roadside houses, dips down with the land then rises up again into the woods behind which I saw the church from the road. I emerge from the trees onto a hilltop where the church, built in 1659, stands next to its bell tower, surrounded by a scattering of graves and a wooden fence. I try to take a few photos but the day is too bleak and, to my horror, the battery warning light on my camera is flashing. I have no spares, so will have to be economical with my photography from now on.

I descend a bumpy track to the opposite end of the village from where I left Mikhail. Just as I rejoin the main "road", dogs snarling and barking at me from behind several wooden fences, a truck rumbles into view heading in the direction I need. I stick my arm out and it stops. He is going to Voznesenye, the biggest village in the area, spread out on opposite banks of the River Svir but with no bridges connecting the two halves. It is 12km from here, but I have another place I want to see first, the village of Shchelyeyki, only 5km away.

"I'm coming back this way pretty soon then will be going back to Voznesenye at 5:30," the driver tells me as I climb out in Shchelyeyki after a short ride, his Russian so drawling and unclearly pronounced that I have to concentrate hard to make it out. "If you haven't found anyone to take you there by then make sure you're standing out on the road at 5:30 and I'll pick you up."

Shchelyeyki's log church and bell tower, joined together by a wooden tunnel, are even more beautiful than I hoped. The spires and cupolas, all crafted in 1783 from the very woods I have been traveling through all day, are in perfect condition.

"Excuse me, do you know who has the keys to the church?" I ask a babushka dressed in old, heavy and faded clothes who is hobbling bent-double out of the gate in her house's picket fence. Several nearby dogs, thankfully fenced in, are going wild at me.

"She's ill," she says, poor hopeless eyes turning to me from a pale, wrinkled face wrapped in a head scarf. "She's been in bed for five days and can't get up."

"Oh," I say, trying to express sympathy with my eyes and voice but knowing it is pointless and false from an outsider such as myself. "Well thank you anyway."

I walk over to the church and start wandering the perimetre of its fence, trying to find the best spot to photograph it from. Further from the road, past the church, I see that the land dips down to meet the flat, grey expanse of Lake Onega, Europe's second largest after Lake Ladoga, also in Karelia.

A dog with a few feet of torn leash dangling from its collar begins following me, sniffing me, whining at me. A little nervous at first due to the reception I have received from other village canines in the area, I go through the gate in the fence and shut it behind me. The dog barks a few times then trots off, shortly to reappear on my side of the fence and start following me again.

Back on the road a car appears after a few minutes and stops for me.

"My name's Vladimir, like Vladimir Lenin!" The driver says, roaring with laughter, after I have introduced myself and answered his questions as to where I'm from and what I'm doing here. "You heard of him?"

I say that I have.

"Vladimir! Like Lenin!" again he guffaws. "So how do you like it in Moscow with all those idiots?"

"I like it," I reply, "but of course I prefer the rest of Russia."

"Of course," he says, "Moscow's not even Russia. It's a separate country altogether. People there only care about money and don't even know their neighbours. Here people care about each other. Then again you don't get roads like this in Moscow and you don't get places like Voznesenye where there's a river on a main road but no bridge across it! By the way, you might be out of luck. I've heard the ferry isn't running today because there's a bit of a wind."

"Well there must be some way to cross it," I reply worriedly. "How do locals do it when the ferry's not running?"

"Well for cars its impossible of course. The river's a few hundred metres wide, really near its mouth at Lake Onega. Locals cross in small boats though. If the ferry's not running I'll help you find someone with a boat and you can give them about fifty rubles to take you across. You see, that's how we live here. The government doesn't help us - it's more important to them to buy their luxury houses abroad before they put any money back into the country. Bridges and roads are too expensive for them."

A queue of six or seven cars waits at the river bank in Voznesenye. Vladimir tells me that if the cars are waiting that means the ferry must be running and leaves me there. For three hours I wait, the number of vehicles gradually increasing and the chill afternoon wind causing me to shiver. Further down the river banks three small rowing boats leave within twenty minutes of one another, but after each I tell myself it is not worth going down there to ask as the ferry will soon be here. It isn't, however, and the small boats stop going.

Thankfully a truck turns up and some sort of workers spill out of the cargo area in numbers greater than I would have thought physically possible to fit inside, around thirty of them in total. Twenty leave for houses in this half of the village while a motorboat from the other half comes to meet the others. I ask if I can cross with them and they agree.

"Look at these waves!" one says to another as the prow of the boat bounces up and down, drenching me every time it hits the water's surface. "That old boy said the ferry wasn't running because the waves are three or four metres, but they're not more than 50cm!"

Five minutes later I am dripping my way through the other half of Voznesenye in search of a hostel I think exists. Eventually, after asking locals, I find it, a two-storey wooden building at the end of a very long, muddy dirt lane with no indication that it is a hostel. I knock on the door and a kindly-looking babushka opens it a few moments later.

"Do you have any space?" I ask.

"Of course we do," she replies. "You're the only guest. Come on in."

She takes down my passport details, charges me 200 rubles for a private room and proceeds to show me around the place.

"Here's the kitchen," she says, pointing into an empty room with a single gas stove.

"Here's the toilet..." she briefly opens the door on a cubicle with a hole in the wooden floor above a cess pit.

"And here's the bathroom." There are no tubs or showers but several buckets of water stand on one side of the room and on the other a few wash basins are attached to the wall. Above each wash basin is a cylinder that can be manually filled with water. In the bottom of each cylinder is a pin that can be pulled out to allow a trickle of water to flow. Half of the wall opposite the door is taken up by an enormous, curtainless window looking out onto the street. I think I will wait until after dark to take my shower.

"If you want to drink some water you can drink that," she says, pointing to the buckets in the bathroom. "It's all good, from the village pumps."

"Do you have a kettle I could use by any chance?" I ask after she has shown me to my room.

"Sure, just settle in and I'll boil some water and bring it up to you," she says.

"And I'm sorry but you don't happen to have any tea?" I ask, realising that I have none.

"We'll find some, we'll find some," she says kindly before wandering off. Five minutes later she is back with a full kettle and six tea bags which she refuses to take money for.

"And where can I smoke here?" I ask. She shows me to a metal can full of filthy water and cigarette buts on a bench next to the top of the stairs.

* * *

The next morning I walk out of the village at 8am. It is half an hour before I see a car but it stops and takes me to a village 10km further. The driver, who turns out to be the man in charge of the ferry, tells me that the previous day it did not run because the waves were three or four metres high.

I walk out of the village he drops me in and stand at the side of the road for forty minutes. Five cars pass but none stop. I decide to keep walking: maybe there is another village nearby or some turnoff providing more traffic that I do not want to be missing. For three hours I walk down the long, winding, tree-lined road. The only sounds other than my own footsteps are leaves rustling in the wind and the occasional squawk or chirp from the mossy, swampy forests on either side, their floors covered in autumn leaves and their depths impenetrable to the eye. The black sky and the dreary, unwelcoming woods soon become oppressive, making me feel more and more alien in this place the further I walk from the village.

Ten cars pass in three hours but none stop. I wonder whether I have walked too far, whether they are not worried about picking someone up this far out into the woods. The distant gurgle of an engine repeatedly brings me a burst of hope, a temporary breather as I stand still and hold out my arm then a crushing disappointment as it drives by without stopping.

Suddenly the black clouds part and the sun gets a look in on the world for the first time all weekend. The transformation in the three things visible to me - the sky, the trees and the road - is shocking as each begins radiating its own colours warmly and intensely. The trees especially, which have until now blurred into one long, bleak line on either side of my sphere of vision, are suddenly glowing with a myriad of vibrant colours, each one different from its neighbours and together representing every conceivable shade of all the colours of the autumn spectrum. Among the radiant golds, oranges, reds, yellows, greens and browns my spirits lift and the world becomes less foreboding.

It lasts no more than ten minutes, the black clouds winning a quick victory over the sun and regaining control of the sky. Once again the world becomes bland and colourless but then a car stops and picks me up.

The driver is a man, perhaps a little younger than myself, who is heading to his village near Podporozhye, a town 80km away where I know there is a train station on the route from Petrozavodsk to Moscow. I, however, have one more wooden church I want to visit halfway between here and Podporozhye, built in 1493 and almost the oldest surviving wooden structure in Russia. I tell Vanya, the driver, that I'll get out at the turnoff to Rodionovo. He responds to that, as to everything I say to him, with mumbled answers or monosyllables so soon I give up and sit back in silence.

"Rodionovo's 2km off the main road," he says when we reach the turnoff. "Shall I take you there?"

"Well if you don't mind then yes, that would be great," I reply.

When we reach the village, situated on the shores of a large lake, the dirt track forks. We choose left and drive for several kilometres in the wrong direction, eventually arriving in another village.

"Excuse me, do you know where the church is?" I ask an old man working in his vegetable garden.

"Yes," he replies, pointing to a tiny cluster of wooden houses clinging to the far shore of the lake, the brown of their walls barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest and fields at this distance. "That's Rodionovo over there."

"If you want to have a look I'll wait for you then we can go to Podporozhye together," Vanya says. I thank him and have a quick walk around the perimetre of the church, situated on top of a hill beyond which the ground falls steeply away down to the lake shore.

"The one in my village is two or three times bigger but only from the 18th century," Vanya tells me back in the car.

"And it's also made of wood?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies, "and it's linked to the bell tower with a kind of tunnel."

"I'd like to see it," I say. "Is your village far from Podporozhye?"

"Just 12km," he tells me.

"Would you mind if I come with you? I'd like to see this church."

"Sure," he answers, "but you'll have to make your own way back to the town. It's quite easy, there are buses like every hour."

The sun comes out again, we pass Podporozhye and turn off the main road to arrive in Vanya's village, Vazhiny, where I photograph the church whose coat of yellow paint gives it a distinctly modern appearance in comparison to the others I have visited. By the time I get back to Podporozhye I have spent almost two hours in Vazhiny waiting for and riding the bus. It is now too late to continue on my journey as planned, hitch hiking back to Petrozavodsk and visiting two more old log churches on the way. I am forced to give up and wait for the Petrozavodsk - Moscow train in Podporozhye.

Everyone in town seems to know one another. Babushki at bus stops laugh uproariously together while onboard all the passengers and the ticket seller seem to know one another, chatting loudly and greeting newcomers with smiles and handshakes. Customer service in shops is the usual provincial Russian mix of extremely rude and extremely friendly.

In the town's only cafe the one other customer buys a vase of vodka and invites me to drink with him. His dress is clearly not local - every young person in town I have seen is dressed in a fake leather jacket and black jeans - and he is very polite and well-mannered. It turns out he is here from St. Petersburg on work. We do shots together, preceding each with a short toast and following them with mouthfulls of food. I tell him about my trip and its somewhat disappointing ending, the last two churches I did not get to see.

"Ah well," he says, raising a shot glass. "To your travels!"

We knock them back and I have some of my salad.

"Anyway," he continues, "at least you've left something to see for next time."

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Karelia


7th October 2011

Seems your goals in travelling have shifted from searching for the most remote or untouched cultures to a kind of pilgrimage to all the oldest churches and temples. Though I suspect these goals are secondary to just the experience of travelling and meeting people itself. The Natural Russian landscape looks very similar to Canada. I count my lucky stars we have a more socialist and democratic government though. (for now)
14th December 2011

More more more!
Now that I have experienced the motherland myself, I find your blogs more intriging and real than ever Ed! I'm envious of your interactions with the locals...great stories! p.s.The wood churches in your pictures are amazing too. Thanks for sharing.
11th May 2014

Wonderful, the best travel blog I have ever read
I have read many books about Russia. This blog is mesmeric, atmospheric and the accompanying photographs are of fantastic quality. I have only just discovered the writing and look forward to further captivating articles drawing me into the depths of the secret world of rural Russia.

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