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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Two trips to Karelia
text by Irina Baranova Photos courtesy of RussiaDiscovery

Last winter I went to Karelia twice. The first time was on a business trip. I made my way through traffic jams, looked at the grey sky, the dirt on the cars, the slush under foot and thought that the winter must already have passed outside Moscow. I arrived at the station just in time to jump on the train, and the lullaby of the rails quickly rocked me to sleep. The next morning it was still dark outside, but it felt different – something seems to have changed overnight. Snow! There is white snow piling up in high, puffy snowdrifts outside the window!

In Petrozavodsk, my colleague Denis informs me that Petrozavodsk is as old as St. Petersburg and was built on the orders of Peter the Great. This city feels similar to St. Petersburg, with regular streets, neat buildings and embankments. Petrozavodsk is on the shore of Lake Onego and what a lake it is! A white plain stretches before me for hundreds of kilometres. Denis comments that the Onego and Ladoga lakes in Karelia are the largest in Europe. And somewhere there – he waves his hand vaguely – is Kizhi island, the UNESCO heritage site. Kizhi? I recall an amazing picture of a multi-domed wooden church my friend took during a cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg. I decide to take advantage of this trip and see something of Karelia.

I spend two days working. It is like Finland here ‑ the people are unhurried, friendly, profound. Life seems slow after Moscow. On Friday evening my colleagues suggest a weekend programme: a trip to Kizhi on some mysterious apparatus named a Hivus and a visit to a Karelian village.

Next morning, the Hivus arrives right at the hotel. It is a strange vehicle: an ice hovercraft which glides in zigzags because of the wind. It takes 2 hours to get to Kizhi but we are not in a hurry and stop for ice-fishing. There are local fishermen sitting for a few hours at a time in the cold with their rods and vodka. The pure air, fresh wind, and endless whiteness finally makes me feel that this is a real winter.

We arrive in Kizhi and I am silent for a while. What a striking view! The magnificent wooden Transfiguration church dominates the island, and its 22 domes of aspen look silvery in the sun. According to the museum guide, the church was built without a single nail. All the wooden structures – houses, chapels, barns, windmills – are old, some dating back to the 17th century. The silhouettes of the traditional buildings fit strangely well into the lake’s landscape, creating a special ambience of quiet beauty and harmony. We are the only visitors. Kizhi is magic.

Next day we depart to the 440-year-old village of Karels- Livviks-Kinerma. The village is tiny, 15-20 houses in total, and cozy. Only two or three households stay here over winter, though there are more in the summer when families come to the village to their dachas. The houses are traditional for the Russian North, the youngest being 120 years old.

We meet our local hostess, Nadezhda. It’s been 10 years since she and her sister decided to revive the half-forgotten village. They created a small exhibition on the village’s history and opened their large wooden house up to travellers. Nadezhda is especially proud of her 120 year-old ‘black’ banya. We walk around Kinerma as Nadezhda tells us the history of its houses and people. She goes home to pick up the keys and opens the famous 300 year-old Kizhi chapel. The interior has been arranged by the villagers and some of the icons are hand-woven.

Nadezhda invites us to the table for lunch and a talk about life. The homemade food is delicious, outside it is getting frosty, and we are sitting in the warmth of the izba listening to the cracking of the firewood in the old Russian stove. We wait for the samovar to boil and kalitki (Karelian salty pastry) to bake. Time stops, the village gives me a feeling of peace so rare in my life.

But everything good comes to an end. Back in sulky grey Moscow, my thoughts keep wandering back to the Karelian winter and northern hospitality, and I have a nice warm feeling inside.

A month later, my Karelian colleagues invite me for a long weekend to take part in a 3-day snowmobile safari. It is difficult to take Friday off, but with the impressions of the January trip still fresh in my mind, the idea of snowmobiling sounds exciting, so I take an extra day off.

Again I am in Karelia! This time I arrive earlier, to a different place in the south-west of Petrozavodsk. It is a challenge to wake on time for a three-minute stop at 6 in the morning. I get off the train to find out that there are five other people on this tour, and that my Karelian friends will join us later. The guide shows us into a mini-bus, and I sleep during the 100 km journey to the guesthouse. I open my eyes in fairy-tale countryside – snow-dusted forest, high snowdrifts, a small village lost in the middle of nowhere, and six cottages built in the Finnish style: cozy and warm.

Some years ago I went snowmobiling in Finland. Our ride lasted for a couple of hours in the vicinity of the hotel where we were staying. Here the itinerary looks more serious. Today we have a 100 km ride to lake Ladoga. We put on thick winter clothing, and practice managing the snowmobile. Then off we go. The snowmobiles take us along picturesque tracks in the fir forests, sometimes we cross small lakes and fields and stop in the villages. We come across a local in a Telogreika with a horse carrying a homemade sled, going to the river for water. In the evening, a banya is organized. The building is a good one, made of wooden logs, with moss in between them, and a stone stove. After a good steam, some people go all the way and dive into the snow.

Next morning, listening to the day’s itinerary, I realize that we will visit Kinerma again, this time by snowmobiles! I am glad to see Nadezhda, she greets us as good old friends. And again – the forest drowned in snow, the fields, the lakes. Today we have 150 km to travel, arriving back at twilight. After a hearty dinner, I am out like a light. My body is nicely tired. My eyes close by themselves. I put my head on the pillow and doze off instantaneously.

On Sunday we get on our iron horses and make the last 100 km to Petrozavodsk, the city that is no longer foreign for me. On the train back to Moscow I close my eyes and continue my snowmobile safari in Karelia, trees flying on both sides. A friend of mine says that life is not in the cities but in the journeys between them, and this feels so true.

Now I know that Carelia and Karelia are not alike. Carelia was and will be Finland – European, civilized, touristy, artificial. Karelia is Russian and authentic, and I am so grateful to it for the impressions it gives.

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