The Planet on Sunday 23 January 2000
Few people can find Kamchatka on a map, but, there in the far reaches of Siberia, travel editor JANET WALTHAM found a wilderness land of (very) warm volcanoes and warm-hearted people.
The brown bear sloping across the Siberian tundra was scarcely a speck on the horizon, but the elderly Russian couple strapped into the seats in front of us in the equally elderly MI-8 helicopter spotted him immediately.
Nudging each other excitedly, they pointed and giggled with glee. They had even more to shout about when our helicopter clattered past the huge volcano called Karymsky We circled it a couple of times, then everyone gasped out loud when the 700m-high cone erupted, sending a huge black cloud of debris into the air and showering down on to the lava fields below.
Kamchatka, that isolated peninsula in the far east of Russia, is a serious wilderness - with no road from the Siberian mainland. Throughout the Cold War years it was a completely dosed land; even Russians couldn't go there. But all that has changed, and it's now opening up to adventurous travelers from the West. Placed on the Pacific's Ring of Fire, Kamchatka is literally a hotbed of volcanic activity, and the local ecology is a delicate mix of spectacular volcanoes and hot springs, glaciers and ice fields. It is a travel destination with a difference, and the brown bear and the erupting volcano were just starters.
Our helicopter was en route for Kamchatka's party piece - the Valley of Geysers. The cluster of geysers, fumaroles and hot springs, rumbling away in a lush green tributary, were only discovered in 1941 by a passing geologist. It's one of the world's very small and very select group of geyser locations (try Yellowstone, Iceland and Rotorua and there's not much else), and therefore has the potential of becoming a tourist honeypot. But it has been encompassed by the Kronotsky Nature Reserve and it is well protected by its isolation; without the helicopter, it is a three-day trek across trackless wilderness. From the helipad on the Valley rim, a boardwalk trail took us past gushing fumaroles, roaring gas vents and burping mud pools that send mud blips spattering over the surface. Hot water emerged as continuous fountains from a succession of spouters, and a handful of geysers periodically threw jets of boiling water and steam ten or 20m into the air. The colours are breathtaking: mineral deposits create brilliant red, green and blue pools, the terraces are painted with orange streaks, and dumps of sulphur crystals gleam bright yellow in the sun.
Not all of Kamchatka's natural wonders are quite so inaccessible,
although they come close. Our party of five lurched to a camp at the foot
of Avacha volcano in an all-terrain six-wheel-drive Kamaz bus that was
designed originally by the military to overcome everything; dry river
beds, huge gullies and seemingly impossible landslips were no
The night was freezing, but we slept well. Next morning, the keenies among us set off before dawn to scale Avacha. A thankless task, involving seven hours of clambering up steep slopes of volcanic debris and ash to the summit crater, a balancing act around the rim, then a knee-crunching walk back down again.
I took the easier option. First, breakfast - salmon pancakes, water melon, coffee - while Byelii snuffled around the floor seeking out marmots and other livestock. Then a gentle stroll to Camel Mountain, over ice bridges and snow holes, to the ancient cinder cone, relic of a now-extinct volcano. Vulture-like hawks hovered overhead. Harebells, blueberries, alpine mosses and lichens lined the trail. Spruces were lying long and low, flat to the ground in self defense against the rigours of winter.
It was a distinct communing-with-nature moment. Then the clouds came down, and I beat it back to the mess hut, for a quick course in Anglo-Russian relationships with Gyenna, before the intrepid ones returned, footsore and weary, for supper and a few more reviving swigs of vodka.
Next on the agenda was Gorely: another volcano, another death-defying
bus trip. And another camp, but this time in tents beside two small
streams - one hot and one cold; volcanoes do have benefits. The day's walk
was round a large lake, then up over rough tundra and bare lava. Just a
few hours and we were on the crater rim - with the abrupt view down to a
hot acid lake with steaming vents around its margin. Top of the volcanic
list must be Mutnovsky. Nikolay was our guide again. We plodded up cinder
slopes, and quickly learned how to cross steep snowfields without sliding
to places unknown. A scramble into a gorge floored by snow, and we were on
our way into Mutnovsky's main crater (actually a caldera, because it
collapsed instead of exploding, according to the geologists).
We picked our way between the hot-spots, and then walked boldly up a steep snowfield. Ropes dangled from a seemingly sheer rock face. Nikolay insisted that we haul ourselves up - and we found ourselves balanced on a knife-edge ridge that rimmed yet another crater. This was the active one. Sulphur crystals lined its walls. A hundred metres below, a forest of hot vents fed a massive steam plume that rose high into the sky. No ice survived here. Volcano: one; glaciers: nil - for the time being. Anything could happen in the future. On the way up, we had stopped to admire the yellow crystals of a sulphur vent; on the way down the spot had already transformed itself into a thick pot of hot mud. Up above, a wall of jagged ice blocks had dropped from the glacier; "that was all fumaroles a couple of months ago," said Nikolay. The battles of geology go on, but we were heading back to camp.
It was something of a culture shock to find ourselves back in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (to give it its correct name, because there's another "Peterpaultown" near Omsk). This is the main - indeed, the only - city in Kamchatka, with a population of some 300,000, sprawled along the shores of Avacha Bay.
Most of Russia's Pacific fishing fleet operates out of here, and the bay still houses the eastern submarine fleet - fortunately on the far side of the bay, because they are nuclear and are sometimes a little leaky in a very hot sort of way.
On the drive down we passed old men and their grandsons fishing for salmon from bridges, saw vendors of everything from eggs to onions to water melons operating out of cardboard boxes along the roadside, and vied with cars, vans and lorries adorned with Japanese and Korean script - where else does a strapped-for-cash area get its vehicles from, after all?
We checked into our hotel room (bright pink curtains that didn't quite fit, crocheted orange bedspreads, a square bath with a central plughole "fitted" with an eye-watering wooden bung that stuck up a good three inches) and set out to hit the town. At the airport, they sell carrier bags proclaiming the logos of Cachard, House of Fraser and Burberry; the department store in the centre of town doesn't quite bear this out. Four floors of a concrete block offer a wild assortment of merchandise mixed up in a spasmodic conglomerate: bags of sweets, bras and knickers, loaves of bread, electrical goods, cosmetics, carpets and Chinese vases all mingle side by side.
Outside, the ice-cream van was doing brisk business, while over the road the market showed yet another side of Kamchatkan life. For a rouble or two you can buy eggs, fish and meat, and vegetables in quantity (especially if you want mushrooms and cabbages). Outside the market, venerable baboushkas in darned woollies share pavement space with teenagers sporting ultra-short mini-skirts and shiny tights - all earning fringe benefits by selling berries and seeds that they've collected in the countryside during the weekend. Old men busk with accordions, youngsters sell crude toys made out of discarded Coke cans. Any way they can, to earn a rouble or two.
Money is undeniably tight in this corner of Russia. But with a little bit of private enterprise - and a little bit more tourism - they're bridging the gap that keeps body and soul together. In the main square, a statue of Lenin has arms outstretched and cape blowing in the wind; irreverently, the townsfolk call it "Batman". They've no time, these days, for the trappings of Soviet history. They're living in a brave new world that embraces free enterprise. And even if it's sometimes a struggle, they know they've got one of the world's great natural treasures behind them.
Kamchatka is special, and if's there for the asking.