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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Bring Your Outer Garments




Kamchatka is a land of fire and ice, a remote Far Eastern peninsula of forests, geysers and volcanic peaks reminiscent of the American Pacific Northwest.


A snowcapped mountain rises above Avachinskaya Bay, where the capital city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is located. Rugged peaks run the length of the peninsula. Two active volcanoes are rumbling away on this great flipper of land that extends from the Russian mainland toward the Kuril Islands and Japan.


All this apparently means I should make emergency preparations for the seasick sensation of earthquakes, if I believe a hotel brochure that urges a combination of Zen-like sagacity and pinpoint timing in the event that this "seismical-steady" prefab building should start trembling.


"In case of earthquake do not panic, keep calmness and self-discipline," the brochure urges. "Earthquake up to force 5 is not dangerous. If the earthquake is more strong, in break between the shocks, you have 15-20 seconds for over thinking and taking the decision. ? After the strong shocks, if they finished, you have 30 seconds for evacuation from the hotel. Take only documents and outer clothing."


Clearly, during the week I am here, I will have to practice stripping off my underwear and socks, redressing in trousers and a trench coat, and hurling myself out the hotel window.


It should be a good time of the year to try this out. I arrived in Kamchatka on Sunday just in time for the Day of the Fishermen, a holiday that brought thousands of people down to the harbor to eat shashlyk and stagger along the waterfront with bottles of beer in hand. On Leninskaya Ulitsa, cops hauled off a drunken 10-year-old boy by the scruff of his neck. Children danced on a stage under a monument of a Lenin who wears a sweeping greatcoat, like a sea captain. Presumably, he, too, had prepared for an earthquake by removing his underclothing, because he looked less restrained than our Lenin statue in Vladivostok.


Though I now have an idea what to do in an earthquake, I am less sure of what to do if a lava flow opens up in my room. This, too, could be a serious problem in Kamchatka, the local papers lead me to believe.


On June 28, a hole 200 meters deep opened up atop Mutnovsky volcano. The cauldron had icy walls and a warm lake at the bottom. Two days later, Shiveluch volcano began erupting. Early that morning, an eruption alarm woke a group of volcanologists who were camped near the mountain. The next day two explosions sent volcanic ash 8 kilometers into the sky, and pilots were warned to steer clear of it.


Fears about rumblings in the mountaintops and under the earth are hardly new. The indigenous Evenki and Koryaki thought evil spirits that lived in the volcanoes would fly off to catch whales in the sea, said Valeria Isakina, a researcher with the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Local Lore Museum.


Flapping back with a whale skewered to each of their claws, they would cook them in the mountains. The more they cooked, the more smoke came out. When they ate, they pitched out the bones of the whales.


The aboriginal people didn't consider volcanoes to be a laughing matter. "Indigenous people were very afraid of volcanoes," Isakina said. "They would never come close to them. They wouldn't jump into the hot springs, either, the way Russians would."


As for earthquakes, the indigenous people had an explanation for those, too. Earthquakes happen when the spirits would drive their dogsleds through snowy tunnels under the earth. Whenever the dogs would shake off snow, it caused the earth to tremble.


This makes sense to me. As a boy in Los Angeles, I awoke one morning when a lamp toppled off of a bedside table and broke on my brother Jay's head. We blamed Tigger, our dog, only to realize an earthquake was at fault.


In addition to being a place of legends, Kamchatka is a land of mineral wealth. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Geologist Georgy Ponomaryov said three-fourths of the world's gold, uranium zinc and copper are formed by volcanoes. Yet Ponomaryov is distressed that his fellow citizens don't appreciate their geology. "Current citizens of Kamchatka don't care about volcanoes because they're illiterate and don't read anything about them," he said.


Maybe they are caught up worrying about closer-to-home problems, like power outages. But the beauty of Kamchatka is there for everyone to see, as long as you don't mind flying whale bones and citizens running around in nothing but their outer garments.