Story: Rowena Baker
Photos: Maxby Chan
A trip to Kamchatka reveals a geothermal wonderland at the edge of the world.
Kamchatka is one of the most spectacular regions in Russia, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. The last thousand miles or so of Russia are still remarkably untouched, like a corner of the world from a prehistoric era, punctuated with the occasional Soviet-era city or towns, and many traditional settlements. In a world that is increasingly crowded and restless, a trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula is an opportunity to escape from it all.
Eight-time zones away from Moscow, this fish-shaped territory is 1,200 kilometers long and 480 kilometers wide at its widest point. Kamchatka has 160 volcanoes, and 29 of them are still active, for 10% of the world’s total. Besides skylines created by mountains and volcanoes, there are over 400 glaciers and more than 140,000 rivers and streams and many lakes. Among over 200 mineral water springs, about 150 are hot springs in which the locals love to bathe.
But the main attractions of Kamchatka have to be the volcanic calderas, stone sculpture “parks”, lakes in craters, geysers and mineral springs, all in pristine condition. From the moment you arrive in Kamchatka you’ll be swept up by a Scandinavian-like atmosphere: ascetic houses with a cool ocean in the background, long winters, hot water springs and geysers, snow scattered with volcanic ash and Erman’s birch trees. These ubiquitous trees, better known as stone birch trees, cannot be broken by even the strongest of northern winds.
This unique environment and perpetually changing landscape after volcanic eruptions make Kamchatka one of the few places on earth where you can still feel like an explorer. This land was discovered more than 300 years ago, but even today so little is known about it.
Until 1867 when Alaska was sold to the US for $7,200,000, Kamchatka was the last port of call in the motherland for Russian adventurers sailing the treacherous waters between Kamchatka and Alaska. It was considered to be the least hospitable place in the Russian Empire. Nobody bothered visiting the region as it took six months to get there – only to face vast wilderness. In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, international travel became possible to Kamchatka and many long-time residents had their first opportunity to meet visitors from other countries.
Kamchatka’s isolation for many years has helped protect a healthy and stable wildlife population with 37 species of mammals. Kamchatka has the highest concentration of bears in Russia and the peninsula’s rivers and streams support six species of salmon. Not long ago, local residents would say they couldn’t sleep sometimes because of the noise made at night by all the spawning salmon.
Kamchatka’s low population density and scarce human settlement ensures that the environment is clean and the water pure. The main staple of local cuisine is Pacific fish such as sockeye salmon, hunchback salmon, coho salmon, chinook salmon, scallops, squid and the famous Kamchatka crab. Local delicacy “pyatiminutka” red caviar is available only during the summer fishing season. You can prepare it right on the river bank along with freshly caught fish and try it on the spot. Even if you manage to visit Kamchatka only in winter, the caviar you’ll find is much fresher than what you can get on the mainland.
The peninsula’s population has diminished in recent years with many people departing for the mainland where costs of living and climate are easier, especially for retirees. A kilogram of ordinary cucumbers at the supermarket can cost up to 700 rubbles (about USD$14) and a kilogram of red peppers 800 rubbles (about USD$16). These prices are significantly more expensive than almost anywhere else in Russia.
A holiday in Kamchatka is comparable in price to a safari in Tanzania or for a cruise around Australia. Kamchatka may not be a budget destination yet, but no longer is it strictly the domain of tycoons. Petropavlovsk is a port city on the Avacha Bay and surrounded by high, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes such that one cannot see the horizon from any point in the city. This city of roughly 200,000 residents is the principal entry point for travelers visiting the peninsula and has a well-built tourist infrastructure to cater to tourists who wish to do anything from wildlife viewing to paragliding.
Kamchatka can remain fickle, occasionally hiding her primal beauty behind a veil of thick clouds and fog. But when the skies finally clear and the powdered snouts of several dozen volcanoes appear through the clouds, all else melts away and you understand that you’re in a special place. No matter what you went through to get here, the exorbitant visa fees, no matter how long you’ve spent in transit and inflight, it was all worth it.