Monday, July 28, 2008


Driving to Russia is nothing short of bizarre. First I wait for two hours to cross the border, which is completed without too much difficulty - just a lot of waiting. After the border, I am instructed to drive for 20km without stopping. If you stop, the military are on you immediately. So I go; after 20km, I come up to a checkpoint where they are expecting me (there's hardly any traffic on the road). A man unlocks a heavy steel gate and raises a barrier, and I'm out - but not free yet. No photos are allowed to be taken before the first passport check. A shame; the nickel plant at Nikel is an amazing sight, belching smoke into the air. I'm not inclined to try my chances; there are watchtowers everywhere, and as I pass, uniformed men watch on warily.

When I reach the passport check, a young soldier salutes me. I'm not sure what to do so I half-heartedly salute back. He checks my papers and has me step out of the car, opening the trunk and checking the glove compartment. He clears me, and I'm off.

The road has already been pretty bad; some huge unexpected bangs through the car. From this point it gets worse. I follow a sign for Murmansk- the only word I recognize in Cyrillic. After 40km the road disappears; just work trucks, diggers and cranes sat on a dirt road. Three or four workers mill around. I can't believe they'd completed as much as they had, looking so beat down and short staffed. But, the sign said Murmansk, so I continue. My phone loses signal, and I'm the only car on the road.

Sometimes it becomes a pebble road; sometimes mud. Every now and then I pass a deserted car on the side of the road; there's nobody here now. At some point I pass four people standing by their car. Like everyone else i've seen, they watch me with intense curiosity. I stare back, wondering why they have stopped, but there's no communication. As I'm about 200 feet past, I look in the rearview and it looks like they're waving for me to stop. But maybe not.

After a while longer of kicking the shit out of the car, I come across someone else going the other way. I roll down the window and wave. We stop, get out. I ask if he speaks English. No. Ok... Murmansk? I point east. He nods. But he also shakes his head. For a while we try talking in short syllables; no dice. He scratches '25km' into the dirt, but I don't know what he means. Murmansk has to be at least another 180km.

So I get back in the car, a little unnerved. My phones still don't work - neither of them, AT&T and Orange - but I press on; he must have come from somewhere, and he didn't seem overly concerned.

After some time - about 25km! - the road turns back to asphalt, but it's bad. A couple of times I hit a bump large enough to bounce two wheels into the air; a little scary when you're in the middle of a fast turn with river on the outside.

More concerning is the sign I pass that reads 'murmansk 145km'. I won't make it on the gas in the tank, and my map shows no sign of civilisation until I hit the city. And I haven't seen any towns, shit, hardly a living soul, the last couple of hours. I come up behind a truck and stay with it, thinking that if I run out of gas I can flag him down and get some help.

Finally I see a river with some smokestacks - but no way to get to it. I keep going. Eventually, with my fuel warning light on, I see a sign for gas. I pull off the road and head out to nowhere. See the gas station! But it's still under construction. But it's open! So I go inside, make speak with nice lady, and again we communicate in written basics - 30L x 92. And at last I have gas, after some questions about whether visa cards work in Russia.

Driving out I see a couple of teenagers walking up, trying to thumb a ride. I pull up, and again have some difficulty communicating. Eventually it turns out I'm going in the opposite direction. I feel kinda bad, being as I've barely seen another car on the road in the last four hours. ZANKYOW!, says one of the kids, as I pull away.

Finally i'm getting closer to Murmansk. I come through a small town that looks like something straight out of the cold war. Crumbling buildings covered in classic Russian typography; kids playing football on a dirt field, goalposts with nets of frayed rope, huge holes in them. A few more miles and I'm into Murmansk, trying to find my hotel.

Instead I find the huge coal piles that I'd seen on the satellite photos when I was planning my trip. The sun is just setting in the
background at 10pm, framing the cranes in this amazing orange dust. I pull up, whip out the camera, and walk in the front door to try my luck. Nice lady asks which ship I'm with; I say none. She smiles and says 'nyot poshhibl'. Ok.

I drive a little further and find my half-sunk ships that I'd scouted from 4000 miles away. Walking down to the water, I start framing up a shot when I feel something on my leg. I look down and totally freak out to see a bearlike german shepherd sniffing at my pants. He's just as surprised as me. Then I realise there's another one nearby, coming closer. But they seem friendly.

I walk up the beach - a tarry, black, smelly affair - to a spot with a wrecked cold war tank and another beached boat. Getting closer to the scrap, a bunch more dogs appear and start towards me, barking. These ones are not so friendly, so I turn and start walking back to the boats. They're getting closer, so I turn to yell at them. They stop, but only until I turn my back again.

This dude appears and shouts something, so I walk towards him and try to converse in Norwegian. He doesn't speak any, but it seems to placate him and I make the 'taking photos' mime. He shakes my hand and calls off the dogs. I set up and make a couple of exposures, the first of three different sessions at this location in different light conditions.

I drive for a while in the half light. There are stray dogs everywhere; at one point the car is surrounded by them. Some are missing a leg. Some are hilarious, fluffy little fellas that have gone feral and would probably take your leg off if they could, but still totally effete. I get a few more shots, but at this point I'm exhausted and head back to find the hotel. It's not great; the bathroom smells gnarly. Like, totally gnar.

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