Russia part I - Murmansk and Kola Peninsula

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June 26th 2008
Published: July 2nd 2008
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Welcome to MurmanskWelcome to MurmanskWelcome to Murmansk

Monument where you enter Murmansk

The sun hasn't set on this town yet

I (Ake) had some time on my hands now after Emma and I came home from Dublin and had nothing planned. So I went to Murmansk in northern Russia. Emma had to work and couldn't join me. But she wasn't interested in going there anyway. She couldn't see the point in visiting Murmansk.

When I arrived at Murmansk airport I was asked by a man I met there why I decided to go to Murmansk of all places. I happily answered: "Why not?" and he laughed. I explained that to us Murmansk actually is sort of exotic. He didn't agree partly because he is from Russia and partly because he did his military in Murmansk and spent two years there then. Well Murmansk being exotic really is one of the reasons I decided to go there. The location is another reason. Murmansk is far north of the Arctic Circle. Much further north than I have ever been before. Another reason for me to go to Murmansk is that Murmansk is in Eastern Europe and I like Eastern Europe.

Well, to put it simple, going to Murmansk is my way of
... and the reason why Murmansk is so special... and the reason why Murmansk is so special... and the reason why Murmansk is so special

The location is what makes Murmansk such an interesting place in the first place
having a good time. Some people watch football when they want to have a good time. I go to Murmansk.

So how is that I say Murmansk is exotic? When I grew up in the 70-ies Murmansk was in Soviet Union. You couldn't really travel in Soviet Union back then. Most tourist visits to Soviet were guided tours and then you could only go to carefully selected places such as St Petersburg (known as Leningrad back then) and Moscow. Visiting Murmansk was either difficult or totally impossible. Today things are less complicated. It still isn't by any means simple to go to Murmansk, or anywhere in Russia for that matter, but it is easier than it used to be. I will get back later on to why it still is difficult to go to Russia.

The thing I wrote at the top, "The sun hasn't set on this town yet", is taken from the title of a song written by Nils Lofgren, a musician I listen to from time to time. The song is actually called "The sun hasn't set on this boy yet", so I have changed one word. What I am referring to is the midnight sun.
The railway station in MurmanskThe railway station in MurmanskThe railway station in Murmansk

The railway station in Murmansk is a grand imposing building in true Russian fashion
Murmansk is roughly 200 km north of the Arctic Circle. This far north the sun doesn't set for over two months each year. The days I visited Murmansk was only a few days after the summer solstice so the sun stayed well clear of the horizon all night. This is actually the first time I have seen midnight sun. Stockholm, where I live, is south of the Arctic Circle so no midnight sun for us. We have the white nights, but not midnight sun.

When I sleep I am unusually sensitive to light. So the first night in Murmansk I had some difficulties sleeping. I learned from that and the other nights I wrapped my sweater around my head. So the other nights I slept a lot better.

Here in the beginning I'd like to tell you a little funny episode. One morning I met a man when we were both eating breakfast. We started talking and I would like to recite what we said to each other.
The Russian: "Where do you come from?"
Ake: "I am from Sweden. And where do you live?"
The Russian: "I live in here in Murmansk." When I looked puzzled he
Amusement parkAmusement parkAmusement park

A ride at the Murmansk Amusement Park.
corrected himself by adding "I live near Murmansk."
Ake: "How far away then?"
The Russian: "About 100 kilometres."

It is possible that he was just using the wrong word. That he meant to say "not very far from" or something like that. But he said "in" Murmansk when he meant "100 kilometres away". What I am trying to say by this is that with most standards 100 kilometres is pretty far away. But not around here. When he said "near" Murmansk he really meant it. 100 kilometres is not very much for people living here.

I spent a total of six days in Murmansk. But you might say that my trip to Murmansk lasted much longer than that. You might argue that the trip actually started more than one month before I even left Sweden, namely at the same minute I booked the flight tickets. Because to visit Russia you need a visa and arranging one can take time and be an adventure in itself. Basically the Russians want a lot of documents with your visa application. For instance they want you to book accommodation for every night you are in Russia and they want you to show
Amusement park Amusement park Amusement park

A ride at the Murmansk Amusement Park.
a certificate that you have a valid travel insurance. I have been thinking about going to Russia for several years but I have kept putting it off just because all the arrangements needed to get a visa. It is not difficult to get a Russian visa but it is time-consuming and annoying. But this time I decided to have a go and fight myself through all the Russian bureaucracy and go to Russia. I have been to Russia once before. That was 10 years ago. I think it will be 10 years before I go again. I can't see the point in spending several weeks arranging a visa when I can go elsewhere with only my passport.

As I said before, to get a tourist visa to Russia you have to book and pay all your accommodation in advance. Booking accommodation is not very difficult on your own but getting a certificate that proves that you have booked accommodation is harder. I started by trying to arrange the visa on my own. After two failed attempts to get in contact with different hotels in Murmansk I had to give up however. I was then forced to let a travel
The lighthouse Monument The lighthouse Monument The lighthouse Monument

This monument is to honour the people who have died in the Barents Sea in peacetime
agency help me. When I found the right travel agency it was all very simple. They booked the hotel, arranged all the documents and they even applied for the visa for me. They apply for maybe 20 visas to Russia each day so they know the routines pretty well.

Getting the visa was only one of the obstacles on the way for me before I could go on this trip. One other was surprisingly the flight tickets. I was booked on a flight via St Petersburg. But the flights I was supposed to be on where cancelled and I was then rebooked on other flights. These flights had really crappy schedules so I tried to have them changed. The company I bought the tickets from did change them but managed to mess up the booking. I was lucky to notice that the booking was wrong. Otherwise I would have been stuck in Murmansk. That would have been horrible.

That was a short recount of all that happened before I even left Sweden. Now to the actual journey.

In the days when I was in Murmansk the weather was unusually good. One day it was raining a little

A monument raised to commemorate the struggle against the Nazis in the Second World War
bit in the morning and that day the temperature was only 14 degrees Celsius as the highest. But the other days the temperature was between 17 and 20 degrees in the day and it was sunny most of the time. In fact I had to put on sunscreen a few days to avoid getting a sunburn. In fact it has been warmer here than in Dublin where Emma and I was only a week ago. It's a bit strange that when I travelled 2500 kilometres towards the North Pole the weather got considerably warmer. I guess it was only a coincident but it is odd nevertheless.

There are quite a lot of foreigners visiting Murmansk every day, but only a tiny fraction of these are tourists. Murmansk has a lot of business contacts with mostly Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. So in the hotel I heard the various Scandinavian languages spoken all the time. But outside the hotel I heard nothing but Russian.

To be honest there isn't many typical tourist sights in Murmansk. The following is what people normally would see and what the tourist information might say are the points of interest in town.

View over MurmanskView over MurmanskView over Murmansk

View over Murmansk

* The harbour - it is the reason why Murmansk exists in the first place. It is free, or almost free, from ice all year around thanks to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. It is not a pretty place but it is worth seeing. Especially since there is a small, but not insignificant, chance that you might see a nuclear powered ice breaker in the harbour. I didn't see one though.

* Alyosha - a monument raised to commemorate the struggle against the Nazis in the Second World War. The Murmansk area saw its fair deal of action during the war. Murmansk is strategically important and the Germans wanted to have control over the area.

* The lighthouse Monument - this monument consists of three parts actually: a church, a lighthouse and an anchor. The monument is to honour the people who have died in the Barents Sea in peacetime. When I came to the lighthouse there was guide there who explained the monument. The purpose and the symbols and everything. He explained it in surprisingly good English too. He had even learnt to say a few sentences in Swedish. That was a guy who takes
Landscape on the Kola PeninsulaLandscape on the Kola PeninsulaLandscape on the Kola Peninsula

View from the road when I travelled through the Kola Peninsula
his job seriously.

* St Nicholas Cathedral - a cathedral. Not anything spectacular, but still worth visiting if you happen to be around. The cathedral looks new simply because it is new. Back in the Soviet Union churches were pretty much banned. Many churches were torn down or scrapped of their interior and used for other purposes. So many of the active churches today are constructed and furnished after 1991.

* Fine Arts Museum - I didn't bother to go there. I can see art elsewhere.

* Museum of Regional Studies - They had displays on various aspects of life on and history of the Kola Peninsula. But everything was written in Russian so I didn't understand much.

* Museum of the Northern Fleet - In Severomorsk, north of Murmansk, the Northern Fleet has its headquarters. The navy is very much present in Murmansk as well. All the displays in the museum are in Russian. I could work out some of it but my Russian is too limited to understand all of it. The museum guide did her best to explain things to me. She used Russian, English and French and I could pick up bits
Landscape around MonchegorskLandscape around MonchegorskLandscape around Monchegorsk

Years of pollution has turned the nature around Monchegorsk to this sorry state. Dying trees and only the very toughest plants can live
and pieces. They did have a display on the Kursk accident in the year 2000. That was the most interesting to me. I did also spend some extra time on the display on when the German battleship Tirpitz met a Russian submarine.

* Oceanarium - I didn't go there. Dolphins in a pool I can see in SeaWorld in the US. Here I can't be bothered.

To these "normal" tourist attractions I would like to add three more

* The Midnight Sun - it beats most of the attractions in town to be honest. It is not unique. You can see it in northern Scandinavia and in the northern parts of Canada and in parts of Alaska too. But it is cool to have seen it.

* The Murmansk Amusement Park - Murmansk has an amusement park. It is designed for children and it is very small and simple. But it is very cute and I really enjoyed walking around there for a while.

* Various communist symbols and other memorabilia from the days of the Soviet Union - I really enjoy looking at Lenin statues, the hammer and sickle symbol

In the most common direction of the wind from Monchegorsk very little can live. The pollution has totally devestated the environment.
and other leftovers from the communist days. I will make a separate blog entry on this.

One day when I was in Murmansk I rented a car and did a sightseeing tour across the Kola Peninsula. There were a few places I had set out to visit but mainly I took this little tour because I thought it was nice to get out of Murmansk for a day.

One of the main attractions of the Kola Peninsula is the nature. There are many places excellent for hiking, skiing, fishing etc. But unfortunately it is somewhat complicated for a solo traveller to arrange a wildlife experience on his own. And since there are no tour agencies in Murmansk I had to stick to other, more easily accessible arrangements.

The first place I stopped at was the city Monchegorsk. It was not a nature experience I was after when I stopped there, rather a non-nature experience. For several decades a nickel plant in Monchegorsk so heavily polluted the surroundings that today the nature around town looks like a desert. Back in the days of the Soviet Union environmental issues were not high on the agenda. So the

In the most common direction of the wind from Monchegorsk nothing lives. The pollution has turned the area into desert.
nickel plant in Monchegorsk was allowed to continue its operations in spite the hazards it caused to both population and the nature. Today the situation is a lot better, partly because the operation in factory is much lower than before. But it will take many decades before nature has recovered completely. But if you think Monchegorsk is polluted think again. Lake Karachay is a lot worse. But that has nothing to do with this blog, but it makes for an interesting (or scary?) reading.

The town Kirovsk in the central Kola Peninsula was originally a simple mining town. In an attempt to give the town a facelift they decided to build a nice railway station. But when you build a railway station there is something important you must have - passengers. In Kirovsk they sort of forgot about that. They built their railway station but the size of it did not match the need. The railway station was big and imposing but was barely used. It fell in despair and later on a fire damaged whatever was left of the building and effectively put an end to any chance that it would ever be used for its original purpose. Today
The church in KirovskThe church in KirovskThe church in Kirovsk

This pretty little Russian church is in Kirovsk
only walls remains of the railway station.

There were also a few places that I would like to have visited but couldn't. Those are the following:

The Barents Sea - The coast towards Barents Sea is off limits for military reasons. If it hadn't been I would have taken a swim in the Barents Sea. It would have been really cold but such a cool thing to do. It's worth a bit of frostbite to the butt just to do it once.

Kola Superdeep Borehole in Zapolyarny - The town Zapolyarny is off limits for the same reasons as the coast towards Barents Sea. In Zapolyarny the deepest borehole in World can be found. This was mainly a scientific project but without a doubt there was also a political motive behind it. They drilled from 1970 to 1992 and reached the level 12262 metres. OK, I admit that I am a nerd but I would actually have gotten a kick out of seeing that. But it's off limits as I said earlier.

Severomorsk - The North Fleet has its largest base in that town. I would have loved to see a few nuclear submarines but it won't
Kirovsk Railway StationKirovsk Railway StationKirovsk Railway Station

Kirovsk Railway Station was built for a much larger number of passengers than it ever had
happen. Severomorsk is very much off limits. I have to be OK with only looking at the place on Google Earth.

Gulag - I wanted to see a Gulag camp. I know there are more than one on Kola Peninsula. Unfortunately they are hard to find. They don't advertise where the camps used to be and the museums don't mention them either. I guess seeing a Gulag camp will have to wait until some other time when I go to Russia.

So, did I like Murmansk? I did like Murmansk, but then I would probably have liked to go pretty much anywhere in Russia. It is Russia in general I like, not Murmansk in particular. But I am not going back any time soon. It just isn't worth to go through all the hassle getting a visa. So I guess the next trip to Russia might come in 2018 or so.

Would Emma have liked Murmansk? There are a few things she would have enjoyed seeing but not at all as much as I did.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Kirovsk Railway StationKirovsk Railway Station
Kirovsk Railway Station

Kirovsk Railway Station was built for a much larger number of passengers than it ever had
Kursk DisasterKursk Disaster
Kursk Disaster

Display on the Kursk Disaster in the Museum of the Northern Fleet
Midnight SunMidnight Sun
Midnight Sun

It is midnight and the sun is shining
Church adjoining the Murmansk CathedralChurch adjoining the Murmansk Cathedral
Church adjoining the Murmansk Cathedral

This little church is part of the St Nicholas Cathedral in Murmansk
Kola cemetery Kola cemetery
Kola cemetery

This is what the cemetery in the city Kola, near Murmansk, looks like
Rock samples from Zapolyarny Rock samples from Zapolyarny
Rock samples from Zapolyarny

Rock samples from Zapolyarny and the Kola Superdeep Borehole. The deepest is from 12000 meters depth
Russian style architectureRussian style architecture
Russian style architecture

I really like the Russian architecture
Russian style architectureRussian style architecture
Russian style architecture

I really like the Russian architecture. Even when the houses are suffering from years of neglect
Russian style architecture Russian style architecture
Russian style architecture

I really like the Russian architecture. Even when the houses are suffering from years of neglect
Abandoned houseAbandoned house
Abandoned house

I think this house used to be a night club. But it was closed a long time ago maybe because the city's population has decreased rapidly
Prefabricated housePrefabricated house
Prefabricated house

This building was constructed using prefabricated blocks put together. Look at the picture and you can see the joints. This actually looks like the place we used to live in before...
Emma would have liked MurmanskEmma would have liked Murmansk
Emma would have liked Murmansk

I know Emma would have liked Murmansk. You just have to know what button to push...

31st October 2011

Thank you for your blog about Murmansk
I appreciate your point of view that Murmansk may not be beautiful but its there in the far far arctic. I plant to visit Murmansk this coming summer. There is not much about the place, except some trumped up tourist stuff about the sights. I want to know if there is a synagogue. According to what I have read on the web (Wiki), the northern most synagogue is in Murmansk. But I can find no mention of it. Do you know about it? Thank you so much. Parmalee Cover Portland Oregon USA
1st November 2011

Synagogue in Murmansk
Hi Parmalee, I can not say if there is or is not a synagogue in Murmansk. I didn't see any but then I could have walked right past one without knowing it was there. It is a bit difficult to find information on things in Murmansk even if you know what you are looking for. I wish you good luck with your visit in Murmansk. It is not your average tourist destination but that is also what makes it a nice place in my opinion. Ake
12th May 2012

Awesome! I've actually driven there from Oslo. I drove to Bergen, took Hurtigruten to Kirkenes and drove from there. A great journey! As for that "I live in Murmansk" thing - he might have wanted to say that he lives in Murmansk Oblast, not the city of Murmansk itself.

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