Kamchatka Peninsula: A song of fire and ice

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You may not be familiar with the name now but it should be loitering near the top of everyones list of must-see travel locations. If you mentioned Kamchatka to any Russian it would conjure up images of bubbling hot springs, a myriad of snow-clad volcanoes and crisp, unpolluted rivers teaming with salmon in the summer and buried beneath thick layers of ice and snow in the winter.

One of the largest stretches of wilderness in the world, the Kamchatka peninsula borders the  international time zone and its capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (Petropavlovsk) is located so far to  the east that its actually closer to Tokyo and Seattle than it is to Moscow. So wild are most parts of  the 1000-kilometre long peninsula that locals fondly say that Kamchatka has no roads, just  directions.

The region’s isolation and lack of infrastructure can be both a blessing and a curse. The beauty and  tranquility found in Kamchatka’s nature is due in part to the area being largely free of commercial  tourism. The down side is the inaccessibility of the region. For an independent (and budget)  traveller to get around without the services of a tour agency would be an almost impossible task  even for the most seasoned of adventurers.

Petropavlovsk, a city which dates back to the 1740s, was founded by Vitus Bering, the Russian  captain, after whom the famous straits that separate Russia and Alaska are named. The city on the  Avacha Bay offers breathtaking views of 2 volcanoes and a whole range of beautiful snow-capped  peaks. All in all Petropavlovsk is much the same as any other small town in the former Eastern  bloc, all of which contain their fair share of stereotypical Soviet architecture. What illuminates  Petropavlovsk from the rest is it's exceptionally beautiful location. The region’s capital is a good  base for trips to different parts of the peninsula, many of which require a helicopter for access.

If time is an issue, the Avachinskaya and Koryakskaya volcanoes, which are visible from  Petropavlovsk, are the easiest to access. Even if the climber is in good shape it would still take  around 6 hours to reach the summit of the Avachinskaya, which towers at 2741metres above sea  level, while the Koryakskaya (3456 metres above sea level) is even more of a challenge and would  set the fittest of hikers back by at least 12 hours. Like most parts of the Russian Far East, the  weather changes as quickly as the mood of a beautiful woman, and thundershowers can appear out  of the blue on a clear August morning. After absorbing the sea views, the surrounding lush green  landscape and some of the wildest terrain the world has to offer, its clear that despite the logistic  difficulties, this is a trip well worth the time, effort and patience.

Kamchatka is not a region one would travel to for the weekend. its a vast and remote region that  demands to be explored at leisure so if you’re making the trip all the way to the peninsula, it’s  worth spending a few weeks to make the most of your time.

Valley of the Geysers

One of the highlights of a visit to the peninsula is the awe-inspiring Dolina Geyserov (Valley of  the Geysers). The valley of the Gesysernaya River is part of the Kronotsky bio reserve and has  over 200 geothermal pressure valves that fire out steam, water and mud. The numerous  walking tours available in the area make it possible to explore much of the valley in a single day,  however the journey is not cheap.  The valley is 200 kilometres away from Petropavlovsk and  best accessed via helicopter. A tour would set you back easily by around $600.

Moonwalking

Tolbachik is undoubtably one of the most isolated and hauntingly beautiful places on the peninsula. H owever in order to reach this incredible destination one would have to penetrate some of the  most dense forests in the world and take a river cruise. The Plosky Tolbachik volcano boasts a 3- kilometre crater and is surrounded by dead forests that were killed by a number of devastating  eruptions. 

The still-active Tolbachik volcano has created a terrain very similar to that of the moon in the  surrounding area. So much so that the Soviet Union tested its moonwalker vehicle in the area  before sending it into outer space.  There have been several eruptions recently, and due to the volatile nature of this landscape, it is  not unheard of for tours to the area to be cancelled.

Bears and Eagles

In Russia, Kamchatka is famous for its wildlife and the ideal time to visit is August. Sockeye  salmon attract a large number of bears from the Yuzhno-Kamchatsky range of mountains to the  southern edge of the peninsula, to Kurilskoe Lake and the nearby streams where the salmon spawn.  It’s also possible to catch a glimpse of gracious Steller’s sea eagles that fly around the lake. Again  August is the best month to spot these largely brown birds, which breed on the Kamchatka  peninsula and migrate towards Japan for the winter.  The Kurilskoe Lake, with a radius of 77 kilometres, is surrounded by volcanoes and is absolutely  unaffected by human interference, although commercial tourism is slowly starting to rear its ugly  head in the area.

Like many parts of the peninsula, Kurilskoe is best accessed by helicopter from Petropavlovsk. In  theory It is possible to travel independently to the area, but the stories of tourists being killed by  bears are not uncommon. Going with experienced local tour guides is often the best bet. 
 

How to get there

There are daily flights from Moscow to Petropvalovsk-Kamchatksy (around 9 hours). The main airport used for travel in the Russian Far East is Khabarovsk, 2 and a half hours away from Petropavlovsk. Khabarovsk has regular international connections to cities in China, Japan and South Korea

Where to stay

Several tour agencies are based in Petropavlovsk and offer a range of trips to different parts of the peninsula, which include food, accommodation and permits for restricted areas. Explore Kamchatka has been operating tours since 1999 and focuses on innovative and eco-friendly tours. Lost World , which has been around since 1993 also arranges trips to settlements of indigenous people, dog-sledding tours and heli-skiing in the winters.

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