Unspoiled Kamchatka is an adventure traveler’s paradise: heli-skiing, horseback riding and whitewater rafting amidst volcanoes, geysers and breathtaking terrain. Our two intrepid travelers trek through this mystical maze of nature in search of adventure and spiritual renewal.
By Sarah Fishburn Roberts
Photographs by Simon Roberts
There’s only one way to describe the journey to Pavel Lipatov’s church: painful. Our knees were knots of burning fire, our legs were shaking and our backsides were bruised and sore. Listok and Zara didn’t seem to care about our pain and trudged on regardless, ascending steep slopes of whispering grass and sharp, unyielding bushes with typical Russian stoicism. Yet the trip to the church was decidedly worth the effort. There are no walls and no ceiling in Pavel’s church, no altar or pews and certainly no other members of the congregation. You simply stand on a plateau 1,500 meters high under a huge expanse of cloudless sky and look out on an awe-inspiring vista of snow-capped volcanoes, deserted, brooding and silent. A new world is spread out before you, a world of undiscovered valleys and ravines, forests and streams. The wind whips around us, singing its own particular hymn. “This is my church,” shouts Pavel, spreading his arms out wide, “And when I die, my soul will fly around these mountains!” He smiles his broad, Slavic smile and we look out, fascinated, at the landscape before us.
It would be wrong, perhaps, to reveal the precise location of Pavel’s final resting place, but it is approximately forty kilometers on horseback from Esso, a village in the geographical center of Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. A ten-hour flight from Moscow, Kamchatka is a travel destination just waiting to be discovered.
The Valley of the Geysers in Central Kamchatka.
Kamchatka has something to offer anyone who doesn’t hanker for five-star hotels, golf courses and fancy cocktails. If this is your scene, you’d be advised to go elsewhere. There are no luxurious retreats and no fabulous restaurants; you are, after all, in that part of Russia where people still eat pickled gherkins as a tasty snack and where potatoes and cabbage are everyday dietary staples. However, nature lovers, botanists, ornithologist and fishing lovers will be in seventh heaven; geologists, volcanologists and enthusiastic geography graduates will be entranced; thrill-seekers will get their kicks and fitness fanatics will overdose on fresh air and exercise. In short, anyone who appreciates beauty and nature will find much to marvel at on Kamchatka.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the region has only recently begun to register in the minds of curious travelers. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Westerners and other outsiders were permitted for the first time in over half a century to visit Kamchatka, traditionally one of the most mysterious corners of the former Soviet empire. During the Cold War the area was shrouded in secrecy, located just forty miles from Alaska, and home to military airfields and early warning radar systems. More ominously, it also functioned as a designated target area for missile testing. Only 400,000 Soviet citizens were allowed to live there, provided they had special military clearances. Even now, foreigners wishing to travel to Kluchy and Ust-Kamchatsk, military towns in the eastern part of the peninsula, need to obtain special permission to do this and must be accompanied by a Russian citizen. Yet Kamchatka’s James Bond-esque past has also meant that it remains almost entirely unspoiled, blanketed in vast swathes of unexplored land. With few roads and little large-scale business or industrial development, visitors to Kamchatka hitherto have predominantly been hunters (who have unfortunately managed to reduce the brown bear population) and fishermen, enraptured by the fecundity of the region’s rivers.
Taking a break after a long day’s ride.
My husband and I embarked on the first leg of a year’s journey throughout Russia by heading straight for Kamchatka. Our adventure began in Yelizovo, a small town just outside the peninsula’s capital, Petropavlovsk, where we stayed at a B&B run by an energetic American, Martha Madsen, who has made Kamchatka her home for the past ten years. Extremely knowledgeable and married to a Russian, Martha and others like her are ideal for putting travelers in touch with Russian friends and guides who can offer a more authentic and insightful experience of Kamchatka’s natural wonders. It was on Martha’s recommendation that we went on to Esso, a ten-hour bus ride from Petropavlovsk on the only main road that runs north. The village itself is delightful, with a surprisingly Alpine feel, surrounded as it is by mountains and dotted with charming wooden structures. The village is blessed by amazing geothermic activity, which means that the hot water supply is plentiful and natural hot springs steam theatrically into the cold air. The locals insist that the water heals all sorts of maladies, and loll about in the pool like basking seals, only emerging to take a healthy swig of Kamchatkan beer and smoke a cigarette. The aforementioned Pavel was our host in Esso, where he lives with his wife Vera and their son, Vanya. The family has a larger than average plot of land upon which they have built a wooden apartment and a small hotel for tourists.
Pavel Lipakov, left, and his friend Sasha break for tea by the campsite.
Anxious to see Kamchatka’s dramatic landscapes and rugged vistas, my husband and I — perhaps overconfidently — agreed to accompany Pavel and his friend Sasha on a five-day trek on horseback, camping each night at various deserted moon-lit spots. This involved collecting our water from the mountain streams, cooking over a campfire under the stars, sleeping (and occasionally freezing) in a tent, and not washing at all (“washing makes the weather turn bad,” claimed Sasha). We adapted well enough to these rugged conditions — the riding was another story. I had never been on a horse in my life, and what my husband lacked in equestrian experience he more than made up for with cowboy bravado. So it was especially gratifying when he fell off his mighty steed, Zara, on the first day, landing unceremoniously in the thick mud. I was feeling quite proud of myself, until both horses started making that high-pitched whinnying sound that is utterly terrifying to a novice rider, rearing up on their hind legs and pawing one another frantically. I did what any sensible amateur would do: hung on for dear life and screamed as Pavel angrily shouted instructions at me in Russian that I had not the presence of mind either to understand or obey. “Well done,” said my husband afterwards, adding sardonically, “Most people would have really freaked out.”
FIVE THINGS TO DO
||Climb a volcano. |
The Kluchevskaya volcanic group, in the middle of the peninsula, consists of twelve volcanoes, the largest being the perfectly cylindrical Kluchevskoy, which at 4750 meters is the largest active volcano in Eurasia. Maly Semyachik volcano has a crater filled by a 140-meter-deep acidic azure lake that is breathtaking against the blackness of the surrounding lava.
||Catch your first Kamchatkan fish. |
The fishing on the peninsula is among the best in the world, attracting serious and amateur anglers alike. There are six species of salmon just waiting to be caught, as well as rainbow trout and scores of giant char. Explore pristine rivers never before navigated by Westerners. For more information, contact Ultimate Rivers, Tel. 8 (7095) 907 688 6535, www.ultimaterivers.com.
||Go bear-watching. The season starts in late July and lasts until mid-September. Brown bears gather around the lakes and streams of Kamchatka to feed on the spawning salmon, ripening berries and copious pine nuts.|
||Ride the rapids. There are so many rivers in Kamchatka (over 6,000) that rafting is a must, particularly in July when the rivers are at their highest and fastest. The aptly-named ‘Bystraya River’ (that’s ‘fast-river’ to you and me) has numerous rapids, but if you fancy a more relaxed ride, take the scenic Opala. You can glide through uninhabited wildernesses and watch for birds and bears. Contact Kamchatka Wild Nature, Tel. 8 (4152) 123 332.|
||Enjoy the nature reserves. At the Yuzhno-Kamchatsky Reserve you can visit the beautiful Kurilskoye Lake to see red foxes, river otters and minks, as well as Stellar sea eagles. Or, follow the trails of the Yeven reindeer herding people at the Bystrinsky Nature Park, either by foot or on horseback.|
Post freak-out, things settled down, although the sensation of acute saddle-soreness remained with both of us for several days. Far more memorable though, is the experience of being so close to Kamchatka’s stupendous natural beauty. Its attraction lies not only in its majestic splendor but also in its diversity. Our camping-horse-riding-cooking-freezing excursion is, of course, only one example of a variety of activities and attractions on offer in Kamchatka.
If one considers Kamchatka’s most noteworthy natural feature, its volcanoes, the statistics are certainly compelling. There are 300 volcanoes on Kamchatka, 29 of them active. These 29 active volcanoes comprise ten percent of the world’s volcanic activity. This volcanic overload supports many natural wonders, not limited to vivid horizons in every direction, but unique places like the “Valley of Geysers” and the Uzon Caldera. These two places are only accessible by helicopter and as a consequence, are for those with relatively deep pockets; the day cost us $1,000 in total, which, without mentioning names, can make grown men sob quietly as they reluctantly part with their cash.
The Uzon Caldera is large — 5.6 by 7.5 miles — and was formed when a massive volcano finally collapsed 45,000 years ago. It stands as a reminder that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, a wonderland of surreal sights and bizarre sounds. Pools of soft brown mud boil, bubble and froth, innocuous-looking pools of water are too hot to touch (up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit), and crystallized sulfur formations belch steam accompanied by snorting, pig-like noises. The entire landscape, surrounded on all sides by inactive volcanoes and mountains, resembles an eccentric wizard’s workshop or a testing ground for Hollywood special effects.
From there, you hop back onto the helicopter to the “Valley of Geysers.” In a valley eight kilometers long, there are over 300 geysers that emit steam, spray huge jets of water into the air and boil and simmer away in the midst of stunning scenery, composed of trees, shrubs and rock faces formed by multi-colored mineralized ores. If you are lucky, you will glimpse the largest geyser of all, Velikan, which only ‘erupts’ once every eight hours, spewing a jet of boiling water thirty meters into the air, with steam rising to 300 meters. Some of the geysers have a life of their own and ‘erupt’ whenever they feel like it. This is nature in a delightful and awe-inspiring state of flux.
As we discovered, our three-week journey on Kamchatka gave us barely a taste of what the peninsula has to offer. The ideal length of time to spend in Kamchatka would be a year. The region has something to offer in each season and unlike so many other destinations, is perhaps at its finest in winter, when the snow makes for superb cross-country and downhill skiing, with heli-skiing on offer for the more intrepid and dog-sledding and tobogganing also widely available.
Toward the end of our journey, our new friend Pavel — determined that we should be transformed by Kamchatka’s natural beauty — convinced us to climb a high rocky outcropping via some dense pine bushes and marshy grassland. With aching limbs and sore feet from a long day’s ride, we persevered across the boulders towards the top. “A journey strengthens the soul!” was Pavel’s rallying cry, and upon reaching the summit, he was clearly ecstatic. “I congratulate you,” he declared. “You are the first English people ever to come to this place.” We gazed at the lake below, ringed by inactive volcanoes, our tent a far-off triangle on the horizon. “Everything hurts,” I said — an almost sacrilegious complaint, given the spiritual nature of our surroundings. “Does your soul hurt?” Pavel responded knowingly. “In the face of all this beauty?” In the ensuing silence, only the whispering of the wind could be heard, as I thought to myself, no, it most certainly does not.
IF YOU GO
How to get there: Aeroflot flies daily to Petropavlovsk and Yelizova from Sheremetyevo-1. Transaero flies direct to Petropavlovsk from Domodedovo. Flights are about $400.
Where to stay: Try Martha Madsen’s Explore Kamchatka in Yelizovo.
Tel. 8 (41531) 26601 or 8 (904) 280 7840, email@example.com, www.explorekamchatka.com . The Oktyabrskaya Hotel is in Petropavlovsk,
Tel. 8 (4152) 112 684, firstname.lastname@example.org. Hotel Faktoria in Anavgai is at Tel. 8 (4152) 197 769 or 8 (4152) 23 230, email@example.com. In Esso, stay at Pavel Lipatov’s Hotel Altai, Tel. 8 (4152) 4221218, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kamesso.tk.
For help with tours, visas, permits and registrations: You can register your visa locally through a hosting tourism agency or at a local hotel. Try Diligans Independent Travelers, email@example.com, www.kamchatka-trip.com, Tel. +8 (4152) 111 894. Bear in mind that you need special permission to visit restricted areas like the hot springs on the road south to Paratunka, Mutnovsky Volcano, Klyuchi and all beach areas. Individuals cannot apply for these permits; a local tour agency will acquire them on your behalf. We strongly suggest organizing these details in advance of your departure for Kamchatka.
Kamchatka Travel specializes in ski and hiking in Kamchatka, but does not currently offer general visa/invitation support, Tel. 8 (4152) 10-66-11, Fax 8 (41522) 5-19-13, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kamchatkatravel.ru/english/. Also try Kamchatka Travel Company Beringia Land at Tel. 8 (4152) 181959, email@example.com, www.kamchatkatravel.net. Alternatively, try Kamchatintour is at Tel. 8 (4152) 71034, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kamchatintour.ru.
Useful advice: Kamchatka is not cheap, largely because it is difficult to get around. With hardly any roads, the majority of travel is undertaken on foot, in battered four-wheeled drives — or by helicopter. Chartering a helicopter is, as you would expect, extremely expensive, usually around $1,000 for one hour, so it is a good idea either to travel in a group of ten or so, or temporarily attach yourself to one, which is easy to do. Remember that once you are north of Yelizovo, there won’t be an ATM machine in sight and you will not be able to use credit cards for goods and services. Take cash.