26 October 2010

Solovki Islands

(Recap from Russia #1 - August 9)
In an effort to share with you the joys and challenges of traveling through Russia, I am going to use part of our downtime in Bulgaria to catch up with our tales. Let's take a trip back to early August . . .

We left St. Petersburg on humid Monday morning heading north by train. My initial plans were to visit the islands of Kizhi or Valaam, which are both beautiful islands with rich religious histories and situated in large lakes north of Petersburg. Kizhi is known for it's all-wooden churches and structures that date back hundreds of years. Valaam was a self-sustaining colony of monks that hosted artists-in-residence. 

I had already visited both islands on a four-day river/lake cruise back in 2001 and decided to skip these sites this time around. We have a policy of not paying to go into churches. While the islands are beautiful, there is no appropriate way to appreciate this beauty, either by hiking or camping. 

Instead we opted for something more remote, more rugged, with a harsher climate and even harsher history: Solovki Islands. 

This set of seven islands lies 3.5 hours in the middle of the White Sea, at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Monks moved to the islands centuries ago precisely because of it's remoteness. During soviet times, the monastery was, as typical, turned into a gulag. This particular one became known as the setting for Solzhenitsyen's notorious Gulag Archipelago. But first we had to get there.

We left Petersburg because it was hot. We went north, hoping for respite. Spending 17 hours on a cramped, windowless train wagon with 54 other people was what we found instead. I wore only running shorts and ate ice cream at every train stop. To top it off, we arrived at Kem at 3am but the boat to Solovki Islands didn't leave until 8:30. 

We did what any seasoned and poor backpacker would do: we unpacked our sleeping pads, found a spot on the train station floor where we wouldn't be trampled, and went to sleep. It was actually more miserable than the train ride. There were mosquitoes. The lights were on. Trains rumbled by constantly. There was the grossest bathroom Kristin had ever been to. I peed outside behind some trees.We didn't want to oversleep and miss the once-daily boat ride. The floor was filthy and there were stains that could be blood, puke or who knows what. We tried to wipe the floor clean with a rag, but really, what was that going to do? And there we slept. Sorry moms - this isn't what you want to hear about your kids. It's also not what most people expect on a "honeymoon." 

We caught a bus to the ferry, where we met a massive horde of Russian travelers. I forgot that August would be high season for Russian travelers and that even a remote site like this could get heavily touristed. On the smart side, I told Kristen not to wear sunglasses, not to talk, and to push into the crowd. We smooshed our way to board the boat where we paid the ticket guy 500 rubles each - the Russian price. My Russian had paid off, literally, as foreigners had to pay 850 rubles. Finally, something good happened to us! This was a savings of $17, one way. 

Solovki Monastery as seen from the water

Three and a half hours later, we arrived on the main island. We didn't pay to see the inside of the monastary. I spent an hour just trying to find out information, only to discover that the only public toilets were death traps, and that there were no maps of the island, and that there was only one legal place to camp. We peered down the road to see a line of scruffy Russian backpackers walking towards an explosion of color that can only be described as the Russian equivalent of an impromptu Rainbow Gathering. Tents, drying clothes, fire pits, and people crammed together. We could only imagine the late nights of vodka, cigarettes, sitting around the campfire singing songs and playing guitar. This was not the wilderness we had come for.

So, Kristin and I did what we normally do when we find established campsites to be a mess of hideious human impact: we stealth camp. Yes, we secretly camp illegally. We hiked down the road several hours, tested a few lakeside places and eventually found something that would be minimal-impact and out-of-site. 

Mesquitos were still horrible, but we managed to find a spot without biting ants. We read, stretched, cooked and talked. We made the best of it. 

The next day we packed up, walked back to the main monostary and then continued south. We were going to some special rock (I can't remember the name) and I don't know if we found it or not. We did find a deserted rocky peninsula where we had a lovely lunch next to the sea. I also am responsible for touching a 2-meter high cairn, which promptly fell over. Fortunately for you, Kristin captured this on camera. 

That afternoon we were back in the blah city of Kem at our favorite train station. We hopped on the overnight train to Apatity - our next stop in the Arctic Circle

Kristin and the Monastery

Sunset from our campsite reminded us of the Boundary Waters

Renovating the entrance to the monastery. I didn't realize how much wood was carved by hand and I wish they didn't paint it white, so the carvings would stand out more. 

I am wearing a new textile pattern called "mona-flage."

To the side of a small trail we found these shoes, placed nicely next to the birch trees. I imagine a Princess will return for them some day. 

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