With the most Bears anywhere on Earth, Kamchatka is Rugged beyond Rugged
By Niko Vorobjov
When you start planning a trip to Russia, you usually think about going to one of the major cities, Moscow or St Petersburg, or maybe jumping on-board the Trans-Siberian Express, the longest train journey in the world across the longest country in the world. But if you tell someone you’re going to Kamchatka, the most common question you’re gonna get is: “where the hell is that???”
The Kamchatka Peninsula is in the Far East of Russia, so far east it’s nearly west. Across the sea from Alaska, it’s even further east than Japan, and a full 11 time zones away from my home in London, England. Kamchatka’s mainly known for two things, volcanos and bears, and the United Nations has deemed its fiery peaks a World Heritage Site.
No One Goes There
Unfortunately, besides UN inspectors (and a few hardy fishermen) no one else seems to go there, despite its natural beauty, mainly because it’s so far away, which in a country spanning over 17,125,200 km2 is saying something.
No, this god-forsaken patch of earth was not top of my bucket list either, but my friend Alyona found some cheap tickets on Aeroflot and was offering to let us crash for free at her husband’s place, and since I wanted to go back to the Motherland for a while and at 26 was [nearly] safe from the army draft, I thought why the hell not.
Before that I’d spend a little time in St Petersburg catching up with my long-lost cousins, and in Moscow, catching up with zombie Lenin.
Good Old Days
Despite being born in St Petersburg (then-called Leningrad in the good old days), I hadn’t been back to Russia for nearly ten years (well, I’d been to Crimea in Ukraine and that’s basically Russia now, but let’s not go there) and while I speak the language fluently I’ve now got a strong British accent which some people mistake for Jewish (stereotypically, Yiddish speakers can’t pronounce their R’s).
A few other things also gave me a culture shock. First of all, Slavic squat is real. If someone shows you a picture on Google Street View and you spot a group of young men in Adidas tracksuits crouched around a bottle of vodka, you know you’re in Russia.
These are gopniks, and if you ever choose to come to Russia you will have the privilege of observing this rare species in its natural habitat. Be careful though, they bite.
Secondly, customer service doesn’t exist. Like, at all. In Britain and America, the customer is always right and shop assistants will do everything short of offering their firstborns for ritualistic sacrifice to make sure you have a pleasant shopping experience.
In Russia, they just look at you through their cold, dead eyes and say, “What the f-ck do you want? Take your f-cking cigarettes, and your f-cking vodka, and get the f-ck out.”
On the plus side, everything in Russia is really cheap now because our economy is in tatters (thank you, sanctions!), so if you ever wanted to go, you should go while we are still ostracized by the international community.
It was an 8-hour flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to Petropavlovsk, the main (and basically only) city in Kamchatka. The Avacha Bay offers some breathtaking views, particularly at sunset, and when I fell asleep on the beach (from severe jetlag – it had been over 24 hours, why won’t the sun go down????!!!) and woke up, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
But apart from that, it has to be said, it’s pretty f-cking dull. To give you some idea of how boring it is, Russia has mandatory military service. In most of the country, people pay bribes to stay out. Petropavlovsk is the only place where they pay to get in.
So after a week or so of taking in the local sights – taking a cruise out to the Pacific Ocean, exploring the Valley of the Geysers and hanging out at an “Irish” pub – we decided to check out some volcanos. Namely, the place we wanted to get to was Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest volcano in Eurasia.
Sopka still erupts periodically, so maybe if we were lucky we’d get to see some lava. As a one-time Kamchadal (native of Kamchatka), Alyona’s husband Alexei took charge of organizing everything and got through to a guy, a retired volcanologist, who does tours out of the hostel he runs. Since hiking all the way up the mountain was a trek, we wondered if we could get a lift part-way.
“Is there anyone who can drive us closer to the top?” Alexei asked.
“Well, there was,” came the reply, “BUT HE’S DEAD!! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!! HAHAHAHA!!”
Not knowing what to make of this, Alexei said his goodbyes and hung up the phone.
“That was a little creepy,” he said, “but at least he has a sense of humor.”
There were no other guides to take us to Sopka, at least not within our price range, so off we went. Getting there was a mission. I’d been to Third World countries, but generally, in the tourist areas, there’d be some sort of infrastructure.
Russia, on the other hand, seems to be doing everything it can to ward off visitors, from Byzantine visa applications to neo-Nazi skinheads and now, impossibly shitty roads that were probably constructed by a chain gang of blind monkeys.
One Pothole to Another
Riding the bus (a Korean import from the ‘80s) was an ordeal in which you couldn’t read or sleep as you were being constantly shaken like a ragdoll while the driver lunged from one pothole to another.
Besides Alyona and Alexei, our party also had another married couple, Kirill and Irina, and Tolya, an events planner from Vladivostok.
So after 10 hours of this hell, we finally got to Klyuchi (“Springs”), a small village way out in the ass-end of nowhere. We needed to get some money out to pay our new guide so we walked over to the only bank in town. Since it was only around 3 it ought to have been open, but it was not, although a sign on the door reassured us that “we may be open later”. I liked the use of the word “may”.
Fortunately, just as we were mentally bracing ourselves for using our young, nubile bodies as a way to earn our keep, the bank manager just happened to be walking by and let us in to use the ATM (what she was doing instead of managing the bank I don’t know). With the cash in hand, we set forth to our new home while being barked at by every village dog we came across.
Putting it mildly, the ‘hostel’ was not what we expected. In a woodland clearing on the outskirts of the village lay a depressing-looking apartment block surrounded by abandoned, burnt-out cars. As we made our way up the stairs the metallic door screeched open and we walked inside.
The place looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed since at least 1975, or possibly ever. The wallpaper was grotty and peeling, but at least in one room, there’d been an attempt at decoration in the form of a bearskin hanging on the wall and 80s action movie posters for Terminator and Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s chiseled biceps glistening with sweat as he fired a heavy machine gun.
Meanwhile, the kitchen gave off a distinct aura of death as piles of dead flies lay scattered between cans of fish and rusty tins of salt.
In this humble dwelling lived Sergey and his pet cat. Sergey was to be our guide to Klyuchevskaya Sopka. He was tall, skinny, maybe in his early-to-mid 60’s, with a blank expression on his face that betrayed little in the way of joy, sadness, or any other kind of human emotion.
Sergey didn’t bother to greet us, only showing us to a room smelling of cat piss and told us we could sleep there, then showed us another room, his workshop, where there was a bed.
While this might just be more of that classic Russian hospitality that I experienced from shopkeepers in Moscow and St Petersburg, maybe it was his stare, maybe it was his utter reluctance to look after his own living space, I don’t know, but something about it just didn’t seem right.
Alyona and Alexei took the workshop, while the rest of us had to position ourselves in sleeping bags in the corridor or that room smelling of cat piss. I went with the corridor option.
After we’d all unpacked our things, we went to the kitchen to introduce ourselves.
“Let’s get acquainted,” said Alyona, “I’m Alyona, and this is Ira, Kirill, Alexei, Tolya, and Nikolai!”
“I am Sergey,” said Sergey, showing no sign of emotion one way or the other towards his new guests.
One Good Eye
At this point, Sergey took off his glasses and tapped his left eye. It made a sound. Turns out, he only had one good eye, the other was a glass eye he lost working in a factory. His cat, a ginger tabby, also had only one eye, so they only had two eyes between them. Although he claimed kitty lost his eye fighting, I had my suspicions.
The evening came upon us, and we sat around Sergey’s bedroom planning our next move. It turned out that the weather was too harsh for hiking up to Klyuchevskaya Sopka so we’d have to get there by car. When we asked about drivers again, Sergey was, as before, oddly jovial about his colleague’s demise.
“Oh, Ivan would take you there, but he drowned,” he laughed as we all eyed each other nervously.
There was however a dry lava stream and waterfall nearby that he could take us to so our whole excursion wouldn’t be a complete waste of time. We agreed, and the rest of the night was spent watching Sergey’s footage of climbing Sopka in the ‘90s, which admittedly was quite spectacular, and listening to stories about people going camping in the hills and not coming back.
Didn’t Come Back
“There was this one guy, a student, he stayed with me in a cabin for two weeks,” Sergey told us, “He didn’t come back one night so I went out looking, and I found him lying there in the snow. He must have just sat down to rest and froze to death in his sleep.”
We were probably the only tourists in about a 300-mile radius, and it was weird how this was the only thing that seemed to give him amusement. Another tale didn’t inspire confidence in the local health services.
“Dmitri went paragliding with us when his parachute broke and he fell face-first 20 meters down to the ground. We took him to our drunk Doctor Styopa, who stuck his face back together with duct tape but did nothing about the broken jaw. He had to go to Petropavlovsk for that.”
We also learned about his eating habits (“Why you eat this shit?” he asked as he saw me making some noodles, “Eat fish!”), his devil-may-care attitude to culinary hygiene (“only stupid housewives wash the dishes!”) and got some revealing insights into how and when he bathes (“The hot water’s working? I haven’t used that tap in about five years”). But now it was time for bed.
Cheesy Horror Films
You know how like in cheesy horror films, some teens rent out a cabin in the woods and on the way there they ask a creepy old man for directions? Yup, that’s basically what was happening here. Wrong Turn 9: The Sopka Pickaxe Massacre.
That night I didn’t sleep well. Not so much because of the imminent threat of being butchered for my sweet kidneys, but because laying on the cold, hard floor hurt my back and the endless flies and mosquitoes wouldn’t give me a moment’s peace. I wonder if this is what the UN inspectors in Kamchatka had to go through….
The next day we got up, had breakfast, and set off. We turned the corner from his house and stepped onto a footpath which was pleasant enough, though every now and then we had to take a detour through the woods to avoid wandering onto the nearby Air Force base. Passing by the barbed wire we’d occasionally hear some automatic gunfire coming from the other side.
That didn’t bother me so much as the armada of mosquitos that descended upon us from the bushes. I’ve lived in the UK for the best part of 20 years and had seen mosquitoes there maybe three times in my entire life, but out here in the Wild East, the f-ckers were thirsty for some sweet English blood. Sergey for his part seemed to be in a state of bliss, denying the mosquitoes were even there:
“Mosquitoes? I don’t see any,” he said, completely failing to notice a whole nest practically spawning in his hat.
The footpath ended, and after a while, it became apparent that whatever route Sergey had taken his last batch of tourists through some two years ago had long since fallen into disuse and become completely overgrown. We were essentially hacking our way through dense forest with only a one-eyed guide to lead us the way.
About an hour-and-a-half of the way through we crossed a riverbed full of dead trees. The soil at the bottom was pitch black so that and the trees looked like there may have been a lava flow if it weren’t so muddy and that little trickles of water were still making it through.
‘Barefoot like Jesus’
The streams were sometimes big enough to jump across, but Sergey preferred to take off his shoes and socks and walk across barefoot-like Jesus. That’s when he suddenly turned and said to me, in English: “From the very beginning, a man must accept his fate. There are many forces around us which we cannot understand.”
Whether this was an ominous sign that I too must “accept my fate” or he was just passing along some wisdom, I’ll never know, but I decided to keep moving. The mosquitoes were as ravenous as ever, and if anything that “repellent” which we’d picked up from some babushka for a few rubles seemed to be attracting them instead.
We were fighting though every inch of undergrowth. With my every step, a bush or a stick latched onto my boot. Around ten kilometers in we realized that if we wanted to see the cool stuff we would have to go around the mountain, again, and with only four hours till sunset, we wouldn’t make it back before dark. Kamchatka has one of the highest concentrations of brown bears on the planet, with an estimated 1 bear for every 40 humans , and while they avoid humans for the most part , none of us wanted to gamble on running into Winnie the Pooh.
The Way Back
The way back was just as exciting as the journey forward, maybe even more so because those little streams on the old riverbed had turned into gushing torrents. Since few of us had waterproof boots we tipped over one of the dead trees to make a makeshift bridge, but that didn’t help much as the bed was long and only five minutes later we were wading in water that reached up to our shins.
When we got back onto land, Alyona suggested we drop into a shop on the way home as we were running out of water. Sergey agreed and led us on through another path in the woods. There were fresh bear droppings in front of us. Then we heard a gunshot. And another.
It was far away so no need to be worried, but just in case we started talking as loud as possible because bears don’t like noise. I started growling to mess with Irina until Kirill pointed out that for all I know, I could just be telling the bear to go f-ck his mother.
We walked out onto a clearing where there were some dismal-looking Soviet apartment blocks. We must have looked like quite the party, emerging from the wilderness with our backpacks and our walking sticks, still soaking wet below the knees.
A few people out on their balconies looked at us with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. Someone asked us if we were lost. As we turned round a corner, a man in green uniform and insignia came running up.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was just taking these tourists to see the waterfall,” Sergey explained, “You’ve been there, right?”
“No, I have not,” said the officer, “but you are currently on the territory of a military settlement, which is an administrative offense and I could arrest you right here.”
It turns out that we’d wandered into one of those sealed-off military towns, a secret settlement housing soldiers and their families serving on the nearby base. There are lots of these closed-off military towns across Russia, a relic from Soviet times.
They’re like a little piece of North Korea. No-one is supposed to walk in or out without the proper authorization, and sometimes the communities themselves don’t even appear on the map. Irina, a girl in our party, grew up in such a town near the naval base in Murmansk, in the far north.
Kamchatka is a strategically significant area, housing a load of intercontinental missiles, nukes, nuclear submarines, and a variety of other heavy artillery left over for when the imperialist Yankees might have tried anything during the Cold War. So we might have strayed somewhere where we were very, very unwelcome.
“I suggest you get out of here as soon as possible,” the officer warned us, before pausing and adding, “there’s a bear on the loose.”
That explains the gunshots, then.
I sat outside with Sergey while everyone else went inside the shop to get some water. You know how you can feel the eyes on the back of your neck? As we were waiting there, an overly-friendly young man came up to us and asked us what we were doing. He seemed to know Sergey and smiled as he reached out to shake his hand, though Sergey was his usual affable self.
“Hey old man, it’s been a long time, how have you been?”
“I was just taking these tourists out to see the waterfall. Have you been?”
“I haven’t. Man, it’s good to see you!”
“Yeah, yeah. Did you hear the gunshots earlier?”
A Chirpy Follower
As we got up to make our way out of the city limits the young man followed us, chirping away happily to Sergey who was as responsive as a dry log. The town itself wasn’t much to write home about – just Soviet-era apartment buildings and a few patriotic statues here and there. As we got closer to the perimeter fence a jeep with some military police rolled up, but our new friend took them aside and soon they were on their way.
For my part I tried to keep my mouth shut: blurting out “Hello, I’m Nikolai from Leningrad!” in my bizarre English/Jewish accent wasn’t going to score me any points in the interrogation room.
Our friend gave us a cheery wave as we walked through the gate before turning back and disappearing into the compound. I asked Sergey how they knew each other but he wouldn’t give me any straight answers. If I had to guess, he was probably FSB , the Russian secret service which took over from the KGB after the end of communism.
While stabbing people with an icepick might be a thing of the past, these are still some guys you don’t wanna mess with.
A short walk later and we were home. We were all of us hungry and exhausted, and no matter how terrifying the bathroom looked we all wanted a shower. It’s the least way we could treat ourselves. After all, we had another night of sleeping on the rough floor and then a ten-hour bus ride over the barely-existing road ahead of us. We never even saw any goddamn volcanoes in Kamchatka.
Born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Niko Vorobjov’s family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain where he works as a freelance writer, mainly helping students cheat on their homework but also putting out pieces for sites like Salon and the Influence based on his experiences of crime and drugs.