Seals, beavers and whales near Russia's Solovetsky Islands

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Oct. 4, 2012, 11:03 p.m. | Travel — by Vlad Lavrov

A typical landscape of Solovki.
© Olexii Shevchenko

Vlad Lavrov

Kyiv Post staff writer

SOLOVETSKY ISLANDS, RUSSIA – Traveling to northern Russia became an extraordinary journey from the moment that I and my friends approached the train from St. Petersburg to Murmansk. Our attendant, an attractive brunette in her early 20s, became suspicious of our railway tickets purchased in Ukraine.

Unlike in Russia, Ukraine-bought tickets do not have a passenger’s name written on it. Therefore, we were delayed while our tickets, passports, faces and clothes were inspected thoroughly. Finally, we were let in, but the young woman wasn’t willing to give up easily. 

As soon as the train took off and headed north, the attendant knocked on our doors and said that the trainmaster requests that we give our mobile phone numbers. It was not a flirtatious request. When I and my friends demanded an explanation, the answer was unbelievable. The attendant said her boss would call later to assess “quality of the service.”  

Soon, however, the likely reason became clear. As it turned out, the rest of the passengers in our railway car were marines going to one of the military bases near Murmansk, hence the train personnel’s apprehension of strangers.

Getting to Solovki by the White Sea is an incredibly soothing and peaceful experience

Yet it wasn’t long before the ice between us and the rest of the passengers and personnel melted. The young train attendant, who turned out to be an intern, would tell us that working at the railway has been her childhood dream, since she always wanted to travel all over Russia. Meanwhile, the marines would jokingly salute me, as I was wearing the blue and white striped t-shirt resembling their uniform.
The amicable atmosphere made our journey pass swiftly. We were almost sorry to get off the train in Kem, a small station on the White Sea. From there, a ship named Metel  (Blizzard) would take us to the Solovetsky Islands. 

Getting to the village of Solovetsky, Solovki's administrative center, is an experience by itself. The archipelago has six large and around 100 islands in the White Sea. It is famous for its 15th century monastery, as well as the 20th century prison camp located on the monastery premises. A two-hour journey on amazingly white-tinted waters left no doubts about its name.

The main building of Solovki Monastery combines the qualities of an Orthodox church and an ancient defense fortress

Even though the Blizzard carrying 80 or so passengers was nearly packed, it felt strangely at peace. The seals swimming by our ship looked genuinely surprised to see the ship and its passengers and kept giving us human-like glances until the passing Blizzard disappeared from view.

Reaching the main island was striking. The main monastery complex looked impressively ascetic, a welcome change from modern Orthodox churches, which overwhelm with gold and glittery details. The monastery of Solovki looked like the real thing, from the outside and inside, with white walls, icons and modesty. 

This great impression lent extra credibility to the map of the islands purchased in the monastery store. After studying the map on the first night, we decided to walk to the main island’s westernmost cape – where the bay sheltering white whales was located. As the map promised, a road - albeit marked as a dotted line, suggesting its inferior quality – would take us straight there, after approximately seven kilometers of hiking along the coastline.

What was meant to be an easy hike turned into perhaps one of the toughest walks ever. After the first two smooth kilometers, the dotted line road turned into a wet dirt trail, then transformed itself into a swampy area heavily populated by beavers, and finally became a deep and smelly bog, consisting of decomposing sea weeds.

Before hitting the swamps and beavers, a local resident picking mushrooms warned us not to go any further. “We don’t use this road – it’s very bad,” the middle-aged, grey-haired guy said. “After all, it’s not the season for the white whales.” Some of us turned back. I forged on with the others, clutching on to the map, in hopes that after the bad swampy stretches, the good road will miraculously reappear.
Alas, it didn’t. Miraculously, we made it to the bay after nearly three hours  of struggle -- cold, wet and stinky. Perhaps our strength came from by constantly eating blueberries that grow plentifully in the surrounding forest. Or perhaps the monastery map possessed some magic qualities.  

What was certain is that the white whales in the bay no longer mattered. As our mushroom-picking friend told us on the way back: “You’ll now definitely have something to remember.”

On the way back to Kem, we took much larger ship named Vasiliy Kosyakov, named after a relatively obscure Russian architect. 

Its captain, an unhappy looking, skinny man in his 40s, had his face all covered with fresh bruises and wounds covered with brilliant green. As the ship departed from the islands, he tried wearing dark eyeglasses to look less frightening to the tourists, but once in the open sea he removed them, as if taking full charge of the vessel. 

The Solovki Archipelago was left behind, almost begging to be revisited, as its enormous territory covered with churches, lakes, forests, swamps and the remains of a Soviet labor camp is simply too much for a few days’ stay.  

It is our return plans that were interrupted by the ship’s virtuoso mooring by our hapless captain.

Getting there

Train #54 from Kyiv to St. Petersburg departs daily at 10:35 a.m., arriving at 10:46 a.m. next day. First-class ticket costs Hr 2,103 ($263). Train #22 from St Petersburg to Murmansk departs at 17:20 a.m. and arrives to Kem at 9 a.m. First class ticket costs Hr 1,344 ($168). Note: a change of train terminals is required in St Petersburg.

A sea route from Kem (Rabocheostrovsk port) to Solovki costs operates in June-September. One-way ticket costs 800 rubles ($25).

Alternately, a round-trip Aerosvit flight to St. Petersburg costs $439. A NordAvia flight from St. Petersburg to Solovki via Archangelsk costs $770.

Staying There

Some of the hotels in Solovki are closed off-season. For more details see:

Kyiv Post staff writer Vlad Lavrov can be reached at

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