Dream is not that you see in sleep. Dream is something that does not let you sleepDr. APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India
The previous blog post tells about the context, the significance of dream and traveling as one of the vehicles to achieve the dream and gain experiences.
This blog post will get into a little more specifics. How that dream didn’t let me sleep.
Searching for a suitable venue for achieving the dreams of exploration in about 194 countries is a tedious job, which might even take a lifetime. Hence, filtering the choices for the time being becomes important.
Given (or made) the choice, I prefer traveling to colder places, since I love that weather. I have also been to the Icy Mountains of the Himalayas many a times. Widening the scope was needed this time – both in terms of the coldest temperature experienced and some colder place away from the Himalayas.
Spending my birthday twice in the hot weather of Trichy (2016 and 2017) and the possibility of spending the next one in another hot city called Mumbai made me work towards the actual implementation of my thoughts. 2018 seemed to be the nearest choice post completion of my MBA during March 2018, and a pretty obvious one, because of the fact that I would be entering the third decade of my life during December 2018. It had to be legendary.
Cold. December. Birthday.
What choices do we have? Lets have a look at the countries beyond the Arctic circle.
Common sense tells us that we have the following choice of beautiful countries or regions satisfying the above criterion: USA (Alaska), Canada, Scandinavia, Russia.
The first three are pretty expensive without doubt, the last one “seems” closed and “unfriendly” (a common and unfortunate stereotype)
A bit of web based research did shed some truth to the above statement. Indeed, several places in Russia lying in the Asian or Siberian region are closed for foreigners, and visitors need special permits to visit such places. One more option seemed to slip away.
But then I thought, why not Russia? Why not the European Russia, which is not closed? Why not try, examine and if possible, eradicate such a stereotype?
Russia hosted the greatest sports extravaganza on Earth – the FIFA World Cup, a little while ago. This fact in itself is enough to dispel a lot of myths and stereotypes prevalent. I also had a dream from childhood to pay a visit to the “Towers of Candy” – St. Basil Cathedral, which is perhaps as closely associated icon or visualization of Russia, as is the Taj Mahal for India.
The venue was fixed: Russia
It goes without saying that many would be concerned about Russian winters, perhaps because of this:
Perhaps the people showing concerns are partially right: Russia is going to be quite cold. The temperatures will undoubtedly be towards the South of ZERO degree Celsius as we move further North.
And that is a reason convincing enough for me to go: Russia is going to be quite cold during winter. Hence, zeroing in on Russia becomes quite obvious.
The first and foremost task on the quest for such dreams is to get a visa.
Cutting the long story short, I applied well in advance for the same, to avoid the possibility of hassles due to last minute delays or rejection. The efforts of the staff at IFS Visa Centre, Mumbai and the Russian Consulate in Mumbai are quite commendable. The entire process of getting information about the pre-requisites, the visa interviews, and the eventual issuing of the visa – all the processes were carried out in a smooth, unambiguous and hassle free manner. One myth already busted.
The country was selected, but did we select the exact cities to travel? And we are looking at the largest country on Earth.
As mentioned, I had to travel to places lying beyond the Arctic Circle in Russia, to try to maximize the chilling effect of Winter. And quite logically, I had to spend my Birthday in that area.
A limited knowledge of geography will reveal Murmansk as the logical choice over here.
The city of Murmansk is quite well connected by road, rail, air and even water. It is the largest city to the North of the Arctic Circle.
Arctic Region would thus guarantee the following unique experiences during the Month of December:
- Polar Night: A period of no sunrise and almost total darkness for nearly 20 hours per day
- Spectacular views of the Arctic Tundra in full glory
- Harsh cold weather with perpetual sub-zero temperatures
- Permafrost with lots of Ice and Snow
Moreover, if I am coming to Murmansk and spending about 48 hours there (including my Birthday), then why not go nearby to see the Arctic Ocean too? Thus, another place called Teriberka must be included in the itinerary as a part of a day trip.
But is that enough? For me, that is definitely enough to experience during this Birthday.
Of course, to reach Murmansk, I have to take a train from Moscow. That is not because the flight is expensive (rather, the flight is usually cheaper). The train will offer me a raw deal of exploring the icy dream landscape of this part of Europe with breathtaking scenes of the landscape, as well as a good opportunity for increased people to people connect. Definitely, this deal is too good to refuse.
(Let me illustrate the details of “Getting around” in Russia in the next blog post. For now, let the dream run continue)
Thus, a focused and limited itinerary comprising of Moscow, Murmansk, Teriberka and Saint Petersburg were finalized. Needless to say, I would be celebrating my Birthday in Murmansk and Teriberka.
The Itinerary: Moscow, Murmansk, Teriberka, St. Petersburg. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Arctic Coast
Let the Dreams begin..
December 2, 2018: The Towers of Candy
A perfect fairytale arrival in this fairytale dreamland.
The White Icy “Dreamscape” of Moscow shining at night appeared out of the clouds as our flight was on its was descending towards the Sheremeteyevo International Airport, Moscow. Little hexagonal snowflakes meandering in the air welcomed me upon landing.
A perfect welcome in a moderately cold weather (-8 deg. C) with white icy carpets being rolled out by nature.
More surprises awaited me during my trip. And why not?
Did I ever in my wildest dreams expect Metro Stations, deep underground, to resemble more to Palaces having intricate sculptures and artworks, and not remotely resemble any bustling metro station? Honestly, the answer is no. Beauty and finesse seem to be the Russian Standard norms for Architecture.
This day was mainly spent in immigration, hotel search and photography at leisure, getting lost many a times, and most importantly, fulfilling a childhood dream – a visit to the “Towers of Candy”.
It feels like experiencing Magical Realism when you see your dreams materializing in front of your eyes, and you remain awestruck, as if trying to reconfirm whether all this is real or not?
I did expect St Basil Cathedral to be vibrant and beautiful, and the actual views of the same does appear to be far better and more vivid than all the pictures seen virtually. The height of the day was the “ice”ing on the “candies”, and in no way am I complaining.
The day ended with a memorable trip to Kremlin and the adjoining areas and coursing through the labyrinthine Moscow Metro, where stations looked more like palaces with elegant sculptures than a places of public commute.
It was time to leave the bustling Metropolis of Moscow and venture Northwards towards the land of frosty enigma – the land of the Arctic Zone.
December 3, 2018: The Fairytale Journey to the Polar Zone
Despite the availability of cheaper and direct flights from Moscow to Murmansk, I opted for the train journey coursing through the vast expanse of ice and snow and offering visuals worth cherishing for an entire lifetime.
The images of ice, snow, cold and St Basil Cathedral crop up in our mind whenever one mentions about Russia. Well, the association of Russia with such images is true to a large extent. However, one might as well miss out adding some well deserved adjectives to Russia, in addition to ice and snow. Those adjectives are: beautiful, mesmerizing, magical.
Waking up to the views of little snowflakes meandering in the air and greeting me outside the glass of my coupe's window as if to display their beautiful hexagonal designs impeccably carved out with absolute scientific and aesthetic precision - something which words fail to describe.
Changing my focus from these intricacies at micro level offered me views of the magic at macro level. The background showed me rivers of Ice. Solid Ice. Meandering through coniferous forests, themselves sporting snow covered caps. What else is needed to start a morning with (ofcourse, in addition to sipping a cup of Russian coffee in another intricately designed glassware). Is intricate beauty with perfect scientific precision an inseparable part of the Russian culture? One has to agree wholeheartedly.
Now, a small walk through the “corridor”, maybe?
Rest of the day was spent lazily strolling across the corridor, sleeping, photography, reading some books and having food.
December 4-5, 2018: The Heart of the Icy Dreamland – the Arctic Zone and a priceless Birthday Experience of a Lifetime
Landed in Murmansk on this date. The excitement to finally cross the Arctic Circle and land amidst the fabled “Polar Night” was already in the air.
The sun never rose during the entire duration of the Polar Nights in Murmansk, lasting for more than 40 days. A consolation (really?) appeared in the form of a twilight period from about 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM, beyond which, it was night time in literal sense.
Incidentally, December 4 is my birthday eve, which brings me here in Murmansk at the apt point of time, in order to:
- Get a first hand experience of the Polar Night
- Getting to celebrate my birthday the way it should be – in a perfect cold and icy dreamland. What more can offer a better experience than the Arctic itself?
The journey to Murmansk also made me see and believe in the presence of Fjords in the Arctic Coast, since such areas have always been under Permafrost, coupled with millennia of glacier led erosion both on the ground level as well as on higher altitudes.
To this end, a trip to Teriberka (about 150 km from Murmansk) became an absolute necessity. Let us add more icing on the cake when it would come to celebrating my birthday, worth remembering for a lifetime.
Hence, started the arduous journey to the Arctic coastal settlement of Teriberka, in the Polar Night. Any signs of lethargy or tiredness quickly withered away to pave the way for a journey worth cherishing.
The journey to Teriberka is altogether a surreal experience in itself. It involved some priceless experiences (the moment made the exhilaration shoot up to an entirely different level), which words can never describe even remotely.
I had an unforgettable experience of the real Arctic Tundra region. One can easily see the vegetation or forests gradually reducing as we go deeper into the Tundra, eventually reducing to a few stray shrubs amidst the vast expanse of icy white nothingness.
The travel on the icy roads also gave me an opportunity to experience the “Russian Drift”, caused due to the unavoidable skidding of the vehicle (CAUTION: Please DO NOT try this ever due to safety concerns). Thankfully, a pure SUV equipped with safety features like ABS, EBD, ESC can do their bit to make the travel safer. I grossly underestimated the hardness and extent of road ice (almost the entire stretch of road was covered with thick ice). No amount of force from my side could make it yield or crack, even by a tiny bit.
Now coming to experiencing the unexpected in and around Teriberka, during the Moments of my Birthday.
Before reaching Murmansk, I had zilch expectation of getting to see a Fjord in Russia. Obviously, Russia is not famous for Fjords – the more famous country for fjords is Norway, lying just around 220 km west of Murmansk. A high dose of surprise awaited me from my hotel room in Radisson Park Inn Hotel, which itself overlooks a gigantic fjord called the Murmansk Fjord.
Picturesque Fjords were also seen in Teriberka. However the limitations of the camera and the pitch black conditions of Polar Night prevented me from capturing it digitally.
Whenever one mentions the word beach, we usually imagine some serene tropical locale with white sand, clear water, coconut trees, a relaxing atmosphere, sweltering heat, ample amount of sunshine – in short, a location offering total blissful environment to pamper yourself and relax, right?
Well, I found the Arctic Beach in Teriberka to be “almost” the same as the one described above. There were just some “minor” differences:
- Replace “sweltering hot” temperature with “freezing cold” temperature of the order of -10 to -12 degree Celsius. The strong Polar Winds make the temperature feel even lower
- There were white sands present in the beach. With solid ice binding binding the sand together. The night conditions prevented me from taking the pictures, but it did look somewhat like this:
- Remove the coconut trees and replace them with a few scattered snow clad conifers and shrubs
- Remove sunshine. There would be none during the polar nights
- Add fjords to the beach
To cut the long story short, these sights and scenes and the very moment of my Birthday makes it all the more special and magically beautiful. The location itself is unique, and for most practical purposes, is almost untouched, by virtue of its geography and timing.
Teriberka offered the Best of Many Worlds - beach, ice, tundra, fjord and polar night. One cannot stop himself or herself from falling in love at the sights of the mountains of ice, descending elegantly upon the vast expanse of the clear but unforgiving cold waters of the Arctic Ocean, enjoyed best seated on a swing in the icy beach, and feeling the strong icy Arctic Winds caressing his / her cheek.
But did the night actually remain dark?
Surprise 3 (December 5, 2018): A not so dark night:
Without any doubt, the experiences I had in Teriberka was one of the Best in my lifetime, where magical realism was more of a norm than an exception. I started off towards Murmansk post spending quite some time in Teriberka.
Little did I realize that more moments of surreal beauty were in store for me, in not so distant a future.
As I was moments away from my Birthday (00:00 hours, December 5), I kept staring at the icy road ahead, and sometimes at the starry night, reminiscing the magical moments I have had the pleasure of experiencing so far in my life, with a surge of those occurring during the past few days – looking mindlessly at some odd translucent clouds in the sky. Preparing plans to celebrate my Birthday in the next 24 hours….
Wait, why did those clouds change their shape in just a flash?
Something was odd. I requested the driver to halt the car.
Alighting from the cosy comfort of the car presented me with the rare opportunity of viewing the greatest light show on Earth – the majestic Aurora Borealis..!!
Again, Russia is not that famous for Auroras – its neighbour Norway is. As per peer reports, friends and media, the images of the Auroras have mostly been associated with Norway as the images of St Basil Cathedral have been associated with Russia.
That image just got an addition. The Auroras do find their home in the Russian sky too.
The Auroras are rare. Their sightings depends on a plethora of factors, and complex mathematical models also fail to predict the Auroras quite a lot of times. But what I saw in Teriberka is even rarer.
A mesmerizing blue celestial curtain shone from multiple directions over our head – dancing in the air, changing shapes and even colours at will. Spectacularly vibrant and colourful light shows were put up on display by nature – sometimes orange, green, blue and sometimes a combination of some or all of these colours.
And to add to the “cherry” to this massing “ice”ing on the cake, the clock struck 12 Midnight – It was My Birthday..!!
Stepping into a new decade of my life, beneath the infinite expanse of the star lit sky, with surreal show of ethereal curtains of the Aurora Borealis, shining over the vast icy stretch of the Arctic Tundra in the period of the Polar Nights - is a priceless, magical yet very much real experience which is utterly inexplicable through words.
It felt oddly satisfying to have lived in the moment. The Moment. Where life seems to have come to a full circle. Free from disturbance or chaos, devoid of the monotonicity, isolated, colourful yet white – demolishing the fallacy of the seemingly never ending cycle of eat-sleep-work, emphasizing again and again on the value of priceless experiences in life which no power can ever snatch.
Thus, I celebrated the Moment of my Birthday in the perfect icy dreamscape, the candles replaced by the celestial Auroras, cutting a small cupcake with my Swiss knife.
The only villain in this entire scheme of things is my own miscalculation of camera – I overestimated the power of my mobile phone for capturing low light sky shots. But I guess, it is OK. The memories and images saves in the hard drive of my mind cannot be erased.
December 5, 2018: A Birthday in the Arctic
My Birthday in Murmansk city was spend strolling in the city, having sumptuous meals and clicking pictures of the Arctic cityscape. I was also pleasantly surprised when I was gifted the Birthday cake by the staff of the Park Inn Hotel themselves. Quite an unexpected but sweet gesture.
Out of the surprises thrown by Nature during this period of time, one of them was still missing, which joined the party late in the evening – a heavy snowfall..!! What a perfect way to celebrate..!!
December 6, 2018: The Final myth shattered – pleasantly
Post spending the Birthday of my lifetime so far, I headed towards the Atlantic Coast of none other than St. Petersburg, through train.
Russia seems to suffer from a stereotype of being cold towards the visitors or any person in general. The incident which happened with me in this train shattered this stereotype once and for all.
The train journey till the dinner time was largely uneventful, except the breathtaking sights and scenes of frozen rivers, ice clad forests of “Christmas Trees”, frozen glacial lakes, icy dreamscape etc
I prefer not having much food during a train journey. I had light snacks long back and was reading a book at night when it became too dark to enjoy the scenes outside the train.
Out of the blue, a railway official on duty in the train arrived and handed me a food packet, despite me NOT ordering any. Upon repeated explanations from my side, he still insisted I take it (out of concern) and refused payment for the same. The entire coach was having dinner at that point of time.
Although I never paid much heed to such stereotyping as mentioned in this section above, this incident pleasantly shattered all myths of Russians being “cold” to others, once and for all. Acts of kindness as these by the people of the country truly make the country very very special. I simply refuse to believe that an entire country like Russia can ever display a “cold” behaviour. Russia as a place may be bitterly cold, but Russians as people are warm, helpful and hospitable.
This was the stellar point of my trip, worth remembering and cherishing more than any other event. Not only I had the rare privilege to spend a great moment of my life in this dreamland of Russia, but also I had the rare privilege of experiencing Russian people's warmth, friendliness and hospitality.
I would advise my readers to just go and visit Russia with an open mind. Don’t let your stereotypes or misconceptions deprive you from getting an experience of a lifetime in Russia – where mesmerizing beauty beyond measure or description lies not only in the landscape, but also in the people’s actions. And it is not just me saying so, even fans who came to Russia for the FIFA World Cup 2018 also say so. Clearly, everyone cannot be wrong about the same thing.
December 7, 2018: Saint Petersburg
After the memorable train journey during the previous day, I arrived in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the most popular tourist destination of Russia, situated along the Atlantic Coast. Due to lack of time, I visited only the Zayachi Island and traveled extensively in that place – saw the frozen beach (again), Fort, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral. Additionally, had a glimpse of Eastern European archaic urban architecture in St. Petersburg. Needless to say, precision and beauty in the details is a hallmark of Russian way of life.
And, did I say I had an opportunity to get a feel of Russian fine dining in The Flying Dutchman (a floating restaurant build similar to an old explorers’ ship)?
December 8 and 9: Winding things up
Goodbye is never permanent. It implies a promise to meet soon, very soon.
Finally, the time to leave Russia was nearing close.
Early in the morning of December 8, I had an opportunity to get awestruck again – this time due to the Russian High Speed Bullet train called Sapsan (Russian name for Peregrine Falcon bird). Although capable of achieving speeds much higher, I experienced a strangely smooth and highly comfortable journey at speed of about 230 kmph. Hope to shatter this record too in Russia one fine day.
I reached Moscow from Saint Petersburg this day. This time, in Moscow, I made it a point to extensively travel through all the known forms of public transport – bus, metro, light rail, tram and monorail.
The Russian winters never fail to spring up newer sights and scenes to make one fall in love with Russia. This time, the opportunity presented itself in the entirety of the Arena of VDNKh – a Mega Pavillion and Garden, showcasing the economic achievements of Russia over the years and the Russian advancements in Space Research and Technology.
And thus, its a wrap, for now.
This dreamland of Russia will be missed sorely, which will make me visit Russia again.
Goodbyes are not forever. Goodbyes are not the end. They simply mean I will miss you until we meet againAnonymous
So, the trip which started with the aims of ticking off: Cold, December, Birthday, finally gave me a lifetime of experiences worth cherishing for every moment henceforth
Towers of Candy, Ice, Sacrosanct Beauty, Fjords, Arctic, Polar Night, Tundra, Aurora Borealis, Frozen Beaches, Great Russian warmth and hospitality, Adventures, Bullet Trains – A Dream, Fairytale experience indeed
Russia s lyubovyu..!!
Spasibo Bolshoye Russia..!!
© Abirbhav Mukherjee. All the pictures / videos posted in this article are my own unless otherwise mentioned.