Entry into Russia

Trip Start Aug 29, 2006
Trip End Dec 22, 2006

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Another early start to a travel day, as we had to make our way to the bus station by 7:55. It was another very expensive ride, but luckily it was a big empty bus, and we could have two seats each to sleep.

While Finnish Lapland is all very pretty with a landscape of snow covered forests, and frozen lakes on show for us, it lacks the mountains to make it spectacular. But the most exciting part of this bus ride was seeing the Reindeer out in the wild. (Technically, they are not wild, because all the Reindeer in Finland are owned by someone.) They also pose a hazard, as they do not have a good road sense, and bus driver had to often jam on his breaks to avoid hitting them.

We arrived at the capital of Finland's winter sports, Ivalo, at 12:30. It still felt like the sun had not risen, as it was yet another cloudy day, and as we were further north-east, the sun was up for even less time. We first booked our ticket for our bus to the Russian city of Murmansk, and then had to sit around for three hours.

There was nowhere to leave our bags, so Megan and I took turns exploring the very little town. I found a big frozen river which had tire tracks on it, so I thought must be thick enough for me to walk on, and went for a tentative little walk out on the ice.

Finally our it was time to get on our bus. It was a minibus, but luckily it had space at the back to put our bags, and also the only people sharing the ride with us were two Russian women. We really felt like we were getting off the beaten track now.

We driver drove very carefully for an hour to the border. Finally border crossings are getting a little trickier, as first we had to get out and personally go through passport control in Finland, then drive to the Russian border and do the same. However despite my best intentions, I think I must have chosen the wrong time to shave my beard into a Moustache only, as the Russian border officials refused to believe that the shaven head, face and eyebrow person in my passport photo was me.

They were very nice about it, and I don't think they were just trying to show their authority, but I had three guys come up and try and work it out. They asked me to sign my signature, and then a few questions about where I had been, paying close attention to the South American stamps. Not sure if they thought I was a drug smuggler. Finally they waved me through, and I thought I was all good, but going through customs, a man was waiting for me with the bus driver, and marched me to the van, where I had to point out bags and tell them what was inside.

In the end he luckily didn't search them, and just accepted that I am just a normal tourist with a funny passport photo. Megan got through without much problem.

The road in Russia immediately deteriorated. It felt bumpy enough to have been a dirt road, but we could not see as it was coved in a thick layer of snow. The driver also must have felt more comfortable to be back in the homeland, as he put his foot to the floor, screaming over the bumps, and sliding around the slippery corners.

Lucky there were few cars around, and it was 5 hours before we actually came upon one we had to overtake. For the whole 6 hour drive I don't think we went through one town. All the while, Megan and I were growing more nervous. For three days we had been trying to book a hotel in Murmansk, however had not had any luck. We were told that the only budget hotel we could find was booked out for the night, and when trying other ones we were told we needed to give more notice. And when trying to phone the hotel direct, we couldn't get thorugh to someone who could speak English.

So here we were arriving into the largest city in the Arctic circle, our first in Russia, the snow pelting down outside, and it the time 11pm at night (we crossed another time zone), I couldn't think of a worse place on our trip to not have had a hotel booked.

The bus driver asked our hotel, and we told him the budget one, in hope that there would be a room for us. Very luckily for us, he dropped us off at the door, as I don't think we would have stood much chance trying to find it on our own. We went inside, and were welcomed in English, and they seemed to have plenty rooms on offer. So after all our stress it was all very easy.

We didn't bother venturing outside again, and just watched the falling snow outside our window.
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