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Snapshots of Russia by train

  • Story Highlights
  • Moscow Correspondent Matthew Chance travels across Russia by train
  • Chance's journey begins in Murmansk in Arctic, ends in Sochi on Black Sea
  • Chance meets Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev, samples cosmonaut training
By Matthew Chance
CNN Senior International Correspondent.
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(CNN) -- In a special report for CNN's Eye on Russia week, Moscow Correspondent Matthew Chance travels across the vast country from the northern port of Murmansk in the Arctic to the southern city of Sochi on the Black Sea. Here Chance recalls some highlights from his epic journey.

Chance traveled by train from Arctic Russia to the Black Sea coast.

Matthew Chance undergoes cosmonaut training at Star City.

Arctic Ambitions

MURMANSK -- What an incredible, surprising place to begin a journey. At latitudes where most other Arctic states maintain little more than a few isolated scientific outposts, Russia has an entire city of 300,000.

In fact, Murmansk is one of the friendlier, more pleasant cities I have ever visited in this country. The northern air is rich to breathe; the strange Arctic light lends a magical glow to the landscape.

And there's a cafe culture! We sipped cappuccinos in the Arctic Circle and made friends with locals who seemed genuinely pleased to be living in their frigid metropolis.

You might think Murmansk is just a freezing monument to the Soviet Union's grim determination to settle citizens across its sprawling territory at any cost.

But today it's as much a symbol of modern Russia's Arctic ambitions: a strong foothold in a region believed to possess vast natural resources. In the global race for control of the Arctic, Murmansk is giving Russia a crucial head start.

Beast from the East

ST. PETERSBURG -- For a day and a half, we trundled through the tundra on board the Arctic Express to St. Petersburg --- plenty of time to watch the white blankets of snow that covered the land gradually disappear.

But we had come to Russia's city of beauty to meet its beast.

Nikolai Valuev stands an incredible 7 feet tall, is a heavyweight boxing champion of the world and a Russian sporting hero.

He used to be known to U.S. boxing promoters as "The Beast From The East" -- but he didn't care much for the name. Now he prefers "The Russian Giant" which was absolutely fine with me.

In fact, Valuev is disarmingly pleasant and soft-spoken. He told me he had to work hard on being extra nice simply to stop people from being frightened when meeting him.

Now he concentrates on encouraging Russia's youth to take up boxing. The country, he says, is a potential hotbed of future champions.

Valuev has found fame outside the ring too, starring in several Russian movies and writing a book. He also writes poetry.

Star City

MOSCOW -- If you've got $30 million to spend, you might want to consider training to be a space tourist in Russia's Star City. This is the country's biggest cosmonaut training center and the next stop on our journey.

Between 2010 and 2015 --- when NASA's space shuttle ends its missions, and until the new generation of U.S. craft come online -- Russia will be the only country to have manned missions into space, including to the International Space Station.

NASA is now sending all its astronauts here to train in the Soyuz capsule, the vehicle on which they will depend to carry them through their missions.

And the training is vigorous. I know because someone, somehow, convinced me to sample it!

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Ever been strapped in a centrifuge and subjected to the same G-force as a cosmonaut taking off in a Soyuz? I have, and I didn't like it.

  • Matthew Chance also traveled to Russia's agricultural heartland and Sochi, the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, in his special report "Eye on Russia: Moving Forward" this weekend on CNN.
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