I can honestly say I’ve never set foot on Russian soil. But I have been right on the border and close enough to spit on it. FIVE different times!
Russia, the largest country by land area in the world, has many interesting landforms that I would like to see. It is difficult to get a tourist visa to go there, and almost impossible to get one as an independent tourist. U.S. and European visitors from the Schengen area must have a Russian based sponsor inviting them to visit the country. It remains pretty closed off to the rest of the world.
I’ll likely never see the grandeur of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world which holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. Likewise, I’ll probably never experience the wilds of the Kamchatka Peninsula, with towering active volcanoes, a large population of Grizzly Bears, and Native Siberian culture. But when I got close to the side of Russia that borders Europe, I felt the temptation of forbidden fruit and went right up to the border to have a peek.
The first three times I’ve never been to Russia happened a decade and a half ago. A friend and I had driven to Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe, in Northern Norway. From there, we headed east to the town of Kirkenes, which is in Finnmark province.
The border between Russia and Norway was fixed in a border agreement in 1826. About 2/3 of that border follows rivers, where the middle of the channel is the actual border. East of Kirkenes, we came upon the King Oscar II Chapel, near the village of Grense Jakobslev, which is only about 1,600 feet away from the border. But since we were still 1,600 feet away, this does NOT count as the first time I’ve never been to Russia.
We headed south toward Pasvik National Park, which straddles the border. There is a tri-country marker at the edge of the park where Russia, Finland, and Norway all meet at one point. On the way down, we stopped at a stream. Different color posts were placed on each side of the stream, denoting the sovereignty of the country of the soil that they were placed on. Signs in several languages admonished the reader not to cross to the other side. Guard towers on the Russian side were sometimes visible. Video cameras were often deployed.
I walked out into the stream, but made sure that I was less than halfway across, so that technically I was still in Norway. Then, I arched my neck back and spit as far as I could. Although the spittle didn’t reach the bank on the Russian side of the river, it did nearly reach it. I just spit on Mother Russia. I hope Putin saw that on video tape. Then, I retreated back to the riverbank and we got back in the car and drove on. That was the FIRST time that I’ve never been to Russia!
We drove to the end of the road in Pasvik National Park. From there we started walking towards the tri-country border marker (Treriksroysa). A swath had been cut through the forest for a trail and a chain link fence on our left was the actual border. Since it was summer time, the mosquitos were out in force. We should’ve brought a head net!
About 1/2 hour into the hike, we ran across two older Norwegian gentlemen who were portaging their canoe from one stream to another. One of the men was named Od. We thought that Od was kind of an odd name for a person to have, but his English was pretty good and we talked a while. He told us that the three country marker was much further away than we thought. In between swatting at hungry mosquitos, he advised us to turn back. Besides, Russia was already just on the other side of this chain link fence. And we would be going into Finland tomorrow. How much closer could you get?
When we were out of view of Od and his friend, I relieved myself through the chain link fence. Now, I had pissed on Mother Russia too! I looked around to see if there were any surveillance cameras in the area. If there were, I hope Putin would see that too! That was the SECOND time I’ve never been to Russia.
Driving back toward Kirkenes, a Norwegian border patrol car started to follow us. Later, we found out that many Russians illegally cross because life in a Norwegian jail often is better than a life of poverty in Russia. After a few miles, they broke off the chase. After checking the car plates, they probably found out that it was just two American tourists in a rental car.
The THIRD time that I’ve never been to Russia was at an actual designated border crossing at a highway from Finland to Russia. The road leads to Murmansk, where there is a Russian Naval Base with Nuclear submarines. Permission to enter….Denied!
Several years after that trip, my wife and I were conducting a bicycle trip around the Baltic Sea. We started in Copenhagen, Denmark and planned to circumnavigate the Baltic, passing through several countries. There was only one problem. One small remnant of the Soviet Union decided to remain with Russia after the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained their independence. The old Soviet oblast (state) of Kaliningrad decided that it was too small to be a viable independent nation. It also had a lot of Ethnic Russians living there. When the vote came down, Kaliningrad decided to stay as part of Russia even though it was not physically attached to the mother country. Similarly, Alaska is part of the USA but has no border with any other US state.
Without a proper visa, we would have to peddle hundreds of miles out of our way to avoid Kaliningrad. Rather than do that, we decided to bypass both Poland and Kaliningrad by taking a ferry from Germany to Lithuania.
The city of Klaipeda where we disembarked the ferry was close to the Russian border at Kaliningrad. Klaipeda lays at the head of the Curonian Spit, a barrier island that has a national park and is famous for the amber that is found there. Eurovelo route 10, a designated bicycle route, traversed the spit. Even if Russia had not been so close, we would have opted for a bike ride here, as it is a worthy destination in itself. A quick local ferry ride across the lagoon brought us to the spit, where we cycled south towards the town of Nida and the Russian border. We camped in a campground just outside of Nida.
-The Curonian Spit is a 98 km long sand dune ridge that was formed from a glacial moraine and shaped by winds and sea currents. It is the home of the highest sand dunes in Europe, some reaching up to 200 feet in height. It used to be covered in forest, but logging back in the 16th and 17th centuries caused a lot of erosion by removing the vegetation. The dunes began to move and settlements were lost. In the 19th and 20th centuries, reforestation projects were performed to re-stabilize the landscape. The Spit is also the location of the biggest amber producing area in the world. Now, there are national parks on both sides of the border to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a magical place to ride a bike through.
From Nida, we cycled on a path across the dunes to the lagoon. From there, I walked south towards the border, until I came up to a split rail fence with barbed wire on top. I looked around and saw no one. Like I did several years ago in Pasvik, I relieved myself through the fence and hit Russian soil. Take that Vladimir! That was the fourth time I’ve never been to Russia…
Back on the paved road again, we pedaled south on the road to the gate at the border. Beyond the gate lay Russia, and a place called the “Dancing Forest”, so named due to the gnarled, twisted trunks of the trees there. I sure would have liked to have seen it in person. This is the FIFTH time I’ve never been to Russia….
I hear that the sixth time is the charm. A few years ago, while biking through the Baltic republic of Estonia, I heard about a ferry from the capital city of Tallinn to St. Petersburg, Russia, where one could get a three day tourist visa without much problem. I was stoked! I bought a book on St. Petersburg and planned out my three days. Saint Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, and the world’s most northerly city of over 1 million residents, was the capital of Russia from 1713 until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It is named after Tsar Peter the Great. It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Often it is referred to as “The Venice of the North”. I was giddy with anticipation on my upcoming visit. However, when I got to the dock at Tallinn harbor, I found out that they had recently discontinued the Tallinn-St. Petersburg ferry. If I wanted to visit Russia, I would have to go first fly Helsinki, Finland and take that ferry instead. Sadly, that wasn’t possible with the time and budget that I had at the time. I guess that technically, I’ve never been to Russia SIX times now.
One last parting thought. If I am ever found dead from some unknown poison, I suspect that Vladimir had read this post and took some revenge. But if he does ever read it, I hope that instead he will open up his country so that the rest of us can see Kamchatka, Lake Baikal, or the Dancing Forest!