29 October 2010

Backpacking in the Arctic

(Recap from Russia #2 - August 14)
 6:05am and we're standing in the empty parking lot in front of the train station. We are 4km outside of the city of Apatity. Even though it was summer, we had moved so far north that the temps still dropped below freezing at night. We donned our down jackets as we scurried along, trying to figure out how to get into town. We found the proper bus and paid our 40 rubles each (about $1.35, which seemed high) and rode. And rode. And rode. 

We were tired and cold and kept riding straight through town, eventually traveling down an empty road out of town. I looked around the bus and realized that there were only middle-aged women on the bus. Peering outside the smudged windows, I could make out a few stack pipes. A factory! We had missed our stop and were joining these fine ladies on their morning commute to work. 

I hustled up to the bus driver and asked him to stop. Right there, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Perfect. 

Well, at least we could still see the town. We walked all the way back and  in doing so, slowly warmed up. We also enjoyed a very peaceful sunrise over the forest, a pleasant buffer between the city and the factory.

<=This is the only Stalin statue that we found in Russia. It was in front of a school,  decidedly unkempt and hidden by trees. Lenin, on the other hand, is still everywhere. I say with absolute certainty from having visited every corner of Russia: in every city the main street is Lenin St. and the central plaza is Lenin Square, which inevitably features a large Lenin statue. Talk about cult of personality!

Apatity is a pretty boring town and we only stopped there to catch another bus, one that would take us to the smaller city of Kirovsk. Kirovsk had the only tourist center that we found in Russia, outside of St. Petersburg, though we didn't know it at the time. We made friends with the guy who worked there, and he helped us rent an apartment for the night. 
One of the "highlights" of Kirovsk according to our tourist map. The area is known for mining and skiing.

We wanted to go hiking in the nearby Khibini Mountains and so we spent much of the day in preparation. Little did we know, that the two nearby shopping markets would have the best chocolate selection anywhere in Russia and the best Napolean Cake. I kid you not. This was our lifeline to sanity and happiness, and we struck gold on our first try?!? Kristin and I must have investigated more than 300 super markets in all parts of Russia. Even in Moscow and Petersburg we did not find a selection as spectacular. 

It was a blessing and a curse. We had a few really great days of cake and chocolate. But then it kind of ruined the rest of our two months in Russia because never again were things this good. How were we to know?

(From Kirosvk - factories, lake, and the mountains in which we would later backpack. In Russia, there is a vast amount of wilderness but also an utter lack of environmental concern. Industrial pollution is the worst I have seen in the world, with the possible exception of China.)

Our hiking in the Khibini mountains was, well, challenging. This easily became our theme for our travels in Russia. We found a good map, which turned out to be the exception in Russia. We took a bus out of town to a run down sanatorium, from where we began our walk on the gravel road. Families passed by in their tiny Soviet-made Ladas, with trunks crammed full of buckets of wild berries, apples, and potatoes. 

After literally walking around an open-pit gravel mine, we entered "wilderness." For the next three days we only saw one set of campers, but we came across several remnants of soviet industrial exploration. We also learned that Arctic weather is brutal. The creeks dried up at times. There was almost no vegetation. And trails, well, lets just say we had to use our imagination. 

We returned on day three after our tarptent became a pancake, with two trekking poles poking through the roof fabric. I had done my best to make sure the tent was bomb proof, but the wind shifted and the broad side of our tent acted more like a kite. It was a really, really horrible start to the morning. Piercing rain and sleet, inconsistent but strong winds, no time to make breakfast, and we were walking into the wind and storm.

The rain stopped and we warmed a bit, but the sun never came out. We walked back down the lonely gravel road, took the bus to town, took another bus back to Apatity, and spent two days there. We rented an apartment (500 rubles, or $17) and ate a lot of cake and wrote a few emails and caught up on sleep. Next stop? Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic. 

Walking past the Sanatorium as we stared the "hike." It appeared to still be operational, but maybe people come here in the winter for skiing?

Perhaps the only flat spot in the valley.

I *think* this is the trail.

On top of the mountain plateau.

Near the summit. Not sure what the Russians were trying to do here.

The clouds provided us with constant excitement.

The only form of life that we found on our trek.

Good morning world! Kristin likened this place to Mars.

Now let's go home.

So we can have our cake and eat it too.

1 comment:

  1. It's so fun reading your adventure re-caps! You really bring the event to life for me. I like re-living our excursions but I feel that I will be doing it a lot for the rest of our lives. So, let's keep having adventures so I never have to feel too nostalgic.