Russian Karelia

St. Petersburg, 02.05.2019

From Rabocheostovsk the drive back to the main highway from Murmansk to St Petersburg took about 45 mins through Kem and over a pretty beaten up stretch of road. The impressions of Solovki were still fresh. The Mini moved slowly while I managed to take some pics driving by. I realised many people were fetching water from wells in the morning, in canisters on little hand carts.

250 km south I left the highway to find a town Rumiz had written about, Velika Guba, and then try to get to the Kizhi open air museum on an island further south. I wasn’t sure if there were ferry connections to the island and how the place would look like. But I had seen a ton of road signs on the main highway. Kizhi must be some major site in the area. The road off the highway was pretty rough, and it got worse the further I drove. 60 km of bad countryside roads to Velika Guba were quite a torture for me and the Mini. Reaching the village, I noted the many wooden houses in different states, from maintained to decayed or burnt out. The local church stood on a small hill, with high windows on both sides and a small shop in front. The only inhabitants I passed by were older, and the faces seemed marked by the precariousness of life around here.

As I was about to enter the road to what I thought was the pier to get to Kizhi, a tanker truck entered the road in front of me and immediately covered everything in a thick cloud of light brown dust. I tried to stay at a distance, also because the road converted into a untarred track, and got worse the further I drove. Somehow I managed to pass the tanker truck, and spent another hour on the track. I asked myself a couple of times if I really needed to do this, if it was worth treating the Mini like this. Then I guessed if I wanted to take it to Central Asia, I’ll better test the endurance on this road now. The gravel converted into sand and then mud, until there was no way to drive further. About 10 cars were parked on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. The shore was just a few hundred meters ahead, but big stones and deep mud puddles blocked the road. So, in the name of perseverance, I parked, took the camera, and went for a walk on the last meters. I barely managed to pass the puddles on foot, forest and swamps on both sides of the track limited the options to move around. At the end of the track, a big pile of tree trunks on a field of mud with tractor tracks, a sign in Russian about the area, a pier – but nobody and no boats or ferries in sight. I could see Kizhi from the pier. A few minutes later a Russian jeep with a couple arrived, the mother breastfeeding a baby while the vehicle fought with the track and rocks. I tried to call them up, but they just ignored me. I realised this time luck wasn’t on my side, and I had to give up and turn around. The one and a half hours back on the exact same bad road were painful and seemed to never end. The Mini was covered with a layer of dust inside, and I felt it on my face and hair too.

Back on the highway, the Mini drove a bit strange. I guess he didn’t appreciate the beating and the dust. I had emptied the water container to reduce weight and not have it bump around the back of the car. Trying to wash the windows, I made the car look even dirtier. Driving further south, I figured I’d have to stay overnight in Petrozavodsk. Closing in on the town, gas ran low. At a Rosneft gas station I hoped to find better diesel. There was a line, the first time on this journey. I waited for my turn, opened the tank, put the gas pump in and went into the station to pay. When I came out, it hit me instantly: I had put 92 petrol into my diesel tank! Shoot. I stopped the pump immediately, 15 liters late. This had never happened to me anywhere, and I had no idea what to do. Back inside the gas station, nobody spoke a word of English. While they probably understood what happened, nobody had a clue what to do. I paid the gas and left. The line behind me was long, so I turned on the engine and moved the mini 10 meters to the parking lot. I just hoped on that short distance no gasoline would get into the engine, risky. No Wifi, no internet. So I called Ms. Anikeeva, my friend in Moscow that has a special talent for efficient organisation of all sorts. As we were talking and I explained the situation, I saw a café behind the gas station that advertised Wifi. The cashier gave me a Wifi code, and I started to research. Diesel engines not only don’t like petrol, but actually go bust if they burn it. There was no way to move from here, the gas had to get out. In Petrozavodsk there was a BMW dealer with a service team, whose manager spoke OK English and gave me a phone number for a toe truck. “Tomorrow at 09.00 we’ll fix your car if you get it to us.” “You work on Saturdays?” “Yes of course, 09.00 to 21.00. We don’t have Mini here, but don’t worry.” The three way conversation between BMW, Ms. Anikeeva and me assured all was set to save the Mini.

Little over an hour later, Andrei and his 1970’s Mercedes yellow toe truck from Germany showed up. In no time the Mini was tied up on the back, and off we went. Petrozavodsk was 50 km south, and on the way I learned a lot about Russian speed cameras and limits, the danger of bears hitting your car and other interesting things. Asking about the bear that had hit a car Andrei had saved recently, he just said “Medved (bear) kaputt.” Poor medved.

The Bavarian deco and German disco music for breakfast wasn’t quite what I expected the next morning. In three hours the Mini got its tank emptied and the engine checked. All good to go, no damage. With a full load of the best diesel, before leaving I took a tour of Petrozavodsk, in the rain. There was little left of the 1700’s cannon foundry town on the shores of lake Onega. There was a lot left of post 1945 architecture and monuments though, incl. of course a neatly polished T-34 with fresh flower bouquets at the norther town entrance, as well as a monument to the NKVD/KGB/FSB. I didn’t quite understand how it was meant. Online research told me it’s in honor of these agencies. The connection of the three was striking, as the FSB is currently operating, while the two predecessor agencies have quite a track record. The walk on the promenade and park of the lake must be beautiful with better weather.

Wanting to drive around Lake Ladoga along the side close to the Finnish border, I left the main road soon after leaving Petrozavodsk. The initial stretch of road is a mix of a perfect, straight, new highway and construction sites that will deliver the remaining stretches of it. What I did notice immediately after a few km was ho the landscape changed. Neat lake shores surrounded by forests, clean roads and parking spots and dams, perfectly cut lawn everywhere. Hard to believe this was the same country as a few hundred km further north. The road around the north-western corner of the lake is still not fully connected to the brand new road. Dwellings and villages were very neat, the well maintained wooden houses dotting this picturesque fat green land. Only a week ago I had driven north a few km further on the Finnish side. Fantastic curves over a hilly terrain with a beautiful landscape were also made for the Mini. The 10.000 km so far were mostly long distance driving on straight roads. But the Mini in reality is a low lying go-cart, that gets reborn when you take it into such a terrain! To the tunes of a Clone records electro mix I got over an hour of roaring engine, sharp curves and pure driving excitement in low gears. These are the moments the kid in me comes out and my ecological conscience gets tested every time I push the gas.

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