Bikepacking and Touring Russian Karelia
First take a look at this screenshot from Open Cycle Maps:
Get the point?
There aren’t that many cycle routes in Russian Karelia. Or if there are, they are a bit hard to find if you don’t speak the language.
I’ve done some amount of cycle touring in Respublika Karelija and in the Karelian Isthmus. Based on these and future trips I wanted to create routes for anyone interested in bikepacking or cycle touring in the region.
Overall map can be found here. There are also more detailed descriptions of the routes on this site, but they are currently only in Finnish (google translate if you must). The routes are designed to help you discover the culture in different parts of Karelia. The reason it is so important for Finns is obvious: language, culture, history and its deep wounds. The parts west (and north) from Lake Ladoga were lost in the war. Pretty much everyone was evacuated. Go further east or north and you’ll find elderly people who still understand Finnish. Karelia is our closest language relative. And it’s not only about the history. People there work hard to keep the culture alive, vivid and evolving.
As a cultural and geographical area, Karelia stretches onto the Finnish side of the border. The final versions of the routes should cover these areas too.
In the eyes of a person travelling by bike it seems rational that also the northernmost parts like the Kola peninsula and its arctic megacity Murmansk should be included here. I totally agree. It’s a work in progress. None of these routes are in any way official yet.
You could, of course, consider a roundtrip in Lapland. Maybe cross the Russian border at Raja-Jooseppi and then cycle to Kirkenes via Murmansk. Adding some beautiful bits of arctic Norway (and bits of the upcoming Arctic Bikepacking Trail) on your multi-week tour will make a grand adventure. I just feel that there is more than that on the Russian side for us to find.
The border has not always been where it is now. And as we know, people (or peoples) and cultural areas don’t always follow borders. Have you heard of Kalevala? It’s The National Epic for us Finns. What’s interesting is that most of its poems were actually collected from Viena (White Karelia, Russia). It has never been a part of Finland!
Once upon a time there were influential people who had a dream of combining all the language areas to create one Greater-Finland. That didn’t go quite as planned. After the civil war Karelians actually joined forces with the British troops to push the Finns back. For the Brits it was a practical choice. They didn’t want to risk the arctic railroad connection ending up in the hands of some nationalist fools.
And during our Continuation War – totally separated from the Second World War of course – Finns marched all the way to Petrozavodsk with only a little help from the Germans and renamed it Äänislinna only to later retreat even further back. But independence was preserved.
Areas lost in the war also include the stunningly beautiful Paanajärvi lake near Kuusamo, now a national park, and Petsamo, our colonialistic link to the Arctic Sea. (Natural resources, unique nature and the indigenous people living there actually made Finns feel like proper colonialists at the time.)
To further promote the possibilities of cycling I would like to add that there are world heritage sites like the Kitzhi Pogost, culturally important beautiful old villages, monasteries, several conservation areas, lakes, rivers, mountains, the arctic sea and also vast areas heavily moulded by industry. The signs of Soviet reign are still visible (to find out more about the grim history, search for GULAG and Solovky islands). Lakes Ladoga and Onega are the two largest lakes in Europe. St Petersburg probably has more inhabitants than Finland. And situated in the north we have four seasons and white summer nights!
For Petersburgians the midsummer nights (белые ночи) are the time to celebrate. They get the city for themselves. The actual tourist season starts later.
The ”quality” of the roads and long distances between inhabited areas really push the buttons of the adventure cyclist. The culture and the complex history makes it all the more exciting. Regardless of your packing method, be it bikepacking or good old racks and panniers, the reality in Russia, very different from ours, is tangible.
Karelian Isthmus is a part of the Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) Oblast. Vyborg, Konevsky monastery island and Komorovo, among several other interesting places, are worth visiting. Being close to a big city the road network is relatively good.
But in the Republic of Karelia… Well, as a general rule of thumb I’d say the federal main roads are in a surprisingly good condition. The smaller local roads ARE NOT. To actually see Russia one must, at least occasionally, take a bit of a risk and venture into the unknown.
If that got you scared, here’s another point of view: many Finns, especially groups of elderly people annually visit Karelias cultural sights, festivals and family homes they had to leave behind because of the war. Can’t be that bad if they are willing to take the risk.
Ps. Fellow Russians (and other fellow cyclists) please contact me if you have the possibility to help me build these routes!