The Trip to Kluchi

My friend Sergei invited me to visit his home village of Kluchi during May and June, the time of the annual salmon run. The trip is about 500 kilometers, but the road for most of the distance is unpaved and full of holes and ruts, and so it takes at least 12 hours, IF nothing goes wrong (never a good assumption on Kamchatka). Sergei had to leave for Kluchi early, since the salmon were already running, but I was held up by work for several days, and so would have to travel by myself. This was somewhat dangerous, because it is illegal for foreigners to enter Kluchi (because of the extensive military installations found there); if I were discovered, I would probably be arrested as a spy. Somehow, none of this worried me at the time.

Luckily, though, Sergei had arranged for his brother-in-law to drive me part of the way to Kluchi. Sasha (the brother-in-law) lives in Milkovo, a small town half-way between Kluchi and Petropavlovsk. I was to buy a ticket on the minibus that regularly travels between Petropavlovsk and Milkovo. Once there, I was to find Sasha before anyone became suspicious of me.

The Trip Begins...

The ride to Milkovo went off without a hitch; I rode in a minivan with some middle-aged Russians returning home from an excursion to the "big city" of Petropavlovsk, and a young man going to visit his girlfriend in Milkovo. The road to Milkovo is in fairly decent shape; the first 100 kilometers are even paved and, with the beautiful scenery to look at out the window, the four hours passed quickly by. Milkovo, located in the interior of the peninsula, was 20 degrees warmer than coastal Petropavlovsk. I found Sasha's apartment and helped him pack the vehicle that would take us the rest of the way: our mode of transportation was to be an old- very old- Russian army jeep called the UAZ. The UAZ is reknowned for being able to drive in any terrain, but it is somewhat lacking in comfort- it has bulletproof tires and can drive underwater, but the windows don't open. Sasha used his UAZ primarily to transport fish from Kluchi (which is a major fishing village) to the market in Milkovo, where he worked as a trader during the salmon run. Because of this, the back seat of the jeep had been removed; this provided room for several hundred pounds of salmon, along with snow and a special kind of wild plant leaf which kept the fish fresh during the trip home from Kluchi. In such a vehicle, the lack of windows was immediately noticeable. I have worked with fish all my life, however, so I felt quite at home amidst the subtle stench. The lack of windows actually proved to be a good thing, since it kept the dust clouds which perpetually shrouded the road from entering the cabin. This particular vehicle was a mongrel, assembled from several junked jeeps. Sasha casually noted that he rarely made it to Kluchi without breaking down at least 5 times. Nonetheless, I was still a little surprised when we broke down less than 10 minutes from home. About half way between Milkovo and Kluchi the road crosses the Kamchatka River, the largest river on the peninsula (see map). There is no bridge; a ferry (a barge pushed across by a tugboat, seen in the photo to the left) transports cars across the river in the summer; in the winter vehicles drive across the ice. For a few weeks in the spring and fall during ice formation and break-up the river is impassible and goods in the northern villages, which are supplied by truck from Petropavlovsk, become quite scarce. We were travelling during the time of peak snow melt in the mountains, when many normally dry streams are filled to the banks with water. This made travel dangerous. At one point the bridge over a stream was out , and we had to drive our jeep through the swift flow. Water came into the cabin up to my ankles, and the current did its best to suck us downstream, but Sasha was able to get us across without any significant damage; we wrung out our pants and continued on to Kluchi.

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