Russian North - report about our recent trip to the White Sea and Solovetsky Islands

Hi everyone! 

Last week we came back from our Karelia tour, the main objective of which was visiting Solovetskiye islands. Below you can read the report about this journey.

The rout was designed: Moscow - Zvenigorod - Seliger - Pechori - St. Petersburg - Sortavala - Kem - Solovetskiye islands - Pertrozavodsk - Volday - Moscow. As it always goes, lots of those initially wishing to join bailed out, but the ones that followed through  were an american guy Kyle, Eugeniy from Sochi, and Timofei from Moscow. And, of course, Rusmototravel Guide.




Day 1. Moscow – Derbovezh. 450 km

We left Moscow on the morning of June 7th. We reached Zvenigorod via Rublevskoe highway, there we swam and drank some kvass and ate some monastery food which was delicious. Then we took some interesting country roads with lots of pictures and smoking stops, and sometimes dirt roads. In several hours we reached Rzhev, where we filled up our gas tanks, had lunch with the sandwiches we had prepared in advance, and off we went to cover the remaining 170 kms to Derbovezh, where we had planned our first layover.

Initially we thought of going via Seleger and stay there, but in the beginning of June it is going to be a 350 year anniversary of Nilovaya Pustinya and because of this, the Russian patriarch had planned his own visit. I am sort of fine with the Orthodox church. I think religion is useful to society in many ways, but there are exceptions. If he does plan his visit there, that would mean the place would be inadmissible and closed to public. Moreover, the nearby hotels had been instructed to cancel all the bookings that had been previously made. That’s what happened to us, a week prior to our departure we received an email from the hotel saying that the booking had been canceled by the hotel.

Well, it was ok and so we decided to go via Derbovezh Park Hotel. We spent that evening on the lake shore eating a delicious dinner and getting to know each other. The first day 500 km were covered.

Day 2. Derbovezh – Pechory. 390 km

That day we wanted to visit Pushkinskiye Mountains, Izborsk and Pskov. The night was planned for Pechori, but the life had its amendments. First, it started to rain near Veloikiye Luki. Being new to the adventures of this format,  and having rental bikes,  Eugeniy and Kyle drove with caution. Though it didn't stop Kyle from eventually getting  into a road pothole, which he did. As a result the disk of his wheel got deformed and the wheel started to lose air.

Thanks to a service station some 150 meters further, we were able to take the wheel off, decreased pressure and fixed the wheel with special sticky gel. I didn’t even know it was a way to fix a bent disk, but as it turned out it was, if the disk bent slightly. Though we did lose time doing it, and taking into account a never ending  rain, and overall moving slower than anticipated, we decided to skip Pushkinskiye mountains. Due to the rain mostly.

There is an old estate and a beautiful park. Beautiful places for taking a guided walking tour,  in a good weather. We also had to  reschedule our visit to Pskov for the following morning, and headed straight for Pechori. Pechori is a small town, the locals call it a village, but it is extremely nice and well maintained. Clearly it is so because of the proximity to the European border. Besides, its territory was once part of Estonia which, by the way, saved Pechora Lavra from fanatical  Bolsheviks back in the day.

In there, we stayed in a super cozy guest house at the end of Rizhskaya street. After the rain stopped, the sun shone again, but we still asked to prepare our banya. Right before that, we managed to pay a visit to the Lavra, where we booked  a guided tour for the following morning. We then took a walk around the convent and even attended the evening service.

Then banya, home cooked dinner and discussions of the events of the day.

Day 3. Pechory – Saint-Petersburg. 370 km

Started with visiting Pechora Lavra. Long story short, the place is very beautiful and one must visit here as an adult. I would suggest  staying here for at least two or three days in order to see everything, attend services and check out surrounding places.

Then there was Pskov, Lugi and by the evening we got to St. Petersburg. Given the fact that Kyle’s disc was still deformed, we decided to take him to St. Petersburg. We took the main highway rather than the one going via Gdov, as we usually do. As we had expected, lots of negativity on the federal highway: bad traffic, trucks, road constructions, local racers (just a few though). Everyone by then thought it would have been better via Gdov. It may be slower and a larger distance, but definitely more pleasure from riding empty curvy roads. I think I should come up with some hard rules, since I got into a situation like this a few times.

Day 4. Saint-Petrsburg

In the morning we visited Touratech Russia, got to know the guys, bought some winter clothes and raincoats with shoes covers for our further trips. Then, we fixed Kyle’s disc and I changed some oil and filters, just in case. We walked around the city after lunch. Saw Petropavlovsk Fortress, Dvortsovaya square, The Hermitage, Spass-on-spilled-Blood, Kazanskiy and Isaakievskiy cathedrals. We went on the motor boat on the channels of the city, checked out Rumochnaya N1, wine bar Lyublyu. Very familiar and well loved places.


Day 5. Saint-Petersburg – Sortavala. 350 km

A very picturesque and interesting road, especially the last lap from Priozersk to the city. The roads around Ladoga lake in general seem to be ideal for biking. Lots of hills, old villages, curves and turns. Green fields and just a few km of dirt roads, not more than 7 km in total.

I highly recommend it to everyone. If you happen to be lazy to go all the way from Moscow, you still could send bikes directly to St. Petersburg or Petrozavodsk by train, RZD has now launched new cargo cars for vehicles. Sending a motor bike costs around 10 000 rub + 3 000 for the compartment for yourself on the train. One way. 30 000 (approx. 450 EUR) roughly round trip.

We checked out Ruskeala Marble Park. It was June 11th, holidays and the park was full. We went around the park and returned to our camping base Labmerg which would be our home for the next two days. In the evening we went to a banya, made some kebabs on the fire, drank a couple of pints of local beer and went to bed. The following morning we had to take a motorboat

to Valaam.


Day 6. Sortavala (Valaam Monastery)

Valaam. It wasn’t my first time here so I won’t go into details of how impressed I was about the place. Familiar places, history of which I know almost as well as local guides do.

I’d like to give you some advice on how to spend your time properly here.

  1. Here one must spend at least two or three days. The islands feature hotels, even some of which are  integrated with the monastery. If you cannot stay overnight, make sure you will spend at least a full day here
  2. Puchase through the pilgrimage service (everything is strictly officially, everyone  work only through them), a private guided tour, ask to be assigned with Kyrill. He is the one from the monastery's brethren, a  very interesting persona whose speech is beautiful. He  also speaks English. A private tour is just a little more expensive than a group tour, but it is also a  much more interesting and a better  quality one, since the guide works exclusively with you
  3. After the monastery take a taxi and go for a ride around the island on remote skates. Very nice and interesting. We have our own taxi driver on the island, I will give his contacts to anyone who is interested in seeing  non-tourist places. He knows all about the abbots, with him you can  also visit the shrines
  4. In the monastery, if you go through it, in between the second and the third line, you can find a little bakery. There you can try some local pies and smoked fish. You absolutely have to try their fish, as well as their pies. In the canteen by the port\deck you can try Valaamskiy Cognac
  5. The firth, and the last, you can take a meteor boat as well as some private boats. Its best to take the private motor boat costing approximately 9000 rub round trip with  waiting time of 4 hours included. (500 rub extra hour of waiting). Taking meteor costs approximately 3000 per person. Since there were 4 of us, the private boat was a cheaper option. But that is not the point. Having taken a private boat enables you to sail through the channels and check out some inner lakes whereas meteor boat won’t do it


Day 7. Sortavala – Kem. 700 km

It had been drizzling since morning and it was chilly and damp. Having put on the warmest clothes we had we continued our ride without stopping. There wasn’t even a place that was worth stopping for. We filled up our gas tanks every 100-150 km. It so happens sometimes, when you ride in the cold weather and crave some hot tea and some chocolate bar, or whatever else that you simply cannot buy there. For 220km there was nothing whatsoever, no infrastructure or nothing.

But life, much like a zebra, black stripes replace white ones. Having departed from Medzhegosk and ridden for about 100 km the rain stopped, the sun started to shine and it got warmer.

At some random gas station, we saw two old motor bikes (Nimbus). Never saw anything like this before. Inside the gas station, there were 65 or 70 year old Dutch couple. A husband and a wife are travelling on two bikes manufactured in 1936.. They had departed for their trip to south Europe, on April 12th and then went east towards Turkey, and then north via Russia to Murmansk and back home. All in total 3 months. They were sitting there, getting warm, looking for a place to stay the night online. Their speed is 50-60 km\h they had covered their 300 km today. I invited to join us in our hotel in Kem, approx. 100 km from here which does not feature at all.

I pinned the hotel on the map in their navigator, told them briefly about Solovetsky Island history, and also told them, since they ended up here, they should definitely check it out. They agreed.

We continued our trip and then something fantastic happened. Approximately 80-90km from Kem right in front of me a little bear walked onto the road. Well, little, relatively...100 kg at least, bigger than an adult human being. At this point, I am racing at 130 km per hour (since the road is great and almost no cars) I see a little bear gets onto the road. He is so cool. Walking on 4 legs, limping slightly. He looks over at us approaching and makes a run for the woods. He then stopped once he reached  the first trees and started to stare at us.

Eugeniy saw him too, Kyle did not get to see him that well. I stopped and asked if the guys had seen it. I said let's go back and check maybe he’s still there. But everyone seemed scared. Small bears don't walk alone and there must have been his mother nearby, so it’s best to get out of there. I don't know, maybe they were right. But I think if an adult bear should attack us we would just get on the bikes and take off. Though, who knows what may happen if you get really scared though…. you can drop your bike)))

We arrived in Kem not that late. Checked in the hotel and went to the city center to have a walk. The city gave away a sad impression, it was apparent nobody needed anything there, but  I think that is what Russian North looks like in general. In the times of USSR, a military base was located here, as well as an airport and a couple of factories. After the USSR fell apart, everything shut down and military men left the place. No jobs. Difficult and hostile climate and only a couple of schools, not even a college. All the young people leave, while older generation continue  to work at the port or railways. Or some small retail.

By the way, we were the only Russian people at the hotel. The rest are foreigners. All 20 rooms had been booked. It was very unusual to help  locals with getting orders from 60 year old germans and dutch people.


Day 8. Kem, Solovetsky Inslands

We got up at 5am, had breakfast and headed over to the port, which was 20 km from the hotel. We took a monastery’s boat to reach Solovetskiye Islands, the northernmost and the most difficult point of our destination.

The difficulties accessing it is due to lack of transportation and increased demand, and impossibility to book or pay online. Tickets must be purchased at the kiosk.. When we sailed there, we had to even call sister Nikona for her to write down each passenger's name. Besides, the navigation\operation period is only 3-4 months a year and on top of that, the weather is really unpredictable.  But like the saying goes, where is the will there’s a way.

So, we reached the port loaded our stuff onto a boat and took off sailing one way for 2.5hr. The White Sea is a cold sea, strong winds, so if you’re ever going that way, make sure to get a good windbreaker, hats and gloves. I decided not to take off my bike clothing since I had nothing warmer. Not once did I regret my choice.

The boat was full. We were sitting on the lower deck, on common benches, as if on the metro in Moscow. Crowdy. Most of the passengers just slept, we talked with each other for some time and eventually fell asleep.

Once we reached the island we saw an impressive monastery. A large and beautiful one. We were met by Uriy, a local tour guide that drove a small UAZ on which he took us on a 4 hour trip around the island. Uriy, just like majority of locals, who by the way, are being relocated to the mainland, since the monastery is going to own all of the land, to make the island resided entirely by believers. He came here a long time ago as a tourist, fell in love with the place and decided to stay. His wife declined to relocate and so he divorced her. By the end of the trip it turned out that Timofey and he had studied at the same college, during the same years and even at the same faculty. They remembered some common friends and professors.

But going back to the trip, we rode everywhere, visited some remote skeets, lakes and lookout points. We got our adrenaline dose from formation of dirt and deep puddles, riding UAZ and also saw a deer. It was sitting getting some sin by the lake. And of course we experienced the deepest immersion into the history of the place. the monastery, GULAG. Lots of history, just the way I like it. It feels good when random fractionated knowledge suddenly structures into a whole picture in your mind.

After the excursion, we returned to the monastery and took a walk around the building. Some insights about Solovki.

  1. Best time to visit is mid-June through mid-August. Navigational operation period from mid-May until September, so you could technically go earlier but it is very cold
  2. You must stay on the island for at least one night in order to go on a 3 hour excursion around the monastery and visit main exhibitions and then being able to ride around the island with a private guide on UAZ. The second day may be dedicated to visiting neighboring islands. It is extremely beautiful over there for you won't make it in one light day
  3. Tickets for the boats and hotel reservations must be booked 3-4 months in advance. Extremely high demands and lack of  hotels and boats. Make sure you do everything beforehand
  4. Very beautiful nature of the White Sea
  5. Make sure to try their Kvass, smoked fish and their berry desserts

All of the way back we stood on the dock with our Dutch friends. It was cold, but the sun felt warm on my body and I did not want to be downstairs at all. Beautiful White Sea. Clear and cold. A true Russian North just the way I imagined. Having returned to the hotel I headed to do some work, the guys went to have dinner.


Day 9, Kem – Petrozavodsk. 430 km

Today we started our way to Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia. We set off early, there were no cars, great asphalt and the sun was shining. Though it was cold, +9-12C.  A cyclone caught up with us by the evening on the way to Kem. We decided to leave and head for some place warmer. Since there were almost no gas stations or coffee shops on the way we rode without stopping. So, we reached Petrozavodsk within 4 hours.

On the way we stopped to check out Kivach falls. Fairly beautiful but nothing special. Belomorsk features some beautiful drawings on the mountain rocks. It is 30 km from the highway one way. Due to the cold weather we decided not to visit, we wanted to get warm.

The temperature in Petrozavodsk increased to +20. At the hotel, we requested a local guide and walked around the won for 2 hours after which we headed to have dinner at one of the best Karelian restaurant. The guys drank a little too much those local herbal infusions of different variety. We tried all of  them and they were real tasty. After the restaurant, they decided to walk some more and enjoy the white nights experience. They walked till 3am :)

Day 10. Kizhi

We headed over to the island on a private boat costing us 12,500 RUB. It was a much cheaper option comparing to the rocket boat taking into the account the fact that there were 5 of us. We loved it there in Kizhskiy pogost. A wonderful open-air museum. Beautiful nature, interesting architecture and a fascinating tour. 

Our guide was Gennadiy, and by the looks of him we could tell he loves the place himself and knows a lot about local traditions and history of Karels (local northern people). Three hours just flew by. We learned lots of facts about life on the Russian North, about how they build their houses, how they cook and what their routine looks like. I highly recommend to visit Kizhi.

The only drawback of the place is the numerous tourists in the high season. We were lucky though, it  was a weekday. The previous day had been bad in terms of weather so in the morning there were not many tourists. The sun was shining +22, everything was just perfect. Otherwise you should be prepared to see loads of people, and some rain since it rains a lot here. Onega is an unpredictable lake.

As we sailed back the water surface was as smooth as glass. Never seen it this way before. In the evening we went to Karelskaya Gornitsa. Although it was expensive, but it was delicious. Lots of local herbal infusions, some of us got pretty tipsy :)))

This concludes the trip report. There were still two and a half days, first, the road to Valdya, then Moscow, and a small afterparty. But comparing to the other days while on the trip through the Russian North, Solovki, Kizhi and Valaam the last days did seem like days of relaxation.

Thank you for reading and we hope this information will be useful for everyone who is interested in travelling to Russian North


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