This is my contribution to World Toilet Day. It’s a collection of toilets in the cities I was in 2018: Bangkok, Incheon, Washington DC, New York City, Murmansk, Moscow, and Tokyo. Most of the time of taking the photos, I was drinking, no surprise.
Before we left for Moscow, there was less than half a day for Angelika—our guide—to take us for a city tour. Even though the tour was short, it was the last chance I could really see the city. And I got to know more about the city.
We were picked up from Aurora Village back to Murmansk city. The ride was the half way from Teriberka. But the weather was much better than the way to see the Artic. So, the landscape was less exciting, I found. Plus I had a little sleep from the faint aurora sighting the night before.
Angelika joined us in the city. The itinerary was tight. She took us to Church of Saviour on Waters, Alyosha Monument, Waiting Woman Monument, then a quick late lunch break at Murmansk Mall, and finally, an exclusive tour at Lenin nuclear icebreaker.
The one nature of a package tour is quantity over quality, I found. However, when I asked about the port, I got to learn more from Angelika about the ties between its people and Norway, which was closer than Moscow. I’d say my curiosity went beyond usual tourist stuff. But what I couldn’t take my eyes off was the Khrushchyovka as when I first arrived the city. I really wished I’d had more time with it.
After the city tour, they dropped us off to the apartment we took through booking.com. There were some issues with the place. One was the communication with the owner. He didn’t speak much of English. Luckily, Angelika came up with us to the apartment and translated for us.
And there was something dodgy about it. The place looked great. It was a spacey one-bedroom apartment and a living room with a sofa bed. I didn’t mind sleeping on it but didn’t realised my friend actually booked for two apartments for the price she booked. The problem was that the other apartment was a bit of a walk away. At that moment, we were tired and I just wanted to stay put and rest. The catch was the owner would offer a discount if we would stay in that one place and my friend would cancel the booking on the website. With some internal discussion, we decided to take only one. Of course, the boys would take the sofa bed. It was just for one night anyway.
The discount he gave us was about one-third of the original reservation. Since we pay cash on the spot and the booking had been cancelled online, he received more money than the apartment was listed while the other one was now available. It felt like a rip-off but we had to let it go. However, it was gold for me that Angelika rolled her eyes about him while interpreting for us. It was somehow a reassurance about being human.
Interestingly, I met more Thai people in Murmansk than in DC, from the night at Aurora Village, a tour at Lenin icebreaker, and at the aurora hunt on the final night. It was noticed by a Russian woman from another group tour I had conversation over the vodka that more Thais had come to the city in the recent years. Obviously the tour operator, targeted Thai tourists.
It was my third and last full day in Murmansk Oblast. And it was the first time in years that I was with a tour guide. Fortunately, it was toward the end of touring aurora season in mid April. So, it wasn’t too busy and five of us were pretty much exclusive almost the whole trip they took us. And we had to thank Angelika, whom took care of us along the trip from the day trip to Teriberka, the two nights of aurora hunts, the city tour. Certainly, it was quite an adventure and really memorable.
How we got to Russia was primarily from what wanted to see the northern light. And Murmansk just happened to be the most reasonable place for us. To me I needed to get out of the US for visa requirement. It could be anywhere but Russia was more convenient for the other Thai friends since no visa required for Thai to enter the country.
We got three nights to try our luck on sighting aurora. It wasn’t the best timing, unfortunately. However, as the nights was evolving, something else got me realised aurora hunt was more than it was meant to be. That happened on the daytime ramping up to the night as well.
Night 1: Arrival and Get Going
The Thai friends arrived on the night before I did. They had a chance to explore the city on the day. Whereas, I spent most of the day at Sheremetyevo Airport, connecting flight to Murmansk.
I finally joined them in the afternoon just to learn that aurora hunt would start tonight and we’d be on the road from 10pm. So, there wasn’t much time for me to wind down from travelling across the Atlantic.
Before the night ride, we decided to get dinner from a supermarket near by. My eyes, of course, were on the local beer and we picked some local IPA. At the checkout, a security took them away. We were perplexed but didn’t make any noise. It must have been the legal time limit to buy alcohol out. And our guide confirmed it. So, my first night in Russia was sober.
I met our guide, Angelika, for the first time, when they picked us up. She would take care of us until our last night.
The weather was snowy and cloudy. We drove to three distant sites but there was no luck. Still, the night landscapes of the city and roads around were foreign and captivating to me.
Suddenly, Angelika told the driver to stop the van and pointed us to something faint behind the snowy clouds. To be honest, I was skeptical. It was easy to mistake city lights reflecting the clouds with aurora. I realised the luck wasn’t just on Kp-index but also on the weather on the location as well. And in this weather, you’d need local expertise to spot it.
That faint aurora was just a tease. It lit us some hope for the two nights to come.
We got back to the hotel. I was tired and needed to rest.
Before that day trip, we needed to stock some food for the night and for the morning. Now, that we knew, we lingered in the supermarket until 11am to be able to buy some alcohol. So, we got a bottle of vodka and some beer to supply the night.
We, five of us, stayed together in the same cabin. Half of it was made of transparent plastic into a dome so that the sky was visible.
Later, another group of guests arrived. Apparently, they were all Thais.
The forecast would be a window of clear night from 10pm to midnight. Actually, while we were waiting for a drive to get to the cabin, the clouds were dispatched and the sun appeared for the first time in the day. That sounded very promising.
Unfortunately, after midnight, the sky still wasn’t clear. We drank all the booze we bought. I was the last one standing and the only thing to drink was complimentary sparkling wine. It was terribly too sweet but kept me going, watching wood fire burning away. I needed time on my own to recharge my introvert battery.
Until around 3am, the sky cleared up and the stars were visible from the cabin. I went outside with a little hope, of not something happened at least, to enjoy the stars without city lights.
Then, I noticed a pale white strip across the sky. That, I haven’t seen before. I’d be just happy if it was the Milky Way but it wasn’t a strip of clusters of stars. To make sure what it was, I walked to the staff cabin to ask someone. There, he was plowing snow on a walkway (do they sleep at all, by the way?) but we couldn’t see the strip there because of the cabin light.
At the guest cabin area, without fluorescent light interference, he saw that pale white strip. There, he showed me his mobile screen, translating his Russian, “It’s aurora.” At once, I got back to the cabin to wake the others up. He also knocked on the rest of the guests.
It appeared for about ten more minutes. A friend of mind saw it turned green at one end of the horizon. By that time, I was a tad drunk and overwhelmed by how the night was unfolded. I didn’t bother myself to get the DSLR or even tried to take any photo with the phone.
What we saw wasn’t like in typical aurora photos. It wasn’t as spectacular as one would normally expect. Nonetheless, to me, it fulfilled the mission, technically. All and all, I could say I’d seen the northern light. Beyond that, it was a good deed to get others to see it.
Night 3: More about Drinking
We checked out of Aurora Village and still had one last night for the hunt. We were back to a night ride again but with less enthusiasm. And there was another person joining us in the van. He was Thai.
It wasn’t as gruesomely snowing as the firs night but still too cloudy. The chance of seeing aurora was very slim. So, the night was shifted into something else.
Angelika offered us a shot of vodka. Then, a coach arrived on the scene. It was a bigger tour group. They equipped with snacks, wine, and vodka.
Since then, the night wasn’t about just aurora hunt anymore.
They kept getting me more vodka. I had fair amount of drinks and interesting conversations with the other group.
Eventually, we had to get back but I still need more drinks. After they dropped us off at the apartment building we stayed. I determined to keep going and explore the city at night. That was after 1am when I decided to go out by myself.
It took me about 20 minutes to a bar. No one was on the streets. It was very quiet and I didn’t feel there would be any harm.
I was able to get two more beers before the bar was closed. And I was the last customer there.
However, it was more difficult on the way back. The buildings looked similar and I got to a wrong one on the other side of the street. It was almost 4am when I finally found my way back to the right apartment.
Those were the three nights in Murmansk. Each night we I stayed in a different place with different experience. Even though aurora we saw wasn’t as what we expected, I got the feeling that we got more than what we expected of it in those nights.
The next morning we would get to Moscow for another three nights, another interesting adventure.
After a short cold walk around the hotel in the morning, the first full day in Murmansk was a drive to Teriberka (Териберка) to see Arctic Ocean. That wasn’t just long but also plain white and full of snow. And it was worth the ride.
The trip was almost scrapped because of the weather. The snow could block the road and we would waste three hour of driving there for nothing. The guide gave us a choice to Snow Village instead. However, we decided to stick with it and took the risk. We were glad for that decision.
Along the road, we hardly see anything clearly outside the van even the sun. However, the sight of tundra landscape in the snow just kept us excited. There were shrubs on the side, hills behind, and some manmade cabins every now and then. They were all gray contrasting with the pale white snow. Other than that, the only colorful things on the road were the reflective sticks to mark the edges of the road.
More importantly, it didn’t feel we were in danger being in the van driven in the condition. We made two stops for photos: the road sign and somewhere with a snow wall. There, when we got out of the van, I grabbed the DSLR camera and got some shots of the spots to fulfill my photographic need.
It was still snowing in Teriberka when we arrived. At first glance, what stroke my attention were abandoned houses. According to the guide, the population was 500 because they had moved to Murmansk. Somehow, there weren’t as many abandoned houses in snowy town as we’d seen in urban or desert area. I wanted to take photos more of those houses but we had to move on.
We got on a sleigh with a snowmobile (not reindeers, unfortunately) to get to Arctic Ocean. The ride wasn’t far but rough with the wind and snow. But once we reached the shore, what we saw made it all the ride we’d done, long and rough, worth it. It was a slight feeling of being on top of the world. When I was done with photos, the guide told me that was warm for them at 0-1°c. I could only imagine when it was really cold.
When we took a sleigh back, I was starving, so were the others. We had to walk to the only restaurant in Teriberka for the late lunch. That gave me a good chance to explore the town along the walk. What I found were more than abandoned houses. There were more of lively buildings along the walk including a new one.
To wrap up the day trip, the van dropped us off at the entrance to Aurora Village, where we would stay a night. It was halfway back to Murmansk. The snow finally stopped. While we were waiting for a FWD to pick us up to the cabin, the sky was cleared up. And we had time to just hang around on the road. Sunrays showed up for the first time in the day. And it summed it all.
The first day I arrived in Russia, my first impression of Murmansk was the apartment buildings or Khrushchyovka (хрущёвка). What I see was patterns that seemed to be the same but each block was different either by age of the buildings or residents decorating them. That, to me, created some vibrants to the city even though it looked straight hard on the surface. This Russia trip got me excited already.
The next morning, I wander out to see the city. It was pretty cold and snowy. I could only walk around for 30 minutes when fingers and toes started to get numb. But it was enough to get a quick sense of lives of the locals through the morning commutes.
On the same day, we would be on the road to Teriberka. It was something to remember. That’s on next post.