Independent budget trips to the arctic archipelago GULAG

Alastair Gill
Most of the cluster of islands are in such close proximity to one another that they are extremely accessible for independent travellers, eliminating the need for a tour operator.

The archipelago, located in the White Sea in northern Russia just 150 kilometres from the Arctic Circle is renowned for its spectacular, UNESCO-protected medieval monastery complex, its religious significance and the legacy of the labour camps of the Stalinist era. However, the islands are also home to a number of other beautiful attractions, including churches, gardens, a network of canals, and a number of curious Neolithic stone labyrinths.

The nature and wildlife here is a sight to be seen. Walkers who venture into the archipelago’s pine and fir forests may see squirrels, rabbits, foxes, and even reindeer, while the fishermen among you will be delighted to find the lakes of archipelago teeming with perch, roach, and pike. Ornithology enthusiasts will be enchanted by the wealth of bird life on offer. The forests are home to woodpeckers, capercaillies, grouse and hawk owl, while the shorelines echo with the cries of gulls, eider geese, sandpipers and terns.

Anyone who has an interest in marine wildlife will have a good chance of seeing gray seals, bearded seals, and harp seals along the rocky coastlines - but the biggest draw is the chance of observing the Beluga whale in the wild. The White Sea is home to several populations of the sea mammal, which is only found in arctic and subarctic zones, and sightings are common here.

Solovetsky settlement

Whether arriving by ferry or plane, visitors will arrive in the archipelago’s sole settlement, on Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. The village, known simply as Solovetsky, is a group of cottages, barracks and small apartment blocks clustered around the monastery. Here you will also find a ferry dock, a monastery complex, several museums and the majority of the tourist accommodation and other services.

After visiting the monastery and taking in the sights of the village, most visitors will want to head off into the wilderness, and while walkers will be in their element here, a faster and more exhilarating way of exploring the main island is by mountain bike. The Tsentralny Veloprokat, located in Solovetsky settlement on the road from the ferry dock to the monastery, rents a range of bicycles. Rates average from 50-100 rubles an hour, though renting a bike for several days will save you some rubles.

On the road

There are several interesting sites within easy reach of Solovetsky settlement. Two kilometres outside the village on the southern road towards Mys (Cape) Pechak is the Peregovorny Kamen (Negotiation Stone), a slab of rock placed on the shore at the spot where, in 1855, negotiations took place between the abbot of the monastery and an English officer after an attack by English warships.

Along the route you will also find two Neolithic stone labyrinths, intricate spiral constructions assembled from local rocks. The purpose of these mysterious mazes remains unknown, though historians theorize that they may have been used for symbolic rituals.

Just north of Solovetsky settlement, on the 12-kilometre road to Sekirnaya Gora, lies the Filippovsky Sad, a botanical garden covering five hectares of land between the Nizhny Pert and Pustynnoe lakes. Founded in 1822 by the islands’ monks, the garden features hundreds of plant species, including around 500 species of decorative and medicinal plants and more than 30 kinds of trees. The oldest specimens are the Siberian cedars and apple trees, which are more than 100 years old. Many of the plants are not typical for such northern latitudes, including small-leaved lime, Pennsylvanian cherry, wrinkled rose, to name a few. In former times the monks even grew watermelons, melons and peaches in the greenhouses.

A few kilometers on, just before a fork in the road, an unmarked path leads into the forest to the west. After a 90 minute hike you are greeted by the shore of the White Sea, but bicycles must be abandoned after several hundred meters. The path is beautiful, twisting and turning through constantly changing forest scenery, and follows a series of duckboards through swampy areas. However, the real point of the detour lies at the path's end, on Ostrov Belukha (Beluga Island), an islet just off the coast which is accessible on foot at low tide (ask locals about tides).

The isle offers the best chance of seeing Beluga whales from land anywhere in the archipelago. There are around 80 whales in the vicinity of the Solovetsky Islands, and the herd generally dwells just off the western shore here. Visitors who come between mid-June and mid-August may also see pods of Beluga calves, as the season of the midnight sun is when the whales gather to mate, socialise and nurse their young. Seeing these graceful animals slipping in and out of the water is an unforgettable sight.

Ostrov Belukha is also home to a large colony of Arctic terns, recognisable by their white plumage and distinctive red beaks. Beware – they will attack if their nests are threatened.

Back on the road north, the track leads to Sekirnaya Gora and its hilltop church, the highest point in the archipelago, where a viewpoint offers stunning panoramas of the surrounding forests and lakes. Further on lie more lakes and several sketes, or shrines, but realistically only cyclists will be able to reach these places on a day trip.

Off-road challenges

Those looking for a real adventure can walk or cycle along the 10-kilometer track east from Solovetsky settlement to Bolshaya Muksalma Island, though the terrain is not for inexperienced cyclists. Just outside Solovetsky settlement, the paving abruptly vanishes and the road veers off into the forest, rapidly deteriorating into an undulating, pot-holed dirt track which is often flooded. Suitable footwear is essential.

Stiffer challenges await ahead – there are numerous sections where the track disappears completely into treacherous swamp, requiring cyclists to dismount and traverse a series of diabolical detours on paths which are no more than single trunks laid down across the mire.

Patience and a cat’s balance will be rewarded with a palpable sense of victory on finally emerging from the forest onto the picturesque stone dam sweeping across to Bolshaya Muksalma Island. This impressive feat of hydro engineering was built by 19th century monks to facilitate easier access to the island, where they used to keep livestock. The dam is 6.5 meters wide and around a kilometer long – a great location for seal-watching. On Bolshaya Muksalma, the track leads to the nearby remnants of Sergeyev skete, a ruined chapel facing an abandoned wooden building which was a women’s prison during the 1920s and 1930s. By continuing north-east it is possible to reach several more remote spots where seals congregate, though it may be necessary to continue on foot.

Access to the other main islands in the group is limited and cannot be done independently: the tourist center in Solovetsky settlement runs twice-weekly guided excursions by boat to Anzer Island and Zayatsky Island respectively; visitors should make a booking at the center a day or two in advance to be sure of getting a place.

A perfect end to a perfect trip

Of the two, Zayatsky Island is of particular interest, as besides the wooden Church of St. Andrew -built on the orders of Peter the Great in 1702- it also features burial mounds and a number of labyrinths, as well as around an incredible 90 species of tundra plants and “dancing” birches, twisted and deformed into crazy shapes by the winds.

After several days of exploration, a good you will need to relax before catching the ferry back to civilization and what better way than spending several lazy hours boating? Though there are no rivers in the archipelago, Bolshoi Solovetsky Island has hundreds of inland lakes, many of which are interlinked by a system of canals built by 16th century monks as a means of transporting cargo, and providing fresh water. Rowing boats are available for hire at the Sredny Pert lake, which is accessible by road from Solovetsky settlement. A morning spent drifting through the silent canals and lakes, flanked on all sides by forest, is the perfect way to end a week on the islands.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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