As a traveler you always want to see places you couldn’t imagine that they existed. After seeing pictures of Kizhi Island in northern Russia and discovering that it was only 425 kilometers northeast of Saint Petersburg, we made it a priority to include Kizhi in the itinerary of our visit to the city.
This was easier said than done as it meant that we’d have to break up our stay in Saint Petersburg, arrange for train tickets to the city of Petrozavodsk – hydrofoils to Kizhi leave from here – and finding dependable information, what turned out the be the hardest part of it all. There’s very little info in English available about Kizhi for the independent traveler.
About the Kizhi open air museum
We found out, however, that Kizhi is the largest open air museum of Russia. The small island is located in Lake Onega, 68 km from the city of Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia in northern Russia. 87 wooden constructions from all over Karelia have been collected here since 1951, but some originate from the island itself. Together they’ve been awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 1990.
The centerpiece of the museum is formed by the Church of the Transfiguration (1714), the Church of the Intercession (1764) and the late 19th-century bell tower, together called the Kizhi Pogost. But there are many other wooden structures on the island ranging from small churches and wind mills to smithies, farm steads and workshops. Some of the buildings are open to visit and if you’re lucky you’ll see some traditional crafts like carpentry, shipbuilding and weaving being demonstrated.
Going to Petrozavodsk
Contrary to our mistake of showing up without train tickets at the train station for a day trip to Veliky Novgorod two days earlier, we now came armed with train tickets we’d booked earlier through the site of Russian Railways for the 6 PM train to Petrozavodsk. After an uneventful ride – looking out the window we saw birch trees most of the time – we arrived in Petrozavodsk to some glorious red skies in the distance five hours later.
The Hotel Tsentralny we’d booked was a little hard to find, but appeared to be hidden away behind a construction site. On opening the door of the room we’d been assigned a wall of heat greeted us. It was like entering a banya (sauna), the heater having been turned on to the max. Opening the room window only helped a little so we were in for a sweltering night. Other than that the room was ok for the price paid (17 euro). It was after all just a place to crash for one night.
Hydrofoil to Kizhi
The girl at reception spoke no English but by using Google translate we’d managed to get the time schedule for the hydrofoils to Kizhi the next morning. What she failed to relate to us, however, was that not all would be running. So when we saw the first hydrofoil of 9.30 AM leaving as we walked towards the harbor, we were not worried – there would be another one 45 minutes later.
To our disappointment the lady at the ticket office told us that the first opportunity would be at 12.30 and we’d have to return at 6 PM, leaving us only four hours on the island, which seemed to be the standard visiting time for Kizhi.
After sitting on a bench for a while overlooking sunny Lake Onega, we decided to take a short walk into Petrozavodsk, which was founded in the same year as Saint Petersburg by the way, but there was not that much to see. Being in an untouristy medium sized Russian city was the main attraction and that was interesting in itself, but we were mostly longing to get onto the mint green hydrofoil which looked like it had come straight out of the 1960’s computer-animated science fiction series The Thunderbirds.
After the 1 hour 20 minute transfer to Kizhi all passengers – mostly Russian groups – went straight to the Kizhi Pogost. We decided to walk into the other direction and see some of the more remote wooden structures scattered across the northern side of the island first. We decided to walk the undulating roads. We were warned about snakes in the high grass, but also spotted two on the road.
In hindsight it would have been more clever to rent bicycles. The island is small (6 km long, 1 km wide), but with only four hours to explore it turned out that there was little time to relax. When we got to the southern tip of the island where most of the buildings, including the Kizhi Pogost, are located over two hours later, we saw that our tactic to avoid the ‘crowds’ had failed – in a short period of time three river cruise boats had arrived spewing out their passengers.
We were more bummed out, however, to discover that the amazing Church of the Transfiguration was being restored, three quarters of the building being covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin, and couldn’t be entered. This was a huge disappointment as this was what we’d come all the way out here to see. Luckily there was much more to enjoy, so all in all it was still worth the trip, although we found four hours too short for the visit (for those interested: We found out that it’s possible to stay on the island).
The return journey
After returning to Petrozavodsk we had an affordable dinner at a local restaurant. Service was slow, my dish being served long after Eugénie had finished hers, but we had ample time before our 10.40 PM sleeper train back to Saint Petersburg’s Ladoga station (Ladozhsky vokzal).
The eight hour train ride brought back memories of our journey with the Trans-Mongolian Railway nine years ago, when we were on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk for three days and four nights straight. The stern provodnik (the hostess responsible for a carriage), samovar (for scolding hot water) and much too warm sleeper compartments being the familiar touches that brought an end to this mini adventure.
We visited Kizhi Island in June 2016