Solovki and Rybachiy: 4x4 Expedition to the Russian Arctic
What is the Rybachy Peninsula?
The Rybachy Peninsula is the northernmost part of continental European Russia and tourists describe it as the edge of the world. Its name is translated as "Fisher Peninsula", fishing was always of major importance here. The peninsula is in fact nearly completely surrounded by Arctic ocean. The Rybachy Peninsula is located within several hours of ride from Murmansk.
Many centuries ago Pomor fishermen had already lived there. First mention of peninsula in the Russiam chronicles was made in 16th century. At that times, the peninsula was of great importance for fishing and trading between Russia and Europe. Norwegians and Finns lived there during 19-20 centuries.
During the World War II for three years it was an arena of a positional war between Germans and Soviets. The peninsula covered the access to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, which were the main gates for the Lend-Lease. The front split the peninsula in two parts, both sides having heavily fortified positions. There are a lot of memorials on the peninsula as well as untouched WWII artefacts which can be easily found among countless hills.
Now, most of military bases are non-operational, but the territory is still closed to foreigners. The border zone is the reason why foreigners need to get permission which takes about two months.
What is Solovetsky islands?
If you are ready to spend more days in Russia, there is a special location for all history and medieval architecture fans! Or just nature lovers. The place is Solovetsky Islands or Solovki, an archipelago located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea. The Solovki is one of the major tourist magnets within the Russian North! The place is so popular among Russian that it's a challenge to find a hotel in the summer. However, there are no crowds of tourists probably because of a lack of accomodation...
The nature of islands is very beautiful. They have granite shores and hilly relief. Most of islands are covered with forests. There are also numerous lakes joined by monks so as to form a network of canals. Wonderful place to enjoy the unspoiled nature!
Solovetsky monastery has a great history behind. It was one of the largest Christian citadels in northern Russia. The monastery has experienced several major changes and military sieges. Its most important structures date from the 16th century. In 20th century it became a Soviet prison and labor camp serving as a prototype for the future camps of the Gulag system... At present, the Solovetsky Islands are kmainly nown as a historical and architectural museum and a natural reserve of the Soviet Union. In 90-s, they were included in the World Heritage List "as an outstanding example of a monastic settlement in the inhospitable environment of northern Europe which admirably illustrates the faith, tenacity, and enterprise of later medieval religious communities". So the place is really worth visiting...
Our journey to Rybachiy and Solovki on July 2017
Traveling to the Rybachy peninsula causes questions that I’ve heard many times. “Why are you going here?” “Is it a honey pot?!” (Metaphor evoking the use of honey as bait in a trap)
During the last five years Rybachy has become incredibly popular among all kinds of tourists including recreational enthusiasts in RV or jeep, history nuts on motorcycles, health lovers hiking or on a bicycle, and an odd assortment of others for whatever reason. Maybe they are explorers or perhaps just nature lovers.
The sudden interest in Rybachy and the renewed traffic there is partly because of new simplified laws. Several years ago, you needed to apply to the Federal Border Service (department of FSB) for a permit, several months before the trip, and that requirement slowed the traffic to Rybachy to almost nothing. Now, you need only your passport and proper visas if you are a foreigner. If you are from Russia, everything is much easier. Haha.
It was a haunting and mysterious exploration of the incredible Rybachy Peninsula. The journey of the lifetime!
So why has Rybachy became a real Mecca for tourists?
Rybachy Peninsula, roughly translated as "The Fisher Peninsula", is the northernmost part of continental European Russia. (Administrative part of the Pechenga District of the Murmansk region.)
The peninsula is unbelievably beautiful with its severe and pristine northern nature, wildly exciting sea shores, desert-like open spaces of tundra, biological and geological peculiarities, and fascinating and romantic vibes of WWII history.
Don’t forget the polar days of constant light and unpredictable weather. Surely, a lot of published enthusiastic reviews from shocked tourists have piqued your curiosity by now.
Consider this: in human nature we always love to compare everything with “the most”… The most beautiful, the widest, the tallest and so on.
Rybachy is the northernmost cape in European Russia and… with the deepest core in the world located nearby – Cola superdeep core! Should I continue? Just trust that there is an abundance of amazing sights and experiences for any traveler tired of boring bus tourism.
A new brotherhood of jeepers
There’s a new trend in travel to the Rybachy. The region, in the last 3-5 years, has enjoyed extreme popularity among off-road tourists with their ugly and intrusive vehicles.
It’s a very special atmosphere of spirited adventurers traveling in jeeps and other specially equipped vehicles that can travel off-road. The jeep brotherhood allows around-the-clock travel because of the constant northern daylight and off-road exploration due to the constant and regular troubles with the condition of local roads. I mean, off-roads.
Plus, one must consider the fact that there are no gas stations, car services or auto supply shops in Rybachy. Travel in this region requires you to be prepared and able to take care of yourself. It’s an atmosphere of fierce independence.
Isolation from civilization and its luxuries awakens deep inner empathy and a special tenderness to the difficulties and troubles of the local people.
The midnight sun makes a very special daily regime
For two months of solid daylight, 24/7, travelers will fish, sleep, eat or enjoy off-roading. And don’t forget about drinking, taking photos, repairing the car or sadly (bleakly? griming?) wandering towards civilization rolling the broken wheel in front of him.
The absence of familiar time markers distorts the life style. It’s not easy to say how many days have passed… you may struggle in off-roading for 20 hours in a row and then sleep for the same time.
The light. A lot of light. People here choose their own length of the day. Some prefer 24, some prefer 32, but most of them just forget the clock and enjoy the journey until the day arrives to start on the road back.
The abundance of strange feeling beckons again and again.
The end of the Oikumen as it is.
The Journey starts...
Traveling over 2000 km from Moscow we suddenly arrive at the border post «Titovka». (Titovka River in Murmansk Oblast, Russia)
A bored border policeman checked our passports, counted the number of people inside and after a short wait he opened the gate. We crossed the self-titled river by a bridge and with a feeling of nostalgia looked at the last 100 meters of asphalt road. The wheels strangely roared on the unpaved grader road and our journey started!
After 10 km of winding road we saw the ‘holy place’ of all fishermen and especially salmon lovers. There was a small trailer with a very respectful ‘Kuzmich’ (local slang name of man), a person who issues permits for fishing.
Permit in hand, we attacked the river. Lots of fun fishing but alas… almost no salmon! 50 happy fishermen caught only 1-2 fish during the whole day. But maybe this is just their stories to scare off the potential competitors!
Continuing, the road climbed up the mountain until we reached a pass, whose name is remembered only by people with a good memory. Google helps me… Musta-Tunturi is the name of the pass! Don't try to remember, it's even harder than Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
While our Soviet military van bravely climbed the wet rocks, the bizzare weather had changed several times – sun, clouds, rain, fog then back and again forward. Where is the snow?
After the pass we found a small partially disguised fork in the road. One direction goes to Rybachy and the other has a strange name ‘Dutch road’. Why? Because German people duing their period of occupation had repaired and rebuilt it many years ago to supply their armed forces. Although the road was here many years before according to the ruins of Finnish history.
UAZ 452 crosses Polar Circle
Dutch Road at Musta-Tunturi Pass
Deep into the tundra
Driving around a further hill, we finally saw the bilious northern sea. There was the Sredny peninsula, and then through the smoke and clouds Rybachy peninsula appeared. Two peninsulas divided by small piece of land and wide spaces of Motka Strait.
The area abounds with numerous monuments, reminding us of the WWll Soviet-German Front that was here for 3 long and rough years… Distinctive feature of such places are several ‘souvenirs’ left from the heavy fighting and often collected by travelers from nearby landscapes.
The pedestal we visited was covered by bullet cases, shell fragments and other hardware, a quite frequent sight for European Russia. Nevertheless, this was the first place where I saw an unexploded mortar shell.
Side Note: It very dangerous to handle unexploded ordinance of any type. Many local scavengers, the ones that survived, are missing hands, arms, and legs from this souvenir hunting activity.
Straight to the Sea
Finally, the road went down to the sea and we drove straight to Rybachy. The road was awful but it was the road! We drove slow and easily. It was incredibly violent and shaky. After one hour of singing a rhyme with nature, we reached Rybachy! Yay!
The first thing that we saw was an abandoned settlement of former geologists with rotting skeletons of rover vehicles, rusty frames and barrels, and other traces of a world that turned away.
We turned west and, in an hour, arrived at the camp of Kolya Chebotarev, the legend guide himself, and our companion for the next weeks.
To start a fire, we went to the sea. A miracle! There’re no forests, it's tundra, so if you have no supply of firewood, you should look for logs and scrap lumber washed up on the store by the severe waves of the Northern Ocean.
Our first night in Rybachy was actually not the night. Cold wind, a light, sun hiding in the clouds and suddenly coming back, some broken pieces of fog. It was strange to sleep in tents under the daylight of the midnight sun but exhaustion did its job. Maybe the Vikings sailed to America to hide from this all-seeing eye?
Off-roading bad luck
The next day we woke up late. The road went through the sandy beaches, so I can't resist driving straight along the surf. This is the first time the UAZ cruised the seawater, splashing water everywhere. Actually, sea salt is not so healthy for our car details or the people’s skin, but we knew that there were many freshwater fords ahead of us.
Joining the main road, within 1.5 hours of slow driving, UAZ overcame three deep fords and countless shallow ones. In one of them, Kolya's Hyundai got soundly stuck. The problem was that Kolya didn't like my way through the ford, so he tried to cheat and find a better place to pass. Finally, he outsmarted himself and got stuck in the slurry mud at the bottom of the lake.
Coming to Kolya's car with our trusty rope, I tried for a long time to find the only towing eye which was under the water. Since I was not familiar with the car I couldn't find it! In the meantime, the car kept running and the fan continued to move water that flew from the engine softly murmuring. The engine hadn't drowned; that was slightly encouraging.
Kolya, a hardy working man of almost 65 years, bravely opened the door, allowing water inside the car with his wife and two children, then jumped into the waist-deep water and started to dive with me. Soon, we found the right connection place, hooked on our tow rope, and UAZ easily rescued the car from the water-mud trap!
We opened the hood to examine the engine and enjoyed the small artificial waterfall from under the car. Strange thing that the car was OK and ready for further deeds and punishment! Even more strange was that on the next ford Kolya strictly followed my way, haha.
But the adventure doesn't stop here! After the next especially long ford we accidentally found that Kolya's car license plate had sailed into an unknown direction… Bad luck! What to do? We needed to find it! Figuring out the most probable location by photos, we started the next rescue operation. Taking our shoes off, we walk, with small steps, to find the piece of metal somewhere in the deep water.
And finally we found it! Pity that it was not our, khmmm. Should we make an internet page for people that lost their plates here? Several days later we learned that there's a special cemetery for putting someone else's license plates and finding of our own in Rybachy. There’re hundreds of them.
The Ships Mournful Soul
Not finding our car license plate, we drove further to the northernmost point of Rybachy along the European Russia, German Cape! Before reaching the place, I saw a staggering image. In the water, lying in the ocean on the rocks and tipping over to the right side there was a small ship.
You know, these ships might have a soul. They say that souls of dead sailors cry as the seagulls. Their songs are abrupt, sharp, and long at the same time. I wonder how the soul of crashed ships shout into the wind and sea?
We left UAZ near stacks of rusty barrels and went to inspect the once magnificent boat washed up on the shore by the violent and ruthless waters of the sea. A small ship seems huge when you stand on the rocks beside it and see the bulwarks several meters above you. You see the screw, dead, bent, and folded by the rocks.
Maybe there were a storm and the sailors tried to wait it out in the small bay when the anchor couldn’t hold it or some other dramatic accident happened? They fought, and the ship fought, and the wind howled, while the screw got wrecked by rocks and roaring waves of a cold and violent ocean finished its imminent job by tossing the poor vessel onto the shore.
I'm sure that people didn't perish, but it was impossible to pull the ship back into the soft water. According to the papers, the captain of the ship owned the business, too. Probably, he had no money to repair and save his old and faithfully serving boat.
Maybe this dead and mournful ship hides a story as dramatic as a Hemmingway book, but instead of a sheet and a rope, you could hear the knocking diesel cutting through the soul of an old sailor and the unaffordable cost of the tugboat for a rescue.
The place to grieve
We found a rope helpfully hanging from railings, probably left by previous visitors. We easily climbed onto the deck. It was inclined as if our pretty ship still navigated through the waters to Murmansk.
There were traces of life everywhere – cereals on the kitchen countertop, oil smells in the engine room, articles of clothing, and things that didn’t get looted or destroyed by people
We saw low-cost gear on the bridge as well as signs of expensive equipment carefully removed and not just torn up by a tire iron but probably unscrewed by owners.
There's were papers. A license for fishing and some invoices written in Norwegian… Russia in miniature! They fished and sold the catch in Norway so we could buy it back, packed in the tin cans.
After wandering around the dead ship, sadly we returned to the car. It was still there fitting perfectly into the desolated landscape of Soviet epoch. Only the bright yellow bumper released its origin.
It's astonishing, but if you park a UAZ near a convoy of abandoned military URALs and GAZ-66, it's not easy to estimate her age as 40 years less than its larger comrades. Truly, the job of the single brilliant designer!
Half an hour later we reached the German Cape, located between the lighthouse and the severe northern sea. The Sea where gray hard waters, cold salt splashes, wind, and sharp stones met us.
All in Vain?
This time my thoughts were flying around people that had been living and stopping here, trading, fighting, living and dying. Five hundred years ago many nations fished and traded here, Russians, Norwegians, Finns and even English people. Merchants sailed to Arkhangelsk and back while their wives kept the home, and fostered their children, and the life was bustling.
Fishermen from Solovki, Mexen and Dolgoschelie sailed here. Pomor people brought bread baked from wheat that they grew in the Suzdal region and then headed down by the North Dvina river to trade with Norwegians.
The coming of the war desolated all around, overthrowing the once flourishing shore and filling it with iron and bones. Famous convoys sailed the open seas followed by famous German submarines. Sometimes both remained in this water forever… Pilots in the air knew their chances, too.
After the war, the border zone closed the peninsula for ordinary people, but life and other things went on in the crowded military towns. Unseen submarines, hiding in the deep waters, passed them again and again. They went to the war, burned, drowned, got exposed to radiation and went back via the Biskay Gulf, Sargasovo Sea, Norway Sea and then back, all the way back to Rybachy.
Sad thoughs about the history
Then, life goes on
We were still standing on the edge of Oecumene. We were gathering around and breathing the sea when our faithful guide Kolya started his stories of Hyperboreans, how the nuclear war destroyed it many years ago and bomb fragments spread all over the world. Thinking about meanings, I tried to understand his story and if he was serious or not?
It was time to leave science fiction behind and return to the real world. Or so it seemed.
We were finally almost ready to take off when some jeepers nearby found that their accumulator had developed slight health issues, just as the Hyperboreans. We jump-started their car, began moving again, and one hour later reached the Kekur Cape.
We stayed here for two nights. I mean, long days since there are no nights!
The Seal Head
Anya went to take a photos while Dima and I went fishing. We have fishing poles… It's a great luck! Actually, Dima was going to take them but forgot in the fuss getting ready. I usually had no poles but accidently bought some somewhere. We also found a lot of lures hiding in the UAZ.
I was trying to remember when I fished the last time? Maybe it was in 1998 in Norway. I had totally forgotten how it feels; and it feels amazing!
The cold and frantic sea is crawling with life. The Gulfstream brings the food, and the oxygen prefers the colder water. It’s a paradise where everything merrily breeds across the sea and eats each other! Well, as usual, the human sits on the top of the food chain and takes from the sea. Natural beauty!
We were very lucky with fishing! We pulled out lots of fish one by one. Usually they were small ones, sometimes catching something larger in the size of normal herring. God knows what the fish is. It’s not a codfish, not mackerel and not a herring.
We caught about 30 fish before the party was over. Suddenly, we saw a seal head poking out of the water, watching us and laughing at our efforts. It scared off the whole stock of fish! Nevertheless, Matvey cooked the entire catch and it was incredibly tasty!
Driving east, we finally reached the abandoned military settlement. How many efforts and strengths have been wasted! It’s an entire and complete ghost-town with tens of buildings with up to five floors.
Our steps inside made a hollow echo, we felt fresh street air streaming through the broken windows in the rooms and felt broken tile under our feet, and an emptiness that chilled the heart and soul.
If you were keen about digging through old buildings, you should know this feeling very well. Sometimes we could even see the traces of the old style wallpapers with typical flower ornamentations, but the breath of the living place left it many years ago.
It’s easy to see the history of the place from the roof. There were one-floor small houses and hangars, probably from after war times of 1950s. Nearby we saw 2- and 3-floors buildings from 1960-1970s.
The view from the roof where we stood was the fall-out times of USSR. Such 5-floor buildings all over the country swallowed the last resources just in time for the cold war which had its peak just before the Perestroika. The USSR collapsed, and such military garrisons gradually became empty.
In one of the rooms we saw the dirty sign «ДМБ 2008/9» which means demobilization. Just 10 years ago some poor guys had been spending two of the most meaningless years of their lives here.
Vanished in Haze
Dashing through several deep pools and down steep and winding slopes got us out of the stupor. Huge rocks lay here and there. In the middle of the next pool of 1.5 meters depth, UAZ got stuck on one of these rocks. The water is muddy; we could not see anything… Just a loud clunk and the car stopped.
Driving in muddy and deep water is an envious skill for an experienced driver. You drive around following your instincts and inner feelings. This actually works sometimes.
Kolya's car experience was even worse when finally, it stopped on one of the rises, squeezing out a small trickle of oil. The engine was still running but the car couldn’t move. Several minutes later the car just survived, regained a life, and we went on. The problems with the gearbox? Who knows?
At the end of the slope we found the next abandoned military station, this one was of the signal services. One building was totally swallowed by the fog, only familiar rusty junk and barrels were visible.
More walking though abandoned spaces, same emptiness and dreadful and ghostlike thoughts of displaced residents. Some people certainly had no good luck…
Then the visibility decreased to 100 meters and we drove on in the middle of amazing fog cloud. No direction, no sun. The fog stayed in the car and clothes, also on face, arms, dripping like small streams.
All sounds became muffled. We couldn’t drive with no visibility. We halted here for the night making jokes about silent hills, fog of war, Rastamans and other merry fogs.
Our existential thoughts slowly vanished in a haze like everything around us. We yearned for clean and clear air with a taste of sunshine. What else could we wish for?
The astonishing end of the story
The fog lifted, and we began a new day with great enthusiasm. The sun was shining a bit, or at least trying to shine.
We were on the road again. We traversed a path down a hillside and found a hidden pass which allowed us to move onto a better road and we moved along at a good pace.
Suddenly, a huge black VW transporter with a black license plate popped up from the dune. A Navy man was doing the driving. You know, there's a kind of very special person in the military with advanced social skills who mean nothing on papers but take an important place in the hierarchy. This small and skinny Navy man was a perfect example. He drove this huge foreign car without any supervision… serious man!
I smile at him and say “Hello! You are driving with a flashing light, so it is allowed for us to drive where you drive?” He is not looking very happy with us. It seems we stumbled onto a military exercise of some sort. I suggest, “Let's do it this way. You will go back, and we will follow you straight through the military area to get the hell out of here”
He said “Dangerous! The Commissar is behind the River. I need to take them. How the hell can I do that if there's a tide?!”
Then he called someone and got a hookup (little talk), after which a rubber boat appeared out of nowhere and took The Commissar from the other bank.
I finally found a ranking Naval Officer who was a major and explained the situation. We had stumbled into the middle of a secret military operation.
He said, “Ok, follow us, I don't care. But you've not seen me and whatever, nothing was here.” (It's was all said with curse words)
While they were getting into their car, I started our car and we then followed them, every step of their way for more than 10 kilometers. Along the trail, over dunes, hills, and valleys, and then, bang!
The Invisible Military area
Field kitchens, 300 soldiers, everyone with loaded weapons, and here we go… UAZ with yellow bumpers and mirrors with something bright on the roof. However, UAZ was of military (khaki) color. Everyone was looking at us totally confused… we were not military, but not civil; moreover, we were driving behind the D.M.V. (military van).
There were a barrier and spikes on the exit from the military area. The kinky soldier put it away for the D.M.V. and luckily didn't put it back for is.
With a very tough face I hang out the window to wave at the guy with a machine gun at the access control. He looked at me from inside his helmet and waved back, probably confused about us, whether to be afraid or not.
Our next bit of driving was in quiet solitude, deep in thought. Everyone to his own opinions, did we get lucky, could we have been shot, were we in danger?