Petrozavodsk is the capital of the Republic of Karelia. What is the Republic of Karelia you ask? At least that's what I asked. My question is "Am I in Russia or not?" As usual, the answer turns out to be "both". The actual name for Russia is the "Russian Federation", and it's a federation of 21 semi-autonomous republics, with the remainder split up into 68 regions. The republics were part of the Soviet system of making semi-autonomous republics for some of the various ethnic groups. By semi-autonomous, I mean that each republic had its own government that got to vote on everything the Soviets didn't care about. It's sort of like U.S. states in some ways. For example, you should have heard of Chechnya. That's a small republic about 500 miles north Iran, on the coast of the Black Sea. This oil rich region is occupied by a mostly Muslim population. They had two wars with the rest of Russia during the 90s, and well over 50,000 people have been killed by the Russians, funded by U.S. dollars. I'll talk more about Chechnya in the history page.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, all of the republics tried to declare independence. Boris Yeltsin managed to pull them back together with a new federation treaty that gives each republic more autonomy than they had in the Soviet era, but they still have to kowtow to Moscow on a most matters. Karelia is another such republic. In the case of Karelia though, so many ethnic Russians have moved there that for all intents and purposes it's more Russian than Karelian.
The Kola Peninsula (roughly the red rectangle in the map) is an area that has been contested back and forth between Russia and either Sweden or Finland several times. When Peter the Great's forces beat the Swedes in the Great Northern War, the Swedes had to cede Finland as a buffer zone, and parts of the Karelian Peninsula directly to Russia. In a later war, they got part of it back. During WWII, the Red Army invaded Finland. The Finns fought them to a standstill, but had to give up part of the Kola Peninsula in the peace negotiations. Finland allied itself with Germany in WWII hoping to get it back, but never did. At the end of the day, the peninsula just north of St. Petersburg became the republic of Karelia. In practice, the republic has pretty much zero autonomy from Moscow, and most of the inhabitants of the region are Russians now anyway. They have their own capital and some laws that are handled somewhat differently than the rest of Russia, but not by much.
When I was looking at the guidebook for Petrozavodsk, I noticed one thing I wanted to see which was a monument for the Russians killed in the Afghan war of the 80s. It's one of the very few in Russia. The Afghan war is widely considered to be Russia's Vietnam. It went about the same for the Russians as Vietnam did for the Americans. They killed about a million people while losing a few thousand of their own, and gave up after a decade having accomplished nothing. The returning soldiers didn't get any better treatment than returning American veterans got. There are very few monuments, and so this one seemed like something worth seeing as I was just getting ready to try to find out a bit more than I knew about the Afghan war. I had no idea how the events two weeks later would change the whole picture of that war, and turn the Afghan war from a matter of a few minutes curiosity to something more.
A few weeks later, I'd been holed up in my hotel room working feverishly to try to get one project done so I could move on in good conscience when the terrorist attacks in the U.S. occurred. I found out about it within hours just because I happened to see a peripheral reference to it on a completely unrelated web site. Like everyone else, I was completely shell-shocked. My very first reaction was to think it had to be some kind of large and elaborate hoax. I then fired off an email to the only person I knew that works in the area to see if she was OK, and, and spent the next few hours and days glued to the BBC and my internet connection trying to make sense of it (it turns out the BBC is almost as bad as CNN... not quite, but almost).
Several of my friends wrote asking if I was OK, and what my thoughts or my non-American friends thoughts were. I hadn't sent out an update for about a month, so I wrote down some of my thoughts and sent it out to my mail list. That generated a slew or responses ranging from complete agreement to violent disagreement with my positions which are somewhat controversial. I'm not going to go over them here, but if you're interested in the discussion, I collected them together into one document that you can get by writing to
The only thing I want to say here to anyone that's listening is Do not let them win by default. Don't hunker down and be afraid to live. Get on with life. Travel. It was safe before, and it's still safe. Sure bad things might happen, but they might happen at home too. For example, some Americans might avoid a trip to Cairo because it seems dangerous, but staying home in Detroit or Los Angeles leaves you over 20 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime. Don't let them make you sit around at home being afraid, because if that happens they win without you even putting up a fight.
I spent another week or two in Petrozavodsk. My project didn't go all that well, but it got to a stopping point and it got time to ride. I was already pushing my luck when I left St. Petersburg at the beginning of September. Leaving Petrozavodsk at the beginning of October wasn't helping matters any. So I loaded up the bike and my tent and headed north.
I was riding along smugly thinking "I bet these guys in Murmansk don't see all that many touring bicycles", when happenstance intervened again. It frequently steps in to check any excess smugness I'm feeling.
I was sitting by the side of the road eating some
chocolate biscuits nutritionally
balanced high quality food, when these three guys pulled up in a van and got out to talk to me. This is
nothing particularly unusual, it happens all the time. It turns out that they just finished a 3,000 km
tour from Severmorsk (100 km north of Murmansk), through Norway and Finland, to Moscow and St.
Petersburg and back to Murmansk. They did the ride with about 25 riders of all ages from late teens to
my age. It was a supported ride like my ride in Vietnam, so the riders weren't carrying any gear, but
unlike me they did 3,000 km in 30 days. It sounded like an exceedingly cool ride, and I was bummed to
learn about it so late in the game. I could have flown to Murmansk after I hit St. Petersburg and
joined up with them if I'd known about it.
It was a cool meeting, and we spent an hour looking at each other's photographs. They really started me thinking about hitting Norway. My planned route would put me within spitting distance of Norway, and I would then have the choice of going on over into Norway where I didn't even need a visa, or backtracking to Moscow, where I'd already been. I was locked in an endless decision loop about where to go after Murmansk, and I'll explain how I got out of it later. Meeting these guys gave a few points to the whole Norway concept though, and besides that they gave me a really nice Russian cycling hat that I now wear every day to protect my head from the sun. It's a proper cycling hat, so now Etienne can quit picking on me about the bandana I used to wear.
As I headed north, I started noticing some changes in the scenery and changes in my riding. One thing I noticed immediately is that I couldn't cover as much ground in a day as I expected to. My energy level was lower than I expected. I'm not sure if that was just because I spent a month sitting around getting fat and lazy, or if my athletic performance such as it is gets reduced by the cold. I was having to ride with long pants and a jacket all day within two days out of Petrozavodsk. I wasn't doing as well as I do in warm weather, and it seemed comparable to how I was doing during the cold days in Australia, so I wasn't too worried about having become a couch potato. I also started having trouble with my right knee which I injured a year ago skydiving. Avoiding injury is the most important thing for a touring cyclist to keep in mind, so I deliberately kept my pace pretty slow and easy for a while. All in all, I was moving along but not progressing as fast as I would have liked.
As I went north from Petrozavodsk, the countryside started changing noticeably within just a couple hundred miles. The trees started getting smaller and shorter, the character of the woods started looking slightly different, and the colors started looking distinctly more fall like. The deciduous trees are mixed in with evergreens to make a really nice looking patchwork of greens, browns and reds. It reminds me somewhat of New England from my Leaf Peeping days, but only vaguely. The size and mix of the trees is completely different, and the colors are more subtle.
I will say that the Karelian countryside is without doubt the most beautiful wilderness area I've seen on this trip. If you are an outdoor person at all, just take my word for it. Pack up your tent and hiking boots and come here. You won't be disappointed. The scene above will give you a vague idea of what it looks like, but neither my words or pictures will really describe it very well.
I did finally start camping by myself, and I got a few interesting insights. This photo shows my last campsite before it started getting miserably cold and rainy and I decided to pack it in and take the train.
While I was riding for the five days leading up to this campsite, I spent a lot of time thinking about different things. I was frankly still a bit rattled by the whole terrorist attack in the U.S. and my fears that it would lead to an almost certain heavy handed reprisal that would kill a bunch of other innocent people. I also ran into some issues with camping by myself, and after I set up this camp I sat down and wrote this little essay. It will be interesting to see if I leave it in, or it gets purged during final editing for this page.
Over the last few days, I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about fear, so if you'd like to take one of my little digressions that has nothing whatsoever to do with the trip, then read on. If you'd like to get to the next relevant phase skip to the next chapter. By the way, if you think you're going to get some profound answers here, you're out of luck. These are just thoughts, more likely to generate questions than answers, but if you have the great answers then I'd love to hear them.
I'm sitting here in my tent by some river in Northern Russia (don't know exactly where), about 10 days after the terrorist attack in New York. Over the last few days, I've had email threads with several friends, and some of them expressed a new-found fear of flying. I try to reassure them with the logical and reasonable argument that flying is perfectly safe, and much safer than a lot of other activities we routinely engage in, even after the events of last week. However, this approach never seems to work at reducing their fear level. Connie was always afraid of flying, and I tried the same approach many times over the years with equally dismal results. I was always a bit puzzled by this reaction until today. Now, I think I'm starting to understand why rational arguments don't win out against fear, or at least I now understand more about my own reactions. Let me explain.
About halfway through Australia, I bought some camping supplies and decided to camp out more often. I did this partly because in the Outback, it was quite likely I'd get stuck somewhere, and because I wanted to wean myself off of hotels because the presence or lack of a hotel frequently affects the distances I can ride. I also think part of my evolution as a touring cyclist must involve becoming more self-sufficient. I proceeded to drag these supplies through 2000 km of the Outback without ever using them except in emergencies, which just proved how inadequate they were so I replaced most of them in Sydney.
During the ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg, I camped out nearly every night with the Russian cyclists, and got a chance to actually try it out and found it isn't all that hard. It's quite odd. I grew up out in the middle of the woods with the nearest house a mile away, but I have very little prior experience with camping. Most city families go camping to get into the wilderness, but since we already lived in the wilderness, we never felt any need to go camping. The ride to St. Petersburg was my first exposure to camping other than car camping, which doesn't really count.
Now, after St. Petersburg, I decided I needed to camp more often. First the towns were going to be fewer and farther between so I'd have more need, and second I just needed to grow up a bit. The first night out though, a Russian family insisted I stay with them. That was fine, but then the next 4 days had a hotel right handy every time, so I just took it. After that, I got hung up for a month in Petrozavodsk working, and finally headed out a week after the incident.
Now as it turned out, the next two days I had no choice in the matter. I only made 100 km each day, and was nowhere near a town when it started getting dark. In both cases, I simply pulled off the road, found a suitable campsite and bedded down, but I was very nervous both nights. Now today, things got even stranger. I had been riding along feeling kind of bummed out and depressed for 4 days, and was about 10 km or so from a town I planned to stay in. I had lots of time to get there, and thought I'd just stay in a hotel for one night. I crossed a river that was just gorgeous, and things just clicked over into a happy or contented state. Sometimes that just happens. I wish I could make it happen on demand. I got off to take a photo, and then looked at the sun, looked at the countryside and said "this is the place". I thought I could turn this new-found good feeling into a good night.
When I got off the road and started looking for a campsite, I found a whole bunch of places that were perfectly good campsites, but I was afraid of all of them. I generally try to be careful, so my normal safety precautions pretty much consist of getting somewhere that my camp isn't visible from any motor vehicle. This presumes that most criminals are lazy, which is generally true. However, I just couldn't shake the fear of these sites. I wandered back and forth for an hour looking at and rejecting different perfectly adequate sites. It finally started getting dark, and I had to pick one and set up camp. That was the point where I really started to understand it.
You see, I know that camping by myself in the woods is far safer than staying in a hotel in any city. The vast majority of all crimes occur in cities. This happens for a lot of reasons. Partly it's just that when you shove a lot of people together, tensions rise and things happen. It's also because criminals are attracted to cities because they have a denser supply of victims. So I know in my head that there's nothing at all unsafe about camping here, but couldn't shake the fear of it. This comes out just like my attempts to convince someone logically that there's nothing to fear, except I'm trying to convince myself and I know all the arguments. You see, I'm not afraid of flying because I flew a lot with my father when I was young (he was a private pilot), and I've been on hundreds of commercial flights. I'm unafraid of flying just because I'm unafraid of flying. It has nothing to do with their safety record, even though it's very good. I'm not afraid to fly, just because I've never been afraid to fly. However, I am afraid of other things that are just as safe as flying, with no particularly good reason except that I'm afraid of it.
In the end, I'm just making myself face my fears using brute force, but I did find it interesting both that I can succumb to fear over something as trivial as picking a campsite, which I know is perfectly safe, and also that I managed to get through 42 years without quite understanding this very basic thing before. Sure, I've dealt with fear in a lot of ways like everyone has, but I never really connected the dots together in quite the same was as I have today. I didn't explain it well in this segment, but I feel like I at least understand the problem a little better now, although I don't know that I'm any closer to a solution.
It seems to me that fear is the great equalizer, and the great hider. Fear motivates us or de-motivates us, but it very frequently disguises as something else. It took me a while to trace my reluctance to solo camp back to the underlying fear, and once I made the trace back through the routes, I've managed to identify some other things I don't do because of fear. Some things that I don't do because of fear, I thought I didn't do for an entirely different reason. Maybe that's going to be the great epiphany of this trip. That remains to be seen. At any rate, these ramblings are just my way to think through the problem, and try to give you the reader a peek inside one of the experiences of the trip. It will be interesting to see if I let this segment survives my final edit of the page. It's unlikely, but it could happen.
Note: As you can see, it did survive the purge. The only reason to remove it would be fear of embarrassment or something like that, and would defeat the whole purpose of writing it in the first place<g>
The day after I wrote that segment above, I got rained into my tent, and that's where I wrote the first 1/3 or so of this page. I wasn't particularly unhappy with one day in the tent. I bought a super-duper long life battery for my laptop in Sydney, so I had 12 hours of battery power and I'd figured out how to run my stove so I could make tea and pasta. So for ONE day, I didn't really mind being rained into the smallest and lightest tent I could buy.
The next day was still cold (around 5C - 40 F), and it started raining intermittently. I decided that was the last straw, and I'd wasted my opportunity to ride all the way to Murmansk. I don't really mind cold, and I don't mind rain, but I've developed a real aversion to both at the same time. Besides that, I was completely out of chocolate :( So I wimped out and took the train for the last 500 km (300 miles) into Murmansk because it was cold, and raining and I just didn't feel like dealing with it.
On the upside I met an interesting guy on the train that spoke English, so we had a good conversation for a few hours and I got to check out long distance trains in Russia. Based on my experience of two trips, I can say that the service was quite good. The trains are slow, but they're clean, comfortable, warm and I generally didn't have anything to complain about. Getting a ticket for my bike was kind of problematic, and I ended up putting it on an empty top bunk but that's obviously no big deal. All in all, it worked out quite well.
As I traversed some of the cities along this part of the journey, I perfected a technique I call Successive Approximation Navigation, which works surprisingly well (I didn't invent the name. It's an old mathematical and electronic technique). A good example is finding the train station to go to Murmansk. When I decided to take the train, the maps I had of the region were a bit weak. To calibrate that, the best map I had was a road map covering all of Western Europe. Not only that, I knew what highway I was on, but couldn't tell any closer than about 100 km where I was on that highway. No worries though. I simply used my highly refined technique. It basically amounts to stop and ask someone where your destination is. If you can eventually convince them using any tools at hand of what you're looking for, they will give you directions. Follow the part of the directions you can understand from sign language, and then stop and ask again. You can zero in on your destination in short bursts that way. That's how I found the train station. I had a phrasebook that I could use for the Russian word for "Train Station". I just started asking people how to get there. It started on a small sort of roadside cafe I bumped into. They pointed me to a road that I already thought was on the right track, and I just had to ride 20 km east. As I went along, I stopped and asked everyone I bumped into just to be sure I was on the right track. Once I got to the town, I continued this process. When I got to the train station, I had asked directions from 14 people, the last of whom was leaning against the station's ticket office. See... now that wasn't so hard, was it? So much for the stereotype of men being unable to ask for directions!
I went to Murmansk for absolutely no other reason than to get above the Arctic Circle. If you remember, my Russia Plan consisted of "do the ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and then wing it". I thought my planning was improving since this time I had TWO definite points in my itinerary, where I only had one in Australia. So I got on the train and boogied up to Murmansk.
I got off in Murmansk, where it was a balmy 4 C (40 F). I assembled my bike, and headed off to find my chosen hotel. The first thing I noticed in Murmansk is that there were a bunch of women wearing short skirts and pantyhose in weather where I was cold wearing long pants, a jacket and a fleece. I guess I'm not such a tough guy after all. I suspect they were just enjoying the balmy weather before it gets really cold. It really wasn't bad at all riding around Murmansk when it wasn't raining, but it ended up raining or snowing for five days out of the next seven, so riding was contraindicated.
I should point out that in the larger Russian cities, both men and women seem to dress better than they do in Western cities. I don't see anywhere near as many casual clothes as I would expect. I suspect this may be making up for lost time during the Soviet years when good clothing was hard to come by. The other thing very noticeable is that black is IN. A staggering proportion of the clothing I see on both men and women is black. I happen to like black... in moderation. I sometimes felt like I stuck out just because I was wearing a coat that's half blue. I see splashes of color here and there, but someone wearing a red coat or blue pants really stands out.
I digress. Other than the bad weather, I really liked the center of Murmansk. I spent about a week there just hanging out, doing some work and correspondence, wandering the city center and seeing a few tourist things. Like most cities, I either like it or I don't, and I liked Murmansk. Once I got outside the center of the city, it turned into a pretty ugly and dirty looking industrial town full of endless blocks of flats, and I didn't like the outskirts at all.
Murmansk sits in a bay that's warmed by an eddy current from the Gulf Stream, so the port stays ice free year round. The Gulf Stream is a flow of warm water that carries heat from the equator up to the North Atlantic. Murmansk was originally built as an Arctic port to deliver supplies to the Russians at the beginning of WWI. Most of the original settlement consisted of wood buildings built by British engineers. It was again a major port for lend-lease supplies in WWII, and the Nazis bombed it heavily for that. The shipping advantages were still there after both wars, and the Soviets built up the military there so it remained. The nearby town of Severmorsk is the home port for the Soviet's northern fleet, and as such it has the somewhat dubious distinction of being home the the world's largest concentration of military and naval forces. I wanted to go up there and look around, but couldn't get permission. It is possible for an American to get permission, but it takes a long time and has to be done in Moscow, with I assume the proper grease applied to the machinery.
The Murmansk area is an ecological time bomb. There are over 100 nuclear submarines sitting around the bay between Murmansk and Severmorsk, some of which are in very dubious condition. Russia doesn't have the money to decommission them properly, so I assume they'll sit there until some kind of crisis happens. Two of them are reputed to be pretty close to explosions, and either of those would be about half as bad as Chernobyl.
I only went to one museum in Murmansk, and it was interesting. It was interesting partly because I have no idea which particular museum I went to. As usual, the whole story starts with bad planning and worse implementation. I wanted to make a trip out to the town of Nikel, which is about a 6 hour bus ride away. I wanted to go there just because Lonely Planet claimed it was surely the most horrible spot on earth due to extensive environmental damage during the Soviet era. That seemed worth seeing, particularly when I was thinking of going to Norway and it was right on the way. I wasn't sure it was worth spending 12 hours on a creaky old bus, so I checked into renting a private car. That was prohibitively expensive, as I didn't want to see it that bad, so I decided to take a bus. My hotel checked out the time for a bus, and I headed off to buy my ticket.
One of the problems with riding a bike is it distorts your sense of time and distance. It doesn't distort it as far as a car does, but it does distort it. I thought I had a good handle on where the train/bus station was, but it was about twice as far away as I remembered and I left the hotel too late to get there and get the ticket. No worries though... I wanted to see more of the town anyway, so that just gave me a chance to see some areas on foot that I'd only seen by bike, and I changed the route back to the hotel to see more of the town.
The next day, I was sure to leave the hotel on time, but alas I didn't check with the receptionist about the schedule. I got to the bus station on time, but that day didn't have the same bus route as the previous day. Oops... bad assumption. Ah well, I just wrote Nikel off. I wanted to see it but was dubious about spending 12 hours on a bus to see it anyway.
So I walked to yet a different part of town, looked around and decided it was time to see a museum since it was starting to snow anyway. There are half a dozen museums in Murmansk. None were must sees, but I wanted to catch one of them more or less at random. So I grabbed a taxi. The driver as usual didn't speak English, but that never stops me. We worked the issue until I managed to convey the name of one of the museums on my list. He seemed to understand and headed off. I know the Russian word for museum, and he was headed for some museum so I was happy. First he dropped me off at a place that didn't even look vaguely museum-like. I was dubious, but he was pretty sure of himself so I paid him and went inside. It turned out that it was in fact not a museum. I went back out and he was still sitting there. Apparently, he didn't have quite as much faith in his destination as one would hope for. He talked to a couple of women standing outside smoking, and they set him straight. He whisked me over to the other side of town... but alas the museum was closed that day. He managed to get into some back office in the museum, and she suggested an alternate museum. That seemed agreeable to me, so off we went to some museum or other.
I really liked this one, because it had the most eclectic collection I think I've ever seen. It was as if the town could only afford one museum, so they put everything museum-like in one building. They had everything from Russian paintings and icons, to a large mineral display to WWII memorabilia to a pretty good Natural History section. Murmansk was bombed pretty heavily during WWII. My favorite part of the museum was these two murals that were placed almost opposite each other. I couldn't read the signs, but the faces tell the whole story.
As you probably know by now, I am arguably the world's worst procrastinator. When I hit Petrozavodsk, it was about time to decide where I was going to go next. After a week in Murmansk, it was definitely time to get on with making a decision. However, I was caught up in an endless debate with myself that went on for days. I kept making and rejecting the same decision over and over again. You may find the process interesting, or skip it.
When I left St. Petersburg, I had three potential destinations, and after September 11, I added a fourth:
When I hit Murmansk, this was my set of choices. #1 and #2 were the major contenders as they had been for a month. I had already reduced #3 to a low probability before I hit St. Petersburg, and the proximity of the route to Afghanistan dropped that to zero. I am not afraid to fly just as I recommended, but taking a train into a war zone seemed a bit less prudent than something I wanted to engage in.
I dropped #4 after taking a bit of my own advice. It wasn't on my list before September 11. That meant by definition that I'd added it as a result of the attack. Avoiding a war zone is one thing, but I'm not going to go into hiding because of it. So that left me back in the endless loop between #1 and #2, which lasted for a couple of days.
Then one day, I had an epiphany. As usual, it seems pretty obvious in retrospect. In practical terms for what I want to accomplish on this trip and in terms of what I want to see, #1 and #2 are almost exactly in a dead heat. Both offer advantages and disadvantages to my future plans that exactly cancel each other out. That was why I was having so much trouble deciding.
One day I decided to reframe the debate. Actually, I decided to read my own advice and follow it. You see, the epiphany was to eliminate the practical considerations I'd been batting around and see if I could make the question into a matter of principle. Bingo! That was the reframing I needed, and the decision because obvious. Plan #2 involved getting on a plane in 2 weeks and flying about 8 more segments this year. Plan #1 involved getting on a plane in 6-8 weeks and flying about 5 more segments this year. In my debate with myself I wasn't avoiding flying, but I wasn't going out of my way to fly more either. However, I firmly believe in what I said, and the natural extension of what I said is that I should take any opportunity to fly more and sooner. I went down to the travel agent the next day and bought tickets for three flight segments. Problem solved!
Once I had decided to definitely go to Africa, I had a choice of whizzing through Norway and flying out of Stockholm, or backtracking to Moscow and flying out of there. I still had two weeks left on my Russian visa, and I really felt like I hadn't given Moscow and St. Petersburg a fair shot. I would be compounding that by giving Norway and Sweden a quick pass through unless I spent the winter there, so then I'd have two unfinished jobs. While I hate to backtrack, I hate to leave a job unfinished even more, so I decided to backtrack for a week in St. Petersburg and another week in Moscow, and I'm glad I did.
Next - Russian History
St. Petersburg & Moscow, Pass II