Sunday, August 7, 2011

Kindness of strangers

We had been cycling for the past our days with only one goal in mind – to reach Kem. Not solely for its own sake, but because it would offer us an additional adventure: an excursion to the Solovetski island. Famous for its orthodox monastery turned into a prison camp during the bolshevist era, and again turned into a monastery after the fall of communism.

This trip within the trip had been our chief meditation for some time, culminating in the joyous pedaling in nice tail wind on Saturday. The sun was shining, and those most daring of us donned only short sleeved shirts as our cycling attire. During the past days we had had our fair share of difficulties, making the prospect of reaching Kem in time come into question. But now all the pieces seemed to be falling in their places. We were rapidly approaching Kem, and it was not yet even five o'clock.

Just outside the town, however, the sky turned into a deep gray, and rain poured over completely drenching everyone. Well, not to worry, we were soon to be indoors, drying up. Or so we thought.

But when, after a few missed turns, we finally made it to the hotel, things really took a turn for the worse. There was no vacancy, and more than that this was the only hotel in town. No place – not even a floor to sleep on. Yes, we asked even for that.

Cold, hungry, but above all bitterly disappointed, we tried to weigh our options. We could of course camp out. But that would mean a cold, damp night, with an added element of stress from staying so close to a densely populated area. Plus that would effectively mean that our trip to Solovetski would be cancelled – with no place to store our bikes there would be no chance of going. After some begging from our side, the clerk at the hotel even called another hotel some twelve kilometers away, asking them for free rooms. Fully booked, was their answer too.

We could check for other accommodations, but how do you go about doing that in a town you just set foot in? Cycling back and forth along the main road, we went as far as asking people in the street for advice, but no one was really forthcoming.

That was, until Lina was sent into a random pharmacy functioning in combination with a small cosmetic store. That's where she met Natasha. A girl who immediately sympathized with our plight, and began making calls. But none of her or her mother's leads took. And let's be honest, who in their right mind would want to accommodate five wet, dirty cyclists who insist that the their bikes too would have to be provided with proper shelter?

The whole episode was not without its share of unintentional humor, like when Natasha asked her mother for the number to Vanja – "He knows everything in this town!" The mothers somber reply: "Vanja has been dead for over a year."

After thus exhausting all of her leads, she turned to Lina, and told her that we would be allowed to stay at their apartment. It wouldn't be big, but at least there would be a roof over our heads, and a promise of a warm shower. Which all sounded more like paradise than we would have dared wish for.

Natasha told us to meet with her after work, and she would guide us. And true enough, at seven o'clock we were walking towards a decidedly run down Soviet-styled building complex, with our host in the lead.

Their apartment wasn't big, and there really is no way around it. I honestly think that my kitchen is more spacious. But somehow, don't ask me how, we were able to fit five bikes, four trailers, and our whole team alone with gear into the smallish living room. Such is the power of Russian hospitality.

All while the mother toiled in the kitchen (despite us insisting that we really were happy to just be indoors, and wouldn't need any further pampering) preparing us a real feast. Though we made it extra hard on her, by our strange dietary restrictions. "Oh, how I would have liked to make you my special chicken! Or fish – I cook the best fish you can find! No bones!" We were offered a rice and tomato paste, herbed potatoes, a salad, cucumbers, bread and, for the few among us who drink, some sweet wine.

And there were a fair share of toasts going around – most memorably the one by the mother, where she wished all good things for all good people!

The mother also immediately took Lina under her wing, demanding that Lina translate everything said, rebuking her for not being married yet, and offering an incessant flow of health tips, most probably learned from some Russian television program. A big problem also arose, when it became clear that our trailers blocked the entrance to the balcony, where the mother kept her tablecloth. Lina was almost teary eyed, when explaining that we really didn't think less of her, even if this small detail was omitted.

It truly was a clash of cultures and personalities. But that night, everyone in our team, despite the exhaustion we all felt, slept indoors, dry and warm, with our bellies full. And in the end, that's all that really matters.


  1. Nice! It felt like I was there:)

  2. What a story! Have a safe trip onward!

    Raisa :)

  3. Oh SHit, should have warned you abt this... We had the same problem a couple of years ago when visiting the Solovetsky islands... However, finally we were able to get a very overpriced "suite" in the hotel in Rabocheostrovsk (the one you're referring to as being 13 km away - actually it's convenient since it's situated near the port from which the boats leave to Solovetsky). Well, anyway, you did solve the problem :) (in a cheaper and more interesting way than we did...;)
    There are so many pilgrims from all over Russia wanting to visit Solovetsky that also the boats tend to be booked out days in advance - I hope you managed to get on a boat??
    We had to wait for a day or two until we managed to get tickets...but it was definitely worth it!
    Have a nice rest of the trip, and try to do a couple of more stops along the way, not just cycling and cycling!!!

  4. P.S. The former prison on the main island is a must!!!

  5. Upea kertomus! Koskettava. Odotan kiihkeästi seuraavaa, josko se olisi jo Solovetskista? (Se on yksi niistä paikoista, jonne olen yrittänyt päästä useita kertoja ja aina on tullut mutka matkaan; TOIVOTTAVASTI ei enää tule teille, kun olette jo näin pitkällä!) Turvallista ja hyvää matkan jatkoa! Nauttikaa! mt