It was stressful driving once we made it inside the city limits. We were cautious not to attract too much attention but when you look like we do, it’s a difficult task. We use Maps.me on the iPad to navigate, it usually sits in a cradle in Macs view while he drives. When driving through a city, specifically when we’re looking for a place to park for the night (or a few nights) I take the iPad and navigate. Mac can then concentrate on driving and everything that comes along with getting a 14 tonne Unimog through a foreign city. We were cautious not to break any road laws, or drive roads we were not supposed to. As we’ve read, in many Russian cities HGV’s are not allowed to access certain parts of the city during certain hours. Also as we’ve read, Russian authorities are not the people you want knowing your name.
We parked in a carpark close to three tall apartment blocks, behind the Meridian Hotel and immediately went for a walk to get our bearings. We had a long list of jobs to complete while we were in Murmansk. Top of the list – clothes washing. We also needed to buy SIM cards, buy vehicle insurance, do some food shopping, find somewhere to have a shower and register with immigration – as the authorities want to know exactly where we are at any given time.
During our walk we established there were no coin operated laundromats/laundrettes in Murmansk. Zero. I decided that I was quite happy to wash my clothes in a bucket (although not the bucket we’ve been weeing into) and continue using my last clean towel until St. Petersburg. But, Mac being Mac, decided it was time for plan B… to ask every human we encountered ‘can we use your washing machine?’ While laughing hysterically at the population of Murmansk’s response to such a question, we also found a place to shower. After paying 500 Roubles (£6) for a very expensive shower and sauna in the gym of a hotel, we decided to ask yet another human the crucial question. With almost zero English language skills, we communicated via a translation app which worked quite successfully. The poor girl behind the counter was full of banter which made it a hilarious encounter. Although when we actually translated our question instead of repeating it to her in English and absolutely wetting ourselves, she looked puzzled and slightly frightened. She directed us to two dry cleaners we’d already visited that day and went to fetch an English speaking girl from the gym in the middle of her workout. This lucky English speaking girl – Iana, presented us with another opportunity. This encounter proved very useful, we were given directions to an immigration office, a vehicle insurance company and a cheaper place to shower. She also sent details of a man with a start-up laundry business in town, and the address.
With it being Saturday night, freshly showered and in our first Russian city – we were going out! We went to a swanky restaurant on the fifth floor of a mall, drank our first local beer and toasted to Russia, The North and clean pants. Our mission for the night was to engage with as many people as possible, in order to learn. We were excited to be in Russia and interested to interpret the mentality of the population. We have a small understanding of the more recent historical events that took place here, what we don’t know is how this affected the lives of the people. We were desperate to engage and find out.
After several small talk conversations in three different high end establishments, with English speaking locals as well as non-English speaking locals via the translation app; we realised this would be no easy task. The Russian people of this area are very reluctant to engage with us and very reluctant to divulge anything about themselves. They also expressed very little interest in our story. We walked the few hundred metres back to the Mog and slept around 3am.
After having been in the country for merely a few hours, we realised the majority of the population of Murmansk had cold, hard, expressionless faces. Cracking even the slightest of smiles was going to be challenging. We can only hope this will be different elsewhere in Russia.
Sunday was rather slow, I was in need of a slow day. I read and wrote and the only productive thing we really did was find the office of the laundry man – Victor, he later came to the Mog, to collect our washing. We went out again that night, to a few different places that would likely attract different kinds of people. We had a few more superficial conversations that we struggled to take any further and left, disappointed in what we’d found. On our way out of a hotel bar, I flippantly said hello to a girl, immediately she took out her translation app to enable her to communicate in English. Her name was Tanya. Instantly we noticed she was different from everyone else we’d encountered in this city. She was friendly, communicative and displayed great self confidence in her bright pink coat. Having exchanged numbers, we kept in touch and Mac and I decided to invite her for dinner out the following evening.
Tanya works three jobs. Ironically, she works in the hotel gym in which we showered the other day. She also works in an orphanage, we never got to the third job as I was so interested in the orphanage. Children are abandoned quite frequently in this town, parents can’t afford to feed them, or simply don’t want them. Education is expensive but, like many places around the world – it is the only way out. Without education and work, basic necessities such as food, rent, electricity and water, and healthcare cannot be afforded. According to Tanya, many people are turning to drugs and alcohol – although we saw little evidence of this on the streets. Having said all of that, this is no different from anywhere else in the world.
Tanya wasn’t actually from Russia, she was from Crimea – the small piece of land on the south of Ukraine. Many people from Crimea are living in Russia, as that piece of land used to belong to Russia and many of the civilian would rather still be part of Russia than Ukraine. This is the basis of the current conflict between the two countries. Towards the end of dinner, Tanya asked us if we would like to spend the following day with her also, for a ‘surprise’ day.
The next day was brilliant! She put so much effort into showing us places we otherwise wouldn’t have visited. Her friend – a taxi driver, drove us around all day while she guided us around Murmansk city. We visited some of the city’s most iconic monuments and a monastery. We had a prison drive-by – as even parking outside of it is an offence. We also drove down to the docks to look at a Russian Naval ship, although photography was prohibited, obviously.
After an hour or so of the tour, Tanya’s friend – Andre, disclosed his ability to speak English – quite well actually. He was stone faced and non-engaging at first. He said something that bought a chill to my bones, and make me feel even more uneasy than I already did in that city. ‘England are enemies of Russia.’ We suggested that our governments may be enemies of one another, but we consider ourselves friends with the Russian people.
Andre softened after a couple of hours and later that afternoon we took Andre and Tanya for dinner before continuing our mystery tour day. We didn’t feel we were in any danger after this statement. However, Mac and I spoke about how it may be worth remembering that in fact our governments are enemies of each other, and the potential risk to our security this could bring. We learnt a vital life lesson from this, which applies to all future travel. Never ever assume someone’s ability to understand the language in which you communicate. Particularly when sat in the backseat of their car.
I spent the following day with Tanya also, she wanted to learn how to snowboard. Conveniently, I know a little about that so I relished the opportunity to snowboard in my fourth country. Returning the hospitality she had demonstrated the previous day. I will see Tanya again, of that I’m certain. She has the address of the location I’ll be living in Cambridge and I won’t be at all surprised if she simply turned up one day.
Murmansk city was a wonderful introduction into Russian life. The streets are clean, the public areas used often, all throughout the year and are taken great care of by government and civilians alike. The government also take great pride in displaying their history through monuments and memorials throughout the city.
We met Victor again, when he came to the truck to deliver our freshly laundered clothing, towels and linens. He was open, friendly and spoke great English, it is worth noting here that like Tanya was not from Russia, he was also from Crimea. Mac and Victor spoke at length about laundry businesses and Victor was interested to find out where we go from here. North! Despite our entire waste system still being frozen… we’re going north! The plan is the head towards an abandoned town on the Northern coast – Teriberka. Victor happened to know an awful lot about this town and also the land in the north of the Murmansk province, or Oblast as they’re called in Russia. We knew that a large percentage of the Murmansk Oblast is occupied by military bases of all descriptions. These locations are strictly forbidden to civilians. Being ‘tourists,’ more to the point, ‘tourists’ from England, the last thing we wanted was to end up in such an establishment. Prior to departing Murmansk city, many hours were spent planning the next stage of the expedition.