Years before I even thought about heading east to the biggest country in the world, my language tutor had me read a text in Russian. The text was about a large wooden church built on an island called Kizhi somewhere in the north of the country. According to the text, a builder constructed this church, looked at his finished result and threw his hammer into the lake saying that his days as a builder were over since he would never again build anything as beautiful. Although the text was quite difficult for my level at the time, I understood enough to be intrigued and interested in finding out more about the place. Kizhi wasn't on any world map, nor was it on any of the more detailed maps of Russia that I checked. It wasn't until I actually decided to go there that I found out exactly where it is.
Ostrov Kizhi is located on one of thousands of small islands in Lake Onega, one of the largest lakes in Russia. It is part of the autonomous Republic of Karelia, which is located north of St. Petersburg on the border with Finland. People start their journey to the island from Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia. From there to Kizhi, it is an easy 45 minute hydrofoil trip, and they run very regularly in the summer time.
The island is about seven kilometers long and half a kilometer wide. Although only a few local farmers live in small villages here, the whole island has been made a UNESCO site so once you arrive on the island, you are immediately bombarded by souvenir stands and cafes catering to tourists. Beyond the shops and cafes is the entrance to this island museum. There is an entrance fee, and if you can convince the ticket sellers that you are a citizen of Russia, you'll pay about half the price of the normal price for foreigners; this is not too difficult if you know any Russian at all.
Once inside, the path naturally takes you to the south side of the island, home to the main attraction: a huge wooden church and bell tower in the stereotypical Russian design with dozens of onion-shaped domes. While the architecture is stereotypically Russian, however, it is unique in that everything is made of wood. It's not as colorful as the St. Basils Church in the Red Square, of course, but it's just as impressive. Most tourists naturally congregate around this church, but there are plenty of other things to see on the island, including other wooden architecture.
With a round trip ticket on the hydrofoil, visitors have only three hours to roam around the island before they need to return to the pier and catch the ride back to Petrozavodsk. It is plenty of time to see the church and the surrounding wooden architecture on the south side of the island. But if you really want to get away from it all, you can head over to the north side, away from the tourists snapping photographs and the sound of pop music blaring from a docked cruise ship. A small cemetery overgrown with weeds lies just within view of the pier and ship further south. As a way to pass the time and get a different view of the island, I went exploring the area. The only sound I hear while walking was the wind blowing through the knee-high length of grass and the buzzing of large flying insects. A smallfishing village with its wooden houses took me back a couple centuries, and I almost felt as if I'd stepped into a Russian equivalent of a Western film. I was completely alone and the silence was deafening. I didn't see another human being as I walked past the small fishing village towards a lone wooden windmill off in the distance. The June day was sweltering and the big puffy white clouds dotting the blue skies made everything on land look small and insignificant. Past the wooden windmill dwarfed by the landscape, the little dirt road I was on continued up north for the remainder of the seven kilometers, but one glance at the time told me that I should start heading back. As I walked back past the cemetery again, I was back in the present day, into the world of blaring music and restless tourists. Leaving the island on the hydrofoil affords visitors with one last opportunity to take a photo of the church, reflected on the waters of Lake Onega.
Back in Petrozavodsk, I take a walk along the banks of the lake where hundreds of others go rollerblading or cycling, or just sit around drinking beer and watching the sun barely set over the horizon, not quite going far enough to truly call it nighttime. The embankment is well developed although not well maintained and it seems that Petrozadovsk has seen better days, as evidenced by the unused and dilapidated hotel overlooking the lake. There does seem to be a genuine effort to improve the aesthetics of the embankment, however; the banks of the lake are dotted with sculptures given as gifts from other cities around the world. Temporary, summer cafes are scattered at random intervals along the embankment, and the smell of barbeque is overpowering, competing with the scent of freshly cut grass. It is the perfect way to end a wonderful trip before taking an eighteen hour train ride back to Moscow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR