Sunday 22 June 2014

Making A Beeline to Russia

The only puncture we had happened before we started. That's a good sign I thought at the time. Just like I thought I was with the right person, when John told me he'd once got lost in the Sahara. Russia is almost twice the size of the Sahara, but we're not going to all of Russia, we're going to the Solovetsky Islands.

Second test ride after puncture.
Photo by John Spooner
We'd do 2000 miles in 20 days.  An average of 100 miles per day, for long distance cyclists, is do-able. This is not a randonnee,  not a tour,  not a holiday, but a pilgrimage.  The aim is to get to the White Sea as beeline as possible.

Early 'back of an iPad' route.
John wouldn't budge when I had pushed him into changing his mind.  'It could be horrible, long days, bypassing significant sights, there might be not much to see when we get there'.  'I said yes' was his reply.  His only condition was that we'd camp.  He'd bring a stove, we'd be fine.

Perfect!  This is a pilgrimage, camping fits the self-reliance bill.

I was chuffed when Hummers suggested a YACF send off.  I was even more chuffed when a group of experienced cyclists turned up.  I had had weeks of nervous planning, anxiety building with each day closer to the start.  That evening, I was close to bursting level.  I was listening out for hints of flaws detected in my plan.  John had never questioned anything I had suggested.  And anybody who'd cared to listen always nodded in agreement: 'It will be a wonderful adventure'. Then … bang!  I was in earshot of David and George's conversation.  They came to the conclusion that 100km (not 100 miles!) is the most you should cycle when doing it the fully loaded camping way.  What with navigation, hunting for food, finding campsites etc.  I think I went white.  I caught John's eye, he was nodding in agreement.

Hummers wishing us a safe journey.
Photo by Jellied
The next day, still white, we set about getting the bikes into my small car.  We took the front wheels off, the back wheels, the saddles, the pannier racks  …. Our noses might have touched the front windscreen, but the bikes were in.  It looked like we might at least get to the official starting point, my parents' place in Belgium.

I was never going to feel prepared enough.  I said goodbye to my partner and shrugged my shoulders: 'Whatever happens, we'll just have to deal with it, take a train if we have to.'  She also nodded in agreement but she didn't say it would be a wonderful adventure.

I wonder what kind of an adventure St Zozimus had when he walked to Egypt to get his bees.  He wouldn't have had a GPS like us.   All we had to do was follow the line.  The next day's route would automatically show up.  Power would be charged from the dynamo light.  And we had each other's devices as backup (plus micro cards, plus stored online ….) .  We had loads of fun with the gps gadgets.  They got us to bike shops, to sunsets, to banks, to ferries, to supermarkets, to Russia, to hell, to heaven and back to reality.

John walking the labyrinth.

After the third day on the road I felt battered and shattered.  I sighed to John: 'If every day is going to be like this ...' I didn't finish the sentence because I didn't want to consider the outcome.  'You wanted this' he said.   I returned by giving him one last bailout option, which of course, he waved away.   That moment was the true start of the journey.   We now understood what it was going to take.

Fortunately, the days were long in terms of daylight.  Not once did we have to worry about finishing in the dark.  Not even the day we pitched up at 11PM, it was still light.  And the weather was predominantly June beautiful.  I loved cycling all day, every day, through nature is at its most bloomful.

I wanted this for sure.  Each day, our mission was to get to the next campsite.  It was like a 20 day audax marathon, with a campsite control at the end of the day.  We were on a schedule, a tight schedule.  The day we couldn't get to the next campsite would be the day we'd have to 'deal with it'.

My obsession came from learning about St Zozimus in one of my dad's beekeeping magazines back in 2001.   The article described how St Zozimus and St Sabbatius setup a monastery on the bigger of the Solovetsky Islands, the Bolshoy Island.   Orthodox churches require candles, so they would need bees for wax production.  The story goes that St Zozimus walked to Egypt to get bees.  The more I read about this monk, the more I could piece together a credible life story.   He went on to teach people the art of beekeeping.   In the Ukraine, a world top honey producer, beekeepers celebrate St Zozimus on 30th April.  He is the patron saint of beekeepers.  To this day, images of the monk are displayed in apiaries.  This is all very intriguing, I wanted to know more.

So many questions.
'What's that about then' asked John's brother when we were tweeting with the #stzozi hashtag.  It was all about St Zozimus.  John did more tweeting than I did.  I tended to be on supermarket sweep duty.

John tweeting on our progress
We'd buy enough for lunch and dinner.  A couple of times, that wasn't enough.  The first time we ran out of food resulted in John navigating a significant detour to reach a supermarket in the middle of nowhere.  There was an associated cafe/library which turned out to be a wifi haven.   This lifted our spirits.  The second time we ran out of food resulted in us knocking on the door of a beekeeper.

Honey for sale!
From these hives
John and the beekeeper
This encounter provided for another moral boost when we needed it.  At least we could have a chat.    But the beekeeper didn't need to tell us that we were in a very remote area! I could finish his other sentences also. 'He'd run out ... of last year's honey', 'This year, the season ... is a month behind', 'He'd be harvesting ... in August'.  I had secretly hoped for an offer of bread with honey.   Instead, he had chickens and was selling eggs.  Saved!  Except that John doesn't like eggs.  We had two cup-a-soups left, so John had those whilst I had boiled eggs.

"I'll take a stove, we'll be fine."
We were eating more and more.  At some point, I began to eat more than John was.  George was right again in saying that we'd lose weight.  Along the way, it made me think of a new diet: 'Eat what you carry'.  You can only carry so much, which will limit your intake.  And carrying your food in itself would make you lose weight.

Another picnic by the road
Our campsite routine evolved.  At first, we'd pitch the tents, then shower, then eat.  Towards the end, we'd eat, pitch the tents and not shower.  What didn't evolve was the morning coffee ritual, the day couldn't start without our wonderful cafetière mug coffee.  John would put the kettle on, I would make the coffee.

We camped in some idyllic places
Photo by John Spooner
With breathtaking views
The advantage of camping was that there would be at least two sheets of tent material protecting John from my vocal and physical outbursts.  I had warned John about my night terrors, he didn't believe me, few people do.  He waved it away again, and said 'I've got good ear plugs anyway'.

Between Turku and Helsinki, we knew we were going to have to camp in the wild.  I wasn't keen, but it had to been done.  John would have pitched up much earlier in the evening than I.  I'm thankful for his consideration and patience . He kept on offering: how about here, or here, let's have a look there, until I was happy enough.  I was happy when we found this gravel track.  A fallen tree was blocking the entrance to all but cyclists looking for a wild camping spot.  Perfect, mozzies aside.

Spot the wild camper
And spot the hi-viz vest!
Couldn't get the long sleeve on quickly enough.

Photo by John Spooner
Because of the mozzies, we didn't hang about too long, and the sooner I got to sleep the sooner I'd forget we were wild camping.   I was tired, I drifted off.  Then the sound of footsteps on gravel appeared.  Was I dreaming? They became louder and louder.  I held my breath.  The thought of preferring the sound of mozzies to gravel came to mind.  That thought was immediately replaced with panic when a dog started barking right by my ear.  'John!' I shouted out.  But the dog got a telling off and the footsteps disappeared again.  Just a dog walker on an evening stroll probably.  In the morning, John asked if I had had one of those night terrors.

The second time we camped in the open was more desperate.  Things were beginning to turn against us a and we had started to draw on our reserves.  We had the huge distance of 171km to cover, it was the last day before entering Russia.  In the evening, it had started to rain.

It looked spectacular ...
Photo by John Spooner
The nearest accommodation was a detour, and it was as if we didn't have the mental energy to make a detour.  So we carried straight on and were left with needing to wild camp.  I wasn't comfortable at all and we went further and further to find a suitable spot.  We just had to give in, in the end, we needed to sleep.  It was close to 11 o'clock.  For the first time we were pitching up in the rain.  And it rained and rained.  There was thunder and lightening all night.  I could hear tree branches crackling off around us.  Why are we camping amongst trees I thought.  I was willing myself to sleep again.  Several times I was woken by flashing light.  I found the whole night so terrifying that even my night terrors didn't make an appearance.  In the morning we packed up in the rain and mosquito clouds.  The fact that we were crossing the border that day was the only thing that kept our moral up.

It's the bridge that invited us in.
Still light at 11PM.
What a milestone though, reaching the Russian border.  Neither of us have pictures of the crossing, the priority was getting through, and that without being mistaken for spies.  The time I was 'in' and John wasn't, was too much time for me to think 'What am I doing ... what if ....'.  It seemed that John's passport needed more officials to look at it than mine did.  We were both relieved to be re-united.  Amazing what a few yards can mean!

It was through an incidental iMap upgrade, that I had discovered that the distance to the Solovetsky Islands was only twice LEL and a bit more.  I had been disappointed.   All of a sudden there was a boundary.  A boundary means you can work things out and make it happen.

I had quite liked this dreaming of one day reaching an unreachable place.  It reminded me of Tarkovsky's film 'Stalker'.  The Stalker, very reluctantly, guides people to 'The Room'.  'The Room' has the potential to fulfil  a person's innermost desires.    The Stalker knows it's a difficult destination, and fears for people's disappointment.  'The Zone', which is the journey towards the Room, is full of invisible dangers.

Everything that happens depends on us, says Stalker.  The relationship between pilgrims - even the most sceptical or outright cynical, even those who don't consider themselves pilgrims - and the Zone is absolutely reciprocal.  To be in the Zone is to be part of the Zone.
(Quote from 'Zona' - Geoff Dyer)

The Solovetsky islands had become the Room for me.  The path to it couldn't be air travel and a matter of 48 hours, that would make me a tourist.  It had to be a journey.

The destination was a monastery on an island 100 miles below of the Arctic Circle, where the White Sea is covered with ice for eight months of the year.   I feared for my disappointment.  Maybe the ferries wouldn't run due to bad weather.   I feared even more for not being able to get back if we did get on the island!  I didn't want to follow in the footsteps of St Zozimus that much!  And although I ordered the train tickets from Kem back to St Peterburg many months in advance, you don't receive confirmation till 40 days before departure - that's just 10 day before we left England .  Maybe the destination shouldn't be the monastery, but getting back home!  

The road still looking good!
It was the black and white frog in a puddle, struggling to right itself after being run over by a logging truck that symbolised the dangers to me.  The Solovetski Patericons might describe this scene as God protecting us, giving us the signal to turn back.

'What are you waiting for', said John.  I explained that it was 'a bit of a moment' for me.  Turning your bike into the direction you came from doesn't come naturally, and especially not when you're on a mission.  I had to re-adjust my mind 'to deal with it'.  This was the moment.  It was still raining and the roads had changed from tarmac, to good track, to bad track, to 'even a mountain bike wouldn't make far' track, to a mud bath.  Forest, forest, forest.  No view, just trees.  We were walking more and more.  It seems that only logging trucks go through here.  Every 30 minutes or so, we'd be passed by huge logging trucks, usually three at the time, also on a mission.  They were losing traction in the mud and I could see the dangers for sure.

Then a normal-ish van appeared.  We stopped the driver and asked about the next 'village' that was marked on our gps.  We had started to look for a break, for food, for options.  He only had one angry word: 'нет' - meaning 'no'.  Right, that's enough, 'it's not going to happen is it John?', I said.  I had that  white feeling again, the trundle back happened in whiteness.   'I wanted this' I kept telling myself, 'now get yourself out of here again'.  I was overwhelmed with homesickness.  I felt responsible for John - why wasn't he angry with me?  It was grim.

We checked back into the hotel.  The room balcony was perfect for drying the tents, and we used the garden hose to clean off our bikes.  But not before we initiated plan B.

Gardarika Hotel by lake Yanisyarvi
Photo by John Spooner

At reception, I bonded with the cleaner.  She had one look at me and showed the staff loos encouraging me to use them, maybe I had turned green? She was a great, babushka type person, taking me under her wings and telling the receptionist what to do.  A few spasibas, a drawing and multiple Google translates later, we had a plan.  In the mean time, John bonded with the smallest dog on earth.

Welcome distraction
I also made myself call the multilingual VOL1200 volunteer, Vladimir, so as to check we were not going to get ourselves further into trouble with our plan B.

Plan B was to cycle to Sortavala, and then complete our journey by train via St Petersburg.  A new adventure was starting and I had got over 'it'.  We ate well and I could feel myself recovering.   The pancakes at the hotel restaurant were fantastic.  I think John had a beer that evening.  The next morning, instead of getting up from wild camping (probably), we were going to be on a train for 6 hours (hopefully) to St Petersburg.

Pancakes were good at Hotel Gardarika.
Photo by John Spooner
I still had feelings of homesickness, but the feelings of needing to get to the Solovetsky islands were stronger.  What would it take?  Making phone calls, finding wifi and booking rooms, finding the train station, hoping for availability, buying tickets ... it was all logistics and time.  Although we had run out of time to cycle there, we had plenty of time to get there by train.  We were lucky to have connections with availability all the way.  The trains don't run every day and sometimes they are fully booked.  But everything fell into place.  Whatever we needed just worked out, eventually.

There was a bike shop just a mile away and they had a box!
On this journey, it seems that I perfected the art of not taking no for an answer.  For example, on arriving in St Petersburg, the receptionist said that the hotel was fully booked.  My heart sank.  I'm sure we would have found another hotel.  But the effort of just getting there with our awkward cycle panniers and my bike, having waited for a taxi for hours, then sitting in traffic for hours, the taxi driver not finding our hotel, had left us more exhausted than any other full day's cycling.

Can't be so hard to find the green dot? 
Ulitsa Gastello, St Petersburg.
We stood there, and I talked, I mentioned to the receptionists how I had stayed with them last year for the Vologda Onega Ladoga 1200km bike ride, whilst thinking what and how to do the next thing.  Then she made a phone call, and handed over the phone.  The person at the other end, Elena, informed me that there had just been a cancellation and we could stay after all.

Getting our luggage and my bike (John left his in Sortavala) in the few taxies we took, always took a bit of negotiating.  In the end, we would show them how it's done - it was out of the drivers' hands really.  They stood and watched.

But I have never been as determined as when we got to the entrance of the Solovetsky monastery shop.  The door was open, but there was a gallery rope barrier across.  'It's clearly there because they don't want people to go in' said John.  In my mind, it was clearly there to hop over.  I had to come away with candles, an icon, a print, music, something ...  It was our last day, our last chance.  I hopped over, I could see somebody not stopping me.   I could also see the whole range of beautiful pure beeswax candles.  I pointed at them, and the women looked as helpless as the taxi drivers.  The coast was clear, I called in John.  I scanned all the paraphernalia for anything depicting St Zozimus and bees .... nothing.  I explained my interest in St Zozimus as a beekeeper.  'Peacekeeper', she said.  I chuckled and corrected her, but she nodded and said 'peacekeeper' again.  Suits me, quite like that in fact. And off she went with a determined step towards a long row of trestle tables full of boxes with icon prints.  She knew exactly where it was and pulled out the print showing St Zozimus and St Sabbatius with traditional beehives between them.  I was delighted!  So happy I was, I had arrived.

Me, blending in
Photo by John Spooner
Our stay on the island was absolutely magical.  Funny thing was that as soon as we set foot on the island, our roles reversed.  John did all the organising and planning of the day.  It's as if my mission was over, the mission to get there.  Once I was there, I couldn't make anymore decisions.

John doing the buying
Fish pies
John doing the rowing
John doing the talking
The above chat was a chat with Dr Alexander Martynov, chief archaeologist of the islands, who happened to be measuring up his next dig: a potential mesolithic settlement site he discovered 10 years ago.  

What are we looking at here? 
The dig, a few months later
Photo by Dr A. Martynov
Alexander had invited us up.  'Have a look,', he said, 'go ahead, while I get my measuring stick'.  John and I went up but didn't know what to look for.  All I could think was that this was just about the most desirable wild camping spot you could ever want.  

After leaving the site, we carried on (on hire bikes!) to the top of the island, then walking to the end of the pier.  We were not going to get any more north than this.  We took our time.  It was otherworldly.  I kept staring at the sea, you never know...  And there they were: beluga dolphins.  Just wonderful.  There certainly was a special atmosphere, it was quiet, only seas to look at, quiet blue sky, quiet inside, quiet in mind.  Meditative and maddening at the same time.

White Sea view from Rebolda
Some of the other highlights during our stay on Solovetsky were the botanical gardens, the bumble bees, the labyrinths, the museum, the odd ship cafe, the bells, the procession, the bridges, the canals, the goats, .... so much in such a small area.  

The Priut hotel we stayed at was perfect for our needs.  Unlike the Solovki hotel where we tried, for a change of scenery, to go in for an afternoon coffee.  We were turned away, they 'didn't have capacity'.   The Solovki hotel is a gated new build on the outskirts of the village.  It caters for the tourist flown in from Archangel.  The tourist I didn't want to be.  

We carried on walking instead.  Walking all around the village until we found Pavel Florensky Street.  

Pavel Florensky
Pavel Florensky is one of the 'notable Solovki prisoners' listed on the wiki page:  'he was a Russian Orthodox theologian, priest, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, electrical engineer, inventor and neomartyr'.  He could probably put his mind to anything.  Whilst on the islands, he conducted research into producing iodine and agar out of seaweed.  Seaweed is now still a commodity for locals.

Frames for drying seaweed
In the 16th century, under the leadership of Filip Kolychev, Solovetsky grew into a well run and successful community.  It was salt, that was the island's biggest source of revenue.   Salt was in abundance whilst it was scarce in other parts of Russia.  I only recently found out that the name "Solovki" was derived from the Russian word for salt.  

"Solovky reminds you of a precious stone: however long you look at it, it keeps on changing." 
- Mariusz Wilk - 'The Journals of a White Sea Wolf'.

In Soviet times, Solovki was turned into prison and labor camp, which served as a prototype for the GULAG system.  All religious references were removed, all monks gone.

The monastery is depicted on the 500 roubles note, which highlights just how significant the site is to Russia.  There are two versions of that banknote in circulation.  One showing the monastery without onion domes, and one with onion domes once restored post-gulag time.  

Restoration is taking place continuously, as we could see from all the scaffolding.  This year, an enormous grant (€17 million) has been awarded for the restoration of 12 different sites of the monastery.  I have visions of a 'Lost Gardens of Heligan' type restoration, including salt works and beekeeping sites.  Maybe one day I'll have to go back and see.

It's quite comical to think that when John asked if I'd ever go back, I said 'Yes, but in the winter'!

I'll be forever thankful to John Spooner.  No other person could have, would have joined me.  

"... the main thing was to do anything I could to help Els reach her goal..." - John Spooner

Thank you John, you did!

Solovki Islands is a fantastic place. You can't leave it but carrying a heavy load of various sensations - historical, ecological, artistic, esoteric, etc. This site is ever generating miracles. Not the mere monastery, but the nature itself and numerous archaeological monuments. Here the travelers may obtain what they seek for in the rest of the world. (Quote from

The rest of my photos are here: 'Solo'
John's photos: 'Beeline to Russia'
John's write up of 'his version': Part 4 (Solovki) (Parts 1-4 and 5 in same thread)

Other thoughts in random order:
  • Hearing a cuckoo pretty much every day.
  • Other eye-catching wildlife: cranes, sea eagles, ibis, moose (just one crossing the road), migrating birds.
  • Meeting Gus from YACF, in Copenhagen.
  • Meeting John's friend Simon and family in Neumunster.
  • Lovely swim in a lake between Nyköpping and Stockholm.
  • Both John and I had one spoke breaking.
  • Both times we found a bike shop the next day. Lucky to find the mechanic at 'home':

  • Meeting Eric who was cycling to Spain.  Really?

  • You see bizarre things like a guy walking backwards, Stockholm, 5AM.
  • My face turning into a puffball.  Was like this every day till Finland.
  • Train ticket to Кемь, gateway to Solovetsky Islands
Train ticket to Кемь
  • Solovetsky has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.
  • Prince Charles visited in 2003.
  • Can bees live on 4 months in a year?  A former national bee inspector shared with me his thoughts: "Because of the long days, 4 months will translate into 8 months, equivalent of what they get here". 
  • John and I being interviewed for Russian TV.
  • Solovetsky and the history of Solovetsky is so beautifully encapsulated in these two references that there was no need for me to reproduce it:
  • Pentti Sammallahti's best shot: The Guardian, My Best Shot.
  • Discovering Valaam monastic music, including Solovki Chants.
  • Whilst I flew back from St Petersburg, John cycled back to the UK from Sortavala!
  • The icon print I bought was similar if not the same to this one:
  • On my return, Sarah gave me a Tintin mug: 'I'm looking for answers'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In één adem (of liever twee) gelezen. Wat een avontuur: boeiend en interessant! We zullen je "waar gebeurd" verhaal nog dikwijls herlezen.
Proficiat voor jou en John! Meim en Peip xxx xxx