Where Time Stands Still

Time flows at a different pace in Belozersk. Passers-by wandering the streets are sparse on a Sunday, chimneys send a line of smoke into the sky and generate a faint smell of burned firewood. Many people live in houses with no plumbing, taking water from municipal faucets and rinsing laundry in ice holes on the narrow canal that was dug in the 19th century.

The canal circumvents Lake Beloye and serves merely as parking space for private boats today, but back in the 19th century, it was part of the Mariinsky River network, which funneled 70 percent of trade goods across European Russia from St. Petersburg to the Caspian Sea.

You can cross the canal to access Lake Beloye -- which is so large that windstorms form over it and blow across Belozersk's streets. The lake's size and historical significance add a special northern maritime charm to the town. People have lived here since the Stone Age, and the first mention of the town Beloozero dates from the 9th century.

The town has a number of small, eclectic museums. The history museum has a lot of information about the lake and the town, enthusiastically presented by a retired river fleet sailor Mikhail. Over the years, he has collected so many stone artifacts from the lake's bottom that the museum hired him as a guide after he retired. He spends hours on end convincing visitors that the pebbles on view are actually early man-made bear sculptures and comes to work even on weekends. Once, he took a whole year to glue a large model of the Belozersk Kremlin out of wooden planks, also on view.

There are other residents whose creativity and enthusiasm are both inspiring and intimidating to big city dwellers. Igor Ruchin worked as a club bouncer in Cherepovets before he moved here. He and his wife head a historical club housed in a recreated gridnitsa, a room where local princes gathered their military commanders before battle. The couple make costumes by hand, painting linen with berry juice, and teach local amateurs sword fighting. Their reconstruction of the medieval lifestyle appears to affect their own family: The Ruchins have six children.

Maria Antonova / MT
Of course, there are some problems with simple living -- like washing in the ice.
Next door, a new museum was opened three years ago by Andrei Volov, who moved to Belozersk and approached the local administration for an apartment in exchange for creating a nature exhibit from scratch. "I come from a family that had five sons: two smart ones and three hunters," he says as he smokes, exhaling into the traditional hearth at the museum's office. Identifying himself as a hunter, he filled the museum with dummies of the region's fauna and moved his family into the new flat.

Belozersk is not a picture-perfect tourist town by any means: Most houses are in need of repair, there are few hotel and restaurant options, and all but one of the historical churches are closed. A trip here, however, gives visitors a better idea of everyday life in Russia than the facades of St. Petersburg or the noisy bustle of Moscow. As it becomes more popular among tourists seeking a sensory immersion into the 19th century, Belozersk might attract more investment but could lose some of its magic to thickening crowds of visitors. Before that happens, however, you can walk its streets past stacks of firewood with a traditional burned sugar petushok lollipop behind your cheek. Baba Katya sells them at the market for 3 rubles each.

How to Get There

Take the M8 to Vologda. From Vologda, the straighter road goes through Kirillov, and includes a ferry across Sheksna River, accessible for both cars and buses. The ferry functions after the ice melts; during the winter you can just go across the ice. In midseason when the ice is soft, there is no way to get across the Sheksna. The other road, the A114, curves in the direction of Cherepovets through Botovo, and is accessible year-round.

There is one Cherepovets-bound train per day. To get to Vologda, you can also take trains going to Arkhangelsk and Vorkuta.

What to See

Knyazheskaya Gridnitsa is a historical exhibition where visitors can try on medieval clothing and try to handle a sword. The museum usually serves tour groups, but call ahead to see if they are open for independent travelers.
1 Gorodskoi Val, (81756)2-33-12

The Nature Museum is housed in a small izba. On display are stuffed fauna from the Vologda region.
8 Gorodskoi Val, (81756)2-13-45

The Regional History Museum is located in a former church. The usual array of exhibits doesn't have any marvels, but the tour guide's enthusiasm wholly makes up for it.
22 Ul. Frunze, (81756)2-22-10

The Sergei Orlov Museum is of interest only to people who are familiar with the poet Sergei Orlov. However, museum attendants hold the keys to the bell tower of nearby Church of All-Merciful Savior, which is well worth a climb.
12 Ul. Dzerzhinskogo, (81756)2-24-50

Where to Stay

Rus Hotel
Soviet-style building with terrible amenities, good only for sleeping. Double and quadruple rooms are 300 rubles per person per night.
18A Ul. Dzerzhinskogo, (81756)2-17-31

Rechnoi Vokzal
A remodeled building by the canal that also offers ski and boat rentals, as well as their banya. Double rooms are 900 rubles per night. At time of writing, the owners put this property up for sale, so call ahead to find out if it is still functioning.
80 Naberezhnaya Ul., (81756)2-62-62, www.domsudaka.ru

Where to Eat

There are two cafeterias: one across at the intersection of Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo and Orlova, and one called U Botsmana, located across the canal next to the river port. Both are closed on Sundays.