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Russia (1): Kamchatka July 23 – August 4, 2012

Posted by on July 11, 2012

3 Volcanoes – Kluchevskaya , the highest active volcano in Eurasia (L), Kamen (M) & Bezymyanny (R)

The 1,250-long Kamchatka Peninsula situated at the easternmost part of Russia on the Pacific Ring of Fire is world famous for its volcanoes, bears, intact wilderness and biodiversity. The peninsula has only been open to foreigners since 1991 and most of the land has remained pristine and untouched by modernization. Unfortunately, bad weather nearly ruined my holiday right from the start. I joined a 10-day trek to see volcanoes in the Kluchevskoy National Park and a 6-day helicopter trip to see bears in the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary and some volcanoes in the South Kamchatka National Park. But I have not seen Kamchatka at its best and may return one day.

Kamchatka (GMT +12)

Russia is the largest country in the world and the remote Russian Far East was not explored till the 17th century. Ivan Moskvitin was the first Russian explorer to reach the Sea of Okhotsk in 1639 and the Kamchatka Peninsula sitting between the Okhotsk Sea and the Pacific Ocean was finally explored from the north in 1651. Danish explorer Vitrus Bering’s second Kamchatka expedition in the service of the Russian navy began the final opening of Kamchatka.  He founded Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PKC) in 1740 when his two boats, St Peter and St Paul arrived at the bay.

During the Crimean War which main battle ground took place in the Crimean Peninsula in 1854, the French and British attacked PKC but failed to take it. The peninsula’s strategic importance as a transit centre for traders and explorers declined after the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. It remained closed to foreigners till 1990.

Geography and the People

The Peninsula has an area of about 270,000 square kilometres and a population of about 400,000.It is world famous for its volcanoes, geysers, bears, salmon and bio-diversity.  The Kamchatka River and the surrounding central valley are flanked by large volcanic belts. Klyuchevskaya Sopka at 4750m is the highest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere. Kronotsky is a perfect cone and most striking. Three volcanoes namely Koryaksky (3456m), Avachinsky (2751m) and Kozelsky (2189m) are visible from PKC.

The vast majority of the inhabitants now are Russians. More than half of the population lives in the capital PKC and nearby Yelizovo. The indigenous peoples including the Koryaks, Itelmens and Evens scatter in settlements outside the main cities. There are only two principal roads one from Bolsheretsk to PKC and another from this road up the central valley to Ust-Kamchatsk.

Climate and Volcanoes

The Peninsula is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire with 29 active volcanoes and some 160 extinct volcanoes that have left their mark on the land. The Kluchevskoy Volcanic Group is the largest conglomeration of volcanoes on the peninsula covering an area of 6,000 square kilometres with 14 volcanoes ranging from 1,945m to 4,750m.

Kamchatka has a subarctic climate generally while the northern end has a polar climate. It is covered in snow from October to late May. The whole peninsula has been named as a national park and six protected areas have been included in the “Volcanoes of Kamchatka” World Heritage Site. These include the Kronostsky Nature Reserve, the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary and four regional nature parks – Nalychevo, Bystrinsky, Kluchevskoy and South Kamchatka.

My trip plan

There is no direct flight from Hong Kong to PKC. I decided to take a Dragon Air direct flight to Beijing followed by a Siberian Airline (S7)’s 5-hour flight to PKC. I would leave Hong Kong on July 21 and arrive in PKC on July 22 to join a 14-day trip beginning on July 23 followed by a 9-day trip to the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary and the South Kamchatka National Park from August 5 to 13.

July 21, Saturday: Hong Kong – Beijing

My flight with the Dragon Air at 4pm would arrive in Beijing at 7pm and the S7 flight would depart at 1:50am on July 22. I learnt about the bad weather in Beijing and got worried. But there was nothing I could do.

Boarding was delayed till 4:30pm. But we stayed inside the plane for four hours till we were arranged to go back to wait at the lounge at 9pm. It was amazing that most of the passengers remained good-tempered and well-mannered which was a contrast to the experience I had at the Guangzhou airport on June 23.

As I envisaged problems in catching my S7 flight in time, I asked the cabin staff for assistance. One ground staff said they would try to contact/cable the S7 staff to inform them of my situation (I gather that this had not been done possibly owing to the chaotic situation).

We were given a HK$100-coupon for food. I had a nice bowl of won-ton soup before boarding the plane at 11:30pm. Finally the plane had approval from the Beijing air traffic control to take off after midnight.

July 22, Sunday: Beijing

My plane finally landed at Terminal 3 (T3) at 3am amidst a heavy downpour of rain. The airport was dark and empty. By the time I got my luggage, it was 4am. I went to the S7 counter which is opposite the Dragon Air counters and asked about the flight to PKC. I was amazed to find out that the S7 flight was not amongst the 500 flights that had been cancelled and had already left on schedule. My nightmare began. What should I do? I asked S7 staff for advice. As there is only one S7 direct flight from Beijing to PKC, I could either wait for a week or find my way to PKC.  S7 staff told me to take the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2 to find alternate flights offered by Aeroflot. After spending at least two hours running between the two terminals, I figured out I had three options. First, I could take a Dragon Air/Cathay Pacific flight back to Hong Kong and catch the S7 flight from Hong Kong to Vladivostok departing around 3pm on July 22, spend a night in Vladivostok and fly to PKC on July 23.Second, S7 would be flying from Beijing to Vladivostok on July 24 and I could reach PKC on July 25.Third, Aeroflot had a flight to Khabarovsk that evening with a connecting flight to PKC at 8:50am on July 23.   But this ticket could cost some RMB7,500 over the sale counter at T2. It was a most frustrating morning. T2 is an old airport with poor signage. The ticket offices are old-fashioned and not user-friendly.  I found my way back to T3 and hoped to find a solution. But the S7 counter was closed and the staff gone. I tried to call the number they gave me without success.

Both of us were hungry and tired. I invited him for lunch and we spent almost two hours in a Thai restaurant to sort out my ticket. Finally, he found the Aeroflot ticket to PKC being offered for RMB6,580. I called Lawrence who immediately remitted the money to the travel agent which issued my e-ticket. Without the help of the kind young man and my brother Lawrence, I would never be able to find a quick solution or might have to pay RMB7,500 instead of RMB6,580 for the same flight.

Day 1 (July 23, Nonday): Beijing – Kamchatka via Khabarovsk My plane landed in Khabarovsk before 7am (local time) and I arrived at the S7 counter at the domestic terminal just 20 minutes before the counter closed.There were no more mishaps and I was met by Leo, the interpreter on arrival at the PKC airport. As the weather was fine, I could also see Koryaksky and Avachinsky.

Leo, the interpreter

PKC hotel

The first thing I did on arrival at the hotel was to take a nice hot shower and got change after wearing the same clothes for the last 48 hours.PKC airportThe group had six participants. I turned out to be the only female. The rest included two Israelis (Aharon and Etan), two Australians (Andrew and Phil), and a Swiss (Roland).

We had a briefing at 7pm before having our first group dinner. Leo took us to the biggest superstore in PKC so that we could get some stuff for the expedition. The store is surprisingly smart, well-laid out and spacious but goods are pricy.  I was tired and had a sweet and sound sleep. Day 2 (July 24): PKC – Kozirevsk (9am-5pm; 500km)After a nice breakfast, we departed before 9am in a funny looking but most sturdy converted 4WD 12-seater bus. We were joined by Rooslan, Leo, Alex (the driver), Ulya (the cook) and Genya (who was a porter for the group as well as for me. As I had a bad back, I asked the operator to provide me with a porter. But he only carried the tent and food stuff while I had to carry my own backpack of about 8 kilo).  

Maria’s guest house

We made a brief stop at Sokoch and tried pirogjki (local patties with berries and apples or unions with rice and eggs). Around 2pm, we had lunch at Milkovo and finally arrived at Maria’s Place, a nice guest house in Kozirevsk around 5pm. There are five nice but small wooden cabins in the garden filled with seasonable vegetable and beautiful flowers. I am impressed by the backyards of all houses which are well-plotted and cultivated. Though the growing season is short in Kamchatka, the Russians try to get as much agricultural produce as possible.

Day 3 (July 25): Milkovo – Lunakhodchikov Base Camp (150km)

Though my cabin is clean, cozy and warm, I did not sleep well. I finally got up and had a morning walk around 6am before hopping back into the bed for a rest before getting up at 7:30am.

We set off after a wholesome breakfast with porridge and pancakes after 9am.  The road was rough and muddy. We saw three more vehicles on the way to the base camp. The vegetation is lush with pine trees and beech.

The Russians had their first testing of their lunar roving vehicle as the area is a reminiscent of the moon. A base camp was built comprising three wooden huts. Ulya started preparing lunch in one of the huts while we set up our tents. After having a simple but nice lunch with pancakes, cookies, sausages, cheese etc. we set off for a warm-up hike to an ancient cone (1200m). We also climbed up two smaller cones next to the camp site.


Water hole

My tent at sunset

The weather was sunny and warm and we had great views of Ostry (Sharp) Tolbachik (3672m) and Plosky (Flat) Tolbachik (3085m) which appear to be a single mountain but are in fact separate volcanoes. I had a sweet nap before dinner. We had a nice sunset and a good dinner. I had a wonderful sleep after many restless nights.

Day 4 (July 26): Ascend Plosky Tolbachik (10am-5pm)

As the weather looked fine and promising, Rooslan decided to take the group to ascend Plosky Tolbachik.   Alex dropped us off at the base of the volcano. With a walking pole, I had no difficulties in the 4-hour hike to the top of the volcano.  The only problem is that the guide and others walked so fast that I had a hard time in catching up. I would love to stop for photos but had not been able to do so. We met over 20 hikers on the trek and arrived at the Plosky Tolbachik just after 2pm.


Weather in Kamchatka is most unpredictable and changeable. Before I could take a good look at the crater which has a diameter of 1.7km and a depth of 600m created by the 1975 eruption, I was surprised to find the first snow flake.  There was also no panoramic view of the Kluchevskaya group of volcanoes.

Crater with guide

Sleep Inside the hut

Within fifteen minutes, the sky darkened, the wind gathered force and it was snowing heavily. Rooslan immediately told us to descend and we raced downhill without a stop. Half way downhill, the snow turned into sleet and then rain. We were wet and cold and were glad to be met by our driver and had a cup of hot tea and biscuits.

As the weather was bad and there were space in one of the huts, we abandoned our tents and spent the next two nights indoor. The hut has a fire place and is warm but not clean (Well, it is still far better than the mountain hut in Cameroon.)

Day 5 (July 27): Excursion

The weather was bad, misty, rainy and miserable.  Alex first took us to see two cones formed as a result of the 1975 eruption.  The first cone we ascended had many vents of lava flows. I could feel the heat coming out of the ground. A piece of paper was lit up after Rooslan left it in one of the holes for a few minutes. The colours of the rocks including all range of red and yellow are fascinating. We then walked up to the next higher cone with a crater.


Memorial for those who died during the 1975 volcano eruption


Our next stop was the dead forest where the trees were covered by 3 to 5-metre deep ash. As a result, only the top of the dead pine trees are visible.


Looking at lava cave

We finally went to see an ancient volcano called “Zvezda” (meaning star) where we could go into a lava cave. It is the first time I was in such a cave and Roland took an amazing group picture.

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