This is the first post in a series drawing upon my July 2009 experiences on an expedition cruise exploring the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East.
Siberia means exile, banishment beyond the pale. But east of the Lena River, Russians say, begins another vast tract of Asiatic Russia, reaching across to the Pacific and the Bering Sea.
Virtually nowhere in the Russian Far East is more remote than Kamchatka, the tear-drop peninsula pointing towards Japan. Kamchatka incorporates one of the world’s most dramatic natural areas, a formidable concentration of snow-capped volcanoes, alpine meadows, tundra and salmon-rich rivers. Kamchatka’s brown bears and bubbling geysers are the show-stoppers of the Russian Far East.
The Russian Far East, sharing a time zone with New Zealand, is not a destination for intrepid backpackers, as costs are stiff and regulations onerous. Within this frontier region, off-limits to travellers until recent years, travel is undertaken on an epic scale, whether by six-wheel-drive truck, 22-seater military-style helicopter or by inflatable rubber boat. Ironically, much of Kamchatka is still protected by strict Soviet-era nature reserves.
It took the 18th-century explorer Vitus Bering five years to cross Siberia as far as Kamchatka, then return to St Petersburg; on his second expedition he sighted the Alaskan coast but died before reaching Kamchatka again. No road continues from Vladivostok to reach Kamchatka; local off-road enthusiasts have been known to complete the journey.
Flying via Seoul and Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky – let’s call it PK! – I joined a Heritage Expeditions cruise embarking for a voyage south to the Kuril Islands, returning north along the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula – a solid wall of snow-streaked volcanic cones, for this is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire – then sailing east to the Commander Islands, where Vitus Bering and many of his crew died in 1741.
Magnificent views of snowy volcanic cones in different directions overlook PK, sitting on one of the world’s finest natural harbours. After Captain James Cook died in Hawaii, his ships entered here under command of Capt. Clark who is buried here, his grave marked by the British Admiralty in 1913 with a tombstone still standing in the main street. The great French explorer La Perouse also passed this way before disappearing mysteriously in the Solmon Islands. In 1740 came the Danish-born explorer Vitus Bering in 1740, who had already claimed Alaska for his patron, the Russian empress.
Everyone slept on board the ship whilst in port at PK, making day excursions. From the fairground on the waterfront, our dock lay a few hundred metres further on, along a dusty road coated with coal dust. Between the fairground and the docks is a long, narrow hill, clothed in lush beech forest, a delightful place to lose onesself. The docks were quite colourful with fishing vessels and coastguard in varying states of disrepair.