I wanted to travel off the edge of the world.
To somewhere that gave me a sense that, if only I took one more step, if I traveled just beyond that horizon, I’d fall off the edge of the Earth.
Unfortunately for my present flavor of Wanderlust, humanity has explored and mapped pretty much the entire planet (with the exception of the depths of the ocean). Long gone are the days of fearing to literally sail off the edge of the world, and not just because we’ve figured out the Earth is round; there just isn’t really anywhere that’s off the edge of the map. There are those places for which Lonely Planet hasn’t released extensive travel guides, but to truly go somewhere distant and unfamiliar, secluded and exotic, to truly go where no one has gone before, the only possibility left is probably outer space, and we haven’t quite gotten there yet either in the sense of a civilian like me heading up there.
The next best thing was Kamchatka – a peninsula in the Russian far, far East, distant, secluded, and almost impossible to navigate without speaking Russian. A nine-hour flight east from Russia’s capital, Moscow, it’s miles beyond miles beyond Siberia, and is famed for its pristine, gorgeous natural wonders – its volcanoes, geysers, wide rivers, and sea, as well as its truly wild wildlife, including bears and moose. It had belonged to the USSR until 1991, but was closed even to citizens of that country as a military zone, making it practically unreachable to both the Western traveler and the Soviet one, both of which likely contributed to its quasi-mythological reputation of natural wonder at the edge of the world.
So I indeed expected something exotic when I came to Kamchatka, something wildly beautiful, distant, and unfamiliar. Kamchatka doesn’t disappoint, but it’s also highly different from what I expected. The native tradition tells the story of a raven flying over the Pacific Ocean and dropping a feather, which became this peninsula that was then settled by the native peoples – a romantic story, fitting for a place such as this.
Kamchatka is a beautiful, but more important, an incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse place. Though it currently belongs to the Russian federation, its people are anything but “Russian,” and in fact, few of them call themselves such. Kamchatka was assimilated into the Russian empire in the early 18th century by an explorer and conquerer named Vladimir Atlasov. At the time, it was inhabited by various peoples, including the Koryaks and the Itelmen. When Atlasov assimilated Kamchatka, he killed much of the population, while much of the rest intermarried with the Russians (and in particular with the Russian Cossack settlers), creating a new ethnicity, the “Kamchadal” – that is, an ethnically mixed part-Russian, part-native.
Additionally, proximity to China and Japan meant that merchants and travelers often arrived here to trade and often marry, and during the Soviet period the government encouraged people from Belarus and other parts of Russia to re-settle in Kamchatka.
The result is a deeply diverse population with a dizzying array of last names, appearances, languages, and traditions. Most calls themselves “Kamchadal” rather than “Russion,” and the Russian “mainland” is referred to as materik in Russian – literally, the “big land.”
My first introduction to Kamchatka happens on the plane. I’m stuck in a middle seat for a nine-hour flight, but my neighbor is a Kamchatkan for 40 years, and she regales me with stories as we fly. A few hours into the flight, I mention how much I’d like to see a bear, only to be told “God preserve you from such a misfortune!” Bears, she tells me, are terrifying creatures. (Since then, I’ve been told at least a story a day about someone seeing a bear. It seems par for the course in this beautiful, wild land).
In fact, bears in Kamchatka are everywhere. In the West, they’re the unofficial mascot of Russia. In Kamchatka, they’re also the local mascot: when we land in the airport, one of the few signs we see is an invitation to Kamchatka tours, covered in photos of bears as one of the sights to see. (When we get into the cab, we hear about bears again, as the radio announces that just last week, a bear ate someone, and I – briefly – reconsider my desire to see one.)
As we drive away from the airport, we look for a scenic place to take our first photos so we can send proof back home that we’re really here – a search that ends in more bears. Kamchatkans are extremely kind people, and the seat neighbor of one of my companions, a woman named Jenna, insists on driving us to the must-see monument for all new travelers to the peninsula.
Then we drive into town. The city that is our gateway to Kamchatka is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky – literally, “Peter and Paul City of Kamchatka.” Founded by Danish navigator Vitus Bering (who also gave his name to the Bering Strait), it’s named after his two ships, which were named after the two saints. (On our last day, we visit a monument to those two saints by the shores of the bay, located right next to Lenin Square, where a larger-than-life monument casts Lenin as Superman).
Petpropavlovsk is a strange hybrid set among mountains, volcanoes, and the sea, and our view from our apartment window is breathtaking – that is, when the fog isn’t covering it. A peninsula between a sea and an ocean, it receives an unimaginable amount of precipitation, and fog is a daily occurrence. But on a sunny day, I have only to stick my head out the window to smell the salty air and see volcanoes on one side and the sea on the other.
Yet the city itself is hardly a breathtaking cultural capital – it hardly even has a city center, being made up, instead, of shopping centers and apartment buildings in no particular order. The contrast between the old Soviet-era apartment buildings with peeling paint and the almost ethereal beauty of the mountains that surround them is stark and bizarre.
We go to seek out this natural beauty on our first evening, calling for a cab to take us to the ocean. By the time it arrives, I’m waning with exhaustion from the jetlag, and the sun has set, but I figure the fresh air will do me good and keep me awake for a couple more hours. We bounce down dirty roads through foggy forests – the stuff of horror movies, if I thought of travel that way – and we pass a military base (which, naturally, I try to photograph, because my first instinct is to photograph everything, and the part that reminds me that hey, maybe I shouldn’t photograph secluded military installations only kicks in later). “No pictures,” the soldiers guarding it say. I quickly apologize and duck my head into the car.
Finally, we arrive at the ocean. I’ve seen a lot of oceans, and from a lot of different shores, and each is different: there are the warm sandy beaches of Hawaii, the wide northern beaches of Maine where the water is ice-cold, the stormy English channel that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. This one is different, too: the beach is made entirely of black, volcanic sand. By the time we arrive, it’s cloudy, foggy, wet, and cold. My dreams of perhaps swimming in the ocean, or even dipping a toe in, are long gone. The beach is entirely deserted, and the ocean stretches until the horizon drops off in the distance, both of which give the place a sense of breathtaking seclusion.
As so often on wide, windswept beaches, I’m reminded of the famous words of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin:
A wave-swept shore, remote, forlorn:
Here stood he, rapt in thought and drawn
To distant prospects.
The he refers to Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg, who stood on the banks of the Neva river and decided to build a city on the spot (or thus the cultural myth goes). This beach is on the exact opposite end of the country from St. Petersburg, but the feeling of seclusion in the midst of nature is perhaps similar – St. Petersburg was, after all, built on a swamp. This forlorn shore – and the fact that I know that an Imperial city was similarly founded here around the same time as St. Petersburg by an explorer in service of the Russian navy – just gives me a sense of the vastness of the Russian Empire. Gazing out at the ocean, I realize it would probably take me as long to fly over this ocean to the other coast as it would to fly all the way back West to Moscow or St. Petersburg. Even today, when the Empire has given way to a republic, the larger than life, ocean-like vastness of Russia is mind-boggling.
But I don’t stay lost in thought for long; my DSLR is slung over my shoulder, and I have a new wide-angle lens to test out, so I try to take some aesthetically pleasing photos of the swirling water. I snap a photo just as each wave hits the shore and then sprint away as fast as I can from the churning waves coming after me. I’m mostly successful, until I’m not quite fast enough and the wave is stronger than anticipated, and my enthusiasm for photography results in my feet being soaked with ice-cold water. My companions laugh as I stumble away, wet and swearing.
Evening begins to set in, and, wet and cold, I suggest we depart. Before we do so, I pull a Neil Armstrong, stomping into the black sand to leave a footprint and photographing it. It’s not quite the exploration of a new frontier, definitely not a giant leap for humankind, but it’s a new frontier for me, and I can’t wait to keep exploring it – after collapsing jetlagged into bed and getting my sleep, of course.