20th February to 8th March 2004: VSEVELORSK ORPHANAGE
This was a combined trip with World 4x4 Adventures, mixing humanitarian aid work with off-roading around Lake Lagoda, to the north east of St. Petersburg. Four crews went on this trip, all in 4x4s, three continuing to Ladoga, while the other remained at the orphanage to purchase supplies and undertake renovation work.
Robb was driving his Toyota Landcruiser HJ180 and I was accompanying Jim in his LPG powered Range Rover Classic and we met up in Tesco’s Wrexham car park and headed up the M6 and M62, before joining the M1 to North Shields, Newcastle on 20th February. I did tell everyone that the ferry went from North Shields and not Newcastle, so when we got to Newcastle, we still had some way to go. We enventually boarded with 20 minutes to spare! We went by DFDS Seaways overnight via Norway to Gothenburg, Sweden, where we had a long drive across the country to reach Stockholm to catch our ferry to Finland, staying overnight in a hostel, which took some time to find (this was in the days before Satnavs!).
Another overnight ferry took us to Helsinki and we drove on very icy roads to the Russian border. It took about two hours to clear customs as they wanted to search our first aid kits for some strange reason. At this point a strip of my high blood pressure tablets went missing.
After a long tiring drive in freezing conditions with windscreens icing up, we eventually reached Vsevelorsk and, after a typical Russian greeting, settled down in our rooms for the night.
All of us were up early the next morning, as we had to go to St. Petersburg to pay for our 'immigration stamp' and we enjoyed porridge, along with salami on bread and black sugared tea in the canteen.
After a brisk walk to the station, we caught the commuter train into St. Petersburg, then changed to the Metro to get to our destination. The rest of the day was taken up sightseeing, after getting our "immigration stamp" before returning to the orphanage in the evening.
On the Wednesday, we all went in convoy to see another orphanage which was in need of considerable work when seen last year. Since then it had been subject to a large input of cash and was in better condition than the one we had just left. A group decision was made to concentrate on the one in Vsevelorsk.
On our return, we unloaded three of the vehicles and went to the local supermarket to buy the things they needed (with the help of Julia as translator), such as clothes, cleaning material and sanitary towels for the girls.
During the following morning, the off-roaders left us to head off towards Lagoda and the remaining team of three drew some more money out of the cashpoint (We had decided not to take loads of 'aid' into the country as it is difficult to get it through customs (without paying import duty) and most of the items needed are available cheaper locally, so money was raised and deposited in a bank account before we went).
It was the turn of the Infirmary to benefit on Thursday, so we ended up at the chemists and the hospital (where I also replaced my missing tablets) to purchase the necessary blood pressure equipment, syringes, etc.
After lunch, it was a visit to the village's 'Arkright' type store to buy pots and pans for the Domestic Science room and the canteen.
We were shown the shower room and asked if they had stopped using it in respect of the death of Stalin back in 1953!, but apparently it was still used each weekend. As the condition of it was dire to say the least, we decided to make it one of our projects.
Friday morning saw the three aidworkers starting to clear the changing room of years of rubbish and started to scrape some of the dirt off the walls. It was found that the Russian equivalent of 'Vim' was the best, although hard work. A trip to the local hardware shop (which we nicknamed B&Qski!) was called for and with the assistance of a girl called Natasha, we managed to come away with emulsion paint, floor paint, shower units, more 'Vim', light units, etc
After tea we went to watch 'Pulp Fiction' overdubbed in Russian on TV.
Saturday morning soon came and we met Pietre (the orphanage's caretaker) at 10am and went back to the hardware shop for more equipment. We found a small supermarket on the way back and managed to find bacon and crinkly oven chips, which we later enjoyed for tea.
The day was spent cleaning, scrubbing, painting and stopping for cups of tea. Another delightful evening of dubbed TV followed.
On the Sunday morning, we got up the usual time, but nobody else did as it was obviously lie-in day. Another day of painting followed with a break for lunch and followed by a walk down the village at teatime.
As Monday was 1st March, we tried to find a daffodil or two, without success, so we carried on touching up damaged tiles. Jude went with Julia to arrange to get the orphanage on the internet, as they already had some computers donated by a group of Finnish aid workers. The off-roaders returned having seemingly enjoyed themselves, although they were unable to do a large amount of ice driving as the ice wasn't that thick.
After returning from St. Petersburg, Robb took them all off for the day sightseeing again, but the three workers decided to stay on and finish things off. It was the turn of the Art class to benefit and they bought some easels, paints, brushes and paper.
We were then invited to a Champagne lunch as it was one of the staff's birthday and the Director announces that they are to receive a grant of a million roubles (about £20,000) from the Russian Government to buy new furniture. After we go down the village to buy some more pots and pans, which took a long time, even by Russian standards, so Jim and I wandered off around the village.
All too soon it was the next to last day at the orphanage and it was another visit to the hardware store to get odds and ends and a new toilet unit for the shower block.
The three aidworkers went out to a local 'Mexican!' restaurant in the evening and managed to order what we wanted using a mixture of English, Russian, German and French!
Thursday was the last day at the orphanage and we started saying goodbyes whilst waiting for Robb to turn up to guide us through St. Petersburg. Eventually he arrived after being caught in rush hour and we started the long trek home. After driving up the E18, we arrived at the Russian/Finnish border and with the assistance of a very helpful English speaking (and Everton supporter) guard, we were back in the EU in 30 minutes or so.
Driving on to Helsinki, we took a long time to find the ferry (two terminals) and found a youth hostel to stay at a reasonable cost.
We spent the Friday sightseeing in Helsinki, taking in cafes and shops, until it was time to board the ferry which sailed at 5pm, crunching its way out towards Sweden through a frozen harbour.
We were off the ferry and into Stockholm at 9.30am the following morning.
Saturday was spent driving across Sweden towards our next ferry at Gothenburg, which didn't leave until Sunday morning. After getting lost, we found an Ibis hotel in the form of a ship and stayed there for the night, enjoying caviar on toast for breakfast and boarding the ferry at 10am for an 11am departure.
This was our last overnight ferry across the North Sea and we docked in Newcastle about 10am. Then we just had a few hours of motorway driving to get back to North Wales.