HORS LIGNE MAGAZINE, autumn 2001, #93

Uzon caldera.Smoking volcanoes, boiling geysers, bears, wolves, frozen taiga - the Kamchatka peninsula is wild and savage. In the remote far east of Russia 11 time zones ahead of Moscow it once was almost sold to America after Alaska. A secret military zone in the cold war, the region with its Kronotsky National Park is now open to tourists but don't expect five-star hotels. A report and photography by DAISY GILARDINI.

Vladimir Mosolov
Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia is a region of savage beauty with smoking volcanoes, spouting geysers and boiling springs amidst the tundra. Abundant wildlife includes the world's largest population of brown bears.

Roughly the size of California or Japan, Kamchatka has more than 200 volcanoes, at least 30 of them active. A link in the "Ring of Fire" - the volcanic string encircling: the Pacific Ocean - its native peoples have always feared the smoking peaks. Even today some locals believe the volcanoes are inhabited by "gomuls" or spirits who hunt whales at night and roast them over the flaming lava. The highest is Kluchevskaya Sopka at 4,750 meters.
Kamchatka has the world's largest number of brown bears and more than half of its Steller's sea eagles. The Siberian taiga ends in waters which attract rare gray whales and some 300,000 seals, sea lions and otters. A 'Geyser Valley" in the center is one of only five such geo-thermal areas on Earth. While huge at 472,000 square kilometers it has a population of just 400,000, some 250,000 of them in the capital Petropavlovsk.
Cossack explorers Fedor Alexeyev and Vladimir Atlasov separately discovered Kamchatka in the 1690's, Atlasov claiming ownership for the Russian empire and exacting animal furs from the native Itelmen and Koryak peoples by means of torture, killing and burning villages. He was so cruel that his own men killed him in a mutiny. In 1724, Czar Peter I commissioned an expedition to see if a land bridge existed between Asia and America. No land link was found but Kamchatka was made known to world scientists, mainly due to Georg Stellar who described 160 plants plus animals and birds including the eagle named after him.
But Kamchatka remained remote and mysterious, even more so during the Cold War because of its proximity to America and Japan. This was fine for the animals which were protected from hunters. Grizzly bear, wolf and other animal populations multiplied, while countless millions of salmon come to the rivers and streams each summer. Foreigners have been allowed since 1991 but conditions are rough. Tour operators can be found on numerous Internet sites (just tap "Kamchatka" into a search engine).
Travel in distant Siberia is never easy and Kamchatka is no exception despite Russia's desperate need for revenue. Rugged hardly does it justice. There's just one road linking north and south and the only way to see the entire region is by costly chartered helicopter with off-road vehicles used for exploring specific areas. There is some expensive trophy hunting - $20,000 for a bear but furs and fish are the main sources of regional income so the emphasis is on ecological tourism.




Helicopter site.
Helicopters and off-road vehicles are needed to explore Kamchatka, as big as Japan but with only one road running north to south. Some 250,000 of the 400,000 people live in the dour Soviet era capital of Petropavlovsk. Some locals still believe spirits inhabit the volcanoes and hunt whales by night to cook in the flames.

Comfort is a little-known concept in Kamchatka. Accommodation is most often a shack with primitive toilet and shower facilities. But that's what adventure is about. The pure and simple beauty would be ruined by any modern tourism infrastructure. The colors of flowers and plants alone are extraordinary - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, brown. And then the wildlife, especially the bears.
Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky, the official name of the regional capital and usually known as PK, is anything but pretty. It's a city of gray communist blocks, broken roads, a few basic shops, dilapidated restaurants and sparsely-stocked supermarkets. The only touch of color is a seafront promenade with benches and lampposts and a gigantic statue of Lenin. PK has one run-down main hotel and suffers frequent water, lighting and heating outages.
Fog delayed our departure by helicopter for the Valley of the Geysers until one p.m. Second only to Yellowstone in the United States, the Valley was open only to scientists until the end of the 1990's. Daily excursions at high prices are operated by the state. It takes 90 minutes in an enormous MI-8 helicopter to get there from PK and it's spectacular - a luminous, green valley stretching into the distance with clouds of white steam rising into the sky.
Guides warn people to watch where they walk as magma bubbling 5,000 meters below ground could erupt at any time. Many are the people who have suffered serious burns by straying from the wooden walkway. There have even been deaths from breathing toxic gasses or bathing in water which at first is comfortably warm water but then suddenly boils.
Accompanied by Ilia and Vladimir Mosolov, natural scientists specializing in observing wolves and caribou, I flew by MI-2 helicopter to Kronotsky National Park. You fly for two hours over green valleys, white-water rivers, dense forests, a chain of volcanoes and prairies where the grizzlies roam. You land at the foot of the Kronotskaya Volcano.
Covering a million hectares in the east of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the park includes the Valley of the Geysers, lakes, smoldering volcanoes, and a stretch of Pacific coast. Russian royals declared the area a protected zone in 1882 because of its abundant supply of sable fur. It became a National Park in 1935 and a UN World Heritage Site in 1985. Vladimir said that only 200 entry permits are issued in the June-to-September visiting period "because the park is for animals, not people."
Setting out from our cabin, we explored for the next two weeks, hiking an average 15 to 20 kilometers each day. The terrain was soft and damp at the end of summer and early snow already covered the top of the volcano. The yellow summer tundra would soon turn to the red of autumn. Bears hunt for fish in the river and like humans love bathing in the hot springs for their curative properties. The sulphurous water also helps them get rid of fleas and ticks.
It was time to fly on to the enormous Uzon Caldera - calderas are the cauldron-like cavities at volcano summits and those on Kamchatka were formed some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Though Uzon is no longer just a cauldron but an entire area of bubbling springs, spouting geysers, waterfalls, mud holes, small turquoise thermal lakes, black sand and colorful flora and fauna. Uzon alone proves that Kamchatka is one of the ecologically purest places on Earth.




Bear fishing in Kronotskaya River.
Evens folk troup Nulgur.
An off-limits military area during the cold war because of its proximity to America, Moscow began allowing foreigners to visit only in 1991. Some hunting is permitted but a trophy bear can cost as much as $20,000.

An bumpy eight-hour drive away is Esso, a community of a few hundred native Eveni people. Their language is similar to those spoken in northern China and they number less than 100,000 in all. Often victims of forced labor in the former Soviet Union, the Events are nomadic like the Mongols, primarily living from fish and reindeer breeding. We then flew on to Luba, our MI-8 helicopter taking in supplies of flour, sugar and salt. Camping nearby, Vladimir insisted as always on leaving the dogs outside the tents - to warn of any hungry nighttime bears.
Kamchatka is one of the few untouched places left on Earth. It begins to awaken from deep Winter towards the end of May. Bears emerge from hibernation, the mothers with young cubs. Flocks of Willow Ptarmigan feed on the newly exposed tundra grass, and Black-Billed Capercailye begin to appear. Forests of silver firs are under International Red Book protection.
Rafting down the Kamchatka River is a great way to observe the wildlife, especially bears. Although not the highest, the most beautiful volcano is Mutnovsky, comprising several merged craters. It boasts glittering glaciers and steaming vapor rising through fumaroles or crevices. Thick ice coats the southern crater but several others are active.
Using local tour operators is the wisest way to visit Kamchatka. They arrange the official invitations obligatory for visas and obtain the separate permits for specific areas. Aeroflot flies daily to PK from Moscow while Reeve Aleutian has a weekly flight from Anchorage, Alaska. Try www.travelkamchatka.com which runs helicopter, 4X4, bicycling, rafting and hiking excursions as well as Winter visits - dog-sledding and heli-skiing on volcanoes make good conversation.
Trying to go alone can be frustrating if not impossible. Bureaucracy is worse than the summer swarms of mosquitoes (not that summers are hot at an average 14° C against the coldest -11° C in February). And organized tours do not mean crowds as numbers are restricted. May it stay that way.

(With John Callcott)

More pictures Daisy Gilardini are here

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