Exploring the Russian Arctic: A wild journey to the Kola Peninsula

Erwann Pensec
Did you know that Russia covers about one-ninth of the world’s surface and is bigger than Pluto? Its incredibly diverse terrain includes mountains, lowlands, forests, deserts, jungles and even volcanoes. Russia Beyond follows two French travelers on an expedition north past the Arctic Circle to the Kola Peninsula.

While living in Moscow, I decided to make the most of a four-day weekend by going on an adventure to a remote part of Russia. Manon, a friend of mine who also lives here, works in a travel agency and knows a lot about expeditions, so she was the perfect companion for this trip. We decided to visit the Kola Peninsula, which is located at the northernmost point of Russia on the shores of the White and Barents Seas. It is a part of the Murmansk Region and is located 1,487 km north of Moscow. What was our goal? To see the aurora borealis, those phantasmagorical northern lights that illuminate the night sky at this time of year.

Unwinding on a 31-hour long train journey

Keeping ourselves occupied on a sleeper train.

We grabbed our tickets and set off on an incredible journey on a sleeper train (lasting over 31 hours) to a small town called Apatity. Of course, we could have saved time by flying, but the train has several advantages. For one, you can find really cheap tickets (4,160 rubles per person). But a long train ride is also the perfect opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of Moscow while relishing in some incredible views from your window, maybe take a nap or two and even enjoy some light reading. For example, Manon chose to read Anna Karenina in translation.

We’re not even halfway there and the landscape is nothing like Moscow

We needed to get up and stretch our legs, so we stepped outside during a stop at Svir and Petrozavodsk railway station to take a look around. The décor was completely different than we were used to. A number of tiny babushkas on the platforms were holding baskets and pulling crates on wheels. They were selling berries, hot pirozhkis, jars of homemade jam and even fish (including eels!) to travelers. As the train made its way north, we took every opportunity to admire the small villages and endless forests, which were all covered in a thick layer of snow. These images passed in front of our eyes like a black and white film with no color in sight. The green conifers and the blue sky had completely disappeared.

Babushkas get ready to sell their merchandise as they wait for passengers to arrive on the next train.

As soon as we arrived at Apatity station, a man approached us and offered to drive us to our next destination, Kirovsk (17 km away), for 150 rubles. Even though it would have been cheaper to take the bus (60 rubles), we gave in and accepted his offer since we were still quite tired.

We sat inside his red minivan and soon after were joined by several Russian tourists who were clearly skiing enthusiasts. Our driver decided to drop us off at our hostel last so that we could catch a glimpse of the town on the way. He also showed us the polar-alpine botanical gardens (the world’s northernmost garden), a sports center, the abandoned train station and told us about the mountains surrounding the town, which has a population of around 27,000 people.

Kirovsk: A breathtaking city and the capital of silence

The white snow and silence makes for a surreal experience.

The hostel was unusual. It was in a Soviet-era building with huge doors, large rooms and a décor that couldn’t have been any more authentic. We were taken to a room filled with equipment and clothing for skiing, a sport that had clearly brought our roommates to this small faraway town.

The town is full of abandoned buildings and deserted areas.

We were eventually moved to another room that had four beds, a fridge, a television, a microwave and a bunch of other items suggesting that someone lived there permanently. We decided to explore the area and put on our hats, gloves, thick coats and scarves. The moment we stepped out the front door, we were immediately struck by a phenomenon that is almost entirely unknown to us these days: complete silence. Not a single sound could be heard in this town, which was surrounded by snowy white mountains and pine trees.

The cold is not as unbearable as you’d think, but it’s still wise to wrap yourself up to keep warm.

We headed towards the cable cars with the goal of reaching one of the highest peaks in Khibiny. On the way, we passed through a small forest where a number of bird shelters and feeders had been built. A tiny babushka, thoroughly wrapped up in several layers of clothing, filled them with seeds. We arrived at the Bolshoy Budyavr ski resort and took a break in a small chalet, enjoying a hot cup of tea and a quick snack before starting our climb.

Skiers and snowboarders flock to this brand new resort

We climbed into a cable car, which cost 350 rubles per person round trip, and suddenly found ourselves 850 meters high. The blizzard was so intense that we could barely see the town below. We had no choice but to return to the foot of the mountain due to the extreme temperature, strong winds and Manon’s shivering, which quickly turned into hilarious spasms!

Braving the elements on top of a mountain.

After a well-deserved rest back at the hostel, we went out to explore the town. Most of the buildings were in poor condition. Some were even abandoned. They struck us as forgotten relics of a glorious past, although in fairness some efforts have been made to bring a touch of color to this town dominated by greys, whites and blacks.

Severnaya Hotel is the best example and almost makes you forget about the impressive Palace of Culture or the monumental city hall. We wandered around the narrow streets and ended up discovering an incredible vantage point from which we could see trains transporting minerals over the mountain. Although tourism in this area has increased in recent years, especially during the winter, Kirovsk is first and foremost a mining city with a lot of industrial facilities. 

The city sleeps under a white blanket.

After finishing our meal at the hostel, where the sound of laughter and Russian music livened up the atmosphere, we met a group of miners from Belarus and ended up sharing a room with two of them. They’d been living in Kirovsk for over a month, working on a project that was supposed to last 15 years. They had expected to be given an apartment when they arrived, but things didn’t go as planned and they were forced to stay in this hostel instead.

They welcomed us with open arms and even invited us to drink a few glasses of vodka with them. As often happens when vodka enters the equation, this led to singing, an arm-wrestling competition and sharing stories with each other.

Initially we had planned to spend a quiet night in, but instead we wound up talking and celebrating with our new friends for hours. From time to time we would look outside at the night sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. 

A mining train winds around a mountain.

The next morning, after a short night’s sleep, we packed our bags and said goodbye to our new friends. We headed towards a women’s monastery in Khibinogorsk that we’d heard about during the spontaneous car trip the day before. To reach the monastery, we had to travel several kilometers on foot along the frozen Bolshoy Vudyavr Lake (which the ski resort is named after).

Once again, we were treated to a breathtaking view. The black and white landscape was brought to life with colorful buildings and vehicles dotted here and there. After walking in the snow for a good hour, we finally arrived at an elaborately decorated church in the monastery, where we were encouraged to light a candle.

Located at the foot of the mountains, the monastery brings a touch of color to a monochromatic setting.

When we returned to town, we stopped off at Café Ofelia for a drink and a bite to eat. We especially wanted to try their condensed milk blinis. The café is located right next to the statue of Sergey Kirov, a Bolshevik revolutionary after whom the town is named.

Just as we were about to leave, the waitress approached me, looking somewhat embarrassed, and asked for my autograph. Although surprised, I agreed and didn’t ask why. Maybe she’s never met someone from France before? We then headed towards the bus stop to make our way to the town of Apatity, which we were hoping to visit before catching our train up to Murmansk.

Bolshoy Vudyavr Lake covered with a white blanket of snow.

Even though this city was larger (population 56,000) and more developed, it wasn’t particularly impressive in comparison to Kirovsk since it mostly had Soviet-style buildings and identical streets. We followed signs back to the station and then took a tricky shortcut suggested to us by a passerby that took us across a wasteland covered in a thick layer of snow. We still managed to make it to our train and set off towards the regional capital, located 3 hours and 45 minutes north of Apatity. The ticket cost 748 rubles per person.

Murmansk: Gateway to the Arctic Ocean

The horizon disappears behind a thick curtain of snow and fog.

Murmansk’s train station is beautiful: a spectacular green building with a red star on top. Outside the station, we arrived at what appeared to be the city’s main square, which had various sculptures and even an ice toboggan on display.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to try out the toboggan myself, alongside a bunch of kids who seemed to be having a blast despite the late hour. However, without a sledge it proved impossible to gain much speed. Just then a young girl, around 4 or 5 years old, collided right into me, causing both of us to careen down the slope even faster. Needless to say, Manon was in fits of laughter the entire time.

The red star, which travelers will notice upon arrival, is a symbol of a bygone era in Murmansk.

After all this, we appreciated the peace and quiet of our hostel. Before going to bed, we briefly stepped outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, but still no luck. We got a good night’s sleep and then the next morning agreed upon our itinerary for the last day of our journey. We decided to start the day at Start-Up Café, which seems quite popular among locals.

On our way there, we admired Murmansk’s colorful buildings and impressive boulevards. While the state of some buildings leaves something to be desired, you cannot question the glorious past of the city. The café was modern, charming and cozy. The food exceeded our expectations, especially the mushroom and spinach blinis, which were a real treat. 

Who could possibly resist having a go?

We made our way to the port, where we came upon the legendary “Lenin,” the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. They offered tours on board the ship, but we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have time. We climbed up a hill towards a lighthouse, which stands proudly in memory of sailors who died during peacetime. Inside, the sound of crashing waves resounds.

The lighthouse looms over the city and sea. Fishing and shipbuilding industries are important in this region.

Eventually, we headed toward higher ground and the enormous monument to the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War. This statue, also known as Alyosha, is the second largest monument in Russia after “The Motherland Calls” in Volgograd, and stands an impressive 35.5 meters tall.

On our way there, we even saw some beautiful huskies that came up to make friends with us. In front of the gigantic stone soldier with his gaze is fixed on the distant horizon, there is an eternal flame. The view was, once again, spectacular: a snow-covered city, a frozen lake and the Kola Bay.

Arches leading to a courtyard capture the city’s sumptuous past.

We decided to turn back at this point. We thought we’d found a shortcut through a small wooded valley, but instead we just ended up battling our way through a meter of snow filled with holes and branches. There was plenty of laughter along the way, of course! We returned to Stand-Up Café, this time soaked to the bone, and ordered some really tasty chocolate, banana and kiwi blinis topped with cherry sauce.

Both the docks and the city, which was founded before the revolution in 1915, reflect the Soviet past.

We made our way back to the hostel to pack our bags before our flight (it cost us 4,132 rubles to fly from Murmansk to Moscow). We took a bus to the airport, where we spent the next few hours nostalgically recalling the unforgettable memories we’d made on our trip.

If you feel dwarfed by this statue’s size, trust me, it’s nothing compared to the huge Kola Peninsula.

We still couldn’t see the northern lights through the airport’s large windows, but perhaps this was a blessing in disguise? After all, doesn’t it give us the perfect excuse to return to this enchanting region someday?

Read more: A brown man in Russia: Lessons learned on a Trans-Siberian rail journey

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