Around Arctic Russia in summer

August 2018

I dreamed about visiting the north of Russia. I read about the beauty of the Solovetski Islands in the White Sea and Murmansk being the biggest city above the Arctic circle. There was less information about the places I had to cross to get there, in this case Arkhangelsk and Kandalaksha. That made me very curious. It was a good time to visit because it was summer. It was at the same time a bad time to visit because I had just moved to Moscow and therefore spoke only very basic Russian.

Solovetsky Monastery

Arkhangelsk, 300 km south of the Arctic circle

Being a riverside city founded in 1584, Arkhangelsk has some interesting sights. This far north people built with wood instead of bricks. Therefore only a few old buildings survived, most of them along the pedestrian promenade in the centre named “Prospekt Chumbarova-Luchinskogo”. Here I saw the remaining wooden houses, painted in bright colours. Along the promenade grew flowers. I found it a nice sight in an otherwise grey concrete city. It was a sunny day when I arrived, but rain set in the next day. So I put my waterproofs on when I took a bus to the open air museum Malye Karely. There stood dozens of century-old wooden churches, windmills and houses from around the region. When I left on a small propellor plane the next day, I was glad I had spent time here. And I was excited about the noisy flight over the White Sea.

Solovetsky Islands, White Sea, 165 km south of the arctic circle

The plane landed on a small airfield. I followed my fellow passengers towards a gate on the side of the runway, where islanders awaited us. One of them was a monk holding flowers, some of the women wore scarves. Moments later helpers put the luggage on a truck, drove towards us and handed it out in the field. Then we all walked on a dirt road towards the village, with the famous monastery on the horizon.

The almost six centuries-old Solovetsky Monastery is not like any other European monasteries. It’s an enormous fortified Christian citadel with a thick wall and high defence towers around it. Such a building doesn’t seem to fit with the sparsely populated archipelago. Less than 900 people live here. The archipelago has a dark history, as it was one of the earliest and biggest gulags from the late 1910s to 1930s.

I explored the island by mountain bike. Near the fortress is a small village. Some abandoned rusty ships and vehicles are scattered between the village and the pier. After that it’s just dirt roads and paths surrounded by forests and lakes. It’s a quiet place, with a pioneer-feel to it. Later I went to the pier again to catch the ferry to Belomorsk, where I met a German guy. It was easy to tell he was foreign, since we were the only two passengers who didn’t understand the crew’s instructions. It took four hours to reach Belomorsk. The next day I boarded the train to Kandalaksha.

Kandalaksha, 67 km north of the arctic circle

Kandalaksha is in the Murmansk Oblast, an area with naval and military bases. That might be the reason why authorities keep an eye on foreigners here, including me. A man in military uniform already boarded the train and walked straight to my seat, ignoring the other passengers. He introduced himself as FSB (security services) and checked my passport and papers. Once I arrived in Kandalaksha, a policeman waited in front of my carriage. He already knew my name and escorted me to an office. There he and a colleague asked me about my home, papers and travel-plans, after which they let me walk to my hotel. When I boarded the train to Murmansk two days later, another police officer waited next to my carriage but didn’t say anything. I understand this is not a region where you can just wander around everywhere.

The sun never fully sets here in summer. In the evening I could walk to the beaches at the White Sea and still enjoy the sunlight. The next day I did a hike starting just east of the town. It was a well-marked trail along the coast going up some cliffs. The trail ended at a millennia old symbol made up off stones, called the “Babylon labyrinth”. The town Kandalakhsa is nothing special, but its surroundings are stunning.

Trail from Kandalaksha to Babylon labyrinth

Murmansk, 269 kilometres north of the arctic circle

With over 300.000 people Murmansk is the biggest city above the arctic circle. It’s an interesting but ugly city. The blue sky and hours of sunlight couldn’t compensate the uncountable grey flats and industrial architecture. This didn’t mean there was nothing to see. I joined an interesting tour aboard the world's first nuclear icebreaker called the Lenin. The ship was in service from 1959 until 1989 and is now a museum. The 35 meter tall Alyosha statue was worth a visit as well. From there I viewed the city, river and the endless nature surrounding it.

Like anywhere else up north, English wasn’t widely spoken in Murmansk. Therefore I relied on my terrible Russian. At a restaurant I ordered three courses, and I was both surprised and proud when I got them without any miscommunication.

Practical info on traveling here

Transport: I traveled in August 2018. I flew from Moscow to Arkhangelsk and onwards to the Solovetsky Islands with Nordavia. Tickets can be bought by credit card through their website www.nordavia.ru, which works in English. I then took the ferry “Сафир / Safir” to Belomorsk. It’s a big ferry and tickets are sold on board. I heard the boats to Kem are small and easily sold out. The rest of the trip I did by train. I booked the train tickets by credit card through the English version of the Russian railways website eng.rzd.ru.

Getting to Malye Karely from Arkhangelsk: It takes about an hour by bus to get from Arkhangelsk bus station to Malye Karely. I found the bus numbers and timetables through the free app “Yandex transport”. The app works in English.

Mountain biking on the Solovetsky Islands: I found a bike rental in the village. It’s a short walk from the monastery, head towards the (only) shop and you will see it on your right hand. Make sure you get a mountain bike and not a city bike. People told me the trail to the east towards Bolshaya Muksalma is very boggy. I advise to cycle to the southern tip of the main island instead. This trail through the forests with occasional views of the sea is doable by bike, with only a few very boggy and muddy parts. The main road towards the botanical garden up north is easy to cycle.

Hike from Kandalaksha to Babylon Labyrinth: From the city centre you walk South towards the monument “1918-1919” near the beach. From the beach a trail goes uphill along the coast. The trail is easily spotted by the red marks on trees and stones. Then the trail goes down again towards the labyrinth, which is on a small peninsula. I used maps.me for navigation. The monument, the trail and the labyrinth are all on the free app maps.me. It is an easy hike with some beautiful views halfway and at the end.