Björn at the Russian border.
This is Part 4 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series, check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden, Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland and Part 3: The journey to North Cape. Now that we’ve reached the northernmost point of our adventure, instead of flatly driving back the way we came, why not drive east instead, to see where Norway meets Russia. This would end up being the easternmost point of this adventure, as we find ourselves further East than Cairo in Egypt… I have no plans to get into Russia per se, for three reasons: I have already been there in 2013 (Check out the 20 posts in our Trans-Siberian Railway series here), I have no visa and – most importantly – Björn is not allowed to leave the European Union. But that doesn’t mean we can’t check out the border.
Google Maps doesn’t venture as far as the Russian border in Grense Jakobselv, but we did.
From Nordkapp we drive back south to Smørfjord then Lakselv, then follow the coast east to Kunes, Ifjord and Torhop. It doesn’t look like much distance on the map, but I spent the morning going back to Nordkapp to take sunlit pictures, and Björn made its first GPS mistake of the trip: he kept wanting me to drive all the way down south to Finland and then straight back up northeast to Tana – an additional 3 hours – so I went on the wrong route to start with. To his credit, Google Maps does the same mistake, weirdly, as the section from Isfjord to Torhop seems to be recorded as unpassable.
As a result, I had to stop in Vadso, the closest town with a hotel. Pause. Yes, the closest town with a hotel. Although we are not as isolated as in the Australian desert, this part of Norway and the world is only very sparsely populated, with villages and cars painting a lonely picture in the landscape. Distances are stretched between settlements and the roads can be windy as they trace through the harshly indented coastline. It’s another rhythm altogether and now that I am used to the line-assist aid of the Volvo XC90, the feeling of driving on rails is growing on me. I feel like a train conductor combing out unchartered territory. There’s definitely a frontier feel in Vadso. An impression of calm before the storm: a quiet town with wild east streaks such as people driving dangerously (gasp!) and less-than-welcoming hotel personnel. One can definitely smell Russia in the air.
The Russian border is the grey lineFirst Russian border point
The next day I retrace my steps from Vadso to hop back on the E6 to get up close and personal with the Russian border. A few km after Elvenes, I have my eyes glued to the GPS map as it seems the road I am driving on actually forms the border between Norway and Russia (see map above). The weather is grey, the clouds are low and the air wet, combining to create an eerie feeling of forbidden. Out in the real world though, there’s no sign yet that I am touching Russia with Björn’s wheels, and without GPS I wouldn’t have guessed. There’s not a single Russian car on the road. Things change where the E105 to Murmansk splits just before the official Russian border point. It’s a highly secured area and I had to take the above picture while still driving as stopping is strictly prohibited. I turn left on the 886 to Grense Jakobselv.
Björn on the way to Grense Jakobselv
The road suddenly gets a lot narrower and Björn’s GPS is starting to seriously stress out, gently but repeatedly suggesting a sharp u-turn. This part of Norway is another unchartered GPS area, including on Google Maps which can’t for the life of it tell that there’s actually a road – granted, sometime a dirt track – that leads to Grense Jakobselv. I persist as the skies get greyer and more menacing by the minute. To add to the tension, I start to spot a few military vehicles parked on the side of the road. As I snap a few pics including the one above, a Norwegian military squadron on quads appears out of nowhere. Have I done something wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time… (I had a similar experience in 2013 in Moscow) But no. Big waves, big smiles and big hellos as they drive off into the wilderness. I stand there astounded.
The dirt track hugs the Russian border (grey line on the GPS) Russia is literally at a stone’s throw from Björn’s window.
At one point the road curbs sharply to the left and becomes an unmaintained dirt track. The only sound is the river flowing to my right. It turns out this is the Russian border. We are now driving northbound straight to the see and the track hugs the river so close it even acts as riverbank a few times. The air is electric with tension. Whats the big deal? I hear you ask, it’s only Russia. The natural feature forming the river is totally passable: you could even walk through the river easily, so shallow it is. Except no one is allowed to cross here. Beacons and captors are lined up at regular intervals along the water and although the only sound is of the river flowing, I could swear I’m hearing the regular beeps of cameras filming.
“The border runs in the river”
Björn my Volvo XC90 suddenly feels like one of James Bond’s high tech cars taking me to a dodgy encounter in a god forsaken location. Many signs pepper the riverbank, explicitly indicating that crossing the borderline – aka the river – is strictly prohibited by any means (land, motor or air). Not only that, but it is also prohibited to “throw items across the borderline (!), to intentionally make contact with, or act in an insulting manner towards persons on the other side of the border and to photograph Russian military personnel and equipment in an aggressive or provocative manner”… At the point of the track where the river is the narrowest, there is a roadside shelter with a bench, tarpaulin, covers, donnas and basic food supplies. It seems river crossing is in fact happening here, and the Norwegian authorities have decided to soothe the experience rather than aggressively deter it. A fascinating sight.
The arrival in Grense Jakobselv is as haunting and mysterious as it looks. This place is actually not fully inhabited and could very well qualify as a ghost town. No wonder Google Maps didn’t want me here! There’s no more than a handful of houses and a gaunt church towering the location. The Norwegian military squadron makes a surprise reappearance just to make the scene completely surreal. Although the entire area feels tense today, I can’t help but imagine how heavily the stink of paranoia would have suffocated this part of the world during the Cold War years. This tiny river flowing in a barren landscape used to be the material illustration of the iron curtain, the frontier between two ideologies, the gaping pit between the East and the West, for decades.
Exclusively to BSCB, we can also share the detail of the best-sellers in the two districts we have traversed in this Part 4 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. The Vadsø district is Mazda territory, with the CX-5 and CX-3 brilliantly leading the sales charts so far in 2016. It’s also SUV territory with the Top 5 best-sellers belonging to this segment, and 7 out of the Top 10. The Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan Qashqai shine, while the national #1, the VW Golf, has to settle for a discreet #9 ranking.
Vadsø district – 1/1-18/9/16:
Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16
Eastwards in the Kirkenes district which includes Grense Jakobselv, Volkswagen holds the two top spots with the Golf and Passat while Nissan vastly over-performs, placing the Qashqai, Pulsar and X-Trail inside the Top 5. Carbuyers in this part of Norway are also very keen on SUVs, with 5 out of the Top 10 best-sellers inside that segment. The Suzuki Vitara in particular is favoured here at #7 vs. #32 in the whole of Norway.
Kirkenes district – 1/1-18/9/16:
Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16
Peugeot Expert and VW Transporter near Vadso.
We’ll finish on a few comments on the (rare) car landscape of the area, filled with VW Transporter and Caddy LCVs. These two models do not appear in the sales charts we publish every month, simply because we have stopped covering Light Commercial Vehicles sales for Norway. However these category sells in great numbers here, and the latest launches seem to already have resonated with buyers: I spotted a few examples of the the twins Toyota ProAce and Peugeot Expert (pictured above).
Best-selling LCVs in Norway – January-November 2016:
|11||Toyota Land Cruiser||110||3.2%||750||2.4%||9|
|13||Ford Transit Custom||105||3.1%||1,153||3.8%||6|
Now that we have hit the Russian border, it’s time to head back south. Next, for the last iteration of the Scandinavian side of this North Cape to Gibraltar series, we cross northern Finland to visit the Sami people and Santa Claus. Stay tuned!