We leave the charmingly beautiful coast and fjords of Norway with views like this
and round the northern most cape in Europe and head for Russia. We are at sea. How will we know it when we reach Russia?
As the saying goes “You’ll know it when you see it” And with views like this there is no mistaking it.
Gone are the sunny skies, the green mountains and the colourful little fishing villages. They have been replaced by landscapes of grey. Grey sky, grey sea, grey land and grimly grey blocks of flats. There is no color anywhere. There is only one place in the world this could be.
The first sign that we have crossed into Russian waters is when three small battleships appear seemingly out of nowhere and “accompany” us on our journey. Each has a large gun at the back and a smaller gun on the bow, although when it is pointing your way the relative size of the gun makes little difference.
Two naval seamen stand on each bow facing our ship.
They are wearing the only thing of color we have seen, presumably to make sure that we notice them. They keep their distance and make no outward sign of aggression but it is distinctly disturbing. There are no onboard announcements but we have to believe that our Captain is having some nervous moments on the bridge.
The second sign that we have arrived in Russia is when our internet connection suddenly disappears. After a couple of hours there is an announcement that our ship is having a problem with their internet and they are working on it. No one believes them. Hours later we get the signal back but we have problems accessing google for the entire time we are in Russian waters.
Our first stop is Murmansk which is a two hour journey up a fjord from the open sea. The city is unaccustomed to having cruise ships stop here. One look at the place and you can understand why.
Even our Russian guide tells us that they are surprised cruise ships would consider it as a destination. But for a few years now a handful of ships have stopped each year. The locals were delighted to find that it helped their economy so they decided to build an attractive new cruise terminal slap bang in the middle of town to hopefully attract more ships.
Well at least it has colour.
The terminal opened in 2016 and welcomed its first few cruise ships. It didn’t take long for the intelligencia (can that possibly be the right word?) to recognise that there was a serious problem with the terminal. It had nothing to do with the fact that their version of an attractive cruise terminal left a lot to be desired. It had all to do with the locals being able to see the cruise ships as they came into dock. Such luxury, such affluence, such comfort. Their eyes were suddenly and rather painfully opened. This is how the rest of the world lived. It bore no resemblance to their drab and dour lives.
It was a huge problem. But not to worry, it was easily fixed.
Just close down the brand new cruise terminal. Simple. So now cruise ships have to dock several miles from the city centre in the industrial docks away from prying eyes, where the public are not allowed entry. It solves one problem, but creates another. This is the view from our balcony
It is not a view that is going to make anyone want to return.
But the simple solution also has another advantage. It makes leaving the ship to wander around town completely impossible. But even if we could, we couldn’t. We are told over and over again, by announcements over the P.A. system and by written announcements left on our cabin door and on our bed, that no one can leave the ship on their own without having first obtained a Russian visa and permission to do so. Only one couple on board has chosen to obtain this at considerable cost. The rest of us can only leave on organised tours with a Russian “guide”.
As soon as we dock, Russian Immigration Officials come on board. The ship has collected all the passports, and offers the officials one of the lounges where they can inspect them all. But they make the mistake of also offering the officials food and drink. Even a Russian Immigration Officer recognises a good thing when he sees it. And they have never seen a spread like this. They have no intentions of leaving anytime soon and a job that should have been handled quickly and efficiently suddenly takes hours.
The next step is for each of the passengers to have a face to face interview with an official. He takes a careful look at my passport photo and then at me. It seems to take longer than it should. Then I notice another official with a camera and some strange machine standing to one side and surreptitiously taking my photograph. I have a secret admirer! Apparently the first is an actual photograph, the second we later learn is an infrared photograph. No one is quite sure why they need that. Actually the entire exercise seems a complete waste of time. Do they really believe that one or more of us might want to escape the ship to stay in Murmansk?