Visit Lake Onega - while you still can
Atmosphere compensates for lack of services on rusty hydrofoil
By Riku Jokinen
Stepping into the Kometa-11 vessel, even a landlubber understands that the six hydrofoils sailing on Lake Onega in Russian Karelia are coming to the end of their useful lives.
It would take more than duct tape and chewing gum to get these rusty, blistering boats that reek of human perspiration to pass their next inspection.
Anyone who wants to get take a cruise on Ääninen (as Lake Onega is known in Finnish, and in its linguistic cousin Karelian), should hurry; the licences of the hydrofoils expire in 2008.
However, Stanislav Rosolinski, head of passenger services of the shipping line in question, says without blinking an eye that with a little fixing up, the Kometas could last another 10 to 15 years.
There are plans to order new hydrofoils, and some hovercrafts, which could also operate during the winter months, but no decisions have been made yet.
The ride itself is quite pleasant. The trip to Kizhi takes an hour, and friendly Russians make for good company. With the exception of a toilet, there are no services on the boat, but in spite of the lack of the expected overpriced snacks, the company certainly knows how to fleece the tourists of their money.
The fare to Kizhi via Sennaya Guba is EUR 30 for tourists, and only half as much for Russians. On the island of Kizhi itself, the price gouging is even more flagrant. Russians pay just 55 roubles to enter, but foreigners are charged 420 roubles - EUR 12.
The double pricing is not based on any legislation - it is simply a common practice in Russia.
The magnificent aspen-roofed churches on Kizhi, and the Karelian buildings brought in from around the Republic of Karelia, are worthy of their reputation. However, the island has not yet been discovered by foreigners. The shipping companies say that 95% of visitors to the island are Russian.
The outdoor museum is one big picnic ground. Visitors from St. Petersburg and Moscow raise their glasses of brandy and sparkling wine, and offer some to passers-by as well.
The feeling is excellent, but after travelling all the way to Lake Onega, it would be nice to see some authentic Russian Karelian life.
We go back to the harbour, and after some haggling and persuasion, the harbour-master agrees to take us to the old Karelian village of Velikaya Guba. This costs us EUR 40.
"It's a canister of petrol in each direction", he explains.
The man takes us behind the souvenir shop. Our first thought is that it's good we didn't pay in advance.
In front of us is a scow in simply incredible condition. The boat is so rusty that we are afraid to step on the deck.
The man points behind the scow, at a small motorboat used for fishing.
The boat pounds across the lake. The noise of the engine is deafening, and the waves rhythmically strike the bottom of the hull.
The captain's sign language suggests that smoking is not allowed, and that it might be advisable to lean forward, lest the bow rise up too much. It is also the best way to avoid getting soaked in the cool August weather.
In the open water the waves become so high that it is downright frightening, but our captain is skilful at navigating in the choppy water.
The most important sights of Velikaya Guba are the old buildings, the saunas, and the boathouses, between which it is possible to take a dip.
Cows roam freely on the unpaved streets. One of the horned bovine creatures takes a couple of steps forward, causing this city slicker to take a few steps back, not knowing if it is a cow or a bull.
There is a store in the village that is open 24 hours a day, where we stop to sample some of the local sausage. The price seems ridiculously cheap after the inflated prices in Kizhi.
The trip back to Petrozavodsk passes by quickly in the hydrofoil. We are joined by a businessman who is in a celebratory mood.
The man waxes sentimental about his grandchildren, and is constantly offering us sips from his bottle.
The chili-flavoured vodka is hot to the lips, and the sweet fresh beer that we had churns in the stomach, but it would be impolite to refuse.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.8.2005
More on this subject:
Adventures of a wild tourist on the White Sea
Previously in HS International Edition:
Adventurous spirit required to navigate back roads of Russian Karelia (13.8.2005)
RIKU JOKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat