Nauru Travel Diary

From Houston to Sydney 2013

From Houston

to Sydney



Moscow offered us a bleak, grey, damp skyline when we woke this morning to the alarm at 6:20 am.  Much as I love Moscow, I felt a twinge of guilty satisfaction that we were departing from the city to fly north to Murmansk that morning.

We had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel and then checked out to begin looking for a taxi.  I don’t know why, but Moscow’s taxi fares seem outrageous.  I have heard claims that the taxi industry is controlled by the Russian mafia, but other than the sky-high charges, I have no evidence for that.

We were told by the hotel that a pre-booked taxi to the airport would cost 4,500 roubles (about US$150).  A so-called “city taxi” (one that is hailed in the street or called by phone) would cost 2,500 roubles (about US$85).  Somewhat begrudgingly, we decided to go for the city taxi, but the hotel staff seemed able to do do some good negotiations for us, and the price tumbled to 900 roubles (about US$30).  Furthermore, our driver was very skilled, being able to weave through the chaotic “lanes” of traffic, periodically zig-zagging from the kerbside to the centre lane with apparent ease and indifference.  Of course, like all Moscow taxi drivers, he didn’t seem to have any change, and being in too much of a hurry to grab his next passenger to bother trying to find some, accepted the 1,000 rouble note I gave him with thanks, a wave, and a quick dash into his car before driving away.

Unlike yesterday’s airport experience, which was at Domodedovo Airport on Moscow’s southern fringe, our departure this morning was from Sheremetyevo Airport on the city’s northern fringe.  Compared with Domodedovo, the domestic section of Sheremetyevo has had a well-earned, long-standing terrible reputation for chaotic disorder, loud and dismissive rudeness, lack of comfort and poor facilities.  That seems to have changed dramatically in the six years since I last passed through Sheremetyevo.  A new spacious domestic terminal has been built, and the staff seem to have received some remarkably effective training in customer relations.  Yes, I had to pay excess baggage because one of our check-in bags was more than the very strictly enforced 20 kg limit, but at least it was done with courtesy and efficiency.

Our flight to Murmansk was on an early morning shortened Boeing 737 operated by Nordavia, one of Aeroflot’s subsidiaries.  Di and I were in the back row of the plane (row 20), with Di on the aisle and me in the middle seat of the three on the starboard side.  It is a long while since I have been in such a cramped, claustrophobic seat with little leg room and no recline on the seat (but no doubt the journey was more comfortable than the equivalent journey by rail from Moscow, which takes 41 hours).

I was so keen to stand up when the plane landed at Murmansk after its 2 hour and 40 minute flight that I almost forgot to take my iPad out of the seat pocket – fortunately I remembered when I was waiting at the luggage carousel and some airport staff kindly walked back to the aircraft to retrieve it for me.

Murmansk is located at 68°58′N of the equator (i.e. almost 69°N), which is north of the Arctic Circle.  This is the first time I have been north of the Arctic Circle, and thus this is the furthest north I have ever been on land.  With an estimated population of about 350,000 people, Murmansk is by far the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle.  For many years it was closed to outsiders because it housed the Soviet Union’s Arctic Sea naval fleet.

For me, the attraction of coming to Murmansk was to experience the long daylight hours of a place north of the Arctic Circle during summer.  Unfortunately I was not able to get to Murmansk before the annual period of 24 hours of continuous daylight had finished, but the day is still very long, even now in late July.  Today, for example, the sun will set at 12:19 am (i.e. just over a quarter of an hour after midnight) and will rise again at 3:29 am (a little more than three hours later).  Needless to say, I expect there will quite a strong twilight throughout those three hours.

Murmansk Airport does not seem to attract many taxis, a potential issue for arriving passengers given that the airport is 30 kilometres from the city centre.  There was one single (legal) taxi at the airport, which was quickly taken by another passenger.  However, there were several buses, and my Cryllic was sufficient to recognize that one of the buses was going to the city bus station, so Di and I boarded the bus with the intention of getting off if we spotted our hotel from the bus, or getting a taxi to the hotel from the bus station if now.

We were in luck; as the bus neared the city centre, I spotted our hotel just two blocks from the main road (still called Prospekt Lenin).  We disembarked, walked up a short hill, and arrived at the hotel, the journey having cost us just 154 roubles (about US$5).

After checking in, we looked at the map and found that our hotel was situated just 10 minutes walk from the city of Murmansk.  Although the skies had been overcast, there were indications that the sun would peek through, so we decided to go for a walk and explore the city.

We approached the city centre (called “Five Corners Square”) along Prospekt Lenin, a beautiful, wide, tree-lined boulevard that still features one of the now-rare (but once obligatory) large statues of Lenin.  Five Corners Square was a pleasant, open area with (you guessed it) five streets converging on its brightly coloured flower-laden garden.  From Five Corners Square we walked to the once magnificent Soviet-era railway station, the sad state of which seemed to confirm the wisdom of our decision to fly to Murmansk from Moscow rather than take the train.  We walked through Murmansk’s one and only shopping mall, a new facility known as the Volga Mall before completing a loop back to our hotel.

In many ways, Murmansk is a pretty though unremarkable Russian city.  It features a strong architectural dominance of Soviet-era concrete high rise housing blocks, the older examples of which are in quite a sad condition of decay.  On the other hand, there is a some new development, and the central area features some beautiful parkland that offered some welcome shade in the heat of the sunny conditions that characterised much of our afternoon walk.

We returned to our hotel at about 5:30 pm and after a short rest, had a light dinner in the hotel’s bar.  Di was truer to Russian tradition by having cold herring with hot potatoes, a boiled egg and some onions.  On the other hand, I was perhaps more consistent with the preferences of the young folk of ‘new Russia’ (which is a way of saying that I had a pizza).

By 9 pm, the skies were still quite bright.  Di had dozed off to sleep over an hour previously, so I decided to go out for a walk and enjoy the novelty of having a daylight stroll at such a late hour.  My two hour walk took me a total of 8 kilometres from the hotel, along Polyarnye Zory Street and on to Papanin Street, a road lined with high rise housing estates that follows the edge of an escarpment on the eastern side of the city and thus gives excellent views of the city, and then along a smaller road to a Russian Orthodox church on a hill that gives commanding views across the city, the port and Lake Semyonovskoye to the north.  That walk was 4 kilometres, and I then re-traced the same route back to the hotel.

It was a great experience, as I described to Di who was awake when I returned.  I had been far from alone while I walked the streets between 9 and 11 pm, as many local people were out walking, sometimes recreationally, often with their pet dogs, and sometimes clearly on their way home from work or some other function.  Although the latter part of walk was done while the sun was behind some clouds, most of the walk was undertaken in strong (but low angled) sunshine, and when I returned at a little after 11 pm, the sky was still a bright light blue in colour.

A number of the photos illustrating today’s diary were taken with a normal ‘daylight’ low ISO rating during my late walk; from a lighting perspective I suspect you might find it difficult to differentiate them from the photos taken earlier in the day.

It is certainly easy to fit in a lot of sightseeing when you have 21 hours of sunshine available.

Day 25 - Moscow to Murmansk


30 July 2013