Kamchatka is an untraveled part of Russia. There are only a few books and travel guides dedicated to mysterious Kamchatka which can be found in Russian or a foreign language. The book “Kamchatka Journeys” can be helpful both for tourists exploring the peninsula and for locals. It can be especially interesting for the people planning to visit this region. The style of this book is light, and there are plentiful jokes. “Kamchatka Journeys” can be recommended to various ages due to its light style and interesting plot. This travel guide will not leave even the most pretentious reader indifferent. “Kamchatka Journeys” must be read by every person keen on reading and traveling. Enjoy the book!
I can’t thank you enough — my parents, my wife Irina, my children Stepan, Tikhon, and Platon, also Anna and Sergey Butkovsky, Vladimir Rubakhin, Sergey Pivnyak, Oksana Yashina, Sergey Lyubarsky, Nikolai Tolstov, Alexander Stukov, Andrey Borodatov, Dmitri Derevyagin, Gennady Maslov, Vladimir Bogotopov, Vladimir Romensky, Gleb Parunov, Ivan Bychkov, Yevgeny Voloshin, Pavel Gogolev and many others whose help and valuable advice made it possible to publish this book.
Dedicated to my mother
This strange place Kamchatka…
In summer, we made a decision to conquer active Plosky or Flat Tolbachik Volcano. We were told that it had already stopped erupting, and we going to find it out. We carefully prepared for the trip: we took a 6-wheeler ATV, bought some provision, and hired a professional guide. At first, nothing seemed to threaten our journey.
Tolbachik is about 500 km from Petropavlovsk. We left on Friday evening and arrived on Saturday afternoon. After the arrival we camped, set the tents, and made fire. Kamchatka weather hailed the travelers with rain, fog, and wind. However, it didn’t spoil our mood. Next morning we reached “Yuzhny Proryv or Southern Break” — the lava streams left from previous eruptions. The whole day we were enjoying a unique mosaic of plants, rocks, and lava caves. It looked like the moonscape had come off futurists’ paintings. The guide showed us the ground where such space equipment as the Moon and Mars rovers, and the Venus ATV, were tested. The day was full of positive emotions. Actually, everything was too good on that day…
After a 15 kilometer cross-country walk, we returned to the base camp. Later that evening, the guide unexpectedly suggested ascending the cone to see if there was any volcanic activity as the bright lava glow can easily be seen at night. Six most curious of us volunteered for the sight.
The guide assured us that the ascent and decent would not take more than 3 hours. As it turned out later, we put too much trust in the guide.
We left the camp and took a trail, quickly climbed along the hardened lava flow, crossed it, and reached the cone. A majestic view opened on to us — the crater was spattering fiery streams of magma from the bosom of the earth; the explosions made the slag under our feet vibrate, and we could see clouds of sulfur in the air. All this amazed us. We took some photos of ourselves against the slope and soon began to descend.
Then true adventures started…
A thick fog suddenly appeared from nowhere. We lost the trail and, as it turned out later, took the wrong turn. Having realized our difficult situation, we tried to find the trail making stops and resuming the walk. Several times we ran into an impassible rocky wall. The trail, as if in a scary tale, completely disappeared! We started arguing about the right way. Everybody made a completely opposite suggestion. The guide refused to admit he had been leading us in the wrong direction. He insisted that we should go straight on. According to his opinion, we had to descend as low as we could “as down it was not as cold as at the top”. We were slowly moving down on an old lava flow jumping over huge boulders. Meanwhile, it was far into the night. A strong wind was blowing, and we felt exhausted. Nobody was ready for such an adventure.
First, we took the guide’s words for granted, but when at about 2 a.m. we saw our footprints again, we finally realized we had been moving in rounds. This time even his weird reasoning that he “definitely saw this place in a calendar photo” didn’t assure us. To crown it all, he appeared to have neither a map, nor warm clothes, nor water. One girl was tired and could hardly move. Suddenly, she screamed falling from a rock to the ground. What could we do? Luckily, she was fine, but almost nobody had power to proceed. We stopped and appealed to the collective mind.
Accidentally, we found out we could make a call! We phoned our familiar mountain climbers, who were in city at that moment. They “cheered” us by saying that the coverage meant we were in a different place, not where we were supposed to be.
They also told us some basic rules: stick together, look after each other, and keep the spirits up. Our friends oriented us how to find the trail. In our opinion, we took the only right decision, which might seem illogical in the mountains, — to return to the place on the cone where we got lost and either stay there waiting for help or start finding the trail again and go down. Our guide was flatly against it saying we could freeze and totally get lost there. This moment was crucial.
All of a sudden, the sky became clear for an instant, and we saw a flash of red light at the far top and heard a distant roaring. It was the crater. After this “message” we confirmed in our decision, turned round, and slowly began our next ascent on that crazy day. From time to time we turned the torches off in complete darkness and looked forward to another eruption, which signaled us the right way, and kept on crawling up. Some of us were encouraged by the idea that the rescue team from the base camp might be waiting on the warm cinder top of the cone.
By the morning we had reached the top of Tolbachik and later found the trail. It looked like nature took pity on us clearing up the star-spattered sky and showing a young crescent from behind the mountains. Every now and then checking our way, we had come to the base camp by 6 a.m. absolutely worn out, where the people were sleeping in peace.
We experienced all delights associated with mountaineering — the night ascent to the active volcano, a search for the way back in the fog, communication with mountain climbers and so on. We are looking forward to next year to ascend Kluchevskaya Sopka Volcano!
Kamchatka. Spring. The fourth year of studying at the Institute. Get bored at German. Receive a message from a mate, “need an interpreter for hunting with foreigners”. A language practice with native-speakers is all a student can dream of. “Deal”, — I replied.
Next day we pick up the hunters at Avacha Hotel. The group consists of a Norwegian, two Germans, two Swiss, and a family couple from Argentina. They arrived in the peninsula known as a habitat of Kamchatka brown bears. Everyone is hoping to get a good trophy for their collection.
In the Yelizovo airport we take a helicopter and fly to the north of Kamchatka. The MI-8 is being flown by Sikorsky, one of the most experienced pilots in Kamchatka. Snowcapped peaks of the Sredinny Range slowly pass under the helicopter. The dales are cut by winding frozen rivers. There is not a living soul within hundreds of miles. A Martian landscape!
After the two-hour flight we disembark in the middle of the snow-covered field. The snow is knee-deep! In Petropavlovsk it’s almost summer. I look a bit weird in sneakers.
“First, we should fix the antenna!” says senior gamekeeper Petrovich. We assemble the unit of about 15 meters high and slowly set it upright. At the last minute the antenna tilts and then falls. We check if everybody isn’t hurt. We started again, and this time we managed to fix it with spreaders. Then we set the tents. To celebrate the arrival we treat ourselves and the Germans to a Martell Cognac.
The clients are worrying about the hunt. They check their guns first thing. The hunters proudly show their Brownings and Mausers and let everybody who wants fire a shot from the rare weapon. Our gamekeepers are skeptical about the heavy rifles and in their turn suggest trying a short SKS rifle. After shooting a pile of cartridges, everybody goes for lunch. My shoulder hurts after shooting from the German rifle.
After lunch (several toasts have been proposed to the successful arrival) Sikorsky volunteers to demonstrate performance capabilities of the Soviet helicopter. The blades of the Mi-8 are picking up speed; it takes off and disappears behind the forest. Suddenly, the huge aircraft turns up from behind the mountain, descends, makes a loop, and when it’s several meters from the earth surface it soars into the sky. The foreigners gasp. The chopper returns, hangs in the air, and then slowly flies backwards! The scene looks like in a Si-Fi movie. Sikorsky flies to a tall pine, chops all branches growing on one side of the tree with the anti-torque rotor, then it moves a bit forward, hangs, returns, and cuts the branches on the other side. The grateful spectators applause.
Everybody comes to the spacious tent for dinner, which serves a canteen. In the cast-iron wood stove crackle billets, on the floor lies mountain pine. We rise glasses to friendship between nations, to peace in the world, to the unique Kamchatka nature. At the opposite end of the table Sikorsky explains in gestures the maneuver he did as the “Afghan run”. The Germans sit in a row and start singing military marching songs, which tunes resemble soundtracks of Soviet war films. One of the Germans raps the rhythm on the table with his hand. The Russian hunters start, in their turn, the folk songs “I’ll go to the field with the horse” and “A young Cossack is strolling on the Don”. The Norwegian guy tries to compete with gamekeepers in drinking. They are just smiling.
The senior gamekeeper tells jokes. I’m trying to find a funny equivalent in English. “Translate to him!” Petrovich is unhappy with the pause I’m making. “You don’t know English, I’ll tell him myself. Listen and learn.”
The senior gamekeeper and the German start a conversation (they both poke their fingers and pat on each other’s backs):
“I, u! Frendz! Ok?”
“Bear! Pow! Pow! Ok?”
“Okey, okey! Big, big bear!”
“U have dollarz?”
“When the hunt is over, you’ll give me your earnings. I translated everything myself,” sums up Petrovich.
After the festive dinner, the international team goes out to light a firework. Finally, we go to bed. In the middle of the night a dreadful roar wakes me up. It sounds as if somebody is scratching the tent from outside. The imagination pictures a terrible scene.
“A bear?” I ask.
“The Norwegian,” answers the gamekeeper yearning. Everybody turns on another side and falls asleep. Curious, I get dressed, take a torch, and go out. I see footprints deep in snow leading from the entrance to the side of the tent. “It must be a bear!” I hesitate whether I should go farther. I still can hear the roar. I keep on going shining with the torch — blood on the prints. I have the creeps. I turn round the tent and see in the flash of the light the Norwegian standing on his four limbs having sunk deep in the snow. The ice crust, which formed on the snow surface at night, cut his legs. He’s groaning like a trapped animal, most probably, having no idea what to do next. I rescue him and help to get back to the tent.
In the morning, Petrovich, who looked as if he was making a plot, signals me to come to him. “First, we’ll work with the Germans. We’ll take you to the farthest station for the Swiss didn’t feel jealous. You’ll be staying there for about two days.”
So, we’re delivered to the station — a slapdash shack. We are met by two local gamekeepers. They look like they’ve been here since World War II and don’t know yet that the war is over. A box with vodka is being unloaded from the helicopter. At night, outside the hunter’s cabin has broken a typical Kamchatka snowstorm. The gamekeepers’ faces change in the light of the stove fire. Waving with their arms and dreadfully goggling, they interrupt each other telling the Swiss how they’ve met giant bears. How they drove to the bear by snowmobile, made a shot, missed it, the second gun misfired, then the snowmobile faded while the bear kept on running in their direction. By the morning, the bears had overgrown elephants. Scared, the Swiss draw closer to each other. Perhaps they remember Napoleon’s unenviable fate when he came to Russia. The thought that it may be their last day makes them drink vodka hard.
Next morning the sun is shining brightly with the fallen fresh snow sparkling outside the cabin.
“No helicopter today,” says a gamekeeper. Tell them to catch fish.
“Are there fish?”
“None. But who cares?”
The Swiss are given two sticks with the coiled line and a hook. They are catching something the whole day with great enthusiasm in a small brook nearby. By the evening I started feeling pity for them and recite Goethe’s poem in German.
On the third day we fly by chopper. But we fly not to the camp but to Milkovo village. While we were away, they’ve run out of vodka stores. We arrive at Milkovo and take a box with vodka. But now we fly to Kozyrevsk village. I look at the map and marvel at what a long way round it is.
“It’s the only place where we can refuel,” merrily comments Sikorsky.
I sit on a stowaway seat next to the door. During the landing I pull a red lever arm. The door of the helicopter bales out. I’m looking at it with surprise. “It was the wrong arm,” chuckles the flight mechanic, “it’s an emergency catapult.” After the landing we search for the gone door, find it, and place it back.
At night, I go and see the tourists. The couple of Argentinian pensioners — the husband and wife — are in one of the tents with “the last farewell” on their faces. The fire in their stove is dead. I light the fire again and make the clients feel comfortable.
Next day we take the Swiss to hunt. We drop them off and fly away. A bit later Sikorsky starts using bad language.
“A Swiss shot a bear dead on the river.”
We fly to the river, land on a spit, hitch the bear, but we can’t take off — there’s no enough thrust because of the trees. The copilot shows the passengers with gestures to leave the helicopter and he himself jumps on rocks. The aircraft piloted by Sikorsky lifts the ground with difficulty and slowly disappears behind the forest. We cross the river waist-deep in water. On the last day, we collect the trophies, say good-by to the gamekeepers, and return home.
Kamchatka. Spring. The fourth year of studying at the Institute. Romenskaya, the teacher of the German language, wakes me up:
“Sedov, you don’t know German at all!”
What do tourists in Kamchatka notice? First of all, unrivalled landscapes — from the oceanic coast to snowcapped mountains; secondly, the unique flora and fauna — salmon spawning in rivers, bears walking the city streets, rhododendrons blooming in alpine meadows; thirdly, the amazing character of the people inhabiting the peninsula — people with severe look but kind heart. However, visitors are rarely lucky to experience the natural phenomenon the locals are accustomed to.
Ask any Kamchadal about the earthquake. After making a serious face, they will readily tell you that Kamchatka along with the Hawaii Islands and Japan is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire — an area on the Earth with high seismic activity. Because of collision of tectonic plates the Earth’s surface regularly shakes here. The power of an earthquake is classified in points by the Richter magnitude scale. The magnitude and depth of the epicenter are very important. The lower the magnitude and deeper the epicenter, the better. The activity is registered by special sensors placed throughout Kamchatka. Earthquakes may fallowed by aftershocks — gradually fading out shocks. Every Kamchadal is sure it is good if a volcano starts erupting. It means the Earth’s energy released through its crater in the form of ash and lava. Small earthquakes occur several times a month. Locals are not very sensitive to them, but people who have come here from the mainland need time to get used to them.
After living in Kamchatka for several years, I arrived on holiday in Volgograd, located amid even, like a table, steppes. I was offered the lower bunk bed. At night an earthquake woke me up and made me leave home in underwear. Some minutes later I realized that I was outside and returned home. There I found out that it was the person sleeping on the upper bed who turned on the other side during sleep. I had to explain to the puzzled relatives for a long while how to behave during an earthquake.
Kamchatka residents are certain that animals feel the forthcoming earthquake better than people although it hasn’t been proved by scientists. That’s why locals keep various pets. It is believed that dogs start whining a few hours before the shocks, cats running on the walls as if treated with turpentine, and the tank fish dancing pirouettes. These superstitions are similar to stories about dolphins pushing sinking people toward the land. At least a half of the drowned people can’t boast the happy salvation as dolphins push them in the opposite direction.
Now and then people spread rumor about the forthcoming catastrophic earthquake. Usually it happens in winter. Then some people stay in tents and cook on a fire. Scientists are skeptical about this information as even they can’t forecast earthquakes for sure. But they also move to the forest just in case.
From time to time, the local TV channels show reports about unprecedented stores of condensed milk, padded jackets, and cast-iron stoves, stocked somewhere in case of a strong earthquake and guarded either by the militia or by Cossacks. These reserves are supposed to be given to the residents when they have no place to live. Some irresponsible citizens make attempts to find this blessed place with definitely mercenary interest on their mind.
Once my friends and I were going for an hour in a snowcat to the base of Avacha Volcano. During the trip we enjoyed drinking fresh local beer. When I got out of it, I felt earth suddenly shake. I thought I’d drunk too much beer. Later, the radio said there was an earthquake.
What should one do when they hear a din, the floor starts shaking, and the wineglasses in the sideboard melodically ring? To check if it’s a tractor that finally arrived to remove the snow in the yard. If it’s not a bulldozer, it’s good to get back in bed. If it keeps on shaking, it will be wise to take the bag with cans, medication, and the documents and stand in the opening of a bearing wall. A bearing wall is usually thicker and more reliable than others, provided the neighbor downstairs hasn’t destroyed it with a pneumatic hammer, doing illegal alterations in the flat. The most desperate residents take a running jump out of the window. However, the information about a successful landing after a jump out of the window located on the floor above the third level can hardly be considered credible.
And now it becomes clear to visitors why the choice of a design decision is limited in Kamchatka. There are three types of buildings on the peninsula. Take a match box and place it on a side — it’s an apartment house. Place it on a wide side — it’s a school. Turn it on a short edge — it’s an administrative building. All buildings are made with the increased safety margin. Once, my wife asked me to hang a picture. It seems to have been still life. Having broken three electric drill’s borers against reinforcement rods hidden inside the wall, I quit that idea. The concrete wall looked after the attempts to make a hole in it as if somebody shot in it from a large-caliber machine gun.
At times, a well-worn van with a metal reproducer on its top, like the one in pre-war French movies, runs on roads of the city. A snuffling voice from the speaker calls for calm, advises not to plug in electric devices, and slowly move to the cemetery. It’s the way the emergency training is carried out.
Years ago we bought our first “Dolby Surround” home theater. We acquired a DVD about the work of CNN journalists during the war in Iraq. We invited guests and warned them not to be scared of unusual sound effects. The episode with Bagdad being bombarded was especially impressive. Roar, blasts, din. “The system is awesome! It even makes walls shudder,” one guest said. Later, we found out that it was a real earthquake.
The Kamchatka visitors who have accidentally gone through earth tremor look in astonishment at the locals obstinately ignoring the cataclysm. It seems only then Kamchatka beauties become less important for them, and the question “Why does the government pay people an increment to their salary?” is no longer forefront in their mind.
“Are you going to raft with tourists as a guide?” my wife asks.