Russia part 9: In Kamchatka (three days longer than planned)
On Saturday August 21st, three weeks after entering Russia and deep into its Far East, the “Yandex” taxi drove us from UHPP, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky airport, to the airbnb apartment with ocean view that I had booked for 5 nights, to give us the time to discover Kamchatka.
When the car stopped, our first thought was that we were at the wrong address. It looked like we were in what the Americans would call “the projects”, inexpensive social housing buildings made in the 50’s or 60’s that had not been very well maintained, surrounded by parking lots and iron containers in all kinds of conditions. The driver assured us it was there and seconds later a Russian woman walked towards us introducing herself as Elena, our host. She took us up the stairs to the 5th floor of one of the buildings and we entered a small apartment with one bedroom that overlooked the Avacha bay. She showed us around and explained a few things, like that the water was drinkable, the water in the bathroom was very hot but there was only cold water in the kitchen and gave us the keys. We asked for a restaurant recommendation and the nearest supermarket and via Google maps she patiently explained how to get to both. We were a little concerned about our surroundings, so we asked if it was safe to walk around in the area and she insisted there was absolutely no problem, so after she left we headed to the restaurant and saw that all around us were similar buildings, in similar conditions, but also lots of children playing outside and absolutely no one seemed to notice us, so we relaxed and kept going.
View of the bay
The back of the building
In a separate area of the city, Amir and Tamra who had landed their Vision jet in UHPP shortly before us, were having a similar experience, on the 4th floor of their building which they also reached by foot: their landlord had commented that none of the residential buildings in Petropavlovsk had elevators. Later on, we found out that most of the housing throughout the city was similar to ours, it was sort of an “everyone is equal” statement which made a lot of sense given the history of the country.
We slept very well in our new habitat -our “projects” were less noisy than we expected, so much for prejudices- and woke up to a very foggy view of the bay.
Our plan was to look around in the city on this first day and organize some activities for the rest of the stay. From Vladivostok, I had already exchanged a few emails with “Real Kamchatka” travel agency who offered popular excursions such as hikes to the volcanoes, fishing tours and scenic helicopter flights over the mountains to lakes with bears or other beautiful places. Tamra, Alex and I decided to join a hike to the Vachkazhets mountain followed by a stop at hot springs the next day. There was actually not much choice because there had been a mudslide on the Gorely volcano the day before we arrived, making access impossible, and there had recently been a helicopter crash involving tourists, so all helicopter tours were prohibited until the there was more information on the cause of the accident. We hadn’t even started exploring Kamchatka and it already looked like a dangerous place to travel in! And it was summer, I can’t imagine how challenging it could become in winter weather.
Once the fog had lifted, we headed out to the Central Market. According to a few searches of “what to do in Petropavlovsk?” and recommendations from friends who knew the area, this was one of the few worthwhile places to visit in the city. We had quite some trouble finding it though: our taxi driver first took us to another small market saying this was closer so why would we bother going to the other one? but once we got there it was caviar and fish paradise! In the seafood part of the market, each stand featured several huge buckets of bright orange salmon roe and dozens of different sizes and all kinds of dried fish.
Behavioral economists always say that too much choice is overwhelming, but in this case it was even more so because we had no idea what the various delicacies were. So we stopped at the first place where we were offered a taste of orange spheres on a small plastic spoon, ordered a small container of them without even tasting the other varieties and also randomly pointed to a mix of dried fish, thinking it would probably all be good. Just like the web and our friends had promised, the delicacies were extremely cheap. I also bought the cheapest omega 3 capsules ever, made in Kamchatka with real fish oil! I started taking Omega 3 when I was living in Chicago, I don’t really remember why but someone had recommended it and it used to be a daily habit (only the Nordic Naturals brand would do). Nowadays I take a Kamchatka capsule every now and then thinking it can’t hurt… To go with our fish feast, we wanted blinis, bread (gleb) and cream and asked where to find that. Baked goods were in a different area where we bought dark bread and blinis (which were very thin crêpes, not at all the thicker pancake-like blinis we were used to) and when we got to the dairy stand Alex showed the salesperson our caviar, bread and blinis asking for cream but she was adamant it would taste much better with butter, so we complied. Right next door was a middle eastern looking spice stand where we bought some trail mix from a young salesman who was from Tajikistan. He was the first Tajik we had ever met and we were probably also the first people from Argentina for him. To make our meal complete, we needed some vodka but that was not sold in the market. For that we needed to go to a special store where Alex also got some beer which was sold in PET bottles filled at a tap.
He chose the most local brand:
Seeing all that food made Alex hungry so he had a quick snack before we headed back to our apartment
That evening, our Central Market dinner was a feast and it was not easy to get up at 6 am to join the excursion, especially since it was even more foggy than the day before.
A summer morning in Petropavlovsk...
The ride to the Vachkazhets mountain was quite long because our mini-van needed to make a detour to pick up people in Paratunka, a famous hot spring area about 80km from the city (but not the hot springs we would go to later that day- like in Iceland and other places with volcanoes, there are many hot springs in Kamchatka), but this gave our interpreter Irina plenty of time to share all kinds of facts about the area. We were the only foreigners in the excursion and the guides did not speak English, so the agency had arranged for Irina who spoke fluent English and French to join us. We had noticed that our mini-van had very large, off road-style tires and we had been wondering why because so far the roads had been very good. The answer came when we suddenly turned of the main highway and stopped next to the other vans transporting our group. We were invited to get out and the driver started deflating the tires. When we boarded again, it became clear why our wheels were so large: the last kilometers before we got to the foot of the Vachkazhets were awful. The narrow-dried mud road was full of deep grooves in which we could get stuck at any moment, the driver needed to constantly choose the path of least risk and the mini-van, a Mitsubishi Delica which turned out to be very sturdy and powerful, advanced very slowly. While we were being bounced around, I was thinking “can we get there already?” but Tamra was having a ball, it reminded her of her youth when she was driving around in the Australian bush in old cars with her friends.
This is how deep the holes were:
The Mitsubishi Delica
The hike with a group of Russians was fantastic. We started with a picnic in the forest, the organizers installed camping tables and chairs and gave us chicken, sweets, coffee and tea.
All the others were Russians from various areas of the country, one came from the Republic of Chuvashia for example, and we had conversations with them via Irina. We also made friends with Katia, a massage therapist who was born in Yakutsk and lived in Moscow after spending time in Korea and Switzerland. Her English was very good and she explained that one of her specialties were rejuvenating face-massages and showed us very convincing “before and after” pictures of the results. Definitely something to consider!
At some point, Alex and I wondered off to find an appropriate bush for a bio-break but that turned out harder than we expected. Irina immediately came after us insisting we don’t go too far from the group because of the bears but at the same time, we didn’t really want to be in plain sight of the group…. There are difficult choices to be made in the Kamchatka wilderness!
After lunch, the group headed out for a long and beautiful hike up the mountain, via streams and waterfalls, during which Irina gave us precise explanations about the mountain and the melted glaciers that scratched it, the plants etc… we took the van back to a place where there were hot springs next to a very cold lake. Alex and Tamra passed altogether on the hot springs (Alex still had not recovered from the 45 degrees sulfur scented Lake Baikal experience and Tamra was not convinced by the small bathtub-like pools) but I dove right in with Irina and Katia who were very excited about their therapeutic qualities. Russians seem to love their hot springs and attribute many health benefits to them. My instructions were to stay about 15 to 20 minutes in the warm thermal water and then to jump in the lake to stimulate blood circulation…. The lake was so cold that it felt like pins on my whole body so I quickly went back to the hot pool for another 15 minutes. While I was in the lake, Irina had recognized a neighbor in the adjacent tub and told him and his friends all about us so we ended up having a whole discussion with many strangers sitting tightly in tubs together, definitely something that needs getting used to!
Irina, Katia (bottom right) and me in the hot pool
The rest of the people
While we three were in the excursion, Amir had done some urban hiking and had managed to rent a car despite his Australian driver’s license in which we all went to Black Beach the next day, featuring black volcanic sand which reminded us of the beaches in Martinique and in Iceland. On the way there, Amir told us about his new friends, Artur, Artur and Artur who had been helpful in getting him a car. After the Black Beach, we went for lunch at the Blue Lagoon, a newly built resort with a large thermal water pool and another lake and guess who we found there: Artur, Artur and Artur who immediately ordered vodka and started filling our glasses over and over again. Amir, who was driving, was the first to opt out and soon after we all left to go back to the city.
Tamra on the endless black beach
Surf lesson (we found out it is a surf spot!)
The Black Beach surf cafe
The Blue Lagoon thermal pool (still somewhat in construction but definitely roomier than the previous day's)
Polish cold beet soup at the Blue Lagoon restaurant
Since we had arrived in Kamchatka, Alex had been very eager to go fishing, in part because most fishing excursions promised bear sighting -apparently there are more bears than people in the area and we had not seen a single one yet- and as luck would have it, apart from generously serving vodka, one of the Arturs had put him in contact with a fishing guide and during our drive back, Alex organized our next adventure. Most fishing excursions lasted several days and we did not have the time or the enthusiasm for that, but he managed to convince the guide to tailor an efficient half day experience, just for us.
This delightful and productive third Kamchatka day ended with dinner at « Local Market », a great restaurant serving Kamchatka specialties: reindeer and bear meat, caviar, fish and berries. At the end of the meal we were offered postcards to send to our friends. I hadn’t written an actual postcard in years so it was great fun. The restaurant had stamps and a mailbox, and we played the game, wondering if the cards would ever arrive in the various countries we had sent them to: Netherlands, Argentina, Australia and Israel.
Cucumber with crab apetizer
Some fish tartare
Local blueberry dessert
Busy writing postcards after dinner
Our fishing excursion on Kamchatka day four started with lunch at a base camp along a river. Our directions to the camp were a little fuzzy but we ended up in the right place and were treated to fish soup and chicken in a tent.
We found the tent!
After lunch, the fishing guide, who spoke some English thanks to his recent stay in the US, loaded us onto a rubber motorboat and equipped us with fishing rods. The river was full of wild ocean salmon who, after a few years of good life, had swam upstream to lay eggs and die. The salmons took their upstream adventure very seriously, they were either struggling against the current or already lifeless and floating. Our group ended up catching two live ones: the guide caught a female (indeed full of orange pre-caviar) and Amir hooked a male but to his distress the guided threw him back in the water. At this stage of their life, male salmons are useless because they do not carry eggs and once they reach the river, their meat is not as good as when they frolic in the ocean.
Salmon swimming upstream
Caviar! We were told the bears are so full at this time of year that they just eat the eggs and leave the fish to rot...
We did not catch any other fish but we floated pleasantly on the river in beautiful surroundings, looking for bears, the only thing still missing from our Kamchatka checklist. At some point, we left the boat and walked around a little on the shore to visit a traditional dwelling where the guide had spotted a bear the day before. The bear was gone but he had left plenty of droppings, so at least we now knew what those looked like…
Copy of an indigenous dwelling, on stilts to protect it from bears
Bear tracks under the dwelling: the stilts are really mandatory!
Initiation to bear droppings (full of Kamchatka berries...)
We were just about getting used to the idea that we would probably be the only ones not to see a live bear in Kamchatka when our guide enthusiastically pointed to the other side of the river where we saw one small bear, walking around slowly, visibly not bothered by our presence. Check!!!
Can you see it?
After a day on the water, it was time to go back into the air. The next stops in our itinerary were a town called Markovo (UHMO) where we would refuel and stay overnight followed by Anadyr (UHMA) where we would land to go through customs before continuing to Nome (PAOM) in Alaska. We had prepared everything (luggage, flight plans, lunch…) the night before to be at the airport at 8.30 am for refueling and take-off. When our alarm went off at 6 am, we found a message from Evgeny, the handler, informing us that the two drums of fuel we had ordered in advance had not arrived at the UHPP airport and were still at UHPH, the other Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky airport.
It’s a little bit of a long story but as I have mentioned in previous posts, and as Evgeny had recommended for Russia, we always try to avoid large airports because they have more security, more bureaucracy etc… Therefore, our initial plan had been to go to the smaller Khalaktyrka airport (UHPH) instead of the main Yelizovo (UHPP) to visit Kamchatka so our two drums of fuel had been delivered there, well in advance of our arrival, and Evgeny had arranged for a truck-and-driver to bring them to UHPP on the day of our departure. They couldn’t be delivered earlier because UHPP airport is controlled in part by the military and has very strict rules regarding access and safety and they did not allow avgas drums on their premises unless it was for immediate refueling.
The reason for the change in our destination airport was that one month before our arrival, John Bone, our earthrounder friend and guru, had followed the same itinerary as us and after approaching the UHPH runway had decided to divert to UHPP because it was not in sufficient conditions for a Cirrus (which is not a bush plane!). John is an ex-Delta pilot and a Cirrus instructor and mechanic, so when he warned us about UHPH, we instantly informed Evgeny that we wanted to go to Yelizovo also, which meant that our two drums needed to be moved at some point. This was not a last-minute decision and in principle there were no issues with the plan except that at the last moment, the driver who was going to deliver the drums disappeared. Despite his repeated attempts, Evgeny could not get hold of him and our fuel was not delivered the morning of Thursday August 26th and would likely not be delivered that day because any person entering the Yelizovo airport needed to give at least 24 hours’ notice. This meant that we would probably not be able to leave the next day either. While we were thinking about what to do, Evgeny informed us that both the UHMO and UHMA airports were closed after 6 pm on weekdays and on weekends, so even if the fuel did arrive on Friday, we would be stuck in the town of Markovo for the weekend, unless we made it to Anadyr before 6pm, in which case we would be stuck there. Was that better? In any case, we were not leaving this Thursday so we extended the Airbnb for one night and started working on the preparations for our arrival in the US, including the EAPIS form for CBP (Customs and Border Patrol). A few hours later, a couple of additional pieces of information complicated our panorama: CBP sent a message saying that there were no customs officers in Nome anymore, meaning we needed to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage (921 or 942 nautical miles from Anadyr) and if we needed a fuel stop in Nome we had to obtain permission; we did not get much news from Evgeny about the possibility of a fuel delivery on Friday either. In parallel he was adamant that it was much better to be stuck in Petropavlovsk than in either Markovo or Anadyr, especially since we would not be allowed into the city of Anadyr (which required a special permit that took 30 days to get) and would have to stay in the neighborhood of the airport.
It became clear that we needed to do more work to prepare our US arrival, especially given the 4 hour time difference between Anadyr and Alaska, and even if our fuel situation were solved on Friday, leaving was not an appealing option, so we surrendered and decided to stay in Petropavlovsk for the weekend. Another complication was that we were running out of time because Monday was August 30th and we needed to be out of Russia by Aug 31st, else we had to deal with the bureaucracy of extending the plane’s temporary import permit, possible but not desirable. There was not a lot of room for further delays, everything needed to work out well after the weekend. While Alex was looking at weather and winds for the long flights on Monday and Tuesday, I looked for a place to stay until then. It was high summer season in Kamchatka and there were not a lot of options, so I was very happy to find “the Forest Lodge with private hot spring pool on deck”. Enjoying the health benefits of thermal water in our own tub seemed like a very relaxing way to spend our last weekend in Kamchatka, especially since we had a lot of preparation to do.
The Forest Lodge was about 1 hour away from the city so we went to see Amir’s friends at the car rental company. Due to the bad road to the lodge, they made us rent a sturdy truck to get there. Before we took the road, we drove a little through the city to see the harbor and found a military show on the central plaza, right under Lenin. The event had drawn many people, which was in line with what we had observed before about the presence and acceptance of the army.
Lenin and the volcano
After the show, we made a quick stop at the Central Market because there were not a lot of shopping opportunities in the Forest.
When we reached the Lodge, the first thing we did after checking in was go for a walk on the path to the river indicated by the staff, carrying bear spray as they had recommended. We did not see any bears but did spot bear droppings. Thanks to our fishing trip we were now experts in dying salmons and bear shit!
During the whole weekend, we soaked in our 42 degrees Celsius pool 3 times a day for 20 minutes (the proper way to soak according to the internet…), rested 30 minutes afterwards while drinking lots of water (also recommended) and finally read the books by Russian authors that Alex had bought from a second hand book salesman in Nantes, with the intention of enhancing our Russian experience through local literature. We also enjoyed the Kamchatka delicacies we had bought before leaving and of course we took plenty of time to prepare the remaining flights to Alaska -do we really need to stop in Markovo or can we reach Anadyr directly? Can we make it to Fairbanks without stopping in Nome? At what point do we decide to continue or divert?- going through all the options. With Evgeny’s help, we ended up with a rock solid plan with all kinds of action standards and plans B.
Our Forest Lodge room and truck
Blinis with caviar and salmon again !
We left the Lodge on Sunday afternoon after some delay because the sturdy truck did not start, apparently it was not the first time this happened…
Back in the Petropavlovsk, we followed in John Bone’s footsteps again by dining at restaurant “Butcher” (which he had recommended) where we had excellent steaks. We took the leftover meat with us for our in-flight luncheon the next day and spent our hopefully last Kamchatka night in the hotel he had also stayed at, wondering if the fuel truck would be at the airport the next morning.
PS: the post cards did arrive!
In Buenos Aires