Travel Journals

A Surreal Thanksgiving in Kamchatka

The Aeroflot Boeing 767 at Moscow airport was ready to take off for Petropavlovsk. It had been a super-long week and I was ready to shut out the work world. The cabin had a real buzz because the flight was full. Alexey, my colleague was seated next to me, and started the “expat” education session on Kamchatka. It was an island of 280,000 inhabitants, mostly in fisheries, or the naval base. It is 9 hours east of Moscow, and the flying time would be 7 hrs 40 min. The flight took off at 4.40 pm, dinner was served, multiple conversation threads ensued…and suddenly I saw the sun rising. Breakfast was served, and we began our descent. The land looked beautiful from the air, stark. A mix of reddish ground, gold coloured foliage, a smattering of houses, mountains in the background. The plane landed in a sudden burst of enthusiasm and the wheels bounced on and off the ground as if to cha cha cha in Kam chat ka.

The airport was a small building. As with many small Russian airports, the bus drops you at the gate and then one has to walk to another shelter to get the luggage. Mstislav, head of our distributor operations there was at the airport to pick us up. Soon we are off in his car, listening to Abba on his video system in his Japanese minivan. Perhaps it is the vicinity to Japan that has them even drive on the right hand side…..anyway….I realize also that we are I time zone away from the date line. At this time it was Saturday 10.00 am in Kamchatka and Friday 2pm in Vancouver. Soon we arrived at the hotel. Checked in, not bad…turned on the TV, tuned into Bloomberg News, looked out the window and into a totally different world from Wall Street. Here I was. Sleepless in Kamchatka.

The tour company confirmed our flight to the volcanoes was cancelled due to bad weather. Crap. They would not fly if it is cloudy and the weather was wet drizzly and unpredictable. So we decided to get breakfast and get to plan B. So after a quick shower and a quick dose of the internet, plan B arrived. His name was Igor and he was a rescue guard on the island. He drove a land cruiser and off we went. Who said we needed to fly? We could drive. Ahem. So what if the roads were a little bumpy. Hmm. After 15 minutes of jerking up and down in the backseat I asked if the roads would get better, he said they would get worse. So the whole 2 hour journey was a love-hate relationship between the relentless bumps and the breathtaking scenery around. It was all truly from a different planet, the snow peaks, the red rocks, the winding roads. Hardly a sign of life. The positive side of the bumpy roads was that I stayed awake for the whole journey. They say God has his ways of making life work. Even in Kamchatka.

We arrived at our destination. 800 meters above sea level. It is cold, maybe zero degrees. I look out and can see some “smoke” in the distance. We start to walk. Soon we get to a wet red path and things start looking a bit like a hike, not a walk. But hey, I consider myself full of youthful spirit and continue sprinting along with my 2 co-hikers. And voila. I slipped in the worst possible mud patch. Rising gracefully and smiling, trying to keep cool while voices inside were humming 4 letter words. Crap. I should have asked more about this walk-turned-hike-turned-reality-TV expedition. We walked on…and pretty soon I was washing my hands in the warm pools of water from the mountains. Well, the rest of the hike continued as a love-hate relationship. I loved the first geysers I saw, the climbs, the amazing fauna, the colours of the rocks, the hot springs, and all in all…beauty I had never encountered before. The hate turned into terror when I had to come down on the same mud trails I went up on. Ouch. Reminded me of Roman’s trail in Slovakia 2 years ago, only slippery and worse. So anyway… Less is more here and suffice it to say all my bones were intact and my “Masai” technology walking shoes proved the obvious. There’s a difference between the African Serengeti plains and the volcano terrain in Kamchatka.

Dinner was a simple affair in the hotel dining room. Large windows looked out at a hot tub outside, vodka being consumed freely, retro American music in the background, and the waitress swished her way back and forth from the juke box to the bar to the tables of admirers, she made the whole place come alive, even the red walls. She was happy with herself, provided great service. I had a Greek salad and a Kamchatka curry with steamed veggies. For dessert I had sliced apples and oranges. On the house – hospitality in Kamchatka.

I slept like a baby and up at 6.30 on Sunday morning. The sun was shining, and they told us the helicopter tour was on. By 10.30 we were at the aerodrome. And ready to roar. The Channel One crew from Moscow was with us as well. Before long , the “gasping in air” began. The scenery was just extraordinary. Winding through the rugged beauty of the island, sometimes hugging the mountain sides from a few feet away while thinking we are landing….only to see the other side and realizing we were cruising high up. After 30 minutes we landed on the Valley of the Geysers, a natural wonder in Kamchatka.

I simply have no words to describe this space. It was only discovered in 1941 and just last year a massive slide of boulders and gravel caused a natural dam…and turned the main river into a lake. Green water. We walked down into the valley….mountains, rocks, rivers, creeks, water fall, hot water spring, shrubs, plants, flowers of several colours, large geysers, smaller geysers, constant emissions of water, steam, a whole natural ecology that stunned the eye, mesmerized the senses, and defied the intellect. The river was called Shumnaya (literally “noisy”). This reminded me of Livingstone Falls, where the falls are also in a spectacular setting called “Mosi-O-Tunya”, or Smoke that thunders. We went right down and saw the first geyser show its might. Ten tons of water sprayed forth and went up 10 meters for about 100 seconds. Holy!!! We went to another one and that was the largest one, seen only at this time of year. 30 tons, 30 meters high. The water was 97 degrees Celsius. I am simply beside myself….these fountains are much better than Fontainebleau. J Next on the route are the “gates to hell”. Three mountain tunnels like rhinoceros mouths spurt out hot water, causing gigantic steam balloons enough to scare anyone. Then there was the angry fountain, going in “spurts. Legend has it a bear fell into it and burnt itself. Poor bear. In Kamchatka.

Yes. The bears come to the valley in the spring. I am told that since the bears must “close shop” in the winter (meaning all systems hibernate), when the spring arrives, they come into the valley and look to consume all the goodies in the valley. I am also told that in order to “open shop”, they roll down the hill, hoping to loosen up the shop’s plumbing system. You know. Derriere. Anyway, back to the plants… can tell the temperature of the ground from the colour of the plants. A bright Irish green means 40 degrees, yellow means 60 degrees, and so on. Just a remarkable eco-system here. The hot springs come in all shapes and forms. Trickling down creeks, rivulets, little ponds, in all colours. Some so sizzling hot, one could simply make tea, take a breath and chill out with chai. My favourite however was the chocolate covered one. It simmered and I swear it reminded me of my childhood. It looked like the largest serving of chocolate mousse I had ever seen. Gulliver’s travels – in the Smokey mountains in Kamchatka.

That was Act One. Act two was riveting. All from the helicopter. Soaring between mountain tops, circling the very first crater lake and being utterly spell bound by its beauty. Then the plane hovered around a volcano with a deep crater and a lake inside – called Maly Semiachik . Death valley has some competition quietly brewing here. And then the final sight was a funnel shaped mountain – Vilyuchinsky – with a “mouth” spewing 100s of tons of water and that’s it. Out of this world. No words can describe the awe, the simplicity, the elegance, the sheer force, the power of nature, all combined into one. Makes one wonder about cities of the future – like Dubai – with impressive ambition and vision.. What we had just witnessed was so utterly intoxicating, and it came from the earth “as is”. You will decide what you like and what you don’t but I was just thrilled that we saw a few of the 160 volcanoes in Kamchatka.

The final Act was a classic log cabin setting in the woods, with a beautiful wide river flowing through the grounds. There were a few wooden cabins, an old man and two dogs were waiting for us. Here we had a late lunch. It was delicious. The vodka and beer gushed down by the crew, much was eaten and the crowd got merry. We took off from there and in 20 minutes, landed back to the aerodrome. Before disembarking, we got our certificates for having been to the Valley of the Geysers. The TV crew from Channel one wanted to photograph one and hence Alexey’s certificate may be on television. And then the best for last. Zadornov, the famous Russian comedian asked me where I was from. He immediately concluded we were family since his wife loved the Veda. Never mind, we took a photograph with him and I got my celebrity dose of 2009….I had not met a famous person since Sharukh Khan in Dec 2007. Mstislav was there to pick us up again and life came back to normal as we listened to pop video – in Kamchatka.

As I now sit on the plane to Vladivostok, I reflected again on how much Russia had to offer. We had just seen one of the world’s natural wonders. Last year I was at Lake Baikal with my colleagues Andrew and Ozgur, appreciating its 3500 species strong eco-system…and it was an inspiration as well. So while I have just spent 34 hours in Kamchatka during our Thanksgiving weekend I have no regrets not being home in Canada, where I used to spend the Sunday of the holiday weekend up in the Muskokas. Said in simple words, we have a lot to be thankful for, we have an awesome earth. We just need to take time to appreciate it. Thanks to Matthew for recommending this excursion after he visited several weeks ago. The avid sky diver that he is, I can see why the fascination.

The plane is now landing in Vladivostok and Alexey is already getting ready for our meetings with his red/yellow/green scorecard. A wake up call back to reality.

A few photographs attached just to give you an idea of the experience…