Well this is indeed random. Felt like I had to write it anyway. The ”Tourism portal” of Karelia can be found here. It’s a website. In English!
Highways with heavy traffic can be dangerous for cyclists (and for everyone really). Sound obvious but in Russia this advice should be taken very seriously.
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. Being close to a big city the road network in the Karelian Isthmus is way better than in other parts of northwest Russia.
When talk of bad roads most imagine a doubletrack with hard packed gravel and stones pointing out. Add some muddy sections and that’s your bikepacking fantasy right there. In my experience most local roads in Russia aren’t like that. The local main road might look pretty legit but once you cycle it you’ll notice your tires tend to sink (in loose sand and gravel). Smallest roads are basically just the forest floor with bilberry bushes scraped off revealing the soft sand. Here puddles are often wider than the road, but you can cycle these too.
The problem with advices from people travelling by car is that they often don’t know what kind of roads you can and can’t cycle. (Fatbikes and other relatively fat tires will handle pretty much anything you throw at them, but will you enjoy riding the majority of the trip with such an overdo bike?)
Cars and alcohol
Yes they do drink and drive and sometimes drive way too fast when sober. There has been deadly accidents on the main road to Murmansk. One of those accidents claimed the life of a highly experienced cycle tourist. In the other hand Russians seem to be very polite towards cyclists. Luckily there is very little traffic in these parts of the Russian Federation (main roads excluded).
FSB patrols the border. Or more accurately: the border guard is now a part of FSB. I strongly advice you not to go there unless you have a permission. The border zone is 5 kilometers wide on the Russian side. But from what I’ve seen and heard it might be A LOT WIDER too. A road that leads even close to it, and especially if it has no obvious places to visit, is a risk.
On the Finnish side the border area is 3 kilometers wide. You are not allowed to go there either (without a permission). More information on the subject can be found at raja.fi. The border Finns share with the Nordic countries Sweden and Norway isn’t that heavily controlled (COVID-restrictions apply though).
Languages and Peoples
It does help a ton if you speak Russian. Even reading the map and road signs feels odd because of the cyrillic alphabets. Not that many English speakers here. Elderly people in old Karelian areas might understand Finnish. Finnish and Karelian languages are infact closely related. I suggest you use a dictionary or a digital version when communication becomes a problem. Obvious to say that it’s polite to learn some basic stuff like ”thank you” in Russian.
Here’s a map and a link to a wikipedia page in case you want to dig deeper into the endangered Karelian language and its dialects. General information about Karelians can be found on this wikipedia article.
An ethnographic group of Pomors, who speak a dialect of Russian, traditionally live at the shores of the White Sea, especially in Archangel, Suma, Belomorsk, Kandalaksha, Umba and Varzuga. The three latter ones are inside Tersky Distrikt, Murmans Oblast.
Saami indigenous people inhabit some areas in the north. Some of their languages are moribund, some strugling to survive.
Relocating workforce was common in Russia. Many locals have roots in far parts of the former Soviet Union. Vise versa, thousands of Karelians were forcibly relocated in places like Ukraine!
Seems like we can’t trust the official numbers. Lets all just wait until things are under control, shall we?
One word: stolovaja (столовая). A kind of a modest diner that can be found in most towns. A small shop is called magazin. Mostly dry and canned stuff here and pelmeni in the freezer, treats.
To celebrate finally finding your way to a bigger city go and find a Georgian restaurant. (Best food in the Soviet Union came from Georgia. Still does.)
Also buy random pies (bulka, pirog) from kiosks and find your favorite. Hleb means bread. Bread is holy.
Russians make good soup. Finns in Pohjois-Karjala make the best karelian pastries.
Cash machines are often hidden inside small supermarkets. They can be a bit hard to find. Post offices sometimes work as banks if you don’t need much money. Cash works when cards don’t.
There are some turist bureaus in Finland that are useful when applying for a visa. The Karelian Isthmus and Saint Petersburg have a new free digital visa system. If you are travelling from far, try your local embassy or turist bureau first.
Staying in Russia longer than a week requires registration. Bigger hotels should be able to do it for you. Otherwise you’ll have to do it your self by visiting local officials.
There are visas for single and for multiple visits. To play it safe and making it possible to cross the border several times to get the best out of your trip go for the multiple version.
It is commonly adviced that you should buy a Russian internet/phone connection for a longer stay. I would urge you to consider the amazing possibility of using a phone as a phone and a map as a map…
Travelling by bike, busses are often problematic no matter where you are. Bicycles take a lot of space that might later be needed for ”proper” luggage. Or that’s what I’ve been told. Be persistent. Most likely the busdriver will eventually bend to your will.
Trains in Russia have a whole car for larger items. Except the ones coming from Finland where you can’t fit your bike -or at least it won’t be easy. The St. Petersburg – Murmansk railroad is handy for transitions. There are also thew smaller airports in places like the Solovky monastery islands.
According to an old saying, in Russia every car is a Taxi. It’s still pretty much true. Today some of them use companies similar to Uber but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Unless you need a receipt…
There is a ferry that goes from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg and boat rides that follow the rivers and go across the big lakes. Very turisty.
The western tradition was to build a house and a sortiment of buildings for food, tools and animals either scattered around the premises or as a closed yard. The eastern way was to fit everything inside the same massive loghouse with decorated facades. A reminder of the orthodox tradition I suppose. They are sometimes referred as being Novgorodian. (There is a an outdoor museum in Veliky Novgorod showing these kind of houses. Similar museum can be found at Seurasaari Helsinki.) For Finns a house with no paint is a house left to ruin but I’ve really come to like how the old Karelian houses look like.
Housing in Soviet Union
Khrushchyovka is a cheeply built appartment building named after Nikita Khrushchev. It was designed to solve the housing problem caused by the fact that more and more people had to work in factories. There are quite a thew of these, often concrete-panelled buildigs in the former USSR.
Stalin had spent a lot of money on industry. Lack of living space meant that the workers were forced to live in shared studios with strangers and use communal kitchens. The neoclassical cities Stalin constructed are also facinating. The previously closed and very very secret city of Sillamäe in Estonia is a fine example.
The towns build to house the workers might not be pretty, but some of them still have a very strong sense of community. Enter one when people are out on the streets or picking potatoes in the yards and you can sense it too. Older people say that it’s the communality they miss the most.
Housing in Post War Finland
Since the 1920s several type-planned houses were designed and built. In 1939 two competitions were held by different political ministries to create new functional houses. The winning architect drawings were then free for everyone to use. About 100 000 houses were destroyed during the Second World War. 11 percent of the populaton was homeless and 400 000, evacuated included, needed a new home. Type-planned houses, commonly known as rintamamiestalot, were the solution used to solve the post war housing problem.
Many of the datshas (as Russians call summer houses and villas) near Terijoki are Finnish prefab houses. If you spot a similar type planned house east of the old border, it’s propably been built during the occupation in the early 1940s. They were the obvious solution when inhabiting new areas of Greater-Finland.
People evacuated from areas lost in the war had roots. This is a big topic and one of the reasons I’m trying to establish these routes. It might be a worldwide phenomenon, but the fact that our beloved nordic model, the welfare state, has pushed down the languages of Karelia as well as the Saami indigenous people is something we are not proud of. Official apologies?
Banja in Russian, sauna in Finnish. There is a tradition of public banja’s in Russia. You can find thew of them in Finland too. One of those must experience thingies.
Russians are very hospitable. Sadly, because the media is controlled by you-know-who, some people are a bit suspicious towards outsiders. Other thing you should be aware conserns the possibility to lodge in other peoples homes. If you are been offered a place to stay for the night, why not! But if it is a less official business that kind of seems like a boarding house (aka homestay), please prebook! Otherwise you’ll appear as a person who has no respect for other peoples privacy.
If you are looking for this kind of accommodation in White Karelia (Viena), this website should prove itself useful: ontrei.fi. I wish I would have known about it when I was cycling there. It’s almost like a tourist trail with services and all. Until you start measuring the distances and making more accurate assumptions on the quality of the gravel roads that is. Apparently no-one thought the Ontrei trail could be an official cycle route as well. Still not been cycled by many.
Endless amount of lakes here. Ladoga and Onega are the two largest ones in europe.
Sleeping in a tent
There is tons of space, so go for it! Usually when you find a good spot relatively close to the road, you’ll also find lost tent pegs, garbage and a place to make fire. If there is someone lurking around at 4 am, it’s most likely a local going fishing.
Russians like camping too. Cleaning up the mess they make seems to be a problem though.
”Nightless” midsummer nights are a consept in the north. The sun sets pretty late or doesn’t set at all wich is pretty handy. Cycling in the night is fun!
There are music festivals in Olonets and in other old villages. Do check them out if possible. Pradsnik means celebration. And party needs music. Kalevala consists of songs btw. Also check out Vladimir Vysotsky and Viktor Tsoi’s Kino. Not so much linked to the Karelian musical tradition but well worth listening. A new Finnish group Celenka toys with the traditional Karelian, Balkan, Slavic and other eastern vibes in a fascinating way.
Orthodox. From small chapels (tsasouna) to monasteries that were once big and powerfull like kingdoms. Finns built Lutherian churches mainly in the Karelian Isthmus.
Sometimes it feels like people believe in conspiracy theories, alien abductions and television rather than the facts still brought to light by the ever decreasing free press. In Russia only a fool believes in the official truth, but conspiracy… There is always at least the theoretical chance that it’s true! I’m not trying to be disrespectful. Russia (or the Soviet Union for that matter) just hasn’t always treated its people with kindness. There is a good reason why not everyone trusts what they’ve been told. Follow the news from Russia and you’ll notice the real story is the search for the truth.
Finnish Americans and the Workingmans Paradise
Soviet Union was suppose to be a paradise for the workingman. Many Finns who had first moved to the new world to build their fortunes now decided to start again from scratch in Karelia. Maybe a settlers life would be better in the newborn sosialist nation. In the twenties and thirties Finns worked hard to achieve this dream. Stalins Great Purge in mid 1930’s ended these naive fantasies in a very brutal way. 11 000 Finns were imprisoned in city of Kontupohja alone.
The Winter War is widely seen as a heroic effort of a young nation struggling to maintain its independence. The long war that followed after a short period of peace is called Continuation War. Finns still like to see themselves as a very separate piece from the big political puzzle of the era.
In Russia the Second World War is called something like The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Oldest Finns who still remember the wartime are not happy about what happened to the once great city of Vyborg and how so many peolple had to leave their homes. Be it so, the enormous, always slightly unpredictable nation right next to us does not affect the encounters of individual people. It is infact the elderly Finns that most often visit Karelia.
Solovky Islands are the original Gulag Archipelago. After thorough testing here this imprisonment and forced labour camp was then replicated all over the Soviet Union as a kind of a Russian version of colonialism. The main difference was that they used their own citicens and operated on their own soil. Boatrides from Papinsaari. Good chance of spotting Beluga whales whilst enjoying fresh sea air. The once great monastery kreml is the main attraction. It has been renowated recently and now has a fresh touch of paint, but its political and economical power is forever gone.