Monthly Archives: August 2017

Reflections on Russia

As a tourist destination I believe that Russia still suffers from a significant hangover from its Soviet days. We still hark back to the days where this place was closed, forbidden, the “evil empire” finger on the nuclear button. Its an image that almost a century of Hollywood media has imprinted upon our subconscious.
One of my days on the trans Siberian I was standing in the corridor of the carriage looking out at the unchanging scenery. A twentysomething Russian girl wearing a tourist T shirt from Brisbane struck up a conversation. She made a very prescient comment. She said that tourists to Russia tend to be those who have already visited a lot of countries. Gobsmacked I told her that Russia was somewhere around my 80th country that I have visited and really what she was saying that Russia doesn’t figure highly on most peoples’ bucket lists.
Myimpressions of this country is that there is a lot to see and the people are friendly. Apart from St Petersburg and Moscow tourism does not rate highly around most of the country. The biggest barrier for the independent tourist is the language both spoken and written. Being unable to even read street signs without taking a crash course in Cyrillic is a real problem.
I have really enjoyed my 6 weeks in this the largest country in the world as I hope you have all enjoyed looking at it through this blog. Back to work and reality in 3 days but before I sign off until next year a couple of pictures from the base of Avachinski volcano that I took this morning on an amazingly clear day yet again.

Vilyuchinski volcano

Vilyuchinski volcano

Avachinski volcano

Avachinski volcano

Marmots in our cabin

Marmots in our cabin

Gorely and Mutnovsky

One hour into our walk it is an absolute whiteout, thick fog, white snow and a wind driven horizontal drizzle. By the time I realise that the rain is significant it is already too late. I don my rainproofs but I am already really wet. Upward ever upward we trudge at times the snow slope is steep and slippery and I have multiple near falls any of which would leave me slipping hundreds of metres down the near vertical snow cliff. It is here that the cheap and nasty replacement footwear that I was forced to get reveals its deficiencies.
After four hours we reach the crater of Mutnovsky volcano and it is a whiteout up here also. As we sit down and eat lunch the sun punches through the mist and we start to see the fumeroles spewing out the sulphurous gas we can already smell. As we start taking photos we are in luck and substantial breaks in the cloud occur and we see a geothermal wonderland. Fumeroles everywhere, boiling mud, acid lakes, a glacier, ice caves and an acid river. This is truly an amazing expression of the power of nature.

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To get to this volcanic area it was effectively a 3 day drive on our 6WD truck. A stop at the tiny village of Esso provided some relief from camping and a cultural interlude showcasing the indigenous native “Even” people and their lifestyle. It is interesting walking around the streets here so many of the people have rounded slightly Asiatic, eskimo looking facial features.

Esso museum

Esso museum

Looking back to Mt Tolbachik

Looking back to Mt Tolbachik

Mt Kluytchetskaya

Mt Kluytchetskaya

On the day before Mutnovsky the sun rises bright in clear skies and we ascend Gorely volcano. Again it is a steep 4 hour steady climb but today the weather allows us to see the panorama of snow capped volcanoes all around. At the top we gaze down int the deep cylindrical cone down to a beautiful turquoise glacial lake. Wandering further around the next cone has a muddy, khaki coloured sulphur lake. The scenery is otherworldly and we are lucky with the weather today.

Glacier lake on Gorely

Glacier lake on Gorely

Sulphur lake

Sulphur lake

Mutnovsky from Gorely

Mutnovsky from Gorely

Surrounding view

Surrounding view

Mt Lychitskaya

Mt Lychitskaya

Golden rhododendron

Golden rhododendron

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Mt Gorely

Mt Gorely

Land of Ice and Fire (and rain, gale force winds and occasional sunshine)

Emerging out of the tent at 6 am I look up and there is not a cloud in the sky. Finally the weather gods are with us on the most important day’s trek. Ahead of us is a 24 km return trip up to the flat top ridge to the right of Mt Tolbachik (3682 metres) Our destination is only at 2600 metres but the time for the round trip is 12 hours reflecting the grueling conditions up the mountain. Personally I have hit a couple of snags. Firstly a painful right knee after pivoting on it to put my pack on 2 weeks ago. Regular antiinflammatory medication has eased the pain only slightly and I wonder if I have torn my cartilage. Secondly, my faithful boots have decided to pick now to retire themselves with the sole of my left boot showing signs of separation from the upper. I tape the front of the boot with the elastoplast I brought for any blisters and it is onward and upward.
The walk is a steady upward grade for 6 hours. Early on its a scramble and hop over the lava field from the adjacent Naboko crater. The lava is a confused and jumbled mass of rock twisted into often fantastic shapes but it certainly stirs up my sore knee. Interestingly beyond it I settle into a stride and the knee pain abates.

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As we climb our guides are gobsmacked by the clear skies. It begins to dawn on me that the wild inhospitable weather we have had is not the norm rather than the exception. Our experienced Russian guide admits later that out of scores of trips here this is only the 4th time he has seen the mountain and the crater which is our destination crystal clear. The mountain is a beautiful snow capped cone with the elegant Schmidt glacier cascading down.

Mt Tolbachik

Mt Tolbachik

Mt Tolbachik

Mt Tolbachik

Mt Udina

Mt Udina

Five hours of steep ascent and I reach a high plateau. It is now freezing and the cloud has come over. I assume that I have made it but am crestfallen to hear we have another kilometre to go with a gain of 400 metres. I turn to trudge up and reassure myself that 1 km is not much and that I am nearly there. That last kilometre turns out to be among the most arduous hours of my life, and with 20 minutes to go I feel absolutely “cooked”. I grind out the ascent counting 30 steps at a time and having a breather in between. At the top, amazingly, the cloud has cleared again and beneath my feet is a gaping crater, red rocks with frozen rims. It is absolutely beautiful and suddenly my exhaustion is forgotten as I hurry to find the best vantage point for photographs.

Tolbachik crater

Tolbachik crater

It is on the descent that I am in awe of the steepness of the gradient not just at the end but for the whole 6 kilometres. I feel that I am justified in feeling tired. The descent is only slightly quicker than the ascent as steep and treacherous and required great concentration. I am pleasantly surprised that both my knee and boots have pulled up OK!

Eastern mountain range

Eastern mountain range

Down the valley

Down the valley

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Kamchatka

Welcome to Russia’s “wild east” a remote peninsula jutting down toward Japan from the north easternmost part of Russia. There are no roads connecting this place to Russia and connections are via air or sea. A region that was closed to outsiders until 20 years ago it is not a place that many tourists have heard of and even fewer come here.

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Our drive from Petropavlovsk to Kluychevskaya National Park on the far north of Kamchata is only 700km but takes 2 long days of driving. Most of it is through the wide valley between the eastern and western ranges the road crosses multiple wide muddy rivers and is flanked on either side with birch and larch forest. The peninsula is home to a variety of wildlife including elk and brown bears but the only ones we have contact with is the swarms of mosquitoes that appear out of nowhere any time we venture out into the open.

Lunch

Lunch

Our campsite is set up at the feet of the mountains and is a wild windswept area. I am amazed that our little tents don’t blow away. There is no soil the ground is covered with thick black gravel from the volcanic eruptions. Against the odds pretty little wildflowers battle thir way in this harsh, forbidding environment. Tiny little marmots scurry around making high pitched squeaking noises looking for food scraps.

Campsite

Campsite

Marmot

Marmot

Wildflower

Wildflower

Marmot

Marmot

Our days are spent exploring the multiple craters that are scattered everywhere some of which have erupted in the recent past leaving behind lava rivers and lakes. The effect is very otherworldly as fumeroles still continue to emit fumes and the rocks strewn around are an assortment of colours reflecting the mineral diversity underground. In places the ground and the rocks are still quite warm where the underground lava comes close to the surface.

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Dead forest

Dead forest

Dead forest

Dead forest

Downed helicopter

Downed helicopter