Seeing the sights at six(ty) degrees (day 163)

Brrrr. It is cold in Karelia. These are my first thoughts as I step outside on Sunday morning in Kyem’, a nowhere town on the shores of the White Sea whose only distinction is that there are ferries from here to the Solovetsky Islands.

Of course, as you well know, the Solovetsky Islands were one of Russia’s most famous Gulags (which stands for General Administration of Camps – a dumb name really) – or hard labour camps.

They are famous not just because of their location (160kms south of the Arctic Circle in remote remote remote north-western Russia), and not just because of the timing (they stopped being a camp in 1939, before Stalin even really started sending people to camps), but also because they were home to some of the worst prisoner treatment in all of Gulag history. Isolated from central control, guards basically did what they wanted. And they didn’t want to do nice things.

So here I am going to visit this tragic relic of Soviet history. Sadly I have not got on the best train (the one that would have got me to Kyem’ to catch the only sure ferry – Saturday evening). So I arrive late on Saturday night, and head to the port on Sunday morning.

Am I concerned about being a week early for the ferry? Not really. One of the lessons from Russia is that anything can be solved with significant infusions of cash. No boat? No worries. Find a captain. Suggest a price. You will soon be on your way.

So I rock up to the port. The bus stops in the middle of nowhere. Can’t even see the sea. Hmmm. Where is the port? The wind is even stronger than it was in town, and bitterly cold (“straight off the Arctic”, as my father might say – actually he wouldn’t. He would say “straight off the Antarctic”, but that wouldn’t make a good story up in these climes).

There are a few houses. My guidebook tells me this is the village of Rabocheostrovsk. Great. A helpful local, hunched in his overcoat trying to avoid the cutting wind as he walks along, points me the way but he smiles as he does so. Probably he is thinking “Ha! Loser. He is going to have to wait for hours in the freezing wind on the almost totally barren wharf waiting for a boat that he is not sure is coming. Sucks to be him”.

I already feel dejected and frozen to the bone. I have all my warmest clothes on (sans my fleece hat, which I seem to have lost). I don’t need any more pain. I don’t ask him.

So there I am. Waiting in the freezing wind on the almost totally barren wharf for a boat that I am not sure is coming. I ask everyone I can. But this is Russia. No one knows when the next boat will be. There is no timetable. Except that boat yesterday. Everyone mentions that if only I had been here yesterday…

There are men loading up supplies on the side of the wharf. That looks promising. But no one knows if a boat is coming.

As a devoted reader of this diary who has followed my progress across the world’s biggest country, you will know that I have quite tolerable capacity for waiting. I have, in fact, waited for entire days for tickets for non-timetabled ferries in the past. But that was not at 60 something degrees north, in a god-foresaken spot on the shores of what is basically the Arctic Ocean, on a sunless day with angry clouds and a freezing cold stiff gale blowing.

What I am coming to is that I did not hang around. I asked some more people. They said the same thing “No one knows when the next one will be. There was one yesterday. If only you were here yesterday”. They did tell me how much a ticket cost. Thanks. I know you mean well. But that is actually not very helpful.

With my best efforts rebuffed, my ability to speak (and I have my serious face on as I write this) reduced because my face is so cold, my best efforts to warm up by playing hackey-sack failing, and my hands so cold that I can hardly open my pockets to search for bus fare, I wander back to the wooden shack that serves as a bus shelter, and try to hide from the wind and avoid the foul-smelling puddles on the floor at the same time.

Try to put it in a good light. Maybe this is god’s way of saying I should explore Karelia another time. Maybe in summer.

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