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I find tales of air travel dull, so I won't bore you with my flights to Helsinki on the 22nd and 23rd.

From the airplane, I saw a dragon...

I arrive at the hotel on the evening of the 23rd, meeting Chuck Cross from Polar Cruises at the door and my roommate for the trip, E, a little while later. E and I catch up on news and then go in quest of food for me. It's the curse of the out-of-towner in the far north: residents and businesses keep normal hours, and restaurants close before the time-fuddled tourist is ready to dine.

After walking around the few blocks nearest the hotel, we return to its bar and I order a large and disintegrating "club sandwich", good but difficult to wrangle.

In the morning, E and I for a short walk around Helsinki. Central Helsinki isn't very large, so we couldn't go very far. We strolled past many of the major attractions, including the Lutheran cathedral, the daily open-air market at the waterfront, and a very nice tram. Trams run right on the streets where people are walking, and Finns are so smart they don't get killed. Try that at home, America.

Today the group made its halting way from the Radisson SAS Royal hotel — much assembling of luggage and lugging of luggage onto buses — to the Helsinki airport. On my way through the duty-free section, I pick up some supplies for the trip in the form of chocolate, nuts, and chocolate-covered nuts. My friend E. has already provided us with other refreshments, including a bottle of something distilled from maple syrup. In case we are fatally, swooningly bored, I buy a deck of Moomin playing cards, too.

The charter flight, on a new Airbus plane operated by Finnair, to Murmansk is short, just an hour and a half; it's much closer than one would think to Helsinki, by air.

Clouds prevent me from seeing the landscape...

and not until the plane begins its descent does the northern Russian, typically Arctic, terrain of lakes, bogs, forests, and ground-down knobs of granite become visible. It's vibrantly green and lush, with patches of dryer ground looking a little rusty. Here and there are fields or maybe clear-cut areas of forest, but it appears largely unpopulated.

At the airport, our group is processed methodically and slowly by the immigration and customs staff. The Quark artist causes a long delay by trying to import bundles of flags — wooden sticks with cloth flags on them, yes — which looked very like survey flags to the Russians. It seems that the artist had some plan of dragooning everyone into a conceptual art project involving writing the names of 360 endangered species, one for each degree, on the flags, and setting them in a circle around the North Pole. (I may expound further, later, on what I think of that idea, if occasion arises.) The Russian customs and security agents, understandably given the current political realities, do not allow him to import something that looked like surveyors' flags. Their stated reason is that he must be planning to sell such a large quantity of anything. (A hint to travelers: "I want to speak to your supervisor" is not a valid card to play anywhere but the US, especially when talking to someone who can throw you out of the country.) After an hour or so, about thirty passengers are cleared, enough to fill one waiting bus, and a frazzled member of the expedition staff hops on to conduct us to the ship.

A 40-minute drive over a road that looks exactly like a road anywhere else in Europe follows. Except for the Russian signs, it is a universal highway, a bit billowy from frost heaves but with the same lines, the same gravel at the sides, the same tarmac, as highways everywhere. Considering the challenging environmental conditions, it is in perfect repair. The driver, who has a splendid moustache, doesn't speed, so there is time to look out the window. The dirty glass and light rain make taking window photos unrewarding.

Forests here are birch; I suspect the area must have been logged long ago. The birch trees are slender and tend to be contorted, not tall and straight, larger-scale versions of the dwarf birch in slightly higher latitudes. The birch grows everywhere it can. The bus passes, outside Murmansk proper, a large cemetery whose fenced graves have been penetrated and overtaken by birch, so much so that it wasn't possible to see at first that it is a cemetery and not just scraps of fence abandoned in the forest. The trees rise up inside painted railings enclosing graves, blue or red or white, or twined through them, reclaiming.

We see, in several places, groups of cars parked by the side of the road. I don't think people are into hiking here. Perhaps they are fishing (we crossed a stream, lakes too) or picking mushrooms or berries.

Most of the buildings are weatherbeaten; there aren't many single-family houses, most of the buildings for residence are apartments, square tall slabs. Two very new, very colorful, freshly-stuccoed-and-painted ones glow conspicuously among the grimier, older concrete blocks. A brand-new-looking church on a hill overlooks the river and port. Apartment buildings are not uniform, nor well-cared-for; the lawn is uncut, the birch trees moving in on the margins. The variable styles, colors, and conditions of the window frames indicates that inhabitants maintain them on their own: a freshly-painted set of blue windows beside a peeling set of white windows beside a nearly-paint-free set of once-grey windows. We passed abandoned places — houses, a yard full of rusting front-end loaders, warehouses. A hardware store, or equipment store (HUSQVARNA signs), looks like a healthy business, a bright neon sign flashes outside a club or bar, and outside a roadside restaurant, cars are pulled up at and people eating at white-painted picnic tables. Our bus passes a public transit bus full of passengers, stopped to let people board; people walk home carrying shopping in universal polythene bags; a dog carrying an enormous stick — nearly a log — trots smugly along the road.

To reach the port from the town, the bus turns at the new church and follows a road down a long slope, with birch and a few weedy flowers and granite exposed by cutting to one side. The port is packed with icebreakers on summer holiday! We see a Russian navy ship is dark and shadowy-looking and all business, no pleasure boats, a handful of tugs. Cranes, scattered debris and derelict equipment, entire buildings half-disassembled are strewn about. The birch trees are absent. A few dogs, husky-types, amble aimlessly or lie snoozing among the rubble piles. One dog comes to investigate the bus after it negotiates a series of chicanes and halts at a security gate. Here a young man in uniform and a woman in jeans get on; he announces and she translates.

Passports are checked again, my fifth time that day, and when the name of each person on the bus has been matched up with the list the young guard has on his clipboard, he thanks us and steps off. Now the gate opens and the driver rolls the bus forward slowly, carefully, into the port. But not quite in. The gate closes behind us and we sit few minutes, neither in nor out, surrounded by brick and steel gratings, probably waiting for the operator of the first gate to walk around to open the second.

But the bus moves forward, and we arrive. When the gate opens we are perhaps fifty feet from the gangway — the bus does not stop — the driver takes us directly to the gangway and aligns the doors so that we have no opportunity to go wandering around. The catering staff and the few guides and other staff who arrived at the ship before us have been popping out to look as the bus carrying the passengers inches through the last layers of security. Now we hand over our passports to the expedition staff (this is usual), are ticked off on a list, and board 50 Years of Victory. We've been told not to take pictures in the port of Murmansk, so I have no photos of the boarding: eager people charging up the gangplank to find their cabins.

In our cabin, E and I find the first day's schedule, bottled water, brochures. Our cabin is on the deck with the shop (racks of polarfleece with polar bears on, stuffed musk-ox), the library (a very small collection of old books), and the bar. E and I head for the bar for a drink. We believe in beginning as we mean to go on.

It's dinner time, and while we eat the luggage arrives, complete and intact. After desultory unpacking, we go out on deck to watch the tugboats moving the ship away from the dock. Crewmen supervised by an officer rush about getting the lines in place and the mooring lines stowed.

The crew coil and stow the mooring lines, then do it again, and then do it again. Until it's not just done, but done right.

The stern tug works just long enough to draw the ship into the river, then releases the hawser to allow the bow tug to swing the ship around. All is slow, graceful, deliberate.

The midnight sun has dipped and is lighting the clouds with gorgeous oranges and flaming yellow.

When the ship's engines start, I'm surprised by how quiet they are and how smooth. As the tug lines go taut and start to strain, screeching audibly, the ship is drawn into the river, and the loudspeakers on the flying bridge crackle. Out bursts a metallic-sounding recording of what I assume is the Russian national anthem, heroically played by a brass band with plenty of emphasis and a polka-like beat. It loops for ten minutes or so. There is no one to wave goodbye to.

From the ship, as it moves out, we can see Yamal's shark-tooth grin across its bow.

It's going into drydock and that's why we're touristing on this new ship. Moored in the river is the Arktika, the first icebreaker to go to the North Pole (1977).

I overhear speculation that the orca wind indicator (and the patterned paint on the hull) on the bow of this ship are derived from Yamal's shark teeth. E overhears a passenger asking whether the orca is the wind indicator the bridge uses. Why yeeees, of course...!

There are no fishing boats, no dories or sailboats, nothing recreational... a little ways down the river, an angular black thing juts above the water. A buoy? A rock? No — it's the prow of a sunken submarine, left there because it's too much trouble to move.

Sergei, the passenger mate. Welcome aboard, us!

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July 2008

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