Across the international border Norway - Russia:
A short bicycle trip from one world to another
(plus train travel 36 hours from Nikel to St. Petersburg, and a bike trip in the streets of St. Petersburg)
Kirkenes in Norway (5102 km from Roma)
The small town Kirkenes in the far northeastern corner of Norway is the northern endpoint of the E6 main road. The southern endpoint of the road is Rome, 5102 km away according to a road sign. (Oslo 2516 km). The trip was made together with a friend, mr. Dagfinn Lunner.
We followed the E6 for 6 km to the south - out of the town. Most of the distance we used a combined bike and pedestrian path alongside the main road. At the small village or community Hesseng (near the iron ore mines at Bjornevatn ("Bear Lake"), we followed the secondary main road 886 to the Norwegian border station at Storskog, 10 km from Kirkenes.
A Russian bike permission (!) had been arranged by a travel bureau in Kirkenes with very good contacts in Murmansk and Moscow. Normally it is not allowed for foreigners to walk or bike in the military zone about 20 km from the Norwegian border. You may normally only use car or MC- with no intermediate stops. We were not permitted to use local back roads. Strictly prohibited within the restricted area - outside probably not.
Our luggage was not checked at the Russian border control station. The border customs staff checked all luggage of motorists and bus passengers. The Russians really thought we were poor people using bikes, not cars. One of the KGB border officers smiled and said something like: NARVEZHKA (norwegians) VOLVO - MERCEDES - NJET VELOCIPED...
Entering Nikel city
The area is very desolate, with small pine trees, big marshes - and some billions of mosquitos. The road was paved, unless the last 2 km from city to the railway station in Nikel.
In the outback there were 2 controls made by military personnel. They were 100 % correct - passports, visas and bike permissions were checked and everything were okey. Some of the military people (KGB - personnel with blue-green uniform caps as border police) smiled and were wishing us a nice trip. 20 km from the border there was a final control. The last 25 km to Nikel there were no controls.
Russian motorists were careful. They passed us slowly and allowed plenty of space. Some of them made a "honk" of the friendly category. As a bicyclist I hear the big difference between friendly and unfriendly honks........! The only car which passed us very fast and with little space had Norwegian number plates !
Diesel Locomotive and Black Grass
Nikel is one of the most polluted areas in the world. Grey and brown smoke from 5-7 very high chimneys. In the city of Nikel (pop. 40.000) there was no greeen grass. The ground was black. Poor bare-footed children begged for money or would sell everything. This was another world. We feeled like some UFO creatures just having landed by a flying sourcer at the marketplace of the city. Bicyclists from abroad - unthinkable !
Dagfinn Lunner in Nikel
We could see the hills in west, only 8 km away by bird line. The hills belonged to Norway - the opposite world. The road between Storskog border and Kirkenes is 45 km, because you have to go south of a large lake, but the bird distance to the nearest Norwegian point is only a few km.
The railway station in Nikel is situated 3 km outside the city. We had to pass through the nickel works to reach it. There were no fenses and no boundary between city and work plant. All things were integrated. There were no signs leading to the station, but we found it quite soon.
We arrived the station at 20.00. The waiting room was locked. Outside it was about 10 centigrades. The one-a-day train was leaving next morning at 06.50. After negotiations (USD 2) to the very big female station master we were allowed to sleep in the waiting room. It had not been washed or cleaned since Stalinīs days or so. We used outdoor facilities instead of toilets. Guess why ! What a night ! Sleeping at the black- and white chess-pattern stone floor, with 2 Norwegian newspapers as bed, and un-opened sleeping bags as pillows.
There was no food available in Nikel, unless 2 kilos of big tomatoes bought at the marketplace. We had 3 boxes of Maryland Cookies bought in Norway. To drink: Russian mineral water on big green bottles without labels. And our last 2 bottles of Coke. What a dinner and supper ! We were not hungry after that meals, but it was impossible to sleep. What a night !
Next morning: Train personnel were informed about us. The 8-car train (6 coaches plus restaurant and luggage car) was parked in track one during the night. The car attendant ladies helped us with the bikes. The bike-in-aisle-permission from SZD claimed that the handlebars were turned and one of the pedals removed - and that the bikes should be fastened to the wall with elastic strops. In addition the car attendant lady should have a fee NOK 50,00 (USD 7) for the inconvenience. No receipt - the money were "black" as we say in Norway. Officially granted corruption ! It is theoretically possible to send bikes as luggage on russian trains, but the SZD (state railways) did not recommand it. The big 40-tonne luggage car in the train was empty !
Breakfast in the restaurant car: Not much tho choose. We ordered a big (and very good) goulash - and first class Georgian champagne. One 750 ml bottle each ( USD 4). The same to lunch. We also got some vodka.
The 196 km trip takes 8 and a half hour through rather desolate areas.
The Litsa river was crossed on a long bridge. Many stops in the wilderness outside stations for hunters and others. The railway line is the only connection for some small settlements at the line.
Murmansk station was overcrowded. Everybody should look (and feel) at our mountain bikes. Only 2-3 persons (of 100 or so) could some word in English.
After one day in Murmansk we went by train to St.Petersburg (28 hours - 1445 km) with the same arrangement with bikes in the aisle. We also had permission to take the bikes on the hotel rooms in Murmansk and St.Petersburg. The hotels were informed by the travel bureau and its contacts in advance. No questions when we took the bikes in the lift up to 4th floor in Murmansk and 11th floor in St.Petersburg.
A very fascinating train trip through very desolate forest and wilderness areas with some small villages very far away from each other. Some of them not connected to the highway network. The only mode of tranport is by rail.
We had a 4-bed sleeping compartment ("Hard class"). The conductor said to us in a good English "If we pay 100 Norwegian Kroner (about USD 15) we would have the compartment alone. With no hesitation a 100 kr-bank note changed its owner. The conductor smiled friendly and said "you are welcome". No receipt..... (Probably 100 kr is about 2 weeks salary over there).
The russians had not seen offroad bikes before. Many people stopped us in the streets and wondering asked (some in English). They touched the tyres and said something like "MAPED" (Moped - "MC light").
Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
Our hotel in St.Petersburg was Pribaltiskaya, a big brick-fashioned enormous hotel 13 km from the railway stations. It was built in the Brezhnew period. The hotel was very clean - and they had soap, hot water and toilet paper. Not so in Murmansk. First class food too (Beef Stroganoff with Finnish beer), everything paid in USD ($$$). Roubles not welcome there.To find the hotel we used an old map from 1901, in German language. I bought the map some years ago on a flea market in Oslo. No problem to find the correct streets. Some strange names: Apanagen-Verwaltung, Kaserne der Garde zu Pferd... etc. (I understand German language)
A unthinkable situation 5 years before: At the enormous plaza between Winter Palace and Admirality Buildings, we bought ice-cold Coca Cola (good !) from a very local dealer. Payment one US dollar. No roubles, please !
From St.Petersburg we went by a modern Finnish train to Helsinki. We paid the couductor some Finnish Marks (equivalent to about USD 10) for the bikes. We had tickets for ourselves, bought in Norway. No receipt for the bicycle fee. (Corruption there too ?) After one day in Helsinki area we continued by train to Turku. Ferry to Stockholm and train to Oslo.