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food / travel

World's End: A Tourist In Russia's Far East

Snow tunnel near the Mutnovsky Volcano
Snow tunnel near the Mutnovsky Volcano
Elena Kotova

KAMCHATKA PENINSULA - “The Kamchatka? Why?” was the response I got from everyone who heard I was going there, even though I think they all knew how beautiful the region is.

It’s true; the Kamchatka is far away and expensive (although no further than Japan or Cuba). And for some reason, it’s a little scary.

But still, I'd be heading to the Kamchatka, with a German friend who loves exotic trips like African safaris. But exotic is one thing, uncomfortable is another. We had no trouble finding nice hotels with hot showers and fresh towels in Africa. Does that even exist on the Kamchatka?

The Kamchatka Peninsula is the easternmost part of Russia. If you look at a map, it is the long peninsula stretching out into the Pacific Ocean and curving downwards toward Japan. It’s sparsely populated and known for stormy weather, although it’s milder than Siberia. It’s on the Pacific ring of fire, and the Kamchatka volcanoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But its remoteness makes it less than a tourist hotspot.

The most popular part of the region is Paratunka. It is near the airport, there are plenty of hotels and there are thermal springs. But staying in the soviet-style hotels without Internet and nothing but burnt fish on the menu is not exactly a joy.

I had thought I had avoided all that by booking a two-room family cottage with a thermal pool. But when I arrived, I discovered that my reservation had been unceremoniously cancelled because “Dmitry Medvedev is coming here.” I was supposed to say thank you because they found me a spot in one of the Soviet-style hotels. And they told me to say thank you again because they had told me about the cancelation before I had settled into the cottage. Sometimes, apparently, they kick people out of the cottages once they are settled in.

A safari in the tundra

People come to the Kamchatka to see the incredible sites, like kilometers of beach with hot, black volcanic sand -- although it’s surrounded by tundra, not tropical forests. Most tourists go on a group all-terrain tour and come back to the hotel tired but happy. So we decided to try it out.

We drive through a nature reserve. On the right there’s tundra. Multicolored moss, berry bushes, dwarf trees. On the left, it turns into tundra-forest, the bow-legged small trees straightening out and getting taller, there are birches and larches. They cluster together against the wind from the ocean, but a couple of kilometers later it changes into a real forest. In two hours we see three climate zones, without ever losing the ocean smell.

The jeep takes a turn down a riverbed, heading straight through the river -- then it stops in the middle of the river. “You have to help,” our guide, Roman, says, gesturing to everyone in the vehicle to get out and push.

We’re looking for bears, but we’re not having any luck. The whole experience is kind of like a safari, going through rivers that are full of fish. Roman says that the bears are higher up in the mountains.

So we decide to try a helicopter tour of the Valley of Geysers, another nature reserve. We have to walk on wooden planks before we get on the helicopter, because hot water could squirt out of the ground at any moment. The water’s around 90 degrees Celsius, and erupts from the main geysers in predictable cycles around every four hours. It starts with water boiling out of the ground, then a fountain about 10 meters tall bursting from the ground, getting shorter after about three minutes. When it seems to be dying down a few minutes later the process starts again.

One of the most amazing things about the Kamchatka is the ocean’s reflection, which seems to be everywhere, from the cities to the nature reserves and the indigenous villages, where people still sing traditional songs, believe in the forest spirits and live from fishing and gathering. The ocean makes it seem like the whole peninsula is surrounded by a giant mirror.

There are many things I don’t really understand about the Kamchatka. For example, why the geothermal power station can’t make a profit. How is it that a geothermal power station that pays nothing for the raw materials can’t make a profit? I also don’t understand the decline of the fishing industry there. And I don’t understand why tourism isn’t increasing.

But I did finally understand one thing: On the Kamchatka, like in other far-flung regions of Russia, life is reasonable, not brutally difficult like many people in Moscow imagine it is. People build lives there. When it comes to tourism, the best thing we could do for them is to explain that there will not be flights from Seattle or Anchorage until the area has hotels comparable to what you can find in Alaska.

For my German friend, the Kamchatka turned out to be one of his most memorable, most exotic trips, even more interesting than his trips to Africa. But he wasn’t flabbergasted quite the way that I was. Maybe it’s because he was more analytical, thinking about the ways that the Kamchatka could be turned into a tourist’s paradise. It’s also possible he enjoyed himself even more than I did, since the corroded fishing boats didn’t break his heart as much as they did mine. Regardless, he is sure that with 10 more years of stable development, the snowy Kamchatka could become a real tourist destination.

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