Driving into the Arctic Circle (2): “Escorted” into the Arctic by Russian military police

This article was first published on Lonely Planet China magazine, Issue 2021/08

This English version was translated from Chinese original with DeepL. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.



“Escorted” into the Arctic by Russian military police

I had imagined 100 ways to “enter the North Pole”, but not this 101st one.

Leaving the Solovetsky Islands, we were less than 250 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. We have two section of fuel left, more than enough to make it to the fuel station 50 kilometres away – the only resupply points on the Arctic road are villages that often appear only once every few dozen kilometres.

The landscape becomes more and more desolate, except for the neatly planted windbreaks along the roadside, the once tall and dense natural coniferous forests are long gone, leaving only vast grasslands and calm lakes. The vast majority of the Arctic Highway is so monotonous and uninteresting along the way. Even on the busiest summer days of the road, it is not uncommon to not see a single car coming from the opposite direction for several minutes at a time. It is said that there is an unwritten code here in winter: anyone who sees a broken down vehicle along the road must stop and rescue it. Otherwise, it would be murder to turn a blind eye to a help-seeker in such a deserted and icy landscape.


Stormy Arctic Highway – Come to Bike Logger

But no sooner had I finished lamenting this particular code than I almost broke down halfway – the gas station at the previously planned resupply point was closed, and the next one was 100 kilometers away! With only one section in the gauge, no one knew if there was enough fuel left to get there safely. But we had no other choice but to go ahead.

The speed was kept to a strictly economical 60km/h, the air conditioning, heating and stereo were all off, and even the legally required daytime running lights were only turned on briefly during meetings. As the sky darkened, a sharp wind and rain arrived unannounced, and each stroke of the wipers in front of the car made one worry about an extra point of exertion. The fuel gauge had long since sunk into the red abyss, and the blinding fuel filler light went from quietly on to blinking anxiously again, and we remained helpless.

For nearly two hours of the trip, the two of us were silent all the way, as if one more breath was enough to break the fragile fuel consumption threshold. Finally, finally, the neon lights of the gas station became clear before our eyes, and it was only when the milky diesel was poured into the long-deep tank that we dared to let out a cheer of “life after the robbery”.

The map showed that a few dozen kilometers ahead was the Arctic Circle, at 66 degrees 34 minutes north latitude. There should be a small monument standing by the side of the road, and the excitement of “hitting the North Pole” instantly overrides all the anxiety of the journey.

“Police unit ahead.” Waze navigation sounded a sweet reminder just as we were about to reach the Arctic Circle. We’ve been used to Russian traffic police who ambush roadside speed checks for “pocket money” for a long time. But this time it was different: several military and police vehicles lined up, stopping all traffic coming and going from the south to the north.

A young, heavily armed Russian policeman gave us a perfunctory salute and a strange word popped out of his mouth: “documen-tei”. At first I thought he was saying “document” in English, but then I realized it was just an unfortunate coincidence in Russian. None of the four people here – apart from him, a soldier in camouflage, a traffic policeman in a reflective vest, and a large man in plain clothes – spoke English.

All documents were respectfully handed over, followed by an endless wait. He seemed to be on the phone to his boss, and kept examining our “FAN ID”, a plastic card used as a temporary substitute for a Russian visa during the World Cup. During this time, all the other cars passing through the checkpoint were let through straight away, apparently they were only interested in foreigners like us – but I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t send someone who spoke English if they were only checking for foreigners.

After a long time, another police car sped up and an officer got out and started questioning us in half-baked English – I realized that they had just asked for an interpreter.

“What are you doing in Russia?” “To watch the World Cup.” “Where to now?” “Murmansk.”

“Murmansk? There’s no ballgame there!” He said, pointing to our FAN ID in his hand.

“But you guys didn’t say you couldn’t go either.” I’m pretty sure that FAN ID doesn’t restrict us from going anywhere.

There was a little more exchange of words between them and then the final decision was announced: to follow their car and register at the police station in the town ahead.

The military jeep from the checkpoint was driving ahead with its lights flashing, and the police car that had just arrived was following behind with its lights flashing. It’s a pity that we, a small and unattractive car, are in the middle of it, ruining the whole picture of the “escorting head of state”.

The small monument marking the Arctic Circle flashed by, and we were being “escorted”, but we could not find a reason to stop here suddenly. Thus, for the first time, we officially entered the North Pole of the blue planet, surrounded by Russian military and police vehicles.

It was late at night, eleven o’clock, when they reached the town they spoke of. The sun was still low in the sky in the middle of the day, although the inhabitants had long since gone to sleep. The whole town seemed to be stuck in the former Soviet era. The empty streets look magical in broad daylight. The police station is located on the ground floor of an old, dilapidated Soviet-style “box building”. On either side of a simple iron door, years of leaking sewer pipes have eroded the walls to a disgustingly dirty shade.


The town at midnight, the skies are still bright, but the streets are empty – from dashcam

The uniformed officer who had “escorted” us got out of the car for a cigarette and hurried back to duty. We were left to wait in the narrow corridors of the station until a young female officer arrived with sleepy eyes and a grudge written all over her unmade but still delicate face. Apparently, our arrival had awakened her dreams, as she was the only English-speaking person in the small police station. Although we determined that her English probably wouldn’t pass the Chinese midterm, it was enough to complete the routine check-in with some gestures and guesses.


Police officer smoking in front of police station – from dashcam

Perhaps the contents of her questioning of us will be immediately transmitted to the vast database of the Russian Federation at all levels, or perhaps it will simply lie dormant forever in the computers of this small Arctic town. But that doesn’t matter, what matters is that we are finally allowed to continue on our way.

At 1am, we finally arrived at the pre-booked cabin. The moment I pushed open the door, I couldn’t believe my eyes: what I had thought was a “simple cabin” was a luxuriously furnished two-room apartment, with a thoughtful combination stereo and PS game console in the living room, and a whole private sauna next to the bathroom! The cost of a night in such a luxurious setup is just over 100 RMB. If the ski resort next door wasn’t closed for the summer, you probably wouldn’t have the chance to book this “luxury ski chalet” at such a price.



What the exterior and interior of the chalet looks like

There is nothing better than pouring a tub of cool water over the hot stones of the sauna and immersing yourself in the hazy, warm steam. How could we imagine that only 4 hours ago we were worried about “whether we would break down on the side of the road”?


Surprising sauna

Murmansk, a “shopping paradise” in the Arctic Circle

As the largest city established by man in the Arctic Circle, Murmansk still has more than double the population of the second largest city, despite the fact that its population has fallen from a high of 500,000 during the Soviet era to less than 200,000 today. This is why everything here can easily be labeled as the “world’s northernmost”, from the “world’s northernmost” tram to the world’s northernmost McDonald’s and KFC, and even… …the world’s northernmost pig farm and nuclear waste storage site.

Murmansk tram, the world’s northernmost trolleybus system

图片包含 户外, 建筑, 飞机, 男人

The giant monument to Alyosha, a World War II soldier, overlooks the “northern gate” of Russia at its feet: the non-frozen port of Murmansk

Perhaps Murmansk means different things to different tourists: an outdoor destination, a stopover for the Aurora Borealis …… but to us, it means nothing more than a “shopping paradise”. After all, when we left Murmansk, our next stop was Norway, the “most expensive country in the world”.


Homemade “salmon dinner” – when you wait for Scandinavia, you can’t even think about such a meal!

We are obviously not the only ones who consider Murmansk a shopping paradise. When it came time to have the car serviced, the garage owner, seeing the miscommunication, kindly called in the shop’s “full-time translator”. However, her English didn’t seem to be very good, and only when we were curious did she admit that her first foreign language was actually Norwegian, and that she usually serves the Norwegians who live on the other side of the border.

Car maintenance services here are, on average, a third to a fifth of the price in Norway. When you factor in petrol and alcohol, which are also a third of the price in Norway, and even hairdressing, which are even more labour-intensive and more expensive, it’s no wonder that there is never a shortage of savvy Norwegians who come to Murmansk for shopping sprees, even when the round trip takes nearly 1,000 kilometres.


There’s nothing like seeing plenty of cheap Chinese spices in a Murmansk supermarket, let alone in the Arctic!

Having picked up all the supplies I could think of needing during my time in Northern Europe, and having rested comfortably in Murmansk for several days, it was time to depart and cross the border to Norway.