The Kamchatka Peninsula is a little known region of the world. When I was telling friends and acquaintances that I was going there, I was often met with puzzled looks. Russia is certainly not high on the travel agenda for many Australians, and far Eastern Russia must be a fair bit lower, despite Kamchatka almost being in the same time zone as us.
"A land of ice and fire", during winter Kamchatka's weather consists of very low temperatures, and a huge amount of snow. There are 29 active volcanos on Kamchatka, two of these will be erupting on any given day. From a geological perspective, the vast wilderness areas of Kamchatka are full of interesting discoveries. Kamchatka is also full of interesting wildlife which tends to be more active during the summer months, the Kamchatka Brown Bear being the most noteable resident in the region.
Ever since seeing a photograph of a skier descending one of the many large and aesthetically pleasing volcanos in Kamchatka a couple of years ago, I have been drawn to the concept of visiting this location. When I arrived back from Japan, I was still on a high from skiing the stratovolcano Yotei with Sam. My mind immediately turned to planning a trip to Kamchatka and I spent the month online seeking out someone with knowledge about skiing in Kamchatka who could help me with the understanding the logistics, this is how I met Anna.
Summer and Winter in Kamchatka are extremely different, and it is said to be very much worth visiting the place during all seasons. To see Kamchatka both sprouting in green, to see the brief golden Autumn and to see it cloaked in white are worthwhile experiences. With Anna returning to her home in Kamchatka to see family and work as a hiking guide this summer, it was the perfect opportunity for me to go with her and scope the place out in Summer.
During the planning and the trip itself I have learned that if you are planning an independent, unguided trip to Kamchatka as a foreigner to this part of Russia, there are two major challenges to overcome: Visa and Transport. If you are to join one of the guided, all expenses covered tours these things are not a big issue, but if you wish to explore Kamchatka with your own itinerary, on your own budget, at your own pace and with your own sense of adventure, there are more challenges to overcome. Many of these are alleviated by having a friend or contact living in Kamchatka who knows how things work over there. I had Anna to help me for this trip. During my trip research I heard good things about Martha Madsen, an American expat running a tourism business there.
The Journey There
So, I jumped on a plane in Melbourne, spent some time in Hong Kong, then entered Russia via the city of Vladivostok. In the airport I was greeted by the sight of a fresh seafood store, something of a novelty for me! The next flight was soon, and I rechecked my bag into the domestic flight. As I was clearing security, a flight attendent from Aeroflot approached me and handed me a business class ticket saying I had been upgraded for free. On the plane I felt a little out of place in my hiking clothes surrounded by Russian business people, and a tired looking airline pilot doing his crossword in the seat next to me. It was my first time travelling business class!
During the meals I forgot that I was sitting in a (comfortable) airline seat and moved the seat forward spilling the drink and meal of the passenger behind me. I looked back and apologised, he was a very big and intimidating looking guy, possibly restrained by his partner, saying something angry in Russian language. I faced forward again with a red face and hoped it wouldn't make too much of a scene!
We got out of the plane parked on the tarmac at Yelizovo Airport and stepped into the sunlight of a beautiful 25 degree, blue sky, summer's day. The airport has many trees surrounding it, and the smell of nature was immediately evident. The baggage collection at the time of writing was in a tent style shelter near the terminal building. My bag was almost the last bag to arrive, I was getting worried, but a pair of boots going around on the conveyor belt provided some comic relief! Once outside, Anna was standing alone waiting for me, and we caught the bus together to Petropavalsk-Kamchatsky.
(Горели) Gorely Volcano
The first hike for the trip was a visit to Gorely volcano. From what I could understand this trip was to consist mostly of people from Kamchatka, they were joining together to form a trip to share the transport costs and cook food for dinner together before driving home.
The concept of shared transport takes on a new meaning when travelling and hiking in Kamchatka. Many groups opt to make use of the colloquially named Вахтовка (Pronounced "Vahktovkha"), many of which are available with drivers (perhaps like a taxi) in Kamchatka. This vehicle gets its name from its use as a shift worker transport to remote locations via difficult (or non-existant) roads. The chassis of these vehicles is designed as a cargo transport with stiff suspension, not always the most comfortable ride, but it gets you to your location!
The road up to Gorely volcano only becomes accessible by truck in summer. This road services the geothermal power station, however the high altitude means that it is covered with a very large amount of snow during the winter months, and it takes a long time to melt out enough to allow the easy passage of trucks. Even so, for our trip in July, the last few kilometers were punctuated with sections of slow snow driving.
Despite the entertainment of a particularly cute little dog, after 4 hours of bouncing around in the back everyone was relieved to step out onto an island of tundra. I was very surprised to see this much snow around in the middle of Summer! The flowers were out and the weather was perfect, clear and calm.
We all wandered our way up the path, crossing large snow banks along the way. At the top everyone milled around the spectacular crater. Anna showed me a great video of a friend skiing into there and across the lake at the bottom! Occasional puffs of smoke could be seen drifting out of the further crater, reminding me that this was indeed a real volcano.
We slid our way down the snow, and made it back to the vehicles to be greeted by music and the smell of a chicken BBQ underway! The foreign tourist group camped in small tents nearby, after having spent the day hiking to the location, didn't look entirely pleased about the effect the party was having on their wilderness getaway.
(Толбачик) Tolbachik Volcano
By far the most anticipated adventure we had planned for the my visit, was an excursion to Tolbachik Volcano. Anna had managed to secure us a free place on a commercial trip by offering to be the second guide and help with the cooking. Tolbachik is smack bang in the middle of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a long drive north of Petropavalsk-Kamchatsky
In the morning we met the group by the vehicle in the hotel carpark. On the trip were three Russian grandmas from Moscow, a Russian couple in their 30s and a French family of five. Alexander the lead guide, Sveta the cook, and the driver, who's name excapes me. The French family had just arrived from Moscow, after having been to the football world cup final. There were three children, a boy and two girls aged between 14 and 18. Their eldest daughter spoke the best English, and they all sat together on the back row of the truck.
So, we headed north, and made a brief stop in Сокоч (Sokoch), a town with many roadside stores for travellers. At lunch we stopped at Мильково (Mil'kovo), where a simple restaurant serves many travellers and tourists food.
At some point we stopped for a toilet break after lunch, and it began to dawn on me just how crazy the mosquitoes here get during summer. It was insane: You couldn't do your toilet business without getting a dozen bites at least; Deet is a necessity here! On the road again, we spent the next 5 minutes killing mosquitoes that had managed to get inside.
As the sun began to set, we found ourselves descending into a valley, with the sides steepening, and the trees rising around us. Ессо (Esso) was our destination for that night. It's a very beautiful area, and I wish we could have spent more time there. The lodge we stayed at had an outdoor spa, we waited until after dinner and the grandma's had retired, then quickly jumped in before the mosquitoes devoured us. Sveta snuck some champaign over to us, and the evening settled.
The next day was the drive up to Tolbachik itself. During the previous eruption the old road was apparently destroyed, and a new road, significantly less smooth than the first, was cut out by 4WD'ers. We crossed a river at some point, and began to wind our way between the trees and up the hill. Anna informed me that the grandmas were complaining incessently about the road. A wall of old lava appeared on the left, and we broke the tree line onto a barren plateau. It was like we were suddenly driving on the moon, a stark contrast to the green forest down below.
Tents were set up, and we set off again for a walk up one of the nearby hills. One of the grandmas was really struggling up the steep track and I stayed behind with her while the group marched on ahead. She could speak some English, but her conversation was rather interesting! From the top, the group was waiting by a hot vent, and the view of the plateau and Tolbachik itself was an incredible array of colours.
In the morning, we started on the track to the crater (lower summit) of Tolbachik. After skirting the lava field from the recent eruption for about an hour, we came across some red mice, and then headed out to cross the labyrinth of black lava. There was a tunnel with hot air still blasting out of it, incredible to think that it was still so hot after many years.
Upon reaching the other side, we crossed some packs of snow, with strange shapes covered in volcanic dust. Anna commented, rightly so, that it looked very much like tiramasu! The track gains a ridge, and heads steeply up, then reaching a small basin. Anna tells me that the Russian space agency performed moon landing simulations in this location. I can certainly see why! It could easily be mistaken for another planet.
The crater at the summit is something to be admired, it's reminiscent Sarlacc pit in The Return of the Jedi, but 10 times larger! I was almost afraid to look down into it.
On our return, at the back of group once again with a grandma in tow, I was informed that the clouds looked like silver serving spoons. I stood and watched as she stopped and took photos of the rather normal looking clouds. I couldn't help but feel like she was, despite all the complaining, trying to savour the last moments on her trip of a lifetime.
(Вачкажец) Vatch Khazhets
After a few days resting in PK, and a fun night at the Harets Irish Pub, we joined some of Anna's friends Vissarion, Alexandra, and Nastia, and Odin the husky dog, for a trip to Вачкажец. Nastia picked us up in a small four wheel drive and we headed up the highway. I had come down with Tonsilitis the day before, but I didn't want to cancel the trip. At Yelisovo, Alexandra and Anna procured me some interesting looking black throat spray, I was a bit silly and complained about the taste, but it worked very well, and I'm thankful to them.
Once we were off the main highway, we took a wrong turn, and soon after, a bear jumped out on the road in front of us! Back on track, the road steepended, and Nastia put the pedal to the metal as the car bottomed out, banging and scratching its way up the hill. We all jumped out of the car as she drove through a large puddle. Driving in Kamchatka is certainly an interesting experience!
As we approached the destination, we passed a couple of armed park guards with semiautomatic rifles. Seeing anyone with these kind of weapons in Australia is uncommon, so that memory stuck with me.
Poor Odin wasn't a big fan of the driving, and spewed on the floor of the car. He seemed to be cheering up with the prospects of beginning the walk. We saddled packs, and made our way up the 4WD track, with a small footpad crisscrossing between.
In the valley there is a beautiful lake, and we made camp next to a picnic shelter. While collecting water with Vissarion at the stream leading into the lake, Vissarion dropped one of his cooking pots, and it bobbled down. Without thinking, I jumped in to try and save it, but alas, I reached the lake with no success finding the pot. Upon returning, everyone seemed mortified that I had jumped in and gotten my boots wet, I will admit that I did find this mildly amusing.
With tents and food behind, the climb up the valley continued. We crossed a snow bridge to gain the waterfall. Odin chased after Marmots, however they jumped into their holes, and I spotted a few, they are very cute. Higher up, the views expanded, it's a stunning place, the sunlight filters down in the wide and curved valley with jagged peaks above.
Back at camp, we prepared dinner. While one member of our group was taking a pit stop, Odin decided to follow and dig it up and roll around in it, he was promptly scolded and washed in the lake! As evening fell, people let off the occasional firecracker/cap gun, noise to scare away the bears, which are apparently quite common in this area.
The moon rose between the hills, its reflection shimmering in the lake with the stars. This was probably my favorite moment, despite being sick, and having many emotions. Sharing this with a group of fun friends made it all the better.
(Камчатский Камень) Kamchatka Stone
One morning we met up with a couple of Anna's friends who were working at a hostel in the city, to go out and have a picnic on the beach. In the afternoon as we were driving back, we had the crazy idea to hike up Kamchatka Kamen, so they dropped us off at a point on the road. Kamchatka Kamen is a spiky and picturesque volcanic lump of rock, sitting isolated on a ridge overlooking the city. This route is accessible via public transport, there is a bus which runs nearby.
The sun was rapidly setting, so Anna and I tried to find out way up to the top before it got dark, and before we missed the last bus home. The path crosses a small creek, and passes by a small prison surrounded by barbed wire and greenery. Finding our way among the ruts and puddles in the road, beneath the powerlines, the sunset glow lit the scene.
As the hill steepened, we lost the actual track, and took an interesting shortcut up a steep hill and through the bushes to regain the path along the ridge to the top. We couldn't enjoy the view for long, because we didn't have headtorches, and our phones were nearly dead! We struggled our way down the steep path in the dark, and eventually emerged on the flats beneath the eaves of the now gloomy prison scene. We were both incredibly thirsty after this exciting ordeal, and sought refreshment from a small shop. All the windows and doors were closed, I was skeptical, but Anna assured me that the shop was open, and sure enough, a little square window slid open and we soon had water running down our chins!
We made our way over to the bus stop, to learn that we had managed to miss the final bus for the evening. By this stage, both our phones had flat batteries, so the only option was to walk back into town to try and find a taxi!
(Голубые озера) Blue Lakes
The final hike of my trip to Kamchatka was a day trip to a location known as Blue Lakes. It is on the opposite side of the same mountain range as Вачкажец. Anna and I caught the bus to Yelisovo and a taxi down the short road out to the Gora Moroznaya ski resort to meet the group we were hiking with.
From the resort the track runs parallel on the north bank of a river. The green vegetation is up to our shoulders on either side, and the guide for the trip made the occasional loud call to deter bears. Along the way we were overtaken by a group of horse riders, it looked like a lot of fun! They make their way through the valley off the track.
At some point, the valley narrows and steepens, just below a waterfall, and we crossed the river at a flat spot. Strangely, we watched a duckling float past and plunge into the subsequent rapids, not sure what happened there! The hiking from this point reminded me a bit of South West Tasmania, steep and moist, until gaining the snow, and subsequently, the Blue Lakes themselves, cloaked in mysterious fog with horses sliding by once again.
We sat for lunch and watched the reflections in calm water. Up on the hillside, a brown bear ambled among the bushes.
On the way home, I flew via Khabarovsk to Beijing, and spent a few days there with my friend Jesse who lives there. Just did the usual touristy things, visited the Summer Palace, explored the Huton district, pushed through the crowds at Tianamen Square, etc.
Almost a full year later as I sit here finishing this account, I still dream about the majestic volcanos framed against the sky, the friendly faces, the genuine hospitality, and fun with new friends. Kamchatka is vast, and full of so many wild and stunningly beautiful places to explore, here you can feel your horizons expanding. I can't wait to get back and join my friends there again, next time for some skiing!