A trip to Russian Carelia July 26-30 2007
There is only one country between
Please let me first explain why anyone would make a trip to poor Russian (Soviet) Carelia. You can skip it if you like. Carelia is a tiny area in the Russian scale, barely visible on the map.
It is most obvious that Russian Carelia, as beautiful as it may be, has no attraction to others than Finns and for them mainly for nostalgic reasons.
The biggest lake in Europe is
Preparations could have been more thorough
The bike is R100 -83 with RS fairing and 207,000 km in the odometer. Pistons, valves, and tranny bearings are changed, rear shocks are Konis (over 100,000 km). This photo is taken on the Finnish side of the borderland. I stayed overnight in a B&B farm:
There was a leakage of oil from the crank rear seal. Due to numerous setbacks it could not be repaired within the strict time limits of the trip schedule. A leaking engine and a slightly slipping clutch is not a very smart combination.
For the first time ever I had a spare part with me. I happen to have an old clutch plate with some life left in it. I took it along and a tool to center it. I planned to take a thinned 27 mm socket too, to help remove the swingarm IF the clutch was to be repaired on the road. Despite the leak oil consumption was so low that half a liter of engine oil was to be enough for the planned 2500 km trip. The engine dipstick showed half at start, I never fill more than that.
I have made two trips to
I had an old road map of North-Western
Russia requires a visa. It is relatively easy to get. You need a passport, insurances for yourself and the bike, some other more or less strange documents. The total costs were altogether 85 euros, approximately 110 dollars. That is not very much.
It is said that the gap between the standard of living is wider at this border than anywhere else in the world, US-Mexican border included. This makes travelling so interesting.
First day, Thursday July 26
The trip started on Thursday afternoon. There are 400 kilometres to the border crossing and plenty of light to very late evening. Even Southern
Truck queues are a huge problem on the Eastern borders.
There are farm houses on the border who accommodate overnight guests at very reasonable prices; a kind of bed and breakfast. The farm host gave me half-filled custom documents to jump start the border crossing.
The first five minutes, still on the Finnish side of the border, showed that this border is not just another border. There was a full home furniture, utensils, and linen, found on the side of the road. Even a piano was there, everything neatly set. Quite a mystery but again, but being so close to
Second day, Friday June 27
The border crossing at Vartsila (62deg 10' N, 30deg 37' E) was easy. Money exchange to get roubles was very fast compared to what is whas during Soviet time. The price of gasoline is about one third of European prices so the tank was almost empty and filled up with 92 octane gas. There was also euro-95 gas available but some lead won’t hurt an old airhead. It was known that the engine will have an easy life so detonation in Northern temperatures, light loading and speed under 100 km/h would not be a problem.
Road got much worse but was completely ridable. An old saying tells that Russian roads consist of two components: the pavement and the potholes.
There were many people on the road side selling mushrooms and berries. Old ladies or small children may sit there a whole day with their offerings.
When the road to L
A small town called Praasa (4300 inhabitants) has a small restaurant which offers an extremely inexpensive but delicious soup, Solyanka. Most Russian towns have this kind of eating places called “Stolovaya”. They are partly state supported. The road got gradually worse but was much better than expected to
There is only one practical way to ride North from
In Kondopoga (36600 inh, 62deg 13' N, 34deg 15' E) there were two hotels, both quite horrible places. Local people seriously warned me for thieves. No way should one leave the bike on the street or unattended in general. One of the two hotels was a huge Soviet style building. Its rooms were impregnated with a strong old cigarette odor, wallpapers were torn or paint falling. One odd thing was that no warm water was available in the whole town. The central heating system is being repaired for winter. Central heating system is common in Northern Europe,
I had seen a small motel some kilometers before the town and decided to stay overnight there. The price was reasonable (3 euros, 4 dollars), condition of the room tolerable, there was even warm water. Drains did not work properly, toilet system made a peculiar oscillating noise but this is
The photo on the left is from the Kondopoga motel room, the right from the car heating electricity connections:
The photo on the left is from the Kondopoga motel room, the right from the car heating electricity connections:
Some beer and a glass or two of vodka. A nice day, a nice evening!
Third day, Saturday July 28
Weather forecasts told that there will be some rain but only for a couple of hours. The more up North I will ride in the morning, the less likely I will be to get water from the sky.
It was only 6 AM when riding started, very exceptional indeed. The famous Kivatch rapids were quite close. It was a nice place. To my great surprise there were three other motorcyclists riding out of the woods, almost crashed with them. They had tents and were as astonished to meet fellow bikers especially with RS fairing and bags. They were from
After an hour’s ride I stopped to put some warm clothes on. The side of the road is extremely soft and the bike fell immediately without warning. The sand was like that on the beach and the bike couldn’t be got back on the road without another person pushing it. There was a small cabin and some road repairing machinery on the other side of the road. A man walked to me and asked if he could help me. He asked me to visit the cabin for a cup of tea and maybe a tinsy-winsy shot of vodka.
He told that he had been there already for two days to start pavement work but no-one else had turned up so far. If there is something really Russian in this world it is this very attitude! To his opinion there was nothing strange in waiting for a day or two. Something might happen or not happen, God only knows (“Bog znaet”). In general, Russians have time. I saw many cases where a truck wheel was changed on the road. The first thing they do is an open fire and some tea, a glass of vodka doesn’t hurt either. Those people seem to be endlessly patient.
An empty stomach recognizes small roadside cafes better than the eyes. It was time for a breakfast. There were some truck drivers and a group of three persons: a middle-aged blond lady, a young man and an elderly man. The lady clearly sought an eye contact with me and finally came to express her admiration. She had always wanted to travel around, especially with a train. The lady was of Ukrainean origin although she had moved to the North and lived there for decades. We spoke in Russian. The young man listened to us and started to speak Finnish. It was not totally surprising but quite rare anyway. He worked for the couple and they were heading to the North back home. They insisted that I take their phone number and address and pay a visit to them in the town of
The trip was already halfway, road getting worse and still no real road map at hand. A map would be necessary on the back roads. The next bigger place on road M18 is Segezha (63deg 45' N, 34deg 18' E). With 35800 inhabitants it is not known as a metropole but a map could certainly be found. Segezha is not directly a roadside town so visiting it was a nice excuse to ride a smaller road for a while.
Riding to Segezha was like a time trip back to Soviet years. The famous Soviet tools (hammer etc.) welcomed the visitor in the first roundabout. Even with very understanding attitude the place was a nightmare. It was dirty with streets in bad condition and big factories pushing all kinds of stuff in the air. No map was found despite I took some effort. This was bad news because the next possibility to get one was some 300 kilometers away in Kem at the
Contrary to Segezha the surrounding landscape is beautiful as you can see.
Contrary to Segezha the surrounding landscape is beautiful as you can see.
Trying to visit a monastery that was the biggest prison of all times
There is a famous monastery in Northern
I actually planned to visit Solovetsk. It is possible to get there by boat from Belomorsk (4 hours) or Kem (1 hour). It was not late when I arrived in Kem or I personally thought it wasn’t. In the North it is not easy to tell what time it is due to very slow changes in light. It was actually two hours more than I thought. The first hour came from the time difference between
The boats would leave at 8 o’clock (AM) only and return at 8 PM. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find a place to stay overnight in Kem. Two small hotels were closed, the third one was open. A Finnish tourist bus in front of it was both a good and a bad sign. On one hand it told that basic things would be OK in the hotel. On the other, the hotel would very likely be full. It was.
The port is 10 kilometers outside the town of Kem (64deg 57' N, 34deg 34' E) so I (air)headed there to find a place to stay. There was a hotel but it was completely full too. Even a modest motorcyclist could not be offered shelter. The receptionist was a strange person: she was friendly and helpful. She told that a private boat would transport tourists to Solovetsk if at least ten persons would pay for their trip. At the moment there were six persons. More information available at port office. There the administrator of the port told that the boat is just leaving and I have five minutes. Her old aunt in Solovetsk would take me as a paying guest for the night to come. Unpacking the bike can be done in two minutes but finding a really safe place for the bike was impossible in that short time. I was warned multiple times for leaving the bike unattended. Taking the bike along by the boat was basically possible but motor vehicles are not allowed in the Solovetsk islands. The port of Kem is not big but charming in its own way. The photo on the left is the kind of boat or ship to Solevetsk monastery island.
Due to these difficulties Solovetsk remains tobe visited the next time. I decided to have something to eat in Kem, look around and continue to the West to ancient Carelian villages. There was (so I naively thought) a 170 km trip to Paanajarvi (
I had ridden 10 easy hours that day. It turned out that there were 8 more riding hours to come and: very bad roads, rain, no idea where I am, a puncture, a badly slipping clutch, arguing with greedy Russians, night riding, dropping the bike at a police car.
An adventure or a nightmare?
The road from Kem to Paanajarvi is partly paved. In theory partly asphalt, partly gravel. In practice partly asphalt, partly gravel, mostly potholes. On such roads gravel is welcome because the gravel pothole edges are not extremely sharp and also less dangerous for tires. The last 18 kilometers to Paanajarvi is a byroad in bad condition. A Western passenger car is barely drivable there alike a touring motorcycle, too. It will take about 45 minutes to ride the 18 kilometers. 3rd gear can be used every now and then. The main jets remained dry!
The road ended abruptly at a lake shore. No idea how to ride on. Suddenly an unmanned small wooden cable operated ferry appeared from the opposite shore. Riding on the ferry was a little risky. Enduro and motocross training luckily payed off. The operator told that there is no accommodation facilities in the village but his mother would be pleased to help us and, of course, at an exceptionally low price.
The village itself was a piece of history from at least sixty years back. There was a plan to build a big hydroelectric power station. The Paanajarvi village should have been emptied and drowned for tens of years ago so it had made no sense to invest in the infrastructure. Well, to my eyes there was no dramatic difference to other villages. The inhabitants seem to be either old people or young drunkards. However, there was a certain warm feeling. It is impossible to describe where it came from. Again, a couple of photos of the unmanned ferry and the shore of Paanajarvi village:
The village seemed to offer nothing special so I decided to continue the trip to the next inhabited place, Jyskyjarvi (
The sky was mainly clear with some symbolic dark clouds. Unfortunately, these dark clouds were not only symbolic.
Lost in the backwoods
Quite soon the road turned virtually unrideable. Road was all slippery sand and strong drive from the engine must be on all the time. If there is a road that is not for 100RS I had definitely found it. Only a chain of miracles and good luck saved me from dropping the bike and breaking bones. The clutch slipped so badly that it was not possible to lighten the front end with a handful of gas. I did not even try it too often: a slippery clutch is better than no clutch at all.
Contrary to the advice from the locals there were intersections. Naturally with no signs. I tried to choose the main direction although it was not always an easy choice. I saw some local 4 WD cars and asked for advice. It was virtually of no help because the people in the cars disagreed how to continue. I soon learned that the only reasonable piece of information was to ask them where they were coming from. Mostly even this did not help because the places were totally unknown to me anyway.
It started to rain and reading the road surface became impossible. Second gear was a luxury. One just had to stop to measure the depth of the holes on the road. Finally, I had no idea where I was. In this part of the world mosquitos are really big and aggressive. It was not possible to ride without a visor due swarming mosquitos. On the other hand the visor was of no use if one wanted to see through it. And then, the stomach gave bad signs and told me to get rid of the stuff I had eaten earlier. Diarrhea under these conditions. Think positive?? No way!!! The only thing that seemed to love me at this stage was the cloud of mosquitos. We Finns are used to being bitten by mosquitos but not this BIG mosquitos, not this MANY mosquitos and not bitten in the delicate areas of the body.
Finally, when my stomach was happy again and the feast of the mosquitos over a Russian jeep Lada Niva passed by. I stopped it. The driver had a very clear view where we were and how to find the main road. It was 13 more kilometers to the main road and a small village. The passenger agreed with the driver so I knew that I have a chance to get out of this hmm… adventure. I had ridden already some 100 bad kilometers and I bet that only the rear wheel had been spinning for more than half of it without any useful movement of the front wheel. I could take 13 more kilometers if I could trust the advice. The guys were right, I found the main road. The road seemed somehow familiar and I understood that I had ridden the very road in the morning. I had made a round trip. There was no accommodation facilities in the villages and sleeping outdoors without a tent was impossible because of the mosquitos. The nearest bigger place Kalevala (5000 inhabitants, 65deg 12' N, 31deg 12' E) was about 150 kilometers away. I had food, I had water, it was about 10.30 pm (not am) so there was even daylight for some time. The only unknown risk was fuel. Theoretically it should be OK but I had no idea how much the continuous spinning of the rear wheel and riding in deep sand had consumed. I knew that on a paved road like this I can ride at least 70 kms on reserve. That is my record on reserve, maybe some more is possible.
If there are mightier forces above us they must have a peculiar sense of humour. First everything seemed to be well again. Then, a huge pothole that the tired eyes and brain did not recognize. After a while the rear had an unpleasant and familiar slippery feeling. Stop! The smell of hot rubber told the truth without viewing. A closer look showed that the tyre is OK. I emptied the emergency bottle of puncture emergency repair stuff into the tube. It helped for 30 kilometers but then I had to face the inevitable truth. I stopped close to some houses. There were three young guys at an old small Moskvich truck. I asked if the guys had a pump. They did. We pumped air into the wheel. My plan was to buy the pump and put some air in every 10 kilometers and make the repair next day. A great plan but….. The guys wanted 100 euros (150 dollars) for the pump. Now they really have free market economy in
It was clear that the rear wheel had to be removed and the tube patched or replaced one way or another. That is the easy part. The hard part is to do it in the middle of the night without a tube or a pump, with dense clouds of eager mosquitos waiting for uncovered human skin. Well, the sky was clear, it was not that dark in the Northern night. The rims were modified for a tubeless valve. I had never tried to ride the wheels tubeless but I had tested the setup and knew it would work. The actual work was not that hard. The night was warm and all clothing with helmet included had to be worn to keep mosquitos away. Within an hour the wheel was removed, the tubeless valve assembled and the wheel ready for air. Pumping air is hard without a pump. Then some wheel grease was needed to aid the bead.
After a while a big SUV passed by. I stopped it and asked if they had a pump. They did have a big foot pump to fill their rubber boat. Then some non-oil grease… The SUV lady passenger’s hand lotion is not exactly the recommended lube for tyres but this time it was good enough replacement for real tyre lube. The tyre bead did not seat properly with the available pressure but enough to give it a try. It was past midnight and some artificial light would have helped but was not really necessary with only 150 kilometers to the Arctic Circle.
The first meters of riding showed that the bead could be seated better but riding slowly would be safe enough. Some kilometers with 40 kph and suddenly I heard and felt a loud sudden noise from the rear. The tyre was now perfect. However, there were two unknown factors. First, do I have enough fuel? Second, is there any accommodation in the
Suddenly a police patrol car showed up on the roadside. I decided to stop at them to ask if they knew any hotel or rooms in the village. I had forgotten that roadsides are soft. Of course I dropped the bike in front of the officers. They were very friendly yet a little suspicious. A short explanation of the situation made them laugh. I send a few warm thoughts to my ex-teachers of the Russian language. There are two hotels and the other of them, hotel Velt, is open 24/7.
A glance in the mirror in the room explained why the young receptionist girl gave me odd glimpses. My face was very dirty, filled with traces of rain and mosquito bites, and clothes saturated with sand. It was not apparently too hard for the roadside patrol to believe the story. Perhaps the warm thoughts for the Russian teachers were in vain??
Fourth day, Sunday July 29
The hotel was under repair and rooms had to be emptied early in the morning although it was Sunday.
Sunshine from 4 AM, a good breakfast, plus a nice walk in the village gave a good start for the day. An open barbershop took 2 euros for a haircut. The only problem was the much too short sleep. This is how a barbershop looks in the town of Kalevala. The rainbow theme is NOT what you may think.
I filled up the tank and checked the rear tyre. Everything was fine. The puncture in the tube was not bad but I decided to make some research on tubeless riding knowing the risks. The tube was taken along for emergencies. And, is it more or less safe to ride with a patched tube than tubeless.
Do the bad roads never end, zombie riding
The road for the latest 100 kilometers to Kalevala was reasonably good. This lead to a false idea that those conditions would last forever. There were 150 kilometers to Finland from Kalevala. This consists of three 50 kilometers distances between the villages of Kalevala – Vuonninen, Vuonninen-Vuokkiniemi and Vuokkiniemi-Kostomuksha. The road was just unbelievable and something that my already aching shoulders will remember forever. This is not something for a heavy touring bike. How much punishment does one deserve because of a to a stupid decision?
The villages were poor but beautiful. The orthodox wooden churches are marvelous.
People spoke old-fashioned Finnish. I could have listened them speaking for hours. Most of the men were drunk so it made no sense to risk my health. Finns have a bad habit of killing their friends with knives when drunk. (This is true.
Kostomuksha (64deg 41' N, 30deg 48' E) is a town with some tens of thousand of inhabitants. It was built within a couple of years when a big factory project was launched in the sixties. The road got better and everything seemed to be fine. The road, the weather, food. The main disaster was still to come. A "good" road is like this. If you only could trust on the sides of the road:
A short stop and letting the shoulders and eyes take a short rest can give you a nice award as a beautiful view. Note the small chapel.
It was late afternoon when I arrived in Kostomuksha. There was a roadside hotel Fregat where I went to dine. I tried to count the coins when paying. The brains just refused to get any reasonable result out of simple calculations. I understood that I must be very tired although my body did not tell it. So I took a room and stayed there overnight. There were only 30 kilometers back to
Five hours on the saddle and only 150 kilometers. The roads ARE bad.
Fifth day, Monday June 30
The remaining 700 kilometers were to be a nice one day ride home to the South.
Across the border to
Suddenly I saw a horrible accident that had just taken place. In
Finally a rescue helicopter arrived. I guided people and cars away from the landing area warning them from flying stones. What I forgot was my own bike. The propelled air threw the bike into the ditch. When I tried to get the bike back on the wheels a clearly audible BANG came from my lower back with some pain which gradually worsened. The rescue people said that if I can walk and move in the first place, it is likely nothing really wrong with my back. Taking slow and careful movements I could climb on the bike and ride homeward; yet 400 kilometers to go. If you forget the rain, the rest of the trip went more or less fluently. Three minutes dismounting and mounting at each stop is not too much, right? Actually, after such an incident the mind and soul were the problem, not the body.
A video from the same place.
If you are interested in North Western Russian Carelia and need a guide please don’t call me. The whole trip was a school example of poor decision making: getting to unknown places without a decent map, with a bike with a clutch slipping right from the start. Nobel prize nomination committee need not bother. A GS could be a more clever choice.
On the positive side, however, the original target was met. The mythical places do now also have a location, not only a name. In fact, a map wouldn’t have prevented me from being in trouble in the backwoods. However it would have helped in route planning.
Some more homework would have paid off. If I had known the population figures of villages and towns, I would have guessed that accommodation might be a problem. The standard of living is very low and local people do not form a reasonable infrastructure for any acceptable service.