With its wooden churches, frozen lakes and spirit beliefs, Karelia feels like a land from a children’s story – apart from the snowmobiles. We plough away from St Petersburg into the Russian north-west
It was the first turn of the day. As I moved the handlebars, I applied a dab of throttle so the snowmobile's front skids would dig into the snow - and suddenly we were careering towards a fence. Zivile, my pillion passenger, let out a shriek. I had just long enough to realise that we were going to crash - then we were on our side in a huge bank of snow, engine screaming.
Karelia is a frontier land spanning the border between northern Russia and Finland, a natural paradise of birch trees and shimmering lakes. It's steeped in folklore; along with Christian beliefs, many pagan traditions remain. Locals tell of ghosts in the forest and spirits in their houses. The necklaces worn by older womenfolk aren't just to look attractive - they ward off evil spirits with the jangling noise they make.
I discovered a Karelian spirit of my own: the 'Sprite of the Snowmobile'. He sits on the handlebars and cranks the throttle when you're not looking. Slightly dazed, I turned to check Zivile was OK; thankfully, she was fine. We let out bellows of relieved laughter. The snowmobile was undamaged. The fence? A total right-off. Ouch.
Karelian culture in Russia survived the dour years of communism, but the unique language was on the verge of extinction and ancient Karelian villages were abandoned for the modern conveniences of big cities. Today, only 10% of the population in the Russian administrative region of Karelia is Karelian; the rest is a mishmash of ethnicities from all over the old Soviet Union.
However, in recent decades, as modern Russia has struggled with its identity in a new, more open world, there's been renewed interest in 'original' cultures that pre-date communism and Christianity. Many Russians now see Karelia as a place to discover ancient roots and reconnect with the natural world. Karelian is being taught in some schools; there's even some Karelian language TV. I had set out to find this 'real Russia' - to learn about a culture teetering on a knife-edge.
In St Petersburg we boarded an overnight train to travel nearly 500km north to Petrozavodsk, Karelia's regional capital. Zivile, my translator and fearless snowmobile passenger, and I shared our compartment with Anya, who'd been to St Petes to let her Soviet-style peroxide hair down for a weekend of clubbing.
Anya was definitely from Karelia. Seeing a picture of a brown bear in a magazine I was reading, she declared: "Bear meat has magic properties! I visited a shaman last week. He made bear stew for us, saving fat from the rib cage so we could keep it to rub on our chests if we feel sick. It's very powerful."
As we pulled into the station early the next morning, we fell off the train in the streetlight glare of a dark winter morning. That afternoon we drove along fir-lined roads to Kinerma, a scattering of tumbledown wooden houses with a tiny church. 440 years old and almost dead, the village has been virtually abandoned as younger generations move to the city. The current population is six: Nadezda, her husband Igor and kids Yegor and Vanya comprise two-thirds of it. Nadezda's family lived here for generations, but she's only recently moved back to stay. "I couldn't let this little place die," she explained, her blonde hair, high cheekbones and bright blue eyes strikingly un-Russian, typically Karelian.
After perestroika (Gorbachev's economic reforms), Finnish Karelians began coming here to search for traditional villages and customs that had disappeared in Finland. "I started doing tours around the village." Nadezda said. "Natives of Karelia are coming from all over Russia to retrace their origins."
Although Karelians retain their beliefs in the spirit world, they embraced Christianity when it arrived in the 12th century, applying their unique woodworking skills to create beautiful churches. Nadezda showed us the village's tiny chapel, its dome fashioned from delicately carved wooden tiles.
"Our buildings are made completely from wood and without nails," she explained. We stepped inside a house just opposite and discovered a kitchen billowing hearty aromas, a huge brick oven at its centre. Nadezda dished up the most flavoursome stew I've tasted. The secret? No mysterious herbs, just a long, long cooking time. "Beef and pork with a little salt, water and mushrooms cooked overnight," she said.
Karelian craftsmen didn't limit themselves to modest, single-domed churches. Over centuries their constructions became ever more extravagant. Extra levels, complex towers and additional domes were added, still without the use of nails. This amazing craft reached its zenith in the 18th century with massive cathedrals. Sadly, many of these unique structures subsequently fell into disrepair, but in the late 1940s the Soviet authorities rescued and restored a number of them, siting them in a heritage zone on the island of Kizhi in the middle of Lake Onega, one of Europe's greatest expanses of water.
You can reach Kizhi by boat from Petrozavodsk in summer, but getting there in winter is more of a challenge. It's either a long drive around the lake, or an exhilarating snowmobile ride across its flat, frozen expanses and ice-bound islands.
We were taking the quick route, and so next morning, after a detailed safety briefing, we pulled on cold-weather gear, crash helmets and boots, and climbed aboard our 'mobiles, trundling slowly down onto the frozen surface of the lake.
"Just stay in my tracks," shouted Slava, our guide. "If I put my hand in the air, slow down and prepare to stop." Then he was gone, the sled carrying our bags and canisters of fuel zigzagging from his tow bar. I squeezed the throttle. The machine bucked forward and the speedo swiftly ticked up to 20 then 30km/h. The noise and vibration were immense.
This was not a way to enjoy the countryside in peace - but it was seriously exciting.
The icy lake surface varied from hard and rutted to sloppy and sluggish. One minute the caterpillar track at the machine's rear bit in and we cannoned forward, the next we hit slush and suddenly slowed. We stopped at a deserted village called Pigrima for lunch. Lopsided houses stood forlorn in the snow; the chapel was devoid of icons but it wasn't without congregation - pawprints in the snow led right up to the door. "That's definitely a wolf," said Slava. I put my boot alongside one - they were almost the same size. He must have been huge.
I was expecting rustic accommodation at Sannaya Guba, where we were staying that night, but Petr, our host had built a cosy modern lodge. He'd also installed a banya. Nadezda had shown me a traditional Karelian sweat-house in Kinerma the previous day, a sooty-ceilinged hut where the family would sit in winter soaking up heat from searing fire-heated stones. Petr's banya was a more modern affair, with a wood-fired stove. Clad in skimpy towels we sat and sweated.
I had no idea what to do. But then Petr took two large bunches of birch twigs and immersed them in a bucket of hot water; the leaves gave off a sharp, slightly antiseptic aroma. He drained them and windmilled them around, churning up the sticky air, then he whacked my back with them, just hard enough for it to sting - oddly cleansing. Then we stumbled out, and Petr turned on the cold shower. I yelped at the jolt from the freezing water, but stepped out feeling as if I'd acquired a new body.
The next morning we snowmobiled on to Kizhi, the culmination of our trip. Except of course we nearly didn't get there, thanks to my crash. The sled carrying our gear and fuel canisters had broken the previous day and some petrol had leaked from a canister over our bags, so we filled our tanks with the last of the fuel and strapped the bags to the racks on the back of the snowmobiles. And here's my theory: the extra weight on the back sent us careering into that fence. Absolutely nothing to do with driver error. Nothing at all.
Slava came whizzing back to check we were OK, and we managed to right the heavy machine. Dusting myself down, I drove more slowly for a while, until the spectacular structures at Kizhi suddenly loomed into view. It was as if the carpenters had been imbued with supernatural powers.
Set on top of a natural hill, the Church of the Transfiguration looked impossibly top-heavy; 22 tile-covered domes cascaded down its flanks, each with a heart-shaped apse above it. Without a single nail to hold it together, this vast structure had become unstable. It's now supported internally on a steel frame so, disappointingly, you can't go inside, but a restoration is planned for its 200th anniversary in 2014.
The Church of the Intercession next door remains open, though. Inside I found walls decked with icons, still bursting with colour, many rescued from long-destroyed churches elsewhere. But it was the intensely curved exterior of the buildings that captivated me - forms so romantic they seemed like something from a fairytale.
It was getting late and we still had a couple of hours' snowmobiling ahead of us. After days of overcast weather, the sun finally appeared. Orange light washed over us, the whiteness of the scenery making it all the more intense. We stopped in the middle of a vast lake; the bright open space, fringed with dark fir trees against an ultramarine sky, was unmatchable. I'd spent hours looking at man's remarkable artistry, but it was the natural world - Karelia at its most pure - that put on the best show of all.
The author travelled with Russia specialist Go Russia. The six-day Snowmobile Safari to the Snowy Domes of Kizhi costs from £1,029 including flights, transfers, visa, train, accommodation, some meals, cold weather gear and fully qualified guides.
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