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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kamchatka: Remote Land of Fire and Ice

First impressions of Kamchatka can hardly fail to be striking. Flying in to the region, the traveler's vision is filled with the majestic sight of the neighboring Avacha and Koryak volcanos that dominate the skyline of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the regional capital situated near the end of the shark-shaped peninsula jutting out from Russia's Far Eastern coast.


Located 11,000 kilometers and nine time zones east of Moscow, the Kamchatka Peninsula is one of Russia's most wild and remote regions.


Its vast areas of untamed landscape and high levels of geothermal activity make it a particularly fascinating and unique destination for the tourist who isn't bothered by "roughing it."


As you approach Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky's city limits from the airport in Yelizovo, some 25 kilometers away, you'll notice models of two ships on pillars. These are St. Peter and St. Paul, the ships used by Danish Captain Vitus von Bering during his second expedition of the region in the early 18th century. In 1740, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was founded as the Port of St. Peter and St. Paul. Today it is the peninsula's most highly populated city.


Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky's historical center -- which is almost eerily quiet these days -- sits on Avacha Bay, protected by hills. Near the top of some of these hills are simple one-story houses with unpaved dirt roads, looking like something out of the provinces of European Russia. The only difference is that most of these houses have gardens on 45 degree slopes.


This part of Avacha Bay, in front of the old part of the city, has a beach several kilometers long, which is perfect for strolling along. The snow-capped Vilyuchinsky volcano rises far in the distance, on the other side of the bay. Stupendous views of the bay can be seen from numerous points in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, but the best, perhaps, is from the northern part of the city.


One of the regional capital's commercial centers is at the 6th kilometer. (When the city started expanding in the early '80s, sights and distances were marked off in kilometers. This system, instead of place names, remains to this day.) "Commercial center" does not mean the same thing in Kamchatka as it does in Moscow, of course, but there is a department store and a large farmer's market.


This part of town also affords a good view of the Avacha volcano. Though it appears from the vantage point at the 6th kilometer to be practically on top of the city, the marvel of nature is in reality more than 20 kilometers away.


Very much an active volcano, Avacha last erupted in 1991, according to locals. A plume of smoke rising from its cone is not a cause for worry, however. This is normal for Avacha and a welcome sign that no serious earthquakes are on the way. You should not, on the other hand, be surprised by the occasional tremor.


Ash is the most obvious side effect of Avacha's fury these days. A fine layer regularly covers sidewalks and streets, gathering into gray, powdery mounds which dot the city. Though supposedly great for the garden, one assumes it's not the best thing to be breathing.


The real treats of the Kamchatka Peninsula, however, lie outside of the urban areas. Here is a real chance to see nature in all of its glorious fury.


The volcanos may get most of the glory by reason of sheer size and power, but they are not the only geothermal attraction Kamchatka offers. The region is also filled with more than 50 hot springs, many of which are at a suitable temperature for bathing.


One such spring is Paratunka, located 30 kilometers from Yelizovo. Paratunka is famous, not only for its waters, but also for its medicinal mud. There are several spas here, some containing swimming pools with temperatures in some parts as high as 90 degrees Celsius.


The Dachnye thermal springs, near the Mutnovsky volcano some 100 kilometers west of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, are a perfect example of the natural contrasts of Kamchatka that have earned it the nickname, "Land of Fire and Ice."


Surrounded by canyons and blindingly white snow nearly 7 meters deep, the springs are a heated oasis filled with steam and an almost overpowering smell of sulfur. The water bubbling out of the ground, barren and yellow, was so hot you could boil an egg in it.


Kamchatka's nature show doesn't end with just springs and volcanoes. Dolina Geyzerov, or Valley of the Geysers, in northeastern Kamchatka is the only place of its kind in Russia. Discovered only in 1941, the valley is reachable by a two-hour helicopter ride from Petropavlovsk.


The geysers are located in a two-kilometer long canyon, a literal cauldron of geothermal activity also filled with mud kettles, water spouts and hot springs. The area is rich in vegetation, in particular water lilies, forget-me-nots and other plants that thrive in warm soil temperatures. Compared to other sites around the world, geyser eruptions in the valley are not so high as they have a tendency to erupt at an angle and not directly upward.


In addition to its natural beauty, Kamchatka is also known for its indigenous peoples, which, as in North America, teeter on the brink of extinction due to the incursions of the white man.


There are few indigenous people left in the south of the peninsula, but the north is home to the Koryak. Reindeer herders by tradition, the Koryak had such respect for these and other animals -- as well as the land -- that before they slaughtered a reindeer, they would always ask its forgiveness.


Another tribe, the Itelmen, are also in northwestern Kamchatka. It's possible to go see an Itelmen community, but only by invitation. To find out more and obtain an invitation, write 684611, Village of Kovran, Tigil District, Kamchatka Region, Restoration Council.





Getting There


Seats on Soviet airplanes were obviously not designed with passenger comfort in mind, and you will understand this during the nine-hour flight to Kamchatka. Onboard service, however, has improved in the past few years.


Unfortunately with the recent shutting down of all of Orient Avia's flights, the only option left is Domodedovo Airlines, which has daily flights to Kamchatka out of Domodedovo Airport for $720 one way if you are a foreigner.





Where to Stay


Hotel Oktyabrskaya is in the middle of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky's historical center at 51 Ulitsa Sovietskaya. Tel. (4152) 11-26-84. A single goes for $63 while a double goes for $38 per person.


Hotel Geyser is located at 10 Ulitsa Toporkova and, although a distance from the main road, it affords a great view both of Avacha Bay as well as the volcano Koryak. Singles are $25 and doubles are $16 per person. Tel. (41522) 5-79-96. Incidentally, Kamchatskiye Vityazi, a local aviation company, has its office in the hotel's lobby. Check and see what kind of services they offer for getting around the peninsula. Tel. (41522) 5-83-40.


If money is an issue, try the Edelweiss, on 27 Ulitsa Abelya. Located in part of a construction workers' dormitory, the hotel offers 1-, 2- and 3-person rooms for 90,000 rubles, 126,000 and 180,000 respectively. It is a very basic, but not bad hotel, with a friendly staff. Tel. (41522) 5-33-24.





Dining


There is a Chinese restaurant in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky called Lonkhei, at 24 Prospekt 50-letiya Oktyabrya, almost across from one of the city's larger book stores, Rossiiskaya Kniga. A modest dinner for two with an alcoholic beverage will cost about 150,000 rubles.


In the rynok Nakhodka, also across from Rossiiskaya Kniga, there is a small cafe, which serves large portions of plov for 15,000 rubles. This place, however, is appropriate for lunch.





Useful Tips


A guide, both for practical and safety reasons, is a must for visiting many places on Kamchatka. Alpindustriya in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (22 Prospekt 50-Letiya Oktyabrya, Tel. (41522) 3-02-46) sells modern outdoor equipment and gear. The store will also arrange various expeditions such as fishing, hunting and even helicopter rides to volcanoes. According to store employee Alexander Tikhonkikh, a four-day rafting trip in western Kamchatka for five people costs roughly 700,000 rubles. Helicopter trips run from 300,000 rubles, with additional costs depending on the destination and the number of people travelling.


If you have trouble affording any of the expeditions, you can at least get to Paratunka. A bus leaves from Yelizovo's bus terminal every hour, and costs 5,000 rubles.


Getting to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky from the airport is easy enough. Taxi buses, which run every few minutes and cost 5,000 rubles, reach the city's downtown pretty quickly.


Due to its extreme isolation and lack of infrastructure, prices on Kamchatka are from 100 percent to 300 percent higher than in Moscow. Various forms of city transport, mainly the taxi buses, still remain reasonable, however.


Maps of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and a comprehensive tour book in Russian called "Spravochnik Turista" which gives information about the peninsula's flora and fauna as well as camping, fishing, hunting and skiing, can be found at Rossiiskaya Kniga at 2 Ulitsa Tushkanova.


The bear population on Kamchatka is not small, and humans have been expanding onto their territory for over 10 years. Every year, stories abound about how some tourist got mauled by a bear. If you do encounter a bear, the best thing to do is to remain absolutely still. Never run -- they can outrun humans -- and try to avoid looking it directly in the eyes.


Kamchatka has a fishing policy of "Catch and Return" and you need a license to do this. The cost for a day of fishing being $15. If you plan to fish longer than one day, the cost is $10. Gaming and fishing laws are very strict on Kamchatka, and being caught without a license means big fines. Tour agencies can arrange the necessary permits.