Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve

Volchya River (also known in Saijanjoki) in Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve on the Karelian Isthus, Priozersk District, Leningrad Oblast, Russia

Last weekend I visited the Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve, in Leningrad Oblast, Russia; on the Karelian Isthmus 100 km north of St. Petersburg. I do not often make posts about Russia (where I happen to live), and even less commonly, about Russian nature. Nothing wrong with it of course; it’s just that Russian nature isn’t particularly accessible. It’s not like Finland, where you have national parks, various trails ranging from municipal jogging trails to long-distance ones hundres of kilometers long, excellent topographic maps of the entire country, and a dense and well-maintained road network which make reaching even quite remote locations easy (assuming you have a car, of course). In Russia you’re basically on your own. Designated hiking trails only really exist in major nature reserves and national parks few and far between (which often have entrance fees and/or require getting a permit to visit them), maps are very hit and miss depending on the region, and only the major federal roads can be really relied upon; secondary roads may be in terrible condition, while logging or mountain roads are generally passable only on a 4WD car.

Arguably, of course, this only makes the experience more genuine, as you don’t have anything pre-made for you. And Russia, being the biggest country in the world and all, does have some stunning nature. The “stunning” part however isn’t really uniformly spread. Most of Central Russia and Western Siberia really looks very uniform and bland. And for the most part so is Leningrad Oblast, which is the St. Petersburg region.

Finland, my favorite destination, is a very beautiful country — especially if you’re into forests and lakes! — but truth be told, it doesn’t have much variety too (unless you’re really familiar with it and begin to spot lots of minor details). However its landscapes actually do look a lot more interesting than Central Russia and most of Leningrad Oblast. The reason for that lies in basic geology: Finland is located on really ancient bedrock (Fennoscandian Shield), only thinly covered with soil; the bedrock was cut up by a great glacier in the Ice Age, resulting in innumerable lakes in depressions that the glacier scoured, rocky outcroppings where it scraped off the topsoil, boulders that it moved a great distance, and so on. Central Russia on the other hand is covered with a very thick (3+ km) cover of sediments (Russian Platform), which are very flat and remained very flat even after the glaciation. The boundary between the Fennoscandian Shield and the Russian Platform cuts across the Karelian Isthmus, fairly close to the Russian-Finnish border, approximately following Vyborg (Viipuri)-Priozersk (Käkisalmi) line. Most of the Karelian Isthmus, and the vast majority of the overall Leningrad Oblast lies south of that line, in the “boring” Russian Platform area.

Still of course there are some beautiful places, and Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve is one of them. It’s located on the Karelian Isthmus, and I’m not sure whether it lies north or south of the geological boundary; most probably south of it. It’s still beautiful, with low but steep sandy hills and ridges covered with pine forests, and small rivers and lakes among the hills. So after much deliberation about my day trip destination I chose this place. I knew essentially nothing of it but it seemed fairly easy to reach at least.

The name “Väärämäenselkä” is Finnish; the nature reserve has no Russian name. The name is transribed as Вярямянселькя into Russian, although Вяярямяэнселькя would be more precise. It means “Crooked Hill Ridge”. It can be found in old Finnish topographic maps and texts, spelled as Väärämäen-selkä, and sometimes also as Väärämäen-harju. The regional nature reserve was officially established in 1978.

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Nord Norge 2016. V: Murmansk

Midnight sun on the streets of the outskirts of Murmansk, Murmansk Oblast, Russia

Introduction
I. What Northern Norway is all about
II. Our trip in brief
III. Kola Route
IV. Petrozavodsk
V. Murmansk
VI. Varanger. Vadsø
VII. Varanger. Vardø
VIII. Varanger. Hamningberg and Kiberg
IX. North Cape. Honningsvåg
X. North Cape. The Cape itself
XI. North Cape. Kirkeporten and Knivskjellodden
XII. Alta
XIII. Lyngen Alps. Steindalsbreen Glacier
XIV. Lyngen Alps. Blåvatnet Lake
XV. Tromsø. Downtown
XVI. Tromsø. Museums and Storsteinen Mountain
XVII. Senja
XVIII. Treriksröset
XIX. Return Journey

The biggest city north of the Arctic Circle in the world! That’s Murmansk (Мурманск), the center of Murmansk Oblast region in Russia, located on the coast of the Kola Bay, a long narrow fjord of the Barents Sea of the Arctic Ocean. Like Petrozavodsk, Murmansk is the only major city in the region. Its modern population is about 300,000.

A small town at the bottom of the Kola Bay, named also Kola (Кола), existed for centuries (and still exists today as a suburb of Murmansk), but by the end of the 19th century the need for a major seaport on the Barentz Sea became quite urgent. The new city, originally named Romanov-na-Murmane (Романов-на-Мурмане, Romanov upon Murman) was founded in 1916 (when the railroad connecting it to the rest of the country was finished), the last city ever founded in Tzarist Russia era. Shortly after the February Revolution of 1917 it was renamed to Murmansk. The northern coast of the Kola Peninsula has always been known as Murman Coast; “Murmans” was an old Russian word for Norwegians (likely from Norwegian nordmann, “northern man”). The tiny town quickly grew in Soviet years, becoming the base for many Soviet explorations of the Arctic.

Murmansk was extremely important to the Soviet Union in the World War II, as a warm-water port which the Germans could not blockade. Much of the lend-lease aid from Britain and the US came through Murmansk, shuttled south on the railroad then. Despite bloody battles Nazi Germany, attacking from Northern Norway and Finnish Lapland, never managed to capture the port of Murmansk or sever the rail line. The city itself was nearly completely destroyed in the war, and had to be rebuilt afterwards. This was accomplished as soon as 1952.

Murmansk continued to be the Soviet “capital of the Arctic” of sorts, but underwent a great depopulation after the fall of the Soviet Union. As many as a third of its population left. Although Murmansk climate is not as harsh as one could expect, it’s still colder than most of Russia, and polar night doesn’t make it a very attractive place to live in as well (unless of course you really like the Arctic). So people who lost their jobs mostly just moved elsewhere.

Nonetheless modern Murmansk looks quite good, much better than Petrozavodsk (the city we visited before Murmansk) anyway despite similar size. Despite the depopulation it doesn’t really appear to have any abandoned buildings (perhaps we just didn’t see them but still). The city is rather boring, truth be told (its surroundings are probably way more interesting, but we were just passing through and didn’t see them), but it appears to be kept in a nice shape.

Perhaps one reason for that is the closeness of Russian naval bases. Russian Northern Fleet is the most important one by far, as it is the one with most (if not all) nuclear subs. Most towns near Murmansk are naval bases: Severomorsk, Polyarnyi, Snezhnogorsk, Skalistyi, Ostrovnoi, Vidyaevo, and other smaller ones. In fact Murmansk is almost the only Russian populated locality on the Barents Sea that can be actually visited without a special permit! Severomorsk and the others are “closed cities”. Although Murmansk is located deep in the Kola Bay and you cannot actually see the open sea from it; the only place where you can is the semi-abandoned fishing village of Teriberka (Териберка), lately known as the place where Leviathan movie was shot. That’s a pity of course. Barentz Sea is incredibly beautiful but you really need to go to Norway to appreciate that (or to places like Sredny and Rybachy Peninsula, reachable only with a 4WD vehicle).

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Nord Norge 2016. IV: Petrozavodsk

Fishermen statue on the shore of the Onega Lake in Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia, Russia

Introduction
I. What Northern Norway is all about
II. Our trip in brief
III. Kola Route
IV. Petrozavodsk
V. Murmansk
VI. Varanger. Vadsø
VII. Varanger. Vardø
VIII. Varanger. Hamningberg and Kiberg
IX. North Cape. Honningsvåg
X. North Cape. The Cape itself
XI. North Cape. Kirkeporten and Knivskjellodden
XII. Alta
XIII. Lyngen Alps. Steindalsbreen Glacier
XIV. Lyngen Alps. Blåvatnet Lake
XV. Tromsø. Downtown
XVI. Tromsø. Museums and Storsteinen Mountain
XVII. Senja
XVIII. Treriksröset
XIX. Return Journey

Petrozavodsk (Петрозаводск, Russ. Peter Works City; known as Petroskoi in Finnish) is the capital of the modern Republic of Karelia (Russian Karelia), and its biggest city by far; with its population of 280,000 it is almost ten times bigger than the second biggest Karelian city (Kondopoga).

I do not often make posts about Russian cities, because I rarely actually visit Russian cities, because I’m just not interested in them much; over the latest years my heart has always been with the Nordics, and it’s likely to remain this way. Which is not to say Russia isn’t worth exploring! Most of its cities and regions do not really have any major sights, but then, neither does Finland, yet I find exploring Finland so interesting and satisfying. And indeed a great many blogs about Russian cities exist, and I know of a few good ones, though I’m not aware of any that post in English. And as for us, we were passing through Petrozavodsk on our way north and staying here overnight, so of course we didn’t sit around in a hotel room, and went out to have a look at the city.

It should be said that Petrozavodsk is not really a Karelian city; it was founded in 1703 by the Russians and its population has always been predominantly Russian (at the moment there are 4% ethnic Karealians, <2% Finns, and <1% Vepsians). You wouldn’t find signs in Karelian or Finnish there. In fact Petrozavodsk is fairly typical of a minor Russian regional center, with dusty streets, crumbling plaster on buildings, potholed roads, and the general air of underfunding and neglect. It doesn’t really have any sights either. At the same time I must say I oddly liked Petrozavodsk. It’s a pleasant city to be in; it’s hard to express, but the people in the streets just seem… so nice and friendly. Far less alcoholics and gopniks that even in my native Yekaterinburg which is like five times bigger. Petrozavodsk is fun to walk around, taking pictures of various minor details. So this post is going to be a really long one, with 75 pictures.

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Autumn in Finnish Karelia

Hiirivesi Lake as seen from Regional Road 514 near Eno, Joensuu Municipality, North Karelia Region, Finland

Just some pictures from Finnish Karelia (okay and a little bit of Savo too). I went there last weekend, this time not to explore anything new but mostly just for good company and some drinking in a cottage by a lake; thus I pretty much just revisited some old places. The weather however was exceptionally good (even more so considering the wet cold summer we had), and I managed to take some really nice pics.

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Nord Norge 2016. III. Kola Route


Kola Route in inner Murmansk Oblast, Russia

  • Introduction
  • I. What Northern Norway is all about
  • II. Our trip in brief
  • III. Kola Route
  • IV. Petrozavodsk
  • V. Murmansk
  • VI. Varanger. Vadsø
  • VII. Varanger. Vardø
  • VIII. Varanger. Hamningberg and Kiberg
  • IX. North Cape. Honningsvåg
  • X. North Cape. The Cape itself
  • XI. North Cape. Kirkeporten and Knivskjellodden
  • XII. Alta
  • XIII. Lyngen Alps. Steindalsbreen Glacier
  • XIV. Lyngen Alps. Blåvatnet Lake
  • XV. Tromsø. Downtown
  • XVI. Tromsø. Museums and Storsteinen Mountain
  • XVII. Senja
  • XVIII. Treriksröset
  • XIX. Return Journey

It really took me quite some time to get to these trip reports again, didn’t it? Well, uh, better late than never 🙂

St. Petersburg — Petrozavodsk — Murmansk — Norwegian border highway was previously numbered M-18, but in the confusing renumbering of 2010 it was redesignated as R-21 (Р-21). Nonetheless, its popular name didn’t change: it is still the Kola Route (трасса “Кола”, Trassa Kola), after the Kola Peninsula of course. At least in St. Petersburg it is also known as Murmansk Highway (Мурманское шоссе, Murmanskoye Shosse), or informally Murmanka, after its most significant destination.

The official length of Kola Route, from St. Petersburg to Norwegian border near Kirkenes, is 1592 km. Although our primary destination was Northern Norway, it was of course hardly possible to drive all those kilometers without an overnight stay. Thus we stopped in both major cities along the way, Petrozavodsk and Murmansk. I’ll tell more about both of them in the following posts, and this one is about the Kola Route itself and the minor cities along it.

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