Murmansk: The Truth Behind the Rumors
A month ago, when David and I chose Murmansk as our extra city, we asked readers for contacts here. Lucky for us, a reader named James delivered big: his new wife Olga grew up in Murmansk, and her parents Anna and Nikolai still live in the city. At James's request, Anna and Nikolai agreed to put us up for the week.
When we arrived on Monday afternoon, we were met at the train by Anna, smiling and resplendent in an ankle-length fur coat and fur hat. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and as there were only a couple hours of sunlight left, we hurried off to see Murmansk's main attraction -- a giant World War II memorial the locals call "Alyosha."
An immense granite soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, Alyosha towers high over the city on a bare hill, peering toward downtown and the port area. The memorial's simple lines and sheer bulk add to its power, making it as impressive from a distance as it is close up. An eternal flame burns at Alyosha's feet, a tiny spark against the looming statue.
From Alyosha's hilltop, we had a perfect view of the city. Despite the dusting of snow and the overcast Artic gray, Murmansk reminded me of Vladivostok with its rolling hills, gentle coves and huge cranes in the port. In summer, Anna told us, the city is alive with greenery, and the sun never sets. Yet even in the winter gloom, its trees bare, Murmansk has a certain stark beauty.
We'd heard lots of wild things about Murmansk before coming here, from Russians in other cities and from stuff I'd found online. For the record, here are our findings on five rumors about Murmansk:
1. You can see the Northern Lights. True. We're desperately hoping to see this phenomenon ourselves, but according to Nikolai the weather has to undergo a sharp change, and that hasn't happened yet.
2. Murmansk is buried in snow for seven months of the year: False. Murmansk gets its fair share of snow, but as of early November this year, there's been only one significant snowfall.
3. The sun never rises in winter. True-ish. From mid-December to early January, the sun never peeks above the horizon, though the rest of the winter there's sun. But not much.
4. No trees grow in Murmansk because it's too far north. False. There are trees here -- they're just not very big.
5. The port never freezes. Amazing but true. Thanks to the warmer currents coming into the Kola Gulf, the port is functional year-round.
So, we're not freezing, but it sure is dark. We'd be depressed, except Anna and Nikolai are taking great care of us, with homemade meals and -- whaddaya know -- BBC World on their cable TV.
Tomorrow: Maxim, a fish exporter with a fascinating hobby.
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