Route Description: White Karelia

This is a beta-version of the route! COVID is still making travelling extremely hard and certainly not safer.

Visit the villages of White Karelia (Viena in Finnish, Belomorskaja Karelija in Russian) where the majority of the material used in the epic tales of Kalevala was found. The distances between inhabited areas are rather big, but so is the reward for getting there!

Map link

You can buy paper maps at the petrol station near the border crossing point. Road maps of the area are also sold at Kostomuksha. They are often better than google maps for example.

Think of it as a roundtrip starting from Kostamuksha. Or alternatively cycle through the villages and head towards the Solovky monastery islands.

I’ve noticed that many motorcyclist tend to do the same mistake. They ride from Kostomuksha to Uhtua via Vuonninen and head north completely missing the most beautiful villages: Jyskyjärvi with its rivers an suspension bridges and Paanajärvi, a kind of an open air museum of old Karelian houses in various states of neglect. Uhtua was renamed as Kalevala in the sixties. There are nice old houses in Uhtua at the shores of lake Keski-Kuittijärvi.

Other pretty places to visit would be Venehjärvi and Haikola. The problem with Venehjärvi is that it’s situated inside the border zone. You can ask for details by calling Santeri Lesonen. His number should be here:

Ontrei.fi

Ontrei was one of the most recognised singers and musicians in the area. A website named after him has tons of useful information for tourists travelling in these parts of Karelia.

Reka Kem

Possibility to travel from Jyskyjärvi to Paanajärvi via river Kem. The boats are traditional wooden rowboats with a small engine. You should definately prebook the ride. Contact info can be found at ontrei.fi. The boatride gives new possibilities to plan your route and is worth the effort as it goes through the largest undrained swamp in Europe.

Roads

Mostly gravel. Some almost up to Finnish standards, others of poor quality. For some reason there is often some amount of loose sand and gravel on top where tires tends to sink. Shortish but heavy climbs between Vuokkiniemi and Vuonninen. The route suggested here follows local main roads. You are free to try the smaller ones as well.

Food and water

The distances are pretty long. I strongly advise you to carry enough food and water with you. You should have no issues cycling from one village to the next in a day, but having a travel cooker makes life whole lot easier.

Most villages have a very modest shop. Kostomuksha has more servises like restaurants and hotels. There is also a diner (stolovaja) at Uhtua. 

Locals might get their water from smaller lakes, rivers, village wells and springs. The steel pellet factory and mine of Kostamuksha and the fish farm near Vuokkiniemi make the waters nearby undrinkable.

Accommodation

There are hotels at Kostomuksha and accommodation at Uhtua. Side from those, the turism of the area is largely based on home stays. You should prebook these as people running them often have other jobs and arranging enough food etc might be a problem in short notice. Also locals don’t seem to like people suddenly stumbling on their property. Ontrei website should prove itself useful (again). 

Staying at somebody’s home might be the best way to get to know the local culture. These are pretty expensive, but atleast the you know where your money is going. Or simply sleep in a tent.

Happenings

Movie festivals have been arranged at Haikola, a small village with only one family living there and no electricity. Venahjärvi hosts a traditional celebration called pradznik and so do many of the other villages. Happenings often have a link to Kalevala.

Good to know (check out the blog post Good to Know / Random (but important) INFO for more)

You need a visa to visit Russia. The free digital version doesn’t work outside St. Petersburg and the Karelian Isthmus. Vartius is the closest border crossing point. It’s situated near Kuhmo, Finland. If you continue cycling towards the Solovky Islands, one way to get back is taking the train to St. Petersburg.

Longer stays (more than a week) require registration. Bigger hotels do it for you, otherwise you’ll have to pay a visit to the local officials.

Topics to dig deeper into

Language

Karelian is the closest language relative of Finnish. Older people often understand Finns. Finns understand locals if they alter their dialect enough and prefer Finnish words over Karelian ones. Different dialects of this endangered language are spoken in other parts of Russian Karelia. 

Just like practically all ”original” inhabitants or indigenous people, Karelian speakers are not disconnected from the world and the present day. The area is not a museum, it’s their home.

Kalevala

In a way nationalism of the 19th century made White Karelia important. All nations now needed to build a history of their own that defined their qualities. Being remote and wild, White Karelia seemed like a window to the past, and this was just what the unborn Finnish nation was looking for.

Many cultures have a tradition of telling stories by singing. Here it was Elias Lönnrot who wrote down the majority of the sung poems during his numerous trips. It wasn’t an easy task as there were hardly any roads back then. His work is now known as the national epic for us Finns: Kalevala.

Lönnrot did alter some of the stories to fit his purposes and left out texts too indecent to be published. Never the less it was a huge effort. Kalevala is the main reason there is tourism in the area. Villages Lönnrot found the singers of old still exist today.

Soviet union

Well there is a lot to dig to in the Soviet Union. One thing that heavily affected local lives during the soviet reign was announcing that some of the villages had become “perspectiveless”. Meaning everyone had to move somewhere else due to a political decicion.

Kostomuksha

A city built by Finns with recognisable looks of 1970s council flats found outside Finnish city centers. The mine and steel pellet factory was the one and only reason it exists. Part from international “collaboration” that is. Finns more or less had to work with the Russians to satisfy our unpredictable neighbourg. In this project however there were mutual benefits and less political pressure (to my knowledge).   

Solovky Islands

The orthodox monastery in Solovky Islands is one of the main attractions in the whole northwest Russia. The islands are equally famous for being the birthplace of the Gulag archipelago (forced labour camps). There are whales living in the White Sea. Fair chance of spotting them during the boatride to the islands. Ferry port is at Papinsaari, some ten kilometers from Kem. Kem has servises and a railway station. The White Sea is an arctic sea. People have inhabited its shores for thousands of years.

On the island Solovky there are about 400 lakes. The monks connected them and created an irrigation system, water pipes and a way to transport materials and run the saw. Later the system was also used to create electricity. It was originally built in the 16th century. Kayak rental and guided tours available!

Airport on the island! Continue to Archangel if you wish!

Greater-Finland (Suur-Suomi)

There was once a silly dream of uniting the whole language area into one great nation. This stirred the balance of White Karelia in the 1910s and early twenties as Finns arrived announcing this agenda. It was still the driving force for some during the Second World War.

War history

Trench warfare during the Continuation War has a monument where, according to the signs, Soviet troops stopped the fascists. Interesting intepretation of history, but anyway: Finnish and Russian troops spend thew years at the hills Muna and Makkara (egg and sausage) taking their water from the same spring. Song Eldankajärven jää refers to these hills and the soldiers life there. In a way. The hills are situated near the road between Vuonninen and Uhtua (Kalevala).

Paanajärvi national park

The national park was one of the areas lost in the war. It is a stunning location with the highest peaks and the most beautiful lake in Karelia. Road there is a dead end. Checking if it is possible to cycle inside the park is on the (long) list of priorities.

Note that the Paanajärvi village and the reservation area are two different things. Both are worth seeing. The national park is inside the border area, but unlike most destinations, you can get a permit without having to wait for 30 days (or something). Also not having to communicate with the FSB makes it slightly easier. It is possible to get the paperwork done online, but there is an office for park visitors at Pääjärvi where someone should be able to do it for you.

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