Aurora Borealis drew me out of my balmy Indian spring on February 2012 and took me to the frozen Arctic tundra of Russia. The spectacular “Dance of the Spirits”, as revered by an ancient civilization, happens in the high altitude Arctic region and is truly one of the most mesmerizing sights in the world. An astronomical phenomenon, it makes the dark, brooding night sky light up with a natural yet phantasmagorical display of neon colours like green, yellow, purple etc. This is caused by the collision of energetically charged atomic particles in the thermosphere (high altitude atmosphere) and Aurora lights can be brilliant or diffused. The phenomenon depends on a lot of factors and is also visible in the Southern Hemisphere as Aurora Australis. However, Southern Hemisphere was too far and Russia being a comfortable, much-visited territory, I opted to explore its northernmost province to experience an epic Arctic adventure.
Arctic adventure for the Aurora sighting
That year the sighting was predicted around 18th February and I rushed around warm flower-filled New Delhi for extreme high altitude clothing. More than once people had shrunk away from me fearing insanity, but I was relentless. I looked forward to going back to my favourite country once more although the unbelievably low temperatures did make me restless throughout the entire flight. Geared to the boot for Arctic cold and brimming with confidence from my previous Russian experiences I looked forward to the Aurora experience. However, I reeled and nearly ran back towards the New Delhi return flight when the blast of icy wind choked me immediately upon disembarkation. The reality struck like a sharp slap on the face and Aurora disappeared amidst fanciful dreams. I had arrived in Russia in dead winter and was heading for the fearful, frozen Arctic tundra. The strange looks of Delhites came back to me and I actually worried about my sanity. It was snowing hard and the entire airport emergency crew were stressed out trying to melt and mow the ice mounds. It seemed as if I had stretched my wings too far this time.
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Heading towards the north of the Arctic Circle
I drew my woollen cap closer to my ears for comfort and quickly escaped towards the domestic terminal. A cavernous urban tundra of Moscow airport greeted me coldly and I lost my way. Out of breath, dressed in clumsy winter outfit and hair wildly disarrayed I looked terribly put together more so in comparison to the super stylish Russian ladies who seemed totally unaware of the severely low temperatures. Tight, short skirts and dresses ruled and the fashionistas sashayed effortlessly crunching away the snow under their staggeringly high heels. I boarded the Transaero flight to Murmansk, amid much smirks from the flight attendants and immediately fell asleep. Situated in the north of Arctic Circle, Murmansk is a major port city and especially lovely in summer when lilac bushes line its avenues.
Meet the creatures of cold Russian islands, offshore oil rig workers and Gujarati diamond polishers
A few English speaking co-passengers from Europe stared at me open-mouthed when I told them that I had consciously chosen to visit Arctic Russia in the middle of dead winter. They were oil rig workers posted in offshore islands off the Russian mainland and I made friends with a bunch of gregarious Gujarati diamond polishers on the flight. Settled in the stone cold Sakhalin Island, they brought some cheer to my long flight to Murmansk and in return made me their butt of “crazy woman” jokes. Though I had been sponsored by St Petersburg based Nordic Travels for a group tour, at times, I wondered if my Aurora chase would go to waste. Nordic Travel, however, had an exciting line-up of activities drawn up and from reindeer sleigh rides, igloo home stays, husky sledging, skiing, and nuclear icebreaker visit it was an action-packed itinerary. After that, I was going back to work in Siberia via the protected (Eskimo, actually called Nenets zone) the Yamal Peninsula. Kamchatka heli-skiing was also included if money permitted.
– 40 Degrees Celsius and getting lower
We arrived at our destination after 8 hours of flying and my first Murmansk breath was painful. My lungs nearly burst from the blast of Arctic air and I again gagged. Blocked nose, watering eyes and painfully frozen extremities welcomed me to the Russian port city north of the Arctic Circle. Konstantin, the tour guide quickly ushered me into a waiting taxi and I watched in disbelief as the barometer gave out outlandish readings of -40 degrees Celsius. I wondered what made me ever think that I could survive this cold and I huddled closer to the heater, listening to the chirpy Russian RJ. Outside the taxi, a white empty wonderland spread as far as eyes could see and the vision of Arctic Russia slowly waking up to a silvery morning was breathtakingly beautiful. My hotel Ogni Murmanska, was a cute ski hotel perched atop a hill and had their own ski slopes. It also provided clean old fashioned rooms, English speaking staff and excellent city views. I met my other group members that day and we all bonded immediately. Sassy and quick-witted Celia was from New York and Pinit, the soft-spoken retired school teacher hailed from Korat, Thailand. Celia was used to snow and bluster throughout her 70 years and Pinit was an avid skier, who had recently tackled St Moritz in Switzerland.
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A city tour of Murmansk
I stayed put in my room the rest of the day and watched a vivid Arctic sunset from my bed. Huge industrial chimneys slowly merged into silhouettes as the setting sun painted the white snowy sheets in unbelievably deep hues. Icicles caught the prisms of reds and oranges and finally the glory melted into a velvety night sky. A slice of deep yellow moon rose high and city lights spread below like scattered diamonds. The port hummed with activity and smoke billowed from the yard and chimneys like raging genies. Next morning we went to visit the Alyosha Monument, the Lenin icebreaker, a local museum and an old church. The Museum of local folklore was quite interesting but the Lenin Nuclear Ice Breaker visit was definitely the highlight of the city tour. Although now obsolete and stationed for the touristic purpose, Lenin had been the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker and is still active in service with a full complement of crew. The huge engine rooms, the nuclear reactors combined nicely with the old world polished wood, gilt chandeliers and carpeted interiors and its lovely vintage aura charmed me.
From nailed tables and nuclear reactors of the Lenin icebreaker ship to war memorial
An English speaking officer guided me through its exciting interiors and I retraced steps of massive global figures on lines of Fidel Castro. The Barents Sea lay frozen outside in thick cascading sheets and I tried imagining being stationed there for months on expeditions. It seemed strange then because I would have never believed that I would be on one someday on my way to the North Pole, which actually happened that year in June. It was a hard life, carefully concealed behind a reckless smile and flirtatious comments of the guiding officer. Smoke from our coffee cups rose deliciously and the morning mist gave the port a very mystical air. We left Lenin soon and drove into another part of a dazzlingly white Murmansk to climb up to Alyosha. A monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers, Alyosha is officially called the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic. It is Murmansk’s most iconic sight and a very popular spot for wedding photos. When we reached there freezing winds whipped our faces and the tips of our Rudolf red noses hurt painfully. However true to their Russian sturdiness, the winter brides for the sake of beautiful wedding photos posed nonchalantly in skinny shoes and wispy wedding gowns.
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Winter brides, beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, and a snow-white city
They were seemingly unaffected by the below-freezing temperatures while I hopped around trying to stay warm. Despite being completely swathed in woollens and only my eyes visible from my thick muffler, the icy fingers of the cold reached inside my clothes. Thankfully I was not the only one suffering because even Celia and Pinit claimed to be feeling the same. We gawked at the wedding parties, took endless photos of them, and quickly escaped inside the cosy church. Dedicated to St Nicholas, it was a charming Russian Orthodox church and was located close to the lighthouse commemorating sailors lost at the sea. Quaint with soft sunlit interiors, its dim interiors were warm and fragrant with burning incense and we stayed back to watch a baptizing ceremony in progress.
The Arctic adventure begins at Murmansk with cold lungs, frozen toes, and a hearty Russian lunch
Hunger pangs made its presence felt soon and we made our way to a restaurant for proper Russian lunch of kvaas (non-alcoholic bread drink), borsht/ creamy beetroot soup and fish. More monuments followed and I soon lost interest after the one dedicated to Anatoly Bredov. Shopping for layered clothing was next on our agenda since the temperatures promised to dip lower the next days. We were going deeper into the frozen tundra the next day to begin our Arctic adventure and to the three of us travellers, the thought was enough to give a sleepless night. It was a classic case of, ” What the heck was I thinking?”
Disclaimer: A huge thank you to Nordic Travel for making my Aurora Borealis dream come true. Though all the opinion is strictly mine, the photos of this series are copyrighted to Nordic Travel. Reproduction of this work is permitted only after approval from Nordic Travel.
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