Teriberka is the last village on the Earth. It is 20 degrees off the North Pole. The Arctic winter is unforgiving and Polar Nights are unbelievably gloomy. It is minus 23 degree Celsius. But we survived.
How cold is too cold? Is it when the blizzard seeps in through the many, many layers of clothing you have on and cuts to the bone? Or is it when your woollen socks and fur-lined boots cannot remind you the existence of your toes? Or, is it when you struggle to click a photo because your fingers have lost all sensation? Now imagine all that, and more. That’s what -23°C (real feel, -30°C) is. It is a reminder that any part of your body that is uncovered will likely not survive. It is the realisation that no matter how beautiful the snow-covered Tundra is, you want to get back to a heated room.
Welcome to Teriberka. It is the night before Christmas and nothing but the snow will tell you so. Wherever your eyes go, is a post-apocalyptic wasteland that time has forgotten. Or probably never registered the existence of. It is the last village on the planet. At 69.2 degrees North, it lies just 20 degrees off the North Pole.
You can see the end of the earth. Literally. All those promises made by all those exes who wanted to travel to the end of the earth for you will come back when you’re looking out at the vast grey expanse of water. Water colder than your ex’s heart. The December sky is gloomy. There’s an hour of daylight. The sun has gone into hibernation and will be back only mid-January.
Polar Winter is unforgiving. You will realise the full impact of those words when you’re facing the Barents Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean. You’re on slippery ground. One false step, and, like our trip leader said, it’s no point even trying to look for you. Calling the road to this place precarious would be doing severe injustice to it. Teriberka, where it meets the Arctic, is pure danger. The 440-Volt-warning types.
The December morning when we got into Teriberka, it was the usual lightless day. We hadn’t seen the sun for four days now, and were trying hard to hold on to sanity, to not sink into sorrow. The lack of sunlight can mess with your head. Travelling in a group is a mighty help at such times.
The road from Murmansk to Teriberka has only one thing on both sides: snow. As our vehicle cut through the ice-coated road and made it forward, some of us sang Khwabon Ke Parindey. No, there were no white horses running by our car. No reindeer either. Just the limitless white, which at some point met the colourless sky. To try and describe the sky in this part of the Arctic would be a task. We saw it blue last in Moscow, four days ago. So we trod on. Jo bhi ho so ho.
Two and a half hours later, a board announced we were a kilometre from Teriberka. This white ship graveyard saw tourists trickling in only after the 2014 film Leviathan reached the Oscars. To be honest, I’d never heard the name of this place till before we got the itinerary for this trip. As we entered into Teriberka, our eyes met residues of shipwrecks, all perfectly preserved by the crisp air, strewn around the road. These are ships that lost their way and crashed and floated down the Arctic to Teriberka, and stayed that way. Skeletons of a yesterday.
By now, our phones were barely working. Some of us unlucky ones, whose phones were old, had to see the battery draining from 100 per cent to 50 in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, even with it being plugged in to the power bank. It is at that precise moment that you realise what the human body can withstand. With the parka and faux fur, of course.
Our Arctic Adventure that afternoon comprised taking snow bikes to the literal edge of the earth where vegetation is sparse and humans none. Photoshop a Drogon and Daenerys over the water, and you have the North of the Wall right there. Once we were done seeing the Arctic Ocean, we had to touch it. A full sensory experience!
Teriberka’s ‘black diamond’ beach
So we took the bikes above the ‘black diamond’ beach and walked down a steep snow wall. Right till where the ocean meets these shiny ebony-black pebbles, which, when the sun is out, glisten like a million diamonds.
We traced our way back up the slope. Stumbling and nearly sliding down into the ocean. But managed it up. At this point, my Delhi-assaulted lungs did not know how much of the clean air to take in.
Snow bikes to the End of the Earth.
We rode the snow bikes back to the tourist point and got back into the warmth of the car. The next stop was our home for the night: Aurora Village. Christmas Eve in a glass igloo. These igloos are ‘smart igloos’; made of triangular glass panels to let you see Lady Aurora when the sky is cloudless and the KP Index is in your favour. These duplex-style igloos can accommodate up to four people; with two beds on the ‘upper floor’. A pull-out staircase takes you to these beds. There’s a slice of a washroom with a shower box – QUITE a luxury here. That night, we didn’t see the Northern Lights.
The night we saw the Northern Lights was three nights before Christmas. We took a domestic flight from Moscow to Murmansk and gasped when the runway came into view. It was white! There was a snow excavator constantly at work: by the time it’s done cleaning the runway off snow from one end to the other, it’s time to retrace its route back. It never stops snowing here.
The Arrival at the Murmansk airport can accommodate just about 50 people. Add one person more, and she’ll have to stand on your toes. There’s one conveyor belt for your luggage. Pro tip: travel light. Russian airlines to this part of the country hardly allow anything more than 20 kg and are VERY strict about the luggage dimensions and weight.
The airport is about 45 minutes from the main town. Murmansk is the biggest city in the Arctic Circle and enjoys the distinction of being the home of the world’s northernmost McDonald’s. Among other things, like the northernmost trolleybus system in the world.
Murmansk is also the most important city in the Arctic. All Russian polar expeditions take off from here. The city gets the best of the warm North Atlantic Drift, and its seaport stays reachable and ice-free round the year, unlike Arkhangelsk, Russia’s other port in the Arctic.
Something striking about Murmansk (especially to us Indians): the population of the city comprises 54 per cent women. The total population is about 3 lakh (that’s less than one-third the 10.5-lakh population of Noida). December 2 marks the beginning of the Polar Winter here. The days are shorter than all your acceptable definitions of short. There’s light only from about 1 pm to 2 pm for these 40 days. The sun is back on the horizon only after January 10.
The city has quite a few shopping malls and the tallest building above the Arctic Circle (a hotel). Murmansk got its name from its proximity to Norway (117 km away). Murman Coast, which Murmansk is derived from, means Norway in archaic Russian. The touristy sightseeing points are a few: the Lenin, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker is stationed at the Murmansk port; there’s the Aloysha Monument and a commemorative lighthouse for Murmansk’s soldiers. An hour’s drive away is the Husky Farm, and another hour’s drive away lies the Saami Village in Russian Lapland.
But none of this is what we braved the Murmansk cold for. What we really went to do there is see the Northern Lights.
The night we landed in Murmansk, we drove out of the city to see the lights. The cold was biting, but in retrospect, a little less than it was in Teriberka. But then, it could also be because of the Russian-Vodka shield we’d equipped ourselves with that night. We set out Aurora hunting a little after midnight. The drive out of the city takes about two hours, for the light pollution to be absolute zero. After two hours in the snug protection of the bus, we got our hoods on and stepped out.
A blast of wind hit the face. Set your foot down, and then the tripod. The old cameras will go kaput because, hey, how much can that battery withstand? So when you go to the Arctic, with all your heavy jackets and gloves and preparation for the cold, nothing can prepare your gadgets for what they are about to witness. Old phones and devices will shudder and die a lonely death under the Northern Lights. But thank heavens for your eyes. Because the dance of the lights that you see above you, is best experienced with naked eyes.
All your Pixels and iPhones will want to excuse themselves at this moment. And even if you capture that moment on your DSLRs, you can’t capture the feeling. That, my friend, is to be lived. You will live and tell the tale of the dancing lights to your grandkids. Because in that moment, with the cold cutting through to your bone and your nose running a marathon, you will cry. When the lights rise.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Russian Arctic is, in a way, the home of the world famous Chanel No 5. The first perfume from Coco Chanel was compounded by perfumer and chemist Ernest Beaux. Beaux was posted in Arkhangelsk, in the Russian Arctic in 1920. Beaux credited the frigid landscape, the crisp polar air and his snowy white surroundings as the inspiration behind the distinctive Chanel No 5 bouquet of perfume.
HOW TO REACH MURMANSK
Russian airlines operate several daily flights from Moscow to Murmansk and from Saint Petersburg to Murmansk. Take their weight warnings very seriously unless you want to shell out thousands of rubles for a kilo of extra baggage. At 2-hour-35-minutes’ travel time one side, flights are the easiest and fastest way to reach Murmansk.
There’s a train too, which travels from Saint Petersburg to Murmansk and completes the journey in 36 hours.
WHAT TO REMEMBER WHEN YOU’RE TRAVELLING TO THE RUSSIAN ARCTIC
1. Invest in a good parka. You can buy them in India or in Moscow (getting one in Moscow will be cheaper and more suited for their winter).
2. Get a good pair of non-slip boots, and woollen socks. Pack a warm pair of gloves too.
3. Thermals are a must. The layers of clothes will help pack in your body warmth.
4. Protect your face and ears as much as you can.
5. If you’re taking an old phone, keep it plugged in to your power bank when you’re out in the cold.
6. If your camera is old, carry a spare battery. Battery drains extremely quickly in these below-freezing-point temperatures. Protect the lens from the constant snow and mist.
7. Do not touch any metal with exposed fingers. Your skin will stick to the metal and peel off.
8. Carry ready-to-eat food from India. Russian food up there is a challenge even for hard-core non-vegetarians. While Murmansk has decent restaurants, Aurora Village in Teriberka has pretty much nothing. Their breakfast is boiled eggs and bread-jam, if you’re lucky. The meat will likely be uncooked even if they offer you ‘barbecued pork’. Fall back on your packs of poha and upma.